The Tennessee Story

As Tennessee has shown, our children, our teachers, and our country will be better off when school leaders and educators finally undertake the challenging task of creating a meaningful and useful system for supporting and evaluating our nation's teachers.
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For the last four years, the Obama administration has provided funding and incentives for states to help build a teaching profession that is both respected and rigorous. Today, we're starting to see that investment pay off -- in expanded collaboration among teachers and improved performance among students. More teachers today are treated as true professionals, instead of as interchangeable cogs in an educational assembly line. Exhibit A: Tennessee.

Tennessee -- one of the first two states to win a federal Race to the Top grant -- recently released an important report on the first year of implementing its new teacher evaluation system. The report found that after one year, Tennessee's students made their biggest single-year jump in achievement ever recorded in the state. That is a remarkable accomplishment.

During the first two years of the Race to the Top grant, from 2010 to 2012, an additional 55,000 students in Tennessee were at or above grade level in math and 38,000 additional students were at or above grade level in science. But Tennessee's story also shows that reforming antiquated practices for evaluating teachers is hard, ongoing work -- work that is far from finished.

Few would dispute that the existing system for evaluating teacher performance is broken. Principals typically evaluate teachers' performance based on infrequent and informal observations and fail to take account of a teacher's impact on student learning. Great teachers are not recognized or rewarded. And struggling teachers neither get the feedback nor the professional assistance they need to improve.

Under the old Tennessee system, tenured teachers were evaluated just twice a decade. A teacher's impact on student growth did not factor at all into their performance evaluation. Not surprisingly, virtually all teachers received positive ratings.

Even so, many skeptics protested after Tennessee enacted a state law in 2010 that required 50 percent of a teacher's evaluation be based on student achievement data -- 35 percent on student growth, with the other 15 percent based on other measures of student achievement. The remaining 50 percent of the evaluation would be based on traditional qualitative measures, like observations of teachers by their principals.

The initial blowback to implementing the law was considerable. Critics argued that test score gains were too imperfect a measure to use in teacher evaluation.

Others said that for teachers in non-tested subjects like music or fine arts, it was unfair to base part of the evaluation on school-wide math and English test results. A New York Times reporter lampooned the new system, intoning, "in the end, it's all about distrust: not trusting principals to judge teachers, not trusting teachers to educate children."

But the Tennessee department of education didn't ignore the critics of the new evaluation systems -- in fact, it listened to them and sought their feedback.

Department officials met with 7,500 teachers around the state and surveyed 16,000 teachers and 1,000 administrators for input on the new evaluation system.

In Memphis, arts teachers were frustrated because they were being evaluated based in part on school-wide performance in math and English. So Dru Davison, a music teacher in Memphis, convened a group of arts educators to come up with a fairer system.

After surveying arts teachers in Memphis, Davison's committee developed a blind peer review evaluation to assess portfolios of student learning in the arts. It has proved so popular that Tennessee is looking at adopting the system statewide.

As a result of the feedback the state received -- and with the benefit of real evidence of teacher impact on growth in student learning from almost 20,000 teachers -- the department recommended a number of changes to the teacher evaluation system.

Their recently released report, for example, recommends that teachers who receive top scores should have a more streamlined evaluation the following year -- while teachers with low scores should receive additional observations and feedback from their principals.

What are some of the takeaway lessons from Tennessee's experience?

First, student growth can and should be one of a number of measures in evaluating the performance of teachers -- and it's important not to ignore a teacher's impact on student learning just because it is difficult to measure. Better evaluation systems improve classroom instruction. Delaware, the other state to win a first-round Race to the Top grant, has also seen big increases in student achievement.

Second, it's true that there is no perfect system of teacher evaluation, but Tennessee did not let the perfect become the enemy of the good. They insisted on asking the compared-to-what question -- how do the strengths and weaknesses of the new system compare to the old system?

And finally, because rigorous teacher evaluation systems are still a work in progress, it is vital that school leaders and administrators continue to solicit feedback, learn from their mistakes, and make improvements. One example: Tennessee's report found that principals are still largely unwilling to give weak teachers in need of assistance a poor performance review.

As Tennessee has shown, our children, our teachers, and our country will be better off when school leaders and educators finally undertake the challenging task of creating a meaningful and useful system for supporting and evaluating our nation's teachers.

--Arne Duncan is the U.S. Secretary of Education

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