Tennessee’s Strong Push to Transform Schools

Tennessee was one of the first states to test a rigorous teacher evaluation system, which was put in place this school year. But even before the results on this test are in, there is talk of delaying the use of these evaluations. State lawmakers and education officials must resist any backsliding, says an editorial from the New York Times.

Tennessee’s need to do better was underscored when the latest National Assessment of Educational Progress ranked the state near the bottom in fourth-grade math performance, just ahead of Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi.

These results were made public during legislative hearings on the evaluation system.

“We have said from the beginning that we will listen and respond to feedback from educators on this evaluation model, and that is exactly what we’re doing,” State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said in a news release.

The Tennessee Education Association has criticized aspects of the system, citing what it describes as poorly trained evaluators and a confusing scoring rubric, and wants it postponed until it is essentially perfect, but these delays could potentially destroy momentum and could weaken reform.

Tennessee was one of only two states (the other being Delaware), to win a generous grant in the first round of Race to the Top. It is though that the state won partly because it had approved comprehensive reforms.

These reforms mean that instead of a system that evaluated tenured teachers only twice every 10 years, the new approach requires that every teacher be observed several times a year.

At the legislative hearing, superintendents and other school leaders praised the new system, but the president of the teachers’ union, however, pointed out that some evaluators failed to give teachers the feedback they need to improve.

“She also raised concerns about the fairness of the state’s decision to use schoolwide achievement measures to evaluate the more than 50 percent of teachers who work in grades or subject areas where standardized tests are not given. Better measures are under development but are not available.”

Tennessee will need to address these issues fairly if the system is to win wide support among teachers and school administrators, says the editorial.

“But, even with shortcomings, the new approach to teacher evaluation is a vast improvement over the one it replaced.”