Helping Haslam

JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, has some advice for Governor Haslam:

The critic, Niccolo Machiavelli, taught us that assertions of virtue and integrity in politicians are often grinning masks of deception. So we are not surprised when politicians routinely over-promise and under-deliver. State leadership must coherently articulate K-12 Education Policy to citizens in a truthful manner.

By state leaders continuing to ignore legitimate concerns, such as a vocal opposition to the Common Core State Standards and PARCC Assessments, policymakers and stakeholders across Tennessee have now been negatively impacted. This message has largely fallen on deaf ears at the highest level of state government, who continue to believe all is well. Members of the Tennessee General Assembly have listened and we are grateful to those legislators. Many citizens share the opinion that school teachers, principals, and superintendents are regarded by the administration as impediments to school improvement rather than partners.

As an organization, Professional Educators of Tennessee have embraced higher standards, with the caveat that we should always seek higher standards and a commitment to student achievement. We were very enthusiastic when Governor Haslam pledged to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries in October 2013 and again in the State of the State in February 2014. We intend to help him keep his word.

Governor Haslam has justly boasted “we are one of only six states in the country that has consistently increased state spending on K-12 education as a percentage of our total budget.” He has added that since 2011, “we’ve had the fourth largest increase in education spending compared to the rest of the country.” The questions we need to ask:  How much of this has been Race to the Top Funds?  Where were all those funds allocated?  How much money was actually earmarked to the classroom?

If policymakers boast that Tennessee is the fourth largest state for increase in education spending, then funds from RTTT need to factor into that calculation. Our estimation is that roughly $252 million of the RTTT grant was retained by the Tennessee Department of Education and never saw the inside of a school or classroom. These dollars went toward consultants’ contracts and partnerships.

Our belief is that every dollar earmarked for education should be spent to benefit Tennessee school children. A teacher’s working conditions are our students’ learning conditions. If Tennessee had the most ‘growth’ of any state on the latest NAEP results led by our state teachers, why were their promised salaries a lower priority than unproven PARCC Testing or adding Media/Marketing and Event Coordinators at the Tennessee Department of Education?

We support a delay and/or for the state to rescind the mandate for LEA’s to create a differentiated pay plan. Without the state’s increased financial contribution this creates an unfunded mandate on our local school systems. If the state mandates a requirement they should subsequently provide the necessary funding to facilitate that obligation at the local level. Unfunded mandates fly in the face of conservative orthodoxy and sound public policy.

Teacher attrition is a serious issue. We must keep experienced educators in our classrooms. Tennessee colleges and universities are very adept at meeting the demand for producing quality educators in this state. Historically, approximately 50% of the teachers that graduate with a degree in education do not find a teaching job.

We would suggest a review and delay for all Teach for America (TFA) contracts. Researcher Elaine Weiss revealed that Tennessee spends more money per Teach for America recruit than any other state. Some reports state that total compensations ranging from $5,000 to $9,000, to as high as $15,000, have been paid to Teach for America for their recruits. If this is true, we should turn to our own graduates of traditional colleges of education looking for an opportunity to teach in their own state.

Teaching is higher calling for professionals, not a pre-career placeholder. Therefore, it makes little sense to employ temporary teachers and spend scarce tax dollars and resources then watch a teacher leave after two years. Our goal should be hiring and retaining quality teachers that want to live, play, and worship in our communities long-term, instead of marking off days until a loan is forgiven and entrance to graduate school is accomplished.

We do not seek to be unduly critical of Governor Haslam. We recognize that there are many competent people in the Department of Education and administration. However, the media may be the only hope to reach the Governor. We encourage the Governor to confront issues directly, answer emails timely and regularly meet face-to-face with education stakeholders on a consistent basis, not through intermediaries. Governor Haslam, you need our help and we want to extend our hand to offer the assistance you need.

More on how Tennessee came to be short on revenue.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

 

The Governor, The Budget, and Making Teacher Salaries a Priority

This article was written by JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee.

By now Governor Haslam is aware of the disappointment by educators in his decision to remove increases in teacher salaries. In reneging on this promise, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation when it comes to teacher salaries, it is clear his priorities have shifted. This pay raise was promoted with great fanfare.

In October 2013, Professional Educators of Tennessee applauded Governor Haslam’s decision to make Tennessee the fastest growing state for teacher salaries. We must be equally concerned about the abandonment of this pledge and reneging on this statement within such a short period of time.

Public school teachers do incredible work across the state of Tennessee and the nation. They are often not recognized for their tireless dedication to a very demanding job, in which most educators identify as a calling. It has been fashionable to lay all the ills of society at the feet of teachers, but it is not fair. Every intelligent debate on student achievement would be wise to consider factors beyond the control of most teachers and schools.

No generation of educators in the history of the world has been asked to do what we now demand of our public schools. The challenge and responsibility has grown, yet public schools gladly commit to teach all children who enter their classrooms.

Everyday teachers are challenged by a wide-ranging mixture of social, psychological, and physical problems that impede the improvement of so many students entrusted into their care. You cannot reduce salaries or fail to reward Tennessee Educators and hope to attract and retain the best teachers to prepare students for the jobs of the future. This must be a legislative priority.

We need to take a very close look at teacher attrition. It is difficult to create a stable and world class education with a highly unstable teaching workforce. You cannot continue to make teachers, or state employees for that matter, a non-priority. When legislative priorities are more focused on the results of a test given at the end of a school the year, rather than those educating children then we have lost our focus as a state. We have made textbook companies and test publishers prosperous while we engage in a rigorous debate over a 2% raise for a teacher. People deserve a higher priority.

I understand Governor Haslam’s conundrum; business tax revenues are roughly $200 million less than projections. However, educators cannot understand how the Haslam Administration could have changed course so quickly and made educators bear the brunt of his decision making. In a political environment rampant with ideological conflict and tainted by partisanship, surely no policymaker of either party can be satisfied by the decision to abandon minor raises for teachers and state workers.

Policymakers understand that state policies and budget decisions affect the lives of Tennesseans. Any budget proposed must decisively connect tax dollars to state priorities. When teacher salaries are cut from the state budget you may well be creating another unfunded state mandate on LEA’s due to the state mandated differentiated pay plan. We encourage policymakers to discuss this directly with LEA’s in their community.

Like many policymakers, we feel disconnected when we hear of decisions impacting public education through the media, and not from the governor or his staff directly. Stakeholders should have a chance to weigh in on the cumulative effects of a policy change. This is poor leadership and lacks transparency.  We would maintain that when confronting a calamity of this nature, government needs to be transparent about the situation, the people, and the decisions which must be made. Transparency breeds accountability, accountability leads to trust, and trust will allow Tennesseans to know their tax dollars are used wisely.

Research clearly and consistently demonstrates that the quality of the classroom teacher is the number one school based factor in student learning. This is not what is reflected in Governor Haslam’s budget. It is up to policymakers and constituents to ask the Governor why teacher salaries are not a priority.

More on Governor Haslam’s broken promise here.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Prioritizing Education

Gov. Bill Haslam tweeted on October 3, 2013: “Teachers are the key to classroom success and we’re seeing real progress.  We want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.”

The first hint that being fast-improving might take some time came in the Governor’s 2014 budget presentation, when he proposed a 2% pay raise for the state’s teachers.  By way of comparison, Kentucky’s Governor also proposed a 2% raise for his state’s teachers. It’s tough to be the fastest improving when you move at the same rate as your competition.  It’s like being down 40-30 at halftime of a basketball game.  Then, in the second half, you match the other team and score 40 points.  You end up losing 80-70.  To be fastest-improving, you have to score more points, but maybe Haslam’s not a sports fan.

Then, comes yesterday’s news that Haslam’s budget is facing trouble because state revenues are down.  So, surely he’s going to focus on keeping those all-important teacher raises and commitment to K-12 education, right? Wrong.  Haslam is balancing the state budget by denying promised raises to teachers and state employees and ditching his proposed increases to higher education. What’s worse, Haslam’s Commissioner of Education convinced the state Board of Education to mandate that Tennessee school districts adopt differentiated pay scales.  The 2% increase in salary money available to districts was to help them meet this goal.  Now, the districts still face the mandate but will lack the state support to make truly meaningful change.

Below Mississippi? The Tennessee Education Association was quick to jump on the proposed cuts as unacceptable.  Citing research by the National Education Association, the TEA notes in a press release that Tennessee will now invest less per student than Mississippi.  According to the research, Tennessee’s per pupil investment is 45th in the nation and below every neighboring state but North Carolina. TEA President Gera Summerford said, “In order to attract and retain the best teachers, it is critical that the state properly fund teacher salaries.”

Where’d the Money Go? Governor Haslam blames the $160 million hole in the budget on lower than expected corporate taxes.  However, no mention is made of the $46 million in lost revenue from a 1/2 cent decrease in the state portion of the sales tax on food.  While removing or reducing the sales tax on food is a laudable goal, doing so without finding revenue to replace it is irresponsible.  The sales tax on food is the most reliable portion of state revenue. Additional revenue is lost by the gradual phase out of Tennessee’s estate tax, previously impacting estates over $1 million.  The plan is to phase that out entirely by 2016, with an estimated revenue loss of around $30 million this year and around $97 million in 2016-17’s budget. So, that’s roughly $76 million, or close to half of the projected shortfall for the upcoming budget cycle. To his credit, Haslam says he wants to hold off on efforts to repeal the Hall tax on investment income – a tax paid by a small number of wealthy Tennesseans with investment income.  However, he has also said reducing or eliminating the Hall tax is a goal. Phasing out the tax, as proposed in legislation under consideration this year at the General Assembly, would mean a loss of $20 million in the 2015-16 budget year and an ultimate loss in state funds of $160 million a year and in local revenue of $86 million a year.

Other options? It’s not clear, what, if any other options were considered.  In Kentucky, Governor Steve Beshear proposed a budget that included 5% cuts to most state departments while raising teacher pay and increasing investment in K-12 education. So, while his state faces a tight budget situation and difficult choices, he chose to put forward a budget that increased spending on public education and invested in Kentucky’s teachers, who are already better paid than Tennessee’s. The Kentucky General Assembly passed a version of that budget this week. Tennessee’s General Assembly may make changes to Governor Haslam’s proposals, of course. But it’s difficult to claim that Bill Haslam is putting education first.  Of course, that tweet back in October could also have been a set up for a rather cruel April Fool’s Day joke.   For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

TEA Files Second TVAAS Lawsuit

Suit Names Haslam, Huffman as Defendants

The Tennessee Education Association has filed a second lawsuit challenging the use of TVAAS data for teacher merit pay.  This suit, like the one filed last week, was filed in Knox County.

In this case, a science teacher was denied a bonus under the APEX system as a result of TVAAS scores associated with just 16% of the students he teaches.

Here, it seems the principles behind incentive pay didn’t work.  That is, proponents of merit pay suggest that teachers will be more motivated to perform if they know there’s a monetary incentive attached to their performance.  In this case, the teacher knew his pay was tied to performance in only one of the classes he taught and yet it was the scores in that class that were not high enough on TVAAS to earn him a bonus.

The perverse incentive created by such a system is that a teacher would focus on only a few of his or her students in order to achieve a raise.

In this case, it could be that the teacher wasn’t at his best in this particular class.  Or, it could be he treats all his courses the same and the results he achieved in this particular class were good, but not high enough to reach the bonus level.

The challenge of merit pay is that it assumes that if there’s a monetary bonus attached to pay, teachers will work harder than they are.  The very premise is insulting because it assumes that teachers aren’t working at their best right now and if only they had a small financial incentive, they’d work a little harder. The facts of this specific case suggest otherwise.

Another takeaway from this case is that the system is not paying teachers based on the totality of their work.  This teacher taught other, upper level science courses that were not tested.  He didn’t have TVAAS data for those, but there is surely some form of test data that could be used to assess value-added if that’s the desired way to establish performance.  That’s not being done, either.  Maybe this teacher does an outstanding job in the upper level courses.  We don’t know.  And, based on the pay structure in place in Knox County, the system sends that message that his performance in those courses is irrelevant to his pay.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

 

TEA Files TVAAS Lawsuit in Knox County

Use of TVAAS is Arbitrary and Violates 14th Amendment, TEA Alleges

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) has filed a lawsuit on behalf of a Knox County teacher who was denied a bonus under that school system’s pay plan after Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) data for 10 of her students was unknowingly attributed to her.

TVAAS is Tennessee’s system of measuring student growth over time. It generates data based on student test scores on TCAP and end of course tests.

In this specific case, the teacher, Lisa Trout, was assigned TVAAS data for 10 students after being told her evaluation would be based on system-wide TVAAS data because she taught at an alternative school.

The TEA lawsuit cites two different memos which indicated that Ms. Trout could expect an evaluation (and bonus eligibility) to be based on system-wide data. At the conclusion of the school year, Ms. Trout was informed that her overall evaluation score, including observations and TVAAS data was a 4, making her eligible for a bonus under the Knox County pay plan.

When she did not receive the bonus as expected, she began asking questions about why the bonus had not been paid.  She ultimately determined that without her knowledge, a school counselor had assigned 10 students to Ms. Trout for the factoring of TVAAS scores.  The students were in an Algebra II course Ms. Trout taught, even though she does not hold an endorsement for teaching Alegbra II.

Though the suit does not specifically mention this, it should be noted that 10 students is a particularly small sample size subject to significant statistical anomaly.

The TEA lawsuit contends that Ms. Trout was owed the bonus based on Knox County School Board policy and in this specific instance, the bonus should have been paid.

Arbitrary?

The TEA goes on to contend that Ms. Trout and similarly situated teachers for whom there is little or no specific TVAAS data are held to an arbitrary standard in violation of the 14th Amendment of the U.S. Constitution.

Specifically, the suit notes: ” … the majority of teachers in the Knox County Schools … have had their eligibility for additional compensation (under the APEX bonus system) determined on the basis of the test scores of students they do not teach and/or the test scores of their students in subjects unrelated to the subjects they teach.”

The suit alleges that such a system violates the Equal Protection Clause of the 14th Amendment because some teachers are evaluated and receive bonuses based on the scores of their own students while other teachers are held accountable for students they do not teach and over which they have no influence or control.

In short, the entire system is flawed and should be discarded.

A spokesperson for TEA confirmed that the organization does not believe that teacher pay should be tied to TVAAS data.

On a related note, the Metro Nashville Public Schools recently announced it is putting plans to pay teachers in part based on TVAAS scores on hold indefinitely.

A TEA press release announcing the Knox County suit indicated that the organization anticipates additional lawsuits along these lines.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

 

MNPS Defers Plan to Pay Teachers Based on Test Scores

Joey Garrison has the story on MNPS deferring previously stated plans to base future pay raises for teachers on test scores and the TEAM evaluation model.

District officials suggest they need more time to determine how best to incorporate the TEAM evaluations into a pay plan for teachers.  TEAM includes both TVAAS scores and teacher observations to create a 1-5 ranking for teachers (1 being the lowest ranking, 5 the highest).

Some have suggested teacher resistance to the proposal played a role in the delay, but MNPS says they simply want to take the time needed to develop the best plan.

MNPS also offered no timeline for revisiting the TEAM-based portion of the pay plan.

For now, there’s more work to be done to devise a pay plan that meets new state requirements.

The MNPS decision may foreshadow similar action by other districts as teachers express concerns about pay being tied to student test scores, especially TVAAS data.

 

 

A Broader, Bolder SCORE Report

Today, newly-formed education advocacy group TREE (Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence) hosted a presentation by Elaine Weiss of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

Weiss discussed recent Tennessee education policy in the context of the drivers of educational inequality.  She pointed to research suggesting that poverty is a significant contributor to student outcomes and noted other research that suggests as much as 2/3 of student outcomes are predicted by factors outside of school.

Later in the day, SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education) released its annual State of Education in Tennessee Report.

Both reports indicate Tennessee has much work to do to improve educational outcomes.  There were some similarities and some differences in the approaches presented, however.

The SCORE report outlined five specific priorities for Tennessee education policy in 2014.  I’ll examine those and note where the Broader, Bolder Approach supported by Weiss matches up and where there are differences.

Here are the SCORE priorities:

  • Maintaining a commitment to rigorous standards and assessments. The report says Tennessee must push forward with the continued implementation of the Common Core State Standards. It also points out that measuring student success with higher standards is needed for effective instruction, so Tennessee must continue its commitment to implementing the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC) assessments.
  • Strengthening schools through effective leadership. As Tennessee continues to implement student-centered initiatives it is crucial to have strong instructional leadership in every school, the report concludes. To build a pipeline of strong leaders, the state focus should be on creating an aligned, rigorous system for recruiting, training, evaluating and providing ongoing support to school leaders.
  • Expanding student access to great teaching. The report specifically calls for providing teachers with the tools and resources – including instructional coaching, collaborative planning time, and targeted professional learning – that will enable them to be experts in their profession. The report also calls for helping teacher preparation programs implement more selective admissions processes and rigorous curriculum requirements that prioritize the skills and knowledge teachers need to support students in the classroom.
  • Investing in technology to enhance instruction. The report says that although the upcoming online PARCC assessments are a catalyst for increasing technological capabilities in schools and school districts, investing in technology must be an ongoing priority and not just a one-time purchase. Students and teachers need daily access to technology and must be trained on using it, the report says.
  • Supporting students from kindergarten to career. The report points out that in today’s economy most careers require training after high school. It specifically calls for creating a data-rich environment that equips leaders, educators, and parents with the information and tools they need and a data-driven approach to making decisions about policy and practice that will advance student success. It also recommends expanded opportunities for more students to take AP, International Baccalaureate, dual-credit, and dual-enrollment courses and to study science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM) subjects.

And here is some analysis in light of the Broader, Bolder presentation:

Standards/Assessment: Weiss suggests that higher standards alone do not improve student achievement.  She points to persistent achievement gaps over time in spite of increasing standards, particularly in the NCLB era.  She also notes the stress caused to students and parents due to increased testing.  She notes that in some cases, as much as 30 instructional days are lost to testing and test prep. She suggests that raising student achievement over time must not simply be a function of high standards but also must include a commitment to supporting students and families outside of school.

Strengthening Schools Through Effective Leadership: Here, SCORE focuses on providing support for the development of effective school principals.  Weiss also suggests the importance of providing support and development to teachers and school leaders.  She would note that having an effective leader alone won’t close the gap, but that having supported leaders along with strong community supports can make a difference.

Expanding Student Access to Great Teaching: Weiss notes that Tennessee’s teachers are among the lowest paid in the country.  SCORE does not specifically address teacher pay in its report.  SCORE does call for improved professional development and additional collaboration with teachers going forward.  SCORE also calls for continued use of TVAAS to identify quality teachers.  Weiss is clear that value-added modeling is inconsistent and unreliable as a tool for evaluating teachers.  At the same time, SCORE calls for adding growth measures to additional teachers (these may or may not be in the form of tests that feed into the TVAAS formula).

Access to Technology: While Weiss might also place value on technology, she’d also suggest that access to summer learning opportunities and enriching extended learning is important.  She points to research suggesting that low-income students tend to proceed at a rate comparable to their peers but lose significant ground over the summer.  That is, what teachers are doing is working, but outside supports are lacking.  Adding meaningful time to the school calendar is one way to address this.

Supporting Kids from Kindergarten to Career:  Weiss absolutely states that kids need a variety of supports throughout school to ensure their success.  She’d likely expand this recommendation to include supporting kids from Pre-Kindergarten through career.  In fact, Weiss notes that while Tennessee was once moving quickly to grow a high-quality Pre-K program, the state has not added a single Pre-K seat since winning Race to the Top. Weiss explicitly recommends continuing the growth of the state’s Pre-K program in order to provide a proven intervention that closes opportunity gaps.

With the exception of TVAAS, it seems the Broader, Bolder Approach outlined by Weiss would generally be in agreement with the SCORE recommendations.  However, as the name indicates, the approach favored by Weiss would be broader and more expansive.  It would include expanded access to Pre-K. It would provide both targeted support to teachers AND significantly better pay for teachers.  It would examine ways to add valuable learning time to the school calendar.  And it would seek a more balanced approach to administering tests in order to avoid an over-reliance on test-based assessments.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow us @TNEdReport

 

 

The Education Agenda

What’s the best way to move Tennessee schools forward? It seems lots of people have opinions about this.  And some organized groups (teachers, superintendents, parents) are familiar faces around the General Assembly as education legislation is discussed, debated, and voted on.

Here, I attempt to break down the education agenda according to various groups attempting to influence the debate at the General Assembly this session.

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET)

This group of teachers is the smaller of the two organizations in the state representing teachers (the other being the Tennessee Education Association).

We’ve written about PET’s 2014 agenda before.

Essentially, they are focusing on teacher licensure (and the use of TVAAS to determine continuation), protection of student and teacher data, and testing.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE)

We reported last week on the launch of this new group. They appear to stand in opposition to much of the current reform agenda in Nashville (state charter authorizer, vouchers, etc.). They also support full funding of BEP 2.0.

Tennessee Education Association (TEA)

TEA is the state’s oldest and largest association of teachers.  The TEA has historically opposed the expansion of charter schools and the use of public dollars for private schools (vouchers). They have a fairly wide-ranging legislative agenda. Additionally, they are currently undertaking a “road trip” to expose flaws in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA)

As its name implies, this group represents school boards across the state.  Though a few systems are not members, most in Tennessee are.  Here’s their complete agenda.  The organization opposes vouchers and opposes revoking a teacher’s license based solely on TVAAS data.

Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS)

The statewide organization representing school superintendents.  Their full legislative agenda can be found here. TOSS opposes vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and the revocation of a teacher’s license based on TVAAS data.

Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)

SCORE is headed-up by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  The organization is comprised of many education stakeholders and aims to provide information to policymakers as they make decisions that impact schools.  They have been supportive of the new teacher evaluation model and are the leading organization in Tennessee in support of the Common Core State Standards.  More on SCORE here.

Stand for Children

This organization has been active in Tennessee since 1999.  For the sake of full disclosure, I worked for Stand in TN from 2007-2009. The organization made its mark in Tennessee advocating for expanded access to Pre-K.  According to a recent email from new Executive Director Betty Anderson, the organization plans to focus this year’s legislative efforts on maintaining the Common Core State Standards.  They are also supportive of expanded access to Pre-K and to improvements to the BEP.

StudentsFirst

This is the Tennessee affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s nationwide StudentsFirst organization. Here’s the group’s official issue agenda.  They have been supportive of vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and teacher merit pay.

Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA)

The Tennessee PTA is comprised of parents organized at the local school level. While these groups typically support their specific school, the PTA also supports schools and students in the community and state. Their complete legislative agenda can be found here. The PTA includes in its agenda support for the inclusion of parent and student feedback in teacher evaluation and the use of “strategic compensation” for teachers.  They also support the Coordinated School Health program and changes to the BEP that would provide funding for additional nurses. The PTA opposes vouchers.

School Choice Now

This group is a joint project of the Tennessee Federation for Children and the Beacon Center of TN.  Their focus is on a statewide school voucher program, which they call “opportunity scholarships.”

Those are the major groups I’m aware of attempting to influence education policy in Tennessee. There are likely others.  But this is a starting point to understanding what’s going on at the Legislative Plaza regarding education policy and who is pushing for what policies.

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow us @TNEdReport

 

Strategies for Retaining Educators

Memphis teacher and blogger Jonathan Alfuth writes about strategies for retaining educators in an urban environment.

This past June, I completed my second year as a Teach for America teacher.  I’d worked in one of the most struggling high schools in Memphis but rather than being scared away, it strengthened my commitment to teaching.  Yet I knew that there was no way I’d return to my placement school.  The culture didn’t promote student achievement, individual teachers operated in isolation and we had little shared vision for where we were going as a school.

Over the next few weeks, I did a comprehensive search of schools across Memphis. While I turned up several schools that I believed embodied the type of culture I desired, none of them were Shelby County Schools (all were charter).  I made the choice to move to a charter school and I’ve been amazed by the difference in culture and its impact on student achievement.  Our leaders are hardworking and dedicated to a common mission.  My colleagues and I are given common planning time in content and grade level teams each and every week. And most importantly, we work together to develop the kind of school culture that drives students to success.  I see its impact each and every day in the quality of my students work and their academic outcomes as so far, 100% of our graduating students have been accepted to 4-year schools.

My dilemma was recently discussed at the policy level in Shelby County during the school board’s decision whether or not to extend Teach for America’s contract with the district.  The board voted to extend the contract, but the two opponents of extending the contract cited poor TFA retention beyond the program’s two year commitment in their opposition to its continuation.  In the same piece, she also quoted Superintendent Hopson in a statement that perfectly encompasses my dilemma and the dilemma of second year TFA teachers every year.  Hopson said, “I have to say, if effective talent is leaving the district at a 70-something percent rate, we have to look at strategies we can use to retain talent.”

I often find myself thinking that we’ve done so much to improve education both here in Memphis and across Tennessee.  We’ve reformed teacher evaluation to identify our best and brightest.  We’re on the verge of dramatically reforming teacher compensation in Tennessee.   And yet all this means NOTHING if we cannot keep great teachers in high need classrooms once they are placed.  This begs the question; what do educators really want?  What will keep them in district classrooms?  In my experience, young education professionals, TFA or otherwise, aren’t much different from most other young professions.  We all have highly varied motivations for entering the profession.  But in the end, great teachers gravitate towards environments with great school and district leaders, great office (or in this case school) culture that focuses on achievement and great colleagues that work together to achieve a common vision.

I am a TFA alumni but I also work closely with young educators from both alternative and traditional certification programs.  And I believe strongly that my decision is one that almost every young educator in Shelby County faces at some point in their first two years.  At the end of two years, many young educators, TFA or otherwise, feel a strong sense of commitment to their children and a desire to continue in education.  However, we are often placed in such dysfunctional environments that we have to make a choice which feels like choosing between being a martyr for our kids by staying or abandoning them by quitting or moving schools.  And so often the challenges inherent in district schools make the former untenable, and so we leave, either choosing a different school like I have or leaving the profession all together.

I should add that some schools in Shelby County have found a way to make it work and retain young educators beyond their first few years.  Colleagues of mine at Ridgeway High, Whitehaven and Kingsbury High consistently tell me about the strength of their school leadership and the support they receive from their colleagues.  We should certainly study these schools further, but they represent the exception rather than the norm.

Until district leaders devote attention to improving school cultures to make them attractive and professional work environments that attract young educators, we will continue to see an exodus of young teaching talent to other systems, schools or professions.  And it won’t matter what program those educators come from if conditions are so challenging that teachers can’t fathom working in high need environments.  We can extend or eliminate contracts with organizations like Teach for America, but that won’t fix the underlying fact that many young educators simply don’t feel that the school culture where the work is one where they can be successful.

I don’t want to leave this post without offering some solutions.  I’ve already written a seven part series on a package of strategies that could be used to promote teacher retention in SCS, so I  won’t rehash it here. If you’re interested in some research based strategies for how we could start building the types of school cultures that attract and retain high quality educators by enacting district level policies, I invite you to check the series out here.

Jonathan Alfuth is a math teacher at a charter school in Memphis.  He blogs about education issues at Bluff City Ed

For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow us @TNEdReport

 

Raj Chetty and Tennessee Education Policy

No, Raj Chetty, economics professor at Harvard,  is not specifically making recommendations to Tennessee about how to conduct education policy.  But he did join with other scholars to analyze Tennessee’s STAR program (1985-1989) for early education (K-3) which included students in 79 Tennessee schools and random student assignment.

The results of Chetty’s study suggest that the quality of a kindergarten class matters greatly to a child’s future.  It’s important to note that the study focused on the overall quality of the class — from the teacher to the resources provided to class size to peer group.  So, yes, quality matters.  And certainly, the teacher is a factor in that overall quality picture.

Chetty notes that a top quartile teacher (based on test scores) can make a significant difference in lifetime income for a child.  Yes, I’ve been critical about the “big” differences Chetty notes in terms of lifetime income in other studies. And, I certainly have questions about how important this particular finding is in terms of overall income impact. And then there’s the whole notion about the limitations of the knowledge we can gain about an individual teacher based on test scores alone.

That said, Chetty does note the findings are statistically significant and his study does control for many outside factors in order to isolate classroom inputs.

Moreover, the current Tennessee Department of Education policy framework is geared toward improving results on just these sorts of tests.

So, it becomes interesting, then to see what Chetty’s research says about how to improve results on such tests (which provide at least some predictive value about how a student will do later in life) and how that compares to current Tennessee education policy being pursued by the Haslam-Huffman regime.

1) Class Size Matters: According to the Chetty study, “Small-class students went on to attend college at higher rates and to do better on a variety of measures such as retirement savings, mar- riage rates, and quality of their neighborhood of residence.”  Which makes it difficult to understand why among the first proposals of Commissioner Huffman was to attempt to adopt a policy that would have raised class sizes across Tennessee.

2) Teacher Experience Matters: Contrary to what Commissioner Huffman told the State Board of Education about teacher experience (that a teacher’s years of experience don’t effectively predict student outcomes), the Chetty study noted, “We find that kindergarten teachers with more years of teaching experience are more effective at raising both kindergarten test scores and adult earnings. This may partly be the effect of learning on the job, but it may also reflect the fact that teachers who have taught for a long time are more devoted to the profession or were trained differently.” In spite of this Tennessee-specific data on the importance of years of experience to improved student outcomes, Commissioner Huffman proposed and the State Board of Education adopted a teacher pay plan that discounts years of experience as a factor in compensation.

3) Teacher Merit Pay is Problematic: When discussing the policy implications of the study, Chetty notes, “Merit pay policies could potentially improve teaching quality but may also
lead to teaching to the test without gains on the all- important noncognitive dimensions” (soft skills). Which, as stated above, would point to policies that move away from merit pay for individual teachers, in contrast to the Haslam-Huffman policy.

4) Teacher Support is Critical: Chetty specifically points to improved teacher training, early career mentoring, and reducing class sizes as policies that could work to improve the overall quality of early (K-3) classrooms.  Again, Tennessee has no statewide program for new teacher mentoring and is not systematically working on reducing class size, especially in the early grades.  In fact, as noted above, the initial proposal from this administration would have increased class sizes.

While I may be among the first to look skeptically at the current administration’s education policy goals, it would be nice if their policy solutions actually lined up with the stated goals.  In this case, using Tennessee data, it seems clear the proposed solutions are not matching the stated challenges.

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