TN gov's plan would change teacher pay, remove class size averages

6:33 PM, Jan 10, 2012   |    comments
Gov. Bill Haslam
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By Julie Hubbard | The Tennessean

Tennessee teachers may lose the promise of annual raises based solely on years of service and number of degrees, a system the governor wants to replace with salaries based on student performance, how tough a teaching position is to fill and other measures.

Gov. Bill Haslam said today he wants districts to have the option of ditching a state-mandated salary scale and adopting ones based on their individual needs. Florida, Denver City Schools and several other states and districts have adopted pay plans based on teacher performance.

In Tennessee, some extra money to fund raises or bonuses would come from removing the mandate on schoolwide average class sizes. Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said too many state mandates suppress district-level innovation. "We don't think that every single person in our education system should be treated the same," he said.

But Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford echoed what the nation's teachers unions long have said about pay-for-performance plans - they don't encourage necessary collaboration.

"There tends to be this movement toward competition between teachers, schools and school systems, and I just don't see that as a way to encourage success," she said.

Brandyn Surratt teaches first graders at Fall-Hamiton Enhanced Option School south of downtown Nashville. She's looking forward to moving from $42,829 to $44,127 for her full-time, annual salary soon when she hits the nine-year mark on the state's step scale. If she finishes her master's degree, that amount would go to $48,000.

But if Haslam's plan passes the General Assembly, she'd more likely be rewarded based on helping her urban core students make learning gains, although Metro administrators haven't said how they'd rewrite the pay scale. Surratt likes the idea of pay based on position and performance.

"It's hard to keep teachers in the inner city," she said. "I struggle just as much teaching 13 students as someone teaching a class of 25 because the needs are high. You could get some younger teachers to come in and stay if you make it more worth their while."

The current pay structure requires the state board each year to set a flat, minimum dollar amount for teacher salaries. The step scale builds on pay based on experience and educational attainment, with the state paying on average 75 percent of a teacher's salary.

Districts frequently add a local supplement, so a starting teacher with a bachelor's degree earns $33,900 in Williamson County versus $32,695 in Wilson County.

At least 20 of the state's 136 school districts already have state approval to try their own pay scales, using local money or federal grants. In Putnam County, 61 percent of its teachers opt into a pay scale based on teacher evaluations.

Florida rolled out a mandatory bonus policy for teachers in 2006 based on student test scores. Last year, the Florida legislature passed a law tying teacher salaries to evaluations.

Neither has gone into effect statewide because they were unfunded mandates, said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. In the counties that implemented the bonus system with their own money, teachers who taught the wealthiest students generally won the bonuses, he said.

"Out of 180,000 teachers, I am sure there were those who supported it," he said. "But the response from teachers was overwhelmingly negative."

That union is objecting to the new Florida law, which ties teacher evaluations to student learning gains, because of a dispute over whether there are margins for error in formulas used to calculate those gains, he said.

A Vanderbilt University study on teacher pay-for-performance, conducted in Metro Schools and released in 2010, showed giving teachers large bonuses based on student learning gains didn't increase those gains across three years.

Middle Tennessee school leaders said it's to early to say how they'd use the flexibility, but Sumner County Schools Director Del Phillips said he agrees with Haslam's contention that districts should be allowed to reward teachers based on more than years of experience and highest degree obtained, because local leaders know what's holding the district back and how to address that.

Wilson County Human Resources Supervisor Mary Ann Sparks said a bonus system for teachers in hard-to-recruit subjects, such as high school math and science or special education could be useful since they continue to have vacancies.

Under the current system, districts must hire extra teachers to keep student ratios smaller. The new plan would allow districts to pay teachers more for larger classes.

The caps are 25 students for grades kindergarten-three, 30 for grades four-six and 35 for seven-12, numbers Haslam's plan would keep in place. Schoolwide averages run five students lower than the maximums.

Huffman estimated increasing class sizes without hiring teachers will save $759,000 statewide in the first year, which would go toward the new pay plan.

He said research shows larger class sizes don't negatively impact student learning, although the teachers union disagrees, and studies on the topic have been mixed. One of the most cited - Project STAR (for Student-Teacher Achievement Ratio) - was done in Tennessee in the 1980s, and showed young children in classes of 13-17 posted greater learning gains in reading than those in regular-sized classrooms, and those gains lasted when they returned to larger classes.

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