Crossville Chronicle, Crossville, TN

December 5, 2013

Schools focus on teachers to improve student achievement

Wood warns of drop in test scores next year

By Heather Mullinix
Assistant editor

CROSSVILLE — While Cumberland County students scored As and Bs in achievement and growth on the state report card, Cumberland County Schools know there may be problems ahead.

The one-year growth data, which measures student knowledge growth from one year to the next, shows the system failed to meet the state's expectations in overall subjects as well as in literacy and numeracy. Students will also be tested on a new set of standards and competencies this year with the implementation of Common Core Standards and the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Career (PARCC).

"We have been cautioned that we will see a big drop next year with the PARCC test," said Rebecca Wood, assistant director of curriculum instruction and accountability. "It is a more rigorous test and it will be combined with the new state standards and a new format. We expect a dip and we're bracing for that."

The latest state report card, based on testing data from last year, shows the school system, which had enjoyed several years of notable knowledge growth, had not met expectations in reading and math this past year, and failed to close achievement gaps in several areas.

The school system has been working to address areas of concern and to help prepare teachers for the new standards and new assessments, and to help them continue to aid students in meeting academic achievement goals.

One problem has been the textbooks currently available and in use in the school system are not aligned with the new standards teachers are expected to teach.

"The textbook companies have not caught up with the new standards," Wood explained. "To make up for that, teachers are pulling resources together and writing their own units."

Next year, the county will review new math textbooks, but those won't go into service until the 2015-'16 school year.

But while instructional supplies matched to the new standards are important, Wood said focusing on quality teaching and helping teachers feel prepared for the change ahead was the primary focus of the school system. Professional Learning Communities are being prepared, principals are using evaluations to offer constructive feedback with specific suggestions and input, and ongoing professional development are all part of improving student success.

"Our teachers are stressed, but they are stepping up and working hard," Wood said. "I have never been so impressed with the amount of tenacity and determination they are showing.

"I'll watch and listen to the conversations after a training session. They are very focused on 'What can I do?' They are more willing to try things they haven't tried before and they're excited about what our kids are going to be doing."

The district is drawing on the expertise of several long-time teachers that have undergone extra training.

In reading, Ina Maxwell is writing pacing guides and developing teaching unites. She is a state trainer with 23 years experience as a classroom teacher, with bachelor's master's and doctorate degrees. She focuses on helping teachers in kindergarten through third grade teach reading to their students. There is specialized training offered that is intense in it's requirements and expectations.

"It's almost like an additional college course," Wood explained.

Maxwell also works with surrounding counties.

Intervention is also a key, with teachers and Response to Intervention specialists offering solid strategies to help students who may be struggling with concepts to keep them from falling behind.

Professional Learning Communities will be starting this year. PLC offers a way to share information from the district level all the way to the classroom, and for information on what's working in individual classrooms to be effectively shared throughout a school and with other schools, as well.

"It's going to be a year-long process while we dig down into what's happening and develop new strategies," Wood explained. "We'll look at individual student data and skill levels and the PLC will help to open up the conversation on how to help students grow and learn."

There will also be an evaluation of programs and software implemented in the school system after the county was awarded $1.6 million in Race to the Top funds.

"That money is now gone and we'll have to make some decisions about what we can continue using," Wood said.

The county used much of it's Race to the Top funds to provide additional staff development and to align the curriculum with new state standards with pacing guides and resource development. But some funds went to intervention programs, such as the Successful Reader Program and the Read 180 program.

"We've seen some success with these programs, but they are expensive," Wood said.

Wood explained the Common Core Standards adopted by the state of Tennessee will require students to demonstrate a level of understanding of concepts not previously required. And that's not necessarily a bad thing, she said.

"I was a math teacher before. In math, there are a lot of shortcuts you can use and it can become just about plugging numbers into a formula to get an answer. But, if you don't know why you're doing those steps, you can struggle," she explained. "Many times, students would hit walls and we'll wonder why because they had done so well before. But they may not have understood the concepts behind those steps."

The new standards require critical thinking and responding to text rather than just repeating something. That's part of the new writing standards, where students will be given a text and be asked to respond to it and argue a point.

"That's an adult skill, to listen or read a text and pull out something to analyze," Wood said. "Teachers are frustrated, but when their students are able to do these things, you can see the pride in their faces."

The 2013 State Report Card, available at www.tn.gov/education/reportcard/2013.shtml, includes a review of data from the school system as a whole, individual schools and the state, and it allows for comparison between the districts.