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.

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.”

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.