Sen. Andy Berke: “Targeting Teachers is Wrong”

February 3, 2011 by  
Filed under Recent Blog Posts, Workers Rights

Tennessee State Senator Andy Berke writing in the Chattanooga Times Free Press on what our state legislature’s priorities should be when it comes to teachers and education:

My friend Dave recently had a conversation with his son Kyle, an engineering major in college, about becoming a teacher in a needed area like engineering or math. Kyle’s quick response: “Now why in the world would I do that?”

Kyle isn’t the only one asking the question. I hear it in different forms from current teachers who cite long hours, low pay and an increasing emphasis on test scores over student achievement. They’re all reasons why it’s important for community, business and political leaders to thank our teachers for all they do. Our appreciation for their important task is critical.

Yet even as we talk about the importance of hiring, training and encouraging our teachers, a different message has emerged in Nashville that seeks to undermine and frustrate them.

Despite repeated studies that call for intense focus on classroom instruction, numerous bills have been filed to stop teachers from negotiating with school boards; prevent them from contributing to political candidates; and to remove their representative on the pension board. The legislation is purely partisan and is meant to stir controversy rather than build consensus.

This attitude seems a world away from last year’s special legislative session on education. Back then, I co-sponsored the First to the Top legislation that grew out of bipartisan efforts led by then-Gov. Phil Bredesen. It demanded accountability on the part of teachers through the use of value-added scores in evaluations. Paired with that accountability, I sponsored an amendment that put money into a teacher professional development fund to help our teachers learn the latest and best methods of instruction. The teachers agreed to these changes, and President Obama awarded Tennessee roughly $500 million for our innovation.

Our legislation should be a model for education reform. It was bipartisan, bold and brave. The resulting bill recognized that an excellent education begins with a quality teacher in every classroom. The experience proved that if we concentrate our efforts on that principle, we can make real gains in achievement. The current proposals push in the opposite direction. They degrade teachers rather than assist them. Taking away the teachers’ representative on the pension board sends a message that their voice is irrelevant. It is a small matter, but sometimes small matters reverberate loudly. To draw young people of excellence like Kyle into teaching, it is important that he knows his opinions and contributions are valued. Retaining excellent teachers is just as important. To do so, we must treat them with respect.

Reform is not only possible — it is necessary. We have spent the last several years revising our education funding, raising academic standards and increasing accountability. Our focus now should be on ensuring that dollars reach the classroom instead of disappearing in administration. To guarantee that the school runs properly, we should have the strongest principals running our schools. We should be making discipline pervasive among our children and responsibility a necessity among our parents. That’s a positive agenda for the future of our schools: Discipline, responsibility, performance accountability. Our lawmakers also should make them their pillars of educational success.

The people of Tennessee understand where our priorities lie. At my recent town hall meetings, the two main issues were jobs and education. Constituents realize that only the highest quality education will prepare our kids and our communities for the jobs of the future.

Now is not the time to be distracted. We should forget the side issues raised by these recent proposals. They send the wrong message and pull us away from our focus on improvement in the classroom. I hope Kyle, and others like him, reconsiders his dismissal of the teaching profession. It is a noble one that is essential for future economic development and civic engagement. We can help change his mind by continuing the reforms that have put us on the right track, and ignoring the ones that threaten to derail us.

(Reminds me of certain scene from The West Wing.)

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