Training teachers

Teacher prep conversation already changing under Tennessee’s new ratings

PHOTO: Oliver Morrison
New teachers undergo training in 2014 through the Memphis Teacher Residency.

When Candice McQueen was dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville, she struggled to make heads or tails of the state’s complex report card for rating teacher training programs in Tennessee.

“It was not user-friendly,” she recalls. “You would have had to have been a bit of statistician … to understand it.”

Now Tennessee’s commissioner of education, McQueen is praising the State Board of Education’s revamped report card for gauging the quality of Tennessee’s 40 teacher prep programs. The State Board unveiled the new tool on Thursday and convened a panel at the State Capitol to talk about teacher quality — and how the report card can help to improve training programs.


Read Chalkbeat’s report about how Tennessee’s teacher training program rate, according to the new report card.


The redesigned report card rates the state’s teacher prep schools and programs on a 1-to-4 scale based on nine metrics. For the first time, the ratings focus mainly on outcomes for teacher candidates from each institution, like where and what they teach and how effective they are in the classroom.

State leaders hope the user-friendly version will provide a level of transparency and understanding that ultimately will lift the quality of teacher preparation — and teaching — across the state. That’s important because teacher quality is considered a driving factor in helping students succeed.

“I think this is a good tool that’s going to help (providers) dive really deep,” said Jennifer Nelson, associate director of education for the University of Memphis, which scored a 3 on the new report card.

She said she’ll use the report card to improve programming at the Memphis school, which feeds teachers to Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest district.

Meanwhile, Riley Nolen said he plans to use the report card to help him select a college. He’s now a high school senior in Stewart County and wants to be a teacher.

Susan Bunch, superintendent of Lexington City Schools, said the report card should spark conversations between district leaders and teacher preparation providers about what local schools need teachers to be trained in, and how they can collaborate.

The panel discussion was organized to get feedback on how the new report card can be used and improved.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Educators discuss the quality of Tennessee’s teacher training programs Thursday in Nashville.

Nelson recommended changing how job placement is scored. This year’s report gave points only for students hired at Tennessee public schools, within a year of receiving their licenses. That put non-traditional programs, all of which received a top overall score, at an advantage because that track is a built-in part of programs such as Teach For America and Memphis Teacher Residency. But it’s a weakness, she said, for institutions like the University of Memphis, where many candidates go to teach in Arkansas or other neighboring states, or at private schools.

The job placement metric especially hurt Vanderbilt University, which had high marks across the board but was knocked down to a 3 because few of its multi-state and international students stay in Tennessee to teach. Of the teachers who did accept jobs at Tennessee public schools, Vanderbilt had a higher retention rate than non-traditional programs that received 4s, but not enough to compensate for receiving zero points on job placement.

The University of Memphis was kept from a top overall score by the low number of candidates who posted a high growth score on their teacher evaluations.

Nelson said the report card already is starting important conversations at the Memphis school, especially around racial diversity, another metric on the new report. In the 2013-14 and 14-15 school years, the university granted licenses to more than 150 teachers to work in Shelby County Schools, whose student population is only 7 percent white. That’s nearly the opposite of the university’s teaching candidates, 70 percent of whom are white.

“Our teacher candidate population should better represent our pre-K-through-12 population,” Nelson said. “We need to be talking to (the local district) about how we can recruit their high school students.”

Panelists praised the new scoring tool for identifying values, including diversity, for teacher training programs. “We’re making a statement in terms of what we care about,” said David Mansouri, a director at the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based think tank.

McQueen said the report card signals a recognition that the challenges facing public schools go far beyond the schools themselves. She also offered encouragement for teacher training programs that are disappointed in their new ratings.

“Whatever your data looks like, it will improve,” she said. “The first step to improvement is honest conversation.”

The full report card can be found 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.