gates keeper

Support wanes for teacher ratings based on Common Core tests

New York is finding itself increasingly isolated in its effort to continue using tests tied to Common Core standards for teacher evaluations.

On Tuesday, a senior executive with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation said the organization agrees that test scores shouldn’t be used for “high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years”—adding a significant dose of national criticism to the growing scrutiny of New York’s teacher evaluation plans. Though the state isn’t mentioned by name, the message applies directly to New York, which has simultaneously rolled out new Common Core-aligned state tests and a new teacher evaluation system.

For more than a year, Education Commissioner John King has rebuffed calls to lower the stakes for teachers as the state adopted the new, tougher standards. New York’s fast pace stands in contrast to that of other states, including Kentucky, Colorado, Louisiana and Maryland, whose deliberation is specifically praised in the letter by Vicki Phillips, the director of the foundation’s College Ready initiative.

“Each of these states is taking a different approach, but they all are listening to teachers, and they are all taking steps to align their approach with what teachers need to make the standards succeed,” Phillips wrote.

Phillips represents a powerful voice in national education policy debate, and one that typically backs King’s aggressive agenda. Through its research and advocacy, the Gates Foundation has poured millions of dollars into a nationwide effort to encourage states to overhaul their evaluation laws and develop new systems that factor in student test data.

The Gates Foundation isn’t alone in its decision to temporarily back away from using Common Core-aligned tests to rate teachers. Gov. Andrew Cuomo has in recent weeks acknowledged the concerns long raised by teachers tasked with implementing the standards.

Teachers unions say schools haven’t been prepared to teach to the new standards that are reflected in the tests, which require more critical thinking and a deeper understanding of numeric operations. And the state not released Common Core curriculum as often as districts had expected, adding to the challenges.

“Flawed Common Core implementation has severely damaged confidence in the accuracy of evaluations,” Cuomo said last month, according to Newsday. “I believe we must work diligently to remedy that situation with a legislative solution this session.”

Phillips echoed those concerns in her letter.

“No evaluation system will work unless teachers believe it is fair and reliable, and it’s very hard to be fair in a time of transition,” Phillips wrote.

The added pressure makes changes to the state’s teacher evaluation law increasingly likely. But the legislative session ends in a week—and it’s unclear if there is enough political will in the State Senate to tackle teacher evaluations in such a short period of time.

New York has already taken a number of steps to delay the impacts of new standards and tests. For instance, test scores can’t be included on student transcripts or used by schools as primary factors when it comes to admissions or grade promotion decisions.

Teachers argue that they should get the same kind of protection that students get.

“If the tests shouldn’t be used to penalize kids — and they shouldn’t be — it’s only fair to extend that to teacher,” said Karen McGee, president of the New York State United Teachers, which today launched a $200,000 advertising blitz to make that argument to lawmakers.

In response, state education officials have emphasized that state tests still count for less than half of a teacher’s evaluation. And King said that few teachers, if any, will be negatively impacted by evaluations until 2015, more than five years after the state adopted the Common Core standards and passed the teacher evaluation law.

“I think we struck the right balance in the law we developed in 2010,” King said in an interview last month.

Board of Regents Chancellor Merryl Tisch warned that changing the law to reduce the role that testing plays in a teacher’s evaluation could cost the state money. New York received nearly $700 million in federal funding to change its teacher evaluation law in 2010.

“I have not heard anything that indicates to me that the state of New York is willing to walk away from that federal grant,” Tisch said last month.

But there is little evidence that the state would be risking that money if it does opt not to use Common Core tests on evaluations. Last year, Education Secretary Arne Duncan told some states that they could wait until 2016 to evaluate teachers using Common Core-aligned state tests.

The bigger question is how student performance would be factored into teacher evaluations for the next two years if Common Core state tests can’t count. The law currently requires 40 percent of a teacher’s evaluation be based on student learning measures and if state tests can’t count, officials will have to come up with a different measure to take their place.

A spokesman for NYSUT said that piece of legislation was still under discussion.

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.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede