Teacher evaluations

Why asking to keep TNReady data out of teacher evaluations might be moot

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee is one of 18 states exploring the use of free digital materials to replace textbooks.

Tennessee education officials are somewhat perplexed about the growing chorus of school boards asking the state to waive data from the state’s new assessment in this year’s teacher evaluations.

That’s because, according to state officials, school districts already have flexibility under a new state law about how they choose to use teacher evaluations this year, the first for TNReady.

The Teacher Evaluation Enhancement Act, passed last spring, gives districts flexibility when it comes to using teacher evaluations for any personnel decisions in 2016. However, the law stipulates that evaluations must be partially based on test scores, according to state Department of Education spokeswoman Ashley Ball.

“Districts have complete discretion to choose how they want to factor that data,” Ball said Thursday. “They don’t have to use TNReady or growth data in hiring, firing, retention or promotion.”

This school year’s rollout of TNReady has been greeted at the local level with trepidation and anxiety on issues ranging from its impacts on teacher evaluations to technical difficulties that may accompany the switch to an online assessment. Several school boards, including Knox County and Metropolitan Nashville, have passed resolutions asking the state Department of Education and the legislature to approve a moratorium on the use of this year’s test scores in teacher evaluations.

A similar resolution, scheduled for a vote next week in Memphis, reads: “The Shelby County Board of Education strongly urges the General Assembly and the State Board of Education to provide a waiver from utilizing the TNReady data for the use of teacher evaluations for the school year 2015-2016.”

Shelby County board member Miska Clay-Bibbs said she will vote for the resolution. “We need to make sure … that we will be working with teachers … to make sure that they get professional development around how to assess the scores, so that they can be on top of what it will look like next year,” she said during a board work session on Tuesday.

The use of new TNReady data in teacher evaluations is a big deal because the evaluations can impact issues such as salary, hiring and firing.

State education leaders tried to address concerns through the new law, which still requires inclusion of the data in teacher evaluations but temporarily reduces the weight of test scores during the transition to a new assessment.

Educators and some lawmakers insisted they didn’t want any data included at all during the transition — a move other states have made. But Ball emphasized Thursday that the new law gives local districts discretion in whether or how they use teacher evaluation scores during the first year of TNReady.

That message hasn’t reached local district leaders.

Metro Nashville school board member Will Pinkston said he’s never received communication from the state outlining flexibilities granted under the new law. And even if he had, it doesn’t matter, he said, because teachers have mistrusted the quantitative side of teacher evaluations since Tennessee became one of the first states to use growth scores for teacher evaluations tied to pay and personnel decisions.

“It’s almost moot what (the department is) saying because we have an obligation to speak on behalf teachers,” Pinkston said. “Teachers are absolutely fatigued.”

TNReady is the state’s new assessment for measuring student achievement in math and English language arts in grades 3-11 and marks a historic shift in state testing for Tennessee students. Developed for the state for $8 million by North Carolina-based Measurement Inc., the test is being administered completely online for the first time — raising concerns about technical glitches and students’ proficiency at keyboarding. It also is aligned with Tennessee’s current academic standards and, instead of multiple-choice questions, uses open-ended questions aimed at comprehension instead of rote memorization. State officials have said TNReady is more rigorous than the state’s previous tests, and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she anticipates an initial dip in state test scores in the transition.

In addition to local board resolutions on the use of student score data in teacher evaluations, a new bill filed in the legislature would require a two-year moratorium on using any achievement data in teacher evaluations. That bill, filed by Rep. David Byrd, a former educator from Waynesboro, has yet to be scheduled for committee.

Memphis reporter Micaela Watts contributed to this report.

Still walking

Colorado teachers plan more walkouts, and Jeffco canceled classes one day next week

Colorado teachers march around the state Capitol Monday, April 16, to call for more school funding and to protect their retirement benefits. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Teachers from Colorado’s two largest school districts are planning back-to-back walkouts next week to call for more funding for education – and they could be joined by other districts.

Jeffco Public Schools canceled classes for April 26, next Thursday, after many teachers there said they plan to go to the Capitol, while the union representing Denver classroom teachers said they plan to walk out midday April 27, next Friday, to rally at the Capitol early in the afternoon.

In a press release, the Denver Classroom Teachers Association said Denver teachers would be leading a statewide walkout. Corey Kern, the union’s deputy executive director, said he’s not sure yet how many other districts will be represented.

The announcements come after hundreds of teachers marched at the Capitol during a day of action Monday to protect their retirement benefits and call for more school funding. Enough teachers left the suburban Englewood district that classes were canceled there.

Colorado consistently ranks in the bottom tier for school funding and teacher pay, though there is considerable variation around the state. A recent study ranked Colorado last for the competitiveness of its teacher salaries, and nearly half the state’s districts are now on four-day weeks. The 2018-19 budget takes a big step toward restoring money cut during the Great Recession, but the state is still holding back $672 million from what it would have spent on K-12 education if it complied with constitutional requirements to increase per-pupil spending at least by inflation each year.

The wave of teacher activism reflects a national movement that has seen strikes, walkouts, and marches in West Virginia, Oklahoma, Arizona, and Kentucky. Unlike other states, lawmakers here can’t raise taxes to send more money to schools or approve teacher raises on their own. Voters would need to approve more money, and local school boards would need to increase salaries.

Teachers interviewed at Monday’s march said they recognize the fiscal constraints in Colorado, but they’re also inspired by the actions of their colleagues in more conservative states.

Many teachers also said they fear that reductions in retirement benefits could lead to an exodus of younger teachers, further squeezing a profession that struggles to recruit new workers and suffers from high turnover.

A House committee made changes to a pension overhaul this week that removed the provisions teachers found most objectionable, like raising the retirement age and making teachers pay more out of their paychecks, but the final form of the bill still needs to be hashed out between Democrats in the House and Republicans in the Senate.

Jason Glass, superintendent of the 85,000-student Jefferson County district, sent an email to parents Tuesday that said classes would be canceled next week due to a “labor shortage.” Teachers who miss school are required to use their allowed leave time.

Glass called the level of education funding in Colorado “problematic.”

“Public education staff, parents, and other supporters have become increasingly vocal in their advocacy for increased funding for our K-12 public schools and the stabilization” of the state pension plan, he wrote. “There is a belief among these groups that years of low funding is having a significant impact on our ability to attract quality candidates into the teaching profession, and is impeding the ability to effectively deliver the high level of educational experience our students deserve.”

Glass apologized for the “inconvenience” to families and reminded parents that April 26 is also “Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day.”

Denver Public Schools, the state’s largest district with 92,000 students, announced late Tuesday that there would be early dismissal April 27, with more details to come.

“Officials across the country and specifically lawmakers in the statehouse must finally recognize that a quality education cannot be provided on the cheap.” Denver union president Henry Roman said in a press release about the walkout. “If we want Colorado’s current economic prosperity to continue, we need to realize the importance of strong schools.”

Advocates are trying to place a $1.6 billion tax increase for education on the November ballot. Voters have twice rejected similar measures in recent years.

money talks

Why Colorado teachers marched on the state Capitol

Teachers in red gather in the rotunda of the Colorado State Capitol on Monday, April 16. (Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Chanting “Education is a right! That is why we have to fight!” and “Whose schools? Our schools!” several hundred teachers came to the Colorado State Capitol Monday to call for more school funding and to defend their retirement benefits. They marched down Colfax Avenue and around the Capitol building before filling the halls to lobby legislators and rallying in the rotunda.

Emboldened by teacher strikes and walkouts across the nation, a majority of the teachers from the suburban Englewood district joined the day of action, forcing the district to cancel classes, but the protest was a small shadow of the labor unrest among educators in other states.

In interviews, teachers said they recognize the state’s fiscal constraints. The Taxpayer’s Bill of Rights places a constitutional cap on how much the state budget can grow, even when the economy is good, and requires voters to approve all tax increases. In the afternoon, House Democrats told teachers to go back to their communities and urge voters to approve a major tax increase that could appear on the November ballot.

We asked teachers why they were marching, and this is what they had to say:

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Cody Jump teaches government in rural Lake County, where health insurance rates are among the highest in the country and schools have a hard time filling open positions.

Low pay contributes to high teacher turnover, he said, and if changes to the state public employee retirement system are too onerous, he thinks many younger teachers will leave the profession.

The Democratic-controlled House is currently putting its own stamp on a bill that aims to address an unfunded liability in the state pension system of between $32 billion and $50 billion. The version that came out of the Republican-controlled Senate raises the retirement age, limits cost-of-living raises for retirees, and asks current teachers to pay more. Amendments put on in the House make the bill friendlier to teachers, but the final version still needs to be hashed out.

“We’re trying to stabilize our profession and bring a sense of dignity to teaching so our kids can have the stable schools they need to thrive,” he said.

Jump said he has two young children, and he and his wife use several forms of public assistance just to get by, including visiting a monthly food bank.

“If we miss that, our pantry is in trouble,” he said. Enough teacher families use the food bank that it’s become a social gathering spot for their spouses.

If something doesn’t change, he said, the quality of education will suffer.

“There are good, high-quality teachers who just will not come here,” he said. “I don’t want my son to spend a decade in a school system full of people we had to scrape together.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Amy Nagel is a physical education teacher in an Englewood elementary school, just south of Denver. Her biggest concern is the lack of mental health services and counselors in schools. Many of the children she teaches come into school having already experienced trauma in their young lives, she said, and they need counseling and support before they can learn well.

“There is a misunderstanding that we’re asking for pay raises,” she said. “This is 100 percent about making sure that our schools are funded. We deserve pay raises, but we’re here for our kids.”

The decision by Englewood teachers to leave school en masse was inspired in part by teacher action in other states, she said.

“I think the government is really hoping we will be teachers to our core and be quiet and keep the peace,” she said. “I hope that teachers see the activism and know that they’re supported and know that interrupting a little bit of a child’s education to impact decades of education is worth it.”

(Erica Meltzer/Chalkbeat)

Kathryn Brown is a counselor at an alternative high school in the Englewood district. She said she’s marching for more school funding and to protect retirement benefits.

“I feel very fortunate because my school values the mental health professionals who work there, but it’s often one of the first things cut,” she said. “So when we’re talking about school funding, we’re not just talking about academics. We’re talking about educating the whole child.”

If retirement benefits become less generous, younger teachers and counselors “absolutely” will leave the profession, Brown said.

“We don’t get paid very much, but at the end we’re promised a good retirement,” she said. “And I want my retirement.

Like many of her colleagues, Nagel has a master’s degree and student loans she can’t pay off.

“That’s okay because I love to do what I do, but at some point new educators, new counselors are going to say, this is it, it’s not worth it,” she said.

Brown said Englewood teachers were inspired by teachers in Oklahoma and West Virginia.

“It emboldened our teachers and gave us a lot of courage because we’ve seen it in other states,” she said. “I think educators are fed up with not being valued and not being paid.”