Future of Teaching

Union files lawsuit contesting fairness of using test scores to judge elective teachers

PHOTO: G.Tatter
Tennessee Education Association attorney Rick Colbert and president Barbara Gray announce a lawsuit filed Thursday in Nashville over the state's measurement tool for evaluating teacher performance and awarding bonuses.

Theresa Wagner has taught physical education at Nashville’s Gra-Mar Middle School for 11 years. Despite positive performance reviews from supervisors and districtwide awards from Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, Wagner was denied a bonus from the district last school year because of low test scores throughout her school.

The catch? There’s no standardized test for physical education.

At least 25 percent of every teacher’s evaluation score in Tennessee is based on students’ growth on test scores in their school, regardless of whether they teach a subject for which the state administers a test.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), Tennessee’s largest teachers union, filed a lawsuit Thursday against state and district officials in Nashville and Anderson County, stating that the use of test scores to judge teachers of non-tested subjects is a violation of those teachers’ rights.

More than half of Tennessee’s public school teachers — about 50,000 — teach non-tested subjects, according to TEA president Barbara Gray.

This is the third lawsuit contesting the use of the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS), which measures growth in student test scores over a number of years to make decisions about everything from teacher bonuses to school closings. The first two suits, filed last March, contested the methodology of TVAAS – which TEA officials say is imprecise – for teachers whose students are tested. Those cases are pending in federal court in Knox County.

The latest lawsuit was filed in U.S. District Court in Nashville against Gov. Bill Haslam, state Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, members of the State Board of Education, and the school boards of Metropolitan Nashville and Anderson County.

In addition to Wagner, the suit is filed on behalf of Jennifer Braeuner, a visual arts teacher at Norris Middle School in Anderson County, who was denied tenure because of school-wide test scores.

“We need meaningful evaluations of teachers in Tennessee, no question,” TEA lawyer Richard Colbert said during a news conference in Nashville. “This is not a meaningful way to evaluate teachers.”

TEA officials say the use of TVAAS for non-tested subjects violates the 14th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which forbids states from denying “life, liberty or property, without due process of law.” Colbert said the use of TVAAS to deny bonuses, tenures or jobs to teachers such as Wagner and Braeuner amounts to a shirking of due process.

“Depriving someone of those interests on the basis of something they have no control over is arbitrary, and therefore not due process,” he said.

The National Education Association (NEA) has joined the lawsuit. “Students in Tennessee are being shortchanged because of the state’s arbitrary and irrational evaluation system that provides no meaningful feedback on their instruction,” said NEA president Lily Eskelsen García in a news release.

Gray and Colbert said they would prefer teachers be evaluated by pre- and post-tests during the school year, or portfolio-based assessments. They recently visited schools in New York that use portfolios rather than standardized tests and hope Tennessee education officials pilot a similar program.

Officials with the state Education Department and Nashville school district declined to comment on the lawsuit, and the superintendent of Anderson County Schools was not immediately available for comment.

However, McQueen issued a statement emphasizing that Tennessee teachers are receiving more feedback than ever to help improve their classroom instruction and, ultimately, student learning. “The department remains committed to providing meaningful feedback to teachers based, in part, on student growth,” she said.

Gov. Haslam echoed McQueen’s sentiments when asked about the lawsuit at a lunch for the Tennessee Press Association.

“I think what’s really important to me and to a lot of folks — and obviously to our state ultimately — is that we have an evaluation with some accountability to it,” he said. “Ultimately, what I think it will show is that our teachers by and large are doing a great job, and that’s why we’re seeing so much improvement.”

You can read the lawsuit in its entirety here.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

Like us on Facebook.

Sign up for our newsletter for regular updates on Tennessee education news.

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.