Teacher votes

Memphis teacher groups want annual pay raises and more say in how they teach their students

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Keith Williams (left) and Tikeila Rucker lead the teacher associations representing licensed educators in Shelby County Schools.

Memphis teachers will soon have the opportunity to change compensation, work hours, health benefits, and how they teach if they vote to negotiate a new agreement with Shelby County Schools.

The district’s two organizations, which represent teachers and other licensed educators, say their priorities are restoring automatic pay increases and higher pay for educators with advanced degrees, and giving more flexibility to teachers in the classroom.

United Education Association and Memphis-Shelby County Education Association have been talking with district leaders about making these changes, but amending the employee agreement with the district — through a process known as “collaborative conferencing” in Tennessee law — would ensure the changes will take place with a written agreement.

The United Education Association plans to hold a teacher rally to talk about the process from 4:30 to 6 Tuesday evening at the district’s central office. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson is scheduled to be the guest speaker.

Collaborative conferencing replaced union bargaining rights in a 2011 law. The law tossed the requirement that districts and organizations representing employees have to reach an agreement. If there’s an impasse, the school board gets the final word.

The law also narrowed the topics that could be discussed between teacher organizations and the school district. Their agreements cannot address teacher evaluations, district decisions on bonuses and raises based on teacher performance, or requiring districts to base personnel decisions on tenure or seniority.

If educators vote to negotiate, it will be the first negotiation for the Memphis school district since 2015, and the first since the city’s teacher group split into two. Last year, the groups tried to get enough votes for talks, but fell short by about 10 percent. (The current agreement is still in effect.)


Related: Why the Janus Supreme Court case won’t have much impact in Tennessee


Garnering enough support to start talks requires two steps.

First, 15 percent of employees are required by state law to sign a petition requesting a district-wide vote on whether teacher representatives should negotiate a new agreement, also known as a memorandum of understanding. The two teacher organizations, which collectively represent about 4,500 members, have gathered at least 2,600 signatures, well above the number needed.

Next, half of the district’s licensed educators must vote by email to start negotiations. Educators will also be asked in early November to choose which organization will represent them at the negotiating table. The organizations will have a percentage of seats on a committee based on which organization educators voted for.

The resulting agreement would not be sent back for a vote from teachers, but Tikeila Rucker, the president of the United Education Association, said her organization plans to conduct surveys throughout the process “that ensures us that we really have teacher input.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on in March.

Hopson has tried for several years to switch teacher pay to a merit system based on evaluation scores that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises. But Hopson did not want to base those decisions on a state test that has experienced a multitude of problems. So, for the last three years, all educators have received 3 percent raises.

Keith Williams, the executive director of Memphis-Shelby County Education Association, said the district should combine merit pay and annual increases in base pay.

“I think we should do step and merit pay,” he said. “I think there’s a lot of issues to work out for teacher compensation, including advanced degree pay and people who are nationally board certified.”

Hopson also has brought back some pay for advanced degrees. But only teachers with high evaluation scores are eligible.


Related: The salary slide: as other professionals see growth, teachers’ pay stagnates, new report finds


Rucker said she also wants to push for more flexibility in how teachers use the district’s new curriculum, which more closely aligns with Tennessee’s new requirements for what students should learn.

“Teachers are mandated to teach based on district-selected curriculum and it’s kind of like a script,” Rucker said. “That takes away from a lot of the creativity for teachers to reach their students for academic success.”

Hopson did allow some flexibility based on feedback from Rucker’s organization, but said teachers had to earn that autonomy based on their evaluation scores.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.