explainer

Hopson wants to raise teacher salaries, but who will get them is still under debate

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede

Memphis teachers are slated to get a 3 percent pay raise next school year, but the details of their rollout remain under discussion.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has set aside $10.5 million for raises in his spending plan for 2017-18. If approved, the pay hike would be the second in as many years, but likely wouldn’t be delivered across-the-board this time.

Among the issues are whether to provide merit-based raises for top-rated teachers as Hopson wants — and how to address inequities within the district’s compensation structure.

The questions are important as Tennessee’s largest district seeks to stem the tide of teachers leaving Shelby County Schools for higher pay at one of six nearby municipal districts. Leveling the playing field also would help pave the way to garner teacher union support for merit-based pay in the future.

Here are some of the questions being raised:

Who would get the raise under Hopson’s plan?

Hopson wants to give merit raises for top-rated teachers. That would boost salaries for about 90 percent of the district’s 6,800 teachers.

The increase would not apply to non-instructional staff such as central office employees, secretaries or teacher assistants, but the district did not rule out other incentives.

Interim director of nutrition services Frank Cook weighed in on social media.

How does merit-based pay work?

Hopson’s plan would reward teachers who rank at or above a 3 out of 5 on the state’s teacher evaluation model, which relies mostly on classroom observations and student test scores.

Research on the effectiveness of merit-based pay is mixed. A 2010 report from Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education concluded that rewarding teachers with bonus pay, in the absence of any other support programs, does not raise student test scores. However, a 2012 Harvard University study in Chicago found the opposite.

Hopson pushed for merit pay last year, but later expanded the raise to all teachers and some non-instructional employees when his administration wasn’t able to get timely teacher evaluation data due to the state’s TNReady testing debacle.

What do teachers unions say about this year’s proposal?

The two unions representing Memphis teachers want the raise to apply across the board.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County

“We’re very glad the superintendent has included money for teachers in the budget. That has a huge impact on morale. However, we are still disappointed,” said Tikeila Rucker, president of the United Education Association of Shelby County.

The unions question the accuracy of the state’s teacher evaluation system.

“It’s subjective …,” Rucker said. “We’ve known for a long time the rubric they’re using is not working.”

Hopson has acknowledged the system does not include pedagogy or teacher knowledge of new standards. But he says it’s still the best basis for rewarding the most effective teachers.

“We certainly know there are some challenges with the evaluation system,” Hopson told the school board on Monday. “But I do think at the end of the day, the overwhelming majority of our teachers — about 80 percent — are 4, and 5 on the system, how ever flawed it may be.”

What about salary inequities?

In initial meetings with teachers unions, district administrators said they would address those inequities before moving to performance-based pay, according to Keith Williams, executive director of the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association.

And Hopson acknowledges there’s a problem.

“We know that our compensation system has some inherent unfairnesses or inequities in it because steps weren’t offered for several years,” he said.

“Steps” are incremental pay raises based on years of experience. Shelby County Schools stopped giving them to teachers following the 2013 merger of city and county schools. But the change made it possible for a teacher who’s new to the district to get paid more than an existing teacher with the same experience.

Both Hopson and union leaders say that happens often.

“Most people are behind,” Rucker said. “We need a level playing field; otherwise it’s not going to be fair.”

The inequities also open the door for teachers to leave the urban Memphis district to work for six school systems created in the suburbs in 2014.

“You can go somewhere else and immediately make a higher salary,” Hopson acknowledged.

Germantown Municipal School District, for instance, has the highest weighted average salary in the state.

Doesn’t the district have to increase teacher salaries as part of raises proposed for educators statewide by Gov. Bill Haslam?

Haslam has asked the state legislature to approve an extra $100 million for teacher salaries, which would equate to a 4 percent increase. But districts would only be required to raise salaries if their pay is below the state average, and Shelby County Schools already pays teachers more on average than any other district in the state.

Hopson said he is proposing salary hikes anyway because “we think it’s the right thing to do.”

When will we know more?

A statement on Wednesday said the district is “still collecting feedback from teachers and school leaders on all aspects of our proposed compensation system for teachers and will be communicating further details soon.”

The school board will meet 4:30 p.m. Monday, March 20, to discuss the budget. The next day is the board’s regularly scheduled work session at 5:30 p.m. Directly preceding the work session is another committee meeting at 4, all at the district offices, 160 S. Hollywood St.

head to head

Protesters face off with member of New York City’s Absent Teacher Reserve outside the mayor’s gym

PHOTO: Cassi Feldman
Karen Curley, left, talks with Andrea Jackson of StudentsFirstNY

Karen Curley ran into something surprising as she headed into her Park Slope gym on Wednesday: protesters pushing back against the city’s strategy to give her a job.

Curley, 61, a Department of Education social worker who used to work in District 17, has been rotating through different positions for at least two years. She is a member of the Absent Teacher Reserve, the pool of teachers without permanent assignments that is once again at the center of debate over how the city should manage teachers and spend money.

The protesters had gathered outside the Prospect Park YMCA to confront its most famous member, Mayor Bill de Blasio, about the city’s plans to place roughly 400 teachers from the ATR into school vacancies come October. They say the city is going back on an earlier vow not to force the teachers into schools.

“These are unwanted teachers. There’s a reason why they’re just sitting there,” said Nicole Thomas, a Brooklyn parent and volunteer with StudentsFirstNY, an advocacy group that organized the protest and often opposes the mayor. “We don’t want these teachers in our schools.”

In fact, the ATR pool includes both teachers whose positions were eliminated because of budget cuts or enrollment changes, and also teachers who have disciplinary records. The city has not disclosed how many teachers in the pool fall into each camp, or which ones will be assigned to positions this fall.

Curley said she was heartbroken when she realized the protest was directed against the Absent Teacher Reserve. “We don’t want to be absent,” she said. “We’re educators.”

She said cost was likely an impediment to their hiring. “The truth is, at this point, I have 20 years in [the school system], which isn’t a lot for someone my age,” she said. But after 20 years, “we’re not likely to be hired elsewhere because we’re high enough on the pay scale that new people can be hired for a lot less money.”

Earlier Wednesday, Chalkbeat cited new figures from the Independent Budget Office placing the cost of the Absent Teacher Reserve at $151.6 million last school year, an average of roughly $116,000 per teacher in salary and benefits. Some principals have balked at the idea of having staffers forced on them in October — and vowed to avoid having vacancies.

Shortly after 10 a.m., the mayor emerged from the gym and hurried into a waiting car without addressing the protesters, who chanted, “Hey hey, ho ho, forced placement has got to go.”

Thomas was disappointed he didn’t stop. “He didn’t even acknowledge us,” she said. “And we voted for him.”

teachers with borders

Schools near state lines perform worse — and rules discouraging teachers from moving may be to blame

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Want a leg up in school? Don’t attend one near a state border.

That’s the surprising finding of a new study published in the Economics of Education Review. The likely culprit: certification and pension rules that discourage teachers from moving between states, limiting the labor pool on each side of the border.

The peer-reviewed paper focuses on test scores at public middle schools near a state boundary. Eighth-graders attending those schools, the researchers find, perform consistently worse in math than students at non-boundary schools. (The results are negative in reading, too, but smaller and not always statistically significant.)

One reason the findings ought to catch the attention of policymakers across the country: the data comes from 33 states, including big ones like Florida, New York, and Texas.

“We estimate that roughly 670,000 students are enrolled in middle schools nationally that are [considered] ‘intensely affected’ by a state boundary in our study,” the researchers write.

Of course, schools and students are not randomly assigned to be near state boundaries, so the study can’t definitively conclude that boundaries are the cause of lower performance. But the researchers — Dongwoo Kim, Cory Koedel, Shawn Ni, and Michael Podgursky, all of the University of Missouri — control for a number of student characteristics that might affect performance.

And while the study can’t pinpoint why a boundary seems to hurt test scores, the researchers have a theory: “state-specific pension and licensing policies” that discourage teachers from moving between states, likely forcing border schools to draw from a more limited pool of potential teachers.

In some places, those pension rules mean a substantial loss of retirement wealth if teachers move states mid-career. Complicated licensure rules that in some cases require experienced teachers to take certification exams or obtain additional degrees can also make that kind of switch practically difficult. Other research has found that teachers rarely move across state lines, even if they live near a boundary.

Why might that harm performance of schools near state lines?

Say a school in New York City has two science teachers and no math teachers, while a school right across the river in New Jersey has two math teachers and no science teachers. If each school needs exactly one teacher per subject, the solution is easy in theory: the New York City school gets a math teacher and loses a science one, and vice versa for the New Jersey school. But if certification or pension rules prevent that from happening, both schools lose out — and student achievement might suffer.

States aren’t typically eager to change those policies, though, for several reasons.

For one, states that require prospective teachers to clear a high bar to become certified may worry that making it too easy for an out-of-state teacher to receive a license could reduce teacher quality. A study from North Carolina provides some evidence for this argument, showing that teachers trained elsewhere were less effective than teachers trained in-state, though the difference was very small.

Another argument is that limiting teachers’ ability to bring pension money along with them when they move helps states hold on to their educators — even if they are in turn harmed when they can’t recruit teachers from elsewhere.

The latest study suggests that the net impact of those restrictions are negative. Still, the effects on students are quite small, implying that changes to pension and certification policies are unlikely to lead to large improvements in student performance.

But, the study points out, policies that eliminate the harm from attending school near a state line could help hundreds of thousands of students.

“Although the boundary effects are small on a per-student basis, they are spread across a very large population,” the researchers write.