‘First to the Top’ Teacher Eval System Approved

The next chapter in Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system will be as much about evaluating the system as evaluating the teachers.

The Tennessee Board of Education has approved the much-discussed teacher evaluation process, a step that provides a yardstick for measuring teacher performance in changing times where tenure has become more difficult to achieve and where the major teachers union’s clout has been significantly diminished.

The teacher evaluations have been the source of considerable angst among those who say there isn’t enough groundwork laid to give accurate readings on teacher performance. Conversely, Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman has repeatedly expressed confidence in the system and the potential benefits it can bring.

Gov. Bill Haslam, who said Friday he planned to read the details of the plan over the weekend, continues to insist that the time for the system is now, even though he readily acknowledges it is not perfect.

“That is in place now. I don’t think any of us would say we’ve reached the magic formula that we like,” Haslam said. “As I’ve said all along, we can’t wait to be perfect, but the evaluation committee has met, their recommendation is in place.”

The teacher evaluation requirement itself is not the current Legislature’s or the governor’s idea. It is the law, part of the the state’s First to the Top Act, a product of the overhaul in education that landed the state $501 million in the Race to the Top competition in 2010. Beginning with the 2011-12 school year, every certified educator will be formally evaluated on an annual basis.

Fifty percent of a teacher’s performance evaluation will be based on broad observation data. Thirty-five percent will be based on student growth as determined by the state’s value-added data system that has been available for years, although that data doesn’t exist in some categories. The other 15 percent will come from other student achievement information.

The overall plan calls for the state to gradually develop additional guidelines. But the basic plan is approved.

Teachers will be observed by principals, assistant principals and others trained under the program. The observers will use a rubric from a system known as TAP (Teacher Advancement Program), which its creators say is based on the premise that teacher quality is the most important factor in student achievement.

The TAP system is based on measurements in four key areas: planning, environment, professionalism and instruction. State officials cite TAP’s record on research and resources and its ability to provide expert training for developing observers and evaluators.

However, not every school system has lined up to use TAP. Hamilton County has chosen a system called Project Coach; Memphis City Schools, in collaboration with the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, have chosen the Teacher Effectiveness Measure (TEM); and the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools has selected a system known as TIGER, for Teacher Instructional Growth for Effectiveness and Results.

Huffman formally recommended in a memo to the board in May that those three alternatives be approved.

Teachers will be observed four times each year, two times in each semester. At least half of the observations will be unannounced. Apprentice teachers will receive observations six times each year, with three in each semester and at least half of those unannounced.

Observers will be trained in four-day training sessions this summer across the state. The observers will have to pass a certification test, with refresher training throughout the year. The state is expected to explain to districts this summer how to combine the 50-percent observation, 35-percent student growth and the other 15-percent student achievement into a final all-encompassing rating for teachers.

Teachers will be given final scores that put them into one of five grades: significantly below expectations; below expectations; at expectations; above expectations; or significantly above expectations. These categories are where tenure attainment comes into play.

Under new state law on tenure, teachers can attain tenure when they have taught for five years under the same local education agency and have rated in the top two categories — above expectations or significantly above expectations — for two straight years. Teachers who don’t reach those levels may still teach on their current status. A teacher who has tenure now will not lose their tenure as the new system goes into effect.

Under the rubric for TAP, teachers will be scored as “exemplary,” “proficient” or “unsatisfactory” on various qualities, such as motivating students, how well the teacher presents instructional content or the environment in the classroom.

For example, in part of the evaluation on lesson structure and pacing, the score of “exemplary” applies if all lessons start promptly, “proficient” if most lessons start promptly, or “unsatisfactory” if lessons are not started promptly. There can be several items listed in each of the categories that are measured.

The grading works on a points system, with an “exemplary” performance warranting five points, “proficient” warranting three points and “unsatisfactory” one point. But the TAP system allows raters to grant two points or four points in some cases if they choose.

The Department of Education will provide standardized forms for documenting the observation visits. The plan also calls for a detailed system for filing grievances on the evaluations of teachers and principals.

Haslam expressed his desire to fine tune the process, especially for the areas that are not covered by data such as the value-added scores.

“I think the basis being 50 percent observation, 35 percent student achievement as was agreed, I think everybody feels good with that,” Haslam said. “The harder part is on the non-tested subjects. We’re going to have to live with that and keep working to get that better.”

But Haslam did express a level of confidence about the overall direction of the system.

“Again, I don’t know the final answer, and there’s a lot of people who know a lot more about education than I do who have been working on that. But I do think we’re on the right path,” Haslam said.

“I do think we need to have a way we evaluate so we can recognize those teachers who are great and need to be compensated more and those teachers who maybe shouldn’t be in our classroom.”

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  • Hope Gibson

    After teaching in TN for 35 years, I can assure you that this evaluation system will not work. There are too many principals and evaluators that can and will manipulate the numbers on the evaluations to suit themselves.
    The resaon we have poor teachers in our classrooms is that principals are not doing their jobs. They know who the weak and ineffective teachers are. If they would document, confront, and offer constructive guidelines, these teachers would be forced to excel or they would be terminated before they ever received tenure.
    I have worked in 4 schools during the course of my career. Each school had a few poor teachers. Everyone knew who they were. The principals knew, also. However, because they had tenure, no one challenged them. No one documented the things they did wrong. It was easier to do nothing than to stand up and confront these teachers.
    I know many wonderful, dedicated, and hard working teachers. I hope the new evaluation system does not keep them from choosing to stay in this profession.
    The future looks grim for our public education system.

  • Janie Harrill

    I agree wholeheartedly with Hope Gibson. the “good ole boy syndrome” will prevail. I see it taking place already. With the students today who come into the classroom with all kinds of problems teachers are supposed to be miracle workers. It wasn’t that way 20 years ago. Parents sent children to school and expected them to behave and parents supported teachers. And yes there will always be teachers that do not measure up. I concur that principals do not do their jobs. Their job is to guide that teacher and to help them to improve. The old teacher tenure law had provisions for principals to document teacher performance but again they did not want to rock the boat. This new process needs a lot of work. There needs to be teacher evaluators assisting in the process not just administrators.

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