- Seven Reforms Needed in Education - January 10, 2017
- Stop Censoring Our Classrooms - March 7, 2016
- Preparing for Parent-Teacher Conferences - October 16, 2015
- My Experience with TNCore - the Tennessee State Standards - September 15, 2015
- Tips for Choosing a Novel to Study - June 9, 2015
- Choosing the Right High School Reading Intervention Program - April 30, 2015
- Four Things Teachers Should Try Before Removing a Student - April 6, 2015
- Dear 'Bad Students': Prove Us Wrong - March 12, 2015
- Improving Education: Response to Joel Klein - February 26, 2015
- Writing Hacks for Grades 9-12 - February 12, 2015
The area in which I teach can be viewed from the outside as your typical agricultural region: farms, tractors, cowboy boots, Southern accents, etc. Newcomers feel wary of the locals and of being treated like outcasts; meanwhile, locals feel wary of newcomers and of being treated like simpletons. Truth is, life is more complex than one might give it credit for in a small town, especially when it comes to education.
In a nutshell, Tennessee decided to revamp our state standards to better satisfy college and career readiness. In the span of the last five years, the state wrote more complex standards that were still a “mile-wide but inch-deep” curriculum before switching over to Common Core in order to win “Race to the Top” federal grant money. Invested small-town parents either love or hate the change – they either love that more rigor is being introduced into the education, or they hate the aftermath of such a change. Teachers feel much the same way.
I, like many of my colleagues, love Common Core for the more in-depth coverage into subject matter (at least for the ELA side; I cannot speak for anything outside my subject area). What I do not like is how roughly the students who have already been in school for years are adapting to the change. Imagine learning under a set of old and “relaxed” standards for approximately ten years before being introduced to and expected to master Common Core. Even the brightest students will struggle somewhat. Now imagine the parent who sees their child’s grade suffer. Most parents’ natural inclination is to blame the teacher. And in a small town, a parent’s voice is heard loudly and clearly. Finally, imagine being the teacher who is on the receiving end for a parent’s ire. Never mind that you explained to the students since day one, your administration gave a presentation on parent-teacher night, and your director of schools released a statement to the media about the new change and its effects on students’ grades (particularly on tests); these things simply do not matter to some parents. No matter how supportive your administration is, they cannot shield you from all the negativity.
Despite the best intentions of Common Core, it also sows discord among teachers. Common Core encourages common assessments, and that requires departments to work in unison. How well does a department work, though, when its members have varying interpretations of common assessment? On the one hand, teachers feel that the assessments must be carbon-copies and thus requires endless hours of collaboration to create, while on the other hand, teachers feel that the content on each test may be different as long as the concepts tested are the same. (I am of the second school of thought, if you must know. This also makes it more difficult for students to cheat.) Teachers must make sure to teach the same concepts in each grade and subject area, as well. Again, some teachers fear that they must totally suppress individuality and mimic each other’s lesson plans down to the content, while others know that concepts can be taught with varying content. How can the teachers obtain these goals if they are in a constant state of confusion and disagree with each other every step of the way?
The new teacher evaluation system, another negative side effect of Race to the Top, does little to encourage cooperation among teachers. Teachers cannot operate at their best capacity when they are in a constant state of fear. Fear of something new (Common Core) and fear of something basic (job security). A big percentage of teachers’ evaluation scores come from tests. Recall earlier when I explained that any older student would have a difficult time adjusting to a new set of standards? Their adjustment reflects in their standardized test scores. The state seems merciless when it comes to explanations, though. Your students either improve from earlier tests (tests that were based on old standards so the correlation is invalid), or they don’t. Students either score proficient or advanced, or they don’t. The state isn’t interested in excuses. You either get a good score based on your students’ results, or you don’t. If you teach children-at-risk while your colleague teachers honors students, you are still expected to produce impressive test scores. And if you fail to rise to the challenge, you could be put on probation if you are already tenured. Once on probation, you either improve your score or you could find yourself unemployed. If you are not tenured, you could miss tenure. And to get tenure, you must score in the high percentile two years out of the five total (it used to be three total) years it takes to obtain tenure. It is no wonder that teachers are anxious and unable to collaborate well.
Speaking of students and their control over a teacher’s destiny, this takes me back to their parents. Parents in a small-town can be divided into two classes – the cliche have’s and the have-not’s. Out of the two classes, we are blessed indeed to have parents who care greatly about their children’s education and who put the accountability where it belongs – on their children’s shoulders. Rich or poor, these parents support their children and hold healthy high expectations. Sadly, though, we are not always fortunate enough to deal with such parents. Out of the have’s we might have the dreaded helicopter parents, the parents who put immense pressure on the teachers to make sure their children succeed. These parents fear that anything less than an A might cause irreversible damage on their child’s psyche, and they turn to the teachers and other personnel to see to it that this never happens. (And when it does, watch out.) Even worse, you have the parents who put all the immense pressure on their children. While we all know that holding children accountable for their actions will encourage mature development, we also know that hyper-criticizing them could instead stunt their growth. When a student has received the fall-out for falling short of perfection, word of his or her plight reaches the small-town teacher quickly. The teacher, though indirectly, starts to feel his or her student’s pain. Finally, teachers have to deal with the apathy that can be associated with the have-not’s. These parents are either too concerned with other, more important matters such as where they will rest their heads tonight, or they have simply given up. In some cases, you even have parents who prefer to remain unemployed. Their lack of ambition can rub off on their children. These are the students who may refuse to take a test because they have no post-secondary ambitions (college or technical), and this suits them just fine. And when you call their parents, hoping to get support, you might get cursed at instead; you dared to bother them with their child’s education, after all. (Yes, this incident has occurred many times over in our school district.)
Alas, we come to this. Tennessee is in a mess right now, a mess based on good intentions. (Where does the road paved with good intentions lead again?) While increasing the rigor in our schools is a noble goal, it has to be implemented with caution or we find ourselves with struggling students, angry parents, and disheartened teachers. The state should especially take great care when considering teacher security; mentally healthy teachers make better teachers, not teachers weighted down with fear. No one is suggesting that truly poor teachers should be protected from removal, but anyone can tell you it does not take jeopardizing everyone’s job in order to clean house. Dear parents, administrators, and state officials of Tennessee: we are scared, and in such an emotional state, it does make it more difficult for us to do what we signed up for: teach.