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Tennessee Tried to Mess With Teachers and Teachers Fought Back -- and Won

The teachers found their careers at risk when an erratic statistical tool became a key measure of their success.

Photo Credit: Matt Gibson /


What if a surgeon’s medical license could be taken away based on an error-prone statistical formula that ranked his abilities on a scale of 1 to 5, based on the success (or failure) of a small number of the operations he performed? Or imagine if a lawyer could lose her membership to the bar because a statistical estimate of her success predicted that she would lose the majority of her cases next year.

Last year, public school teachers in Tennessee faced precisely that situation, but they didn’t take it lying down. Instead, they started a year of creative actions that led to a decisive change in policy—despite a governor determined to keep an unreliable statistical formula as a key method of evaluating teachers.

Their campaign ended successfully on April 24, when Governor Bill Haslam signed a bill rolling back the use of a statistical instrument known as TVAAS in teacher licensing decisions—and hitting the pause button on an important facet of the testing trend in Tennessee, at least for the moment.

Education experts are divided as to what this development will mean for America’s schoolkids. But many believe that it could spark similar campaigns nationwide.

“The change in Tennessee sends a message about politics,” said Dan Goldhaber, director of the Center for Education Data and Research at the University of Washington. “It will embolden people in other states who think that tests ought not to be used for teacher evaluations to continue the pushback.”

According to Bob Peterson, president of the Milwaukee teachers’ union, the development in Tennessee is just one piece of the puzzle. “The success of the pushback in Tennessee is one part of the larger growing movement for testing reform, against the use of standardized tests to pigeonhole and sort our students, and to scapegoat our public schools and teachers,” Peterson said. “New York, California, Oregon—there’s growing grassroots activity.”

From "Chickens and Cows" to Public Education

The story begins in the early 1990s, when the state of Tennessee hired Dr. Bill Sanders, then a statistician at the University of Tennessee’s program in agriculture, to develop a statistical tool that could measure how well teachers were doing their jobs. So Sanders created the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System.

Also known as TVAAS, the state adopted the system in 1993, and school district administrators and board members used it as a diagnostic of how schools and teachers were performing.

While Sanders was a perfectly good statistician, some have cracked wise about his background. “His initial forays into statistical modeling were based on livestock—chickens and cows,” said Jim Wrye, manager of government relations for the Tennessee Education Association, the largest professional association of teachers in the state.

In the context of increasing federal pressure to emphasize testing in public schools, TVAAS was seen as a limited tool. It gathered information about how a given teacher’s students were doing on the state’s standardized test and spat out a number from 1 to 5, with 5 being best. It showed in a general way how well teachers were preparing students for the test. Soon other states began adopting systems based on TVAAS.

But then, beginning in 2010, Tennessee made several policy decisions that changed the role TVAAS played in teacher’s lives.

The reason for the change was a federal initiative called Race to the Top, introduced in 2010, which put states in competition for education funding. The states that came up with the best education reform plans—defined by a set of goals laid out by the federal government—would win a large public education grant. Among the goals of Race to the Top was teacher accountability. To meet that goal, United States Secretary of Education Arne Duncan encouraged school districts to use student test scores to decide whether teachers could receive or renew their teaching licenses, among other things.

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