TENNESSEE, November 2, 2015– Last Friday, I was scheduled to take a TN-Ready English & Language Arts practice exam with students at Hillcrest Elementary School in Troy, Tennessee. A level-5 teacher had called my office the day before almost in tears and requested I come and see exactly what her students have to go through with regard to the standards on the exam. Although this school is a couple miles outside of my district, I have teachers that live in my district who teach here, as well as, families that live in my district with students that attend school here. Therefore, I decided I needed to go and see for myself what countless teachers and parents have asked their elected officials to take note of.
My plan was to speak alongside this teacher with any media outside the school to answer questions before going inside to test. The media needed to hear this teacher’s voice. The State of Tennessee needs to hear her voice. Next, I was going to walk inside the classroom, take a seat off to the side and take the exam. After the exam was over, I wanted to speak with her 8th grade students to see how they felt about the exam. Tennessee state law dictates what happens in the classroom. Therefore, this teacher contacted those that make the law to see exactly how their votes at the state capitol translate to classrooms across the state. After I told the teacher I would come, she was ecstatic. Shortly after we scheduled the visit, I was told that multiple teachers and the principal could not wait for my visit. As a business and economics instructor at Bethel University, I knew someday soon I would probably see some of these kids again in my own classroom. I felt it was a very unique opportunity to connect with them, so I was excited to do this. No better way to learn exists than to immerse yourself in the environment and speak with the parties involved as the event is occurring.
A couple hours before I was scheduled to appear, I received a phone call from the Tennessee Department of Education commissioner, the most powerful education bureaucrat in the state. The commissioner insinuated that I not go through with my plans. She didn’t want to “make a media event out of this”. Last I checked, the media is responsible for ensuring people are informed. Last I checked, the media is protected by the First Amendment and should never be discouraged from being present– especially given the fact that this is a public school funded by hardworking Tennessee tax-payers. The media holds government accountable. I told Commissioner McQueen that the only media present would be there to speak with the level-5 teacher that wanted to voice her concerns over the TNReady standards and myself outside of the classroom.
I told the commissioner that I wasn’t going to ignore this teacher’s request. I have received hundreds of calls from parents and teachers regarding these standards and it needed to be addressed. This is a level-5 teacher, which means she is the best of the best Tennessee has to offer. If she wants to invite an elected official into her classroom to experience the environment her students are in, I think she knows better than an unelected bureaucrat.
Moments after I hung up the phone with the commissioner, my office received a phone call from the county school board telling them that I was not allowed to test. It seems that the commissioner called the county school board and told them not to allow me to fulfill the request of this highly trained teacher. Their reasoning was that originally I wanted to come and test with the students to experience “technical glitches”, not standards, and that “…nothing is wrong with the standards”. Well, it was never about technical glitches. It was always about standards. Even if it was about glitches, then became about standards, what difference would it make? Why was I allowed to test in the classroom when it was about glitches, but not when it was about standards? The argument was then made that I would be a distraction. I know every single teacher reading this at one point in time has had an additional adult in their classroom watching them administer an exam. I’m told by one special education teacher that there are often two adults in the classroom when administering exams, and the additional adult changes almost all the time. It happens every single day, and this would have been no different.
By involving themselves in this situation, the Tennessee Department of Education has validated every fear and concern that every teacher, parent and student in the state has about testing and standards.
A level-5 teacher went to an elected official and had the door slammed shut on her by the top education bureaucrat in the state. Why? I can only imagine the fear that must have struck in her. It is no wonder teachers are so disenfranchised. Because of this behavior, parents and teachers now believe the Department of Education has something to hide. I can’t blame them when just last year thousands of report cards never showed up for Tennessee students because former Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman withheld TCAP scores, which violated state law, in an effort to inflate grades because Common Core was causing scores to tank. Shortly after it was reported to state legislators that Huffman was withholding these scores, multiple legislators including myself formally called for the resignation Huffman. Months later, Huffman resigned. To date, no one has been held accountable for the cover-up.
I think the most unfortunate thing here is that unelected bureaucrats are stepping in to tell the state’s best trained teachers that they cannot reach out to their elected officials; and if they have a problem, then they need to discuss it privately. The First Amendment speaks clearly about the innate right for citizens to “petition the government for a redress of grievances”.
After word got out to the media that the commissioner had moved to block my visit, she put out a statement for the media. Her statement effectively called for teachers to go directly to the Department of Education if they had an issue with standards and to discuss it privately rather than going to their elected officials. Teachers have been put through the ringer by this department. They have a right to address their grievances with those they elected, not a bunch of bureaucrats that won’t get anything done. What’s more, do you really think teachers feel comfortable going to the same Department of Education they just witnessed step on the toes of an elected official answering the request of a level-5 teacher? I wouldn’t.
Moments later, the pro-Common Core group that is funded by secret, dark money from textbook publishers and those putting teachers through hell known as “Tennesseans for Student Success” launched an attack against me. No surprise there. You take a stand for parents/teachers and the big money comes out to silence you and the teachers/parents you are trying to give a voice to.
As promised, I showed up anyway. I wasn’t allowed to test, but after applying some pressure, I was offered the ability to take a practice test at the county board of education. I want to make something very clear here. I do not want to take the test in a sterilized environment. A level-5 teacher invited me to take the exam in her classroom to get the full experience and receive feedback from students. That was the point, not to take the exam in a sterilized environment where the department can control what I can and cannot see.
That being said, while at Hillcrest, I had an incredible visit with teachers and the school’s administration. I want to make something else clear here. This is not the fault of Tennessee teachers and administrators. They are simply victims to a government bureaucracy that refuses to listen to their concerns, then makes moves to block them from publicly discussing their problems with those they elected.
Parents, I want you to understand something. This isn’t the fault of your child’s teachers and principals. At Hillcrest, for example, it became very clear to me that these teachers and administrative staff are very upset with the situation just like many parents. However, they must answer to the unelected bureaucracy that is the Department of Education. Hillcrest has some incredible teachers, and I think it’s very unfortunate that the Department of Education doesn’t trust them to run their own classrooms.
Teachers and principals, I want you to understand something. I hear you loud and clear. I think each of you are heroes and I thank you for the sacrifice you have made. I know you are frustrated, but please do not give up on our children. Furthermore, if you have a problem, do not go to a bureaucrat. Go directly to your elected officials. As you saw with Commissioner Huffman, we can get things done because we are accountable to you.
In the end, I think there are many solutions to the problems we are experiencing in our education system. For one, I personally believe it’s past time we start electing the state’s education commissioner and superintendents so that the people actually have a voice and the bureaucracy comes to an end. Parents, I believe you should have the right to elect the person in charge of your children’s education. Teachers, your salary is now connected to rules implemented by the Department of Education. When it comes to the person running that department, you should have a say at the ballot box This way, actions have consequences. This way, government is directly accountable to the people. If we have learned anything from this event, it’s that when parents and teachers call an elected official, they get a response. When they contact a bureaucrat, they get put on hold (ignored)- indefinitely.