One Hundred Thousand Students

Blogs, Letters & Testimonials

July 23, 2013

By Mac LeBuhn, DFER Policy Analyst

This Friday, the State Board of Education will vote on a proposal to change Tennessee’s teacher licensure policies. The new proposal would reduce the length of a teacher license from ten years to six, introduce automatic license renewal for effective teachers and stop the renewal of licenses for teachers who receive the lowest evaluation scores, which are informed in part by student performance on standardized tests.

We have already heard many different voices in the discussion about the proposed reform: some voices support the automatic renewal of licenses for effective teachers, some voices disagree with the use of standardized test data to make choices about granting and renewing teacher licenses and other voices defend the current, quality-blind system. I would like to introduce another set of voices to this debate.

Specifically, 100,000 voices. That is the number of students the Tennessee Department of Education estimates will be placed in a classroom with one of the lowest-performing teachers in the state over the next ten years, unless we reform our current teacher licensing system. If licensure reform passes on Friday, these same students will likely be led by a more effective teacher. As the discussion over teacher licensing continues, we must ask ourselves what we would say to these 100,000 students if we decided to stay with the current system.

Could we tell these students that test score information, one part of the new system, is not reliable enough to be used? That line might work well in partisan attacks on the new proposal, but it does not fit with many researchers’ analysis of these systems. After all, value-added measures that assess a teacher’s impact on student achievement correlate with other measures of teacher effectiveness, such as observations and student surveys. Not only that, a study by the RAND Corporation found that value-added measures “might actually provide less-biased and more-precise assessments of teacher effects” than other measures of teacher effectiveness. Like any measurement, value-added measures vary, but they are one of the best tools we have to determine teacher effectiveness.

Could we tell these students that it is okay that they were saddled with an ineffective teacher? That probably won’t work either: a recent study by Raj Chetty, John Friedman and Jonah Rockoff found that students with high-performing teachers go on to attend college and earn higher salaries than the students with low-performing teachers protected by the current licensure system.

If we continue to protect low-performing teachers with a quality-blind licensure system, we also defend the outcomes that go along with it: lower rates of college attendance and completion, lower eventual salaries and fewer options for the students consigned to these low-performing teachers.

If we do not pass licensure reform in Tennessee, could we just tell all 100,000 students that the state of education is not all that bad? At a time when Tennessee’s fourth graders perform below the national average in math and reading and just one in four is proficient in reading, there is little room for such an argument. Despite years of effort poured into improving our state’s education system, the hard truth is that we remain miles away from the schools we want for our children. Licensure reform is an important part of the process of strengthening the quality of our schools.

Could we tell the 100,000 students that licensure reform “bashed” teachers and should not have been passed? Certainly not. Currently, our educator license only tells students and parents that a teacher completed a checklist, not that he or she is actually effective in the classroom. It is this low bar that is insulting to the idea of teacher professionalism, not the higher standards contained in the licensure reform proposal. It speaks to our confidence in the teaching profession that effective educators should be able to meet this standard in order to receive a license to teach in our state.

In fact, there is not much at all we could tell these 100,000 students if we decide not to pass licensure reform. This proposal is right for students and it is right for teachers. If we deny reform, we can ensure that low-performing teachers have a place in Tennessee’s schools and force 100,000 students to spend a year with one of these teachers. If we embrace reform, we can insist on quality in our schools and offer a better option for our students.

100,000 students are listening. What will Tennessee’s Board of Education tell them?

Mac LeBuhn is an assistant policy analyst at Democrats for Education Reform (DFER). Before joining DFER, Mac was a fourth grade teacher at Rocketship Si Se Puede, a charter school in San Jose, CA. He became interested in education policy through internships at the offices of Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions, and Colorado State Senator Mike Johnston.