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Wednesday, July 9, 2014

Teacher data may remain hidden

Thursday, March 22, 2012

A bill, sponsored by State Sen. Jim Tracy, to make teacher evaluation data private will be voted on by the full State Senate.

The Senate State and Local Government Committee voted 7-0 on Tuesday to advance the bill.

Recent education reforms have increased the use and importance of various teacher evaluations. Under recent changes to state law, half of teachers' assessments must derive from testing data, while the rest comes from classroom observations. Teachers are observed by administrators or other observers on a regular basis.

Teachers' files are considered public record, and when Tracy discovered that this would also make evaluation results public he said he felt the evaluation data should be protected, available only to school officials and not to the general public.

"Evaluations are supposed to be used as a tool to help teachers, it's not going to be used for anything other than that," said Tracy.

Tracy said he's received strong positive response to the proposal from teachers and administrators.

Unexpected bill

Kent Flanagan, executive director of the Tennessee Coalition for Open Government, said he had been taken by surprise by the bill, SB 1447, which is listed on the state legislature's website as relating to the Department of Commerce and Insurance.

When asked about the bill by a Times-Gazette reporter, he had to track down the exact bill in question.

"If I had known that this caption bill was going to be used in this fashion, I would have discussed it with the bill's sponsors," said Flanagan.

The bill's title, or "caption," on the state legislature's website is as follows: "Public Records -- As introduced, specifies that all licensure tests administered by the department of commerce and insurance through any of its regulatory boards and commissions are confidential when and for so long as necessary to protect the integrity of the tests."

That wouldn't suggest to the casual reader that teacher evaluations are the point of the bill.

Tracy's explanation

Tracy said the caption came from a bill that he had introduced, but which had never advanced, in the previous session of the legislature. It saved time to make the teacher evaluation proposal a part of the already-introduced bill as compared to introducing it under a new caption, said Tracy.

State law requires that a bill state its purpose in the caption, and bill about one issue can't be amended so that by the time it passes, it's about some other issue altogether. A "caption bill," in legislative jargon, is one with a caption that may follow the letter of the law but doesn't fully reflect the bill's contents and might be misleading to those who are trying to follow the legislative process.

Flanagan, a former editor of the Times-Gazette, said he's on record as saying that the teacher evaluation system has its flaws.

"Nobody understands what it means," he said. But he said that's a separate issue from whether or not teacher evaluations ought to be public.