When the state Legislature approved Gov. Phil Bredesen's plan for increased public school funding last year, it came with strings attached. One of those strings was a requirement that every school system adopt "differentiated pay plans" under which "high-need schools and high-need fields should receive priority, rewarding quality teachers who are willing to teach in high-need schools."
Knox County schools officials are now wrestling with how to satisfy this requirement for the 2008-09 school year when it takes effect. At the high school level, the school board has approved signing bonuses of up to $3,000 to attract selected teachers who commit to stay at least three years at the two schools, Austin-East and Fulton, that are being reconstituted because of failure to meet student achievement standards under the federal No Child Left Behind Act. However, these up-front bonuses aren't tied to measures of subsequent teacher performance, whether via evaluations or student achievement gains.
At the elementary and middle school levels, a different approach is clearly needed for several reasons. For one, the challenge at the 10 Project Grad elementary schools and two middle schools that have been the focal points of remedial efforts hasn't been so much attracting new teachers as retaining those who've proven themselves in a difficult environment. Moreover, the teacher "value added" data derived from the state's TCAP exam in grades three through eight provides a basis for rewarding teachers for superior student achievement gains at these levels that doesn't exist in high school.
Interim Superintendent Roy Mullins is frank to say, "We don't have a plan yet" for satisfying the state requirement. But he acknowledges that "We're going to have to include something in next year's school budget" and goes on to cite the Teacher Advancement Program (TAP) that's being piloted at four schools as the most promising approach.
TAP is a teacher mentoring and evaluation system that was developed under the aegis of the Milken Institute and is now in place at some 180 schools across the country. The initiative for bringing it to Knoxville came from the Great Schools Partnership that was set up at county Mayor Mike Ragsdale's behest to foster and fund innovative programs beyond the budgetary reach or bent of the school system.
By nearly all accounts, TAP is working very well at the four pilot schools—Lonsdale and Pond Gap Elementary along with Holston and Northwest Middle. "It's definitely helping those teachers do a better job; it creates a much more positive attitude in those buildings; and all in all it goes to help the children that are there," says Mullins. The dean of UT's College of Education, Bob Rider, who serves on the Great Schools Partnership board, adds that, "Early indications show it's been incredibly successful."
TAP qualifies as a differentiated pay plan because teachers get bonuses that can range from $400 to $2,000, based partly on their evaluations and partly on student achievement gains, both school-wide and classroom-specific. Initial resistance to performance-based pay on the part of the Knox County Education Association (read: teacher's union) has been overcome because of its leaders' confidence in TAP's evaluation methodology and the way in which bonuses are shared by all teachers (indeed, all personnel) at a school rather than just those whose student achievement gains exceed a norm.
The next logical step to meet the state requirements would be to extend TAP to the 12 Project Grad elementary and middle schools where high student turnover rates and other learning issues make teaching difficult. Initial doubts about whether TAP's distinctive teacher mentoring system would mesh with Project Grad's specialized set of math and reading coaches have been dispelled, according to Project Grad's director, Jerry Hodges. "We've found at Lonsdale [the only Project Grad school with TAP] that it's been a perfect blend, and I wish that all our schools had it," Hodges says.
The rub comes in funding the expansion. The $2 million cost of the pilot at four schools is being borne by the Great Schools Partnership out of county general funds, but the Ragsdale administration has made it clear that no more such money will be forthcoming. That means the roughly $5 million cost of TAP expansion to the other Project Grad schools would have come out of the school system's own budget. And Mullins says, "I don't think we can afford the TAP model in a larger number of schools in relation to everything else we're committed to," such as staffing a new high school and other built-in budget increases.
However, he's not taking into account an as-yet-unspecified amount of additional state funding or the mandates governing its use. Bredesen's recommendation for the fiscal years ahead would appear to entitle Knox County schools to an increase on the order of $7 million, and the mandate for a differentiated pay plan should have a primary claim on it.