Teachers, legislators question state board’s voting methods

Nathan Baker • Aug 26, 2013 at 3:31 PM

Teachers statewide are questioning the ambiguity of a new licensure policy passed by the Tennessee Board of Education last week linking the approval of teaching licenses to standardized performance data.

“With all the things that have happened over last few years to teachers, it’s just too much,” Washington County Education Association President Lisa Lusk said Friday. “It seems like recently, the officials have been looking for ways to punish teachers, and I never really understood that.”

Like Lusk, educators and teachers’ union officials across the state oppose the new policy, which bases the granting and renewal of professional teaching licenses on in-class evaluations and students’ standardized testing scores.

Using the new criteria, a teacher must score at least a 2 out of 5 in two of the previous three years on annual teaching assessments and on the class’ overall growth score calculated using standardized testing data from students.

Previously, teaching licenses were renewed every 10 years as long as a teacher completed required coursework aimed at bettering instruction techniques.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has long advocated the change, saying the new standards will lead to more accountability and help weed out ineffective instructors. Educators say the unreliable test scores should not be used to make career-changing decisions for others.

But the educators’ latest issue is with how the board approved the policy.

Members enacted it with a 6-3 vote during a conference call meeting last week, but the policy won’t be implemented until the spring of 2015 to give the board time to review it and make changes as they see fit.

“I guess I have a problem when people are voting on something and they’re talking about all the flaws with system, but they go for it anyway,” Lusk said. “Some of the board members voted ‘no’ because of the problems, but others voted ‘yes’ in spite of them.”

Board of Education members Jean Anne Rogers, Janet Ayers and Allison Chancey all voted against the new policy after voicing their concerns with the proposed procedure.

“I’m not comfortable with making it sound like I’m voting on something that I’m not supporting,” Ayers said during the debate. “There are a couple of components I’m uncomfortable with, we already know there are some things we need to change, so I’d like to go back and look at this again once we’ve changed it. I don’t want to approve it and then go back later and make the changes.”

“As a teacher, this seems to be the most important part of this meeting to me,” Chancey said, echoing Ayers’ concerns with the use of testing data to determine new licenses. “I’m not totally satisfied. This is the most important part in lives of teachers, and the rubric is not totally clear to me. I don’t understand it as teacher and that’s terrifying to me.”

Now a state legislator has weighed in on the issue and talked of a possible intervention from the General Assembly to stop the implementation of the licensure policy.

“Why would the board move forward so quickly knowing that the issue had not been fully debated and that its members did not feel comfortable?” state Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, wrote in a guest editorial published in Friday’s Johnson City Press. “This is not the kind of policy decision that should be discussed and voted on through a conference call.”

Crowe continues by hinting of a solution from the state Legislature when it reconvenes.

“I thought that was a good letter,” Lusk said of the editorial. “I think there are now enough people in the Legislature that know what’s happening in the Education Department that something will happen to help us teachers out a little bit.”

In 2011, a state law was passed repealing a 30-year-old law allowing for collective bargaining for teachers’ unions. In that same year, lawmakers lengthened the number of years of teaching required before educators earned tenure.

“When they took away the bargaining law, it broke my heart,” Lusk said. “I’ve been a part of the negotiations almost my entire career, and I’d never worked without a contract.”

But she said she believed the pendulum in state government was beginning to swing back into the teachers’ favor.

“We’re going to have to have a coming together of all the people involved: parents, kids, teachers and all the school personnel,” she said. “It’s going to take all of us to get the changes through and have a proper and fair policy for licenses.”

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