Teachers union rejects governor's tenure plan

Teachers union rejects governor's tenure plan

January 10th, 2010 by Kelli Gauthier , Andy Sher in News

SPECIAL SESSION

The General Assembly will convene Tuesday in special session to consider Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposed reforms on K-12 and higher education. The governor will address lawmakers at 6 p.m. EST.

The speech will be carried on live streaming video on the state's Web site -- www.tn. gov.

Leaders of the 55,000-member Tennessee Education Association voted Saturday to oppose Gov. Phil Bredesen's proposal that student achievement, as measured by testing, account for 51 percent of decisions involving teacher tenure.

The move puts TEA, which represents teachers, on a collision course with the Bredesen administration during the special legislative session on education that starts Tuesday.

TEA officials in a statement thanked Gov. Bredesen for his previous support on education issues, but they said, "Tennessee's teachers tell us that basing more than half of a teacher's annual evaluation on student performance is excessive.

"In trying to help the governor reach his objective, TEA will support 35 percent of teacher and principal evaluation being based on student performance," the TEA statement continued. "We believe the weight of 35 percent student performance, with the backing of Tennessee's teachers, makes the state very competitive in applying for federal funds."

Gov. Bredesen has demanded the changes, saying they are necessary if Tennessee is to compete against other states for a share of $4 billion in federal Race to the Top funds. The money is intended to reward states that have made or plan to make bold innovations in education.

The state has until Jan. 19 to get its application in for the Phase I competition -- hence the governor's call for a special session.

In a statement Saturday night, Bredesen spokeswoman Lydia Lenker said administration officials are "very disappointed that the teachers' union has today rejected our request that they support our proposals to base a competitive proportion of teacher evaluation on student achievement data."

She called it a "real lost opportunity for Tennessee" saying that combining the changes with TEA support would have given the state "an extremely strong Race to the Top application."

Bredesen administration officials "still intend to make these changes and apply," Ms. Lenker said. "However, the opposition of the union to the accountability which is at the core of the Race to the Top substantially weakens our chances.

She noted the administration will continue discussions in hopes of getting TEA to buy in. TEA's chief lobbyist, Jerry Winters, said Saturday that teachers are "leaving the door open" to further discussions.

The federal government's scoring of states' Race to the Top applications includes points for tying testing to teacher tenure and for teacher union buy in, Mr. Winters said last week.

Tennessee officials believe the state can obtain as much as $500 million in the one-time stimulus funds. Based on Tennessee's population, the U.S. Education Department Web site says, the state is eligible for $150 million to $250 million, but federal officials have said funding categories are quite flexible.

The Bredesen administration does not plan to put the 51 percent figure in law but does want to commit to it in its application. Bredesen aides say several other states have submitted applications in which they have made similar percentage commitents.

In an interview with the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Thursday, Gov. Bredesen said he expected TEA to oppose the provision, but he predicted the measure would pass anyway.

"I believe it will get done," Gov. Bredesen said. "I don't believe TEA is going to support it in making it happen."

TEA's board met for more than three hours Saturday, debating how the organization would react after top administration officials and TEA negotiators failed to reach a compromise Friday.

Mr. Winters said the administration was willing to let 35 percent of student performance be attributed to the state's Value-Added Assessment System, which measures student gains. But officials wanted another 16 percent to be attributed to other types of testing. The TEA balked.

"We're not trying to say this whole program is bad," Mr. Winters said. "This whole (dispute) boils down to about 16 percent of the teacher evaluation."

He said while teachers are willing to accept more accountability, officials must recognize there are other factors at play.

In their statement, TEA leaders said "good teaching does not occur in a vacuum, and depends on student effort and parent support as well as teacher expertise." They also said "a child is more than a test score" and that a teacher's performance "should be measured on more than how students score on one multiple-choice test on a single day."

Senate Speaker Ron Ramsey, R-Blountville, has said the bill will pass the Senate, where Republicans have a 19-14 edge over Democrats. The speaker has set up the Education and Finance committees, which will handle much of the work, with 8-5 GOP majorities for the special session.

But Sen. Ramsey has said the political setting is less certain in the House where Republicans have a 51-49 edge over Democrats. One Democrats will be absent, but one Republican House member is an educator and several others have close ties to teachers.

Even before the TEA decision, not all teachers were sold on Gov. Bredesen's proposal.

"There are many people who help to educate every child, and to attribute all the success or all the failure to one teacher is unfair," said Apison Elementary School assistant principal LaFrederick Thirkill.

Some teachers -- related arts teachers and English language learner teachers, for instance -- can have a huge impact on students, Mr. Thirkill said, but there is no standardized test on which to judge them.

Extenuating circumstances such as extended illness or truancy also can keep students out of class for weeks at a time, affecting achievement, so it would be unfair to penalize teachers, he said.

"It'd be very interesting if Gov. Bredesen had to face some of these issues firsthand. I wonder how it might affect his decision to tie test scores to tenure," Mr. Thirkill said.

Originally meant to give teachers freedom to speak openly on controversial subjects without fear of losing their job, the concept of tenure has been contentious through the years.

Teachers' unions have fought hard to preserve tenure -- which is typically granted after three years -- while critics say the job security is given out too easily and makes it hard to get rid of ineffective teachers.

John Daum, who has taught history, world religion and philosophy at Central High School for eight years, said he thinks tying tenure to student achievement might make tenure more meaningful.

"A teacher gets tenure for not doing anything awful their first three years of teaching, and once they have tenure, it's very difficult (to fire them) if a teacher is not effective. They're almost untouchable," he said.

Still, as a teacher, he does have some concerns about the governor's idea.

"On the one hand, I'm fine with that. In other industries, your pay, your raises, your promotions are tied to how you meet your goals," he said. "But teaching students isn't like making widgets. There are a lot of factors that are out of your control."

Which is exactly why Jason Wohlers, a physics teacher at East Hamilton School, hopes that any changes to the tenure system would take teachers' opinions into account.

"If you involve the teachers in the planning of how it works, often it works better," he said. "I taught at an urban school, and now I'm at suburban one. Sometimes test scores can be different depending on your population."