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Jennifer Harrelson, from Bradley County, leads fourth-grade teachers during a TNCore summer training session at South Pittsburg High School early Tuesday morning. Tennessee kicked off its largest teacher training effort ever Tuesday as more than 30,000 teachers are expected to learn about the state's shift to the Common Core standards.


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UTC program given one star

The National Council on Teacher Quality released a report Tuesday that found a number of Tennessee graduate and undergraduate education programs to be lacking.

Schools were rated on a scale of "stars," with four being the highest possible score. The University of Tennessee at Chattanooga only scored one star in its undergraduate elementary program. The secondary program did little better, earning two and a half stars.

Of 1,200 elementary and secondary programs the NCTQ rated, about one in seven earned less than one star. Schools that received this rating were labeled with a "warning" symbol to alert consumers and school districts to their low rating in the evaluation.

Of the 27 Tennessee schools evaluated, two universities, East Tennessee State University and the University of Tennessee, received a universal "warning" symbol.

Only eight Tennessee schools rated received an overall rating of three or more stars.

But the survey wasn't all bad news. Two of four schools nationwide to receive a four-star rating lie within Tennessee borders: Lipscomb University for its undergraduate secondary education program and Vanderbilt University for its graduate secondary program.

Many of the poor ratings come from the state's elementary education programs.

Eighty-nine percent of Tennessee programs rated scored one star or less in common core elementary mathematics; 69 percent received one star or less in early reading and 79 percent scored one star or less in the struggling readers category.

SOUTH PITTSBURG, Tenn. -- Tennessee kicked off its most ambitious teacher training program in history on Tuesday, as thousands of teachers gathered to learn more about the changes that will accompany the new Common Core State Standards.

More than 100 math teachers from the region were registered to spend Tuesday and today at South Pittsburg High School, one of 17 sites where more than 30,000 teachers will train this summer.

Instead of just hearing about teaching strategies, teachers hit the books and practiced new lessons by solving word problems. And instead of bringing in experts or bureaucrats, teachers were taught by other educators well versed in the Common Core.

The new Common Core guidelines are considered by many experts -- especially those who lobby for education reform -- to be more rigorous and more hands-on than current Tennessee standards, which lay out which concepts students will be tested on and which concepts teachers are held accountable for teaching. But the shift away from locally developed standards to the more universal set of guidelines has sparked controversy here just as it has in other parts of the country.

So far, 45 states and the District of Columbia have signed on to the Common Core's math and reading standards.

Math teachers on Tuesday said they mostly embrace the change, though they question the timing and way in which the standards and their accompanying training were rolled out. Teachers spent the 2012-13 school year trying to add pieces of Common Core, though their students were still tested on the old standards.

"I just wish they'd given us more training before throwing us into the classrooms," said Whitwell Elementary teacher Sherri Thomas.


To launch the training, policymakers and teachers touted the benefits of high expectations on videos prepared by the Tennessee Department of Education. But teachers present said such rhetoric isn't always realistic. For some kids, earning a C is cause for celebration. And sometimes a teacher's most basic expectations -- like asking fourth-graders to write their name on their papers -- is shockingly difficult for some students.

Still, teachers said they believe the move will be beneficial for students, who will be expected to do more and delve deeper into certain concepts than in the past. To do that, the new guidelines include fewer overall standards so teachers can spend more time on each. And they encourage that students struggle their way through more complex assignments and projects to apply the knowledge they learn.

"It's something that really makes them think," said Jennifer Harrelson, a Bradley County teacher who led one of the training sessions.

And though teachers are used to standards shifts and educational trends that come and go, Harrelson said there's a belief that the Common Core is here to stay. Many believe it to be a game changer.

"I would say that very few teachers think it's just another fad," she said. "We really have to change our mindset about teaching."

But among the general public, sentiment has varied.

Some worry the changes will result in a nationalized curriculum, taking too much control away from states and local school districts. And though the 45 states that signed onto the Common Core did so without the involvement of the federal government, some conservative groups have viewed the standards as a federal power grab.

This spring, at least nine states started to review their commitment to the Common Core after objections mounted. The Chattanooga Tea Party dedicated its April meeting to addressing the standards, which it characterized as a "deceptive 'Trojan Horse' that represents a threat to every school-aged child in Tennessee and Georgia."

Teachers aren't nearly as dramatic. Their concerns are mostly pragmatic and relate to timing and support for the shift. Some also noted how they'll be transitioning away from the old standards in the coming school year, though the state won't switch over to its new assessments until the 2014-13 school year.

But this week's training was already beginning to help by giving teachers a better understanding and specific examples of how to teach the new standards.

"Last year we just kind of jumped the gun," said Sonya Ridge, a Jasper Elementary teacher. "Now they're throwing us a life preserver."

Contact staff writer Kevin Hardy at or 423-757-6249.