Professional Educators of Tennessee launched a new online journal today and it contains a wide-ranging interview with Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The full interview can be viewed here.
I’ve got some excerpts and analysis below.
PET: You started in your post about 3 or 4 months into Governor Haslam’s term, after Tennessee was already several months into the Race to the Top (RTTT) Grant Award and after the new evaluation system was put in place. Yet, many people seem to tie you to the changes in teacher evaluation which was actually included in the 2010 RTTT Application. Is that fair?
Huffman: Yes and no. No in the sense that we committed to implement the system (including 50% student achievement for all teachers) through the First to the Top legislation and then through the grant. My first week on the job, the advisory committee (TEAC) completed its work which included the selection of the TEAM rubric and the format for the observations, so that was all done by the time I came, and it isn’t accurate to say that I created it.
What set us apart from other states, though, is that we didn’t back down. Other states committed to do evaluation too, and many delayed by a year or two, or kicked the can even farther down the road, and we stayed the course. If that means that I am tied to the evaluation system, I accept that, because I think the system has made instruction better and helped kids learn more. One of the things I think people miss in the evaluation discussion is that the real value is not in anything punitive: it is in ensuring that real feedback and conversations about instruction happen across the state with a common language. And I think that has happened.
What’s missing, in my view, is the attendant professional development and early career support. Early career teachers need mentoring and support. Teach for America, where Huffman got his start, places a heavy emphasis on targeted coaching and mentoring in the first two years. Even if the evaluation process is on balance a good one (and there’s debate about that), it’s difficult to see how it improves instruction significantly without supports and targeted professional development being provided to teachers.
PET: What changes do we need to make in teacher evaluations? And what should the state have done differently in retrospect?
Huffman: We made a bunch of changes after the first year, which I think made the system better and certainly made educators feel the system was better in the second year. I think we have to keep looking each year at how to improve it. A couple of things over the long haul that I think we need to keep looking at: 1) adjusting language each year on the rubric so that it effectively matches the observations with the standards teachers are teaching. I think we have done a little of this but we have to keep looking; 2) the whole “15% measure” for achievement still doesn’t seem to be going very well. Many teachers and schools don’t feel like it accurately reflects teachers’ impact, so I want to keep looking at this.
In retrospect, I think the biggest piece missing was training and communication for teachers well in advance of the rollout. I think some teachers got strong communication from local schools and districts and others did not, and the communication piece was insufficient from the state. A good example of that was the initial “planning” strand. Some teachers spent hours and hours and wrote 20-page lesson plan documents, which was never the intent. Better communication way back in early 2011 would have made a big difference.
The evaluation process is an ever-changing one — and that’s frustrating for teachers. Every few months, it seems, something new is decided or added or taken away from the evaluation process. No one objects to a sound evaluation of their performance. What’s problematic is the implementation. Further, the 15% measure for achievement is becoming more, not less problematic. In some systems, teachers are forced to choose an “Annual Measurable Objective” connected to English/Language Arts or Math. Rather than owning their own students (in the case of AP teachers, for example) teachers are sometimes tied to students they’ve never taught. The State Board document on the 15% provides a number of choices and ample flexibility. Revisiting this issue with the input of teachers from across the state would be a welcome policy change.
PET: In your opinion, what are the top three current challenges facing education in Tennessee?
Huffman: This is a tough one. 1) Helping students with disabilities reach their potential. We have a huge gap in achievement and we are really focused on this at the state level right now. 2) Early grades reading. We heard all summer from teachers that they need and want more support for teaching reading and for intervening with students who are far behind their peers. We are offering a course through our regional CORE offices to thousands of teachers on reading instruction, and I hope it will help. 3) Integrating all of the changes. We have done a lot in the last few years, and we now have new assessments coming. Our focus is not on more change – it is on how to manage all of the change effectively.
I’m very bullish on our ability to navigate these challenges though.
One clear way to improve early grades reading is by ensuring access to high quality Pre-K programs. Both the Comptroller’s study and the Vanderbilt study of Pre-K indicate its ability to help improve reading in early grades. Governor Haslam, however, has indicated he’s not in favor of expanding a program that is proven to work to address what the Commissioner of Education identifies as a top priority for our state.
PET: Any final thoughts you would like to share with Tennessee educators?
Huffman: I am deeply grateful for your service. Every time I visit a school, I am struck by the professionalism and commitment of our educators, and our students are lucky to have you.
I’m sure it’s nice for educators to hear those words. But, you can’t buy groceries with gratitude. So far, there hasn’t been a real commitment to improving the pay and support for the educators the Commissioner identifies as both highly professional and deeply committed. We heard a lot about how important teachers were to the gains noted on this year’s TCAP’s. What hasn’t been heard is how compensation and support will be improved to ensure Tennessee is attracting and keeping strong educators. To be clear, it’s not just better pay, but more support and more resources that teachers need.
EDIT: Today (10/3/13) at 3:00 PM Central Time Haslam and Huffman announced a goal to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state when it comes to teacher salaries.”
More Huffman: “Too often we try to use gratitude as a substitution for compensation.” – is he reading as I write?
And he notes, “Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 in terms of teacher compensation.”
It’s not clear what that means, exactly, but it should mean more than this.
And then, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh offers this response:
“Teachers in this state are overworked, underpaid, and deserve to be treated as professionals.
However, after listening to teachers across the state, we are increasingly convinced that Commissioner Huffman’s unproven, unreliable testing methods as a basis for teacher pay are hurting our public education system.
“….Basing teacher pay on scores, especially the scores of students they never teach, is going to further strain the system, lower morale, and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee.”
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