MURFREESBORO, Tenn. — Last year, when Tennessee was named one of the first two states to win a federal Race to The Top grant, worth $501 million, there was great joy all around.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who has the job of implementing President Obama’s signature education program, praised Tennessee officials for having “the courage, capacity and commitment to turn their ideas into practices that can improve outcomes for students.”
Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, called his state “the focal point of education reform in the nation.” Tennessee’s new motto is “First to the Top.”
So you would think that educators like Will Shelton, principal of Blackman Middle School here, would be delighted. The state requires that teachers be evaluated by their students’ test scores, and that principals get into classrooms regularly to observe teachers.
Mr. Shelton is a big believer in both.
But not this. “I’ve never seen such nonsense,” he said. “In the five years I’ve been principal here, I’ve never known so little about what’s going on in my own building.” Mr. Shelton has to spend so much time filling out paperwork that he’s stuck in his office for long stretches.
The new rules, enacted at the start of the school year, require Mr. Shelton to do as many observations for his strongest teachers — four a year — as for his weakest. “It’s an insult to my best teachers,” he said, “but it’s also a terrible waste of time.”
Because there are no student test scores with which to evaluate over half of Tennessee’s teachers — kindergarten to third-grade teachers; art, music and vocational teachers — the state has created a bewildering set of assessment rules. Math specialists can be evaluated by their school’s English scores, music teachers by the school’s writing scores.
“One of my teachers came to me six weeks ago and said, ‘Will, morale is in the toilet,’ ” Mr. Shelton recalled. “This destroys any possibility of building a family atmosphere. It causes so much distrust.”
If ever proof were needed for the notion that it’s a good idea to look before you leap, it’s the implementation of Race to the Top in Tennessee. “I don’t know why they felt they had to rush,” said Tim Tackett, a member of the school board here who was a teacher and principal for 32 years. “Clearly this wasn’t well thought out.” More…