Teacher Effectiveness

Tennessee teachers rally to prevent TVAAS scores’ ties to licensure process

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/ Chalkbeat TN
Shelby County School teachers rally against using TVAAS in teacher licensure Tuesday night at the local association building.

The Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers association, wants to avoid student test scores from being tied to whether teachers can renew their license. The issue is currently being debated at the statehouse.  In a joint rally and press conference in Memphis Tuesday, officials with the organization said that more academic measures should be used to gauge teacher effectiveness in high-stakes personnel decisions.

“TEA is not against accountability, but evaluations should be fair and clear,” TEA executive director Carolyn Crowder said.  “We want the right instruments using multiple measures to assess students and teachers.”

Currently, amongst other requirements, teachers must  complete 90 hours of training in order to get a license, which must be renewed every ten years.  A teacher is required to keep their teaching credentials up to date in order to remain employed.

Last August, the Tennessee Board of Education indicated that they would begin to link a student’s academic growth scores to whether or not a teacher would get their license renewed.  That number is commonly referred to as the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS.  

TVAAS uses up to five years of student achievement scores to determine a classroom teacher’s contribution to a students’ growth.

Teachers and their advocates complained the process unfairly blamed them for factors they could not control, such as a child’s parental involvement or even the mood a child was in on the day they took the test.

On Jan. 31, in what TEA considered a victory, the state board of education voted to rescind parts of the policy that links the teacher licensure process to TVAAS data, which was scheduled to go into effect in 2015. TEA is now aggressively campaigning to keep TVAAS data separate from the licensure renewal process through several key legislative bills.

Tennessee’s assistant commissioner of education, Stephen Smith, said during a house education committee meeting last week that using growth scores, or TVAAS, is better than using just a student’s achievement scores, which don’t consider how well a student improved year over year.

For the last several years, the state and the TEA, which represents 46,000 teachers,  have been at odds about how to use TVAAS scores and how much weight they should hold when evaluating a teacher.

Since 2010, educators have voiced concerns about many of the dramatic legislative changes made to improve the lowest performing schools such as frequent classroom observations, the elimination of teachers’ bargaining rights and tougher tenure laws.  TEA Assistant Executive Director for Advocacy Duran Williams said all of the changes have negatively impacted teacher morale.

If teacher licensure is tied to value-added scores, TEA officials said they are concerned that more teachers will leave the profession, not because they no longer like the job, but because of the stress.

But a recent state-wide survey conducted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, concluded that the majority of teachers think evaluations are useful in improving classroom instruction.  

During this year’s legislative session TEA is rallying their support behind several education bills including HB 2263 the “Educator Respect and Accountability Act of 2014.”That bill prevents the licensure of public school teachers from being based partly on TVAAS scores.

A separate bill, SB 2122, would prevent next year’s test results from being considered for things such as teacher evaluations, promotions or demotions. Next year, the state will roll out a new online standardized test known as  Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC.  Educators say student test scores drop in the first year of a new assessment.

Recently, TEA have been promoting “The Trouble with TVAAS”, a presentation that uses teacher testimony and data to show that TVAAS as a measuring stick has several flaws. Over the last several weeks, officials with TEA have shown the presentation to teachers and members of the press.

On Tuesday night, at the local chapter’s headquarters,  a teacher, student, and a parent spoke of how testing has negatively affected their lives.

The organization filed a lawsuit on Feb. 6 on  behalf of a Knox County teacher who was denied a bonus based on TVAAS results.

The TEA’s legal counsel is looking to file additional lawsuits for other educators negatively affected by TVAAS.

TVAAS has been used in the state for 20 years.

TEA initially approved of the use of TVAAS in teacher evaluations in 2010 when Tennessee won more than $500 million in Race to the Top funds, Crowder said. At the time, she said, educators expected that additional achievement measures would be factored into the process.

But “that never happened,” Crowder said.

Crowder said tying teacher licensure to TVAAS was not brought up in 2010. 

“We don’t want  TVAAS to go away completely, but the state is trying to use it in a manner that it was never intended,” she said.  “We’d like to see a more proactive approach.  TEA is proposing a ‘Think Tank’ of teachers to work together to determine what are good measures to use.”

Crowder said she would prefer the state use a pre- and post-test measure to determine a teacher’s impact on student achievement.

TEA  plans to continue spreading its message and lobbying legislators in March and April.


This mom came to the newcomer school ready to stand up for son. She left with a job.

PHOTO: Provided by Javier Barrera Cervantes
Charlotte Uwimbabazi is a bilingual assistant at the Indianapolis Public Schools newcomer program.

When Charlotte Uwimbabazi showed up at Indianapolis Public Schools’ program for new immigrants, she was ready to fight for her son. When she left that day, she had a job.

A native of the Congo, Uwimbabazi fled the war-torn country and spent nearly a decade in Cape Town, South Africa waiting for a new home. Last spring, Uwimbabazi and her four children came to the U.S. as refugees.

(Read: Teaching when students are full of fear: Inside Indiana’s first school for new immigrants)

When the family arrived in Indianapolis, Uwimbabazi’s youngest son Dave enrolled at Northwest High School. But he wasn’t happy, and a volunteer helping to resettle the family suggested he transfer to Crispus Attucks High School. When the school year started, though, Crispus Attucks turned him away. Staff there said he had been assigned to the newcomer program, a school for students who are new to the country and still learning English.

There was just one problem: Dave was fluent in English after growing up in South Africa. Uwimbabazi said it’s the only language he knows. So Uwimbabazi and her son Dave headed to the newcomer school to convince them he should attend Crispus Attucks.

That’s when Jessica Feeser, who oversees the newcomer school and programing for IPS students learning English, stepped in — and found a new resource for the district’s growing population of newcomer students.

Feeser immediately realized that Dave was fluent in English and should enroll in Crispus Attucks. Then, Uwimbabazi started talking with Feeser about her own experience. With a gift for languages, Uwimbabazi speaks six fluently, including Swahili and Kinyarwanda, languages spoken by many African students at the school.

“Where are you working right now?” Feeser asked. “Would you like a job here?”

Uwimbabazi, who had been packing mail, took a job as a bilingual assistant at the school. Her interaction with the district went from “negativity to positivity,” she said.

The newcomer program has seen dramatic growth in enrollment since it opened last fall, and it serves about three dozen refugee students. Students at the school speak at least 14 different languages. As the only staff member at the school who speaks Swahili and Kinyarwanda, Uwimbabazi is a lifeline for many of the African refugees it serves, Feeser said.

She works alongside teachers, going over material in languages that students speak fluently and helping them grasp everything from simple instructions to complex concepts like graphing linear equations, Feeser said. She also helps bridge the divide between the district and the Congolese community on Indianapolis’ westside, going on home visits to meet parents and helping convince families to enroll their children in school.

When students in the newcomer program don’t share a language with staff members, the school is still able to educate them, Feeser said. But it is hard to build community without that bridge. Uwimbabazi has played an essential role in helping the school build relationships with families.

“She believes that all of our families are important, and she’s working diligently to make sure that they feel that their voices are heard,” Feeser said. “It was a gift from God that she joined us.”

Trade offs

Indianapolis is experimenting with a new kind of teacher — and it’s transforming this school

PHOTO: Teachers and coaches meet at Indianapolis Public Schools Lew Wallace School 107.
Paige Sowders (left) is one of three multi-classroom leaders who are helping teachers at School 107.

Teachers at School 107 are up against a steep tower of challenges: test scores are chronically low, student turnover is high and more than a third of kids are still learning English.

All the school’s difficulties are compounded by the struggle to hire and retain experienced teachers, said principal Jeremy Baugh, who joined School 107 two years ago. At one of the most challenging schools in Indianapolis Public Schools, many of the educators are in their first year in the classroom.

“It’s a tough learning environment,” Baugh said. “We needed to find a way to support new teachers to be highly effective right away.”

This year, Baugh and the staff of School 107 are tackling those challenges with a new teacher leadership model designed to attract experienced educators and support those who are new to the classroom. School 107 is one of six district schools piloting the opportunity culture program, which allows principals to pay experienced teachers as much as $18,000 extra each year to support other classrooms. Next year, the program will expand to 10 more schools.

The push to create opportunities for teachers to take on leadership and earn more money without leaving the classroom is gaining momentum in Indiana — where the House budget includes $1.5 million for developing educator “career pathways” — and across the country in places from Denver to Washington. The IPS program is modeled on similar efforts in North Carolina led by the education consulting firm Public Impact.

At School 107, Baugh hired three new teachers, called multi-classroom leaders, who are responsible for the performance of several classes. Each class has a dedicated, full-time teacher. But the classroom leader is there to help them plan lessons, improve their teaching and look at data on where students are struggling. And unlike traditional coaches, they also spend time in the classroom, working directly with students.

As classroom leaders, they are directly responsible for the test scores of the students in their classes, said Jesse Pratt, who is overseeing opportunity culture for the district.

“They own that data,” Pratt said. “They are invested in those kids and making sure they are successful.”

At School 107, the program is part of a focus on using data to track student performance that Baugh began rolling out when he took over last school year. It’s already starting to bear fruit: Students still struggle on state tests, but they had so much individual improvement that the school’s letter grade from the state jumped from a D to a B last year.

Paige Sowders, who works with classes in grades 3 through 6, is one of the experienced teachers the program attracted to School 107. After 9 years in the classroom, she went back to school to earn an administrator’s license. But Sowders wasn’t quite ready to leave teaching for the principal’s office, she said. She was planning to continue teaching in Washington Township. Then, she learned about the classroom leader position at School 107, and it seemed like a perfect opportunity to move up the ladder without moving out of the classroom.

“I wanted something in the middle before becoming an administrator,” she said. “I get to be a leader and work with teachers and with children.”

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
The multi-classroom leaders meet regularly with teachers and district coaches to review data and plan lessons.

The new approaches to teacher leadership are part of a districtwide move to give principals more freedom to set priorities and choose how to spend funding. But those decisions aren’t always easy. Since schools don’t get extra funding to hire classroom leaders, Baugh had to find money in his existing budget. That meant cutting several vacant part-time positions, including a media specialist, a gym teacher and a music teacher.

It also meant slightly increasing class sizes. Initially, that seemed fine to Baugh, but then enrollment unexpectedly ballooned at the school — going from 368 students at the start of the year to 549 in February. With so many new students, class sizes started to go up, and the school had to hire several new teachers, Baugh said.

Some of those teachers were fresh out of college when they started in January, with little experience in such challenging schools. But because the school had classroom leaders, new teachers weren’t expected to lead classes without support. Instead, they are working with leaders like Sowders, who can take the time to mentor them throughout the year.

With teachers who are just out of school, Sowders spends a lot of time focusing on basics, she said. She went over what their days would be like and how to prepare. During the first week of the semester, she went into one of the new teacher’s classes to teach English every day so he could see the model lessons. And she is working with him on improving discipline in his class by setting expectations in the first hour of class.

Ultimately, Baugh thinks the tradeoffs the school made were worth it. The extra money helped them hold on to talented staff, and they have the bandwidth to train new teachers.

“If I’m a novice teacher just learning my craft, I can’t be expected to be a super star best teacher year one,” he said. “We learn our skill.”