It’s one of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s biggest unrealized goals: changing the way the state evaluates teachers. He wants to use student achievement test scores to help determine whether to grant teachers tenure or fire them after their first three years. With a jackpot of federal cash as bait, the governor hopes to accomplish in a single week what he has been unable to do in his previous seven years in office.
Last week, Bredesen called a surprise seven-day special session of the legislature beginning Jan. 12 to adopt this sweeping change. If lawmakers refuse to go along, the governor warns, the state will blow its opportunity to cash in on up to $400 million in federal economic stimulus money in the Race to the Top competition.
U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan calls it “education reform’s moon shot.” Across America, state governments are scrambling to make reforms to qualify for shares of the $4 billion available. The deadline for entries from the states is Jan. 19, the last day of the special session.
Obama’s initiative, Bredesen said, “has made the stars line up to create some opportunities that no one has really expected. I have a little sign on my desk. It says ‘carpe diem’ — seize the day — and that’s what I’m trying to do here with education. … There is a lot at stake here.”
Pulled in two directions
Bredesen’s high-pressure gambit — giving lawmakers one week to act, with hundreds of millions of dollars on the line — puts the statewide teachers’ union, the Tennessee Education Association, in a nearly impossible position. Either the TEA caves and accepts legislation that’s anathema to much of its membership, or the union could look like the villain in the loss of federal aid.
Teachers are complaining about strong-arm tactics from the White House all the way down to the governor’s office. On its Web site, the TEA is asking its members to complain to their state legislators. Lawmakers are themselves grousing over the speed of the special session.
The crux of the controversy is how much weight should be given to student test scores in evaluating the performance of teachers.
Bredesen touts the state’s 17 years of student testing as the richest data in the country on whether teachers are doing their jobs well. He says the so-called value-added tests, intended to measure the gain in knowledge over a year, show that a “startling” two-thirds of the difference in student performance is explained by teacher quality.
Of teachers who perform poorly in their first two years, two-thirds still aren’t doing good jobs five years later, the data shows. The reverse is true of good teachers. This means “you can tell a lot from how someone does in the first year or two,” Bredesen said.
The governor insists, therefore, that tests should be made the largest factor in tenure decisions and teacher evaluations. The TEA says that’s unfair and would force teachers to “teach to the test” — that is, restrict instruction to the subject matter that’s going to be tested, at the expense of all the other things students need to know. The Obama administration’s guidelines for the stimulus money are vague, asking only that tests play a significant role.
Governor plays tough
“I’d be less than honest if I didn’t say it’s heavy-handed,” TEA lobbyist Jerry Winters said of Bredesen’s call for expedited new legislation. “It’s really a lot of pressure. … Our position is we can’t sell our souls in this process. If there are some changes that we can make that will make the state eligible for $400 million, we don’t want to be viewed as the obstructionist in that process. But on the other hand, we can’t throw our members under the bus. I firmly believe that’s it’s totally unfair to take one test score, one snapshot, and base a teacher’s future on that one particular day.”
Bredesen should have little trouble passing his proposals in the Republican-run Senate, where the teachers’ union enjoys few friends. But in the House, where Republicans hold only a 51-48 margin, the TEA boasts more clout. Rep. Mike Turner of Old Hickory, chairman of the House Democratic political caucus, said Bredesen is unlikely to succeed without TEA support.
“If the teachers’ union doesn’t come on board, it probably won’t happen,” Turner said.
At a press conference, Bredesen sounded confident he ultimately would get his way.
“I think there probably are going to be members of both parties who may have a little heartache over a change this large. But I think everybody understands that this is a change that’s happening .… This is a requirement put on the table by the most liberal national administration of my adult lifetime. It’s time for Tennessee to get in step with this stuff, and this is what we’re going to do.”