Grading the teachers: Tennessee gets A+ for license plan

Grading the teachers: Tennessee gets A+ for license plan

January 22nd, 2014 in Opinion Times


• Children with excellent teachers improve at about three times the rate of children with low-performing teachers

• Just one year in the room of a low-performing teacher places students at significant risk of falling behind, and if taught by too many ineffective teachers, students may not be able to recover.

• In 2012, nearly 75 percent of teachers in Tennessee advanced student learning at rates that met or exceeded expectations.

• Students with high-performing teachers are more likely to attend college, have higher paying jobs and save more for retirement.

• Under the current system, every day Tennessee renews the licenses of some teachers who have repeatedly failed to make expected gains with their students. Over the course of that 10-year license, the collective number of those low-performing teachers will instruct 60,000 students.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education


To see a three-minute state video, visit:

The state's largest teachers union is challenging a proposal that would tie teacher license renewals to student test scores.

The union - the Tennessee Education Association - says the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, which measures how much students learn from year to year, shouldn't be a deciding factor in whether teachers are fired - or as state administrators would put it, whether a teacher's license is renewed or not.

Currently, professional teaching licenses are renewed for 10 years without any regard to teacher effectiveness. The plan to link student learning to the license renewal would begin next year.

So, if teachers don't want to be measured and retained based on how well or not their students learn, then how should they be evaluated?

Evaluations "should be criterion-based, not outcome-based," said TEA President Gera Summerford, speaking Tuesday to the Times Free Press editors and reporters before she and other TEA officers met Tuesday evening with local teachers.

We would disagree.

Outcomes in education are really all that matters: Did children learn in a teacher's classes or not? Did they learn enough? And if they didn't, should that teacher be allowed to be ineffective year after year?

TEA maintains that ineffective teachers - even tenured ones - already are dealt with administratively by principals and school boards. But in reality as long as an ineffective teacher has a teaching license, he or she is simply removed from one school or county and made a problem at another school or county. All too often this handful of low-performing teachers continues to work, and our children and school systems suffer for it.

TEA counters that the state would never pull the license of a dentist whose patients had many cavities, nor would it pull the license of a lawyer who lost in court, so making the teaching profession the only one placed at risk by being tied to outcomes is unfair.

That's a lame comparison. Parents can choose their dentist and lawyer - over and over. The choices of our children's teachers are a bit more limited. Red Bank or Hardy elementary schools have a finite number of third-grade teachers. Tyner and Howard have a finite number of algebra teachers.

TEA also claims the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, also known as TVAAS, "has fundamental flaws that make it wholly unsuitable to destroying teaching careers." The teachers' union says the TVASS score is a statistical estimate with a standard error rate that can fluctuate wildly.

It's important to note that TEA didn't bring this up in the 20 years that TVASS has been around. Apparently the assessment seemed fine to measure student readiness, but the teachers union didn't decry its "flaws" until it became a "high stakes" flash point for teacher futures.

Later this month, the union plans to ask the state education board to reconsider the plan. If that appeal fails, union officials say they'll ask state lawmakers to get involved.

Certainly there may be flaws in TVAAS or linking the TVAAS tests to licenses that might be tweaked: A good teacher with high scoring one year may be persuaded to use her wonderful ability to help low-performing students the next year. That change may hurt her second-year score and thus, harm her overall three-year average. So some considerations beyond raw assessment input would seem prudent.

But by and large, with Tennessee ranking so poorly in education overall, we need to get tough - and not just with students.

It's not adequate for the teachers union to simply say something equivalent to: "We want more money and we want you to leave us alone."

Tennessee needs to invest more in education, and that means investing more in teaching - and quality teaching. The state currently ranks 46th in the nation for investment in children.

But here's another statistic that seems telling. Tennessee ranks 8th in high school graduation rate, but near the bottom of the nation (42nd) in college graduation rate. What's more, as recently as 2010, more than 70 percent of community college students and 40 percent of university students started classes unready for college-level math, reading or writing.

By any measure, this says we're graduating kids from high school who didn't learn enough.

It seems pretty clear that it's time for many Tennessee teachers to step it up and make the grade - or change careers.