Future of Teaching

Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system improving, state report says

PHOTO: Vanderbilt University
A new study suggests that standards used nationwide to evaluate teacher preparation programs need an upgrade.

Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system is more accurate than ever in measuring teacher quality, according to a report released Thursday by the state Department of Education.

“Now three years into our evaluation system, we see clear indications that the system itself is improving rapidly through the dedicated work of educators across the state,” the 36-page report concludes. “Most importantly, we see significant signs that students are learning more, and that Tennessee is making progress to move itself into the top half of national performance and provide the education that our students and their families expect and deserve.”

The evaluation system was a keystone of the state’s sweeping 2010 education reforms that helped secure a $500 million federal grant called First to the Top. The state substantially altered its teacher evaluations by requiring them annually instead of every five years, as well as relying more on student test scores.

The state’s report, based primarily on the 2013-14 school year, is the third on the new evaluation system since its implementation in 2011-12. The evaluation process has been tweaked every year since its launch based on teacher feedback.

Among the findings, state education leaders are touting the higher correlation between a teacher’s value-added score (TVAAS), which estimates how much teachers contribute to students’ growth on statewide assessments, and observation scores conducted primarily by administrators. Value-added scores and observation scores still don’t always match up — meaning some teachers have low value-added scores and high observation scores, and vice versa — but Assistant Education Commissioner Paul Fleming said that’s natural.

“The goal is not perfect alignment,” Fleming said Wednesday as the state prepared to release its report.

Because good teachers sometimes have low value-added scores, those scores count for only a fraction of a teacher’s overall evaluation score, he said.

Still, misalignment between observation scores and value-added data has been a priority for the state Education Department. During the 2013-14 school year, schools that had the most instances of a teacher who performed poorly according to value-added data, but well or moderately well in observations, had the option of using a state coach to help them refine their observation practices and narrow the gap between observation scores and value-added scores. (A recent study by Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development shows that principals rely on observation data far more than on value-added data.)

Assistant State Education Commissioner Paul Fleming
PHOTO: G.Tatter
Assistant Education Commissioner Paul Fleming

“What’s powerful, these team coaches, because they have been former teachers and principals themselves in these districts, have had significant results . . . in helping schools not just feel better, but give more accurate and helpful feedback to teachers, ” Fleming said.

The department also saw an uptick in the number of teachers for non-tested subjects using portfolios, rather than school-wide test scores, as part of their observations. For most Tennessee teachers, student test scores count for at least 25 percent of their evaluations, even if they teach non-tested subjects. But in 2013-2014, 11 districts — up from only three districts the year before — used one of three portfolio models in which teachers show student growth by submitting student work, instead of grading non-tested teachers based on the test scores of their co-workers. The state has approved portfolio models for teachers of world languages, fine arts and physical education.

Although the report says teachers who use portfolios have “expressed great appreciation for a model that treats them as content experts and allows them to be judged based on the merits of work that happens in their own classrooms,” Fleming said few districts have used portfolios because they are not understood well and are more time-consuming, especially for smaller districts.

“We’re trying to make sure districts have as much information as possible to take that route if they choose to,” Fleming said.

Department officials aim to expand the portfolio model and lessen reliance on school-wide test scores. In 2013-2014, 48 percent of Tennessee teachers were evaluated in part by individual growth measures, which include either value-added data or portfolios. That number could increase to 70 percent, according to department estimates. “Individual growth measures allow districts, schools and teachers to better identify how teachers are performing in every subject area, so that they can receive the support and recognition they need,” the report says.

The use of test scores for teachers of non-tested subjects has drawn the ire of the Tennessee Education Association, as well as some legislators.

Data for the report was collected through the Tennessee Teaching, Empowering, Leading and Learning (TELL) survey of 61,000 teachers and the Tennessee Consortium of Research, Evaluation, and Development survey of about 25,000 teachers, as well as in-person interviews with more than 3,000 educators.

Contact Grace Tatter at gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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survey says

We asked Indiana teachers why they’re leaving the classroom: ‘Death by a thousand cuts’

PHOTO: Getty Images

In her first classroom at Indianapolis Public School 79 in 1977, art teacher Teresa Kendall had five whole potter’s wheels to herself. Plus clay. And a kiln.

She was under orders from her principal, she remembers, to make sure her students “have all the art they can have.”

Nearly 39 years, five layoffs, and four school districts later, she returned to Indianapolis Public Schools, where she was told there were just a handful of potter’s wheels in the entire district. She managed to get her hands on one, rescuing it from an unused classroom at Arlington High School.

Chalkbeat asks Indiana teachers: Why did you leave the classroom?

“It’s a huge difference,” Kendall said, comparing her situation to other schools she’s seen. “It just puts a knot in my stomach when I think about it … I think about what my kids at [School] 105 have to do without.”

Kendall said she spent hundreds of dollars on supplies, and she was overwhelmed by having to configure her 28-seat classroom to accommodate 62 students. At the end of last year, she decided to leave teaching altogether.

“It was the most solid community school I’ve ever been in, in all of my career,” Kendall said. “I miss it tremendously. But I couldn’t stay there.”

Carrie Black, an Indianapolis Public Schools spokeswoman, said classes might have been large at one point when the district was working to hire a substitute for a teacher on family leave, but the principal at School 105 said there were enough tables and chairs for the whole class. The principal also said teachers were told they could be reimbursed for supplies.

“Under no circumstances was she required to supply her art room in any way, shape, or form,” Black said. “So if she did, those were decisions she made on her own.”

More than 60 former Indiana teachers responded to a Chalkbeat survey about why they decided to leave teaching, a problem that policymakers and state lawmakers have said is part of the reason behind this year’s efforts to raise teacher salaries — which some educators and advocates say don’t go nearly far enough. Across the country, teachers have gone on strike and protested to demand better pay and working conditions, stirring up national conversation about the challenges they face.

Kendall, who has two master’s degrees, made $48,000 when she left IPS. The most she’d made, she said, was close to $62,000 when she taught in Lebanon. Now, she’s a paralegal.

The former teachers, from schools all over the state, reported a wide range of salaries over the years — from as low as $26,000 to more than $66,000. Now out of the classroom, they have found jobs as nurses, bus drivers, engineers, insurance agents, and seasonal park rangers. Some are unemployed, stay-at-home-parents, or graduate students.

While many former teachers said low pay or stagnant salaries contributed to their decisions to find other careers, more cited increasing responsibilities for reporting and testing, dwindling support and coaching from administrators, and “punitive” teacher evaluations.

Here is a selection of their reasons for leaving, lightly edited for clarity and length.

Too little pay

  • I had a third child and my entire paycheck was going toward insurance and childcare. I couldn’t afford to work.
  • State laws were being introduced that would make it next to impossible to ever increase my salary, or even to bargain to try to keep pace with the cost of living.
  • I was 20 years into teaching and felt undervalued, overworked, and underpaid for my education, training, and role as a teacher. I had reached the top of the pay scale and there was not room to advance. I didn’t want to become an administrator. Our insurance was steadily rising and with no pay raises, we were making less than what I had started with 20 years ago. My wife and I were both teachers and we both had to take part-time jobs to help pay the bills.
  • The level of stress, the constant demand on more and more of my time and energy with no compensation, and the low wages! Also the constant micromanaging!
  • In my 12th year I was making less than I did in year one. Health insurance was too costly, parents were overbearing, and the amount of accommodations needed for students was out of hand.

Too much testing, politics, and red tape

  • I couldn’t take any more of the state legislature’s disrespect of teachers. The loss of school funding, punitive evaluation methods, and absolute lack of willingness to truly listen to educators about our needs and what goes on in a classroom made me realize it wasn’t worth it anymore.
  • The constant change in state testing.
  • I had had it with ISTEP and school accountability practices demanding measurable outcomes and driving learning away from what we all know are best practices.
  • There was constant assessing without allowing kids to be kids and grow socially and mentally. Spent more hours assessing than teaching.
  • The time required to be spent on more red tape and paperwork instead of just doing what I knew was best for kids was too much.
  • I was working 10-12-hour days just to get state-mandated paperwork done AND papers graded. I loved my kids, I loved my school, I loved my principals, but I hated meetings every morning to appease legislators who are clueless, and I hated having to prove what a great teacher I was.
  • The time the job required meant my son and I were at school until 8 or 9 every night. All that time and dedication with no guarantee of a job? No thanks.
  • Teachers were treated as if we were entry level employees who could not make any decisions for themselves.
  • My afternoon classes had 39, 38, and 40 students. The Rise rubric [for teacher evaluations] made everyone feel like they were failures before even being evaluated.
  • I was dealing with burnout, and I was tired of working as many hours as I did and being as undervalued as I was. It felt like I constantly had administrators, parents and community members telling me what was wrong with how I did things.
  • I was expected to assign at least 10 math problems to every student every night. Since I had about 100 students, that’s about 1,000 math problems every night. Bottom line, time with my family is more important.
  • I felt overwhelmed by what the legislators were inflicting on us, the lack of true support from administrators, and just the stress that is teaching even in the best of times. Most of all — I was exhausted, I guess. Death by a thousand cuts, more or less.


Aurora school board reverses course, accepts finding that district should have negotiated bonuses with union

Students in a math class at Aurora Central High School in April 2017. (Photo by Yesenia Robles, Chalkbeat)

Following weeks of criticism, the Aurora school board on Tuesday reversed course and accepted an arbitrator’s finding that a pilot bonus system violated the district’s agreement with the teachers union.

The Aurora school district rolled out an experiment last year to offer bonuses to some teachers and other staff in hard-to-fill positions, such as psychologists, nurses and speech language pathologists.

The teachers union argued that the plan should have been negotiated first. An arbitrator agreed and issued a report recommending that the pilot program stop immediately and that the district negotiate any future offerings. The union and school board are set to start negotiations next month about how to change teacher pay, using new money voters approved in November.

When school board members first considered the arbitrator’s report last month, they declined to accept the findings, which were not binding. That raised concerns for union members that the district might implement bonuses again without first negotiating them.

Tuesday’s new resolution, approved on a 5-1 vote, accepted the full arbitrator’s report and its recommendations. Board member Monica Colbert voted against the motion, and board member Kevin Cox was absent.

Back in January 2018, school board members approved a budget amendment that included $1.8 million to create the pilot for incentivizing hard-to-fill positions. On Tuesday, board member Cathy Wildman said she thought through the budget vote, the school board may have allowed the district to create that incentive program, even though the board now accepts the finding that they should have worked with union before trying this experiment.

“It was a board decision at that time to spend that amount on hard-to-fill positions,” Wildman said.

Board president Marques Ivey said he was not initially convinced by the arbitrator’s position, but said that he later read more and felt he could change his vote based on having more information.

Last month, the Aurora school board discussed the report with its attorney in a closed-door executive session. When the board met in public afterward, it chose not to uphold the entire report, saying that the board could not “come to an agreement.” Instead board members voted on a resolution that asked the school district to negotiate any future “long-term” incentive programs.

Union president Bruce Wilcox called the resolution “poorly worded” and slammed the board for not having the discussion in public, calling it a “backroom deal.” Several other teachers also spoke to the board earlier this month, reminding the newest board members’ of their campaign promises to increase transparency.

Board members responded by saying that they did not hold an official vote; rather the board was only deciding how to proceed in public. Colorado law prohibits schools boards from taking positions, or votes, in private.

The board on Tuesday also pushed the district to provide more detailed information about the results of the pilot and survey results that tried to quantify how it affected teachers deciding to work in Aurora.