Responding to educator concerns, Haslam proposes teacher evaluation changes

Gov. Bill Haslam will ask lawmakers to reduce the weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations in the first year of tougher new tests, he announced today.

The proposal is one of four initiatives that Haslam announced that aim to support teachers throughout the state. A press release from his office says the initiatives reflect “direct feedback from educators across the state,” gathered during months of meetings with more than 150 Tennessee educators and an education forum he hosted this September in Nashville.

The initiatives — some of which would require legislative sign-off — would give teachers more input on how state tests are designed, connect educators with state policymakers, and temporarily diminish the weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The Tennessee Education Association, the state teachers union, has called for all of those changes as part of ongoing criticism of Haslam’s education policies. The union filed two lawsuits challenging the state’s teacher evaluation rules, which currently require student test scores to count for 35 percent of a teacher’s final ratings.

Under the rules that Haslam proposed today, student test scores would account for only 10 percent of teacher evaluations in 2015-2016, before gradually rising back to 35 percent in 2018, the end of his term. Students will take overhauled tests for the first time that year, and state officials have warned that scores are likely to fall. Haslam is also asking legislators to reduce permanently the weight of test scores in the ratings of teachers whose classes do not culminate in state tests, from 25 percent from 15 percent.

Coming weeks after Haslam’s hard-driving state superintendent, Kevin Huffman, announced his resignation, the new initiatives reflect a softer tone from the governor toward educators. Haslam long stood by Huffman, a staunch advocate of test-based teacher evaluations, and he exhorted educators earlier this year, in an open letter that was not well received, to support the policy changes that Huffman spearheaded. Haslam also angered many teachers this spring when he reneged on a promise to raise their salaries.

“Educators are vital to continued progress in Tennessee, and we want to make sure we’re supporting them in meaningful ways and giving them the tools they need to lead their classrooms, schools and districts,” Haslam said in a statement today.

TEA President Barbara Gray said she was surprised by Haslam’s shift on evaluations. But she said the union’s position remains that the state should not use “value added” measures that aim to calculate teachers’ impact on student learning to rate teachers at all.

“He’s moving in the right direction,” Gray said.

Ultimately, it is the legislature, not Haslam, who has the authority to change teacher evaluation policy.

The other proposals are in his hands, and in fact, at least one — a Common Core-aligned state test for 2015-2016 — is already in the works, and widely known about. Although the state has used those standards since 2010, it is still administering standardized tests that are tied to old, less rigorous standards. Educators say the misalignment between standards and the state test, known as TCAP, causes confusion for teachers and students.

According to the press release, the Department of Education will release practice questions for the new test before it is administered; involve more than 100 teachers in the review and selection of test questions; and provide training for all teachers on the design of the assessment. The press release didn’t provide specifics on how the governor might achieve this in a year money is tight.

Representatives from both TEA and Professional Educators of Tennessee, another statewide teacher group, said they welcomed increased transparency around testing.

Samantha Bates, a PET official, said training about the new test could help teachers better prepare their students for it.

“The last time new standards were brought in, in 2009, and the test was changed, [teachers] were given sample questions but not trained on the design,” Bates said. Come test time, “we were shocked.”

The final proposal in the press release is the establishment of a cabinet of teachers from across the state that would meet with the governor quarterly.

Haslam has already addressed another issue that was highlighted at September’s education summit: skepticism about Common Core. In November, he unveiled a statewide review of the standards.

Although today’s press release referred to the state standards for math and English several times, the words “Common Core” never appear.