Dueling Tests, Standards Put Squeeze on Tennessee Teachers

By Lauren Camera — April 09, 2015 10 min read
Alison Cotey is a first-year, 5th grade teacher at John Adams Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn.
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When Alison Cotey, a first-year teacher at John Adams Elementary School here, wrote a lesson plan for her 5th graders, she asked them to analyze a poem littered with sound effects and to write essays about it, using examples and explaining their significance.

The 23-year-old encouraged her students to think about why author Myra Cohn Livingston had used such language in her poem “74th Street.” What was she trying to convey?

The exercise was meant to spur the deep thinking required of students by the Common Core State Standards, the academic benchmarks in mathematics and English/language arts that teachers across Tennessee are using.

But Ms. Cotey’s lesson plan didn’t stop there. She then made sure her students knew the specific vocabulary term for each sound effect: alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, rhythm, and rhyme.

This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education.

The terms were just a few on a long list of standards that her students will need to know to perform well on a looming state exam. But that exam, widely criticized for emphasizing rote memorization over critical thinking, assesses students not on the common core, but on the state’s retired standards.

“The common core is a much deeper way of thinking,” said Ms. Cotey. “So when you get to the [old standards] and … you have to get the kids to back away from that deeper thinking to more surface-level thinking, that’s a challenge.”

Ms. Cotey didn’t know she would be responsible for teaching two sets of standards until she was hired by Kingsport schools just a week before the first day of classes last fall. And while she knew that the state was battling through growing pains associated with the common core and had seen her fair share of Facebook posts railing against the standards, she wasn’t prepared for the contentious atmosphere that has become the norm for teachers in Tennessee.

Some education policy researchers and professors in schools of education worry that the politicized education arena and the state’s indecisiveness over the common core could have significant ramifications for its teaching corps.

In a profession that already suffers from high attrition rates among new teachers, the state’s conflicted attitude toward the standards could end up pushing out its brightest newcomers, or even worse, prevent them from pursuing a career in education altogether.

Indeed, after her first seven months in the classroom, Ms. Cotey is already questioning whether education is a career she wants to continue pursuing.

“There have been moments throughout this year where I’ve asked, ‘What am I doing here? What’s another path I can take?’ ”

Craving Consistency

Ms. Cotey grew up in Kingsport, a close-knit community of about 53,000 residents nestled along the Virginia border in the northeastern corner of Tennessee.

She was inspired to pursue an education degree in part by her elementary teacher, who taught her for three years of her childhood, in a commingled class for grades 3-5. When she enrolled at Samford University, a small Christian college in Birmingham, Ala., she followed a regimented teacher-training track, where most of her preparation focused on the common core.

“Their approach was on teaching how to write a lesson plan from a standard so that we would be prepared to use any set of standards we were given,” she said. “Of course, the standards we were using were common core.”

The newly minted teacher wasn’t necessarily looking to return to her hometown after graduation, but when the district offered her a job a week before the start of the school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

Like Alabama, Tennessee has been transitioning to the common core for years. In fact, the Volunteer State has spent more than $40 million preparing its teachers for the switch, which officially occurred this school year, even though many districts—including Kingsport—have been using them for the past two years.

But last year, amid growing antipathy toward the standards driven largely by misconceptions that they were a federal mandate, Tennessee’s legislature passed a law repealing the new statewide test, aligned to the common core, that the state had been ready to use. Students were slated to take the now-repealed exam—devised by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC—for the first time at the end of the current school year.

Left without an assessment and without enough time to craft a new one, the state education department directed districts to instead administer the old state test, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. And since the TCAP assesses students on the old standards, teachers must prepare their classes using both sets of academic benchmarks—difficult for any teacher, but even more so for newcomers like Ms. Cotey, who had little to no experience with the old standards until she began teaching in August.

“Having two sets of standards, two lists, is just very daunting, even though they do overlap to some degree,” said Ms. Cotey. “And then having an assessment that doesn’t align to what the standards are focusing on is a very large challenge.”

Adding another layer to the pressure on rookie teachers is the fact they are evaluated, and in some districts, like Kingsport, even compensated based on their students’ test scores. On top of that, Gov. Bill Haslam, a Republican, is currently orchestrating a review of the common core that could result in the state pulling out of the standards altogether.

The state’s wavering over the common core and aligned tests has made teaching more difficult for every educator, but especially for new teachers like Ms. Cotey, who feel like they can’t be effective in the current climate.

“One of the big things they taught us in school is consistency: Be consistent with your students,” said Ms. Cotey. “It’s hard to do that when nothing is consistent.”

Teacher Preparation and Attrition

Her experience is what some researchers are worried about.

Teaching is well-known for its attrition rates, and most teachers who leave do so in their first five years, typically because of a combination of low pay, long hours, and high levels of stress.

In Tennessee alone, more than 5,000 educators leave the teaching profession each year, costing the state somewhere in the range of $23 million to $50 million, according to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington-based policy organization.

Aubryn Hudson also is a first-year, 5th grade teacher at John Adams Elementary School.

Doris Santoro, an assistant professor of education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, who studies why teachers leave the profession, said she’s seen an uptick in recent years among educators who are demoralized because they feel the political climate prevents them from teaching to the best of their ability.

And while there’s never been a time when education hasn’t been political, she said the current atmosphere is unprecedented, making it difficult for teachers to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.

That sentiment is precisely what Ms. Cotey conveyed one recent morning during a professional-development day.

“We don’t have control over a lot of the decisions that are made, and a lot of times the true professionals aren’t consulted by the lawmakers,” she said. “I know they have pressures trying to keep other people happy, but we are the ones who are in the classroom every day with the students. We have a lot of good information and experience to contribute to these discussions, but what we’re saying isn’t being heard.”

The debate over academic standards, however, is just one aspect of effective teaching, pointed out Carrie Abood, an assistant professor of education at Lipscomb University in Nashville, which is consistently ranked as having one of the best teacher-preparation programs in the country.

“If the climate is in limbo now about common core, then in 10 years it may be about something completely different,” said Ms. Abood. And for that reason, she said, Lipscomb focuses on building skills like adaptability and flexibility in its students.

Ms. Abood said she often gives her younger students a refresher about what the common core is, how it was created, and the difference between standards and curriculum, the latter being one of the biggest sources of misinformation about the common core.

“I try to make sure they are paying attention to what the truths are versus what’s on Facebook,” said Ms. Abood. “But I’m not focusing so much about what the controversy of the day is, rather on how I can prepare my students for being the best.”

She also pushed back against the idea that first-year teachers are at a disadvantage when it comes to the standards debate in Tennessee compared with more veteran teachers.

“To [new teachers], common core is not a big deal because it’s all a big deal,” Ms. Abood said.

And, Ms. Abood added, some first-year teachers are more prepared than others, depending on the type of training they’ve received.

Aubryn Hudson, for example, says the training she received likely gave her a leg up on other new teachers. The 25-year-old newly-minted science and social studies teacher at John Adams enrolled in a teaching licensure program at nearby Milligan College, a 14-month program that emphasizes hands-on classroom experience.

As part of her training, Hudson spent an entire school year shadowing two of Kingsport’s best teachers. She said balancing both sets of standards is difficult, but admitted that Milligan College’s required internship likely allowed her to transition to the profession more easily than others. And because Kingsport was an early adopter of the common core, the teachers she shadowed had previous experience juggling the two sets of standards.

Plus, she added, teaching science and social studies using both sets of standards isn’t nearly as difficult as teaching a core subject, like English/language arts or math.

“I can teach students [an old standard] and then with my reading groups I can bring in common core almost like an umbrella,” Ms. Hudson said. “It’s not that difficult for me to have that mindset because I was able to see the best of the best do it, and that’s all I’ve known.”

Looking Ahead

Teachers in Kingsport are generally hopeful that the state will ultimately complete its transition to the common core and aligned tests. That transition may get some additional support with the recent appointment of Candice McQueen, who took over as education commissioner in January.

Ms. McQueen, a Tennessee native and formerly the senior vice president at Lipscomb, has been a public supporter of the standards for years. In her new role, she has said she’s intent on making sure the state doesn’t back away from the more-rigorous standards.

Already in her first few months on the job, she has pledged to ensure teachers’ voices are included in the state’s review of the standards and to work to soften the impact the expected drop in student test scores have on teacher evaluations and compensation.

Meanwhile, Gov. Haslam has persuaded a group of Republican state legislators to withdraw—at least for now—a bill that would repeal the state’s adoption of the common core entirely while the state’s review of the standards is underway. The proposed legislation would be a blow for a state considered a leader in the standards movement and would likely have ramifications for other states whose legislatures are similarly wavering over the common core.

“Once we actually make the transition to common core, I’ll be able to rock and roll,” said Ms. Cotey. “But get me to that point.”

Getting teachers to that point, however, isn’t a sure bet, especially at a time when pushback against the standards at the national level only seems to be growing.

Case in point: At the end of February, GOP leaders in the U.S. House of Representatives were forced to abandon a vote on a GOP-backed bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind Act after a post on an anti-common-core blog went viral. The post falsely stated that the bill would force states to continue using the common core, which caused many Republicans to withdraw their support for their own party’s legislation.

Such incidents, Ms. Cotey said, make her feel like she might never get to rock and roll with the standards she’s devoted so much time and energy to learning. Still, she’s currently planning to continue teaching.

“If I’m not here, then who else is going to be here for my students?” Ms. Cotey asked. “If we don’t have good teachers, then the system just becomes more broken, so I’m going to do my best no matter what the state or anybody else says. I’m going to do my best for them.”

The Hechinger Report is a nonprofit, nonpartisan education news outlet affiliated with the Hechinger Institute on Education and the Media, based at Teachers College, Columbia University.
A version of this article appeared in the April 15, 2015 edition of Education Week as Dueling Assessments, Standards Pressuring Tennessee Teachers


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