The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) received some excellent news last week. Tennessee’s students are continuing to improve on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), which releases the nation’s report card that compares the respective education systems of every state in the country. Previously, Tennessee was hailed as the fastest improving state in the country for our gains in math and English/Language Arts. This time, Tennessee is being called “the star of the states” for our improvement in 4th and 8th grade science scores.
On the NAEP science test, Tennessee scored “above the national average for the first time ever, doubled the national average for student growth, eliminated the performance gap between male and female students, narrowed the performance gap between white and black students in both grades, and narrowed the performance gap between white and Latino students in fourth grade.”
As a public school teacher, I am proud of my colleagues’ achievement--one that is all the more remarkable when you consider that Tennessee is 41st in the country in per-pupil spending and 39th in the country in average teacher salary. (Both of these figures are as of 2014.) It’s quite ironic that Tennessee’s students are making groundbreaking gains in math, English/Language Arts, and science, but remains near the bottom in education spending. Taxpayers across the state are certainly getting a huge bang for their buck.
TDOE cites two reasons for these huge student gains: higher standards and incredibly dedicated teachers. I would argue that Tennessee’s public schools are doing more with less than any other state in the country. Teachers and schools have learned to become incredibly resourceful. Not to rain on TDOE’s parade, but I can’t help but wonder if student growth on NAEP on the backs of underpaid teachers in under-resourced schools at the beginning of a teacher shortage crisis is a sustainable model.
Governor Haslam has mentioned many times that he wants Tennessee to become the fastest-improving state in teacher pay in the country, and he has recently approved the largest teacher pay increase without raising taxes in the state’s history. This is great for headlines and equally poor in practice. While not the case in my district, many Tennessee districts have withheld money that is owed to teachers from the state and will only give it to them in the form of performance bonuses. While legal, this practice is definitely unethical.
If TDOE and Governor Haslam are truly serious about continuing this momentum of NAEP gains, a few things need to happen, and quickly. First, the state needs to update and fully fund its BEP formula while ensuring that future raises go directly to teachers with no strings attached. Second, the option for performance-based pay needs to be taken away from school districts. Paying teachers for good test scores is a horrendously ignorant practice. Not only does it fail to work as intended, but it also encourages teachers to treat students as a means to get those bonuses by focusing too much on the state test. That, in turn, contributes to the teacher shortage crisis by giving students one more reason why they don’t want to become teachers themselves. Third, use some of the state’s nearly $1 billion surplus and give teachers another raise. The state has a large amount of ground to make up if we want to keep pace with other states in attracting the best and brightest teachers in the country.
I would love for Tennessee to be recognized among the best states in the country in public education. Just think what that would mean to the higher education community and to attracting more companies to set up shop here. As Tennesseans, we inherently have an independent spirit that uniquely enables us to be trend setters. The recent NAEP scores indicate that we are on the right track. I just hope that this train of public education improvement can avoid be derailed.