Amid pushback, new teacher evaluation system has ally in Jesse Register

Sunday, October 23, 2011 at 10:05pm
Kevin Huffman 

A quarter of the way into the school year, one item is dominating chatter among Tennessee teachers, principals and even some state politicians –– a narrative fully captured and advanced through the media: The state’s controversial new teacher evaluation system, ushered in to bring accountability to classroom instructors, has predictably caused its share of angst among the teachers it measures. 

Though sentiments aren’t universal, there seems to be a degree of division between the evaluation system –– implemented this year –– and teachers themselves, with some decrying its methodical, time-consuming approach and 1-to-5 grading system that has stressed even longtime, tenured teachers. Gov. Bill Haslam and Tennessee Department of Education officials are backing the program, but have said they plan to address concerns. 

“We continue to view the evaluation system as a critical foundation for our collective work to improve student achievement,” Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman wrote in an email to educators in September. “The system is not perfect, but it is a significant step forward, and the first step in an ongoing effort to refine and improve evaluation and support for educators.”  

The state’s education department could not make Huffman available to The City Paper last week. 

The state House Education Committee is set to hold hearings on the system Nov. 1 and Nov. 2, but most observers aren’t anticipating a scrapping or overhaul of the evaluation program during the next legislative session. It will likely stay largely intact. After all, it was this evaluation formula –– approved in the waning days of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s tenure –– that helped position Tennessee to score $500 million in highly coveted federal Race to the Top funds. 

In the weeks ahead, storylines of distress –– found inside schools from Chattanooga to Knoxville, to Memphis and Nashville –– will likely keep coming. As it turns out, stories of teachers critical of components of the system are plentiful.  

“It’s so in-depth and time-consuming for teachers and assistant principals,” said Greg Francescon, a U.S. history teacher at Overton High School, referring to the in-class observations, four or six depending on licensure, that principals must give teachers. “That’s the No. 1 thing. They want you to write these elaborate lesson plans for the observations. . . . It can be daunting.” 

Francescon, in his ninth year at Overton, senses some “unrest” among teachers. Worse, he said the evaluation system is just the latest among a number of new changes at Metro schools –– block scheduling, “career academies,” and the state’s curbing of the teachers’ collective bargaining ability –– that have made the life of a teacher more difficult.   

“If you add all those things that have happened over the last couple of years, I would say without a doubt, this is the lowest morale I’ve seen in my teacher friends ever –– easily ” he said. “Students have less accountability and teachers have more and more accountability.”

Teachers may squirm and push back amid the changes, but at the top of Metro Nashville Public Schools –– the state’s second-largest school district –– the evaluation system has found an ally in Director of Schools Jesse Register. 

As teachers return from fall break this week, Metro’s superintendent plans on unveiling a video to teachers in which he seeks to ease some of the unrest and explain why the evaluation system is needed. 

“I think there is anxiety about it,” Register told The City Paper. “We shouldn’t deny that. But what I’m picking up is, as we get into it, and as teachers and principals put it into practices, the anxiety tends to lessen.

“What people need to understand is to take a bigger view of this,” Register said. “It’s not just about firing bad teachers. That’s just one little piece of it ... What this really is to me is it really focuses principals’ and school leaders’ time on looking at best practices and building best instructional practices in schools.” 


The state-mandated teacher evaluation system carries the acronym TEAM –– Teacher Education Acceleration Model. A centerpiece of the state’s 2010 Race to the Top application, state officials arrived at evaluation parameters following the work of the Tennessee Evaluation Advisory Committee, which included teachers, principals and other educators. The group oversaw field tests that explored four models. 

At issue is a system that scores teachers based on three components: 50 percent is student achievement data; 35 percent is in-class observations; and 15 percent is student growth. Scores among all three groups will be combined into a 5-category grading scale. A score of 5 represents “significantly above expectations,” while a score of 1 represents “significantly below expectations.” A state prediction bell curve projects only 5 to 10 percent of teachers will score a 5, and 3 to 5 percent of teachers will score a 1. Half of teachers are projected to scores 3s. 

Nearly three months into the school years, teachers have only been subjected to the observation part of the formula. While surveying classrooms, principals use an extraordinarily detailed four-page rubric to measure instruction. “Planning” and “environment” are also measured. Classroom observations, too, are graded on a 1-to-5 scale. 

“Some administrators are trying to use this rubric as the 10 Commandments, and it’s very frustrating with the obstacles that exist anyways in the day-to-day world of being an educator,” said Stephen Henry, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union. “It’s supposed to be a tool to help you be better, but it’s being used in a way that’s counterproductive to that.”  

In nearly three years at Metro schools, Register has proven a team player on several fronts, establishing positive bonds with Mayor Karl Dean, the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce and the Metro Nashville Board of Education, among others. His relationship with the state seems equally strong. 

“I think it’s a very positive change for us,” Register said of the evaluation system. “What remains to be seen is, we have to finish the first year. After that first year is up, we look at what didn’t work well, and we make adjustments. It’s too premature that it’s not going to work, that it’s failing.”  


Inside Metro schools, Register acknowledges the new system is “very labor-intensive” for principals and assistant principals. 

To that point, Robbin Wall, principal of McGavock High School, the largest public high school in Tennessee, said the “biggest issue that we’re dealing with is time.” He said instructional evaluations can put principals in classrooms anywhere from to 30 to 90 minutes each time. 

“It’s hard to make everything fit,” Wall said. “With the number of evaluations that we’re having to do –– especially at a campus my size, where I’ve got maybe 120 teachers –– it’s hard to make all those things work.”  

Rosemary Wade, a visual arts teacher at Croft Middle School for eight years, said her principal has been “awesome” in helping her work through the new evaluations. The difficulty, she said, is trying to hit 12 different rubric areas in one lesson plan, which she called “next to impossible.” Still, she believes teachers can rise to the challenge in time. 

“It’s just so new, honestly, that there’s a lot of uncertainty about it.” Wade said. 

“I think it will eventually come to really strengthen all of us, but of course there’s got to be adjustments made and tweaking some of the areas that don’t work, because they’re trying a new system out, and we’re one of the few states that have it,” she said.    

Some teachers say the motive behind the new system is admirable, but meeting various criteria isn’t easy. 

“I think that the idea of having a systemized way of evaluating teachers is a much better idea than what was happening in the past,” said Chris Prosser, who teaches orchestra at Wright Middle School 

“Some of the expectations when you read the rubric are very difficult to obtain,” he said. “To get a 5 on the evaluation is very difficult to do. Teachers have been told there will be very few 5s. Most teachers are very driven people. Most teachers want to get good grades, just like their students want to get good grades. ... Most teachers are being told that a 3 is going to be a good grade. If I give a quiz, a 3 is like a C. Some of the teachers are having a difficult time because of that.” 

Prosser is outperforming the mean, however. He said he received a 3 and a half on his first evaluation.   

9 Comments on this post:

By: suellen on 10/24/11 at 1:30

This, too, shall pass. When the non-teachers and non-principals who put this scheme in place realize that teachers, in a survival mode, are spending more time trying to do well on the evaluation than they are helping their students do well, the current powers that be will chuck this model, have an ephphany, and come up with another scheme that is just as unworkable.

Meanwhile, the emphasis on graduation rates imply to teachers they may not fail anyone; students catch that drift and do minimal work, daring teachers to fail them; and we start graduating students who are not ready for the wide world, not to mention the rigors of college work.

Finally, an increasing number of teachers are growing tired of all this mumbo jumbo and are leaving the profession for greener pastures. When a critical mass of very good teachers walk out the door, students, as always will suffer.
Suellen Alfred
Cookeville, Tennessee

By: sargon on 10/24/11 at 3:52

But...Teachers and principals and administrators were on the committee that put the evaluation in place. You cannot say they did not have a voice. The evaluating of teachers multiple times a year is long, long over due. Yes, the form may change but teachers, principals and those in central office need to be evaluated multiple times a year There must be a quick way to oust the bad apples wherever they are in education and yes, we know they are there.

By: nashville_teacher on 10/24/11 at 5:43

Ms. Alfred is spot on in her evaluation of this system.

"At issue is a system that scores teachers based on three components: 50 percent is student achievement data; 35 percent is in-class observations; and 15 percent is student growth. Scores among all three groups will be combined into a 5-category grading scale. A score of 5 represents “significantly above expectations,” while a score of 1 represents “significantly below expectations.” A state prediction bell curve projects only 5 to 10 percent of teachers will score a 5, and 3 to 5 percent of teachers will score a 1. Half of teachers are projected to scores 3s."

What can be read into this statement is that areas of high poverty where students often come to school much less prepared than their suburban counterparts will see teachers flee. Nowhere in this statement do I see any leniency for the schools who are struggling to help correct societal ills like malnutrition, addictions at birth, increased mental illness often due to PTSD from physical or sexual abuse, homeless populations, criminal activity of family members that incorporate the children into the crime, etc. You can say this is in every school, but visit the schools that exist in the areas that you tell your teenage daughter not to drive through. This is a daily reality here in Tennessee.

When do we quit lying to ourselves? When do we honor the teachers that deal with these populations on a daily basis -- extending love, extending care, extending themselves, extending their pocketbooks -- rather than slap them in the face and say that their kids do not meet standard achievement test scores? Guess what? There is NOTHING standard about these children. How long do we systematically abuse the abused, Tennessee? How long do we tell them they are not good enough – over and over again?

In response, teachers will find solace in schools where parents are present and active, and the students could likely pass a standardized test on the first day of school. We all know, because this new system tells us, that the great teachers all work in the suburbs! The children of these other schools will be relegated to deal with green teachers with limited classroom management or curriculum awareness.

Well done, friends!

By: govskeptic on 10/24/11 at 6:03

Long time tenured teachers, of course, do not like the changes. We have
spent the last 30-40 years coasting along like everything was fine just the
way it had been. No accountability, raising retirement benefits, more days
off, and students that couldn't read at 8th grade levels on graduating from
high school. Add to that parents not demanding acceptable behavior at
home or school, and the system not being able to handle or do anything
about the in-class trouble makers (due to federal regs. and court protection).

Urban districts have the most problems and how a dedicated teachers puts
up with more than a week of what they're confronted with is pretty amazing.
Of little help is the TV cameras rush to report any controversy that takes
places with a whining parent whose "little darling" has been disrespected
or corrected about their own deplorable behavior!

While not a total solution, this testing is still necessary as a start to get
a handle on the problem. Hopefully a better solution will follow for the
students that are total slackers and trouble makers poisoning the system!

By: phoenix75 on 10/24/11 at 10:31

Do teachers need to be closely evaluated? Absolutely. Should they be held accountable for performance? Of course. While I applaud the intentions of the TEAM model and those who are working toward a better public school system in Tennessee, I still question the implementation. I think it would have been very valuable to have those who created this method of evaluation to actually have put it into practice themselves; they should have to go into a classroom and teach the same standards in a real setting with real students, all while having to meet the criteria presented in the model. They should have to perform all the duties of a principal and use this system to evaluate all teachers. Test the model, find out what works and what doesn't. Then implement an effective model; while this may be time consuming it is worth the wait if this will be the foundation of Tennessee's teacher evaluation. Or does that not meet the time frame requirements to get federal money for Race to the Top?

A teacher shares the largest and best waking moments with your child. Do you want to send him or her into a classroom where the teacher feels unappreciated, over-worked, defensive, and even possibly bitter? How about an evaluation system that coaches and is conducive for creating teacher leaders? I would love to see Tennessee become the U.S. model for success in education. This will never happen with the morale that is currently fostered under this system.

By: Skeeter on 10/24/11 at 12:23

I believe some principals will use/have used these new evaluations as another way to filter out teachers, that do not conform to her way of doing things, which has nothing to do with their teaching ability. My wife has been at her school for 13-14 years. The principal has been there going on 9 years or so, in that time, has gone thru most of her teachers twice. Between the "non-renewals", forced resignations in-lieu of termination, and transfers, 15 teachers last year alone. I have never seen so many teachers be shuffled around from one grade level to another. My wife tells me what is going on at her school and I sit there in disbelief, thinking, there is no way this can be happening!
Anyways, who evaluates the principals? Surely, the Director, sees the numbers of turn overs? Does H.R. never question the amount of new hires and transfers at any one school? Do not get me wrong I believe in accountability of teachers. What about the Administration? Where in the new evaluation does it say, you are not allowed to ask the academic coach questions about lessons plans? Hey, why not actually publish a template of lesson plans, that are acceptable, instead of making the teachers guess and hope the lesson plans are better before the next evaluation. Common sense! Use it, or lose it principals! It might be to late for some.

By: mnpseducator on 10/24/11 at 3:10

The time is come for our schools to stop passing bad teachers around the district. We all know who they are - they are famous within our ranks - moved from year to year and shuffled around. I realize that the vast majority of our teachers do an amazing job and are completely dedicated to their students and profession. They are my heroes. But we have put up with terrible teachers for too long, and many just shrug and say that nothing can be done. Principals even tell us that the teacher has to set a fire or throw some desks to lose their jobs. Why are we so complacent or weak-kneed about removing them? Most of us wouldn't allow those teachers to teach our kids - we scream, storm the principal's office, get them changed, or withdraw them. But many of our parents don't have the ability to do that, and suffer the consequences. We would never allow that kind of performance in the for-profit world! What bigger profit is there than a well-educated child? Dr. Register is right - give it time. PRincipals SHOULD be in teachers classrooms for 60-90 minutes. I had principals come in for 10-20 min for an evaluation and leave, and that was IT! Enough is enough.

By: Toosmart4owngood on 10/24/11 at 3:21

Skeeter and others act as if teachers are forced to stay in a school. If your spouse hates their boss they should get a new job. Is all this squaking because these complainers can't get another job? I don't believe effective teachers leave because of how the evaluation happens. Ineffective people often dislike higher accountability because it exposes their weakness. The good ones will always be evaluation can change that.

By: artsmart on 10/25/11 at 9:17

It is just a joke. A principal and asst principal in the same school have totally different methods of evaluation. When asking what can be done better, no answer seems to be standard. I also saw on channel 3 where a person was on speaking about teachers and parents evaluating Administrators all the way up to the Super was done in other school systems with success. You we never see that here. I would think if you really wanted to be successful you would want to review all levels.