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.