published Wednesday, March 12th, 2014

Senate panel opposes Haslam on teacher licenses

NASHVILLE — A legislative revolt over the Haslam administration's attempt last year to tie teachers' licenses to student achievement spread to the Senate on Wednesday.

Despite Gov. Bill Haslam's opposition, fellow Republicans who control the Senate Education Committee voted 7 to 2 to ban the practice in state law.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Mike Bell, R-Riceville, mirrors a measure that flew out of the House Education Subcommittee Tuesday on an 8-1 vote.

Bell said the policy, passed last year by State Board of Education members at Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's request, has "got many of our teachers up in arms."

"A license is a teacher's most valuable possession," Bell said, arguing that various factors "beyond their control" can impact students' standardized test scores and the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) which uses them to measure teacher impact.

The senator predicted it will lead to a teacher exodus from schools with large populations of poorer children who are often more difficult to teach.

Last August, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and Education Department officials recommended the new licensure policy to the State Board of Education, which approved it.

But the ensuing uproar among teachers and the Tennessee Education Association, educators' main union, resulted in the board rescinding the action in January. However, there is a possibility of revisiting the issue later.

Anxious to preserve that option, Stephen Smith, assistant commissioner of policy and legislation, and other officials emphasized Tennessee's current procedure of renewing teacher licenses results in nearly all educators' getting them extended regardless of whether they're good teachers or not.

"We truly believe this is a serious and important issue," Smith said.

What the administration proposed would still give teachers several years to improve, they said. Moreover, Smith and colleagues argued, using value-added scores makes allowances for hard-to-teach students. The system measures teacher impact over time and there are ample opportunities for local school administrators to see problems coming and intervene to ensure teachers improve.

Bell, Sen. Rusty Crowe, R-Johnson City, and other critics raised questions about the value-added system. Moreover, they said, when a teacher loses his or her teaching license, they lose their ability to make a living in their chosen profession.

The TVAAS data is currently used to evaluate teachers and help determine whether they are granted tenure protection. Smith explained that because the state has made individual teachers' TVAAS data off limits to the public, tying it to relicensing is the main means of assuring the public that teachers are up to standard.

Moreover, they pointed to Tennessee's gains last year on the National Assessment of Educational Progress. State students had the largest gains in the nation on math and reading, an achievement Huffman has tied to student-achievement data and evaluations.

But that failed to persuade committee members, including Sen. Todd Gardenhire, R-Chattanooga, who voted for the bill.

The measure now goes to the Senate Calendar Committee, which schedules bills to be heard on the Senate floor.

about Andy Sher...

Andy Sher is a Nashville-based staff writer covering Tennessee state government and politics for the Times Free Press. A Washington correspondent from 1999-2005 for the Times Free Press, Andy previously headed up state Capitol coverage for The Chattanooga Times, worked as a state Capitol reporter for The Nashville Banner and was a contributor to The Tennessee Journal, among other publications. Andy worked for 17 years at The Chattanooga Times covering police, health care, county government, ...

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