The Kingsport city school system, a close-knit community tucked away in the northeastern corner of Tennessee, was one of more than a dozen districts across the state to overhaul its compensation system as a result of promises Tennessee made in its application for federal Race to the Top money.
Hyper-aware of how controversial restructuring compensation models can be, Superintendent Lyle Ailshie made his first priority ensuring that the process evolved from the bottom up, driven by the teachers instead of from the district’s central office.
To accomplish that, he assembled a diverse task force of teachers who represented a variety of grades and subjects, including non-tested subjects, such as art. The group included teachers of various ages who were at different points in their careers, as well as those with different certification backgrounds and a range of opinions about teacher compensation.
“We want to be sure we didn’t stack the deck with those we thought would be for it on the front end,” said Mr. Ailshie. “That’s not how you make a good plan. We wanted to be sure we had every base covered on the front end so we had no particular group of teachers who felt like their voice wasn’t being heard.”
He also knew that the 7,000-student district and the state didn’t have enough expertise to facilitate the process, so he hired Emily Douglas, a consultant for Battelle for Kids, an education nonprofit based in Columbus, Ohio, to aid them through the restructuring.
Battelle helps districts solve a variety of policy challenges, including compensation, evaluation, and training for the Common Core State Standards. Ms. Douglas has worked with more than 150 school districts across the country, ranging from communities with fewer than 500 students to the Houston Independent School District, with more than 200,000.
She was impressed with Mr. Ailshie’s commitment to a teacher-driven process. In the past, she said, superintendents have told her exactly what they expected a new compensation system to look like by the time she finished working with a group of teachers.
“From the beginning, Lyle said, ‘I just want to make sure people are really involved in this and it’s not just a smoke-and-mirrors game,’ ” said Ms. Douglas, who also writes an opinion blog for the Education Week website. “When I look at people who have done it incorrectly, for example, it’s always not involving teachers. That’s a failure point.”
Ms. Douglas began the process in Kingsport, as she does with every group, by educating the task force about the multitude of data available on compensation models. Next, she asked the teachers to define what motivates them and how they would like to be rewarded, something she said education officials often forget.
“No matter how good your compensation system is, if the rewards don’t match what your staff wants, it’s not going to work,” she said.
From there, the teachers debated their options over the course of seven meetings spaced across seven months until the group agreed on a new rubric.
Kingsport plans to implement Phase 1 of its new compensation system, which is based on the state’s value-added teacher-evaluation system, this upcoming school year. Teachers who score a 5 (on a 1-to-5 scale) will receive a higher increase in base pay than those who score a 4, and those who score a 4 will receive a higher increase than those who score a 3. Teachers who score a 1 or a 2 will not get a raise.
Some teachers benefit from the system more than others, however. An example is Andy Irving, a high school English teacher at Cora Cox Academy, an alternative public school for students with learning disabilities. Because Tennessee’s teacher-evaluation system takes into account student test scores, and because Mr. Irving’s students don’t test as well as students in regular schools, it’s difficult for him to score higher than a 3, which in turn will affect his salary.
Mr. Irving hails from a family of educators who have been teaching in the Kingsport district for more than 30 years, and like other teachers on the task force, he was skeptical of changing the existing model: salaries based on seniority, and the ability to move up a pay schedule by earning advanced degrees. Mr. Irving has a master’s degree in education and is pursuing his doctorate in educational administration.
But data gathered from Kingsport’s teachers show that no correlation exists between degrees earned and increased effectiveness based on the state’s evaluation system. For that reason, the task force is working on final plans for Phase 2 of the compensation system, which will reward teachers who take on various leadership roles. It will likely be adopted in the 2015-16 school year, pending approval from the school board.
Mr. Irving said that when he first agreed to be on the committee, he thought that “something terrible was going to happen” and that it would be a “battle to pay people less.” But after the first meeting, he said, it was clear that was not the case.
“The smartest move was to involve teachers,” he said. “It was a comforting move and kind of countercultural. I didn’t expect that level of autonomy in the process—for the teachers to make all the calls.”
A version of this article appeared in the July 10, 2014 edition of Education Week as District’s Teachers Take Leading Role In Policy Overhaul