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TN Teacher Evals Discussed in WSJ

Two Memphis music teachers and Tennessee’s top education official are featured in a Wall Street Journal story today tracking teacher evaluation efforts across the country.

The story looks at the challenge of using tests in evaluating educators when standardized tests don’t generally cover social studies or science, focusing instead on reading and math. There’s also the potential for parent revolt, as in the case of Charlotte-Mecklenburg Schools’ failed attempt to test every single kindergartner one at a time.

Here’s the Tennessee connection:

Memphis music teacher Jeff Chipman is part of a small group of teachers piloting the new assessment based on student portfolios, and he acknowledges the district’s challenges.

“We are about teaching kids to perform and experience art, and that cannot be measured with a pencil-and-paper test,” he said. “We want to be evaluated on how we help kids grow, but we don’t want to turn the arts program into a testing machine.”

The story carries a photo of another Memphis music teacher, Anthony Q. Richardson, at the piano against the backdrop of instructional posters on rhythm, and Tennessee’s education commissioner chimes in to put a positive spin on the state’s new teacher evaluation system.

“No system is perfect, but the question is whether the one we have now is better and more fair than the previous one,” Commissioner Kevin Huffman tells the Journal. “And the answer is, indisputably, yes.”

Last year Tennessee adopted a plan for more frequent evaluations of teachers tied to student test scores along with a lengthier process to attain tenure. The policies stem directly from the state’s winning $501 million in the Obama administration’s Race to the Top competition.

The state’s major teachers union – winded after a serious blow to its power last year – has continued to push back against the new system. Tennesseans, meanwhile, are withholding judgment.

Haslam, Memphis Teachers Discuss Teacher Evaluations

Gov. Bill Haslam tried to reassure Memphis teachers about a controversial new evaluation system during a meeting Thursday attended by his education chief and the Memphis schools’ superintendent.

Teachers said they worry about flawed input from parents and how teachers whose subjects aren’t tested would be evaluated, and one teacher said the system would lead to “lawyers being involved,” according to the Commercial Appeal.

As he has said before, Haslam told reporters that the system, while imperfect, should be implemented and then improved upon.

“We can wait forever to get the perfect evaluation system,” Haslam said, as recounted in the Memphis Flyer. “Let’s begin the process. All of us need feedback. I need it in my job. I needed it when I was in business. Let’s start that process.”

The Memphis Fox News station was also there and has this report from the visit, which included stops at the Margolin Hebrew Academy and a groundbreaking for Veterans’ Parkway in Millington:

State Leaders Meet with School Officials: MyFoxMEMPHIS.com

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.

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.”

Ramsey: Goal of Tenure Reform ‘a High Performing, Quality Teacher in Every Classroom’

Press Release from Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, March 10, 2011:

(NASHVILLE, TN) – The State Senate today passed a major teacher tenure reform initiative, fulfilling years of Republican efforts to reform Tennessee’s tenure system. The measure, which builds on the bold initiatives passed last year with Tennessee’s First to the Top program, is designed to improve student achievement and give them more opportunities to succeed in an increasingly competitive global economy.

“Tenure reform brings us one step closer to our goal of ensuring a high performing, quality teacher in every classroom,” said Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville). “It will also help us identify outstanding teachers as well as those who need our support to become outstanding teachers.”

Key Provisions of the Senate Bill 1528 include:

  • Extends teacher tenure probationary period from three to five years
  • Ties the teacher evaluation system to tenure eligibility and requires a teacher to score in the top two (out of a total of five) effectiveness categories on the evaluation in the two years immediately preceding becoming eligible for tenure
  • Expands the definition of “inefficiency” as a grounds for dismissal of a tenured teacher to include evaluations demonstrating an overall performance effectiveness level that is “below expectations” or “significantly below expectations”
  • For teachers tenured after the enactment of the new law, it requires a return to probationary status after two consecutive years scoring in the bottom two effectiveness categories of the evaluation
  • Moves non-renewal deadline from May 15 to June 15

Tennessee currently ranks 46th in student overall academic achievement.

The legislation uses the work of First to the Top which, in collaboration with teachers, creates an evaluation system that measures teacher effectiveness. The reform initiative passed last year requires annual evaluations using teacher effect data in teacher and principal evaluations. The evaluation system capitalizes on Tennessee’s two decades of experience with the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) in evaluating student achievement on a year-to-year basis.

The deadline for the evaluations to be put into place under the First to the Top law is July 2011. There has been a diligent process for determining what measure should be used for non-tested subject areas.

The bill also received approval in the House Education Subcommittee and is now pending action before the full House Education Committee next week.

Both Sides in Clash Over Union Power Look to Haslam for Support

On a day when 3,000 or more unionized Tennessee teachers and their supporters marched on Legislative Plaza in the rain, Gov. Bill Haslam refused Saturday night to get into the fray over a bill to end collective bargaining between teachers’ unions and local school districts.

Haslam is for now sticking strictly to his own education agenda, which includes changing the state’s tenure system for teachers.

“We, from the very beginning, put the things forward that we thought could make the most difference in the classroom, and I’ve said that repeatedly, and I’ll continue to say that,” Haslam said at a Republican Party Reagan Day dinner in Rutherford County.

Haslam referred to “name-calling” on both sides of the collective bargaining issue, the most contentious of several GOP-sponsored legislative efforts in the General Assembly right now that have drawn union ire.

“Obviously, there is a lot of disagreement about the collective bargaining issues and name-calling on both sides, and we want to be on the side of the people who are solving problems. And we’re going to continue to do that — the things that we think will impact the classroom the most.”

It wasn’t clear, however, if the governor knew he’d himself been nicknamed “Mister Rogers” by one speaker at a much smaller tea party rally at the Capitol earlier in the day.

Raymond Baker, a former Republican political consultant, was critical of Haslam, whom he views as too soft to be counted on in a bare-knuckle political brawl with the powerful teachers’ union.

“Bill Haslam, where are you? Where are you?” Baker asked.

“Speaker (Beth) Harwell, where are you?” he added.

Baker then reeled off the names of other states’ GOP governors battling public employee unions or actively leading on issues important to conservative Republicans.

“Here’s the deal. Wisconsin got Scott Walker. Florida got Rick Scott. South Carolina got Nikki Haley. Arizona got Jan Brewer. We got Mister Rogers,” Baker said. “You cannot govern Tennessee like it’s Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood.”

After his remarks to the tea party crowd, Baker said Haslam is prone to give in on the issue.

“He is completely non-confrontational. He is a compromiser,” Baker said. “He has met with the TEA and cut a compromise deal with them that will still allow for collective bargaining while claiming that it doesn’t. He simply doesn’t have the backbone to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee.”

Sen. Jack Johnson, R-Franklin, who sponsors SB113, the collective bargaining bill in the Senate, attended the tea party event and said Haslam has done nothing to force any sort of compromise on the issue.

“I think Gov. Haslam has a broad agenda, and reforming education is one of the biggest parts of his agenda as a new governor,” Johnson said. “I think he is going to work with us in the General Assembly.

“There has been no discussion whatsoever of any type of compromise. That discussion may happen at some point. We are talking frequently about his agenda and our agenda and how we can help each other. There have been no discussions about compromise or what the bill will ultimately end up looking like. I just know he is very supportive, and we’re very supportive of him.”

Tennessee’s issues, for the moment at least, are limited mostly to teachers, but Rep. Mike Turner, the House Democratic Caucus chairman, said the GOP will likely target other quarry if they’re successful now.

“If they get the teachers, they’re coming after the firefighters. If they get the firefighters, they’re coming after the police officers. If they get the police officers, they’re coming after the construction workers, service workers and everybody,” said Turner, a board officer for the Tennessee Fire Fighters Emergency Relief Fund

“I’ve been preaching for years that if you let the Republicans get in charge this is what you’re going to get, and this is what we’ve got.”

Turner publicly urged Haslam to “please stop this terrorism against our teachers.”

Haslam has steadfastly refused to pick sides over collective bargaining. He has said there will be “twists and turns” as the legislative process continues, but he has refused to voice his opinion on the legislation, hewing instead to his priorities of extending the probationary period on tenure and opening up the education system to more charter schools.

Increasingly, whether lawmakers institute a ban on collective bargaining appears to be coming down to the degree of Republican support in the House.

“I know we’ve got a number of Republican House members who support our position,” said Jerry Winters, chief lobbyist for the TEA.

“A lot of people are asking, ‘Who are they?’ Obviously they don’t particularly want to say on the front end. But it’s a moving target, and we’re waiting to see what it’s going to look like. This is not just going to go down Democrat and Republican lines.”

Winters said he thinks it’s a good sign for the union that Haslam is avoiding taking a public position on the bills they oppose.

“I certainly don’t consider the governor a foe. I think the fact that he is not taking a position in support of these really divisive bills is very much to his credit,” Winters said. “He wants to get off to a good start. We want him to get off to a good start. And I think it’s very much to his credit that’s he’s staying out of this right now.

“I think it’s just unbelievable that this many teachers turned out on a stormy rainy day to show their concerns about what’s happening in this Capitol. I’m just ecstatic we had this kind of turnout.”

Turner told the crowd of teachers he had heard what was going on at the tea party event Saturday.

“They were bashing the man who could stop this tomorrow. They were talking about Gov. Bill Haslam like he was a Democrat. If he wants to join us, we’ll welcome him. We’ve got room for him,” Turner said.

“I hope he’s listening today. I hope he’s watching this. He’s from a position of wealth and privilege. I don’t know if he understands what it’s like to go through things we go through to raise our children and earn a living. But I do know this. He’s a good man. He’s reached out to us in the Legislature. He’s trying to do the right thing. But he has the power to stop this madness now.”

Several Democratic legislators took part in the teachers rally, which cast Republican efforts on education as nothing more than political payback after the GOP made historic gains in the last election.

Sen. Eric Stewart, D-Belvidere, addressed the crowd and claimed Republicans are attempting to get revenge over issues surrounding union campaign contributions. The TEA typically gives much more money to Democrats than Republicans.

“I’ve only been here two years, but I can promise you it’s a much more partisan, much more toxic situation than it has been since I’ve been here,” Stewart said.

“This legislation that’s been brought up, in my honest opinion, is much more about revenge than it is about reform. It’s much more about payback than it is about progress. Unfortunately, folks, I have to tell you, I honestly believe it’s much more about the cash than it is about the kids.”

The Tea Party event speakers included longtime activist Ben Cunningham, former Republican state representative Susan Lynn and former congressional Republican candidate Lou Ann Zelenik. Johnson also addressed the crowd.

Tammy Kilmarx, president of Tennessee Tea Party, said before the event that her group is the one trying to protect teachers.

“We are trying to show support to our legislators that are trying to stand for what the taxpayers elected them for,” she said. “We’re here to represent the taxpayers of Tennessee, because they are the ones that are having to pay for the unions to do what they do.

“The big union bosses make a ton of cash. I think most of the teachers don’t even understand where their dues are going.”

Haslam Insists Tenure Reform About Improving Education, Not Punishing Teachers

The latest stop of the Republican locomotive on Capitol Hill came Thursday in the form of Gov. Bill Haslam‘s first legislative package, and like the Legislature, Haslam seriously challenged the status quo on teachers.

Haslam proposes changing the probationary time on teacher tenure from three years to five years, a step he said fits in with the overall goal of improving education in the state — which he says is a step toward the broader goal of providing a workforce that will attract jobs.

Haslam said that while the state is making progress on education reform, notably in its First to the Top initiative, it is not where it should be, and he’s convinced changing tenure is one way to improve the system.

His package came only a day after the Senate Education Committee voted 6-3 to advance a bill taking away the mandatory collective bargaining leverage teachers’ unions currently enjoy in 91 of Tennessee’s 136 school districts. That meeting drew a crowd of teachers opposed to the legislation, but it moved nonetheless.

The governor sounded keenly aware of concerns coming from the teachers’ corner but insisted on Thursday his moves are necessary to make Tennessee a more competitive state. In that same vein he has proposed tort reform measures that he says will also help the state compete against neighboring states for jobs.

Haslam addressed the media outside the office of House Speaker Beth Harwell, and the scene at Legislative Plaza gave the clear impression that all the reforms the Republicans are advocating are likely to be approved. Republicans are in charge of the House, Senate and governor’s office for the first time since Reconstruction, and there appears to be little the Democrats can do about it.

For his part, Haslam appears to be sticking to the script he articulated in his campaign for office. He has said his first priority is job creation, yet he never suggested a legislative package would be needed for that — only aggressive salesmanship to attract jobs. His second stated priority was education, and his first legislative package proposed removing the limits on charter schools as well as the tenure changes.

He said he hears the question of whether the state is just “picking on teachers.”

“I’d say it’s absolutely not true,” Haslam said. “What we’re doing across the board in education in Tennessee is raising standards.

“Nothing is more important than making certain we have great teachers in every classroom, and we’re going to continue to focus on that.”

Haslam said he wanted to make sure the state doesn’t continue to rank in the 40s nationally in education. He said there has been a lot of conversation with teachers across the state and that the discussions will continue. He said he plans to be with a group of teachers in Upper East Tennessee on Tuesday morning having “specific conversations about what we can do to help them in the classroom.”

Haslam seemed to have immediate support of members of the Legislature.

“I strongly support the governor’s tenure recommendations,” said Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, who is Senate speaker pro tempore and a member of the Senate Education Committee. “Making tenure meaningful is important, and I think it’s important to teachers.”

Woodson said it is helpful to step back and look at the overall education reform process, which began with a special session of the Legislature in 2010 that set the stage for Tennessee’s application for federal Race to the Top funds. Tennessee won $500 million.

“It’s moving student achievement in the right direction. That’s what we’re trying to accomplish,” Woodson said.

David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for SCORE, former Sen. Bill Frist’s education reform group, approved of Haslam’s recommendations.

“Research has shown that teachers are the most important factor in determining how much a student learns. Governor Haslam makes a critical step in addressing teacher effectiveness by focusing on reforming tenure,” Mansouri said. “The governor’s proposed package will make tenure decisions more meaningful by rewarding effective teachers and addressing ineffective ones.”

Rep. Debra Maggart, R-Hendersonville, has sponsored the House measure over teacher bargaining rights.

“I’ve noticed when you talk to the teachers’ union, no matter what you try to do, they don’t like it,” Maggart said. “That’s why I have this bill.”

Haslam’s package called for tort reform, a recurring issue, as Republicans seek to diminish the impact of trial lawyers where courts issue large sums in damages. He calls for a $750,000 cap on non-economic damages and a cap on punitive damages of two times compensatory damages or $500,000, whichever is greater.

“My opinion is that the trial lawyers have had a lot of influence for decades in the state of Tennessee and that it would be proper to review all the awards,” Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, the Republican House leader, said.

“I don’t know specifically what changes need to be made. But I think we certainly need to take a look at it, considering how it’s been out of balance for so many decades in this state.”