Father of TVAAS

William Sanders, pioneer of controversial value-added model for judging teachers, dies

William Sanders, who developed the TVAAS method for measuring a teacher's effect on student performance, died on March 16. Retired since 2013, he had been living in Columbia, Tenn.

William Sanders, the Tennessee statistician and researcher who came up with the nation’s first system for evaluating teachers based on student growth, kicking off a contentious, decades-long debate about how best to measure learning, has died.

Sanders died late last week of natural causes in a hospital in Franklin, Tenn., his family said. He was 74.

A former professor at the University of Tennessee and senior research fellow with the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, Sanders is best known as the developer of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, or TVAAS. That model has become the foundation for judging the effectiveness of teachers in Tennessee public schools, and has been emulated in North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania and cities across the nation — playing a key role in one of education reform’s central debates.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called Sanders’ death “a loss to the education community.”

“During his career, Dr. Sanders made significant contributions to the conversation on how to distinguish our most effective educators in terms of improving academic achievement,” McQueen said in a statement on Monday.

Sanders’ value-added model, also known as the Educational Value-Added Assessment System, became a lightning rod for criticism by many teachers and teachers unions skeptical about whether it yields fair and unbiased estimates.

The model has prompted numerous federal lawsuits charging that the evaluation system, which is now tied to teacher pay and tenure in Tennessee, doesn’t take into account student-level variables such as growing up in poverty. In 2014, the American Statistical Association called its validity into question, and other critics have said TVAAS should not be the sole tool used to judge teachers.

The method measures the effects of a teacher, school or district on student performance by tracking the progress of students against the progress they would be expected to make based on their previous performance. The formula is complex, the method requires a huge database, and the name is a mouthful to say. But the model is meant to show the “value” that was added by each teacher, school or district when measured by the change in student test scores each year.

Sanders’ research soon zeroed in on teachers as the most important part of the equation.

“Determining the effectiveness of individual teachers hold the most promise because, again and again, findings from TVAAS research show teacher effectiveness to be the most important factor in the academic growth of students,” he co-wrote in a 1998 paper. “A component linking teacher effectiveness to student outcomes is a necessary part of any educational evaluation system.”

Sanders went on to become a national leader in policy discussions on value-added assessments.

In his obituary, his family said that Sanders’ findings challenged decades of assumptions that the impact of student family life, income or ethnicity superseded the quality of classroom instruction. That conclusion has been complicated by other research showing that teachers matter more than other aspects of a school, but not as much as outside factors like poverty.

Sanders “stood for a hopeful view that teacher effectiveness dwarfs all other factors as a predictor of student academic growth,” his family said. He believed that “educational influence matters and teachers matter most.”

Growing up on a Tennessee dairy farm, Sanders devoted most of his research to agricultural or wildlife questions at the University of Tennessee until 1981, when he came across a newspaper article suggesting that there was no way to hold teachers accountable based on test scores. He disagreed and wrote the office of then-Gov. Lamar Alexander to say that the effectiveness of teaching could be measured against the rate of student progress.

“Basically, all I was trying to do is [say] here’s the statistical methodology that solves the problem that some of the critics are talking about,” he told Nashville Public Radio in 2014.

The Tennessee Department of Education commissioned his first wave of research beginning in 1982, and Sanders began by looking at student and teacher data in Knox County. He found that he could measure the impact that a teacher had on a student’s trajectory if he tracked that student’s data over time.

The resulting TVAAS methodology linked student academic outcomes to educational evaluation for the first time. Tennessee teachers began using the data in 1997, and their evaluations became tied to the tool under a 2010 state law.

While teachers and teachers unions pushed back, state lawmakers followed the urging of then-Gov. Phil Bredesen, who said changing the way teachers are evaluated would help the state win a $500 million Race to the Top grant, which Tennessee went on to receive.

TVAAS made Sanders a target for some teachers, who felt like he didn’t understand their work and created a system that was used against them unfairly. But colleagues remembered him as a teacher himself who cared about teachers and students.

“Pennsylvania has Bill to thank for changing the conversations about students — from why they can’t achieve to discussions about growing student[s] at all levels,” said Kristin Lewald, who spearheaded the TVAAS counterpart in that state.

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.