Tennessee Trains 30,000 Teachers in the Common Core State Standards

An instructional coach gives a thumbs up during a TN Core English Language Arts training session held this past July.

An instructional coach gives a thumbs up during a TN Core English Language Arts training session held this past July. Photo credit: Tennessee Department of Education

In an ambitious and comprehensive effort, the state of Tennessee provided 30,000 teachers with intensive training this past summer as part of its transition to the Common Core State Standards (CCSS)—more rigorous academic standards in English language arts (ELA) and mathematics.

The sessions were led by 700 teacher coaches, known as “Core Coaches,” who were selected from 1,250 applicants based on their record of classroom success and a round of interviews. Prior to leading the statewide training for their peers, the teacher-coaches received two weeks of intensive training from the State and experts in the Common Core State Standards.

The standards, adopted by 45 States and the District of Columbia, are aimed at preparing students for college and today’s competitive global economy. Although the standards cover only ELA and mathematics, they require instructional shifts for teaching all subjects, which is why Tennessee included teachers of science, social studies, special education and other subjects in its training sessions.

But standards alone can’t get the job done. Teachers need high-quality training and support to help students reach these expectations.

The sessions and coaching were made possible by its Federal Race to the Top grant Tennessee received in 2010, but the effects of the training will last long after the grant money runs out because teachers will have learned more about the content of their subject areas and new ways to challenge their students.

Based on initial implementation of their Race to the Top plan, Tennessee identified the need for a more hands-on training approach to support educators in transitioning to the CCSS.  The State began selecting Core Coaches in SY 2011-2012 in collaboration with a team of district leaders advising the State on its engagement and training strategy for the CCSS.  The 2012 summer training included 200 Core Coaches and 10,000 educators.  In only one year, the State tripled those numbers.

It was probably the most intense training I ever had,” said Judy Schinbeckler, a high school teacher from Cookeville, who served as an ELA teacher-coach for the training sessions and has been a teacher for 21 years.

Carol Buckner, who teaches ELA to 11th and 12th graders in Baxter, about an hour east of Nashville, was pleased that her teacher-coach had classroom experience. “When she talks to me I know she talks to me from a teacher’s point of view,” Buckner said.

The large group of educators that attended a TN Core mathematics training session in June at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee get registered.

The large group of educators that attended a June TN Core mathematics training session at Blackman High School in Murfreesboro, Tennessee get registered.
Photo credit: Tennessee Department of Education

Positive Evaluation Report

The training sessions had significant positive effects on how teachers taught and how much students learned, according to a rigorous evaluation of the 2012 sessions by the State Department of Education. The quality of their questions, the feedback they gave to students and the instruction they gave in problem-solving techniques all improved, based on observer ratings. Student test scores also rose more quickly in participants’ classrooms compared to those of non-participants, the evaluation found.

The State consulted with outside experts to design the content of the sessions, which were organized by grade and subject. The standards emphasize the use of complex texts, drawing evidence from reading material and applying academic knowledge toward solving real-world problems. Christopher Bowen, a middle-school science teacher from Johnson City who was one of the coaches, thinks all teachers, no matter their specialization, can benefit from training in the Common Core State Standards. He noted, for example, that whether students are conducting scientific experiments or writing persuasive essays, they still have to look for evidence and use it to prove or disprove arguments.

During the summer session, the coaches helped fellow educators work through the standards and identify units and tasks they could use in their own classrooms. The teachers also had to put themselves in their students’ shoes and complete those tasks and answer sample test questions.

Coaching Help Continues

Though the summer sessions are over, many of the coaches are continuing to help their districts and fellow teachers with the transition to the Common Core State Standards. Bowen says he expects to assist educators in his district throughout the year and that he enjoys this added leadership role in collaborating with other coaches and teachers from around the state.  Now a key asset in districts, these teacher-leaders have opportunities with local trainings and future career pathways.

“That was an eye-opener for the teachers,” said Schinbeckler. “They could see some of the kinds of activities their students will be asked to do. It’s not the kind of work we’re currently doing.”

Bowen said he plans to help his peers learn to ask questions of students that require them to think rather than just remember, use real-world problems in their classrooms, and focus on teaching students to skillfully draw evidence from their reading.

Bowen said he enjoyed serving as a coach as well as the opportunity to collaborate with other educators.  “We’ve become this vast collaborative network, which has been amazing,” Bowen said.  “We’re celebrating each other’s successes, and when we fail we pick each other up and provide extensive support.”

Emily Barton, Tennessee’s Assistant Commissioner for Curriculum and Instruction, said the summer sessions succeeded in part because organizers considered feedback from participants and made adjustments daily. “The survey responses were positive and got better over time,” Barton said. “We had data meetings every day and emailed coaches nightly, and then they’d adjust their training accordingly,” she said.

Although Tennessee’s effort is remarkable in its scale, Barton said she and her team sought advice from other States that are also preparing teachers for the Common Core standards. North Carolina, another Race to the Top grantee, also relies on well-trained educators to conduct peer-to-peer instruction. Under that program, the State offered two-day training sessions to teachers in eight regions, and it helped create webinars related to the new standards and an online platform that allows teachers in the State to share lesson plans.

“Technology has enabled us to not just make things more efficient, but share things that have been locked away in a metal file cabinet,” said Jan King, who leads North Carolina’s professional development efforts in two of its eight regions.

“This is hard work, and it takes kind of what I would call all hands on deck,” King said.