By Sally Absher

Valerie Strauss’ Washington Post column, “The good teachers are starting to leave” (February 27, 2015) started circulating around local social media again last week.

Between the end of September and mid-October, at least three veteran teachers resigned from Knox County Schools. You read that correctly – resigned in the middle of the semester. Not the end of the semester. Not the end of the year. What is going on?

In her column, Strauss prints a letter that Georgia teacher Susan Barber wrote to newly elected Georgia State School Superintendent Richard Woods.

Barber writes, “I have three degrees, two at the graduate level, but my performance, training, and knowledge is almost always assessed through my students’ standardized tests scores or through a teacher evaluation system which is seriously flawed. While I am committed to the standards on which we are measured, a quick stop in my room by an administrator who is also overworked and held to absurd standards is not how I want to be assessed.”

In Knox County, the use of standardized test scores to evaluate teachers or a school is causing good teachers to leave. Two teachers resigned recently from Bearden High School. They taught honors students. We reported a few weeks ago that based on the highly controversial and invalid TVAAS scores, Bearden High School is now a “failing school.” Bearden went from Level 5 (exemplary) to Level 1 (failing) based on last years standardized test scores.

As a result, almost every teacher at Bearden has been assigned a “coach.” They have endured constant drop-ins from the principal, building level coaches, and weekly evaluations by subject matter coaches.  Those who teach only honors students have been particularly hard hit, because it is very difficult for a student who is already performing at the top to show “growth,” which leads to low TVAAS scores for the teacher. In spite of students earning mostly “advanced” scores on the state exams, receiving record scholarship awards, and otherwise being the exemplary students they are, Bearden is a “failing school.”

What is it going to take for parents in this community to wake up and start demanding answers?

While both teachers declined to be interviewed because they haven’t made definite plans for the future, other teachers from BHS confirmed that teachers are being blamed for the drop in scores.  Some teachers “feel like they have PTSD.” The stress is overwhelming.

Former South Doyle Middle School (SDMS) 7th grade math teacher Linda Holtzclaw agreed to talk to The Focus.  She has spent the past 32 years teaching middle school, the last 20 of which were at SDMS. Her last day was October 16.

Like her colleagues at Bearden, Holtzclaw is concerned that the school system no longer cares about students; they only care about growth, TVAAS, and checking boxes on a rubric. She said teachers have lost the ability to make decisions about what or how to teach, and to meet the needs of their students.

She left for health reasons. Her doctor put her on medical leave. She said “It is bittersweet for me. When school started this year I had no intention of leaving, especially in October. We had a new administration, I had just been elected secretary of KCEA, (my husband) Steve had successful cancer surgery and life was good.”

“But, she said, “it didn’t take long to see how student behavior has deteriorated to the point of no return. The disrespect and out of control behavior is killing the teachers.”

SDMS is one of the largest middle schools in the county, and the only middle school serving South Knoxville. Holtzclaw said the socioeconomics have changed over the past 20 years. Many of the students (at least 75%) live in poverty. Many 7th graders do not know their address, or phone number. More kids are living with grandparents or aunts and uncles. Many act out, because they have learned the unfortunate lesson that negative attention is better than no attention.

Holtzclaw said she didn’t choose to end her career this way. “I love my school, my colleagues, and my students. But when students can curse you, ignore what you say, walk in and out of your classroom , roam the halls, leave campus, totally disrupt class to the point you can’t even get through a lesson, something is very wrong and needs to change. I feel so sorry for the good kids I’m leaving. They are the true victims here.”

Teachers don’t feel they have the necessary support.  “Our principal’s advice is to have some sort of “classroom currency” to make students want to come to class on time and behave. Well, when a student can already do anything he/she wants to, and fears no consequences, a jolly rancher isn’t going to be the answer.”

Holtzclaw said she had seven students with a zero average for the first 9 weeks. These students aren’t motivated to put any effort into a standardized test, the results of which will be used to evaluate the teacher and the school. SDMS is a Level 1 school. Many teachers have TVAAS scores of 1 or 2, which is “below expectation.”

SDMS lost over 60 teachers in the last two years under a former principal whom many felt didn’t have control. But this year is even worse. Holtzclaw said she knows several teachers who are actively looking for other jobs right now, adding, “It is a toxic environment for both teachers and students.”

But she worries even more about the students. “The students of South Doyle deserve better than this. If you could see the extremes the teachers go to everyday you wouldn’t believe it. A small group of students is running the school and the teachers are helpless. I hope things change soon before a tragedy happens, because it certainly could.”