Educating educators

Tennessee teacher prep programs can do better to ready teachers for Day One, report says

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Emily Fetterman, a corps member of Teach For America, instructs an integrated math class in Nashville. The quality of teacher prep programs in Tennessee is the focus of a new report from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

Most Tennessee teacher preparation programs aren’t equipping new teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms, according to a new report from a Nashville-based think tank.

The report, released Tuesday by the State Collaborative of Reforming Education (SCORE), says only a handful of Tennessee’s 40 programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS, used  to measure and evaluate teachers.

The report recommends improvement in areas including stronger classroom-based experiences for teacher candidates, greater diversity within the teaching ranks, and closer partnerships between teacher prep programs and the school districts that hire their graduates.

The recommendations were presented Tuesday in SCORE’s Nashville offices, where a panel featuring K-12 educators and representatives from teacher preparation programs spoke about the challenges they face. The report builds off changes to teacher preparation already in the works by the Tennessee Department of Education and State Board of Education, both of which regularly collaborate with SCORE, which was founded in 2009 by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.

“We want Tennessee students to climb to the top half of the nation for academic achievement,” said SCORE Executive Chairman and CEO Jamie Woodson. “Students need the best teachers we can provide to get there, and new teachers deserve to enter the classroom fully prepared to serve our students well.”

Woodson said Tennessee is in a unique position to get teacher preparation right under the leadership of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, a leader in that arena when she was dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education.

A key recommendation from SCORE focuses on bettering student-teaching experiences before teachers take the full reins of a classroom. Partnerships between programs and districts are important for mentoring both before graduating and after, so that new career teachers have continued support.

“The brain of a first-year teacher is a wild place,” said Randall Lahann, director of the Nashville Teacher Residency, one of Tennessee’s newest alternative teaching programs. “It’s our job as teacher educators to slow things down and give them a clear vision of what it means to be more successful.”

Overall, the report recommends eight ways to improve teacher preparation programs, including better processes for admitting students and reviewing and approving programs, as well as more transparency about data on the programs.

In 2014, the State Board of Education passed a new teacher preparation policy that touches on many of SCORE’s recommendations, like the use of the edTPA licensure test, which is supposed to more rigorously assess whether a candidate is ready to teach full time.

Read SCORE’s full report here.

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.