Teacher Pay

Shelby County teachers protest merit pay plan

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
Hundreds of teachers attend the Shelby County School Board meeting in January to express concern about the district's performance-based pay plan.

Hundreds of teachers decked in red attire packed a Shelby County School Board meeting Tuesday night to protest the district’s plan to tie teacher pay raises to classroom performance.

“We do not want this!” said Ethan Randall of Kingsbury High School, one of 15 teachers to speak against the new compensation plan. “It is not equitable and it is not fair.”

The change is designed to attract and retain the nation’s best teachers and weed out the poor ones. However, teachers worry the new pay structure will reduce their lifetime earnings and retirement and are wary of tying their salaries to the state’s teacher rating system, which relies heavily on student test scores.

The board will vote on the matter this spring as part of the district’s budget negotiations.

Shelby County Schools, which is the state’s largest K-12 public school district, is one of the largest employers in Memphis and spends the majority of its estimated $1 billion budget on teacher salaries.

“We do understand that compensation is not the magic bullet that helps attract and retain teachers,” said Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. “But we think it’s an important component. This is an opportunity for teachers to earn more. It’s an attractive option.”

Currently, teachers receive raises based on years of service, but administrators are looking to tie pay to performance and recruit effective new teachers wanting to climb the pay scale quicker. While the district has the highest pay in Tennessee, it ranks near the bottom academically, with only a third of its third-graders reading on grade level. Because of chronic academic underperformance, 30 Shelby County schools have been taken over by the state, and several more are at risk.

“We’ve been through a lot in the last three years but we have a long way to go,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told attendees amid cackles and boos from teachers. “When you look at the overall performance of this district, we have to do something different. We’ve got to drastically improve student achievement in Shelby County.”

Specifically, the new plan ties teacher pay to the state’s Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM) scores. Teachers can earn increases of $1,200, $1,000 or $800 for scoring at the top three levels. Salaries would remain the same for teachers scoring in the bottom two levels.

Under the present pay plan, teachers receive raises of $950 to $1,200 annually based on years of experience, although they’ve gone without salary increases for the last two years due to district budget constraints.

During the last month, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association has mobilized its teacher members to fight the new plan. Union leaders complained that they weren’t involved in the latter stages of developing the compensation plan and are pushing instead for continued step increases based on years of experience and cost-of-living increases for all teachers.

Under state guidelines approved in 2013, all Tennessee school districts must adopt a new form of differentiated pay, which could reward teachers based on classroom performance, leadership positions or working at high-needs schools.

Last year, Metro Nashville Public Schools unveiled its own performance-based pay plan, but tabled the idea after teachers balked. Director of Schools Jesse Register said the district may revisit the proposal as evaluations are refined.

In Memphis on Monday, district leaders increased the maximum amount a teacher can make under the new plan from $70,000 to $73,000 after discussions with union leaders. District leaders also went on the offensive, releasing “fact sheets” noting that more than 73 percent of the district’s teachers earn a 4 or 5 on the TEM scale.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Hopson attempted to squash rumors that the district might adjust evaluation scores to save money, while board chairwoman Teresa Jones called for transparency from the district and improved performance from teachers.

“We need to do work to have an evaluation that teachers have confidence in and don’t feel like it’s not a ‘gotcha’ moment or is too subjective,” Jones said. “We need to work those issues out and I hope we do, but equally … we can’t ask for more money and better pay and not have the test scores reflect that.”

Two teachers spoke in favor of performance-based pay, which they said works for traditional corporations and can work for schools as well.

Researchers say that boosting student test scores is a complex task that depends on numerous factors from teaching strategies to child preparation to the time of day a test is administered. A recently published study by Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development showed that incentive pay at schools in Austin, Texas, resulted in higher test scores the first year because of more clearly defined institutional goals but it’s too soon to tell if the model will retain high-performing teachers.

Since at least 1921, teachers across the nation have been paid mostly based on seniority and degree attainment. But research has not always supported this approach either.

Tennessee began experimenting with incentive pay in 1984, giving teachers $3,000 bonuses based on years of experience, portfolios, classroom observations and test scores. Lawmakers eventually scrapped the plan but revived the approach in 2007 along with several districts in response to federal and local grants worth millions of dollars.

In 2013, Shelby County Schools stopped rewarding bonuses for additional degrees, significantly draining the pipeline of students seeking graduate degrees in education from the University of Memphis.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at dburnette@chalkbeat.org or 901-260-3705.

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Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.