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Tennessee set to raise the bar in public education

Where much is given, much is required and that is the dilemma facing Tennessee’s education system after becoming the first state with the largest award of some $501 million in federal money to “master” everything from individual test scores to graduation rates and college readiness to international competitiveness. The entire nation is now watching Tennessee in regards to public education reform. When the government gives you millions of dollars to improve education, it better improve.
The funds, which are expected to be spread out over a four-year period and assist every school in the state, will be utilized to initiate programs and projects to target multiple areas of school reform. With passage of First to the Top legislation at the state level earlier this year, these dollars can ONLY be spent on four key areas: 1-Standards and Assessment, 2-Use of Data, 3-Improving Teacher Quality and Principal Leadership, and 4-Turning Around Low Performing Schools.
“We expect to receive around $824,000 over the four-year period,” said Morris Woodring, Johnson County Director of Schools. According to Mischelle Simcox, Supervisor of Secondary & Student Services, the first year plan includes hiring a data coach for the system to focus on improving the use of data and instruction in grades seven through 12, providing formative benchmark assessments for all students in kindergarten through second grade, providing RTT professional learning communities program, or “High-Impact Learning” for all Johnson County certified teachers and administrators. Additionally, Johnson County Middle School and High School teachers & administrators will participate in evidence-based professional development with built-in support to sustain improved instruction that will lead to increased student achievement.
The most critical aspect in student achievement is the teacher and that element is certainly addressed in this legislation as all teachers will be evaluated annually, including tenured teachers, and 50 percent of that evaluation must be based on student achievement data. The remaining 50 percent of teacher evaluations will be based on two things. Thirty five percent will be based on the state’s Education Improvement Act, which set up a data system (TVAAS) to measure student achievement, dropout rates, attendance and promotion. This is the “value added” part of the system. Teachers and schools are held accountable for making sure their students improve in scores from one test to the next, not for having their students meet some fixed standard minimum score.
The final 15 percent will come from a review of prior evaluations, strengths, weaknesses and a written assessment by the teacher. A similar report card will also be prepared for principal preparation programs.
Compilation of use of data is essential in the new education reform plan. “Historically, we’ve assessed students at the end of the year,” explained Tim Webb, Tennessee Department of Education commissioner. “We now are looking at indicators as we go, not at the end.” Webb has long argued that waiting until after failure is too late. More timely and consistent measurements of teachers, students and principals should help eliminate the need for “the autopsy” that normally follows each school year, Webb added.
On that note, parents are to be cautioned to pay close attention to Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP) test results, which are expected to be distributed in late November or early December as Tennessee students in grades three-eight completed testing under new and higher standards this past school year. Administrators warn that test scores and grades historically “dip” when schools raise standards. The new tests results will identify students as being Advanced, Proficient, Basic or Below Basic. One of the obvious changes is in the definition of “Proficient.” Previously, the term referred to students who were at least minimally prepared for the next level of study. Now, “Proficient” indicates a mastery of the tested material. The grade will now be based on where a student should be at a specific level and not compared to an average.
“The curriculum drives assessment, said Dan Long, the state’s TCAP administrator. “There’s a misconception that the reverse is true. The curriculum we taught before was significantly different than today. The difference was the expectations of the outcomes. The proficiency level was low; now it’s about mastery.”
Dr. David Sevier, deputy executive director of the State Board of Education, has played a key role in helping develop Tennessee’s new and higher academic standards. “We are preparing kids for jobs that haven’t been invented yet,” he said during a recent education seminar. “Today students are competing with their peers in the United States job market in addition to foreign countries.”
“Higher standards also mean harder tests, and may result in lower test scores and grades for students in the near term,” explained Tennessee Governor Phil Bredsen in an Open Letter to Tennesseans focusing on the state’s new, higher academic standards. “This is where our education reform efforts get hard and where students, parents, educators and communities need our full support to press forward.
For more information on the State Board of Education, please visit www.tn.gov/sbe, or go to www.jcschools.org, click “Department of Education” and enter First to the Top in the search field.