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Tenn. May Drop Part of Career-Ladder System

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Tennessee education officials are proposing that part of the incentive package included in the state's pioneering career-ladder system be deleted because it results in an inequitable distribution of state resources.

Charles E. Smith, the state commissioner of education, said late last month that he will ask lawmakers to separate from the program the state's "extended contract" allocation.

Under the current system, teachers on the top two levels of the career ladder receive bonus pay and the opportunity to extend their work year--by one month for teachers at career level II, and by two months for those at career level III, the top rung of the ladder.

The state pays the teachers $2,000 for each extra month they work.

The concern, according to Mr. Smith, is that wealthier districts tend to have higher percentages of career-level II and III teachers than poorer systems do, and often end up receiving more state aid per student.

For example, the Oak Ridge school system--with an average per capita income of $12,062--received roughly $180,000 in extended-contract money from the state during fiscal 1986-87. That amounted to approximately $41 per student, ac4cording to state statistics.

In contrast, the Scott County school district--with an average per capita income of $6,421--received only $6,000 in extended-contract money that year, or roughly $2 per student.

"The process for allocating these funds provides greater support for districts that are relatively well-off fiscally and academically," said Mr. Smith, "while school districts at the other end of the spectrum receive less support to meet the needs of their children."

Deletion of the extended-contract incentive and several other proposed changes echo recommendations included in a study of the career-ladder program requested last year by the state Senate.

That study included an extensive review of performance-based pay efforts in Tennessee and other states; a survey of some 1,100 teachers and 370 administrators in Tennessee; and interviews with 600 teachers and 100 administrators at the school site.

Last month, the team submitted its report, which contains a number of recommendations for improving the career-ladder program, to Mr. Smith.

"The commissioner has accepted them in total," said Jerry Bellon, professor of curriculum and instruction at the University of Tennessee and director of the study.

In a recent interview, Mr. Bellon said current inequities resulting from the extended-contract provision could get worse over time.

The study found, he said, that a number of district administrators are aggressively recruiting career-level II and III teachers because "they bring extended-contract money into the district."

Affluent districts have an advantage, he said, since they can usually afford to pay higher salaries. "So a wealthier district could recruitthese teachers from the less wealthy districts," Mr. Bellon said.

In general, he noted, educators in the state believe the activities supported by the supplements are "beneficial," but that they are "too often driven by teacher and school needs rather than by students' needs."

To more equitably distribute the money and ensure that it is being targeted to student needs, Mr. Smith favors removing the extended-contract program from the career ladder beginning July 1, but not eliminating it.

Under his plan, districts would be able to apply for the money based on the needs of students, and use the funds to offer 11- and 12-month contracts to teachers not on the career ladder. Career-level II and III teachers, however, would be given the first opportunity to participate.

The commissioner also favors an "alternative incentive program" that would supplement the career ladder by providing grants to address high-priority program and staffing needs.

In 1984, Tennessee became the first state to approve a statewide career ladder for teachers. The plan has been controversial, however, since former Gov. Lamar Alexander proposed it and made it the centerpiece of his education-reform efforts.

The state affiliate of the National Education Association has strongly opposed the program and would still like to see it repealed.

But despite the union's opposition, more than 90 percent of the teachers eligible signed up for the program in its first year.

As of last month, roughly 80 percent of Tennessee's 49,125 teachers and administrators were participating. More than 6,000 were on the upper two levels.

Of the state's 43,000 teachers, 37,000 are participating, and 5,140 are on the top two levels.

"In general," Mr. Bellon said of his study, "we found that teachers don't feel that there is an urgent need to repeal the program, but they felt that more aspects of it were detrimental than beneficial."

They were most critical of the evaluation system, he said. Teachers are evaulated by the district during their first four years--during which they are ineligible for the extra pay--but evaluations for the upper two rungs of the ladder are performed by the state.

Teachers surveyed and interviewed generally believe the system involves too much paperwork, takes away4from classroom time, and provides inadequate "feedback," Mr. Bellon said.

Mr. Smith said he will recommend involving local administrators in the evaluation process, reducing the time for conducting state evaluations, and providing teachers with more timely assessments of their performance.

Legislation that would change the extended-contract provisions of the career ladder has already been submitted to the legislature, a spokesman for Mr. Smith said last week.

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