The $400 million question

Sunday, December 20, 2009 at 11:44pm

It’s one of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s biggest unrealized goals: changing the way the state evaluates teachers. He wants to use student achievement test scores to help determine whether to grant teachers tenure or fire them after their first three years. With a jackpot of federal cash as bait, the governor hopes to accomplish in a single week what he has been unable to do in his previous seven years in office.

Last week, Bredesen called a surprise seven-day special session of the legislature beginning Jan. 12 to adopt this sweeping change. If lawmakers refuse to go along, the governor warns, the state will blow its opportunity to cash in on up to $400 million in federal economic stimulus money in the Race to the Top competition.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls it “education reform’s moon shot.” Across America, state governments are scrambling to make reforms to qualify for shares of the $4 billion available. The deadline for entries from the states is Jan. 19, the last day of the special session.

Obama’s initiative, Bredesen said, “has made the stars line up to create some opportunities that no one has really expected. I have a little sign on my desk. It says ‘carpe diem’ — seize the day — and that’s what I’m trying to do here with education. … There is a lot at stake here.”

Pulled in two directions

Bredesen’s high-pressure gambit — giving lawmakers one week to act, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line — puts the statewide teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, in a nearly impossible position. Either the TEA caves and accepts legislation that’s anathema to much of its membership, or the union could look like the villain in the loss of federal aid.

Teachers are complaining about strong-arm tactics from the White House all the way down to the governor’s office. On its Web site, the TEA is asking its members to complain to their state legislators. Lawmakers are themselves grousing over the speed of the special session.

The crux of the controversy is how much weight should be given to student test scores in evaluating the performance of teachers.

Bredesen touts the state’s 17 years of student testing as the richest data in the country on whether teachers are doing their jobs well. He says the so-called value-added tests, intended to measure the gain in knowledge over a year, show that a “startling” two-thirds of the difference in student performance is explained by teacher quality.

Of teachers who perform poorly in their first two years, two-thirds still aren’t doing good jobs five years later, the data shows. The reverse is true of good teachers. This means “you can tell a lot from how someone does in the first year or two,” Bredesen said.

The governor insists, therefore, that tests should be made the largest factor in tenure decisions and teacher evaluations. The TEA says that’s unfair and would force teachers to “teach to the test” — that is, restrict instruction to the subject matter that’s going to be tested, at the expense of all the other things students need to know. The Obama administration’s guidelines for the stimulus money are vague, asking only that tests play a significant role.

Governor plays tough

“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say it’s heavy-handed,” TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said of Bredesen’s call for expedited new legislation. “It’s really a lot of pressure. … Our position is we can’t sell our souls in this process. If there are some changes that we can make that will make the state eligible for $400 million, we don’t want to be viewed as the obstructionist in that process. But on the other hand, we can’t throw our members under the bus. I firmly believe that’s it’s totally unfair to take one test score, one snapshot, and base a teacher’s future on that one particular day.”

Bredesen should have little trouble passing his proposals in the Republican-run Senate, where the teachers’ union enjoys few friends. But in the House, where Republicans hold only a 51-48 margin, the TEA boasts more clout. Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, chairman of the House Democratic political caucus, said Bredesen is unlikely to succeed without TEA support.

“If the teachers’ union doesn’t come on board, it probably won’t happen,” Turner said.

At a press conference, Bredesen sounded confident he ultimately would get his way.
“I think there probably are going to be members of both parties who may have a little heartache over a change this large. But I think everybody understands that this is a change that’s happening .… This is a requirement put on the table by the most liberal national administration of my adult lifetime. It’s time for Tennessee to get in step with this stuff, and this is what we’re going to do.”

Filed under: City News
Tagged: phil bredesen

7 Comments on this post:

By: idgaf on 12/21/09 at 5:03

With a jackpot of federal cash as bait


Remember people That Money is yours too. The Federal Government has no money of its own. They just have what they confiscate from you/us.

By: Dragon on 12/21/09 at 8:24

A jackpot of federal cash, cash in on up to $400 million, the deadline for entries,.....

OMG, a government run by lottery. Send in your boxtops and a 1000-word essay on why you love federal education dictators. In the case of a tie, the decision of the Secretary will be final.

By: govskeptic on 12/21/09 at 10:21

How can the NEA, TEA, MTEA, or SEIU complaint about
an education policy from the new President of the USA
that they all totally supported with dollars and manpower?
This Governor has had another Special Called Session
on Ethics Reform. It turned into a waste of time and
money. Wasn't much to began with and then gutted further
the next yr. Hopefully this one will be better!

By: jcdad2003 on 12/21/09 at 12:43

How obsured. How can you base a new teacher's performance on one test. New teachers are still in the learning mode the first three years, thats why the state license they receive is called an Apprentice License. There is not one person who can perform their jobs at that high of standard within the first three years of their propective jobs. Engineers, architects, accountants, and doctors have to work in their fields up to five years before they can even take the state test for licensing, but we are only going to give teacher three years. What is wrong with this picture.
The teacher is also at the mercy of the students. The student has no motivation to do well on these test. Nor are they being held accountable for their personal test results. They can not be held back because a school system will not retain a student more than twice in their educational career. They also can't be retained since the school systems usually does not get the test results back until right before school starts back the next year. Some students will intentionally do bad on these test because they view them as a way to retaliate against a teacher who would not allow their bad behavior in the classroom. This has happen to several teachers that I am aware of last year. All the data says the student should be proficient on the test, but they usually finish a 55 minute test in ten minutes and they have the lowest test score in the class.
Teachers are already teaching to the test. I taught in one district, my wife teaches in another district, and I have friends in several other districts. In each case students are tested three times throuhout the year just to practice for the state test. This also adds to the poor results on the state test. by the time the state test comes around most students are tired of being tested.
Finally, until our society starts putting importance back on education, so students are motivated to do well in school, we will continue to have poor perfoming students. Just like the saying goes" You can lead a horse to water but you can't make him drink".

By: localboy on 12/22/09 at 11:36

you go, gov!

By: ididntdoit on 12/22/09 at 4:23

Well, duh. Of course student achievement is directly influenced by teaching. Show me a system that defines and measures true student achievement from year to year in EVERY subject that student takes (not just English or math), and I'll support using test scores to evaluate them. Show me a test that measures EVERYTHING that student learned that year, and I'll support using that test to evaluate them. Think about the best teacher you ever had (really, not just the "coolest" teacher). Could the worth of what you learned from that individual truly be measured on a single multiple choice test? And some schools just have the deck stacked against them. Face it, the students at Oak Ridge are just going to be more successful than the students at Maplewood. Some kids have terrible home food, no heat, constantly moving around from town to town. How can a teacher be responsible for a student who doesn't come to school or can't do his homework? I'm afraid what we're doing is setting the stage for a crisis...they can't even find good math and science teachers as it is. What fool (inspired or not) would even think of going into a profession where your job security was linked to the home life of your client? There are just too many factors you can't control. There has to be a better way.

By: ts14fan on 12/24/09 at 12:40

When I get to cherry pick my class roll each year (and that's never going to happen) and parents are truly held accountable on their end then I'll be for something of this nature.