Teachers Standing Up
Tennessee Tied Teachers’ Jobs to Standardized Test Scores.
Here’s How They Pushed Back—and Won.
by Molly Rusk
What if a surgeon’s medical license could be taken away based on an error-prone statistical formula that ranked his abilities on a scale of 1 to 5, based on the success (or failure) of a small number of the operations he performed? Or imagine if a lawyer could lose her membership to the bar because a statistical estimate of her success predicted that she would lose the majority of her cases next year?
Last year, public school teachers in Tennessee faced precisely that situation, but they didn’t take it lying down. Instead, the educators started a year of creative actions that led to a decisive change in policy—despite a governor determined to keep an unreliable statistical formula as a key method for teacher evaluations.
Their campaign ended successfully on April 24, when Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill rolling back the use of a statistical instrument known as TVAAS in teacher licensing decisions—and hitting the pause button on an important facet of the testing trend in Tennessee, at least for the moment.
Many believe that this development could spark similar campaigns nationwide. “The change in Tennessee sends a message about politics,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. “It will embolden people in other states who think that tests ought not to be used for teacher evaluations to continue the pushback.”
According to Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union, the development in Tennessee is just one piece of the puzzle. “The success of the pushback in Tennessee is one part of the larger growing movement for testing reform, against the use of standardized tests to pigeonhole and sort our students, and to scapegoat our public schools and teachers,” Peterson said. “New York, California, Oregon—there’s growing grassroots activity.”
How they did it
The TEA (Tennessee Education Association) started by doing what teachers do best: educating. “What we ended up doing is, first and foremost, explaining to the legislature what exactly TVAAS was,” said Jim Wrye, who was among the TEA leaders who spearheaded the campaign.
On January 23, two TEA allies, Senator Mike Bell and House Rep. Mathew Hill, presented an initial bill—the Educator Respect and Accountability Act of 2014— that would completely remove student standardized test scores from teacher evaluations.
Later that month, the state Board of Education met to finalize new rules for teacher licenses. During that meeting, they rescinded the policy they had approved in August 2013.
This meeting was followed in February by a presentation before the state’s House Education Committee, laying out the major problems with TVAAS.
Educating the legislators
Once members of the legislature understood that TVAAS was not a state standardized test but rather an unreliable statistical estimate, the bill gained widespread support. Within two weeks, 88 out of 99 members of the Tennessee legislature, including both House representatives and senators, signed on as co-sponsors.
Despite the growing support for a policy change in the legislature and in the Board of Education, the governor was determined to keep TVAAS as a core component of teacher evaluations.
“One senator said he had spent over 10 years in the general assembly and [had] never been called to the governor’s office on a particular bill, before this one,” Wrye said. “He still voted for us in committee.”
The TEA also created a petition asking the governor to treat teachers as professionals. After nearly 12,000 people signed the petition, the TEA delivered it to Governor Haslam’s office.
The final twist of the screw came in the form of two lawsuits that the TEA filed against Governor Haslam and Commissioner Huffman. In both cases, the teachers lost bonuses they believed they deserved, due to poor TVAAS scores that did not represent the full extent of their work.
In the end, there were only six “no” votes on the TEA’s licensure bill in the Tennessee legislature, out of a total of 132 voting members. And when Governor Haslam signed the bill on April 24, teachers across the state celebrated the development as a major policy victory.
“It showed tremendous care and support by the rank and file senators and House members for their teachers,” said Wrye.
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