Educational reforms raise bar for Tennessee teachers

photo Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman

Some teachers may think they've lived through a roller coaster of educational changes in recent years. But they haven't seen anything yet.

Already, classroom standards are more rigorous. Evaluations are tougher and more regular. And accountability is no longer a catch phrase, but a component of many parts of a teacher's career.

On Friday, the Tennessee School Board opened the door for teacher pay schemes that link salary to performance. And state officials rolled out plans that will make it tougher to become a teacher and harder to stay in for the long haul.

State officials argue that collectively the changes will aid their quest to get more Tennessee students to meet academic standards and thus help build a more competitive workforce. And to do that, officials say, teachers need to be put under the microscope. Their performance must measure up.

Last week's action by the state board was just the latest in a host of reforms redefining what Tennessee expects of students and teachers.

The board approved a new minimum pay schedule that de-emphasizes a teacher's education level and years of experience, and passed a rule requiring every district to develop some kind of differentiated pay plan. Districts could decide to pay more for higher test scores, or give more to teachers in hard-to-staff schools, or even offer more money based on the subjects or grade levels they teach, depending on local plans.

But Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman wants to go even further. In addition to stiffer requirements for first-year teachers, he wants to make license renewal dependent on a teacher's performance, as determined by an evaluation and student test score data. The board approved a first reading of that policy; another reading is needed for final passage.

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While monumental themselves, the changes enacted and unveiled last week are just pieces of a larger reform movement, based on Huffman's premise that education practices of the past must change to have real improvement in student performance.

The state in recent years has revamped the teacher pension system, quashed collective bargaining rights, made it tougher to achieve tenure and tied teacher evaluations to student test scores.

Altogether, the changes lay out a new vision for Tennessee education, one that eliminates some of the guaranteed stability long enjoyed by teachers and treats them more like private-sector professionals.

And that's a sea change that states like Tennessee are leading, said Sandi Jacobs, state policy director at the National Council on Teacher Quality, a nonpartisan research and policy group that advocates for education reform.

Pro and con

Opponents say the state school board's moves are disrespectful toward teachers and add to the damaging policies enacted in recent years. And they suspect the new rules will hamper teacher recruitment and retention.

"We want the best and brightest teachers to teach Tennessee kids. And they are not going to come here with this type of pay scale and in a place where there's utter disdain for educators and for advanced education," said Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, who is a Knox County teacher. "I don't see how we are going to be able to recruit the teachers that we need."

But Huffman predicts the opposite. He said making it tougher to become and remain a teacher and paying those teachers more can make the field more desirable to high-quality candidates.

"I think, over time, if it is more difficult to enter the profession and we've got a higher bar for rigor, if there's more high-quality feedback that helps people improve and if there is a real eye to quality, both in terms of how we compensate people but also how we license people, it sends an important signal about the professionalism of the field," Huffman said in an interview Friday after the meeting.

"And I think that most teachers are really going to like it. I also think that we are going to have an easier time in the future attracting great teachers to come to Tennessee."

Only the best teachers

The state is attempting to improve teacher quality from college preparation to retirement -- a crucial effort for Huffman's department, which wants to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation.

Tennessee now ranks near the bottom of many educational rankings. Only about half of the state's students in grades three through eight read at grade level on 2012 state tests. Results in math were similar.

And it's going to take more than just new standards and higher expectations to change that, said B. Fielding Rolston, chairman of the appointed state board.

"Obviously, in K-12 education, the teacher is extremely important," Rolston, of Kingsport, said in an interview. "And we aren't going to get the job done that we need to get done for students unless we've got good teachers in the classroom."

He thinks the licensure change will help ensure schools have the best teachers.

Under the plan, instructors who earn certain scores on their evaluations would have their licenses automatically renewed. Those who don't would have one year to improve or their licenses would be revoked.

A teacher who loses his license is ineligible to teach in any Tennessee public school and would have a hard time getting a license in another state.

Under current policy, the state renews 10-year licenses even for teachers deemed to be the lowest performers.

Huffman said he can't in good conscience continue to allow that.

"When a state gives a license to a teacher, we are saying to the parents and the community, 'I can guarantee you that this person has met a minimum threshold of performance.'" Huffman said. "We can't say that under our current system right now. We are making a representation to the public under our current licensure system that we can't actually support with evidence."

Jacobs, of the National Council on Teacher Quality, said some states are starting to find concepts like one-size-fits-all pay scales outdated. Differentiated pay plans have helped some schools find candidates for tough-to-fill positions like high school physics teachers.

Fewer states have moved to tie licensure to teacher performance, she said. Only six states require some evidence of effectiveness for a license; three require some kind of student achievement data to make that determination.

On the horizon

Next on Huffman's list of reforms is a revamp of teacher preparation programs. A damning study released last week found them lacking in Tennessee and many parts of the country.

The National Council on Teacher Quality report found that teacher colleges and teacher preparation programs are pumping out teachers unprepared for the classroom. So far, the issue of how teachers are trained before joining the workforce has largely gone under the radar in even the most aggressive K-12 education reforms.

But that's poised to change, both in Tennessee and nationally.

"We're starting to see that focus shift," Jacobs said. "The in-service teachers are where the states have started. Now we're slowly starting to see states say we need to think about the pipeline."

Another of Tennessee's next reform moves will aim to raise the bar not only for admission into college prep programs, but also entry into the field upon graduation. Details of that plan are not yet worked out, though officials said they hope to present more information in the fall.

"That is the last frontier," said Sara Heyburn, assistant commissioner for teachers and leaders.

Altogether, these changes should improve Tennessee's teaching corps and, hopefully, Tennessee student results, Heyburn said.

"I think combined we're really trying to both make this more of a profession and hold teachers to appropriate standards," she said.

But those measures could go too far and push some teachers out of the profession altogether, said Sandy Hughes, president of the Hamilton County Education Association.

"Who wants to be in a career with so little chance of advancement?" said Hughes, an Ooltewah High teacher on leave for her union duties. "Even the opportunity for extra money is attached to someone else's behavior. There's no security in that."

While she was disappointed in the state's policy direction, she sees small signs of hope at the local level.

Just a day before the state board handed down its decision, the Hamilton County Board of Education expressed a strong desire to offer teachers a substantial raise -- especially in light of a $25,000 annual raise for Superintendent Rick Smith.

Board members said they would like for Smith to explore the money needed to give teachers a raise of 3 to 5 percent. Currently, Hamilton County teachers make between about $35,000 and $61,000 annually, depending on experience and degrees attained.

"I hope they'll help us to get all our community to love and respect our teachers and try to help us through this, what seems to be one disaster after another at the state level," Hughes said.

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.

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