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Teachers Respond to Tennessee Pay Plan

By Stephen Sawchuk and Liana Heitin
Portions of this post first appeared on the Teaching Now blog.

Tennessee has become the latest state to experiment with a new teacher-pay system, thanks to new rules passed by the state's board of education at its June 21 meeting.

Districts will be required to move away from the "step-and-lane" salary grid, which rewards years of service and advanced degrees. Those two factors can continue to be used to differentiate pay, but must be done so in conjunction with other factors, such as the growth of each teacher's students on standardized tests.

Tennessee joins a pretty limited group of states that are revising teacher-compensation methods: Florida law requires every district to establish a new pay system by July 2014, and Indiana as of July 2012 required districts to take into account teachers' evaluation results in determining pay raises. Many states made those changes spurred by federal incentives, such as the competitive Race to the Top program.

In a few other states, new pay plans are encouraged but not required. Iowa, for instance, recently created a career ladder that will give top teachers higher pay in exchange for more responsibilities for mentoring their peers; locals will determine whether to participate and how to identify the teachers in question.

Before the state experiments, only a few individual districts had overhauled traditional salary grids.

According to The Tennessean, teachers will still receive step raises for their sixth and 11th years "so teachers will have some safeguard." Previously, teachers were guaranteed step raises each year.

The Tennessee Education Association fought hard against this plan, which leaves it up to individual districts to determine how teachers are paid within these criteria. More than 150 TEA members showed up to the board of education vote wearing red in protest. Meanwhile, two Facebook pages and a Change.org petition were created by anonymous authors to call for education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's removal. TEA President Gera Summerford wrote an op-ed sent to new outlets across the state.

The overall effect of this new plan is a first-ever lowering of state requirements for teacher salaries. Fortunately, state law protects current teachers from receiving a pay cut. As a result, while no teacher will see a cut in their current salary, they may also never see another raise, resulting in dramatically decreased lifetime earnings and a failure to realize minimal cost-of-living increases.

In his own op-ed in The Tennessean, Huffman argued that a system that does not reward high performance "makes little sense, and discourages top candidates from entering and staying in the teaching profession." Under the new system, he wrote, "Districts have more funding and more flexibility to design a salary schedule that actually differentiates pay and meets local needs."

Meanwhile, teachers seem to hold a variety of opinions about the new plan. Here are two comments that Tennessee teachers have sent to us.

The first comes from R. Adam Clark, a band director at Beech High School, in Hendersonville:

"As a band director, I may have a more unique perspective on some of this pay/merit issue. Since the state implemented our new evaluation system without fully considering all of the ramifications, those of us in an "un-tested" subject have been given 50% of our overall evaluation based on scores for tests we had nothing to do with. Now the decision has been made to change the pay scale, and we are told that incentives may be based on the merit noted from the aforementioned ill-thought out evaluation system. Will that merit be also for a subject I don't teach?
My band program has a room lined with trophies from successful years, I have had students in the All-Middle Tennessee Honor Band every year, and many years have also had some in All-State. My programs have consistently received the highest awards for excellence. Will I receive additional merit pay for those successes? More than likely not. Our schools are only interested in the test scores, and would only reward what they consider noteworthy."

A more positive take comes from Samantha Bates, a middle school literature teacher in Buchanan. She's also on the board of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a nonunion association.

"The state board did not assert that pay raises for experience and higher education were unacceptable; it is unacceptable for them to be the only factors in determining a teacher's salary.
Also, I refuse to believe that these new changes are an underhanded attempt to undermine teachers; the state is simply doing what it promised the federal government it would do in 2010 when Race to the Top legislation passed and federal funds were granted. Every superintendent and local school board president and 93% of local union leaders agreed to differentiated pay in 2009 when they signed the Race to the Top Memorandum of Understanding. ... For these reasons, I am not against the pay scale. The new scale is entirely about relinquishing teacher pay decision-making to districts; I personally suggest reserving judgment about the new policy until districts actually implement it."

Which argument do you find the most compelling, readers?

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