teacher prep

Expecting to lose half of its teachers in the next decade, Tennessee seeks to strengthen its pipeline

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Sharon Johnson, a teacher-in-training at Relay Graduate School of Education, instructs students at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis. SCORE hopes to attract more millennials to the teaching profession, especially to harder-to-staff subjects like science and math.

Within an hour’s drive of Kingsport are seven teacher preparation programs that annually feed hundreds of candidates to the city’s K-12 schools.

And yet, Kingsport City Schools struggles every year to fill openings in its secondary schools.

“We will have … about 250 applicants for about 20 to 25 elementary positions, and we may have one to five applicants for our secondary positions,” says Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of the East Tennessee district.

Therein lies one of the teacher dilemmas facing school districts across Tennessee:  getting the teachers needed for the right grades, as well as for the right subjects.

And with half of the state’s 65,000 teachers expected to leave or retire in the next decade, another challenge is hiring new teachers who are ready for the classroom. Some 40 percent of districts reported in 2015 that their new teachers weren’t prepared.

“We don’t sit here and say that we don’t have enough teachers; we actually do,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “The challenge is we don’t have enough effective teachers in areas we need them.”

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Candice McQueen

McQueen announced plans Wednesday to strengthen Tennessee’s teacher pipeline and unveiled a report to help it get there. The report calls out the subjects with the greatest need for teachers — English as a second language, world languages and science — and highlights the variation of effectiveness across its new teacher workforce.

The commissioner also called on preparation programs and local districts to actively collaborate to achieve shared goals, similar to a partnership launched last year by school districts in Kingsport and Johnson City with East Tennessee State University.

To help with those conversations, the State Department of Education has begun releasing annual reports to Tennessee’s 40 preparation programs to provide data about the employment and effectiveness of their graduates.

McQueen announced a $200,000 state investment in grants to incentivize those programs to design strategies for filling high-demand licensure areas, improving educator preparation around literacy, and developing a diverse educator workforce.

The gaps in teachers for English language learners are generally found in the state’s urban districts, while rural school systems are most in need of world languages teachers.

Tennessee’s challenge with teacher diversity is also notable. Data from 2014 showed 122 districts without a single Hispanic teacher and 27 districts without a single African-American teacher. And training programs are struggling to fill that gap. Of candidates 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.

McQueen said the state will invest another $100,000 in grants for targeted districts innovating to hire a more diverse teacher workforce.

Former U.S. Secretary of Education John King, in Nashville Wednesday to help the state kick off of its initiative, said he was glad to see diversity being highlighted.

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor
John King was the nation’s education chief under President Barack Obama.

“Sometimes the issue of teacher diversity is framed as something that matters for students of color, but I actually think it matters immensely for all kids. White students need to see African-American teachers, Latino teachers, African-American principals, Latino principals,” said King, now president and CEO of The Education Trust, which seeks to close opportunity and achievement gaps in education.

King praised Tennessee for generating relevant teacher data, but cautioned that the information will lead to some hard conversations.

“There has to be a willingness on the part of the state and on the part of institutions to even consider closing programs if they chronically are either producing teachers who aren’t effective with students or are producing teachers who can’t find positions,” he said.

Tennessee education leaders took that thinking a step further.

“We need to get comfortable with being authentic with students who maybe do not need to be teachers, or maybe need to teach something else,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.

“All of those aren’t incredibly fun conversations; they are also incredibly necessary,” he added.

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
Sharon Johnson, a teacher-in-training at Relay Graduate School of Education, instructs students at Freedom Preparatory Academy, a charter school in Memphis. SCORE hopes to attract more millennials to the teaching profession, especially to harder-to-staff subjects like science and math.

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.