Nearly 30 percent of Hamilton County teachers are considered least effective by state measures, and many of these teachers are in the district's predominantly poor and minority classrooms.
Hamilton County has almost three times the number of least-effective teachers than the state average, and twice as many least-effective teachers as Knox, Metro Nashville and Shelby County Schools.
The statistics highlight how many of Hamilton County's minority and poor students do not have equal access to the district's best teachers, as the schools they attend typically employ larger shares of least-effective teachers and are among the district's lowest performing. Decades of research show that teachers are the most important in-school factor for boosting academic growth.
"If we are actually going to close the achievement gap or equity gap that we have and create more opportunity for all students, then we have to have highly effective teachers in front of our students that are farthest behind," said Candice McQueen, Tennessee's education commissioner.
At 22 district schools, more than 40 percent of the teachers are ranked in the least-effective category. That's according to data from the Hamilton County Department of Education for 74 schools during the 2014-2015 school year, the most recent data available.
Data highlights include:
* Students who are not poor are more likely to attend schools with top teachers. Eleven Hamilton County schools have fewer than 30 percent economically disadvantaged students, and eight of those schools have more than 90 percent effective or highly effective teachers. The two significant exceptions are Signal Mountain Middle High School, with 41 percent least effective teachers, and Lookout Mountain Elementary, with 38 percent least effective teachers.
* White students in Hamilton County are less likely to have least-effective teachers. Of the 26 schools whose student bodies are at least 75 percent white, only three — Sequoyah, East Hamilton School and Signal Mountain Middle High School — have more than 40 percent teachers ranked least effective. At the 16 schools whose students are more than 90 percent white, 10 schools have at least 90 percent effective or highly effective teachers in the classroom.
* Four schools have more than 70 percent least-effective teachers on staff. At Clifton Hills Elementary and East Ridge High School more than 80 percent of the teachers are considered least effective. Clifton Hills did not have any highly effective teachers during the 2014-2015 school year.
* Poor and minority students are much more likely to be taught by least-effective teachers. Twenty schools have more than 90 percent poor students, and at eight of those schools more than 40 percent of teachers are ranked least effective. Only five of these high-poverty, predominantly minority schools have 90 percent effective or highly effective teachers in the classroom.
Of those five schools, four — East Side Elementary, East Lake Elementary, Barger Academy and Rivermont Elementary — posted academic gains during the 2014-2015 school year.
This demonstrates that when low-performing students are given highly effective teachers they make academic gains, which is in line with state and national research.
"Students' academic achievement over time can be linked to the quality of their classroom teachers," McQueen said. "And we know from Tennessee data that students who score at the lowest proficiency level see the largest gains after having a highly effective teacher for two or more consecutive years."
Hamilton County: 29%
Metro Nashville Public Schools: 16%
Shelby County: 12.6%
Knox County: 15.4%
State average: 11.4%
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
Each year teachers are given a score from 1 to 5 on their effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers receiving a 1 or 2 ranking are considered to be least effective. A teacher receiving a score of 3 is considered to be of average effectiveness, and those with a 4 or 5 are considered highly effective.
These scores are derived from a teacher’s school-level evaluation score, growth measure of their students over the academic year and a self-selected achievement measure. For teachers who teach subjects in which students do not take standardized tests, their growth measure score is determined by the school’s overall growth score during that year.
Economically disadvantaged students are classified by the state as those eligible for free and reduced price meals at school.
A Tennessee Department of Education report released this spring stated that every district must work to ensure that low-performing students aren't systematically assigned to the least-effective teachers. The state says it plans to both support districts and hold them accountable for recruiting and retaining more highly effective teachers and ensuring they are in the lowest-performing schools.
The past several months have seen new leadership in Hamilton County Schools, and Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly and Chief Academic Officer Jill Levine said it's "a new day for the district."
Kelly said plans are in place to provide strong professional development for teachers and support for school leaders, hoping to develop and retain teachers already in the district.
There are also strategic ways schools and the district can recruit good teachers, said Justin Robertson, assistant superintendent of curriculum and instruction.
The number of least-effective teachers in the school system is a problem that has built up over time, he said.
"We are not going to find the silver bullet right away, but we are looking at some nontraditional ways of recruiting teachers," he said, mentioning things such as teacher residency programs.
One major obstacle to recruiting teachers is compensation, Kelly said, as Hamilton County does not pay its teachers as much as some other nearby districts in Georgia and Bradley County.
Helping cultivate talent in the local teacher prep programs is also important, Levine said. The district recently has begun working with the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Education, placing student teachers with good teachers across the district to better prepare the future educators.
And once good teachers are in the district, it is important to have strong leadership in the schools where they teach, Levine said, adding that the school system is committed to putting strong principals in the lowest-performing schools and supporting them in creating a positive culture.
"We want a great teacher in every classroom, because that's what every child deserves," Levine said.
Research and experts say the uneven distribution of effective teachers is common nationwide, and the disparity is linked to wide achievement gaps between groups of students.
Many cities across the country still aren't talking about why some students fall off the academic tracks, said Tyrone Howard, a professor at the University of California at Los Angeles' Graduate School of Education & Information Studies.
"We are quick to say that it's because they are in poverty, or their parents don't value education and because they're not motivated students," said Howard, who studies race and achievement gaps. "We are quick to blame kids and families, but we're not going to [talk about] whether we are putting the best and brightest teachers in front of them."
All students, regardless of background, are capable of academic growth, Howard said, citing several national research studies.
That's true in Hamilton County, too.
Following the 2014-2015 school year, the state released information about how schools and districts impact individual students' academic growth throughout the year. As a district, Hamilton County received the lowest possible ranking, a 1 out of 5, on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, known as TVAAS.
This ranking put Hamilton County Schools last among the state's major metro school districts — Metro Nashville and Knox and Shelby counties. All received scores of 5, indicating they are exceeding academic expectations for student growth.
But in the 18 Hamilton County schools that scored 5 on the TVAAS, all but one had fewer than 15 percent least-effective teachers during the 2014-15 school year. East Lake Academy was the outlier, with 21 percent least-effective teachers.
Twelve of the schools scoring 5's also have poverty rates above 60 percent, and several have a large share of minority students.
The data also show that of the 22 schools with more than 40 percent least-effective teachers, all but two received the lowest possible score for growth.
Many of those schools are among the district's lowest performing, but some — such as Ooltewah High School, East Hamilton Middle High School and Signal Mountain Middle High School — are among the highest performers, even though they did not post year-over-year academic gains in the 2014-15 school year. Many argue that it's harder for already high-achieving schools to score steeper gains.
The Tennessee Department of Education also tracks percentage gaps between students in advanced classes with highly effective teachers and the percentage of the lowest-performing students with highly effective teachers.
According to state data, Hamilton County's gaps are above the state average in each of the four categories tested, meaning highly effective teachers are more concentrated among the district's top students than those who are the lowest achieving.
It's the opposite in Shelby County Schools and Metro-Nashville Public Schools, which are experiencing significantly more academic growth than Hamilton County Schools. In these districts more highly effective teachers are teaching the lowest-performing students than the advanced students in some of the four categories.
McQueen added that having highly effective teachers in Hamilton County's priority schools — known as iZone schools — would likely have a significant impact on achievement, as these school are among the lowest 5 percent of schools statewide.
Three of the iZone schools — Orchard Knob Elementary, Dalewood Middle School and Orchard Knob Middle School — had more than 40 percent least-effective teachers during the 2014-2015 school year. Brainerd High School and Woodmore Elementary had 9 and 17 percent least-effective teachers, respectively.
Kelly said many new teachers will work this year at Orchard Knob Middle School and Woodmore Elementary.
Levine said the school system's leaders have a duty to support teachers and ensure that all students have access to great teachers.
"If we want to improve the lowest-performing schools, we have to attract some of the best teachers into those schools or help develop teachers into the best teachers," Levine said.
She said morale grows when teachers feel they're effective in the classroom.
"Teachers leave the profession when they don't feel like they're successful," Levine said. "So if we want our teachers to stay we need to support them and help them be successful."
In the early 1990s, Tennessee started collecting detailed information about teachers and their students. In 1995 teachers began receiving yearly evaluations that took into account data from the past three school years.
The evaluations have been controversial in Tennessee and nationwide. Many argue there is great variance among teaching situations and student populations, and that school-level evaluations can be biased.
Tennessee's teacher-effectiveness evaluation uses the school-level score as just one of three components. The other two are a student or school growth measure, and a self-selected achievement measure.
Use of students' growth scores on standardized tests in teacher evaluations also draws criticism. A report from the American Education Research Association says such factors don't account for the ways students are influenced by more than their teachers.
The report also states that teachers' effectiveness rating can differ substantially from class to class and year to year.
McQueen said the evaluation system aims to provide teachers with better support and feedback, which ultimately fosters student learning. She said the state will continue to tailor the system to give teachers useful feedback on their performance.
The data from teacher effectiveness evaluations should also help districts strategically recruit and place talent and achieve equitable distribution of teachers, she said.
At the district and school level, the state has seen low-achieving schools use innovative approaches to hire and develop teachers. Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent at the Tennessee Department of Education, said some have adopted differentiated pay scales for more difficult or hard-to-fill positions and opportunities for teachers to be leaders and mentors for other teachers.
When it comes to retaining and cultivating talent, Flowers said, "school culture definitely matters and leadership matters."
Lisette Partelow, director of teacher policy at the Center for American Progress, said teaching also differs from other professions where top talent, instead of being given easier jobs, is instead tasked with more responsibility and higher pay.
In contrast, the best teachers often move to cushier jobs in the suburbs or higher performing schools, and the least-experienced and least-effective teachers remain in the high-needs schools, she said.
Partelow wants to see school districts adopt strategies used in the professional sector, such as increased focus on training, differentiated pay and thoughtful recruitment of candidates.
She also acknowledged that the uneven placement of effective teachers needs to be addressed at both the state and district levels.
"It's also a problem that goes all the way down to personnel management and what it looks like in a school when a principal has a conversation with a teacher," she said.
Ronald Ferguson, director of the Achievement Gap Initiative at Harvard University, said the solution is to bring in more of the best teachers and put them in schools where they are most needed.
"The answer is probably not going to be reallocating teachers between schools; the politics of that are just not going to work," Ferguson said. "The people whose kids already have effective teachers aren't going to give them up."
School and district leaders also must be responsible for building a culture of continuous improvement, he added.
Students need to be prepared to compete in today's "knowledge economy," Ferguson said, adding that businesses are looking at the quality of a region's labor force before moving into an area.
A lack of a quality education has implications for individuals and the regional economy, he said.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.