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Shelby County teachers protest merit pay plan

Hundreds of teachers attend the Shelby County School Board meeting in January to express concern about the district's performance-based pay plan.
Hundreds of teachers attend the Shelby County School Board meeting in January to express concern about the district's performance-based pay plan.
Daarel Burnette II

Hundreds of teachers decked in red attire packed a Shelby County School Board meeting Tuesday night to protest the district’s plan to tie teacher pay raises to classroom performance.

“We do not want this!” said Ethan Randall of Kingsbury High School, one of 15 teachers to speak against the new compensation plan. “It is not equitable and it is not fair.”

The change is designed to attract and retain the nation’s best teachers and weed out the poor ones. However, teachers worry the new pay structure will reduce their lifetime earnings and retirement and are wary of tying their salaries to the state’s teacher rating system, which relies heavily on student test scores.

The board will vote on the matter this spring as part of the district’s budget negotiations.

Shelby County Schools, which is the state’s largest K-12 public school district, is one of the largest employers in Memphis and spends the majority of its estimated $1 billion budget on teacher salaries.

“We do understand that compensation is not the magic bullet that helps attract and retain teachers,” said Trinette Small, the district’s chief of human resources. “But we think it’s an important component. This is an opportunity for teachers to earn more. It’s an attractive option.”

Currently, teachers receive raises based on years of service, but administrators are looking to tie pay to performance and recruit effective new teachers wanting to climb the pay scale quicker. While the district has the highest pay in Tennessee, it ranks near the bottom academically, with only a third of its third-graders reading on grade level. Because of chronic academic underperformance, 30 Shelby County schools have been taken over by the state, and several more are at risk.

“We’ve been through a lot in the last three years but we have a long way to go,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told attendees amid cackles and boos from teachers. “When you look at the overall performance of this district, we have to do something different. We’ve got to drastically improve student achievement in Shelby County.”

Specifically, the new plan ties teacher pay to the state’s Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM) scores. Teachers can earn increases of $1,200, $1,000 or $800 for scoring at the top three levels. Salaries would remain the same for teachers scoring in the bottom two levels.

Under the present pay plan, teachers receive raises of $950 to $1,200 annually based on years of experience, although they’ve gone without salary increases for the last two years due to district budget constraints.

During the last month, the Memphis-Shelby County Education Association has mobilized its teacher members to fight the new plan. Union leaders complained that they weren’t involved in the latter stages of developing the compensation plan and are pushing instead for continued step increases based on years of experience and cost-of-living increases for all teachers.

Under state guidelines approved in 2013, all Tennessee school districts must adopt a new form of differentiated pay, which could reward teachers based on classroom performance, leadership positions or working at high-needs schools.

Last year, Metro Nashville Public Schools unveiled its own performance-based pay plan, but tabled the idea after teachers balked. Director of Schools Jesse Register said the district may revisit the proposal as evaluations are refined.

In Memphis on Monday, district leaders increased the maximum amount a teacher can make under the new plan from $70,000 to $73,000 after discussions with union leaders. District leaders also went on the offensive, releasing “fact sheets” noting that more than 73 percent of the district’s teachers earn a 4 or 5 on the TEM scale.

At Tuesday night’s meeting, Hopson attempted to squash rumors that the district might adjust evaluation scores to save money, while board chairwoman Teresa Jones called for transparency from the district and improved performance from teachers.

“We need to do work to have an evaluation that teachers have confidence in and don’t feel like it’s not a ‘gotcha’ moment or is too subjective,” Jones said. “We need to work those issues out and I hope we do, but equally … we can’t ask for more money and better pay and not have the test scores reflect that.”

Two teachers spoke in favor of performance-based pay, which they said works for traditional corporations and can work for schools as well.

Researchers say that boosting student test scores is a complex task that depends on numerous factors from teaching strategies to child preparation to the time of day a test is administered. A recently published study by Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development showed that incentive pay at schools in Austin, Texas, resulted in higher test scores the first year because of more clearly defined institutional goals but it’s too soon to tell if the model will retain high-performing teachers.

Since at least 1921, teachers across the nation have been paid mostly based on seniority and degree attainment. But research has not always supported this approach either.

Tennessee began experimenting with incentive pay in 1984, giving teachers $3,000 bonuses based on years of experience, portfolios, classroom observations and test scores. Lawmakers eventually scrapped the plan but revived the approach in 2007 along with several districts in response to federal and local grants worth millions of dollars.

In 2013, Shelby County Schools stopped rewarding bonuses for additional degrees, significantly draining the pipeline of students seeking graduate degrees in education from the University of Memphis.

Contact Daarel Burnette II at or 901-260-3705.

Follow us on Twitter: @Daarel, @chalkbeattn.

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