If Mayor Dean and Jesse Register want performance-pay reform in Metro schools, they'll have to sway the MNEA 

It's an October afternoon and Erick Huth is ducking out of the Metro Courthouse, unimpressed. Fresh from the mayor's office, he's just sat through a three-hour confab, the first meeting of a new committee that's been billed as key to the future success of Metro schools. Co-chaired by Mayor Karl Dean and schools director Jesse Register, the group is charged with developing a new teacher pay initiative. As president of the local teachers' union, Huth is a lone wolf among the administration and school officials who comprise the committee.

As he leaves the meeting, he feels unwanted—but not because of anything said during the inceptive discussion.

"I didn't feel like my presence was truly one that was wanted because of the process that was used to get me to the meeting," Huth tells the Scene.

When the time and place for the meeting were originally announced, Huth already had a conflicting engagement on his calendar. As such, he told the mayor's office he couldn't make it, but the news didn't exactly send the scheduler scrambling. Huth had to cancel his other meeting, and he wasn't happy about it.

"I didn't feel like that was something that really valued my time as an individual. Then again, I am a teachers' representative, and I'm probably not as important as the rest of the people on the committee," Huth says sarcastically.

Dean and Register might want to take greater pains to make the prickly head of the local teachers' union feel important. Especially since the pair are tag-teaming significant teacher pay reform—an issue that's been dogged by controversy and intractable opposition for years.

No small amount of political capital is tied to the issue. Dean has made the push for innovative pay a crown jewel in his education platform, and Register's reputation rests heavily on his previous success implementing new methods of teacher evaluation in Hamilton County. But both men also know a successful perception of reform depends largely on whether Huth has a seat at the table. Without the support of Huth's organization—the Metropolitan Nashville Education Association—reform could come off as unilateral and forced.

"[Pay reform is] not just something you can do by decree," Dean explains. "It's something you've got to work through and have discussions about and make sure everyone buys in and feels they're being treated fairly. That would be my goal."

In short, there's no denying the realpolitik hanging over any reform effort: Whatever proposal the executive committee cooks up is ultimately dependent on the union's stance. If Dean and Register really want teachers to buy in, the pair will have to play nice with the obdurate union head who's had little love for pay reform initiatives in the past.

That means Huth, despite his thin skin for scheduling conflicts, is a very important player in the current process.

It's hard to gauge whether he sees himself as a pivotal member of the eight-person steering committee. He's openly cynical about the process and is equally suspicious about the mayor's motives.

"We need to make sure that whatever is implemented is sustainable and it's not just something we're doing for column inches in the newspaper," Huth says. "[The current effort] feels much like some earlier attempts at imposing performance pay on teachers in Nashville, like it's more about politics than substance."

Huth's rhetoric can easily make him sound unyieldingly opposed to alternative pay proposals. But he insists that's not the case—that the MNEA is open to innovative techniques, and that he's heartened by the steering committee's first conversation. That said, Huth has serious concerns about Dean and Register's pay reform ideas, particularly in terms of how to measure teacher effectiveness.

"Our position is that whatever performance pay we have, it needs to be something that is simple enough for teachers to understand and that actually awards individuals for something that is measurable," Huth says.

Dean and Register both frame the need for alternative pay platforms in terms of teacher recruitment and retention. To attract the teachers needed for systemic change, Metro schools need to show the top talent they're willing to reward results.

"Since we're an urban and large school system, our job at recruiting and keeping the very best teachers is a bit harder," Register says. "We want all the help we can get to recruit the very best teachers, and looking at alternative pay structures is one way to do that."

Alternative pay initiatives can take a number of different shapes. In Nashville, most of the reform talk focuses on two models: paying teachers more to work in hard-to-staff schools or subjects; and pay for performance.

Metro's current alternative incentives fall into the former category. After a 2007 state Department of Education report showed highly effective teachers were less likely to staff poorly performing schools—which Dean characterizes as "totally backwards"—there was a statewide push to reward experienced teachers willing to transfer to struggling locations. Metro recently initiated such a program, which gives teachers pay incentives to work at five schools in the Pearl-Cohn cluster.

Dean says he would like to see more measures to ensure good teachers are getting to the schools that need them most.

"You don't want all new teachers in one school and all experienced teachers in another. You want balance," he says. "New teachers bring in a lot of energy and a lot of idealism, and that's great. But you also want to benefit from the real experience of teachers who have a history of creating student achievement."

But even if implemented across the system, such incentives wouldn't affect or motivate teachers across the board. That's why Dean and Register say they'd also like to see pay-for-performance programs to offer teacher bonuses based on classroom effectiveness. Such a pay-system reorganization could mean a radical shift in teacher salaries, which is why the MNEA is circumspect.

Huth says these pay structures rely too much on quantitative measurements that don't accurately reflect teacher performance. For example, he says many proposals base effectiveness on standardized test scores. But if teachers know the size of their paycheck depends on how students do on certain tests, they might focus a disproportionate amount of time on preparation—or, in extreme cases, even be driven to help students cheat.

"An overreliance on test scores has a tendency to narrow the curriculum, to drill creativity and critical thinking out of the curriculum and force teachers to teach to the test," he says.

Instead of programs anchored on quantitative measurements, Huth says his organization could back performance incentives measured by more qualitative means, such as having trained observers monitor teachers in the classroom to evaluate effectiveness.

Dean and Register appear to be willing to work through MNEA's concerns over evaluation. The mayor says he'd like to see a blend of both observation and data analysis, including a consideration of value-added scores. Register echoes a balanced approach but also says the state's data system is a good foundation for evaluation.

"I think alternative pay structures ought to be based on student achievement primarily, but other measures too," the director says.

As the mayor emphasizes, the process of piecing together the right pay reform package in Nashville is still in the early innings. Moving ahead, the group will have to navigate the issues and balance the desires for innovation with the union's interests.

Ultimately, though, the issue that could torpedo reform isn't the shape of the proposal but the timing. Dean has stressed that the committee should have a sense of urgency, and that he'd like to see a plan by mid-March.

Huth, meanwhile, wants to slow it down.

"I guess I just don't feel the urgency," he admits. "If the goal is really to make a difference, then I don't think rushing is ideal."

If the teachers' union drags its feet, it's not clear whether Dean will take the political risk and roll out a proposal regardless. While he's said courting the union is a pivotal part of reform, he also says a policy needs to be implemented posthaste.

"I think when you enter into a discussion in good faith with the union about looking at ways to change compensation, I think you have to look for their buy-in," he says. "But my ultimate goal is to make the school system better, and that's what's going to dictate what my position is going to be."

Email editor@nashvillescene.com.

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