Skip to content
ascd logo

Log in to Witsby: ASCD’s Next-Generation Professional Learning and Credentialing Platform
February 1, 1995
Vol. 52
No. 5

Lessons from 10 Years of Teacher Improvement Reforms

State legislators and educators have experimented with teaching reforms for more than a decade. Is the profession better for it? Yes and no.

It's not too much of a stretch to say that a decade of efforts to reform teaching began on June 16, 1980, when Time magazine hit the stands with this in-your-face cover headline: “Help! Teacher Can't Teach!” The Time article served notice on public policymakers that the issue of teacher quality had reached page one of the public agenda.
Concerns continued to grow in the years just preceding publication of A Nation at Risk (National Commission on Excellence in Education 1983). A year earlier, a national study of teacher work force trends concluded that the “best and brightest” were not remaining in teaching (Vance and Schlechty 1982). Average SAT scores for entering education majors were declining, and a shortage of science and math teachers then raised questions about the country's national security.
State officials were hardly complacent about these findings. In fact, in the late 1970s and early 1980s, governors and legislators played active roles in reform by passing a flurry of laws setting standards for teacher preparation and licensing. For the most part, legislative leaders accepted the general argument that the way to shore up teaching was to tighten selection standards, raise the quality of teacher education programs, increase teaching's financial rewards, and encourage greater public respect.
In the early 1980s, merit pay and career ladder programs were widely touted; they were among the most visible and widespread educational experiments under way in the states. In addition, the practice of observing beginning teachers in the classroom grew out of the large federal “process product” research projects of the 1970s, which linked particular teaching skills to student success.
Have these reforms worked? How have they been incorporated into today's approach to accountability and quality control? The Southern Regional Education Board has studied these reforms for more than a decade. This update incorporates many of our findings.

Salaries and Standards

During the 1980s, average teacher salaries in the 15 states covered by the Southern Regional Education Board nearly doubled, from $13,999 to $27,493. Legislators saw salaries as a top priority because teachers' earnings in most southern states were well below the national average. By launching concerted efforts to raise salaries, they hoped to not only retain experienced teachers but also attract talented newcomers.
Political leaders made it clear, however, that in return for higher salaries and additional state support for schools, they would demand accountability. Accordingly all of these southern states began requiring testing for certification and/or entrance to teacher education programs. Most states settled for modest results on standardized examinations, as well as demonstrations of basic teaching skills in on-the-job evaluations. More stringent licensing requirements included probationary years, during which beginning teachers were evaluated and assisted on the job.
In many states, however, the available funding covered only teacher evaluations. As a result, school districts were left with the responsibility for helping teachers improve. But school districts, too, were short of money and personnel, meaning few new teachers got the extra help their evaluations indicated they needed. It became clear that most state resources were going into teacher evaluations, at the expense of assistance for first-year teachers.


Ten years ago, career ladder programs and related initiatives were under way in about 10 states, and another 15 were exploring ways to pay teachers for performance or extra work (Cornett and Gaines 1994). State leaders in Florida and Tennessee were among the first to begin serious discussions about paying teachers more for doing a better job.
The idea of rewards for performance made sense to many political and business leaders, who assumed such incentives would be relatively easy to implement. They were wrong. First, no state proposed a merit pay program that gave bonuses to teachers simply for doing a better job. Instead, new programs were complex and combined pay for better teaching with rewards for experience or extra duties. The pay-for-performance approaches generated heated debate. National teacher organizations and their state affiliates led the opposition, and governors who promoted the idea were dogged at every turn.
State teacher evaluation programs were attacked—with some justification—for focusing narrowly on only a few teaching skills. Nevertheless, in some states, the evaluations linked to merit and career ladder plans did open classroom doors for the first time, and they also introduced the idea that peers as well as principals could evaluate classroom teaching. Educators brought in outside evaluators, and they raised important questions about traditional evaluation practices.

Academic Rigor

In the early 1980s, colleges of education were criticized for a lack of academic rigor and a failure to remain relevant as teaching demands grew. The Southern Regional Education Board's first comprehensive review of K–12 policy issues, a report called A Need for Quality (1981), recommended that member states carefully scrutinize their certification requirements and the quality of their teacher education programs.
In a 1985 study (Galambos et al. 1985), the board analyzed transcripts from arts and sciences and education graduates at colleges and universities across the southern region. The researchers found that teacher education programs were weak, and that education majors took fewer academic courses within their college majors than did arts and science graduates. On average, elementary education teachers took only one academic course in their junior or senior year, and three-fourths of the teachers completed college with no credits in foreign languages, economics, or philosophy.
“Students often follow the paths of least resistance and ferret out courses on the weather or acoustics of musical instruments to meet the science requirements,” the researchers noted. “They meet the letter, but hardly the intent, of a broad general education background.” This study confirmed that little had changed since James D. Koerner's study, The Miseducation of American Teachers (1963), which reported on low academic standards in teacher preparation programs more than 20 years earlier. Deans of education denounced the board's 1985 report, but said nothing to rebut it. One dean at a Louisiana university told the Baton Rouge Morning Advocate that even though he had not seen the report, he knew “it did not reflect the situation at his college” (Redman 1985).
Although the Southern Regional Education Board's scrutiny of transcripts provided ample evidence of a general weakness in teacher education programs, states were slow to force colleges and universities to change. By the mid-1980s, most states had established additional standards for admittance to these programs, including a minimum grade point average and a general knowledge test for sophomores or juniors. But neither the required GPAs nor the entrance exams strengthened the academic preparation of teachers.
The monopoly that colleges of education held began to be challenged by alternative certification programs, which attempted to tap the pool of arts and sciences graduates. Early on, these alternative programs focused on science and math because of the shortage of teachers in these fields. However, as science and math graduates became more plentiful and more accepted in the schools, states broadened their alternative programs to include all grades and all teachers. Today, programs continue to expand, but relatively few teachers are trained in alternative programs (except in New Jersey and Texas). These few teachers have brought a stronger knowledge of subject matter to many schools.
In 1986, studies by the Holmes Group and the Carnegie Foundation triggered real momentum for reform by calling for five-year teacher education programs. The Southern Regional Education Board agreed with the studies' general findings, but argued that “it makes no sense to add a fifth floor to a four-story house if the foundation is shaky.” The board called for a variety of new approaches to teacher preparation, as well as evaluations of their effectiveness. In response, at least five states—Mississippi, North Carolina, Tennessee, Texas, and Virginia—dramatically toughened academic requirements in undergraduate programs. Graduates of these programs are just now entering teaching.

We Can't Do it Alone

The early notion that better quality teachers would fix the problem of the schools gave way later in the 1980s to the recognition that neither teachers nor school policymakers could improve the schools on their own. Without other changes in school structure, simply rewarding good teaching or further testing teachers would not lead to significantly improved student learning.
Early on, in fact, the Southern Regional Education Board made this observation in The Need for Quality: Current movements to test prospective teachers and to require exit examinations as a condition for college graduation reflect a growing public belief that educational quality is unacceptably low. But all these steps represent only a quest for minimal competencies—a far cry from the quality desired by many parents and educators (1981).
Eventually, the difficulties that grew out of state-controlled efforts to reward teachers, change their roles, and open closed classroom doors for more performance-based evaluation revealed that state mandates would have to give way to more teacher involvement in reforms. Teachers' reactions to the early state-mandated reforms also demonstrated how difficult it would be to change the culture of schools and the business of teaching and learning.
As the 1990s approached, the push to link teacher accountability and student performance gathered momentum, and the trend in incentive programs shifted to rewards for all teachers in schools that met goals for student progress.
The early efforts did, however, lay the groundwork for later reforms, and they demonstrated that prospective teachers could meet higher standards for entrance to teacher education programs, licensing, and employment.

Professional Development

On the issue of professional development, state reformers talked tough, but delivered very little in the 1980s. This situation continues in most states to this day.
State officials often cite the need for increased professional development, but rarely follow through with sufficient funding or policy emphasis. Even in Kentucky, where funding for professional development has increased 16-fold since the passage of the Kentucky Education Reform Act in 1990, educators agree that much more needs to be done.
Admittedly, the price tag for comprehensive inservice teacher training is high, and advocates have yet to make an argument compelling enough to spark such an investment.

Merit Pay and Career Ladder Plans

Serious philosophical differences probably doomed merit pay programs from the start. For example, would large groups of teachers ever accept the programs when only 20 or 30 percent were likely to be rewarded in such a system? In a South Carolina survey, half of the teachers queried thought they were in the top 10 percent of teachers in the state (MGT Consultants 1988).
Career ladder plans fared somewhat better. Today, five states continue to support them to varying degrees. During the first year or two of implementation, the plans were fueled by their advocates' energy. But they proved to be too complicated to design and too expensive to fully develop—two factors that eventually played into the hands of critics and resisters. With the exception of Arizona, Missouri, Tennessee, and Utah, states with such plans never implemented all of the career levels their plans called for.
States including Mississippi, Oklahoma, and North Carolina recently passed legislation to reward teachers who meet standards of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards, which launched its first program to make teachers board certified in 1994–95. The board awards a certificate for professional specialties, such as early childhood or adolescence, and knowledge specialties, such as art or math. Certification is based on a yearlong evaluation process, including four months of classroom work and two days of examinations and other intensive performance-based activities.

Pay for Student Performance

Both the merit pay and career ladder plans of the 1980s emphasized teacher performance, not student achievement. When reformers shifted their attention to students in the late 1980s and early 1990s, merit pay and career ladder plans were out of step with the times.
An exception was South Carolina's three-pronged approach to incentives. Established by the 1984 Education Improvement Act, the plans were ahead of their time. The law called for school incentive, teacher incentive, and principal incentive plans, each based in part on student test results. The only plan that survives today is a revamped version of the state's original school incentive program. It provides money for instructional purposes—not teacher salaries or bonuses—and continues to rely on student performance as the key criterion for awards.
Several early career ladder plans, including Tennessee's and Utah's, proposed that teacher rewards be based in part on the achievement of their students. The Tennessee and Utah plans are still in place, but they require teachers to meet standards and requirements, with little or no emphasis on rewarding them for student learning.
Only Arizona made student achievement an integral part of its comprehensive career ladder system. Among students taught by teachers in this pay-for-performance program, achievement and graduation rates increased, and dropout rates declined. Evaluations of this expanding program continue to show positive result for students.
More recently enacted incentive plans, some of which evolved from earlier merit pay plans, are more closely linked to accountability, using student progress to decide which teachers or schools get awards. States in which such plans are in effect include South Carolina, Kentucky, and Texas, as well as Tennessee.

Why Incentives Work

Comprehensive incentive programs are promising for two reasons. First, they can bring about fundamental changes both in school operation and principal and teacher roles. (Too often, however, strong positive or negative reactions that accompany fundamental changes are viewed—wrongly—as evidence that the programs aren't working.) Second, programs that fundamentally alter the way teachers work and are paid have clearly improved student performance. Add-on programs that simply provide extra pay, however, are not likely to work.
  • Incentive programs that fundamentally alter pay structure based on performance can produce fundamental change.
  • Without a guiding vision or state support, pilot incentive programs designed at the district level have resulted in few fundamental changes or lasting reforms.
  • Too often, changes in state leadership—whether a governor, state superintendent, or key legislators—have seriously hurt incentive programs. Many such programs are diverted from their original intent, or given too little time to work.
  • Decisions to fund, not fund, or disband programs are rarely based on real knowledge of the programs and their effects on students.
  • Teachers who participate in incentive programs are positive about them; those who do not are negative.
  • Teachers who philosophically disagree with the idea of pay for performance will probably never concede that an incentive program can work.
  • Given the choice, most teachers prefer to earn additional pay by working more hours rather than by having their performance judged.

Applying What We've Learned

  • Schools and colleges must work together to prepare and assist beginning teachers. The importance of such collaboration has been demonstrated over the past 15 years.
  • State college and university presidents must spearhead efforts to strengthen academic majors for teachers and ensure a core of education courses based on the best research. They must also promote partnerships between arts and sciences faculty and education faculty.
  • States need to continue to evaluate whether teacher performance measured by tests and on-the-job evaluations are consistent with the change agendas now under way in schools.
  • States, districts, or schools must have clear mandates to put resources into professional development programs that are tailored to each school's needs and goals and, ultimately, to the primary job of all schools—improved learning for students. As it is, there is no clear consensus on how to help schools and teachers meet ever-increasing demands.

Cornett, L., and G. Gaines. (1994). Reflecting on Ten Years of Incentive Programs. Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board.

Galambos, E., L. Cornett, and H. Spitler. (1985). An Analysis of Transcripts of Teachers and Arts and Sciences Graduates. Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board.

Koerner, J. D. (1963). The Miseducation of American Teachers. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Company.

MGT Consultants. (1988). An Evaluation of the Teacher Incentive Program: 1987–88 Pilot Test Implementation, Report to South Carolina Department of Education. Tallahassee, Fla.: MGT Consultants.

National Commission on Excellence in Education. (April 1983). A Nation at Risk: A Report to the Nation. Washington, D.C.: U.S. Government Printing Office.

Redman, C. (June 25, 1985). “Two Louisiana University Deans Criticize SREB Education Report.” Morning Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Southern Regional Education Board. (1981). The Need for Quality. Atlanta: Southern Regional Education Board.

Vance, V. S., and P. C. Schlechty. (1982). “The Distribution of Academic Ability in the Teaching Force: Policy Implications.” Phi Delta Kappan 64: 22–27.

Lynn M. Cornett has been a contributor to Educational Leadership.

Learn More

ASCD is a community dedicated to educators' professional growth and well-being.

Let us help you put your vision into action.
From our issue
Product cover image 195019.jpg
School Reform: What We've Learned
Go To Publication