The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga School of Education could be at its restart point.
The program, which provides the bulk of 300 or so teachers hired by the Hamilton County Department of Education annually, has done a poor job of preparing student teachers to succeed in the classroom, research shows.
State education leaders say more needs to be done to ensure newly fledged teachers coming out of state training programs are ready for the classroom. And at a meeting this week at UTC, they called for more accountability for the schools that are teaching the teachers.
Having strong teachers is crucial. National and state-level research shows teacher quality greatly influences students' academic success.
Looking ahead, the State Board of Education and the Tennessee Department of Education say teacher prep programs and local school districts need to build strong partnerships that will thoroughly prepare new teachers and help them thrive in the classroom.
Sara Heyburn, executive director of the State Board of Education, said student teaching — actual practice in the classroom — is key to the teacher preparation process. That makes the relationship between the teacher prep program and the school district important she said.
"In order for teacher candidates to enter Tennessee classrooms ready to serve all students and to meet higher expectations, programs and districts will need to come together in the planning and execution of shared goals," Heyburn said.
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Thursday morning she sees great opportunity for such a partnership to benefit UTC and Hamilton County Schools.
"Investments in teachers are critical," McQueen said. "The teacher is the key to moving our students forward."
And with a new director, Renee Murley, taking the helm at UTC's School of Education, many expect to see a shift in the school's results that, in turn, could help Hamilton County Schools boost student achievement.
In 2014, the National Council on Teacher Quality ranked UTC's elementary education program one of the worst in the nation — 327 of 394 — while other Tennessee teacher prep programs placed in the top 50. UTC's secondary education program came in 187th of 406 schools ranked nationally.
UTC graduates trailed the state and other new teachers in student achievement growth during the 2013-2014 school year in 4th through 8th-grade reading, chemistry, and English I and II, according to Tennessee's 2015 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teacher Training Programs.
The 233 graduates in this group didn't surpass the state average for student achievement growth in any subject, and UTC's recent graduates were much more likely to be ranked in the bottom 20th percentile of teachers statewide than in the top 80th percentile, according to the Report Card.
The State Board of Education's evaluation of teacher prep programs is shifting away from internal metrics such as course content and instead focusing on how graduates affect student achievement in the classroom.
Part of that shift will be a new Report Card providing a more detailed breakdown of graduates' classroom performance, which will measure effectiveness and help hold programs accountable. Programs that don't succeed could be shut down.
Murley said Tennessee is in the "age of accountability," which she considers helpful.
"We want to help teachers be the best they can be," she said Wednesday. "We want to be sure when they graduate they are ready for the classroom."
Before coming to UTC, Murley led the University of Memphis' College of Education at the Lambuth campus, and has been involved in improving teacher preparation across Tennessee.
In a presentation to the State Board of Education on Thursday morning, Murley talked about changes to UTC's curriculum for the upcoming school year, her opportunities to hire new faculty, and her focus on recruiting diversity both in experience and ethnicity.
Murley said UTC leaders and Chattanooga 2.0, an initiative to improve local public education and workforce development, are already working together. She hopes to strengthen the College of Education's relationship with Hamilton County Schools, and wants to have UTC students start their field experience earlier and spend more time in classrooms during their training.
"Oftentimes, the relationship [with the Hamilton County Department of Education] has been about just placing students and talking a little bit about what we can do to change curriculum," Murley said. "But we want to begin probably having some not-so-easy conversations with our partnerships, so we can understand what their needs are and they can understand what our needs are."
The state is piloting the Network for Education Preparation Partnership, where it will oversee the development and strengthening of partnerships between school districts and teacher prep programs. Murley told the State Board that UTC and the Hamilton County Department of Education are among five groups participating in the pilot.
On Friday afternoon, Jill Levine, chief academic officer for Hamilton County Schools, said at least 25 to 30 percent of the district's teachers are in their first years, and that a good relationship between the school system and UTC is vital for success.
"We have had some great conversations with UTC over the past few months about strengthening connections and providing stronger field experiences and helping UTC strengthen the curriculum that is taught on their campus," Levine said
Every UTC student teacher will be assigned to a high-quality, excellent classroom teacher, she said, to help train strong graduates who will be working in local schools.
"Our students are depending on this," Levine said.
Contact staff writer Kendi A. Rainwater at 423-757-6592 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow on Twitter @kendi_and.