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.”