Tennessee Education Association leaders have been busy spreading the word about the issues they feel are most vital for school teachers statewide.
TEA President Gera Summer-ford and assistant executive director Duran Williams visited with Cleveland and Bradley County educators Tuesday to discuss issues of shared concern, and dropped in on Ocoee Middle School and Cleveland Middle School to meet with school personnel.
And before hosting a public gathering at Cleveland High School themed “The Trouble with TVAAS,” the pair sat down in the afternoon with two Cleveland Daily Banner education reporters at the newspaper office on 25th Street.
The TEA duo stressed everything from “a growing dependence on standardized testing” to possible private school vouchers that are drawing the biggest concerns across the state.
The TEA is a political lobbying group Summerford said largely draws its agendas from conversations with educators from across the state. With the Tennessee General Assembly currently in session, the group has set its sights on what it feels are the most important issues now on the table.
Summerford said a big concern is how much money the state allocates to public education, noting some states devote more resources to that purpose.
“We are not particularly competitive with the rest of the country and not even in the Southeast,” Summerford said. “We’re looking at ways the Legislature can provide more money for students.”
Williams said Tennessee is currently 46th out of the country’s 50 states when it comes to education funding. Still, Tennessee has remained “in the top 10 in the nation” for high school graduation rates.
He said local schools were doing “incredible jobs” and argued that more resources would help schools perform even better.
Other prominent issues include how teachers’ licenses are renewed, how TVAAS standards impact license renewal and how much test scores are emphasized in schools today.
TVAAS stands for the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System, and it has played a part in how teacher effectiveness is evaluated since the state’s First to the Top Act was set into motion at the beginning of the 2011-12 school year. The act dictated that licensed teachers be annually evaluated, and part of the teacher assessment uses data on student achievement and growth based on TVAAS results.
According to the Tennessee Department of Education’s website, TVAAS “measures the impact schools and teachers have on their students’ academic progress” and “only measures what a school can control ... such as their students’ academic progress during the school year.”
The system measures student performance in the subjects of math, reading and language arts, science and social studies, resulting in a score between 1 and 5. Each school is given individual scores, and school systems as a whole are given scores of their own.
Local groups have in the past expressed their displeasure over TVAAS being used for that purpose, including the Bradley County Board of Education, which sent a letter to state legislators outlining its members’ concerns late last year.
“Teachers are not opposed to accountability,” Summerford said.
However, she argued there needs to be more variety of assessments for teachers. While she said the current system was meant to take more than just TVAAS into account, that aspect has been given too much influence.
Summerford said that, during her visits to two local middle schools earlier in the day, she learned teachers in the Cleveland and Bradley County school systems were concerned about how test scores are being used to make decisions in schools.
“They say they worry about the opportunity for students to enjoy learning,” Summerford said. “We need to look at the kinds of tests we use — and why.”
That comment was not an uncommon one to hear. With students having to take more and more tests than they have, she said students and teachers are more stressed than ever.
She added she has also spoken to teachers who said they were questioning whether or not they wanted to remain in their current profession because of such issues.
One topic which has also been highly debated has been the presence of Common Core state standards. While Summerford said they “can be a good thing,” she worried implementing them too quickly and focusing on them as a political issue have overshadowed the idea of holding students to higher academic standards.
Whatever may be decided regarding public school education standards, both Williams and Summerford said the standards were better than what had been in place before. Summerford said she especially liked the amount of critical thinking students must do to answer essay-style questions on exams, rather than just being able to guess at answers presented in a multiple-choice format.
If the state ever decides to change public school standards, the hope is that whatever standards are put in place will be less confusing than Common Core standards were at first.
“We hope that, whatever follows, the public is well-informed,” Williams said.
Another issue is whether students in underperforming public schools be allowed to receive vouchers they can use to offset the costs of attending private schools instead.
While some champion the cause in the name of “school choice,” the TEA has taken a stance against the measure.
“We’ve always opposed public school vouchers,” Summerford said.
She argued money which would normally be used to further public education would instead be poured into private schools.
While some may say pouring more money into private or charter schools could foster more “innovation” on a regular basis, Williams said that in and of itself is not an exclusive thing.
“Innovation happens all the time in our public schools,” Williams said.
It is expected the issue of school vouchers could once again make its way to the state Legislature, though it failed during last year’s General Assembly.
The current session of the Tennessee General Assembly began on Jan. 14 in Nashville.