Sohn: Hamilton County teachers aren't making the grade

Sohn: Hamilton County teachers aren't making the grade

September 12th, 2017 by Pam Sohn in Opinion Times

Marquise McMurray listens to the instruction of teacher Ashley Lepard of East Side Elementary while they are observed by Hamilton County elementary principals. Hamilton County's elementary principals gathered at Hardy Elementary to learn new tips for boosting literacy throughout their schools last June.

Photo by Robin Rudd /Times Free Press.

On Friday afternoon, with all eyes watching hurricane coverage, the Hamilton County Department of Education released its terrible TVAAS scores.

TVAAS stands for Tennessee Value-Added Assessment Scores, and the tests measure student growth — not whether the student is proficient on the state assessment. That means these tests really measure students' academic progress from year to year.The state also uses TVAAS to measure teacher impact.

Hamilton County's districtwide composite score was a 1 — significantly below expectation. So not even Hurricane Irma can match the bad news that for yet another year many teachers are failing our students.

Hamilton County's new schools superintendent, Dr. Bryan Johnson, doesn't put the challenge just on teachers, however. He says "a clear focus" — or the lack of one in past years — created a mountain too steep for some teachers to climb.

His example — and the county's TVAAS bright spot — is our literacy score: a 5 that denotes "significantly above expectation." The school system's literacy program in recent years has been very focused, he said. Now that kind of focus needs to be replicated in math, science and social studies.

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"We've got to invest to improve," he said.

One thing's for sure: There's nowhere to go but up. Last year, we were celebrating the fact that our schools' teachers and principals inched up ever so slightly on the bad list, scoring a 2 — a simple "below expectation." This year, we're wringing our hands that they have slid backward again to the 1 we scored three years ago.

All told, we have 30 schools where the TVAAS scores show student progress "significantly below expectation" and four schools where student growth was "below expectation." Only 15 schools were at expectation, while four schools posted academic growth "above expectation" and 23 schools had "significantly above expectation" growth.

We really shouldn't be surprised.

A series of panic years for this school system — both from scores and from a central office in chaos with little leadership — prompted community concern. That concern saw the rise of UnifiEd and Chattanooga 2.0, two education advocacy groups and movements that have been instrumental in bringing us plans for teacher improvement and a new superintendent — Johnson, who was hired in June.

He has his focus work cut out for him, and he knows it.

Last year, an analysis by former Times Free Press reporter Kendi Rainwater found that Hamilton County had almost twice the number of "least effective" classroom teachers — at 29 percent — as the state's other major school districts and the state average.

And where do our nearly one-third of least-effective teachers work? As you've probably guessed — largely in the classrooms of impoverished and high-minority schools. And — you probably guessed this, too — those students and their schools, by and large, show the least academic gain from year to year.

For years, we've been told that teachers need higher pay and more support from involved parents and community leaders because "good" teachers are leaving the schools for better jobs. For years, we've heard educators bemoan lack of parental involvement and the challenges of teaching children from impoverished homes. And for years, teachers unions and school administrators have told us it's unfair to tie teachers' evaluations to their students' standardized test scores, and early efforts to tie a teacher's license renewals to those gains or non-gains were dropped after teacher unions raised a ruckus.

That kid-glove handling of teachers hasn't helped our children — especially here in Hamilton County. So part of Johnson's effort to bring focus must be in bringing up Hamilton County's teachers — in any and every way possible. With good school leadership, a principal or superintendent can track, for example, that Ms. Smith's math pupils didn't make gains in math because they haven't mastered fractions, but Ms. Jones' math students did. The principal can put the two teachers together to talk about and demonstrate what method Ms. Jones used to teach fractions.

Johnson already has said he wants to form — with the state — an "Opportunity Zone" of 12 low-performing schools, including our five priority iZone schools that the state may take over. His Opportunity Zone, in essence, comprises the feeder elementary and middle schools that offer the foundation for learning at Howard and Brainerd high schools.

The school system also is working with the University of Tennessee and others to improve teacher training.

But our children don't have years to wait.

Our youngsters are the future, yet 60 percent of our third-graders can't read on grade level.

Hamilton County schools have lots of catching up to do, and it all begins with leadership.

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