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Alan Petersime

Growing need for stronger teachers in needier classrooms gets look from Tennessee lawmakers

Tennessee kids most in need of good teaching are often missing out — a growing concern that’s getting the attention of state lawmakers as officials try to come up with a plan.

According to state data, the state’s low-performing students are disproportionately matched with low-performing teachers, even as they have more to gain from a high-performing teacher than do their more academically successful peers, who are often more affluent.

On Thursday, state officials brainstormed together about how to address the challenge. Increasing teacher pay, improving teacher preparation programs, and providing ongoing teacher improvement supports were among ideas raised during a summer study session convened by state lawmakers serving on House education committees.

Rep. Johnnie Turner, a retired Memphis educator, said the legislature should step up its game to support teachers and address the disparities gap.

“If I’m getting enough money, I can stand a difficult job,” said Turner, citing a need for pay increases to attract and retain good teachers. “Teachers are not paid commensurate with their profession.”

When Turner started her career decades ago, public education was one of the highest-paying career opportunities for women. That’s no longer the case. A recent report shows that Tennessee teachers are paid 30 percent less than workers in other similarly educated careers.

The state defines highly effective teachers as those scoring 4 or 5 on TVAAS in English or math, meaning that their students showed more growth than expected on end-of-year tests.

Sylvia Flowers, talent chief for the Department of Education, presents data to state lawmakers about placement of effective teachers.

Sylvia Flowers, talent chief for the Department of Education, presents data to state lawmakers about placement of effective teachers.

Grace Tatter

“How do we ensure that the students who are furthest behind have access to those highly effective teachers?” asked Sylvia Flowers, executive director of talent for the State Department of Education. “We know those students who are furthest behind need to get more than a year’s growth in order to catch up to their peers.”

Two-thirds of Tennessee students who were assigned to effective teachers after making the worst possible scores on their end-of-year math tests made faster gains toward grade-level scoring than their peers assigned to low-performing teachers. Correspondingly, more than two-thirds of students without access to an effective teacher fell even further behind, according to state data.

Flowers said effective teachers are able to retain their high TVAAS ratings even when they move from high-performing schools, where students are usually wealthier, to low-performing schools, where they tend to live in poverty. Poverty is one of the most intractable barriers to achievement.

The Department of Education is working to help existing teachers grow in their effectiveness through programs such as the instructional partnership initiative and teacher leader network. State officials also are prioritizing their work with teacher preparation programs in an effort to increase the quality of new teachers.

Flowers said much of the work around teacher equity falls to districts and schools. Local administrators use the state’s data to make decisions about which students are assigned to the best teachers. Districts received teacher disparity reports in March and will receive updated data this fall.