insights (2007-05)

TAPping More Knox Schools

By all reports, the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) that Knox County Schools launched on a pilot basis this school year has gotten off to an encouraging start. The program, fostered by the Milken Family Foundation, aims at strengthening teacher skills and rewarding them with bonuses if student performance gains exceed a norm.

While the "value added" test scores on which teacher bonuses are based in part won't be known until next fall, there's a pervasive sense at the three pilot schools that TAP's instructional rubric, as it's known, is making teachers more effective. "The principals and teachers have all given it rave reviews," says the school system's director of public affairs Russ Oaks.

Until results are validated by test score gains, it's too soon and too expensive for TAP to be extended to all 50 Knox County elementary schools and 14 middle schools as Superintendent Charles Lindsey envisions doing. But enough is known to justify extending the pilot, and planning is underway to add three more TAP schools next school year.

This planning involves collaboration with the Knox County Education Association because KCEA's collective bargaining agreement with the school system gives the teachers' union sway over any compensation changes. In assenting to the TAP pilot, KCEA stipulated that a 75 percent approval vote by the teachers at each school would be required.

A year ago, TAP gained approval at Inskip Elementary and two middle schools, Holston and Northwest, but failed to do so at Pond Gap Elementary. This week, KCEA officials are canvassing teachers at eight other schools to determine their interest in being candidates for extension of the pilot. A short list of finalists would be chosen from those schools where the expression of interest exceeds 60 percent, and formal approval votes would then be held after a fuller explanation of how TAP works.

TAP is by no means the only way to offer incentive or performance pay for Knox County teachers. But it's the only way that KCEA is prepared to go along with. There's strong sentiment on the Board of Education to provide incentives for teachers at schools that are deemed hard-to-staff, particularly in the inner city, and also for hard-to-fill positions, particularly high school math and science teachers.

However, a recent KCEA survey of its members showed only 30 percent support for extra pay at the 10 inner city elementary schools and two middle schools where a specialized curriculum known as Project Grad has drawn acclaim, but teacher turnover remains high. About 40 percent of the survey's respondents supported extra pay or bonuses for hard-to-fill positions. But KCEA executive director, Betty Crawford, says that in light of the survey responses, "We're not going to do anything with it at this time."

Still, TAP may be an optimum way to fortify and reward teachers for superior student performances, at least at the elementary and middle school levels. Because only third through eighth graders take the state TCAP tests from which student performance gains, and hence teacher value added bonuses are derived, they aren't applicable to high schools.

TAP is actually a lot more than just a teacher bonus measurement system, and that's a big reason why teachers appear to like it. The program starts with installation at each TAP school of a cadre of what are known as master and mentor teachers who work with less experienced teachers to enhance their skills. The regimen includes weekly cluster meetings, at which instructional strategies are addressed, and teachers share experiences and ideas about enhancing their effectiveness.

"The collaborative model is crucial for young teachers who are flourishing and becoming much better much sooner than you'd expect," reports Holston Middle School principal Tom Brown. "I have no doubt that what we're doing now is more effective," he adds.

Each teacher at the school is in line for a $2,000 bonus if both their individual and school-wide performances are met. (Actually, student test score improvements aren't the only factor in the bonus equation; teacher evaluations are weighted equally, and the TAP evaluation model is considered far superior to the state model that preceded it.) Master teachers--three of them at Holston--get a $10,000 pay supplement and continue to teach some classes as well as work individually with students in need of extra help.

The cost of TAP is reckoned to be about $800 per student. So extending it to all 35,000 elementary and middle schoolers in Knox County would cost $28 million, and it's anything but clear how to raise that much additional school funding. An intermediate step might be to cover some 18 schools that are federally designated Title I schools--so designated because of their concentrations of students from lower income families who qualify for free or reduced lunch funds. But even that will be stretch.

Another big question is how to apply TAP to the Project Grad schools, all of which are Title I. While most of these schools have made big strides in raising student proficiency, they are still among the most challenging for teachers and most in need of an incentive pay program. But Project Grad has its own distinctive teacher training and coaching regimen that differs from the TAP model, and the question is how to mesh the two. Project Grad's director Jerry Hodges insists it can be done and is working hard to do so. I believe it is imperative that at least one Project Grad school be included in the TAP pilot's expansion plan.