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.

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.