Willoughby Says State Education Commissioner "Out of Touch"

September 25, 2013
Dwayne Page
Mark Willoughby
Kevin Huffman

Saying State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman is out of touch with educators, Director of Schools Mark Willoughby has joined dozens of other Superintendents across the state in signing a petition that has been sent to Governor Bill Haslam.

The petition originated with Dan Lawson, director of the Tullahoma City Schools but Willoughby wholeheartedly supports it.

The petition alleges that Huffman's office "has no interest in a dialogue" with local officials and the superintendents' efforts to improve their schools are being thwarted by low teacher morale because of policy changes on the state level.

In a recent indepth interview, Director Willoughy and members of his central office staff went into more detail with WJLE about issues of concern not completely covered in the letter to the governor.

"We would like for the Commissioner of Education to have a dialogue with the people in the trenches. The people who are doing the work. We would like for him to listen to us and take in what we're saying and just not give a canned speech back to us. That's what we feel is happening," Willoughby said. "When we do have an opportunity to tell him our concerns, which in my opinion are very few times, he says he listens but in my opinion it goes in one ear and out the other. The majority of the people in the field of education have been in it for years and years and have a lot to offer and a lot of experience. They should be heard," he said.

According to Director Willoughby, educators are concerned that the commissioner is trying to implement too many changes too quickly, not giving local school systems time to adjust. In some cases, educators are outright opposed to changes being proposed. "What the letter (petition) is basically saying is that we would like for the Commissioner to slow down on everything he is trying to implement. "Teacher evaluations, curriculum and content, and test changes. All of this is happening at once. Teachers and kids can't keep up," he said.

"When the teacher evaluation system started it created a hardship especially for school systems like ours that didn't have assistant principals (to help with the evaluations). " I don't think our Commissioner realized there were schools in Tennessee that did not have assistant principals. During the training process for the evaluation, administrators went to the training. Teachers saw a 45 minute video and then after the next couple of weeks, administrators were in their classrooms evaluating them (teachers). I don't think that's a proper way to implement something. It was basically shoved down everybody's throat. If he (Commissioner) would come and be in the schools and actually see what our children and teachers are doing in the classroom, maybe he would appreciate that more," Willoughby said.

"Our goal as administrators is to help teachers become the best they can be," said Director Willoughby. "We have some teachers who are fantastic when they start out teaching and they do wonderful. Others improve with time. This administration seems to think when you start you had better be close to on top," he said. But instead of being attentive to the needs of educators, state officials have created a climate of uncertainty for many, tying teacher licenses to student test data, according to Gina Arnold, Special Education Supervisor. " We were trained with a new teacher evaluation model, which was a national training model. But Tennessee redesigned it and tweaked it to be a way to link how a teacher is doing with punishment repercussions for not scoring a certain score or doing a certain thing. No other state has used it in this way. Tennessee now uses it as a punishment," said Arnold.

Under the proposed changes to teacher licensure, which will be implemented July 1, 2015, the three most recent years of performance data will be reviewed at the time for professional license renewal. In order to renew a professional license, an educator must have earned a 2 or better on the overall evaluation and individual growth score (if applicable) for at least two of the last three years. If the teacher has not met performance expectations, the professional license will be extended for one year under review status. If the teacher has not met performance expectations through the TEAM evaluation model at the end of the review status period, the license may not be renewed.

This type of evaluation isn't fair to anyone, according to Willoughby but especially to special education teachers. "When you're asking them (special education students) to learn and grow at the same rate as others and you're going to withhold their (teachers) license (if they don't), it doesn't seem like it's right to me. In certain cases, you (teachers) would be able to appeal that or go back to college. But, for example, if a teacher in Metro Nashville lost their license because of test scores, they could not come to another county and apply to teach because they wouldn't have a license," said Director Willoughby.

"In our training they said for this (evaluation) to be valuable for teachers, it has to be used in a way for them to be able to strengthen an area that they may be weak in and not feel like they're not going to be rehired because of it or lose their license. In no other profession can you lose your license in this manner. You shouldn't lose a license based on a score on one test . When you're measuring overall quality, that is just one piece," added Arnold.

Teachers' groups have also criticized Commissioner Huffman for calling for changes to the minimum teacher salary schedule for new teachers, reducing steps in salary increases from 21 to four and eliminating incentives for doctorate degrees and post-master's training.

" He (Commissioner) would like a new teacher to start at a certain salary and not get an increase until their sixth year and the next increase would not come until their eleventh year which would be top out. In my opinion that would be the wrong thing to do.," said Willoughby. "Young teachers who have just graduated from school and have debt. You (commissioner ) are not going to give them a pay raise for six years and you're expecting us to recruit more people into the teaching field? This Commissioner of Education is out of touch," said Willoughby.

"Under the current pay scale there are gradual step increases over twenty one years of service. The proposal is to bring it down to four levels," said Arnold. "Right now if you have a bachelor's degree, that's one scale. If you have a Master's degree, that's another. If you have an EDS, an educational specialist or doctorate, there is a scale for that. Currently, the level of pay increases each time you improve your degree," she said. "Under the proposed new scale, someone with a Master's degree would get the same increase as someone who has a Doctorate degree. People are not going to advance their degrees (under proposed new pay plan). They're not going to go back and get additional training because it will not benefit them financially to do so," said Arnold.

Director Willoughby said he and other educators also don't like the idea as some have proposed of using public tax dollars to help fund private and charter schools through vouchers and other means. " I don't have anything against private schools. If anyone wants their child to go to a private school, that's fine but I do not think it is proper to take public money and fund private schools or charter schools. That takes money away from our public schools. Charter schools are not public schools and the states does not hold private and charter schools to the same accountability standards as public schools," he said.

Willoughby also takes issue with whether Commissioner Huffman should have the authority to override decisions of local school boards who don't want charter schools in their districts. "In Metro-Davidson County last year, a charter school had requested to be approved through the board of education. The board turned it down. When the board turned that down, the Commissioner of Education withdrew $3.2 million from Metro-Davidson County. That doesn't seem to be the right thing to do. Metro has many charter schools and they were only asking that this charter school follow the same regulations that the other charter schools follow," said Willoughby.

Arnold said she would like to see the state shift its focus more toward funding better resources for classrooms. "A lot of money has been put into creating more rigorous assessments but I would like to see more funding filtered to classrooms where teachers could have the resources they need to have more books, computers and enough technology for the kids," said Arnold.

"We're asking our teachers and children to compete with schools that have tools that we're not going to be able to afford (in DeKalb County). "A child will read off an IPAD when they don't read as much out of a book. Technology has changed so much and we need the resources to change with it. In 2015 we're supposed to give all-online tests. I sure hope that happens. I don't know how every child will be able to take all of their assessments (if it doesn't happen). If the state is going to demand that we do something by passing these policies and making these changes, then they need to fund it," Willoughby said.

"Our teachers and administrators are working extremely hard. Harder than they ever have. They're held more accountable than they have ever been held accountable. I think they are also less appreciated by the state than they have ever been appreciated," said Director Willoughby.

Despite concerns, Willoughby admits progress has been made in education but he would like state education officials to give credit for that where it is due, to teachers. "I regret that when our Commissioner talks about progress that has been made, it comes across that he is taking credit for that. The credit should be given to the teachers and the administrators that are in the schools. I feel that he does not recognize the hard work teachers are doing because he hasn't been in the schools to see the hard work they are doing," Willoughby concluded.

The petition letter to the Governor states as follows:

"The superintendents who have chosen to sign this document have enjoyed hundreds of years of experience and have led schools in the state of Tennessee to accomplish tremendous outcomes. Each signee aspires to accomplish more and utilize state and community resources to continue with the challenging task of comprehensive and sustained school improvement. The schools we are working to improve are in the communities where we live and serve our children".

"As leaders, we have participated in some of the most comprehensive reform efforts in our nation. Our participation has been intentional with a goal of providing a brighter future for the children in our charge while improving increased economic, educational and social opportunities in our state."

"During the last year, the signees have developed a belief that the office of the Commissioner of Education in this administration has no interest in a dialogue with those of us providing leadership for school systems. We have begun to feel that the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education considers school teachers, principals and superintendents impediments to school improvement rather than partners. While no superintendent will have all the answers, we are confident that many of the efforts underway by our state would be enhanced by our active voice and genuine participation in the decision development process."

"Superintendents have attempted to accomplish participation in the decision making process through the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, through the Superintendents Study Council and through more informal measures. Instead of a receptive ear, our overtures have been met with scripted messages and little interest in accomplishing great change by changing culture."

"It has become obvious to the signees that our efforts to acquire a voice within this administration is futile. We have been patient, professional and focused on the needs of each of our communities but the expertise we have and the passion we feel must become a part of the efforts to improve Tennessee education."

"The superintendents signed hereto have been willing to take this extraordinary step not as an act of resistance rather as a plea out of a sense of responsibility for each of the communities we serve. Today we feel that we are not respected or valued and that the unique culture of our state is not valued. Today, we feel that we are unable to lead many improvement efforts due to our change of attempting to address morale issues of many of our employees who feel voiceless and powerless."

"We are not content with the current leadership and feel that we are not best serving our state in this manner. We request that Governor Haslam and members of the Tennessee General Assembly consider carefully and prayerfully the future of free public education in our state and address our concerns and the concerns of many of our parents, teachers, and principals," the letter concluded.

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