K12, Inc. Faces More Tennessee Trouble

The Tennessee Virtual Academy, operated by K12, Inc. and Union County Schools, is facing trouble as it seeks to allow 626 students who have enrolled to begin classes there.

The problem is that Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman issued an order preventing TNVA from enrolling new students pending additional monitoring of the school. For the past two years, students at TNVA have been performing at among the lowest levels of any students in the state.

State education officials and legislators have expressed concerns about this performance and TNVA and K12 have indicated they are working to improve.

Until the school shows improvement, though, Huffman wants to prevent further enrollment.

The Knoxville News Sentinel has the full story on a group of parents and legislators who made an appeal to officials with the Governor’s office to reverse Huffman’s decision and allow the students to continue in the school this year.

If the decision by Huffman is not reversed, the students who signed up for TNVA may enroll in schools in their home districts or seek other educational options.

 

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

Interview with Congressman Phil Roe

Below is an interview with Congressman Phil Roe (R-TN), who is a member of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary, and Secondary Education in the United States House of Representatives. He also serves on the full Education & the Workforce Committee. He represents the First Congressional District of Tennessee, which includes Carter, Cocke, Greene, Hamblen, Hancock, Hawkins, Johnson, Sullivan, Unicoi, Washington, Jefferson and Sevier Counties.

We really wanted to know what role the federal government can play in education in Tennessee, and we are glad that Congressman Roe agreed to an interview to answer our questions.

 

1.      Tennessee teachers hear a lot of what’s going on at the state level in regards to education. How can the federal government help Tennessee teachers?

I think that the federal government can best serve Tennessee educators by eliminating unnecessary layers of Washington bureaucracy and returning decision-making power to state and local officials who best know the needs of their schools.

 

2.      How should federal education policy be changed to be of most benefit to Tennessee school systems?

Again, I believe empowering educators and school administrators with flexibility and the ability to make decisions at the local level is one of the most important policy changes Congress can make. That is what the House did in H.R. 5, the Student Success Act, which I worked on in my capacity as a member of the House Education and the Workforce Committee. The Senate, unfortunately, has not acted on this important bill.

 

3.      Do you support the President’s early childhood education initiative?

Our children deserve a quality education. Research has shown that if we do not provide a quality education in the early elementary years any gains made in pre-K are quickly lost, so I believe before we consider expanding our early childhood education we should first focus our efforts on addressing the shortcomings in our K-12 system.  Devoting resources to new expensive programs will take away from this focus.

 

4.      Tennessee was an early winner of Race to the Top funds. Do you believe this program has benefitted teachers and students in Tennessee?

While there’s no question that receiving Race to the Top funds has helped Tennessee, one of the things that concerns me about the program is that the U.S. Department of Education has been able to coerce states into reforms that exceed the department’s authority. I think that the program could be strengthened significantly if we reauthorize ESEA programs so that there is explicit authorization as to what can – and can’t – be pursued for state reforms.   I look forward to seeing our state’s continued progress.

5.      Do you think it’s time to revamp Family Education Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA)? Times have changed since it was first passed in 1974, and some people believe FERPA does not do enough to protect children’s privacy in the digital age.

 

FERPA protects students from their educational records from being shared for non-educational purposes without their—or, in the case of a minor, their parent’s—consent.  This basic principal has not changed even as the way in which data is stored and handled has changed. With that being said, there’s no question that data is being shared in ways that couldn’t have possibly been imagined in 1974, so I think it’s important for Congress to review how data is being used and determine if additional limits are warranted.

 

6.      As a member of the Subcommittee on Early Childhood, Elementary and Secondary Education, you must see a lot of bills that have been filed. If you could pass one piece of legislation today in regards to education, which bill would it be and why?

We know that 2,000 high schools in our country account for 75 percent of the dropouts nationwide.  We must focus our efforts to improve these schools, but in the meantime, students trapped in these so-called “drop-out factories” deserve a choice in where they get their education. I believe expanding the DC voucher program, in which students are given a voucher so they can choose where they get their education, is the most important reform to ensure an entire generation of students isn’t lost.

 

7.      Similar to the previous question, which law would you like to see repealed (or change) to help our education system?

According to the School Nutrition Association’s (SNA) analysis and explanation of the latest rule for school lunch nutrition standards, the maximum number of calories a student in grades K-5 can have at lunch is 650. This is the first time in history the USDA has set a calorie cap on students. This rule is so overly prescriptive teachers are left with the challenge of teaching hungry students. Students and teachers aren’t the only ones suffering under this new rule. I have been contacted by a school director in my district that has had to resort to instructing his cafeteria staff to count out how many tater tots each student gets just so he’s in compliance with these regulations. I believe we should repeal the calorie caps on school lunches and focus more in providing nutritious meals for students that participate in school lunch programs around the country.

Koch Brothers, AFP Bring Voucher Debate to TN Campaigns

Koch-brothers-funded out-of-state group Americans for Prosperity hosted a forum this week featuring voucher advocate Steve Perry.

As WPLN reported, the forum comes after the second consecutive legislative session in which lawmakers rejected a voucher proposal.

Americans for Prosperity is also supporting candidates it believes will help advance its pro-voucher agenda.

This includes 45th District State Representative Courtney Rogers.

Rogers is no stranger to out of state special interests supporting her campaigns. In 2012, she unseated State Rep. Debra Maggart in a Republican primary with the help of thousands of dollars in out-of-state special interest money, most of it from the NRA and other gun rights groups.

The AFP sent out this flyer in support of Rogers:

 

Courtney Rogers AFP

 

The flyer awards Rogers an A+ rating for her unwavering support of vouchers.

It will be interesting to see if the AFP’s involvement in this year’s campaigns changes the outcome of future voucher debates.

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

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

TREE Talks School Board

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE), a statewide, grassroots group that formed in part in response to a push for a statewide charter authorizer, is talking School Board races. Specifically, they take a look at the races shaping up in Nashville.

From their email:

While much of education policy comes from the state level, local school board elections are critically important to the direction of your local public schools. School board elections will be held all over the state this summer. What do you know about the candidates running in your county?

In Nashville, special interests pushing unlimited charter school growth have invested lots of money in four particular candidates.

 From the Nashville Scene  “Those with the biggest war chests have something in common: a friendly, if not embracing, attitude toward charter schools. In the four races — touching the Antioch, Hillsboro, McGavock and Overton clusters — each features… challengers who want charters to play a bigger role in Nashville’s education system…

While people with deep pockets and a desire to see more charter schools have cut meaty checks in this race, they’ve done so individually. Two years ago, a trio of pro-charter activists created a political action committee called Great Public Schools that handed out some $20,000 to their candidates. But that strategy is a no-go this year, said Bill DeLoache, a leading charter advocate and member of the threesome. He declined to comment on why.

But his wife, Mary DeLoache, has spread $6,000 evenly among this year’s four charter favorites. Other former organizers of the PAC have given too, including Townes Duncan (who gave the maximum contribution of $1,500 to Pierce and $500 to Dixon) and John Eason (who split $1,000 between the same two). Both Duncan and Eason work for investment companies… Others in the business community have also spread their wealth, giving maximum or near max donations to all or most charter-friendly candidates.”

Be sure to look closely at your school board candidates, their financial supporters, and whose agenda they will carry. Will the candidate you vote for represent you, or special interests?

Local pro-public education groups that are covering local races include the following:

Williamson Strong http://williamsonstrong.org/candidates/

SPEAK: Students Parents Educators Across Knox County http://speaktn.com/school-board-candidates/

Strong Schools PAC (Sumner County) http://strongschools.org/candidates/

You can look at the full election calendar here.

For more on education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

PET on Common Core Lessons

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) President Cathy Kolb and Director of Professional Development Bethany Bowman talk about lessons learned from Common Core implementation.
There are several words that are called “fighting words” these days, but “Common Core State Standards” may head the list in public education. The only other item that may come close is standardized testing.

Just the phrase “Common Core” can invoke passions, debate or a heated quarrel. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a battle about standards in the private sector.

Mark Twain popularized the adage that there were “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Research, design of study, methodologies, sample selection, quality of evidence all determine how the statistics will be shaped. The use of the data will then drive the decision-making. Policymakers can justify any position for or against an issue based on their view of the available information. Toss in a political agenda, add some cash and you have a recipe to be persuaded for or against any issue. A political maxim is: “money changes behavior, lots of money changes lots of behavior.”

We should be weary of many education reforms, and generally opposed to a one-size fits all approach – especially when there is “lots of money” involved. There is always good and bad to most issues, and reasonable people can generally argue either side. A civil debate can serve a practical purpose in public policy. Common Core is an issue that makes sense in theory, and results may show it makes sense in practice. Time will determine that debate. As an organization, we support higher standards.

Who can be opposed to raising the standards in public education? Let’s face it, our economic strength as a state and a country is linked to the performance of our public schools. Yet, not all students are educated in a traditional public school. Traditional schools are wary of being accountable for students’ scores on standardized tests which do not give an accurate picture of teacher performance.

There are a growing array of education choice options available in America such as controlled open enrollment, charter schools, charter districts, online schools, lab schools, schools-within-schools, year-round schools, charter technical career centers, magnet schools, alternative schools, vouchers, special programs, advanced placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate, early admissions, and credit by examination or demonstration of competency. If you can conceive it, more than likely some school, district or state will probably try it. But will all of these options include the use of Common Core State Standards, and if not, why not?

In Tennessee, for example, any cursory review demonstrates that Common Core State Standards were superior to the standards previously employed. But it is debatable whether recommending a common set of standards for all 50 states was necessary. In fact, Common Core could be properly viewed as a disruptor. In that regard, Common Core served a useful purpose of blowing up the status quo.

In education circles people are now discussing standards, curriculum and testing. Don’t believe for one minute that Common Core State Standards are a “be all, end all.” They were not an insidious plot by the Obama Administration, but they were not exactly crafted by real public educators either. Many of the elements of Common Core were a response that has been kicked around for a quarter-century. In fact, one could pinpoint the genesis of the national curriculum debate at the feet of Chester Finn, who proposed it in an Education Week article in 1989.     Nobody should be thrilled with watered down standards. Yet we must critically scrutinize the curriculum, textbook, and testing clique that have turned into profit centers for a few corporations that seem to have garnered an inside advantage. Bluntly, there may be too many education lobbyists and corporate interests driving manufactured problems in the name of education reform. It is definite that we have tilted the debate too far to the side of the federal government in harming state sovereignty and local control of public education.

The implementation of Common Core went better in Tennessee than in many other places in the country. The real problem was the failure of many policymakers to address the legitimate concerns of stakeholders on other peripheral issues. Organizations that were engaged to take the lead in addressing criticisms were viewed as impertinent and disrespectful and operated as if they themselves were the policymakers. In fact, it bordered on arrogance.

It is accurate that those for and against Common Core have taken liberties with the truth. However, if the debate exasperates people enough perhaps it will spark needed changes such as a real review of standardized testing and a focus back on student-centered instruction. The lesson learned is that the federal government is often too prescriptive in their participation in public education, and most decisions should be left to states, districts, schools and educators.

F0r more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Shiny, Happy Teachers

It seems the Knox County Board of Education wants only shiny, happy teachers to speak at public meetings.

That’s the implication from a Board policy discussed this week.

Here’s the basic thrust of the policy:

The policy says that an employee may come before the board after they have exhausted the normal chain of command.

The board says they want teachers and other KCS employees to put their concerns in writing, and document each step up the chain of command, so that if the process breaks down, they will know where the break down occurred and be able to address it at that point.

Essentially, an employee must demonstrate, in writing, that they’ve exhausted all other channels before appearing before the Board.

One Board member said they didn’t want the system to look bad because teachers raise concerns on TV.

Board member Karen Carson worried that “bringing concerns up, on TV, is not good for public education”

Perhaps the Board, which has seen some contentious meetings recently, wants to prevent scenes like this:

 

 

 

In any case, the policy certainly appears to be intended to chill discourse.  While citizens who are not teachers are free to complain about policy in public, teachers must have written documentation to justify their appearance.  This type of double standard for speakers at public meetings just might run into some constitutional issues.  If some citizens can speak without a note from the Board Chair and others must have permission based on written evidence, you create two classes of citizens for the purpose of speech.

If public comment is allowed at public meeting, the rules must be uniform for all participants.  It would seem the Knox County Board policy may violate that precept.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is done with this policy in coming months.

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

The Need For Science (Training) In Education

I was recently reading a great article by Paula and Keith Stanovich (2003), Using Research and Reason in Education: How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions (link-PDF). I would suggest all teachers should read this piece. It’s important for all teachers to know how to use (and evaluate) scientifically based research in their classrooms. I want to share a few quotes from this article that really stick out to me.

What truly marks an open-minded person is the willingness to follow where evidence leads. The open-minded person is willing to defer to impartial investigations rather than to his own predilections…Scientific method is attunement to the world, not to ourselves

I struggle a lot with this concept when it comes to education. I have my own beliefs about what works in education. It’s hard to put those beliefs aside and look at the evidence that is being presented to you. Sometimes your beliefs are wrong and you need to admit that you are wrong. In some cases, you may see evidence that you don’t agree with and you may believe that the researchers did not ask the question the right way. But If there is a convergence of evidence in that area, that’s a different story. In this field, you need to be open to follow where the evidence leads.

Educational practice has suffered greatly because its dominant model for resolving or adjudicating disputes has been more political (with its corresponding factions and interest groups) than scientific. The field’s failure to ground practice in the attitudes and values of science has made educators susceptible to the “authority syndrome” as well as fads and gimmicks that ignore evidence-based practice.

Does this ring a bell to anyone? I hear about fads and gimmicks in our school systems that claim to solve any problem a student has. Is there any research behind it? Nope. Is it still in our school system? Yep. Are we spending tax-payer money on it? Yep. That’s a huge problem. I have also seen first hand school boards getting rid of programs because it’s politically damaging, but scientifically sound.

The scientific criteria for evaluating knowledge claims are not complicated and could easily be included in initial teacher preparation programs, but they usually are not (which deprives teachers from an opportunity to become more efficient and autonomous in their work right at the beginning of their careers).

Teachers are not getting the knowledge in initial teaching preparations, or even in their master’s or doctoral programs. We could improve the education system by giving this knowledege to the teachers in undergraduate training. Why don’t we? Because there is a huge push back. The research community gets push back from the teaching community, even if the researchers are teachers themselves. I have seen it first hand at my university.

Being able to access mechanisms that evaluate claims about teaching methods and to recognize scientific research and its findings is especially important for teachers because they are often confronted with the view that “anything goes” in the field of education—that there is no such thing as best practice in education, that there are no ways to verify what works best, that teachers should base their practice on intuition, or that the latest fad must be the best way to teach, please a principal, or address local school reform. The “anything goes” mentality actually represents a threat to teachers’ professional autonomy. It provides a fertile environment for gurus to sell untested educational “remedies” that are not supported by an established research base.

This sums it up perfectly.

My goal is to be an educational researcher with an open mind, not afraid of what the evidence tells me. I am not afraid because I want to improve our education system. I want to make sure that all students are reading on grade levels or get students on evidence-based interventions to improve their reading. But being opened minded comes with blows to your ego. Sometimes you are wrong. Sometimes you have to be open to the ideas of charters, vouchers, value added, bonuses, and tenure charge just so you are able to confirm or deny it based on the evidence.

That’s what I am trying to do as a researcher. I hope you will join me.

 

A Tennessee Teacher Talks Tenure

In light of the Vergara decision in California, a Tennessee teacher talks about why tenure is important for teachers. James Aycock, an educator in Memphis, offered his thoughts over at Bluff City Ed.  Aycock offers some thought-provoking analysis, especially when considering that just after Vergara was announced, Senate Education Chair Dolores Gresham asked for an Attorney General’s opinion on Tennessee’s tenure laws.

Aycock notes that the fears teachers express over losing tenure essentially come down to a trust issue.  He suggests that good teachers don’t want to protect bad teachers, but they do want due process in order to prevent unjust termination. Without tenure, teachers could be non-renewed due to personal disagreements or political activity.

Another interesting point Aycock raises is a financial one. Would a loss of tenure result in veteran teachers being non-renewed because they cost too much? And, should we have a teaching force made up of the lowest-cost employees?

Here’s what he has to say on this point:

Teachers fear that personnel decisions will be made based on money rather than quality.

There is some legitimacy to this claim, though not with any malicious intent. I’ve witnessed first-hand school leaders discussing the merits of having two veteran teachers at $60,000 apiece versus three new teachers at $40,000 each. If you have $120,000 for staffing, what do you do? What is more important, quality or quantity, experience or class size? The question is a budgetary one, not one about teacher quality.

This is less of a concern at traditional district schools, although district policies can make this a factor. It’s much more of a concern, though, in autonomous schools. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for school autonomy. But think about it for a second. A principal at a traditional school has positions to fill according to a staffing formula, but doesn’t necessarily have budget restrictions for those positions; if you need a math teacher, you get the best math teacher you can find, with salary not really an issue at the school level. However, a principal at a more autonomous school may get a budget and have the freedom to hire and program within that budget; here, quality is certainly important, but salary comes into play as well.

If principals are given budgets, as opposed to just staffing positions, then they may face the choice between one veteran or two new teachers, leading to the scenario described above. Whether or not that veteran teacher has tenure plays a huge role in a school leader’s ability to make that decision.

As Aycock notes, school-based budgeting makes this type of decision-making more likely. And not necessarily for malicious reasons. Arguably, a mix of veteran and new teachers is desirable at a school for a variety of reasons. But an excellent veteran teacher shouldn’t have to fear they may lose their job just because they cost too much. In fact, we should be creating an environment where teachers know that if they work hard and do a good job, they’ll be rewarded.

Read more of what James Aycock has to say about tenure.

And read more from teachers in Memphis and Shelby County at Bluff City Ed.

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

Gresham Takes Swipe at Teacher Tenure Laws

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham this week began the process of questioning Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws.

According to a press release, Gresham has requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws in light of the recent decision in the Vergara v. California case.

From the release:

“This is a very important decision regarding teacher employment laws, which will reverberate to states across the nation, said Senator Gresham. “Tennessee, like California, has its own constitutional provision regarding student’s education rights in addition to the Equal Protection Clause afforded by the U.S. Constitution. We certainly need to make sure that we are on sound constitutional footing, and especially whether the reforms passed over the last several years will satisfy the constitutional tests as decided in this ruling.”

Gresham asked two specific questions:

1) Whether the current statutes or state law in effect prior to July 1, 2011 governing permanent employment violate students’ rights to a free education under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution.

2) If Tennessee law or the statutes in effect prior to July 1, 2014, governing layoffs or the dismissal and suspension of teachers violate student’s rights to a free education under the federal and state constitutions.

The Tennessee Constitution in Article 11, Section 12 states:

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.

It’s not clear how tenure protections for teachers would inhibit the provision (on an equal basis) of a free education for all students.

Tennessee’s tenure laws were changed in 2011.  Under those provisions, teachers must teach 5 years before tenure is considered. Only those teachers with two consecutive years of evaluation scores of 4 or 5 (the highest two scores) may be granted tenure. Teachers who fail to meet that standard cannot be granted tenure.

Under Tennessee law (TCA 49-5-511 and TCA 49-5-512), tenure affords simple due process rights to teachers.

That means that if a Director of Schools wishes to dismiss a tenured educator, the reason for dismissal must be provided in writing to the teacher.  Should the teacher wish to appeal the dismissal, the teacher has 30 days to request a hearing by an impartial hearing officer. That hearing must be scheduled within 30 days of the receipt of the request (a maximum of 60 days would pass between the notice of dismissal and the hearing).

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, in a unanimous decision, upheld the Tennessee law that requires both written notice and the opportunity for a hearing.

What’s not clear from Gresham’s early salvo is what about affording employees basic due process impedes a student’s right to equal access to a free public education.

It seems that abiding by a process that prevents arbitrary dismissal of teachers demonstrates to students a fundamental concept of fairness.  All teachers receive a TEAM evaluation score and since 2012, that score has been used in determining the granting of tenure. The dismissal process for tenured teachers is straightforward and allows both sides to present a case.  It prevents principals or Directors of Schools from simply dismissing teachers for reasons such as politics or personality issues.

Meanwhile, the free public education to which Gresham seems concerned that all students should have access to, is undermined by a General Assembly that balances the state’s budget on the backs of teachers and schools.  In the case of Gresham specifically, she has been a tireless champion of K12, Inc., a private, virtual school that receives Tennessee tax dollars yet fails to even approach adequately educating Tennessee students.

While the Governor has appointed a duplicative BEP task force designed to avoid the uncomfortable conversation around the inadequacy of current BEP funding, Senator Gresham is starting a fight about teacher tenure.  It’s the BEP funding that could, in fact, be unconstitutional in its current form as many systems find it inadequate to meet the needs of students.

Whatever the AG opinion says, this may only be the beginning of a legislative and legal fight over teacher tenure in Tennessee.

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

TCAP Results Show Growth

After a delay in releasing TCAP “quick scores” that led to TCAP results not being included in final grades for students in a number of Tennessee school districts, the results are finally in and they look positive.

The Department of Education Reports:

  • While  it was a year of transition for Tennessee teachers and students as they fully  implemented the state’s new standards in math and English, scores increased on the majority of  assessments.
  • Nearly 50  percent of Algebra II students are on grade level, up from 31 percent in 2011. More than 13,000 additional Tennessee  students are on grade level in Algebra II than when we first administered the  test in 2011.
  • High school English scores grew  considerably over last year’s results in English I and English II.
  • Achievement gaps for minority students narrowed  in math and reading at both the 3-8 and high school levels.
  • Approximately  100,000 additional Tennessee students are on  grade level in math compared to 2010.
  • More than 57,000 additional Tennessee students are on grade  level in science compared to 2010.

In response to the release of the results, JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) issued the following press release:

Data from TCAP should continue to be analyzed and evaluated. It is unclear from a cursory glance of results exactly what this means to Tennessee educators.
 
We are pleased to see the gains in High School Math. That is a good sign. We must sustain that effort, and it bodes well for STEM programs in our state.
 
“It is clear we need to carefully consider the consequences of making a one-time standardized test the be-all, end-all for our students and educators” according to JC Bowman, Executive Director.  
 
He added, “some evidence suggests improvements in student performance. But credit should also be given to school district policies and programs, as well as to educators focused on test-based accountability.”
 
“While performance is improving, the contribution of high-stakes testing to that effort remains unclear. It is critical we use data to improve instruction — but the verdict on the value of assessments this year is mixed” Bowman stated.
 
He concluded: “This year data provides general information about student performance, but lacks the nuance to provide any real instructional guidance for educators. Most educators believe TCAP or any state assessment should be used as a diagnostic tool, rather than as a punitive measure.” 

Bowman echoes the concern of many educators when he urges caution regarding how the scores are used in the teacher evaluation process.

Additionally, Bowman has written recently about a possible moratorium on the use of testing data in teacher evaluations during the transition to Common Core-aligned tests.

Similarly, new Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Barbara Gray lamented the over-reliance on standardized testing in a recent interview.

Finally, there’s the experiment of Performance-Based Assessment in at least one Kentucky school district. It’s an experiment set to expand and some are suggesting replacing standardized tests with performance-based assessment.

As Tennessee transitions to Common Core and puts out a bid for a test to assess the standards, now is a critical time to consider the type and frequency of testing in Tennessee and also to have a conversation about how that data is used for both teachers and students.

 

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