Tennessee principals embrace teaching collaboration model from Shanghai

PHOTO: Vanderbilt University
Beth Blevins, principal of South Doyle Middle, Knox County Schools, in Shanghai.

A trip to Shanghai last year was an “aha moment” for Louise Claney, the former principal of Collierville Elementary School.

In the schools she visited, teachers regularly observed and evaluated other teachers, and lesson plans were living documents shared by everyone, created through teamwork and updated according to teachers’ experiences in the classrooms. 

Claney knew that facilitating the collaboration she saw in Shanghai in Collierville would be tough. Like most schools in Tennessee, Collierville’s teachers’ only feedback was from administrators, and lesson plans weren’t shared. Teachers spent most of the day with students and only met to share ideas once a month. The practice of teaching in the United States has historically been considered a private affair, after all.

Despite the challenges, when Claney returned from Shanghai, using the help of Vanderbilt University researchers, she trained her teachers and gave them the time to have their own evaluation and feedback groups.

A recently-released study said test scores rose at Collierville Elementary and 17 other schools that used the training method, called Teacher Peer Excellence Groups. The bridging of Shanghai and Tennessee schools was the result of a partnership between Tennessee’s Department of Education and Vanderbilt University and funded by a $700,000 federal grant.

Researchers also cited at the schools testing the model improved teaching skills, because teachers receive immediate feedback on their performance, and improved evaluation skills from principals since they also learn more about teaching.

This year, the model is expanding to more schools in the state, and the Vanderbilt researchers are working to help entire districts adopt it. Loudon County, a small district in East Tennessee, is already using the evaluation groups in all of its schools.

According to the practice, teachers create a lesson plan together then observe each other teaching it and revise the plan accordingly. Xiu Cravens, the lead researcher for the project,  said the model varies from school-to-school, but has three “non-negotiable” components: teachers must have opportunities to observe each other; the collective work from the groups must be accessible and amendable; and teachers must be able to defend their changes.

“It’s pretty organic, actually,” Cravens said. “We wanted to say, ‘This is the spirit. Here are the things that are non-negotiable, but each district will be different. As long as you can be true to the spirit (and) find a way it works for your school.'”

Claney broke teachers up into grade-level teams of math and English teachers. Each week, the teachers chose a specific teaching skill to focus on, like how to phrase questions to students. One teacher would be observed, while teaching assistants manned the other teachers’ classrooms. During the following period, all of the teachers’ students went to electives, so the teachers could focus on writing feedback for the teacher observed. Each teacher was observed about every six weeks.

“Scheduling was the biggest challenge,” she said.

Claney is now the director of curriculum and accountability for Collierville Public Schools, and helping to spread the model to other schools in the area. She and the teachers who participated in the evaluation groups are speaking about their experience at a state conference in October. 

The most surprising fans of the model was students, Claney said.

“The students love for you to be in their classroom and see what they’re doing, and they love to show off,” she said. “If I was in the hallway, the kids would ask, Mrs. Claney, when will we be observed again?”

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.