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    Michelle Rhee: Education reform gaining momentum in Tennessee

    Pay the best teachers for performance

    By Michelle Rhee - Special to the News Sentinel -

    As a public school parent, I'm keeping an especially close eye on the efforts being made here to transform our education system. And, as a parent and someone who thinks about education policy daily for a living, I am so encouraged by the steps taken so far.

    When Tennessee won the Obama administration's Race to the Top Grant — setting it apart from other states for its deep commitment to transformational change in education — the rest of the nation stood up and took notice. But Tennesseans, led by Gov. Bill Haslam, went beyond what was expected and enacted a broad swath of reforms in the last legislative session that will vastly improve our schools.

    I'm often asked how Tennessee has managed to set itself so far apart from the pack, and the answer seems clear. Tennesseans have come together, in a bipartisan manner, with a laser-like focus on establishing policies that are clearly in the best interest of children. It sounds simple, but sadly too often, other interests dictate the decisions made in our schools. It was that basic shift in thinking that led reform-minded legislators, like state Sen. Dolores Gresham and Reps. John DeBerry and Debra Maggart, to work to modernize and improve teacher tenure rules last year.

    Legislators also scrapped an antiquated and harmful policy that required seniority, rather than job performance, to be the determining factor when teacher layoffs unfortunately arose. And knowing how pivotal teachers are to student learning — they are the most important in-school factor — Tennessee lawmakers adopted a new and meaningful teacher evaluation system. It replaced an outdated and flimsy approach in which teachers were evaluated infrequently and without rigor or even objectivity. Now, teachers are reviewed based on multiple measures of success, including classroom observations and a fair analysis of whether learning is actually happening and to what degree. It's hard to imagine how anyone looking out for students could argue against that.

    Haslam showed strong leadership in supporting reform, and, as a result, we've made good first steps in ensuring all our schools work for all our kids. To continue the progress, we need to constantly evaluate and strengthen the policies we put in place. But let's be clear. There are some who would like to use that as an excuse to see the new evaluation system rolled back even before it has had time to take root, and that would be a disservice to children and educators alike. Going back to weak evaluations that don't even consider whether kids are learning would be like going back to the dark ages educationally. While there is a real risk the state can slide backward, Tennessee also has an opportunity to continue to lead the nation in transforming education.

    Like teachers, principals in Tennessee also are now being held accountable for student learning. And that's important. However, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey is right in saying that the Legislature has more work to do in this area. Specifically, lawmakers should get rid of policies that undermine a principal's ability to lead and succeed.

    One example involves the forced placement of teachers excessed from one school into another one by a district's human resources office. This happens regardless of whether the teacher in question or the principal at the new school approves of the match. This outdated approach, practiced by most districts, leads to a phenomenon called "the dance of the lemons," because it's a way underperforming teachers have moved around the system. It's true that the changes under way in Tennessee will improve the quality of the teaching force, but principals still must be able to pick their own teams if they are to be held accountable for student achievement. Could you imagine a football coach having no say over the team roster? That wouldn't lead to a winning game, and there is nothing our kids need more than an A-team to help them get the education they need to compete.

    Lawmakers here feel they've done a lot more than their counterparts in other states to tackle problems in education, but it's not yet enough. Ending forced placement and enacting other still-needed reforms this session will go a long way toward helping children. One of the most obvious issues lawmakers should take up is the creation of a performance-pay program for teachers. Since we can now better identify our most effective educators, it's only fair and logical to reward them with career opportunities and raises.

    We've all seen excellence in the classroom, and we know it's worth a lot. As chancellor of Washington, D.C., schools, I was able to boost teacher pay so our most effective educators could earn about $130,000 a year, much more than the roughly $55,000 the average U.S. teacher earns. In Tennessee, that average figure is even lower, hovering around $46,000. Merit pay is not only the right thing to do; it's the smart thing to do. Paying our teachers what they deserve will help us attract and retain the best teachers for our students.

    In addition to rewarding teachers, we must empower families to make the best educational choices for their children. Some states are embracing laws that allow parents of kids trapped in failing schools to petition for changes that are in the best interest of students. Tennessee has its own version of such a law, but it's weak and isn't used to turn schools around. Rep. Mark White and Sen. Jack Johnson are working to change that, and they ought to be applauded. They want to give parents, if a majority agrees, the chance to: change the leadership of an underperforming school; turn it into a public charter school; or make a series of other reforms aimed at improving student achievement. We know parental involvement is critical to a school's success, but parental involvement without any real authority to create change doesn't amount to much.

    Reforming our schools can take time, and some have said we should slow down and catch our breath. But time is not something kids have when it comes to education. Several years in an ineffective classroom can have a devastating effect on a child's entire life trajectory, according to research out of Stanford University.

    Tennesseans are right to feel proud of the work they've done so far overhauling schools in the Volunteer State, but now just isn't the time to stop. On a recent federal test known as the Nation's Report Card, only about a quarter of Tennessee fourth- and eighth-graders scored at the proficient level in reading, meaning they demonstrated solid academic performance in the subject. The statistics are pretty similar in math — and in both subjects, Tennessee students ranked near the bottom when compared to kids in other states. We know our kids are capable of so much more, and we know what we have to do to help them reach their potential. Let's continue to lead the push nationally for student-centered reforms. Together as parents, policy-makers, educators and students, we can get the job done.