Future of Teaching

From Shanghai to Collierville, collaboration model boosts teacher performance

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier

Fourth-grade math teachers Lydia McGuire and Heather Floyd observe as colleague Angela Levin presents a lesson on equivalent fractions to her students at Collierville Elementary School. They watch closely to examine how Levin teaches and uses examples to illustrate her points.

The goal is to gauge whether the majority of Levin’s students can explain what they just learned and, if not, how the lesson could be improved.

The practice of teachers observing teachers is part of the Teacher Peer Excellence Group, or TPEG, now in its second year at the school in Collierville, a community of 44,000 people near Memphis. The pilot program is being shepherded in six Tennessee school districts by researchers at the Vanderbilt Peabody College of education and human development in Nashville. It was adapted from methods used in Shanghai, China, home to some of the world’s top-performing schools.

Through financial support from the Tennessee Department of Education and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, 18 school principals traveled to China in 2013 to observe the country’s teacher peer support program. During the 2013-14 school year, the principals implemented the TPEG model in elementary and middle school classrooms in urban and rural school districts in or near Memphis, Nashville and Knoxville. Researchers at Peabody have been monitoring the program’s progress.

“The model stems from Asian cultures that revere elders, respect expertise and value collective wisdom, and that carries over to the classroom, where teachers learn from each other and benefit from one another’s experience,”  explained Xiu Cravens, Peabody’s associate dean of international affairs. “This model creates a supportive environment in which new or struggling teachers are quickly brought up to the level of their peers.”

In Collierville, Levin, McGuire and Floyd follow the TPEG model and share a common planning time to develop lesson plans and teaching methods. They take turns observing each other teach without the pressure of the feedback counting toward formal teacher evaluations that affect their tenure and pay. In fact, the teachers say the peer observations help them better prepare for the classroom observations that eventually will be conducted by their principal or a designated administrator as part of their evaluations. And Collierville administrators say participants in the pilot program are scoring higher on their teacher evaluations because of the additional support.

As more school districts use teacher classroom performance to make pay and tenure decisions, more school districts should seek opportunities to support teachers without any high-stakes decisions tied to the support process, said Sandi Jacobs, vice president and managing director for state policy at the National Council on Teacher Quality.

“If a teacher knows a performance evaluation has consequences, that makes it terribly uncomfortable,” Jacobs said. “Instead, they should have multiple opportunities to receive good, useful feedback. If an observation can identify a teacher’s weaknesses –how they can improve them – that’s helpful. It’s also helpful that teachers are encouraged to help each other. Everyone wants to be better than what they are.”

Common ground

Levin, McGuire and Floyd have 32 combined years of experience in the classroom.

“We do get along. That’s important in order for this to work,” McGuire said. “We all know going in that the goal is not ‘how can I make Angela Levin into a Lydia McGuire,?’ but ‘how can I help Angela Levin be a better Angela Levin?’”

For TPEG to work, teacher participants must commit to the joint preparation process, which can be time-consuming as they share practices that work and develop improvement strategies.

All three teachers bring various strengths to the table – Levin is most likely to use technology, for instance. All of them, however, are avid researchers and bring instructional ideas to their weekly pre- and post-observation meetings. The biggest challenge, they say, is arranging for substitutes to cover classrooms when the teachers are observing each other.

“It’s not easy being out of your classroom, but leaving the classroom [for TPEG] has been beneficial,” McGuire said.

Following a checklist they created, McGuire and Floyd sit with Levin’s students while Levin teaches and occasionally walk around the classroom taking notes for review after class. Was the teacher’s communication concise? Was it confusing? Did Levin open with visuals to establish the purpose of the lesson? Did she model the thinking process and demonstrate what is expected of her students?

Collierville Elementary fourth grade math teachers (l to r) Heather Floyd, Lydia McGuire and Angela Levin discuss a math lesson in this Dec. 3, 2014 photo. The teachers are involved in the pilot of peer teacher observations.
PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier/Chalkbeat TN
From left: Teachers Heather Floyd, Lydia McGuire and Angela Levin discuss a math lesson during their planning period as part of a pilot program on teacher peer observation.

To an outsider, it sounds like a lot to think about, but the checklist is anchored in one main objective, which makes the observation process less overwhelming.

“We plan the lessons together and we think about how we’re going to hit all the standards and do well in our focus area,” Levin said.

Tracking progress 

Since the introduction of teacher peer observations at Collierville Elementary, evaluation scores of its participants have increased. During the 2012-13 school year, the school’s average teacher evaluation score was 3.92 out of a possible 5. One year later, the school’s average teacher evaluation score had increased to 4.29.

“After the first year, we knew it was working,” said Louise Claney, the school’s former principal who is now the municipal district’s director of curriculum and accountability.

Collierville administrators are tracking student test results and teacher observation scores to measure how much the additional peer support is helping teachers improve. In the meantime, the school has expanded TPEG to its fifth-grade reading and language arts teachers.

Some districts participating in the pilot program implemented it full-scale while others moved incrementally. Researchers seem to advocate the latter approach.

“We’re still in the pilot stage and we want to take it deeper before it goes wider,” Cravens said. “Teachers have to want it and be able to adapt it. It’s really important not to push it because when it’s mandated, it doesn’t work.”

Town Hall

Hopson promises more flexibility as Memphis school leaders clear the air with teachers on new curriculum

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson answers questions from Memphis teachers at a town hall hosted by United Education Association of Shelby County on Monday.

The Shelby County Schools superintendent told passionate teachers at a union town hall Monday that they can expect more flexibility in how they teach the district’s newest curriculums.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the teachers who score highest on their evaluations should not feel like they need to read from a script to meet district requirements, although he didn’t have an immediate answer to how that would work.

Teacher frustrations were reaching a boiling point on district curriculums introduced this school year. Although the state requirements have changed several times over the last eight years, this change was particularly bothersome to teachers because they feel they are teaching to a “script.”

“Teachers have to be given the autonomy,” Hopson said. Although he cited the need for the district to have some control as teachers are learning, “at the end of the day, if you’re a level 4 or level 5 teacher, and you know your students, there needs to be some flexibility.”

Vocal teachers at the meeting cited check-ins from central office staff as evidence of the overreach.

“I keep hearing people say it’s supplemental but we have people coming into my room making sure we’re following it to a T,” said Amy Dixon a teacher at Snowden School. “We’re expected to follow it … like a script.”

The 90-minute meeting sponsored by the United Education Association of Shelby County drew a crowd of about 100 people to talk about curriculum and what Hopson called “a culture of fear” throughout the district of making a mistake.

Hopson said his team is still working on how to strike the right balance between creativity and continuity across nearly 150 district-run schools because so many students move during the school year.

He reassured despondent teachers he would come up with a plan to meet the needs of teachers and keep curriculums consistent. He said some continuity is needed across schools because many students move a lot during the school year.

“We know we got to make sure that I’m coming from Binghampton and going over to Whitehaven it’s got to be at least somewhat aligned,” he said. “I wish we were a stable, middle-class, not the poorest city in the country, then we wouldn’t have a lot of these issues.”

Ever since Tennessee’s largest district began phasing in parts of an English curriculum called Expeditionary Learning, teachers have complained of being micromanaged, instead of being able to tailor content for their students. The same goes for the new math curriculum Eureka Math.

The district’s changes are meant to line it up with the state. Tennessee’s new language arts and math standards replaced the Common Core curriculum, but in fact, did not deviate much when the final version was released last fall. This is the third change in eight years to state education requirements.

Still, Shelby County Schools cannot fully switch to the new curriculums until they are approved by the Tennessee State Board of Education. District leaders hope both curriculums, which received high marks from a national group that measures curriculum alignment to Common Core, will be added when textbooks are vetted for the 2019-20 school year.

Some urged educators to not think of the new curriculums as “scripts,” and admitted to poorly communicating the changes to teachers.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Pam Harris-Giles

“It’s not an expectation that we stand in front of our children and read off a piece of paper,” said Pam Harris-Giles, one of the district’s instructional support directors, who helps coordinate curriculum training and professional development.

Fredricka Vaughn, a teacher at Kirby High School, said that won’t be easy without clear communication of what flexibility will look like for high-performing teachers.

“If you don’t want us to use the word script, then bring back the autonomy,” she said.

Hopson stressed that the state’s largest school district could be a model for public education if everyone can work together to make the new curriculums work.

“It’s going to take work, hard work, everyone aligned from the top, everyone rowing in the same direction.”

Price of entry

Becoming a Colorado teacher could soon require fewer transcripts, more training on English learners

Stephanie Wujek teaches science at Wiggins Middle School , on April 5, 2017 in Wiggins, Colorado. Rural areas are having a hard time finding teachers in areas like math and science. (Photo by RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post)

The rules for becoming a teacher in Colorado are about to change — and officials hope the moves will help attract more math teachers and better prepare educators to work with students learning English.

The changes, which the Colorado Department of Education proposed this week, would also cut down on the paperwork needed to enter the profession and make it easier for teachers licensed in other states to re-enter the classroom after they move to Colorado.

The package of changes also includes a slimmed-down teacher evaluation rubric, the first major revision to the rules under Colorado’s 2010 teacher effectiveness law.

Among the proposed changes:

  • Less paperwork for new teachers. Applicants for a teaching license would no longer have to provide transcripts for every school they attended, only the transcripts for the school that granted them their highest degree. (Many colleges hold transcripts hostage for unpaid debt, even minor ones like unpaid parking tickets.
  • Less paperwork for teachers coming from other states. Experienced, licensed teachers from outside Colorado would no longer need to provide transcripts or prove that their teacher preparation program met Colorado standards.
  • More flexibility about previous teaching experience. Licensed teachers from other states would no longer need to have previously worked under a full-time contract to qualify for a Colorado license.
  • A new credential limited to middle-school math. Right now, Colorado only has a secondary math endorsement, which requires competency in trigonometry and calculus. That’s a barrier for teachers moving from other states with a math endorsement limited to middle school, and some see it as a roadblock for those who feel comfortable with algebra but not higher-level math.
  • Additional pathways for counselors and nurses to get licensed to work in schools.

Two bills making their way through the Colorado General Assembly this session would remove another barrier for out-of-state teachers. To qualify for a Colorado license today, teachers must have had three years of continuous teaching experience. If those bills are signed into law, applicants would only need three years of experience in the previous seven years.

Together, the proposals indicate how Colorado officials are working to make it a little easier to become a teacher in the state, which is facing a shortage in math teachers, counselors, and school nurses, among other specialties, as well as a shortage in many rural districts.

Colleen O’Neil, executive director of educator talent for the Colorado Department of Education, said many of the proposed changes came out of listening sessions focused on the state’s teacher shortage held around the state.  

The changes still don’t mean that if you’re a teacher anywhere in the country, you can easily become a teacher in Colorado. Just six states have full reciprocity, meaning anyone with a license from another state can teach with no additional requirements, according to the Education Commission of the States. Teachers whose licenses and endorsements don’t have a direct equivalent in Colorado would still need to apply for an interim license and then work to meet the standards of the appropriate Colorado license or endorsement.

The rule changes also add some requirements. Among those changes:

  • Prospective teachers will need more training on how to work with students learning English. Most significantly, all educator preparation programs would have to include six semester hours or 90 clock hours of training.
  • So will teachers renewing their licenses. They will need 45 clock hours, though the requirement wouldn’t kick in until the first full five-year cycle after the teacher’s most recent renewal. A teacher who just got her license renewed this year would have nine years to complete that additional training, as the requirement wouldn’t apply until the next renewal cycle. Superintendents in districts where less than 2 percent of the students are English language learners could apply for a waiver.

Colorado’s educator preparation rules already call for specialized training for teaching English language learners, but the rule change makes the requirements more explicit.

“We’re the sixth-largest state for English language learners,” O’Neil said. “We want to make sure our educators are equipped to teach all our learners.”

The rule changes would also “streamline,” in O’Neil’s words, the teacher evaluation process. Here’s what would change:

  • The five teacher quality standards would become four. “Reflection” and “leadership” are combined into “professionalism.”
  • The underlying elements of those standards would be reduced, too. Twenty-seven elements would become 17.

Fifty school districts and one charter collaborative have been testing the new evaluation system this year in a pilot program. O’Neil said most of the feedback has been positive, and the rest of the feedback has been to urge officials to winnow down the standards even further. That’s not a change she would support, O’Neil said.

“The reality is that teaching actually is rocket science,” she said. “There are a lot of practices and elements that go into good teaching.”

The state is accepting additional public comment on the rules until April 20, and a public hearing will be held in May. The new rules are expected to be adopted this summer.

Submit written feedback online or send an email to the State Board of Education at state.board@cde.state.co.us.