Tennessee teachers school Haslam on testing, evaluations during first Teachers Cabinet meeting

Gov. Bill Haslam on Thursday convened the first meeting of his Teachers Cabinet by quizzing teachers from across the state about everything from professional development to whether Tennessee students are tested excessively.

“If you were sitting where we are, what would you do?” he asked, gesturing to himself and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, who was sitting to his right.

The teachers largely agreed that reforms implemented under Haslam’s administration, like more rigorous teacher evaluations and new standards, are a move in the right direction. But they were quick to point out areas for improvement.

Teachers said they like the new teacher evaluation system in theory, but that it can be inconsistent.

Angie Tisdale, a teacher from Franklin Special School District, said some administrators are hesitant to rate teachers a 5 on the observation rubric, even if they believe the teacher’s performance merits the top evaluation score. She said that’s because administrators want to avoid incongruencies between their own observation score and a teacher’s value-added score, which is based on a formula that measures how much teachers contribute to students’ growth on statewide assessments.

Haslam in June named the 18 Tennessee teachers, who were nominated by their superintendents, to his newly formed Teachers Cabinet. The cabinet is part of the governor’s effort to include more teachers in policy decisions and will meet quarterly in Nashville. The next cabinet meeting is scheduled for Nov. 5.

Karen Vogelsang, a fourth-grade teacher in Shelby County Schools and the 2015 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, said over-testing is a problem in her district.

“There’s just too much. It just seemed our entire month of February was built around testing,” Vogelsang said. “There’s so many assessments, and then each assessment is giving me different data. I don’t have any one thing I can hang my hat on.”

Schwann Logan, a teacher from Barlett Schools, added that, “by the time the real test comes around, (students are) tested out.”

Haslam said he wants to see a report on the number of standardized tests that each district administers, as well as their achievement scores.

“I’m willing to bet that those districts that are testing too much, their results aren’t any better,” the governor said.

McQueen, who is leading a task force on testing, said the state Department of Education can’t mandate the number of tests required by districts, but could share best practices.

“I’ve learned a lot of things today,” Haslam told the teachers. “And I’ve learned a lot of very specific things I’ll be following up on.”

Teachers said afterward that they appreciated the governor’s earnest effort to hear their perspectives and to seek clarification on some of their statements.

“He was even more open than I generally expected,” said Lance Morgan, a teacher from Union County. “He really allowed us to share our thoughts and feelings on things, and tell him what was going on in education.”

During Thursday’s meeting, McQueen also unveiled new programs meant to address Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores. “Ready to Read” will include professional development and instructional materials to bolster literacy instruction in early grades, and “Read to Be Ready” will address older students.