Call to action

‘Widget Effect’ report: ‘Meaningless’ teacher evaluations need improvement

picture-1A new report is urging school districts across the country to beef up their methods of evaluating teachers, which the report describes as so slipshod as to be “largely meaningless.” The report, by a nonprofit group that has clashed with teachers unions in the past, describes the poor evaluations as “just one symptom of a larger, more fundamental crisis—the inability of our schools to assess instructional performance accurately or to act on this information in meaningful ways.”

The report is called “The Widget Effect” because accuses districts of treating all teachers alike, regardless of how much they help students learn. It goes on:

This inability not only keeps schools from dismissing consistently poor performers, but also prevents them from recognizing excellence among top-performers or supporting growth among the broad plurality of hardworking teachers who operate in the middle of the performance spectrum. Instead, school districts default to treating all teachers as essentially the same, both in terms of effectiveness and need for development.

The report, conducted by The New Teacher Project, a nonprofit founded by the lightning-rod D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, calls on districts to develop more robust teacher evaluation systems that reward successful teachers and easily identify less successful teachers.

The report comes amid a growing push to improve teaching quality across the country. President Obama has said that teachers who are not helping students learn should be removed from classrooms, and even the national American Federation of Teachers union is working internally to build a new method of evaluating teacher quality.

The report bases its findings on surveys of thousands of teachers and administrators across four states and 12 school districts, plus a scouring of the districts’ evaluation records. New York City was not one of the districts studied.

Many of the districts evaluate teachers based on less than a handful of observations, each of which last under an hour, and in some cases just 15 minutes. Across all districts, almost no teachers are rated unsatisfactory, and virtually none are dismissed for poor performance; in districts that rate teachers either competent or not, the ratio rated unsatisfactory versus satisfactory stands at 1 to 99.

That’s despite teachers’ and principals’ reports, in surveys, that at least one of their tenured colleagues is performing poorly, a statement that 81 percent of administrators and 58 percent of teachers surveyed told The New Teacher Project they agreed with. The percentages of educators reporting that tenured colleagues are not competent rises as a school’s students become more impoverished, as the chart above shows.

In New York City, principals rate teachers as either “unsatisfactory” or “satisfactory” at the end of each school year, based on observations they have conducted during the year. A sense that the system was too perfunctory led the Department of Education to create new teacher data reports last year that look at how teachers affect their students’ test scores. The reports have been criticized for their shaky statistical grounding, and a law lobbied for by the city teachers union prevents principals from using the data reports when making tenure decisions.

The New Teacher Project has been criticized in the past by teachers union president Randi Weingarten, who called its studies of the New York City teacher market biased because TNTP has a contract with the city to help bring new teachers into the public schools. TNTP also is the group behind a report urging the city to save money by terminating teachers who are currently without positions. To write this study, TNTP worked with union leaders and school district leaders in the districts studied, which include Chicago; Toledo, Ohio; Denver, Colo.; and Little Rock, Ark.

In a statement, Weingarten said she embraced the thrust of the new report but noted that it ignores a pioneering method of teacher evaluation, peer assistance and review, that has shown gains where it is being used, most notably in Toledo. “We are excited that TNTP shares our goal of redesigning teacher evaluations, and we look forward to working with TNTP and others to improve the quality of instruction in our schools,” she said.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those 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.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.

Gold standard teachers

Tennessee adds nationally certified teachers but continues to trail in the South

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar/Chalkbeat

Twenty Tennessee educators have earned a national certification that’s considered the profession’s highest mark of achievement, although the state continues to lag in the South in growing that community.

The state Department of Education on Tuesday released the list of new educators designated as National Board Certified Teachers.

Their addition brings Tennessee’s number of NBCT educators to more than 700, with another 63 pursuing certification. By comparison, Kentucky has 3,600, Virginia 3,400, and Georgia 2,600.

“We know that teachers are the biggest factor in the success of our students, and it is an honor to celebrate educators who are helping their students grow, while serving as an example of what it means to be a lifelong learner,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement.

Nationally, 5,470 teachers earned the designation in 2016-17, raising the total to more than 118,000 through the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards. The certification takes from one to three years to complete and includes a performance-based peer-review process. Successful candidates must demonstrate a proven impact on student learning and achievement.

In Tennessee, at least 36 school districts offer at least one type of incentive for achieving the certification. The most common is a salary bonus.

North Carolina continues to lead the nation in certification, with 616 more teachers gaining the endorsement last month from the Arlington, Va.-based organization.

Earning their certification in Tennessee were:

  • John Bourn, Franklin Special School District
  • Christy Brawner, Shelby County Schools
  • James Campbell, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Kimberly Coyle, Sumner County Schools
  • Suzanne Edwards, Williamson County Schools
  • Anastasia Fredericksen, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Theresa Fuller, Kingsport City Schools
  • Amber Hartzler, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Jennifer Helm, Williamson County Schools
  • Deborah Higdon, Franklin Special School District
  • Karen Hummer, Franklin Special School District
  • Heather Meston, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Melissa Miller, Franklin Special School District
  • Kelsey Peace, Sumner County Schools
  • Lindsey Pellegrin, Franklin Special School District
  • Andrea Reeder, Williamson County Schools
  • Jordan Sims, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Susanna Singleton, Williamson County Schools
  • Melissa Stugart, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Drew Wilkerson, Franklin Special School District

To learn more, visit the website of the National Board for Professional Teaching Standards.