STEM Standards

Tennessee wants to step up its game on STEM education, starting with these 15 schools

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Students at Whitehaven Elementary School participate in a 2014 STEM expo. The Memphis school is among 15 across the state to receive a new Tennessee designation for excellence in instruction around science, technology, engineering, and math.

While STEM has become a popular buzzword in education, Tennessee is seeking to recognize schools that are exemplary in teaching students about science, technology, engineering, and math.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen on Tuesday announced the first crop of 15 schools to earn the state’s new STEM School Designation.

That means they’ve completed her department’s review process for providing meaningful STEM-based instruction anchored by the state’s academic standards in math and science.

The achievement by the schools — 14 public and one private — represent an early milestone under Tennessee’s new strategic plan for STEM education, developed to equip students for the South’s fifth fastest-growing cluster of jobs.

The newly designated schools are:

  • Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • D-B EXCEL, Kingsport City Schools
  • Dr. William Burrus Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Jack Anderson Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Jackson Christian Elementary School, Jackson
  • L&N STEM Academy, Knox County Schools
  • Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, Shelby County Schools
  • Midway Elementary School, Roane County Schools
  • Moore Magnet Elementary School, Clarksville-Montgomery County Schools
  • Oakmont Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Overall Creek Elementary School, Murfreesboro City Schools
  • Prescott South Elementary School, Putnam County Schools
  • STEM School Chattanooga, Hamilton County Department of Education
  • Union Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Whitehaven Elementary School, Shelby County Schools

STEM aims to prepare students for the 21st-century economy and, at its heart, is about developing problem-solving skills. In Tennessee, the instruction is aligned with new math standards that reached classrooms last fall, with an eye toward new science standards that will replace 10-year-old benchmarks this fall.

The new designation allows the state to provide a blueprint for schools to create a culture around STEM, give students hands-on learning opportunities, and provide educators with cutting-edge professional development, among other things.

Schools achieving this status are to serve as a model for other schools in the state.

The designation is one outgrowth of Tennessee’s strategic plan for STEM education, developed after creating a leadership council in 2014 to address gaps in the state’s education and employment. STEM-based industries complain of a shortage of qualified applicants to fill the demand for those jobs in the state.

“STEM-related careers are among the fastest growing in Tennessee and right now too many jobs are left unfilled, meaning our graduates are missing valuable opportunities for their futures,” McQueen said in Tuesday’s announcement.

hiring crisis

Want ideas for easing Illinois’ teacher shortage? Ask a teacher.

PHOTO: Beau Lark / Getty Images

West Prairie High School is feeling the teacher shortage acutely.

The school — in a town of 58 people in downstate Illinois — hasn’t had a family and consumer science teacher for eight years, a business teacher for four years, or a health teacher for two years. The vacancies are among the state’s 1,400 teaching jobs that remained unfilled last school year.

To alleviate a growing teacher shortage, Illinois needs to raise salaries and provide more flexible pathways to the teaching profession, several teachers have urged the Illinois State Board of Education.  

“If we want top candidates in our classrooms, we must compensate them as such,” said Corinne Biswell, a teacher at West Prairie High School in Sciota.

Teachers, especially those in the rural districts most hurt by teacher shortages, welcomed the board’s broad-brush recommendations to address the problem. The board adopted seven proposals, which came with no funding or concrete plans, on Wednesday. It does not have the authority to raise teacher pay, which is negotiated by school districts and teacher unions.

“I appreciate that ISBE is looking for creative ways not only to approve our supply of teachers, but looking at the retention issues as well,” said Biswell, who favored the recommendations.

Goals the board approved include smoothing the pathway to teaching, providing more career advancement, and improving teacher licensing, training and mentorship.

However,  teachers attending the monthly meeting  disagreed over a proposal to eliminate a basic skills test for some would-be teachers and to adjust the entrance test to help more midcareer candidates enter the profession.

Biswell and other teachers warned that some of the recommendations, such as dropping the test of basic skills for some candidates,  could have unintended consequences.

Biswell urged the state board to change credentialing reviews to help unconventional candidates enter teaching. When issuing a teaching credential the state should look at a candidate’s work and college grades, and a mix of skills, she said, and also consider adjusting the basic-skills test that many midcareer candidates take — and currently fail to pass.

She told the board a warning story of teacher licensing gone wrong. When a vocational education teacher failed to pass the teacher-entry tests, he instead filed for a provisional certification. That meant he ended up in the classroom without enough experience.

“We are effectively denying candidates student teaching experiences and then hiring them anyway simply because we do not have any other choice,”  said Biswell, who is a fellow with Teach Plus, a nonprofit that works to bring teacher voices into education policy.

But other teachers want to make sure that credentialing stays as rigorous as possible. In the experience of Lisa Love, a Teach Plus fellow who teaches at Hawthorne Scholastic Academy, a public school in Chicago, too many new teachers don’t know what they are in for. “Being able to be an effective classroom teacher requires a lot of practice and knowledge and education that you can bring to the table in the classroom,” Love said. “Unprepared teachers are more likely to leave the classroom.”

Over the years, she has seen that attrition.

Teach Plus surveyed more than 600 teachers around Illinois about the teacher shortage and how to solve it. The survey found that most teachers wanted a basic skills requirement but also flexibility in meeting it.

The survey also found a divide between current and prospective teachers, as well as rural and urban teachers, on several issues. For example, the majority of current teachers said it wasn’t too difficult to become a teacher, while people trying to enter the profession disagreed. Educators in cities and suburbs didn’t find it too hard to become a teacher, while teachers in rural areas did.

Better pay came up for several teachers interviewed by Chalkbeat.

Illinois legislators passed a bill to set a minimum salary of $40,000 for teachers in Illinois, but Gov. Bruce Rauner vetoed it last summer.

Love noted that she has spent years getting advanced degrees related to teaching. And yet, she said, “I don’t make the salary of a doctor or lawyer but I have the same loans as a doctor or lawyer and the public doesn’t look to me with the same respect.”

But how much do the tests actually measure who might be good at teaching in the classroom? Gina Caneva, a teacher at Lindblom Math and Science Academy, said that written or video tests are very little like the daily work of being an educator. “Being a teacher, you are really out there in the field, you have to respond on your feet,” she said. “These tests don’t equate to the teaching profession.”

Chicago Public Schools is trying to tackle the teacher shortage problem by offering a teacher training program that would offer would-be teachers the chance to get into a classroom and earn a master’s degree in two years.

Some educators also suggest that there are region-specific barriers that could go. Caneva suggests that Chicago get rid of the requirement that teachers live in the city, and instead draw talent from the broader Midwest.

The seven measures the state board passed to improve the teaching force came from Teach Illinois: Strong Teachers, Strong Classrooms, a yearlong partnership between the board and the Joyce Foundation.

documenting hate

Tell Chalkbeat about hate crimes in your schools

Chalkbeat is joining the Documenting Hate consortium organized by ProPublica to better understand the scope and nature of bias incidents and hate crimes in schools.

You may have heard of the project — it’s already fueled some powerful journalism by dozens of news organizations. We’re joining now both because we want to better understand this issue and because Francisco Vara-Orta, who wrote this piece for Education Week on how those incidents marked the months after President Trump’s election, recently joined our team.

Hate crimes and bias incidents are hard to track. Five states don’t have a hate crimes law at all, and when they happen in schools, data are not uniformly collected by a federal agency. But we know they do happen and that they affect classrooms, with teachers often unprepared to address them.

Without data, it’s harder to understand the issue and for policymakers to take action. That’s why we want to help fill in those gaps.

If you have witnessed or been the victim of a suspected hate crime or bias incident at school, you can submit information through the form below. Journalists at Chalkbeat and other media organizations will review and verify submissions, but won’t share your name or contact information with anyone outside of the Documenting Hate consortium.