A Tennessee Teacher Speaks Out

A Knox County teacher addresses her School Board and expresses the frustrations of many teachers in Tennessee.

 

The question: Is anyone listening? And, if so, will anything be done to bring about collaboration with and input from educators?

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

 

20 Years of TVAAS has Told Us Almost Nothing

Valerie Strauss has an interesting piece over at the Washington Post dealing with Value-Added Modeling.  More specifically, the post analyzes what can be learned from 20 years of the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) implemented as a result of the Education Improvement Act — the Act that created the Basic Education Program (Tennessee’s school funding formula, also known as BEP).

The promise of Value-Added Assessment was that we could learn a lot about which schools were working and which weren’t.  We could learn a lot about kids and how they were progressing.  We could even learn about teachers and how they were doing with all their students and with specific groups of students.  With all this information, Tennessee would intervene and take action that would move schools forward.

Unfortunately, that promise has not been delivered.  At all.

Here, I highlight the key takeaways from the Strauss piece.  Tennessee parents and policymakers should take note – TVAAS is taking up tax dollars and impacting teacher evaluations and it doesn’t really work all that well.

1. Using TVAAS masked persistently low proficiency rates.

The Tennessee value-added assessment model basically identified the schools that were already making required annual proficiency targets, but it failed to distinguish between schools with rising or declining proficiency scores.

In short, the Sanders Model did little to address the essential unfairness perpetuated by NCLB proficiency requirements, which insisted that those student further behind and with fewer resources than those in economically privileged schools had to work harder to reach the same proficiency point.  More importantly, there was no evidence that the Sanders version of value-added testing did anything to help or even predict the future outcomes for those furthest behind.

 

2. TVAAS is unstable and inappropriate for high-stakes decisions — like hiring and firing teachers, renewing licenses, or determining pay.

And despite the National Research Council and the National Academies’ flagging of value-added assessment as too unstable for high-stakes decisions in education …

…states like Tennessee rushed to implement a federally recommended system whereby value-added growth scores would come to dominate teacher evaluation for educators who teach tested subjects.  And contrary to the most basic notions of accountability and fairness, two-thirds of Tennessee teachers who teach non-tested subjects are being evaluated based on school-wide scores in their schools, rather than their own.

3. Continued use of TVAAS as an indicator of “success” leaves the most vulnerable students further and further behind.

In a 2009 Carnegie-funded report, Charles Barone points out that focus on value-added gains, or growth in test scores, may downplay the need for interventions to address low proficiency rates:  “Due to the projection toward proficiency being recalculated annually [in the TVAAS model], there is not necessarily a significant progression, over time toward proficiency . . . causing a delay of needed intervention at appropriate developmental times” (p. 8). So while showing academic progress, gain scores or growth scores easily mask the fact that minority and poor children are far below their well-heeled peers in becoming intellectually prepared for life and careers. And in masking the actual academic progress of the poor and minority students, the state (and the nation) is let off the hook for maintaining and supporting an adequate and equally accessible system of public education for all students. At the same time, politicians and ideologues can celebrate higher “progress rates” for poor and minority students who are, in fact, left further and further behind.

4. Tennessee has actually lost ground in terms of student achievement relative to other states since the implementation of TVAAS.

Tennessee received a D on K-12 achievement when compared to other states based on NAEP achievement levels and gains, poverty gaps, graduation rates, and Advanced Placement test scores (Quality Counts 2011, p. 46).  Educational progress made in other states on NAEP [from 1992 to 2011] lowered Tennessee’s rankings:

• from 36th/42 to 46th/52 in the nation in fourth-grade math[2]

• from 29th/42 to 42nd/52 in fourth-grade reading[3]

• from 35th/42 to 46th/52 in eighth-grade math

• from 25th/38 (1998) to 42nd/52 in eighth-grade reading.

5. TVAAS tells us almost nothing about teacher effectiveness.

While other states are making gains, Tennessee has remained stagnant or lost ground since 1992 — despite an increasingly heavy use of TVAAS data.

So, if TVAAS isn’t helping kids, it must be because Tennessee hasn’t been using it right, right? Wrong. While education policy makers in Tennessee continue to push the use of TVAAS for items such as teacher evaluation, teacher pay, and teacher license renewal, there is little evidence that value-added data effectively differentiates between the most and least effective teachers.

In fact, this analysis demonstrates that the difference between a value-added identified “great” teacher and a value-added identified “average” teacher is about $300 in earnings per year per student.  So, not that much at all.  Statistically speaking, we’d call that insignificant.  That’s not to say that teachers don’t impact students.  It IS to say that TVAAS data tells us very little about HOW teachers impact students.

Surprisingly, Tennessee has spent roughly $326 million on TVAAS and attendant assessment over the past 20 years. That’s $16 million a year on a system that is not yielding much useful information. Instead, TVAAS data has been used to mask a persistent performance gap between middle to upper income students and their lower-income peers.  Overall student achievement in Tennessee remains stagnant (which means we’re falling behind our neighboring states) while politicians and policy makers tout TVAAS-approved gains as a sure sign of progress.

In spite of mounting evidence contradicting the utility of TVAAS, Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam announced last week they want to “improve” Tennessee teacher salaries along the lines of merit — and in their minds, TVAAS gains are a key determinant of teacher merit.

Perhaps 2014 will at least produce questions from the General Assembly about the state’s investment in an assessment system that has over 20 years yielded incredibly disappointing results.

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

 

 

PET Talks to Kevin Huffman

Professional Educators of Tennessee launched a new online journal today and it contains a wide-ranging interview with Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The full interview can be viewed here.

I’ve got some excerpts and analysis below.

PET:  You started in your post about 3 or 4 months into Governor Haslam’s term, after Tennessee was already several months into the Race to the Top (RTTT) Grant Award and after the new evaluation system was put in place.  Yet, many people seem to tie you to the changes in teacher evaluation which was actually included in the 2010 RTTT Application.  Is that fair?

Huffman: Yes and no. No in the sense that we committed to implement the system (including 50% student achievement for all teachers) through the First to the Top legislation and then through the grant. My first week on the job, the advisory committee (TEAC) completed its work which included the selection of the TEAM rubric and the format for the observations, so that was all done by the time I came, and it isn’t accurate to say that I created it.

What set us apart from other states, though, is that we didn’t back down. Other states committed to do evaluation too, and many delayed by a year or two, or kicked the can even farther down the road, and we stayed the course. If that means that I am tied to the evaluation system, I accept that, because I think the system has made instruction better and helped kids learn more. One of the things I think people miss in the evaluation discussion is that the real value is not in anything punitive: it is in ensuring that real feedback and conversations about instruction happen across the state with a common language. And I think that has happened.

What’s missing, in my view, is the attendant professional development and early career support.  Early career teachers need mentoring and support.  Teach for America, where Huffman got his start, places a heavy emphasis on targeted coaching and mentoring in the first two years. Even if the evaluation process is on balance a good one (and there’s debate about that), it’s difficult to see how it improves instruction significantly without supports and targeted professional development being provided to teachers. 

PET:  What changes do we need to make in teacher evaluations?  And what should the state have done differently in retrospect?

Huffman: We made a bunch of changes after the first year, which I think made the system better and certainly made educators feel the system was better in the second year. I think we have to keep looking each year at how to improve it. A couple of things over the long haul that I think we need to keep looking at: 1) adjusting language each year on the rubric so that it effectively matches the observations with the standards teachers are teaching. I think we have done a little of this but we have to keep looking; 2) the whole “15% measure” for achievement still doesn’t seem to be going very well. Many teachers and schools don’t feel like it accurately reflects teachers’ impact, so I want to keep looking at this.

In retrospect, I think the biggest piece missing was training and communication for teachers well in advance of the rollout. I think some teachers got strong communication from local schools and districts and others did not, and the communication piece was insufficient from the state. A good example of that was the initial “planning” strand. Some teachers spent hours and hours and wrote 20-page lesson plan documents, which was never the intent. Better communication way back in early 2011 would have made a big difference.

The evaluation process is an ever-changing one — and that’s frustrating for teachers.  Every few months, it seems, something new is decided or added or taken away from the evaluation process. No one objects to a sound evaluation of their performance.  What’s problematic is the implementation.  Further, the 15% measure for achievement is becoming more, not less problematic.  In some systems, teachers are forced to choose an “Annual Measurable Objective” connected to English/Language Arts or Math.  Rather than owning their own students (in the case of AP teachers, for example) teachers are sometimes tied to students they’ve never taught.  The State Board document on the 15% provides a number of choices and ample flexibility.  Revisiting this issue with the input of teachers from across the state would be a welcome policy change.

PET:  In your opinion, what are the top three current challenges facing education in Tennessee?

Huffman: This is a tough one. 1) Helping students with disabilities reach their potential. We have a huge gap in achievement and we are really focused on this at the state level right now. 2) Early grades reading. We heard all summer from teachers that they need and want more support for teaching reading and for intervening with students who are far behind their peers. We are offering a course through our regional CORE offices to thousands of teachers on reading instruction, and I hope it will help. 3) Integrating all of the changes. We have done a lot in the last few years, and we now have new assessments coming. Our focus is not on more change – it is on how to manage all of the change effectively.
I’m very bullish on our ability to navigate these challenges though.

One clear way to improve early grades reading is by ensuring access to high quality Pre-K programs.  Both the Comptroller’s study and the Vanderbilt study of Pre-K indicate its ability to help improve reading in early grades.  Governor Haslam, however, has indicated he’s not in favor of expanding a program that is proven to work to address what the Commissioner of Education identifies as a top priority for our state.
PET:  Any final thoughts you would like to share with Tennessee educators?

Huffman: I am deeply grateful for your service. Every time I visit a school, I am struck by the professionalism and commitment of our educators, and our students are lucky to have you.

I’m sure it’s nice for educators to hear those words.  But, you can’t buy groceries with gratitude.  So far, there hasn’t been a real commitment to improving the pay and support for the educators the Commissioner identifies as both highly professional and deeply committed.  We heard a lot about how important teachers were to the gains noted on this year’s TCAP’s.  What hasn’t been heard is how compensation and support will be improved to ensure Tennessee is attracting and keeping strong educators.  To be clear, it’s not just better pay, but more support and more resources that teachers need.

EDIT: Today (10/3/13) at 3:00 PM Central Time Haslam and Huffman announced a goal to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state when it comes to teacher salaries.”

More Huffman: “Too often we try to use gratitude as a substitution for compensation.” — is he reading as I write?

And he notes, “Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 in terms of teacher compensation.”

It’s not clear what that means, exactly, but it should mean more than this.

And then, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh offers this response:

“Teachers in this state are overworked, underpaid, and deserve to be treated as professionals.

However, after listening to teachers across the state, we are increasingly convinced that Commissioner Huffman’s unproven, unreliable testing methods as a basis for teacher pay are hurting our public education system.

“….Basing teacher pay on scores, especially the scores of students they never teach, is going to further strain the system, lower morale, and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee.”

For more on Tennessee education news, follow us @TNEdReport

 

 

Marshall County Joins the Revolution

We reported last week on Roane County’s School Board passing a resolution urging Gov. Haslam and the State Department of Education to slow down the pace of education reform, collaborate more with district leaders, and provide adequate funding to move schools forward.

Now, Marshall County is joining the fray.

It will be interesting to see how many districts pass similar resolutions before the start of the 2014 session of the General Assembly.

Even more telling will be how the respective legislative delegations respond.

Stay tuned to Tennessee Education Report and follow us @TNEdReport for more details.

 

Huffman Responds to Critics

After learning yesterday that at least 60 Directors of Schools from across the state had signed a letter essentially expressing limited confidence in his leadership and challenging his approach, Commissioner Kevin Huffman responded today by saying:

We are committed to doing whats right for kids and we’re going to continue to be committed to doing whats right for kids. It’s important we talk to people, it’s important we listen to people, it’s important that people have input.

“But,” Huffman said, “at the end of the day we’re going to make decisions that are in the best interests of children in Tennessee.”

The Times-Free Press story also includes a poll asking if readers support Huffman’s ouster.

Apparently, Huffman believes continuing to attack teachers and dis-incentivize entry into the profession is good for kids. Or, maybe he knows better than almost half of the state’s Directors of Schools how to help kids achieve? Or, perhaps his collaborative style is so incredible these Directors have been consulted by him and they don’t even realize it?

 

Why Tennessee Should Invest More in Schools

Quite simply, because it pays off.  Workers get better wages, the economy thrives, businesses locate here.

Yes, all that makes sense and we hear it all the time.  Now, there’s some pretty clear evidence that having a well-educated workforce is more important than low taxes when it comes to improving a state’s economic outlook. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, there is NO correlation between a state’s tax rate and it’s relative prosperity.

On the other hand, look at this graph and note where TN stands — on the low end in terms of both number of residents with a college degree and median wages.

median wage and education

 

So, while offering all kinds of tax breaks seems to be the trend when it comes to Tennessee cities and the state government luring business to our state, we’d be better off in the long term to ramp up or investment in and support of public education.

Perhaps along the lines of this proposal.

Crowe “Disappointed” by State Board Decision on Teacher Licensing

State Senator Rusty Crowe of Johnson City recently penned a column directly addressing his disappointment in the State Board of Education’s decision to link teacher licensing to student test scores.

Crowe suggests that using value-added data to inform teaching practice and even as a portion of a teacher’s evaluation is appropriate.  But using it to take away a teacher’s license is not acceptable.

Crowe concludes his piece by noting that he expects some level of legislative intervention in the matter.  Hardly an idle threat given that Crowe is a long-time member of the Senate Education Committee — the very committee that oversees State Board of Education action.

A simple, straightforward legislative intervention might be worded in such a way as to prohibit the Tennessee State Board of Education from enacting any policy that would cause a teacher to lose his/her license on the basis of student test scores.  Of course, it may have to repeal any such policy previously enacted, but since the testing proposal doesn’t take effect until 2015, it may be sufficient to prevent its implementation.

While teachers have been under attack by state policymakers for several years now, it seems in this case, the State Board may have gone a step too far.  At the very least, there’s sure to be legislative discussion around this issue in 2014.

 

ALL of Tennessee is an Education Priority

The recently announced plan to award bonuses to high-ranking teachers if they either stay at or move to a high priority school (those schools in the bottom 5% in terms of student achievement) reminded me of a similar effort to recruit teachers to the state’s Achievement School District by paying them significantly more than they could make at other schools.

In fact, I wrote about this topic when the ASD plan was announced.

My first question when I heard the story was “where is the money coming from?”  But it is federal money, so the state hasn’t come up with some pool of money to be used to give bonuses.  And there’s no indication the program will (or will not) continue beyond the first two years.

The point is, Tennessee lags behind the rest of the country in college degree attainment. And our NAEP (National Assessment of Education Progress) scores are quite low.  Of 8 states that test 100% of graduates on the ACT, we rank 7th in average composite score.

Improving schools in our entire state should be a top priority.  And if it makes sense that you can attract more teachers (and more talent) with bonuses and higher pay, shouldn’t that simply become the policy of the state?

If Tennessee became the state where teachers were very well paid and had lots of professional support (professional development, mentoring, paid training), we’d surely attract bright candidates from across the country to teach in our schools.  50 Tennessee counties border other states.  Bright graduates from colleges near Tennessee would soon want to teach here because the pay and support were such a strong incentive.

Metro Nashville Public Schools started using a compressed, improved pay scale this year.  It helped triple the number of applicants they had for teacher openings.

Why not do the same for the entire state? An investment along these lines could be a game-changer for Tennessee.  We have a long way to go.  But we can get there IF the political will exists to push forward.

 

SCORE on the Common Core

Yesterday, Tennessee SCORE sent a series of myth-busting tweets related to the Common Core.

I’ve collected them here because they are helpful in understanding what the Common Core is (and isn’t).

Myth #1:  The Common Core is a Curriculum

Fact:  The Common Core is a set of standards which set expectations for what students should know.

Myth #2: Common Core = Dumbing Down. 

Fact:  Common Core is more rigorous than Tennessee’s old standards.

Myth #3: Common Core Compromises Student Data.

Fact:  Information tying student to data cannot be released.

Myth #4: Common Core Means Students Won’t Read Mark Twain

Fact: Teachers will teach classics, as they always have.

This is a well-done rebuttal of some of the more common anti-Core arguments.

SCORE has done a more thorough myth/fact sheet and you can find it here.

Groups and individuals from across the political spectrum have endorsed the Common Core as the basics our students need in order to be college and career ready.  It’s got bipartisan support and buy-in from 46 states.

How each state implements the Common Core will make the difference in its success there, but the guiding principles are solid and the potential for positive change is strong.

 

 

Teacher Merit Pay is on the Way in Tennessee

The Tennessee State Board of Education met today and gave approval on first reading to two proposals that essentially mandate teacher merit pay starting in the 2014-15 school year.

The first proposal, effective in the 2013-14 year, removes the automatic step increases now mandated for each additional year of service.  Instead, teachers would earn a mandated base salary plus an additional amount in years 1-5, 6-10, and 11-15.  Teachers with an advanced degree would earn a higher additional amount in essentially the same time blocks.  Here are the details.

This proposal is somewhat similar to the pay plan adopted last year by Metro Nashville Public Schools that front-loaded pay, making starting salaries about $6000 higher and raising pay for most all teachers in the system, but capping any years of service increases at year 15.

The plan guarantees that no teacher may see their salary go down as a result of the adoption of this pay plan. Some teachers, however, would likely be at or above the new mandated ranges and so may not see any pay increases for a few years, depending on how their local school systems handle the pay issue.

The idea is to free up funds currently used for step increases for teachers so those funds may be used to differentiate pay among teachers.

To that end, the Board adopted another proposal effective in 2014-15.  It mandates that all systems develop a differentiated pay plan to be approved by the Department of Education.  The plan is to be merit-based and essentially must depend on either 1) filling hard to staff schools or hard to fill subjects and/or 2) rewarding performance as determined by the state’s new and ever-evolving teacher evaluation system.

Aside from the fact that performance pay doesn’t seem to work that well, there’s no indication of how districts will locate the funds necessary to make these pay adjustments work.  That is, aside from the funds that may be freed up from ending mandatory step increases, there’s no movement to add state funds to the pot to allow for significant incentives.  In fact, the base pay plan adopted by the Board simply doesn’t go far enough toward establishing an effective base.  Moving the base closer to $40,000 is part of an education agenda designed to make a meaningful impact on Tennessee schools.

Performance pay plans almost always cost more money than the step/level plans.  That doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be pursued, but it does mean money is necessary to make them work.  Metro Nashville’s compressed pay plan cost $6 million in year one.  In Denver, where a performance pay plan has been in effect for a number of years (ProComp), the average teacher now makes $7000 more per year than they did under the old plan.  Paying teachers more is a good thing and a key component of investing in teachers to help improve schools.  But absent state dollars, it’s unclear where or how local districts will find the money to make this proposal work.

Further, because local teachers’ associations no longer have the power to bargain collectively, there is no requirement of input on new plans by teachers.  Local Boards may consult any party they wish or simply adopt an approved plan and impose it on the teachers of their district.  Of course, consulting those whose pay you are about to change about how they’d like to see it improved makes sense, but that doesn’t mean local districts will do that. And the State Board doesn’t require such collaboration.

Some (StudentsFirst) have indicated that because of this year’s teacher and state employee pension reform, there will be more money available in the state budget.  They’ve suggested using that money to improve teacher pay.  The first savings should be realized in 2014-15.  So, it will be interesting to see if there are legislative proposals that incorporate the savings from pension reform into funds available to districts for the performance pay scheme that will soon be mandated from the State Board of Education.  It will also be worth watching to see if the Board makes any movement on giving teacher base pay a meaningful increase.

Tennessee has experimented with performance pay before.  The Career Ladder program was implemented by Governor Lamar Alexander.  It was funded for a time, then became expensive, then was stopped, and is now being phased out — with fewer and fewer Career Ladder teachers remaining in service each year.

The point is, without careful planning and implementation, the proposals adopted on first reading today and likely headed for final approval in July may do nothing but put added financial pressure on local governments.  Local school districts should watch cautiously and should ask their legislators to put forward plans to use state money to fund these proposals.  While it is not clear performance pay will even have the intended positive results, it will surely fail if there is no commitment in the form of investment from those backing the plan.