By Bill Frist, M.D. and Michelle Rhee
In the past few years, Tennessee has transformed into a national leader in K-12 education reform. Last year, the Volunteer State demonstrated its commitment to improving outcomes for students and won the inaugural Race to the Top competition, resulting in $501 million in funding for innovative education efforts.
The state legislature passed the First to the Top Act, the largest piece of education reform legislation in Tennessee since 1992. This year, the important work of reform has continued, and recently passed legislation will help ensure that Tennessee is able to identify and reward effective teachers and replace ineffective ones by changing the way tenure is granted. We applaud Tennessee for these important achievements.
Though these accomplishments are significant, there is more to be done.
Research has consistently shown that teachers are the most important school-based factor in determining how much a student learns. An important way to ensure that there is an effective teacher at the front of every classroom is to tie teacher evaluations to important school personnel decisions.
Current teacher contracts feature “last in, first out” (LIFO) requirements mandating that if teacher layoffs are necessary, they be done by seniority instead of effectiveness. These requirements could do damage to children, teachers and schools. A recent national poll shows that 74 percent of Americans support dismantling LIFO, and with looming budget cuts, we have a critical responsibility to save our best teachers.
Indeed, Tennessee faces a $1 billion budget gap, and recent news reports have suggested that some school districts across the state may unfortunately lay off teachers to balance their local budgets.
If cuts and layoffs are inevitable, we must ensure that they have minimal impact on children. Unless LIFO is eliminated, not only will more teachers need to be let go to close the budget gap, but also our children risk losing some of their most highly effective teachers; this is unacceptable.
Education, jobs linked
Any change to Tennessee’s collective bargaining laws for teachers must include explicit language removing seniority as the basis for making personnel decisions. Legislation currently moving through the General Assembly and endorsed by Gov. Bill Haslam (HB 130, Amendment 1) contains this important language.
Tennessee must also work to create an optimal environment for students by allowing principals and teachers to decide teacher placements based on mutual agreement or consent. Students benefit when both principals and teachers are working in an environment of their choice rather than one in which arcane personal rules dictate who goes where. When instituted in other states, the mutual consent system has resulted in benefits for teachers and schools by offering better choices, increased flexibility and greater transparency throughout the staffing process.
To be clear, there is much work to be done. In Tennessee, only half of students score proficient or advanced in reading, and only a third score proficient or advanced in math. Recent economic investment in Tennessee has proven the vital connection between education and jobs, and Tennessee students will not be prepared to compete in the global economy without significant improvement.
Thankfully, Tennessee stands ready to take on these critical issues. Support exists across multiple sectors for making further improvements to our educational system. We are excited to build on the tremendous progress made to date, and to continue enacting reforms that put the students of Tennessee first.
Dr. Bill Frist is a former U.S. Senate majority leader and is currently chairman of the nonprofit Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).
Michelle Rhee is the former chancellor of the Washington, D.C., Public Schools and founder and CEO of StudentsFirst.
Posted in Commentary.