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The Disconnect Over Tennessee’s New Teacher Evaluations

October 18, 2011

By now I’m sure you’ve heard the news that teachers and principals (some, not all, mind you) are in an uproar over the new teacher evaluations.  Governor Haslam and Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman are on the defensive, according to the Times Free Press:

NASHVILLE — Seeking to face down concerns from Tennessee educators and state lawmakers, Gov. Bill Haslam and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman are defending the state’s new teacher evaluation system but concede the controversial program is not without its flaws.

“The system is not perfect, but it is a significant step forward, and the first step in an ongoing effort to refine and improve evaluation and support for educators,” Huffman wrote in an email sent to educators, obtained by the Times Free Press.

. . .

Haslam spokesman David Smith said “the governor understands there are concerns about the process, which is to be expected in this early implementation phase, and the Department of Education is working with educators to address issues.”

Smith said the administration “has no plans to change the evaluation system and believes that high standards and rigorous accountability measures play an important role in our ongoing efforts to improve education statewide.”

The Tennessean followed up with an editorial on Sunday titled “Teacher Evaluations Slow Race to the Top”:

Can it be that the fast-moving Race to the Top is getting its first gut check?

. . .

School boards, principals and teachers all are complaining about the new evaluation system, which, among other things, assigns a numerical score of 1 to 5 that largely determines whether a teacher receives tenure.

Teachers have begun to spend less time with students, as they linger over lesson plans to make sure they satisfy a three-page checklist used to rate the teacher. And administrators feel hard-pressed to schedule six classroom observations of each teacher they supervise.

. . .

What went wrong? At least part of it appears to be the “race” itself. Everyone, from the governor and legislature to school officials, parents and local business leaders, wants Tennessee’s children to get a better education, and for standards to improve right away. But elected officials did not adequately include teachers and principals in the policy- and decision-making process. This created ill will and may have led officials to overlook important qualities of good teaching that can’t be captured on a scale of 1 to 5.

The outcry is such that at least one Republican legislator, Rep. Rick Womick of Rockvale, agrees the system isn’t working, and House Education Committee hearings have been set early next month.

What the Tennessean points out is true: This new evaluation system looks decent on paper, but has been a bit of a train wreck in practice.  There were some obvious problems from the start — finding the 50% student achievement input for teachers without tests, figuring out how principals who are used to a Principal/manager job rather than Principal/instructional leader are going to cope with so many evaluations, the psychological impact of starting up a new system and making it so high-stakes right from the get-go (i.e., tenure ramifications)– but there was at least a nod to collaboration and the gathering of input from various stakeholders (remember the TEAC?).  It’s just that the whole “collaboration,” “self-reflection,” and concern with implementation thing didn’t really happen like it was supposed to.

The funny thing is, while all this is going down in Tennessee, the Democrats for Education Reform (there’s a whole ‘nother blog post about whether DFER are actually Democrats, how DFER is funded, etc.) have looked down from on high and applauded (with gusto!) Tennessee’s new evaluation system in their report released yesterday, Built to Succeed? Ranking New Statewide Teacher Evaluation Practices [pdf].  From the report:

Tennessee is strongest in the Rating/Performance Measures category, but this should not be surprising since Tennessee has had the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) and used value-added measures to gauge student performance for years. Whereas most states use four rating categories for teacher performance, Tennessee uses five effectiveness groups.

The guidelines for the Tennessee teacher and principal evaluation models are very specific and allow little room for weakening at the local district level. Of the 50% of the evaluation criteria that is based on student achievement data, 35% is based on student growth data comprised of TVAAS scores or other measures approved by the Department of Education that have been shown capable of measuring student growth. The remaining 15% is determined from a long list of state sanctioned, high quality measures that are aligned with the educator’s primary responsibility.

Of the remaining 50%, the state will approve or provide rigorous evaluation models that use multiple data sources to evaluate educator practice and will include at least four classroom visits a year, of which two must be unannounced. New teachers will have a minimum of six observations in a year.

Quite the praise!

Here’s the problem, though.  From what I’ve heard, the Teacher Evaluation Advisory Committee (TEAC) was not, shall we say, “highly effective” (to quote NCLB).  The folks appointed to the committee were extremely busy (and Important — why else would they be on the TEAC?) and, besides, they only met, well, infrequently, as important people are wont to do (what with their schedules and all).  There were only a total of 18 meetings, according to the website (scroll down).  As well, roughly every other meeting was a conference call.  10-12 meetings, with some conference calls thrown in, seems woefully insufficient to design AND field test a new, statewide evaluation system.  I mean, field-testing alone, to account for implementation problems, differences between urban and rural systems, etc. should have run at least a year on its own, if not longer.  The design of the system beforehand should have taken roughly a year.

Our problem?  Everyone got really excited, but we didn’t do a great job with the follow-through.

Governor Haslam used the catch phrase “let’s not let the perfect be the enemy of the good” when he presented his legislative package to the General Assembly back in February; Commissioner Huffman has been echoing it.  That’s all well and good; but I’m afraid we’ve rushed so fast that we took what could have been a decent enough law and ended up making kind of a pig’s ear out of it.  Far from letting the perfect be the enemy of the good; we let the hasty has become the enemy of the good.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. Janet permalink
    October 21, 2011 11:14 pm

    What type of evaluation system needs to be set up for our Governor and our Commissioner of Education? I have negative numbers in mind!

  2. Janice Miller permalink
    December 7, 2011 8:36 am

    “When an adult took standardized tests forced on kids”

    Here’s the clincher in what he wrote:

    “The math section had 60 questions. I knew the answers to none of them, but managed to guess ten out of the 60 correctly. On the reading test, I got 62% . In our system, that’s a “D”, and would get me a mandatory assignment to a double block of reading instruction.

    He continued, “It seems to me something is seriously wrong. I have a bachelor of science degree, two masters degrees, and 15 credit hours toward a doctorate…

    “If I’d been required to take those two tests when I was a 10th grader, my life would almost certainly have been very different. I’d have been told I wasn’t ‘college material,’ would probably have believed it, and looked for work appropriate for the level of ability that the test said I had.

    “It makes no sense to me that a test with the potential for shaping a student’s entire future has so little apparent relevance to adult, real-world functioning. Who decided the kind of questions and their level of difficulty? Using what criteria? To whom did they have to defend their decisions? As subject-matter specialists, how qualified were they to make general judgments about the needs of this state’s children in a future they can’t possibly predict? Who set the pass-fail “cut score”? How?”

    “I can’t escape the conclusion that decisions about the [state test] in particular and standardized tests in general are being made by individuals who lack perspective and aren’t really accountable.”

    http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/post/when-an-adult-took-standardized-tests-forced-on-kids/2011/12/05/gIQApTDuUO_blog.html

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