Setting boundaries

How a Nashville charter group is changing to keep its teachers for the long haul

PHOTO: RePublic Schools
Courtney Lewis, a fifth-grade teacher at Nashville Prep, says policy changes at RePublic Schools allow her to spend more time with her four daughters.

Two years ago, Courtney Lewis backed out of the application process at Nashville Prep so she could work from home to balance job and family life.

This year, she joined the charter school as a fifth-grade teacher.

Her change of heart timed with a change in policies adopted this year by RePublic Schools, the Nashville-based charter network overseeing Nashville Prep. Challenged to retain talented teachers at its six schools, RePublic leaders are seeking to create a more viable work environment, especially for teachers who are parents.

RePublic Schools is known for high test scores from students — and for being a challenging workplace for teachers, with long hours and rigid expectations for students and teachers alike. But that churn-and-burn strategy isn’t sustainable in recruiting and retaining teachers, says Ravi Gupta, the founder and outgoing CEO of RePublic. As one of his parting acts, RePublic has ditched that approach and adopted family-friendly staffing policies that include shorter school days and a child care spending credit. The goal is to reduce burnout and make family life more feasible.

“Our kids deserve the best teachers and teachers who stick with them for the long run, not people cycling out every two years,” explained RePublic spokesman Lee Pedinoff.

Changes at RePublic reflect a nationwide shift in thinking by leaders of charter schools. Not beholden to benefits and protections negotiated by teachers unions in traditional public schools, they’ve increasingly recognized the need to provide workday boundaries, daycare options and other perks that will attract and keep teachers for the long haul.

That’s likely part of the reason that teacher turnover is dropping in charter schools as the movement comes of age. According to data from the U.S. Department of Education, the rate decreased more than 5 percentage points to 18.5 percent between 2009 and 2013. Meanwhile, turnover at traditional schools held steady at about 15.5 percent.

In addition to shortening its school day by more than an hour, RePublic now matches childcare costs up to $5,000, hires associate teachers to fill in for teachers who are sick or have appointments, and designates curriculum designers so teachers are freed up from the chores of gathering resources and building lessons from scratch.

Nashville Prep’s abbreviated school day, which starts at 7:45 a.m. and ends at 3:45 p.m., sealed the deal for Lewis, whose four daughters range in age from 2 to 15. After work, she leaves her campus in time to pick up her youngest daughter at daycare and attend her older daughters’ basketball and volleyball games.

“I have enough time to prepare for my classes and be a pretty hands-on parent,” she said. “We sit down and eat together every night.”

That means time later for doing “homework” together — her daughters work on assignments while Lewis grades papers and plans lessons. Having another team member help with curriculum is key.

“I would not be able to juggle as much as I do without the curriculum assistance and having people I can call and get assistance from pretty immediately,” Lewis said.

The shorter day is an about-face for a charter organization that previously has credited extra instruction time for its academic gains. Now in its sixth year as a charter organization, RePublic leaders have learned how to get results in less time. So they identified areas of inefficiency and shaved off lots of minutes that shortened the school day by more than an hour.

The changes have been in effect for only a few months, but Pedinoff says they’re already producing results at RePublic’s four schools in Nashville and two schools in Jackson, Miss. Though Pedinoff couldn’t provide exact numbers, he estimates that the organization enjoyed a double-digit increase in teacher retention from last school year, when faculty learned of the policy changes. And the cost of some of the new benefits are being offset, he said, by the costs of recruiting and training.

Another payoff is the trust built with parents who see teachers sticking around and building experience in the classroom, as well as teachers who understand the challenges of parenthood.

“I can really say (to parents), ‘I totally understand what you’re going through,’” Lewis said.

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.

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.