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Charter Schools Could Offer Ideas in Teacher Evaluation Talks

Charter school proponents are hopeful the governor and state lawmakers might take a page or two from their playbook as they discuss education reform in the upcoming special legislative session.

Gov. Phil Bredesen wants lawmakers to tie at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance, in order to qualify for additional federal stimulus dollars.

“This year we’ve had a couple of unique, unexpected opportunities drop in our lap that I believe will allow us to focus on the entire education pipeline in one fell swoop and hopefully make some changes that will be felt for years to come,” Bredesen said in a press release.

During the Jan. 12 special session, Bredesen wants lawmakers to find a way to tie K-12 teacher tenure to student performance in order to line the state up for a chunk of $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grant dollars. He also wants to see changes in higher education funding.

The legislation needs to be approved by the time the state files its federal application on Jan. 19.

Charter school principals and teachers already use student performance data, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Charter Schools.

But charter schools, which act as experimental teaching labs, use those statistics to drive instruction and improve teacher development, Throckmorton said, which is not always tied to teacher evaluations.

Giving teachers those data tools help them stay on top of student performance. Teachers regularly give frequent but short tests to measure student comprehension and help identify which strategies better reach the class, Throckmorton said.

He said this creative use of student performance data will take education “to the next level.”

Twenty-two of the publicly-funded, privately-run schools are currently operating across the state. Another school will open in Nashville next summer and as many as six more new schools are being founded in Memphis.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are evaluated based on how well they meet student achievement goals outlined in their charter contract with the local school district. Schools that fall short risk losing their charter.

The schools are filled with students who were attending failing schools, came from poor families or were failing in school them self, said Janel Lacy, spokeswoman for Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. The city announced in early December it would open a charter school incubator, a program that takes a hands-on approach to training future principals how to run a school.

The Tennessee Education Association says strongly tying student performance to teacher evaluations is a bad idea because teachers can’t control all of the factors that go into a successful test score.

Parents have to be held accountable, too, said union president Earl Wiman.

“We understand that student performance may need to be a part of a teacher’s evaluation. But what we’re saying is it doesn’t need to play a major role in the evaluations,” said Wiman.