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Tennessee Puts Teacher Prep on Its To-Do List

Improving teaching quality starts with how teachers are trained, but often that’s the last stop on states’ to-do lists. As part of its statewide effort to improve teaching and learning, Tennessee is using the results from teacher evaluations, as well as other metrics, as levers to ensure future teachers are ready for the demands of the classroom.

The Tennessee State Board of Education issues report cards for all Tennessee preparation programs. Among other factors, the report cards evaluate whether graduates land and retain jobs in public schools and how effective they are in those positions. Teacher effectiveness is based on data from the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS), which produces information about the academic growth of teachers’ students based on standardized tests.

Programs earn a rating between 1 and 4, with 4 being the highest. Tennessee is one of only 11 states to link program effectiveness with how well graduates perform in the classroom. “We have so much data on teaching in the classroom and we’re able to use that data for teacher preparation,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

In 2007, State lawmakers passed legislation requiring publication of a report on the effectiveness of teacher preparation programs, both to inform the public about which programs are getting the best results and to help programs make targeted improvements.

In addition to placement and effectiveness rates, the annual report cards include data on the academic profile of program completers and their passing rates on the state’s licensing exams. Beginning in December 2013, the state made individual performance data, as measured by TVAAS, available to programs through a secure website. For confidentiality reasons, those data are not made public, but programs can use them to analyze their graduates’ performance in relation to which courses they took, where they were placed as student teachers, and their overall GPA.

[Read More: Scaling Reform: Tennessee's Statewide Teacher Transformation]

The state has coupled the report cards with more flexibility regarding how teachers are trained, based on early findings that the strongest teacher preparation programs did not all look alike. High-ranking programs ranged from that at Lipscomb University, where Commissioner Candice McQueen was dean of the college of education, to the Teach for America (TFA) program in Nashville.

TFA’s alternative preparation program places teachers in high-need schools for two years, during which time they take evening and weekend classes toward a master’s degree in urban education.  Though Lipscomb’s overall performance was among the highest in the state, McQueen said that the college still used the information gleaned from the report cards to improve individual programs, such as the preparation of social studies teachers.

To date, none of the programs at the state colleges, where the bulk of future teachers are trained, perform at the highest level. “It’s very clear that when you see the data, we think that we can do much better,” Mike Krause, the executive director for the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told legislators earlier this year.

Yet the report cards have made a difference: Middle Tennessee State University and East Tennessee State University both scored a 3 in 2017, a full point higher than the year before. The University of Tennessee-Knoxville scored a 4, the first public university in the state to earn the highest rating.

In 2016, the state Board of Education established an Educator Preparation and Licensure Subcommittee to focus on teacher preparation. That year, it raised the cut scores for teachers on some state licensing exams and required all teacher candidates to pass a portfolio-based performance assessment, known as edTPA, beginning in January 2019. In addition, the department has created a pilot network of five educator-preparation programs and their partner districts to foster collaboration around teacher effectiveness.

[Read More: Elevating Teaching and Learning in Tennessee]