Last week, I attended a convening of Hope Street Group teacher fellows from across the state. There are 30 of us who are all dedicated to elevating teachers’ voices in this state. On the first day of the convening, I was blessed to participate in a listening session over state testing with Dr. Candice McQueen, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). She will travel around the state and conduct more of these listening sessions so that teachers can tell her directly how the state can improve its system of evaluating students.
Many great ideas were expressed in this listening session, the details of which I don’t want to publicize at this time because education policy is a tricky thing. Nothing is ever changed solely in isolation without affecting something else. I don’t know how many of the good ideas that we expressed are actionable, but I left that session feeling confident that Commissioner McQueen listened to them intently.
Lunch quickly followed this listening session, and at my lunch table we continued to discuss the weighty topic of evaluation, which veered into a discussion on how teachers and schools are evaluated.
Most teachers across the state are evaluated using the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model, or TEAM. In a nutshell, this model that is used for classroom observations uses a rubric that lists characteristics in several different domains on a 1, 3, or 5 level, with 5 being the highest. After the teacher’s lesson is evaluated, there is a post-conference where the teacher meets with the evaluator (usually a principal) and the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson are discussed. Classroom observation(s) comprise 50% of a teacher’s overall evaluation score for that year, which is also on a scale of 1-5. According to TDOE, the TEAM evaluation model improves the quality of education and teachers feel more positive about it than ever. Anecdotally, no one at my table--nor any other teacher that I have ever talked to about the TEAM model--could support that notion. The way teachers are evaluated in this state is ridiculously flawed.
Schools have been graded using a school report card for a number of years now. New to this report card (thanks to the state legislature) will be grades that range from A to F for every school. These grades will be based primarily off of how well students perform on state tests as well as national tests like the ACT. This raised a series of questions during our lunch discussion. What performance levels signify an “A” versus a “B” or “C”? Are schools who obtain an “A” on the school report card actually graduating students who are well-prepared for college and the “real world,” or are they better at preparing their students to test well?
The larger issue here is that in education, we constantly strive to measure the unmeasurable. For example, on a student’s report card, a grade of 75 is a “D” and a grade of 85 is a “B.” As a teacher, how on earth can I honestly say that the “B” student has mastered 10% more of the knowledge than the “D” student? I can’t, because it’s it’s not quantifiable. Likewise, is a teacher who is considered to be a level 5 significantly better than a level 3 teacher on the TEAM rubric? On the school report card, will an “A” school be significantly better than a “B” or “C” school?
I greatly appreciate Dr. McQueen taking the time to listen to a group of teacher leaders from around the state. Without question, there are areas of improvement for TNReady. Because the law requires state testing, our students deserve to have the best evaluation system that we can provide. Hopefully, the state’s ensuing discussion over how to improve TNReady will boil over into other areas of evaluation that correspondingly have glaring areas of improvement. There are more organic methods of evaluating teachers and schools than subjectively grading them. When we figure this out, Tennessee educationally will be a model for the nation and the positive change will be precipitous.