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Tennessee in 'Race to the Top' for school funding: Education stimulus ties job reviews, test scores

Ohanian Comment:I would refer these Tennessee Standardistos and corporate camp followers to this breaking news item: Under Race to the Top, Schools to Institute Full Body Test Score Inserts: Solution to School Annual Progress, Teacher Effectiveness, Student Hyperactivity, Corporate Profits

by Jane Roberts

States hoping for a portion of the $4.35 billion in Race to the Top stimulus for education know they must be bold, which is why Gov. Phil Bredesen doesn't flinch when he says 51 percent of a teacher's evaluation should be based on student test scores.

The state legislature will decide in a special session starting Tuesday.

Several states that are expected to win the stimulus money already have laws allowing test scores to count for half of a teacher's job review.

A smaller percentage means teachers still could get good job reviews without significantly changing what they are doing, said Victoria Van Cleef, head of The New Teacher Project in Memphis.

"Student test scores should not be the only measure by which we assess teacher performance, but they should be the most important measure, because they are a reliable and objective measure of student growth."

Van Cleef and Teresa Sloyan, executive director at Hyde Family Foundations and a member of the state school board, are the only two Memphians working on Tennessee's Race to the Top application.

Experts say the stimulus money is the most generous incentive the U.S. Department of Education has ever issued. The reforms it causes are expected to rival those inspired by No Child Left Behind, enacted in 2002.

The application is due in Washington Jan. 19.

In the rush to qualify, nearly a dozen states have passed laws to lift caps on charter schools (Tennessee did that in June) or eliminate "firewalls" around test scores and teacher job performance.

In New York, Gov. David Paterson announced legislation last week to remove the charter-school cap and allow the state to take over low-performing schools. Both changes, if passed, are expected to improve New York's chances at $700 million in stimulus funds.

"I think the Department of Education is surprised at how successful it's been to actually gets states to move," said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality in Washington and a member of the Maryland board of education.

Jay Greene, chairman of the Department of Education Reform at the University of Arkansas, doubts the enthusiasm is strictly because of the money.

"I think policy makers and educators are using the application process as leverage to achieve these policy goals. That fact that federal government is praising these reforms gives these measures legitimacy."

Of the 30-plus states planning to submit applications, fewer than 10 are expected to be funded. Tennessee, in line for $400 million to $500 million annually over a three-year period, is highly ranked largely because it has a rare database that shows progress students made or lost in a specific teacher's classroom.

State statute says the data cannot be used to determine teacher tenure. Bredesen is pushing hard to get the law changed, partly because the most points in Race to the Top will go to states that offer the best plans to improve teacher and principal effectiveness.

Walsh expects plenty of emphasis on performance reviews.

"Teacher evaluations are atrocious everywhere. Nobody defends them," she said. "The truth is, teachers are not evaluated and when they are, everyone gets the same grade. ... Tenure is automatic. If you're in the building when it's due, you get it."

In Tennessee, teachers are evaluated once a year until they get tenure, usually after their third year. After tenure, the state requires that they have two job reviews before their 10th anniversary.

Rachel Woods, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, says that's because the process "is cumbersome and not easy to use."

But she says Race to the Top is much deeper than using test scores to evaluate teachers.

"It's not just judging teachers; it's improving teaching by determining what makes a great teacher and transferring those skills to other teachers."

About 93 percent of city school teachers in Memphis earn tenure in three years, a figure Supt. Kriner Cash says is too high.

In its proposal for money from the Gates Foundation, the city schools and its teachers union agreed to let test scores count for 35 percent of a teacher's evaluation.

"We wanted more than 35 percent, but that is the compromise we worked out with the (Memphis Education Association)," said board member Tomeka Hart.

On Saturday, the Tennessee Education Association board of directors endorsed basing up to 35 percent of a teacher's job evaluation on student standardized test scores.

That's a major concession by the union, which has found itself in the difficult position of fighting to minimize test scores without hurting the state's chances of winning the money.

"We agree the test data is important. But for us, the data is very dirty," said Earl Wiman, president of the state group.

— Jane Roberts
Commercial Appeal


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