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Teachers’ advice to new education commissioner

Re-posted with permission from the Knoxville News Sentinel

As two high school math teachers with a combined total of 40 years in the classroom, we are excited about the future of education in Tennessee. Here is our message to the incoming commissioner of education: As commissioner, you will have far-reaching impact on Tennessee education, and we implore you to continue the policies and practices that are giving us stronger students every year and encouraging us as teachers to continue to build our skills.

Over the past decade, Tennessee has seen remarkable success in many areas of student performance, including being named the fastest-improving state in the nation. Tennessee has been innovative in its approach to education reform based on data collection and evaluation systems to ensure that we have high expectations for all students and students have access to high-quality instruction. This ongoing improvement has not always been easy, but it is leading to greater success for our students as compared to other states in the nation.

To accelerate this remarkable progress, Tennessee’s kids need you to:

  • Continue to improve the state-aligned assessment system. All teachers want their students to be life-long learners, critical thinkers and problem solvers. A statewide assessment aligned to our strong academic standards provides an objective measure of how students are progressing on their education path. Assessment results also help us grow as teachers, helping us accurately measure the teaching and learning going on in our classrooms. We agree that all kids, from Memphis to Kingsport, should have access to high-quality education, and an aligned assessment is critical to that goal. Please continue to work through the necessary improvements suggested by the Assessment Task Force to sustain the testing that provides all stakeholders with invaluable data that will ensure the continued growth of our students. In short, an annual statewide assessment, like TNReady, is critical to our state’s success in improving student achievement.
  • Support high-quality teaching by preserving teacher evaluation. A critical component to our progress as a state has been the implementation of a strong teacher evaluation model that allows teachers multiple opportunities to demonstrate success. The evaluation process encourages teachers to reflect on the activities in their classroom and make improvements
    to their instruction. Teachers receive detailed feedback through observations. School leaders identify where teachers are doing well, as well as areas where they should continue to grow. Student growth measures in teacher evaluation provide an objective measure of an educator’s impact and affirms a core belief we hold — that all students, regardless of their starting point at the beginning of the year, can learn and grow. The consistency and continuity of these
    evaluations help us become stronger in our craft, directly benefiting our students and helping them achieve their maximum potential.
  • Engage student-centered educators in key decisions. Tennessee teachers played integral parts in revising the standards and supporting our peers to deeply understand them; reviewing, improving and writing assessment items; suggesting changes to the assessment program; and evaluating curriculum. This participation has given us the opportunity to more fully understand the ways in which we are held accountable for the jobs we do in our classrooms. It also fosters collaboration among practitioners and policymakers to guarantee strong policies lead to effective practice, and strong practice informs effective policies.

Over the past 10 years, we’ve made bold investments in Tennessee’s teachers and students, and we have seen results. Other states are looking to what Tennessee has done to promote student learning and achievement. We know our kids are our future. The only way to ensure that they are competitive for jobs in the future is to continue on the journey we have been on. Our kids need to us to prepare them for the future, whatever it holds. Tennessee kids deserve the best.

Kim Herring teaches at Cumberland County High School. Stacey Travis teaches at Maryville High School.