Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit


Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.


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.