Teachers wary of Haslam’s push for increased pay

Friday, February 12, 2016, Vol. 40, No. 7

Pushing a budget with more than $100 million for K-12 teacher pay raises, Gov. Bill Haslam says Tennessee is taking education to new levels by raising standards, linking teacher evaluations to student performance and expanding education options.

“We’re showing historic progress, and we can’t back up,” Haslam said during his recent State of the State address.

He’s backed by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, who says, “This budget makes clear our commitment to education and Tennessee’s future.”

All told, the governor’s $34.8 billion spending plan contains $260 million in investments for K-12, including $104.6 million for teacher salaries, $89 million for Basic Education Program growth and formula enhancements and $45 million to pay for the 12 months of teacher insurance premiums.

Teachers are gracious in their response, while saying more must be done.

“The governor’s proposal to put $105 million into teacher salaries demonstrates his commitment to fulfilling his promise to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in teacher salaries. The key, however, is that safeguards need to be put into place to ensure this 4 percent ends up in teachers’ paychecks, unlike in previous years,” says Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association.

Over the past four years, average teachers have seen “only a fraction” of proposed increases because of state policy changes shifting the money from base salaries, she says.

The governor’s budget plan puts Tennessee “on the right path” to attracting and keeping strong teachers, Gray notes. But some educators qualify for food stamps, while facing insurance increases and the need to pay for classroom supplies out of their own pockets, Gray adds.

Chipping away

As the governor proposes a budget designed to give teachers a little financial boost, the past few years have not been kind to those who work to build children’s minds during their formative years, nor to public education.

Teachers felt they were under attack five years ago when legislators made a concerted effort to undermine TEA, teachers’ bargaining representative. Even this year, legislators voted for a bill prohibiting teachers from having TEA dues automatically deducted from paychecks.

Charter schools are becoming commonplace in Tennessee’s biggest cities, especially Nashville and Memphis, where the state’s Achievement School District runs 29 schools, either through charter operators or itself.

Voucher legislation is making it possible for public funds to follow low-income children from failing schools to private schools, even though public school administrators call it a financial boondoggle because a system’s operating costs remain the same but without the money attached to that child.

And, of course, teachers’ livelihoods are linked, in part, directly to scores students make on those dratted standardized tests – a point of contention likely to drag on for years.

Even teachers who don’t teach the courses tested by the state have part of their evaluation tied directly to test results.

“When you have a fallacy like that in a program, it makes sense to no one,” says Steve Cates, who is retired from teaching history at Murfreesboro’s Riverdale High School.

The fact administrations such as Haslam’s, led by former Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and now by Commissioner Candice McQueen, continue to use this system indicates “they don’t know what they’re doing,” Cates says.

“For instance, if I’m a librarian, a portion of my evaluation is based on students that I may never have met. The same is true if I’m teaching Latin or if I teach art or many other subjects,” Cates points out.

Classroom observation also is a big part of evaluations, another issue for some teachers.

When the Department of Education promotes such an evaluation system, it’s hard to take it seriously or believe it’s trying to do anything good for education, Cates says.

“It wouldn’t have made sense 50 years ago. It doesn’t make sense today,” he contends.

Cates says his father, who received a “classic education” during the Great Depression, used to say you could put a teacher on a stump, give him hard-working students and supportive parents and he could accomplish something.

Such a scenario isn’t possible these days, he says, because classroom requirements are regimented to the point each seventh-grade English teacher in a school must teach the same thing on the same day each year.

Teachers often don’t know what the passing grade will be when they give tests and, too often, don’t have time to go back over tests so students can begin to understand the answers they missed.

“You can’t take a student who made a failing grade and let him go down the hall for a few days in the afternoon and peck on a computer, and suddenly, he may have a higher grade than the kid that passed in the first place.

“You can’t assume that everyone will pass, because everyone won’t pass. And we’re teaching students you get something for nothing. No, you don’t.

“The backbone of our country has been a strong education system. And, frankly, now ours in Tennessee is not strong. And we’re all going to suffer because our students are not prepared for what’s going to happen,” Cates says.

Tested to death

Because of the importance placed on standardized tests in regard to “failing” schools and teacher evaluations, students spend weeks practicing for the test, getting the right conditions, taking the test, then retaking the test, he says.

In the race for accountability, students who don’t need months of work to pass the state’s standardized test see no advancement as the teacher works to make sure everyone can pass the test, Cates contends.

“So we’re in a terrible, terrible situation,” he says. And “lines have to be drawn in the sand” so students and parents know what is expected in regard to attendance and passing.

Then, administrators and those in the upper echelon need to agree things can’t change every year because of a new software product or trend, he says.

“People just don’t have any idea of the foolishness that’s happening,” Cates says.

Memphis view

When people, especially legislators, talk about the need for charter schools and vouchers, they point toward Memphis as the reason to use public money to send students to private schools.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey, for one, isn’t the slightest bit concerned vouchers could undermine public education.

“First of all, if public education is undermined, it should be undermined. If you’re a young African-American in Memphis who wants something better for her two little boys, yet every day she has to get up and send them to a failing school that’s on the failing list for a dozen years and has no other choice, that’s wrong. That’s just flat-out wrong,” he’s said previously.

With high poverty levels and numerous schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, Memphis clearly is the poster child for charter operators set up by the Achievement School District, as well as the potential for vouchers.

Of course, lost in much of the debate is the potential for breaking down the wall between church and state.

Will state government be able to tell religious schools whether they can require prayers if they accept students with vouchers? Can the state require these schools to follow a Tennessee curriculum?

How will children from high-poverty neighborhoods reach their new private school?

Will Shelby County Schools be required to provide buses or will they hop on public transit?

Will the state just make things up as it goes?

Whatever happens with regard to vouchers, the ASD and charter operators, state Sen. Lee Harris would like to see less upheaval in Tennessee classrooms.

“Some of what we do in the Legislature with respect to education is helpful. But most of it is probably not,” says Harris, a Memphis Democrat and Senate Minority Caucus leader.

“Every year we come to the Legislature and we file a whole bunch of bills related to education, and that process in and of itself creates a lot instability and unpredictability.

“In some ways, if the Legislature would just leave education alone for a few years, it would tend to create more predictability and more stability and then people would be able to plan and program a little bit better,” he says.

Harris recently visited White Station High School, the top high school in Memphis, and talked to students and teachers. During the tour, they told him repeatedly the number of days they dedicated to testing. Yet, he couldn’t comprehend it because it was “so astronomical,” literally dozens of days.

“And that’s the result of all this action in Nashville, all this churn. We’re just churning bills related to education, and we never allow educators a chance to find their footing and do what they’ve devoted their careers to doing, which is educating kids,” he says.

Tennessee’s legislators should stop “second-guessing” teachers and avoid spending energy on school issues where they have no expertise, Harris says.

It’s something to ponder. But it won’t happen. Just like the governor won’t reverse course on his education policies. Certainly, better pay offered by the Haslam administration will help. It’s the least the state can do for teachers after years of bashing them.

But Harris and Cates are right, too. Ultimately, teachers need to be given the opportunity to instill fundamentals in children so they can learn and advance. Without a foundation, students will struggle throughout life.

Sam Stockard can be reached at sstockard44@gmail.com.