closing in

'Safety net' deal on teacher evaluations protects against negative consequences

Updated 4:45 p.m. — Teachers won’t face negative consequences for the next two years if they flunk their annual evaluations because of Common Core-aligned state tests, according to a tentative deal reached today between Gov. Andrew Cuomo and the state legislature.

The deal will create a “safety net” that essentially offers a second chance to teachers who received an “ineffective” or “developing” rating on account of student scores on the new grades 3-8 English and math tests. The new system will allow teachers to have their evaluations recalculated without the state test score component for personnel decisions like termination.

The safety net will be available this school year and the 2014-15 year. State education officials said it would affect about 1,000 teachers statewide, or less than 1 percent of all teachers.

If passed, as is expected to happen as early as tonight, the bill would bring New York into line with how other states are using Common Core test scores. More than 40 states have adopted the standards, but New York had alone in seeking to simultaneously roll out teacher evaluations along with new tests.

That stance has long drawn criticism, even from staunch supporters of the Common Core and of measuring teacher quality. Last week, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation called for states to delay using tests in evaluations until after teachers were more familiar with the standards — a move that was widely viewed as putting pressure on New York.

“Just about every state I know of is realizing that doing these things at the same time is very difficult,” said Andy Smarick, a partner at Bellwether Partners who supports new evaluation systems.

Lawmakers made teacher evaluations a top priority as the legislative session drew to a close this month. But the issue has been a longstanding concern for the state teachers union, which first called for a “moratorium” on consequences tied to the Common Core more than a year ago.

The union’s concern mostly focused on the impact that the state’s adoption of the Common Core learning standards would have on teachers, students and schools. The state had already moved to lower the stakes for students and schools, but had resisted calls to do the same for teachers.

NYSUT praised the deal as a “delay on consequences” and President Karen Magee said in an interview that the protections for teachers are what the union had wanted from the start.

“It’s fair for teachers,” Magee said.

Under the provisions, a teacher could still technically be fired because of repeated low ratings. But such a decision would have to reflect ratings based on locally developed student growth measures and a principal observation — not on state test scores.

Officials in Cuomo’s office disputed the idea of a “delay,” arguing that all teachers would be evaluated according to the original rules. They also emphasized that teachers’ original ratings would still be available to parents whose children are in their classes.

The changes are nonetheless seen as a blow to Cuomo, who has said New York’s implementation of teacher evaluations was a signature achievement of his first term in office. But in recent months he began to concede that the Common Core’s rollout had been rushed and signaled that he would be open to some changes.

At a press conference on Thursday, Cuomo said New York’s “teacher evaluation system is moving forward” but acknowledged a need to protect against the possibility of unfair punishment.

In New York City, the provisions will be in place for the first two school years that teachers are working under the new evaluation system. United Federation of Teachers President Michael Mulgrew, who last year joined the NYSUT’s call for a moratorium, applauded the deal.

“Everyone recognizes that the Common Core, while the right direction for education, had a terrible rollout,” Mulgrew said in a statement.

The deal was not universally supported, however. StudentsFirstNY Executive Director Jenny Sedlis said state tests are as reliable an indicator of student learning as exists and that there should be a way to fire teachers whose students don’t show growth.

“School districts need the ability to remove ineffective teachers and it’s impossible to run quality schools with zero consequences and jobs for life irrespective of how children learn,” Sedlis said.

The bill brings to a close a fourth legislative session in which changing the state’s teacher evaluation law, first enacted in 2010, played a starring role. The constantly shifting waters have some observers questioning how much longer the evaluation system in its current form will have credibility with stakeholders.

“I think it’s another barrier to the public seeing the evaluation system as legitimate when it has to be tinkered with every year,” said Aaron Pallas, a professor at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Here is the text of the bill and the bill’s summary.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

teacher prep

Tennessee’s mediocre teacher training programs prompt ‘interventions’ with university presidents

PHOTO: Austin Peay
Austin Peay State University in Clarksville is among four Tennessee schools that have undergone "interventions" with state officials over the quality of their teacher training programs.

Armed with sobering data about the performance of teacher training programs in Tennessee, state officials are holding meetings with top brass at universities where they say programs have grown out of touch with the needs of K-12 classrooms.

About 40 programs in Tennessee feed the state’s teacher pipeline with about 4,000 new teachers annually. The largest are based at colleges and universities.

But those same traditional programs generally aren’t attracting enough high-quality candidates or producing enough effective or diverse teachers. Not a single public university in Tennessee scored in the top fifth of teacher training programs under a state report card issued in 2016. And the outlook isn’t expected to improve much under the 2017 report card being released early next month, officials say.

“This data is sobering. It tells us that higher education must do better,” said Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission. “I worry our higher education faculty in colleges of education get disconnected from what a K-12 classroom looks like.”

Krause outlined the challenges to state lawmakers during a presentation on Tuesday with Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

Their first “intervention meetings” were with the presidents and education deans at four universities: Austin Peay, Tennessee-Chattanooga, Tennessee-Martin, and Tennessee Tech. Similar meetings are scheduled this spring with leadership of private colleges and universities across the state.

Krause described the first meetings as “very productive” — and illuminating. “In many cases, the presidents just didn’t know” about their programs’ shortcomings, he said.

Teacher quality is considered a driving factor in students’ success, making the quality of teacher preparation programs a front-burner issue in Tennessee.  A 2016 report said only a handful of the state’s programs are consistently preparing teachers to improve student achievement based on Tennessee’s TVAAS measure. The State Board’s new grading system also highlighted weaknesses based on racial diversity, candidates’ ACT scores, and whether they are producing teachers for high-need areas such as special education.

Reading instruction is another big challenge. In a state where only a third of students are considered proficient in reading, new teachers are arriving in classrooms ill-prepared to instruct students on Tennessee’s new reading standards. The state is working with higher education institutions so their faculty can take the same professional development on literacy that working teachers are taking.

But for the most part, the State Board has limited levers for improving the quality of teacher prep. The biggest hammer comes every seven years when each program undergoes a comprehensive review for licensure. (In 2014, the state raised its standards and revised its measures for effectiveness to include data such as placement, retention and employer satisfaction.)

Chancellor Keith Carver

Tennessee-Martin Chancellor Keith Carver said his school took its last state report card to heart. As a result of its overall score of 2 out of a possible 4, the university hired an assessment coordinator to help guide decisions based on data. “It’s a really good baseline for improving,” he said of the report card. “We’ve got some work to do in our diversity profile.”

Tennessee’s teacher candidates are overwhelmingly white and female. Of those who completed Tennessee’s programs in 2016, only 14 percent identified themselves as non-white, compared with 36 percent of the state’s student population.

“Colleges of education will not stumble into diversity. There has to be a very intentional effort,” Krause said.

View the full presentation from Tuesday’s legislative hearing below.