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.

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.