ELIZABETHTON — There has been a lot in the news recently and a lot of gossip about Tennessee’s recent education changes, but Carter County teachers had the opportunity to hear the reasons for the changes from the top man Monday.
As part of the Carter County School System’s preparation for a new school year, all of the teachers in the system began Monday morning by gathering in the sanctuary of Valley Forge Free Will Baptist Church to hear from Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. The commissioner was in Nashville and addressed the audience by means of virtual classroom technology.
Tennessee has made news recently with its request for a waiver from federal No Child Left Behind regulations. The state’s request for a waiver is likely to be granted because it is falling in line with a plan by U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan.
Duncan said Monday that President Barack Obama has authorized him to grant the waivers because Congress has failed to act on a long-overdue rewrite of the widely criticized law.
Huffman said NCLB and its Adequate Yearly Progress “had its time and had its place.” He said AYP in its early years addressed some really important needs and included “all groups of kids.”
Things have changed since those days, Huffman told the teachers. He said AYP standards changed and those changes have brought distractions, with more than half the schools in the state failing to reach AYP goals.
Huffman said those schools were improving, but they were being categorized as failing to meet AYP goals.
“That strikes me as strange that those schools are showing progress and are being labeled as failing,” Huffman said.
Instead of going through the “distractions” of the AYP goals, Huffman hopes to gain a federal waiver to replace the goals of No Child Left Behind with the state’s Race to the Top goals.
“Those are incredibly ambitious goals,” Huffman said. The Race to the Top goals cannot be reached in the short term. He said the only way to reach the goals is to improve “a little bit every year,” classroom by classroom across the state improving a little bit at a time. But Huffman said the end result if the state achieves its goals is “Tennessee will be in a different place than it is right now in education.”
“This is my first time trying this,” Huffman told the teachers at the start of the long-distance teleconference. The sound and picture quality were good and the room was large enough to comfortably accommodate all the system’s teachers.
Huffman began by thanking the teachers and told them they had the most important job in education. He also thanked them for “rolling through all the changes” they had absorbed in the past year and keeping their focus on their students.
Huffman said his earliest experience in education was growing up in an Ohio community with a brother who was a year older than him who was a special education student. Another important early experience was as a first- and second-grade bilingual classroom teacher in Houston’s inner city, where he said he felt shunted off from the mainstream classes.
Those experiences taught him that when “adults deliver quality education, the students will rise to a high level, regardless of their background.”
The state’s new teacher evaluation system was the subject that drew the closest attention from the audience. Huffman said the purpose of the evaluation system was not to identify the teachers who were not doing a good job. Its primary role was “identifying the people doing the best job.”
He said once the evaluations have identified the best teachers, the state intends to learn from them and try to find ways to pass on the information to all teachers.
A second goal of the evaluation system is to provide continuous feedback for teachers on how they are performing and suggestions on how to improve.
Huffman concluded by wishing the Carter County teachers the best for the school year and told them he has worked in the role they are in “and I know how hard it is.”
The Associated Press contributed to this report.