The State Department of Education is inviting Tennesseans to share their ideas about how Tennessee should use leeway granted to states under the new federal education law.
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen kicked off a statewide listening tour Tuesday to meet with educators, parents and students as her department prepares to craft a Tennessee-specific plan for K-12 schools in compliance with the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.
“We need to continue to elevate educators’ ideas to strengthen our education system, and the new federal law provides an opportunity to do that,” McQueen said in a news release. “We look forward to building off what works now and making adjustments as needed to ensure that Tennessee remains the fastest-improving state in the nation in student achievement.”
Her first stop: the Tennessee School Boards Association, to be followed in the coming months with conversations with groups including the Tennessee Education Association, Professional Educators of Tennessee, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, numerous teacher leadership and advisory groups, charter school groups, and the Tennessee chapters of the Urban League and the NAACP.
ESSA was passed by Congress and signed by President Obama last December and replaces the No Child Left Behind law, or NCLB. The new law narrows the federal government’s role — and elevates the role of states — in developing public education policy.
States must retain federally required standardized testing in reading and math for grades 3-8 and once in high school, but may now overhaul their accountability systems. For Tennessee, that means an opportunity to revisit existing policies on assessment, teacher and school accountability, school improvement, and education for English learners.
One of the central questions will be whether the state should stay the course with current policies initiated under Tennessee’s sweeping Race to the Top initiative. The plan began in 2010 under Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration and required new academic standards, a plan for improving Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools, measuring students’ growth over time; and designing policies to reward and retain top teachers.
Under ESSA, Tennessee can choose to get rid of teacher evaluations based in part on students’ standardized tests, a lynchpin of Race to the Top and also of waivers granted to states from portions of the NCLB law. In Tennessee, that evaluation process is enshrined in state law and central to the state’s accountability system.
Though most of Tennessee’s existing policies and statutes are in line with the new federal law, U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, the Tennessee Republican who co-sponsored ESSA, has urged the state to seize the opportunity for a fresh start. Educators already have begun conversations about assessment and accountability, in large part because of the troubled rollout this year of TNReady, the new assessment aligned with the Common Core standards approved for Race to the Top but revised last year for implementation in Tennessee classrooms in 2017-18.
ESSA will go into effect in August 2016 and will be fully implemented in the 2017-18 school year.
Feedback collected during McQueen’s listening tour, as well as online, will inform Tennessee leaders as they draft the state’s ESSA plan this summer and fall. The public can give input on that plan this fall, and the department will recommend necessary changes to state law and policies in spring 2017.