U.S. Education Secretary Praises Tennessee’s Reform Efforts

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did everything Wednesday but come out and say Tennessee will get the waiver it seeks from the No Child Left Behind law, and he had glowing things to say about the state’s education reform efforts.

“I just love what I see here,” Duncan said. “What I see here is courageous leadership at the top.

“I see a governor who is walking the walk. I see he is building a fantastic leadership team. I think he’s uniting the state behind this effort.”

Duncan appeared with Gov. Bill Haslam at a panel discussion at West End Middle School in Nashville and again at a roundtable discussion with rural educators and business leaders hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also in Nashville. Both men met with reporters following each event.

Tennessee, pointing to unreachable expectations in the federal No Child Left Behind law, has publicly sought a waiver from current demands in the law, and Duncan is revamping the system to accommodate waivers. The waiver framework, expected to help many states, is not expected to be finalized until September, but Duncan left little doubt at each stop Wednesday that Tennessee will get what it wants.

When Dr. James Jones, director of schools in Polk County, asked Haslam at the roundtable, “How do you think your request regarding No Child Left Behind has been received?” it was Duncan who gave the answer.

“Very well,” Duncan said, which drew laughter.

The secretary’s visit blended in with what has been a sustained momentum of attention to education changes in the state. Haslam readily acknowledged Wednesday he took the baton of education reform from the previous administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, who guided the state to its $501 million victory last year in the federal Race to the Top competition.

The state has enacted reforms that include raising standards to get a more accurate read on student progress and making for a more seamless transition from community colleges to four-year schools in higher education. The state is implementing a new teacher evaluation process, based largely on student performance, and has opened the door for more charter schools. The reform movement sprang from a special session of the Legislature in 2010, a key effort in the Race to the Top victory, but continued this year with controversial changes in teacher tenure and in the collective bargaining status of the teachers’ union.

When a question was raised at the panel discussion about the role of the teachers union, Duncan said teachers should be at the table.

“We cannot have a great education system in Tennessee or anyplace else if we don’t have everyone at the table working hard on this, whether it’s unions, whether it’s the business community, the philanthropic community, this has to be a statewide effort — parents, teachers, everyone at the table,” Duncan said. “I think the voice of teachers, the voice of unions, is critical to where we need to go.

“If we’re talking about long-term systemic change, I don’t see how you get there without having teachers at the table helping to shape that.”

Tennessee went to a “collaborative conferencing” system of teacher negotiations this year that legislators say will give all teachers equal access and not be dominated by the state’s large teachers union.

Duncan has seen the state’s efforts across two administrations. It was Duncan who announced the big victory for Bredesen and his team in the first round of Race to the Top. But he commended Tennessee’s leadership at every turn on Wednesday.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the collective commitment to transforming education than here in Tennessee,” Duncan told the audience at West End Middle School. “The investments we made in Race to the Top and other things, those are not gifts. Those are investments.”

But Duncan warned about how far the state has to go to improve. He noted that the state has about 16,000 fewer 12th graders than 9th graders, a sign of a high school drop-out rate and a reminder that the state needs a well-educated workforce if it is to compete for jobs and boost its economy.

“My challenge to you, and my hope is, that Tennessee can be the fastest improving state in the country,” Duncan said. “There are lots of reasons why that’s possible. It might not be the highest performing state, but it can be the fastest improving state.”

Haslam pointed to the need to maintain recent efforts.

“I’m the beneficiary of a lot of work done by people before I came to office,” Haslam said. “I fully intend not just to keep that momentum going but to pick up the pace.”

Duncan would not say outright that Tennessee will get its waiver, but he told reporters, “I have every reason to be hopeful about Tennessee’s submission.”

Duncan called the No Child Left Behind law, enacted under President George W. Bush, “very, very punitive.” A national trend has developed where states are saying the expectations have become so unrealistic that changes must be made, and Congress has been slow to revamp the statute.

Duncan recently said teachers should be paid $60,000-$150,000 a year. Haslam and Duncan talked about that concept in the car as they made their way from West End Middle School to the SCORE headquarters at the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center several blocks away.

The governor, facing heavy budgetary issues like all governors, didn’t dismiss the item and used it as a way to say the system may need fundamental changes.

“The issue is how do we attract the best and brightest to teach,” Haslam said. “While most teachers say pay is not the most significant factor in deciding whether to teach or not, let’s don’t kid ourselves. Obviously, how we get compensated impacts how attracted we are to a profession.

“I have no clue in our current budget situation how we do that. But I think it probably involves a fundamental restructuring, everything from looking at class size to how long we go to school. My guess is that 20 years from now the equation of how we do education will look very different.”

Duncan also mentioned the concept of public boarding schools as a possibility, saying he saw one in Washington D.C. a few years ago.

“What works for the wealthy probably works for poor folks as well,” he said. “We’ve had private boarding schools in this country. The elite, who can afford it, their children seem to do pretty well, and it’s just something to think about.

“If we’re serious about ending cycles of poverty and social failure, I think our school days have to be a lot longer — 10, 12, 14-hour days. Maybe some children you need 24/7.”

The roundtable discussion at SCORE focusing on challenges facing rural schools followed a rural summit by SCORE a few weeks ago. SCORE is the reform group formed by Dr. Bill Frist, the former U.S. Senate majority leader. Frist was not at Wednesday’s event. He is abroad in Somalia, where there is a famine.

SCORE’s president, Jamie Woodson, appeared on the panel at West End Middle School, with state Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, superintendent Chris Barbic of the state’s Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest performing schools, and Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford.

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