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 least effective. A score of 3 is counted as average effectiveness, and 4 and 5 are considered highly effective.
These scores are derived from a teacher's school-level evaluation score, a growth measure of their students over the academic year and a self-selected achievement measure. For subjects with no standardized tests, teachers' growth measure score is determined by the school's overall growth score that year.
Hamilton County: 29 percent
Metro Nashville Public Schools: 16 percent
Shelby County: 12.6 percent
Knox County: 15.4 percent
State average: 11.4 percent
Source: Tennessee Department of Education
If school leaders fail to address problems in Hamilton County's teaching ranks in coming months, the state may step in to help them do it.
National and state research shows teachers are the biggest in-school factor influencing academic achievement, and Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said districts must work to ensure minority and poor students are learning from effective teachers.
"[Districts] can't ignore this," McQueen said. "You have to do something about it."
In Hamilton County, many minority and poor students attend the district's lowest- performing schools, which employ larger shares of teachers ranked as "least effective" by the state's accountability system. The district's highly effective teachers are more concentrated among the district's top students, according to state data.
Since reviewing this data, Hamilton County Schools Interim Superintendent Kirk Kelly said he and his staff have been working to better support teachers.
"We want teachers to be well informed and have additional opportunities for help and support," Kelly said, adding that providing increased support to struggling teachers is a priority.
"[The work teachers do] is really important, and we feel teachers are doing a great job," he said. "Their work is vital for the community."
About 70 percent of Hamilton County teachers are ranked effective or highly effective by state measures. However, nearly 30 percent of the county's teachers are considered least effective. Hamilton County has almost three times the number of least-effective teachers than the state average, and twice as many as Knox, Metro Nashville and Shelby County schools.
McQueen said the state has provided teacher effectiveness data to districts for three years and last year also provided a school-level breakdown to district leaders. Starting next school year, a federal law will require districts to publicly report that data.
As districts like Hamilton County look at the data, McQueen said they should ask:
- What significant problems does the data show?
- Where does the district have highly effective and least-effective teachers?
- What can be done to close that gap?
Districts are required to develop plans to address disparities in teacher effectiveness. The state will review the plans, then monitor and assist some districts to ensure they are acting on strong plans.
"There is a larger state role that is coming," McQueen said.
The state wants districts to ensure the best teachers aren't disproportionately assigned to high-achieving students, which is what happens in Hamilton County.
Districts need to strategically recruit, develop and retain top teachers in the lowest-performing schools, according to the state.
"Some districts are doing it very well," McQueen said. "It has to be prioritized."
McQueen highlighted the work Shelby County Schools and Metro Nashville Public Schools are doing to ensure poor and minority students learn from highly effective teachers.
Both these districts give autonomy to principals at the lowest-performing schools and provide tailored training and support to teachers, she said. Effective and highly effective teachers also receive bonuses for teaching in some of the lowest- performing schools.
And for the first time this year, Shelby County Schools is only giving bonuses to teachers ranked effective or highly effective on last year's evaluation.
Kelly said Hamilton County teachers who earned least-effective rankings will undergo twice as much observation this year, from four observation periods to eight.
"We are trying to do everything we can to provide support," Kelly said.
The nation's new education law replacing No Child Left Behind, the Every Student Succeeds Act, shifts decision- making power from Washington to the states. The legislation gives states discretion in setting goals; determining how to hold districts, schools and teachers accountable, and deciding how to intervene in low-performing schools.
Tennessee still plans to use the same evaluation measure for teachers, which takes into account a school-level evaluation score, academic growth of their students or the school and an achievement measure selected by the teacher.
Student test score data and meaningful observations serve different roles in evaluations and help give teachers feedback on how to develop, said Tequilla Banks, executive vice president of the TNTP, a national nonprofit organization working to provide all students with effective teachers.
Though the Every Student Succeeds Act no longer requires student test scores to be a part of teacher evaluations, Banks said it's crucial that teacher evaluations correlate with student outcomes.
Teacher evaluations must be honest to be meaningful, she said, comparing them to grading students.
"If you give all your students an A, you're not going to know who needs a little extra help," Banks said.
But Rob Weil, director of field programs for the American Federation of Teachers, said he hopes states use the new education law as a way to redesign the teacher evaluation system.
"We have to rethink teacher evaluations in this country completely," Weil said. "Teacher evaluations can help [teachers] improve, but unfortunately in the United States it's not about improvement. It's about measure. It's about lining people up and figuring out who we can blame for certain things in our society."
A Tennessee Department of Education survey reported that 70 percent of teachers say their annual evaluation leads to improvement, up from 38 percent in 2012.
The Every Student Succeeds Act also requires states to use at least one non-academic measure in its district and school accountability system.
Tennessee considered making access to effective teachers one of its measures, but that data now comes in too late to be useful.
For next year, the state is likely to select chronic absenteeism as its non-academic accountability measure, but McQueen hopes the data-lag on effective teachers can be addressed and become part of the accountability system.
The act also provides penalties for districts that don't address effectiveness gaps. Those districts could lose Title II funds, federal dollars that support preparing, training and recruiting top teachers and principals. The law allows districts to use some Title II funds to equitably distribute teachers.
Hamilton County Schools' Title II budget for this school year is more than $2.2 million.
Kelly said he hopes the Every Student Succeeds Act will provide districts increased flexibility in how to spend Title II dollars to support and train teachers.