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.

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.

Paying for pre-K

With clock ticking on federal pre-K grant, districts in Shelby County and Nashville explore next steps

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

Tennessee’s elation at winning a $70 million federal grant to expand pre-K offerings in Memphis and Nashville is now being tempered by the realization that the four-year grant will run out all too soon.

The funds used to pay for dozens of new pre-K classrooms began flowing into five school districts in 2015 and will end in May of 2019.

How to sustain the expansion in Greater Memphis was on the minds of school leaders and pre-K advocates who gathered Wednesday for the second annual Shelby County Pre-K Summit.

Calling pre-K “one of the biggest economic investment opportunities we have,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said early childhood programs must be a priority.

“In order for us to create an educational system where our most fragile constituents can change their circumstances in life, we’ve gotta make sure that we’re giving them a better opportunity in our district and it starts with pre-K,” he told about 50 people at the summit.

Announced in 2014, the grant from the U.S. Department of Education was a huge win for Tennessee as Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration sought to grow and build a public pre-K program that began under a 2005 state law.

Shelby County Schools was among five needy districts chosen as recipients because of its commitment to developing and funding high-quality programming for their youngest children. The others were Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and districts in the suburban Shelby County towns of Bartlett and Millington.

The money has added 50 pre-K classrooms in Shelby County and four pre-K centers in Nashville.

Nashville school officials already have begun to develop a strategy to sustain the investments after 2019. At the city’s early education summit last week, Director Shawn Joseph said the district is working to shift money to allow the expansions to continue.

Hopson asked the crowd Wednesday to advocate for ways to sustain expansions in Memphis too — work that he said is key to the success of both the district and the city.

“When you think about correlations between poverty and poor student outcome, our babies who are living in poverty situations through no fault of their own … need to have the early start that it takes so that they can enter kindergarten ready,” Hopson said.

Research shows that disadvantaged young children who participate in high-quality pre-K enter school are more ready to learn than their peers, while also contributing to their success in adulthood.

The quality of Tennessee’s pre-K programs has come under a microscope following the 2015 release of a five-year Vanderbilt University study showing that students who participated saw the effects dissipate by first grade — and even turn negative compared to students who didn’t participate in the program. The researchers suggested that quality might be the issue, and the state has been working ever since to up its game.

The federal grant has been significant in Memphis, which has a high concentration of low-income students and low-performing schools. It now pays for 13 percent of pre-K programs for about 6,500 children in Shelby County. Each classroom costs about $160,000 annually to operate. The county’s long-term goal is for every 4-year-old who needs pre-K to have access to a high-quality seat.