Professional Educators of Tennessee understands that research clearly and consistently demonstrates that the quality of the classroom teacher is the number one school based factor in student learning. And we want to make sure that supply of quality teachers is not only enhanced, but we want to see Tennessee educators leave a legacy across the nation of highly effective, highly qualified teachers making a lasting impact on the lives of these students.
Many of our members continually point out significant issues and problems they face in the classroom like too little planning time, too much paperwork, unreliable assistance from the school district, and a general lack of support. But the new evaluation model has garnered the most concern across the state. It is important educators understand some of the background of how we got this new evaluation system, and assist policymakers in understanding some of the challenges educators face in implementation. Teachers are not afraid of challenges and policymakers want to make sure the system the state adopts is fair, easy to replicate and helps children and teachers reach their highest potential.
The federal role in education has never been clearly defined and has been debated passionately the last fifty or so years by stakeholders. "No Child Left Behind [NCLB] and the Race to the Top [RTTT] grants are likely to be the high water mark of federal involvement in schools," says Jay Mathews in a Washington Post editorial in September 2011. Matthews also believed the Obama Administration's further overreach into national standards will fail. His logic? Washington simply cannot afford to get any more deeply involved in local schools. And economics of late may well prove him accurate.
While we understand the money which Tennessee garners under RTTT is and was appealing, as well as the opportunity to fundamentally change business as usual by the controlling interest of the teachers union and other special interest groups, the question remains: will RTTT, which was supported by the Tennessee Education Association, prove a bit disruptive for teachers and administrators alike? Will some good teachers simply walk away from Tennessee classrooms if changes are not made? Is there a more cost efficient way to reach the same objectives and continue beyond RTTT funding?
As Lindsey Burke of the Heritage Foundation pointed out that "embedded in debates about the future of NCLB, and already entangled with RTTT, is the Obama Administration's push for national standards and tests—an unprecedented federal overreach." Among their many flaws (standardization of mediocrity, entanglement with federal funds, and a disregard for state educational sovereignty) is the tremendous price tag associated with the push. Matthews cites the University of Arkansas's Jay Greene: "To make standards meaningful they have to be integrated with changes in curriculum, assessment and pedagogy," [Greene] says. âChanging all of that will take a ton of money.' The states don't have it. The federal government can't supply it at a time of budget-cutting. Even the Gates Foundation, Greene says, can't foot such a large bill."
Now it could be argued that the state could look at additional revenue sources like taxing entities such as 501c4's or 501c5's, and specifically earmark those funds for a continuation of some of the activities needed to advance public education in the state. There is no reason why the state of Tennessee has not tapped this resource previously, and earmarking it for the benefit of continuing some needed education reforms specifically makes for good policy.
In regards to teacher evaluation, it was clear almost from the beginning there would be issues. And in fairness it was acknowledged openly by the Tennessee Department of Education. On September 19, 2011, Commissioner Kevin Huffman said: "We don't expect a perfect evaluation system. We will adjust next summer based on feedback this year." Some of the problems our members have experienced thus far include:
1. The people who were trained did NOT get trained the same way at each session. Some recommended adjusting the order of evaluation events, for instance. Some emphasized a certain group of items while others emphasized something else.
2. When they got back to the local district, there was a real lack of coordination on the part of many districts. Everyone had been trained, so they should just be able to go out and start, right? Nope. There is no consistency from school to school or even at the same school. For instance:
a. Some administrators are requiring one lesson plan to evaluate. Others might be requiring a lesson plan for every day to be turned in.
b. Some administrators are looking over the lesson plans, making some notes, and then giving them back to the teachers for revisions before they are scored. Others are scoring the plans on the first round without allowing revisions. As a result, teachers are not evaluated in the same way or on a level playing field.
3. So far, there is no appeal process if a teacher feels he or she has been evaluated incorrectly or inappropriately. If an appeal process is put in place, there needs to be a guarantee by appealing that the evaluator is prevented from retaliating.
4. Teachers are spending 5 to 10 hours writing one lesson plan, and then spending more time rewriting and revising. Some of these lesson plans are many, many pages long. And teachers are required to turn in all handout sheets that will be used in that lesson. This further increases the massive amount of paperwork. That is not sustainable for all lesson plans. Perhaps an online tool should be developed that tie into the curriculum automatically?
5. Evaluators are spending at least 3 hours, if not longer, scoring classroom observations on the twelve points outlined in the rubric. That effort also cannot be sustained.
6. Some evaluators are observing the lesson they scored for the plan. Others are observing a totally different lesson. In addition, some are requiring a 2nd plan with the observed lesson, while others are not. As a result, teachers are not even writing a plan for the lesson for which they are being observed. It just takes too much time.
As a result, teachers are extremely irritable and administrators are also equally frustrated. No one really likes the current system, although they may like parts of it. There are also questions about who is evaluating the evaluators. A possible solution would be to also look at using evaluation teams rather than only one evaluator, who may be biased. There are some much needed adjustments needed. Thus far, we probably are not actually witnessing teacher effectiveness in the way this project has been rolled out in many districts across the state. We may just be observing the ability of teachers to jump through hoops. Evaluations used to be a dog and pony show. Now they are a St. Bernard and Clydesdale show. Same show, just bigger.
It appears that the system currently underway still requires too much teacher and administrator time and provides too little useful feedback. Do school systems have the capacity to evaluate all teachers every year fairly? We are keeping an open mind, and we sincerely have faith that most policymakers statewide want to see changes in education that lead to greater student achievement and they will in fact support teachers in the process to lead that effort. We also have the utmost confidence in Commissioner Kevin Huffman. He has proven himself to be a competent education leader, and will listen to the thoughts and genuine concerns of teachers across the state. We look forward to working with him and his team to make sure legitimate concerns reach the highest level possible. Leaders across the political spectrum understand we need to continually make data-driven changes in the evaluation model and we pledge to assist our members with the new evaluation system.
We invite our members and other educators to share their opinion on the subject with our organization. For more information on the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model (TEAM), the new teacher evaluation system being introduced across the state of Tennessee this year, visit the Tennessee Department of Education website at www.team-tn.org.
J. C. Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.