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A peek inside how Memphis art teachers can show student growth

The big news at Shelby County Schools’ board meeting Monday — a vote on student placements once municipal districts spin off — took place inside an auditorium. But the documents plastered on the hallway walls were no less newsworthy.

The bulletin boards showed off artwork by students in the district and, in some cases, offered hints of how local art teachers are generating information that will factor into their annual ratings.

Like many states across the country, Tennessee has recently overhauled its teacher evaluation rules to incorporate student progress as a measure. But in an unusual move, the state is allowing teachers whose students don’t typically take pencil-and-paper tests, such as music and art teachers, to show the progress through portfolios of student work.

That arrangement was spurred by a group of Memphis arts teachers who were unhappy that they were being rated according to their students’ scores in math and reading. In a 2012 speech, U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan highlighted the local teachers’ efforts to create a peer-review system for student portfolios that state education officials later spread statewide.

Now, arts teachers must collect examples of student growth throughout the year. The work posted by Christine Todd’s class at Snowden Elementary School offers one example of what that evidence might look like.

According to the class’s bulletin board at the district’s headquarters, Snowden first asked students to draw bicycles from memory. She then unveiled bicycles that had been covered by a sheet and used them as props for a lesson about shape and form. Then students drew bicycles again, using the observations they had made.

The first drafts and second drafts were paired together on the bulletin board, showing that students captured more details, drew more confidently, and better reflected the proportions of real bicycles at the end of the class than they had at the beginning.

“I have shown you their pretests and the pieces they created after instruction in the 50 minute class,” Todd wrote. “You can really see their growth, hooray!”

Todd’s explanation of the assignment also hints at how all classes are seen as opportunities for math and literacy instruction, a priority under the new Common Core standards. She wrote that students “were encouraged to measure the bicycles with their eyes” and draw meaning from other texts, including a photograph of a penny-farthing race and paintings by Taliah Lempert.