Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, on the job for less than a year, is working diligently to improve the state's struggling schools. The task, he candidly admits, is difficult. Success, he said at an editorial board meeting with The Chattanooga Times Free Press earlier this week, won't come overnight.
Initial efforts at reform do show promise, however, and should continue without undue interference from either politicians or educators motivated by self-serving considerations.
There's little doubt improvement is needed. In recent decades, Tennessee consistently has ranked near the bottom of state rankings in almost every educational category. That trend continues.
Tennessee ranked near the bottom in fourth-grade math performance on the most recent National Assessment of Educational Progress, familiarly known as the national report card. Indeed, state students performed more poorly in 2010 than in 2009 on the same test. Other tests in a variety of subjects and across grade levels indicate similarly embarrassing scores.
Clearly, change is in order. Old methods and programs have not appreciably improved student performance across the state.
Huffman's prescription for Tennessee's schools is a varied one. He wants better teachers in the classroom. He wants to promote creativity and competition in classrooms and in schools, saying that should lead to improved academic achievement. And he wants to implement systemic changes that will alter the way the state and its residents view schools and what takes place in them. Those are viable options for a system in distress.
The most visible -- and controversial -- aspect of change now underway in the state's schools is the revamp of the teacher evaluation system, an integral part of the educational reform package approved last spring by the Tennessee General Assembly. The changes directly address a problem of long standing -- that the evaluation process did little to promote better teaching in classrooms.
Previously, tenured teachers were evaluated twice every decade and their evaluation was based entirely on the administrator's evaluation. The new rules require that teachers be observed by principals several times yearly, and that their evaluation be based on student achievement as measured by state test data as well as the administrator's findings.
The new system, at a minimum, should provide a useful tool for teacher assessment and for identifying instructors who are successful in the classroom.
The new process has stirred controversy. Some principals and administrators say the system is time-consuming and that some of the rules governing evaluation are confusing and inconsistent. Some teachers say it is unfair. Others disagree. In Hamilton County, according to a report by this paper's Kevin Hardy, most teachers and administrators say they are generally pleased with the new system.
Huffman is aware of the controversy, but thinks it unnecessary. He suggests that teachers, administrators and elected officials give the system time to work. The new rules, he says, are just that -- new. There are, he says, some kinks in them, but that does not mean the entire evaluation system ought to be junked or delayed, as some have urged. Rather, he reasonably argues, let the state make adjustments in coming years to create standards that will be fair and useful to all involved.
Better Performance Is Goal
Huffman is careful to debunk the belief that evaluations are only a tool to identify teachers for dismissal. Not so, he says.
The main purpose of evaluations is to identify strong teachers, to replicate their methods across the state, and to identify teachers who need help to meet rising standards. The immediate goal of evaluations, Huffman says, is to bolster teacher and student performance, not to use that information as a sole indicator of employment.
Huffman's other major initiative at the moment is the state's application asking for a waiver from the federal No Child Left Behind law. If approved, it should allow the state to more directly assist schools with poor performance histories.
Federal approval of the waiver would grant the state needed flexibility to deal with complicated problems.
The reprieve, for example, would free the state to pursue innovative ways to improve outcomes in the lowest-performing 5 percent of the state's schools. That could include the targeted use of funds, different pay scales for teachers and changes to the length of the school day or year in low-performing schools.
That approach is reasonable. Resources invested in those schools could provide a significant return on investment in improved scores.
Huffman is both a realist and a visionary. He knows that teachers and school administrators are under growing pressure to produce higher student test scores and to improve Tennessee's national ranking. He understands, too, that professional educators are wary of the use of standardized student test data to rate their effectiveness and that many simply are uncomfortable with change.
But he also knows that improvements won't come without the freedom and flexibility that change brings.
He should be given the chance to implement reforms that hold the promise of creating an education system superior to the one that has served Tennesseans so poorly in the last few decades.