Building Better Teachers

Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system improving, state report says

PHOTO: Vanderbilt University
A new study suggests that standards used nationwide to evaluate teacher preparation programs need an upgrade.

Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system is more accurate than ever in measuring teacher quality, according to a report released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

“Now three years into our evaluation system, we see clear indications that the system itself is improving rapidly through the dedicated work of educators across the state,” the 36-page report concludes. “Most importantly, we see significant signs that students are learning more, and that Tennessee is making progress to move itself into the top half of national performance and provide the education that our students and their families expect and deserve.”

The evaluation system was a keystone of the state’s sweeping 2010 education reforms that helped secure a $500 million federal grant called First to the Top. The state substantially altered its teacher evaluations by requiring them annually instead of every five years, as well as relying more on student test scores.

The state’s report, based primarily on the 2013-14 school year, is the third on the new evaluation system since its implementation in 2011-12. The evaluation process has been tweaked every year since its launch based on teacher feedback.

Among the findings, state education leaders are touting the higher correlation between a teacher’s value-added score (TVAAS), which estimates how much teachers contribute to students’ growth on statewide assessments, and observation scores conducted primarily by administrators. Value-added scores and observation scores still don’t always match up — meaning some teachers have low value-added scores and high observation scores, and vice versa — but Assistant Education Commissioner Paul Fleming said that’s natural.

“The goal is not perfect alignment,” Fleming said Wednesday as the state prepared to release its report.

Because good teachers sometimes have low value-added scores, those scores count for only a fraction of a teacher’s overall evaluation score, he said.

Still, misalignment between observation scores and value-added data has been a priority for the state Education Department. During the 2013-14 school year, schools that had the most instances of a teacher who performed poorly according to value-added data, but well or moderately well in observations, had the option of using a state coach to help them refine their observation practices and narrow the gap between observation scores and value-added scores. (A recent study by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development shows that principals rely on observation data far more than on value-added data.)

Assistant State Education Commissioner Paul Fleming
PHOTO: G.Tatter
Assistant Education Commissioner Paul Fleming

“What’s powerful, these team coaches, because they have been former teachers and principals themselves in these districts, have had significant results . . . in helping schools not just feel better, but give more accurate and helpful feedback to teachers, ” Fleming said.

The department also saw an uptick in the number of teachers for non-tested subjects using portfolios, rather than school-wide test scores, as part of their observations. For most Tennessee teachers, student test scores count for at least 25 percent of their evaluations, even if they teach non-tested subjects. But in 2013-2014, 11 districts — up from only three districts the year before — used one of three portfolio models in which teachers show student growth by submitting student work, instead of grading non-tested teachers based on the test scores of their co-workers. The state has approved portfolio models for teachers of world languages, fine arts and physical education.

Although the report says teachers who use portfolios have “expressed great appreciation for a model that treats them as content experts and allows them to be judged based on the merits of work that happens in their own classrooms,” Fleming said few districts have used portfolios because they are not understood well and are more time-consuming, especially for smaller districts.

“We’re trying to make sure districts have as much information as possible to take that route if they choose to,” Fleming said.

Department officials aim to expand the portfolio model and lessen reliance on school-wide test scores. In 2013-2014, 48 percent of Tennessee teachers were evaluated in part by individual growth measures, which include either value-added data or portfolios. That number could increase to 70 percent, according to department estimates. “Individual growth measures allow districts, schools and teachers to better identify how teachers are performing in every subject area, so that they can receive the support and recognition they need,” the report says.

The use of test scores for teachers of non-tested subjects has drawn the ire of the Tennessee Education Association, as well as some legislators.

Data for the report was collected through the Tennessee Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) survey of 61,000 teachers and the Tennessee Consortium of Research, Evaluation, and Development survey of about 25,000 teachers, as well as in-person interviews with more than 3,000 educators.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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How I Teach

Live, from Music City, an elementary school teacher presents life lessons with a beat

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Christopher Blackmon leads second-grade students in a song he wrote and composed as a music teacher at Thomas Edison Elementary School in Nashville.

How do teachers captivate their students? Here, in a feature we call How I Teach, we ask great educators how they approach their jobs. You can see other pieces in this series here.

Sixteen miles from Music Row, a bustling nexus of Nashville’s recording industry, second-grade students are hard at work perfecting a single at Thomas A. Edison Elementary School.

“Winners, winners don’t quit. They don’t quit!” they sing, reading lyrics and music on a screen. “If I can believe it, then I can achieve it! I must leave my doubts behind.”

Then come the dance moves. Students shake and wiggle with exuberance.

The songwriting credit goes to Christopher Blackmon, a music teacher at Edison Elementary and one of 31 educators nationwide named 2017 Music Teachers of Excellence by the Country Music Association. The CMA Foundation is honoring the group Wednesday at a Nashville event hosted by Little Big Town, the CMA’s Vocal Group of the Year.

The acknowledgement draws attention to music education at a time when such programs are being slashed from public schools nationwide. But at Edison Elementary, the pace for teaching and learning music is picking up. In addition to providing instruction twice a week during school, Blackmon and a colleague lead after-school activities that include piano lessons and video production. More than 100 students, or about a sixth of the student body, participate in extra musical enrichment.

Here’s how Blackmon inspires students to love music, and to extend their enthusiasm to other academic subjects. This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a teacher?

I was most impacted by my high school music experience. We had a great program. I was in the band. I played tuba and baritone, but I also played jazz piano for a jazz combo. My band teacher was somebody you just look up to.

I’m always trying to push kids toward having a strong, principled life that means something and contributes something positive to the culture. With music education, I felt like I could teach both music and those positive character principles that I think kids need.

What does your classroom look like?

There’s a big open space in the middle and toward the front because it’s versatile. I do a lot of things with instruments and I set the instruments out and I have students rotating so they can see the screen, where I have the music up. I like to use less paper because students are just going to throw it away anyway.

They also dance a lot. In fact, they dance every day they come here. Probably, if I hadn’t been a music teacher, I would’ve been in P.E. Exercise helps brain development. The coordinated movement, especially symmetrical movements, where you cross the meridians of your body, is very important to cross-hemispheric development. Music as a whole is. That’s why I am such an advocate for music education, especially at the elementary level. I do a lot of stuff with audio production, (and) I could teach that in high school, but I think this is where people’s foundations are. I want to impact the beginning. I want to impact those foundations and help them establish their lives.

I have keyboards along the back of my room. I inherited 10 and then I have begged, borrowed and stole to get a class set so I can teach kids piano. I actually designed these. It allows four kids to sit at a table and hear only their keyboard through headphones. I can have some kids moving faster working together, some kids moving slower working together.

There’s so much research that shows that kids who get early piano instruction — piano or guitar — their brains develop more gray matter. The research shows over and over that they score higher on tests, that they do better with certain types of problem-solving skills, and so it’s better for everybody, whether or not they’re going to stick with it in real life.

What can’t you teach without?

(Click to listen to this track.)


Every time they walk into the classroom, they don’t get a chance to ask me questions and talk, because I told them I want to hear music first.

This little track is really effective because it reminds them what they’re going to do every single day, and then they know what to expect, but it gets harder and harder each time. It starts my class out the same way, but it doesn’t take a long time, and by five minutes into the class, they have already grown musically.

How do you get your class’s attention if students are talking or off task?

I try to catch the ones doing right and then comment on it because people will look at them and they’ll pull it together. I’ll say, “I love how so-and-so is being a STAR.” My little STAR thing is just: stand up straight, track the speaker, actively participate, respectfully celebrate. I say it all the time.

If a kid is just totally not getting it together, sometimes I’ll say, “Can you go write down and say how you would fix this?” That usually helps them.

How does parental communicate fit into your teaching approach?

When I see kids with musical talent, I write a personal note or call that parent and let them know that I really recommend that they get some kind of lesson or connect that child to music in some other kind of way. A lot of time, that will be a hook to get students through school when it’s hard.

What’s the best advice you ever received?

It sounds like common sense, but the best advice I ever received was about classroom management from Sue Hall, who was the last music teacher here. She said, “Whatever you say you’re going to do, do it.” If you don’t have the respect of the students, you cannot teach them. It doesn’t matter how much they like you — I mean, they can love you — but if they don’t respect you, they don’t behave. And if they don’t behave, they cannot learn.

What does it mean to be teaching music in Music City?

What I do wouldn’t be accepted by a lot of music programs. Sometimes they just want you to do stale old canned musicals they found somewhere, or they want you to teach in a traditional way. I teach in a very non-traditional way, because I’m exposing kids to the real music machine. These kids could make a living in a lot of different ways in music. Traditionally, it’s very classical-based instruction. But if they know how to produce music and they have a good idea, you can make a living. You don’t have to be a big label anymore.

Here’s a music video created and produced by Blackmon and students in an afterschool program:

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.


Want education equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers


PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text: