Teacher quality

Here’s where Tennessee’s best teachers are trained, according to new state report card

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Teach For America corps members participate in a leadership summit in 2015 in Memphis.

Nearly all of Tennessee’s top-performing teacher training programs are in the Memphis and Nashville areas, and about half aren’t based at a university, according to a new state report.

Using a new grading system, the State Board of Education issued its 2016 report card Thursday on Tennessee’s 40 preparation programs. These schools or programs received top marks:

  • Cumberland University, Lebanon
  • Lipscomb University, Nashville
  • Memphis Teacher Residency
  • Teach For America-Memphis
  • Teach For America-Nashville
  • The New Teacher Project/Nashville Teaching Fellows
  • Union University, Jackson

The ratings give legitimacy to Tennessee’s growing crop of non-traditional training programs and also are good news for its two largest school systems. Six of the seven programs place more graduates in Shelby County Schools in Memphis and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools than any other district. 

Missing from the top tier are the state’s two largest programs — at Tennessee Technological University and Middle Tennessee State University. Both received a score of 2 on a scale of 1 to 4. Other large programs scoring a 3 are the University of Memphis, the University of Tennessee at Knoxville, Vanderbilt University, and Austin Peay State.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, putting a national spotlight on programs that train the educators who go on to lead K-12 classrooms. The issue also has moved to the front burner in Tennessee, where a recent report said most of the state’s programs aren’t equipping new teachers to be highly effective in their classrooms.

The rebooted report card, produced in conjunction with the State Department of Education and the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, is designed to provide a clearer picture of the quality of training programs for stakeholders that range from aspiring teachers to the school principals who hire them.

“Tennessee is the fastest improving state in the nation for student achievement. But to hold this trajectory, we must continue to ensure high expectations for students, schools and teachers, including how we train and prepare our newest teachers,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, the State Board’s executive director. “This (report card) offers important, user-friendly information about how we are preparing students for classroom success.”

It’s the first time the state has evaluated its teacher prep programs primarily on outcomes — for instance, if teacher candidates were hired in Tennessee public schools, and the evaluation scores they received as classroom teachers.

The programs also were graded based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education. The first metric reflects increasing consensus among educators and researchers about the importance of having a teacher force that represents the student population they are serving.

Of the state’s 10 largest providers, only Lipscomb and Union received a 4. Other prominent programs didn’t fare so well.

Tennessee Tech, the state’s biggest program with 756 completers for the 2013-14 and 14-15 school year, scored relatively low marks across all categories.  

Middle Tennessee State, the state’s second-largest provider, received high marks for the percentages of teachers placed in Tennessee public schools and high teacher retention rates. However, it scored low on the candidate profile part of the report card, which included racial diversity and the percentage of completers who received high-demand endorsements.

The University of Memphis, which granted 571 teaching licenses in the 2013-14 and 14-15 school years, fell short of an overall 4 because of its graduates’ teacher evaluation scores.

Some well-regarded programs missed the cut, even though they scored well when it came to producing effective teachers. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville received a 3 in part because of a lack of diversity. Vanderbilt, which has an internationally renowned education program missed the top score because of its low score for in-state job placement. Many of the private university’s graduates go on to teach in other states.

“I think it shows how difficult it is to get a complex picture into a single measure,” said Vanderbilt education professor Barb Stengel of her school’s score. “But I trust (the State Board) to finetune it.”

Stengel noted that part of Vanderbilt’s mission as a private research university is to attract minds from across the globe. That doesn’t mean its graduates aren’t effective, she said, or that people who don’t want to teach in Tennessee shouldn’t consider the program.

One of the nation’s most contentious education debates is whether teachers should be trained in university settings, or in programs like Teach For America, which place teachers with little training directly into classrooms.

But the divide between “traditional” and “alternative” programs is hardly cut-and-dry. In the case of three of the non-traditional programs receiving top marks — both chapters of Teach For America and the Memphis Teacher Residency — teacher candidates take classes at universities. And Memphis Teacher Residency requires candidates to spend a year student-teaching while taking education classes before they lead their own classrooms.

To address some of those nuances, the new report card includes information like how long candidates spend in the classroom before gaining their license, although that wasn’t part of the overall scores.

The report card is not tied to State Board decisions about accreditation renewal for training programs. Providers receive separate reports tied to those decisions, though the data is similar, according to Heyburn Morrison. “More than anything, we want (the report card) to be a tool for continuous improvement and starting important conversations,” she said.

Those conversations already have started, according to Eric Cummings, dean of Cumberland University’s School of Education. He and his faculty are looking for ways to increase diversity and the number of candidates who go into math and science, subjects for which there’s a shortage.

“I think that’ s a great challenge,” Cummings said. “They can use the data to evaluate how effective we are, and we can use the data to improve our programs.”

The full report card can be found here.

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.