Educating educators

Tennessee teacher prep programs can do better to ready teachers for Day One, report says

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Emily Fetterman, a corps member of Teach For America, instructs an integrated math class in Nashville. The quality of teacher prep programs in Tennessee is the focus of a new report from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Most Tennessee teacher preparation programs aren’t equipping new teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms, according to a new report from a Nashville-based think tank.

The report, released Tuesday by the State Collaborative of Reforming Education (SCORE), says only a handful of Tennessee’s 40 programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, used  to measure and evaluate teachers.

The report recommends improvement in areas including stronger classroom-based experiences for teacher candidates, greater diversity within the teaching ranks, and closer partnerships between teacher prep programs and the school districts that hire their graduates.

The recommendations were presented Tuesday in SCORE’s Nashville offices, where a panel featuring K-12 educators and representatives from teacher preparation programs spoke about the challenges they face. The report builds off changes to teacher preparation already in the works by the Tennessee Department of Education and State Board of Education, both of which regularly collaborate with SCORE, which was founded in 2009 by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“We want Tennessee students to climb to the top half of the nation for academic achievement,” said SCORE Executive Chairman and CEO Jamie Woodson. “Students need the best teachers we can provide to get there, and new teachers deserve to enter the classroom fully prepared to serve our students well.”

Woodson said Tennessee is in a unique position to get teacher preparation right under the leadership of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, a leader in that arena when she was dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education.

A key recommendation from SCORE focuses on bettering student-teaching experiences before teachers take the full reins of a classroom. Partnerships between programs and districts are important for mentoring both before graduating and after, so that new career teachers have continued support.

“The brain of a first-year teacher is a wild place,” said Randall Lahann, director of the Nashville Teacher Residency, one of Tennessee’s newest alternative teaching programs. “It’s our job as teacher educators to slow things down and give them a clear vision of what it means to be more successful.”

Overall, the report recommends eight ways to improve teacher preparation programs, including better processes for admitting students and reviewing and approving programs, as well as more transparency about data on the programs.

In 2014, the State Board of Education passed a new teacher preparation policy that touches on many of SCORE’s recommendations, like the use of the edTPA licensure test, which is supposed to more rigorously assess whether a candidate is ready to teach full time.

Read SCORE’s full report here.

Father of TVAAS

William Sanders, pioneer of controversial value-added model for judging teachers, dies

William Sanders, who developed the TVAAS method for measuring a teacher's effect on student performance, died on March 16. Retired since 2013, he had been living in Columbia, Tenn.

William Sanders, the Tennessee statistician and researcher who came up with the nation’s first system for evaluating teachers based on student growth, kicking off a contentious, decades-long debate about how best to measure learning, has died.

Sanders died late last week of natural causes in a hospital in Franklin, Tenn., his family said. He was 74.

A former professor at the University of Tennessee and senior research fellow with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanders is best known as the developer of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS. That model has become the foundation for judging the effectiveness of teachers in Tennessee public schools, and has been emulated in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and cities across the nation — playing a key role in one of education reform’s central debates.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called Sanders’ death “a loss to the education community.”

“During his career, Dr. Sanders made significant contributions to the conversation on how to distinguish our most effective educators in terms of improving academic achievement,” McQueen said in a statement on Monday.

Sanders’ value-added model, also known as the Educational Value-Added Assessment System, became a lightning rod for criticism by many teachers and teachers unions skeptical about whether it yields fair and unbiased estimates.

The model has prompted numerous federal lawsuits charging that the evaluation system, which is now tied to teacher pay and tenure in Tennessee, doesn’t take into account student-level variables such as growing up in poverty. In 2014, the American Statistical Association called its validity into question, and other critics have said TVAAS should not be the sole tool used to judge teachers.

The method measures the effects of a teacher, school or district on student performance by tracking the progress of students against the progress they would be expected to make based on their previous performance. The formula is complex, the method requires a huge database, and the name is a mouthful to say. But the model is meant to show the “value” that was added by each teacher, school or district when measured by the change in student test scores each year.

Sanders’ research soon zeroed in on teachers as the most important part of the equation.

“Determining the effectiveness of individual teachers hold the most promise because, again and again, findings from TVAAS research show teacher effectiveness to be the most important factor in the academic growth of students,” he co-wrote in a 1998 paper. “A component linking teacher effectiveness to student outcomes is a necessary part of any educational evaluation system.”

Sanders went on to become a national leader in policy discussions on value-added assessments.

In his obituary, his family said that Sanders’ findings challenged decades of assumptions that the impact of student family life, income or ethnicity superseded the quality of classroom instruction. That conclusion has been complicated by other research showing that teachers matter more than other aspects of a school, but not as much as outside factors like poverty.

Sanders “stood for a hopeful view that teacher effectiveness dwarfs all other factors as a predictor of student academic growth,” his family said. He believed that “educational influence matters and teachers matter most.”

Growing up on a Tennessee dairy farm, Sanders devoted most of his research to agricultural or wildlife questions at the University of Tennessee until 1981, when he came across a newspaper article suggesting that there was no way to hold teachers accountable based on test scores. He disagreed and wrote the office of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to say that the effectiveness of teaching could be measured against the rate of student progress.

“Basically, all I was trying to do is [say] here’s the statistical methodology that solves the problem that some of the critics are talking about,” he told Nashville Public Radio in 2014.

The Tennessee Department of Education commissioned his first wave of research beginning in 1982, and Sanders began by looking at student and teacher data in Knox County. He found that he could measure the impact that a teacher had on a student’s trajectory if he tracked that student’s data over time.

The resulting TVAAS methodology linked student academic outcomes to educational evaluation for the first time. Tennessee teachers began using the data in 1997, and their evaluations became tied to the tool under a 2010 state law.

While teachers and teachers unions pushed back, state lawmakers followed the urging of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, who said changing the way teachers are evaluated would help the state win a $500 million Race to the Top grant, which Tennessee went on to receive.

TVAAS made Sanders a target for some teachers, who felt like he didn’t understand their work and created a system that was used against them unfairly. But colleagues remembered him as a teacher himself who cared about teachers and students.

“Pennsylvania has Bill to thank for changing the conversations about students — from why they can’t achieve to discussions about growing student[s] at all levels,” said Kristin Lewald, who spearheaded the TVAAS counterpart in that state.

Making the SCORE

Seeking to balance reform with stability, SCORE unveils priorities in annual State of Education report

PHOTO: SCORE
SCORE President David Mansouri kicks off an event in Nashville to unveil the group's annual education report.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education on Tuesday released its annual State of Education report, asking Tennessee leaders to hold steady on reforms such as test-based teacher evaluations, while encouraging more support for educators and innovation in the classroom.

Known as SCORE, the influential education research and advocacy organization was founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist. The group unveiled its top three priorities aimed at sustaining academic gains ushered in since Tennessee began overhauling its K-12 system in 2009 with  higher academic standards.

Underlying all of its priorities is the message that Tennessee needs to give teachers and students stability after years of sweeping changes, while also continually trying out new ideas to improve schools even more.

“Sticking to it … and at the same time being open to creative developments in our public school system, that’s a big task,” SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson said at an event in Nashville in conjunction with the report’s release.

SCORE identified the need to:

  • Accelerate support for Tennessee educators. This includes improving teacher compensation, strengthening teacher preparation, building school leadership pipelines, and maintaining a commitment to its test-based teacher evaluation system as a tool for improving instruction.
  • Drive toward excellence and equity for all students, especially underserved students. This includes expanding access to highly effective and diverse teachers and pushing forward with a new plan for an accountability system serving all students.
  • Stand firm on policies that have led to historic gains while seizing opportunities to advance innovation. SCORE specifically cited innovation opportunities related to professional development and high-quality instructional strategies and materials.

This was SCORE’s eighth annual report on the state of education in Tennessee. Its agenda is significant because the organization works closely with the State Department of Education to set priorities based on input from educators, state lawmakers, researchers and other state leaders.

Woodson, who represented Knoxville as a state senator from 1998 to 2011, said Tennessee public schools were in “a dark place” before it began to raise academic standards. The state regularly performed below nearly every other state on national benchmarks. She credited changes to standards, assessments and teacher evaluations for historic student gains as measured by the National Education Assessment Program, or NAEP.

“Our kids are killing it (now),” she told education stakeholders.

Why is NAEP testing important? One Tennessee leader explains.

While Woodson called for stability on academic standards and assessments, at least one bill has been filed with the Tennessee General Assembly to shake up state testing. Rep. Sheila Butt, a Republican from Columbia, wants to allow local districts to administer tests made by the ACT in lieu of TNReady, the state assessment that was mostly canceled last year due to technical and logistical problems.

Other speakers at the SCORE event included Tosha Downey of the Memphis Education Fund; Lindsay Hagan, an assistant principal at a Chattanooga elementary school; and Joelle Phillips, president of AT&T Tennessee.

The full report can be found here.