Posts

Teachers Warming to In-Class Observations

Tennessee teachers view the state’s new evaluation procedure more favorably now than when implemented, a recent survey from Vanderbilt’s Peabody College suggests.

The study found teachers are more receptive to classroom evaluations when they see them as a tool for improving teaching, not as just a way to judge performance.

“Teachers who viewed the evaluation process as focused on teaching improvement tended to engage with the system to a far greater extent than teachers who saw the process as one aimed only at judging their performance,” said Nate Schwartz, director of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Office of Research and Policy.

The new evaluation system was implemented in 2010 after Tennessee was awarded more than $501 million from the federal government to reform its public education system. Among the reforms adopted as part of the grant were: adopting internationally benchmarked standards and assessments for students; building data systems that measure student success and inform teachers and principals how they can improve their practices; and turning around the lowest-performing schools.

The main reform that concerned teachers was a change to teacher tenure laws that ties student performance to classroom evaluations. Since the change to tenure laws, the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development has contracted with the TDOE’s Office of Research and Policy to study teacher opinion on the reforms.

And those opinions look to be changing, according to state education officials.

“Through multiple survey measures (First to the Top being one of them), we have seen that teachers in Tennessee feel that the evaluation system has been implemented with fidelity,” said Kelli Gauthier, communications director of the Tennessee Department of Education.

That faith has translated to a better perception of the state’s teacher evaluation system from both teachers and observers. The most recent study, which asked 26,000 teachers about the First to the Top reforms, suggests both teachers and observers like the teacher evaluation system better in 2013 than in previous years, but half of the teachers surveyed are still unconvinced of the evaluation’s overall value.

But when teachers do find value in the process, they respond more favorably to the current observation system. The value is found in feedback and instructions for improving teaching methods, rather than observers judging their classroom performance, according to the study.

Dan Lawson, the superintendent of Tullahoma City Schools, said most teachers welcome a chance to improve and hope teacher observations are part and parcel of improving learning, rather than quantifying teacher performance.

“Teaching is a complex process integrating relationship building, content knowledge, the craft of instructional delivery and the art of interacting with children. As much as some love the idea of quantifying everything, I fear that such a practice tends to diminish the complexity of my profession,” said Lawson, who has long been critical of Tennessee’s education reform initiatives.

Lawson said the evaluation process was developed as a way to improve teaching quality, but that observations are not “sufficient to identify a quality teacher.” He is also concerned the reforms encourage teaching to the test.

“Teachers may be led to better ‘scores’ on the rubric, but those scores may be negated by a single (student) test score. This challenge leads many to ask a pertinent, but in my mind misplaced question: ‘How do I get my kids to earn higher TCAP scores?’,” he said.

Regardless of how administrators and teachers feel about the evaluation process, Tennessee students have seen growth on state assessments.

“While we attribute that growth to a variety of things, we absolutely believe that Race to the Top initiatives, such as our teacher evaluation system and the extensive professional development we have given to teachers through the grant, played a part,” Gauthier said.

Tennessee has seen three years of growth on the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, Gauthier said. She cited more than 20,000 more students are performing at grade-level in math now than in 2010 and “nearly 52,000 additional students are at or above grade level in all science subjects, as compared to 2010.”

Add improving teacher attitudes toward the evaluation to growing TCAP scores and Tennessee’s education system is moving in the right direction, she said.

“Tennessee has been recognized nationally as a leader in improving public education, and in many ways, Race to the Top created the environment for us to accomplish this work, with broad support from a variety of stakeholders,” Gauthier said. “I believe that our results speak for themselves.”

$8M in Race to the Top Funds Granted to Local School Districts

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; August 14, 2013:

NASHVILLE— The Tennessee Department of Education announced today it will grant $8 million in state Race to the Top funds to districts that agree to implement specific initiatives that advance the core purpose of Tennessee’s First to the Top plan.

The money will be awarded to 83 districts that have chosen to participate in the First to the Top Scope of Work Supplemental Fund. These districts serve more than half of all students in the state.

In order to opt in to the First to the Top Supplemental Fund, districts chose to implement at least one innovative program or strategy in three categories: Teacher evaluation, implementation of the Common Core State Standards, and student assignment. These areas reflect priorities of the state’s original Race to the Top grant, and the districts’ selections will take effect during the 2013-14 and 2014-15 school years. For a complete list of district options and participating districts, please see the attached overview.

“We felt this Race to the Top money would best serve the students of Tennessee at the district level, and we’re excited to see so many districts take advantage of this opportunity,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “These funds will allow more resources to be spent on these critical areas across the state.”

Participating districts have chosen strategies like conducting the February writing assessments online in grades 3-11, using student surveys to count for 5 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score, and using two observers for at least one of a teacher’s mandatory observations.

Tennessee’s initial $501 million Race to the Top award divided the grant between districts and the state. The $8 million Scope of Work Supplemental Fund comes directly from the state’s Race to the Top portion.

The 2013-14 school year marks the last of the state’s four-year First to the Top grant. Additional information about the First to the Top program is available online here.

For more information, contact Kelli Gauthier at (615) 532-7817 or Kelli.Gauthier@tn.gov.

Details on the Supplemental Fund Overview and Participants can be found here.

State Announces New ‘Best Practices’ Sharing for Statewide Student Achievement

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; November 26, 2012:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Education announced today a new First to the Top initiative that enlists highly effective teachers from the state’s top schools to share best practices and help improve student achievement across the state.

The 15 teachers named to the Reward Schools Ambassador Program each come from 2012 Reward Schools– the top 10 percent of schools in Tennessee for performance and progress—and will work with neighboring schools in each region to improve student achievement and reduce achievement gaps.

“There are schools in Tennessee that have shown impressive growth and reached high levels of performance thanks to their effective approaches to instruction and training. We want to make sure that other schools can learn from what’s working for them,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “It’s in the best interest of Tennessee students that our schools and districts share this kind of information and knowledge. The department is doing more to facilitate opportunities to learn from each other.”

The teachers named Reward School Ambassadors are:

  • Trevor Collins, Washburn School, Grainger County Schools
  • Klaire Davis, Moore Elementary, Franklin Special School District
  • Frankie Harris, Rose Park Middle, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Pierre Jackson, Middle College High, Memphis City Schools
  • Kyle Loudermilk, Blountville Elementary, Sullivan County Schools
  • Hope Malone, Avoca Elementary, Bristol City Schools
  • Renae Martin, Meigs Middle, Meigs County Schools
  • Michelle Phipps, Alvin C. York Institute
  • Danielle Ringold, Kingsbury Middle, Memphis City Schools
  • Kelli Seymour, Southside Elementary, Johnson City Schools
  • Kristy Starks-Winn, Powell High School, Knox County Schools
  • Kathleen Turnmire, MLK Magnet, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Karri Weathers, Leoma Elementary, Lawrence County Schools
  • Karen Wight, Walnut Grove Elementary, Williamson County Schools
  • Edna Williams, Vollentine Elementary, Memphis City Schools

Reward School Ambassadors—all teachers who earned an overall “5,” the top score on Tennessee’s teacher evaluations—were nominated by their schools and selected for this year-long, paid position through a competitive application and interview process. Reward Schools whose nominees were selected into the ambassador cohort will also receive a $20,000 grant to further their educational programming.

“The goal of the ambassador program is to provide leadership opportunities for highly effective teachers and resources to winning Reward Schools so that they can take their already impressive achievements to new heights and serve as models of success for others across the state,” said Mike Koprowski, who oversees the program in the department’s data division. “Through the program, we aim to leverage the talent of our top teachers, spark the development of robust partnerships between schools, and spread best practices – all of which will help increase student achievement in Tennessee.”

Huffman Expects More Schools In State’s Achievement District

The state expects to add 10 or 12 schools next year to its specialized district aimed at helping schools that have fallen behind academically, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said during his department’s state budget hearing this week.

That would bring up to 18 schools operating under the umbrella of the Achievement School District, a state entity that has the power to take over failing schools. Like the schools already in the district, many of those additional schools will be in Memphis. Ten Memphis City schools, all in the bottom 5 percent of Tennessee schools in terms of achievement, were notified this week that they will be taken over by the district, the Commercial Appeal reported Wednesday.

Huffman said schools in the Achievement district are operating with longer days, teaching until 4:30 p.m., and using data more aggressively to drive instruction. Huffman discussed the progress so far.

“I think they feel positive about the direction that they’re going, but it’s hard work,” Huffman said. “And I think everybody who works for the (achievement district) understands the very long path they have to go, because their goal is not to have these schools simply be less bad. They want these schools to be good schools where people want to send their children.”

The district was approved by the Legislature in 2010 as part of the state’s successful efforts to win Race to the Top funding for education reform.

The state won $501 million in that contest sponsored by the Obama administration, and Haslam asked Huffman if education officials are planning for what happens after that money is spent. The deadline is in about 18 months, Huffman said.

“We know that we will have to figure out, there will be some ongoing costs that we’ll need to absorb and make room for those costs because it’s the right thing to do,” Huffman said of planning at the state level. Local districts will have to decide whether to continue funding positions like math coaches created under the Race to the Top initiatives.

“When the money runs out they either need to figure out that this is an ongoing priority that’s worth the investment and therefore they need to spend the money on it and not spend someplace else, or they need to transition out of it,” Huffman said.

Huffman has proposed a 2 percent increase in the state share of his department’s funding, from $4.1 billion in the current year to $4.2 billion in 2013-14, the Tennessean reported.

One of the factors driving that increase is a projected $45 million bump to spending for local schools, Huffman said, based on the state law that proscribes state funding for local schools based on inflation and enrollment.

More ‘Report Card’ Info Available from State Education Department

Press Release from the State of Tennessee, Dec 02, 2011:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Education today released complete results from the 2011 state Report Card. Today’s release includes district- and school-level data on a variety of indicators, from student achievement and growth on standardized tests, to attendance and behavior.

This is the department’s fourth major data release this year, following the summer release of statewide Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program and Adequate Yearly Progress results, as well as the recent list of Reward, Priority and Focus schools slated for state support under the state’s Elementary and Secondary Education Act Flexibility request.

This year’s data release timeline aligns with the department’s strategic plan to get as much information as possible to parents and families, to help them be active participants in their children’s education, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said.

“Data-driven education reform only works when numbers and information can be used to make informed, timely decisions,” Huffman said. “We look forward to continuing to get data and information to the public in the most useful format possible.”

Tennessee submitted its flexibility request — a waiver from certain portions of the No Child Left Behind Act — on Nov. 14. Part of the state’s application included a proposed new accountability model and governance structure for the state’s schools and districts. If the U.S. Department of Education approves the waiver, the current accountability would be replaced with the department’s proposal, which can be found at: http://tn.gov/education/doc/ESEA_Flexibility_Request.pdf.

To see results from the 2011 Tennessee Report Card, visit: http://edu.reportcard.state.tn.us/pls/apex/f?p=200:1:7867592151504984.

Higher Spending Requested for Higher Ed

Tennessee higher education officials, sensing the wind in the back of the state’s education reform efforts, boldly made their request to Gov. Bill Haslam Tuesday for a budget increase of $28.7 million.

Haslam has asked all state agencies to submit a contingency plan for 5 percent reductions, and the state’s higher education schools complied with an outline that would trim $55.1 million from their books.

But leaders of the state’s public colleges and universities seized upon the initiatives from K-12 education and higher education like the Complete College Act as a means of persuasion with the governor. The $28.7 million request represents a 2.7 percent increase in funds.

“This is an interesting time,” Richard G. Rhoda, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told Haslam during a budget hearing. “We have a new way of looking at it.

“The state has higher education serving the needs of the state. We have a new master plan. We have a new funding formula that reinforces that master plan based on outcomes. We’re seeing positive movement.”

Rhoda said there are indicators of more students completing degrees, better retention rates and improvements in the amount of remedial and developmental courses that have been falling to higher education. But even as a higher ed official, Rhoda pointed to the significance of what the state is doing in K-12 as the foundation for improvements in higher education.

“The reforms in higher education are great, but the bigger context is how it fits the other reforms in K-12,” Rhoda said. “For us to succeed really is predicated on those improvements in K-12. Just suffice it to say we very much support those.”

Rhoda sat between Tennessee Board of Regents Chancellor John Morgan and University of Tennessee President Joe DiPietro at the hearing at the Capitol in Nashville. All three seemed keenly aware of the daunting financial obstacles facing students and families in affording college. THEC approved its budget request last week, but it came along with proposed increases in tuition that would range from 3-10 percent depending on the schools in the state’s higher education system.

Morgan made a pitch similar to Rhoda’s.

“The combination of Race to the Top, the Complete College Act, the talk is right,” Morgan said.

“There’s a tremendous amount of energy out there and discussion going on and realization that it really is about the state’s future.”

The education officials knew they were preaching to the choir in Haslam, who has made the ties between education and job growth a major theme in his first year in office. But it didn’t make the governor’s job any easier in funding education requests. Haslam cut the budget for higher education in his first year in office by 2 percent, or $20 million.

But the three educators brought even more ammunition to the table. DiPietro pointed to efforts to operate more efficiently in universities. Morgan said the costs at schools actually haven’t gone up at the pace of what students are experiencing in paying tuition.

Rhoda broke down funding trends for Haslam. He told the governor that 10 years ago a university’s funding came roughly 60 percent from the state and 40 percent from the students, while community colleges received about 70 percent from the state at that time.

Now, the figures have been reversed, Rhoda said. The state provides about 36 percent while student tuition and fees cover 53 percent. Rhoda, like Morgan, said cost itself is not increasing for the schools. The change, he said, is in the mix of revenue, where students are having to pay more for their share.

Haslam told reporters after the hearing that he believes there will have to be some tuition increase but that he hopes to limit it. He said he didn’t anticipate being able to grant the colleges a $28.7 million increase but that he didn’t believe he would have to hold them to a 5 percent decrease either. Haslam also pointed to capital needs at colleges and universities.

Haslam said the recent improvements in revenue figures could help the state address a $360 million budget gap.

“I’m really, really hopeful we don’t have to go 5 percent,” Haslam said. “Some of those cuts are tough.

“I feel a little better now than I did three weeks ago, but I can’t sit here today and tell you it will be 3 percent or 1 percent, instead of 5. I just don’t know that yet.”

The state reported that revenue collections for October were $791 million, 8 percent above October in 2010.

Haslam Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Gov. Bill Haslam again Monday defended the use of the state’s new teacher evaluation system and reminded everyone that the whole idea didn’t start with his administration.

Haslam made the point during a press availability on Capitol Hill after a ceremony for veterans. He told the Rotary Club of Nashville later Monday that change is “painful,” and he said after the speech he was making a particular reference to the evaluations with that remark.

Haslam also said Monday he will not state a position on school vouchers until later this year, although he told the Rotary audience the voucher issue is “probably going to be one of the most contentious” when the Legislature reconvenes in January.

The issue of teacher evaluations has been on the front burner in the Legislature with lengthy hearings on the process last week. The system has prompted many complaints among teachers and principals. The Haslam administration has basically stayed the course on the system, which is in its first year, even though Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman gained approval to tweak the system with some changes meant to make evaluations less time-consuming.

Tennessee’s success in the Obama administration’s “Race to the Top” competition included a plan to evaluate teachers every year. Tenured teachers will be evaluated with four observations, and those without tenure will be evaluated six times. Haslam pointed out that the process goes back to the application for the federal funds won by the administration of his predecessor, Phil Bredesen.

“Remember how we got here. This was part of the Race to the Top application,” Haslam said. “Everybody agreed evaluations were really at the heart of that. The evaluation process was a work in progress for a year before this.

“It spanned administrations.”

He said it’s still early.

“This is November. We started it in September. It’s not like we have a really long track record,” Haslam said. “It takes a little bit of adjusting to get used to the evaluation. The first evaluation, because it is the one with lesson plans, does have the most paperwork involved in it. When we get past that, the evaluations after that will look a little different.”

Legislators are hearing from their constituents about the impact the evaluation system is having on schools.

“I understand. Before, if you got evaluated twice every 10 years and now you’re looking at this new process, that’s not something necessarily, ‘Oh boy, I’m really excited about that,'” Haslam said.

“But I do think, again, back to what’s at the heart of the change we need, why we won Race to the Top, was this idea of making certain we’re doing everything we can to encourage great teachers to be in the classroom. And the evaluation piece is a key part of that.”

Disgruntlement over the evaluation system has been so pronounced some observers have suggested that the state should hold off on actually acknowledging the findings in this first year, but Haslam remains steadfast. At the same time he dismissed any notion that changes in the basic concept might jeopardize the $500 million the state won in the Race to the Top competition in 2010.

“I don’t want to cast the political argument, ‘If you all change it we’re going to lose our funds.’ I don’t think that’s a fair argument for us to be making,” Haslam said. “I think it’s more about putting in jeopardy the pace that we need to change.”

The Haslam administration has stayed in the background thus far on the school voucher issue. The Legislature is considering a proposal that would allow children in the state’s largest counties — Davidson, Shelby, Knox and Hamilton — to apply for funds to attend a public school elsewhere in the district, a public charter school or a private school.

The issue has pitted those who favor school choice against those who are protective of the public school system.

Haslam was asked Monday why he has not taken a stand on vouchers yet.

“It’s incumbent upon us to do our homework to see: Do we know enough to make that call?” he said.

Haslam pointed to the need to study the experiences of other states who have tried vouchers in order to make the right decision. A voucher bill passed the Senate in the last legislative session and is expected to be considered in the House next year. The House version, HB388, is sponsored by Rep. Bill Dunn, R-Knoxville.

Tennessee Favored In No Child Left Behind Announcement

Gov. Bill Haslam got the first real sign that Tennessee will get what it wants on the No Child Left Behind law when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called him last Friday about attending an event in Washington.

The event, it turns out, was a White House ceremony Friday where Haslam introduced President Barack Obama, who announced changes on NCLB. Tennessee requested a waiver from the law in July.

Deciding whether to accept an invitation to the White House would normally be a no-brainer for a governor, but Haslam had a little scheduling conflict. His daughter, Annie, is getting married. The wedding was planned for Saturday in the front yard of the Tennessee Residence — with the governor himself performing the ceremony.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a little issue. I’ve got a wedding going on that week, and I’ve got to make sure my boss says it’s OK,'” Haslam said Friday in Nashville. He didn’t say exactly who the boss was he was referring to, although presumably it is First Lady Crissy Haslam. The rehearsal dinner was scheduled Friday night.

“Once I knew I could do it logistically, I said I would be glad to, because I think they’re doing the right thing,” Haslam said of the trip.

The governor wasn’t allowing many details about the wedding, but he was happy Friday to talk about his visit to Washington, the return from which delayed him from his appointment to speak in Nashville at the Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development. A luncheon crowd of hundreds of people waited for him in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel.

Haslam, who usually keeps a full but tight schedule, apologized repeatedly for being late when he finally got to the podium. Weather had delayed his return. He didn’t speak long. But the journey to Washington spoke volumes about Tennessee’s place in education reform in the Obama administration’s eyes.

Obama announced a new flexibility plan on NCLB for states engaged in education reform. The criteria to receive that flexibility fall in line with the reform effort going on in Tennessee, begun under former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Duncan gave high praise to Tennessee’s efforts when he appeared in Nashville in August at West End Middle School and at the offices of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Obama is seeking reforms that still include standards that will make students college-ready and career-ready, accountability in the education system and evaluating teachers and principals on their effectiveness. But the White House move appears to be an agreement that expectations in NCLB have proved to be simply impossible to reach.

So on Friday morning, Haslam stood in the East Room of the White House, thanking Duncan, saying while he doesn’t always agree with Obama there should be action when Republicans and Democrats do agree, and introducing the president. No one guaranteed Haslam would get what he wants on NCLB, but the sight of the East Room appeared to say he would.

“When they said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Well, please don’t ask us up there if you’re going to embarrass us down the road,'” Haslam said. “I think the message was: ‘We like the path that you’re on.'”

States across the country have complained about the standards required in the law as being unrealistic and not achievable. The Obama administration seems to agree. Tennessee has been involved in education reform that won $501 million in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition, showing the Obama administration likes what the state is doing.

The Obama administration issued criteria Friday that will give states that are working on reform the flexibility they seek. The White House noted that many states have adopted college- and career-ready standards and are implementing reforms in teacher and principal evaluations.

Obama said Friday a fresh approach will give states the opportunity to improve but will not serve as a reprieve from the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Law, which was adopted under former President George W. Bush.

Haslam said in his remarks at the White House that Tennessee is most qualified to make its own decisions about how to make progress in education. Tennessee’s efforts and the federal government’s position seem to match.

“We have talked with Secretary Duncan several times over the last five or six days,” Haslam said in Nashville Friday. “We talked about what their criteria are and where Tennessee stacks up.

“I think they feel really good about what we’ve submitted to them and what we’re doing in Tennessee, so I don’t have any final word, but I feel good about our position.”

Haslam was asked if the federal step to give more authority to the states is a weakening of standards.

“Here’s why it’s not weakening the standards,” he said. “No Child Left Behind, while it was about raising standards, it let every state set their own. Until last year, Tennessee set the standard really low. Then it just measured by whether you met your own bar. Tennessee did the right thing and set the bar higher.

“Now all of a sudden we’re on a path (with the original NCLB expectations) where 100 percent of our schools weren’t going to meet the standards. It’s much better to measure improvement.”

Haslam used one of his frequent analogies by comparing the situation to a workout exercise.

“If somebody said, ‘Bill Haslam, you should get in better shape, and I want you to run a four-minute mile next week,’ no way,” he said. “I can get in better shape, but if the goal is to run a four-minute mile, it’s not going to happen. If they measure my improvement, I can do that.

“We basically are going to use the accountability standards that are set out in Race to the Top in our winning application there. It’s one of the reasons we feel good about our application for a waiver. They’re asking states to do the same thing they asked in Race to the Top.”

Haslam viewed the invitation to the White House as acknowledgement of what the state is doing, but he spoke openly of the obvious political consideration in choosing a Republican governor to join the Democratic president in the ceremony.

“The things they are asking us to do, we are doing, in terms of focusing on the achievement gap, in terms of linking student performance to teacher evaluation,” Haslam said. “All the key things that the president talked about are the things we are doing in Tennessee, and I think are the right things to do as well. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go do that.

“I think they do want some states that they can give waivers to, and hopefully quickly, and say this is a state that’s on the right path. Obviously, politically, it doesn’t hurt to have a Republican governor up there with him, just to be truthful about it.”

Obama thanked Duncan, then thanked Haslam for being at the announcement and for “the great work that he’s doing in Tennessee.

“I’m especially appreciative because I found out that his daughter is getting married, and he is doing the ceremony tomorrow, so we’ve got to get him back on time.”

Who Wants to be an ‘Education Governor’?

Gov. Bill Haslam gives bipartisan high marks to Phil Bredesen and Lamar Alexander for their records as governors on education.

Haslam, a history buff, has been telling audiences recently that he has been reading about Tennessee’s past governors. He has made the point of how, going back to Austin Peay, who served from 1923-27, every governor has said he wanted to be the education governor.

But that puzzles Haslam because after all those education governors, the state still ranks in the 40s nationally in education.

Haslam hasn’t let on exactly what he has been reading, nor has he told audiences which governors he thought did a better job on education than others.

So Haslam was asked what he’s been reading and who stands out.

He didn’t say what he has read, but he offered up the names of Bredesen, a Democrat, and Alexander, a Republican, as achievers. Bredesen immediately preceded Haslam as governor, serving from 2003-2011. Alexander served as governor from 1979-87.

Haslam said this week he is impressed with governors who push standards the most, and that gives points to Bredesen.

“I think that’s one of the great things about Race to the Top. It was about raising standards,” Haslam said.

Bredesen used the special session on education in 2010 to nail down the state’s bid for federal Race to the Top funding for education reform. The state won $501 million, which is being put to work now in the state’s ongoing education reform plans.

Then there is Alexander.

“I think Lamar did a really good job of trying to tie teachers’ performance to student achievement,” Haslam said.

Alexander initiated a five-step career-ladder program for teachers that included merit pay.

Putting the choices in perspective, the reasoning lines up with Haslam’s own ideas in education reform.

“Those are kind of the two basics of what we’re doing now, raising the level of expectation and tying students’ performance to how we evaluate teachers,” Haslam said. “And those are ideas that have been out there awhile. Hopefully, they’re now fully incorporated in the mainstream.”

Haslam said he will continue to focus on education.

“I’ve looked and tried to figure out what has worked and what hasn’t. If you go back, you’ll see the governors who focus on how their legislation or initiatives impacted the classroom made the biggest difference,” Haslam said.

“The question is how do we get the very best people standing in front of the class, and how do we make it so more students raise their attainment level and their expectation level?”

Although elected on a platform that emphasized job growth, when Haslam spoke to a dinner breakfast last week, he said his time as governor would probably be evaluated most by whether he “moved the needle” on education in the state.

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.

 TNReport.com is an independent, nonprofit news organization supported by generous donors like you!