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Memphis teacher Tanya Hill encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School.

Memphis teacher Tanya Hill encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School.

Laura Faith Kebede

Want educational equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers

Conversations about education equity often focus on ways to ensure that all students have equal access when it comes to resources and quality instruction.

But this week in Nashville, state lawmakers suggested another priority for advocates of education equity: making teachers feel valued.

“Unless we’re careful, we’re going to drive some people who want to be teachers to other careers,” said Sen. Steve Dickerson of Nashville during a Wednesday panel discussion organized by the year-old Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition.

Research shows that teachers have more influence on student learning than any other in-school factor. And making sure that high-poverty, high-minority schools have effective teachers in the classroom is a big challenge. Tennessee’s current distribution of highly effective teachers favors the state’s highest-achieving students, rather than its lowest-achieving ones, according to a 2016 report by the State Department of Education.

In an effort to raise the bar on the quality of instruction in all of the state’s classrooms, Tennessee instituted teacher evaluations and introduced rigorous academic standards under the state’s 2010 First to the Top initiative.

But Rep. Mark White of Memphis talked about the downside of the state’s sweeping K-12 overhaul. The fast pace of the changes, especially around standards and assessments, has fallen on the shoulders of the state’s teachers.

“It’s been very hard on teachers,” said White, a Republican and former chairman of the House Education Committee. “God bless our teachers; they are working hard.”

Rep. Harold Love said the tone of conversation around school quality in recent years has often been at the expense of discussions about teacher pay and job security.

“We made it almost a crime for teachers to be concerned about their longevity and their pay and their benefits,” said the Nashville Democrat. “We’ve got to get back to a place where you can have good teachers be appreciated … and have them believe really that this is a career from which they would one day want to retire.”

Panelists agreed that strong teachers are a necessary ingredient to quality schools, and said the state must do more to make teaching an attractive profession, with higher pay and greater job stability.

Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed increasing state funding for teacher salaries for a third straight year, though it’s not clear how teachers would be impacted.

Tennessee also is working closely with colleges and teacher training organizations to improve the quality of the state’s teacher preparation programs.