“Race to the Top”
The legislature successfully reformed K-12 education this year with an overhaul that included better utilizing existing data, rewarding teachers and accountability if certain benchmarks are not met. The United States Department of Education recognized the efforts and Tennessee was rewarded millions of dollars in funds from the federal government's “Race to the Top” program. Only two of 16 finalists — Tennessee and Delaware — were ultimately selected. The Tennessee General Assembly met for two weeks in early January for an Extraordinary Session to pass the bi-partisan, comprehensive education reform plan.
The main components of the new law include utilizing Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) data in teacher evaluations, creating a committee to oversee implementation of reforms and develop certain standards, and implementing an Alternative School District in which failing schools will be placed.
Race to the Top, a portion of the American Recovery and Reinvestment Act, provides $4.35 billion in competitive grants designed to encourage and reward states that are moving forward with bold initiatives in four education reform areas:
1. Adopting standards and assessments that prepare students to succeed in college and the workplace and to compete in the global economy.
2. Building data systems that measure student growth and success, and inform teachers and principals about how they can improve instruction.
3. Recruiting, developing, rewarding, and retaining effective teachers and principals, especially where they are needed most.
4. Turning around the lowest-achieving schools.
Tennessee already had one of the most comprehensive data compiling systems in the country, but did not use the data to determine teachers' success. The key component of the new law is to use the information to improve the quality of education and to ensure that student performance is improving.
Originally the most controversial part of the plan, proponents hope the utilization of TVAAS data will improve student performance year-over-year as principals, directors of schools and boards of education across the state will have a better snapshot of student performance and teacher effectiveness.
TVAAS data can now be used for up to 35 percent of a teacher's evaluation with another 15 percent of the criteria to be determined in part by an independent committee. This part of the law also requires the teacher and principal mutually agree with the person(s) performing the evaluation and on the evaluation measures being used. Teacher evaluations will be done once a year and give teacher training programs access to TVAAS data on their students. This method will allow administrators to determine what training programs are working and which ones are not. Many believe that “unlocking” the TVAAS data will allow principals and school districts to have a true understanding of student performance and assist teachers in improving their skills.
Achievement School District
Within the reform measures, the legislature created an Achievement School District (ASD) that will be managed by the state. Schools that are deemed “failing” will be moved into the Achievement School District in an effort to help under-performing schools get back on track. The commissioner of education has the authority to move any public school into the newly created Achievement School District if the school is in the fifth year of improvement status or at any time if a Title I school meets the federal definition of “persistently lowest achieving schools.”
The school would remain in the special district until it begins to achieve adequate yearly progress for three consecutive years. At that time, the commissioner of education would be required to create and implement a transition plan to return the school to its local school district.
Some members have, for many years, advocated these types of education reforms on the state level and were glad to see a step forward being made for Tennessee children and our schools.
Another step to better the process, conservatives believe, would be to implement “Education First,” a proposal that would require the legislature to pass an education budget prior to considering other items. This would ensure that Tennessee students come first, much as education was given a high priority this year by working on reforms in January.
In addition to the K-12 reform legislation, the state plans to enhance its Science, Technology, Engineering and Math (STEM) program which will be included in the Race to the Top application. The state is partnering with Battelle, which manages the Oak Ridge National Laboratory, to provide an extensive network of STEM programs across the state. This includes building new science labs, adding new technology and creating new curricula to inspire and create new interest in science and math. Tennessee students must be proficient in these subject areas to compete in a changing global economy, and having graduates trained science and math is an important factor in helping recruit more business to locate in Tennessee.
Act of 2010”
For the second half of the Extraordinary Session, the Tennessee General Assembly overhauled higher education, passing the “Complete College Act of 2010” by a vote of 93-2. Lawmakers say the plan will increase the number of college graduates, offer easily transferrable credits and make the community colleges, four-year institutions and technology centers work as a tightly-knit network. In addition, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville will partner with Oak Ridge National Laboratory (ORNL), a move that lawmakers believe will make the state's university a premier research institution.
Tennessee currently ranks 40th in the nation in completion of bachelor's degrees and 45th in completion of associate's degrees. Lawmakers were told that in order to reach the national average, Tennessee would need to graduate another 20,000 graduates annually. Economists predict that Tennesseans could earn $6 billion in additional salaries if the goal is reached, as the pool of workers for “middle management” jobs would be larger, especially for companies relocating here such as Hemlock, WACKER and Volkswagen.
(Editor’s Note: Rep. Kevin Brooks serves the 24th Legislative District in Cleveland and Bradley County. He and his wife, Kim, are actively involved in their community and local schools with their two children, Zach who is attending Lee University, and Elizabeth, who attends Cleveland High School).