survey says

Memphis wants to become ‘Teacher Town,’ especially to feed its ‘priority schools.’ Here’s the latest feedback from teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Memphis teacher Tanya Hill encourages a student at Kate Bond Elementary School.

Memphis has invested millions of dollars in recent years to overhaul its system for recruiting, developing and retaining talent for its schools and classrooms, especially for its lowest-performing schools.

The newest survey of educators in those schools offers insights into what’s working, what’s not, and where the city’s new teacher hires are coming from.

Released Thursday, the fourth annual survey was conducted last summer by Teach901, a local initiative that recruits teachers to Memphis. The results are based on feedback from more than 900 teachers across 45 local and state-run “priority schools,” which are those with test scores in the bottom 5 percent statewide. The survey was conducted for the first time with help from researchers at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College.

Here are major takeaways:

1. Most new hires for priority schools were local, experienced teachers who reported being a new hire at their current school.

Some 63 percent fell into that category, while 25 percent indicated that they were first-year teachers and 12 percent reported being experienced teachers who relocated.

2. Of those who moved to Memphis, most tended to be millennials relocating from nearby states. 

Fewer teachers reported that they relocated this year than last. However, mirroring the previous year’s survey results, relocators were far more likely to be millennials moving from a city or state within driving distance.

For more on last year’s results, view our article here.

Mississippi was again the most popular state for transplants, with 28 percent of teachers arriving from Memphis’ neighbor to the south. Georgia was next, followed by other cities in Tennessee and also California.

Teachers who recently moved were most likely to rate Memphis as an “above average” or “excellent” place to live, compared to Memphis natives or teachers who hadn’t moved recently. Still, only 45 percent of recent relocators gave Memphis that distinction.

3. School leadership continues to be a major factor in teacher recruitment and retention.

The quality of a school’s leadership was the second most cited reason for why teachers initially chose to work at a Memphis school, as well as a major reason why some left.

That finding aligns with local and philanthropic efforts in recent years to better equip principals to change the culture in their schools around teaching, including the addition of teacher leaders and coaches.

New recruits also cite as a draw the opportunity to work with high-need students, as well as the chance to improve teaching skills.

Beyond school leadership, other reasons for leaving a school include a lack of opportunities to advance and a desire to take other career steps.

Salary also emerged as a major factor in attracting teachers to certain schools, as well as pushing them away from the profession.

4. New teachers are coming from local preparation programs, and they really like Memphis Teacher Residency.

Among survey participants, 46 percent said they had been trained by a preparation program in Tennessee, with the majority having received their training locally.

Memphis Teacher Residency had the highest “effectiveness” rating among large preparation programs for the fourth year in a row. When asked whether they agreed with the statement, “My teacher preparation program prepared me for my current teaching position,” nearly 96 percent of MTR-trained teachers “agreed” or “strongly agreed,” significantly outpacing all of the other large programs, according to the survey.

MTR, a Christian-based nonprofit organization, differs from other non-university teacher training programs because residents spend their first year paired four days a week with an experienced Shelby County Schools teacher while attending classes Fridays and Saturdays at Union University.

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.