TC Talks Chattanooga

Nashville-based education blogger TC Weber takes some time to explain a bit more about what’s happening with Chattanooga and the state’s Achievement School District in a recent post.

Here’s how he explains what’s happening since the threat of an ASD expansion team in Hamilton County became more real:

Let’s take a quick trip down to Chattanooga where last night a historic vote took place. The Hamilton County School Board voted 7 -2 to continue the conversation about creating a partnership zone with the Tennessee Department of Education. In case you are not familiar with the Partnership Zone plan, it’s the latest quick fix scheme developed by the TNDOE because people have started to catch on to the dumpster fire that is the Achievement School District. Under the Partnership Zone plan, both the county and the state would work together to improve underperforming schools in the district.

The plan calls for the a creation of an appointed board that would oversee the Partner Zone. This creates a bit of a conundrum. Under current law, schools governing boards can only be elected entities. So this would require a change in legislation. A change that could open a virtual pandora’s box because what’s to stop other districts from switching to an all appointed board, a hybrid, or turn control over to the mayor or other appointed officials?

The term partner is a little bit of a misnomer. The state is making it perfectly clear who wears the pants in this relationship right from the out set. The HCS Board was told that they could choose not to pursue the “Partnership Zone” but if they didn’t State Superintendent Candice McQueen would take all 5 of the priority schools plus two more schools and dump them in the Achievement District. If this is in fact a threat she was prepared to follow through with, it’s a little troubling and a clear sign that she’s willing to play politics with kids. The ASD is an unmitigated failure that should be ended this legislative session not used a stick to ensure district compliance.

As Weber points out, McQueen is using the threat of aggressive state action (takeovers, fines) to attempt to get her way lately. So far, that has not resulted in yielding in Nashville or Memphis. It will be interesting to see how the Partnership Zone plays out in Chattanooga.

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


 

The Data Wars: A New Hope?

The ongoing Data Wars between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education continue, with today being the deadline set by Commissioner Candice McQueen for districts to hand over the data or face consequences.

Yesterday, Anna Shepherd and Chris Caldwell, chairs of the Boards of Education in Nashville and Memphis respectively, penned an op-ed detailing their opposition to the data demand from McQueen.

They wrote:

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has demanded that Metro Nashville Public Schools and Shelby County Schools surrender personal contact information for a large number of students and families in our school systems, which represent approximately 20 percent of Tennessee’s K-12 public school students.

Her argument: A new state law requires us to hand over personal information to ASD charter schools so these taxpayer-funded private schools can use the data to fill thousands of empty seats by recruiting students away from public schools.

In addition to violating student and family privacy — the right to privacy is a fundamental American principle — the problem with McQueen’s data demand is this: The ASD now is universally viewed as a failed experiment in education reform.

Shepherd and Caldwell contend that their district’s students will not be well-served by marketing efforts from charter schools operating under the banner of the Achievement School District:

Instead, McQueen proposes to shift the cost burden of the failing ASD to local taxpayers in Memphis and Nashville. She wants to confiscate our student data and information in order to stage marketing raids on our schools — which would redirect local taxpayer funds to the ASD and its charter operators at the expense of our school systems.

With today’s deadline looming, it appears school leaders in Memphis and Nashville are locked down against releasing the data demanded by McQueen. Should that position hold, the question will be: What will McQueen do about it? Will she unleash her ultimate weapon and withhold state funds from these districts as punishment?

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


 

The Data Wars: Herb Strikes Back

Yes, the Data Wars continue. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) gained new hope recently when 33 members of Nashville’s Metro Council penned a letter supporting resistance to the Achievement School District’s request for student data.

Now, Tennessee’s Attorney General has weighed-in and says the alliance of MNPS and Shelby County must comply with the ASD’s request. What happens if they don’t? Nate Rau notes in the Tennessean:

McQueen’s warning leaves open the possibility the state would dock education dollars from Metro and Shelby schools if they continue to deny her request.

It wouldn’t be the first time for Nashville, as the Haslam administration withheld $3.4 million in state funds in 2012 after the school board refused to approve controversial Great Hearts charter school.

Withholding state BEP funds is a favorite “ultimate weapon,” used in the Great Hearts controversy and also threatened during the TNReady debacle in year one of that test that wasn’t.

During the debate that ultimately saw Nashville schools lose funds in a BEP penalty, Commissioner Kevin Huffman and the Department of Education had an ally in then-Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. Joey Garrison reported in the (now defunct) City Paper at the time:

By this point, Huffman had already facilitated a July 26 meeting to discuss Great Hearts’ next move, a gathering that took place just hours before Great Hearts’ revised application would go before the Metro board for second consideration. The meeting site: the office of Mayor Karl Dean, also a Great Hearts backer. In attendance, among others, were Huffman, Dean, Barbic, Deputy Mayor Greg Hinote, Great Hearts officials Dan Scoggin and Peter Bezanson, and Bill DeLoache, a wealthy Nashville investor and one of the state’s leading charter school proponents.

As Rau points out, the current controversy stems from a newly-passed state law giving charter schools the opportunity to request student data from district schools. It seems, however, that there is some dispute over the intent of that law. Rau explains:

Slatery’s opinion also said that the student data may be used for the ASD to promote its schools to prospective students. State Rep. John Forgety, who chairs a House education committee and supported the legislation, told The Tennessean the intent was not to create a law that allowed districts to market to each other’s students.

So it seems the legislature may need to revisit the issue to clear things up.

Also unclear: Where do the current candidates for Governor stand on protecting student data vs. providing marketing information to competing districts and schools?

Stay tuned for more. Will the Shelby-MNPS alliance continue their resistance? Will Commissioner McQueen unleash the power of BEP fund withholding? Will this issue end up in court?

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


 

Next?

Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is again looking for a Superintendent as it was announced today that current Superintendent Malika Anderson is on her way out.

Chalkbeat has the story:

Malika Anderson, who has sought to steer Tennessee’s school turnaround district to stability after its contentious early work in Memphis and Nashville, is stepping down as its second superintendent at the end of this month.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen had this to say about the move:

“This transition in no way disrupts our work,” McQueen said in a press release. “We are taking what we have learned about school improvement over the past five years and using that knowledge to maximize students’ success by putting in place a strong set of evidence-based options that will drive improvements in students performance.”

Anderson is the second Superintendent in the ASD’s short history, replacing Chris Barbic. Barbic noted on his departure:

In his email early Friday, Barbic offered a dim prognosis on that pioneering approach. “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

The ASD has been plagued with both lackluster results and challenges connecting with the communities it serves during its brief but tumultuous existence.

According to the Department of Education’s release, a search will begin immediately for Anderson’s replacement. In the meantime, Deputy Commissioner of Education Kathleen Airhart will serve as Interim Superintendent. Before coming to the Department of Education, Airhart was the Director of Schools in Putnam County.

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


 

Trade Offer

I reported last week on the Data Wars brewing between the state’s two largest school districts and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Now, as both Nashville and Memphis dig in, MNPS is offering a trade of sorts.

Chalkbeat reports on a letter sent by MNPS Board Chair Anna Shepard to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen.

In her letter, Shepard proposes cooperation between the state’s Achievement School District (ASD) and MNPS based on several conditions.

Specifically:

I would personally be willing to consider a coordinated initiative under which MNPS, using its existing communications infrastructure, would inform families about ASD choice options — if they choose to “opt in” to such communications. I cannot speak for my board colleagues until such time as we have had the opportunity to deliberate on this concept.

Shepard’s conditions:

  1. A moratorium on ASD expansion
  2. State subsidies for schools that lose students to the ASD
  3. The State engage in discussions around a new “fiscal impact” component of the BEP to address the impact charter schools have on local school districts

Regarding that fiscal impact, an audit of MNPS published in 2015 noted this:

“The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

As for the ASD moratorium, it seems that the turnaround district continues to produce underwhelming results. Combine this with a track record of poor communication and you begin to understand why districts aren’t eager for the ASD to open more schools in their backyards.

For her part, Commissioner McQueen is seeking an Attorney General’s opinion on the MNPS and Shelby County interpretation of the data-sharing law passed in the 2017 legislative session.

It seems unlikely that McQueen would agree to the conditions set forth by Shepard. It seems possible both MNPS and Shelby County will face the threat of fines should they continue resisting.

Stay tuned as the Data Wars heat up.

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


 

Data Wars

Candice McQueen has set up a showdown with the state’s two largest school districts over student data sharing and charter schools.

McQueen sent a letter to Shelby County Schools and shared the same letter with MNPS. In the letter, she notes a new state law requiring school districts to share student data with charter schools upon request. The data is used so that charter schools can market to potential students.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reports on the Shelby County issue:

Commissioner Candice McQueen directed Superintendent Dorsey Hopson on Monday to immediately share the information requested by Green Dot Public Schools. She said the district’s refusal violates a new state law by withholding information that charter operators need to recruit students and market their programs.

Shelby County Schools has not yet said they will comply with McQueen’s request.

The primary sticking point seems to be with the charter schools that are now part of the Achievement School District (ASD). The ASD’s experience in Shelby County has been troubled, at best. From communication challenges to struggling performance, the ASD has not lived up to expectations.

For its part, MNPS is beginning to take steps to restrict the data available to the ASD.

Jason Gonzalez reports in the Tennessean:

The practice of providing charter schools with student contact information has been common in Nashville, but board members bristled on Tuesday over the sharing of information with the Achievement School District.

While not a final vote, the board took a crucial step forward with a new policy that will not release contact information to the Achievement School District.

The policy moved out of committee with 7 board members in favor, Jo Ann Brannon abstaining and Mary Pierce voting against the proposal.

The key question now is: What happens if Shelby County and MNPS refuse to share this data? What penalty might they face?

Gonzalez notes:

In 2012, Metro Schools decided to reject the Great Hearts Academies charter schools application — after the state directed it not to do so — and then-Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman docked Nashville $3.4 million in education funds.

Similarly, during the TNReady testing fiasco, McQueen threatened districts with a funding penalty.

It’s not yet clear what will happen this time, but it seems like a financial penalty will ultimately be on the table if the two districts fail to comply.

Stay tuned, the data wars are beginning.

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


 

We Paid $60 Million for That?

Guess what? Tennessee taxpayers are on the hook for some $60 million to testing vendor Questar for new TNReady tests.

Guess what else? Those tests aren’t exactly helpful.

At least that’s the word from the education professionals in classrooms.

The Tennessean reports this year’s survey of Tennessee teachers indicates:

Sixty-five percent of educators surveyed said standardized exams aren’t worth the investment of time and effort. The same percentage of teachers said the exams don’t help refine teaching practices.

And 60 percent said the test doesn’t help them understand whether students gain the knowledge necessary to meet state standards.

In response, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen notes:

And teachers haven’t yet recieved meaningful data from the change to TNReady to help guide instruction due to the transition, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said. The state has and will continue to work to improve the usefulness of the test, she said.

Except the attitude about the previous tests wasn’t much better:

The attitudes toward testing also aren’t necessarily new.

In the 2015 survey, educators said testing was a burden, with teachers reporting they spent too much time preparing students for exams and taking tests.

Now, though, our students spend even more time testing and preparing for tests. Tests that educators don’t find useful. In fact, Chalkbeat notes:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

Why isn’t the testing useful? For one, the results don’t come back in time. Even with the switch to a new testing vendor this year following the debacle of the first year of TNReady, quick score results weren’t back very quickly and final results will be delivered later this year.

It’s worth noting, though, that even before the transition to TNReady, teachers found the testing regime burdensome and unhelpful. It’s almost like the state is surveying teachers but not actually paying attention to the results.

Why are educators frustrated, exactly? Teacher Mike Stein offers this:

Meanwhile, teachers’ performance bonuses and even their jobs are on the line. Though they wouldn’t assert themselves into the discussion, principals and directors of schools also rely heavily upon the state to administer a test that measures what it says it will measure and to provide timely results that can be acted upon. As long as both of these things remain in question, I must question both the importance of TNReady and the competence of those who insist upon any standardized test as a means of determining whether or not educators are doing their jobs.

Taxpayers are spending money on a test that day-to-day practitioners find unhelpful. In the case of evaluations, they also find it unfair. Because, well, it’s just not a valid indicator of teacher performance.

Perhaps state policymakers should take a closer look at the teacher survey results. Teachers have no problem being evaluated, and in fact, most say the current system provides them with useful feedback. The observation rubric is robust and with proper implementation and meaningful building-level support, can be helpful as a means of improving teaching practice.

What’s not especially helpful is a test that takes up significant instructional time and doesn’t yield information in a timely or useful manner.

Taking a step back and removing the high stakes associated with a single test could be an important first step toward right-sizing our state’s approach to student assessment.

 

 

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


 

Hey, We’re Serious!

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen sent another letter to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos last month, urging caution as President Trump’s budget moves forward.

McQueen had written previously to alert DeVos to the negative impacts of the budget on Tennessee.

The latest letter warned of deep impacts in rural communities. The Tennessean reports:

In her letter, Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the elimination of Title II, part A funds in the upcoming federal budget would severely hinder the state’s ability to train teachers. McQueen estimated in the letter that the cuts would hit public school students across the state as well as more than 42,000 students in private schools.

Cuts in the overall federal budget could mean Tennessee could see larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs, according to superintendents and child advocacy groups.

I’ve noted previously that districts like Dickson County and Williamson County have County Commissions reluctant to fund school budgets.  Many of the state’s rural counties simply don’t have the funds to spend significantly on schools.

It will be interesting to see if County Commissions in the districts most impacted by the DeVos cuts are willing to spend the money to make up for  lost federal funds. Additionally, I’m curious as to whether County Commissions and School Boards are actively lobbying DeVos and their Members of Congress over the proposed Trump education budget.

As McQueen notes, should this budget pass, it will mean stark choices for many districts — and even impact a number of our state’s private schools.

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


 

More Testing, Please

Even with proposals that reduced total testing time this year, Tennessee students spent about twice as much time taking tests than they did in 2012.

Chalkbeat has more:

By the time that Tennessee’s testing period wrapped up last week, the state’s elementary and middle school students had undergone about eight hours of end-of-year testing.

That’s more than double the testing minutes in 2012.

The Tennessee Education Association had this to say about the trend:

“While Tennessee is just at the beginning of the TNReady experiment, most teachers and parents believe there is too much time spent on testing and test prep,” says a statement by the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers’ union.

Tennessee is part of a nationwide trend toward longer tests, as states move away from purely multiple-choice assessments to ones with questions that are supposed to be better measure student learning — and take more time to answer.

Testing mandates increasing:

In addition to TNReady, the state mandated 14 separate tests this school year, including short diagnostic assessments for its intervention program, called RTI.

The new normal?

While TNReady has been disappointing in terms of the crash last year and the quick score mess this year, it appears it will continue to be the norm for Tennessee schools going forward.

More tests. Longer tests. All to satisfy the demand for accountability. We still don’t know how well TNReady works to assess standards because it simply failed last year. We haven’t seen test questions or answers. And while some parents attempt to opt-out, Commissioner McQueen stands against allowing that choice.

When resisting opt-out, McQueen and others often cite federal law requiring districts to test 95% of their students. But, here’s the thing:

The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

As we see both problems with test administration and score delivery, we may also see more parents move to opt their children out of the growing number of tests students face. It’s important to note that when those wishing to opt-out are told it will cost their district money, that claim is not backed up by any federal action. It’s up to Tennessee’s Department of Education to decide whether or not to allow opt-outs or to punish districts by withholding funds. Ultimately, the Department of Education is accountable to the General Assembly.

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


 

McQueen vs. DeVos

President Trump’s education budget is bad news for Tennessee’s schools. So much so that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, penned a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos asking that the proposed cuts be reconsidered.

Jason Gonzalez of the Tennessean reports:

Tennessee officials say heavy cuts to children’s programs in President Donald Trump’s budget proposal could hinder the long-term progress the state has made helping poor and disadvantaged kids.

The $4.1 trillion White House budget proposal calls for cuts to school and health care funding that helps the state’s neediest children.

The cuts could mean larger class sizes, slashes to grant funding for pre-kindergarten and teacher training and, eventually, the elimination of athletics and band programs.

McQueen warned:

“Tennessee’s rural areas and poorer districts are especially dependent upon these funds, as their local budgets are unable to provide additional support for professional learning,” McQueen wrote.

According to the State Report Card, federal funding accounts for 11.72% of all education funding in the state. While all of those funds wouldn’t be eliminated in the Trump-DeVos budget, the proposal does make significant cuts. Rural communities are often more dependent on federal funds and so would be hit hardest, as McQueen notes.

While Tennessee has made some progress in recent years on school funding, the state is still behind where it should be in terms of full funding of the BEP — the funding formula for schools. Losing a significant amount of federal dollars would deal a blow to a state finally inching forward in terms of education progress.

The McQueen letter may be the first public evidence that the Haslam administration is at odds with the leadership from Washington. It’s encouraging to see McQueen take this stand and publicly fight for the needs of Tennessee’s poorest districts.

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