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Tennessee Education Report has nearly 2000 subscribers and over 7500 followers on Twitter.

Since 2013, TN Ed Report has provide insight and analysis on education policy news in Tennessee.

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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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Mendes on MNPS Pay Raise

Nashville Metro Council Member-at-Large Bob Mendes offers thoughts on the mid-year pay raise for Nashville teachers. Here is his blog post on the topic:

This morning, the Mayor announced that he had identified a mechanism to pay MNPS employees the 3% raise that Mayor Briley promised them would start on January 1, 2020. Before I explain how it is being funded, some background:

  • The Briley announcement happened in July right AFTER the budget was finalized. He claimed that there would be recurring revenue of $7.5 million per year and that it wouldn’t need Council approval. The source was going to be a re-financing of some MDHA tax increment financing loans with Regions Bank. The announcement was criticized widely as a campaign gimmick. Even inside Metro, nobody understood how it was going to be recurring and nobody understood how to get all $7.5 million to MNPS.
  • This entire conversation about a post-budget, no Council approval, supposedly recurring mid-year raise for MNPS happened only because the Metro government has systematically short-changed employees on pay for many years now.

What was Briley’s plan?

Briley’s administration announced that the $7.5 million would come for an MDHA TIF loan restructuring. I wrote about the details of this funding mechanism in July. There were two things that weren’t known at the time — was it really recurring, and how would MDHA get all of the refinancing proceeds.

About the “recurring” issue, the current administration tells me (and the Mayor said this morning) that this is not recurring. Even back in July, MDHA acknowledged that this funding would require an annual waiver by Regions of its rights to keep the $7.5 million themselves. At best, both in July and now, you could say that you expect that it will continue to happen. But there is no legal right for Metro to get the $7.5 million in future years. That is up to the discretion of the bank, I am told.

About the “how does MNPS get the full $7.5 million” issue…this is complicated. This $7.5 million is property tax money. To understand why the prior administration’s assertion that all $7.5 million would go to MNPS was questionable, you have to understand how property tax money flows through the operating budget. Boring stuff. But important here.

I wrote a TIF step-by-step post in 2018 that explains the process. In summary though, all property tax revenue is automatically divided between Metro’s six “Funds.” Focus on the word “automatically.” Upon receipt of property tax revenue, the money is automatically divided among the six Funds. So the Briley idea that all $7.5 million would go to one of the six Funds — the School Fund — was inconsistent with the way Metro handles property tax revenue.

Under the current operating budget, the School Fund gets about 31.5% of all property tax revenue — so roughly one-third of property tax revenue. Under the Briley plan, nobody ever explained how the other two-thirds that would be allocated automatically to the other five Metro Funds would make its way over to MNPS — especially without Council approval as had been suggested.

What is Cooper’s plan?

At the press conference today, the administration explained that there are two sources to pay for the $7.5 million needed for the January 1 MNPS raise — the MDHA TIF refinancing and “Fund Balance” money.

They told us that $2.5 million would come from the MDHA loan deal with Regions Bank. This matches up with how the automatic allocation of property tax revenue works. That means that the waiver from Regions was worth $7.5 million and, of that amount, approximately one-third ($2.5 million) was allocated to MNPS.

(We should pay attention to the other $5 million that went to other Funds. I believe this means that the city just got $5 million closer to closing the $41.5 million gap in the current year operating budget.)

The administration also told us today that the rest of the $7.5 million is coming from Fund Balance money. The Fund Balance is basically money that has been appropriated in prior years but is unspent. It is typically impossible to get a budget to be spent precisely to the dollar. For obvious reasons, it is better for a department to come in better than budget rather than over budget. When a department ends a year without having spent all the money it was appropriated, the unused money is called “Fund Balance.” Ideally, you would have the Fund Balance accumulate slowly over time.

The Comptroller had two slides that referred to MNPS’s Fund Balance. Like the rest of Metro’s operating budget, for several years now, we have making ends meet at MNPS by using up the accumulated Fund Balance. The audited numbers show that, as of June 30, 2016, the MNPS Fund Balance was about $74 million. Two years later, as of June 30, 2018, the MNPS Fund Balance had eroded to about $35 million. Mayor’s Cooper’s plan is to use Fund Balance money to pay for the rest of the January 1 raises.

Handling the raise this way will require both school board and Council approval in December 2019.

What does it all mean?

Mayor Cooper was clear today that these are not recurring revenues. He committed to work with MNPS and the Council to find recurring revenue in the next full year budget to make this pay increase permanent.

The threshold question we are all facing is whether the city will honor Mayor Briley’s promise to provide the January 1 raises to MNPS. There are nothing but bad answers here — we can either disregard the promise as a flawed gimmick and further push MNPS morale in a bad direction, or we can pay for it with non-recurring revenue (coupled with a verbal promise to make it recurring in the next budget).

I support the decision to fund this. As a city, we have to start on the road to repairing employee compensation somewhere. They deserve this and more.

I support this mechanism for funding the January 1 raise. Briley came up with a mechanism that was not recurring and that was inconsistent with how Metro’s finances work. Cooper has a mechanism that he is transparently saying is not recurring, but at least makes sense within the framework of Metro’s finances.

Do I wish this raise had been funded in the June 2018 budget process? Yes.

Do I wish this raise had been funded in the June 2019 budget process? Yes.

Do I wish the former Mayor hadn’t unilaterally volunteered a raise that wasn’t covered in his own budget? Yes.

Is it good to continue to spend down Fund Balance money? No, not really.

But we are where we are — the promise was made. Employees have counted on it. My decision is that I’d rather pay for these raises and deal with finding recurring revenue in the next full year budget than yet again have Metro renege on a pay promise to employees.

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#Schwinning

Mercedes Schneider offers more detail on a case out of the Texas Education Agency that probably should have raised some concerns for Tennessee Governor Bill Lee BEFORE he hired now-Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.

On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The following day– November 22, 2017– Kash was abruptly fired via email. (For these details and more, see my March 19, 2018, post.)

She sued for wrongful termination, and on November 22, 2019– two years to the day following Kash’s termination– the USDOE Office of Hearings and Appeals ruled in Kash’s favor. From the ruling:

The OIG report found that Kash’s communications with OIG and TEA’s internal audit office were a contributing factor in TEA’s decision to terminate her employment. Although TEA asserted other reasons for firing Kash, the OIG report found TEA did not provide clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same the personnel action without Kash’s disclosure.

Now, Tennessee has a Commissioner of Education causing a bit of disruption and there are even questions about the relative readiness of this year’s TNReady test:

There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.

I guess that’s what you’d call Schwinning?

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A Different Kind of Test

Amid reports of lead in the water at schools across Tennessee, health experts are advising parents to have children tested, according to WREG in Memphis. Here’s more:

Health experts said there’s a wide range of severity and symptoms when dealing with lead poisoning, with anything from mild nausea and headaches to developmental problems. But with the levels found in the two dozen SCS locations, doctors are optimistic for student and faculty safety.

“With the amount of lead that they’re talking about, 1% above the EPA threshold, the likelihood that those children ingested toxic amounts of lead is low,” said Dale Criner, medical director of St. Francis Hospital Bartlett. “There’s still a possibility, but it’s low.”

Doctors recommend a simple blood test to determine exposure levels.

As a result of state legislation, school systems across the state are testing buildings for lead. The results have not been encouraging:

So far, 134 schools in Tennessee have at least one water source with unacceptably high levels of lead, according to a story in Chalkbeat:


So far, more than 100 schools in 31 districts across Tennessee found at least one water source above 20 parts per billion.

As noted before, the infrastructure concerns are being raised at a time when Gov. Lee is pushing state funds to charter schools by way of a “capital improvement slush fund.”

It’s also worth noting that studies have consistently indicated that the quality of the buildings where a student learn impact overall student achievement:

Studies have shown that conditions such as cold classrooms can affect student learning. One study found that poor building conditions can lead to higher rates of frequent student absences. Another found that students in deteriorating buildings score 5 to 17 points lower on standardized tests than students in newer facilities. Several studies, including two in Tennessee, show that students learn more when they are in newer facilities.


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Ignored

Essentially, that’s what’s happened to Tennessee Pre-K/Kindergarten teachers during the portfolio process. They’ve been ignored. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) reports on how Tennessee’s Department of Education is slow-walking changes to the state’s misguided portfolio evaluation system:

The new law required the committee to review the pre-k/kindergarten growth portfolio model process, identify expectations for the model and areas of improvement, and make recommendations including “ways to streamline the growth portfolio model rubrics and processes” and  “improve the functionality of the growth portfolio platform.”

The portfolio committee was assembled and met July 23, but it did not include any of the outspoken critics of the portfolio system. The meeting was not publicized, and no notice of the meeting was published on the General Assembly’s calendar of events – an unusual deviation from the legislature’s standard practice of publishing meeting calendars in advance. 

The committee developed nine recommendations, which include ensuring that “the technology platform provides teachers an easy-to-use and error-free environment” to submit student work, reducing the peer reviewer pool, simplifying the scoring rubrics, ensuring there is a grievance process, and reducing the number of collections teachers are required to submit. 

“The portfolio review committee recommended developing alternative growth options to be available by 2020-21,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Based on the testimony we heard in the General Assembly in the spring and the overwhelming response to the TEA portfolio survey, Tennessee students and teachers cannot afford to wait this long.”

Meanwhile, a process that doesn’t work is allowed to continue:

And, according to teachers, the Portfolium platform is pretty frustrating. Kindergarten teachers report frequently receiving the “Uh-Oh” screen and also note they’ve been told not to upload material during the TNReady testing window so as not to stress the state’s computer system. With dump trucks already preparing to attack this year’s test, it’s certainly not reassuring that there are concerns about capacity.

While teachers were raising concerns with legislators, the Department of Education, always eager to call teachers liars, suggested that MOST Kindergarten teachers loved the portfolio model and were enjoying this year’s experience. No, I’m not joking. A TN DOE representative claimed that more than 80% of Tennessee Kindergarten teachers actually liked the portfolio model.

Teachers spoke out. Legislators listened and responded. Now, the Department of Education is doing as little as possible.

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Voucher Vultures on the March

It seems Governor Bill Lee’s HVAC buddy Bob Luddy is bringing his no frills private school pitch to Wilson County, too. I previously reported on Luddy and his Thales Academy as they held an initial interest meeting in Nashville in July. Here’s more on the interest meeting the school held in Wilson County:

Informational meeting for parents interested in Thales Academy in Wilson County, TN featuring Thales Academy Academic Director Dr. Tim Hall

About this Event

At Thales Academy, our mission is to provide an excellent and affordable education for students through the use of Direct Instruction and a Classical Curriculum that embodies traditional American values.

Thales provides a rigorous academic environment that fosters ethical behavior, critical thinking, virtuous leadership, lifelong learning, and truth seeking with a firm foundation in cognitive, non-cognitive, and technical skills. As a result, Thales Academy students are well prepared to succeed in higher education, career, and life while positively impacting the world around them.

We’ll discuss this and more on Thursday, August 1 with Thales Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tim Hall, PhD.

Join us for an evening of learning Thursday, Aug 01 from 6:00 pm to 7:30 pm

It’s interesting that Thales is attempting to recruit students from Wilson County, even though Wilson is not (yet) a part of the Education Savings Account voucher scheme.

As noted before, here’s the deal with Thales:

No special education. No transportation. No cafeteria. Luddy calls it “no frills” and hails the use of “direct instruction.”

And here’s more on Luddy’s past dealings in Tennessee:

Thales and Luddy are not new to Tennessee. In fact, in 2015, voucher advocate Lee Barfield paid for a private plane to take former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean and then-House Speaker Beth Harwell to North Carolina to visit the Thales schools. Like Bill Lee, Barfield is a long-time supporter of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children and even served on the group’s Board of Directors.

Not surprisingly, tuition at Thales roughly mirrors the amount available to parents under the ESA program.

This is exactly the kind of “pop-up” private school critics of vouchers have warned about. In fact, new House Speaker Cameron Sexton once said:

This type of opportunistic expansion is just what new House Speaker Sexton warned about in an address to a local school board in his district back in 2017:

“For Sexton, the vouchers offer ‘false hope’ because the vouchers can’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition,” reported the Crossville Chronicle at the time. “That could lead to a boom of private for-profit schools opening that would accept the voucher funds, ‘which may or may not be great schools,’ Sexton said.”

Maybe all this expansion talk by the likes of Thales will lead to even more momentum for a repeal of the voucher scheme.

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Only the Best People

Amid reports from staffers that the Tennessee Department of Education is in turmoil under the leadership of Commissioner Penny Schwinn, a story out of Texas notes this isn’t the first time Schwinn has been involved in a situation involving whistleblower complaints from staffers. Here’s more:

Federal officials have ordered the Texas Education Agency to pay a former special education director more than $200,000 in damages for illegally firing her.


Laurie Kash filed a federal complaint Nov. 21, 2017, with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the TEA had illegally awarded a no-bid contract to a company to analyze private records of students receiving special education services.


Less than a month after firing Kash, the TEA ended its no-bid special education contract — losing millions of dollars — and promised to review its own contracting processes. A year later, state auditors found the TEA had failed to follow all the required steps before awarding the contract.
It also had failed to identify the personal relationship between the subcontractor and the main decision maker for the contract: Penny Schwinn, who was then the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics.

When Schwinn was hired, I noted the Texas Tribune story on Schwinn’s troubles at the Education Department there:

In an audit released Wednesday morning, the State Auditor’s Office reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx, which was hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and help create a long-term special education plan for the state.

State auditors also said the TEA failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.

Now, staff at the TDOE are raising concerns that sound similar to the trouble Schwinn faced in Texas. Problems that a simple Google search could turn up. Still, Governor Bill Lee remains committed to Schwinn and the “disruption” she is causing:

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” (Lee spokesperson) Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

That’s not exactly how it worked out in Texas, where the department lost millions of dollars and also now is being orderd to pay damages to a whistleblower.

American cent

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Republican Joins Voucher Repeal Effort

Legislation that would repeal Governor Bill Lee’s signature legislative victory on school vouchers has gained bipartisan support. Republican Bruce Griffey of Paris became the first GOP legislator to sign-on to a bill sponsored by Nashville Democrat Bo Mitchell and co-sponsored by every House Democrat except John DeBerry of Memphis.

The repeal effort is gaining momentum even as both the FBI and TBI continue investigations into the narrow House vote that led to passage of Education Savings Accounts (Lee’s euphemistic name for his voucher scheme).

In addition to the investigations into the House vote, the Senate sponsor of the voucher bill is facing a separate FBI investigation.

I wrote earlier about how the voucher legislation threatens to divide the GOP in Tennessee heading into the 2020 session:

The story of how Tennessee became the latest state to succumb to the Betsy DeVos-backed voucher craze involves more than just an earnest first-term governor using his political goodwill to secure passage of controversial legislation. There’s an ongoing FBI probe. There’s a scandal that took down the pro-voucher House Speaker featuring cocaine and texts about a sexual encounter in a hot chicken restaurant


It’s worth noting that new House Speaker Cameron Sexton has consistently opposed vouchers, including voting against Lee’s plan this year. Here’s more of what he’s said about vouchers:

“For Sexton, the vouchers offer ‘false hope’ because the vouchers can’t cover the entire cost of private school tuition,” reported the Crossville Chronicle at the time. “That could lead to a boom of private for-profit schools opening that would accept the voucher funds, ‘which may or may not be great schools,’ Sexton said.”

It will be interesting to see if more Republicans join the repeal effort and what, if any, work Sexton does to undo the voucher plan.

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