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Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman speaks to the Chattanooga Times Free Press on Monday during an editorial board meeting. Huffman spent Monday visiting local teachers and principals to discuss the new teacher evaluation process.

Tennessee's education commissioner wants the state's lowest-performing schools to start using competition as a means for improvement.

Targeting the lowest-performing 5 percent of schools is a crucial component to the state's application asking for reprieve from the federal No Child Left Behind law, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said Monday said during an editorial board meeting with the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

If the wavier is approved, the state will encourage creativity and competition among the lowest-performing schools, Huffman said. All sorts of reform efforts are on the table for these schools, he said, including differentiated teacher pay scales and lengthening the school year or school day.

He acknowledged, though, that implementing change is sometimes a tough sell in public schools.

"For some reason, differentiation is anathema in the education system," Huffman said. "I think, broadly, people feel limited."

The state's 85 lowest-performing, or "priority," schools will have several courses of action available for improvement. They can voluntarily enter the Achievement School District, a division of the state's Department of Education formed to address persistently low-performing schools, that currently includes four schools in Memphis and Chattanooga's Howard School of Academics and Technology.

Priority schools also can create a local "innovation zone," which would allow flexibility on how those schools are operated. Schools in the zones could run on an alternative calendar or offer a different teacher pay scale than the other schools in their home districts.

For those changes, schools would be rewarded, Huffman said. The state hopes to redirect money once meant for schools that failed Adequate Yearly Progress, benchmark levels of performance that schools must meet under No Child Left Behind. By focusing on the 5 percent of low-performing schools, that money could have a greater effect, he said.

"Because so many schools now fail AYP, that money was distributed fairly thinly," he said.

With a waiver, the state will move away from strict AYP testing standards to a model that's focused overall student growth, he said.

"Last year, around half of Tennessee schools failed to make AYP. This year, that number would be around 80 percent," the application states. "We are asking educators to do the impossible, and then labeling them as failures when they don't achieve those unrealistic outcomes."

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