Testing conundrum

McQueen wants to prevent non-tested early grades from becoming a dumping ground for weaker teachers

Candice McQueen

The temptation for principals to place their best teachers in grades with high-stakes testing has Education Commissioner Candice McQueen concerned about the quality of teaching in Tennessee’s earliest grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t mandate testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools and entire districts.

McQueen says local administrators are learning the hard way that reassigning lower-performing elementary school teachers to non-tested grades doesn’t help their students get the foundation they need for lifelong learning, a charge backed up by research from Vanderbilt University. 

“They would say … since we’re starting our value-added measure, starting our work around teacher evaluation, starting how we look at districts at third grade, they made some poor decisions about who they were putting in their kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms, and pre-K,” she said Monday during a panel discussion about prekindergarten at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

The fix? Next school year, Tennessee will require its pre-K programs to evaluate teachers using “growth portfolio models,” which are based on samples of student work. The evaluations will help teachers identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and guide professional development. The state already has piloted portfolio models for kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

“All of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers in 97 percent of our districts will be going through a portfolio growth model that will allow us to actually look at effectiveness of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers,” she said.

McQueen isn’t the only Tennessee education leader seeking to address concerns around early education instruction. Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s chief of schools, says pressures around testing have long warped teacher placement priorities in her district.

“I will be very honest and transparent,” Griffin told local school board members earlier this month. “There was once upon a time that when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2. We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up — because three years with an ineffective teacher is hard for you to catch up.”

The new teacher evaluation system is one of many changes around early education that the state is making with the support of researchers at Vanderbilt University. The changes are in response to a 2015 study that found the benefits of the state’s public pre-K program faded by second grade.

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.

Teaching teachers

How a Memphis pre-K giant is changing the way early childhood educators are taught

PHOTO: Porter-Leath
Porter-Leath's new training program places emphasis on early literacy.

Morgan Bradley thought that teaching children at her church’s Sunday school would have prepared her to work in early childhood education.

But the recent college graduate was shocked by all she learned at a recent training at Porter-Leath’s new Early Childhood Academy.

“I thought I knew how to work with little kids, but I didn’t know how much a child’s brain develops during those years before kindergarten,” said Bradley, who will be helping in a Head Start classroom through AmeriCorps. “I’m realizing now how necessary good teaching in pre-K is to getting a baby ready for kindergarten, especially when it comes to using my words to build a child’s vocabulary.”

Bradley is one of more than 500 educators who will go through Porter-Leath’s training this year in an effort to boost the quality of early education instruction in Memphis. Porter-Leath is the city’s largest provider of early childhood education and has a partnership with Shelby County Schools for Head Start and other services, including training.

The program comes as Tennessee grapples with a low literacy rate and mixed quality of early education programs. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has emphasized the need for better early childhood education across the state for Tennessee to improve as a whole.

Porter-Leath’s trainings are held almost monthly and revolve around four tenets: socio-emotional learning; literacy; health; and STEAM, or science, technology, engineering, art and math.

The socio-emotional and literacy pieces are what make the program different from usual professional development for early educators, said Rafel Hart, vice president of teacher excellence for Porter-Leath and the training program’s leader.

“When we think about professional development in early childhood, we think about training on CPR and first aid,” he said. “That’s important, but Teacher Excellence focuses on classroom practices. How do we make our quality of instruction better?”

A Memphis organization since 1850, Porter-Leath serves about 6,000 children in its preschool program and employs 670 people. It serves students in some of Memphis’ poorest neighborhoods who may be dealing with the trauma of food or home insecurity at early ages. This makes training teachers in socioemotional learning especially crucial, said Hart.

Porter-Leath’s program draws from organizations like Acknowledge Alliance that trains teachers to help students regulate their emotions and learn self-awareness.

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
AmeriCorps members who will work in Porter-Leath classrooms are among more than 500 educators to go through the training.

“I’ve been in early childhood for 25 years, and socioemotional learning is rarely used,” Hart said. “That’s a tragic mistake we’re correcting. Students can’t grow to develop strong academics if their emotional health isn’t growing first.”

All new Porter-Leath and Shelby County Schools early childhood educators will go through this training, but it’s also open to and encouraged for longtime teachers.

Kelly Thieme, a former literacy specialist and now Porter Leath instructional coach, is especially excited to see the focus on literacy.

“A lot of people don’t understand literacy starts from birth, and speaking to children makes reading and literacy easier,” she said. “We go through current research on how young children learn to read. To me, this helps us and others understand that we’re not just babysitters; it helps us professionalize our profession.”