Despite the state's budgetary woes, Tennessee is making remarkable progress in raising student achievement standards in its public schools.
The more rigorous curriculum introduced this year throughout the state is keyed to a much more demanding set of TCAP tests for measuring achievement in grades four through eight. And students entering high schools this year face augmented math and science course requirements as well as a more extensive and exacting set of end-of-course exams.
In all of this, Tennessee has aligned itself with 34 other states in what's known as the American Diploma Project, whose goal is to get high-school graduates well prepared for college and/or the demands of the 21st-century workplace.
But student achievement gains are highly dependent on the quality of instruction they receive, and attention is only now turning to establishing measures of teacher effectiveness to support the higher standards of learning that are now in place.
Commendably, a coalition known as SCORE chaired by former Sen. Bill Frist is undertaking to "develop, pilot, and roll out a teacher effectiveness measure" and, after this measure is created, "to connect it to both tenure and compensation." This process, which a SCORE spokesman says is still in a formative stage, would be jointly led by its own staff and the Tennessee Education Association working closely with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation-funded teacher effectiveness initiative.
Until quite recently, the notion of linking teacher pay to performance measures was anathema to teacher organizations such as the TEA. However, the TEA's president, Earl Wiman, now says it's amenable to incentive pay so long as it's based on "multiple measures that are fairly administered and equitable to all teachers." But he cautions that, "We are totally opposed to letting one test score be the determinant."
That test score would be the TCAP, or more precisely the value-added measure of a teacher's student-achievement gains on TCAP over the preceding year against a norm. As Wiman points out, this measure is only applicable to fifth- through eighth-grade teachers and only in core subjects that would exclude art, music, and physical education teachers. But he believes the extensive new testing that's being put in place in high schools is potentially providing a basis for measuring student gains as one component of a broader set of teacher-effectiveness measures at that level. And he points to a teacher effectiveness initiative that's underway in the Memphis City Schools as a potential model.
That initiative, which last month received a $90 million grant from the Gates Foundation, will fund retention bonuses of up to $6,000 (vesting over four years) to teachers who rank in the top quartile on a teacher effectiveness measure that includes four components: growth in student learning, observation of teachers' practice, parental surveys, and teacher knowledge.
Memphis was one of four low-performing school districts in the country singled out for comparable Gates Foundation grants. And with the state in a fiscal bind, the obvious question is where might funding be derived for statewide pay supplements to Tennessee's most effective teachers.
Fortuitously, the movement to measure and reward them comes at the very time the federal Department of Education is holding out $4.3 billion in competitive grants "to encourage and reward states that are creating the conditions for education innovation and reform." Along with setting high standards for student achievement, an important grant-selection criterion is to "design and implement rigorous, transparent and fair evaluation systems for teachers and principals" that "take into account data on student growth" and provide additional compensation based thereon.
Tennessee is widely believed to be in the forefront of states competing for these Race to the Top grants that are due to be awarded in two phases starting next year. While a grant on the order of $200 million might be enough to get a statewide effective-teacher reward program started, it probably wouldn't be sufficient to sustain it for very long, especially considering that half of the money must be earmarked for local school districts.
Knox County Schools could get on the order of $5 million and could apply it to expansion of a Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) that's now in place in four schools at an annual cost of $1.4 million. Developed under the auspices of the Milken Family Foundation, the TAP model combines teacher bonuses based partly on their evaluations and partly on their student test score gains. It also relies on placing cadres of master and mentor teachers in each school whose compensation accounts for the majority of the program's cost.
"I think TAP is a terrific model, and from a teacher development standpoint it has all the right components," says Knox School Superintendent Jim McIntyre. Even if extending the master/mentor teacher and incentive pay components to many more schools is not affordable, McIntyre believes the benefits of the component in which he places the most store could be applied system-wide at very little cost.
"TAP has a terrific teacher-evaluation rubric that starts with a definition of what good teaching looks like, and that's what the evaluations revolve around," he says. However, that rubric is proprietary to TAP, which has so far been unwilling to allow it to be used independently to the other elements of TAP's regimen.
Still, McIntyre is confident that SCORE's efforts, leveraged by Race to the Top funding, will enhance the quality of instruction throughout the state.