Tennessee students have nowhere to go but up

Tennessee students have nowhere to go but up

June 25th, 2013 in Opinion Times

The administration of Tennessee's Republican Gov. Bill Haslam last week pushed through a plan to change the minimum salary schedule for teachers -- a schedule that, come 2014, will no longer automatically reward experience and advanced degrees.

On the surface, the new education pay plan sounds like one that doesn't value education -- at least not that of the teachers. But Haslam says the new pay scale and its state-mandated minimums will free school districts to better reward performance and to better fill hard-to-staff positions.

The decisions and policies on how to measure performance and how to "better reward" it will be up to the school districts and county commissions. That seems fraught with peril -- especially if county commissions are involved.

The administration is also pushing, and the state school board has approved on first reading, another plan that will raise the bar for becoming a teacher and then keeping the job. In addition to stiffer requirements for first-year teachers, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman wants to make teachers pass a licensure test. And he wants to make license renewal dependent on a teacher's performance, as determined by an evaluation and student test score data.

Another reading is needed for final passage.

Teacher unions and many Democrats say the state pay plan change will encourage turnover among teachers because career teachers likely won't get the regular raises they have come to expect, and younger, less-educated new teachers will be rewarded for taking jobs at difficult schools.

"I don't know that we can get career teachers anymore," House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, said last Thursday just before the pay plan passed a final board vote.

It hasn't been too many years since former Gov. Lamar Alexander pushed his "career ladder" plan that built in extra rewards for teachers who sought and achieved additional education and teacher credits. Nor has it been many years since education groups decried the problems created when only new and inexperienced, less-educated teachers were routinely concentrated in difficult schools where poverty creates special challenges.

It's no wonder teachers and teachers unions grow weary of a new set of rules every time an administration changes. In addition to state changes, the teachers -- and our youngsters -- also get a new "no child left behind" type of plan each time a new president takes office. Schools get a set of performance standards -- such as what percent of the student body must graduate, and what percent must pass reading proficiency tests in the third grade.

About a decade ago, Tennessee introduced the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS. Although it was billed at the time as a tool to provide feedback to school leaders about teacher and program effectiveness, it has never really been used that way. It has never been used to help determine pay either, or even for job retention.

During all that time, much of the public may have believed school systems were evaluating teachers and paying them or weeding them out based on all of our varied national or state values. But that hasn't been the case. Tennessee's teacher pay has simply been based on longevity and education.

This can be a new beginning, but not one without pain.

Teacher step increases will drop from 21 to four, and the new state pay plan abolishes incentives for post-master's training and doctoral degrees.

Performance still is decided by a school principal or assistant principal, observing a teacher's work. The principal's evaluation does include data-based information, but that has so far not been applied to pay scales or continued employment.

The Volunteer State now ranks near the bottom of many educational rankings. That's because only about half of the state's students in grades three through eight read at grade level on 2012 state tests. Results in math are similar.

If we know that, and we know the teaching programs we've used, and we know the teachers linked with individual student scores, then the judgments about those teachers and those programs should be applied to job fitness and pay.

It's time to try it. Tennessee students have nowhere else to go but up.