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Tennessee Teacher Evaluation Systems Have Rough Road Ahead

Tennessee Teacher Evaluations

  Sarah Garland First Posted: 02/ 7/2012 3:39 pm Updated: 02/ 7/2012 3:51 pm

This piece comes to us courtesy of The Hechinger Report. It is the first in a series in a collaboration between The Hechinger Report and Memphis Commercial Appeal on new teacher effectiveness measures in Tennessee.

Rebecca Sellers, an eighth-grade English teacher at the Lester Pre-K-8 school in Memphis, looked wary as she walked into the teachers' lounge on a Monday afternoon last fall. The previous week, the school's assistant principal, Isaac Robinson, had dropped in, unannounced, to watch Sellers teach as part of Tennessee's new evaluation system.Now he was about to reveal her scores. As he fiddled with a computer connected to a projector, Robinson asked Sellers how she thought she did.

"I'm not sure how I did because I had to make some adjustments," said Sellers. Her students tend to do well on state tests, but the lesson hadn't gone as planned. Her eighth-graders had been stumped by a quick review exercise on pronouns. Sellers had taken an extra 15 minutes to go back over the material.

"I had to meet the children where they were at that particular time," she added. "Do you remember the lesson?"

Robinson, a transplant from Georgia in his second year at Lester, a high-poverty school in the Binghampton neighborhood where 97 percent of students are black, muttered that he did. He had been taking notes on a new iPad provided by the school district.

With a click, he displayed Sellers' scores on the projector: Mostly 2s, and even a 1, on a 5-point scale. Sellers, a 17-year veteran, was on track to losing tenure and possibly her job if she didn't score at least 3s in the future.

"Let me read what a 3 looks like: ‘Teacher communicates lesson objectives to students,' " said Robinson, reading from a chart on the screen. "I don't think that was done."

Sellers rolled her eyes. "Well, if they didn't know what the focus was, they wouldn't know what they were supposed to do, right? And they did what they were supposed to do," she said.

The discussion deteriorated from there. Forty minutes later, Robinson, hunched over a keyboard, typed "off-task behavior interfered with instruction time" into a form on the computer screen. Sellers sat with her arms crossed, shaking her head.

"I don't agree with this evaluation at all," she said. "I don't think it reflects the job I did."


This fall, principals and assistant principals fanned out into thousands of Tennessee classrooms in an unprecedented effort to spend at least an hour annually observing and rating every single teacher, guidance counselor, social worker and librarian in the state's public school system. Their goal: find teachers who are struggling, figure out what they are struggling with, and help them get better.

In Memphis and Shelby County, anecdotal reports suggest most feedback sessions have not been as charged as the one between Sellers and her assistant principal.

"We're not about ‘gotcha,' " said the Memphis superintendent of schools, Kriner Cash. "We're not about catching teachers being level 1 or level 2 and then trying to figure out ways to get them out of the profession."

Yet the exchange at Lester highlights the challenges both Memphis and Shelby County schools face as they roll out their new evaluation systems and attempt to retrain the local teaching force. Those challenges are why Lester's principal, Antonio Burt, a second-year principal trained by the national nonprofit advocacy group, New Leaders for New Schools, opened the doors to a visitor.

"It's one thing to have four or five that are rolling up their sleeves. They're taking ownership in the work. They're really honing their craft. But you want an entire school to be doing the same approach," he said. "Until you get the mindset of every single individual, you won't see that growth."

The effort is part of a sea change in public education across the country, with Tennessee, whose students have long ranked near the bottom on national tests, at the forefront. Education reformers, including those in the Obama administration, have embraced the belief that great teaching is not an art, or, as Cash puts it, something "born in you." Rather, they see great teaching as a science—something that can be taught and learned.

To that end, states and districts, aided by hundreds of millions of federal and philanthropic dollars, are developing intensive evaluation systems meant to identify teachers who need help, and pinpoint which skills they need help with. Under a state law passed last spring, teachers must be formally observed at least four times a year, or six if they're new to the profession.

A teacher's observation scores are supplemented by a so-called "value-added" rating, which is calculated by determining whether a teacher's students made greater gains on standardized tests than statistical models would have predicted. But because value-added ratings don't come out until after the school year is over—and because the majority of teachers don't teach subjects with annual standardized testing—the revamped observations have become a major piece of the reform effort.

"If you look at any teacher anywhere, they all think that they're great, and they're all working hard and they're trying," said David Stephens, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction in the Shelby County Schools. "Sometimes they may just not have enough knowledge, or some of the skills may be lacking. So if we do some things to help improve that, then I feel like we're headed in the right direction."

The question is whether the new system can work where decades of other education reforms have not.

Are observations accurately identifying struggling teachers? Are teachers learning from the feedback they receive? Are they finding resources to help themselves improve? And, most importantly, are students performing better as a result?

"We have a need to identify our true underperformers. There are teachers that are just harmful to kids … academically harmful," said Sandi Jacobs, vice president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based advocacy group. "But we have lots of teacher who aren't as good as they could be, and that is where the thrust of this work really is, the desire to maximize the teaching force."

Both districts see the reforms as urgent, even though their student populations are very different. One third of Shelby County's students are signed up for free- or reduced-price lunch, a measure of poverty, and nearly 40 percent are black, according to the state education department. In Memphis, one of the poorest cities in the nation, 87 percent of students get subsidized meals, while 84 percent are black.

Although Shelby County has one of the lowest percentages of students who are economically disadvantaged in the state, only about half of its students tested proficient or advanced on state math tests in 2011, according to state numbers. Students in both Shelby and Memphis have made big gains on math tests in recent years, but Memphis still ranks at the bottom in terms of proficiency.

In reading, gains have been smaller for both districts. In Shelby, 57 percent of students were proficient in 2011, compared to just a quarter of students in Memphis.

Halfway through the year, the Memphis and Shelby County school districts had already conducted nearly 10,000 observations of the nearly 10,500 teachers, librarians and other instructional staff in the two districts. They are already compiling data and hearing reactions—both positive and negative— from teachers and principals.


Many veteran teachers and principals say the biggest change this year is the amount of time principals are now spending in classrooms. Previously, teachers in Tennessee were evaluated only once every five years.

Under the new system, principals are required to spend from 60 to 90 minutes in a teacher's classroom annually, depending on a teacher's experience—meaning for veteran teachers, principals must conduct four 15-minute observations over the course of the school year.