Three years after Tennessee rolled out a new teacher evaluation system and Common Core curriculum, Rutherford County legislators are hoping to make changes in those programs, even if they initially supported them.
“I think we’re evolving in the evaluation of teachers,” state Sen. Jim Tracy said during last week’s Capitol Connection event at the Rutherford County Chamber of Commerce.
Tracy, who is running for the 4th District congressional seat, predicted “more tweaks” in the teacher evaluation process, which is based, in part, on a 1-5 grading system from principals’ classroom observations and from student testing results.
The Shelbyville Republican, who serves on the Senate Education Committee, said he believes the state is “over testing a little bit” and that when teacher evaluations started nearly three years ago, they came across as “punishment” rather than a way to help teachers improve.
Tracy and state Sen. Bill Ketron voiced some support for Common Core, which is designed to ramp up the learning process in math and reading, and said they’d both heard from teachers who back evaluations and believe students can handle tougher standards.
Ketron, R-Murfreesboro, said teachers told him students are “more engaged.”
“It creates that deep-thinking process with these kids,” he noted.
Tracy and Ketron were among the Republican-led General Assembly that supported former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen’s 2010 push to join the federal Race to the Top, which came with $500 million in federal funds. The Tennessee Education Association also initially supported the move.
But Ketron is sponsoring two pieces of legislation with state Rep. Rick Womick, R-Rockvale, to change the testing process and wording on evaluations to make them fairer for teachers. One bill would require students to take tests at the beginning and end of the year to determine what type of progress they make, as one way to evaluate teachers. The other would change the wording in teacher evaluations to make it easier to understand.
Still, Ketron said he has some reservations about the test to be administered by PARCC, the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, and added Womick is “chasing the money trail” to see who is being paid to produce standardized tests. In addition, Ketron said smaller school systems are struggling to pay for technology needed to administer the tests, even though it would be less expensive than giving them manually.
PARCC is set to replace the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program with online testing. The nonprofit group is made up of veteran educators and includes Margaret Horn, a former education advisor to Bredesen, whose job is to engage states as “national stakeholders and strategic partners.”
Developed by the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, Common Core sets new benchmarks for reading and math. It has the support here of Republican Gov. Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist and SCORE, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.
Womick, who did not attend the Capitol Connection event and could not be reached for comment, is opposed to Common Core and is sponsoring two bills to either postpone or eliminate it.
State Rep. Joe Carr, a Lascassas Republican who is challenging U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, told the Capitol Connection crowd he opposes Common Core for “one glaring reason: Common Core creates a false choice.” He contended the federal government “hijacked” an agreement between the states to use Common Core and infused it with standards created in Washington, D.C., instead of allowing the state to use its own standards.
Carr acknowledged afterward he did vote to accept Race to the Top funding but had since “repented” and pointed out that concepts in Common Core changed over four years.
State Rep. Dawn White, a Murfreesboro Republican, said Common Core “doesn’t reflect values and morals” in Tennessee. “I believe we can have Tennessee standards for Tennessee children,” she said.
State Rep. Mike Sparks, however, told the group he recently visited a classroom at Cedar Grove Elementary School in Smyrna where he was “impressed with the learning process” and saw “eager” children who were excited about the learning, especially with the type of technology being used in the classroom.
He argued, however, that the state and nation have to be careful about the amount of pressure being put on children to meet education standards. Parental responsibility is one of the keys to education, he said, and as the number of fatherless households increases, fewer children have the support they need to succeed academically.
Carr took a similar stance while leaving no doubt about his opposition to Common Core.
“We need to get off the teachers’ backs and quit holding them accountable for the destruction of families,” he said.
Rutherford County Schools Director Don Odom said Tuesday he doesn’t understand why legislators are saying Common Core has been “hijacked.” He pointed out that it deals only with math and language arts and has nothing to do with social studies.
“I don’t know where they’re coming from on some of that,” Odom said, explaining it was initiated by the National Governors Association several years ago to help prepare students for college.
Rutherford County Schools received a $2.1 million grant two years ago to help it prepare for administering the PARCC test, he said, adding Murfreesboro City Schools received a $5 million injection from the City Council to set up testing.