Sunday, September 25, 2016

TNReady, Reimagined

Most people are probably familiar with the TNReady debacles of last school year (or seven months ago this calendar year), the reverberations of which are still being felt in school buildings across the state. In response to this situation, the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) has hired a new testing company, Questar, to administer TNReady, and they have decided to phase-in online testing over a period of several years. In response to parents’ and educators’ concerns about the length of the tests, they have reduced testing times as well. From a teacher’s perspective, I would argue that all of these changes are positive, and a step in the right direction; but we can’t, and shouldn’t, be satisfied.
On the surface, it seems wonderful that elementary students will spend almost two hours and high school students approximately three hours less time testing than last year. The other side of that same coin, however, is that, starting in third grade, Tennessee students will still spend nearly eight hours of testing time in English/Language Arts, math, science, and social studies. To be fair, it will be spread out over the course of several days and among ten subtests in the four subject areas. Wait! Did I just say TEN subtests for a total of almost EIGHT hours? Is that really necessary?
Middle school students will take the same number of subtests, but the times are a tad longer, and by the time a student enters high school--especially junior year--it becomes especially ridiculous. Most high school juniors are enrolled in English 3, Algebra II, Chemistry, and U.S. History. All of these courses have a TNReady or End-of-Course exam. As such, a high school junior will spend nearly TEN hours testing in these four subjects, across a combined ELEVEN subtests!
The new federal Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which goes into effect next school year, does actually lessen the testing requirements from No Child Left Behind and Race to the Top. Under ESSA, students in grades 3-8 must still be tested every year in English/Language Arts and math, and in science, once in grades 3-5 and one more time in grades 6-9. High school students are required to take one English, one math, and one science test. Tests in other subjects and additional tests in these three subjects can be given at the state’s discretion.  
While I sadly recognize that standardized testing will never completely go away, I have a solution to students being over-tested: Shorten the tests students are required to take and give them as few as possible. What would this look like, exactly?
In elementary and middle school, I propose keeping the social studies tests and eliminating: (a) two English/Language Arts subtests (keeping the writing test); (b) one math subtest; (c) and one science subtest. Student progress can still be monitored with shorter, more efficiently created tests. This would reduce the testing time from 8 hours to approximately 5.5 hours in grades 3-8. All of these tests should be aligned with the ACT so students will be prepared for the next level. Currently, there’s no alignment between ACT and TNReady.
For high school, I would recommend keeping the U.S. History test, but shortening it to two subtests totaling 90 minutes for the writing and objective components combined. As for the other subjects, school districts should have the option to use the ACT, which is already a requirement for 11th graders. This one exam would satisfy the federal testing requirement, it only takes about 3.5 hours, and students are now allowed one free retake. Otherwise, give the TNReady English III test (keeping the writing test but eliminating two of the subtests), give a 90 minute math test at the end of the junior year that combines Algebra I, Algebra II, and Geometry, and give a 90 minute science test that combines elements of biology and chemistry. There is no need for each of these subjects to have its own test because, again, student progress can be monitored with shorter, more efficiently created tests. The ACT and SAT have been doing it for decades.
Reimagining TNReady in this manner also makes it impossible to count it as part of a student’s report card grade; so, to ensure that they take the tests seriously, I recommend that a basic proficiency level be set on each test for students to receive their high school diplomas, with a requirement that students be proficient in at least three out of the four core subjects. After all, shouldn’t students have at least basic reading comprehension, writing, mathematics, science, and U.S. history knowledge when they graduate from high school?

Monday, September 19, 2016

Teaching Ghosts

One often overlooked aspect of the incessant testing and accountability culture that is so pervasive in today’s public education system is the fact that so many students are chronically absent from school. I have had several principals over the years (not my current one) who have told me that I can’t teach ghosts, and that I need to focus on the students sitting in front of me each day. There’s a certain amount of truth to that advice. It’s not healthy to worry about what I can’t control, and what I can control zaps almost all of the energy I have. Still, those students who are frequently absent and tardy to school will take the same TNReady test as the rest of my students, and if they don’t perform well (which is unlikely), they still count against my own evaluation as an educator and the school’s and district’s evaluations on the school report cards that are released each year.
The Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) defines chronic absenteeism as a student who misses so much school--regardless of whether the absence is excused or unexcused--that the student is academically at risk of passing the school year. Usually, this means that the student has missed 10% or more of the instructional days, which would amount to at least 18 absences per school year. Discipline problems frequently accompany absenteeism because students are lost and bored when they return to school. TDOE is aware of this statewide problem and are working towards solutions.
Because of my role as a Hope Street Group (HSG) Teacher Fellow, I had the opportunity to participate in a webinar last week with TDOE on this very issue. Some of the information that was revealed during that webinar was interesting and eye-opening. While absentee rates vary greatly across the state, the largest absentee rates are at the two polar opposites of the educational spectrum--PreK and 12th grade, at 24% and 25%, respectively. African-Americans, students who are economically disadvantaged, and students with disabilities are the most likely groups of students who will miss school, at 17%. Across all grade levels, students who miss two or more days in August are five times as likely as their peers to be chronically absent. Ninth grade is a crucial year for students to attend school, as students in this grade level who are chronically absent are 38% less likely to graduate from high school.
Students miss school for a variety of reasons. Sometimes they have a strong aversion to school and don’t want to come because of: academically and social struggles, bullying, ineffective school discipline, negative school experience from the family, and undiagnosed disabilities. Other students are simply disengaged from a lack of engaging and relevant instruction, few meaningful relationships with adults in the school, and a poor school climate.
I would be remiss if I failed to mention that Coffee County Schools were highly praised by TDOE in the webinar. While many school systems saw their absentee rates increase last year, the opposite is true in Coffee County, where our attendance rates have increased. This is certainly something to be celebrated. September is “Attendance Awareness Month” in Tennessee, and each Coffee County School is doing something difference to bring students’ awareness to the importance of coming to school.
The recently passed Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which replaces the federal No Child Left Behind Act, returns an extraordinary amount of power to states on how they want to operate their education systems. ESSA will go into effect next school year, and TDOE is working on how to eliminate obstacles to student success, like chronic absenteeism and student discipline. HSG is currently conducting in-person focus groups with teachers across the state on these two topics, and the results will be funneled to TDOE so they can make well-informed decisions based on teacher input. Running concurrently with the focus groups is HSG’s online survey, which will remain open until Friday, October 14th so that teachers can have their voices heard. The survey can be found at

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Relationships Matter

I recently returned from a trip to Chicago where I attended the largest convening of Hope Street Group state teacher fellows ever assembled. Teachers from Tennessee, Kentucky, North Carolina, and Hawaii all assembled for two days so that we could share ideas on how to better collect and disseminate teacher voice in our respective states. Other than spending a couple of days with some of the most energizing solutions-oriented teachers in the country, one of the highlights of my trip was listening to our keynote speaker, Allan Blue.
Mr. Blue has a strong liberal arts background and majored in English and theater when he was in college. After teaching both of these subjects at the high school and community college levels for a number of years, he landed a job in the technology field quite by accident. A friend of his offered him a job as the creative director of a brand-new website called Haven't heard of it? That's okay, because neither has anyone else. It was a big flop. However, that experience led to his position of co-founding PayPal and, eventually, LinkedIn.
When asked about his advice for high school seniors, Blue suggested that they get work-like experience--meaning either job experience or volunteer work. He also advised that seniors should focus on how they can help others without expecting anything in return. Having a genuine interest in the success of others not only improves the fabric of society, but it is also an excellent way to learn how to be successful yourself. His final piece of advice for them is to learn how the workplace functions. After all, in order to move up the career ladder and experience the American Dream, it's crucial to see that the ladder exists, has rungs on it, and is waiting to be climbed.
Blue also discussed that what makes Silicon Valley successful is the underlying culture of innovation where people aren’t afraid to try new things and to fail. This is coupled with a constant blending of different companies, where people frequently leave one company to join another, share ideas with each other, and improve the newly-formed company. “Innovation happens,” he said, “when you put talent, opportunity, and a safe place to fail together.”
The fundamental theme of Allen Blue’s personal experiences and his advice to others is that relationships matter. He got his big break in the technology field because a friend observed his creativity and thought it could be channeled to help his internet business. As a result, Mr. Blue is now worth tens of millions of dollars.  His advice to high school seniors all centers around building relationships. Silicon Valley’s success is hinged upon people knowing and sharing ideas with each other with the common goal of continuous innovation.
The education field has much to learn from this. Teachers, school buildings, and even entire school systems notoriously function completely independent of each other. Case in point: Coffee County has three school districts and none of them collaborate with each other. They all share the common goal of educating the best that Coffee County has to offer; yet, the educators at each of these schools never share one in-service session and there’s no sharing of ideas, unless teachers reach out to each other on their own, which is a rare occurrence. The directors of these school systems have built relationships and are on friendly terms; it’s time for the same opportunity to be extended to teachers--at least, if Dr. McFall, Dr. Lawson, and Mr. Wilkerson are truly serious about providing the best opportunity for students to prosper. We are all part of Team Coffee County, and a lack of consolidation among the school systems should not prevent the unification of ideas and best practices.

Saturday, September 3, 2016

The Crisis

Tennessee has a crisis on its hands: teachers no longer want to teach here any more. We are in the midst of an acute teacher shortage, and it’s not going to improve anytime soon. At the beginning of this school year, classrooms across the state sat bursting at the seams full of students eager to learn and with no one to teach them.
While the greatest teacher shortage occurs in districts with the largest populations, like Memphis, Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville, this is truly a statewide epidemic. Statistically speaking, roughly nine percent of teachers across the state each year either retire or did not return to their teaching position the following year. Tennessee, like every other state across the country, relies heavily on teacher preparation programs across the state to fill this void. The number of college students enrolled in these programs is easily available online, and the data should serve as a stark wake-up call to everyone.
In the 2008-2009 academic year, 12,890 students were enrolled in some type of teacher preparation program. That number increased to 13,280 in the 2009-2010 school year, and then the bottom began to fall out. Enrollment dropped by 1,200 students in the 2010-2011 school year, an additional 800 students the year after that, an additional 2,200 students the following year, and an additional 1,300 students the year after that. Since its peak in the 2009-2010 school year, enrollment in teacher preparation programs has precipitously dropped by 42% in just four years! Just barely over 4,000 teachers completed teacher preparation programs in the 2013-2014 school year, which is substantially below the roughly 6,000 teaching openings available in the state each year. To fill this gap, Tennessee desperately depends on teachers to transfer here from other states or leave their current professions and enter the education field as a second career.
As someone who has known since he was in middle school that he wanted to be a teacher, it pains me to see so many college-bound students choosing to major in other things. Given that teachers are the building block of a thriving society, it’s crucial to ask ourselves what is causing this problem, and what can be done to solve it.
What’s going on in Tennessee is the same as other states that are facing severe teacher shortages: schools and its teachers are underfunded, teachers’ tenure has been substantially weakened, teachers are subjected to unfair and inconsistent teacher evaluation methods (i.e. the TEAM rubric and TVAAS), there has been a sharp increase of standardized testing, and through the weakening of teachers’ associations teachers feel that they have lost their voice. Our state legislature has gone out of its way to attack public education, and it is not a coincidence that the younger generations have a difficult time envisioning themselves as teachers--especially with college tuition at an all-time high and Tennessee teacher pay comparatively so low.
This is a time of great opportunity for teachers and other concerned citizens across the state to turn this around, if we could only act in unison. First, contact your state senator and house representative. Tell them to fully fund the BEP, give teachers actual cost-of-living raises, restore tenure, reduce standardized testing, and allow workers across the state to unionize. We need more positive education bills to be introduced, and passed, in our legislature. If they refuse, then express your voice in a different way, by voting for someone else who will support public education. We are simultaneously in the midst of both a teacher shortage and an election season. Secondly, teachers need to stop ridiculing our own profession--especially in front of our own students. Yes, teaching is difficult, and it’s easy to become frustrated with the system and vent to our students, or our own children at home. Teachers, sometimes, are our own worst enemies. If we are serious about improving the education landscape, then that must also include advocating and promoting our own profession that we chose to enter. Educating young people truly is a wonderful and fulfilling career, and spreading that positivity will breed more positivity.