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A Look At Tennessee School Reform With PM-Southern Schools II

March 17, 1986

NASHVILLE, Tenn. (AP) _ Tennessee’s ambitious school reform helped the state land a futuristic car plant and thousands of new jobs. But it also brought mountains of paperwork, leaving educators sputtering even as they pocket pay raises.

″Many of us feel the state has created a monster,″ said Carl Buckner, superintendent of schools in Rutherford County. ″We’re on the verge of an uprising among the natives in the classroom right now.″

His counterpart in Maury County, Billy Hobbs, said the Better Schools Program ″is bogged down in paperwork. Teachers are filling out forms when they should be instructing children.″

Tennessee is pumping $1 billion into its schools over three years to buy computers, emphasize basic skills, expand math and science requirements and open summer schools for the gifted.

But the centerpiece of reforms that began in 1984 is a variant of merit pay called the career ladder that gives teachers who demonstrate outstanding performance the chance to earn up to $7,000 extra annually.

Tennessee has become a national laboratory for career ladders, which almost half the states are considering or trying on a smaller scale. But like any pathbreaker, Tennessee is encountering obstacles.

The Tennessee Education Association is sharply critical of the program. The union’s board says it is waiting until next year, after Alexander leaves office, to decide whether to press for repeal or major changes.

Alexander says the complaints about ″the rigmarole and paperwork″ are valid. Since last fall, he and State Commissioner of Education Robert L. McElrath claim to have reduced much of the busywork with the help of union leaders and the state board of education.

As for the career ladder, the governor said, ″It’s new, it’s difficult, it’s not popular - but it’s getting results.″

Ninety percent of Tennessee’s 45,000 educators signed up for the career ladder, induced by $1,000 bonuses they could obtain simply by taking in- service training, passing tests or letting their principal evaluate them. The state also sweetened the pot with a 20 percent pay increase over three years for all teachers.

Buckner, the Rutherford County superintendent, said the career ladder was not really ″better pay for better performance. It’s better pay for more performance.″ To get the maximum $7,000, a teacher must work July and August.

Teachers on the middle and top rungs of the three-step career ladder also must submit to three evaluations by outsiders, including two unannounced visits. About 7,000 teachers applied for the top rungs last year, 3,200 were evaluated and 1,300 made it - 3 percent of all Tennessee teachers.

Caywood Elementary School in rural Lexington has the state’s largest concentration of teachers at the top of the ladder - five out of 38.

Dr. Billy Belew, who gave up dentistry and runs Caywood with one assistant, said, ″Our folks jumped in there and said, ’This is an opportunity that hasn’t been afforded education in Tennessee. Let’s give it a shot.‴

Diane Mackey, 33, a fourth-grade teacher at David Youree School in Smyrna, Tenn., is surprised at her colleagues’ antipathy as she tries for Level II this spring.

″I can’t afford to pass up the opportunity,″ said Mackey, a sole breadwinner raising a teen-age son on a $21,000 salary, plus what she makes moonlighting as a tax-return preparer and tutor.

They ″understand why I’m doing it, but the moral support is not there,″ she said. ″The feeling is, ’If we didn’t bother with it, it would go away.‴

Nelson C. Andrews, a Nashville developer and chairman of the state board of education, said career ladders were no panacea but predicted, ″Five years from now, when we get this polished, you wouldn’t be able to take it away from them.″

Susan Gendrich, an award-winning teacher of English as a second language at Bradley Elementary School in Murfreesboro, said, ″The reform movement was needed.

″It’s a lot like having an organ transplant,″ said Gendrich, Tennessee’s 1985 teacher-of-the-year. ″When you cut deeply and broadly into an ongoing living system ... just living through the operation is difficult.″

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