TEA on TFA

Over at the TEA website, there’s a story on a recent TFA Truth Tour event at Vanderbilt. From the report:

A Teach for America graduate and former charter school teacher criticized the program at a Vanderbilt event Tuesday night, stating he believes the program’s goals are contradicted by its practices.

Chad Sommer says low wages, lack of support for teachers and poor working conditions at public schools across America have exacerbated high turnover and created a barrier to student achievement and quality instruction, which are among TFA’s stated goals.

Sommer spoke during the Teach for America Truth Tour at Vanderbilt University in Nashville this week.

Sommer also noted that he believes TFA is too closely aligned with the charter school movement and too supportive of high-stakes standardized testing.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Haslam: Paying Teachers More “Might Be a Good Idea”

Roughly a year after Governor Bill Haslam promised to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in teacher pay, he now seems uncertain about the idea. In a recent story in the Tennessean about a conflict between legislative Democrats and Haslam on Pre-K expansion, Haslam said:

“The key is like everything else: ‘Should we do Pre-k?’ ‘It might be a good idea.’ ‘Should we pay teachers more?’ ‘It might be a good idea.’ I could keep going with that list. It’s more a question of, given the reality of a limited budget that we have and are always going to have, should that be a priority for funding?”

This certainly doesn’t sound like a leader who is planning to move forward on improving teacher pay anytime soon. This in spite of early indicators that doing so may well be fiscally viable.

 

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

From 40th to 1st?

Around this time last year, Governor Haslam stated his intention to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher salaries. He even tweeted it: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

And, at the Governor’s request, the BEP Review Committee included in its annual report the note:

The BEP Review Committee supports Governor Haslam’s goal of becoming the fastest improving state in teacher salaries during his time in office…

Of course, Haslam wasn’t able to pay the first installment on that promise. Teachers then and since then have expressed disappointment.

But, what does it mean to be the fastest improving? How is Tennessee doing now?

Well, according to a recent report by the Appalachia Regional Comprehensive Center, Tennessee ranks 40th in average teacher pay and 40th in teacher salary improvement over the past 10 years.

That means we have a long way to go to become the fastest improving state in the nation. Bill Haslam will certainly be re-elected in November. And that means he has about 5 years left in office. What’s his plan to take Tennessee from 40th in teacher salary improvement to 1st in just 5 years?

Does it even matter?

Yes. Teacher compensation matters. As the ARCC report notes, Tennessee has a long history of teacher compensation experiments that typically fizzle out once the money gets tight or a new idea gains traction.

But the report points to a more pressing problem: A teacher shortage. Specifically, the report states:

Since 2009, Tennessee has identified shortages in the overall numbers of K-12 teachers needed for public schools as well as teachers for specific subjects. There is a critical need in the state for STEM teachers, as well as shortages in high school English, social studies, world languages, Pre-K through high school special education, and English as a second language.

So, we face a teacher shortage in key areas at the same time we are 40th in both average teacher pay and in improvement in salaries over time. Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed notes that a recent analysis of teaching climate ranked Tennessee 41st in the nation. Not exactly great news.

Moreover, an analysis by researchers at the London School of Economics notes that raising teacher pay correlates to increased student achievement.

The point is, Bill Haslam has the right goal in mind. Tennessee should absolutely be aiming to improve teacher salaries and do it quickly. The question remains: What’s his plan to make that happen?

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

“Tennessee Solution” a Viable Option?

Back in April, when Governor Haslam betrayed teachers and state employees and took their proposed pay increase out of his budget, a bipartisan group of legislators proposed what they then called the Tennessee Solution.

The plan had a price tag of $90 million and used reserve funds to pay out a one time bonus to teachers and state employees. The plan also called for a 1% raise to be provided only if state revenues exceeded budgeted targets.

By doing so, the plan put money in the pockets of teachers (essentially delivering a portion of Haslam’s promise) and also offered hope of more funds should the state find the money. Essentially, it said that if there is extra money, the first priority for those funds should be our teachers.

Ultimately, Haslam’s forces prevailed and that idea was rejected.

Now, there’s news that August revenues were far above projections. More than $30 million ahead, to be specific. The increase is due to the highest sales tax collections in more than two years. And, despite a negative growth number for non-corporate taxes, collections there were $6.1 million over budget.

If this type of revenue growth continues, delivering on the Tennessee Solution would be very doable. Except that the legislature decided against it at Haslam’s urging.

Yes, it’s still early in the revenue cycle, but making education a priority was the right thing to do in April and early revenue numbers show it fiscally feasible as well.

Next up, tomorrow’s Education Summit in Nashville. Where Haslam and friends should be talking about how best to use any unexpected revenue growth to invest in Tennessee’s public schools.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Fitzhugh, Frogge Take on Tennessee Ed Reform

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh and Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge both had Tennessean op-eds this weekend that challenged the state’s education establishment to start listening to teachers when it comes to deciding what schools and students need.

Fitzhugh referenced a recent letter to teachers from Governor Bill Haslam and noted its very tone was insulting. Teachers have also responded to Haslam.

From Fitzhugh’s op-ed:

Tennessee teachers don’t need the governor to explain to them that too many students are unprepared for a postsecondary education — they see it firsthand every morning. Instead of lecturing on the issue, the governor should give our teachers the tools they need to succeed, starting with the raise they were promised in 2014 and working to increase per pupil spending beyond our woeful $8,600 a child.

Instead of talking down to our teachers, instead of blaming them for the state of our workforce, we need a new conversation.

We need to talk about a new evaluation system that grades teachers on students they actually teach and rates their performance in a fair, objective manner. We need to talk about per-pupil spending, teacher salaries and where our priorities are as a state. We need to talk about prekindergarten and the real effects of early learning.

In her article, Amy Frogge also pushes for more respect for teachers and argues that evidence-based practices chosen by teachers should be driving education policy:

As a community, we must ensure that every child comes to school ready to learn. Research confirms that poverty, not poor teachers, is at the root of sagging school performance. Indeed, the single biggest factor impacting school performance is the socioeconomic status of the student’s family. Nashville has seen a 42 percent increase in poverty in the past 10 years, and our child poverty and hunger rates remain alarmingly high throughout the U.S. Too many of our students lack basic necessities, and many suffer what experts have termed “toxic stress” caused by chronic poverty. Our efforts to address this problem must extend outside of school walls to provide “wrap-around services” that address social, emotional and physical needs of children through community partnerships and volunteers.

Other evidence-based, scalable school reforms include:

• excellent teacher recruitment, development, retention, and pay;

• socioeconomic diversity in schools;

• increased parental engagement;

• early intervention programs such as high quality pre-K, particularly for low-income children; and

• increased school funding. Let’s focus on these reforms, maintain local control of schools, and allow educators — not hedge funders — to have a voice in the direction of education policy.

 

Fitzhugh and Frogge offer an alternative vision from that dominating Tennessee’s education policy landscape. It is a vision of trusting teachers, investing in schools, and putting students first.

 

 

 

 

No thank you, Mr. Haslam

On August 14th, Governor Bill Haslam sent a “Welcome Back” letter to teachers across the state. In the letter, he thanked teachers for their hard work in helping Tennessee improve its student achievement scores. He said he appreciated what they did for Tennessee students every day.

Apparently, some teachers haven’t forgotten that this is the same Bill Haslam who promised to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation in teacher pay in October of 2013 and included a teacher pay raise in his 2014 budget address … only to break that promise in April.

Some teachers sent responses directly back to Haslam. And some of those same teachers sent their responses to TN Ed Report under the condition we keep their names anonymous.  Here are some of the responses we received:

Teacher Response #1:

I appreciate your attempt to understand the inner workings of a classroom and appreciate your words of appreciation for those of us who chose to serve others through teaching. However, I am highly disappointed at the turn of events in which you announced that teachers would not receive pay raises. We already make much less than other TN State employees and much less than teachers of other states.

It is easy to make promises and to break them:
http://tnreport.com/2013/10/04/raising-teacher-pay-a-top-budget-concern-for-haslam-administration/   

I am personally insulted in your lack of support for the teaching profession. My colleagues and I work hard for the families we serve. A normal day for most of us is  7:45 a.m. until 5:00 p.m. Though we are only paid to work 8:00 until 3:15, our jobs cannot be completed in those hours. Many times we take student work home with us and are constantly looking for ways to improve our teaching on our own time.

Teachers are generally told “no one teaches for the money”. TRUE, but teachers never expected to be put on the “budget cutting” chopping block each time raises are considered. We feel betrayed with popular campaign promises and rhetoric.

In closing, make no mistake that our hard work is not completed for you or any elected official. Our hard work is for the children we PROMISED to educate when we accepted our jobs. Your letter of appreciation proves that WE have not failed those who have put their trust
in us, including you.

Teacher Response #2

Please tell the PR firm that suggested you send these letters that we teachers are
well educated and therefore insulted that they would believe a letter full of
empty words could ever make up for what you and your administration have done
and are doing to ensure the destruction of public education in Tennessee.

Teaching is more than a job to me. Teaching is my calling. I sincerely love all of my
students and work tirelessly for them. I most often work six full days a week
to ensure that they have exactly what they need to succeed. I spend hundreds
sometimes more than a thousand dollars of my own limited income every year to
make sure that their needs are met. I was always proud to be a teacher but, not
so much these days. Mostly these days my heart aches for my children. I spend many
hours crying for them. Your administration has stripped our classrooms of all
joy. Teacher morale is low because we are working in hostile conditions.

Finally, please keep your empty words. This letter is too little, too late.

Teacher Response #3

I am in receipt of your letter of August 14, 2014.
 
I appreciate the welcome back to school. And it is nice to hear the words “thank you.”
 
In your letter, you note that Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the nation in terms of student achievement. You attribute this success directly to teachers.
 
I seem to remember that in October of 2013, you also promised to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in teacher pay — an acknowledgement of the hard work so many Tennessee teachers are doing every single day.
 
Your budget, proposed in early 2014, also indicated at least a nominal raise for teachers was forthcoming.
 
Then, in April, you abandoned that promise.  When the state revenue picture changed, the budget was balanced on the backs of teachers. Not only did your new budget take away promised raises for teachers, but it also reduced BEP funding coming to school districts. Now, teachers are being asked to do more with less.  And students suffer.
 
Your words ring hollow when your actions make it clear that teachers don’t matter. That our schools can wait just one more year for the resources students need to succeed.
 
As for your “thank you” for the work I do, I’d note that I can’t send it to the bank to pay my mortgage. A thank you isn’t going to fix my car when it needs repair. When the price of groceries goes up, I can’t simply use your thank you letter to cover the increase. And when my health insurance premium inevitably rises in January, your letter won’t put money back in my paycheck to cover the cost.
 
The raise you promised but failed to deliver would have helped with all of these things. But your letter does nothing but remind me that you say nice words and shortchange our schools.
 
In my classroom, I place a high value on integrity. That means doing what you say you’re going to do. On that scale, sir, you rate an F.
We received copies of other responses that mentioned the poor communication style of Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman and the loss of collective bargaining rights. While teachers may not have a viable alternative to Haslam on the ballot in November, those sending us copies of their responses made it clear they won’t be supporting Haslam.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

A Tennessee Teacher Talks Tenure

In light of the Vergara decision in California, a Tennessee teacher talks about why tenure is important for teachers. James Aycock, an educator in Memphis, offered his thoughts over at Bluff City Ed.  Aycock offers some thought-provoking analysis, especially when considering that just after Vergara was announced, Senate Education Chair Dolores Gresham asked for an Attorney General’s opinion on Tennessee’s tenure laws.

Aycock notes that the fears teachers express over losing tenure essentially come down to a trust issue.  He suggests that good teachers don’t want to protect bad teachers, but they do want due process in order to prevent unjust termination. Without tenure, teachers could be non-renewed due to personal disagreements or political activity.

Another interesting point Aycock raises is a financial one. Would a loss of tenure result in veteran teachers being non-renewed because they cost too much? And, should we have a teaching force made up of the lowest-cost employees?

Here’s what he has to say on this point:

Teachers fear that personnel decisions will be made based on money rather than quality.

There is some legitimacy to this claim, though not with any malicious intent. I’ve witnessed first-hand school leaders discussing the merits of having two veteran teachers at $60,000 apiece versus three new teachers at $40,000 each. If you have $120,000 for staffing, what do you do? What is more important, quality or quantity, experience or class size? The question is a budgetary one, not one about teacher quality.

This is less of a concern at traditional district schools, although district policies can make this a factor. It’s much more of a concern, though, in autonomous schools. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for school autonomy. But think about it for a second. A principal at a traditional school has positions to fill according to a staffing formula, but doesn’t necessarily have budget restrictions for those positions; if you need a math teacher, you get the best math teacher you can find, with salary not really an issue at the school level. However, a principal at a more autonomous school may get a budget and have the freedom to hire and program within that budget; here, quality is certainly important, but salary comes into play as well.

If principals are given budgets, as opposed to just staffing positions, then they may face the choice between one veteran or two new teachers, leading to the scenario described above. Whether or not that veteran teacher has tenure plays a huge role in a school leader’s ability to make that decision.

As Aycock notes, school-based budgeting makes this type of decision-making more likely. And not necessarily for malicious reasons. Arguably, a mix of veteran and new teachers is desirable at a school for a variety of reasons. But an excellent veteran teacher shouldn’t have to fear they may lose their job just because they cost too much. In fact, we should be creating an environment where teachers know that if they work hard and do a good job, they’ll be rewarded.

Read more of what James Aycock has to say about tenure.

And read more from teachers in Memphis and Shelby County at Bluff City Ed.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Tennessee Solution?

In response to Governor Bill Haslam’s betrayal of his promise to improve teacher pay, a bipartisan group of lawmakers in the House is proposing a series of budget amendments they are calling the “Tennessee Solution.”

The plan costs $90 million and provides teachers and state employees a one-time bonus and adds a 1% raise to that bonus if state revenues reach certain targets.

Here are some details provided by the Tennessee Education Association:

Amendments to the governor’s budget plan will be presented this Thursday. The bipartisan plan includes a raise and bonus for teachers. Please contact your legislators immediately to show support for this plan.
The governor’s proposed changes to the budget – including the removal of his promised raise to teachers – passed both the House and Senate Finance committees yesterday. It is scheduled for floor votes this Thursday. Please contact your legislators immediately to ask for their support of the plan to reinstate the pay increase for teachers and state employees.

The bipartisan group of House legislators plan to propose two amendments they are calling the “Tennessee Solution.” The amendments include the following:

  • One percent raise for teachers and state employees, contingent upon revenue collection. A portion of the raise will be included in the current budget to be paid-out if and when revenue numbers reach the total required amount for the raise. 
  • One-time bonus for teachers and state employees, possibly for employees with three or more years of service

 

While it seems unlikely the raise portion of the plan will be met unless underlying revenue concerns are addressed, the plan does provide a one-time bonus that would, at least for this budget cycle, boost teacher and state employee pay.

A more ambitious plan would have addressed long-term revenue concerns and/or provided for cuts in other departments in order to fund investments in education.

As the plan details became available, the House broke into Caucus meetings with Republican leadership stressing that the conservative stance was to oppose the “Tennessee Solution” and support the betrayal of Tennessee’s teachers and state workers.

A vote on the proposed amendments is expected Thursday.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Helping Haslam

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, has some advice for Governor Haslam:

The critic, Niccolo Machiavelli, taught us that assertions of virtue and integrity in politicians are often grinning masks of deception. So we are not surprised when politicians routinely over-promise and under-deliver. State leadership must coherently articulate K-12 Education Policy to citizens in a truthful manner.

By state leaders continuing to ignore legitimate concerns, such as a vocal opposition to the Common Core State Standards and PARCC Assessments, policymakers and stakeholders across Tennessee have now been negatively impacted. This message has largely fallen on deaf ears at the highest level of state government, who continue to believe all is well. Members of the Tennessee General Assembly have listened and we are grateful to those legislators. Many citizens share the opinion that school teachers, principals, and superintendents are regarded by the administration as impediments to school improvement rather than partners.

As an organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee have embraced higher standards, with the caveat that we should always seek higher standards and a commitment to student achievement. We were very enthusiastic when Governor Haslam pledged to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries in October 2013 and again in the State of the State in February 2014. We intend to help him keep his word.

Governor Haslam has justly boasted “we are one of only six states in the country that has consistently increased state spending on K-12 education as a percentage of our total budget.” He has added that since 2011, “we’ve had the fourth largest increase in education spending compared to the rest of the country.” The questions we need to ask:  How much of this has been Race to the Top Funds?  Where were all those funds allocated?  How much money was actually earmarked to the classroom?

If policymakers boast that Tennessee is the fourth largest state for increase in education spending, then funds from RTTT need to factor into that calculation. Our estimation is that roughly $252 million of the RTTT grant was retained by the Tennessee Department of Education and never saw the inside of a school or classroom. These dollars went toward consultants’ contracts and partnerships.

Our belief is that every dollar earmarked for education should be spent to benefit Tennessee school children. A teacher’s working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. If Tennessee had the most ‘growth’ of any state on the latest NAEP results led by our state teachers, why were their promised salaries a lower priority than unproven PARCC Testing or adding Media/Marketing and Event Coordinators at the Tennessee Department of Education?

We support a delay and/or for the state to rescind the mandate for LEA’s to create a differentiated pay plan. Without the state’s increased financial contribution this creates an unfunded mandate on our local school systems. If the state mandates a requirement they should subsequently provide the necessary funding to facilitate that obligation at the local level. Unfunded mandates fly in the face of conservative orthodoxy and sound public policy.

Teacher attrition is a serious issue. We must keep experienced educators in our classrooms. Tennessee colleges and universities are very adept at meeting the demand for producing quality educators in this state. Historically, approximately 50% of the teachers that graduate with a degree in education do not find a teaching job.

We would suggest a review and delay for all Teach for America (TFA) contracts. Researcher Elaine Weiss revealed that Tennessee spends more money per Teach for America recruit than any other state. Some reports state that total compensations ranging from $5,000 to $9,000, to as high as $15,000, have been paid to Teach for America for their recruits. If this is true, we should turn to our own graduates of traditional colleges of education looking for an opportunity to teach in their own state.

Teaching is higher calling for professionals, not a pre-career placeholder. Therefore, it makes little sense to employ temporary teachers and spend scarce tax dollars and resources then watch a teacher leave after two years. Our goal should be hiring and retaining quality teachers that want to live, play, and worship in our communities long-term, instead of marking off days until a loan is forgiven and entrance to graduate school is accomplished.

We do not seek to be unduly critical of Governor Haslam. We recognize that there are many competent people in the Department of Education and administration. However, the media may be the only hope to reach the Governor. We encourage the Governor to confront issues directly, answer emails timely and regularly meet face-to-face with education stakeholders on a consistent basis, not through intermediaries. Governor Haslam, you need our help and we want to extend our hand to offer the assistance you need.

More on how Tennessee came to be short on revenue.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

 

The Governor, The Budget, and Making Teacher Salaries a Priority

This article was written by JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

By now Governor Haslam is aware of the disappointment by educators in his decision to remove increases in teacher salaries. In reneging on this promise, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation when it comes to teacher salaries, it is clear his priorities have shifted. This pay raise was promoted with great fanfare.

In October 2013, Professional Educators of Tennessee applauded Governor Haslam’s decision to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries. We must be equally concerned about the abandonment of this pledge and reneging on this statement within such a short period of time.

Public school teachers do incredible work across the state of Tennessee and the nation. They are often not recognized for their tireless dedication to a very demanding job, in which most educators identify as a calling. It has been fashionable to lay all the ills of society at the feet of teachers, but it is not fair. Every intelligent debate on student achievement would be wise to consider factors beyond the control of most teachers and schools.

No generation of educators in the history of the world has been asked to do what we now demand of our public schools. The challenge and responsibility has grown, yet public schools gladly commit to teach all children who enter their classrooms.

Everyday teachers are challenged by a wide-ranging mixture of social, psychological, and physical problems that impede the improvement of so many students entrusted into their care. You cannot reduce salaries or fail to reward Tennessee Educators and hope to attract and retain the best teachers to prepare students for the jobs of the future. This must be a legislative priority.

We need to take a very close look at teacher attrition. It is difficult to create a stable and world class education with a highly unstable teaching workforce. You cannot continue to make teachers, or state employees for that matter, a non-priority. When legislative priorities are more focused on the results of a test given at the end of a school the year, rather than those educating children then we have lost our focus as a state. We have made textbook companies and test publishers prosperous while we engage in a rigorous debate over a 2% raise for a teacher. People deserve a higher priority.

I understand Governor Haslam’s conundrum; business tax revenues are roughly $200 million less than projections. However, educators cannot understand how the Haslam Administration could have changed course so quickly and made educators bear the brunt of his decision making. In a political environment rampant with ideological conflict and tainted by partisanship, surely no policymaker of either party can be satisfied by the decision to abandon minor raises for teachers and state workers.

Policymakers understand that state policies and budget decisions affect the lives of Tennesseans. Any budget proposed must decisively connect tax dollars to state priorities. When teacher salaries are cut from the state budget you may well be creating another unfunded state mandate on LEA’s due to the state mandated differentiated pay plan. We encourage policymakers to discuss this directly with LEA’s in their community.

Like many policymakers, we feel disconnected when we hear of decisions impacting public education through the media, and not from the governor or his staff directly. Stakeholders should have a chance to weigh in on the cumulative effects of a policy change. This is poor leadership and lacks transparency.  We would maintain that when confronting a calamity of this nature, government needs to be transparent about the situation, the people, and the decisions which must be made. Transparency breeds accountability, accountability leads to trust, and trust will allow Tennesseans to know their tax dollars are used wisely.

Research clearly and consistently demonstrates that the quality of the classroom teacher is the number one school based factor in student learning. This is not what is reflected in Governor Haslam’s budget. It is up to policymakers and constituents to ask the Governor why teacher salaries are not a priority.

More on Governor Haslam’s broken promise here.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport