After years of tiptoeing around what to do with teachers who fail in the classroom, Metro Nashville Public Schools officials expect to start showing some of them the door.
More than 60 teachers are expected to flunk their annual teacher evaluations two years in a row, according to Director of Schools Jesse Register.
In an email obtained by The City Paper, Register told members of the Metro school board, “It is possible that a large number of these (60 teachers) will be recommended for dismissal now,” and said the district is finally at a place where it can remove bad educators.
“We have worked very hard for two years to change the culture in the district so that we effectively deal with the removal of poor teachers,” read the July 10 email. “Principals are just now getting to the place where they are addressing poor performers rather than displacing and shifting them from school to school.”
Register sent the message to the board a day after members cast a tie vote on firing an elementary school teacher at Lockeland Design Center in East Nashville for texting during instruction, using an inappropriate tone with students and repeatedly scoring low on teacher evaluations.
The vote last week, which appeared to confuse some members of the board, was on whether to certify dismissal charges against the teacher, which puts in motion the termination process. The teacher then has a right to a hearing before an impartial officer who then determines whether the charges are founded. The tie vote means charges will be dropped.
Last week’s vote won’t be the last this year to potentially fire teachers, Register warned.
“All of you know that a much higher number of dismissals for performance may generate quite a bit of pushback, so we need to understand where we are,” Register’s email continued.
This year will be the first for the district to use multiple years of annual job evaluations to judge whether a teacher is fit to stay in the classroom or should be dismissed, according to district officials.
The new grading system, coined the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model, was ushered in by the state in 2010 with a bundle of other education reforms. Districts like MNPS began grading teachers with this model in 2011 and again, with some refinements, in 2012.
Previously, teachers went years without evaluations after earning tenure in three years. Now teachers are observed and graded on their classroom performance no less than four times a year, and student performance on standardized tests is factored into a teacher’s grade.
Each evaluation is split evenly between quantitative data — like student improvement on standardized tests and other statistical measures a teacher can pick from — and qualitative measures like classroom observations.
The new evaluations are a touchy issue. Teachers say the new evaluations have ratcheted up the pressure on them to manufacture higher test scores, an issue some parents and board members say amounts to “high-stakes testing.” Meanwhile, educators in subjects like history — or primary school teachers without matching standardized tests for their students — are largely measured by school-wide test scores they have little control over. However, observations for those teachers now make up 60 percent of their score.
“The evaluation system is not perfect, it needs refinement,” said Will Pinkston, a MNPS board member and an architect of the First to the Top state legislation that built the new evaluation system. “But for the first time period, we’re now evaluating teachers at least in part on student achievement. There’s a lot more work to be done on the system, but it’s better than what we did previously.”
Teachers are graded on a scale from 1 to 5, with 5 as the highest score. In the 2011-12 school year, more than 20 percent of MNPS teachers earned the lowest scores of 1, defined as “highly inefficient,” or 2, for “inefficient.”
That year, 195 MNPS teachers scored a 1 on their evaluations, according to the district’s Human Capital office, which is trying to transition away from a typical human resources role.
“We definitely think that the evaluation itself, as state law allows us, is enough to remove teachers for poor performance,” said Katie Cour, executive director of Talent Strategy at MNPS.
State law allows districts to dismiss teachers — including tenured ones — for one of five reasons: inefficiency, incompetence, neglect of duty, unprofessional conduct or insubordination.
Although Register suggested to the board some five dozen teachers could land repeated 1, or “highly inefficient,” scores on their teacher evaluations, the state is still processing the data the district needs to determine which teachers have stagnant failing scores, according to the Department of Education. MNPS expects some of that data to roll into the district any day now, and trickle in through the fall.
But Cour said it’s too early to say how many teachers they’ll consider firing.
“We have some estimates that we’re looking at internally; we have some guesses, but we don’t know a specific number,” she said.
Even when the district has that data in hand, Cour said her office will examine each teacher on a case-by-case basis by reviewing all aspects of the evaluation and observations to determine whether they have a case to let the teacher go or whether more intervention can help that teacher improve.
“We believe that removing ineffective teachers is a piece of the puzzle, but it’s actually a very small piece of the puzzle,” said Cour. “We recognize that there are some teachers in our buildings that are not cutting it, and it’s those cases that we’ll be going through thoughtfully and carefully and meticulously while we are emphasizing support for the vast majority of our teachers.”
The expectations of teachers are great right now. Tennessee ranks among the worst states in the country when it comes to students scoring at or above grade level on standardized tests.
While students improved in most subjects on state tests this spring, this was the first year that more than half of students in lower grades were at least at grade level in every subject. While about 60 percent or more of high-schoolers are at grade level in some algebra, English and biology, only 2 in 5 are at least proficient in Algebra II and English III.
Meanwhile, teachers are juggling to prepare students for next year’s state tests while shifting to a new set of teaching standards called Common Core and a new standardized test to go with it in 2015, further complicating duties in the teaching profession.
The night before Register sent his email warning the board about upcoming teacher dismissal decisions, the board split on a 4-4 vote to certify dismissal charges against teacher Sherrie Martin, who was accused of unprofessional behavior in the classroom such as texting during class time and using a “demeaning tone” to correct students. Register described her teaching as “inefficient” as evidenced by her evaluation scores, which he said were “below expectations” in a letter to her outlining the dismissal charges.
Parents rallied behind the teacher and urged the board to drop the charges moments before the vote. Because the board stood at a tied vote, the charges were dropped and Martin can keep her position.
Board member Amy Frogge was one of four who voted against the dismissal charges because she wanted more time to review the facts. Going forward, she said the teacher evaluations are flawed, she told The City Paper, and the board needs to think carefully about that and learn more about its role in terminating teachers before it moves forward with more votes on dismissal charges.
Decisions to go forward with firing a teacher are rare in the district. Since January, 14 teachers have resigned or been taken to termination. In the 2011-12 school year, 11 teachers were removed or left.
Board members appeared confused when voting whether to certify charges to fire Martin. Register, in his email to board members, suggested in the future giving them access to the teachers’ personnel files for 30 minutes before the board meeting where they are expected to vote on a dismissal.
Board members had no idea what Martin’s file looked like before the vote, said Michael Hayes, a member of the board who has voiced a need for the district to shed underperforming teachers.
“Dr. Register does not bring many teachers right to us to recommend termination. There must have been something pretty amiss there,” he said, adding he’s bracing for what will be more “unfortunate” decisions over future dismissals.
After the unexpected split vote on removing Martin, Hayes said he’s curious how involved the board will be, how it will react to future requests to approve dismissals, and how the administration will lay out its case to justify future desired firings.
Further, some board members said they’re torn over whether the decision to proceed with a termination should fall in their lap, as it legally does now, or if it’s better left to the district to handle.
At the board’s next meeting on Tuesday, members expect to hear individuals in the Human Capital department to explain the board’s role in the due process procedure for dismissing tenured teachers and the legal and administrative procedures the district takes before recommending a dismissal to bone up on what to expect.
“It is very important that we have a good understanding of both due process and administrative procedures, as there are more recommendations coming,” read Register’s email.