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.

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.

survey says

Memphis wants to become ‘Teacher Town,’ especially to feed its ‘priority schools.’ Here’s the latest feedback from teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Tanya Hill, a Teach Plus fellow and ESL teacher, encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School in Memphis.

Memphis has invested millions of dollars in recent years to overhaul its system for recruiting, developing and retaining talent for its schools and classrooms, especially for its lowest-performing schools.

The newest survey of educators in those schools offers insights into what’s working, what’s not, and where the city’s new teacher hires are coming from.

Released Thursday, the fourth annual survey was conducted last summer by Teach901, a local initiative that recruits teachers to Memphis. The results are based on feedback from more than 900 teachers across 45 local and state-run “priority schools,” which are those with test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide. The survey was conducted for the first time with help from researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Here are major takeaways:

1. Most new hires for priority schools were local, experienced teachers who reported being a new hire at their current school.

Some 63 percent fell into that category, while 25 percent indicated that they were first-year teachers and 12 percent reported being experienced teachers who relocated.

2. Of those who moved to Memphis, most tended to be millennials relocating from nearby states. 

Fewer teachers reported that they relocated this year than last. However, mirroring the previous year’s survey results, relocators were far more likely to be millennials moving from a city or state within driving distance.

For more on last year’s results, view our article here.

Mississippi was again the most popular state for transplants, with 28 percent of teachers arriving from Memphis’ neighbor to the south. Georgia was next, followed by other cities in Tennessee and also California.

Teachers who recently moved were most likely to rate Memphis as an “above average” or “excellent” place to live, compared to Memphis natives or teachers who hadn’t moved recently. Still, only 45 percent of recent relocators gave Memphis that distinction.

3. School leadership continues to be a major factor in teacher recruitment and retention.

The quality of a school’s leadership was the second most cited reason for why teachers initially chose to work at a Memphis school, as well as a major reason why some left.

That finding aligns with local and philanthropic efforts in recent years to better equip principals to change the culture in their schools around teaching, including the addition of teacher leaders and coaches.

New recruits also cite as a draw the opportunity to work with high-need students, as well as the chance to improve teaching skills.

Beyond school leadership, other reasons for leaving a school include a lack of opportunities to advance and a desire to take other career steps.

Salary also emerged as a major factor in attracting teachers to certain schools, as well as pushing them away from the profession.

4. New teachers are coming from local preparation programs, and they really like Memphis Teacher Residency.

Among survey participants, 46 percent said they had been trained by a preparation program in Tennessee, with the majority having received their training locally.

Memphis Teacher Residency had the highest “effectiveness” rating among large preparation programs for the fourth year in a row. When asked whether they agreed with the statement, “My teacher preparation program prepared me for my current teaching position,” nearly 96 percent of MTR-trained teachers “agreed” or “strongly agreed,” significantly outpacing all of the other large programs, according to the survey.

MTR, a Christian-based nonprofit organization, differs from other non-university teacher training programs because residents spend their first year paired four days a week with an experienced Shelby County Schools teacher while attending classes Fridays and Saturdays at Union University.