Written by: Lisa Fingeroot, Tennessean
A plan to tie teacher licenses to student test scores is once again thrusting Tennessee into a small group of states making radical changes to education policy even as it generates kudos for the state's head educator.
Teachers are hesitant to throw their full support behind the plan recently presented by Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman because of its link to student achievement scores. But they appear to appreciate the intent - to weed out those failing at the job and ensure quality in the classroom.
Huffman's plan would make it tougher for teachers to get and keep licenses by demanding higher scores on initial licensing tests and then requiring more frequent renewals, which would be based in part on evaluations of their teaching effectiveness.
Only six other states are known to have discussed or adopted similar changes to the licensing process, said Dan Weisberg, executive vice president of TNTP, formerly known as The New Teacher Project.
"It's only logical, common sense to say, 'We, as a state, are putting our stamp of approval on this teacher the same way we license a plumber, and she is OK - maybe not great, but at least OK,' " he said.
Huffman presented the proposal at the same meeting last month at which the State Board of Education approved controversial changes to the teacher pay plan. Licensing took a back seat to protests against the pay plan, for which Huffman has been highly criticized. Social media sites calling for his firing have been so popular they prompted Gov. Bill Haslam last week to publicly reaffirm his faith in Huffman's leadership.
National education groups that advocate for changes usually associated with conservative politics, such as StudentsFirst and TNTP, are showering Huffman with praise for his efforts on both issues and calling on other states to follow his lead. Huffman's ex-wife, Michelle Rhee, is the founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.
Tennessee currently has 20 types of teacher licenses, including some for graduates of traditional teaching programs and others for those taking nontraditional routes through programs like Teach for America, which quickly train college graduates from other fields to become teachers.
Licenses are granted after a candidate takes one or more Praxis tests, which are used by many states as a prerequisite to getting a teaching license. However, Tennessee teachers have been granted state licenses with lower Praxis scores than teachers in several other states for many years, Huffman said.
One of his proposals is to gradually increase the acceptable Praxis scores over a period of 10 years and put Tennessee's scores in the top one-third in the nation.
He also plans to reduce the number of license types and cut the number of years a license will be valid. The first license will be valid for three years and subsequent renewals will be valid for six instead of the current 10.
Advancement from the initial level of practitioner to the next step of professional would require a teacher to earn a 2 or better on the 5-point overall evaluation for two of three years, and also a 2 or better for two of three years on an individual growth score. The growth score could be calculated by a few different factors.
The state department of education pointed out that in the 2011-12 school year, officials renewed the licenses of 349 teachers who scored 1 on their evaluations - the lowest possible score. Huffman estimates those low-scoring educators will teach more than 100,000 students during the life of their 10-year licenses - an outcome that his plan is intended to prevent.
Concern over link to student test scores
The evaluations are tied to student achievement scores, and that is one point of contention for teachers.
Susan Benner, director of the Graduate School of Education at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, said she supports Huffman's intent but has concerns. Linking license renewal to student test scores is particularly worrisome, she said, because the plan is built on the results of tests that have not yet been created for the Common Core standards. If Huffman's timetable is implemented, the new licensing plan and testing of the new standards will start at the same time.
Gera Summerford, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state's teacher union, also worries about the testing link. "This is just another example of basing major decisions on evaluations and student test performance. We are philosophically opposed to basing so much on those tests," she said.
Both women would like officials to postpone a decision, but the state board is expected to approve the plan July 26.
"All of this fits with the same broad principle; we think teaching is the most important profession and we think we need to have policies and laws that recognize the importance," Huffman said.
"The current process is completely backwards in the sense that we have a lot of hoops to jump through, but nothing that ensures quality," Huffman added. "I don't honestly understand how, in good conscience, we can allow a teacher who habitually gets a 1 (as an evaluation score) to continue teaching."