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

Rural Charters Denied

Charter school proposals in both Cheatham and Robertson counties were denied at the School Board level last night.  As was reported here, the Cheatham proposal was particularly controversial. In addition to opposition from at least one candidate for School Board, the proposal brought state Senate candidate Tony Gross and his wife out to express opposition.

Joey Garrison reported on the two rural charter proposals and also on a slate of new charters proposed and approved for Nashville.

Cheatham Charter Fight Tonight

Tonight the Cheatham County School Board will consider an application for the district’s first charter school, Cumberland Academy. If approved, the school would open in the 2015 and start with 5th grade.  The school proposes to add a grade each school year until it serves students in grades 5-12.

The charter school proposal has been controversial, with at least one School Board candidate, Tracy O’Neill, raising concerns about charters.

Also, the Tennessee BATs (Badass Teachers) are promoting attendance at the meeting to express opposition to the charter proposal.

Earlier this month, the board adopted a policy on charter schools.

The Board meets tonight at 6 PM at Ashland City Elementary.

 

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

Reforming the Reformers

Below is a piece from JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET), on the current state of education reform.

 

A young monk named Martin Luther wrote ninety five theses then nailed them to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He welcomed public debate on the subjects of concern that he raised. This gave birth to the Reformation.   Against all the political (and spiritual) powers of the day, Luther was put on trial. He was ordered to repudiate his positions. He refused. Luther understood that his conscience is captive to the word of God. He said, “I cannot and I will not retract anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

Luther chose the difficult path. In the duration of our lives we must face a simple struggle: accept what is or work to change it. Some things need to remain, but eventually, most everything will be swept away.

When I entered Lee University and enrolled in my first education class, professor Dr. Gene Christenbury told us to challenge the status quo. He said, “Never let anything get between you and your students.” I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I have a better grasp today than at any other time in my life.

The education reform movement, which I have embraced and have helped lead in Tennessee, as well as in several other states, is very much in need of reform itself. It has lost its way. As I look at the political landscape I see the leadership of the reform movement is not connected to the actual practitioners in the classroom. Education reform is no longer focused on students or teachers. It is focused on ancillary issues, folks who profit off the system, and those who want to create workers. This is not a judgment on motives, rather pointing out a perception. (In my defense as an education reformer, at least I spent over a decade as an actual public school teacher in Tennessee.)

For example, the concept of “college and career ready” is a worthy goal. However, if we lose creativity or fail to develop critical thinking skills what are we really accomplishing? If students score higher on the ACT or the SAT, will that make them better citizens? What purpose does it actually serve? We understand that it is morality, not intelligence, which makes civil society possible. How we think reflects who we are? What is considered intelligence today? Is it shifting? For centuries philosophers have tried to pinpoint the true measure of intelligence. Socrates said, “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” Are we actually teaching/testing/measuring the right things?

In 1985, Robert Sternberg put forward his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, contending that previous definitions of intelligence are too narrow because they are based solely on intelligences that can be assessed in IQ tests. Instead, Sternberg believes types of intelligence are broken down into three subsets: analytic, creative, and practical.

Educators understand that critical thinking, creativity, conflict resolution, communication, and teamwork cannot be lost in our efforts. Research reminds us that well-rounded people strive for personal fulfillment and typically have more self-confidence. Education is not strictly about preparing students for a specific career. Unmeasured objectives like teaching students lifelong values, discipline, and the ability to explore new ideas and to think independently are very much essential. Should that not also be an education objective? Albert Einstein, a genius by most accounts, said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

The issues of the day, the ones that perplex us now, may not even be relevant in the next election cycle.  When we watch policymakers grasp at the complex issues facing public education, we realize that outside influences and political donations are having greater influence over our classrooms and often fail to connect the educator with the policy. Policymakers surely understand how educators deliver instruction and how we measure success in our classrooms being led by non-practitioners will create problems.

Too many reforms are proposed or pursued with very little evidentiary basis. In efforts to drive up student academic performance we cannot disregard an educator’s insights into their student’s academic and social and emotional growth. Simply raising a test score will not guarantee success in life, especially if we fail to develop social skills and fine motor skills. In fact, we know the development of fine motor skills plays a crucial role cognitive development.    So is it also true we may not even be using the correct metrics in determining success? Can we keep gambling on our children’s future? How long will education reform be ongoing before someone asks for the results? Who do you trust – the teacher at your child’s school that lives in your community, or a think tank of non-educators in Nashville or Washington DC?

We know top performing nations like Singapore and Finland have reduced standardized testing and increased curriculum flexibility on their road to success. They stress teacher professionalism and connecting actual practitioners with policymakers. That is what has been missing among reformers and in the education debate, in general.

I welcome the debate. Like Martin Luther, here I stand. I can do no other.

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