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Press Releases

State Releases Report on Year 2 of the Teacher Evaluation System

Press release from the Tennessee Dept. of Education; December 9, 2013:

NASHVILLE – The Tennessee Department of Education released a report today on the second year of the teacher evaluation system across the state as part of the process of continuous improvement.

The report details measurable improvements during the 2012-13 school year, including improved teacher perception of the evaluation system, a strong correlation between observation scores and student achievement indicators, and an increase of teachers who received individual growth metrics.

“Developing an effective model for evaluating educators is part of our system-wide effort to develop better conditions for teaching and learning in Tennessee,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “We are encouraged by the results we’ve seen so far, and the department will continue to use feedback from stakeholders and measurable outcomes in classrooms to improve evaluations year after year.”

While implementation of the teacher evaluation system in Year 2 was significantly improved from Year 1, the department recognizes opportunities to further refine and advance the evaluation system. As a result of feedback from the second year of implementation, the report details additional changes for the 2013–14 school year. These changes include a more comprehensive and rigorous certification exam for all evaluators, an increased number of evaluation coaches working in regional offices, and a new model for assessing growth for World Language teachers.

Much like the report the department issued in July 2012 on the first year of implementation, this report is part of a commitment to ensure that the evaluation system is studied and modified based on stakeholder input, external and internal study, and detailed data analyses.

The department is committed to continuing to study and improve the system each year to ensure teachers receive high-quality, timely feedback that supports excellent instruction and improved student outcomes.

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Education Featured

Legislature May Reach School Choice Accord in 2013

One of the GOP’s strongest advocates of school choice in Tennessee believes the political environment may be ripe for passing voucher or “opportunity scholarships” legislation next year.

Germantown Sen. Brian Kelsey said he’s hopeful that the governor-appointed task force report released late last month will provide the foundation for a policy that can gain support in both chambers of the Republican-run Tennessee General Assembly.

In the past, legislation giving parents access to taxpayer-funded scholarships for sending their children to private schools has passed the Senate but stalled in the House.

Kelsey said he expects Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration officials to play a central role in education policy discussions related to school-choice vouchers in the coming months, and that that could have the effect of comforting Republicans who’ve been hesitant to jump on board with the experiment.

“House members were not familiar with this concept back in 2011 when we first presented it to them,” said Kelsey. “House members are much more comfortable with the idea of giving low-income children more options.”

Kelsey sees more scholarship money being available for kids, and also pointed to a growing consensus that any voucher law should apply to all 95 counties, not just the four counties with the highest number of low-income students, which was a plank of the 2011 bill.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey has said the state Senate again will work aggressively to pass a law on school vouchers.

“It’s blatantly unfair that we doom children to failure simply because of the zip code they’re born in, and their parents, if they choose, ought to have a choice,” said Ramsey, R-Blountville. “I’m in favor of it, and I think you will see the Senate take the lead in that.”

He also criticized public school officials who have been opposing vouchers.

“It’s not going to hurt public education. It’s really not. It’s just that they don’t want competition,” he said. “They throw up every red flag, every red herring they possibly can as opposed to saying, ‘We don’t want competition.’”

Voucher programs in the state have faced heavy opposition from the Tennessee Education Association and Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Gary Nixon, executive director of the Tennessee Board of Education, who served on the governor’s nine-member opportunity scholarship task force, said he has “no idea” what shape legislation may ultimately take. He said, though, that he thinks any child accessing tax dollars to go to private school ought to face the same testing that public school children undergo to gauge their achievement progress.

“I feel very strongly about that,” Nixon said.

Nixon said he could see himself supporting a voucher program in Tennessee if it is limited to lower-income children and is used as “another arrow in the quiver for students in low-performing schools to have an opportunity to improve their education and outcomes.”

He said he does not favor opening vouchers up for all students in the government’s school system.

“I am a public school educator. I believe in public schools,” he said.

Opportunity scholarships are apparently popular with Tennessee voters. Nearly 60 percent of them support school vouchers, according to a survey released jointly over the summer by the Beacon Center of Tennessee and the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice, both supporters of school choice.

Trent Seibert and Mark Engler contributed to this report.

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Education Featured NewsTracker

Obama Edu. Chief Praises TN Teacher Eval Reforms

Tennessee’s effort to revamp the way public school teachers are graded on classroom performance earned a high-profile national testimonial Monday.

In a column for The Huffington Post, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan wrote that the “Tennessee Story” and the Volunteer State’s improvements in student test-scores represents “Exhibit A” in the Obama administration’s defense of the Race to the Top reforms launched in 2009.

Duncan wrote:

During the first two years of the Race to the Top grant, from 2010 to 2012, an additional 55,000 students in Tennessee were at or above grade level in math and 38,000 additional students were at or above grade level in science. But Tennessee’s story also shows that reforming antiquated practices for evaluating teachers is hard, ongoing work — work that is far from finished.

Indeed, student achievement rose virtually across the board this year based on scores on the TCAP, or Tennessee Comprehensive Achievement Program, test given to students in 3rd through 8th grade, a result that, as the Chattanooga Times Free Press noted, prompted much “celebratory back slapping” by Gov. Bill Haslam and his education team.

Duncan acknowledged “initial blowback” to the Tennessee system, which puts more emphasis on test scores, requires more frequent evaluations and was first used in the 2011-12 school year. Continued poor performance, judged on a five-point scale, can lead to dismissal, and the evaluations are used in deciding whether to award tenure.

The state’s response to that criticism is another reason for accolades, added Duncan, a former Chicago Public Schools chief executive, who devoted fully one-third of his HuffPo column to recent efforts by state officials to adapt and evolve the evaluation system based on feedback.

“It is vital that school leaders and administrators continue to solicit feedback, learn from their mistakes, and make improvements,” he wrote.

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Press Releases

Harvard University to Partner with TN to Transform Student Data Systems

Press release from Department of Education; Jan. 25, 2012:

Tennessee Department of Education Partners with Harvard University, Ed Pioneers to Invest in Data

NASHVILLE – Complementing the work underway to transform its data systems, the Tennessee Department of Education is partnering with Harvard University and education reform nonprofit Education Pioneers to invest in high-quality data training and expertise.

Department employees Emily Robertson and Diane Perhac have been selected by Harvard officials as Strategic Data Project Agency Fellows, and will be joined by two nationally recruited Data Fellows. For two years, the Data and Agency fellows will work on ways to more effectively use research and data to improve education outcomes for kids in Tennessee.

“In my position as a statistical research specialist, this fellowship will help me improve my analytical and leadership skills,” Perhac said. “For instance, I’d like to study the achievement of schools in various feeder patterns to make sure our best teachers are placed in schools where they can have the greatest impact on student achievement.”

The department of education also was chosen to host two Education Pioneers Analyst Fellows for 10 months. The Analyst Fellowship identifies early career professionals who have at least two years of work experience at top-tier private-sector firms and have demonstrated exceptional analytic, quantitative and project management skills. They are placed in select locations, where they lead and manage strategic, data-based projects.

“That Tennessee was selected for these prestigious fellowships recognizes the ambitious reform work underway, and the belief from our partner organizations that we’re moving in the right direction,” said Erin O’Hara, assistant commissioner for data and communications. “Effectively using the data we have available to us is critical to improving student achievement.”

Through the Harvard partnership, Robertson and Perhac will work with the Data Fellows to enhance the analytical skills of existing staff and deepen the focus on using data to drive decisions throughout the department. All of the fellows could work on projects such as a redesign of the state’s Report Card, as well as analysis of Tennessee’s college-going rate and teacher compensation and professional development.

These two fellowships also complement efforts already begun with a group of external research experts at the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development. TNCRED’s review and analysis of Race to the Top projects, such as teacher and principal evaluation, compensation and professional development, work toward the Tennessee Department of Education’s strategy to engage high-quality internal and external researchers in the state and around the country.

“Improving the way we get data back into the hands of teachers and district leaders is one of my key strategic priorities for this department, and all of these projects support that goal,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “I look forward to working with Harvard and Education Pioneers to improve education in Tennessee.”

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Education News

Tennessee Favored In No Child Left Behind Announcement

Gov. Bill Haslam got the first real sign that Tennessee will get what it wants on the No Child Left Behind law when U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan called him last Friday about attending an event in Washington.

The event, it turns out, was a White House ceremony Friday where Haslam introduced President Barack Obama, who announced changes on NCLB. Tennessee requested a waiver from the law in July.

Deciding whether to accept an invitation to the White House would normally be a no-brainer for a governor, but Haslam had a little scheduling conflict. His daughter, Annie, is getting married. The wedding was planned for Saturday in the front yard of the Tennessee Residence — with the governor himself performing the ceremony.

“I said, ‘I’ve got a little issue. I’ve got a wedding going on that week, and I’ve got to make sure my boss says it’s OK,'” Haslam said Friday in Nashville. He didn’t say exactly who the boss was he was referring to, although presumably it is First Lady Crissy Haslam. The rehearsal dinner was scheduled Friday night.

“Once I knew I could do it logistically, I said I would be glad to, because I think they’re doing the right thing,” Haslam said of the trip.

The governor wasn’t allowing many details about the wedding, but he was happy Friday to talk about his visit to Washington, the return from which delayed him from his appointment to speak in Nashville at the Governor’s Conference on Economic and Community Development. A luncheon crowd of hundreds of people waited for him in the ballroom of the Renaissance Hotel.

Haslam, who usually keeps a full but tight schedule, apologized repeatedly for being late when he finally got to the podium. Weather had delayed his return. He didn’t speak long. But the journey to Washington spoke volumes about Tennessee’s place in education reform in the Obama administration’s eyes.

Obama announced a new flexibility plan on NCLB for states engaged in education reform. The criteria to receive that flexibility fall in line with the reform effort going on in Tennessee, begun under former Gov. Phil Bredesen. Duncan gave high praise to Tennessee’s efforts when he appeared in Nashville in August at West End Middle School and at the offices of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Obama is seeking reforms that still include standards that will make students college-ready and career-ready, accountability in the education system and evaluating teachers and principals on their effectiveness. But the White House move appears to be an agreement that expectations in NCLB have proved to be simply impossible to reach.

So on Friday morning, Haslam stood in the East Room of the White House, thanking Duncan, saying while he doesn’t always agree with Obama there should be action when Republicans and Democrats do agree, and introducing the president. No one guaranteed Haslam would get what he wants on NCLB, but the sight of the East Room appeared to say he would.

“When they said, ‘Do you want to come?’ I said, ‘Well, please don’t ask us up there if you’re going to embarrass us down the road,'” Haslam said. “I think the message was: ‘We like the path that you’re on.'”

States across the country have complained about the standards required in the law as being unrealistic and not achievable. The Obama administration seems to agree. Tennessee has been involved in education reform that won $501 million in the first round of the federal Race to the Top competition, showing the Obama administration likes what the state is doing.

The Obama administration issued criteria Friday that will give states that are working on reform the flexibility they seek. The White House noted that many states have adopted college- and career-ready standards and are implementing reforms in teacher and principal evaluations.

Obama said Friday a fresh approach will give states the opportunity to improve but will not serve as a reprieve from the spirit of the No Child Left Behind Law, which was adopted under former President George W. Bush.

Haslam said in his remarks at the White House that Tennessee is most qualified to make its own decisions about how to make progress in education. Tennessee’s efforts and the federal government’s position seem to match.

“We have talked with Secretary Duncan several times over the last five or six days,” Haslam said in Nashville Friday. “We talked about what their criteria are and where Tennessee stacks up.

“I think they feel really good about what we’ve submitted to them and what we’re doing in Tennessee, so I don’t have any final word, but I feel good about our position.”

Haslam was asked if the federal step to give more authority to the states is a weakening of standards.

“Here’s why it’s not weakening the standards,” he said. “No Child Left Behind, while it was about raising standards, it let every state set their own. Until last year, Tennessee set the standard really low. Then it just measured by whether you met your own bar. Tennessee did the right thing and set the bar higher.

“Now all of a sudden we’re on a path (with the original NCLB expectations) where 100 percent of our schools weren’t going to meet the standards. It’s much better to measure improvement.”

Haslam used one of his frequent analogies by comparing the situation to a workout exercise.

“If somebody said, ‘Bill Haslam, you should get in better shape, and I want you to run a four-minute mile next week,’ no way,” he said. “I can get in better shape, but if the goal is to run a four-minute mile, it’s not going to happen. If they measure my improvement, I can do that.

“We basically are going to use the accountability standards that are set out in Race to the Top in our winning application there. It’s one of the reasons we feel good about our application for a waiver. They’re asking states to do the same thing they asked in Race to the Top.”

Haslam viewed the invitation to the White House as acknowledgement of what the state is doing, but he spoke openly of the obvious political consideration in choosing a Republican governor to join the Democratic president in the ceremony.

“The things they are asking us to do, we are doing, in terms of focusing on the achievement gap, in terms of linking student performance to teacher evaluation,” Haslam said. “All the key things that the president talked about are the things we are doing in Tennessee, and I think are the right things to do as well. That’s one of the reasons I decided to go do that.

“I think they do want some states that they can give waivers to, and hopefully quickly, and say this is a state that’s on the right path. Obviously, politically, it doesn’t hurt to have a Republican governor up there with him, just to be truthful about it.”

Obama thanked Duncan, then thanked Haslam for being at the announcement and for “the great work that he’s doing in Tennessee.

“I’m especially appreciative because I found out that his daughter is getting married, and he is doing the ceremony tomorrow, so we’ve got to get him back on time.”

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Education

New Education Chief Sworn In; Defends Teacher Evaluation System

Tennessee’s new commissioner of education says everyone is looking at the controversial teacher evaluation issue all wrong.

It’s about finding the good teachers, Kevin Huffman says, not identifying the bad ones so you can kick them out of schools.

But trying to get Huffman to wade into the still-contentious collective bargaining issue being debated in the Legislature is fruitless. He won’t go there unless his boss, Gov. Bill Haslam, tells him to, Huffman says.

Huffman, who was introduced publicly by Haslam last month, was formally sworn in by the governor Tuesday at the Andrew Johnson Tower in Nashville. He now serves officially, replacing Patrick Smith, who had been the interim commissioner.

Huffman is aware of the battles going on in the Legislature regarding education reform. One of the squabbles regards whether the state’s ability to evaluate teachers based on performance data is advanced enough to merit implementation.

Democrats have asked for more time in order to get the evaluations right, but Republicans, who hold substantial majorities in both houses, have decided it’s time to move forward with tenure reform.

The Legislature has approved Haslam’s plan to extend the probationary period for tenure from three years to five. The system for assessing teacher performance calls for 50 percent of a teacher’s evaluation to be based on student performance, with 35 percent of that coming from a measure of year-over-year student improvement through the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.

“One of the things I’m excited about with this new teacher evaluation system is we’re going to be able to identify teachers across the state who are at the very top of performance,” said Huffman.

“We’re going to be able to go to them, learn from them and also talk to some of them about the possibility of becoming principals, starting charter schools and about spreading their impact.”

Huffman comes from the innovative Teach for America program, where young “corps members” commit to teach two years in troubled schools with the aim of high student achievement. Huffman was executive vice president of public affairs for the program when chosen by Haslam. Tennessee has more than 250 Teach for America teachers in its public schools. He is originally from Ohio.

Huffman steps into both a wave of positive momentum and boisterous legislative turmoil in education reform in the state. The state is primed to make strides based on its success in the federal Race to the Top competition. Haslam’s plans include the tenure reform and lifting the cap on charter schools, measures that have seen relatively smooth sailing in the Legislature thus far, although Democrats have been successful at snarling some movement on charters.

But a separate reform measure, an attempt to end or substantially restrict mandatory collective bargaining between local districts and unions that represent teachers, has sprung from the Legislature, not the governor, and resulted in protests and political wrangling.

The House has moved away from an outright ban on collective bargaining to a more permissive proposal, HB130, limiting what the union could negotiate.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and Senate Republicans have maintained that union collective bargaining in public school systems is “unproductive” for students, taxpayers and ultimately the teaching profession in Tennessee. They’ve most recently proposed replacing traditional collective bargaining negotiations with open hearings where teachers’ perspectives, concerns and priorities are aired publicly before elected school board officials.

Huffman would not offer an opinion on the collective bargaining issue when introduced last month, and he wouldn’t budge on it Tuesday either.

“The House and Senate are going to get together and try to figure things out with the help of the governor’s office,” Huffman said. “I’m going to try to stay out of it, unless the governor pulls me in to offer my thoughts and opinions on it.

“Obviously, we’ve got two pieces of legislation moving through, and I think the House and Senate leadership and the governor will get together and decide what the right answer ultimately is.”

Haslam wants to lift the cap of 90 charter schools currently in place. A public-private partnership was announced last month that provides $40 million that could create 40 new charter schools over the next five years.

Asked how many charter schools might be implemented with new opportunities put into law for them, Huffman said he isn’t sure. “Part of that will depend on the charter operators that are out there and the ideas they generate, but I think there is more we can do to get talented people to come and think about opening charters who haven’t thought about it before,” he said.

Huffman frequently mentioned getting “pipelines” of good teachers and principals in place. He said one of the objectives is to make things easier, not harder, on teachers.

“The governor, from my own personal conversations with him, is incredibly committed to making sure teachers’ lives and jobs are easier in driving toward the kinds of outcomes we want,” Huffman said.

Haslam recently held meetings with teachers across the state to get their input. The administration repeatedly insists it supports teachers rather than opposing them. Many legislators, teachers and their supporters have claimed the legislative efforts have been an attack on teachers, especially from the Legislature.

Haslam on Tuesday said since he named Huffman as his education choice last month he has heard from many people with unsolicited congratulations on his pick.

“After I named Kevin in this position, I started getting phone calls and e-mails from people at the leading edge of education reform from around the country, basically saying, ‘You hit a home run, and you don’t know how well you did in hiring Kevin,'” Haslam said. “So it was a thrill to me.”

Just before having Huffman repeat the oath of office in the swearing-in, Haslam said he promised to do a little better than he did on his inauguration day when he flubbed part of the oath for other Cabinet members. The Huffman event went off without a hitch.

After the swearing-in, Haslam walked rather than ride back up Capitol Hill, and he encountered a group of 4th-grade school students from Eagleville at the monument to President James K. Polk. Haslam stopped and interacted with the students, who were on a tour of the Capitol.

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Education Featured News

Frist: To the Top

Tenure reform for teachers has passed both houses of the Legislature, but in the eyes of former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, what’s going at the Capitol is part of a much bigger picture.

On Thursday, Frist and his education reform organization SCORE — the State Collaborative on Reforming Education — released a list of marching orders it sees as vital to the effort to transform education in Tennessee. The report on the state of education in Tennessee keeps the pressure on state officials even as some of the organization’s recommended reforms are already gaining ground in the Legislature.

Frist expressed support for Gov. Bill Haslam’s plan to reform teacher tenure in an interview with TNReport, and he described education reform in broad, sweeping terms that lend insight into why the transplant surgeon, also formerly one of the most powerful politicians in America, is so involved in education nowadays.

“Within education, you can do Pre-K and do higher education, but then if I have to ask myself based on these experiences of having done a lot of health care and a lot of policy and a lot of legislation, how can you best spend your time, it comes by K-12 education,” he said.

“If you win there, if you can be productive there, you can literally change the course of the history of the United States of America. That’s why I’m there, and not there for a month, not there for a year, but for many years and as far as the future I can see now.”

Frist served two terms in the Senate. He was at one point considered a potential presidential candidate. Frist contemplated running for governor at a time when he basically needed only to announce his candidacy and otherwise potentially serious contenders would have stood aside.

But he chose instead to focus on curing Tennessee’s education ills. The reason, he said, was because that one issue touches so many others — among them jobs, workforce training, rising health care costs, and U.S. global competitiveness — “big problems that really hit the greatness of America.”

Frist said he contemplated how he could have best have an impact. His conclusion: “It all — all — comes back to education.”

Education & Jobs

The SCORE report said Haslam and other leaders must keep education reform at the top of their agenda by emphasizing the connection between education and jobs (pdf). It said Tennessee should focus on developing a pipeline of district and school leaders, saying research has shown that the quality of the leader has a large impact on how much students learn.

The report said the state must place a “relentless focus” on improving instruction, saying that even with debates in the Legislature over tenure, collective bargaining and teacher evaluations, it’s easy to forget the quality of instruction in the individual classroom.

The report then puts the heat on the Tennessee Department of Education and its incoming commissioner, Kevin Huffman, due to take the job in April. The report said the department must change from a “compliance-oriented” organization to a “service-oriented” operation.

Despite his obvious prominence in the Republican Party, Frist asserts that SCORE is “religiously nonpartisan.”

“Education is a nonpartisan issue,” he said. Frist sees Haslam, a Republican, as picking up where Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen left off.

“What Gov. Bredesen was able to accomplish was getting rid of the hypocrisy of false standards and putting in accurate standards,” said Frist. “What Gov. Haslam is doing is taking the same concept, the same philosophy, to the next step.”

‘Probably Not a Lot’ of Bad Teachers: Frist

The state has been through a lot since the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee an “F” in education in 2007. It has adopted the Tennessee Diploma Project meant to update standards. It adopted a “First to the Top” reform package in a special legislative session that resulted in, among other things, teacher evaluations being based on student achievement. That package was passed in order to apply for federal “Race to the Top” federal stimulus funds, and Tennessee won $501 million. Half of those funds were allotted to local districts, and half were designated for the state level.

Now, the Legislature is embroiled in an effort to remove the teachers’ union’s collective bargaining power, SB113, an issue Haslam has only recently spoken up on. The governor has sided more with a compromise measure in the House than the hard-line effort in the Senate.

Tenure reform and dramatic changes for charter schools have been high on Haslam’s priorities and have so far seen much smoother sailing in the Legislature.

Frist said he likes the tenure proposal and has made his own video backing the effort. He was asked Thursday if there are too many bad teachers who should be shown the door.

“Probably not a lot,” he said. But if a teacher, year after year, on average leaves students less educated than when they entered the class, the teacher probably should not be teaching, he said.

On collective bargaining, Frist said, “It’s very important for teachers to have an appropriate voice. When that voice becomes so ingrained it hurts students, for example, restricts the number of days a student can be in a classroom — at a time other countries are going in the opposite direction — the system needs to be reformed.”

He said he is “very supportive” of Haslam’s charter school proposals. Haslam has called for lifting the cap on charter schools and allowing a state-run achievement school district to establish charters, rather than just local school boards. A $40 million public/private partnership to expand charter schools was recently announced.

Frist worked on the federal No Child Left Behind law while in Washington and has called for updates in the law, which is up for re-authorization.

“I think it was reasonably successful,” he said. “But what it clearly did is set the stage for what we’re doing in Tennessee today.”

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Business and Economy Education Featured News

Superkids Waiting

Look! Look! Up on the screen!

A lot of lawmakers at the Tennessee Capitol think teachers’ unions are at least partly responsible for a lot that’s wrong with public education. And now they’ve got a movie to prove it.

More than a dozen members of the state Senate and House of Representatives sat in on a special matinee viewing of the 2010 film Waiting for ‘Superman’ in a Legislative Plaza hearing room one afternoon earlier this month. The screening was organized by Germantown Senate Republican Brian Kelsey and the film’s producers, who’ve shown the award-winning documentary to policymakers and education reform groups around the country.

Republican and Democrats alike who watched the movie all said afterward that they’re troubled by the state of education in America generally, and in Tennessee particularly. The film, they said, strengthened their resolve to effect positive change that is “about children, not adults,” a theme central to Waiting for ‘Superman’.

Another Inconvenient Truth

Released on DVD just last week, Waiting for ‘Superman’ follows the plight of several students and their families as they try to escape floundering public school systems by gaining entrance and new opportunities in more successful charter schools.

It is directed and narrated by Davis Guggenheim, who also directed the Oscar-winning documentary, An Inconvenient Truth, a film credited both with dramatically raising the public’s alarm over global warming and bestowing environmentalist sainthood on Al Gore, Jr.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ takes its title from a comment made early on by one of its main figures, a successful charter-school founder in New York named Geoffrey Canada.

“One of the saddest days of my life was when my mother told me Superman did not exist, because even in the depths of the ghetto, you just thought he was coming,” recalls Canada, who grew up in the South Bronx. “She thought I was crying because it’s like Santa Claus is not real. I was crying because no one was coming with enough power to save us.”

Wanna Be Your Superhero

Memphis Democrats John DeBerry, Jr. and Lois DeBerry (no relation) were among those who attended the screening of the film in Nashville. Both indicated they found it provocative and moving.

During a panel discussion on the the film and its lessons for Tennessee, Lois DeBerry, the former Tennessee House speaker pro tem of 24 years — the first African-American woman ever to win that post — became too emotional to speak and had to temporarily withhold her remarks until she collected herself.

“In 2011, I just can’t believe that we’re no further along in educating our children,” she said a while later. “Our children deserve better than this. And as Tennesseans, we can do better than this.”

Lois DeBerry’s obvious frustration, sadness and anger, said Rep. John DeBerry, are feelings shared by most who care deeply about the plight of children, particularly poor children, in failing American schools. “Many of our hearts are broken by what we see happening to many of our children, especially in urban areas,” he said.

“I think that basically we have been in denial in urban areas. For too long we’ve kind of put our head in the ground, and refused to take the bitter pill that there are some drastic and immediate changes that have to be taken,” he added.

DeBerry, Jr. spoke of a “a big pile of money” in public education, and of the many adults eying it, intent on acquiring or controlling how it gets spent. But the providers of education services are not, he said, “as important as the end product.”

“That end product is a student who can think, who can read, who can reason and who can perform in today’s world,” said DeBerry. “The rest of the world is, excuse the expression, kicking our butts, with a whole lot less money, because their education systems look at the child — at the recipient and not the provider. We’ve got too much attention on the providers, and not enough on the recipient.”

Added Lois DeBerry: “Children are waiting for a Superwoman and a Superman, without politics. They are waiting to be educated.”

“You ask me why charter schools are good for Tennessee? It’s because of what we saw in that film,” she said. “Because our kids, all of our kids, no matter where they come from, deserve the very best education that we can give them. And God is going to hold us responsible if we don’t do it.”

Reform Eradicators

Waiting for ‘Superman’ isn’t just about charter schools. It also analyzes the role teachers’ unions play in American schools. And they come off as an obstinate force of obstruction, fundamentally hardwired to resist innovation and experimentation that potentially threatens the status quo.

The movie leaves the audience with the impression that teachers’ unions at minimum hold dual and conflicting loyalties. Union leaders say they have the best interest of students at heart. But oftentimes, the film argues, unions use their considerable political muscle to protect sub-par teachers from professional competition — or even from having to meet basic, on-the-job performance criteria as a condition of continued employment, an otherwise commonplace reality in private-sector working environments.

The system of teacher tenure, for example, is alleged by many who speak in the film to be a nearly impassible roadblock to reforming failing schools.

“In universities, professors are only granted tenure after many years of teaching, and a grueling vetting process, and many don’t receive it,” narrates Guggenheim. “But for public school teachers, tenure has become automatic.”

Geoffrey Canada says in one scene, “You can get tenure basically if you continue to breathe for two years. You get it.”

“And whether or not you can help children is totally irrelevant,” he adds. “Once you get tenure we cannot get rid of you. Almost no matter what you do, you are there for life, even if it is proven you are a lousy teacher.”

Some of Tennessee’s most powerful GOP education-oversight lawmakers are vocal advocates of lessening teachers’ union influence in education policy discussions. And a common sentiment expressed by them after watching the film was that no “sacred cow” will stand in the way of their reform proposals this session.

The nation is watching Tennessee as a result of the state winning more than $500 million in federal “Race to the Top” funding last year, said Senate Education Chairwoman Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville. That means bold steps are necessary, both to prove the state is serious about reform, and to enact solutions to problems that others around the country can look to emulate, she said.

Gresham said Waiting for ‘Superman”s portrayal of teachers’ unions as an impediment to education reform rings true to her. It naturally follows that undermining what gives unions their power is key to limiting their capacity to disrupt or thwart brave new initiatives, she said.

“The issue of collective bargaining has to be met head-on, and for many of the reasons that we saw in this film,” said Gresham.

Kryptonite Sold Here

Teachers’ unions and their supporters have denounced Waiting for ‘Superman’.

The National Education Association has even set up a special resources page of anti-Superman criticism.

Waiting for ‘Superman’, said NEA President Dennis Van Roekel, “demonizes public education, teachers unions, and, unfortunately, teachers.”

“Nowhere in the film or its discussion have teachers’ voices been heard,” said Van Roekel. “If you want to know how to make a public school great, ask a teacher, not Hollywood.”

And as with An Inconvenient Truth, the integrity of Guggenheim’s latest offering has been called into question by the film’s detractors.

Waiting for ‘Superman’ is merely “a slick marketing piece full of half-truths and distortions,” said a Huffington Post reviewer. “It rejects the inconvenient truth that our schools are being starved of funds and other necessary resources, and instead opts for an era of privatization and market-driven school change.”

Another professor, Diane Ravitch, an education policy researcher at New York University with ties to the center-left Brookings Institution, wrote in the New York Times last month that Waiting for ‘Superman’ may indeed represent “the most important public-relations coup that the critics of public education have made so far.” And she acknowledged that the film is “a powerful weapon on behalf of those championing the ‘free market’ and privatization” in the “clash of ideas occurring in education right now.”

But she claims the film is more the stuff of “right-wing” fantasy than responsible documentary.

“The movie asserts a central thesis in today’s school reform discussion: the idea that teachers are the most important factor determining student achievement. But this proposition is false,” wrote Ravitch.

“(W)hile teachers are the most important factor within schools, their effects pale in comparison with those of students’ backgrounds, families, and other factors beyond the control of schools and teachers,” she continued. “Teachers can have a profound effect on students, but it would be foolish to believe that teachers alone can undo the damage caused by poverty and its associated burdens.”

Ravitch’s conclusion is that expanding market-style competition in America’s public education systems could produce disastrous results. “The stock market crash of 2008 should suffice to remind us that the managers of the private sector do not have a monopoly on success,” she wrote.

A Legislative Locomotive

The Tennessee Education Association says the GOP’s push to undermine unions this session is rooted in a desire for “political payback” stemming from the TEA’s admitted preference for Democrats when disbursing union political contributions. And to that end, Republicans have proposed ending automatic payroll deductions of government employees’ union dues, which could over time have the effect of drying up a lot of the TEA’s own financial support.

But there’s more to this political beef than campaign cash. Many Republicans blame unions for much of what ails inner city public schools. GOP lawmakers suggest unions have willfully perpetuated failing education systems, which has exacerbated urban poverty and social dysfunction, which in turn undermines the ability of families, neighborhoods and communities to promote and sustain institutions of educational excellence.

“Teachers’ unions have had this death-grip, this ‘let’s-stop-everything’ mentality. And look at where it has gotten us. We are in the cellar not just in the nation, but in the world as far as developed countries’ systems go,” said Knoxville GOP Sen. Stacey Campfield. “The teachers’ unions say, ‘Just leave things the way they are and somehow things will magically change.’ Well, it is not going to change. We have to make changes if we want to see the situation change.”

“The time is now, and if the union doesn’t want to be a pat of it, well then I’m sorry, but maybe they have to be put aside a little bit,” said Campfield, a member of the Senate Education Committee.

Kelsey, who also serves on the Senate Education Committee, is — along with Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville — sponsoring school-voucher legislation this year called the “Equal Opportunity Scholarship Act.”

Kelsey, Ramsey and many other Republicans — as well as a few Democrats — also support expanding the number and role of charter schools in Tennessee, including in the state-controlled “achievement district” that will likely include a number of failing Memphis schools. Finally, there appears to be broad GOP support for making it more difficult for a teacher to earn and maintain tenure, and for prohibiting local school districts from collectively bargaining with teachers’ unions.

Kelsey maintains that his intention for organizing the Waiting for ‘Superman’ screening for lawmakers was not to denigrate teachers in general. In fact, the opposite is true, said Kelsey: He wanted to inspire lawmakers to propose and support reforms that reward teachers who embrace the challenge of producing better educational results.

“Our research has shown us that having a great teacher in the classroom is the No. 1 way to improve education,” Kelsey said. “And in fact, we undervalue great teachers.

“On the other hand, often, very often — and we have seen this in Tennessee — teachers’ unions are holding us back from educating children,” said Kelsey.

Lt. Gov. Ramsey said the political fact on the floors of both chambers of the Tennessee Legislature is that the GOP is going to drive the debate and agenda on education reform this session. That agenda will involve expanding school choice and forcing education providers to compete for taxpayer dollars, he said.

“I’m a big proponent of competition,” said Ramsey. “That’s the reason I think charter schools are a good way to go. I do think that these scholarships that we are talking about in those failing schools to allow parents to take their money and allow for competition…is a step in the right direction.

“There’s not one magic bullet, I think this film pointed that out. It’s a combination of a lot of things that can improve school systems.”

And Republicans are keenly aware that they couldn’t really ask for a friendlier legislative climate for enacting their favored programs and initiatives, he said.

“The spotlight is on us,” said Ramsey. “In the past we may have used excuses that bills were killed in some committees in the House, or that the governor wouldn’t sign a bill. Republicans, for the first time in the history of this state, have the majority in the House, the majority in the Senate and the governorship. We can’t make excuses any longer, and I think that the time is right, right now, to reform education in Tennessee.”

Categories
Press Releases

Tennessee Joins National Alliance To Increase Degree Completion

Press Release from the Gov. Phil Bredesen Administration, March 3, 2010:

17 States Join ‘Complete College America’ To Make College Completion A Top Priority

NASHVILLE – Governor Phil Bredesen today announced that Tennessee will join efforts with Complete College America, a national nonprofit organization working to dramatically increase the number of young adults with a college degree or credential. Tennessee will join 16 other states to form the Complete College Alliance, a group of leading states committed to significantly increasing the number of students successfully completing college and closing attainment gaps for traditionally underserved populations. Connecticut, Hawaii, Idaho, Illinois, Indiana, Maryland, Massachusetts, Nevada, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Rhode Island, South Dakota, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia have also joined the Alliance.

“Tennessee is well positioned to be a leader in this area because of the work we already have underway to achieve the goal of improved college completion rates,” Bredesen said. “We know what’s at stake if we don’t do better. Our economy hinges on our ability to develop a more skilled workforce and, more fundamentally, to give our kids a quality education so they can earn a good living. I’m pleased Tennessee has the opportunity to become even more involved in this effort.”

The early efforts of Bredesen and other state policy makers positioned Tennessee to be among the first to sign on to Complete College American’s reform agenda. In January, lawmakers capped a year-long effort to comprehensively restructure the state’s system of colleges and universities with the special session passage of the “Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010.” The legislation includes a new approach for funding higher education based on graduation rates and eliminates remedial programs at four-year institutions. Instead, all remediation will be conducted at the state’s 13 community colleges through new dual-enrollment guarantees.

As a member of the Alliance, Tennessee will receive tangible and practical support to help implement a range of strategies that will bring needed changes in the culture and practices of its public postsecondary institutions. Alliance states will also receive in-depth technical support from America’s leading experts on improving college success, including assistance in building consensus for reform, developing policy action plans and guidance on applying for and effectively using federal funding to produce more degrees.

“The long-term economic growth of any state is tied to the educational attainment of its citizens,” said Stan Jones, president of Complete College America. “Reform-minded states like Tennessee are taking the lead in addressing this serious national issue head on. The implications of ‘business as usual’ are too great not to act. That’s why the leadership of Governor Bredesen and the state of Tennessee will have such a profound impact.”

The Volunteer State lags the nation in completion of bachelor’s degrees, ranked 40th, and associate degrees, ranked 45th. On average, only 46 percent of full-time students at four-year schools graduate within six years, and only 12 percent of full-time community college students attain associated degrees within three years.

For more information, visit http://completecollege.org/.

Categories
News

Gubernatorial Candidates Signed RTTT Funding Request

All seven major candidates for governor agreed to support Tennessee’s “Race to the Top” education reforms in hopes of the state picking up a share of $4.35 billion in federal grant money Washington is doling out over the coming months.

Each signed a letter of support drafted by Gov. Phil Bredesen’s staff requesting $501.2 million for the Tennessee public school system.

“Should our state succeed in the competition, we will continue to focus on education and work tirelessly to implement the reforms necessary to transform our schools and offer our children a better future,” read the letter (pdf, pg. 34) affixed with the signatures of the four Republicans and three Democrats.

After spending a week in a special legislative session, the General Assembly approved sweeping education reforms that include changing the way teachers and principals are evaluated and creating a state-wide school district to manage failing schools.

The changes were needed, according to Bredesen, to strengthen the state’s federal grant application.

The letter is “extremely important” to the state’s application, said Lydia Lenker, Bredesen’s press secretary.

GOP candidates include Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, Congressman Zach Wamp, Shelby County District Attorney General Bill Gibbons and Knoxville Mayor Bill Haslam. Campaigning for the Democratic Party nomination are state Senate Minority Leader Jim Kyle, Jackson businessman Mike McWherter and former House Democratic leader Kim McMillan.

“Bottom line, it’s about continuity and commitment through the gubernatorial transition,” Lenker said.

The application, handed to U.S. Government officials Tuesday, could mean an influx of education dollars that would span past Bredesen’s term in office.

“We recognize the challenges in sustaining education reform across gubernatorial administrations and shifts in the legislature,” the letter stated. “If our state is successful in Race to the Top, it also must deliver on the proposed programs and investments in a manner that effectively spans the transition in January 2011 from the current governor to the next governor.”