teacher prep

Expecting to lose half of its teachers in the next decade, Tennessee seeks to strengthen its pipeline

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sharon Johnson, a teacher-in-training at Relay Graduate School of Education, instructs students at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis.

Within an hour’s drive of Kingsport are seven teacher preparation programs that annually feed hundreds of candidates to the city’s K-12 schools.

And yet, Kingsport City Schools struggles every year to fill openings in its secondary schools.

“We will have … about 250 applicants for about 20 to 25 elementary positions, and we may have one to five applicants for our secondary positions,” says Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of the East Tennessee district.

Therein lies one of the teacher dilemmas facing school districts across Tennessee:  getting the teachers needed for the right grades, as well as for the right subjects.

And with half of the state’s 65,000 teachers expected to leave or retire in the next decade, another challenge is hiring new teachers who are ready for the classroom. Some 40 percent of districts reported in 2015 that their new teachers weren’t prepared.

“We don’t sit here and say that we don’t have enough teachers; we actually do,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “The challenge is we don’t have enough effective teachers in areas we need them.”

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Candice McQueen

McQueen announced plans Wednesday to strengthen Tennessee’s teacher pipeline and unveiled a report to help it get there. The report calls out the subjects with the greatest need for teachers — English as a second language, world languages and science — and highlights the variation of effectiveness across its new teacher workforce.

The commissioner also called on preparation programs and local districts to actively collaborate to achieve shared goals, similar to a partnership launched last year by school districts in Kingsport and Johnson City with East Tennessee State University.

To help with those conversations, the State Department of Education has begun releasing annual reports to Tennessee’s 40 preparation programs to provide data about the employment and effectiveness of their graduates.

McQueen announced a $200,000 state investment in grants to incentivize those programs to design strategies for filling high-demand licensure areas, improving educator preparation around literacy, and developing a diverse educator workforce.

The gaps in teachers for English language learners are generally found in the state’s urban districts, while rural school systems are most in need of world languages teachers.

Tennessee’s challenge with teacher diversity is also notable. Data from 2014 showed 122 districts without a single Hispanic teacher and 27 districts without a single African-American teacher. And training programs are struggling to fill that gap. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

McQueen said the state will invest another $100,000 in grants for targeted districts innovating to hire a more diverse teacher workforce.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, in Nashville Wednesday to help the state kick off of its initiative, said he was glad to see diversity being highlighted.

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor
John King was the nation’s education chief under President Barack Obama.

“Sometimes the issue of teacher diversity is framed as something that matters for students of color, but I actually think it matters immensely for all kids. White students need to see African-American teachers, Latino teachers, African-American principals, Latino principals,” said King, now president and CEO of The Education Trust, which seeks to close opportunity and achievement gaps in education.

King praised Tennessee for generating relevant teacher data, but cautioned that the information will lead to some hard conversations.

“There has to be a willingness on the part of the state and on the part of institutions to even consider closing programs if they chronically are either producing teachers who aren’t effective with students or are producing teachers who can’t find positions,” he said.

Tennessee education leaders took that thinking a step further.

“We need to get comfortable with being authentic with students who maybe do not need to be teachers, or maybe need to teach something else,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“All of those aren’t incredibly fun conversations; they are also incredibly necessary,” he added.

lingering debate

Drop TNReady scores from teacher evaluations, urge Shelby County leaders

PHOTO: The Commercial Appeal
From left: Commissioners Reginald Milton, Van Turner and David Reaves listen during a meeting in Memphis of the Shelby County Board of Commissioners. The governing board this week urged state lawmakers to strip TNReady scores from teacher evaluations.

Just as students have begun taking Tennessee’s new standardized test, Shelby County officials are calling on state leaders to back off of using those scores to evaluate teachers.

The Shelby County Board of Commissioners, the local funding body for Memphis schools, voted unanimously on Monday to urge  the state to use TNReady results as only a “diagnostic” tool. Currently, the board says, state scores are being used as a punitive evaluation of both teachers and students.

The board’s call gets to the heart of a debate that has lingered since a 2010 state law tied standardized test results to teacher evaluations. That was several years before TNReady was introduced last year as a new measuring stick for determining how Tennessee students — and their teachers — are doing.

TNReady testing, which began this week and continues through May 5, has intensified that debate. The new test is aligned to more rigorous academic standards that Tennessee is counting on to improve the state’s national ranking.

But Shelby County’s board is questioning whether reforms initiated under Tennessee’s 2010 First to the Top plan are working.

“While giving off the appearance of a better education, this type of teaching to the test behavior actually limits the amount of quality content in deference to test taking strategies,” the board’s resolution reads.

The board also cites “unintended consequences” to the teaching profession as nearly half of Tennessee’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade.

“Record numbers of quality teachers are leaving the teaching profession and school districts are struggling to recruit and retain quality teachers due to the TN standards imposed in regards to standardized testing,” the resolution reads.

It’s true that school districts statewide struggle to recruit and retain effective teachers in some subject areas. But there’s little evidence to support that incorporating test scores in evaluations is the primary reason teachers are leaving the profession.

It’s also unlikely that Tennessee will back off of its teacher evaluation model, even as some states have recently abandoned the practice. The model is baked into reforms that the state initiated through two gubernatorial administrations to improve both teacher and student performance.

Want education equity? Make sure your teachers feel valued, say lawmakers

PHOTO: Yalonda M. James/The Commercial Appeal
Commissioner David Reaves

Shelby County’s resolution was introduced by Commissioner David Reaves, a former Memphis school board member who says he hears a “continual outcry” from teachers and parents over high-stakes testing.

“Allow the local (school district) to assess and classify teachers and use the test results as a tool, not as a stick,” Reaves told Chalkbeat.

In Tennessee, test scores in some form count for 35 to 50 percent of teachers’ evaluation scores. TNReady scores currently count 10 percent but, as the state settles into its new test, that will gradually increase to 25 percent by 2018-19.

Classroom observations and evaluations did play a factor in retention rates for effective teachers in a 2014 study by the Tennessee Department of Education before the transition to TNReady. Where teachers reported consistent and objective classroom observations, effective teachers were more likely to stay.

State and local teacher surveys also differ on the quality of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system known as TEAM, which mostly relies on classroom observations.

In Shelby County Schools, exit surveys show issues like levels and stability of teacher pay — not test scores in their evaluations — are cited most often by teachers leaving the district.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson told the school board last month that most Shelby County teachers find the state’s evaluation system unfair, but the same majority think their own score is fair.

Another survey by the Tennessee Department of Education suggests that satisfaction with the state’s evaluation system is on the rise as teacher feedback continues to be incorporated.

The Shelby County board, which oversees funding for Tennessee’s largest district, is sending its resolution to Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, and the Tennessee General Assembly. Below is the full text:

Testing conundrum

McQueen wants to prevent non-tested early grades from becoming a dumping ground for weaker teachers

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks during a Brookings Institute panel discussion about pre-K.

The temptation for principals to place their best teachers in grades with high-stakes testing has Education Commissioner Candice McQueen concerned about the quality of teaching in Tennessee’s earliest grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t mandate testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools and entire districts.

McQueen says local administrators are learning the hard way that reassigning lower-performing elementary school teachers to non-tested grades doesn’t help their students get the foundation they need for lifelong learning, a charge backed up by research from Vanderbilt University. 

“They would say … since we’re starting our value-added measure, starting our work around teacher evaluation, starting how we look at districts at third grade, they made some poor decisions about who they were putting in their kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms, and pre-K,” she said Monday during a panel discussion about prekindergarten at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

The fix? Next school year, Tennessee will require its pre-K programs to evaluate teachers using “growth portfolio models,” which are based on samples of student work. The evaluations will help teachers identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and guide professional development. The state already has piloted portfolio models for kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

“All of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers in 97 percent of our districts will be going through a portfolio growth model that will allow us to actually look at effectiveness of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers,” she said.

McQueen isn’t the only Tennessee education leader seeking to address concerns around early education instruction. Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s chief of schools, says pressures around testing have long warped teacher placement priorities in her district.

“I will be very honest and transparent,” Griffin told local school board members earlier this month. “There was once upon a time that when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2. We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up — because three years with an ineffective teacher is hard for you to catch up.”

The new teacher evaluation system is one of many changes around early education that the state is making with the support of researchers at Vanderbilt University. The changes are in response to a 2015 study that found the benefits of the state’s public pre-K program faded by second grade.