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KINGSPORT, Tenn. — Alison Cotey, a 23-year-old, first-year teacher at John Adams Elementary School in Kingsport, Tennessee, recently gave her fifth-graders a poem littered with sound effects.

“She stands up and almost / flops over backwards. / She sticks out a foot like / she’s going somewhere and / falls down and / smacks her hand,” they read.

Cotey asked her students to analyze the poem–“74th Street” by Myra Cohn Livingston–and think about why the author had used such language. What was she trying to convey?

Her students later wrote essays about the sound effects, using examples and explaining their significance. The exercise was meant to spur the deep thinking required of students in the Common Core State Standards, a set of academic benchmarks that teachers across Tennessee are using.

But Cotey’s lesson plan didn’t stop there. She then turned her attention to making sure her students knew the specific vocabulary term for each sound effect: alliteration, repetition, onomatopoeia, rhythm, and rhyme.

The terms were just a few on a long list of standards that her students will need to know to perform well on a looming state exam. But that exam, widely criticized for emphasizing rote memorization over critical thinking, tests students not on the Common Core, but on the state’s retired standards.

Related: At Lipscomb, aspiring teachers look past Common Core

“The Common Core is a much deeper way of thinking,” explained Cotey. “So when you get to the [old standards] and … you have to get the kids to back away from that deeper thinking to more surface level thinking, that’s a challenge.”

Cotey didn’t know she would be responsible for teaching two sets of standards until she was hired by Kingsport City Schools just a week before the first day of classes last fall. And while she knew that the state was battling through growing pains associated with the Common Core and had seen her fair share of Facebook posts railing against the standards, she wasn’t prepared for the contentious atmosphere that has become the norm for teachers in Tennessee.

Tennessee Common Core
Lori Smith (left) and Heather Hobbs (right), two teacher leaders in the Kingsport City Schools district, participate in a Common Core training session in Kingsport, Tenn.

Some education policy researchers and professors in schools of education worry that the politicized education arena and the state’s indecisiveness over the Common Core could have significant ramifications for its teaching corps.

In a profession that already suffers from staggering attrition rates among new teachers, the state’s schizophrenic attitude toward the standards could end up pushing out its brightest newcomers, or even worse, prevent them from pursuing a career in education altogether.

Related: New York school beats the odds by “going rogue” on Common Core

Indeed, after her first seven months in the classroom, Cotey is already questioning whether education is a career she wants to continue pursuing.

“There have been moments throughout this year where I’ve asked, ‘What am I doing here? What’s another path I can take,’” she said. “There are so many other things that I could be doing. There are lots of other professions I could have chosen.”

Craving Consistency

Cotey grew up in Kingsport, a close-knit community of about 53,000 residents nestled along the Virginia border in the northeastern corner of the state.

She was inspired to pursue an education degree in part by her elementary school teacher, who taught her for three years of her childhood, in a commingled class for grades three through five. When she enrolled at Samford University, a small Christian college in Birmingham, Alabama, she followed a regimented teacher-training track, where most of her preparation focused on the Common Core.

“Their approach was on teaching how to write a lesson plan from a standard so that we would be prepared to use any set of standards we were given,” she said. “Of course, the standards we were using were Common Core.”

Cotey wasn’t necessarily looking to return to her hometown after graduation, but when the district offered her a job a week before the start of the school year, she jumped at the opportunity.

Like Alabama, Tennessee has been transitioning to the Common Core for years. In fact, the Volunteer State has spent more than $40 million preparing its teachers for the switch, which officially occurred this school year, even though many districts–including Kingsport–have been using them for the past two years.

“There have been moments throughout this year where I’ve asked, ‘What am I doing here? What’s another path I can take? There are so many other things that I could be doing. There are lots of other professions I could have chosen.”

But last year, amid growing antipathy towards the standards, Tennessee’s General Assembly passed a law repealing the new state-wide test, aligned to the Common Core, that the state had been ready to use. Students were slated to take the now-repealed exam–the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career, or PARCC–for the first time at the end of the current school year.

Related: What this spring’s Common Core tests promised, and what they will actually deliver

Left without an assessment and without enough time to craft a new one, the education department directed districts to instead administer the old state test, the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program, or TCAP. And since the TCAP tests students on the old standards, teachers must prepare their classes them using both sets of academic benchmarks—a difficult task for any teacher, but even more so for newcomers like Cotey, who had little to no experience with the old standards until she began teaching in August.

“Having two sets of standards, two lists, is just very daunting, even though they do overlap to some degree,” said Cotey. “And then having an assessment that doesn’t align to what the standards are focusing on is a very large challenge.”

Adding another layer to the pressure on rookie teachers is the fact they are evaluated, and in some districts, like Kingsport, even compensated based on their students’ test scores. On top of this, Gov. Bill Haslam is currently orchestrating a review of the Common Core that could result in the state pulling out of the standards altogether.

The state’s wavering over the Common Core and aligned tests has made teaching more difficult for every educator, but especially for new teachers like Cotey, who feel like they can’t be effective in the current climate.

“One of the big things they taught us in school is consistency: Be consistent with your students,” said Cotey. “It’s hard to do that when nothing is consistent.”

Teacher Preparation and Attrition

Cotey’s experience is exactly what some researchers are worried about.

Teaching is notorious for its attrition rates and most teachers who leave do so in their first five years, typically due to a combination of low pay, long hours and high levels of stress.

In Tennessee alone, more than 5,000 educators leave the teaching profession each year, costing the state somewhere in the range of $23 million to $50 million, according to a 2014 report from the Alliance for Excellent Education, a Washington, DC-based policy organization.

Doris Santoro, an assistant professor of education at Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine, who studies why teachers leave the profession, said she’s seen an uptick in recent years among educators who are demoralized because they feel the political climate prevents them from teaching to the best of their ability.

And while there’s never been a time when education hasn’t been political, she said the current atmosphere is unprecedented, making it difficult for teachers to feel like they’re in the driver’s seat.

That sentiment is precisely what Cotey conveyed recently one morning during a professional development day in March.

“We don’t have control over a lot of the decisions that are made, and a lot of times the true professionals aren’t consulted by the lawmakers,” said Cotey. “I know they have pressures trying to keep other people happy, but we are the ones who are in the classroom every day with the students. We have a lot of good information and experience to contribute to these discussions, but what we’re saying isn’t being heard.”

Related: Does Common Core really mean teachers should teach differently?

The debate over academic standards, however, is just one aspect of effective teaching, pointed out Carrie Abood, assistant professor of education in the undergraduate department of Lipscomb University, which is consistently ranked as having one of the best teacher preparation programs in the country.

“If the climate is in limbo now about Common Core, then in 10 years it may be about something completely different,” said Abood. And for that reason, she said, Lipscomb focuses on building skills like adaptability and flexibility in its students.

Abood said she often gives her younger students a refresher about what the Common Core is, how it was created, and the difference between standards and curriculum, the latter being one of the biggest sources of misinformation about the Common Core.

“I try to make sure they are paying attention to what the truths are versus what’s on Facebook,” said Abood. “But I’m not focusing so much about what the controversy of the day is, rather on how I can prepare my students for being the best.”

She also pushed back against the notion that first-year teachers are at a disadvantage when it comes to the current standards debate in Tennessee compared to more veteran teachers.

“To them Common Core is not a big deal because it’s all a big deal,” she said.

And, Abood added, some first-year teachers are more prepared than others, depending on the type of training they’ve received.

Aubryn Hudson, for example, says the training she received likely gave her a leg up over other new teachers. The 25-year-old newly-minted science and social studies teacher at John Adams, enrolled in a teaching licensure program at nearby Milligan College, a 14-month program that emphasizes hands-on classroom experience.

As part of her training, Hudson spent an entire school year shadowing two of Kingsport’s best teachers. She said balancing both sets of standards is difficult, but admitted that Milligan College’s required internship likely allowed her to transition to the profession more easily than others. And because Kingsport was an early adopter of the Common Core, the teachers she shadowed had previous experience juggling the two sets of standards.

Plus, she added, teaching science and social studies using both sets of standards isn’t nearly as difficult as teaching a core subject, like English/language arts or math.

“I can teach students [an old standard] and then with my reading groups I can bring in Common Core almost like an umbrella,” Hudson said. “It’s not that difficult for me to have that mindset because I was able to see the best of the best do it, and that’s all I’ve known.”

New Common Core Test

New and veteran teachers alike are trying to find solace in the fact that next school year–if everything goes according to plan–the state will finally use a test aligned to the Common Core standards that they’ve been teaching.

“We’re not going to have a good test in Tennessee next year. I just know how hard it is to come up with a really good test that actually asks what you really want to know and then is scored reliably so that performance is pretty stable.”

After the last year’s repeal of the Common Core-aligned PARCC test, the state re-opened the bidding process to testing companies for the creation of a new state exam. It ultimately awarded North Carolina-based testing manufacturer Measurement Inc. the more than $100 million contract last fall.

But the new test comes with its own set of challenges.

Unlike PARCC, which had more than three years to work with teachers across several states to design and test its exam, Measurement Inc. has less than a year before it begins field-testing its assessment next fall, ahead of statewide use of it next spring. The development timeline has many in the field concerned.

Related: Common Core tests were supposed to be immune to test prep. So why are kids spending weeks prepping anyway? 

“It’s really hard to create a test that has validity and really gets at what we hope it will get at,” explained Barbara Stengel, a professor of education and the director of secondary education in the department of teaching and learning at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development.

Stengel said that developing a good exam requires several rounds of field-testing and data collection in order to be certain it assesses and measures as it should. In her view, several months is not nearly enough time.

“We’re not going to have a good test in Tennessee next year,” Stengel said. “I just know how hard it is to come up with a really good test that actually asks what you really want to know and then is scored reliably so that performance is pretty stable.”

Emily Helphinstine, the literacy coordinator for Kingsport City Schools, agreed.

Helphinstine belongs to a group of teachers and administrators across the state with whom the testing company is consulting as it develops the exam and designs test questions. She was supposed to meet with the company the first week in March to provide feedback on various parts of the blueprint for the test, but the meeting was canceled due to a snowstorm that paralyzed much of the east coast. Instead, the company sent Helphinstine part of the blueprint, on which she marked edits and suggestions; she then sent it back to the company.

Helphinstine called the timeline “crazy,” and said she expects that Measurement Inc. will have to continue tinkering with the test, even after it is administered statewide next year.

She’s particularly frustrated with the lack of time teachers will have to prepare. The state education department scheduled two test training sessions for the summer, in an effort to give teachers as much preparation as they can, but it’s unclear whether the test will even be finalized by then.

Helphinstine and other administrators in the district’s central office have been trying to ready teachers and parents to expect a significant drop in student achievement scores as a result of both the delayed shift to Common Core-aligned tests and teachers and students adjusting to the tougher standards.

Kingsport’s scores already dipped last year, when the district began transitioning to the Common Core but used the old state test, aligned to the old state standards. That decline in scores is likely to happen again this year, as well as next year, when students are finally tested on the more difficult standards.

The repeal of PARCC and the expedited timeline for Measurement Inc. is especially troubling for Kingsport’s teachers, whose salary is based in part on student test scores. The new compensation system was created by the district’s teachers, who never considered the possibility that the state would backtrack on a transition three years in the making.

Faced with the likelihood of poor performance across the state, Helphinstine is trying to focus on a potential silver lining for Kingsport: Because the district was an early adopter of the Common Core, its students may fare better than most. To put it another way, Kingsport’s students may account for the highest of the low scores.

Looking Ahead

Teachers in Kingsport are generally hopeful that the state will ultimately complete its transition to the Common Core and aligned tests. That transition may get some additional support with the recent appointment of Candice McQueen, who took over as education commissioner on January 20.

McQueen, a Tennessee native and formerly the senior vice president at Lipscomb, has been a public supporter of the standards for years. In her new role, she has said she’s intent on making sure the state doesn’t back away for the more rigorous standards.

Already in her first few months on the job, she has pledged to ensure teachers’ voices are included in the state’s review of the standards and to work to soften the impact the expected drop in student test scores have on teacher evaluations and compensation.

Meanwhile, Gov. Haslam has convinced a group of Republican state legislators to withdraw–at least for now–a bill that would repeal the state’s adoption of the Common Core entirely while the state’s review of the standards is underway. The proposed legislation would be a blow for a state considered a leader in the standards movement, and would likely have ramifications for other states whose legislatures are similarly wavering over the Common Core.

“Once we actually make the transition to Common Core, I’ll be able to rock and roll,” said Cotey. “But get me to that point.”

Getting teachers to that point, however, isn’t a sure bet, especially at a time when pushback against the standards at the national level only seems to be growing.

Case in point: At the end of February, Republican leaders in the US House of Representatives were forced to abandon a vote on a GOP-backed bill to overhaul the No Child Left Behind law after a post on an anti-Common Core blog went viral. The post falsely stated that the bill would force states to continue using the Common Core, which caused many Republicans to withdraw their support for their own party’s legislation.

Such incidents, Cotey said, make her feel like she might never get to “rock and roll” with the standards she’s devoted so much time and energy to learning. Still, she’s currently planning to continue teaching.

“If I’m not here, then who else is going to be here for my students?” Cotey asked. “If we don’t have good teachers, then the system just becomes more broken, so I’m going to do my best no matter what the state of anybody else says. I’m going to do my best for them.”

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.

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