Stay The Course? Not Likely

Friday, March 14, 2014

The fiery news burning through the Tennessee General Assembly revolves around House Bill 1129, which was amended by lawmakers on Thursday to delay final implementation of Common Core, as well as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers (PARCC) testing.  A partnership of Democrats and Conservative/Libertarian-Leaning Republicans joined forces to address education issues of mutual concern.  

How this eventually plays out will become evident over the next few days and perhaps weeks. Politics are politics.  While other groups may revel with delight over legislative events, our concern is what message is sent to educators and subsequent what impact will occur in the classroom.  We expect the House, the Senate, and the Governor's office will shape a final version of this legislation. Chances are the reverberation will be felt across the state and nation. But simply staying the course is an unlikely option.

Several times in the summer of 2013, we sat down with the leadership of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) to discuss some of the critical issues facing Tennessee educators, as well as what we were hearing at the time from across our state from teachers, parents and other groups.  We pointed out several issues and concerns.  These reservations largely fell on deaf ears.  This does not make SCORE a bad organization nor am I trying to be disparaging. SCORE has a focus; just like any other educational organizations has their specific focus.  Sometimes our interests will intertwine, other times they will be dynamically in opposition to one another.    

In this case, it was clear they felt all was going well from their perspective on education reform.  I concurred with their assessment about the standards.  I do not believe the real debate and subsequent criticism was ever really about the standards themselves, but rather the surrounding periphery issues. But we differed in other issues and approach.  I believe in fully discussing issues, as well as solving problems in a collaborative approach and in an open and transparent manner.   

For SCORE, staying the course as designed was the prudent path of action.  However, we understood, as an organization, that we had to strengthen our own advocacy efforts and give a more effective voice on behalf of educators to stakeholders and policymakers.  We represent the actual practitioners in the classroom. It is true that the president of the teacher’s union serves on SCORE’s steering committee. However, we would argue that alone does not give classroom teachers a voice in an organization that has such an impact over Tennessee education policy.  Professional Educators of Tennessee has no obligation to embrace an agenda when it marginalizes the views of public educators.   

Educators know a great deal about “what works,” but they alone cannot institute or sustain improvement without greater stakeholder involvement and informed policymaker advocacy.  Education leaders must learn to think differently about what it will require for our profession to thrive, not just survive, and in order to remain relevant in today’s rapidly changing political climate.  We must realize our proper role in educational leadership and student learning collectively and individually.  

As far as online testing is concerned, we know from our own members, that many school districts are still not prepared, and it is estimated that 40% of the technology needed is still not in place statewide. Local school systems still face challenges to infrastructure and need to build network connectivity.  There have been notable problems and substantial costs that local education agencies have had to absorb due to the move toward PARCC.  The most common issues that the state has not addressed is ongoing or increasing costs, technical concerns and fears that the test could limit flexibility in crafting future curriculum.  

The use of high-stakes testing as the sole measure of student achievement is justly under increased scrutiny.  Transitioning Tennessee’s value-added data from TCAP to PARCC will take some time and adjustment.  For example, we do not believe that the state has adequately made clear how TVAAS will handle the transition from all bubble-in tests to constructed response tests.  Until some questions are better explained, we strongly support a delay in using student test results for Teacher Evaluations, at least until 2016-2017 at the earliest. 

Tennessee children live in a dynamic world and their skills have to constantly be upgraded. We have to communicate effectively the needs of educators to policymakers on how to best accomplish this task in the K-16 community. Our position is easy to explain:  Any standards that our state adopts must help our students achieve at a higher level.  By doing this ultimately we will get more students to and through post-secondary work and help our students become productive citizens.  As educators, our focus should be on how to accomplish that task. 

When personalities and control issues can be kept in check—significant progress can be achieved in Tennessee classrooms.   In a nutshell, educators are supportive of the more rigorous standards, but very few have confidence that new assessments will not be used as an indictment against their efforts, professionalism and competence.

JC Bowman

Executive Director 

Professional Educators of Tennessee

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