Lisa Fingeroot, The Tennessean
With the recent adoption of a controversial teacher pay plan, Tennessee has moved closer to three states that have carved out reputations for dramatically overhauling their pay policies.
Florida, Indiana and Louisiana have implemented pay plans in recent years that give more weight to performance and less to the number of degrees racked up by teachers.
Though Tennessee's plan doesn't go quite as far - some states have actually stopped tying pay to higher degrees altogether - districts here must now consider new factors other than experience and advanced degrees when they create pay scales for the 2014-15 school year.
It's now up to Tennessee's 137 school districts to craft plans that match the new criteria.
This could range from no additional pay for advanced degrees or experience to bonus pay for student achievement or for teaching in high-needs schools.
The Tennessee plan might be considered a hybrid of the other U.S. states' plans because it only prohibits using experience and advanced degrees as the sole reason for pay increases. It allows districts to consider an advanced degree as part of a pay increase as long as another factor, such as test scores, is also used.
The annual across-the-board pay increases the state had required for teachers - the so-called step raises - have been eliminated.
Earning the money
The Tennessee State Board of Education expects districts to continue to reward teachers for advanced education and staying in the profession, but it also wants districts to reward teachers for exemplary performance or for taking more responsibility, Chairman Fielding Rolston said.
Rolston is convinced the move must be made to earn more money for teacher pay, he said. He believes the state legislature will push more money to teacher salaries only if education officials can show they are good stewards of the money by rewarding performance.
The state Democratic Caucus condemned the plan and joined protesting teachers who contend that poorly funded local governments will not reward experience and education if not forced to do so by the state.
Other states have taken more aggressive steps to curb automatic pay increases linked to advanced degrees.
Indiana recently passed a law that outright prohibits local districts from adjusting teachers' salaries based on their obtaining advanced degrees. In Florida, districts aren't allowed to tie advanced degrees to base salaries, but they can offer a pay increase if the degree is in a teacher's area of certification.
Louisiana no longer requires schools to compensate teachers for having degrees beyond a bachelor's degree.
All three states, each led by Republican governors, have turned into testing grounds for some of the education reforms that Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has pushed.
The pay plans of these states, centered on performance-based principles, have received praise from StudentsFirst, the education advocacy organization launched by former Washington, D.C., Chancellor Michelle Rhee, who is routinely criticized by teachers unions and Democrats.
The group lobbied the Tennessee General Assembly this past session after spending lavishly here during the 2012 round of elections.
Calvin Harris, regional press secretary for StudentsFirst, called Tennessee's new policy "meaningful change" that gives school districts the freedom to use their funds to design innovative compensation systems.
But such plans have been under attack elsewhere.
The Florida Education Association, a teachers union, has twice sued Florida over its teacher pay plan. A lawsuit in state court was dismissed, but a federal lawsuit is pending.
"I can't wrap my head around the idea that more education is not good," said Florida Education Association spokesman Mark Pudlow. "I think that any kind of knowledge you can get will help you perform your job better."
He considers Florida's plan to be "a mess" because teacher pay is tied to student achievement scores, but 65 percent of the state's teachers don't teach a subject measured by the Florida Comprehensive Assessment Test, or FCAT.
Jim Carlson, president of the Education Compensation Institute in Wisconsin, and also the director of an affiliate of that state's teachers union, thinks most of the merit pay systems are politically motivated.
"It's a political badge of honor to pay better teachers more, but nobody has figured out how to pay better teachers. Test scores are ludicrous," he said.
Carlson estimates that more than half of the states are discussing some form of merit pay.
"What's lost is that this is not new, he said. "It's been going on for a long time, very actively for the last 15 years, and all the data indicates there is not an impact on student achievement. Pay teachers a good salary and give them the resources they need and don't overthink this thing."
Carlson said that tying teacher pay to test scores puts the teacher "at the mercy of your population."
He's fine with being measured by student test scores "as long as all of my students come from two-parent families who make over $100,000," the group of economically advantaged students who are proved to score well on standardized testing.
Little effect seen
According to a 2013 national teacher pay survey, 19 states specifically require districts to pay for advanced degrees. The laws in a small majority of 28 states are silent on teacher experience and degrees, but most of those have historically used the traditional scale that pays for experience and degrees. StudentsFirst conducted the survey.
Driving the merit pay discussion is research, both nationally and in Tennessee, that shows advanced degrees do not affect student achievement.
Vanderbilt University research indicates that advanced degrees in math and science may have a positive effect on student achievement. However, about 90 percent of the master's degrees earned by the nation's teachers are in education programs, according to data from the National Center for Education Statistics.