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Gresham Requests AG Opinion on TN Teacher Employment Laws

Press release from the Tennessee Senate Republican Caucus; June 30, 2014:

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — Senate Education Committee Chairman Dolores Gresham (R-Somerville) said today she has requested an attorney general’s opinion on whether Tennessee’s teacher employment laws are constitutional. The request comes after a California Superior Court struck down various teacher tenure and seniority statutes under that state’s constitution and the U.S. Constitution’s Equal Protection Clause in the Vergara v. California case. Teacher unions plan to appeal the ruling.

“This is a very important decision regarding teacher employment laws, which will reverberate to states across the nation, said Senator Gresham. “Tennessee, like California, has its own constitutional provision regarding student’s education rights in addition to the Equal Protection Clause afforded by the U.S. Constitution. We certainly need to make sure that we are on sound constitutional footing, and especially whether the reforms passed over the last several years will satisfy the constitutional tests as decided in this ruling.”

The California case was filed by nine public school students who charged that state laws forced districts to give tenure to teachers, regardless of whether they can do the job. Los Angeles County Superior Court Judge Rolf M. Treu found the California law was unconstitutional, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Brown v. Board of Education. That decision declared that state laws which established that separate schools for white and black children were unconstitutional. “In these days,” the court said, “it is doubtful that any child may reasonably be expected to succeed in life if he is denied the opportunity of an education. Such an opportunity, where the state has undertaken to provide it, is a right which must be made available to all on equal terms.”

Gresham asked Attorney General Robert Cooper whether the current statutes or state law in effect prior to July 1, 2011 governing permanent employment violate students’ rights to a free education under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution. The General Assembly passed teacher tenure reform legislation in 2011 which changes a teacher’s probationary period before becoming eligible for tenure from three to five years as well as linking tenure status to performance evaluations. Gresham also asked the Attorney General if Tennessee law or the statutes in effect prior to July 1, 2014, governing layoffs or the dismissal and suspension of teachers violate student’s rights to a free education under the federal and state constitutions.

Metro Nashville Teachers Offered Credit Monitoring Services by Treasury Dept.

Press release from the Tennessee Department of the Treasury; December 18, 2013:

Last Thursday evening, Treasury officials discovered that a former Treasury employee for the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System had downloaded a file that included personal information of active Metro Nashville teachers from a work computer to his personal computer.

The investigation by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation is ongoing and a report from the forensic examination of his computer and devices is expected soon. The Treasury Department believes this is an isolated incident and that the information has not been shared.

The Treasury Department is providing free credit monitoring services for all Metro Nashville teachers who wish to enroll. The department is engaging a service to provide written notification to each of the teachers affected.

This notification will contain details regarding the free credit monitoring services and a hotline phone number for teachers to call and receive up-to-date information or discuss concerns.

State Treasurer David H. Lillard, Jr. met on Monday with the director of Metro Nashville Public Schools and continues to meet with school leaders and teacher organizations to seek their input and to assure all steps are taken to assist affected teachers.

The department has competently handled sensitive personal information in the retirement system since 1945. During Treasurer Lillard’s tenure he has heavily emphasized compliance and security of information and the department has taken numerous steps to continuously and substantially improve security of personal data in Treasury operations.

“Our main concern at this point is to address concerns of active Metro Nashville teachers,” Treasurer Lillard said. “The initial review clearly indicates this occurred due to the actions of one employee who wrongfully downloaded this information. The Treasury Department is immediately implementing measures to correct this isolated occurrence in personal data security.”

State Ed Board Votes to Overhaul Teacher Pay System

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted Friday to overhaul the state’s minimum payment requirements for public school teachers.

The new payment plan, presented to the board by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and passed by a vote of 6-3, includes a 1.5 percent across-the-board increase to teachers’ minimum salaries, but opponents argue that changes to the pay schedule structure will end up severely limiting teachers’ earning potential over the course of their entire careers.

Under the current system, teachers receive up to 20 small salary bumps during their careers as they gain seniority and can also move up pay brackets for completing advanced degrees and training. The new system reduces the schedule to just a few different categories, leaving it largely up to local districts to decide how raises are awarded.

The board passed the plan over the public objections of Tennessee’s major teachers’ union along with many Democrats in the State Legislature. At the center of the debate is the way teacher pay categories are divided. During the SBOE meeting Friday, Commissioner Huffman and members of his staff laid out the details of their proposal while several dozen union members with the Tennessee Education Association packed the conference room to show their opposition.

Tennessee Education Association Vice President Barbara Gray was allowed to address the state board on their behalf and called on SBOE members to postpone action on the Department of Education plan.

While ostensibly an opportunity to debate and possibly modify the proposal, discussion was kept minimal.

Gray contended that the current minimum pay schedule was set up to “foster equity in teacher salaries among school districts and to provide professional pay for hard-working educators.”

“The overall effect of the changes proposed,” Gray told the board “is a substantial lowering of the state requirement for teacher salary,” a point that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman directly contradicted.

“Tennessee law forbids any district from cutting an individual teacher’s salary; it’s actually not allowable for a district to cut an individual teacher’s salary,” Huffman said. “Salaries will not go down,” he continued “I don’t understand how to be more clear about that.”

Huffman and board chairman Fielding Rolston, a vocal supporter of the alterations, repeatedly dismissed the assertion that lifetime earnings might decline under the new plan  — drawing boos and whispers from TEA union members — and suggested that arguments otherwise were deliberate distortions of the truth.

In his opening remarks, Huffman said he was “disappointed to see a lot of misinformation about the salary proposal,” while Rolston was less reserved, telling fellow board members “It’s extremely unfortunate that some of the misleading information, the inflammatory information that has been distributed is out there because I think it has led to a lot of anxiety on the part of teachers that is totally inappropriate.”

In a seemingly conciliatory gesture that proved little consolation for opponents, the board ultimately chose to include non-binding language to the proposal they voted on saying the new system could be re-evaluated in the future if the results were negative.

The changes to the teacher pay schedule come as an example of the larger push by GOP education reform advocates, including many in the Haslam administration and the General Assembly, to increased local district control and emphasize teacher performance over experience or advanced training.

Speaking to reporters following Friday’s meeting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman stressed both points.

“For too long in education, we have operated with the presumption that everybody performs at the same level, everybody is the same, there is no marketplace for people. Those are fallacies. Some teachers perform at a higher level than others,” Huffman said.

“Some folks would like to see a system continue that says ‘we’re going to treat you all the same no matter any of the other factors, we’re going to pay you exactly the same,’” the commissioner continued. “And we believe that school districts should be able to create systems that say ‘You know, not everybody’s the same. In our district, we have a challenge with X; we would like to fix X and use compensation as part of that.’”

The new minimum pay system is set to begin taking effect in the 2013-14 school year.

Haslam: TN Teachers Report Improvement in Work Environment

Press release from the Office of Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam; April 30, 2013:

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam announced today that after two years of rapid change, Tennessee educators reported improved work environments in a broad range of categories, all shown to correlate to increased student achievement.

The results from the second statewide TELL (Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning) Tennessee Survey are now available, and more than 61,000 educators, or 82 percent, in the state responded, a five percentage point increase from 2011. Across Tennessee, 1,627 of 1,774 schools, or 91 percent, reached a response rate of at least 50 percent.

“We know that when educators feel good about the culture and climate of their school, that leads to increased results for our students,” Haslam said. “We want to hear from our teachers, and I am grateful that so many of them took the time to respond.”

From Feb. 18 through March 22, 2013, all school-based licensed educators were asked to complete the online survey using an anonymous access code. Educators were asked to submit their perceptions on a variety of issues related to student achievement and teacher retention, including the adequacy of facilities and resources; time; empowerment; school leadership; community support; student conduct; professional development; mentoring and induction services; and student learning. The results will be used by school-based decision making teams, schools, districts, and numerous other organizations to improve the teaching and learning conditions in the state’s schools and districts.

In the 2013 TELL survey, Tennessee saw significant growth in the percentage of teachers who felt they were required to do less routine paperwork (10.3 percentage points) and that test data is available to them soon enough for them to make changes to their instructional practices (13.5 percentage points). Nearly 90 percent of Tennessee’s teachers believe they are trusted to make professional decisions about instruction and are given autonomy. More than eight out of 10 educators (83 percent) agree that community members support teachers, contributing to their success with students, an increase of five percentage points from 2011. Eighty-six percent of participants in 2013 agree that the community they serve is supportive of their school, an increase of four percentage points.

“This survey reaffirms that we have leaders across Tennessee who successfully have implemented many education changes, while improving the working conditions for teachers in their schools,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said. “It shows that it is possible to have both high expectations and a positive work environment.”

The survey was administered by the New Teacher Center (NTC), a national organization dedicated to supporting the development of a high-quality teaching force. NTC has conducted similar surveys in other states and provides induction and professional development for teachers and principals across the country.

Results for the state, all districts, and the 1,627 schools may be viewed at www.telltennessee.org.

Some Teachers Could Carry Guns Under Bill Passed by Legislature

Legislation drafted by Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration that would give local boards of education the authority to allow certain teachers to carry firearms into the classroom heads to his desk for his signature.

House Bill 6 passed the Senate 27-6 on Thursday, with Republican Sen. Brian Kelsey joining Democrats in voting no.

Kelsey is chairman of the Senate Judicial Committee, where the “comprehensive” amendment that rewrote the bill was drafted. The House signed off on the new version later in the day.

The legislation would allows teachers or staff members who meet four criteria to carry a firearm of any kind onto a school campus – provided the person receives written authorization from the director of schools and the school’s principal. (See criteria list below.)

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Once the person has met all of the requirements and receives permission, the director of schools has 10 days to notify the head of the appropriate local law enforcement agency information about this individual. These are the only individuals who will know which teachers or staff members are carrying, an issue with critics of the bill.

“I truly believe your constituents who have children in school would like to know if the teacher has a gun in the classroom,” said Sen. Jim Kyle, D-Memphis.

Republican Sen. Mark Green, who came up with the amendment in committee, disagreed.

“A person who is intent on assaulting a school, one of the best pieces of information that person could have is where guns are in the school and where they’re located,” said the senator from Clarksville. “Keeping that information private protects the students in that school.”

However, each year the director of schools will be required to submit a report to the two chambers’ chief clerks a report containing just the number of schools and persons participating.

Sen. Stacey Campfield, R-Knoxville, questioned whether or not the amendment placed any restrictions on the type of guns a school employee may legally carry.

“No, it did not. It simply mentions firearms,” Kelsey said.

“So a teacher could carry an AK-47 or an Uzi fully automatic if they so chose?” Campfield asked.

“Yes, the language drafted by the administration would allow a teacher to carry an AK-47 in the school,” the Germantown senator replied.

“Far be it from me to stand in the way of the governor,” Campfield said.

Campfield, who ended up voting for the bill, also noted that currently there are currently only about 100 teachers throughout the state who might meet the qualifications to carry a gun to school.

“I support the concept of this, but I really think it’s so watered down and weak, it really doesn’t do any of the goals that we all have,” he said. “And actually by shutting off all information to find out if its successful or not, we’ve neutered it about as much as it can be neutered.”

In his closing remarks, Kelsey said, “You’re not really providing true safety to anybody with this type of approach that’s half-hearted at best. If we’re truly are concerned about safety in our schools, then we’re going to have to suck it up and pay for it.”

Just before the vote, Sen. Frank Niceley, R-Strawberry Plains, who sponsored the legislation in the upper chamber, noted that the amended bill “represents the consensus language from the governor, the Department of Education, the Department of Commerce and Insurance, the Sheriff’s Association, the school boards and the Chiefs of Police. Now if that many people can agree on this, it can’t be all bad.”

Amelia Morrison Hipps may be reached at amhipps@downhomepolitics.com, on Twitter @DwnHomePolitics or at 615-442-8667.

PET: Rewarding Proficient Teachers with Financial Incentives Will Improve Education

Op-Ed from the Professional Educators of Tennessee; December 11, 2012:

Is Teacher Merit Pay on the Way in Tennessee?

By J.C. Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee

In the immediate future, teacher compensation systems will likely be redirected from an input-driven system to an outcome-based system. Unlike the general labor force, where output is a key salary determinant, the field of education rewards experience and advanced degrees. That is not always bad.

We believe financially rewarding educators for their expertise and their excellence will attract and retain the best and brightest to the teaching profession. However, Professional Educators of Tennessee opposes the use of student test scores as the primary measure of a teacher’s effectiveness, as the determining factor for a teacher’s compensation or as the primary rationale for an adverse employment action.

Treating teachers like professionals means rewarding excellence, encouraging the competent to improve, and easing the inept out of the classroom and into some other line of work. For the teachers unions there are no bad teachers, or excellent ones for that matter, there is only adequate. Unions insist upon treating teachers like assembly-line workers who are largely interchangeable, rather than as professionals engaged in a challenging craft. Any meaningful improvement of public education will require that at some point we treat teachers as professionals again, and that will inevitably run into resistance from teachers unions.

Traditionally, it has been argued that blanket increases in teacher salaries would achieve an improved education system. They contend higher teacher salaries across-the-board would compensate for the increased responsibilities shouldered by teachers; bestow the proper respect on the teaching profession; and attract well-prepared candidates to the field. Many have argued that teacher salaries have not been competitive within the job market and, therefore, the profession has not attracted the “best and brightest.”

President Barack Obama has made feelings on the issue clear: Not only is he in favor of paying teachers for their performance, but states that implement policies toward that goal have been rewarded financially. Tying teacher compensation to student growth was one of the key components of the federal Race to the Top competitive grant program. States that passed new laws creating incentive programs for teachers were rewarded with millions in federal grants. The teachers union in Tennessee readily embraced Race to the Top.

Others have challenged that view, questioning the wisdom of providing a blanket increase in compensation without a way to determine returns. If competitive teacher salaries are important, they argue, then an accountable and competitive environment should be part of the package: Market principles must be applied. Concerned about attracting better-qualified teachers and justifying salary increases in the face of falling test scores, some proposals have gone beyond across-the-board pay increases.

We know that in Race to the Top funding and the likely legislative debates in 2013 that Merit Pay/Pay for Performance will be an issue raised by policymakers. Race to the Top encompasses several items, but in general:

  • Superior teachers should earn more than average teachers;
  • Poorly performing teachers should be expeditiously removed from the school system;
  • Across-the-board pay hikes should be resisted and/or discontinued;
  • Teachers performing more difficult tasks should receive higher pay.

Rewarding teachers for their performance has been discussed in education for decades but has been a particularly heated issue of late. PET believes that teachers should be rewarded for a variety of reasons, including rewarding teachers experience and advanced degrees. PET opposes incentive or performance pay programs, unless they are designed in an equitable and fair manner. PET supports a career compensation and benefits package for all certified, licensed and contracted public school employees that mandates competitive salaries that are equal to or greater than the national average and competitive with private industry.

The state should still include a minimum salary schedule that provides for step increases to recognize longevity in the profession. PET supports the creation of a statewide set of evaluation standards for campus administrators that includes a survey of classroom educators and staff regarding the professional performance of the campus administrators.

In addition to experience and degrees, expect to see salary increases targeted at performance (merit), market, equity, or retention. General financial parameters and guidelines should be established each year as part of the budget development process at the state and local level. In addition, below are a few additional talking points on the subject:

  • Merit salary increases may be composed of many differing components, but two components – a base salary percentage increase (specified in budget) and a percentage increase in recognition of above satisfactory (or exceptional) performance. This will be mostly tied to increases in student achievement/performance.
  • Adjustments to salaries may also be made when there is an issue resulting from market or other equity factors
  • Equity factors exist from internal pay disparities and are not related to individual performance
  • Retention bonus should occur in hard to fill positions like foreign language, special education and higher level math and science.

From a labor union perspective merit pay might perhaps lessen their collective influence. They believe if salaries were not strictly based on years of experience and number of college credits earned or additional services provided, the teaching force at any workplace would be more stratified (differentiated) and much less willing to stand together during a conflict with school site management or during a contract struggle. The role of the union would be seriously compromised. That in of itself seems to indicate a motivation that legislative leaders may find appealing. Make no mistake pay-for-performance or merit pay will be on the legislative agenda in 2013.

TN Math, Science Teachers Recognized Nationally in Presidential Award Program

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; November 5, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Education is pleased to announce the state finalists for the 2012 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching, or PAEMST. This prestigious program was established in 1983 by the White House and is sponsored by the National Science Foundation.

Outstanding Science and Mathematics teachers are identified in each state and the four U.S. jurisdictions. Elementary and secondary finalists are chosen in alternate years. These exemplary teachers serve as models for their colleagues by providing leadership for the improvement of Mathematics and Science education.

2012 Elementary Science Finalists:

Derri Cash, Lakeside Park Elementary School, Hendersonville
Karla Fultz, A.L. Lotts Elementary School, Knoxville
Margaret Hawkins, Winfrey Bryant Middle School, Lebanon

2012 Elementary Mathematics Finalists:

Amber Hodge, Annoor Academy, Knoxville
Amy Mitchell, Manley Elementary, Morristown
Kimberly Jones, Spring City Elementary, Spring City

Two Tennessee teachers were recognized at the White House earlier this year through the 2011 Presidential Awards for Excellence in Mathematics and Science Teaching. As Presidential Award winners, they received $10,000, a presidential citation and a trip to Washington D.C.

2011 Secondary Science Awardee:

Gail Schulte, Smyrna Middle School, Smyrna, TN

2011 Secondary Mathematics Awardee:

Phyllis Hillis, Oak Ridge High School, Oak Ridge, TN

For more information, please contact Kelli Gauthier at (615) 532-1817 or Kelli.Gauthier@tn.gov.

Thousands of Teachers Begin Training in New Education Standards Statewide

Press release from the Tennessee Department of Education; July 10, 2012: 

NASHVILLE – More than 13,000 Tennessee teachers began training today on the Common Core State Standards, a set of nationally recognized criteria that raise expectations for Tennessee students, starting with math in the 2012-13 school year.

Two hundred teachers, appointed earlier this year as Common Core coaches, will lead sessions at 41 sites across the state, helping their peers better understand new focus areas for grades 3-8 math by practicing problems, watching model lessons and reviewing student work.

“The transition to Common Core State Standards in math is the beginning of a new era in education,” said Leslie Taylor, a Common Core coach and fourth-grade math teacher at A.L. Lotts Elementary School in Knoxville. “I know that we can move Tennessee to the forefront of national performance rankings and that our students will reap the benefits.”

These sessions make up Tennessee’s largest teacher-training program. The training model is designed to be peer-led, with assistance from content experts at the University of Pittsburgh’s Institute for Learning.

“Tennessee’s transition to the Common Core State Standards gives us opportunities to strengthen our competitiveness and ensure our students’ postsecondary success,” said Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “These standards also will give teachers the chance to engage their students more deeply in fewer focus areas, encouraging greater critical thinking skills.”

The Common Core State Standards also enable teachers to share ideas for lessons across schools and states. Tennessee is one of 46 states that have adopted Common Core State Standards as a way to set clear expectations for what students should learn in school, and align their education with necessary knowledge for college and careers. Teachers will focus on much fewer standards, which require deeper engagement in fundamental concepts. In third-grade math, for example, the number of standards taught will decrease from 113 currently to 25 under the Common Core State Standards.

“The spirit with which educators are coming together to support this transition is inspiring,” said Emily Barton, the department’s assistant commissioner of curriculum and instruction. “The work that the Core Coaches have started in their own classrooms suggests that as we bring this to all classrooms across the state, we’ll see greater student engagement and problem-solving skills.”

Tennessee will apply the Common Core State Standards for math in 2012-13 and for English-Language Arts in 2013-14. Tennessee students will take new assessments reflecting the standards in both subjects in 2014-15.

To learn more about Tennessee’s Common Core State Standards implementation plan, visit our website.

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

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.

More Education Reform Discussion on Governor’s Summer Agenda

Public school classrooms and legislative hearing rooms are always a lot quieter in the summer. But just because students and lawmakers are on break doesn’t mean discussions about education policy come to a halt.

Gov. Bill Haslam has said he’ll be spending time in June discussing further changes in education. Among the topics that may come up are proposals to extend the number of days students attend school each year, the number of hours in each school day and the most effective means of paying educators to attract and retain the best teachers.

Haslam envisions an all-encompassing look at education, even after the dramatic education reform efforts in this year’s session of the Tennessee General Assembly.

“I think what we have to do with education is really take a whole fresh look at everything, from how long students go to school to how we compensate teachers so we make certain we’re rewarding them for a great job,” Haslam said.

“This session had a lot of discussion about teachers and tenure and looking at collective bargaining. I think the next piece we need to discuss, if we’re really going to have a great education system, is: How do we attract and keep the very best people in teaching?”

For all the drama of changes in education this year, legislative measures on teacher tenure, charter schools and collective bargaining might simply be setting the table for further action.

Change agents Kevin Huffman, the new commissioner of education, and Chris Barbic, who will head Tennessee’s special school district for failing schools, are just now settling into their new jobs. Both came from the innovative Teach for America program. Huffman recently told the editorial board of The Tennessean that the school calendar in Tennessee is “not based on the modern world.” The state currently requires 180 days of school with 6.5 hours of instruction each day.

State Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, has relinquished her role as a legislator to head former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist’s State Collaborative on Reforming Education, which is seen as at the forefront of K-12 education reform. The state is still in the first stages of its First to the Top program, and teacher evaluations based greatly on data gained from student performance are new.

Asked directly if he might have another legislative package in mind on education for next year, Haslam did not say yes or no. But his answer indicated the possibility.

“I think we’re going to continuously look at seeing what things we can do to keep moving forward,” Haslam said. “There was a lot of conversation this year — and the last two years — about: How do we raise standards in Tennessee? How do we make sure we have the very best people teaching?

“I think one of the fair questions that’s come up has been: You have talked a lot about attracting the very best people to teach. Just how are you going to do that? We’re going to start those conversations this next month. Are there things we can do, given fiscal realities and given the current education situation?”

Some schools this year sought and obtained waivers on the 180-day requirement for the school year due to storm damage, which Haslam said was a rather unique situation.

“I think the bigger question is: Is the 180-day mark the right one? Is six and a half hours a day for 180 days the right one, given where the world is competitively?” Haslam said.

A study issued six months ago showed that nations leading the list on Program for International Student Assessment tests were China, Finland, South Korea, Canada, The Netherlands and Japan. Students in the United States were considered to have average scores, as they have for several years. U.S. students were found to be average in reading and science and below average in math. The tests were done for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development.

The results showed that countries with the highest performance on tests tended to be countries where teachers were paid better. One notable twist in the results, however, was that Canada, a consistently good performer in the tests, has strong teachers’ unions and has an education system similar to the United States.

Finland has consistently done well in the testing, but its students do not have especially long school calendars.

Haslam had education at the top of his legislative agenda this year, with tenure and charter school reform foremost. The Legislature held a long, contentious battle on collective bargaining, ultimately undoing the collective bargaining system with the teachers’ union the state has known since the 1970s. Haslam was involved in those talks along the way, but he managed to stay largely above the fray on collective bargaining.

When the teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, urged Haslam at the end of the session to veto the collective bargaining bill, he quickly dismissed the idea. When the TEA cited bad morale, Haslam referred to the Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) survey that showed a high rate of satisfaction among teachers about their workplace.

Teachers’ representatives have said the Legislature has done serious harm to its relationship with teachers. Nevertheless, a series of meetings between Haslam and Huffman and educators in various settings throughout the state have been widely amicable.

The Legislature handed Haslam victories that extended the threshold for teacher tenure from three years to five years and removed the state’s caps on charter schools, although the charter bill was amended to give local school districts the right to reject charter plans due to expense if they can back up their claim.

As for maintaining teacher effectiveness, SCORE recommends intensive mentoring programs, time for teachers to collaborate with other teachers and alternative compensation systems that pay teachers on their effectiveness and their area of specialty (pdf).

Democrats were generally favorable toward Haslam and Republican legislators on the $30.8 billion budget, but at the end of the legislative session Democratic leaders still felt the sting of education reform and rushed to defend members of the state’s largest teacher union.

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, the Democratic leader in the House, said that instead of attacking unemployment, what resulted in the Legislature this year was “sort of an attack on teachers.”

Rep. Mike Turner, D-Old Hickory, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, agreed. Turner argues that the interests of Tennessee teachers are synonymous with the priorities and activities of the state’s most powerful teacher union.

“Some of them kept saying this was not an attack on teachers,” Turner said. “That’s about like Lee Harvey Oswald saying, ‘I have nothing against President Kennedy.’

“They were attacking the teaching profession. They were attacking the organization that helps to develop teacher professionalism.”