One teacher offers her view of why TDOE can’t seem to make TNReady ready.
The repeated problems with TNReady testing over the last three years have resulted in many calls, especially from legislative leaders, for the resignation of Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. The fundamental problem with TNReady – and other education issues in Tennessee – is not the Commissioner of Education; it is the Department of Education. The action of replacing the commissioner while ignoring the employees yet expecting the department to perform better is analogous to giving a car a new paint job instead of rebuilding the engine, then expecting the car to run better.
McQueen has been commissioner since January 2015. Many TDOE employees have worked there longer than the commissioner. Some employees have worked through several commissioners. Although the commissioner makes the headlines, the TDOE employees are responsible for the department’s daily activities. Not all of these daily activities are known by the commissioner and not all would be approved by the commissioner if she did know about them. Therefore, while a change of commissioner would certainly get headlines, there is no guarantee the change would result in improved TDOE employee actions with TNReady implementation.
I have experienced several concerning TDOE employee actions over the last few years, and I am only one of the 66,000+ teachers in Tennessee.
About 8-10 years ago, I attended a webinar training session by TDOE for special education teachers whose students were taking the TCAP alternative assessment. During the webinar, special education supervisors and teachers from across the state were able to ask questions of the TDOE presenter. One question that several people brought up was a likely unintended outcome by following a TDOE directive, and suggestions were made for modifying the directive. The presenter cut off the suggestions by stating “That’s just the way it has to be done. Too bad, so sad! Next question?” This employee is still working at TDOE, and the commissioner of education has changed twice since this incident. If other employees share this attitude toward constructive feedback from teachers, it is not a surprise that TNReady has continued to have problems.
In June of 2014 I attended a professional learning session by TDOE at Spring Hill High School in Maury County. Approximately 400 special education teachers from middle Tennessee attended this session. Late in the morning the presenter’s laptop battery died before she had completed her powerpoint presentation. As several TDOE employees in the front of the auditorium were trying to diagnose and fix the problem, she said (with her microphone still on) “Well, how was I supposed to know I needed to bring my power cord.” This TDOE team had been presenting the same session to groups of teachers across the state for several weeks. All of the teachers attending the sessions were under Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system. Not a one of those teachers would have scored well if they had reacted that way to a technology problem during an observation lesson. This employee also still works at TDOE. If other TDOE employees take no responsibility for advance preparation, it is not a surprise that TNReady problems have been repeated over several years.
On January 28, 2016, I made a public records request to TDOE’s Records Custodian, the Director of Communications. I repeated the request on February 23, 2016 because I had received no response. I repeated the request on March 4, 2016, explaining that I needed the information before April 14. On March 14, 2016, I received an email informing me that they would provide the records as soon as they could. On April 27, 2016, I sent an email pointing out that it had been three months since my original request, and that the date I needed the information by had already passed, but that another need-by date of May 6, 2016, was approaching. The following day I received an email that the department was working on my request. On May 3, 2016, I once again requested the records, and was informed that they were working on obtaining them. Finally, on May 10, 2016 at 2:35 pm, I emailed Commissioner McQueen and included all of my previous emails to TDOE. She replied by email at 3:10 pm that the director of communications was working on it and would send me the records shortly. At 3:51pm the director of communications emailed me the records I had requested 13 weeks earlier. The department employees caused the problem; the commissioner solved the problem in 76 minutes when she was made aware of it.
On January 10, 2017, I contacted TDOE stating my concern that a TDOE employee had violated departmental policy, and his actions had caused professional harm to me. I asked for a simple statement clarifying that the employee had violated policy that I could then use to repair the damage to my professional reputation. This request was forwarded to TDOE’s general counsel the same day. I received no response until 3-13-2017 when the General Counsel sent an email that the problem was caused by me because I had used a TDOE resource incorrectly by contacting the vendor instead of contacting my administrator. This contradicts the manual provided during TDOE’s initial training for using this resource that specifically stated to contact the vendor directly. If TDOE employees continue to give conflicting information, it is no surprise that TDOE has experienced problems with two different vendors for TNReady. It is also no surprise that TDOE claims that this summer’s problems with uploading of evaluation portfolios were the teachers’ fault.
On May 26, 2017, I contacted TDOE’s Assistant General Counsel for Special Education with a simple yes/no question about special education law. I received no answer so I contacted Congressman Marsha Blackburn’s office who obtained the information from the US Department of Education within a day. An internet search shows that the Office of the General Counsel plans staff birthday celebrations and matching costume days; an internet search shows that the parent of a student with special needs also couldn’t get timely answers from this office. If TDOE employees ignore the taxpayers who pay their salaries, why would they listen to the legislators or the commissioner or the vendors?
There are good employees at TDOE. The fundamental problem is that the employees seem to have lost sight of their primary purpose which is to support public education in Tennessee. TDOE employees are making decisions and giving directives for an environment with which they are no longer familiar. Although some of the employees have teaching licenses and teaching experience, most of them have not been in the classroom for several years. That situation, however, can have a simple and effective solution: If every TDOE employee had to substitute teach for two days a year, one day each semester, their perspective relative to their decisions and decrees would change drastically. School systems struggle with finding enough substitute teachers, and TDOE employees could be used for planned teacher absences, such as doctor appointments and professional seminars. Since these employees are already being paid, the local school districts could save a little money. Would there be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth in response to this suggestion? Yes, there would. But that leads to the question of why would we want people making decisions for our students who didn’t want to spend a day with our students? Visiting schools by stepping in the door of a classroom for a few minutes does not give you the perspective that spending a day by yourself in a classroom of students would give. No information is as clear as what you see and experience for yourself. When Jim Henry was asked to lead the troubled Department of Children’s Services, he “implemented a new requirement that all staff (including himself) spend a day with a caseworker to ‘see what life is like when you’re not sitting in the ivory tower.’.” [The Tennessean 8-21-2013] This policy helped DCS develop a change of culture within the department and improve employee focus on the department’s core mission. Implementing a similar policy at TDOE would improve not only the issues with TNReady, but would focus employees on their core mission of supporting local school systems in providing the optimum education for students.
Perhaps the governor or the legislators or the commissioner herself could implement this requirement quickly as a first step toward improving the root cause of the TNReady problems – the TDOE employees. Please don’t seek a new paint job when the real need is a rebuilt engine.
Teachers: What’s your story? Share at firstname.lastname@example.org
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @tnedreport