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Tennessee Education works to value teachers more

NASHVILLE — Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has a message for the state’s teachers: You’re valued.

That might seem intuitive, but teachers say it offers a refreshing contrast to her predecessor, Kevin Huffman. He left the state Education Department under fire last year for his aggressive approach to education reform. He was especially criticized for how he handled teachers, especially when he tried to tie their licenses to standardized test scores.

McQueen says she wants teachers to help determine how the state measures what they do.

“It’s extraordinarily important to make sure that teacher voice is being heard as we analyze the policy decisions that have been made over the last several years, and start planning for the future,” she said during a visit this month to a Nashville high school. “We value them.”

The new commissioner, who took office in January, recently launched a statewide effort to visit with 10,000 teachers by the end of the 2015-16 school year.

McQueen’s so-called “Classroom Chronicles Tour” is among several efforts by state officials to show appreciation for teachers and involve them in decision-making.

When McQueen took over, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union, said it hoped her leadership style would be different from her predecessor’s.

Disdain for Huffman wasn’t limited to teachers. Nearly half of the state’s superintendents signed a petition stating Huffman had “no interest in a dialogue” with local school leaders as he made policy changes.

So far, they seem pleased with McQueen, who has taught teachers, as well as elementary and middle school.

“State leaders in Nashville have listened to out-of-state interests and others with no real classroom experience for several years now,” said TEA President Barbara Gray. “I am encouraged to see our new commissioner of education placing greater emphasis on the voice of educators.”

In December, Gov. Bill Haslam also emphasized listening when he announced several proposals for Tennessee teachers, including adjusting the way they’re evaluated and creating a Governor’s Teacher Cabinet in which educators can provide ideas.

“We are working hard to listen to you because we place such a high value on what you are doing,” Haslam told teachers at the time.

The governor, who has budgeted $100 million to increase teacher pay, also says teachers should be involved in his review process for K-12 academic standards. Several teachers and other educators are part of a new task force formed by McQueen to review student testing and assessment.

The Secretary of State’s Office has also formed a committee of teachers to develop lesson plans and teaching aids based on information contained in the Tennessee Blue Book, considered the definitive almanac of Tennessee state government.

“There are very few other businesses where you wouldn’t involve the workers in those decisions; people who actually know and experience what happens on a day-to-day level,” said Elijah Ammen, a 25-year-old Nashville high school English teacher. “So I think that it’s an excellent idea to involve teachers in every level of the decision-making process.”

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