Future of Teaching

Despite federal reprieve, Tenn. will continue using test scores to evaluate teachers

The U.S. Department of Education will consider states’ requests to forgo the use of test results in teacher evaluations for at least a year, secretary of education Arne Duncan announced Thursday. But Tennessee education commissioner Kevin Huffman quickly said that the state would continue one of its most controversial practices anyway, and keep using test scores to evaluate teachers.

Huffman told the New York Times that he hoped states would decide whether to use the evaluations “based on the best interests of kids rather than political expediency for adults.”

In a blog post Thursday, Duncan said that teachers might need another year to adjust to new standards and assessments. Tennessee adopted new standards in 2010, but will not have a new assessment until at least 2016.

Spurred on by the federal education department, Tennessee has made test-score based teacher evaluations a centerpiece of education policy in recent years.

Tennessee had computed a value-added score, called TVAAS, for teachers based on the amount their students improved on tests since 1992. But it was not until the state passed the First to the Top Act in an effort to win a federal grant competition that the state department of education began including the value-added score in teacher evaluations. To win a U.S. Department of Education’s Race to the Top grant, states had to make several reforms, including implementing test-score based teacher evaluations.

Tennessee won the competition in 2011, and student performance now accounts for at least 35 percent of a teacher’s evaluation score.

The biggest opponent of that evaluation model is the Tennessee Education Association. The 46,000-member association has filed two lawsuits against commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam regarding teacher evaluations, arguing that the use of TVAAS in evaluations is unconstitutional.

Duncan wrote the federal education department decided to allow flexibility in teacher evaluations at least in part in to reduce time spent on standardized tests.

“Too much testing can rob school buildings of joy, and cause unnecessary stress,” he wrote.

First Person

I’m a Florida teacher in the era of school shootings. This is the terrifying reality of my classroom during a lockdown drill.

Outside of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. (Photo by Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

“Remember,” I tell the children, looking them in the eyes in the darkened classroom. “Remember to keep the scissors open. They’ll stab better that way.”

My students, the target demographic for many a Disney Channel sitcom, laugh nervously at me as they try to go back to their conversations. I stare at the talkative tweens huddling in a corner and sigh.

“Seriously, class,” I say in the tone that teachers use to make goosebumps rise. As they turn back to me with nervous laughter, I hold up that much-maligned classroom tool, the metal scissor that’s completely ineffective at cutting paper. “If a gunman breaks in, I’ll be in the opposite corner with the utility knife.” Said tool is in my hand, and more often used to cut cardboard for projects. All the blood it’s hitherto tasted has been accidental. “If I distract him and you can’t get out, we have to rush him.” I don’t mention that my classroom is basically an inescapable choke point. It is the barrel. We are the fish.

They lapse into silence, sitting between the wires under the corner computer tables. I return to my corner, sidestepping a pile of marbles I’ve poured out as a first line of defense, staring at the classroom door. It’s been two hours of this interminable lockdown. This can’t be a drill, but no information will be forthcoming until it’s all over.

I wonder if I really believe these actions would do anything, or am I just perpetrating upon my students and myself the 21st century version of those old “Duck and Cover” posters.

We wait.

The lockdown eventually ends. I file it away in the back of my head like the others. Scissors are handed back with apathy, as if we were just cutting out paper continents for a plate tectonics lab. The tool and marbles go back into the engineering closet. And then, this Wednesday, the unreal urge to arm myself in my classroom comes back. A live feed on the television shows students streaming out of Marjory Stoneman Douglas, a high school just a short drive away. I wonder whether the teachers in its classrooms have passed out scissors.

*

The weapons. It’s not a subject we teachers enjoy bringing up. You’d have an easier time starting a discussion on religion or politics in the teacher’s lounge then asking how we all prepare for the darkness of the lockdown. Do you try to make everyone cower, maybe rely on prayer? Perhaps you always try to convince yourself it’s a drill. Maybe you just assume that, if a gun comes through the door, your ticket is well and truly up. Whatever token preparation you make, if at all, once belonged only to the secret corners of your own soul.

In the aftermath of Parkland, teachers across the nation are starting to speak. The experience of being isolated, uninformed, and responsible for the lives of dozens of children is now universal to our profession, whether because of actual emergencies or planned drills. You don’t usually learn which is which until at least an hour and sometimes not until afterwards. In both cases, the struggle to control the dread and keep wearing the mask of bravery for your students is the same.

And you need a weapon.

I’ve heard of everything from broken chair legs lying around that never seem to be thrown away to metal baseball bats provided by administration. One teacher from another district dealt with it by always keeping a screwdriver on her desk. “For construction projects,” she told students. She taught English.

There’s always talk, half-jokingly (and less than that, lately) from people who want teachers armed. I have a friend in a position that far outranks my own whose resignation letter is ready for the day teachers are allowed to carry guns in the classroom.

I mean, we’ve all known teachers who’ve had their cell phones stolen by students …

*

Years earlier, I am in the same corner. I am more naïve, the most soul-shaking of American massacres still yet to come. The corner is a mess of cardboard boxes gathered for class projects, and one of them is big enough for several students to crawl inside.

One girl is crying, her friend hugging her as she shakes. She’s a sensitive girl; a religious disagreement between her friends having once brought her to tears. “How can they be so cruel to each other?” She asked me after one had said that Catholics didn’t count as Christians.

I frown. It’s really my fault. An offhand comment on how the kids needed to quiet down because I’m not ready to die pushed her too far. Seriously rolling mortality around in her head, she wanted nothing more than to call her family. None of them are allowed to touch their cell phones, however, and the reasoning makes sense to me. The last thing we need is a mob of terrified parents pouring onto campus if someone’s looking to pad their body count.

She has to go to the bathroom, and there are no good options.

I sit with her, trying to comfort her, wondering what the occasion is. Is there a shooter? Maybe a rumor has circulated online. Possibly there’s just a fleeing criminal with a gun at large and headed into our area. Keeping watch with a room full of potential hostages, I wonder if I can risk letting her crawl through the inner building corridors until she reaches a teacher’s bathroom. We wait together.

It seemed different when I was a teen. In those brighter pre-Columbine times, the idea of a school shooting was unreal to me, just the plot of that one Richard Bachman book that never seemed to show up in used book stores. I hadn’t known back then that Bachman (really Stephen King) had it pulled from circulation after it’d been found in a real school shooter’s locker.

Back then my high school had plenty of bomb threats, but they were a joke. We’d all march out around the flagpole, sitting laughably close to the school, and enjoy the break. Inevitably, we’d all learn that the threat had been called in by a student in the grip of “senioritis,” a seemingly incurable disease that removes the victim’s desire to work. We’d sit and chat and smile and never for a second consider that any of us could be in physical danger. The only threat we faced while waiting was boredom.

*

Today, in our new era of mass shootings, the school districts do what they can, trying to plan comprehensively for a situation too insane to grasp. Law enforcement officials lecture the faculty yearly, giving well-rehearsed speeches on procedures while including a litany of horrors meant to teach by example.

At this level, we can only react to the horrors of the world. The power to alter things is given to legislators and representatives who’ve been entrusted with the responsibility to govern wisely while listening to the will of the people. It’s they who can change the facts on the ground, enact new laws, and examine existing regulations. They can work toward a world where a lockdown is no longer needed for a preteen to grapple with gut-churning fear.

We’re still waiting.

K.T. Katzmann is a teacher in Broward County, Florida. This piece first appeared on The Trace, a nonprofit news site focused on gun violence.

teacher prep

Three of Tennessee’s largest teacher training programs improve on state report card

PHOTO: Nic Garcia

Three of Tennessee’s 10 largest teacher training programs increased their scores on a state report card that seeks to capture how well new teachers are being prepared for the classroom based on state goals.

The University of Tennessee-Knoxville became the first public university to achieve a top score under the State Board of Education’s new grading system, now in its second year. And Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University also improved their scores.

But most of Tennessee’s 39 programs scored the same in 2017 as in 2016. Those included the University of Memphis and Austin Peay State University.

And more than 40 percent landed in the bottom tiers, including the state’s largest, Tennessee Technological University in Cookeville, along with other sizable ones like the University of Tennessee’s programs in Chattanooga and Martin.

The report card, released on Thursday, is designed to give a snapshot of the effectiveness of the state’s teacher preparation programs, a front-burner issue in Tennessee since a 2016 report said that most of them aren’t adequately equipping teachers to be effective in the classroom. Teacher quality is important because years of research show that teachers matter more to student achievement than any other aspect of schooling.

State officials say the top-tier score by UT-Knoxville is significant — not only because it’s a public school but because it was the state’s sixth largest training program in 2017. “As one of the state’s flagship public institutions, UTK is setting the bar for how to effectively train teachers at scale,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the State Board. She cited the school’s “model internship program” and “close partnerships with local districts.”

In the previous year’s report card, the top scores only went to small nontraditional programs like Memphis Teacher Residency and Teach For America and private universities such as Lipscomb in Nashville and Union in Jackson.

That demographic recently prompted a call to action by Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. He told state lawmakers last month that it’s time to put traditional programs at public institutions under a microscope, especially since those colleges and universities produce 90 percent of the state’s new teachers.

“Sometimes an undue amount of discussion happens around alternative new teacher programs like Teach For America or the New Teacher Project …,” he said. “If we’re going to move the needle (on teacher training), it’s going to happen at the campus of a college or university.”

Tennessee has graded programs that train teachers since 2009 but redesigned its report card in 2016 to provide a clearer picture of their effectiveness for stakeholders ranging from aspiring teachers to hiring principals. The criteria includes a program’s ability to recruit a strong, racially diverse group of teachers-in-training; produce teachers for high-need areas such as special education and secondary math and science; and its candidates’ placement and retention in Tennessee public schools. Another metric is how effective those teachers are in classrooms based on their evaluations, including state test scores that show student growth.

Not everybody is satisfied with the report card’s design, though.

“It’s a real challenge to capture in one report the complexity of preparing our candidates to be teachers, especially when you’re comparing very different programs across the state,” said Lisa Zagumny, dean of the College of Education at Tennessee Tech, which increased its points in 2017 but not enough to improve its overall score.

She said Tech got dinged over student growth scores, but that only a third of its graduates went on to teach in tested subjects. “And yet our observation scores are very high,” added Associate Dean Julie Baker. “We know we’re doing something right because our candidates who go on to teach are being scored very high by their principals.”

Racial diversity is another challenge for Tech, which is located in the Upper Cumberland region. “The diversity we serve is rural, first-generation college students who are typically lower socioeconomically,” said Zagumny.

Tennessee is seeking to recruit a more racially diverse teacher force because of research showing the impact of having teachers who represent the student population they are serving. Of candidates who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent were people of color, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

Morrison said this year’s report card includes a new “highlights page” in an effort to allow programs to share a narrative about the work they’re doing. 

You can search for schools below, find the new 2017 scores, and compare them with the previous year. A 1 is the lowest performance category and a 4 is the highest. You can sort the list based on performance and size. This is the state’s first report card based on three years of data.