A quarter of the way into the school year, one item is dominating chatter among Tennessee teachers, principals and even some state politicians –– a narrative fully captured and advanced through the media: The state’s controversial new teacher evaluation system, ushered in to bring accountability to classroom instructors, has predictably caused its share of angst among the teachers it measures.
Though sentiments aren’t universal, there seems to be a degree of division between the evaluation system –– implemented this year –– and teachers themselves, with some decrying its methodical, time-consuming approach and 1-to-5 grading system that has stressed even longtime, tenured teachers. Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Education officials are backing the program, but have said they plan to address concerns.
“We continue to view the evaluation system as a critical foundation for our collective work to improve student achievement,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman wrote in an email to educators in September. “The system is not perfect, but it is a significant step forward, and the first step in an ongoing effort to refine and improve evaluation and support for educators.”
The state’s education department could not make Huffman available to The City Paper last week.
The state House Education Committee is set to hold hearings on the system Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, but most observers aren’t anticipating a scrapping or overhaul of the evaluation program during the next legislative session. It will likely stay largely intact. After all, it was this evaluation formula –– approved in the waning days of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s tenure –– that helped position Tennessee to score $500 million in highly coveted federal Race to the Top funds.
In the weeks ahead, storylines of distress –– found inside schools from Chattanooga to Knoxville, to Memphis and Nashville –– will likely keep coming. As it turns out, stories of teachers critical of components of the system are plentiful.
“It’s so in-depth and time-consuming for teachers and assistant principals,” said Greg Francescon, a U.S. history teacher at Overton High School, referring to the in-class observations, four or six depending on licensure, that principals must give teachers. “That’s the No. 1 thing. They want you to write these elaborate lesson plans for the observations. . . . It can be daunting.”
Francescon, in his ninth year at Overton, senses some “unrest” among teachers. Worse, he said the evaluation system is just the latest among a number of new changes at Metro schools –– block scheduling, “career academies,” and the state’s curbing of the teachers’ collective bargaining ability –– that have made the life of a teacher more difficult.
“If you add all those things that have happened over the last couple of years, I would say without a doubt, this is the lowest morale I’ve seen in my teacher friends ever –– easily ” he said. “Students have less accountability and teachers have more and more accountability.”
Teachers may squirm and push back amid the changes, but at the top of Metro Nashville Public Schools –– the state’s second-largest school district –– the evaluation system has found an ally in Director of Schools Jesse Register.
As teachers return from fall break this week, Metro’s superintendent plans on unveiling a video to teachers in which he seeks to ease some of the unrest and explain why the evaluation system is needed.
“I think there is anxiety about it,” Register told The City Paper. “We shouldn’t deny that. But what I’m picking up is, as we get into it, and as teachers and principals put it into practices, the anxiety tends to lessen.
“What people need to understand is to take a bigger view of this,” Register said. “It’s not just about firing bad teachers. That’s just one little piece of it ... What this really is to me is it really focuses principals’ and school leaders’ time on looking at best practices and building best instructional practices in schools.”
The state-mandated teacher evaluation system carries the acronym TEAM –– Teacher Education Acceleration Model. A centerpiece of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top application, state officials arrived at evaluation parameters following the work of the Tennessee Evaluation Advisory Committee, which included teachers, principals and other educators. The group oversaw field tests that explored four models.
At issue is a system that scores teachers based on three components: 50 percent is student achievement data; 35 percent is in-class observations; and 15 percent is student growth. Scores among all three groups will be combined into a 5-category grading scale. A score of 5 represents “significantly above expectations,” while a score of 1 represents “significantly below expectations.” A state prediction bell curve projects only 5 to 10 percent of teachers will score a 5, and 3 to 5 percent of teachers will score a 1. Half of teachers are projected to scores 3s.
Nearly three months into the school years, teachers have only been subjected to the observation part of the formula. While surveying classrooms, principals use an extraordinarily detailed four-page rubric to measure instruction. “Planning” and “environment” are also measured. Classroom observations, too, are graded on a 1-to-5 scale.
“Some administrators are trying to use this rubric as the 10 Commandments, and it’s very frustrating with the obstacles that exist anyways in the day-to-day world of being an educator,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union. “It’s supposed to be a tool to help you be better, but it’s being used in a way that’s counterproductive to that.”
In nearly three years at Metro schools, Register has proven a team player on several fronts, establishing positive bonds with Mayor Karl Dean, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Nashville Board of Education, among others. His relationship with the state seems equally strong.
“I think it’s a very positive change for us,” Register said of the evaluation system. “What remains to be seen is, we have to finish the first year. After that first year is up, we look at what didn’t work well, and we make adjustments. It’s too premature that it’s not going to work, that it’s failing.”
Inside Metro schools, Register acknowledges the new system is “very labor-intensive” for principals and assistant principals.
To that point, Robbin Wall, principal of McGavock High School, the largest public high school in Tennessee, said the “biggest issue that we’re dealing with is time.” He said instructional evaluations can put principals in classrooms anywhere from to 30 to 90 minutes each time.
“It’s hard to make everything fit,” Wall said. “With the number of evaluations that we’re having to do –– especially at a campus my size, where I’ve got maybe 120 teachers –– it’s hard to make all those things work.”
Rosemary Wade, a visual arts teacher at Croft Middle School for eight years, said her principal has been “awesome” in helping her work through the new evaluations. The difficulty, she said, is trying to hit 12 different rubric areas in one lesson plan, which she called “next to impossible.” Still, she believes teachers can rise to the challenge in time.
“It’s just so new, honestly, that there’s a lot of uncertainty about it.” Wade said.
“I think it will eventually come to really strengthen all of us, but of course there’s got to be adjustments made and tweaking some of the areas that don’t work, because they’re trying a new system out, and we’re one of the few states that have it,” she said.
Some teachers say the motive behind the new system is admirable, but meeting various criteria isn’t easy.
“I think that the idea of having a systemized way of evaluating teachers is a much better idea than what was happening in the past,” said Chris Prosser, who teaches orchestra at Wright Middle School
“Some of the expectations when you read the rubric are very difficult to obtain,” he said. “To get a 5 on the evaluation is very difficult to do. Teachers have been told there will be very few 5s. Most teachers are very driven people. Most teachers want to get good grades, just like their students want to get good grades. ... Most teachers are being told that a 3 is going to be a good grade. If I give a quiz, a 3 is like a C. Some of the teachers are having a difficult time because of that.”
Prosser is outperforming the mean, however. He said he received a 3 and a half on his first evaluation.