Next Steps for Tennessee Education

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Traveling across the state in my role as Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee I talk with a lot of people interested in public education.  One of the most common complaints is a lack of response from Governor Bill Lee or his team on specific education issues.  It is problematic and quite honestly has always been problematic in our state.  Better communication is always needed.  I should know, I used to work for Governor Jeb Bush years ago, and communication is always a struggle for the executive branch despite best intentions.

I would still remind people to be patient with Governor Lee and his staff as we are still in year one.  However, staff should now be settled into place, and processes and systems clearly established.   We should expect better communication in year two.

Governor Lee laid out a fairly ambitious education agenda, and while we disagreed with some parts of it, he clearly offered more specifics than his opponent in the election last November.  He was clear in his support of vouchers from the day he announced his candidacy.  It should have been no surprise to policymakers or stakeholders.  When surveyed, our members did not support vouchers.

His legislative victory with vouchers has yet to be implemented.  This may prove challenging, as the program must be proven successful before any other future voucher program is considered.  Members of the Tennessee General Assembly will demand proof of unmitigated success before any expansion or similar program enacted.  Cameron Sexton, a voucher critic, has now ascended to Speaker of the House.  His track record would indicate that he is a strong supporter of public schools. This actually helps the Governor moving forward on education policy changes needed in public education.

Other parts of the Lee campaign agenda likely won him most of his statewide support, but also gives voters more specifics in which to hold him accountable.  Candidate Lee suggested it was time to change the way our high schools look.  It was a bold policy suggestion, and as Governor, Bill Lee should move forward on that front.

For the last 50 years, the way high school has educated students has largely remained unchanged. There are many business and community leaders that also believe the traditional high school is disconnected from the demands of the modern economy.  They emphasize that graduates need additional skills to be successful in today’s workforce. The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) added: “Across Tennessee, students are learning in high schools using models developed for the needs of the 20th century rather than the workforce opportunities of the future. As a result, most Tennessee students do not graduate fully prepared to succeed in college, career, and life.”

Governor Lee stated, “It is time to embrace new, flexible school models to support new opportunities for career and technical education, work-based learning and apprenticeships, and dual-enrollment courses for students preparing for their career.”  We agree.  Some of that is already in the works, through recent legislation.  It is time we break down barriers that have held our teachers, school leaders, and school districts back from creative solutions necessary for the unique challenges of their communities. Increasing flexibility at the local level could lead to incredible innovations in our state.

State grants that allow local districts to fund high school redesign would be one manner to create change and address challenges schools would face as they transition from traditional models to a more flexible school model.  Another suggestion would be for the state to establish a pilot program for high performing districts by authorizing the State Board of Education to enter into a performance contract with school districts for the purpose of granting them more flexibility.  These high performing districts would be a school district in which a local school board agrees to comply with certain performance goals contained in a performance contract that is approved by the State Board of Education. In return for performance accountability, the district would be granted greater autonomy with both statutory and rule exemptions.  This is an idea Governor Lee and his team should explore.

It is past time for the state to make good on its commitment to teachers.  The Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) proved that the state of Tennessee invested more than $300 million dollars for teacher salaries in 2015-2018. Most of those dollars did not actually end up in pockets of classroom teachers. Generally, school districts employ more staff than are covered by the funding system utilized in Tennessee, known as the Basic Education Program (BEP).  State and local dollars earmarked for salaries during those years were often spread over more teachers than the staff positions generated by the BEP.

The Tennessee General Assembly did address that school districts in the future must now report in where salary increases are spent.  Governor Lee included a $71 million increase for a “2.5 percent pay raise for teachers” for fiscal year 2020. It is time to guarantee that teacher salaries, at the very least, match the cost of living increases faced by educators across the state.

Finally, we must update our school funding formula to reflect changing 21st century needs.  We need a plan and a funding formula that reflects our modern educational mission, priorities, and strategies. The plan should support teachers, fund facilities, and facilitate innovation and technology, while striving to better connect K-12 education with workforce needs.  Governor Lee has proven he will fight for what he believes in.  It is time to come together and focus on the other education ideas that were discussed on the campaign trail.  It is time to move forward on these issues to help all children, teachers, schools, and communities.  Let the policy discussion begin.  Communication is critical.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

 

 

 

Find the Good and Praise It

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Critics like to point out some of the shortcomings of our education system, and we should welcome that debate. A one-size-fits-all system does not work for everyone; it never has and never will. The system will continue to evolve, albeit slowly, and adjustments will always be needed. We should always welcome discussion about public education, which is the highest priority in most communities throughout the state in our country.

My friend, Johnny McDaniel, the Director of Schools in Lawrence County, utilizes a slogan in his system that is inspiring and worth emulating: Find the Good and Praise It.” There is so much good to recognize in our state if we only look for it. Educators across Tennessee make a difference in lives every single day one child at a time. We should take a moment to pause to reflect and appreciate our accomplishments.

Since 2010 Tennessee has improved more than any other state according to the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), considered the nation’s report card. While our scores were indeed flat and even lost some ground in fourth-grade math during the last reported scores, it does not diminish the claim that Tennessee was the fastest improving state in the nation. Tennessee’s fourth-graders ranked 19th in science, while eighth-grade performance ranked 21st. Yes, we have more work to do. However, that was accomplished by the committed effort of educators and policymakers across Tennessee. We have had both hits and misses, but the herculean effort should be recognized. Our progress and momentum in Tennessee continue to move forward, and we are considered a national leader in student-focused education policy.

Tennessee’s high school graduation rate hit a record-high for the 2018-19 school year. That should have been in headlines across the state. The hard work of our students and teachers across the state is truly making a difference. The current rate is 89.7% and that is a remarkable development. Can we continue to improve? Yes. However, it is time we acknowledge the progress in preparing students for postsecondary education and the workforce. Graduation is the first step, and more Tennessee children are graduating from high school. That makes Tennessee an attractive place for the industry looking to locate in our state. A quality education system ultimately provides economic mobility for all of our citizens.

In August 2018, 59 percent of voters surveyed in a poll conducted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) said students are not prepared for the workforce, and nearly half of voters said students are not ready for college. A majority of voters favored four specific readiness strategies: expanding access to post-high school educationmore opportunities for students to earn industry certificationhaving a work-based learning experience, and better college and career counseling for every high school student. Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly are moving to address those issues in our state.

The recently passed Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education, also known as the GIVE Act, is designed to support regional partnerships among schools, industry, and technical colleges. This initiative is destined to develop more work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities. It takes effect on July 2020. If implemented correctly, this should help prepare students for a good job right out of high school. This is a step in the right direction for numerous students across the state.

The reality is that college is not for everyone. It works for many students, but for others, this path is not the best choice. For many, the cost of a college education is too high, and too many young people are attending college and acquiring unnecessary debt—without graduating. We have been guilty too many times in public education of pushing college education exclusively, consequently shortchanging other career paths. Millions of young Americans are still paying the price. We now provide two years of tuition-free attendance at a community or technical college in Tennessee to our students through a program called the Tennessee Promise. In Tennessee, we are addressing college and career by leading the way nationally with Tennessee Promise and the GIVE Act. These innovative programs should be celebrated across the state.

Praise is a powerful tool; it is not used enough in our society. Criticism of things we do not like is an easier vehicle for too many. People in our world are looking for something to be mad about. Me? I am just looking for things to be happy about. Johnny McDaniel is on to something that we should all do more: “Find the Good and Praise It.”

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

New Year, New Leaders

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A new year is a time for reflection and more importantly a time for hope.  We will see a momentous change in state and federal government.  If anything is certain, it is that leadership matters, now more than ever.  When we lose ourselves in the service of others, we discover our own lives.

We know that leadership is not a position or a title, it is action and example.  However, that caveat comes with this admonishment: “In order to lead, you have to know what you believe,” according to my mother, Linda Bowman-Lawhorn. 

The federal government is likely to remain as divisive as ever.  In Tennessee, we have some exceptional leaders representing our state in Washington, DC.   However, our federal government is dysfunctional, and has been for a number of years.   Partisanship has become an extreme contact sport in our nation’s capital.  That is why states best serve as the laboratories of democracy for our nation.          

Limited government, individual freedom, traditional values are likely to remain priorities in state government during the Lee Administration and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly which convenes on January 8th, 2019.  The challenge for leaders will be practical and innovative approaches to complex problems.   That may require we change the way people think about issues, and promote policies that allow and encourage individuals and institutions to succeed. The state has probably never had this much turnover in leadership and some people are justifiably concerned.  However, I see that as an opportunity for leaders to thrive and make the greatest difference on behalf of our citizens.  

In education we will need leaders from the Tennessee Department of Education, every local education agency and in each classroom that are tenacious in creating a world of opportunities for every learner. We must remember that our individual actions can positively (or negatively) impact the life of children in this state.  The success or failure of the next generation of education leaders will mean real changes in the lives of students and their families.  We must make the world better than the one we inherited.

Policymakers and stakeholders must collaborate to the greatest extent possible to ensure that our students succeed, and that our educators get the resources they need with the compensation and respect they deserve.  Today’s children are tomorrow’s future, and education is a proven path to upward mobility for all students. 

Embrace 2019 with zeal and enthusiasm.  It can be a year full of potential.  We have an opportunity to renew our belief in our fellow citizens and set a new course in Tennessee that our fellow Americans can seek to emulate.  It will require ethical leadership and tireless advocacy for issues that you care about, but the promise of a new year brings the best hope for mankind.  The future is yet to be written.  Let freedom ring across our state and nation. 

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee.

Collaborative Conferencing Limits Educators

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In October, across the state, educators have an opportunity to decide if they wish to engage in a process called “Collaborative Conferencing.”  In other industries they may refer to it as an “Interest-Based Collaborative Problem Solving,” which is an increasingly popular method of multiparty consensus-building.  In education that concept may not work, if one side chooses not to engage in consensus building and the other side decides to file unnecessary lawsuits.  Professional Educators of Tennessee fervently supports the right of educators to discuss working conditions and salary with their employers.

In 2011, the Tennessee General Assembly passed the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act (Public Chapter 378). So, it is not surprising that we are frequently asked about our position on Collaborative Conferencing.  Currently Collaborative Conferencing, also known as PECCA, only occurs in about 12 districts around the state.   Only certain subjects can be discussed.  And some subjects are completely prohibited.

Subjects that can be discussed include:  Salaries or wages; Grievance procedures; Insurance; Fringe benefits (not to include pensions or retirement programs of the Tennessee consolidated retirement system or locally authorized early retirement incentives); Working conditions, except those working conditions that are prescribed by federal law, state law, private act, municipal charter or rules and regulations of the State Board of Education, the Department of Education or any other department or agency of state or local government; Leave; and, Payroll deductions (except with respect to those funds going to political activities).

Subjects that are prohibited include:  Differentiated pay plans and other incentive compensation programs, including stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations, or that aid in hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas;   Expenditure of grants or awards from federal, state or local governments and foundations or other private organizations that are expressly designed for specific purposes; Evaluation of professional employees pursuant to federal or state law or State Board of Education policy; Staffing decisions and State Board of Education or local board of education policies relating to innovative educational programs under § 49-1-207; innovative high school programs under Title 49, chapter 15; virtual education programs under Title 49, chapter 16; and other programs for innovative schools or school districts that may be enacted by the general assembly; All personnel decisions concerning assignment of professional employees, including, but not limited to, filling of vacancies, assignments to specific schools, positions, professional duties, transfers within the system, layoffs, reductions in force, and recall. No agreement shall include provisions that require personnel decisions to be determined on the basis of tenure, seniority or length of service; and, Payroll deductions for political activities.

In a modern world, it doesn’t seem that placing limits or prohibitions helps local districts, educators, students or stakeholders on emerging topics.  However, we have been disappointed by PECCA, and think that we may want to discuss items outside the scope of Collaborative Conferencing, such as differentiated pay plans, expenditure of grants or awards, evaluation and staffing decisions or other issues like school safety, curriculum/materials and/or other rapidly emerging issues.  Although we can probably agree that banning payroll deductions for political activities is probably a good thing for public education.

Just as we do, many teachers see the flaw in the system:  you can discuss salary but you cannot discuss, differentiated pay plans and other incentive compensation programs, including stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations, or that aid in hiring and retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.  Then why do we even discuss salary at all?  That decision is already set in a formula and largely determined with small room for debate or discussion.   It is probably why so few districts and educators choose to engage in Collaborative Conferencing.

Currently any school board in the state has the authority to address any terms and conditions through board policy. In other words, while the board is required to participate in conferencing if the professional employees vote to participate, nothing in the PECCA requires the board to agree on terms or conditions or enter into a memorandum of understanding if agreement has not been reached.  Which is why we must keep lines of communication open.

Are there other options?  We believe so and toward that end, Professional Educators of Tennessee has begun to establish Education Leaders Councils in some districts to accomplish more for teachers.  It will help us cultivate true consensus building and address more critical issues.

We know that some of our members oppose Collaborative Conferencing, which leads to less than optimal turnout in some districts.  In fact, in many districts those voting for Collaborative Conferencing is barely over 50% and still excludes people from the process.  That is simply not fair.

We hope we can work to address critical issues for educators and our members through our Education Leaders Council.  This may require future legislation, but any district can choose to meet with their employees at any time.   Our desire and intent are simple:  if you vote for Collaborative Conferencing or if you vote against Collaborative Conferencing, always choose Professional Educators of Tennessee as your representative, and we will work with our local leaders to promote the interest of educators in the local district, not an agenda pushed by a national organization.   We must work together, and it is clear that Collaborative Conferencing limits educators.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

 

Tone Deaf School Districts

“If you don’t understand  — from the school district to the superintendents — that we want our teachers held harmless, then I’m sorry, you’re tone-deaf.” ~State Representative Eddie Smith (Knoxville)

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That message was heard and understood statewide, right?  Apparently not.  We are receiving reports from across the state that some districts are denying their teachers their justified and earned bonuses, which harms the educator.  The language from the Public Chapter Number 881 reads “LEAs shall not base compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by statewide assessments administered in the 2017-18 school year” Public Chapter Number 1026 adds: “no adverse action may be taken against any student, teacher, school, or LEA based, in whole or in part, on student achievement data generated from the 2017-2018 TNReady assessment.” (emphasis added)

The Tennessee Department of Education, anticipating this problem, understood this could negatively impact teachers that did well on TNReady in the 2017-18 school year so they provided this guidance to school districts across the state: “All currently approved alternative salary schedules and differentiated pay plans are based on 2016-2017 school year data and may remain in effect because they are not impacted by the Legislation. Districts should consult closely with their board attorneys to ensure that any other strategic compensation policies do not result in an action being taken concerning a teacher in the 2017-18 school year based on 2017-18 data. As always, teachers may not earn less than they did the previous year unless there is a change in the teacher’s duties or position.” (emphasis added)

However, at least one school district, Greene County Schools, sent an email to all principals.  The message to all Greene County Administrators was from Bill Ripley, the Assistant Director of Academics.

Ripley wrote:

This message is in response to questions we have received.  Several months ago the state legislature passed an act preventing districts from affecting any teacher’s pay based on 2017-18 test results.  Therefore, the Greene County Schools district plan to pay a bonus for level 4 or 5 TVAAS cannot be implemented this year.  We realize this is disappointing to the 105 teachers who attained a level 4 or 5 last year, however, this is an action of lawmakers in Nashville, not your local Board of Education.

A first-year law student could probably make the case that any school district that withholds paying a bonus based on actions taken by the Tennessee General Assembly are not understanding the law or the intent of the state law.  Denying educators their rightful bonus based on positive student achievement or student growth is indeed having an adverse action on educators, especially their compensation.  It can be argued that the legislation that passed is vague and that districts should work closely with their board attorney when making these types of decisions. However, discussion on the floor on the legislation, as well as comments from the Bill Sponsor Rep. Eddie Smith, was clear:  that districts could not take adverse actions.

The state issued two very important guidance documents that make clear that message, which was released by the Tennessee Department of Education.   Professional Educators of Tennessee, along with many others worked with the Department of Education and added our input.  The guidance that the Department developed was a result of thoughtful and collaborative efforts to ensure that our state follows all state and federal laws.  The new legislation that states that no adverse actions for students, teachers or schools will result from the 2017-18 TNReady administration.   These two key documents, which were shared with districts and schools are posted on the state website, along with a list of initial improvements the state is making to the state assessment program:

  • Detailed Evaluation Guidance (here)
  • FAQ that provides an overview of the various areas the new laws impact, including student, education, school, and district accountability (here)

If educators feel that their district is withholding a bonus in which they are entitled, it would be helpful for those educators to write their school district and ask them for a written explanation on why the bonus is being denied.  If a school district wants to be tone deaf, I know several state legislators and folks at the Department of Education who would be very interested in why an adverse action is being taken against you.  I know that Professional Educators of Tennessee wants to hear if compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by statewide assessments administered in the 2017-18 school year have kept you from receiving compensation, or your bonus.  Just drop us an email at advocacy@proedtn.org.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Unanimous Vote Senate Bill 578/House Bill 75

We are pleased that legislators unanimously provided that students, educators or schools will not be held responsible for unreliable results from the failures of the TNReady online assessment platform this year.

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Legislators: One Last Thing Before You Go!

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The 110th Tennessee General Assembly is nearing the end, and for many, the end cannot come soon enough.  There are political races waiting and they are ready to hit the campaign trail as election season is about to launch in earnest. But before they exit Nashville, there is one last thing left for them to do: finish protecting our educators.  Unfortunately, these flawed test scores can, and will, impact teacher evaluations.

The Tennessee General prudently and quickly stepped in after the latest testing failure.  Let’s make clear, this was the result of concerned stakeholders to make sure students, educators and districts are held harmless for this year’s TNReady invalid results.  Our legislators deserve the recognition and the acclaim for their effort.  Senate Bill 1623 was sponsored by Senator Dolores Gresham, along with Senators Bowling, Massey, and Pody.  House Bill 1981 was sponsored by Representative Eddie Smith, along with Representatives Hardaway, Daniel, and Parkinson.

Educators wanted to ensure that school districts could not base employment termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by these statewide assessments.  This was accentuated in SB 1623/HB1981.  It must be noted that local districts have always had complete discretion in how they choose to factor test data into employment decisions like promotion, retention, termination, and compensation.  Local school districts have considerable flexibility to pause any policies or programs that emphasize the use of TNReady results in these types of personnel decisions.

Previous legislation, now law:  The Tennessee Teaching Evaluation Enhancement Act (T.C.A. § 49-1-302) adjusted the weighting of student growth data in an educator’s evaluation to lessen impact of TNReady on evaluation scores. TNReady factored into evaluation scores at 10 percent for the 2016-17 school year and will factor into evaluation scores at 20 percent for the 2017-18 school year and 35 percent for the 2018-19 school year and thereafter. Additionally, growth data from year one of TNReady will only be used if it benefits the educator. If it does not, the qualitative component of the evaluation composite will increase.

So, despite the incredible work of Tennessee Legislators, they needed to make sure the excluded test scores from this year does not impact teacher evaluations.  It seems clear that the intent of the legislature was to ensure that the scores couldn’t harm teachers or students in any way, so we think this is an important part. However, they just missed a critical component.  Even if employment decisions shouldn’t be based on them, the test results from this year still affect their scores and 3-year averages.

We first raised these concerns on passage of the SB 1623/HB1981 Conference Committee report with a few policymakers.  One teacher who contacted us really does want to be able to use her scores – her students are taking the paper and pencil science test next week, so they haven’t been affected by any of the issues this week. And they have worked really hard to be ready for the test. Others who may be affected negatively certainly would not want the test scores to be used.

To solve the issue, it would be beneficial to teachers to replicate what was done in 2016 with the Evaluation Flexibility Act – SB2508/HB1419 (PC No. 172) – which stated that student growth composites would be excluded unless they resulted in higher evaluation scores, with the qualitative portion of the evaluation score increased in its place. Section 3 describes a similar provision for teachers without access to individual growth data.

“For the 2015-2016 through 2017-2018 school years, student growth evaluation composites generated by assessments administered in the 2015-2016 school year shall be excluded from the student growth measure as specified in subdivision (d)(2)(B)(ii) if such exclusion results in a higher evaluation score for the teacher or principal. The qualitative portion of the evaluation shall be increased to account for any necessary reduction to the student growth measure.”

All the legislature would have to do is take the previous language from Sections 1 & 3 and change 2015-2016 to 2017-2018, and 2017-2018 to 2019-2020. Section 2 doesn’t need to be changed unless the phased in percentage schedule of (d)(2)(E)(i) – (d)(2)(E)(iii) is being updated.  We don’t think that 49-1-302(d)(2)(E)(ii) needs to be adjusted or referenced, since it’s essentially just a circular reference to (d)(2)(B)(ii). Although we think this would make (d)(2)(E)(ii) obsolete, since if the test results would help they would probably just want to go ahead and use it for the full 35% as provided in (d)(2)(E)(iv).

The continued feasibility of using a complicated statistical method as an evaluation tool for teachers will certainly be further debated by stakeholders and policymakers in the foreseeable future.  However, the issue that members of the 110th Tennessee General Assembly must address before leaving for home is making sure our teachers are not penalized by flawed test results and scores from this year on a teacher’s 3-year average.   We know legislators can take action when they focus.  The goal of the legislature is to ensure these flawed scores don’t harm our educators.  We need legislators to finish the job and end what they started.

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Audrey Shores is the Chief Operating Officer of Professional Educators of Tennessee.   JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.