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Governor: Teacher Evals ‘Not Perfect’ But Headed in Right Direction

Gov. Bill Haslam said he expects easy passage in the Legislature of proposed changes to the state’s teacher evaluation system.

Gov. Bill Haslam is anything but surprised the state has to hammer out kinks in its teacher evaluation system — even as President Obama’s education secretary said this week Tennessee is actually at the top of the class nationally.

Haslam says he expects the Legislature to fairly easily accept the state Department of Education’s recommendations next spring to recalculate how certain teachers are graded, such as by reducing emphasis on how students perform school-wide. The move follows a year of consternation from educators that new, more rigorous evaluations would be too hard on them.

“We said all along, ‘Hey, we realize it’s not perfect,’” Haslam told reporters after announcing a $620,000 transportation grant in Dickson Wednesday.

“But we also thought it was important to go ahead and implement it so we wouldn’t just be having a practice game, if you will. My sense is that the Legislature will get that and understand why it’s important to make that change.”

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan applauded Tennessee’s education reforms this week, giving special kudos in a Huffington Post column for re-examining the reforms and vowing to improve upon the system.

“More teachers today are treated as true professionals, instead of as interchangeable cogs in an educational assembly line. Exhibit A: Tennessee,” Duncan wrote, attributing the success in part to the federal Race to the Top grant program rewarding education reform, which Tennessee was one of the first to win.

State officials now have two studies examining teacher evaluation reforms. One came from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, which concluded the state needs to adjust how teachers are evaluated in untested subjects like gym and music.

The other, released this month by the state Department of Education, echoed that call but added that high teacher evaluation scores many times clashed with the low academic gains from students in those classrooms.

“In implementation, observers systematically failed to identify the lowest performing teachers, leaving these teachers without access to meaningful professional development and leaving their students and parents without a reasonable expectation of improved instruction in the future,” read the report.

If anything, Haslam says the findings are “ironic” after a year of education-reform opponents complaining that the opposite would happen — that principals would be stingy about granting teachers anything above an “average” grade.

“Our kind of hunch was it would play out the way it did. The tendency of people is to grade folks high because you work with them and you go to church with them, et cetera,” he said, adding the state needs to focus energy on better training principals to grade teachers.

“When a deep percentage of teachers aren’t showing real gains in value added, that’s not fair to kids,” he said. “And so our role is to help those teachers to that next year they will show that growth.”

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