Future of Schools

Teach For America contract in Memphis area approved, despite concerns

Shelby County’s merged school board voted 5-2 to keep its contract with Teach For America at last night’s board meeting, despite concerns about the program’s recruitment fee.

The district will pay $1.9 million to Teach For America, or TFA, over the next two years to place a cohort of up to 125 teachers. That represents a $5,000 per teacher, per year fee to the organization, which goes to TFA, not to individual teachers recruited.

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II introduced the vote by saying that he was concerned about TFA teachers’ retention. He said that 21 percent of TFA teachers remain in the district after their second year, as compared to 71 percent of teachers recruited directly by the district. 

He told board members he still recommended voting for the contract because it is funded by the Gates Foundation, which gave the district a $90 million grant to support teacher effectiveness initiatives in the district, and because national studies suggest that TFA teachers are effective.

What makes me comfortable with the gap [in retention between TFA and regularly-recruited teachers] is that it’s being funded by Gates,” Hopson said. 

Board member David Pickler criticized that logic. “Is it your understanding that we’re required to have this under Gates?” Pickler asked. “If we’re not required, and the only reason you’re comfortable is because it’s funded by Gates…the mere fact that its paid for doesn’t mean that’s the highest and best use of funds.”

Pickler raised concerns about the financial sustainability of the program. “If, in fact, we’re bringing teachers in here for only two years, we’re in a situation where, when the Gates money is gone, we’re dealing with teachers that have to be replaced over and above normal recruiting,”

Board member David Reaves said that he did not question that alternate certification programs, which grant teaching licenses to teachers who have not completed traditional education programs, have value, “but when you go to an outsource model, you have two years, invest a lot, then there’s a brain drain.”

Pickler and Reaves also questioned the performance of TFA teachers in the district.

Hopson said that he had not specifically run data on the performance of TFA teachers in the Shelby County school system. District officials referred board members to a recent report from the Tennessee Higher Education Commission suggesting that TFA teachers in the state help improve students’ test scores.

Laura Link, the district’s assistant superintendent of teaching, learning, and professional development, said that the district did not receive enough certified applicants to fill spots in high-needs subjects. In math, she said, the district had 81 vacancies and 20 certified applicants. In middle school, there were 160 vacancies and 75 certified candidates in the pool. 

Board members raised the question of using pay to incentivize teachers to teach in high-needs schools. Board member Reaves asked if the district had tried using that $5,000 recruiting fee to offer signing bonuses to teachers. He was informed that the district had not.

He then asked if candidates to teach in the district’s Innovation Zone, a group of 13 low-performing schools that receive extra funds and certain school-level autonomies in an effort to help improve the schools, receive a financial incentive to teach in those schools. Bradley Leon, the district’s chief innovation officer, said that they do, though teachers might have varied motivations for working in those schools.

Superintendent Hopson said, “We will be asking the board to allow us to pay incentives to teach in places that are low-performing.” But he said that some teachers had informed him that “you couldn’t pay us enough to go” to some low-performing schools, due to safety concerns and working conditions.

Board members Teresa Jones said that focusing on teacher retention and satisfaction should be a priority. Five teachers in the Shelby County school system spoke earlier in the meeting about their dissatisfaction with several aspects of their working conditions, including a lack of raises, lack of pay for advanced education, and a feeling that their voices are not heard by policymakers.

“Are we making this is an attractive district over and above salary?” Jones asked. “If you address some of these complaints, retention won’t be an issue.”

Hopson said, “I have to say, if effective talent is leaving the district at a 70-something percent rate, we have to look at strategies we can use to retain talent.” 

The board approved Teach For America’s contract, with Reaves and Pickler voting against. Pickler raised similar concerns about TFA’s contract at a meeting last week.


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.

Story booth

With no art teacher, students at this Detroit school say their talents go unnurtured


When the eighth-grade students at Paul Robeson Malcolm X Academy on Detroit’s west side talk about things their school needs, they point to a classmate named Casey.

“He’s a great artist,” one student said. “He can look at a picture and draw it in like five minutes and it will look exactly the same.”

If Casey attended school in the suburbs, his friends believe, he and other talented students would have an art class where they could nurture their skills.

“They don’t have the time to put in the work with their talent because we don’t have those extra-curricular activities,” another classmate said.

The students at the K-8 school have no art, music or gym teachers — a common problem in a district where resources are thin and where a teacher shortage has made it difficult for schools like this one to find teachers for many subjects, including the arts.

While the Detroit district has committed to expanding arts programs next year, it would need to find enough teachers to fill those positions.

“People out there think we’re not smart and they always criticize us about what we do,” Casey said. “We can always show them how smart we are,” he said, but that requires “getting the type of programming that we’re supposed to.”

Chalkbeat spoke with students at the school as part of a “story booth” series that invites students, teachers and parents to discuss their experiences in Detroit schools.

Watch the full video of the Paul Robeson/Malcolm X students below and please tell us if you know someone who would like their story featured in a future story booth.