RURAL EDUCATION

Common Core Standards, adopted by 45 states, face pushback as implementation nears

By Melissa Landon
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

The Common Core State Standards were designed to regulate K-12 education and help students prepare for college and a career; 45 states accepted the initiative, but recently it has experienced a backlash from both liberals and social conservatives.

The Common Core State Standards Initiative developed the standards with input from educators, higher education stakeholders and content experts as well as from an advisory board including Achieve Inc., ACT, The College Board, the National Association of State Boards of Education and the State Higher Education Executive Officers. Accoridng to the standards' mission statement, they are "designed to be robust and relevant to the real world, reflecting the knowledge and skills that our young people need for success in college and careers."

"Common core" includes mathematics and English language arts from K-12. "Standards" refer to a detailed list of information that students should know and tasks they should be able to perform each year during their education. The standards may be revised form time to time, and core standards may be determined for other subjects such as history or science. According to a the Council of the Great City Schools video on Vimeo, the initiative aims to make the standards clear to teachers, students and parents so they can answer questions such as: What children in a different county, state or country are learning more than your child? What if the "A" your student is earning in his English class would be a "C" if he or she attended a school in another county? The standards aim to ensure all students are learning at the same rate and are being measured in the same way.

How do the standards different from what is already taught in classrooms? According to the American Federation of Teachers, the standards "are centered on the knowledge and skills students needs to be college and career ready." They emphasize the importance of understanding processes, interpreting text, defending points of view and working with other students. For math, the focus is on understanding how it works rather than on completing difficult problems. The English standards require more nonfiction reading and less fiction reading, particularly in the later grades. "There is an intentional, increased emphasis on speaking and listening, classroom discussion and collaboration." (Read more)

Some supporters of the standards say state and federal education officials have done a poor job of implementing them. "The intractable bureaucrats are risking the survival of Common Core," Pearson Foundation fellow and former National Education Association president John Wilson wrote on his Education Week blog. "The problem is not the standards; it is the implementation and the bureaucratic desire to standardize everything about the education process from lesson plans to testing."

Technically, the federal government was not involved in the compilation and implementation of the standards, but the U.S. Department of Education has said it will give funding to states that adopt the standards. For example, the government may "provide long-term financial support for the development and implementation of common assessments, teacher and principal professional development and research to help continually improve the common core state standards over time," according to CoreStand.org, which describes itself as a site "where educators learn, share, and showcase their knowledge of the Core Standards."

Teachers aren't just training students to do well in a class—they're preparing them for successful lives, John Kendall, an internationally recognized expert in the development and improvement of standards for education, writes in his book Understanding Common Core State Standards. "Between 1995 and 2000, the proportion of institutions reporting an average of one year of remediation needed for students upon college entry increased from 28 percent to 35 percent." This is one reason the common core was created: to make sure students are moving forward every year to be prepared for college. But do these approaches work for all students?

In 1989, the National Council of Teachers of Mathematics initiated a standards-based movement, arguing that teachers—rather than textbooks or assessment publishers—should determine what students should know and be able to do. Kendall writes that the implementation of the CCSS may hurt schools and students. For example, imagine a teacher responsible for educating 30 fourth graders. Teachers usually spend time learning what their students know and need to know, but he says the CCSS wouldn't leave much room for that, and the teacher would be forced to attempt to teach the standards whether the students were on the right level or not. What if the students are beyond the standards or well below them?

"Let's say a district actually recognizes that the state standards are to voluminous or too vague or do not provide direction when it matters most," Kendall writes. Should the teachers be allowed to choose which standards are most important and which the students can handle? If that approach were taken, then "other schools, led by a few teachers in other districts, may distribute the standards totally differently."

More than 500 experts signed the "Joint Statement of Early Childhood Health and Education Professionals on the Common Core Standards Initiative," which highlighted several main concerns about the standards: "They will lead to inappropriate standardized testing, didactic instruction and testing will crowd out other important areas of learning and there is little evidence that such standards for young children lead to later success," Anthony Cody, a board-certified teacher with 24 years of experience working in education, writes for Education Week Teacher. Cody also writes that specific, rigid expectations for each year do not make sense because "Children develop at different rates, and we do far more harm than good when we begin labeling them 'behind' at an early age." States may "change a scant 15 percent of the standards they use," he writes. "There is no process available to revise the standards. They must be adopted as written."

The Common Core's declared purpose is to prepare students for college and a career, but critics ask, what about preparing them for life in general and for joining society as informed and helpful citizens? They also point out that the standards' efficacy has not been tested.

Some conservatives and libertarians are concerned about the Common Core's emphasis on assessments. The Cato Institute's Neil McCluskey told Fox News that school districts are "flailing to try to adopt curriculum that will prepare students for Common Core, but there is no real standard. Standards are designed to set a box around curriculum," and teachers will have to teach whatever is on the test, he argued.

So far, proficiency rates on the new tests have been remarkably lower—by design. "Only 31 percent of students who took Common Core aligned tests in New York last spring were rated proficient . . . We have a system that, in the name of 'rigor,' will deepen the achievement gaps and condemn more students and schools as failures," Cody writes, arguing that as many as 30 percent of students will not get high-school diplomas.

Phyllis Schlafly of The Eagle Forum wrote, "Kids must pass the tests in order to get a high school diploma or admittance to college. If they haven't studied a curriculum based on Common Core standards, they won't score well on the tests." Other critics question the cost of implementing the standards, such as training teachers in them, and the learning value of the standards themselves.

Bob Luebke writes for North Carolina's Civitas Institute that Professor Sandra Stotsky of the University of Arkansas, an "author of the well-respected Massachusetts education standards, has repeatedly criticized Common Core English language standards for failing to make students college-ready." Luebke also notes that former Stanford math professor James Milgram, a member of the committee that developed the math standards, refused to signed off on them, saying they would cause U.S. students to fall two years behind those in other countries.

"Common Core merely scuttles one accountability system in favor of another—and it's not one that empower locals schools, elected officials or parents," Luebke writes. "Under the new system, standards are owned not by the public but by two organizations (the National Governors Association and the Council of State Chief School Officers), and decisions are made not by local or elected officials but by unelected bureaucrats."

Others think the Common Core Standards will work effectively and benefit schools and students. Because the standards streamline content, teachers will have more time for creativity in the classroom; the standards tell teachers which topics must be taught, not how they must teach them, Cindy Long writes for NEAToday. She says the initiative will also give teachers more opportunities to collaborate on deciding how best to teach the required material, and students who move to other districts or states won't be ahead or behind schedule.

Some social conservatives support the standards. Commentator Mike Huckabee, a former governor of Arkansas and Republican presidential candidate, suggested that states change how they present the Common Core to the public to help stop some of the negative feedback. "Rebrand, refocus it, but don't retreat," he said. Others agree. Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer "signed an executive order stating that the standards shouldn't be referred to officially as Common Core anymore," Andrew Ujifusa writes for Education Week. However, rebranding appears unlikely to quell the debate.


Teach for America comes to Appalachia and Kentucky

By John James Snidow

Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

When schools reopened last month, some in Eastern Kentucky began the second year of a grand education experiment that has been going on in underprivileged school districts across the nation for 20 years but which came to Appalachia only a year ago.

Teach for America recruits talented college seniors from highly ranked universities, gives them their first training as teachers, and makes them available to schools that are willing to hire them. This year it has 36 teachers in 20 schools in 11 Eastern Kentucky districts.

In Appalachian Kentucky, the coming of TFA teachers has stirred hope that their sharp minds, youthful energy, diverse backgrounds and fresh perspectives are invigorating rural schools where most teachers are natives who went to the nearest college – and giving fresh promise to the idea that education is the key to economic progress in the region.

“Any time you challenge the status quo – ‘the man’ – any time you challenge the man, you’re gonna put pressure on the whole system to do better,” said Terry Holliday, the state commissioner of education.

But TFA has its critics, and to some, it is just the most recent incarnation in a long series of well-intentioned but naive outsiders who try to help Appalachians who never asked for it; privileged, bored, 20-somethings who want to fight a war without dodging bullets.

Morehead State University Education Dean Cathy Gunn, who doesn’t support TFA, said some of its teachers might think “It will look good on my resume, and I want to take a break, and it’s like the Peace Corps.”

Lois Combs Weinberg and Alix Smith
People in the region have seen similar programs since the War on Poverty began in the mid-1960s; while some volunteers from outside the region stayed, most left. “People would say that they ‘popped in, popped off, and popped out’,” says Lois Combs Weinberg, who was a VISTA (Volunteer In Service To America) and whose father, Bert Combs, was governor from 1969-73.

But unlike some such programs, TFAers don’t organize. They don’t picket. In fact, they’re media-shy: Getting interviews with some of them was a challenge. They’re here to teach, and they want to make clear that TFA – at least as an organization – is here to stay for the long term.

“It’s basically been a boom and bust cycle of people coming in and leaving,” says TFA corps member Alix Smith, who teaches in Lynn Camp High School at Corbin. “Our goal here with TFA is to get the boom without the bust.”

TFA’s careful efforts at community integration seem to be working, based on interviews with some Eastern Kentucky citizens. “At first we were skeptical, but they won us over in the end,” one said. “Every one of them would have faced down hell with a water pistol if they thought it would help their kids.”

Principal Robbie Fletcher of Sheldon Clark High School in Inez shared a similar story about a TFA teacher. Several students’ parents “called me and wanted their kids out of her class,” he said. And inside that class, some students were equally irate, saying things like “I don’t know how things work wherever it is you came from, but this is just not the way we do things around here.” But in the end, Fletcher said, the teacher won them over, parents included –“except one,” he says, “and the pope himself couldn’t have converted that one.”

Another reason for TFA’s success is that it is meeting real needs. Many schools in Appalachia don’t have qualified teachers in foreign languages, special education or the sciences. TFA is filling desks that would otherwise be vacant or filled with long-term substitutes.

There’s another difference between TFA and past programs, too: 50 years of academic research. “TFA is specific. It’s much more targeted work,” says Weinberg. “With VISTA, we really didn’t know what [the volunteers] were doing,” she says. “We sent them there to ‘do good’ and gave them no training.” TFA now has a much more “sophisticated conceptual framework,” she says, “We now know that education equals economic development.”

Even if TFA members don’t see themselves as directly fighting poverty, they still are very much part of the poverty war, says University of Kentucky economist Ken Troske, who runs the Kentucky Center for Business and Economic Research.

“If you can just raise education levels in Eastern Kentucky,” Troske says, “you could eliminate almost all of the region’s problems because low education levels are responsible for poverty, poor health, smoking, obesity, crime, drug use.” Troske says TFA doesn’t have to work miracles: “Even if you can raise these kids’ achievement by just 1 or 2 years of quality-adjusted education, you can start to see some real results in these other metrics.”

There was skepticism that TFA could get the political support needed to open a region in Appalachia and start placing teachers. A starting teacher in Eastern Kentucky makes upward of $30,000 a year in a region where the per capita income is approximately half that, so local demand for teaching jobs is strong. But the need for qualified teachers overcame the politics.

“Right now TFA is very targeted in rural settings where they just can’t find the teachers,” Holliday said. He hopes to broaden the impact by making it a catalyst for better teacher quality throughout the state.

While TFA is a national program, its teachers are employed locally, at the same salary locals would have been paid. “None of the hiring/firing processes were taken away,” said Phil Rogers, who was executive director of the state Education Professional Standards Board until he retired this summer. “They still have to be hired by the site-based council” at a school, Rogers noted; the only difference is that schools get an added benefit from having a bigger pool of applicants.

Regardless of how much like normal, local teachers the TFA corps members may feel, they are still part of a national service organization and their career tracks are different. Many are delaying six-figure salaries. Altruism is at work here, to some extent, and the students respect that.

“They know that the other jobs we had are higher paying, salary-wise,” said Smith, who teaches Spanish at Lynn Camp. But they also wonder about motives. Senorita Smith said one of her students confronted her in class, saying: “I heard that Teach for America teachers are only here because they think that we’re poor and think we’re stupid and think we’re don’t wear shoes.”

Smith said she replied, “Do you really believe that I think you guys are stupid?” Smith’s eyes went glittery with tears for a moment in the retelling. She says the class murmured back, “No,” and finally one found the right words: “You wouldn’t work us so hard if you thought we were that stupid.”

Liz Selden teaches math in Leslie County
But for many of the TFAers, the question comes up over and over. “My kids think I’m certifiably insane for coming here,” says TFA teacher Liz Selden of Leslie County.

Her colleague, Tom Mitchell, tells me that his students thought his very presence in Eastern Kentucky was a sure sign that he couldn’t get a job anywhere else. “You must have done something really wrong to end up here,” he says they told him.

The students can play the Appalachia card another way, too. TFA teacher Marie Giezendanner said her students started out saying, “We’re from Martin County. You can’t expect us to always do our homework. I got so sick and tired of hearing about Martin County this, and Martin County that, that eventually I came down pretty hard on them about it. They don’t try that excuse so much anymore.”

When asked what causes low educational achievement in the region, TFA teachers say it is not so much poverty as “low expectations,” and this isn’t just armchair sociology. UK education and sociology Professor Alan DeYoung says this is deeply rooted in the history of education in Appalachia.

“Up until about 1960, the point of the high-school teacher in Eastern Kentucky was to keep kids in the area, to prepare them for local jobs. Now, it’s the opposite – it’s to equip kids to leave for college,” DeYoung said, and he thinks the schools have been slow to catch up.

The most common question TFA teachers in Appalachia get is “Are you going to stay?” It is often used as a “polite way to express doubts about TFA,” says Smith. Gunn, the Morehead dean, said confidently, “They’re not coming to Appalachia to stay, that’s for sure.”

TFA is a two-year commitment, but the hope is that many will stay longer. “Coming into the corps, only 10 percent of corps members say they want education to be their career,” says UK graduate Will Nash, executive director of TFA’s Appalachia region, but “Two-thirds of all TFA alumni who have gone through the program are currently in education, broadly defined,” some in school administration.

Coming in, some Kentucky TFAers couldn’t imagine staying. “Now,” says Smith, “I can’t imagine leaving.” Already, some of the corps members are making plans for the long haul. “I’d stay at Leslie County for the next 30 years, Lord willing,” says Selden, who is from Georgia and says she is now “queen of [her] very own single wide” mobile home.

The short-term commitment is a common criticism, and it’s an even bigger problem in Appalachia, Lynn Camp Principal Amy Bays said. “In our area, kids are used to people leaving them,” she says, “so they were especially wary of these people who would only stay for two years.”

Mitchell said likewise. “A lot of my boys don’t have stable male role models in their life,” he says, “so they’re often looking to me to provide guidance. I’m concerned about what happens when I’m gone.”

TFA teachers try to get their students to focus on their own futures. They say there is one topic that is “daily conversation” in their classes: college. But in high school and especially the middle grades, this can seem a far-off and distant goal. TFA teachers talk about their own experiences to make college more attractive, and administrators like that.

Bays says students are “star struck” by the TFAers’ experiences, which broaden their conception of what is possible. “They don’t get out of the county much,” she said, so this is important.

Holliday agrees. “One of the things that excites me most about TFA,” he said, “is that since TFA recruits from the top 10 percent of the top 10 percent, they’re great role models for these kids.”

But it may be more elemental than that.

It’s the last day of school in Barbourville and I’m on the bus with Stephanie Tanner’s Spanish class. I ask them what they think of their TFA teachers, Ms. Tanner and Mr. Roach, and I can barely hear for the shouting.

“They’re awesome,” they tell me. “Best teachers we have,” says one. When asked why, they tell me in gritty detail, pulling no punches, often giving me quotes about the shortcomings of non-TFA teachers that prudence makes unprintable here.

“She’s the first Spanish teacher to stay with us for more than a year,” says Chandler Smith, a ninth grader at Knox County High. “Only one of them that knew how to teach, too,” another kid interjects.

At lunch, I get 20 versions of the same response: TFA teachers just know how to connect. The same point is made more and more colorfully as I talk to more of the students.

“They’re basically really, really, really smart teenagers who know how to teach,” says one. “No, no, no,” another corrects him. “They just get what we like because they like those things too,” says another. And then, finally, “They’re great teachers for us kids because they’re really just kids themselves.”

The teachers seem to know what they’re doing: every piece of role-modeling is intentional, every allusion calculated. They know the value of a good pop-culture reference and they’re not above leveraging that if it works.

They’re scrappy educators – and scrappy is a good way of describing their feelings about TFA’s mission, too. Over and over again in interviews, the corps members tell me that “humility goes a long way.” They don’t think they’re here to save Appalachia or to end poverty in the state of Kentucky. For them, it’s much simpler than that: get the students to learn the material – by any means necessary. That’s hard enough. But if you can do it, TFA and its supporters believe, day after day after day, we might just be able to close the achievement gap in Appalachia.

John James Snidow, an Ashland, Ky., native and Yale University law student, wrote this article as the first iHigh writer in residence at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He can be reached at snidow@gmail.com.

State education commissioner says teacher quality in Appalachian schools must be improved

By John James Snidow
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

FRANKFORT, Ky. – State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday is concerned about the quality of classroom instruction, especially in Appalachian Kentucky, and he’s ready to shake things up, challenging teachers’ colleges and local education leaders.

Comm. Terry Holliday
Eastern Kentucky colleges are producing too many teachers, and the region’s districts are hiring too many of them, perpetuating low expectations he says too many educators have for their students, Holliday said in an interview.

“Admissions standards are too low” for would-be teachers, he said, citing a report from the global consultancy McKinsey & Co., which found that the world’s best school systems “recruit 100 percent of their teacher corps from the top third of the academic cohort." Holliday says, “We recruit from the bottom third right now.”

Cathy Gunn, dean of education at Morehead State University, says she agrees that the teacher pipeline needs to be “improved and narrowed,” but denies Morehead is recruiting from the bottom third – at least intentionally. She says Morehead recruits “any student who is interested in becoming a teacher, no matter where they are in their graduate ranking,” as long as they meet the minimum requirements.

Before Holliday came to Kentucky three years ago, he was a district superintendent in North Carolina. He said there were colleges in that state “that we just wouldn’t hire from because they just weren’t prepared. That’s happening to some degree in Kentucky.”

If graduates continue to perform poorly or cannot meet the new, tougher requirements of the state Educational Professional Standards Board, he said some of the education schools will likely have to be closed.

Teaching has changed. Decades ago, it was a primary job choice for many talented women and minorities who lacked other opportunities. Today, lucrative and prestigious fields such as law and medicine have opened up their doors, while teaching has lagged behind both in pay and prestige.

The McKinsey report found low admission standards make it difficult for teaching to be seen as prestigious, and “McKinsey is right on target there,” Holliday said.

Encouraging better students to become teachers may be most urgent in Appalachian Kentucky. A recent study by Dr. Eugenia Toma at the University of Kentucky’s Martin School of Public Policy showed that Kentucky teachers who choose to work in Appalachian schools for their first jobs are less academically qualified than their peers who choose to teach in other parts of the state. Toma’s paper is based on data collected by the Educational Professional Standards Board that tracked more than 21,000 Kentucky teachers from 1987 to the present.

Holliday’s worry is that the low quality of teachers exacerbates some Appalachian educators’ low expectations for their students – or even their desires for them.

“I’ve heard this more than once now, that you might not want these kids to get a good education because then they’ll leave,” creating “less ability to fund the local county government,” he says. That kind of thinking “leads to low expectations for education,” he says, creating a “vicious cycle.”

Holliday said some eastern districts “only hire from certain universities and they only hire people from Eastern Kentucky backgrounds.” A joint report by his Department of Education and other state education authorities found that 43 percent of Kentucky districts employed more than half of their teachers from the same teacher-preparation institution, usually one nearby. (Click on map for larger image)
“People are sometimes afraid of hiring outsiders,” Holliday said, but in doing so they miss out on many qualified candidates and diversity in the classroom, which can help prepare students for the wider world.

These issues are most important in rural areas, which Holliday says lack many of the amenities needed to attract talented teachers: “In urban areas, you have places for these young, upwardly mobile teachers to live. In rural areas, you don’t have anywhere for them to live, you don’t have social activities, or any of the things that these young 20-somethings apparently really like,” Holliday says, playfully acknowledging his middle age.

Holliday says reforming teacher education won’t be easy because colleges have a financial interest in keeping class sizes high and admissions standards low. “The highest profit margin for universities is teacher education,” he said. “You’ve got large class sizes, very low cost for professors.” As the state’s public universities deal with budget cuts, “we’re gonna be pushing the presidents and the deans on this to improve candidate quality going into these programs.”

Eastern Kentucky University’s education dean, Bill Phillips, says he “completely agrees with Dr. Holliday” that standards need to be raised, but says state funding cuts force EKU to be “tuition-driven.” Raising standards lowers enrollment, and with it, tuition revenue, but Phillips says EKU has “made the decision to raise standards and to just take the hit on tuition.”

Holliday was interviewed for a report on the entry of Teach for America into Appalachian Kentucky. He said TFA, which he says recruits from the “top 10 percent of the top 10 percent” of college students, is putting pressure on the traditional teacher preparation and certification programs in the state: “Any time you challenge the status quo – ‘the man’ – any time you challenge the man, you’re gonna put pressure on them and get pushback.”

John James Snidow is an Ashland, Ky., native, Yale University law student and former McKinsey & Co. employee. He wrote this article as the first iHigh writer in residence for the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He can be reached at snidow@gmail.com.

TFA’s entry sparks statewide conversation about teacher quality
By John James Snidow
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

INEZ, Ky. – A year ago, Teach for America entered Appalachia, placing 22 teachers in eight Eastern Kentucky school districts. This fall, TFA has 36 teachers in 20 schools in 11 districts. These numbers are a still just a tiny percentage of the more than 43,000 teachers in Kentucky, but their arrival has sparked a conversation in the region and the state about teacher quality.

State Education Commissioner Terry Holliday says the entry of TFA, which recruits top-tier college graduates and places them as teachers in high-need areas, is pressuring traditional teacher preparation programs to improve.

“Right now, TFA is very targeted in rural settings where they just can’t find the teachers,” Holliday said. “But long-term, what has to happen is that we have to improve teacher quality.”

Staffers at the state Education Professional Standards Board say they are committed to raising standards and filling existing gaps in the teacher workforce.

Dr. Kim Walters-Parker, the board’s teacher-preparation director, said her goal is “to put TFA out of business” in Kentucky, not by fighting it, but by improving teacher preparation and placement such that “TFA will be unnecessary.”

Shortly before his retirement this summer, then-EPSB Executive Director Phil Rogers said of TFA, “If they’ve got a better mousetrap, we want to see it.”

But teacher preparation begins with students deciding they want to teach, and higher salaries outside teaching, especially in technical fields like science and technology, are drawing top graduates away.

“Look at the shortages in the areas of [teaching] physics, math and the foreign languages – salary is a big deal there,” says Stu Silberman, executive director of the Prichard Committee for Academic Excellence.

TFA has found a small back door around this problem, convincing top-tier college talent to forego more lucrative careers in order to teach for at least two years, and TFA hopes they decide to keep teaching long after that.

The question for many in Kentucky is how to get TFA-caliber applicants via traditional pathways. Rogers said most Kentucky teacher colleges have risen to meet the challenge, and they want to learn from TFA so they can better prepare their own students.

But not all are on board, as TFA teachers compete with graduates of Eastern Kentucky education colleges for jobs in the region. The EPSB chair, Morehead State University Education Dean Cathy Gunn, said in an interview that she opposes TFA and fears its teachers won’t have “behavioral management and classroom management” skills that traditionally-trained teachers have.

But so far, at least, principals and superintendents who have seen TFA teachers in action say they don’t share these concerns.

Principal Robbie Fletcher of Sheldon Clark High School in Inez says of one TFA corps member: “You go into Kasey Jackson’s class and you think there’s no way this is a first-year teacher. She just can’t be this good in her first year. But she is.” In fact, he says, Jackson has brought good ideas on classroom management to his other teachers, to the point that his staff has a friendly joke about it: TFA training must consist of “being dropped down in the middle of a swamp somewhere down in Mississippi and told, ‘Teach your way out of this one.’”

TFA corps members are trained in the Mississippi Delta, in high-poverty, minority-heavy school districts that are often filled with hard-to-control classes. But TFA teachers say Appalachian Kentucky has “a deep culture of respect” for teachers, and they have found receptive students who are easy to control and easy to teach.

The students are similarly enthused. “Best teachers we have,” a student at Knox Central High School said. “Only Spanish teacher we’ve ever had who knew how to teach,” said another. The other teachers have taken to the newcomers too.

Lynn Camp High School Principal Amy Bays
“We have a lot of mommas” on the faculty, said Lynn Camp High School Principal Amy Bays, “and they’ve really enjoyed getting to work with the TFA teachers.

Teacher Roger Evans said, “We welcome their diversity and energy. These TFA folks, you never see them walking – they’re always runnin’.”

Some in Kentucky plan to use this small number of hard-charging TFA teachers to encourage all teachers to raise classroom standards that many feel are too low.

“These kids have not been challenged, oftentimes from the first grade onward,” says Prichard Committee member Lois Combs Weinberg of Hindman, who taught in Knox County long ago. “Our Appalachian schools really need a shot in the arm. And TFA can provide that.”

Asked what it will take to close the achievement gap between Eastern Kentucky schools and those elsewhere in the state, Barbourville High School teacher Jimmy Roach said “Unity in teaching. Doesn’t matter if it’s Mr. Roach or Ms. Tanner [who are TFAers] or Mrs. Chaffin or Mr. Simpson [who are not]. The kids have to know the expectations are high and that the teachers are gonna hold them to that.”

Inez Principal Fletcher, asked what he would say to principals who are skeptical of hiring TFA teachers, says, “I’d tell them they’ve been great for us, and if you don’t even interview them, you’re just gonna be missing out on the most talented teachers.”

John James Snidow, an Ashland, Ky., native and Yale University law student, wrote this article as the first iHigh writer in residence at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He can be reached at snidow@gmail.com.

KEA may be the most pro-TFA teachers union in the country

By John James Snidow
Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues

FRANKFORT, Ky. – “Smart, beautiful, talented, courageous.” Who used these words to describe Teach for America teachers? Most education experts would not guess a teachers’ union president. But it was Sharron Oxendine, president of the Kentucky Education Association – which views TFA very differently than does KEA’s parent, the National Education Association.

TFA and the teachers’ unions have famously not gotten along well. NEA, the biggest national union, last year accused TFA of “taking jobs” from other teachers. TFA recruits top-tier college graduates into teaching for at least two years, though many stay in the field long after. Some state teachers’ unions have tried to get TFA banned from their schools altogether, but not so in Kentucky.

While KEA has no official position on TFA, the union did not oppose the legislation that allowed the program’s teachers to be certified for the classroom, and top KEA officials are glowing in their assessment of TFA and the teachers it placed in Eastern Kentucky schools last year.

“We welcome TFA and hope they stay,” says Oxendine, who is from Knox County, one district with TFA teachers.

So, why is KEA bucking the national trend? For one thing, it likes the diversity of experiences that TFA teachers bring to their students.

“Expanding kids’ horizons is so important,” said KEA Executive Director Mary Ann Blankenship. TFA teachers are “young and energetic and funny -- and fun -- and smart and bright -- and they’ve studied abroad in all kinds of places.”

“And been to New York City!” Oxendine chimes in, exaggerating her southeastern Kentucky accent for comedic effect.

Those fresh backgrounds and perspectives, KEA leaders think, may generate more interest among students in teaching, a field Oxendine says has become less attractive for young people. “TFA provides a role model that says to kids: a smart, beautiful, talented, courageous, ambitious person with lots of options can choose to teach -- and teach Kentuckians,” she said.

“When we look many of our teachers, I’m sad to say, you see this,” she said, pointing to herself: “You see old, you see overweight, you see tired, you see [them] doin’ everything they can just to keep their life going. And sometimes that’s depressing to a 16-year old: ‘Why in the hell would I want to be or look like her when I’m 30?’ they say.”

When a student is deciding whether to teach, Oxendine said, “You need to look at someone beautiful in the classroom and say ‘God, I want to be like her,’ and we just don’t have enough of those kinds of people right now.”

Blankenship put it another way: “My hope for every one of my students is that over the course of a day, there is at least one teacher they really connect with: ‘Oh I love Ms. Oxendine; she’s the best math teacher ever,’ or ‘My love from reading really came from Ms. Blankenship.’”

Some other teacher unions have questioned TFA teachers’ one-summer training, but KEA officials don’t echo those concerns. Blankenship said she was impressed by the training’s “intensity and the quality,” and by the "[ongoing] level of support that other first year teachers don’t have.”

She noted that TFA Appalachia Executive Director Will Nash told them “Look, if you have a problem on this or that issue, call us,” and she added, “I wish every single teacher had their support system.”

Oxendine says she is disturbed by the “us-versus-them” narrative that surrounds the TFA-union conflicts in other states, because that allows policymakers to say, “Well, if you guys can’t figure this out even amongst yourselves, then I don’t have to do anything.”

And unlike other unions, KEA’s concern is not that TFA teachers are here now, but that they won’t be here long enough. “I hope they won’t just stay for two years,” Blankenship says, and she is quick to note that TFA has been successful at keeping its members in education for the long haul.

While only 10 percent of TFA teachers enter the program intending to make education a career, nearly two-thirds end up staying. Given that 50 percent of Kentucky teachers leave the profession within five years -- something Blankenship calls “the real crisis” -- this excites her: “I hope every single one of them falls so in love with teaching that 5, 10, 15 years from now, TFA is still doing amazing things in Kentucky schools.”

John James Snidow, an Ashland, Ky., native and Yale University law student, wrote these articles as the first iHigh writer in residence at the Institute for Rural Journalism and Community Issues, based in the School of Journalism and Telecommunications at the University of Kentucky. He can be reached at snidow@gmail.com.

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