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.

Training teachers

Teacher prep conversation already changing under Tennessee’s new ratings

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
New teachers undergo training in 2014 through the Memphis Teacher Residency.

When Candice McQueen was dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville, she struggled to make heads or tails of the state’s complex report card for rating teacher training programs in Tennessee.

“It was not user-friendly,” she recalls. “You would have had to have been a bit of statistician … to understand it.”

Now Tennessee’s commissioner of education, McQueen is praising the State Board of Education’s revamped report card for gauging the quality of Tennessee’s 40 teacher prep programs. The State Board unveiled the new tool on Thursday and convened a panel at the State Capitol to talk about teacher quality — and how the report card can help to improve training programs.


Read Chalkbeat’s report about how Tennessee’s teacher training program rate, according to the new report card.


The redesigned report card rates the state’s teacher prep schools and programs on a 1-to-4 scale based on nine metrics. For the first time, the ratings focus mainly on outcomes for teacher candidates from each institution, like where and what they teach and how effective they are in the classroom.

State leaders hope the user-friendly version will provide a level of transparency and understanding that ultimately will lift the quality of teacher preparation — and teaching — across the state. That’s important because teacher quality is considered a driving factor in helping students succeed.

“I think this is a good tool that’s going to help (providers) dive really deep,” said Jennifer Nelson, associate director of education for the University of Memphis, which scored a 3 on the new report card.

She said she’ll use the report card to improve programming at the Memphis school, which feeds teachers to Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.

Meanwhile, Riley Nolen said he plans to use the report card to help him select a college. He’s now a high school senior in Stewart County and wants to be a teacher.

Susan Bunch, superintendent of Lexington City Schools, said the report card should spark conversations between district leaders and teacher preparation providers about what local schools need teachers to be trained in, and how they can collaborate.

The panel discussion was organized to get feedback on how the new report card can be used and improved.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Educators discuss the quality of Tennessee’s teacher training programs Thursday in Nashville.

Nelson recommended changing how job placement is scored. This year’s report gave points only for students hired at Tennessee public schools, within a year of receiving their licenses. That put non-traditional programs, all of which received a top overall score, at an advantage because that track is a built-in part of programs such as Teach For America and Memphis Teacher Residency. But it’s a weakness, she said, for institutions like the University of Memphis, where many candidates go to teach in Arkansas or other neighboring states, or at private schools.

The job placement metric especially hurt Vanderbilt University, which had high marks across the board but was knocked down to a 3 because few of its multi-state and international students stay in Tennessee to teach. Of the teachers who did accept jobs at Tennessee public schools, Vanderbilt had a higher retention rate than non-traditional programs that received 4s, but not enough to compensate for receiving zero points on job placement.

The University of Memphis was kept from a top overall score by the low number of candidates who posted a high growth score on their teacher evaluations.

Nelson said the report card already is starting important conversations at the Memphis school, especially around racial diversity, another metric on the new report. In the 2013-14 and 14-15 school years, the university granted licenses to more than 150 teachers to work in Shelby County Schools, whose student population is only 7 percent white. That’s nearly the opposite of the university’s teaching candidates, 70 percent of whom are white.

“Our teacher candidate population should better represent our pre-K-through-12 population,” Nelson said. “We need to be talking to (the local district) about how we can recruit their high school students.”

Panelists praised the new scoring tool for identifying values, including diversity, for teacher training programs. “We’re making a statement in terms of what we care about,” said David Mansouri, a director at the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based think tank.

McQueen said the report card signals a recognition that the challenges facing public schools go far beyond the schools themselves. She also offered encouragement for teacher training programs that are disappointed in their new ratings.

“Whatever your data looks like, it will improve,” she said. “The first step to improvement is honest conversation.”

The full report card can be found here.

Teacher quality

Here’s where Tennessee’s best teachers are trained, according to new state report card

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Teach For America corps members participate in a leadership summit in 2015 in Memphis.

Nearly all of Tennessee’s top-performing teacher training programs are in the Memphis and Nashville areas, and about half aren’t based at a university, according to a new state report.

Using a new grading system, the State Board of Education issued its 2016 report card Thursday on Tennessee’s 40 preparation programs. These schools or programs received top marks:

  • Cumberland University, Lebanon
  • Lipscomb University, Nashville
  • Memphis Teacher Residency
  • Teach For America-Memphis
  • Teach For America-Nashville
  • The New Teacher Project/Nashville Teaching Fellows
  • Union University, Jackson

The ratings give legitimacy to Tennessee’s growing crop of non-traditional training programs and also are good news for its two largest school systems. Six of the seven programs place more graduates in Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools than any other district. 

Missing from the top tier are the state’s two largest programs — at Tennessee Technological University and Middle Tennessee State University. Both received a score of 2 on a scale of 1 to 4. Other large programs scoring a 3 are the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Vanderbilt University, and Austin Peay State.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, putting a national spotlight on programs that train the educators who go on to lead K-12 classrooms. The issue also has moved to the front burner in Tennessee, where a recent report said most of the state’s programs aren’t equipping new teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms.

The rebooted report card, produced in conjunction with the State Department of Education and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, is designed to provide a clearer picture of the quality of training programs for stakeholders that range from aspiring teachers to the school principals who hire them.

“Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the nation for student achievement. But to hold this trajectory, we must continue to ensure high expectations for students, schools and teachers, including how we train and prepare our newest teachers,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the State Board’s executive director. “This (report card) offers important, user-friendly information about how we are preparing students for classroom success.”

It’s the first time the state has evaluated its teacher prep programs primarily on outcomes — for instance, if teacher candidates were hired in Tennessee public schools, and the evaluation scores they received as classroom teachers.

The programs also were graded based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education. The first metric reflects increasing consensus among educators and researchers about the importance of having a teacher force that represents the student population they are serving.

Of the state’s 10 largest providers, only Lipscomb and Union received a 4. Other prominent programs didn’t fare so well.

Tennessee Tech, the state’s biggest program with 756 completers for the 2013-14 and 14-15 school year, scored relatively low marks across all categories.  

Middle Tennessee State, the state’s second-largest provider, received high marks for the percentages of teachers placed in Tennessee public schools and high teacher retention rates. However, it scored low on the candidate profile part of the report card, which included racial diversity and the percentage of completers who received high-demand endorsements.

The University of Memphis, which granted 571 teaching licenses in the 2013-14 and 14-15 school years, fell short of an overall 4 because of its graduates’ teacher evaluation scores.

Some well-regarded programs missed the cut, even though they scored well when it came to producing effective teachers. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville received a 3 in part because of a lack of diversity. Vanderbilt, which has an internationally renowned education program missed the top score because of its low score for in-state job placement. Many of the private university’s graduates go on to teach in other states.

“I think it shows how difficult it is to get a complex picture into a single measure,” said Vanderbilt education professor Barb Stengel of her school’s score. “But I trust (the State Board) to finetune it.”

Stengel noted that part of Vanderbilt’s mission as a private research university is to attract minds from across the globe. That doesn’t mean its graduates aren’t effective, she said, or that people who don’t want to teach in Tennessee shouldn’t consider the program.

One of the nation’s most contentious education debates is whether teachers should be trained in university settings, or in programs like Teach For America, which place teachers with little training directly into classrooms.

But the divide between “traditional” and “alternative” programs is hardly cut-and-dry. In the case of three of the non-traditional programs receiving top marks — both chapters of Teach For America and the Memphis Teacher Residency — teacher candidates take classes at universities. And Memphis Teacher Residency requires candidates to spend a year student-teaching while taking education classes before they lead their own classrooms.

To address some of those nuances, the new report card includes information like how long candidates spend in the classroom before gaining their license, although that wasn’t part of the overall scores.

The report card is not tied to State Board decisions about accreditation renewal for training programs. Providers receive separate reports tied to those decisions, though the data is similar, according to Heyburn Morrison. “More than anything, we want (the report card) to be a tool for continuous improvement and starting important conversations,” she said.

Those conversations already have started, according to Eric Cummings, dean of Cumberland University’s School of Education. He and his faculty are looking for ways to increase diversity and the number of candidates who go into math and science, subjects for which there’s a shortage.

“I think that’ s a great challenge,” Cummings said. “They can use the data to evaluate how effective we are, and we can use the data to improve our programs.”

The full report card can be found here.