Upping Performance Pay For Top Teachers

In his recent State of the Schools address, Superintendent Jim McIntyre pointed to significant student achievement gains in Knox County schools. But he was quick to add that, "our data also point to some considerable challenges that indicate we are not nearly where we need to be for our students to be competitive in today's complex and increasingly global economic environment. There is still much more work to do, and our progress needs to be greatly accelerated."

After heralding his strategic plan for doing so, McIntyre went on to say that, "Unfortunately, many of the most critical initiatives outlined in our plan—the very strategies that will help accelerate our effectiveness and therefore improve our students' academic results—have significant resource implications that our current revenue structure does not support."

More performance-based pay for top teachers and for instructional coaches ranks high on McIntyre's list of needed initiatives. But as matters stand, it's not even clear where the money will come from to sustain the strategic compensation program known as APEX that McIntyre put in place this year with federal grant funding that only lasts for another year or two.

Under APEX, teachers who score in the top two of five tiers on the still controversial teacher evaluation system that also went into place this year get bonuses of $1,500 to $2,000. McIntyre foresees that about 40 percent of Knox County's 4,000 teachers will receive them this year at a cost of about $3 million. But these bonuses only amount to less than 5 percent of the county's $45,000 average teacher pay and still leave recipients more than 20 percent below average teacher pay in Maryville and Oak Ridge.

Forestalling their ability to cherry pick top Knox teachers is part of McIntyre's thinking. "While we need to become more competitive overall, our highest priority is to be competitive among our most effective teachers as demonstrated through their evaluation," he says. "At a minimum, we want to make sure we're being competitive with that group of teachers vis-à-vis Oak Ridge and Maryville."

Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed legislation that could foster this by giving local school districts a lot more leeway in setting teacher pay. This proposal, which is now on hold, would do away with a state salary schedule and let each district construct its own, subject to state approval and a stipulation that no teacher's pay could be reduced. (Localities can presently supplement the state schedule but are bound by its provisions for basing raises on longevity in 20 annual steps.)

McIntyre says, "There's not a lot of research that says these step raises make a lot of difference in terms of student instruction and outcome. So you want to find a compensation structure that will incent and support great instruction." Which is to say that step raises could become a thing of the past.

Beyond that, he suggests that, "If we had the resources to give a 3 percent raise, rather than doing it all across the board, you might do 1 percent across the board and put the other 2 percent into additional strategic comp. So over time you still have base pay and it's still increasing at a relatively modest rate, but strategic comp becomes a much larger proportion of the total. That's where I would like to get to." But he doesn't believe there's sufficient time to start down this road with the 2.5 percent pay raise Haslam has recommended for the fiscal year ahead.

One reason is that such fundamental changes are almost certain to meet fierce resistance from the teachers union, which locally means the Knox County Education Association. Until this past year, they'd have to be the subject of a collective bargaining agreement, but last year's session of the Legislature eradicated the agreement then in place, stripped teachers of their bargaining rights, and substituted what's called "collaborative conferencing." This means that compensation issues have to be discussed with the KCEA, but at the end of the day the school board has the authority to make changes on its own, and incentive pay isn't even discussable.

Nonetheless, McIntyre prides himself on having gotten teacher input and buy-in to the incentive compensation model now in place. "We had 17 different sessions and a survey, really great teacher input in developing APEX," he says. Going further, he claims, "We've always had a very collaborative relationship with KCEA." But the association's president, Sherry Morgan, doesn't see it that way. She reports widespread opposition to the teacher evaluation system on which APEX is based and that "teacher morale last fall was the lowest I've ever seen it."

Augmented teacher performance pay is just one element of McIntyre's multi-faceted strategic plan for fulfilling a vision "where all of our students achieve at high levels and every school is a school of distinction." More instructional time and intensive interventions for students who are struggling also loom large in the equation. And while there are many measures of success along the way, the outcome that is most prized is college-level career readiness as measured by an ACT score of 21 or better on the part of at least 73 percent of high school seniors. For the class of 2011, only 38 percent met this mark.

More so than at any time during his four years on the job, McIntyre is plumping for more school funding. He won't be pinned down as to how it might be derived, saying, "My job is to educate children and identify what our needs are. It's for others to decide how we get the resources." But he's quick to add that, "We've begun to develop a very productive relationship with County Commission and Mayor Burchett, and I think they understand the needs we have."