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Education

Republicans Sounding Agreeable to Bredesen’s Education Reform Pitch

Gov. Phil Bredesen’s speech before a joint meeting of the House and Senate for the special legislative session on Tuesday drew skepticism from some in his own party. But to many Republicans on Capitol Hill, the reform plan outlined by the Democratic governor was just what they wanted to hear.

“He has asked us to be bold and join him in this opportunity to prepare students for this global economy and I’m excited about the opportunity,” said Senate Education Committee member Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville. “I think this is an excellent opportunity for Tennessee, and I look forward to this week so we can work together.”

Bredesen is offering two legislative proposals for the special session.

One, called “Tennessee First to the Top Act of 2010,” is designed to position Tennessee to snatch up a portion of the hundreds of millions of dollars the Obama administration is dangling in front of states in “Race to the Top” education funding grants.

The other bill, the “Complete College Tennessee Act of 2010,” is written with the idea in mind of trying to boost lagging college completion rates in Tennessee. “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 associate degrees within three years,” Bredesen told lawmakers.

For every 100 students who enter ninth grade in our public schools, Bredesen said, 67 graduate from high school in four years. Of those, 43 go directly to college after graduation, but only 29 return for their sophomore year.

“Just 19 graduate with an associate’s degree in three years or a bachelor’s degree in six years,” Bredesen said. “We can do better. We’ve got to do better.”

For Tennessee schools to have a chance at some of the “Race to the Top” funding, which is part of the stimulus package the Democratic-led Congress and the Obama administration passed last year, changes need to be made to how teachers here are evaluated, said Bredesen.

The “Race to the Top” application specifically requires that student achievement data be added as a “significant factor” to teacher and school principal evaluations, according to the governor. Other states the Bredesen administration sees as “primary competitors” have generally determined that half a teacher’s or principal’s performance evaluation should be based on student achievement.

Currently, it is illegal in Tennessee for school administrators to use student achievement data to rate and review teachers for tenure.

“I know this represents change, but this is not rocket science,” Bredesen said about his proposal to allow student progress to drive official teacher-performance assessments. “It is a commonsense notion; we pay teachers to teach children, a part of their evaluation ought to be how much the children they teach learn.”

Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, said afterward that Bredesen “made a very good case on why we need to do this, and that it’s probably the right thing to do.”

Democrats grumbled that all this proposed change is coming at them without much opportunity for considered debate and analysis. The deadline for the state to apply for the “Race to the Top” grants is Jan. 19. That means a legislative package needs to be on Bredesen’s desk before then.

“I think he’s pretty optimistic. I think he’s entered into a contest where we may or may not win and are trying to change the entire system in a very short period of time,” said Rep. John C. Tidwell of New Johnsonville. “A lot of the details don’t work out.”

While everyone “would love the luxury of time,” said Woodson, “this isn’t the only time in our legislative history that we’ve been talking about these important issues.”

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey said tying teacher performance reviews to student test scores “is something (Republicans) have been pushing for years.”

Ramsey predicted that getting the legislative changes Bredesen wants passed through the chamber over which he presides probably won’t be too difficult. “I think we can do it,” said Ramsey. “I don’t see a lot of problem on the Senate side.”

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News

‘Race to Top’ Application Taking More Prep Time Than Feds Estimated

Tennessee education officials figure the state will invest more than twice the 681 hours in work time the federal government estimated states should take when preparing requests for special stimulus package school-funding grants.

Lawmakers are at the capitol this week at Gov. Phil Bredesen’s behest to try and pass legislation he hopes will give Tennessee a better chance of snatching  more than $400 million in one-time federal education funding.

Officials in the Volunteer State began working on the 102-page grant application in early Fall when initial details of the program were released. Two workers from Education First Consulting joined the effort full-time in November after federal officials issued applications.

Those two workers, who are responsible for producing an attractive Tennessee application for the “Race to the Top” grants, are paid by the Seattle-based Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. The foundation will cover up to $250,000 of the consulting firms’ costs, but none of that money trickles down to Tennessee staffers working on the grant, said Rachel Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education.

State education staff have also poured hours into the the RTTT application, Woods said. As many as 40 people have been writing up explanations of key education programs to paste into the application.

Others are collecting grant agreements from the state’s 136 school districts.

Woods said the state will “easily” double the federal government’s 681-hour estimate.

The RTTT application is due in Washington, D.C., by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 19. Lawmakers hope to pass legislation before then that will make Tennessee a stronger competitor for a chunk of the $4.35 billion grant.

Numerous other states also quickly exceeded the U.S. Board of Education’s 681-hour estimate — about 4 and a half months for one person — when filling out the RTTT grant application.

“I will have easily put in 81 hours myself by the time the proposal turns in,” Woods said.

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Education Featured News

Breaking Down ‘Race to the Top’

Lawmakers will spend the next few days changing Tennessee’s education laws to make the state eligible for an infusion of federal education funding.

But the hottest issue up for debate at the statehouse this week — how strongly to tie student test scores to educators’ tenure and yearly evaluations — accounts for only 12 percent of the overall “Race to the Top” federal grant application.

“That’s just one little technical piece to be taken care of,” said Rachel Woods, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Race to Top pie

The $4.35 billion grant competition, which is a part of the federal stimulus package, will award the top 10 to 20 states with leading education reforms that boost student achievement and graduation rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Tennessee is slated to receive more than $400 million if it wins the grant money.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called this a “once in a lifetime chance” to propel student achievement, will be most interested in how Tennessee fits into the grant’s four-pronged approach for reform.

He and the U.S. Department of Education will measure how well the state can:

  • Adopt measures to better prepare students for college, work and compete in the global economy
  • Build databanks that measure students’ success; use that information to fuel instruction
  • Attract, develop, reward and keep effective teachers and principals, particularly in tough-to-teach classrooms
  • Turn around low-achieving schools.

The 102-page grant application — which scores much like a high school final exam — looks for a state to pitch several education reforms. Sections range from finding ways to improve the transition between preschool and kindergarten, how to use student data to drive instruction, and methods to better prepare students for jobs in complicated subjects like math and technology.

The application, which is estimated to take 681 hours to complete, is cut into several pieces. The slice with the heaviest weight calls for states to find, keep and develop quality teachers.

That section, worth 28 percent of the total evaluation, asks for Tennessee to prove how it will support several initiatives, such as alternative teaching certification programs and attracting quality teachers to struggling schools.

The section also calls for making professional-development programs for teachers and principals more rigorous. It also and includes linking student-performance data to salary, tenure and firing decisions — which accounts for 58 out of 138 possible scoring points.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy group, suggests a state’s performance in this teachers section will “make or break” their application, while winning proposals break new ground in this area.

“It will require break-the-mold initiatives and iron political will on the part of states to undertake a human capital reform agenda — and, accordingly, the Department has assigned the big points and promised the big money for this tough work,” read NCTQ’s “Race to the Top Scorecard” (pdf).

Lawmakers expect to reverse a current ban on using annual standardized tests to help determine whether teachers receive tenure.

In 1992, schools began collecting student performance data through standardized tests. But the Tennessee Education Association convinced lawmakers to make it illegal to use those scores to help evaluate teacher performance for tenure.

Gov. Phil Bredesen called the special session specifically to pass legislation to help the state compete for “Race to the Top” grant money and other education issues.

He said last month the scores would have to weigh in at 50 percent or more to engage the issue. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, agreed last week with 50 percent mark and expects to push the measure through.

The main opponent, the Tennessee Education Association, said it is willing to support test scores accounting for 35 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations.

For “Race to the Top” grant money, Tennessee will also have to prove it has the statewide capacity to follow through on promised reforms and show that — since at least 2003 — it’s already made good headway in improving student achievement, according to “Race to the Top” documents. The section, called “State Success Points,” represents a quarter of the grant application.

About 14 percent of the application depends on the state’s commitment to developing standards other states can later adopt on their own.

Another 11 percent is given based on the state’s recent track record for shifting more dollars to education each year and 9 percent is for using student data to drive instruction. An additional 3 percent — considered a tie-breaker — is given for developing a plan to help emphasize student studies on science, technology, engineering and math, called STEM. The application does not dictate any other specific areas of student study.

Another section includes turning around lowest-achieving schools. To do this, lawmakers expect to create a statewide “achievement” school district that will adopt those institutions and take over instructional oversight such as hiring and firing decisions.This section makes up 10 percent of the application and requires lawmakers to pass new legislation this week.

The application is due by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 19. Winning states will be announced in April.

The U.S. Department of Education will accept a second wave of applications on June 1, 2010, from states that missed the first deadline or were rejected in the Spring.