Future of Teaching

Federal judge dismisses TEA lawsuit challenging TVAAS in teacher bonuses

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
In 2014, Shelby County School teachers protest a bonus pay plan similar to the one Knox County teachers sued the state over.

The formula that Tennessee uses to rate teachers might be unfair — but it still can be used to decide whether they should get bonuses, a federal court has ruled.

The ruling, handed down this week in U.S. District Court in Knoxville, ends a heralded lawsuit that the state teachers union filed in 2014 challenging TVAAS, which the state uses to incorporate student test score growth in teacher evaluations.

In that suit, two teachers who had not received bonuses because of their TVAAS scores charged that the formula is too imprecise to be a valid measure of teacher quality. They also argued that the state’s use of the formula violates the U.S. Constitution by denying teachers their property — in this case, bonuses for “effective teaching” — without due process of the law.

The court ruled essentially that the teachers made a good point. But the ruling, which cannot be appealed, concludes that because no evaluations could take into account all of the teachers’ work, there’s nothing “irrational” about the state choosing to use growth in student test scores to grade teachers.

“While it may be a blunt tool, a rational policymaker could conclude that TVAAS is ‘capable of measuring some marginal impact that teachers can have on their own students,’” wrote Judge Harry S. Mattice Jr. in his ruling. “This is all the Constitution requires.”

The case’s permanent dismissal is a blow to critics of the state’s teacher evaluation policy, who hoped the court would roll back new rules that require student test scores to influence teachers’ ratings.

“National groups are right that we should not use value-added in high-stakes decisions. We know it is not right,” Tennessee Education Association President Barbara Gray said in a statement released Friday. “Now we need a true and fair understanding of what TVAAS is for lawmakers and the administration to change a flawed system.”

Representatives of the Tennessee Department of Education praised the ruling. “We were happy to hear that the judge has granted our motion to dismiss this case,” said spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

TVAAS is a complex algorithm that aims to isolate the impact of individual teachers on their students’ learning, as measured by state tests. One of the nation’s first “value-added” formulas, it has inspired similar efforts in other states.

TVAAS scores have been calculated since the 1990s but started being used to help determine ratings, bonuses and tenure status only since 2011, when Tennessee overhauled its teacher evaluation law. Under state law, TVAAS scores make up 35 percent of teachers’ ratings, with the rest based on in-person observations and “achievement measures,” which can include graduation rates, students’ AP or IB exam scores, or school-wide TVAAS scores.

The two teachers who filed the lawsuit, Lisa Trout and Mark Taylor, had strong ratings from classroom observations but TVAAS scores that were too low to make them eligible for bonuses from Knox County Schools. The district gives bonuses of up to $2,000 a year to teachers with strong ratings. Trout and Taylor charged that those scores should be discounted because only some of their students took the end-of-course exams used to generate the TVAAS scores.

Taylor’s rating was based on scores of just 22 of his 142 students, he said, rendering his TVAAS score meaningless.

Court documents reflect an exchange between William Sanders, the statistician who designed TVAAS, and Taylor’s parents, with whom he is acquainted.

Sanders was asked if a TVAAS score based on test scores of only a small fraction of a teacher’s students reflect a proper use of TVAAS. His answer: “For an overall evaluation of the effectiveness of the teacher to facilitate student academic progress, of course not.”

Mattice said in his ruling that he found the criticism compelling. But ultimately, the court ruled that Knox County had the right to hold back bonuses based on Taylor’s TVAAS. And he said the court did not have authority to tell the state legislature to come up with a different way to factor student learning into teachers’ ratings.

“It bears repeating that Plaintiffs’ concerns about the statistical imprecision of TVAAS are not unfounded,” the opinion reads. “However, this Court’s role is extremely limited. The judiciary is not empowered to second-guess the wisdom of the Tennessee legislature’s approach to solving the problems facing public education.”

The ruling comes as the influence of TVAAS on teacher ratings is in decline, at least for now.  Last year, the legislature voted to temporarily diminish TVAAS’ role in evaluations as the state transitions to TNReady, a new test touted as more rigorous than the test the state had used since the 1980s. And after technical glitches crippled the first round of TNReady this month, Gov. Bill Haslam has proposed nixing TVAAS based on this year’s test scores in teacher evaluations.

 

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to include comments from officials with the TEA and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Exiting

Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit

PHOTO: TN.Gov

Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.