RENEE MONTAGNE, HOST:
State legislatures are asking more of the teachers who have to develop those young minds. From Colorado to Illinois, lawmakers are overhauling teacher evaluation systems - the better to win federal grants from the Race to the Top program. Tennessee won half-a-billion dollars. And now teachers are finding how tough it is to make the grade. From member station WPLN in Nashville, Blake Farmer reports.
BLAKE FARMER, BYLINE: At Norman Binkley Elementary, Janna Beth Hunt wakes up her first graders by chanting the expectations each morning.
JANNA BETH HUNT: What do we give?
UNIDENTIFIED GROUP: 100 percent.
FARMER: Hunt tries to give 100 percent herself, which is why she can't hide her disappointment. Tennessee's new observations grade teachers on a scale of one to five. Many are scoring what feels like a C, which under the system, isn't enough to get the job security of tenure.
HUNT: I definitely feel like I'm better than an average teacher. I'm not happy with a three, but I told my principal that, and he knows that I'm a perfectionist and that I want a five. It's just extremely difficult to get a five.
FARMER: Some teachers say it feels impossible. To score at the highest levels, students must demonstrate a mastery of the day's lesson. But the four-page checklist is incredibly detailed, down to how handouts are even passed around. That kind of nitpicking is new for every teacher in Tennessee, but especially for veteran educators, who may not have had anyone watching them in years. Kevin Huffman is the state's education commissioner.
KEVIN HUFFMAN: We evaluated tenured teachers twice every 10 years. And virtually every teacher was told that they were at the top end of the scale.
FARMER: That's not unusual. A study published last year by the New Teacher Project pointed out weaknesses in teacher evaluation systems across the country. Race to the Top money pushed through controversial changes in several states, often without full support of teachers. But Huffman says there's no way educators are performing at the top of their game when students aren't.
HUFFMAN: I don't understand how we can run an education system where we tell more than half of the children - these are children - in the state of Tennessee, hey you're not proficient. But then we're uncomfortable saying to adults, not all of you are great.
DORCEL BENSON: I would love for him to come and spend a day or two with me. Tell me specifically what I need to do to improve.
FARMER: Dorcel Benson has 30 years of experience and still puts in the long hours. But while other teachers are spending late nights prepping for the new high-stakes observations, Benson has accepted her mediocre marks.
BENSON: Life is too short, and my health is much more valuable to me.
FARMER: Benson says she and most teachers do the best they can, even when they're handed a tough situation, like a student who reaches her 4th grade class still unable to read. Education officials, she says, don't seem to appreciate the challenge. Discouraging evaluation scores have torpedoed teacher morale, says Tim Tackett.
TIM TACKETT: Do not forget that these are just big kids. They like to be patted on the back, too.
FARMER: Tackett is a school board member from one of several districts that has fired off letters to the state asking for a complete review of the new evaluation system. They're also voicing concerns about the workload on administrators. Principal Barbara Ide says she struggles to find time for answering emails and talking to parents between all the additional observations.
BARB IDE: Nothing was taken off the plate, and a lot was added to it. But the part that was added to it is really the essence of what an instructional leader does. It's why we come to school.
FARMER: Even while principals have some critiques, Ide isn't alone in recognizing the advantages of accountability. Being in classrooms, she says, has led to deeper discussions about teaching techniques.
LAKESHA DEJARNETT: So let's get started. Most people don't think of turtles as fast swimmers…
FARMER: Lakesha Dejarnett's 8th graders at Thurgood Marshall Middle School outside Nashville are huddled around for a lesson in finding the main idea of a story. Dejarnett's story is that she left her job in journalism three years ago to teach.
DEJARNETT: There are some who feel like, you know, I don't know what I got myself into, especially some of us first, second and third year teachers, and especially those of us who changed careers to come into this.
FARMER: But DeJarnett says the challenge is bringing out her best. She just wonders how long she and others can keep up the new pace. For NPR News, I'm Blake Farmer in Nashville.
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