Change is hard.
That’s been the company line from state officials — from Gov. Bill Haslam to Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman — with regards to new teacher evaluation methods that some say are the root of frustration and low-morale in schools across the state.
The one-size-fits-all evaluations require multiple observations from principals (and additional pre-observation and follow-up sessions), judge teachers based on standardized test scores and emphasize lengthy, teach-to-the-test lesson plans.
In short, the profession of teaching has changed in Tennessee, and local colleges that offer education majors and teacher licensure tracks are attempting to adapt.
Trevecca Nazarene University’s School of Education is the largest academic program on campus and it graduated 57 teachers who took jobs in Davidson County classrooms in 2010. Esther Swink, the dean of Trevecca’s School of Education, said the political pressures placed on today’s teachers are forcing her department to rethink its entire mission.
For years, Trevecca has encouraged its graduates to take positions at inner-city schools and educate those who need it most.
“We’re beginning to wonder, because of our own reputation, if we need to rethink that,” Swink said. “Yet, who we are, that’s where we think our graduates need to go.”
Based on Tennessee Higher Education Commission report cards on teacher effectiveness from 2011 and 2010, Trevecca graduates are performing below other colleges based on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System.
The report card compares each university’s beginning teachers (one to three years of experience) with veteran teachers and other beginning teachers based on TVAAS student growth statistics for fourth- through eighth-graders. Trevecca was among nine programs listed by the state as “producing teachers that are not performing as well as other beginning teachers in the state.”
Swink says there are extenuating factors at play though — the low-income schools that Trevecca targets also come with behavioral issues, English-language learners, and increased demands from the state legislature.
Another interesting point: Trevecca teachers are trailing other beginning teachers’ effectiveness in social studies and science. The No Child Left Behind Act only requires assessments in reading and math — and some teachers say they are encouraged to hammer home those subjects.“Our graduates tell us they don’t have time, or they are told in some instances, not to teach social studies and science,” Swink said.
“So we’ve been looking at … an interdisciplinary approach where they deal with science information and social studies so that even when they aren’t teaching social studies and science, they are teaching it within the context of reading and mathematics.”
In terms of the most recent demands put on teachers, Trevecca hosted five training sessions for Davidson County educators this summer — and Swink required all of her faculty to attend. Now, the university’s curriculum has changed so that student-teachers are evaluated based on the same rubric as they would be at a public school.
Also, students in Trevecca’s master’s program for administrators and principals are being taught how to implement evaluations in a fair and consistent manner.
But it’s the other part of the evaluation system — the standardized test — that is also affecting Trevecca’s curriculum.
Swink said they try to promote a mix of “real learning” and test-taking skills.
“We try to strike a real long balance on that. Real learning is more than making a score on a test on one given day in the year,” Swink said. “That is a difficult balance to make. With the great pressure on everyone, we’re having to move more to that emphasis than we ever have.”
Trevecca, like many universities in Nashville, has formal partnerships with local schools. They provide training sessions for teachers at Antioch High School and McGavock Elementary School. Last year, faculty members heard teachers were struggling with math, so the university set up Saturday work sessions to meet the need.
Moving forward, Trevecca is reaching out to alumni and bringing them back to campus to discuss what they need to do better. “Most teachers are trying very hard to do what is right for children,” Swink said. “But there are an awful lot of outside political influences that are affecting whether or not they can do for children what really is important.”
For Lipscomb University’s dean of education Candice McQueen, keeping up with the changing requirements in schools involves putting rubber to the road. Literally.
“We visit every single one of our first-year teachers … if they teach within 50 miles of our campus. We do an hourlong visit and go through, ‘How well-prepared were you in these areas? Tell us your frustrations,’ ” McQueen said.
“That is our very best data-point for us to make changes in our program.”
Most of the time they don’t have to travel far.
In 2010, 68 Lipscomb graduates took jobs in Davidson County classrooms, the largest total of any area university.
The state’s 2011 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs lauded Lipscomb as being the only four-year university to consistently produce beginning teachers that outperform veteran teachers based on value-added scores. (The only other programs to receive the same distinction were Teach for America in Nashville and Memphis.)
And even though those numbers don’t reflect the new evaluation system put in place this year, McQueen said her former students are doing just fine.
“Some teachers who are coming out of programs where maybe their clinical programs weren’t as deep, this is probably a bit of a shock in the number of evaluations they were getting,” McQueen said.
But at Lipscomb, students were being evaluated 10 times a semester on a 1-4 scale, even before the new Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model was put in place this year. Andrea Bever, a sixth-grade teacher at Cameron Middle School, graduated from Lipscomb in December 2009. She grew up in Cincinnati and said she always knew she was going to be a teacher.
“Just being able to see how you can take a child from one level and you can physically and visibly see the impact you make as an educator, it’s pretty incredible,” Bever said.
Bever pointed to the intense emphasis on lesson plans — which she described “long, strenuous, and over-the-top” — at Lipscomb as something that helped her adapt to some of the new state requirements.
Even though Bever feels she was extremely prepared for the challenges of being a teacher in Tennessee in 2011, there are still some hurdles that seem insurmountable.
“I have a classroom that is primarily ELL [English-language learners]. They are still learning English, and I’m under pressure to get these students to pass TCAP or reach sixth-grade standards, and it’s impossible,” Bever said.
The solution, according to McQueen, has to do with more specific professional development within schools.
McQueen said school populations can change and teachers might be forced from their comfort zone to teach different grade levels. That’s when they need personalized training.
“If we’re going to have high quality teachers at every level at every school, you have to give them more specific embedded professional development that is specific to their needs,” McQueen said.