It's rare that a governor calls a special session of the Legislature the week before lawmakers officially resume their new year's duties. But with the possibility of pulling down several hundred million dollars from the Obama administration's $4 billion Race to the Top fund to propel national education reform, the governor is on a mission.
Mr. Bredesen wants to make Tennessee a leading model -- and grant recipient -- for the kind of K-12 reform that the president is seeking to vault American education back into a leadership position in the global community. And the governor intends to do so by revising the state's teacher tenure laws to make tenure contingent on student performance, as measured by increased achievement levels year over year.
That seems to fit the kind of bold, innovative thinking that the Obama administration is seeking to shake up the lax status quo that has left American students trailing European and Asian public schools year after year the last few decades in math, science and language skills.
Yet teachers' 51,000-strong Tennessee Education Association is understandably wary about making student achievement gains the sine qua non, the indispensable element, of reform. A fierce but necessarily quick battle is already underway on that issue, and has been in the run-up to the special session -- which begins today -- since the governor unveiled his proposal for a special session just a few weeks ago. The Jan. 19 deadline for applying for Race to the Top grants unfairly drives the debate schedule, and the governor is also responsible for putting this debate in the vise of that short time-frame.
Teachers have reasonable fears of being ramrodded in the session to make an extravagant concession before the final votes of the special session on Thursday and Friday. They also want to avoid being made targets for a burden and a cause that often are chiefly due to family and social issues, as opposed to a problem of ineffective teaching skills or unsatisfactory teacher effort.
Gov. Bredesen is demanding that teacher evaluations, linked directly to annual student achievement gains, be made 51 percent of the criteria for granting and maintaining a teacher's tenured position. In short, a poor record of student performance -- based on the state's model of value-added testing data -- could be the sole determining factor in whether a teacher is retained or fired.
Teachers have agreed to use students' achievement performance as 35 percent of their evaluation criteria. But they oppose fixing it at 51 percent. That would wholly outweigh the other 49 percent of evaluation criteria, regardless of how a teacher performs in other areas of responsibility, or how prepared an individual teacher's students are to learn.
Teachers reasonably believe that factors beyond their control also contribute heavily to student achievement, or lack of achievement. These factors relate to family, neighborhood, poverty and social conditions away from school. In fact, myriad studies trace poor student performance not so much to so-called "underperforming schools" and inadequate teachers -- the theme the governor apparently embraces -- but rather to family, neighborhoods and poverty and their influence on learning, self-esteem, motivation and self-responsibility.
Too many children, in fact, are reared and shaped by a parent or parents, or caretakers, who do not read regularly to them, or consistently teach them rudimentary elements of learning -- words, colors, reading, puzzles, numbers, counting, simple games that use basic math or fractions. Indeed, it has become axiomatic that children who start kindergarten or first grade behind their peers due to lack of family-based learning, and encouragement toward learning, will remain behind their peers throughout school if not helped to catch up by the third grade. And even with the best of teachers, many students never catch up -- or keep up.
Making teachers wholly accountable for the ills of society, at least in terms of their job security, is a huge leap. Private schools are able to do that, but they also are able to reject or eject students who do not make a fair effort to advance. Parents who pay private school tuition, as a rule, also are motivated to help and encourage their children to learn. Public schools, rightly, cannot fix such limits on the students they accept.
Tension over the basis for teacher tenure constitutes a reasonable debate. But it would be unfair for the governor and the Legislature to ramrod an unfair change to teacher tenure purely over the 51 percent marker that Gov. Bredesen has wrongly rushed to lay down in just the past few weeks. Republicans may be disposed to side with the governor and whack the teacher' association because of the party's general antipathy to unions and vested interest professional associations. Regardless, teachers deserve more consideration, and fairer treatment.