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.

Setting boundaries

How a Nashville charter group is changing to keep its teachers for the long haul

PHOTO: RePublic Schools
Courtney Lewis, a fifth-grade teacher at Nashville Prep, says policy changes at RePublic Schools allow her to spend more time with her four daughters.

Two years ago, Courtney Lewis backed out of the application process at Nashville Prep so she could work from home to balance job and family life.

This year, she joined the charter school as a fifth-grade teacher.

Her change of heart timed with a change in policies adopted this year by RePublic Schools, the Nashville-based charter network overseeing Nashville Prep. Challenged to retain talented teachers at its six schools, RePublic leaders are seeking to create a more viable work environment, especially for teachers who are parents.

RePublic Schools is known for high test scores from students — and for being a challenging workplace for teachers, with long hours and rigid expectations for students and teachers alike. But that churn-and-burn strategy isn’t sustainable in recruiting and retaining teachers, says Ravi Gupta, the founder and outgoing CEO of RePublic. As one of his parting acts, RePublic has ditched that approach and adopted family-friendly staffing policies that include shorter school days and a child care spending credit. The goal is to reduce burnout and make family life more feasible.

“Our kids deserve the best teachers and teachers who stick with them for the long run, not people cycling out every two years,” explained RePublic spokesman Lee Pedinoff.

Changes at RePublic reflect a nationwide shift in thinking by leaders of charter schools. Not beholden to benefits and protections negotiated by teachers unions in traditional public schools, they’ve increasingly recognized the need to provide workday boundaries, daycare options and other perks that will attract and keep teachers for the long haul.

That’s likely part of the reason that teacher turnover is dropping in charter schools as the movement comes of age. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the rate decreased more than 5 percentage points to 18.5 percent between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, turnover at traditional schools held steady at about 15.5 percent.

In addition to shortening its school day by more than an hour, RePublic now matches childcare costs up to $5,000, hires associate teachers to fill in for teachers who are sick or have appointments, and designates curriculum designers so teachers are freed up from the chores of gathering resources and building lessons from scratch.

Nashville Prep’s abbreviated school day, which starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m., sealed the deal for Lewis, whose four daughters range in age from 2 to 15. After work, she leaves her campus in time to pick up her youngest daughter at daycare and attend her older daughters’ basketball and volleyball games.

“I have enough time to prepare for my classes and be a pretty hands-on parent,” she said. “We sit down and eat together every night.”

That means time later for doing “homework” together — her daughters work on assignments while Lewis grades papers and plans lessons. Having another team member help with curriculum is key.

“I would not be able to juggle as much as I do without the curriculum assistance and having people I can call and get assistance from pretty immediately,” Lewis said.

The shorter day is an about-face for a charter organization that previously has credited extra instruction time for its academic gains. Now in its sixth year as a charter organization, RePublic leaders have learned how to get results in less time. So they identified areas of inefficiency and shaved off lots of minutes that shortened the school day by more than an hour.

The changes have been in effect for only a few months, but Pedinoff says they’re already producing results at RePublic’s four schools in Nashville and two schools in Jackson, Miss. Though Pedinoff couldn’t provide exact numbers, he estimates that the organization enjoyed a double-digit increase in teacher retention from last school year, when faculty learned of the policy changes. And the cost of some of the new benefits are being offset, he said, by the costs of recruiting and training.

Another payoff is the trust built with parents who see teachers sticking around and building experience in the classroom, as well as teachers who understand the challenges of parenthood.

“I can really say (to parents), ‘I totally understand what you’re going through,’” Lewis said.