It's a plan

The state wants well-trained teachers for its most at-risk kids — here’s a look at the plan

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Mrachek Middle School math teacher Diardra Gascon helps students solve a math problem.

Thousands of Colorado’s most at-risk students attend schools that lack an experienced and stable teaching staff, according to the Colorado Department of Education.

State officials want to change that by 2018.

At the request of the U.S. Department of Education, which asked all 50 states to examine their workforce, state officials have created an aggressive timeline to pump up the supply of teachers, better train principals and reduce teacher turnover at the state’s most at-risk schools.

The strategies are not revolutionary. Many are in motion now. But other strategies are still in the works, including redesigning training programs for new teachers and increasing the number of teachers rated highly effective in front of the state’s growing English language learning population.

The state’s plan puts everything in sharper focus, and all in one place.

“They are lofty goals for an awfully short timeline,” said Jennifer Simons, who coordinates putting federal laws on hiring and training teachers into practice for the state. “But we wanted to hold ourselves accountable.”

Among the state’s loftiest goals: Reversing the state’s steadily increasing teacher turnover rate, which is currently at 17 percent, to 12 percent by 2018.

Here are a few key takeaways from the plan:

Most Colorado schools, including those that serve mostly poor students of color, have “highly qualified” teachers in the classroom …

But (yes, there is a but …) the legal definition of a “highly qualified” teacher is pretty lax. To be considered highly qualified, a teacher must hold a bachelor’s degree, be licensed and prove they’re competent in the subject they teach.

To prove they’re competent in their subject, teachers can among other options take a test, earn credits hours toward a master’s degree in the relevant subject, or be Nationally Board Certified.

The state’s teacher evaluation law has nothing to do with determining whether a teacher is qualified. And that isn’t going to change.

Knowing this, state officials decided to look at two other measurements when examining the state’s teacher workforce: turnover and novice teachers.

Students at the state’s most at-risk schools are getting the short end of the stick. And you’re more likely to find a novice teacher in a rural classroom.

Students at 149 schools don’t have equitable access to a well-trained or stable teaching staff, the state found. In some cases, this is leading to students not improving enough.
About two-thirds of those schools that have poverty rates higher than 40 percent had teacher turnover rates higher than 30 percent — and nearly a quarter of staff members were new to the profession.

The state did not release the names of these schools.

But according to a report produced by the U.S. Department of Education, rural school districts such as Fort Morgan were more likely to employ new teachers than urban or suburban schools. While about 4 percent of the state’s teachers were new to the profession during the 2011-12 school year, 10 percent of rural teachers were during the same time.

Untrained principals are part of the problem, too.

Using information from the state’s biennial teacher survey, officials found that teachers who believe their principals are effective and receive quality feedback are more likely to stay in their jobs. The opposite is also true. Teachers who believe their principals are not effective and don’t provide feedback are more likely to leave.

Sounds obvious, right? It’s more complicated, though. As the role of the principal shifts from manager to instructional leader, the state believes some are struggling to adjust.

CDE hopes continued training for principals, especially on the state’s teacher evaluation system, will helps keep teachers happy and in the classroom. The plan also highlighted CDE’s existing Turnaround Network, which provides training for principals in struggling schools, as a strategy to improve the quality of principals for at-risk schools.

Principals who have not received the aforementioned training and whose staff has either high turnover or a sizeable portion of novice teachers will be offered more support, according to the state’s plan.

CDE is developing a new program to support novice teachers that school districts will need to follow.

According to some research, students do better in math and reading when taught by new teachers who get comprehensive support. So by 2017, CDE wants school districts to rethink how new teachers are trained and supported to run an effective classroom during their first two years.

Details are scarce. But CDE plans to “articulate a statewide vision for teacher induction” based on current research. Districts will need to update their own induction programs to meet the new guidelines.

The new guidelines will focus on how to connect new teachers with veterans, assessments and classroom management training, and the evaluation process.

The state wants more educators trained to teach English language learners.

The first step, however, is to identify which English language development programs are working and why.

CDE has developed a new rubric for school district administrators to use to evaluate their programs.

Another data program was created for districts to use longitudinal data to pinpoint areas of success in their programs. Thirty-three school districts will receive a grant to support one-on-one training to learn how to use this new tool.

The state has also created a support group for school administrators meant to help school districts understand what resources are available to improve instruction for English language learners.

It’s unclear what shifts — if any — the state will make based on findings from evaluations based on the new rubric or data tool. But the state plans to continue regular training programs and monthly webinars around the subject of teaching English as a second language. Previous topics included how to use strong vocabulary with English learners and how to build relationships with families.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede