A committee overhauling Tennessee public school teacher-performance standards is weighing whether to recommend the State Board of Education enact expensive reforms it believes will dramatically improve student achievement or stick instead with more modest, affordable plans.
The conundrum is a product of the Race to the Top grant, a $501 million prize the Volunteer State won from the federal government this year for pledging to enact education reforms favored by the Obama administration aimed at turning around underachieving students.
“We want to do things right and worry about the cost later,” said Rep. Mark Maddox, a Dresden Democrat who sits on the Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee.
TEAC is a panel of educators, business experts and lawmakers assembled earlier this year to figure out what criteria should be included in job evaluations for teachers and principals.
The General Assembly committed the state to tying teacher job-performance ratings with student achievement data last winter. The rough framework for the new system was passed at the urging of Gov. Phil Bredesen — and over the objections of some teachers and Democratic lawmakers — during a January special legislative session.
Some members of the advisory committee want to “shoot for the stars” and devise what they view are the very best success-measuring, performance-rewarding systems regardless of cost.
But others representing teachers and schools said Thursday that their districts have other plans for their share of Race to the Top money, and “are not going to spend a dime” on some of the far-reaching reforms before the committee.
The 15-member body began meeting in March to iron out details of a new and complicated teacher evaluation process lawmakers OK’d in order to win the Race to the Top competition. Officials at initial meetings barely mentioned the grant, saying the state would still pursue the reforms if it lost the contest.
Now that the money is in state hands, members of TEAC say they’re confused as to whether they should consider possible price tags when recommending reforms.
“We should decide what is best, you figure out how to pay for it,” TEAC member and Nashville businessman Darrell Freeman said to Rep. Maddox at the July 24 committee meeting.
Maddox, who is also technology coordinator for Weakley County Schools, said Capitol Hill lawmakers who agreed to change the teacher evaluation process weren’t concerned about the price tag at the time — and TEAC shouldn’t be, either.
“We want to do things right and worry about the cost later,” he said.
Committee members spent Thursday in a day-long retreat focusing on teacher observation methods used in other school systems.
“It’s not something you do on a Tuesday afternoon every five years. It’s something you do every day,” said Jim McIntyre, Knox County Schools superintendent who was testifying about the TAP System for Student and Teacher Achievement, a program he employs in some of his schools.
The observation method frees up teachers so they have can continuously evaluate each other throughout the year — but in turn creates a teaching hole other educators are hired to fill. The cost, he told the committee, was roughly $400 per student.
We can’t afford that in our district, said Jimmy Bailey, TEAC board member and principal at Arlington International Leadership Magnet in Jackson.
Member Kenny Lou Heaton said her superintendent told her the district was against dedicating additional dollars on the expanded teacher observations.
“There will not be one dollar of our First to the Top money that will be used on any of this,” reported the Family and Consumer Sciences teacher from Cloundland High School in Roan Mountain. “Our system will use the default.”
The committee should still aim high, said Rep. Harry Brooks.
“Ultimately, if we demonstrate a product in the State of Tennessee that’s effective, the money isn’t going to be a problem,” said the Knoxville Republican who chairs the Education Committee in the state House of Representatives.
If anything, said Maddox, “Race to the Top is the opportunity to do things like TAP.”
Members have yet to endorse any methods for implementing the new teacher evaluation law, which includes specifying how non-traditional teachers — like librarians or music teachers — are evaluated, what other test scores are added in and what additional measures should be factored in a total job evaluation.
Final recommendations from the committee are due to the Tennessee Board of Education in November. The Board will ultimately decide how to implement the new law and enact it by the 2011-2012 school year.