Tutoring the teachers: School districts work to coach those who struggle on state tests

Tabitha Barron, a social worker at Fivay High School, nearly lost her job because she struggled with a state test required for teacher certification. She passed after taking a Pasco school district help session, which Barron called "priceless." Mindful of the spreading teacher shortage, Pasco and other districts are expanding such programs. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK   |   Times]
Tabitha Barron, a social worker at Fivay High School, nearly lost her job because she struggled with a state test required for teacher certification. She passed after taking a Pasco school district help session, which Barron called "priceless." Mindful of the spreading teacher shortage, Pasco and other districts are expanding such programs. [JEFFREY S. SOLOCHEK | Times]
Published Aug. 31, 2018

Tabitha Barron spent two decades in the U.S. Air Force before working with homeless children in San Antonio, Texas, schools.

When she moved to Pasco County four years ago, the 51-year-old social worker spent her time tending to "every problem imaginable" for students in her high-poverty high school. She stood ready to assist, whether a teen needed headphones or housing.

What she wasn't prepared for was math.

"I don't do math," Barron admitted. "That's why I chose social work."

Yet Florida classifies school social workers as educators. So Barron faced state certification exams. Fail those, lose your job.

And as the tests have become more difficult, that's what has been happening.

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About 1,000 teachers were fired over the summer because of these tests — about a dozen in Hillsborough, three dozen in Pasco, five dozen in Pinellas.

Department of Education officials say the tests ask for basic knowledge that all teachers should have, regardless of assignment. Children deserve highly qualified teachers, they explain, and lawmakers have required the tests to measure that quality.

School district leaders don't disagree with the sentiment.

But they also don't want to lose strong educators, many of whom are on second careers and didn't get the same training as those who earned education degrees.

So rather than just fire them, a growing number of districts are offering seminars, workshops and tutorials to the teachers who struggle with the exams.

"We have to do something to help our teachers," said Scott Richman, supervisor of professional development for Hillsborough County schools.

The Hillsborough and Pasco districts have collaborated to develop materials and lessons aimed at educators who principals have identified as successful in the classroom, but who wobble on the state tests — often in subjects they don't deal with.

"You have an elementary school teacher that needs to pass the math section, and the math is something he or she doesn't need to teach the second grade," observed Pasco school superintendent Kurt Browning. "It's happening all over the state."

Pinellas County schools have provided similar support, this year stepping up the effort with a more formally organized and communicated set of offerings. Pinellas has gone so far as providing substitute teachers for educators who choose to attend some of the district tutorials.

"We need to do that because these are our teachers that administrators have identified as an asset to their schools," said Paula Texel, assistant superintendent for human resources. "We all know, too, that we are looking for great teachers. It's no secret there is a teacher shortage."

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Barron, the Pasco schools social worker, said she feared the state General Knowledge Test, one of several exams teachers must take to be certified. She hadn't studied math since earning a master's degree in 1996.

"That test is really basic math," she said. "But give me basic Chinese, and I still don't know it."

Barron tried to study on her own, but didn't know where to begin. She failed three times.

Teachers can repeat the exam every 31 days, but each successive attempt costs more. If after a year they haven't passed, they cannot keep a full-time teaching post until they get through.

Nervous, Barron started contemplating a job search. Then she learned about Pasco's tutorial program.

Sarah Apsey, a Pasco educator quality specialist at the time, said she began developing the assistance around 2016, after noticing more teachers struggling with recently revamped state exams.

She and others studied test guides, interviewed educators and pored over review materials. Some test prep organizations have popped up, charging teachers for support.

Apsey said the district aimed to help its employees without charge. It started with math, perhaps the most difficult section for teachers on the General Knowledge Test, and since has added the professional educator and elementary education tests.

"We taught them how to read the questions, how to approach the problems to determine what is the better solution," Apsey said. "When it first started, we had people attend who had failed several times. Now we have people come to these trainings before they attempt taking the test."

Culinary arts teacher Jeremy Blythe was one of those.

He worked as a hotel pastry chef before deciding to become a teacher. His first day on the job at Wiregrass Ranch High was his first day ever with students.

"I didn't know about all the tests I would have to take for professional certification," Blythe said. "It was like, did I make the wrong choice? Did I get myself into something I couldn't control?"

He, too, tried to study on his own. But as soon as he learned of the seminars, he signed up.

"It was super helpful. It covered a lot of stuff I hadn't done in forever," Blythe said, referring specifically to math. "I passed the first time. … Without (the support), 100 percent I would have failed."

Richman, Hillsborough's professional development supervisor, acknowledged districts easily could have said if teachers didn't meet all the requirements, too bad. But he, like others, considered that a short-sighted approach.

"We will not find enough teachers if we do that. Colleges are not turning out enough teachers," he said. "If a teacher is good for kids, we have to find a way to keep them."

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The Florida Education Association counted more than 4,000 teaching vacancies statewide in the weeks before classes resumed.

The assistance isn't for everyone. But districts have seen successes.

The number of Hillsborough teachers racing to pass the test over the summer shrank by more than half, Richman said.

Saint Leo University has asked the Pasco district for help preparing its education students for the exams, as well, superintendent Browning said.

Barron, who ultimately passed hers, called the initiative "priceless."

"Without that class, I would not have been able to keep my job," the social worker said. "Who wants to look for another job? This is a job I dreamed of."

Contact Jeffrey S. Solochek at Follow @jeffsolochek.