explainer

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

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
A teacher instructs students at Ford Road Elementary School in Memphis.

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.

Parent-to-Para

How the Adams 14 school district is empowering parents to join the classroom

PHOTO: Yesenia Robles
A parent volunteer works with two kindergarteners on reading as part of a pilot program at Dupont Elementary School that is training parents to become paraprofessionals.

Raeann Javier would like to know what she can do to help her second-grader read better. Sometimes, sitting with her daughter, the best she could offer was, “You know how to do this.”

Javier, a single mother, also would love to land another job to earn more for her family.

A pilot program launched by Adams 14 School District in Commerce City may help her with both.

The school district is trying to build more knowledgeable, active parents through classes and volunteer time working with young students struggling to read. For those who are interested, the program also provides parents a path to become paraprofessionals, or teacher’s aides.

The initiative is one way the nearly 8,000-student suburban district — facing state intervention this year after years of poor academic performance — is trying to turn things around.

District surveys found parents were looking for ways to become more supportive.

Javier, one of 17 mothers in the program, said she already feels like she has become a more patient parent less than a month in. She also is interested in becoming a paraprofessional to supplement the income she earns as an at-home nurse.

“It’s a little bit tough. I make it work,” Javier said. “But this would really, really help.”

Other parents taking part in the pilot program already were volunteers at their kids’ schools.

“They usually just did the normal things like helping with copying or sorting papers,” said Jesse Martinez, Adams 14’s director for family and community engagement. “But we really wanted to change that dynamic. We wanted to pull in our parents to tap their potential and bring them in to support their children.”

One of the parent volunteers, Susana Torres, was an elementary school teacher for 10 years before coming to the United States. Now with three children in district schools, Torres jumped at the opportunity to get back into a classroom.

“This is my thing,” Torres said. “I love the program.”

Torres also helps other Spanish-speaking moms who are part of the program. She said that even though they don’t have the teaching background she does, the program has made it easy for all of them to learn to help kids. “All you need is a passion to make change,” she said.

Pat Almeida, the principal of Dupont Elementary, where the program is being piloted, said the goal is also to help more students become proficient in reading before third grade — especially those who are not far behind but just need a boost to get to grade level.

“We’re able to give them more repetition so they can apply that to their reading,” Almeida said. “If they’re able to have more repetition, their progress is going to be accelerated.”

Dupont Elementary is among the Adams 14 schools that is struggling, though the school isn’t yet facing sanctions like the district as a whole is this year.

District officials have been working on setting up reforms all year to present to the state as a suggestion for their corrective action, including getting help from an outside company for developing curriculum and testing. Increasing parental engagement through this and other new efforts, like having teachers visit families at home, are part of the work to improve the district.

The parent-to-para program is being funded with money from the Denver-based Rose Community Foundation (Rose also supports Chalkbeat) and Climb Higher Colorado, a coalition of advocacy groups that support strong academic standards and tests.

At Dupont, while the parent volunteers work with almost 75 students that they pull out of class for about an hour, teachers can spend the time in class working with students who need the most help.

An instructional coach supervises the moms to work with groups of two to six students and helps them plan lessons each day for kids.

During one lesson this week, parents were helping kindergarteners learn how to differentiate between capital and lowercase letters and how to sound out words. Some students were still having trouble identifying letters, while one boy was writing words so quickly he was standing up, moving around and at one point fell.

The volunteers said it’s rewarding to see the kids catching on.

“Knowing that just a little bit of our time can help them is a good feeling,” said volunteer Adelaida Guerrero. “It’s an excellent opportunity for them and for us.”

For Maria Rodriguez, the program has unexpectedly given her another benefit — bringing her closer to her teenage daughters. She said she joined the program because when a bilingual program for her two oldest daughters was removed seven years ago, she had stopped being able to help them on their school work.

When Rodriguez heard about the program, she thought she could prepare to help her younger children, a second and third grader, before they too required more help than she could offer.

“It’s brilliant,”Rodriguez said. “I’ve been helping them work on their vowels.”

Within the last week, the two older girls came to Rodriguez complaining that she hadn’t ever worked to help them in the same way, and asking to join in during the at-home lessons. Over time, the girls had kept their ability to speak Spanish, but never learned how to write it. Now they were asking to learn alongside their younger siblings.

“They have that apathy of adolescence that makes them not always want to get close to us as parents,” Rodriguez said, tearing up as she recalled the moment. “I honestly felt really good.”

money matters

Why money for Memphis schools is about to be based on students, not adults

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Under a budget model switch, Shelby County Schools would focus more on the types of students in their buildings and less on the number of staff per school.

Educators generally agree that a one-size-fits-all approach to teaching doesn’t work. Now school leaders in Memphis are saying it doesn’t work when distributing money to schools, either.

Beginning this July, Tennessee’s largest district will pilot student-based budgeting at up to eight schools, with the expectation of expanding to the entire district in three years. The goal is to distribute money more equitably.

Under the new method, each student brings to their school a certain dollar amount, which can grow based on factors like whether the student has a disability, is an English language learner, or comes from a low-income family.

That’s a big change from traditional budgeting, which distributes money primarily based on how much it costs to pay the salaries of adults who work in a building. The traditional model usually allocates less money to schools with high-needs students because they generally employ less experienced and lower-paid teachers.

The new approach would give principals more say in how they allocate money within their building. The system also appeals to those who want schools with greater challenges to receive more funding. And recently, student-based budgeting got a boost from President Donald Trump, whose proposed budget includes $1 billion in incentives for school districts with poor students that make the switch.

Leaders with Shelby County Schools have been working for more than a year with Education Resource Strategies, a Massachusetts-based consulting organization, to lay the groundwork for the transition. The method already is being used in districts in Nashville, Indianapolis, Denver, Boston and Houston.

David Rosenberg, a partner at Education Resource Strategies, said traditional budgeting models cater to the most politically savvy principals who find funds for academic programs and interventions in system loopholes. Student-based budgeting changes the dynamic to empower principals, making them more like CEOs than strict academicians. It also means principals will have to learn more about the complexities of budgeting.

“It works because you make it more flexible for schools and teams for how they see fit within parameters the district provides,” Rosenberg said.

During the next few months, the Memphis district will analyze how money is being allocated to its schools — which ones don’t have enough funds and which ones have too much under the new formula. The change will create winners and losers, and it’s the losers that concern some school board members.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Lin Johnson, finance chief of Shelby County Schools

The board is generally supportive of student-based budgeting and is scheduled next week to vote on a resolution endorsing it. But board members also want the transition to be as painless as possible in a district that they say is underfunded by the state.

Finance chief Lin Johnson reassured board members at a work session this week that the district can mitigate losses for schools with less money. Options include tapping a separate pool of money to lessen the shock and giving some schools an extra year for the transition.

“The goal is not to fund all schools equally, but equitably (and) to make sure the funding we have is meeting the unique needs of students,” he said. “We need to work with schools to provide training and examples, to give schools the support they need to maximize the resources that they have.”

In Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, which fully switched to student-based budgeting 2015, about 60 percent of schools received more money than the previous year. The rest received the same amount.

In other districts, the model has had the effect of shaking up central office structures, increasing the need for fiscal oversight, and stretching principal capacity.

Below is a video from Nashville’s school district to explain how student-based budgeting was rolled out there.