Increasing Teacher Pay Next Goal for Haslam

By Bill Dries

Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam signaled last week that the next front in an increasingly vocal debate about education reform in the state will be over increasing teacher pay.

Gov. Bill Haslam has signaled that teacher pay is the next front in Tennessee education reform.

(Daily News File/Lance Murphey)

During a press conference Thursday, Oct. 3, in Nashville, Haslam set a goal of becoming “the fastest improving state in the U.S. when it comes to teacher pay.”

“This is a long-term goal,” Haslam said. “We are committed to investing in our educators and working in partnership with the General Assembly and our local school districts to examine where we are every year, track our progress against other states and make investment decisions that will move Tennessee forward.”

The general topic of how much to pay teachers and the criteria for the pay raises has been an early and active political fault line in Haslam’s bid to change public education in Tennessee.

Haslam drew immediate criticism in 2012 for a legislative proposal to abolish the state’s teacher pay schedule that includes automatic raises for seniority and advanced degrees.

Meanwhile, the Shelby County Schools board, in the move to the consolidation of Shelby County’s two public school systems, adopted pay standards that took out the “step” increases effective with the August start of the current school year. The school board replaced those standards with new ones based on teacher evaluations that, in part, consider student achievement and proficiency test scores.

It is the criteria for the pay raises that Tennessee House Democratic leader Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley focused on last week.

“Basing teacher pay on test scores, especially the scores of students they never teach, is going to further strain the system, lower morale and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee,” Fitzhugh said in a written statement.

Haslam has acknowledged that teachers who are evaluated based on test results in subjects they don’t teach at a given school make a valid point when they call for a better and more accurate method of judging them.

Fitzhugh also made Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman an issue, saying his “unproven, unreliable testing methods as a basis for teacher pay are hurting our public education system.”

Most of the remarks Haslam makes about changes in public education in the state include the $400 million increase in state funding for education since he took office in 2011. That includes $130 million in new recurring funding for teacher pay that puts the average Tennessee teacher’s annual pay at $50,000.

Meanwhile, with half of the state’s $500 million in federal Race to the Top funding over a five-year period, the state-run Achievement School District is offering higher pay with a goal of top teacher pay of perhaps $90,000 a year. The pay of charter schools and conventional schools are all considered competitive. But it is that competition for teachers that raises questions about what happens to both the competition and teacher pay at the end of the five years.

Haslam’s proposal is one answer to the open question of sustainability. And he is using the results of the reforms so far to not only evaluate teachers but also evaluate the critics of the reforms.

“We were having all of these dire warnings that all of the great teachers were going to quit,” he told the U.S. Chamber of Commerce annual meeting in Washington last month.

He was talking about the response to state laws changing tenure for teachers and allowing the state to use the largest trove of student performance data of any state in the union as part of the evaluation of teachers. The use of the data had previously been specifically barred by state law.

“We found that notably the folks who dropped out of the profession, the rate didn’t change from the prior history we had prior to putting the evaluations in place,” Haslam said of the results a year after the changes in evaluation and tenure became law. “What did change was those teachers who were evaluated at the lower level dropped out at three or four times the level they had been dropping out. The great teachers stayed. The bad teachers left.”

Haslam concedes critics of the substantive changes to Tennessee public education that began in 2010, the last year of Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s tenure, and scrambled traditional party lines on issues like charter schools, vouchers and teacher evaluations have found their voices.

And the voices are coming from Haslam’s fellow Republicans, in some cases, and Democrats. He termed it “a fairly unique push from both ends.”

The same day last month that Shelby County Schools teachers were at school for in-service training on Common Core standards, a committee of the Tennessee legislature was holding the second of two days of hearings on Common Core.

“The concerns about the data being collected on our children are at an all-time high,” said Somerville Republican Dolores Gresham, chairwoman of the state Senate Education Committee.