Not Listening

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has been visiting schools around the state, but apparently, she’s NOT listening.

Here’s more from a visit she made to an elementary school in Bristol:

During a visit Thursday to Anderson Elementary School in Bristol, Tennessee, Schwinn emphasized a number of priorities. 
She said it’s essential the next vendor puts more safeguards in place to ensure testing goes smoothly.
“Certainly we’re going to hold the new vendor accountable,” said Schwinn. 

Additionally, Schwinn commented on the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor:

Schwinn said the bidding process for a new vendor will begin in a few weeks but they don’t plan to execute a new contract until September 2019. 

That’s right. There won’t even be a new testing vendor for the next iteration of TNReady until September of 2019. Students will start taking tests (at least EOC) by December. The September hiring also gives the new vendor just 8 months to prepare for the heavy testing month of April 2020.

Here’s the deal: No one trusts TNReady. Teachers tell us they don’t believe it accurately measures student performance. After a year of supposed hackers and imaginary dump trucks, students don’t take it seriously.

Schwinn is repeating lines used by former Commissioner Candice McQueen. She’s talking about safeguards and teacher resources when there are testing problems. Those of us who have actually been in Tennessee the past five years know what that means: Nothing will change.

How long will we tolerate a failed testing regime that provides little usable data and results in policy that’s bad for kids?

Good news, Tennesseans — the new Governor Bill is as tone deaf as the previous Governor Bill. Maybe he should stop sending out weekend reports from the farm and start actually talking to (and listening) to teachers and parents in our schools. Meanwhile, his handpicked Education Commissioner is demonstrating that while she might appear to be doing the right things (visiting schools, listening) she has a serious comprehension problem.

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According to the results of a recent survey of Tennessee teachers, there’s a huge disconnect between education practitioners and our state’s policymakers.

The Tennessee Education Association released the results of a survey of more than 5000 teachers indicating solid majorities have significant concerns about TNReady as well as the state’s portfolio evaluation system used for some teachers.

Here are some key findings:

When asked if they had a choice in state testing systems for end-of-course exams in their subject area, 87 percent of high school teachers said they would choose the ACT suite of assessments. Eighty-three percent of high school teachers rejected the notion that TNReady accurately measures student knowledge and Tennessee standards. 

Ninety-eight percent of Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers want to eliminate the current portfolio system or make fundamental changes with better teacher input. Among middle school teachers, most would like to see expanded use of benchmark testing used for RTI, followed by ACT. 

The TEA also points out some legislation is moving to address teacher concerns:

One of the key bills is HB383/SB488 filed by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), which would allow districts to administer the ACT, ACT Aspire or SAT tests as an approved testing alternative in math and English language arts for high school students.

While those on the front lines educating our children are asking for a move away from TNReady, Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has said she’s committed to getting TNReady right. While some legislators are finally getting the message, it seems Schwinn has not tuned-in to the very real concerns of our state’s teachers.

It will be interesting to see if Schwinn raises objections to legislation that would move Tennessee away from a failed testing regime.

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Memphis Market Magic

Peter Greene takes on the myth of market magic in this explainer on the charter sector in Memphis. He notes:

Nor are the schools well-distributed. Check this map and you’ll see that some neighborhoods have clusters of charter schools, while other areas of the county have none at all. It’s almost as if market forces do not drive charter businesses to try to serve all students, but only concentrate on the markets they find attractive! Go figure.

The problem did not happen overnight– a local television station did a story entitled “Charter Schools– Too Many? Too Fast?” back in 2017. The answer was, “Probably yes to both.” But it also included the projection that SCS would some day be all charter. It does appear that Shelby County is in danger of entering the public school death spiral, where charters drain so much money from the public system that the public system stumbles, making the charters more appealing, so more students leave the public system, meaning the public system gets less and less money, making charters more appealing, so students leave, rinse and repeat until your public system collapses.

Greene does note there is some good news:

Shelby County Schools is developing guidelines that would determine if a neighborhood has too many charter schools, addressing a longtime concern of school board members.

The charter school guidelines, called the Educational Priorities Document/Rubric in a proposed district policy on charter schools, would also prioritize what the district wants charter schools to focus on, such as early literacy.

Greene asks that we all watch to see if market magic remains the focus, or if some semblance of sanity returns to public education in Shelby County.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Mike Pence and Bill Lee

Governor Bill Lee is big on pushing a vocational/technical education agenda. In fact, it was his first public policy proposal.

Back in 2015, Mike Pence was the Governor of Indiana. He proposed an expansive program to enhance vocational/technical education. Here’s more on how that’s worked out from an economist at Ball State University in Indiana:

Back in 2015, I welcomed Gov. Pence’s call for more vocational education in schools. But, what was designed as a wise policy to prepare more students for a productive life at work ended up causing the state’s school board to weaken curriculum requirements. This has left us with a workforce less prepared to withstand automation-related job disruption.

Let me say it plainly. Our educational policy shifts were not merely unwise but wholly uninformed. By focusing on the needs of just a few vocal businesses at the expense of students, we have significantly weakened the state’s economy.

By softening the educational requirements in high schools, and by promoting jobs of today rather than careers for the future, we may well have squandered the opportunity for rapid growth during the longest recovery in U.S. history. It is time for the General Assembly to undertake a thoughtful and informed review of our human capital policies. It is also time for employers and households to make it clear to elected officials that the long-term interests of Indiana lie in a well-educated and well-trained workforce.

Stay tuned to see if Lee follows the Pence script by expanding vocational education and then expanding vouchers, potentially doubly weakening Tennessee schools.

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That’s how much Williamson County state Senator Jack Johnson supports vouchers. Except he was clear in a recent legislative forum that he didn’t want vouchers to impact Williamson County.

Tennessee Holler has more on Johnson’s bad math and rank hypocrisy:

Senate Majority Leader Jack Johnson (R-Franklin) on the other hand said he supported vouchers “1000%” – although in the next breath he made it clear they would in no way affect Williamson County, which is where he lives, and which is where the town hall was being held.

Yes, it’s hypocritical to say vouchers are ok for other districts, but not right for yours. But it also denies reality. That is, vouchers simply don’t work to help kids and also that they carry significant costs. The funds depleted from the state budget to support vouchers will be funds not available to support an already underfunded public education system:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

Applying that same math to Williamson County, a voucher program would mean a net loss to Williamson County Schools of around $3.4 million. That is, unless Johnson plans on dedicating new revenue to the BEP to make up for the cost of the voucher plan he backs “1000%.”

There’s no reason to believe he will do that, however. Especially since Tennessee is spending less per student in inflation-adjusted dollars than we were back in 2010 when Bill Haslam became governor. Johnson fully supported Haslam’s bleak education budgets that left our state investment in public schools stagnant. Now, he wants to direct public money to private schools and also wants to pretend that won’t impact the community he represents.

He’s either willfully ignorant or hopes the citizens of Williamson County aren’t paying attention.

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It’s no real surprise that high stakes testing drives staffing practices in our state’s schools. Now, however, there’s evidence to support this widely-suspected claim.

Chalkbeat reports:

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

The Tennessee research lines up with similar research on high-stakes accountability systems based on tests in other states:

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

The research is based on data from teacher observations and student achievement scores (TVAAS). I’ve written before about the problems with using value-added data to accurately assess teacher quality. Unfortunately, those problems have yet to stop Tennessee from marching down this misguided path.

That said, let’s look at the impact of a policy where one test, TNReady, drives much of our practice. Principals are heavily incentivized to move low-performing teachers to grades and subjects that are not tested. We now have solid data suggesting that’s actually happening in Tennessee schools. The unintended consequence of a policy that relies on a single test to determine the value of a teacher, student, and school is that students end up being poorly served.

Oh, and of course, the test used to drive all this policy is TNReady. You know, that test our state STILL can’t get right despite trying really hard year after year?

Bad policy drives bad practice which is bad for kids.

We’ve known this for some time now…will any of our policymakers move to change it?

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Looney Calls for Teacher Pay Raise

Citing an inability to attract new teachers, Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney recently asked his School Board for more than $12 million to improve teacher pay for early career teachers.

Franklin Home Page has more:

“Every single day — and it happened this week again — we offer a teacher with no experience a job, and they turn us down because they can go to a neighboring district and make 4 to 5 thousand dollars more,” WCS Superintendent Mike Looney said at Wednesday night’s Board of Education work session. “We compete very well with experienced teachers in compensation, but we simply do not compete with less-experienced teachers.”

Looney is asking the board to approve a proposed increase in teacher compensation for new hires through those with 10 years of experience. Current salary for a new teacher with a bachelor’s degree is $37,500, and it’s $39,500 for one with a master’s. The proposed increase would go to $40,150 and $43,975 respectively. The increase for a teacher in the system for 10 years would go from $43,776 to $47,519 for a teacher with a bachelor’s and from $46,909 to $52,046 for one with a master’s.

The move comes as Williamson County notes starting teachers in Rutherford and Davidson County earn more money while the cost of living in Williamson is relatively high.

At the same time, Nashville has been struggling to attract and retain teachers due to low compensation relative to similar metropolitan areas.

Should Williamson County approve the recommended increase, it may become even more difficult for Nashville to attract new teachers.

All of this in a state with an unbelievably high number of inexperienced teachers in classrooms.

The bottom line: It’s about money. Period. Teachers can’t pay their mortgages with “love for students” or an “intrinsically rewarding” job. It’s not like the bank takes “hugs from my kids” as payment for your car note.

Getting serious about teacher compensation is critical. If the wealthiest county in Tennessee is struggling to find new teachers and the “It City” can’t pay a living wage to teachers, Tennessee is in trouble.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


Voucher Resistance Grows

School Boards in Murfreesboro and Rutherford County both recently indicated opposition to using public money to fund private schools, the Daily News Journal reports.

Lawmakers should oppose state money being used for private education, says a resolution approved Thursday by Rutherford County school officials.

The seven Board of Education members also signed the document in opposition to any state legislation allowing vouchers or education savings accounts for private education. The elected school officials represent a district serving 46,772 students from prekindergarten through 12th grade.

Murfreesboro City School Board members also will be signing the resolution to oppose vouchers and education savings accounts for private schools, Chairman Butch Campbell said Friday.

“I think it’s a continued effort to let our legislators know the opposition that we have for school vouchers,” Campbell said.

The seven-member City School board serves a prekindergarten- through sixth-grade district with 8,989 students.

Despite opposition from the city and county school districts she represents, state Senator Dawn White says she remains a supporter of using public money for private schools:

State Sen. Dawn White, R-Murfreesboro, however, said she backs any potential legislation similar to a law passed a few years ago permitting education savings accounts for special education students.

White’s support for vouchers not only runs counter to the school systems she represents, it also ignores significant evidence that vouchers simply don’t work:

Voucher studies of statewide programs in Ohio, Louisiana, and Indiana all suggest that not only do vouchers not improve student achievement, they in fact cause student performance to decline.

Stay tuned to see if a voucher plan — in whatever disguise — moves forward this legislative session.

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Voucher Fraud

While there is clear evidence suggesting vouchers don’t improve academic outcomes for students, a new concern is getting the attention of Tennessee lawmakers: Fraud.

The Daily Memphian has more:

Reports from across the nation show situations in which private-school officials and parents spent voucher money for items unrelated to education. Cards were used at beauty supply stores, sporting good shops and for computer tech support, in addition to trying to withdraw cash, which was not allowed.

The Arizona Republic found many parents there put voucher funds into college-savings accounts then sent their children to public schools, among other fraudulent activity, all amid lax oversight. The Phoenix newspaper also reported the state investigated one case in which voucher funds were allegedly used to pay for an abortion after it adopted an Empowerment Scholarship Account program in 2011.

The Wisconsin State Journal reported in 2014 the state paid $139 million over 10 years to schools it wound up removing from its voucher program for not following Wisconsin’s financial reporting rules and other guidelines.

It’s not clear if voucher legislation will move forward this session, though Governor Bill Lee has consistently supported using public money to fund private schools.


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Casada to Rape Victims: Move

House Speaker Glen Casada has already appointed an admitted sex offender to a position of leadership in the House of Representatives. Now, he’s doubling down on his support of Education Administration Subcommittee Chair David Byrd.

Here’s more from the Tennessean:

House Speaker Glen Casada says he will continue to defend a Republican lawmaker accused of sexual assault against multiple former students, recently questioning the credibility of the women who came forward and implying that victims of rape should move.

On the topic of the women’s credibility, Kanew told Casada that the women had been ostracized in their community as a result of coming forward with allegations against Byrd.

“If it’s important, and it is —  it’d be important to me if I was raped, I would move,” Casada said.

Casada’s remarks come in a video interview with a reporter from new media site TNHoller.

Last year, both then-House Speaker Beth Harwell and Lt. Governor Randy McNally called on Byrd to resign from the legislature. Instead, Byrd sought and won re-election.

Last month, at the Education Administration Subcommittee’s organizational meeting, not a single member of the all male committee mentioned Byrd’s past or called on him to resign.

Today, the committee met and considered business as if it was not at all unusual for an admitted sex offender to chair a legislative committee.

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