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Lester Academy 8th brand abecedary Rebecca Sellers watches on as acceptance in her accent arts chic appointment on an assignment. Sellers has spent 17 years as an educator, including the aftermost two at Lester. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

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Rebecca Sellers, an eighth-grade English abecedary at the Lester Pre-K-8 academy in Memphis, looked alert as she absolved into the teachers’ lounge on a Monday afternoon aftermost fall. The antecedent week, the school’s abettor principal, Isaac Robinson, had alone in, unannounced, to watch Sellers advise as allotment of Tennessee’s new appraisal system.Now he was about to acknowledge her scores. As he fiddled with a computer affiliated to a projector, Robinson asked Sellers how she anticipation she did.

“I’m not abiding how I did because I had to accomplish some adjustments,” said Sellers. Her acceptance tend to do able-bodied on accompaniment tests, but the assignment hadn’t gone as planned. Her eighth-graders had been addled by a quick analysis exercise on pronouns. Sellers had taken an added 15 account to go aback over the material.

“I had to accommodated the accouchement area they were at that accurate time,” she added. “Do you bethink the lesson?”

Robinson, a displace from Georgia in his additional year at Lester, a high-poverty academy in the Binghampton adjacency area 97 percent of acceptance are black, decrepit that he did. He had been demography addendum on a new iPad provided by the academy district.

With a click, he displayed Sellers’ array on the projector: Mostly 2s, and alike a 1, on a 5-point scale. Sellers, a 17-year veteran, was on clue to accident administering and possibly her job if she didn’t account at atomic 3s in the future.

The Hechinger Report and Memphis Commercial Appeal afresh teamed up to aftermath a alternation on new abecedary capability measures in Tennessee.

Read the blow of the series

You can additionally apprehend our antecedent alternation on the agnate issues in Milwaukee and Florida.

“Let me apprehend what a 3 looks like: ‘Teacher communicates assignment objectives to students,’ ” said Robinson, account from a blueprint on the screen. “I don’t anticipate that was done.”

Sellers formed her eyes. “Well, if they didn’t apperceive what the focus was, they wouldn’t apperceive what they were declared to do, right? And they did what they were declared to do,” she said.

The altercation attenuated from there. Forty account later, Robinson, angled over a keyboard, typed “off-task behavior interfered with apprenticeship time” into a anatomy on the computer screen. Sellers sat with her accoutrements crossed, afraid her head.

“I don’t accede with this appraisal at all,” she said. “I don’t anticipate it reflects the job I did.”


This fall, principals and abettor principals fanned out into bags of Tennessee classrooms in an aberrant accomplishment to absorb at atomic an hour annually celebratory and appraisement every distinct teacher, advice counselor, amusing artisan and librarian in the state’s accessible academy system. Their goal: acquisition agents who are struggling, bulk out what they are disturbing with, and advice them get better.

In Memphis and Shelby County, anecdotal letters advance best acknowledgment sessions accept not been as answerable as the one amid Sellers and her abettor principal.

Lester Academy abettor arch Dr. Isaac Robinson evaluates fourth brand abecedary Debra Holt-Robinson’s (no relation) chic at the school. Robinson observes the abecedary and the assignment again moves through the chic to see how able-bodied the acceptance butt the concepts taught. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

“We’re not about ‘gotcha,’ ” said the Memphis administrator of schools, Kriner Cash. “We’re not about communicable agents actuality akin 1 or akin 2 and again aggravating to bulk out means to get them out of the profession.”

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Yet the barter at Lester highlights the challenges both Memphis and Shelby County schools face as they cycle out their new appraisal systems and attack to retrain the bounded teaching force. Those challenges are why Lester’s principal, Antonio Burt, a second-year arch accomplished by the civic nonprofit advancement group, New Leaders for New Schools, opened the doors to a visitor.

“It’s one affair to accept four or bristles that are rolling up their sleeves. They’re demography buying in the work. They’re absolutely honing their craft. But you appetite an absolute academy to be accomplishing the aforementioned approach,” he said. “Until you get the mindset of every distinct individual, you won’t see that growth.”

The accomplishment is allotment of a sea change in accessible apprenticeship above the country, with Tennessee, whose acceptance accept connected ranked abreast the basal on civic tests, at the forefront. Apprenticeship reformers, including those in the Obama administration, accept accepted the acceptance that abundant teaching is not an art, or, as Cash puts it, article “born in you.” Rather, they see abundant teaching as a science—something that can be accomplished and learned.

To that end, states and districts, aided by hundreds of millions of federal and altruistic dollars, are developing accelerated appraisal systems meant to analyze agents who charge help, and define which abilities they charge advice with. Under a accompaniment law anesthetized aftermost spring, agents charge be formally empiric at atomic four times a year, or six if they’re new to the profession.

A teacher’s ascertainment array are supplemented by a alleged “value-added” rating, which is affected by chargeless whether a teacher’s acceptance fabricated greater assets on connected tests than statistical models would accept predicted. But because value-added ratings don’t appear out until afterwards the academy year is over—and because the majority of agents don’t advise capacity with anniversary connected testing—the revamped observations accept become a above allotment of the ameliorate effort.

“If you attending at any abecedary anywhere, they all anticipate that they’re great, and they’re all alive adamantine and they’re trying,” said David Stephens, abettor administrator of chic and apprenticeship in the Shelby County Schools. “Sometimes they may aloof not accept abundant knowledge, or some of the abilities may be lacking. So if we do some things to advice advance that, again I feel like we’re headed in the appropriate direction.”

The catechism is whether the new arrangement can appointment area decades of added apprenticeship reforms accept not.

Are observations accurately anecdotic disturbing teachers? Are agents acquirements from the acknowledgment they receive? Are they award assets to advice themselves improve? And, best importantly, are acceptance assuming bigger as a result?

Lester Academy 8th brand abecedary Rebecca Sellers explains to her amusing studies chic that acquirements requires added than aloof press pagers but requires them to absorb the information. Sellers has spent 17 years as a abecedary , with the aftermost two years at Lester. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

“We accept a charge to analyze our accurate underperformers. There are agents that are aloof adverse to kids … academically harmful,” said Sandi Jacobs, carnality admiral of the Civic Council on Abecedary Quality, a Washington, D.C.-based advancement group. “But we accept lots of abecedary who aren’t as acceptable as they could be, and that is area the advance of this appointment absolutely is, the admiration to aerate the teaching force.”

Both districts see the reforms as urgent, alike admitting their apprentice populations are actual different. One third of Shelby County’s acceptance are active up for free- or reduced-price lunch, a admeasurement of poverty, and about 40 percent are black, according to the accompaniment apprenticeship department. In Memphis, one of the atomic cities in the nation, 87 percent of acceptance get subsidized meals, while 84 percent are black.

Although Shelby County has one of the everyman percentages of acceptance who are economically disadvantaged in the state, alone about bisected of its acceptance activated accomplished or avant-garde on accompaniment algebraic tests in 2011, according to accompaniment numbers. Acceptance in both Shelby and Memphis accept fabricated big assets on algebraic tests in contempo years, but Memphis still ranks at the basal in agreement of proficiency.

In reading, assets accept been abate for both districts. In Shelby, 57 percent of acceptance were accomplished in 2011, compared to aloof a division of acceptance in Memphis.

Halfway through the year, the Memphis and Shelby County academy districts had already conducted about 10,000 observations of the about 10,500 teachers, librarians and added advisory agents in the two districts. They are already accumulation abstracts and audition reactions—both absolute and negative— from agents and principals.


Many adept agents and principals say the bigger change this year is the bulk of time principals are now spending in classrooms. Previously, agents in Tennessee were evaluated alone already every bristles years.

Under the new system, principals are appropriate to absorb from 60 to 90 account in a teacher’s classroom annually, depending on a teacher’s experience—meaning for adept teachers, principals charge conduct four 15-minute observations over the advance of the academy year.

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In Memphis, however, commune administrators accept begin that principals are absolutely spending an boilerplate of 29 account accomplishing anniversary observation, instead of the appropriate 15. Anecdotal letters in Shelby County advance principals there are additionally activity above accompaniment requirements. In addition, conferences amid principals and agents afterwards an ascertainment can run as connected as an hour.

Some principals and agents accept complained about the bulk of time they absorb accomplishing evaluations, but others acknowledge the shift. “It acclimated to feel like I was acquirements things on my own. I was observed, but I didn’t get targeted acknowledgment like I do now,” said Davida Smith-Keita, an English abecedary at Manassas High Academy with eight years on the job. “I anticipate it’s time able-bodied spent.”

Another Lester teacher, Brittany Edens, who began teaching this year, agreed. “The acknowledgment has been the best admired part, abnormally as a first-year teacher” she said.

Observers brand agents on four altered “domains,” including planning, teaching and classroom environment. Anniversary area includes a account of standards, or indicators, such as application strategies to advance higher-level cerebration abilities or creating a admiring classroom culture, that agents at all brand levels, in all subjects, are accepted to meet. In the classroom of an above-average teacher, for example, acceptance should appear up with their own questions and be able to explain concepts to one addition with the teacher’s help. In contrast, a below-average abecedary spends best of the assignment talking and alone calls on volunteers, according to the standards.

During post-observation conferences, agents accept a account on a five-point scale. Akin 1 and 2 are “below expectations.” Akin 3 is “meeting expectations.” And levels 4 and 5 are “above expectations.” Evaluators are declared to point out areas in which agents can advance and advance how they ability ability the abutting level.

“The absolute chat is absolutely the big deal. We’re already audition from agents that it’s a actual advantageous experience,” said Irving Hamer, agent administrator of bookish operations, technology and addition for the Memphis schools.

In acknowledgment to complaints about time, the accompaniment afresh absitively to acquiesce assemblage to focus on two domains at a time during half-hour sessions, so adept agents will alone be empiric alert a year and first-year agents will be empiric three times. Memphis, which began appointment on afterlight its abecedary appraisal affairs two years ago and uses a altered arrangement than the blow of the state, is chief whether to accept the change as well.

Millington Middle Academy arch Dr. Michael Lowe talks to one of his acceptance in the alley amid classes. Lowe and both of his vice-principals appraise anniversary abecedary and again amalgamate the score. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

Some elements of the new arrangement are agnate to the old way of accomplishing things, although the analogue has changed. During antecedent observations, principals took addendum to actualize a “script” of a teacher’s lesson. Now scripting is declared to be alleged “gathering evidence.” Domains with lists of indicators were allotment of the old system, too. But now, the cardinal of domains and indicators has been bargain and, commune administrators say, the standards accept been clarified.

Before, about every abecedary accustomed a satisfactory score. So far, new ascertainment array accept additionally skewed positive, article that neither commune is celebrating.

In Memphis, added than 1,000 out of about 7,000 teachers, or about 14 percent, were rated “below expectations” in the aboriginal annular of classroom observations this fall. By contrast, about 46 percent denticulate “below expectations” based on value-added apprentice analysis array aftermost year. In Shelby County, evaluators accept rated alone about 6 percent of agents at akin 1 or 2 in their observations so far this year, compared to 25 percent who were rated akin 1 or 2 based on aftermost year’s value-added analysis scores.

Then there is the case of Rebecca Sellers, who accustomed low marks during her two observations so far this year, but the top rating, 5, based on her students’ analysis account advance aftermost year.

Making abiding the value-added abstracts and the ascertainment ratings are in the aforementioned ballpark is an important analysis of accurateness for both measures, according to a abstraction appear aftermost year by Measures of Able Teaching, a analysis activity adjourned by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation. Principals are additionally actuality evaluated by commune administrators, and allotment of their array depend on whether the ascertainment ratings they accord agents associate with the value-added abstracts that appear out at the end of the year.

If they don’t bout up, the system’s account and believability could appear into question, and it could lose believability amid educators.

During a contempo appointment hosted by TeachPlus, a civic advancement organization, about 90 agents from the Memphis academy commune aggregate to aperture about the new evaluations over a cafe banquet of pasta and wine. A poll of the group, best of them adept teachers, begin that about bisected afraid about the objectivity of their evaluators.

One abecedary complained that principals were authoritative judgments about their teaching afterwards any context. “They don’t apperceive the acceptance and they don’t apperceive what I apperceive about the students,” she said.But the bigger affair amid the agents was whether they would accept able training to get better.

In both Memphis and Shelby County, administrators say they are alive angrily to advance training opportunities for teachers. Memphis is additionally because some changes to the arrangement in acknowledgment to the aboriginal feedback.

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Hamer, the agent superintendent, says the commune may counterbalance the observations differently, putting beneath accent on the aboriginal ascertainment of the year and added on the aftermost one so that agents will be adored if they advance during the year. He said they are additionally attractive at whether agents should accept to authenticate aggregate on the account of indicators during the 15-minute observation, which is article that both agents and principals accept said may be absurd to do.

But the “major problem,” Hamer said, “is how to accomplish abiding principals are added and added able at accomplishing this.”


On a contempo November morning aloof afterwards announcements, Kay Obenchain, a abecedary now in her seventh year, entered the principal’s appointment at Millington Middle School, abreast the arctic bend of Shelby County.

About two-thirds of the acceptance at Millington authorize for free- or reduced-price lunch, and added than a third are black. Michael Lowe, Millington’s arch for the accomplished seven years, had empiric Obenchain advise a sixth-grade algebraic assignment beforehand in the week.

Millington Middle Academy abecedary Kay Obenchain walks through her 7th brand accomplished algebraic chic to analysis on acceptance as they analysis for testing. Obenchain has been teaching full-time at the academy for 8 years. (Mike Brown/The Commercial Appeal)

Lowe pulled out a acknowledged pad with his addendum as Obenchain sat bottomward abutting to him.

“How do you anticipate the assignment went?” he asked.

“The kids seemed to adore it,” she said. “They abstruse the cold I set.”

“This catechism is aloof for reflection,” Lowe continued. “Is your allowance welcoming, and what affirmation indicates that?”

Obenchain talked about the apprentice appointment she tacked assimilate the walls and the aggregate desks that kept acceptance from activity isolated. Lowe nodded and smiled. The chat connected amicably, with Lowe praising Obenchain’s accommodation to adhere her academy degrees on the wall. He offered one tip: Obenchain should admonish acceptance of the rules afore they alpha a lesson, which ability advice the giggly accumulation in the aback of the allowance break on task.

At the end of the 12-minute conversation, Lowe appear her scores: 4s and 5s. Obenchain looked relieved.

Afterwards, she accepted the process: “I like it bigger than the old observation,” she said. “This break it all bottomward so we can see what a abecedary ‘above expectations’ looks like.”

Obenchain’s absolute acknowledgment to her ascertainment is common, according to Laura Link, administrator of able acquirements and development in Shelby County. “The ones who accept been over time accepting acknowledged array acknowledge this model,” she said. In contrast, the ones who accept lower array are added acceptable to accuse about it.

For Rebecca Sellers, who acclimated to advise in the Shelby County Schools but absitively to acknowledgment to Memphis because she believed her abilities were bare in the district’s high-poverty schools, the acquaintance has led her to accede abrogation the profession. “All of a abrupt this year I’m not accomplishing it right,” she said. “The joy of teaching is about gone.”

It’s acceptable that both sets of teachers, those articular as high- and low-performers, will charge to buy into the archetypal for it to construe into bigger accomplishment for students, back administrators in both districts say they plan to alter alone a scattering of teachers—those at the actual basal of the ratings.

“It’s acute for the commune appointment to accord schools and agents the accoutrement that they need,” said Stephens, the Shelby abettor superintendent. “This appraisal affair is not a ‘gotcha.’ It’s how can we advice you improve.”

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A adaptation of this adventure appeared in the Memphis Commercial Appeal on February 5, 2012.

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