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Tenn. Panel Urges Accountability Plan for Schools

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Copyright 1982 A long-range planning committee of the Tennessee Board of Education has recommended that the state consider adopting a sweeping "accountability system" that would abolish its teacher-tenure law, establish a statewide merit-pay program for all professional-school employees, and provide "incentive" grants to school districts that improve the quality of their academic programs.

Rigorous Standards

The six-member panel also urged Tennessee to join the growing number of states that require new teachers to pass a competency test to become certified. And it recommended that the board make the state's student-competency-test standards more rigorous and consider involving itself more directly in setting standards for Tennessee's increasing number of private schools.

The committee, which included Commissioner of Education Robert L. McElrath, presented its 28-recommendation package to the full board Jan. 8.

John E. Seward Jr., chairman of the planning committee, said the state's tenure law "gets in the way of evaluation of teachers. It provides teachers with what amounts to a guaranteed job."

"We are not starting a crusade against teachers," Mr. Steward said, "but we need to rid the [state] system of incompetent teachers."

(The state's tenure law currently prohibits the dismissal of a teacher with more than three years' experience, except in cases of enrollment declines and situations in which it can be shown that a teacher is incompetent, insubordinate, or guilty of other infractions. Any change in the law would have to be made by the state legislature.)

'Automatic Tenure' Laws

According to National Education Association statistics, 24 states have "automatic tenure" laws similar to Tennessee's. A spokesman for the organization said there is a general trend among state legislatures to weaken such laws.

The planning group's recommendations have drawn strong criticism from the Tennessee Education Association (tea), the state's largest teacher organization.

Cavit C. Cheshier, executive secretary of the tea--which represents nearly 90 percent of the state's approximately 45,000 teachers--said the tenure law is needed to protect competent teachers and he would strongly oppose its repeal.

Merit-pay systems, he added, do not work. "It is very difficult to determine merit fairly, and most merit systems result in internal dissen-sion. It becomes a question of who polishes the apple best and who has friends [in school administrations]."

The Tennessee state board, according to Mr. Seward, has decided to have the Institute of Public Policy Studies at Vanderbilt University plan and conduct two-year merit-pay pilot programs in school systems around the state.

Allocating Funds

On the issue of school-district "performance evaluation," Mr. Seward explained that the committee envisioned the Tennessee board allocating a portion of state education funds to districts that improve their academic programs from year to year. The Vanderbilt public policy institute will design incentive plans for districts and individual schools.

Daniel J. Tollett, executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association, said he is enthusiastic about the school-district incentive proposal, primarily because it is a step towards setting "standards of excellence," in contrast to the mimimum academic standards he says the state now sets.

Mr. Seward said it will be the task of the Vanderbilt policy institute to recommend standards for judging school districts.

Other recommendations made by the committee include:

Revision of the state compulsory-education law to allow students to leave school at age 14 or once they have completed the eighth grade. Currently students in Tennessee must remain in school until their 16th birthday.

Creation of pilot programs to test the value of school weeks that would devote four days to academic programs and the fifth day to athletics and school activities.

Promotion of widespread use of volunteers at all levels of the state's public schools.

Establishment and publication of general curricula for grades K-12 and an outline of specific minimum objectives and skills for each course at each grade level.

Mr. Seward said the special ad hoc panel was set up last summer to identify policy goals and priorities for the state board, which, he said, has had difficulty in recent years taking action on specific policy questions because of a lack of consensus among its members. The planning committee's proposals will now be reviewed by the state board.

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