Forward Motion in Tennessee

Nearly everyone agrees that teaching should be an elite profession that attracts the best and the brightest, people who care passionately about their students and will do whatever it takes to help them succeed. One look at the typical process for earning or renewing a teaching license, however, tells a very different story about what the teaching profession really seems to value: “seat time” in graduate classes or other training courses, minimum scores on exams that nearly everyone passes, and the patience to navigate a maze of paperwork. An ability to actually help students learn doesn’t enter into it.

If we’re serious about building a teaching profession that values excellence above all else, this licensure process just isn’t good enough. Fortunately, several states are working on better approaches.

Just last week, Tennessee superintendent Kevin Huffman proposed a major overhaul of the state’s licensure process that will put excellence in the classroom front and center. Under the proposal, new teachers would have to meet a higher standard to earn an Initial License, and then would earn a more permanent Professional License only by scoring a 2 (out of 4) or better on their performance evaluation and on Tennessee’s value-added rating system—measuring teacher impact on student academic growth—during two out of their first three years in the classroom. The same standard would apply to teachers seeking to renew their Professional Licenses—which would be valid for six years—using evaluation results from their most recent three years of teaching.

In other words, novice teachers who can’t demonstrate the ability to perform in the classroom would no longer be allowed to teach, nor would teachers of any experience level who earn “ineffective” ratings year after year. That’s a huge change; right now, teachers’ professional licenses are good for 10 years and renewals don’t take classroom performance into consideration at all.

Tennessee’s new approach to licensure also promises to be much less burdensome for teachers. Because advancing or renewing a license would depend entirely on evaluation ratings, the entire process would be automatic—no need for teachers to submit an application or pay a fee.

This is the kind of licensure process that sends the right message about the teaching profession: Good instruction is the top priority, regardless of where you went to school, what degrees you have or how many courses you’ve taken. Teach your students effectively, and all the paperwork will take care of itself.

It’s also worth noting that Tennessee is fast becoming one of the best examples in the country of what a comprehensive, sustained commitment to great teaching looks like. The state started by overhauling its teacher evaluation system so that it provides teachers with clearer standards and more useful feedback throughout the year. Now it’s beginning to use evaluation results not only to ensure that performance is the most important factor in licensure, but also that successful teachers are recognized, rewarded and retained.  

In fact, at the same time he announced his licensure proposal, Commissioner Huffman also announced that by the 2014-15 school year, all Tennessee districts will begin incorporating factors other than seniority—including, perhaps, evaluation ratings—into decisions about teachers’ salaries.

None of this is easy. Though the proposals seem like common sense, they’ve already attracted controversy, mostly from critics who seem to oppose any change to policies that have been devaluing teachers and students for decades. But these changes will be good for teachers and students alike, and Governor Haslam and Commissioner Huffman have been right to push ahead with them. The reforms in Tennessee and the resolve of the state’s leaders in pursuing them are models that more states should follow.

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, stands in front of her students while introducing them to the captivating world of science

Imali Ariyarathne, seventh-grade teacher at Langston Hughes Academy, introduces her students to the captivating world of science.

About TNTP

TNTP is the nation’s leading research, policy, and consulting organization dedicated to transforming America’s public education system, so that every generation thrives.

Today, we work side-by-side with educators, system leaders, and communities across 39 states and over 6,000 districts nationwide to reach ambitious goals for student success.

Yet the possibilities we imagine push far beyond the walls of school and the education field alone. We are catalyzing a movement across sectors to create multiple pathways for young people to achieve academic, economic, and social mobility.

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