As the race for president transmogrifies into a race for national superintendent of schools, Vice President Al Gore seems to be reaching out across party lines in ways no one would have ever predicted.
Gore’s education plan, strongly influenced by the public education lobbythe National Education Association and the American Federation of Teachersfocuses heavily on strengthening accountability of teachers. Much of his package was spelled out last week in a speech at a school in Holt, Mich.
Among other elements, teachers would have to take national tests to demonstrate command of the subjects they teach. In return, they would receive salary increases of $5,000 a year. For certain higher-level teachers, there would be $10,000 annual bonuses. What does Gore call these more advanced educators?
Master teachers. There it isstolen from Lamar Alexander, ca. 1983.
Tennesseans may recall Alexander first achieved national prominence in the early 1980s by pushing an education reform plan for the state that centered around merit pay for teachers. Coming at a time when the nation’s schools were under fire for promoting, in the words of one national study, a ”rising tide of mediocrity,“ Alexander was the man with the right issue at the right time.
Under the Alexander plan, the best senior teacherscalled master teacherswould receive pay increases and extended contracts worth up to $7,000 a year.
The master teacher plan was bitterly opposed by the state NEA affiliate, the Tennessee Education Association, which essentially contended against all the evidence that all teachers are brilliant and thus should all be very highly paid.
Among the lesser criticisms of the plan was the contention that the term ”master teacher“ was offensive with its connotations of slavery.
Opposition from the TEA blocked passage of Alexander’s original master teacher proposal for a year, although Alexander subsequently pushed through a modified version that dropped the terminology, although not the concept, of merit pay. Much of the program was quickly watered down under Alexander’s successor, Ned McWherter, and the overall initiative would be judged a failure by the evaluation criteria included in the legislation. The program has since been superseded by McWherter’s own education reform program and largely dismantled.
As for Gore’s cribbing from it, it should be acknowledged that Alexander was a master politician when it came to symbols, gimmicks, and expressing potentially popular ideas in appealing ways. Perhaps it should be taken as a token of Gore’s commitment to the environment that he’s now even recycling Alexander’s old ideas.
Meanwhile, if the NEA is somewhat more flexible about things like selective pay raises and tougher standards, it probably represents a form of progress.
With the basic concept of public education itself under fire in ways that no one imagined in 1983, the teacher lobby is more willing to address the problems of its own house.
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