Teachers are Being Burned

Adam Jordan and Todd Hawley take on teacher attrition in a recent piece in the Bitter Southerner. Here’s some of what they have to say:

Teachers are not burning out. They’re being burned. Teachers are not quitting the profession because they don’t love teaching. They quit because their profession is being devalued by exploitative public policies and a lack of fundamental investment — both monetary and societal. Teachers are not failing. The public is. We are.

Our problem is not burnout. Our problem is lack of political action. Government’s neglect of education has so soured the soil that newly planted teachers cannot flourish. We act as if teachers are to blame because they do not persist, despite the ridiculously bad conditions. We act as if teachers should just “focus” their way out of situations in which they cannot thrive.

Listen. To. Teachers. Ask them to talk about why they or their colleagues leave the profession. They will tell you. And when you finish listening, act. Write the letters and make the phone calls until those you elect understand that you intend to hold them accountable for what they do — or fail to do — to keep our teachers in the classroom.


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We’re #1

A new report indicates Tennessee is a national leader in at least one education category. Jason Gonzales in the Tennessean notes that Tennessee has one of the lowest investments in the nation in rural schools.

Specifically, the report states:

For example, the report said: “22 states have decreased their state contributions for every local dollar invested in rural schools. Tennessee has seen the greatest drop ($1.68, down from $2.11 per local dollar).”

So, six years ago education officials touted the “fastest-improving” NAEP scores — which turned out to be an outlier. Now, we’ll see how (if) they do anything to improve funding for rural schools.

We’re already in a state where teachers earn less than similarly-trained professionals and we’re at the bottom in both overall investment in schools and funding effort relative to ability. In fact, another recent report gave Tennessee a grade of “F” in funding effort:

The report notes that Tennessee is 43rd in the nation in overall funding level and 47th in effort. The effort category is of particular interest because it indicates that Tennessee has significant room for improvement in terms of funding level. That is, there are untapped resources Tennessee is NOT using to fund schools.

Meanwhile, Gov. Bill Lee is out finding a new plaid shirt for this weekend’s faux farmer update. He’ll post to Twitter and pretend he cares about rural schools while pushing an aggressive privatization agenda.

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Virtual Profits

When a company is essentially stealing from taxpayers by failing to provide promised services, and when those services are for kids, well, surely the state would not invest in said company, right?


The Tennessee Treasury Department has INCREASED its stake in problematic virtual school operator K12, Inc. The news comes from a report from market analysts:

State of Tennessee Treasury Department purchased a new stake in K12 Inc. (NYSE:LRN) in the 3rd quarter, according to its most recent filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission. The fund purchased 12,460 shares of the company’s stock, valued at approximately $329,000.

The report indicates this investment is a “new” stake in K12, meaning the State of Tennessee is ALREADY investing in a company that has demonstrated little concern for taxpayer dollars or for the kids it is supposed to educate.

Here’s a bit of history on K12, Inc., the operator of the Tennessee Virtual Academy:

Here’s the portion of the Education Week piece focused on the Tennessee experience:

Those issues are not unique to online charter schools—full-time online programs run through school districts have run into many of the same problems. And especially for a small, rural school system, the opportunity to enroll students in their district from across the state can offer a powerful financial incentive.

Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.

The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.

Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would have shuttered failing virtual schools. One, sponsored by a Democrat in 2013, was killed in committee, even after the lawmaker produced a leaked email from a K12 Inc. staff member that appeared to instruct teachers to change students’ grades. Lawmakers did go on to approve a bill that session that gave the state education commissioner the power to close a failing virtual school after three consecutive years of poor performance, but they struck language from the bill that would have capped enrollment.

Republican state Senator Dolores Gresham—who sponsored the original legislation to allow virtual schools—introduced a bill in 2015 that would have also cracked down on failing virtual schools, but it never came to a vote.

That same year, Gresham also sponsored a bill to extend the state’s virtual school program through 2019.

That one passed.

When Kevin Huffman, a former state education commissioner, tried to shutter the Tennessee Virtual Academy with the authority given to him under that 2013 legislation, it devolved into a years-long saga. Parents sued state officials to keep the school open and a judge ruled in their favor. The school could stay open through the 2015-16 academic year.
Then K12 Inc. caught another break.

A botched roll-out of Tennessee’s computerized testing system in 2015-16 forced officials to toss out all student testing data. That extended the life of the Tennessee Virtual Academy another year.

K12 Inc. said the school has persisted not because of lobbying on behalf of the management company, but because it should never have been targeted for closure in the first place. Although company officials acknowledge that the Tennessee school has struggled academically, they say the school was unfairly singled out by state education officials.
The experience led Huffman, a staunch supporter of charter schools who is now a fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, to shift his stance on full-time online schools and for-profit companies that run them.

“I don’t see evidence of for-profit models that work,” he said in an email to Education Week. “Theoretically, a for-profit operator could run effective schools, but in practice, the top charter school operators are all non-profits, and I don’t think it’s accidental.”

MORE on the failures of K12, Inc. in Tennessee:

An Actual Failure

Cash vs. Kids

So, let’s be clear. Tennessee State Treasurer David Lillard and his staff are well aware that K12, Inc. is not living up to its promise AND is actually harming kids. Still, they not only continue to hold stock in the company, they actually expand their position.

Of course, this is the same Treasury Department that has chosen to expand investment in private prison profiteer CoreCivic.

David Lillard doesn’t give a damn about whether or not taxpayers lose … and he sure as hell doesn’t care about Tennessee kids. As long as his investment positions make money, he’s good.

To be sure, Tennessee’s Treasury Department could make money by investing in businesses that don’t defraud taxpayers or hurt kids — so, one wonders why Lillard allows these actions to continue.

Lillard is elected by the Tennessee General Assembly to hold a position that pays more than $200,000 a year. Perhaps it’s time legislators heard that we need a new state treasurer — one who puts people first.

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The Bottom Line

While Governor Bill Lee continues to fast-track his sketchy voucher experiment, more and more voices are raising concerns about the program.

The latest comes from Tonyaa Weathersbee in the Memphis Commercial Appeal. Her argument highlights a key fact lawmakers would be wise to take into account as they consider repeal of the voucher scheme in 2020:

Mainly, in their rush to inflict vouchers on one of the poorest, mostly African American counties in the state, they have chosen to overlook the success of Shelby County schools’ Innovation Zone program in favor of an ideological approach that has shown few triumphs in boosting poor students’ academic performance.

That’s paternalism, not improvement.

Recent data from the non-partisan Brookings Institute, for example, shows that four rigorous studies done in Louisiana, Washington, D.C., Indiana and Ohio found that struggling students who use vouchers to attend private schools perform worse on achievement tests than struggling students in public schools.  

Vouchers don’t work. In fact, they actually set students back. Legislators will have an opportunity to support a bipartisan voucher repeal effort in 2020 to correct this egregious mistake. Gov. Lee won’t be happy, but doing what’s best for Tennessee’s kids is more important than pleasing the Plaid Privatizer.

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Growth Scores

Get your kid assigned to the right teacher and they just might grow a little taller, new research suggests.

Tennessee has long used something called “value-added assessment” to determine the amount of academic growth students make from year to year. These “growth scores” are then used to generate a score for teachers. The formula in Tennessee is known as TVAAS — Tennessee Value Added Assessment System. Tennessee was among the first states in the nation to use value-added assessment, and the formula became a part of teacher evaluations in 2011.

Here’s how the Tennessee Department of Education describes the utility of TVAAS:

Because students’ performance is compared to that of their peers, and because their peers are moving through the same standards and assessment transitions at the same time, any drops in proficiency during these transitions have no impact on the ability of teachers, schools, and districts to earn strong TVAAS scores.

Now, research on value-added modeling indicates teacher assignment is almost as likely to predict the future height of students as it is their academic achievement. Here’s the abstract from a National Bureau of Economic Research working paper:

Estimates of teacher “value-added” suggest teachers vary substantially in their ability to promote student learning. Prompted by this finding, many states and school districts have adopted valueadded measures as indicators of teacher job performance. In this paper, we conduct a new test of the validity of value-added models. Using administrative student data from New York City, we apply commonly estimated value-added models to an outcome teachers cannot plausibly affect: student height. We find the standard deviation of teacher effects on height is nearly as large as that for math and reading achievement, raising obvious questions about validity. Subsequent analysis finds these “effects” are largely spurious variation (noise), rather than bias resulting from sorting on unobserved factors related to achievement. Given the difficulty of differentiating signal from noise in real-world teacher effect estimates, this paper serves as a cautionary tale for their use in practice.

The researchers offer a word of caution:

Taken together, our results provide a cautionary tale for the naïve application of VAMs to teacher evaluation and other settings. They point to the possibility of the misidentification of sizable teacher
“effects” where none exist. These effects may be due in part to spurious variation driven by the typically small samples of children used to estimate a teacher’s individual effect.

In short: Using TVAAS to make decisions regarding hiring, firing, and compensation is bad policy.

However, the authors note that policymakers thirst for low-cost, convenient solutions:

In the face of data and measurement limitations, school leaders and state
education departments seek low-cost, unbiased ways to observe and monitor the impact that their teachers have on students. Although many have criticized the use of VAMs to evaluate teachers, they remain a
widely-used measure of teacher performance. In part, their popularity is due to convenience-while observational protocols which send observers to every teacher’s classroom require expensive training and considerable resources to implement at scale, VAMs use existing data and can be calculated centrally at low cost.

While states like Hawaii and Oklahoma have moved away from value-added models in teacher evaluation, Tennessee remains committed to this flawed method. Perhaps Tennessee lawmakers are hoping for the formula that will ensure a crop of especially tall kids ready to bring home a UT basketball national title.

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