Professional Development Opinion

Do Teachers in Tennessee Improve Over Time?

By Urban Education Contributor — April 23, 2018 5 min read
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This week we are hearing from the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA, @TNEdResAlliance). This post is by Erin O’Hara (@ErinOHaraTN), TERA Executive Director.

Today’s post is written from the researcher perspective. Stay tuned: Thursday we will share the practitioner’s perspective on this research.

It is widely accepted that teacher effectiveness is connected to student achievement and that high-quality teachers are key to improving our schools. As the basis for teacher preparation and professional development efforts, it is crucial to first understand how, when, and why teachers improve (or not) in the course of their careers.

Just over a year ago, the Tennessee Education Research Alliance (TERA) engaged a group of educators — teachers, principals, state and district leaders — alongside nationally-respected researchers to determine the most critical questions we should study about how and why teachers improve in Tennessee. In the first of a series of briefs about professional learning and instructional improvement, TERA begins tackling these questions by looking at teacher improvement over time in Tennessee.

What The Research Is Examining

Over the course of the last year, TERA has worked with John Papay and Mary Laski at Brown University to examine how teachers in Tennessee are improving their effectiveness throughout their careers. Papay and Laski look at 5 years of teacher classroom observation and 9 years of student test score data to understand more about the improvement trajectories of individual teachers over time.

What The Research Is Finding

In the brief, released today, Papay and Laski find four key results about teacher improvement in Tennessee:

  • Teachers in Tennessee are improving over the course of their careers on average. This holds true across tested subjects and across measures of teacher effectiveness.

  • Teacher improvement varies substantially by district and school. In other words, in some places, teachers are improving (on average) at much greater rates than in others.

  • Teachers in Tennessee appear to improve at about the same rates in higher-poverty schools as in lower-poverty schools.

  • Teacher improvement appears to be steeper in more recent years.

These findings are particularly important because, while past research has consistently found (as this brief finds in Tennessee) that teachers improve substantially in the first three to five years of their careers, there remain questions as to how much teachers improve in later years. Papay and Laski find that in Tennessee, while the majority (about 56%) of a teacher’s improvement occurs in the first three years, roughly 20 to 30% of a teacher’s overall improvement occurs between years 5 and 25. Perhaps more importantly, teacher improvement differs systematically across schools and districts — in other words, in some schools, teachers improve much more rapidly than in others.

Future Work

Knowing that teachers continue to improve over the course of their careers means that the more we can know about how and why, the more likely we are to bend the trajectory so that teacher improvement is even steeper in the early years and continues at a greater pace throughout a teacher’s career. Using the results of Papay and Laski’s study, we have begun working with the Tennessee Department of Education and our Advisory Council, which includes the state teachers union, superintendent’s association, and state board of education, among others, to plot out the next steps of the research agenda. Our Advisory Council immediately wanted to know:

  • What do we know about why certain teachers are improving more in the early career, and is it somehow related to teacher preparation?

  • If we know that some schools and districts are seeing greater teacher growth than others, do we know what they are doing differently?

  • Is there anything instructive that we can share with superintendents, school boards, and those entities that are training teachers both pre-service and in-service?

Leading research on these topics tells us that educators tend to improve more when they work in schools with more effective colleagues (Jackson & Bruegmann, 2009; Sun, Loeb, & Grissom, 2017), remain in their teaching assignment more consistently (Blazar, 2015; Ost, 2014), teach in more supportive professional environments with strong school leaders (Kraft & Papay, 2014), work in schools that are more collaborative (Ronfeldt et al., 2014), and participate in a rigorous teacher evaluation system (Taylor & Tyler, 2012). However, we don’t know yet how this past research translates to the Tennessee story, and where the biggest gaps exist for Tennessee teachers. To uncover answers to these questions, the educators that TERA met with last January suggested that we examine variation in time devoted to professional learning, access to high quality professional learning content, coherence among learning systems, strong conditions for feedback, and teacher self-reflection and assessment.

TERA is working with Papay and Laski, among other researchers, on follow-up studies that will examine many of these questions. Using results from the Tennessee Educator Survey, our annual statewide survey that just closed on Friday, April 20, we can learn more about the conditions at various higher- and lower-growth schools and districts. Connecting to teacher preparation program data, we can see if variation is related to specific programs. We also still need to know more about the individual experiences of educators in these high- and low-growth schools and districts.

Over the next eighteen months, these are the critical questions that TERA will work with researchers and our partners at the Tennessee Department of Education to answer. This research will help the state learn more about how there can be even greater growth in future years among Tennessee’s teachers.

Previous blog posts by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance:

Curious about other research topics partnerships have written about for this blog? See this Guide to the NNERPP EdWeek Blog for all previous blog posts organized by research topic area to easily find other posts of particular interest to you!

The opinions expressed in Urban Education Reform: Bridging Research and Practice are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.