Educators eye teacher pay

Jeremy Styron-News-Herald

A new salary model designed to provide school districts with more flexibility in how they compensate teachers who assume extra responsibilities or work in hard-to-staff subject areas could begin to impact local instructors as Loudon County officials consider ways to implement the plan.

Director of Schools Jason Vance, who recently met with each of the nine schools in the system to discuss the state's mandated "differentiated" pay schedule, said because he just received information about the new requirements a couple months ago, officials have not had time to develop and submit a complete plan.

School systems may begin submitting differentiated pay schedules to the state for approval by January.

"We'll take baby steps this first year, and then the next year we'll put a team together to try to develop a plan that's a little bit more progressive," Vance said.

State law requiring school districts to implement differentiated pay models has been on the books since 2007, but the statute was not previously enforced. In June, the Tennessee Board of Education passed and modified guidelines stipulating local districts differentiate pay in at least one area, which can include supplements for teachers in high needs or critical subject areas like chemistry or physics, undertaking additional responsibilities or for performance in the classroom.

Under the guidelines, current teachers cannot make less than they are currently earning, and new teachers can't make less than the base pay.

"The basic premise of it is to give the school systems more flexibility to reward better instruction to be able to offer additional salary supplements to teachers that teach in critical areas, some of the high levels of math, chemistry, physics because it's very, very competitive," Ric Best, Loudon County Board of Education vice chairman, said, noting that some school districts are already offering extra supplements for certain high-skill areas.

"It essentially gives the school boards and directors of schools the opportunity to really design their own pay scales," Best said.

Vance said one challenge his district faces is making teacher salaries competitive with surrounding districts.

"We need to be more commiserate and aligned with those around us," Vance said. "I'm not saying that we need to have salary schedules that are exactly compared to Oak Ridge or Maryville. They've got alternative revenue sources that we don't necessarily have. However, we should be a whole lot closer to what some systems that are bordering Loudon County than we are."

According to the Tennessee Education Association average classroom teacher salary rankings for 2011-12, the Oak Ridge and Alcoa school systems were ranked first and second, respectively, while Lenoir City was 13th. Loudon County was ranked 50th.

Vance said he was also concerned about creating a salary system that is sustainable into the future and equitable to teachers.

"The problem we have in Loudon, if you say you are not going to pay teachers who aren't producing, most of the teachers are producing," Vance said. "We've got a very high percentage of our teachers that produce great results as is reflected on our state report cards. You can get into some sticky situations if you're not careful."

Best also addressed the issue of fairness when considering teacher compensation.

"Personally, I think that we have to be very wary of when we start differentiating pay and be very careful that fairness is the rule of the day," Best said. "... Differentiated pay is the rule of the day as we move forward in education, but I think that we should be very careful about the implementation, and my concern is that it be as fair as it can possibly be."

Gera Summerford, TEA president, said competition for higher salaries could disrupt the "natural collaborative environment" among teachers.

"Teaching is the kind of work where we all benefit when we all help each other, not when we compete with each other," Summerford said.

She said the state school board voted to require that districts implement differentiated pay scales as a way to potentially attract more teachers in hard-to-staff areas, particularly in rural areas.

"I don't really see this as a solution because if Loudon starts offering a bonus for teachers like that then Knox (County) might just offer a bonus that keeps their salaries above Loudon," Summerford said. "I don't see how that really helps with the ability to attract the best teachers from one district to another. There's a finite pool of teachers in those shortage areas. The smaller systems aren't going to be able to compete with the larger ones in attracting them unless something changes."

Summerford said some critics even raised a concern that differentiated schedules could increase the salary disparities between school districts like Alcoa and Oak Ridge compared to Loudon County. She said while proponents may think pay for performance makes sense from a business standpoint, other factors were at play in education.

"Your outcomes can change from year-to-year based on what students you have and what you're assigned to teach," Summerford said. "If you're assigned a different subject every year, then you're never going to build up the strength in that particular teaching area, so a lot of those things have impact on it."

Providing one example, she said she is certified to teach high school math, but she has never taught geometry.

"If you stick me in a geometry class tomorrow, you might see my performance drop, but I'm really good at teaching algebra or calculus or something else, so all those things affect this data that we're looking at and those things have to be taken into account," she said.

Best said before a merit pay system could be implemented, the instrument by which teachers are evaluated needed "more refinement."

"It's the human element” you have one person one-on-one determining and essentially doing a survey one-on-one of another teacher to determine if they meet a certain set of standards that would enable them to make more money than their contemporaries," Best said.

"You're dealing with the lives of people there, and you really better do that correctly," he added. "And presently I think right now there's too much inconsistency in the evaluation system from school to school and system to system."