Teacher quality

Growing need for stronger teachers in needier classrooms gets look from Tennessee lawmakers

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

Tennessee kids most in need of good teaching are often missing out — a growing concern that’s getting the attention of state lawmakers as officials try to come up with a plan.

According to state data, the state’s low-performing students are disproportionately matched with low-performing teachers, even as they have more to gain from a high-performing teacher than do their more academically successful peers, who are often more affluent.

On Thursday, state officials brainstormed together about how to address the challenge. Increasing teacher pay, improving teacher preparation programs, and providing ongoing teacher improvement supports were among ideas raised during a summer study session convened by state lawmakers serving on House education committees.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a retired Memphis educator, said the legislature should step up its game to support teachers and address the disparities gap.

“If I’m getting enough money, I can stand a difficult job,” said Turner, citing a need for pay increases to attract and retain good teachers. “Teachers are not paid commensurate with their profession.”

When Turner started her career decades ago, public education was one of the highest-paying career opportunities for women. That’s no longer the case. A recent report shows that Tennessee teachers are paid 30 percent less than workers in other similarly educated careers.

The state defines highly effective teachers as those scoring 4 or 5 on TVAAS in English or math, meaning that their students showed more growth than expected on end-of-year tests.

Sylvia Flowers, talent chief for the Department of Education, presents data to state lawmakers about placement of effective teachers.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Sylvia Flowers, talent chief for the Department of Education, presents data to state lawmakers about placement of effective teachers.

“How do we ensure that the students who are furthest behind have access to those highly effective teachers?” asked Sylvia Flowers, executive director of talent for the State Department of Education. “We know those students who are furthest behind need to get more than a year’s growth in order to catch up to their peers.”

Two-thirds of Tennessee students who were assigned to effective teachers after making the worst possible scores on their end-of-year math tests made faster gains toward grade-level scoring than their peers assigned to low-performing teachers. Correspondingly, more than two-thirds of students without access to an effective teacher fell even further behind, according to state data.

Flowers said effective teachers are able to retain their high TVAAS ratings even when they move from high-performing schools, where students are usually wealthier, to low-performing schools, where they tend to live in poverty. Poverty is one of the most intractable barriers to achievement.

The Department of Education is working to help existing teachers grow in their effectiveness through programs such as the instructional partnership initiative and teacher leader network. State officials also are prioritizing their work with teacher preparation programs in an effort to increase the quality of new teachers.

Flowers said much of the work around teacher equity falls to districts and schools. Local administrators use the state’s data to make decisions about which students are assigned to the best teachers. Districts received teacher disparity reports in March and will receive updated data this fall.

Evaluating Evaluations

Tennessee teachers are warming to evaluations as a tool to improve their work, survey says

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A Memphis teacher engages with his students at Cherokee Elementary School.

When Tennessee launched a massive overhaul of its education system in 2011, the biggest outcry came from educators upset about the new process for evaluating their work.

Most questioned the fairness and accuracy of capturing good teaching on a scale of 1 to 5. Others called the process burdensome and bewildering. Making student test score data a lynchpin of the change prompted even more concern.

But after six years of rating teachers and refining its process, Tennessee is getting a warmer response from educators about their teacher evaluations.

The state’s latest educator survey, released on Wednesday, shows that 74 percent of teachers found evaluations helpful last year in improving their teaching, almost double from 2012. First-year teachers were especially positive, with 85 percent giving the process good marks.

The results are encouraging for state, district and school leaders who have sought to make the evaluation process a tool to promote better teaching, rather than just a personnel-related checklist for both principals and teachers.

“This shows a huge positive shift in teachers’ perception of the evaluation system and its impact,” said Jason Grissom, an associate professor at Vanderbilt University who helped design the survey and collect the data.

“Educators are viewing evaluations as less about judgment of their performance and more about identifying the areas where they can improve. And schools are figuring out how to provide targeted support and professional learning opportunities.”

Still, a fourth of the state’s teachers say the evaluation isn’t helping them improve — and that’s not just from educators who received low scores.

Teachers who found the evaluation most useful also reported receiving specific feedback from administrators, along with classroom materials, access to staff expertise, and adequate time to collaborate and prepare.

The race to transform teaching

Spurred by a half-billion-dollar influx of funding through the federal Race to the Top competition, Tennessee has been a national leader in transforming its teacher evaluations. Its system combines student growth from test scores, classroom observations by administrators and, for teachers in non-tested grades and subjects, school- and district-wide measurements of growth on other kinds of assessments and student work.

And as state tests — and new evaluation systems that rely on them — have faced pushback across the country, Tennessee has mostly stuck with its strategy. (The state did temporarily reduce the weight of test scores in the transition to a new standardized test.)

But the road to the new, tougher evaluation model has been bumpy.

Critics blame the process, especially the student achievement component, for an exodus of teachers from the profession. Teachers complained that feedback from classroom observations was initially fuzzy, and its misalignment with student growth results has led to ongoing changes in training and coaching for evaluators.

“Teachers have never been opposed to being evaluated. They just want a system that accurately identifies the areas in which they are excelling and the areas where they could improve,” said Barbara Gray, president of the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher union.

Leaders of the Professional Educators of Tennessee say there’s still lots of room for improvement.

“We hear from our members that evaluators are better trained today and provide better feedback,” the group said in a statement. “We must continually look at the element of support provided by districts to teachers.”

Lagging professional development opportunities are a key shortcoming identified in the educator survey. A third of teachers report not receiving any feedback on their classroom evaluations, and half of the state’s teachers reported that they take part in training once a month that’s a waste of time. They say it’s usually prescribed by their school or district.

That statistic troubles Grissom.

“Part of the purpose of evaluations is to create growth opportunities,” he said. “Professional learning is the big lever that schools and districts can pull to move the needle on instruction.”

A statewide snapshot

Conducted last spring, the survey is Tennessee’s most comprehensive tool for gathering feedback from its educators.

Responses were up by more than 5,000 educators this year, representing 56 percent of the state’s teachers and 60 percent of its administrators. District and school-level data is available if their response rate was 45 percent or more.

You can find the state’s report about the survey here.

teacher campaign

Wanted: Millennials to teach in Tennessee

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
A teacher-in-training at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis.

An influential education advocacy group has launched a statewide campaign to inspire millennials to teach in Tennessee.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, known as SCORE, kicked off its campaign Monday to recruit young people to high-needs schools in both rural and urban districts.

Dubbed “Teach Today. Change Tomorrow,” the effort includes a website and advertisements through Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and the radio.

The campaign gives special attention to the need for educators in science, technology, engineering and math, as well as recruiting a more diverse teaching force. While students of color make up 35 percent of Tennessee’s public school population, just 15 percent of its teachers identify as people of color — a concern both for SCORE and the State Department of Education, which works closely with the advocacy group.

About half of the state’s 65,000 teachers are expected to leave or retire in the next decade, according to state officials.

“The mission of Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. is to inspire talented young people across Tennessee to become our state’s next generation of teachers,” said Jamie Woodson, executive chairman and CEO for SCORE. “By illustrating the positive impact that great teaching has on a community, we will show them that they have the power to change the future beyond the classroom.”

The campaign’s website includes information on how to become a teacher, as well as a Q&A that covers topics such as pay. (The statewide average is about $50,000, though the campaign’s site notes that Gov. Bill Haslam, in his penultimate year at the helm of state government, hopes to raise salaries more.)

Campaign partners include the Hyde Family Foundations, Nashville Public Education Foundation, Memphis Education Fund, Public Education Foundation Chattanooga, Conexión Américas, Lipscomb University, Teach For America Nashville, Crisp Communications, Tennessee Charter School Center and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Based in Nashville, SCORE is a nonprofit organization founded by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist of Tennessee.