Shelby County Schools board members discussed at a work session on Tuesday whether contracts for some components of its teacher evaluation and professional development programs were the best use of the district’s resources.

The bulk of the contracts are ongoing agreements for programs the district has been using for years. But board members wondered whether some of the programs, including Tripod surveys provided by Cambridge Education and an online professional development video library provided through Teachscape, Inc., are actually effective and being used by teachers and district staff.

The Tripod survey counts for five percent of Shelby County teachers’ evaluations. Students in kindergarten through 12th grade are surveyed about classroom climate and teacher effectiveness several times each year. Board members were skeptical about whether the survey is effective, and whether it is worth a $635,000 contract. “Is there not some other way to do that?” asked Billy Orgel.

Some teacher groups, including the United Federation of Teachers in New York City, have questioned the accuracy of the survey and said it is inappropriate to have students make high-stakes decisions about their decisions. District chief innovation officer Bradley Leon said research has shown that the survey tends to line up with other measures of teacher quality.

Board member David Reaves then asked Leon why, if the survey is so useful, it is worth just five percent of a teacher’s evaluation. Leon said that the five percent target had been reached with the help of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association. He said other districts include student feedback as between five and 15 percent of a teacher’s evaluation.

Leon said the district could consider using a different, less-expensive survey, but that would require approval from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, which specified that funds be used for Tripod as part of a major grant for the district’s Teacher & Leader Effectiveness program. (Chalkbeat also receives some funds from the Gates Foundation.)

Meanwhile, the $415,000 contract with Teachscape allows teachers to upload videos of their teaching. Teachers can choose—but are not required—to have videos used in their evaluations. Some principals in the district use the program so they can, for instance, share best practices teaching math or English language arts Common Core lessons. Teachscape has been in use since 2009, when it was piloted as part of the Gates-funded Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project.

Leon told board members that 5,000 videos of Shelby County teachers teaching had been uploaded, and 9,000 videos had been viewed this year.

Reaves said, “if this is a key tool we’re using, I don’t understand why we’re not requiring every teacher to use it [as part of their evaluation].”

Superintendent Dorsey E. Hopson II said that some teachers did not want to have the videos as part of their evaluations. “In the spirit of making sure people can use it and feel safe, we haven’t necessarily required it. We have to change the culture so people don’t feel like this is a punitive measure.”

Reaves also questioned whether the number of views and videos actually represented significant usage. The district had some 9,000 teachers overall this year, but some teachers may have uploaded multiple videos. “Can we actually make it part of our culture? If people aren’t using it, I will not vote for it.”

Orgel asked district staff to share with the board how many teachers were actually using the program, and how those teachers were ranked on the district’s evaluation system before next week’s meeting.

Board members will also vote next week on contracts with Curriculum Associates and Renaissance Learning to screen students in the district in math and in reading; with K-3 Reading Foundations to train teachers in reading; with My Learning Plan for systems to evaluate online educators; with Insight Education Group to train teacher observers; and with the Center for Educational Leadership for training for instructional leadership developers.

School nurses and facilities questions

In other actions, board members also previewed and discussed a slew of other contracts related to facilities and health issues that it will vote on at its business meeting next Tuesday.

The board will also vote next week on a $1.9 million contract with Well Child to provide 42 nurses to the district. Shunji Woods, the district’s director of coordinated school health, described the district’s overall distribution of nurses to board members.

The district has 166 nurses overall. The majority focus on working with children with disabilities or chronic health conditions, while others, including the contracted nurses, deal with chronic issues like allergies or diabetes at the school level. The contracted nurses will be assigned to five schools each, and will visit one school each day of the week.

Board chair Kevin Woods said that having quality nurses in schools ties to the district’s so-called “80-90-100 plan,” which is focused on raising student achievement and graduation rates in the district.

Shunji Woods said the high rates of absence due to chronic health issues like asthma might be alleviated by proper management encouraged by school nurses.

Board chair Woods suggested that the district consider expanding the number of nurses in its schools next year. The municipal school districts plan to have one school nurse per school.

The fate of several closed schools in the district was also discussed on Tuesday. Hopson told the board that two separate charter schools have expressed interest in the former Lanier Middle school building. He said the board may meet before July to determine which school will go in the building.

The board will vote next week on whether to approve contracts with a number of architects, including one to design a new building for the former Westhaven Elementary School. Board members also discussed plans to revisit the district’s list of contractors and providers to make sure it is up-to-date and includes woman- and minority-owned businesses.

Contact Jaclyn Zubrzycki at jzubrzycki @chalkbeat.org

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