Friday, August 16, 2013

State Board to Revoke Licenses of Effective Teachers

Tomorrow, the State Board of Ed will consider changes to the state's teacher licensing process.  This comes on the heels of their unfortunate decision to lower the already-low floor of this state's teacher salaries.

So what is this about?  The state wants us to believe that this is about increasing the qualifications of teachers entering the profession, but it still provides the same license to people who have graduated with an education degree as those with five weeks of training after a bachelor's degree in a field unrelated to what they will be teaching.  The PRAXIS scores required in Tennessee are already higher than those in Arkansas and Mississippi which, at least in our corner of the state, means that our teachers are often better-qualified - according to the almighty test - than those in surrounding districts.  Of course, the PRAXIS is not required for the teachers that helicopter in from Teach for America and some other "alternative pipelines", so while teachers from the education schools still have to meet minimum requirements, there is no such threshold for favored "stakeholders".

If we want to "raise the threshold" by "increasing the minimum score", we know how to do that - believe me, the state education department is particularly good at that particular trick.  But Commissioner Huffman is not willing to submit a proposal that raises the threshold for all teacher candidates, only the teacher candidates without lobbyists.

The real debate in this latest round of the Haslam administration's efforts to put teachers in their place is over whether a teacher's license should be linked to their students' performance.

Let's start with how other state-licensed professions govern themselves.  Turns out whether we're talking about doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, or nail technicians, the license issued by the state has to do with whether the candidate has met Tennessee's academic and practical requirements, and maintenance of the license has to do with obtaining continuing education credits.  Revocation of the license has to do only with disciplinary issues, not generally with everyday performance.  Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and nail techs don't have to show acceptable levels of performance, no one checks in on them, they mainly have to hope that none of their customers complains to their respective Boards.  Based on my quick review, most of the common reasons for discipline have to do with substance abuse or criminal convictions.

Certainly, I think that our children deserve better than the general public deserves from their doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and nail techs.  Our responsibility to them, vis a vis their education, should be much greater.  But let's be honest about how we treat the most well-respected professions - we give them a high level of autonomy in how they provide their services, we generally allow the professions to govern themselves, and once they meet the entry requirements, as long as they get their continuing ed credits, we pretty much leave them alone.  That's how we treat professionals.

So let's just dispense with casting this proposal as elevating the classroom education profession to the level of "real" professions.

This is about a very particular kind of micro-management by the state's Department of Education, and it actually does not have anything to do with teachers, or really even the kids.  It has to do with principals and school districts.  The Haslam administration does not actually believe that principals and school districts will hire the "right" people.  As much as Commissioner Huffman and the TNTPers tout the concept of "mutual consent", they don't actually believe in it.

Cast in the most favorable light, here's the scenario that the state wants to prevent:  a teacher realizes that their overall evaluation score will come in at a "2" or below, and resigns before they are terminated.  They then seek another job in another district and manage to get hired, because their license is valid anywhere in Tennessee, where they continue to teach at an under-performing level.  ADDITION:  the proposal requires that teachers achieve a 2 in two of the last three years in both evaluation and the value-added measure, prior to the year where the license is up for renewal.

Look, no one's arguing that ineffective teachers should manage to effectively stumble their way to their more and more Datsun-like retirement benefits on the backs of under-educated children. 

But beyond arguing that Tennessee school districts don't have the ability to correctly evaluate job candidates that apply for jobs - that they could be tricked, Tricked I tell you, by a smooth-talking classroom teacher - or that they don't have the ability to ask the teacher about his or her performance and/or challenges, or verify it by talking to the teacher's former principal or district officials, Commissioner Huffman must believe that principals and school districts are protecting their own ability to continue to employ ineffective teachers.  In order to protect them from their bad decisions, Commissioner Huffman's proposal is to prevent these incompetent?  untrustworthy?  bumpkin?  bribed?  related?  principals and school districts from being able to continue to employ teachers by preventing those teachers from even being eligible to teach.

So why am I so concerned about these teachers?  Let's review the teacher evaluation system.  Test scores (well, TVAAS) make up 35% of a teacher's overall score, with another 15% made up of another test metric (chosen from several options) - this was true in both legacy districts (MCS using its own system, SCS using the state system), and is true in the merged district.  Back when BCG was comparing these things for the Transition Planning Commission, the average MCS overall score was 2.7, and the average SCS overall score was 2.9.  Review BCG's analysis here. 

So the average overall score in both legacy districts was in the 2.0 to 2.9 range.  Below 3.  Not the same as a median, but notable, primarily because of the outsize number of Level 1 teachers (more than any other Level) in each legacy.

So let's quickly review teacher evaluation.  Let me just repeat to you what I have heard at least a dozen district-level administrators explain:  a Level 3 teacher is a rock solid teacher, who is doing exactly what they need to do to get one year of growth from their classroom.  In order to obtain a Level 4 or 5, the teacher must be getting more than one year's worth of growth.  This is most important for students who are not proficient in a subject, who must make more than one year's worth of growth to have any hope of ever catching up to where they are supposed to be.

So why would any teacher worth their salt (or our taxpayer dollars) possibly obtain less than a Level 2?  Well, they might, for instance, be one of the 60% (SIXTY PERCENT) of teachers in this state who don't teach a tested grade or subject.  If a non-tested teacher teaches at a school that is under-performing, then they get the school's under-performing score.  Let's say a teacher only gets a Level 4 for their evaluation (remembering that Level 3 is rock-solid, meeting expectations, doing what they are supposed to do), and their school is a Level 1 school - that teacher ends up below the required Level 3 to maintain their license.  Here's a more accurate scenario lifted from Andy Spears over at Tennessee Education Report:  "Math Teacher has overall performance evaluation scores of a 3 in all three of the years before his license is up for renewal.  However, his value-added scores are a 1-2-1.  So, he’s license is not renewed, he goes under review and could potentially lose his license.
     Band Teacher has performance evaluation scores of 2-2-1 in the three years leading up to renewal.  Band Teacher has no value-added data. Band teacher is automatically renewed under the streamlined licensure scheme.
     So, Math Teacher, whose overall scores were higher than Band Teacher’s, is in danger of dismissal.  Band Teacher is renewed.  Math Teacher (and other teachers similarly situated) complain and/or sue."

Let's say that teacher is only a rock-solid teacher who is exactly meeting pedagogical evaluation expectations and gets a rock-solid Level 3 - they better be teaching at a Level 2 school or better.  Why would they ever teach at a school doing worse than that if they had any choice in the matter?  You know, if they want to maintain their license?

Under this rubric, a Level 1 teacher terminated for ineffectiveness may not lose their license, but a Level 4 or Level 5 teacher per the evaluation could lose their license and their ability to teach in the state of Tennessee because of the school at which they teach.

This is the part where the Haslam administration will explain to you that they are trying to minimize the number of teachers who teach in untested subjects and grades by promoting the standardized testing of students in kindergarten, first, and second grades.  The test promoted by the state is the SAT-10.  How do you test students who can't read?  Why, you read the test to them.  Because you don't have enough teachers to individually read the tests to each student, you seek volunteers - volunteers who you hope won't let the inflection of their voice suggest answers.  After all, it worked for the ASD's schools, right?  When they had to recruit volunteers, in some instances from some of their philanthropic-funding organizations to "proctor" the exams to students who couldn't yet read?  Totally reliable - testing children who don't yet know how to fill in bubbles with recruited volunteer proctors with no education training.  Should be fine.

It is, of course, in the Haslam administration's interest to reduce the number of teachers whose scores rely on kids not currently in their classrooms.  A similar scheme in Florida - where teachers at K-2 schools were evaluated based on the scores of the 3-5 schools that their kids fed into - was invalidated when the state legislature passed a law that teachers could not be evaluated based on the scores of students that they didn't teach.

Why else should we be concerned about these teachers with low scores?  The Gates folks want us to believe that a great teacher will be great anywhere.  What the research shows is that for teachers who stay in the same school, "teachers who were ranked the highest on average produced the highest student achievement the following year".  This makes sense within a school - where kids are more or less from the same kind of neighborhoods year-over-year.  The researchers did not attempt to move teachers to different schools.  We know, intuitively, that's that a different question entirely.

It will take at least another post, maybe a book, to explain why I just don't buy that student test scores are an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness.  My conclusion is that student test scores are fundamentally unreliable indicators both of how well a teacher taught the material, or of how well a student learned the material - there are just too many other variables.  Those variables keep a teacher's overall evaluation scores, likewise, too variable.  Read here about a teacher's whose scores have fluctuated from a Level 5 to a Level 1and back.  While the state reassuringly tells us that the test scores are a snapshot, one measure of student achievement, I'm yelling plaintively "the test scores are only a snapshot, only one measure of student achievement!"

I'm also convinced that there are shenanigans in the teacher evaluation process, but that's also another post I haven't had time to write.  While the state is concerned about principals inaccurately judging their teachers too high, I'm concerned about principals using the evaluations to undermine teachers they don't like.  Ask many of the excessed teachers Level 3, 4, and 5 teachers of Shelby County whether they were fairly treated by their principals during that process, or whether less-good teachers were kept because the principals liked them better.  By trying to convince us that teaching can be accurately measured by purely objective methods ("objective methods" administered by humans observing other humans and making judgments about those humans), and trying to take subjectivity out of the equation, the state has created a situation where principals are incentivized to manipulate the objective measures to take their sometimes-very-valid, sometimes-much-less-valid subjective concerns into consideration.

These proposed changes are yet another solution without a problem.  I don't believe that there's a historical problem with poor teachers manipulating their way past hapless hiring officials and principals, hopscotching their ineffectiveness across the state by lying about their abilities. A teacher's performance is easily verified by previous employers.  Linking student performance to licensure will reduce the number of effective teachers eligible to teach (Level 3 and Level 4 teachers in untested subjects at Level 1 schools, for instance), particularly in under-performing schools, where the new policy will also contribute to the instability of more constant turnover, as teachers are incentivized to get out of those under-performing schools just as quickly as they can.

Another solution without a problem creating more problems.  Hard to say whether Commissioner Huffman likes the solutions to those problems - increasing non-traditional teacher pipelines - even more than this disingenuous solution which will absolutely have the effect of reducing the number of traditionally-trained effective, rock-solid, experienced teachers in hard-to-staff classrooms.

If you'd like to know more about the Tennessee Board of Ed, here's the link.  Our representative from Memphis (the 9th Congressional district, anyway) is Teresa Sloyan, the Executive Director of the Hyde Family Foundations. 

If you'd like to email them your views, you can just cut and paste this list:,,,,,,

The Third District representative does not have an email address listed, and there is no information about the student member of the Board.

[Author's note:  I've updated this article as of the evening of August 16 to better reflect the details of Commissioner Huffman's proposal.  I appreciate your patience.]


  1. Poor quality journalism to write this entire article and not identify which of the three PRAXIS exams is in question.

    In addition you would not want TFA candidates to take the Praxis I because their scores would be so high (these are students who read and studied hard in high school and went to selective universities after all) resulting in showing an embarassing difference between them and the other folks who go into teaching. In other words, for folks who are not aware, the Praxis I is a "steam on the mirror test" so incredibly easy that anyone who cannot get a perfect score on the exam should not be allowed to stand in front of children, let alone teach.

    If the exam is the Praxis II (Subject Test) a few point difference should not be any big deal, but it is likely that the TFA graduates of selective schools again do very well in contrast to the existing teachers. Moreover they could probably take a whole battery of those (English, Social Studies, a couple types of Science, and Math) and do well on them unlike teachers of the non-selective schools with their shamefully low ACT scores, abysmal SAT scores--and most tellingly (after four years of college), disgustingly low GRE scores.

    If the Praxis is the discredited PLT exam, a subjective and again low-quality exam-- enough said.

    1. As a teacher who attended a non-selective state university, I'd like to respond that I have now taken five Praxis II exams, and have easily passed all five - the first time - with more than enough "breathing" room. In fact, on one exam I scored the equivalent of 97%. Please don't swallow the propaganda that teachers are not as intelligent as those who choose other areas of study or those who choose (or can afford) more selective universities.

    2. Watching in MemphisAugust 16, 2013 at 8:20 PM

      Seems like a prank comment? Or maybe TFA needs to crack down on its folks posting while they're at school.

      It's weird. I've never had a reader request that I do a google search for them. There seems to be some difficulty in using context clues to discern the point of view - I'm not so much a reporter-of-the-news as commenter-on-the-news. But maybe with some more practice at reading comprehension, this commenter's performance will improve.

  2. Dear " I'd like to respond that I have now taken five Praxis II exams, and have easily passed all five - the first time ".

    You just displayed the type of education one gets at those second-rate schools. You sound just the guys who say "I get up and go to work every day, never complain, I feed my family and always pay my child support. I'm never late." That is what one is supposed to do. You do not get kudos for doing those things. You are supposed to study hard in university and do well on those exams. Those exams are easy. And if you got a proper well-rounded education you took and passed at least a couple of the Science subjects (not the bogus generic science exam) as well as one foreign language and the absurdly easy Social Studies and English.

    But the folks accepting the bogus MEd degrees when they cannot even manage a minumum 600/600 score on the GREs have forfeited all credibility. They just did not read much (probably also did not before they got in their universities,) avoided hard courses (advanced foreign language courses where one really learns a language, Calculus--a minimum of a year--courses with Math and Statistics, a good computer science programming class, history, econ, and political science to be well-rounded.) I find it amazing how much political correct "multi-culturalism" is espoused by these MEd people when they really have no serious credibility with foreign languages. By the way, most serious Masters Programs require good GRE scores as well as proving fluency in a foreign language. But not the phony MEd programs.

    Of course we will get the usual and customary Ed School professor writing in here to say that we really do not need that well educated teachers. They will try to make you believe "leave well enough alone", that American students do well enough if adjusted for the poverty and diversity of the country, blah, blah, blah. But I would suggest when you need strong people to speak truth to power (especially in disadvantaged urban schools) you will get them with careerist, meek, poorly-read, posturing, and aiming for jobs in administration or testing companies. Those folks just put in their time teaching, and sucker the poor taxpayers. Another symptom of a weak commitment to the intellect is the display of anti-intellectual, anti-academic, anti-achievement acceptance of mediocrity. Remember Socrates was persecuted for "corruption of the youth of Athens". Most people are hostile to the questioning, rigorous dialectic approach of the Western mind. Indeed it takes considerable commitment and fortitude to push the unwieldly human brain into these habits of mind.

    For your sake, I'll do what Malcolm X's mentor did to him in prison by giving him the nutmeg alcoholic drink-- but never again-- Congratulations on passing all five of the Praxis II exams. Now let's get on with it. Folks from those rigorous, highly selective schools know the meaning of discretion and do not flaunt their wealth, in whatever form. That one of the secrets that you would have picked up in those schools--Haverford, Trinity, Harvey Mudd, Davidson, etc, etc. Just so you know.

    1. You ARE aware that SAT scores and other tests of college-readiness are NOT a predictor of successful teachers?

      Surely, since you have read so much, you have read the studies researching this. If not, let me know, and I will link them for you.