Not Listening

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has been visiting schools around the state, but apparently, she’s NOT listening.

Here’s more from a visit she made to an elementary school in Bristol:


During a visit Thursday to Anderson Elementary School in Bristol, Tennessee, Schwinn emphasized a number of priorities. 
She said it’s essential the next vendor puts more safeguards in place to ensure testing goes smoothly.
“Certainly we’re going to hold the new vendor accountable,” said Schwinn. 

Additionally, Schwinn commented on the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor:


Schwinn said the bidding process for a new vendor will begin in a few weeks but they don’t plan to execute a new contract until September 2019. 

That’s right. There won’t even be a new testing vendor for the next iteration of TNReady until September of 2019. Students will start taking tests (at least EOC) by December. The September hiring also gives the new vendor just 8 months to prepare for the heavy testing month of April 2020.

Here’s the deal: No one trusts TNReady. Teachers tell us they don’t believe it accurately measures student performance. After a year of supposed hackers and imaginary dump trucks, students don’t take it seriously.

Schwinn is repeating lines used by former Commissioner Candice McQueen. She’s talking about safeguards and teacher resources when there are testing problems. Those of us who have actually been in Tennessee the past five years know what that means: Nothing will change.

How long will we tolerate a failed testing regime that provides little usable data and results in policy that’s bad for kids?

Good news, Tennesseans — the new Governor Bill is as tone deaf as the previous Governor Bill. Maybe he should stop sending out weekend reports from the farm and start actually talking to (and listening) to teachers and parents in our schools. Meanwhile, his handpicked Education Commissioner is demonstrating that while she might appear to be doing the right things (visiting schools, listening) she has a serious comprehension problem.

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Questar Death Star

The Star Wars movie “Return of the Jedi” features the Empire headed by Darth Vader building a new, more powerful Death Star.  The previous instrument of doom had been destroyed as a weakness was exposed and exploited in “A New Hope.”

Likewise, Tennessee’s testing empire has had weaknesses exposed year after year. Most recently, testing vendor Questar was unable to handle the full load of students taking an online exam all at once. This led to a range of excuses from hackers to dump trucks.

Now, though, the empire is back. Former Commissioner McQueen issued an email highlighting the building of a new testing instrument. Now, vendor of doom Questar is back at it again, promising to bid on the next TNReady. Chalkbeat has the story:

The company that oversaw Tennessee’s glitch-ridden student testing program last spring plans to pursue a new state contract to continue the job in the fall, despite a searing audit that blames the firm for most of the online problems.

Officials with Questar Assessment Inc. acknowledged failures in administering the testing program known as TNReady, but added that “we have learned a lot in two years.”

“I understand we have some mending to do, and we hope to be afforded the opportunity to do that,” Chief Operating Officer Brad Baumgartner told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

As Star Wars fans know, despite appearing to be incomplete, the Death Star in the “Jedi” movie was in fact fully operational and capable of devastating impact. Certainly, Questar’s new version will be just as capable of sucking weeks of valuable instructional time out of the school year while providing little value to students, teachers, or parents. If disruption is your aim, the Questar Death Star may be exactly what Tennessee needs.

Perhaps the next Commissioner of Education will pursue a mission of peace and hope that actually puts students first.

 

 

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Actually Putting Students First

While Tennessee policymakers continue to buy the lie that we can’t move away from our failed high-stakes testing regime, New Mexico’s new governor is taking swift action to put students first.

The Albuquerque Journal reports:

On her third day as governor, Michelle Lujan Grisham announced that New Mexico will drop the oft-maligned PARCC exam after the current school year – if not sooner.

“I know that PARCC isn’t working,” Lujan Grisham said after announcing two executive orders during a news conference at the state Capitol. “We know that around the country.”

The governor, who was joined by four teachers at Thursday’s news conference, also said families and students around the state should “expect to see New Mexico transition immediately out of high-stakes testing.”

Bill Lee will officially be sworn-in as Tennessee Governor on January 19th. So far, he has yet to name a permanent Education Commissioner to replace the outgoing Candice McQueen. Instead, he’s been focused on stocking his staff with supporters of school voucher schemes.

Imagine if he issued a clear, direct statement about the failures of TNReady along the lines of what the new Governor of New Mexico has done. He likely won’t because he’s being advised by those who want to use public money to fund the privatization of our public schools.

Still, there are 15 days before he is officially our Governor. There’s still time to let him know we need to move past the “test-and-punish” system that has failed our students and schools.

Shout out to New Mexico’s governor for exposing the lies of the pro-testing “reformers.”

It’s time that level of good sense infected Tennessee policy making.

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A Teacher’s View of TDOE

One teacher offers her view of why TDOE can’t seem to make TNReady ready.
The repeated problems with TNReady testing over the last three years have resulted in many calls, especially from legislative leaders, for the resignation of Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. The fundamental problem with TNReady – and other education issues in Tennessee – is not the Commissioner of Education; it is the Department of Education. The action of replacing the commissioner while ignoring the employees yet expecting the department to perform better is analogous to giving a car a new paint job instead of rebuilding the engine, then expecting the car to run better.

McQueen has been commissioner since January 2015. Many TDOE employees have worked there longer than the commissioner. Some employees have worked through several commissioners. Although the commissioner makes the headlines, the TDOE employees are responsible for the department’s daily activities. Not all of these daily activities are known by the commissioner and not all would be approved by the commissioner if she did know about them. Therefore, while a change of commissioner would certainly get headlines, there is no guarantee the change would result in improved TDOE employee actions with TNReady implementation.

I have experienced several concerning TDOE employee actions over the last few years, and I am only one of the 66,000+ teachers in Tennessee.

About 8-10 years ago, I attended a webinar training session by TDOE for special education teachers whose students were taking the TCAP alternative assessment. During the webinar, special education supervisors and teachers from across the state were able to ask questions of the TDOE presenter. One question that several people brought up was a likely unintended outcome by following a TDOE directive, and suggestions were made for modifying the directive. The presenter cut off the suggestions by stating “That’s just the way it has to be done. Too bad, so sad! Next question?” This employee is still working at TDOE, and the commissioner of education has changed twice since this incident. If other employees share this attitude toward constructive feedback from teachers, it is not a surprise that TNReady has continued to have problems.

In June of 2014 I attended a professional learning session by TDOE at Spring Hill High School in Maury County. Approximately 400 special education teachers from middle Tennessee attended this session. Late in the morning the presenter’s laptop battery died before she had completed her powerpoint presentation. As several TDOE employees in the front of the auditorium were trying to diagnose and fix the problem, she said (with her microphone still on) “Well, how was I supposed to know I needed to bring my power cord.” This TDOE team had been presenting the same session to groups of teachers across the state for several weeks. All of the teachers attending the sessions were under Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system. Not a one of those teachers would have scored well if they had reacted that way to a technology problem during an observation lesson. This employee also still works at TDOE. If other TDOE employees take no responsibility for advance preparation, it is not a surprise that TNReady problems have been repeated over several years.

On January 28, 2016, I made a public records request to TDOE’s Records Custodian, the Director of Communications. I repeated the request on February 23, 2016 because I had received no response. I repeated the request on March 4, 2016, explaining that I needed the information before April 14. On March 14, 2016, I received an email informing me that they would provide the records as soon as they could. On April 27, 2016, I sent an email pointing out that it had been three months since my original request, and that the date I needed the information by had already passed, but that another need-by date of May 6, 2016, was approaching. The following day I received an email that the department was working on my request. On May 3, 2016, I once again requested the records, and was informed that they were working on obtaining them. Finally, on May 10, 2016 at 2:35 pm, I emailed Commissioner McQueen and included all of my previous emails to TDOE. She replied by email at 3:10 pm that the director of communications was working on it and would send me the records shortly. At 3:51pm the director of communications emailed me the records I had requested 13 weeks earlier. The department employees caused the problem; the commissioner solved the problem in 76 minutes when she was made aware of it.

On January 10, 2017, I contacted TDOE stating my concern that a TDOE employee had violated departmental policy, and his actions had caused professional harm to me. I asked for a simple statement clarifying that the employee had violated policy that I could then use to repair the damage to my professional reputation. This request was forwarded to TDOE’s general counsel the same day. I received no response until 3-13-2017 when the General Counsel sent an email that the problem was caused by me because I had used a TDOE resource incorrectly by contacting the vendor instead of contacting my administrator. This contradicts the manual provided during TDOE’s initial training for using this resource that specifically stated to contact the vendor directly. If TDOE employees continue to give conflicting information, it is no surprise that TDOE has experienced problems with two different vendors for TNReady. It is also no surprise that TDOE claims that this summer’s problems with uploading of evaluation portfolios were the teachers’ fault.

On May 26, 2017, I contacted TDOE’s Assistant General Counsel for Special Education with a simple yes/no question about special education law. I received no answer so I contacted Congressman Marsha Blackburn’s office who obtained the information from the US Department of Education within a day. An internet search shows that the Office of the General Counsel plans staff birthday celebrations and matching costume days; an internet search shows that the parent of a student with special needs also couldn’t get timely answers from this office. If TDOE employees ignore the taxpayers who pay their salaries, why would they listen to the legislators or the commissioner or the vendors?

There are good employees at TDOE. The fundamental problem is that the employees seem to have lost sight of their primary purpose which is to support public education in Tennessee. TDOE employees are making decisions and giving directives for an environment with which they are no longer familiar. Although some of the employees have teaching licenses and teaching experience, most of them have not been in the classroom for several years. That situation, however, can have a simple and effective solution: If every TDOE employee had to substitute teach for two days a year, one day each semester, their perspective relative to their decisions and decrees would change drastically. School systems struggle with finding enough substitute teachers, and TDOE employees could be used for planned teacher absences, such as doctor appointments and professional seminars. Since these employees are already being paid, the local school districts could save a little money. Would there be weeping, and wailing, and gnashing of teeth in response to this suggestion? Yes, there would. But that leads to the question of why would we want people making decisions for our students who didn’t want to spend a day with our students? Visiting schools by stepping in the door of a classroom for a few minutes does not give you the perspective that spending a day by yourself in a classroom of students would give. No information is as clear as what you see and experience for yourself. When Jim Henry was asked to lead the troubled Department of Children’s Services, he “implemented a new requirement that all staff (including himself) spend a day with a caseworker to ‘see what life is like when you’re not sitting in the ivory tower.’.” [The Tennessean 8-21-2013] This policy helped DCS develop a change of culture within the department and improve employee focus on the department’s core mission. Implementing a similar policy at TDOE would improve not only the issues with TNReady, but would focus employees on their core mission of supporting local school systems in providing the optimum education for students.

Perhaps the governor or the legislators or the commissioner herself could implement this requirement quickly as a first step toward improving the root cause of the TNReady problems – the TDOE employees. Please don’t seek a new paint job when the real need is a rebuilt engine.

Teachers: What’s your story? Share at andy@tnedreport.com

 

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Audit: TDOE Failed in TNReady Implementation

A new audit from the Tennessee Comptroller of the Treasury reveals what many have known for some time: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to adequately supervise a testing vendor was a large part of recent TNReady testing problems.

Here are key items from the Comptroller’s audit of the 2018 TNReady testing cycle:

The Tennessee Comptroller’s Office has released a performance audit of the Tennessee Department of Education detailing many of the problems that led up to the difficulties in executing the spring 2018 TNReady tests.

The online student assessment tests were plagued with numerous issues including login delays, slow servers, and software bugs. The first signs of trouble began on April 16, 2018 and continued through the end of the month.

Auditors determined that many of these issues occurred primarily because of Questar Assessment, Inc’s performance and updates to the student assessment system. Auditors also found the Department of Education’s oversight of test administration fell short of expectations.

The performance audit’s nine findings include five issues surrounding TNReady. These findings include:

• the department’s lack of sufficient, detailed information on its Work Plan with Questar rendered it less effective as a monitoring tool to ensure Questar met all deadlines.

• Questar’s decision to make an unauthorized change to text-to-speech software without formally notifying the department. This change contributed to the online testing disruptions.

• Questar’s failure to sufficiently staff customer support, resulting in lengthy call wait times and high rates of abandoned calls.

• a failure to track, document, and provide status updates to districts to let them know when students’ tests would be recovered, leaving districts unaware if their students completed the required tests.

• inadequate evaluation and monitoring of internal controls implemented by external information technology service providers, such as Questar.

 

 

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Nine is Fine

I’ve written before about the disaster that is the Tennessee Fine Arts Portfolio. I’ve also published a guest column from an art teacher explaining the nightmare this process creates.

Now, after a semester of attempting to work with the state, Sumner County has opted-out of the Fine Arts Portfolio for this academic year. Sumner was the only new system to opt-in this year, a year that has seen the total number of systems participating drop to only nine.

In a letter to teachers, Sumner’s Assistant Director of Schools for Curriculum and Instruction Scott Langford notes:

Over the course of the last few months, our instructional coordinators have worked tirelessly to get information to you and to address issues that arose with the Tennessee Department of Education.

…Further, fine arts teachers from across the state did not receive their scored portfolios until November 2018 after TDOE extended the data several times.

Effective December 11, 2018, Sumner County Schools is opting out of the Fine Arts Portfolio.

The issues with the Fine Arts portfolios roughly mirror those with the Pre-K/Kindergarten portfolios.

This is yet another example of the failed leadership of Commissioner Candice McQueen, who will soon move on to even greener pastures.

Tennessee’s next Commissioner of Education must take immediate steps to right the ship on a range of issues from how teachers are treated and compensated to testing to establishing a modicum of professional respect for our state’s educators.

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Evidence Be Damned

Failed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, never one to consult actual evidence before making a decision impacting Tennessee children, is now recommending that more schools in Nashville and Memphis be placed in the Achievement School District (ASD).

The state-run intervention district consisting mostly of charter schools has so far failed to produce tangible results.

Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Even more alarming, data from the consistently     unreliable TNReady test will be used to make these determinations.  This would certainly seem to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the “No Adverse Action” legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

Taking this action also places the kids in these schools into a cruel experiment… One where we know the outcome, but persist hoping this time will be different. It won’t be.

The next Commissioner of Education would do well to ignore this and any other recommendation from Candice McQueen.

Instead, Bill Lee and his team should focus on policies based on evidence (so not vouchers), teacher input, and student needs.

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Reassuring?

Ever oblivious to past failure, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent out an “Educator Update” yesterday announcing the start of TNReady for high school students on block scheduling.

Here’s the text of her email:

Starting tomorrow, high school students on block schedule will take their TNReady end-of-course exam. We have been working hard to ensure they are both academically and technologically successful, and I wanted to make sure you were aware of those preparations and how we plan to address any issue that may arise, particularly if your students are taking their EOC this fall.

First, over the past several weeks, we have passed smoothly through key milestones, such as our verification test of the online platform, where about 50,000 subparts were submitted over the course of an hour – more than we expect to see in fall block during that same period of time. Additionally, we released a new set of online tutorials for test administrators, and more than 1,000 folks have completed those. And most importantly, you have been preparing students with the content knowledge and critical thinking and writing skills they need to have – not just to be successful on TNReady, but for life after graduation.

Every good planning process has to plan for issues that may occur, and we have communicated extensively with your district leaders, testing coordinators, and technology directors to make them aware of the variety of support and communications avenues available. If you or your students run into any issues, please immediately contact your building testing coordinator. You can also consult this one-page troubleshooting guide. If you do not see your issue addressed here, your building testing coordinator may have more information, and they can coordinate with your district testing coordinator to get assistance. We work directly with your district testing coordinator throughout each day of the testing window, communicating with them on daily webinars, a call line for immediate assistance, text message alerts, and constant email messages and one-on-one phone calls. From here, we can take a number of steps to solve problems, including sending a support team to your school. We have those teams stationed across the state so each school can be reached within 90 minutes.

Thank you for your patience with us and support of our students as we have worked toward this moment. We all want testing to be a seamless experience where students can show what they know, so you can better understand your students’ mastery of the standards and reflect on how you can continue to improve your practice. That is powerful information, and we want you to have it as easily and quickly as possible. We are continuing to improve as we aim for that goal.

A reminder

While Commissioner McQueen’s note sounds nice, let’s remember that last year, the Fall administration of TNReady went relatively smoothly. Then, there were dump trucks and hackers. It’s also not like we haven’t had some sort of testing problem every year in the past five years:

Lately, this season has brought another ritual: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to deliver student test scores. Each of the last three years has seen TNDOE demonstrate it’s inability to get state testing right (nevermind the over-emphasis on testing to begin with).

Back in 2014, there was a delay in the release of the all-powerful “quick scores” used to help determine student grades. Ultimately, this failure led to an Assistant Commissioner losing her job.

Then, in 2015, the way “quick scores” were computed was changed, creating lots of confusion. The Department was quick to apologize, noting:

We regret this oversight, and we will continue to improve our processes such that we uphold our commitment to transparency, accuracy, and timeliness with regard to data returns, even as we experience changes in personnel.

The processes did not appear to be much improved at all as the 2016 testing cycle got into full swing, with a significant technical failure on Day One.

Every year, we hear about how TNReady is ready. Sometimes, the early administration goes well. Then, all hell breaks loose. So far, the call for options or a pause on the test has not been heeded. Instead, our state continues testing and continues making excuses and continues telling everyone it will all be fine.

Will Governor Bill Lee and the new General Assembly take a new approach? Will a new Commissioner explore an ESSA waiver and testing options? Will the advice of a handful of districts and the state’s PTA be heeded?

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Reflections

With last week’s news of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen leaving her post in January, Chalkbeat featured education leaders around the state offering reflections on her time in the role.

While most of those cited made every effort to say nice words, I was struck by the comments from Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”

Brown took care to highlight two critical issues: Testing and funding.

The next Commissioner of Education will inherit a testing mess:

If this year had been the first time our state had faced testing challenges, one might understand (and forgive) the excuse-making. However, this is now the fifth consecutive year of some sort of problem and the fourth year testing administration has been, to say the least, a challenge.

Brown also points to a need for further investment in schools. While there have been additional dollars spent on K-12 education, Tennessee still lags behind our neighbors and the nation:

Tennessee is near the bottom. The data shows we’re not improving. At least not faster than other states. I’ve written about how we’re not the fastest-improving in teacher pay, in spite of Bill Haslam’s promise to make it so:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

School spending doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it’s not like when Tennessee spends, other states stop. So, to catch up, we have to do more. Or, we have to decide that remaining 43rd or 44th in investment per student is where we should be.

So, who will inherit these challenges? Some suggest Shelby County Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson is a leading candidate. He endorsed Bill Lee and is playing a role in Lee’s education transition. Other possibilities include some current Tennessee superintendents.

This look back at the last time the role was vacant offers some ideas of who is out there for Lee to consider.

What are your thoughts? Who should be Tennessee’s next Commissioner of Education? What’s the biggest challenge they will face?

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McQueen Leaving TNDOE

After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll takeover as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.

In a press release, the organization says:

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our future,” said Lowell Milken. “Dr. McQueen’s deep experience in developing and supporting great teachers and her proven leadership in working with so many state and local partners will enable us to expand and strengthen NIET’s work across the country. Dr. McQueen will build on the 250,000 educators, 30,000 teacher leaders and 2.5 million students already impacted by NIET to better develop teacher leaders, increase student achievement and provide greater opportunities for all students. We are so pleased to have her on board and leading us from our new base of operations in Nashville.”

Apparently, they missed most of the past four years. Certainly, they missed this key element on teacher effectiveness:

Here’s a key piece of information in a recent story in the Commercial Appeal:

The report admits an inability to draw a direct, causal link from the changes in teacher evaluations, implemented during the 2011-12 school year, and the subsequent growth in classrooms across the state.

Over the same years, the state has also raised its education standards, overhauled its assessment and teacher preparation programs and implemented new turnaround programs for struggling schools.

Whatever NIET’s motives, teachers and parents across the state are likely to breathe a sigh of relief that the McQueen era is coming to an end. Likewise, the General Assembly will no longer be subject to her broken promises of “doing better” next time when it comes to issues like TNReady.

In fact, just today, I wrote about the need for our state to move in a new direction on testing (long overdue) and the importance of selecting a new Commissioner to lead that work.

Next: Who will Bill Lee select to lead education policy in Tennessee?

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