Teacher quality

Teachers getting better under Tennessee’s controversial evaluation system, says new analysis

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick/Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s overhaul of its system for evaluating teachers has coincided with real and measurable benefits for students and teachers alike, says an analysis released Thursday by the National Council on Teacher Quality.

The controversial changes — which since 2011 have required more frequent and rigorous evaluations aligned to student outcomes — have rankled teachers but also made a difference when it comes to teacher retention and students’ academic growth, according to the research and policy group, which backs extensive reforms to teacher preparation and evaluation.

Teachers earning highly effective ratings are generally being retained at a higher rate than less effective teachers across Tennessee. An increasing number of districts logged the highest levels of student growth on state assessments during three school years ending in the spring of 2017. And a recent survey found that 72 percent of educators believe the evaluation process has improved their teaching, up from 38 percent in 2012.

However, other research paints a much less encouraging picture of evaluation reforms, particularly a recent study commissioned by the Gates Foundation that showed few gains in student achievement under the extensive changes, including in Tennessee’s largest district in Shelby County.

The newest analysis spotlights Tennessee as one of six places that are pioneering evaluation systems aimed at improving the quality of teaching. The others are New Mexico and districts in Dallas, Denver, the District of Columbia, and Newark, New Jersey.

All six use both student test scores and classroom observations to evaluate all of their teachers every year, giving significant weight to student learning. They also feature at least three rating categories, a big change from the days when teachers were assessed as either satisfactory or unsatisfactory, with almost all earning the former rating.

Perhaps most significantly, each of the systems highlighted in the analysis link evaluation results to opportunities to earn higher pay. In Tennessee, districts are now required to differentiate compensation based on educator ratings or one of two other criteria: additional roles and responsibilities, or serving in hard-to-staff schools or subject areas.

The changes have happened in the decade since the National Council on Teacher Quality analyzed state and local regulations affecting teachers and called out evaluation policies across America as broken, counterproductive, and badly in need of an overhaul.

Not surprisingly, the switch to new systems has been hard.

In Tennessee, educators found the revamped evaluation model cumbersome, confusing, and opaque after its launch was rushed to help the state win a $500 million federal award in 2010. That feedback contributed to ongoing tweaks to teacher training and evaluation systems, outlined in another new report from FutureEd, a second policy think tank favoring evaluation reforms.

“None of these systems were perfect out of the gate,” said Kate Walsh, president of the National Council on Teacher Quality, the group behind this week’s analysis. “System leaders recognized this and worked continuously to enhance system design, implementation, and use.”

But the backlash continues to bubble up in Tennessee, especially as the state’s messy transition to a computerized assessment has undermined the credibility of student test scores and prompted a recent legislative order to mostly disregard this year’s results in evaluations.

Last April, the testing problems overshadowed another study by Brown University researchers who reported that Tennessee teachers are showing substantial, career-long improvement under the state’s reforms. The finding was important because of some previous research that teacher improvement is relatively fixed, with most development coming in the first three to five years of a teacher’s career and then plateauing.

Despite the upbeat assessments in the NCTQ, Brown, and FutureEd reports, the future of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system — which is now fully integrated into other systems for teacher preparation, licensure, support, and dismissal — is uncertain due to testing headaches that call into question the evaluation’s accuracy and fairness. The Gates study, which also found that low-income Memphis students didn’t necessarily get more access to effective teachers under evaluation reforms, hasn’t helped.

Outgoing Republican Gov. Bill Haslam has championed the reforms started by his Democratic predecessor and is urging the next administration to stay the course. His education chief says the latest analysis is a testament to the importance of incorporating student achievement into teacher ratings.

“Our evaluation model has developed the capacity of teachers to improve, put student growth at the center of our work, and established an expectation of continuous improvement,” Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “Even better, it’s working.”


Aurora school district numbers shows some positive results from hard-to-staff bonus

Students work on algebra problems in a college-level course at Hinkley High School in Aurora.

When the Aurora school district offered some teachers and service providers a bonus for accepting or returning to hard-to-staff positions, the district saw less turnover in those jobs and had more of them filled by the start of the school year.

But the results weren’t consistent across schools, and there were differences in how teachers and other support staff responded to the bonus. Some schools still saw big increases in turnover. And the district still couldn’t fill all positions by the start of the school year.

In a report that district staff will present to the Aurora school board Tuesday, survey responses show the bonus was most influential for new special service providers, such as nurses, occupational therapists, or speech language pathologists. But only 33 percent of new teachers coming into the district said the bonus made an impact on their decision.

Aurora administrators refused to talk about the findings ahead of the board meeting. When the district first announced the bonuses, Superintendent Rico Munn said he had hoped the pilot bonus system would help the district attract more candidates, fill more vacancies, and retain more employees. The union objected to the bonuses. The union and the district begin negotiations next month on how to spend $10 million that voters approved to raise teacher pay.

An arbitrator ruled that the district should have negotiated the terms of the bonuses with the union first, but the school board refused to uphold the finding. District officials had indicated that the results of the pilot incentives would play a role in what changes they propose going forward, and it’s not clear where the school board, a majority of whom were elected with union support, will come down.

On a state and national level, incentives for teachers are being questioned after Denver teachers went on strike, in part over a disagreement about how effective incentives can be and whether that money is better spent on base pay. Ultimately, the tentative agreement that ended the strike on Thursday maintained a number of bonuses, including $2,000 for educators in hard-to-staff positions.

In the Aurora pilot program, the district offered a bonus for special education, secondary math and secondary science teachers at 20 targeted schools. If staff in those positions committed to returning to their job for this year, they could get $3,000. If they returned, but did not give an early commitment, the bonus would be $2,500.

The same rules applied for other positions such as psychologists, nurses, occupational therapists, and speech pathologists, but those employees were eligible at all district schools. New employees in those positions could get $2,500.

To pay for the bonuses, the district had set aside $1.8 million from an unexpected increase in revenue due in part to rising property values. The district only ended up spending about $1.1 million.

Among 229 eligible teachers, 133 returned to their jobs, committing early, and another 29 returned without making an early commitment, meaning about 70 percent of teachers were retained and received the bonus.

Of the 20 schools at which teachers of math, science, and special education received incentives, turnover went down at 13 schools, up at another five, and stayed the same at two.

Among 184 staff members in the other hard-to-staff positions districtwide, 141 returned to their jobs, or 77 percent, all of them committing early and receiving the higher bonus.

The report doesn’t compare those numbers with previous years’.

Ramie Randles, a math teacher, was at Aurora West Collegiate Prep last year and received the bonus. But, she says, she had already decided to return to the same job this school year even before she learned about the bonus.

“To be honest with you it’s nice to get a little extra, but it’s a very small amount that’s not going to sway me one way or another,” Randles said.

In the second quarter of the school year, she left her job at Aurora West and is now teaching math at North Middle School.

The bonus is offered at both schools, but it wasn’t a factor, she said.

“I just feel like I want to feel valued in a job,” Randles said. “If I’m feeling like I’m happy that affects not just me, it affects my students. It affects my coworkers.”

According to the district, 98.26 percent of those who received a bonus remain in the same position as of this week.

Fill rates, which represent how many of the district’s positions are filled by the start of the school year, show an increase, although often small, among all positions except for school psychologists.

Fill rates over time: Did Aurora have more positions filled at the start of this school year than in the past?

Position 16-17 17-18 18-19
Secondary math teachers at 20 schools 91.5% 92.6% 93.4%
Secondary science teachers at 20 schools 93.5% 93.8% 94.8%
Special education teachers at 20 schools 92.6% 89.4% 90.24%
Nurses, district-wide 87.3% 94.6% 98%
Occupational therapists, district-wide 95.4% 80% 96.1%
Psychologists, district-wide 94.4% 96% 95.4%
Speech language pathologists, district-wide 75% 81.4% 85.4%

Another goal of the pilot was to help the district save money by decreasing the use of contract agencies to fill important positions.

The report found that compared with last year, fewer positions were filled through contract agencies.

The Aurora district “was one of the few districts in the metro area that did not provide some form of differentiated pay or incentive for hard-to-fill subject areas,” according to the district. As examples, the report cites Cherry Creek, Denver, and Douglas school districts.

Bruce Wilcox, president of Aurora’s teachers union, said the union has “no interest in pay like Denver does.”

He is against the bonus because he disagrees with setting up different pay for people doing the same jobs in different schools, and because he doubts it will have a long- term effect.

“For some, maybe money was enough to lure them in, but will it be enough to lure them in over a period of time?” Wilcox asked. “Money’s nice and every teacher needs it, let’s be honest, but is it enough to make you continue to work if the leadership and culture aren’t there?”

Tuesday, Aurora staff will also present the school board with an update on overall strategies to improve teacher recruitment and retention. Among those strategies: the development of new training for principals, including on how to motivate and retain high-performing employees.

Another report on the pilot incentives will be prepared this fall with final numbers of how many teachers stayed.

Find turnover rates for the pilot, by school, in the district’s report below. Note: The colors in the second column represent a comparison over the prior year with green showing that it is a lower rate than in the past.

in the weeds

What exactly is in Denver’s new teacher pay deal? Here’s the nitty-gritty

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti/The Denver Post
Denver teachers picket outside South High School on February 11, 2019.

By now, you’ve likely heard that the Denver school district and teachers union reached a deal this week on how — and how much — Denver educators will be paid.

The agreement came just before dawn Thursday, as teachers were waking up and getting ready to strike for a fourth day. Instead, many headed back to their classrooms, to the delight of their students. The Denver Classroom Teachers Association hailed the tentative agreement — which still must be ratified by union members and the Denver school board — as a victory.

“Educators in Denver Public Schools now have a fair, predictable, and transparent salary schedule,” said Rob Gould, a teacher and the union’s lead negotiator.

So what exactly is in the deal? Here’s a breakdown.

A new salary schedule
It will go from $45,800 for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree to $100,000 for a teacher with a doctorate and at least 20 years in the classroom next year. It will allow teachers to earn larger raises more consistently than under the previous system.

Here’s how: The new salary schedule has 20 “steps” and seven “lanes.”

In many districts, “steps” correlate to a teachers’ years of experience. Each year, teachers go up a step and get a raise. In Denver Public Schools, it works a little differently. For teachers to go up a step every year, they must receive a performance rating of either “approaching,” “effective,” or “distinguished.” Educators who are “not meeting” cannot go up a step.

“Lanes” represent a teacher’s level of education or training. The first lane is for teachers who have a bachelor’s degree only. The second lane is for teachers who have a bachelor’s degree plus 18 college credits or the equivalent amount of in-district training — and so on, all the way up to a doctorate.

Educators move into the next lane whenever they reach that level of education. Moving a lane nets educators a bigger raise than moving a step.

The salaries on the new schedule are higher than on the current one. For example, starting pay for a first-year teacher with a bachelor’s degree this year is $42,789.

But there’s another reason why this new salary schedule is a big deal. In the past, the Denver salary schedule was used only to set an educator’s starting salary. In other words, when they were hired, they’d be placed on the schedule based on their experience and education.

There were no yearly step raises or opportunities to move lanes. The only ways an educator could raise their base salary were to get an advanced degree or license (a $3,851 raise this year), complete a “professional development unit” training course (an $855 raise this year), or earn a positive evaluation (an $855 or $427 raise this year, depending on a teacher’s years of service).

There was also a huge catch: Teachers with 14 or more years of service could not increase their base pay by completing professional development units; they got a lump-sum payment instead. And a positive evaluation only netted those teachers a $427 raise, as opposed to $855.

This new salary schedule has no such limits, making it a better deal for veteran educators.

Several different ways to move lanes
The new agreement allows teachers to move lanes several different ways. That’s important to teachers because lane movements net the biggest raises. Educators can move lanes by:

  • Earning college credits. Every time an educator earns 18 credits, they move a lane.
  • Completing professional development units. One unit is worth three credits, similar to a college class. Educators can complete up to two professional development units per year for the purposes of lane movement.
  • Earning continuing education credits. (The rules are still being worked out.)
  • Earning an advanced license. This is most relevant for the non-teachers covered by the contract, such as nurses, counselors, psychologists, and speech language pathologists.
  • Earning National Board Certification.
  • Ten years of service in Denver classrooms within the past 15 years.

There are a couple of caveats to that last one. Educators can only cash in their “longevity” lane change once. And it can’t be used to move into the doctorate lane. To be in that lane, an educator must have a doctorate. Those in the lane just before the doctorate lane — master’s degree plus 54 credits — who hit 10 years of service will get a $2,000 bump to their base salary. Those in the doctorate lane who have nowhere higher to move will get the same.

A note about professional development units: Educators who had more than six units “banked” as of Jan. 19 — meaning they completed them but hadn’t cashed them in for raises — can either trade their units for a lane change or receive a lump-sum payment of $1,700 per unit. Educators with fewer than six units banked get the lump-sum payment.

Three incentives
Under Denver Public Schools’ educator pay system, called ProComp (read the history here), educators earn bonuses and incentives on top of their base salary.

The number of bonuses and incentives, and the dollar amount associated with each, has changed over the years ProComp has been in effect. That variability is one of the things teachers found frustrating and confusing about it. This year, for example, there are six incentives and bonuses (and even more confusingly, two of them aren’t even part of ProComp.)

Under the new agreement, there are three incentives:

A $2,000 incentive for educators who work in Title I schools. To qualify as Title I, at least 60 percent of a school’s students must be eligible for free or reduced-price meals. The majority of district-run schools are Title I.

A $2,000 incentive for educators who work in hard-to-fill positions. A team of district staff and union representatives decide which positions qualify for this one. This year, there are 13 qualifying positions, including middle and high school math teachers, nurses, and teachers who deliver instruction to English language learners in Spanish, known as English Language Acquisition-Spanish teachers.

A $750 incentive for educators who work in 10 “distinguished” schools. The same district-union team will set the criteria here. It will be based on how well schools support students socially and emotionally, not on student test scores.

One retention bonus
Educators who work in 30 schools deemed “highest-priority” by the district and the union will receive a $3,000 retention bonus for returning to work at those schools the following year.

The union has openly questioned whether such retention bonuses actually work to keep teachers. To answer that question, the new agreement requires the district and the union to do a joint research study “to examine the root causes of educator retention and turnover” in the highest-priority schools and identify possible solutions. According to the agreement, “the findings shall be utilized to determine if the incentive shall be continued.”

Tuition reimbursement
Educators can receive $1,000 a year to be spent on repayment of student loans or reimbursement for the costs of training directly related to their job. The maximum reimbursement an educator can receive in their career is $6,000.

Cost-of-living raises for the 2020-21 and 2021-22 school years
Educators will get one for the 2019-20 school year, too, but that one was previously negotiated.

Got more questions? We answered some of the most common ones here.