Tennessee, Hamilton County teachers decry reform plans

Tennessee, Hamilton County teachers decry reform plans

June 30th, 2013 by Kevin Hardy in Local Regional News

The entrance to the offices of the Hamilton County Department of Education is seen in this photo taken on April 7, 2009.

Photo by John Rawlston/Times Free Press.

BY THE NUMBERS

• 62,000: Public school teachers in Tennessee

• 10: Years between license renewals under current state law

• 50: Approximate percentage of students in third through eighth grade who performed at grade level in reading and math on 2013 state exams

Sources: State Board of Education

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Cook: The test before us

David Testerman

For generations, teachers taught and students learned. And if little Johnny didn't learn, the presumption was that he didn't study hard enough.

But reforms at the state level in Tennessee are turning that model on its head.

Today, teacher performance is getting closer scrutiny as education officials look for broad improvement in a system where only about half of students in third through eighth grades met grade-level expectations in math and reading on 2013 state exams.

And teachers fear that the changes point to a conclusion that they are the problem with our schools.

Hamilton County school board member David Testerman, a retired teacher and principal, put it bluntly.

He described the state's various reforms as an "assault" on teachers.

"What it's saying to teachers who are in public education is that we do not value you," said Testerman. "That's the message that's going out to teachers."

The result, he and other critics say, is a public perception of teachers that's increasingly negative. And they fear that could hurt teacher morale and hamper recruitment and retention of teachers in the future.

The state Board of Education approved a new minimum pay scale that de-emphasizes experience and education levels and opens the door for pay plans that give higher salaries to higher-performing teachers.

The board also signaled its approval of a plan to tie teachers' licenses to performance and make licenses tougher to earn and keep.

And that's on top of decisions by state policymakers that already have changed the teacher pension system, rolled back collective bargaining rights and made it tougher for teachers to earn tenure.

State officials reject the idea that they hold teachers in contempt.

Kelli Gauthier, spokeswoman for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the reforms are motivated solely by the need for improvement.

"I would say that there is no question that Tennessee has been going through a major culture shift in education," Gauthier said.

But such a major shakeup is needed, she said, if the state is to make big gains in subjects such as reading and math.

"I think that it is a pretty hard argument to make that we can just continue with the same educational system we've had for years when we are practically at the bottom of every education ranking that exists," Gauthier said.

Kelli Gauthier

Photo by Patrick Smith/Times Free Press.

WHO DOES THE WEEDING?

A plan to tie licensing to teacher performance is the latest reform to surface. Final approval from the state board would put Tennessee's 62,000 public school teachers on notice that their jobs could be on the line if they fail to carry out their duties in a satisfactory manner.

The state Department of Education could not provide numbers showing how many teachers had been terminated in recent years.

Yet even teachers acknowledge there are some among them who don't belong anywhere near a classroom. But they think principals, assistant principals and superintendents - not the state - should be in charge of identifying and weeding out the low performers.

Alicia Bland, a former Hamilton County teacher who is moving to the Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, a public charter school, said she has no problem being held accountable.

However, measures such as student test scores are too simplistic a measure to judge teacher performance, Bland said.

"I can see how it would be really easy to blame the one person who spends the school day with the kids," she said. "But it's not 100 percent the teacher's responsibility or their ability to control what goes on in the students' lives."

ARE REFORMS REALLY NEEDED?

Jim Wrye, lobbyist for the Tennessee Education Association, said a focus on Tennessee's educational shortcomings can give the impression that the state as a whole is failing.

"If you start off with the premise that everything is bad, then your solution is to fundamentally, radically alter it," he said.

And most in Tennessee have faith in their local schools, he said. Most teachers are hard-working professionals who are dedicated to improving their own skills. And bad teachers are already getting weeded out. He said TEA has file cabinets full of cases where teachers, with and without tenure, were fired.

Teachers believe administrators in their districts and buildings are best suited to decide who goes and who stays. But the new licensure proposal will give some of that power to the state by not renewing the licenses of teachers whose evaluation scores don't measure up.

"If a bad teacher makes it to tenure, it is not the bad teacher's fault," said Jennifer Woods, who just this year retired from teaching. "It is the administrator's fault who recommended them for tenure."

Woods taught for 34 years. But all the changes from the state wore her down, she said, and she decided to walk away this year.

Many teachers are feeling that way, Testerman said.

Hamilton County Board of Education member Donna Horn said the state's reforms are demoralizing teachers, especially veterans who may feel trapped in the field. Horn was a career teacher who retired from Hamilton County Schools in August 2011.

"It doesn't make any sense to me," she said. "I'm glad I'm sitting where I'm sitting right now."

For some local school board members, the state's actions make the issue of a local pay raise for teachers even more pressing. The board told Superintendent Rick Smith earlier this month to explore a 3 to 5 percent raise for its teachers.

But raises alone likely won't improve the mood of teachers, said board member Jeffrey Wilson.

"I think we are on the verge of a crisis in terms of teacher morale," he said. "These individuals have chosen this profession. So I don't think it's all about money. For the most part, they just want to be treated as professionals."

HOPING FOR THE BEST

Of course not all teachers feel threatened by the reforms. Some see it as an inevitable part of Tennessee's quest to see better student results.

Buddy Sullivan, who has taught math for 22 years in urban schools, said he thinks the state's new licensure and pay scale will likely need some tweaks - just like those that were needed with the state's new evaluation system in recent years.

While he initially was upset at these most recent changes, Sullivan said he thinks teachers should wait and see how they play out.

"We've go to do something," he said. "It may be some bloodletting in the first year or two until the dust settles."

Most teachers, Sullivan said, aren't afraid of accountability or of being held to a higher standard. But with higher stakes, he said it will be more incumbent on administrators to make sure they're successful.

"I've always said I don't mind being accountable as long as you support me with what I need," he said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at khardy@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249.