Kingsport, Tenn. – On a hot August day during the first week of school, Heather Hobbs, a 26-year-old teacher at Andrew Johnson Elementary School in Kingsport, Tenn., asked her third-grade class to do something she knew that they wouldn’t be able to do.
She handed out two passages, one about Eliza Scidmore, a writer and explorer whose idea it was to plant cherry blossom trees around the nation’s capital, and another about George Washington Carver, an African-American botanist born into slavery who taught poor farmers how to grow alternative crops to cotton.
Together, the texts totaled more than 1,000 words, and an attached worksheet asked the students to write an essay describing the challenges that the historical figures had faced in their lives.
“This will be difficult,” Hobbs said. “But if you give me your very best, I promise I’m going to teach you how to do this by the end of the year.”
The exercise was part of a practice test aligned to the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic benchmarks that Tennessee adopted in 2010 and began using with success in classrooms in the 2012-13 school year but may now abandon.
By the time Hobbs collected the assignments, some students had underlined key words in the passages, but hadn’t written more than a couple of paragraphs in their workbooks. Others had written pages, but little of it was about either Scidmore or Carver. One student had written only one sentence, which looked as though it had been erased and rewritten: “One day Eliza went to Alaska, she liked it.
The writing prompt helped Hobbs assess her incoming students’ abilities. They performed so poorly that most of their essays couldn’t be graded. Later, at a full-day Common Core training session in September attended by hundreds of teachers, Hobbs recounted that, over the course of three weeks, she had taught her students how to use an acronym, “POW TIDE,” as a tool to help them structure an informational essay. She had learned the acronym from the state’s Common Core coaches over the summer. Each letter in the acronym stands for a step of the writing process, and it is intended to help students organize their thoughts. Once Hobbs believed that most of her students grasped the concepts, she gave them the exact same writing exercise and was “blown away” by their improvement.
“You cannot deny that these children have grown, especially when you look at the beginning of their draft books and see how they could only write one sentence and now they can write six pages,” Hobbs said.
Kingsport is a largely isolated town in the Tri-Cities region, nestled at the foot of rolling mountains in the northeast corner of the state. It’s known as the home of Pal’s, a local greasy burger joint, and for its award-winning high school marching band, which played in the presidential inauguration parade in 2013.
More than half of Kingsport’s 7,300 students come from economically disadvantaged families, and nearly a quarter of them have learning disabilities. But the school system consistently ranks among the top 10 in the state, with the best proficiency rates in reading and math; its students’ ACT scores exceed state and national averages; and it boasts Advanced Placement participation rates and scores among the highest in the state.
Much of the district’s success, Superintendent Lyle Ailshie likes to say, is a direct result of teachers like Hobbs — hard-working, energetic, and willing to trust the direction of the state and district’s education officials. For the past three years, that’s included a significant shift away from the state’s traditional academic benchmarks and toward the Common Core, a set of more difficult standards.
But in the past few months, the Volunteer State has signaled a weaker commitment to the Common Core amid increasing opposition to the standards. In addition to delaying new, Common Core aligned state exams, Gov. Bill Haslam, once a staunch supporter of the standards, recently announced a plan to publicly vet them — a process that could end with the state abandoning them altogether. Each move is notable on its own, but, combined, they represent a sea change in Tennessee, which has spent millions of dollars adopting the Common Core and is widely considered a leader in the standards movement.
A complete departure from the Common Core standards could disengage teachers, who are already struggling to navigate the standards gauntlet, as well as embolden other states that are toying with the idea of rolling back their standards. Throughout the year, we’ll be following this issue through the lens of its effects on Kingsport’s teachers.
The backtracking puts teachers in a precarious position. Teaching to a new set of more difficult standards is tough enough. But in Tennessee, where an educator’s evaluation, and in some cases compensation, is based on student test scores, teaching to the Common Core while not aligning tests to those standards is problematic.
How Did Tennessee Get Here?
Hobbs is one of Kingsport’s teacher leaders — among a crop of high-performing teachers trained by the state to be experts on the Common Core standards for their schools.
The group is part of an ongoing and massive $40 million standards preparation effort that’s been taking place across the Volunteer State for the last three years, during which more than 70,000 teachers have participated in multiple training sessions.
Tennessee’s intensive Common Core coaching effort — the largest and most expensive in the country — is just one item on a laundry list of commitments the state made in order to win a slice of the $4 billion Race to the Top grant, the Obama administration’s signature competitive education program.
In 2010, Tennessee and Delaware became the first two states to win a portion of the grant, which itself was a small part of the massive economic stimulus package designed to right a flailing economy.
Tennessee’s winning grant application, which secured the state $500 million in funds, laid out an aggressive plan to overhaul public education. The state promised to turn around its poorest performing schools over the course of four years, evaluate teachers based in part on student test scores, increase the use of technology in the classroom, and use more rigorous academic standards along with new tests aligned to those standards.
Though Tennessee wasn’t required to adopt the Common Core — the competition specified only that states adopt a set of common standards that would prepare students for college or a career — it did, along with 45 other states and the District of Columbia.
Teachers across Tennessee began preparation for the new state test aligned to the Common Core standards in 2013. The state planned to begin testing students using the new exam, known as the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers test, or PARCC, in the spring of 2015.
The Partnership is one of two testing consortia, each supported by different groups of states, that developed tests aligned to the Common Core. More than a dozen other states also initially opted to use PARCC.
The 2014-15 school year actually marks Hobbs’s third year using the new standards and her second year prepping her students for a new test. That’s because education officials in Kingsport and a smattering of other school districts in Tennessee proactively embraced the state’s education overhauls and have worked double time to start using the standards, which they see as key to graduating students ready for college or a career.
Kingsport has additional incentive to produce well-prepared students. It is also corporate headquarters for Eastman Chemical Company, a $9 billion operation that produces, among other things, the plastic used to make bottles for commercially sold beverages. The plant is a top employer in the region, and education officials here see the Common Core as a no-brainer insurance policy to keep their corner of the state competitive, both nationally and internationally.
As part of its proactive approach to the standards, Kingsport spent a significant amount of time last year preparing teachers and students for the new PARCC exam. The school district hired education consultants and ramped up its technology so that teachers could better track which students understood a specific skill and which students needed additional instruction. The district even field-tested the new PARCC exams to give teachers and students an idea of what the new tests would look like.
The transition was difficult, especially since teachers also needed to prepare their students for the traditional state exam, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. That test is aligned to the state’s old standards, not to the Common Core — meaning teachers were doing double duty, transitioning students to new standards while ensuring that they also had a grasp of the old benchmarks.
Though Tennessee was moving away from its old standards and tests, preparing students for the TCAP was still especially important to teachers, because the state’s evaluation system uses student achievement scores on the TCAP to account for 35 percent of a teacher’s appraisal.
Still, things seemed to be falling into place, both in Kingsport, which secured about $1.6 million in Race to the Top funds to help with things like Common Core implementation, and statewide.
A 2013 survey of 28,000 teachers by the Tennessee Consortium on Research, Evaluation and Development, which is housed at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development, found that teachers generally believed that the implementation of Common Core was going well, and thought that the standards would result in improved student outcomes.
“I felt like, finally we’re doing something right,” said Emily Helphinstine, the literacy coordinator at Kingsport City Schools who works with Hobbs. “They’ve been training for almost three years for this and teachers really understood and were ready to move forward. It’s difficult work but it’s work worth doing.”
Those sentiments were further bolstered last November, when Tennessee proved to be the fastest academically improving state in the country, according to its scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as the Nation’s Report Card. From 2011 to 2013, Tennessee’s fourth-graders had moved from 46th to 37th in math and 41st to 31st in reading.
While Tennessee still languishes in the bottom half of states, the progress was no small feat, and the state’s transition to the new standards was touted as one of the main reasons for the bump in scores.
Even President Barack Obama name-checked Tennessee during his State of the Union address in January, 2014, as an example of a state that’s taking big steps to improve its education system: “Teachers and principals in schools from Tennessee to Washington, D.C., are making big strides in preparing students with the skills for the new economy,” he said. “Some of this change is hard. . . . But it’s worth it-–and it’s working.”
Recoiling from Common Core
Amidst all the fanfare, however, was a growing backlash against the standards, especially among conservative state legislatures whose members increasingly saw the Common Core as a federal initiative, a directive to states from Washington.
A small fraction of Republicans in the Tennessee state House, led by Rep. Rick Womick (R-Rockvale), tried to drum up support to pause the standards for up to three years, though that effort ultimately failed.
The standards had also become ensnared in a statewide debate about state education commissioner Kevin Huffman, who recently announced plans to step down from his post at the end of the year. His aggressive pursuit of the education overhauls contained in the state’s Race to the Top grant were a prime point of contention. In September 2013, 60 superintendents wrote to Gov. Haslam criticizing Huffman’s brash leadership style, and a slate of state House Republicans, mainly tea-party types, called for his resignation.
But the governor stood behind Huffman, arguing that the growing resentment toward the education chief was an expected response to the challenging overhauls taking place across the state.
Then, in April, state lawmakers in both chambers successfully pushed through a bill delaying the use of the PARCC tests by one year, despite an intense lobbying effort by Gov. Haslam and Huffman to shut it down. The measure also reopened the bidding process for the state tests, meaning Tennessee may very well never use the PARCC exams.
The bill, which Gov. Haslam signed much to the chagrin of Huffman, meant teachers and students in Tennessee would once again be responsible for teaching to the Common Core’s more difficult standards while preparing students for the old state tests based on the old state standards.
“That was personally upsetting,” said Hobbs, remembering her reaction to the news. “I make sure my students are exposed to both standards, but it’s only fair that they’re assessed genuinely and authentically to the way they’re instructed.”
Also troublesome for Hobbs and other teachers in Kingsport is that, beginning this year, they will be compensated based in part on those state test scores. The district’s new pay scale rewards teachers based on how high they rank on the state’s 1-to-5 value-added evaluation scale, 35 percent of which is based on student test scores.
“It’s so frustrating,” Dory Creech, assistant superintendent at Kingsport City Schools, said of the PARCC delay. “I really hate it for our teachers because our new strategic compensation is based on teacher effectiveness and yet the assessments won’t be aligned to what they’re teaching.”
The state department of education has emphasized, as it did last year, that teaching to the Common Core will prepare students for the old state tests too — though student scores from last year’s TCAP indicate otherwise.
In Kingsport, for example, the district’s value-added literacy scores (derived from TCAP scores) for grades three through five dropped, from a 3 on the 1-to-5 scale during the 2012-13 school year to a 1 during the 2013-14 school year.
To help teachers plow through another year of double duty, Kingsport City Schools developed what it calls “power standards,” skills that overlap between the old set of standards and the Common Core. It also provided teachers with a breakdown of standards — some that they could tick off their checklist in one day, and others that might take a month or more for students to fully comprehend.
But despite the uncertainty, for now Kingsport teachers are still planning their lessons using the Common Core as their primary compass.
At the standards training at the Kingsport Center for Higher Education in late September, coaches taught Hobbs and other teacher leaders more new methods. The next standards session is already scheduled for January.
At the end of October, Hobbs gave her students a third writing test to ensure that they were still making progress. The exercise was largely the same as before: Students read passages about famed baseball player Jackie Robinson and three-time Olympic track and field gold medalist Wilma Rudolph, and wrote essays comparing and contrasting the two African-American athletes’ challenges.
“The passages are very long, so it requires a lot of stamina and perseverance,” Hobbs explained. “But with that said, almost every single student made it through the test and was able to plan with POW TIDE.”
Because of the results she’s seen—like her students’ success with POW TIDE—Hobbs remains upbeat. “I believe Kingsport will continue to teach on a high level with rigorous curriculum regardless of an repeal of the Common Core standards,” Hobbs said. “Of course, I would like to know because there is safety in knowing what lies ahead.”
This story was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news website focused on inequality and innovation in education. Read more about Common Core.
Lauren Camera is a Staff Writer for Education Week.