Teachers in Tennessee will be granted fewer automatic salary increases, a move that education association head Gera Summerford says will strike at the very heart of the school system.
Teachers were originally entitled to 21 minimum pay levels (increasing from their first to their twentieth year of teaching), across five levels of education (from bachelor’s to doctorate). The new plan, approved by Tennessee lawmakers earlier this month, reduces the 21 minimum pay levels to four, and only compensates for two levels of education (bachelor’s and anything beyond that). Summerford claims this move sends the wrong message to students. She writes in The Tennessean:
When determining salary, why would the state disregard the experience and education level of the people who teach our children? In fact, how can we have strong school systems if we don’t demonstrate by our policies that we value education? I fear that this devaluation of experience and education will create constant turnover among teachers in a school. Such instability is never healthy for our students, our schools or our communities.
Apparently lifetime employment and steady raises, regardless of merit, is what Summerford thinks “valuing education” is all about.
The reality is that Tennessee public schools are failing. The state consistently ranks near the bottom in student proficiency in math and reading. Proponents of the pay scale bill claim that it will boost administrative independence across the state, allowing districts to offer merit pay and hiring bonuses for teachers in difficult-to-fill subjects like science and math.
Regardless of whether or not this claim turns out to be true, moving away from a system that offers consistently higher rewards despite poor results is a step in the right direction.
Summerford is undoubtedly sincere in her advocacy, and within her frame of reference what she is saying is obviously true. But the system she wants to defend no longer meets the needs of young people. A school system that offered steady and predictable raises to teachers as they proceeded up a secure and well marked career path was preparing students to go out and do likewise. Students were smoothly promoted from grade to grade, and given small predictable tasks to do in exchange for small and predictable awards.
That’s life in a blue model world, in which schools prepare students to work on factory floors or in large corporate bureaucracies.
But the kids in Tennessee schools today aren’t, most of them, headed for that kind of life. Those jobs are disappearing, and the institutions that once offered them are either being restructured or disassembled. The next generation of Tennessee teachers have to be flexible, entrepreneurial and used to a different kind of career structure precisely because they need to model a new and more effective style of adult life than the current blue model lockstep.
We feel for Ms Summerford and her members. Change is hard, and many people who are in the teaching field today chose it in part because it was a stable, rule-governed way to make a living. It’s frightening and frustrating to watch something you counted on begin to break up.
But change must come. Ms Summerford and her colleagues need to think more about how they can help Tennessee teachers thrive in a changing environment than about how much they hate change. It won’t be easy and not all the changes will work well, especially at first. But showing their students how adults adjust and change is one of the most important lessons teachers in Tennessee or anywhere else can teach.
We wish them well.
[Classroom image courtesy of Shutterstock]