Blue Suede Shoes

Closing the Teach For America Blogging Gap
Oct 28 2011

The Incentive…

Tennessee – and Memphis specifically – is at the heart of a lot of potentially powerful change in terms of education reform. Big names in Teach For America history – Kevin Huffman and Chris Barbic – have taken positions in state education leadership; there is a city-county system merger set for 2013; the Teacher Effectiveness Initiative has begun a new era in teacher evaluations; there has been a large amount of grant money coming from both government and private foundations. All of this signals that Memphis is on the path to becoming a city that turns itself around for the sake of its children and their education.

Barbic spoke at a professional development event on Monday night, after driving all the way from Nashville to come meet our corps. He made kind of a sales pitch for the Achievement School District, which led me to think about what it would take to get the best teachers in arguably the worst schools. The Teach For America model works… in 40-odd regions, and even then there is the problem of first years being largely experimental, and I’ve also heard of research indicating year three, one year more than this commitment, as the critical year (where perhaps effectiveness begins and floundering diminishes?). So, outside of Teach For America – and perhaps even within our regions, how do struggling schools and districts attract the strongest teachers for their struggling students?

Pay teachers more. Nick Kristof wrote an editorial titled exactly that earlier this year. I didn’t think about it too much when I read it (though I did share it on my facebook page), but as Barbic was encouraging us to think about staying in Memphis and applying to schools in the ASD, I wondered what the budget for the ASD was. It was described as a district with a clean slate, an opportunity to repair the worst-performing schools by starting over. Does that mean teacher salaries will also be overhauled? This type of drastic change means the way we approach these schools needs to change, and the way we approach these teachers also needs to change. Paying teachers more goes hand in hand with developing a collective national mindset of respect for teachers. Do I make a decent paycheck? Yes, especially for Memphis. Does it reflect the hours I put in (and, let’s be honest, the frustrations I deal with)? Rarely.

Before I joined the corps, I was on an engineering co-op, working a 9-to-5 (more or less). I made more than I am making now, but I certainly was not working nearly as hard. No surprise there. I remember getting pay stubs last year in the fall and thinking each time, I have never earned a paycheck as much as I have earned this. The arguments that I work a shorter day than 9-to-5 and that I get the summer off are excuses from people who have yet to realize that, even if it were true that my day begins at 7:15 and ends at 2:15 and that I laze around in June and July (and it most certainly is not), I am paid not just for my time but for my hefty responsibility as an educator of this city’s youth. My previous job researching allergy medications was, quite frankly, not nearly as significant (apologies, allergy sufferers), and yet society and the market had determined that it somehow was worth more than teaching and preparing future leaders, innovators, and workers of America.

The most notable model I know of for truly competitive teacher pay is Zeke Vanderhoek‘s The Equity Project. Teachers earn $125,000, but they also work a lot more than a typical teacher, filling in for administrative roles as well. They are, apparently, the best of the best; a New York Times article about the project in its early stages noted that the PE teacher was a former personal trainer of Kobe Bryant’s. In the spring of its second year, CBS News reported that TEP’s school’s results were below average other public schools’ in New York City. It’s hard to draw conclusions from just one school, and only time will tell whether the TEP model works.

Monday night, I wondered what the plan was to turn schools around beyond hiring new leaders and new teachers, and what would make the ASD appealing to someone who had other options, such as a third year at her placement school, a third year at a charter school, a job on Teach For America staff, graduate school or professional school, a job completely outside of teaching, etc. What I realized for myself was that were I able to make merit pay or were my salary truly competitive with the other jobs I am qualified for, I would be questioning staying a third year a lot less and buying things for my house/classroom a lot more.

9 Responses

  1. MeghanK

    Merit pay is a bad idea. The majority of teachers at an elementary school do not have state tests for their subject area. The only grades with student growth scores are 4th and 5th classroom teachers. By using merit pay, the majority of the other teachers are paid based on how the school as a whole performs. With this new evaluations system in Memphis, that is also how their performance evaluations are judged. This is obviously unfair, to base the evaluation and pay of Pre-K to 3rd grade teachers and all support teachers on how the school as a whole performs. Why WOULD anyone go to work at a “bad” school under this system? You would move as soon as you could to a school that is making “growth”. This new evaluation system is only making things worse. Merit pay would only make the bad schools go down the drain faster.

    • I don’t know enough about merit pay systems as a whole to have an opinion about them. But in the business world, employees earn bonuses based on the health of the company, and I think teacher bonuses for student growth would be a similar education sector analogue. Whether it’s individual- or school-based could vary. What I was envisioning as an incentive was something like a bonus for my leading my algebra 1 students to EOCT proficiency/more than predicted growth. It wouldn’t have to affect how other teachers are paid.

      • MeghanK

        Well, unfortunately, merit pay and its corollary, tying teacher evaluations to students’ test scores, is affecting Memphis City Schools right now. Several effective, great teachers in the lower grades at my elementary school have told me they’re leaving after this year, because we have an ineffective leader who is not improving the test scores of the school as a whole. They’re sorry to have to leave a school and kids they’ve been with for so long, but what choice do they have when their evaluations will be based on the school’s growth score as a whole? I’m also not sure how they calculate the evaluation of a high school teacher. In elementary, they compare the students scores in 3rd grade to their scores in 4th, and that reflects on the 4th grade teacher. What do they compare your EOCT scores to? Their TCAP results from the previous year? I have doubts about the validity of that system in measuring your effectiveness as an Algebra I teacher.

        • Students have a predicted score for the algebra EOCT which I gather is based on math TCAP scores. I don’t know if it’s just based on 8th grade or several years previous. TVAAS employs some sort of algorithm based on actual score minus predicted score to calculate growth and teacher value-added results.

          • MeghanK

            I see. Thanks, that was bothering me. My brother-in-law is an Algebra II teacher. He’s a math major, and he didn’t even know how it was going to be done. I’m not sure his or your students’ scores on the EOCT accurately measures your effectiveness as teachers. His kids don’t know basics, like adding and subtracting one-digit numbers without the use of a calculator. It seems to me you could teach a great deal for an entire year (important things they will use for the rest of their lives) and not get to all of the things covered on the EOCT.

          • Oh, I definitely agree that the test is flawed in terms of assessing what students know and what they should be able to do to be successful thinkers. And I also do not believe that leading students to growth means I am teaching them what they will need to be successful. But what metrics besides growth of and absolute test scores can be used to determine teacher effectiveness? These ways might not be accurate or fair, but it seems to me that there isn’t yet a viable alternative.

  2. MeghanK

    I do, however, support paying teachers more – just not based on their students’ test scores.

  3. hill

    This is what I was wondering when he spoke as well, even about myself. I want to teach beyond my two years, but what would it take for me to stay in Memphis, let alone go to an ASD school? I suppose this is the million dollar question…

    • I can see the ASD being something extremely beneficial to the school systems it’s in – and its students, obviously – but to join it as it’s just getting off the ground seems daunting. On the one hand, it would be awesome to be a part of something revolutionary… on the other, it would also be incredibly stressful, I imagine.

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