insights (2006-16)

Teacher Pay Differentials Needed

Last week’s approval of a pilot program that would offer performance-based bonuses to teachers at three Knox County schools represents a first step toward addressing needs for teacher pay differentials. But several more are urgently needed.

In addition to performance bonuses, supplemental pay is also needed to recruit and retain top teachers at hard-to-staff inner city schools and for hard-to-fill positions, particularly high school math and science teachers.

Michael Podgursky, a University of Missouri economics professor who has written and spoken extensively on the subject, stated the case well in a recent paper:

“School districts must develop more efficient, market-oriented compensation policies. Unfortunately, nearly all of them still determine teacher pay according to salary schedules based on years of teaching experience and graduate education credit hours. These schedules apply to all teachers—from kindergarten to high school physics—regardless—regardless of subject expertise, school conditions or individual effectiveness. First, they produce shortages. Kindergarten teachers and high school physics teachers are both important, but their alternative earnings opportunities differ greatly and the teacher pay system must take account of that,…

“These rigid schedules also guarantee that poor children will get weaker teachers. School working conditions differ, and schools with many more poor and minority students are often located in tough or inconvenient neighborhoods. Many teachers use their seniority to transfer to more pleasant and accessible environs…” The military has long recognized the need for hazardous duty pay! Public schools need to do something similar.

The chairman of the Knox County school board, Dan Murphy, echoes Podgursky when he terms the school system “one of the last bastions of equal pay, and we’ve got to get away from it. Some people have greater value than others, the demand for their services is greater, and you’ve got to pay them more.” But how?

In Knox County, as almost everywhere else in the country, teacher pay is the subject of a legally mandated collective bargaining agreement between the school system and the teachers union. And teachers unions for the most part have stonewalled attempts to change the rigid salary structure that Podgursky and Murphy rail against.

To its great credit, the Knox County Education Association is now showing flexibility and even taking the initiative in effecting change. Its president Kim Waller and executive director Betty Crawford collaborated with school officials in setting the terms of the performance-pay pilot program that will start next fall at Pond Gap Elementary and Holston and Northwest Middle Schools. The program, known as TAP, bases teacher bonuses that could run as high as $4,000 at those schools in part on teacher evaluations and in part on improvements in student test scores, both in their individual classrooms and in the schools a whole. The estimated $1 million cost of the pilot will be covered by funding from the Great School Partnership, a private foundation formed at County Mayor Mike Ragsdale’s behest and to which he’s pledged $7.8 million in public funds next year, over and above the school system’s regular budget.

Beyond that, KCEA officials are now advocating $2,500 pay supplements starting next year for teachers at the 14 inner-city schools where Project Grad has instituted specialized reading and math curricula. A just-completed KCEA survey of its membership showed overwhelming support for pay differentials at those schools.

Project Grad’s executive director, Jerry Hodges, reports that 120 of the 600 teaching positions at the 14 schools turned over this past year, requiring replication of a lot of specialized training and resulting in the loss of a lot of experience in making use of it. “We’d support anything that would incentivize urban teachers who are far more difficult to recruit and retain than suburban and even rural teachers,” Hodges says.

The school system’s assistant superintendent for instruction, Donna Wright is pursuing the use of federal funds that could be available for what are known as Title 1-school pay supplements. The Great School Partnership might also contribute, along with extending TAP to more schools in subsequent years.

One area where KCEA hasn’t relented in its opposition to teacher pay differentials is for hard-to-fill high school math and science positions. “Our commitment is to pay all teachers better,” says Waller. “We may need more for math and science teachers, but kids have to know how to read in order to do well in other subjects, so reading teachers should be paid more as well.”

Wright has reported difficulty in filling upper level math and science positions, and that difficulty will be accentuated if she succeeds in her goal of requiring four years of math for graduation, meaning more teachers than are needed for the three years now required.

Just within the teaching field, let alone other fields, in Knox County, experienced high school math and science teachers get less than their counterparts at other institutions. For a teacher with a master’s degree and five years of experience, Knox County pays a little over $36,000 compared to $38,000 for math and science teachers at Pellissippi State. That $2,000 difference just about equals the differential that Pellissippi State pays for teachers in these fields.

If KCEA won’t agree to changes in its contract with the school system, then a private foundation could pay the differentials directly to teachers. And the president of the Cornerstone Foundation, Laurens Tullock, who was a prime architect of the Great Schools Partnership, believes it should be poised to step in.