I Would Be Mad, Too

Tennessee superintendents are as mad as hell, and they're not going to take this anymore. That is the message that nearly half of the state's district superintendents conveyed to Governor Bill Haslam last week in a public letter:

"During the last year, the signees have developed a belief that the office of the Commissioner of Education in this administration has no interest in a dialogue with those of us providing leadership for school systems. We have begun to feel that the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers school teachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners."

The signatories are reacting to a series of actions they describe as "counterproductive" and disruptive. These include Commissioner Huffman's public and apparently personal squabble with the Nashville Metro School Board (which culminated in his withdrawal of $3.4 million in district school funding), changes to the teacher licensure process that raise already-high stakes for student standardized tests, and the overall lack of consideration for impacts of major changes to the school system.

These sentiments echo those voiced by many frustrated parents, union leaders, school board members, and state legislators interviewed for a new report by the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education (BBA). While insufficient time to develop new evaluation systems was a complaint common across states implementing Race to the Top, the level of hurry in Tennessee stood out. Similarly, while many states experienced severe lacks of capacity, already-low teacher salary levels in Tennessee have since been substantially cut, making the state's teachers some of the lowest-paid in the whole country. And while state-district conflicts were evident in several states, Tennessee seems to be experiencing a number, level, and degree of personal animosity that is uniquely troubling.

Unfortunately, the degree to which the policy agenda advanced by Race to the Top has driven educators to take unprecedented actions against their own leaders is not unique in Tennessee. Indeed, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan should have anticipated problems. Specifically, placing so much emphasis on student test scores in teacher, principal, and school evaluations, with potentially severe consequences, leads to problematic and even destructive state actions. Certainly the Secretary should be reacting with more alarm and urgency as these actions are unfolding.

In New York, school principals have coalesced in an unprecedented way to protest the new teacher evaluation system the state adopted in its bid for Race to the Top funds. Their joint letter criticizing it for rating educators based on invalid metrics while providing no real support has recently been adopted, as well, by the state's school boards:

"As building principals, we recognize that change is an essential component of school improvement. We continually examine best practices and pursue the most promising research-based school improvement strategies. We are very concerned, however, that at the state level change is being imposed in a rapid manner and without high-quality evidentiary support. Our students, teachers and communities deserve better. They deserve thoughtful reforms that will improve teaching and learning for all students. ... At first glance, using test scores might seem like a reasonable approach to accountability. As designed, however, these regulations carry unintended negative consequences for our schools and students that simply cannot be ignored."

In Florida, as in Tennessee, where the lack of appropriate metrics for teachers of untested grades and subjects -- the majority of all teachers -- led to their evaluation based on the average math and reading scores of their entire schools, both unions sued the state. Arguing that the evaluation system violates teachers' due process rights, former teacher of the year Kim Cook notes that her "effectiveness" as an educator is being assessed based on the scores of students from an entirely different school. Because Cook teaches in a pre-K-2 school in which no standardized tests are given, she (and her fellow teachers) gets fully half of her rating from the scores of students she does not even know, let alone teach.

Teachers are far from alone in calling out the hurried, arbitrary, and unreliable nature of the evaluation systems promoted by Race to the Top. Grover Whitehurst, former director of the U.S. Department of Education's Institute of Education Sciences under President George W. Bush, called Tennessee's new observation measures "extraordinarily complex" and said that he didn't understand what they meant or "how I as a teacher would be expected to perform them." The system "doesn't pass the common-sense test for being a measure of what it's intended to measure," he said, warning that it would give teachers perverse incentives not to serve in hard-to-staff schools.

These are not the marks of a successful set of reforms. Rather, they highlight three major mismatches that fundamentally flaw Race to the Top. States' ambitious promises contrast sharply with the time and resources available to deliver them. The RTTT policy agenda contrasts with scholarly evidence regarding what is needed to achieve the initiative's goals of boosting student achievement and closing gaps. And state and federal claims of progress and success are belied by frustration and anger at the district and school levels. The Tennessee superintendents' letter is only the latest evidence of these mismatches. We should all be angry that this level of protest is necessary; the signs have long been evident of these serious problems. We should be angry that proponents of Race to the Top embrace the idea of "building the plane while flying it" - teachers' jobs and children's futures depend on that plane's ability to fly. It is time for the Department of Education to get angry as well.