Matter of Respect: Is Knox County Teacher Angst a Local Matter, or Symptom of Wider Problem?

The hundreds of teachers who showed up at the Knox County school board to vent frustration with testing and teacher evaluations reveal a morale problem that is deep-seated among even the best teachers. The question for Gov. Bill Haslam and his top-down reform allies is whether the Knox County situation is a local phenomenon or whether it is the forerunner of more widespread revolt around the state.

It is certainly true that no school system or superintendent has bought into the new program with more enthusiasm that Dr. Jim McIntyre and the Knox County school board. It's Haslam's hometown and the Knox Chamber president Mike Edwards is on the state school board. The state school board and the state's Chambers of Commerce are strong advocates of revolutionary change in education.

Knox County teachers have not been politically active in recent years. Without an elected superintendent they've had no leadership to push an education agenda. They certainly didn't rally behind McIntyre when he went to county government for a huge increase in the school budget.

But they do appear to have a leader now. State Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, who is also a teacher, helped organize the venting session at the school board meeting. She has also been raising questions about school reform in the super-majority Republican Legislature.

It seems entirely possible that we will see a slate of candidates for the Knox County school board next time around, pledged to put the brakes on reforms. It may well turn into a referendum on McIntyre's tenure. Frequent reform critic Tamara Shepherd appears to be the first out of the gate, announcing this week.

Over 60 superintendents statewide have expressed dissatisfaction with the state department of education and its commissioner, Kevin Huffman. Educators in Nashville are upset because they have had millions in state funds withheld because the school board wouldn't approve a charter school.

Haslam needs teacher support because his education reform is also going to be hit from the other end of the spectrum. Even during the off-season of no legislative session, the Senate Education Committee has been holding hearings on the Common Core and on state textbooks. They are discussing abolishing the state textbook committee or reconstituting it. You can expect social conservatives to examine every paragraph of teaching materials and text books looking for "liberal bias" or "anti-Americanism" in the curriculum being developed for Common Core.

The next session will see social conservatives bringing legislation to influence what will be taught in local schools. There will be an effort to vastly expand the number of charter schools. The Democrats, even though a pitiful minority these days, will likely be raising objections brought by teachers unhappy with the evaluation process. You can expect Johnson to lead the effort, though she will likely be gaveled down by Republican committee chairs.

What seems a reasonable criticism of what's been going on is that the pace of change is entirely too fast. To change the curriculum, the testing program, implementing new technology, and changing the teacher evaluation system—all at one time—is bound to cause confusion. And teacher angst. And mistakes will be made. The evaluation system in which teachers are evaluated on scores for subjects they don't teach is just one miscarriage of justice.

Low test scores and failing schools have been the impetus for education reform. Memphis has been the focus of a lot of the reform (and Gates Foundation money). But in order to get at deep-seated problems in the Memphis school system, has it really been necessary to screw with teachers throughout the state? Yes, there are failing schools in Memphis and Chattanooga and Nashville. But Knox County is not even in the same category as the other major school systems. Though they can be improved, Knox County has really good schools and outstanding teachers.

One can understand their resentment in being disrespected.