TN Virtual Academy Teacher: We Know Our School Best

By Summer Shelton
Earlier this week, the House education subcommittee met at the state capitol to discuss new public school options.  The room was packed with teachers, parents and students from the Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA) who came to support their public school. I was one of those teachers, and I was honored to speak before the subcommittee on behalf of my colleagues and my school.
It came at a time when our school was being unfairly attacked.  Based on the mischaracterization of one email, completely inaccurate claims of “grade fixing” spread like wildfire and were fanned across the state by people with no firsthand knowledge of how TNVA works.

My colleagues and I know exactly what we do at our school and why we do it, and we stand by our academic decisions.

At TNVA, there are several factors that determine a student’s overall grade: assignments, progress measure, portfolios, attendance, and test scores. In our school, the progress measure is used to determine where students are in the curriculum, not what students have done.  It’s designed to track students individually as they move through their personalized learning program.
Our school realized that our new online grade book was unintentionally but unfairly penalizing students who either did not start at the beginning of the school year or who struggled adjusting to the school’s online model.  Therefore, we decided to record progress month-by-month rather than cumulatively to more accurately record students’ real and current progress.  We now enter the recent month’s progress in the grade book and replace the older ones (this does not include student assessment grades earned during the previous months).
Online schools are different from traditional schools. At TNVA, each student works on their own individualized learning program and at their own pace, so measuring students’ individual progress is important.  There is no reason to have a similar progress measurement in traditional classrooms since the students generally work on the same schedule.
TNVA is a mastery-based program.  We want to make sure students have demonstrated competency before moving on to the next level. With this in mind, we allow and encourage students to re-take assessments in the same unit after reviewing the lesson material to both demonstrate competency and earn a higher grade.  The new score is recorded in place of the old score.  This does not discard student assessment grades from previous units.  Our grading procedure encourages effort and engagement, and rewards mastery. Students earn the grades they receive.
All teachers know that when an assessment is given and the majority of the class does not succeed, the content needs to be re-taught and assessments should be retaken. This is especially true in Math and Language Arts – two subject areas the state of Tennessee emphasizes as priorities for all public schools.
How unfortunate that some chose to distort and sensationalize how TNVA teachers instruct and assess students. In my view, it’s irresponsible for any person to cast judgment on the teaching practices of a school they know nothing about.   It’s especially troubling to hear respected voices in education and elected officials make these inaccurate charges without first seeking the truth from TNVA teachers.
I’m in my eleventh year as a certified educator.  I hold a degree of Highest Honors in Curriculum and Instruction with a Minor in Mathematics. I’ve taught in public and private schools, domestically and abroad. I’ve worked with low-income students in Knox County and the children of diplomats in Europe. I am a supporter of public schools.
My colleagues and I are proud to be teachers at TNVA.  We believe in public education and helping all kids achieve, whether it’s a child on the autism spectrum, a victim of bullying, a gifted student, or any other child.  All children deserve an education that best suits their need.  Families should have the right to choose what’s best for their children and we should respect their decision.  It’s our job as educators to help their children grow and succeed.
Summer Shelton is a middle school teacher at TNVA.  She lives in Knoxville.

Portions of this piece ran in the Knoxville News Sentinel.

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