survey says

Tennessee teachers are still happier in their jobs. But here’s how they aren’t seeing eye-to-eye with their principals

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat
Allison Graybeal teaches her Algebra I class at Middle College High School in Memphis.

Tennessee teachers are more concerned than principals about discipline at their schools, according to a new survey that shows a similar disconnect over the amount of feedback that teachers get from their administrators.

About 69 percent of teachers surveyed say their schools effectively manage student behavioral problems, while 96 percent of administrators say their schools handle discipline just fine.

The discrepancy is one of many data points unveiled Tuesday by Tennessee’s annual educator survey, conducted jointly by the State Department of Education and Vanderbilt University. Now in its sixth year, the survey found again that teachers are generally happy with their jobs, increasingly satisfied with their evaluations, and still tired of tests. But it also suggests that not all educators agree on two major issues — discipline and teacher feedback.

The gaps in perception suggest that school administrators may not be aware of their teachers’ concerns on discipline. One teacher wrote: “Discipline in my school is very inconsistent and greatly depends on who the student is, not what the student has done.”

The findings come as high suspension rates for poor students and students of color are getting more national attention. They also indicate that Tennessee needs to start making discipline policies a bigger priority, says Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

“This points to specific areas where we need to take more concrete actions,” McQueen said during a conference call with reporters. She added that teachers are asking for more support to meet their students’ non-academic needs.

About half of the state’s 64,000 teachers took the survey, down slightly from last year. Some of the lowest response rates were from Tennessee’s two largest districts, Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Metro Nashville Public Schools, as well as the state-run Achievement School District.

On feedback, teachers reported that they aren’t getting the input from principals that they were promised. Administrators say they are.

Ninety-four percent of administrators report that teachers received feedback on their previous year’s evaluation, while only 58 percent of teachers say that they received such feedback.

Nate Schwartz, the department’s chief research and strategy officer, said administrators generally answered more positively than teachers on every question asked, which he described as expected and unconcerning.

The discrepancy on discipline is significant because Tennessee clearly has a discipline problem, Schwartz told members of the State Board of Education in July during a preview of the survey’s findings. He noted that two-thirds of the state’s African-American students are suspended between the sixth and ninth grades.

Schwartz noted Tuesday that the “roller-coaster” around TNReady, the state’s troubled standardized test, didn’t seem to affect teachers’ overall positive view of their working environment. The survey was conducted in late spring, about the time when the state canceled TNReady testing for most students following its failed online launch in February.

Eight in 10 teachers reported feeling positive about their working environment. However, only 17 percent of teachers thought the test’s practice tools were adequate for introducing students to content changes in the first-year assessment.

Chalkbeat reporter Grace Tatter contributed to this report.

strike vote looming

Denver district, board members frame teacher contract negotiations as debate over values

PHOTO: Eric Gorski/Chalkbeat
Denver school board members get the latest on negotiations that have hit a turning point.

With time running out to strike a deal with the teachers union, Denver school district officials in a special board meeting Wednesday portrayed the unresolved issues in contract negotiations as a clash over values.

The hastily called meeting was primarily a briefing for school board members from the district’s chief negotiators and Superintendent Susana Cordova. But it was also a chance for the district — and a board that generally supports its positions — to seize the narrative.

Cordova framed the district’s stance as honoring core district values, including getting teachers into hard-to-staff jobs and high-poverty schools, and keeping them there.

Under negotiation is the district’s pay-for-performance system, called ProComp. It offers teachers a base salary and allows them to earn bonuses and incentives for things like high student test scores or working in a hard-to-fill position. The union would like to take some incentive money and put it toward higher base pay to lift the salaries of all teachers.

The district’s general counsel, Michelle Berge, on Wednesday said the union wants to take $10 million being used now to incentivize teaching in high-poverty schools and spread the money around “like peanut butter.”

Talks hit a sticking point Tuesday, with the union insisting the district embrace a salary table with its preferred structure for paying teachers by “steps” corresponding to a teacher’s experience and “lanes” representing education. 

The two sides have bargaining sessions scheduled for Thursday and Friday, and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association has pledged to hold a strike vote Saturday if an agreement isn’t reached.

Denver teachers have long said the pay-for-performance system is too complicated and unpredictable.

Cordova acknowledged the two sides are far apart on money. The money on the table for teachers now, she said, “is not enough.” But she said the two sides should reach an agreement, then work together to “fix the core of the problem” — how the state funds schools.

Wednesday’s meeting gave board members a platform as Denver inches closer to what would be its first teachers strike in 25 years.

Board member Jennifer Bacon said a system in which teachers don’t know what they are going to be paid — it can vary from year to year under ProComp — is “crazy.” 

“What are we really negotiating on to make teaching an idolized profession?” said Bacon, one of two board members who often push back against the district’s policies.

Member Happy Haynes said she put a higher priority on rewarding teachers who take hard-to-fill jobs and work in high-poverty schools.

“It isn’t just simply numbers moving around on cells on a spreadsheet,” she said. “There are values that we are articulating here.”

A teachers union representative did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Union President Henry Roman, however, has previously cited values in articulating the union’s stance.

“We know the district has the money to pay teachers a living wage,” Roman said in a statement last week, “and it’s time that they get serious about budgeting their stated values, so that we can have a deal by the 18th and prevent further stress on educators, students, and the community. Any further delay in getting a fair and transparent compensation system will only serve to aggravate the situation.”

On Friday, district officials presented a new proposal that would put an additional $6 million into teacher pay. That’s on top of the additional $17 million the district had already proposed, for a total of $23 million more. Taking into account a previously promised cost-of-living raise, the $23 million would increase teachers’ base pay by 10 percent from this school year to the next on average, district officials said.

Board member Carrie Olson, a former teacher, indicated the school district has more work to do to describe its offer.

“When I sit here, I know it sounds good, but I know that is not translating into the teachers in our schools,” Olson said. “The feeling isn’t, ‘This is a great deal.’”

That doesn’t appear to be lost on district officials. Cordova fielded teacher questions for an hour late Wednesday afternoon during a “telephone town hall” with educators after the district blasted them with robocalls informing them of the opportunity.

Teachers, meanwhile, organized informational community meetings at no fewer than three Denver schools Wednesday afternoon or evening, part of an effort to engage parents, said union vice president Christina Medina. In some cases, school administrators took part in those or previous meetings to discuss implications of a strike and explain the district position, she said.

“No one is more invested than parents,” said Medina, a teacher at Academia Ana Marie Sandoval elementary school in northwest Denver. “So connecting with them is important because they love our kids and we love our kids. It’s making sure we are on the same page. Making sure that teachers stay and we have great teachers in Denver.”

First Person

Why I won’t strike: Denver teachers in high-poverty schools, like me, deserve real bonuses

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

I’m in my eighth year teaching in Denver Public Schools. I have spent my career teaching in Montbello, where a majority of my students qualify for free and reduced lunch. I have a master’s degree in English, and at High Tech Early College, I teach primarily concurrent enrollment classes, for which students receive both high school and college credit.

For the last five years, I have been rated “distinguished,” the district’s highest evaluation rating for teachers. That rating, plus my degree and the fact that I teach at a high-poverty school, means I benefit from many aspects of our current pay system, known as ProComp.

So I’m watching the Denver teacher’s union negotiations for a new pay scale closely. And I’m concerned.

For one, I believe that my distinguished rating reflects my hard-earned successes in the classroom. The union has advocated successfully to end bonuses tied to evaluations under the new contract, which is disappointing. I see that change as funding less effective teachers at the expense of others, and I worry they could drive strong teachers from the district.

But far more important to me are the existing bonuses for teachers who work in high-poverty schools. The union is advocating to shrink bonuses for teachers in Title I schools to $1,500 from $2,500, and redistributing the rest to increase everyone’s base pay.

I can tell you from experience that schools where many students qualify for free or reduced-price lunch — an indicator of poverty — face complex and often painful challenges. We don’t talk enough about how, all over America, most poor kids go to school with poor kids and rich kids go to school with rich kids. That means teachers in schools like mine aren’t working with a few students arriving with challenges — behavior problems, unaddressed trauma, worries about being undocumented, for example — but often entire classes of students who need special attention for those reasons.

If those bonuses keep shrinking, what incentivizes teachers to teach at schools like ours? If it’s the same pay at two schools, what will bring teachers into the places where we need them the most? A sense of vocation and moral purpose, for sure, but that ignores reality. Turnover at my school is relatively high, and evening out teacher pay could make it worse. Students at those schools deserve great teachers who stick around.

To be clear, I love High Tech, and I’m not going anywhere. And I’m not anti-union. All teachers should be compensated for the hard and important work that they do, and I’m excited to see pay rise for everyone. I don’t believe that strong base pay and bonus money for qualified educators are mutually exclusive.

But the union’s stance on high-poverty schools is indefensible. I hope it reconsiders.

Alison Corbett is a teacher at High Tech Early College and was a 2017-18 Teach Plus Colorado Fellow.