Governor Bill Haslam and his newly appointed state Education Commissioner, Kevin Huffman, came to Memphis Thursday on what they both termed a “learning” mission.
After the two of them had breakfast at East High School with a roundtable of educators from the several corners of the education firmament in Memphis and Shelby County, the governor told reporters, “We’re making a lot of decisions about education, so we owe them [the teachers] the responsibility to listen, to hear what the real issues are every day on the ground in the classroom.”
In the course of the breakfast meeting, the visitors had heard from teachers who favored testing as a gauge of education and teachers who disliked the concept, from principals who looked forward to the sweeping new evaluation process Haslam intends as a centerpiece of his education agenda and principals who thought the new evaluation procedures could shatter the continuity of the educational process.
In his session with reporters, Haslam noted, “There’s a lot of concern about the whole evaluation process, because for a lot of the teachers the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Service doesn’t work for what they teach.” The governor mentioned music and art instruction in that context. “But we can wait forever to get the perfect evaluation system. Let’s begin the process. All of us need feedback. I need it in my job. I needed it when I was in business. Let’s start that process.”
Haslam said, “This is a tumultuous time. And I understand that. That’s why it’s even more important for leaders to come listen.”
After the two of them had taken part in a second event Thursday morning, the inauguration of the Max Cooper Business and Technology Program at Margolin Hebrew Academy on White Station, Huffman put his spin on the situation: “There’s nervousness every time there’s change…We’re not trying to drive toward standardization. We’re trying to create a world where innovation is the expectation. One thing I’m excited about is …implementing our teacher evaluation, our principal evaluation program across the state. There’s a huge opportunity to identify excellent teachers, excellent principals, and to study them, see what they’re doing, to learn from them, and help that drive further innovation.”
After the session at Margolin, Haslam was asked about the status of a pending bill regulating collective-bargaining for public-school teachers. A state House version, backed by the governor and by House Speaker Beth Harwell, puts new curbs on teachers’ associations but allows them to organize. The Senate version, backed by Lt. Governor Ron Ramsey, would abolish teachers’ collective bargaining rights altogether.
The governor indicated that the process of resolving the two versions of the bill could yield a third possibility. “There’s still a lot to be played out on that. I think the House version addresses the key issues that, as the governor, I’m concerned about — the ability to have differential pay, the ability for the superintendents to decide who gets hired and who gets laid off in situations where that happens [but] there’s still some talk about bringing up another alternative….I’m just not certain yet how that will play out.”
Haslam attempted to minimize speculation about whether persistent differences of opinion between himself and Ramsey amounted to an ongoing rivalry. “I can honestly say that there’s nothing there.” The two were “on the same page 90 percent of the time,” he said. “There’s times when we see things differently but that’s healthy. I don’t think it’d be good if every one of the Republican leaders said and did everything the same way every time. I’m not sure that would be a good thing.”