Two and a half years ago Metro Pulse ran a story, "The War on Teachers: How did Tennessee's educators become the new public enemy?," which looked at legislation designed to reshape the teaching profession in Tennessee. Almost all of it passed.
Under Gov. Bill Haslam and state Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman's leadership, teacher unions were stripped of their right to collectively bargain. Tenure was made harder to get, while being rendered essentially meaningless at the same time. And the administration has continued to promote other reforms introduced under Gov. Phil Bredesen, like tying 50 percent of all educators' evaluations to test scores.
As more and more reforms have continued to roll out across the state, including implementation of the new Common Core curricula, teachers' dissatisfaction has grown. And grown. Finally, it reached a tipping point.
This is where our story begins…
Blame it on Lauren Hopson, if you want. She's fine with that. In fact, she's more than okay with it.
"I've always been pretty vocal," Hopson says with a slight laugh.
Hopson, a cheery third-grade teacher with a blonde bob, now in her 13th year teaching at Halls Elementary, had no idea she'd become the face of a movement when she spoke for a mere five minutes at the Oct. 2 meeting of the Knox County Schools Board of Education.
"The things I said were nothing new," Hopson says. "I've been saying them for two years at teacher talks and forums. I said them at the school board last year. Nothing's changed. In fact, some things have gotten worse."
It might have ended there, as most comments at poorly attended public meetings generally do. But Hopson's speech emphasizing her frustration with the county's evaluation process and KCS Superintendent Jim McIntyre's leadership was uploaded to YouTube eight days later. Entitled, "Tired Teachers - What TN teachers really think about new evaluations," it's the same poor quality video that you can watch on the KCS website, complete with a sign-language translator in lower corner.
Five weeks later, it has almost 100,000 views.
"I am tired of trying to plan five different lessons a day that hit 61 different indicators on a rubric, and that's just to score a rock-solid 3. I am tired of the public being convinced that Knox County is moving in the right direction when I see good teachers at my school in tears at some point during the day on a regular basis. I am tired of having to waste instruction time to give tests every week, whether I need to or not, just to have data," Hopson says in the video. She's calm, not impassioned, but the strength of her feeling—and her anger—comes through.
In that video, Hopson is standing in front of empty seats. But by the time the Nov. 6 board meeting rolled around, the room was full of hundreds of people wearing bright red to signify their support. Two dozen educators (and one student) told the board their concerns, over and over, often to raucous, deafening applause from the crowd.
"Why don't we just manufacture robots instead of students," one person said. "Even though I love to teach, I no longer love my job," stated another. "In 28 years, I've never ever, ever seen morale as low as it is right now," said a third. And the final speaker said, "There seems to be no foreseeable end of the assault on public teachers."
That last statement is seemingly true—the state Legislature is expected to make another push for private-school vouchers and an expansion of charter schools in January. Teachers in rural school districts are as frustrated as those in urban ones. And with a new computerized assessment, PARCC (see sidebar), set for next year, frustrations seem poised to get worse.
But spurred by Hopson, state legislator and KCS teacher Gloria Johnson, and a group that calls themselves BATs—short for the Badass Teacher Association—teachers in Tennessee are starting to fight back.
"I've been in Tennessee 13 years, and I've not seen a situation like in Knox County," says Andy Spears, a Nashville policy consultant who also blogs about education in the state. "If I were in the administration, I would be concerned."
Spears means both the Knox County administration and the Department of Education administration. Since Hopson's speech went viral, teachers have held meetings in Bradley, Rutherford, and Davidson Counties. Other meetings, including in Jackson and the state's largest (and most troubled) school system, Shelby County, are planned.
Can the rabble-rousing work, when so far Haslam and Huffman have refused to even acknowledge there might be a problem? Johnson has hope.
"I really think we can change it. It's going to be a long campaign, but we can do this," Johnson says.
Evaluate Me, Maybe
If you talk to a lot of KCS teachers who teach a lot of different grades in a lot of different schools—you can't reach all 4,370, but you hear from dozens—you hear a lot of different concerns. And most of the teachers are concerned that things they say might come back to haunt them.
(For the record, McIntyre says that isn't the case. "There have never been repercussions for saying what you believe honestly and giving us feedback. We welcome feedback, we ask for feedback. I have these teacher talk meetings. We have community meetings all the time. I say to teachers, please be candid, please be honest, we want to hear your feedback," he commented when specifically asked about this. "We want an honest dialogue. I'm not aware of there ever having been negative repercussions for a teacher giving us honest and candid feedback.")
Still, when you talk to all these teachers—ones who have spoken out publicly and ones who haven't, some who are involved in the BATs and some who aren't—you hear one thing over and over and over again: The current evaluation system is unfair. You hear this from teachers who regularly get great evaluations. You even hear this from teachers who even personally like the evaluation system for their classrooms. You also hear this from teachers in other school districts.
But you don't hear this from Huffman or Haslam. At a recent press event at Bearden Elementary celebrating the state's gains in NAEP scores, a reporter asked Huffman about KCS teachers' criticisms of evaluations.
"We've heard criticism since we started about the evaluation system, but one of the things that we've done is made changes every year based on feedback, and you know it's interesting … we also had a survey done out of Vanderbilt that showed a significant increase in the percentage of teachers who support the evaluation system after last year compared to the previous year," Huffman replied.
A few minutes later, Haslam commented, "Teachers say it's getting better. That's what the actual real data shows."
But the methodology of the state's surveys are unclear. Many teachers we spoke to said they didn't fill out the TELL survey—only 44 percent of KCS teachers did—and those that did said the questions were written in such a way to make all responses seem more positive than they otherwise might be. In fact, there's not a single question on the survey about morale at all. And whatever those surveys say, there are a whole lot of teachers upset about the evaluation process.
In 2010, as a requirement to get federal Race to the Top funds, the state adopted a new model of evaluating teachers that ties 50 percent of their evaluation to how well their students succeed at school, determined by test scores. The other 50 percent of the evaluation is based on observing teachers in the classroom, including looking at their lesson plans. Teachers with less experience are required to have four classroom visits a year; otherwise teachers are observed twice a year, for the full classroom period each time. The state has approved a number of evaluation models for use by school districts, but the one promoted most heavily—and used by KCS in most of its schools—is the TEAM model. (There are 18 schools using the TAP model, which has four observations instead of two, but is otherwise based on the TEAM model.)
Fulton High School teacher Robert Miller says he hasn't had a problem with the way the evaluations work.
"It's fine for me, because I teach a math class. And that's something that can be tested," Miller says. "But I am definitely in the minority. … Having this one-size-fits-all model, that's where it really breaks down."
What Miller's referring to is the experience of his colleagues like Matt Mosley, who teaches Web design and leadership at Fulton in the CTE. Mosley's only been teaching two years, and he says he desperately welcomes feedback.
"I need constructive criticism," Mosley admits. "But I'm the only teacher in all of KCS that teaches Web 1, 2, and 3 to the state standards. I'm not getting valuable feedback when they don't know what I'm talking about."
Mosley says that last year during his evaluations, he felt like he could have just made up words and the lead teacher watching his lesson would have never known the difference. He also says he was evaluated during his one leadership class—a Fulton-specific class that has no actual standards but teaches seniors in the communications track how to interact with clients and work on projects together—solely because the lead teacher had a planning period then.
"I just don't think that it's fair. It's an insufficient way to judge me as a teacher," Mosley says. "For me, I'm going to make it work. I'm not going to sit around and complain about it. But I wish there was a way for me to get feedback that wasn't tied to money or me keeping my job."
As it turned out, Mosley's evaluation scores were fine. But that's partially because he got lucky. Mosley, like all other teachers who don't teach TCAP subjects, as well as staff members who don't teach at all, still has 50 percent of his evaluations based on test scores. That's other students' test scores, in other subjects.
This is the case for physical education teachers, school librarians, counselors, shop teachers—you name it. No matter how well those people do their jobs, no matter how much their students learn or how much they help students outside the classroom, 40 to 50 percent (depending on their specific positions) of their evaluation is tied to something they don't do. In fact, only 47 percent of KCS teachers are evaluated on their individual TVASS scores, which mean the majority of educators and staff have their evaluations tied to outside data.
"Knowing it's out of your control—that's a morale killer right there," says Amber Rountree, a librarian at Halls Elementary in her sixth year. When she watched the video of Haslam and Huffman's comments at Bearden, she actually started laughing.
"The whole thing is a joke," Rountree says.
Compounding these concerns is the scoring system itself. Teachers are rated on a scale of 1 to 5 on a number of measures by other lead teachers, who receive a $2,000 to $2,500 bonus annually for serving as an evaluator. We interviewed one lead teacher at a KCS high school. She asked that her name not be used, so we'll call her "Mary."
Mary says that in most cases, "principals pick someone who, for lack of a better word, will be their minion." She says that's not true in her case, but she definitely felt like it was true for other lead teachers at her school in past years. Other teachers at different schools told us the same thing.
"Everyone I work with thinks it's a dog and pony show. It's a game, and everyone knows it's a game, which is really sad," Mary says.
She also notes that there's pressure on lead teachers not to score anyone too highly.
"I'm kind of scared every time I give a 5. There's a lot of unspoken pressure," Mary says. She adds that when she was in training to become a lead teacher, her principal told them, "You should think of Jesus as a 5, and none of us will ever be perfect like Jesus."
"Everyone feels like the safest thing to do is give 3's," Mary says.
Another teacher posted a similar story to the BAT Facebook group. "I was in a staff meeting where they said, ‘Even Jesus couldn't get a 5,'" she wrote. And Hopson says that in her training to understand the TEAM rubric, she was told, "to get a 5, you have to ‘walk on water.' Those were literally the words they used."
At Monday's school board work session, McIntyre showed a PowerPoint slide that stated "evaluators are not told, ‘don't give 5's.'" A further e-mail from the district says, "There are many educators who are teaching lessons in the district who are rated as significantly above expectations (or Level 5). In fact, 23% of educators (or 1,005) in KCS earned Level 5 summative scores in 2012-13." (The district also had 472 teachers whose performance levels warranted a conference of concern, KCS says.)
But even if that's the district's policy, and even if it's happening for some teachers at some schools, it's not happening everywhere.
"People are burned out on knowing you can never be good enough," Rountree says.
The Special Case of Special Education
At a KCS-sponsored insight session at Ritta Elementary on Nov. 13, teachers broke out into small groups to discuss their concerns. One said she had gotten a urinary tract infection because she no longer had time to go to the bathroom. Another said, "Some days I just leave school and cry." A third said she had been diagnosed with breast cancer earlier in the year. "Some days, chemo was better," she commented about her job.
Then Powell Elementary teacher Kristen Wampler made a statement we heard repeated over and over again by other special-education teachers: "Our kids do not fit inside the box, and that is what they're being told to do."
Of all the changes over the past few years, the ones affecting special education seem to have frustrated teachers the most. Rob Taylor, who's been teaching at Amherst Elementary for 15 years, says this year, it's even worse.
"We've been told to discontinue the read-aloud," Taylor says. "Why is that? Because PARCC tests might not allow it."
All students in special-ed classes have an IEP, or Individualized Education Plan, written by the teacher in consultation with the student, his or her parents, and sometimes a range of specialists. The IEP spells out any limitations the student has and lists the specific accommodations the student should receive in classes or during testing to make his or her environment as close to that of a mainstream student. Taylor says many of his students have read-aloud requirements in their IEPs, yet he's been told to not read questions during tests.
McIntyre says the district is only following orders from the state.
"My understanding of the situation is that under the PARCC assessment, the standard for read-aloud accommodation is going to change and it's going to change significantly. That's the guidance that we're receiving from the state of Tennessee—that the standard for a read-aloud accommodation is going to be a significantly higher bar. And my understanding of that in part that's because there's potentially an auditory part to the PARCC assessment where most kids will actually hear the questions in some instances. So my understanding of where we are on that is trying to follow whatever guidance we're receiving from the state of Tennessee in making that transition. … I really need to dig a little bit deeper on that," McIntyre says.
"Personally, I think that students typically have accommodations for very good reasons. So as we move into this new world of a different standard for PARCC, I think we're going to have to really work with the state to figure out how to best support our kids. And again, there's a lot about PARCC that's yet to be determined," McIntyre adds.
The state Department of Education declined to make Huffman available for an interview, but it passed along a memo sent to districts earlier this year discussing the issue. The memo actually doesn't instruct the districts to not use read-alouds (or any other measure dictated by an IEP), but it does stress "use of an accommodation during instruction does not necessarily qualify a student to receive the same accommodation during statewide testing."
But it's the beginning of the memo that sets the stage for what the state hopes to do. Assistant commissioner Joey Hassell writes, "Fostering a culture of high expectations will better prepare students with disabilities for college and careers. Given the appropriate accommodations and utilizing Universal Design for Learning when building assessments, there are no reasons to believe that the vast majority of students with disabilities cannot be evaluated using the same measures as their peers. … A number of schools and school districts across the country have used assessment data to change instruction and successfully improve the performance of all students, including students with disabilities. This indicates that the lowperformance of students with disabilities is, by and large, a product of instruction rather than one of students' inherent capacities."
None of the special-ed teachers we talked to had seen this memo, but when we shared it with them, they uniformly rolled their eyes.
"I compare it to spoon-feeding steak to a baby," says Mount Olive Elementary teacher Emily Parker. "Without [accommodations], my kids are as lost as last year's Easter egg."
State Rep. Gloria Johnson, who teaches at Richard Yoakley Alternative School, had a similar response.
"I was just filling out an ACT registration form for one of my students. He has a 60 IQ. But he has to take it because we say all 11th-graders need to take the ACT. And I think we do need to raise the expectations for all kids, and I've seen kids with disabilities do amazing things," Johnson says. "We need to develop everybody's potential, but tests are not going to do that."
If you want evidence of that, just talk to Christi Rice. She's a mother of four. Two of her kids are high school honor students. Two of her kids have severe special needs. She tried mainstreaming her son Christian, now a seventh-grader at West Valley Middle—"An excellent school, by the way," Rice adds. But as Christian's degenerative disorder got worse, she gave up.
"We tried. We tried to put him a regular class. He cried. He required a one-on-one aide. I believe in inclusion, I really do. But he didn't have any friends. He wasn't invited to birthday parties. It killed me," Rice says.
So Christian is now in a CDC-A classroom. Yet even though he reads on a second- or third-grade level, he still has to take the same standardized tests as all the other 7th graders. Oh, and those tests are worth 15 percent of his grade.
"They're setting him up to fail!" Rice says.
But just because Christian can't read at grade level, that doesn't mean the tests don't stress him out.
"He hits his head, he gets up, he cries," Rice says. "He gets so frustrated when he takes those tests."
So Rice tried to pull her son out of testing in August. The school wouldn't let her. She e-mailed Melissa Massie, KCS' executive director of special education. It took a month to get a response. Meanwhile, the school psychologist happened to take a look at Christian's file. Instantly, he determined that Christian qualified for the TCAP-Alt.
"Why couldn't they do that in 2011?" Rice wonders. She asked Massie the same question. It took another three weeks to get a brief response saying she'd look into it. Finally, on Nov. 17, Rice received an e-mail from Massie inviting her to discuss the testing. But she still thinks children like her son shouldn't have to take tests at all.
"He's smart. But he learns exactly how he is," Rice says. "There's no test out there that's going to measure the ability of my child."
Yet those same tests—and same test results—are also used for teacher evaluation scores. Special-education classrooms are also evaluated according to the same 61-point rubric that regular classrooms use.
"The rubric, in my opinion, is not applicable to me, because my classroom is structured so differently," Parker says. "I feel like I'm breaking kids' spirits and crushing them emotionally."
Common Core and Politics
There's a lot to unite KCS teachers—and teachers across the state—but one thing many are split on is the new Common Core State Standards curricula, and for many different reasons.
Sandy Greek, an English teacher at Fulton High School, says she likes a lot of what's actually in Common Core—she calls it "ambitious and important"—but she's incredibly frustrated with the way it's being rolled out.
"It feels like we're being set up to fail. We have students being tested on constructed responses that have been on A-B-C-D tests their entire lives," Greek says. "We're building it while we're flying it—how does that equal lasting, long-term change?"
Greek says she feels like the Department of Education and KCS are pushing "a lot of change all at once because it looks good."
"I had several kids use terms like ‘guinea pig,' and ‘why do they always change stuff on us.' I've been hearing this across the board, in all my classes," Greek says. "If the plan falls flat on its face, we have to see the kids be frustrated every day."
Many elementary teachers have even more concerns about Common Core. Teresa Hill, a teacher at South Knox Elementary, told several teachers at the Ritta insight session, "I just feel like I'm shoving the curriculum down their throat, whether they get it or not."
Hopson says the elementary curricula isn't developmentally appropriate.
"They've paid no attention to years of early childhood education research. If their brains are not ready, it doesn't matter what the standards are," Hopson says.
Still, some parents are impressed with the program. Kathryn White, who has three children in KCS schools, says she feels like her youngest daughter, in second grade, is almost a full grade ahead of where her oldest daughter (an honors student at Bearden Middle) was at the same point.
"She knocks it out of the ballpark," White says. "I'm amazed at how well she does. She does not struggle at all."
But White is also concerned about Common Core's continued emphasis on tests.
"My oldest one gets so stressed out. It doesn't encompass how well she does in school at all," White says. "I don't think that's fair, that it goes to where they place her in class. I had to ask to put her in honors classes—they don't look at the whole picture."
But teachers and parents may not be the ones most frustrated with the tests. Take Catherine Wiedman, who just graduated from South Doyle High School and is currently enrolled at Emory and Henry College in Virginia. Wiedman was fourth in her class—with a 4.25 GPA—but tests stressed even her out.
"I'm not good at taking tests. And we had a test every other week," Wiedman says.
More importantly, Wiedman says all those tests didn't prepare her for college at all.
"I have five classes, and I've probably taken maybe eight tests so far this year?" she says. "But I was home a couple of weeks ago and hanging out with some of my friends still in school, and they said they've taken between 30 and 50 tests this semester, depending on their classes."
It's this frustration that led Farragut High senior Ethan Young to speak out at the school board on Nov 6. He uploaded his speech on YouTube the next day. Liberal education analyst Diane Ravitch picked it up and wrote about it.
But then Fox News blogged about it. And so did Glenn Beck. And so did the Daily Caller and any number of other conservative websites. As of Tuesday, the clip had almost 1.4 million views. On the same day, Young appeared on Fox News' morning show.
That's the funny thing about Common Core—liberals hate it because they say it "is inspired by a vision of market-driven innovation enabled by standardization of curriculum, tests, and ultimately, our children themselves," as Education Week blogger Anthony Cody puts it. But Tea Party conservatives hate it, too—in one story, Fox News describes it as "partisan political statements masquerading as English lessons finding their way into elementary school classrooms."
It's this weird partnership that could be the thing that ultimately ends Common Core—at least in Tennessee. Johnson (who says she doesn't really have a problem with it) says she suspects in order to get certain legislative reforms passed in January, like a bill that bans high-stakes testing for grades K-2 and a bill that prevents teachers' evaluations from being tied to test scores of children they didn't teach, other compromises will have to be made.
"I think Common Core might get thrown out—the baby with the bathwater," Johnson says.
The Battles and Solutions—to Come
Whatever the state or district data says, teacher morale is low. In Knox County, 57 teachers retired in 2009; 145 teachers retired this past May. And that number isn't a fluke.
Statewide, the number of teachers retiring has doubled since 2008, and more higher-rated teachers retired in 2012 than lower-rated ones. Lucianna Sanson, a Franklin County high school English teacher, says she loves her district but teacher morale is the lowest she's seen in her eight years of teaching. Matt Watson, an elementary school science teacher in Scott County, says, "In general, morale is pretty negative."
But they and others are inspired by the way KCS teachers have started speaking out. While nothing's changed yet, there are glimmers of hope shining through.
At Monday night's four-hour-long work session, the elected board members seemed open to policy changes, like adding a (non-voting) teacher representative to the board, a 5 percent base pay raise, possibly restructuring the classroom observation part of the evaluation, course-specialized evaluators, and improving communication between the district, the board, and teachers in the schools.
"I hope this is the beginning from talking at to talking with," said board member Karen Carson. "I'm absolutely confident everyone at this table wants the same thing as everyone out there, and that's what's best for our kids."
After the meeting, Hopson said she was pleased with the response. Rountree said she was also pleased.
"But I'm still a cynic. I need them to show me. That's what I tell my kids, ‘Don't tell me you're going to get your work done, show me that it's done,'" Rountree commented.
Board member Indya Kincannon said after the meeting that she was glad the teachers are starting to offer suggestions for change instead of just complaints.
"That's what we need to hear—teacher-driven solutions," Kincannon said. "I think we can also be advocates at the state level, for the things we as a board can't change."
Although Johnson seems convinced bipartisan legislation could pass, Haslam and Huffman will likely be a tougher sell. At the Bearden Elementary press conference, Huffman directly tied the new evaluation system to test scores: "I also think the feedback that comes through the evaluation system is one of the most significant things that led to Tennessee being the fastest improving state in the country."
After the press conference ended retired teacher Teresa Brown walked up to Huffman and asked for two minutes of his time. He snapped, "I don't want to do this with media here," and walked off. Brown also tried to talk to the governor but with no luck—an event described by one local television station as, "An angry retired teacher ambushed the governor."
But Brown's not giving up, even though she thinks speaking out might have cost her any more temporary teaching assignments. And the next time Haslam's in town, she just might try again.
"I don't mind being called an angry retired teacher," Brown laughs. "They can call me whatever they want if it brings this together."