I had heard it all before: we have finally got everybody in a room, and we are all working on a common mission to “fix public education.” That was more or less the idea behind the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). More precisely, they said the objective is to support Tennessee’s work to prepare students for college and the workforce. The key to that equation is defining exactly who Tennessee is. Is Tennessee the president? The governor? The federal government? Philanthropists? The Gates Foundation? The Tennessee General Assembly? The Commissioner? The Department of Education? Textbook Companies? The business community? Educators? Parents? Students? All the above? None of the above?
What starts with good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if understanding is lacking. As economist Timothy Taylor stated: “There is great comfort in feeling that those with whom we disagree are corrupted by politics or profit-seeking or darker motives while our own intentions are of luminescent purity.”
If there is a meeting or coalition to which we can add value or substance to help public education, support educators in that task, or improve student achievement, then Professional Educators of Tennessee wants to be included to represent our nearly 8,000 members. However, as I started looking around, I realized, outside of the teacher’s union, there was nobody at SCORE to represent actual public school classroom teachers. And even then, the union was out numbered 28-1. Like us, invited to the dance as long as we sat in the corner and kept our mouths shut – something that is highly unlikely when I am involved.
We are not going to merely roll-over and pretend the smoke and mirrors hide our legitimate concern. We need to have an honest debate in Tennessee about public education and reforms that were ushered in by our acceptance of Race to the Top federal funding. We also need public discourse on the serious issue of growing federal involvement in our state and local school districts. That prompted me to send a fairly pointed letter to Jamie Woodson, the former state senator who directs SCORE’s efforts.
In our letter to Ms. Woodson, we questioned SCORE’s lobbying effort, which may be damaging to public school educators or overshadow their voices of concern or suggestions to improve public education. We are concerned about the amount of money being spent in political campaigns in Tennessee. We fear that it is having a detrimental impact upon public education in our state. We sought clarity with a Political Action Committee, Advance Tennessee, which is a perceived front group for the SCORE organization. We also shared our trepidation about their paid Tennessee Educator Fellowship, and we asked whether SCORE intends to register these political operatives with the Tennessee Ethics Commission as lobbyists. Finally, we made an inquiry about the relevance of a daily news summary sent under the name of former Senator Bill Frist that frequently features articles that may serve more as a public relations vehicle for members of their steering committee or for issues that are not relevant to Tennessee.
In asking for clarification, we also recognized that most of the people instrumental in designing our teacher evaluation systems, teacher training guidelines, and articulating the types of standards that need to be taught in our classrooms have never been teachers themselves. More importantly, they didn’t send their own children to public schools. Like Andrew Breitbart said: “Truth isn’t mean. It’s truth.”
Public educators have continuing misgivings about the endless testing. We have had member reservations about the standards, namely implementation. Educators are tired of being seen as the sole reason student achievement may not meet some particular level or bearing the culpability for low performing school systems. Good intentions or not, something is terribly amiss when children are being educated chiefly to take tests. No single metric of success can accurately measure the impact of public education, and you cannot improve education by alienating the profession that carries it out.
Despite political differences, both Republicans and Democrats love our state and our children. Our belief is that by working together in a non-partisan manner we can solve any educational challenges in Tennessee. It is time we stand together for integrity on behalf of public education and the hard working men and women who educate children in our state. We invite all stakeholders and policymakers to work toward that objective. That is our work, and it should be the work of all Tennesseans.
We would like to rebuild our trust in SCORE at some point in the future. We will leave an open door for them. However, we genuinely hope they will contemplate the importance of engagement with actual public educators and integrity-based attributes such as treating educators well, listening to educators with differing points of view on what is best for students, and exhibiting ethical and transparent practices.
JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee