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EDITORIAL: ‘Teachers Relief Bill’ signed but more reforms needed

Gov. Nathan Deal has signed what should be dubbed “The Teachers Relief Bill.” It is Senate Bill 364, urgently needed legislation reducing the burden of too many tests and evaluations that have piled on stress and threatened to drive many teachers from the profession they love. 

SB 364, approved unanimously by both houses of the General Assembly, cuts the number of tests required of students from 32 to 24. It also reduces the weight given the student test results in evaluating teachers and administrators to 30 percent from 50 percent previously. And it requires a student to attend classes for 90 percent of the school year instead of only 65 percent if the student’s test scores are to count in evaluating the teacher. It also moves the test windows to the end of the school year to cut down on distractions during the year.  

This bill marks the return of common sense to Georgia’s classrooms. The changes are what our teachers have been pleading for as they tried to cope with the excessive tests and evaluations — factors that have created what many teachers view as a hostile environment. This is borne out by recent surveys. Educators First, a professional educators group, in a poll of its members found that 90 percent felt their profession was under attack, 60 percent would quit teaching if they were able and 72 percent would not recommend teaching as a profession.  

Teachers were especially stressed by the excessive number of “walk throughs” in the evaluations under the state TKES (Teacher Keys Effectiveness System), described as neither fair nor reasonable. That issue was one of the top three priorities of teachers in the Educators First survey. The other two priorities: mandated parental involvement and the lack of enforcement of discipline in the schools.  

It all gets back to allowing teachers to do what they’re supposed to do — teach! SB 364’s sponsor, Sen. Lindsey Tippins, R-Marietta, said he wanted to put the teaching back in teaching. The goal, he said, was “to raise the efficiency and effectiveness of education in the state of Georgia.” Without question, reducing the time taken up by excessive tests and evaluations will increase the efficiency and effectiveness of Georgia’s teachers. 

SB 364 was labeled “the most important and consequential bill” of the 2016 session by Rep. Randy Nix, R-LaGrange, sponsor of the 2013 legislation that created the onerous tests and evaluations. He shepherded SB 364 through the House and before the bill passed, he took to the floor to acknowledge there were “way too many tests.” He joined ranks with virtually every major Georgia education advocacy group in supporting SB 364. So did state Superintendent of Education Richard Woods, “because it reflects many of the issues I’ve felt all along are burdensome to student learning and the recruitment and retention of our best teachers.”  

Over-testing was part of the big push in recent years to hold teachers accountable by evaluating them. But even as the previous law was being debated, the validity of test-based accountability was being called into question. At the time, Marc Tucker, president and CEO of the National Center on Education and the Economy, concluded: “Test-based accountability has been tried and it has failed.” He cited data from the respected National Assessment of Educational Progress showing that “after 10 years of federal education policies based on test-based accountability, there has been no perceptible improvement in student performance among high school students as a whole, or when the data are broken down by different groupings of disadvantaged students.” 

Likewise, test-based accountability “failed to improve student performance,” he found. And he said, the wrong-headed approach was “doing untold damage to the profession of teaching,” causing many teachers to give up the profession. Teachers, he found, believe that the tests “measure very little of what they think a good education is and even less of what a good teacher does for the students under he or her care.” All this has been borne out in Georgia’s experiments with tests and more tests.  

But the task of reforming the test-happy system in Georgia schools is not finished. A key legislator, House Education Committee Chairman, Rep. Brooks Coleman, R-Duluth, acknowledged as much before the session ended. He said he and other legislative leaders realize many educators and parents believe the new law falls short of the needed reforms. Thus, he said a series of “listening sessions” on the issue will be held around the state.  

Our legislators are to be commended for enacting the “Teachers Relief Bill.” Now, we encourage them to continue the reforms to restore the focus on teaching, not testing, in our public schools.