Governor, teachers at odds over test link to evaluation

Governor, teachers at odds over test link to evaluation

December 26th, 2009 by Andy Sher in News

NASHVILLE -- It's back to the bargaining table for top Bredesen administration officials and Tennessee Education Association representatives -- but not until the new year.

The groups will return to the bargaining table in early January after talks this week produced no agreement on how much weight student test scores should have when it comes to evaluating teacher job performance.

That meeting comes just a week before Jan. 12, when Gov. Phil Bredesen wants to convene a special legislative session on education. He wants state lawmakers to change current laws that he says stand in the way of Tennessee competing against other states for "hundreds of millions" in federal Race to the Top funds.

Among the laws up for discussion is a prohibition against tying results from state's value-added testing system, which measures students' gains in learning, to teacher evaluation and tenure decisions.

"We have not yet resolved it," Tennessee Education Association chief lobbyist Jerry Winters said, who described the issue as "a sticking point."

"Where we left it, they (administration) need to have some more internal discussions, and we'll get back together after the first of the year," Mr. Winters said. "I guess the door is open to possibly get together before then."

Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said "our talks with TEA continue. They're productive ... and we're going to continue the process. We feel like we're right on course."

Gov. Bredesen recently said the weight given to the state's value-added scores "would have to be 50 percent or north to really engage the issues."

Mr. Winters disagreed.

"Teachers are telling us very loudly and clearly that students bring a lot of things to school that are far beyond the teacher's control," he said. "They (teachers) are not afraid to be held accountable. They're leery of over-emphasizing test scores."

He said he remains hopeful an agreement can be reached.

FEDERAL INCENTIVE

As part of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, federal officials have set aside $4.35 billion for the Race to the Top program, which encourages and rewards states for implementing major education reforms.

In a telephone conference call last month with reporters, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan said the department remains "firm" on its requirement that "states break down any firewalls that prohibit the link between a student's achievement and teacher evaluation."

"We're saying these evaluations have to drive decisions about tenure, placement and promotion for teachers and principles," Mr. Duncan said. "We can't move forward with reform if we continue with evaluation systems that give 99 percent of teachers satisfactory ratings and don't attach consequences -- or awards -- to their evaluations."

In Tennessee, the Tennessee Education Association and its legislative allies have long resisted tying teacher evaluations and test scores together.

Republicans, who tend to favor such measures, are in firm control of the state Senate, But Republicans and Democrats are almost evenly divided in the 99-member House and each party has 11 members on the House Education Committee.

The governor's dangling of $400 million to $500 million in potential Race to the Top funds has state House Democratic Leader Mike Turner of Nashville agreeing to help push the issue.

Last session, the Democrats did an about face on blocking charter school expansion legislation after Mr. Duncan persuaded Rep. Turner that it was necessary to qualify to compete for Race to the Top funds.

"My members care greatly about what the teachers feel about this as do I," Rep. Turner said. "However, there's a potential lot of money on the table, so we're trying to get a provision where everybody can feel comfortable."

He said federal guidelines call for a "significant" portion of teacher evaluations to be tied to the test results and he has a call in to Mr. Duncan on the matter.

But while Gov. Bredesen, a Democrat, has suggested state lawmakers leave it up to the State Board of Education to decide how much weight to give student learning, Rep. Turner said it should be set in statute.

House Republican Leader Jason Mumpower of Bristol said he wants the state to be able to obtain money from the Race to the Top initiative. Use of value-added testing in teacher evaluations is "probably something I would tend to be supportive of," he said, noting that "lots of Republicans" would support it.

He also expressed confidence the state can act by Jan. 19 -- the deadline for states to submit their Race to the Top applications.

Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville and the Senate speaker, expressed concern that the Tennessee Education Association would be in favor of tying test scores to evaluations.

"I don't know that we'll ever get TEA support for this," he said. "But I feel confident in the state Senate we can pass this. ... The House is a completely different animal, of course."

But he said he does agree with Rep. Turner that the amount of weight accorded to testing should be included in legislative language and not left up to the State Board of Education.

RACE TO THE TOP

Authorized under the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act of 2009, Race to the Top is a $4.35 billion competitive grant program that encourages and rewards states implementing significant reforms in four education areas -- enhancing standards and assessments, improving the collection and use of data, increasing teacher effectiveness and achieving equity in teacher distribution and turning around struggling schools.

K-12 changes being considered in special session

* Mandating annual teacher and principal evaluations.

* Teacher evaluations and tenure would be linked to the state's value-added testing system, which measures student gains.

* Creation of a statewide "recovery district" to handle failing schools or failing school systems.