Teacher Chalkboard 

from Professional Educators of Tennessee

By JC Bowman,

Executive Director

We are truly in a transformational time. We either drive the agenda from the ground up or it will be hammered down from federal and state government.

In “Smart World: Breakthrough Creativity and the New Science of Ideas”, Richard Ogle writes: “Historically, Western Education is based on two fundamental assumptions… rationality and knowledge that already exists, and, as a result, the guiding hand of learning looks backward. In a time of exponential change, the skills of insight, intuition, imagination, and innovation become key, and, as a result, the guiding hand of learning looks to the future.”

Now is the time to look at that future.

There is genuine fear about the impact of the coronavirus on our state and local budgets. We should be very concerned; however, our state has managed money fairly effectively. Tennessee was ahead of the curve on revenue projections when COVID-19 hit.

Other states, especially ones with an income tax, are expected to suffer a larger hit to tax revenue. You cannot tax what people are not earning, and many states have already signaled that they are in survival mode. It will be bad, but Tennessee is in a better position to handle the crisis than others, as long as we get back to some semblance of routine and recover quickly. This means that our schools and state will need to be creative. The struggle will be to retain education personnel in tight budgets, which is our objective.

Which brings us to an emerging issue: The COVID-19 instruction slide. There is fear, among some, that students will lose some of the achievement gains they made while not in school.

Tennessee educator Maggie Mason points out: “In reality, they will have missed about six weeks. One of our weeks out was a scheduled week of spring break, so don’t count that. Two of those weeks, more depending on age level, would have been spent testing. So, don’t count that. The last week in high school would have been spent on exams, so don’t count that either. I wish that we hadn’t had to miss any school, but this last bit of school is used for testing. If you think that’s a lot of testing, you’d be right. So, what if ‘the powers that be’ decided not to denigrate teachers by suggesting they weren’t teaching the rest of the year? And what if they decided that students were smart enough to retain what they learned? In case you can’t tell, I’m very tired of policymakers deciding that I don’t know what I’m doing. This is a unique, hopefully, one-time occurrence. Let’s not go crazy trying to ‘fix’ it.”

Ms. Mason is correct in her assessment, and it echoes the position of many classroom teachers across the state. It is worth noting that the suggestion to suspend testing for 2020-2021 has also been a popular refrain statewide. Certainly, it would create cost savings for taxpayers and address the supposed COVID-19 loss of achievement gains, by allowing teachers to re-teach any concepts students may have missed or lost during their time away during this pandemic.

In general, teachers want to measure student learning; however, they have lost faith in the time-consuming testing process and the value of standardized tests to improve education outcomes.

In February, before the coronavirus pandemic upended the nation’s education system, Georgia’s Republican governor, Brian P. Kemp, announced plans to cut state-mandated high school end-of-course tests in half and confine state elementary and middle school testing to the last five weeks of the school year. He also worked to shorten tests and encouraged school districts to work with the state’s education agency to reduce local testing.

No fewer than 426 bills and 20 resolutions were proposed in 44 states in response to critics’ claims of over-testing, and measures were adopted or enacted in 36 states. Tennessee was the number one state in the nation in legislation to address this issue with 36 testing bills.

The widespread backlash against standardized testing has left the future of statewide assessments and the contributions they make in doubt according to a new FutureEd report, “The Big Test: The Future of State Standardized Assessments”. So, if policymakers are going to push extended school days or summer school, the natural response will be to cancel testing and use that time to make up missed instruction.

The ability to ask appropriate questions is important in every area of society, especially education. As I tell our leaders, as I tell our members, it is critically important that you engage – now more than ever.

Have students lost instructional time during this COVID-19 pandemic? No doubt; however, in a rush to correct a problem, real or imagined, we must be smart, especially in the midst of an economic crisis. Hopefully, we will have a thoughtful discussion that involves all stakeholders at the ground level and is not pushed down by the state or federal government.

JC Bowman is executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville.