Penny’s Perspective

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is finally bringing some perspective to the claim that Tennessee is the “fastest-improving state in the nation on NAEP.” This comes after the release of the 2019 NAEP results, which showed that Tennessee remained statistically flat in terms of overall achievement. The results add further evidence to the claim that the 2013 “fastest-improving” numbers were an outlier.

Here’s some of what Schwinn had to say about the results, according to a report in Chalkbeat:

“If I’m a parent, I’m not necessarily thinking that flat is positive,” she said. “I’m thinking that flat is flat.”

“If we’re looking at proficiency by student group over time, the large increase in 2013 was largely from our white and non-low income students,” she said, calling for more support for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.

“When we look at our suburban and urban students, we know that those students accounted for much of the 2013 growth, but our rural [scores] have remained relatively unchanged,” she said.

Schwinn noted that Tennessee continues to perform lower than peer states.

The bottom line: Tennessee is “gaining” because other states are losing ground. More specifically, as Schwinn notes, our rural and low-income students still lag behind. In other words, it’s very important to pay attention to poverty — and to enact policy that lifts up communities.

American cent

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The State Board of Education has usurped the authority of the Metro Nashville school board by overturning the decision by MNPS to close Knowledge Academies.

More from Fox17 in Nashville:

The Tennessee State Board of Education voted to overturn all three of the Nashville Public Schools board’s decision to close Knowledge Academies at the end of the semester.

In August, the MNPS Board of Education unanimously voted to revoke the charter of Knowledge Academies:

The district said the schools aren’t meeting performance goals and aren’t keep their financial books properly.

The move by the state board of education comes as Governor Bill Lee’s school privatization commission prepares to begin operation.

It also comes as the Shelby County School Board voted to revoke the charter granted to Southwest Early College High.

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Beavis and Bevin

As if any voter in Kentucky cares, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee has endorsed fellow Republican Matt Bevin in Bevin’s bid to hold on to the Governor’s seat in Kentucky.

Erik Schelzig of the Tennessee Journal reports:

Lee appeared at a Bevin campaign stop at the Casey Jones Distillery in western Kentucky on Friday. The first year Tennessee governor said Bevin had encouraged him to run last year, and that he was inspired by Bevin’s “outsider” status.

“He, too, came from the business world and he understands that the status quo and establishment is not the way to move the Commonwealth of Kentucky forward,” the Hoptown Chronicle quoted Lee as saying. “The way to move forward is to break and challenge the status quo.”

Lee and Bevin have a lot in common, including a stunning incompetence when it comes to governing.

On education issues, Bevin has advanced charter schools, sought to destroy teacher pensions, and suggested teacher strikes caused children to be vulnerable to sexual assault.

For his part, Bill Lee has advanced an aggressive charter expansion agenda while watching the FBI investigate both the House vote on his voucher legislation and the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill. In fact, the fight over vouchers threatens to divide the House GOP.

Lee and Bevin are truly two peas in a pod.

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Shut It Down

The Tennessee Department of Education is holding a series of listening meetings about what to do with the troubled Achievement School District. One solution to the ongoing struggles would be to simply shut the district down. This would need to be done in a way that was not disruptive, but gradually turning the ASD schools back to district control could be the best solution in the long term.

An article in Chalkbeat sums up the problems with the district this way:

The achievement district was created seven years ago, and has struggled to turn its schools around. Its third leader left last summer, a study found the program has not improved student achievement, and no new schools will join the district this year school year.

One parent at the first listening session expressed the frustration felt by many who have watched the ASD over the years:

Marshaye Smith, a parent of five students at a state-run high school in Frayser, said it felt good to have a space to talk, but she was more interested in what the state does with the feedback.

“We’ve been hearing all this for years, and we’re saying our schools need more,” Smith said. “Are they actually going to use what they write down on paper?”

I’ve written and shared a lot about the ASD since it started, and Smith seems to nail the central issue: Will state leaders actually take the feedback and do anything? Again, one option would be to simply phase-out the ASD and provide districts additional support as they absorb students back into district schools.

In fact, if the state stopped ignoring key issues that contribute to the conditions that created the need for the ASD to begin with, perhaps students in ALL schools would see the benefit.

Back in 2015, I wrote about how the ASD had moved well beyond its original mission and noted that this expansion could be problematic. Now, it seems the problems are too great to ignore — or, at least great enough to cause state officials to hold “listening meetings” and write things down.

Imagine that instead of the sprawling state-run district with multiple charter operators functioning at varying degrees of efficacy, the state had collaborated with districts at persistently low-performing schools. Doing so would likely mean providing services beyond school for the students there. Focused intervention — meaning collaboration and support, not state takeover — could have changed the trajectory for kids in the schools targeted by the ASD.

Instead, we’re left with a struggling district that no one wants to run and a state listening tour where the greatest concern expressed is that nothing significant will actually change.

I say simply: Shut it down.

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Promises, Promises

A charter school in Memphis that makes big promises to students and parents is failing to deliver, according to a report from WMC-TV. Apparently, Southwest Early College High is on the verge of closing following the outcome of a district investigation into the school that found:

SCS posted the results of its investigation along with a presentation online, outlining why the school’s charter should be revoked immediately.

The district says SECH relied on unlicensed teachers in multiple classes; failed to provide proper services to special needs students; and lost its partnership with Southwest Tennessee Community College, where the school is located, because students weren’t receiving the academic and socio-emotional support needed. The presentation also said the school had “no institutional control.”

Now, students are left behind — victims of a market-based approach to education. This approach, advanced by conservatives and neo-liberals alike, is a distraction from the real challenges facing students. It’s easier for some adults to chase the shiny, new object than to actually dig in and make systemic change.

Governor Bill Lee, for example, is all-in on the voucher and charter agenda because that’s easier politically than tackling challenges like access to healthcare and generational poverty.

Solutions to these problems exist and they’d help kids and families get ahead. Instead of pursuing them, though, our policymakers and their privatizing friends keep making new promises.

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A Big Investment

While Tennessee languishes near the bottom of all states in school funding, one Presidential candidate is laying out a plan to make a massive federal investment in schools — especially those with high numbers of low income kids (like so many in Tennessee). Here’s more on Elizabeth Warren’s education funding plan:

Warren unveils education plan quadrupling federal funding for public schools. The Hill: “Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-Mass.), a leading Democratic presidential candidate, is proposing a plan to quadruple federal funding for public schools with incentives for states to fund poor and rich schools more equally. Warren has often campaigned off her personal history as a public school teacher and the importance of reforming the system. Her education plan released Monday comes after much of the primary field has already released such proposals. Warren’s plan would quadruple Title I funding — equivalent to an additional $450 billion — over the next 10 years for pre-K-12 public schools. Warren also plans to invest an additional $100 billion over ten years in ‘excellence grants’ to public schools, and an additional $50 billion in repairing and upgrading school buildings. In an effort to incentivize states to fund schools more equally, the new Title I funding would be conditioned on states ‘chipping in more funding and adopting and implementing more progressive funding formulas, so that more resources go to the schools and students that really need them.’ The plan is financed by Warren’s signature wealth tax on net incomes over $50 million, as are many of her plans.”

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MNEA Backs Stacy

As Nashville’s Metro Council considers candidates to replace Will Pinkston on the School Board, the Metro Nashville Education Association has weighed-in in support of Kevin Stacy. Here’s their endorsement:

First, the MNEA PACE Council would like to state that the decision to endorse was very difficult based on the excellent qualities of two candidates. We feel that both Freda Player and Kevin Stacy would be strong advocates for MNPS employees and would use their votes and their voices to defend public education in our city. However, after much deliberation, the PACE Council voted to endorse Kevin Stacy for the position.

This decision was made based on a number of factors. First, one of Mr. Stacy’s top priorities is improving the culture of our working environment within MNPS, which we see as imperative if the district is to successfully attract and retain the professional educators it needs. Secondly, Mr. Stacy has worked as a teacher and understands the particular nuances of the struggles we face. Finally, in an area that has such a heavy concentration of EL students, we feel that Mr. Stacy’s proven experience as the Executive Director of MNPS EL Services will make him an excellent advocate for the families of District 7.

The MNEA PACE Council would like to thank both Freda Player and Kevin Stacy for their thoughtful responses to our questions and their hard work and commitment to making Nashville a better place. While the decision was difficult, we are hopeful that public school advocates may become the norm for local candidates going forward. Ultimately, it’s a good problem to have.

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It looks like Nashville is finally getting serious about addressing their woefully inadequate teacher pay. Or, at least they are talking about it. The Tennessean reports that the Metro Nashville school board is taking up the issue of pay for teachers and all system staff.

Boosting the salaries of Nashville teachers to match the city’s median income would cost more than $100 million a year. 

Although just an example detailed in a pay study released by Metro Nashville Public Schools on Friday, it represents the high figure the district would need to fix a pay system educators say is flawed and causing teachers to leave.

For example, Majors presented a possible scenario in which the district would pay mid-career teachers about $64,000 a year — comparable to Nashville’s median income. The increase in salary for all teachers of all experience levels would mean an annual infusion of $100 million to fix the district’s pay schedule.

The discussion on teacher pay in MNPS is long overdue. Also long overdue: Actual action by the School Board and Metro Council to increase pay.

It’s been clear for some time now that teacher pay in Nashville is a crisis:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

That was written in 2017. The story notes a 2015 analysis of teacher pay in Nashville. That analysis found Nashville significantly behind similar urban districts in pay. The MNPS board and Metro Council did basically nothing with that information. We’ve seen Mayors Dean, Barry, and Briley barely touch the issue. We’ve yet to see Mayor Cooper talk about a plan to boost pay in a meaningful way.

IF the issue gets addressed in the upcoming budget cycle, it will be August of 2020 before Nashville teachers see a meaningful boost in their paychecks. That’s five years after teacher pay in Nashville was reported to be at near crisis levels. It’s after allowing things like this to happen:

Hundreds of parents with children in Metro Nashville Public Schools had letters sent home this week telling them that their kids were having to take online courses in the classroom due to a teacher shortage.

It’s after school districts like Williamson County have made consistent improvements to salary and districts like Sumner County have approved a big pay bump.

It’s great to see the district finally take a look at a problem they’ve known about for years. It’s absolutely necessary that instead of just talking about it, the School Board, Council, and Mayor actually do something.

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Team Broad

Jeff Bryant has a great story about the Broad Academy — the story of one billionaire seeking to shape education policy by placing people in key roles. People like Knox County’s Jim McIntyre. Here’s more:

It’s rare when goings-on in Kansas City, Missouri schools make national headlines, but in 2011 the New York Times reported on the sudden departure of the district’s superintendent John Covington, who resigned unexpectedly with only a 30-day notice. The main reason Covington left Kansas City was not because he was pushed out by job stress or an obstinate resistance: He left because a rich man offered him a job. What caused Covington’s exit, Kansas City Star reporter Joe Robertson reported, was “a phone call from Spain.” That call brought a message from billionaire philanthropist and major charter school booster Eli Broad. “John,” Broad reportedly said, “I need you to go to Detroit.” It wasn’t the first time Covington, who was a 2008 graduate of a prestigious training academy funded through Broad’s foundation (the Broad Center), had come into contact with the billionaire’s name and clout. Broad was also the most significant private funder of the new Michigan program he summoned Covington to oversee, providing more than $6 million in funding from 2011 to 2013, according to the Detroit Free Press. But Covington’s story is more than a single instance of a school leader doing a billionaire’s bidding. It sheds light on how decades of a school reform movement, financed by Broad and other philanthropists and embraced by politicians and policymakers of all political stripes, have shaped school leadership nationwide.


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Inside Man

As more and more parents and teachers question the value of the state’s testing regimen, it’s important to examine how we got here. The short answer: Lots of money spent on lobbying by major testing companies like Pearson. The Tennessee-specific short answer: Chuck Cagle.

Over at Talking Points Memo, Owen Davis takes a deep dive into how Pearson and other testing giants made a killing on standardized testing. He points out that today’s students spend a lot of time taking standardized tests mandated by state governments (and even more time prepping for those tests):

The sense that students are over-tested is no illusion. A 2013 study from the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development found the stakes attached to testing in the U.S. to be the highest in the developed world. One study of the 66 largest urban school districts found the average student took 112 standardized tests from kindergarten to graduation, spending an average 22 hours a year just taking the exams, let alone preparing for them.

This despite the fact that Tennessee teachers report the tests are of little value, in part because of all the inconsistencies with test administration:

The Cookeville Herald-Citizen reports on attitudes toward standardized testing (TNReady) among teachers in Putnam County and notes the results are similar statewide:

Most teachers in Putnam County say information received from statewide standardized exams is not worth the investment of time and effort.

The results come from the state’s 2019 Tennessee Educator Survey released Thursday.

The state Department of Education said more than 45,000 Tennessee educators completed this year’s survey, representing 62 percent of the state’s teachers — an all-time high response rate. In Putnam County, 80 percent of the teachers took the survey, as did 88 percent of administrators.

According to the results, 62 percent of Putnam teachers either disagreed or strongly disagreed that standardized testing was worth the effort. Statewide, that percentage was 63 percent.

Now to our friend and testing money-maker Chuck Cagle. Here’s what Davis notes about Cagle:

Pearson also lobbied shrewdly at the state level. In Tennessee, for instance, Pearson’s top lobbyist was Chuck Cagle, attorney and husband of a longtime Pearson account executive. Cagle’s other clients included a reform organization called Tennessee SCORE, as well as the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and the Association of Independent and Municipal Schools—groups that exert substantial influence on district contracts. According to meeting minutes, Cagle gave Pearson-sponsored presentations and introduced Pearson executives to the school groups.

So, while TCAP was a key test in Tennessee, their top lobbyist was Chuck Cagle, who was also lobbying for groups representing school superintendents and school systems. The Tennessee Registry of Election Finance notes that Cagle was listed as a registered lobbyist for Pearson in 2011, 2012, 2013, and 2014.

Then, as Tennessee transitioned to TNReady, Cagle pops up as the registered lobbyist for new testing vendor Measurement, Inc in 2015, 2016, and 2017. You might remember Measurement, Inc. as the company that hired test graders from Craigslist and also seriously botched the initial online rollout of TNReady.

So, in Tennessee, Chuck Cagle makes thousands of dollars each year representing school superintendents and school systems and also makes thousands of dollars each year helping testing companies secure lucrative contracts. According to Davis’s reporting, at least while working on behalf of Pearson, Cagle was extolling the virtues of that company to his school system clients.

According to his law firm bio:

Charles W. (Chuck) Cagle is a shareholder and chair of the Education Law and Government Relations Practice Group for the firm’s Nashville office. He oversees the firm’s representation of over 70 public boards of education, two private schools, two private universities, and a private medical school in a variety of legal matters…

His list of lobbying clients has included school superintendents, school employee professional organizations, school boards, private schools, and private universities

It’s no wonder a testing company seeking lucrative contracts would seek out a lobbyist like Cagle. Those boards, however, should be asking Cagle about his interest in promoting testing and products offered by Pearson and other companies he is representing or has represented.

Having been around the General Assembly for nearly 20 years now, I’ll say that Cagle is often called on by lawmakers (especially in committee meetings) to offer his expertise on education issues. It seems his range of interests includes ensuring the state continue requiring hours of testing with vendors he represents. No mention of whether or not Cagle believes these tests have any benefit for the students taking them. Certainly no mention of any advocacy for the type of systemic changes that would actually help kids.

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