Play Live Radio
Next Up:
Available On Air Stations

Tennessee’s Teachers About To Get Their Grades Under New Evaluation System

5-1-12 Alisa Bledsoe.JPG
Alisa Bledsoe teaches a lesson at Highland Oaks Middle School.

When the evaluator walked into her classroom, Alisa Bledsoe was teaching her sixth grade science class about the difference between a food chain and a food web. 

At one point in the lesson, she broke the students into groups—some were using Play-Doh, some were painting, others were creating a rap using Garage Band on the classroom’s computer, and still others were creating a skit.

Bledsoe teaches at Highland Oaks Middle School, which is in the Shelby County School district. Under a new statewide teacher evaluation system rolled out this year, Bledsoe’s skills in the classroom were graded using a four-page rubric.

“I guess what I am most disgruntled about is that it is so cumbersome. It is just so much information, so many categories,” Bledsoe said. “It can be so stressful.”

There are 12 overarching categories on the state’s rubric—things like “Motivating Students” and “Lesson Structure and Pacing.” Then there are 53 specific things a teacher must do to score a three, which is defined as “meeting expectations.” To get a five, which is the highest score, a teacher must do more.

Tennessee overhauled teacher evaluations to win federal Race to the Top money and from the get-go the state promised that they will “tweak” the new system.  But many elements of the new teacher evaluation are a matter of state law, and so less likely to change. Among the things that are less likely to change—teachers, like Bledsoe, are graded on a scale of one to five, and half of every teacher’s grade is based on quantitative data from students, like student test scores and graduation rates. The other half of a teacher’s assessment is based on observations of their planning, classroom teaching; and professionalism, and it is this part of the evaluation that is most likely to be “tweaked” in coming years.

“There are way too many indicators,” said White Station Middle School Principal Shawn Page. “And I don’t think that’s pedagogically sound. I don’t think that’s a best practice.”

Of the state’s teachers, 82 percent are evaluated with the state rubric. But Page and other Memphis principals use a different rubric to evaluate their teachers. The Memphis rubric has about half as many categories as the state rubric and 30 specific things a teacher must do to get a three. Because Memphis is the largest school district in the state, 11 percent of the state’s teachers are evaluated with this rubric. Page thinks the Memphis rubric is more manageable.

“What I want as an administrator in my building is for teachers to thoughtfully plan and to masterfully execute a lesson,” Page said. “In our rubric it does give the teachers a lot of flexibility.”

“What I think the evaluations do, is that they do provide an objective set of things that they need to look for. And then collect evidence for,” said seventh-grade math teacher at Kate Bond Middle School (a Memphis City school) Peter Tang. “So you can’t just say, ‘You are a three because I said so.’ You are a three because I saw this, this and this. And I did not see this, this and this.”

Tang said it’s important that all of the evaluators have a similar vision of what a three is and he’s not sure the system is there yet. If you talk to people from the state Department of Education, all the way down to the local district leaders, they’ll tell you that the primary purpose of the new evaluation is to make teachers better. But the new evaluations will also be used to make personnel decisions. Under a revised state law a teacher can be fired for “inefficiency” which is defined as scoring a one or a two overall.

Given the opportunity to rate the new evaluation system on a scale of one to five Tang said he’d give it somewhere between a two and a three.

“The three side is because we now have a common language to at least start a conversation. The two side is because of all those little kinks that still need to be worked out simply because it is a new system,” Tang said.  

The state has already announced that it will require fewer observations next year, to save administrators time. Shelby County Schools asked the state for permission to do shorter observations, but over a longer period of time. If the state okays it, teachers like Bledsoe won’t have to hit every element on the rubric in a single lesson, instead they can do it in the course of a semester.

But no matter what, the new system spells more work for teachers and principals. Deputy Director of the State Board of Education David Sevier says, “If there is a good benefit, then that is okay.”

I love living in Memphis, but I'm not from the city. I grew up in Cambridge, Massachusetts. I spent many hours at a highly tender age listening to NPR as my parents crisscrossed that city in their car, running errands. I don't amuse myself by musing about the purity of destiny, but I have seriously wondered how different my life would be if my parents preferred classic rock instead of Car Talk.