An Interview with TEA President-elect Barbara Gray

Below is an interview with incoming TEA President Barbara Gray who will take over from Gera Summerford on July 1st.

 

What are your goals for TEA during your term?

My goal as TEA president is to continue advancing the association’s mission to promote, advance, and protect public education by:

  • Educating the public about the good things happening in public schools;
  • Continuing to build positive relationships with legislators, the state board of education and other key policy makers whose decisions impact students, public educators (this include ESPs, teachers, administrators) and our profession; and
  • Organizing our members to work together to reverse decisions made by elected officials that have been detrimental to public education and the teaching profession.

 TEA membership has been declining since the loss of collective bargaining. What are your plans to reverse this trend?

In recent months, TEA has begun a shift to more of an organizing culture. This move, prompted by the hiring of a new executive director at the end of 2013, will help us engage our members in a new way. We will be placing more emphasis on organizing members around issues which affect our profession at both the local and statewide levels.

TEA will continue to be a vocal advocate and provide the high quality legal and professional development services that helped us become the largest professional association for educators in the state.

 

 Do you foresee TEA fighting to restore collective bargaining rights for teachers in the near future?

Collective bargaining is an important tool in protecting students’ learning environment and the rights of our teachers. I do believe TEA will fight to restore bargaining rights for Tennessee’s educators in the future, but it is not a top priority right now. TEA was advocating for teachers’ rights long before collective bargaining was implemented and will continue to do so.

 

Outgoing TEA President Gera Summerford has talked about de-emphasizing the importance of standardized tests.  Do you support that stand? Do you believe Tennessee should explore deployment of alternative models of assessment?

Yes, I share President Summerford’s belief that there is too much emphasis on standardized tests in Tennessee. The state continues to tie more and more high-stakes decisions to these tests, and it is simply inappropriate. We need to take a serious look at alternative models of assessments and how multiple measures can be implemented to ensure fair, reliable results.

I do not believe, and I know many educators share this belief, that a one-time test at the end of the school year accurately tells me how much a student learned in my classroom. Teachers assess students throughout the year in many different ways – common formative assessments (CFA), projects, teacher-made assessments, student portfolios and more. These methods are far better indicators of student achievement and teacher effectiveness than standardized tests.

 

TEA has taken a strong stand against the use of TVAAS data in teacher evaluation. What do you propose as an alternative method of teacher evaluation?

TVAAS is a flawed, unreliable and inaccurate way to measure teacher effectiveness. TEA is leading the fight against the inappropriate use of TVAAS in our state, but we are hardly its only critic. It seems every week there is a new study coming out about the inaccuracies of value-added measures nationwide.

TEA proposes basing teacher evaluation on a system that includes multiple measures of student achievement, instead of relying only on the unreliable TVAAS estimates. I believe a pre-test/post-test assessment would be a more accurate indicator of the effectiveness of a teacher. Measuring how much a student learned during the school year by testing the student’s knowledge at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the school year would show the true impact of a teacher.

As I mentioned above, teachers evaluate their students in many different ways to determine academic achievement. Teacher evaluation should be approached in the same way.

 

Could you foresee TEA supporting an evaluation system along the lines of Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) which has had some success in Ohio and Maryland?

I am not very familiar with the Peer Assistance and Review program. From what I have read, it does sound like an evaluation model worth exploring. TEA supports learning from other states’ best practices. The ultimate goal is to get an evaluation system in place that is fair and clearly understood by educators. A solid evaluation system will support teachers and provide quality professional development to help those who are struggling, which is not being accomplished by what Tennessee currently has in place.

What would you say will be TEA’s top 3 legislative priorities in 2015?

TEA’s number one priority will be pay raises for teachers. The governor promised to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in teacher salary and we plan to hold him to it. To recruit and retain the best teachers, we must make sure that promise becomes a reality and our teachers receive a well-deserved raise.

Another priority for the association will be to increase per-student funding from the state. It is unacceptable to be below Mississippi in what the state invests per child. Tennessee educators are performing miracles in their classrooms every day. In order to sustain and improve on that success, the state must properly fund our schools.

The third legislative priority will be to continue the fight against privatization. Vouchers, for-profit charters and less restrictive parent trigger laws are all schemes that threaten the livelihood of public education in Tennessee. Out-of-state organizations are funneling millions of dollars into Tennessee because they mistakenly believe there is an opportunity to make a profit off of our students. TEA, along with the help of some new parent and teacher grassroots groups, had great success last year in defeating these bills and will continue the fight in the upcoming session.

 What’s your view of the education landscape in Tennessee? What would you do differently?

The education landscape in Tennessee is constantly changing. First, let me say that there are a lot of things going right in Tennessee schools. Our students are graduating in record numbers. Our classrooms are filled with qualified, committed educators who work tirelessly for their students. Parents and teachers are uniting in the fight against over-testing and privatization.

It feels now like we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after years of negative changes. This legislative session we saw groups of angry, engaged educators, parents, students and even legislators standing together to say, “Enough!” Enough with the unproven reform initiatives, enough with placing the weight of the world on our students and teachers, and enough with making a one-time test the center of the public education universe.

We pushed back together and we won on numerous issues.

Part of the landscape that I would love to see change is the public perception of Tennessee schools and teachers. TEA research has shown that people think their local public schools are doing great. However, when asked about the performance of public schools statewide, the response is often negative.

I want to change that perception. Commissioner Huffman is so often in the news saying negative things about our students, teachers and schools. I want to do everything in my power to combat the image he paints of public education in our state by educating Tennesseans about the many great things happening inside our schools.

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

 

Larry Proffitt Wants to Give TEA a Hug

Larry Proffitt is a middle school teacher and a baseball coach.  He’s also on the Board of Directors of the Tennessee Education Association.

He’s a friendly guy, with the enthusiasm and energy indicative of someone who spends his days relating to 11-14 year-olds.

Proffitt says that when he first got involved in TEA, he appreciated the organization because when he was down, he could also go to a TEA meeting and get a hug.

Now, he says, TEA needs a hug.

The organization has been battered recently, losing collective bargaining early in Governor Bill Haslam’s tenure.

Since then, Tennessee teachers have faced the implementation of new evaluations brought on by the Race to the Top win under Governor Phil Bredesen.  While TEA leaders signed-off on the provisions of RTTT, they now say the implementation process hasn’t gone as planned.  And that teachers are losing their voice on policies that impact them.

Proffitt is sensitive to this and says the organization needs to branch out.  It’s a new day in Tennessee politics and TEA needs to try new collaborations, according to Proffitt.

Profitt is also a member of the BATs, short for Badass Teachers Association. It’s a national group with a strong Tennessee presence that is focused on calling attention to the most egregious of education policies. BATs don’t pull punches.  Instead, they are relentless in their pursuit of what they believe is sound education policy.  According to Proffitt, it’s tough to find sound policy among those currently making the rules in Tennessee.  He says he spent every snow day this past winter at the legislature, advocating for positive education policy – and mostly, educating legislators on what’s gone wrong in the current education environment.

Proffitt is not following the typical path to the TEA Presidency.  Historically, a member of the Board of Directors of TEA gets elected to the position of Vice President.  That individual then runs for President (usually unopposed) after serving under the organization’s President.  The current VP is Barbara Gray, and she is running for TEA President, too. Proffitt is undeterred by the typical process. He’s running and running hard. He has a very active social media presence and he’s not afraid to say what’s on his mind.

He’s also worked side-by-side with parents and citizen lobbyists like those in TREE — Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence. TREE opposes vouchers and a state charter school authorizer and has been active in the past two legislative sessions voicing concerns over these and other popular tenets of the current education reform movement.

Proffitt is not openly critical of those in current leadership at TEA.  Instead, he says TEA must expand its vision.  They must collaborate with outside groups and gain public support.  They must provide a reason for teachers to join again, even without the lever of collective bargaining.

The TEA President is chosen by members of the organization’s Representative Assembly.  Those delegates are chosen at the local level. Proffitt indicated about 800 or so TEA members will decide on the organization’s next President.  He’s hopeful about his chances, even if he’s ruffling feathers along the way.

“If the teachers I talk to from around the state every single day are talking to their delegates, I have a shot at this,” he said.  “And if not, I’ve learned a lot in the process.”

Those who support his candidacy say he’s the “Proffitt who can’t be bought or sold.” The play on words is indicative of his outside-the-box candidacy and his willingness to speak out, even when it’s not the most popular thing to do.

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

Interview with Speaker Beth Harwell

We had the pleasure to interview Speaker Beth Harwell again.

1) You have been quoted as saying that districts might need more time to absorb current reform before a voucher plan is enacted. Do you support the adoption of a voucher plan in this legislative session?

I think we need to be mindful about the changes we have already made, and certainly ensure any changes can be as seamless as possible. Most of the proposals that have been brought forth are limited in some way, so I think there is a desire to ease into it.

2) If a voucher program is implemented, would you consider independent funding of the voucher students, i.e. funding their tuition through new state funding rather than by redirecting BEP and local funds that would have gone to the LEA?  If the voucher program is limited, as Governor Haslam would like, this could be a relatively inexpensive way to test whether vouchers can raise student achievement without penalizing LEAs for the experiment.

I want everyone’s voice to be heard throughout the process, and welcome all ideas. However, we are already anticipating a tight budget due to revenue shortfalls, so a new funding source may not be possible at this time.
3) Under Republican leadership, Tennessee expanded access to charter schools beyond the original limitations based on students eligible for free and reduced-price lunch, as well as those in currently failing schools.  Currently, access to pre-kindergarten is limited along similar lines, with free and reduced-price lunch students eligible first, and others eligible if there is enough space.  Why not follow the same path as charter schools, and make pre-K available for more students?

I believe we should keep Pre-K funding in place for those at-risk children that are currently eligible for the program. I am not for an expansion, however, because I think our focus right now needs to be on K-12 and making sure those public schools have the resources they need at their disposal. If there is additional money available, I would like to see it go to remedial programs in our K-12 schools.

4) There has been some recent discussion from MNPS and other districts about the state needing to fix the BEP. Perhaps along the lines of the reform started under BEP 2.0. Do you support moving forward with new BEP investment at this time?

The Governor just announced this week that he has formed a task force to take a hard look at the BEP funding formula, including the changes that were made with BEP 2.0. I applaud that approach, because even BEP 2.0 was passed seven years ago. I think allowing the stakeholders come to the table and have a serious discussion about the future of the BEP and what, if any, changes need to be made is important.
5) Some groups have called for the suspension of the use of TVAAS data in teacher evaluations until PARCC is fully implemented. Would you support this?

There are bills that have been proposed this year to take a look at a delay. While my personal preference is not to suspend or delay the use of this data, I will let the legislative process work and a full and healthy debate happen. I understand the concerns, and I’m listening, but I believe it is very important to use the data we are collecting to ensure Tennessee students are getting the education they deserve.

6) TNEdReport interviewed you last June, what has changed in the educational landscape of Tennessee since then?

I don’t know that much has changed, but there has been a lot of healthy discussion on the direction of education in Tennessee, and I think that is a positive thing.

7) What do you tell the teachers who are upset with the constant changes in education policy in Tennessee?

I value the work our teachers do, and I am pleased the Governor has committed to make Tennessee’s teacher salaries the fastest growing in the nation. They deserve that recognition and compensation. We share the same goal: to see that every child in Tennessee has the opportunity to succeed.


 

Jay Steele Talks to TNEdReport

A few weeks ago, the writers behind TNEdReport met in a conference room to interview Dr. Jay Steele, the Chief Academic Officer for MNPS. We had a great conversation full of charter schools, budgeting, and the question we all want an answer to: Is Jay Steele being groomed to be the next Director of Schools?

Note: The interview is longer than we usually post, but it is full of information on the future of MNPS, so we have tried to leave almost everything in. We have, however, edited the transcript for length and clarity.  Finally, two other folks appear in the transcript occasionally: Meredith Libbey, Special Assistant to the Director of Schools (and part of the MNPS Communications team) and Joe Bass, a communications specialist and web guru, who is also part of the MNPS Communications team.

Q: When you look at Metro schools, you see a really high proportion of free and reduced price lunch students, and when you look at the rest of the demographics in Nashville, we have a large population of private school students. What jumps to my mind is that there are a lot of middle class families that are thinking about Metro and who would like to put their kids in Metro; in fact you see a fair proportion of them put their kids in elementary school. But then, on the front end–even before elementary school–and then definitely once you get into middle school and high school, you see those numbers start to drop out. They fade out and they go to private school, or they go to Sumner County, or they go to Williamson County, whatever.  It’s not a massive tidal wave, but it’s demonstrable…

Steele: It’s real.

Q: It’s a real thing. One of MNPS’ slogans is, “We want to be the first choice for every family.” Understandably, a lot of our efforts are going to be focused on taking care of kids in poverty, and the kids near poverty, and making sure that they get an excellent education. Part of doing that is getting people back invested in the schools, because research has shown that if you have a socioeconomically isolated school where you have massive numbers of kids in poverty, just throwing resources at it is not a complete solution.

Steele: I do agree — there is a big perception, that is a real perception, and that has shown up in some of the research that outside parties have done, even at Vanderbilt University: why parents exit the system and where those drop-offs are.  And I recently shared that in a middle school presentation; School Board Member Amy Frogge asked Dr. Register and I to speak to West End/Hillsboro cluster middle schools.  And so it is a real — it is a real perception problem.  And one of the things that came out of that research, that Vanderbilt study, was that a lot of parents who are making decisions about middle school or high school have never been in those schools.  So, it’s really on hearsay; it’s really on — um — maybe some data that does show some low achievement in certain schools, and so that is a focus that we’re working on.

So, my transition happened in February; so, I’ve only been responsible for high schools up until February 1st. Now I’m responsible [in] K-12 specifically for Middle and High.  So we are working on a complete marketing outreach plan that is being developed for middle school.  We have one in the high school levels: the Academies of Nashville. The whole branding process and the “I Can” statements from our students, the bus wraps; I mean, we’ve done it all — commercials, everything at the high school level, to get the word out about what’s happening in these schools.

But the middle schools, we’re just starting that process now.  So, we do have a strategic action plan for middle schools; I brought it with me [showing binders].  There’s several in here; I don’t want you to think it’s a hundred pages.  It’s about 25 pages for middle school.  That was developed through a SWOT analysis with principals, parents, and students, and district central office people.  We worked on that since February, and it was released to principals in July, all the principals.  And around that plan, we’re looking at how we’re completely restructuring the middle schools, to mirror what’s happening in the high schools.  On a different — not really using themes, but using teams and teaming, using student leadership; also looking at high academics.

Now, you made a reference to the parents, that we’ve got to bring up those low-achieving students, the students in poverty, we’ve got to offer them the opportunity, but we cannot forget the students who are high performing, and the students who don’t come from poverty.  And so every middle school has to offer an enriched curriculum or an accelerated; that’s what a lot of the parents who are leaving the system want.  They want the rigor; they want to make sure it’s a safe environment; they want to make sure it’s a rigorous environment. So, that’s one of the things that we’re working with the middle schools on, is offering high school credit courses in every single middle school, offering them the opportunity for virtual courses — if they need to accelerate, they can do it no matter what school they’re in, what part of town they live in, if they have access; and we can give them access through laptops — check-outing of laptops from the library.  So, our virtual school has expanded those opportunities.  And, looking at every middle school offering high school credit courses.

So, the whole strategic plan is focused on personalized learning.  No matter what part of the county you’re in, what school you’re in, that is the opportunity for that school to personalize the experience for that child.  And that is through project-based learning, virtual education, accelerated courses; or, it could be for interventions for those kids who need it.

One of the big changes we did in middle schools this year was — in the past, middle schools required every student take an intervention period, whether you needed it or not. Well, that sent the wrong message to parents. So, we did away with that this year.  Interventions should be fluid and based on the mastery of a standard.  So, and if I’ve mastered that standard, I need enrichment, I don’t need intervention for my child, or for me personally.  But, I might get to a standard that I couldn’t master, and I need intervention for a two or three week period.  So the interventions now are fluid in the middle schools, based on a child’s need, not based on adults prescribing that every student needs that.

Another thing in middle school that we’re really hoping will attract students and parents back into the system is, every child engaged, whether it’s in athletics, clubs, or Music Makes Us, or fine arts.  That’s been a big push this year in the middle schools, is to bring back all of the traditional music programs such as band and choir, and in some cases orchestra, but also infuse the, uh — we call that the “legacy” programs, not “traditional,” sorry — and the, um, — I forget what we called it — the non-traditional programs such as mariachi, world percussion, hip-hop, rock, country/bluegrass.  Those — and bring in real artists from the community — we’re able to employ those people for two periods to really come in and teach that specialty.  That is really taking off at several of our middle schools.

So, we’re really trying to personalize that experience, bring the enrichment in through the arts and the clubs, but the goal is that every middle school student belongs.  So, if you’re looking at that K-12 continuum, and we do see that dropoff at elementary going into, transitioning into middle.  It is fearful for a parent to send their baby in the fifth grade, to a middle school that might be around a 13 year old eighth grader, so that’s why we’ve divided the middle schools into teams.  So there might be a — two fifth grade teams, depending on the size of that school.  They are sheltered in a different part of the building, and they do not mix with the older students except on the bus coming and going to school, and they carry those elementary practices, such as the responsive classroom, morning meetings, all of that with them — and they start that transition into sixth, into seventh, and by the eighth grade, they’re transitioning into a high school schedule.

Q. Kind of like the idea with 9th grade academies…

Steele: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things — we’re moving that 9th grade approach down to the 8th grade. So, starting in January our middle school students will take a High School 101 course and it will be taught through Blackboard, online, for every kid during their advisor/advisee time — what’s a GPA? What are the high school academies?  What’s International Baccalaureate?  What’s AP mean?  What’s the importance of a GPA?  So that’ll roll out to every eighth grader in the district starting in January, to help them make better choices.

Q. You touched on perception, and you talked about how Metro is putting together these marketing and outreach plans.  A lot of what you’ve described are internal changes — middle school structure, offerings, more extracurriculars, personalized learning, and that kind of stuff.  What is the companion — I guess for lack of a better term — the marketing piece of that?  For example: love ‘em or hate ‘em, charter schools are great at marketing themselves.  They get branding companies to work with them. If there’s a lack of perception that our schools are where we should be — that middle class parents should be putting their kids in these schools — how does MNPS address that?

Steele:  I’m glad you asked that question because that’s one of my fortes, one of the things I’m very passionate about: outreach and marketing.  And for some reason in public education some community members feel that we’re wasting taxpayer money when we develop marketing plans. We have to compete. It’s a mindset change of principals and public school districts. You are competing with charters. You are competing with private schools and virtual schools and home school. And with school choice, you are competing with each other. You want your school, as a principal, you want your school to be branded the best school in the district and very attractive for parents to put their kids in. So I firmly believe in that.

Now, I don’t firmly believe in just throwing money at something that’s bad. I mean there has to be something to market. There has to be a change. That’s why those action plans that I told you about, the whole strategic plan of high school, the strategic plan of middle school, the district strategic plan.  Those are all pieces in there that are completely transforming the experience kids are having in those schools. We do have to market to get that word out. We do work with a branding company a branding firm called DK Brand Strategy. The Nashville Chamber helped us find her. And we are working with her in the high schools now for three years. She’s working with the middle schools now. She’s working with Music Makes Us. Because there are great things that are happening in this district that we have to get the word out.

We’ve created “brand promises” that are internal promises at the high school and middle school level that drive our decision making. And those brand promises really solidify to the staff and the leadership of the middle school or the high school tiers that our decisions have to be focused on this brand. We have to deliver this product that we’re promising. And we use kids to form those brand promises in their language. That then drives how we market what’s happening in those schools. For example, part of the brand promise at the high school is I belong to an innovative community where I’m engaged … so what does that actually mean? What’s innovation? What’s a community mean? So it’s that family atmosphere in a kid’s language, what does that mean? I belong to a team of people who are all in a sport or in a club or part of the academy or on a team in middle school.  So it’s about belonging. But it is getting the message out. Because if we let other people define who we are, they will do that.

Unfortunately, that’s what’s been happening with negative perception. People are defining what they don’t know. So as part of those outreach plans–the First Choice festival is a part of that–tours of the schools, inviting parents in on those Tuesday tours.  We’ve done VIP tours in every high school over the past two years where elected officials–local, state, and national–,ministers in the community, business leaders have come in. We’ve done Realtor tours. Because we know that as families move to this district, sometimes realtors steer them away from certain neighborhoods.  I’m a prime example. I was steered to Green Hills. I said I want to live downtown. They said, this is downtown. Green Hills is downtown. I said, no, this is not downtown. I was never shown East Nashville. So, I live in East Nashville now, that’s the community I want to live in. So, there’s a perception problem that we have to address and I think the branding is key and the marketing or outreach is key.

Q: Say you’ve got a parent who’s happy in their middle school and whose child is zoned to, for example, Stratford High School. The parent looks at the average ACT score at Stratford and says, “There’s no way, I can’t put my kid there.” How do you address that? How do you stop those parents from leaving or allay that fear? I mean, let’s say I’m a parent, and I go meet with Michael Steele and I say look, we live over here and I want to put my kid in the school just a few miles down the road, but I see the ACT scores at Stratford and don’t think I can put my child there. What’s the answer to that?

Steele: They need to go see it. I completely agree and understand that perception or that fear. I encourage those parents to go in Stratford. Vanderbilt University Center for Science Outreach — PhD professors are teaching kids in the STEM courses in the academy of science and engineering. If parents would go and sit in one of those classes and see, this is the fourth year that’s happening. Those kids are now seniors. The shifts are starting to happen there. But they are not going to happen until more families come in and take that. It is taking a chance, I understand that. But, the level of instruction from Vanderbilt professors along side Stratford teachers, you are not going to find that anywhere else. It’s only offered in two high schools in the district.

If you drill down in the data, if you look just at the overall average ACT scores it doesn’t paint the picture that is happening. If you get your kid in the right program, lets say you are in the Vanderbilt program. Their average ACT rate is much higher. Now it’s not going to reflect in the school overall ACT rate. I think in any school, if a child wants the higher level courses, advanced placement, international baccalaureate, or the new one: Cambridge advanced international certificate of education. You are going to find those in every single school and you are going to be able to get that high level college prep education. But it is a leap of faith for some groups of parents, especially in the East Nashville area. If they continue as a cohort through those schools, they will change that school. They will change the outcomes of achievement in those schools.

I firmly believe that kids rise to the level of expectation. At Stratford and other schools, at the high school level, we have raised those expectations to a very high level and they are continuing to rise. I know when I first came here, I met with the team at Stratford. My first month on the job and I was shocked at what I saw. But, after getting the right people in place and addressing the expectation then that’s when I see the change happening. The change in culture in a place like Stratford has been phenomenal. It has been night and day from what it was four years ago. The achievement is rising.

Is it rising fast enough? No. I mean, I wont be happy until every kid is at that 100% and we know that is a long stretch in an urban district. But, the expectation is there now, and kids are rising to that level of expectation in all of our high schools. If you look, and I will use the high schools, because I have been working with them the most in the last four years. It will be four years December 1st that I have been here. Last night at the board meeting, the performance data was shared on all the schools with three year trends. All of the High School either maintained their status or rose. There’s only one high school that’s in the red, which is the bottom. And they were one and half points away from moving up to the next level and that was Pearl Cohn. I have a new principal at Pearl Cohn in her second year who will turn that school. She is one of the best I have ever seen in the country. But I am proud that the high schools are on the trajectory. That’s why Dr. Register, I think, has placed me in this position, I need to replicate that now with the middle school principals. And the whole branding and restricting plan for middle schools is the first step in that. It will get there. It can’t happen fast enough for parents.

Meredith Libbey: Do you want to talk about East at all?

Steele: East [Magnet High School] is about to announce a 100% graduation rate. The only high school in the district to hit that above MLK and Hume Fogg. It was part of the data last night that shared, but nobody picked it up yet.  Lockeland Elementary — one of the highest performing — that was in the paper today, in the Tennessean. I read it this morning.

Q: Since you bring up Lockeland, let’s talk about Lockeland as sort of a microcosm for some things that are happening in the district. My question was going to be, “What did the district learn from Great Hearts” but…

Steele: I wasn’t involved in that.

Q: It wasn’t going to be, “Tell me about charter schools.” The question was more along the lines of: one of the things I took from the Great Hearts mess was that there was a group of parents and families in the Green Hills area that wanted another school like Julia Green or Percy Priest or Lockeland. That same demand is in East Nashville. It’s certainly in Green Hills. How does the district manage that?

Libbey: I’m going to jump in and say that’s not a Chief Academic Officer discussion.

Q: What’s that?

Libbey: That’s really a Board level and Director level. I mean, because this is way past the academic program. It’s into zoning and there is a whole lot of other issues there. So, a great question but I don’t know if it’s a question for him.

Q: Charters are going to be $62.2 million next year under the budget. How is that affecting the planning going forward for Metro?

Steele: Well, here’s my only piece of the budgeting. I don’t deal with that piece of the budget. I can speak of budget autonomy, and how we are moving to that. But I can’t speak of funding going to charter schools. That’s at a board level and Dr. Register level. But the whole budget autonomy piece: I do believe in school based budgeting and next year all high school and middle schools, and a few of the elementaries that are led by lead principals, elevated principal status, will have school based budgeting autonomy. We are starting that training at the next principal meeting in November. They will be completely in charge of their budgets this spring for next year. Completely support that. There is a three year plan that will phase all schools in to that. But middle and high schools I am completely comfortable with them going 100% school based budgeting next year.  Student based budgeting, which I also firmly believe in and want to get to, is going to follow that. Within three years, it will be school based and student based budgeting. That’s a little more, it’s going to take some time to develop that. Putting weights on kids in poverty, maybe putting higher weights on EL students. I am from Florida and we had that in Florida. That’s how we did our budgets there. I didn’t know any other way to do budgeting. I am very pleased the district is moving towards that. I firmly believe in school based autonomy, school based budgeting, and student based budgeting.

Q: Some charter advocates will say that we have persistently low performing schools and that Metro has had years, that it has known about this problem over two different superintendents for sure. The question is, why should someone choose a Metro school? For example, say we have a persistently low performing school — one example someone gave to me the other day was the principal turnover in the past five years at Bailey Middle School. Why would I choose that school if there is a charter option available? Why should I give  you a chance? That problem may get fixed by the time my child gets out of middle school, but…

Steele: Sure. I understand that. I am actually a charter school principal. So I understand both sides. I spent five years as a charter school principal in Florida. And I worked in traditionally zoned schools and charters schools and both post secondary and secondary. That is an issue. And you saw pieces of it last night in the school board discussion. We are not on level playing fields, I will say that. That is controversial for some people to even say that. As a charter school principal, I was allowed to take students. I was also allowed to dismiss students.

But I do know that as those things happen in a zoned school, I get who comes to me. I don’t have the option of, you misbehaved, you’re are being dismissed from this school. Or, you have missed so many days, you are not coming back to this school. So the playing field is not level there. But that is no excuse. That is why this is important to me.

Closing the achievement gap, no excuses, that is the philosophy that we are using. There are no excuses for that achievement gap. There are no excuses for those kids who are in the schools that are remaining in the red for three years in trend data. Charter or traditional or magnet school. That doesn’t matter. What we haven’t done a good enough job is, as leadership of zoned schools, is pulling that trigger. That’s bad — that’s a bad analogy. Making changes in leadership based on data when it needs to happen.

Now if you look at the high schools, I have had no problem doing that. I am very pleased. It took me three years to get to this fourth year where I am comfortable in every single principal in the high schools. I trust them. They are top notch. They are doing incredible jobs. But I can honestly say there might be some, we haven’t traditionally used that data. It hasn’t been available to us, really, until now. This is our first three year trend data. We will be using that data to make decision about leadership in the buildings. I can assure everyone in the district that we will do that. Brenda Steele, the elementary associate and I, at eight o’clock this morning sat down and had that conversation. We’ve scheduled a meeting in November for all of the executive lead principals to come together with that data and start making those notifications. I do firmly believe that every principal has strengths. They might be in the wrong position. They might be in the wrong school. So we have to identify those strengths and get those people lined up for where their strengths are going to be highlighted or used the most. It might not be in the school they are in. It might not be as a principal. It might be as an assistant principal or another kind of leader. But I’m not scared to make those decisions. I think parents in the community expect that. Dr. Register and the school board, obviously last night, they expect it. And we will be making some of those tough decisions based on that data.

Q: How do you get someone to stay at a school that is really hard to turn around? Bailey Middle School is what comes to mind because someone mentioned it to me the other day. If it’s going to take two or three or four years to get that school fixed, you might have a principal think, “I don’t want to be here; it’s tougher than I thought.” How do you get a principal to stay?

Steele: I do also believe that it takes a minimum of three years to turn a school. If you haven’t turned it in three years… I’ll use the principal at Pearl Cohn as an example. Sonya Stuart is a phenomenal lady. Incredible instructional leader. She told me when I hired her, “If I can’t turn it around in three years, Jay, fire me.” She said, “I’ll resign.” And um, that was her language. I trust her.

Number one, you gotta put the leader in there that you trust that has the skills. I think in some of the instances in some of the low performing schools, there are some incentives. Monetary incentives. But it’s not all about money. It’s also about school autonomy with your resources and your budget. Your staffing. Number one for me as a principal would be staffing. I don’t want to be given a staff. So one of the major things we did this year, that I have been doing in high school for four years, but elementary and middle have not been doing it, is letting the principal choose their own assistant principal. That’s big. So this year, we said every, we are not telling anybody who to hire. Principals choose their own assistant principal and their leadership team. But they will be held accountable for it, if it works, great. If not, you are held accountable for it. So the expectations are different now.

Human capital has been working very hard on getting the highest quality teachers and getting a large candidate pool for the principal’s to choose from. So people are not required to take displaced teachers. Sometimes, displaced teachers gets a negative image, sometimes. They are not all bad teachers that are being transferred. Or some people want to transfer. There might have been a program closing. So principal choosing their own staff. Choosing their own leadership team. Having autonomy in the building. That’s an incentive, I think, that could keep people at those schools. Along with the monetary. I firmly believe that if you are going into a low performing school, it is going to consume your life for the next three years to turn that school around. We have to reward those people.

Q: Are you being groomed to be the next superintendent?

[several people speaking at once]

Libbey: He is not.

Q: That’s fine.

Libbey: We hear that conversation out in the community.

Q: That’s why we’re asking.

Bass: The Board hires the superintendent.

Libbey: The Board hires the superintendent and we also heard that if there is ever a sense among the board that there is an inside pick, that person can walk ….. They want to make the choice.

Steele: Meredith is exactly right. The Board makes the choice. I am not focusing on that. My job right now is huge. I’ve got an incredible team around me. They are brilliant people who are working hard. I trust them. I listen to them. It’s a give and take everyday. Pushing back, challenging. So, that to me is my focus right now. I shared with someone yesterday: I do want, it would be incredible to be the leader of this district, the highest performing urban district in the next five years. But, I want to be on the team. Whether it’s Chief Academic Officer or Associate Superintendent or the Director of schools. Being part of this incredible transformation is what I want to be. I don’t want to be anywhere else then the middle of this. The Board determines who leads that. But no, Dr. Register is not grooming me. There’s too much to do to even think about that right now. But I do hear that. That’s unfortunate, that makes me a target for people. That’s not anywhere close to what we are talking about.

Q: Are you looking at what high achieving charter schools are doing to see what you can do inside zoned schools?

Steele: Absolutely. I’ll give you an example of that. STEM Prep — Dr. Kristin McGraner — I think she is phenomenal and I have been in her school twice now. I took a group of middle school and high school principals from the STEM cluster – at Stratford and Litton — in to STEM Prep last spring to see the practices in that school. Kristin and I work very close. I brought her into the principal meeting. She met with all the principals of the middle and high school level. She presented her data, mastery tacking forms, and her philosophy on that. That was in the late spring, early summer. Many of the schools now have adopted that model and I am encouraging them to take their faculty leaders in to see what’s happening at STEM Prep.

I’ve been invited to come into one more — I won’t name it, I haven’t scheduled it yet — but I will be going in in early November to see that other school. I firmly believe we can learn from each other. Actually, Kristin from STEM prep as reached out to me about her plans to open a high school. Can we work together and help her? I have met with Todd Dickson, from Valor Collegiate, and his model of his school matches closely with the academy model at the high school level. So we’ve been working together. I just met with Justin Testerman Friday morning.

I think we can learn from each other, if the conversation is cordial and open to learning from each other. The personal attacks on Twitter and all that stuff needs to stop. It doesn’t need to become personal. It is about the achievement of every kid whether they are in charter or in a zoned or magnet or non-traditional school. Again it goes back to personalized learning. That is the lever of change that we believe will transform this district.

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


 

PET Talks to Kevin Huffman

Professional Educators of Tennessee launched a new online journal today and it contains a wide-ranging interview with Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman. The full interview can be viewed here.

I’ve got some excerpts and analysis below.

PET:  You started in your post about 3 or 4 months into Governor Haslam’s term, after Tennessee was already several months into the Race to the Top (RTTT) Grant Award and after the new evaluation system was put in place.  Yet, many people seem to tie you to the changes in teacher evaluation which was actually included in the 2010 RTTT Application.  Is that fair?

Huffman: Yes and no. No in the sense that we committed to implement the system (including 50% student achievement for all teachers) through the First to the Top legislation and then through the grant. My first week on the job, the advisory committee (TEAC) completed its work which included the selection of the TEAM rubric and the format for the observations, so that was all done by the time I came, and it isn’t accurate to say that I created it.

What set us apart from other states, though, is that we didn’t back down. Other states committed to do evaluation too, and many delayed by a year or two, or kicked the can even farther down the road, and we stayed the course. If that means that I am tied to the evaluation system, I accept that, because I think the system has made instruction better and helped kids learn more. One of the things I think people miss in the evaluation discussion is that the real value is not in anything punitive: it is in ensuring that real feedback and conversations about instruction happen across the state with a common language. And I think that has happened.

What’s missing, in my view, is the attendant professional development and early career support.  Early career teachers need mentoring and support.  Teach for America, where Huffman got his start, places a heavy emphasis on targeted coaching and mentoring in the first two years. Even if the evaluation process is on balance a good one (and there’s debate about that), it’s difficult to see how it improves instruction significantly without supports and targeted professional development being provided to teachers. 

PET:  What changes do we need to make in teacher evaluations?  And what should the state have done differently in retrospect?

Huffman: We made a bunch of changes after the first year, which I think made the system better and certainly made educators feel the system was better in the second year. I think we have to keep looking each year at how to improve it. A couple of things over the long haul that I think we need to keep looking at: 1) adjusting language each year on the rubric so that it effectively matches the observations with the standards teachers are teaching. I think we have done a little of this but we have to keep looking; 2) the whole “15% measure” for achievement still doesn’t seem to be going very well. Many teachers and schools don’t feel like it accurately reflects teachers’ impact, so I want to keep looking at this.

In retrospect, I think the biggest piece missing was training and communication for teachers well in advance of the rollout. I think some teachers got strong communication from local schools and districts and others did not, and the communication piece was insufficient from the state. A good example of that was the initial “planning” strand. Some teachers spent hours and hours and wrote 20-page lesson plan documents, which was never the intent. Better communication way back in early 2011 would have made a big difference.

The evaluation process is an ever-changing one — and that’s frustrating for teachers.  Every few months, it seems, something new is decided or added or taken away from the evaluation process. No one objects to a sound evaluation of their performance.  What’s problematic is the implementation.  Further, the 15% measure for achievement is becoming more, not less problematic.  In some systems, teachers are forced to choose an “Annual Measurable Objective” connected to English/Language Arts or Math.  Rather than owning their own students (in the case of AP teachers, for example) teachers are sometimes tied to students they’ve never taught.  The State Board document on the 15% provides a number of choices and ample flexibility.  Revisiting this issue with the input of teachers from across the state would be a welcome policy change.

PET:  In your opinion, what are the top three current challenges facing education in Tennessee?

Huffman: This is a tough one. 1) Helping students with disabilities reach their potential. We have a huge gap in achievement and we are really focused on this at the state level right now. 2) Early grades reading. We heard all summer from teachers that they need and want more support for teaching reading and for intervening with students who are far behind their peers. We are offering a course through our regional CORE offices to thousands of teachers on reading instruction, and I hope it will help. 3) Integrating all of the changes. We have done a lot in the last few years, and we now have new assessments coming. Our focus is not on more change – it is on how to manage all of the change effectively.
I’m very bullish on our ability to navigate these challenges though.

One clear way to improve early grades reading is by ensuring access to high quality Pre-K programs.  Both the Comptroller’s study and the Vanderbilt study of Pre-K indicate its ability to help improve reading in early grades.  Governor Haslam, however, has indicated he’s not in favor of expanding a program that is proven to work to address what the Commissioner of Education identifies as a top priority for our state.
PET:  Any final thoughts you would like to share with Tennessee educators?

Huffman: I am deeply grateful for your service. Every time I visit a school, I am struck by the professionalism and commitment of our educators, and our students are lucky to have you.

I’m sure it’s nice for educators to hear those words.  But, you can’t buy groceries with gratitude.  So far, there hasn’t been a real commitment to improving the pay and support for the educators the Commissioner identifies as both highly professional and deeply committed.  We heard a lot about how important teachers were to the gains noted on this year’s TCAP’s.  What hasn’t been heard is how compensation and support will be improved to ensure Tennessee is attracting and keeping strong educators.  To be clear, it’s not just better pay, but more support and more resources that teachers need.

EDIT: Today (10/3/13) at 3:00 PM Central Time Haslam and Huffman announced a goal to make Tennessee the “fastest improving state when it comes to teacher salaries.”

More Huffman: “Too often we try to use gratitude as a substitution for compensation.” — is he reading as I write?

And he notes, “Tennessee ranks in the bottom 10 in terms of teacher compensation.”

It’s not clear what that means, exactly, but it should mean more than this.

And then, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh offers this response:

“Teachers in this state are overworked, underpaid, and deserve to be treated as professionals.

However, after listening to teachers across the state, we are increasingly convinced that Commissioner Huffman’s unproven, unreliable testing methods as a basis for teacher pay are hurting our public education system.

“….Basing teacher pay on scores, especially the scores of students they never teach, is going to further strain the system, lower morale, and detract from the progress we have made in Tennessee.”

For more on Tennessee education news, follow us @TNEdReport

 

 

Our Interview With Speaker Beth Harwell

Tennessee Education Report had the chance to interview Speaker Beth Harwell (R-Nashville) on education issues facing our state. We want to thank her for taking time out of her busy schedule to talk about such an important issue.

Tennessee ranks low in the per-pupil funding of our public schools. Do you think we are doing enough to fund our schools?

This year the legislature fully funded the BEP and increased funding in specific areas; namely, we committed more resources to technology in our schools, which is a vital component of ensuring our students can compete for 21st Century jobs. The most important thing about funding is making sure we are spending those dollars with maximum efficiency to support students and teachers.

Do you support full funding of the bipartisan changes to the BEP that started under BEP 2.0? Will we see a move in that direction in 2014?

Fully funding the BEP is always a top priority. I am always open to discussing ways we can improve the system so we can give our schools the support they need.

Do you support expansion of the state’s voluntary Pre-K program either with federal dollars or through the formula established for expanding Pre-K under the Bredesen administration?

With regards to Pre-K, I think we have struck a good balance thus far. I don’t see expansion in the near future, because I think our priority right now is focusing on K-12 education and making sure we are committing time and resources to that.

Nashville recently changed their starting teacher salaries to $40,000 with great success. Do you support state-level funding to move starting teacher salaries in Tennessee to $40,000 a year?

I think each system should have the flexibility to determine the compensation that makes the most sense for them. In recent years, there has been more of a focus on differentiating pay to some degree based on positions that are traditionally difficult to fill—primarily, STEM positions and lower performing schools. If we can use that as a tool to attract the best and brightest, we should.

Do you support efforts to provide (and state funding for) robust early career mentoring to teachers in their first and second years of teaching?

Any training and mentoring programs we can improve or consider that will give teachers the support and assistance they need is a conversation worth having. As a former professor, I know it is incredibly beneficial to have a network you can reach out to and find out the latest methods and best practices.

After being withdrawn in the Senate on the last day of session, will you work with Sen. Gresham to pass the current charter authorizer bill (HB 702) next session? Would you like to see a revised bill pass?

I do hope we can reach a consensus on the authorizer, because I really do believe it will assist the state in attracting the very best public charter school operators from around the country. This is a critical component, and another tool in the toolbox, to giving students every opportunity to succeed.

Next session, would you support a limited Voucher plan, like Governor Haslam has proposed, or a more expanded plan that has been discussed in the Senate?

I look forward to a continued discussion of vouchers. I think we had a healthy debate last year. While I do not believe they are a silver bullet to ‘fix’ education, I do think it can be a tool. I expect the House and Senate to continue to weigh the pros and cons and find a solution that is right for Tennessee.

Forgive me, I have to ask: Are you planning to run for Governor years down the road? 

I sincerely enjoy being the Speaker of the House—it is an awesome responsibility I do not take lightly, and a great honor. Right now, my focus is on the legislature and what we can do to keep moving this state forward.


 

TNEdReport Interviews Rep. Joe Pitts

We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rep. Joe Pitts for the Tennessee Education Report. He is a member of the House Education Committee and the House Education Subcommittee. He is a vocal voice in both committees. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.

Let’s start with Vouchers:

What impact will vouchers have on local school districts in terms of budget and tax burden?

A:  Vouchers will have an immediate impact on local government’s budgets and the potential impact on local property tax is significant.  The voucher will further dilute public education funding currently going to the local school district which has an extensive infrastructure – buildings, supervisory staff, transportation, etc. that supports ALL students residing in their jurisdiction.  It is a delicate balance of funds that can be turned upside down if a sudden shift in funding policy, like vouchers, is made.

Do you believe that even if a limited voucher plan passes, the ultimate goal is statewide vouchers with broad qualifications? 

A:  If the past is prologue to the future, then one only need to look at the Charter school authorization passed many years ago by the General Assembly.  The original concept was to address at-risk students in schools within specific geographic boundaries, and we even had a limit on the number of charter schools within those communities. Now, despite evidence to the contrary, Charter schools are available statewide for every student regardless of academic need.  While Charter schools certainly have their place, given the right circumstances, it should be a tool at the LEA’s disposal.

An amendment recently passed to make private schools provide school lunches to those who come to the school via vouchers. Does that help your concern about students choosing free lunch or a private school?

A:  Requiring a school participating in the voucher program to offer a school lunch program makes a flawed proposal less objectionable but still not one I can support.  We don’t need a voucher program for at-risk students in failing schools.  Currently if a student is in a failing school, the parents can raise their hand and request their student go to another, non-failing school, in the same district without sacrificing basic human needs like breakfast and lunch, and transportation, and special needs students get access to the services they need.

Why do you think the GOP is focused on vouchers/charters instead of fully-funding BEP 2.0?

A:  Take a look around the country.  Vouchers seem to be the “cause de jour.”  It appears our education system is the last bastion of public funded services that haven’t been co-opted by the for-profit sector; sadly, not anymore.

Finally, do you think there will be transition problems when taking a child out of a public school and placing them in a private school? Do you think the child may fall behind from the start?

A:  When the child moves from one public school to another public school, or in this case, a private school, it will present some challenges.  Children are resilient though, but I am concerned about the moving back and forth between and among systems since not all private school curriculum lines up with the public school system.

Let’s more on to charters.

Do you believe the recent charter authorizer bill is taking away local control from local education boards?

A:  Yes.  Sadly, as amended, the bill would establish a non-elected group of people appointed by both Speakers and the Governor, to decide how and how much local tax money could be obligated for a state authorized charter school. That’s like the state deciding how big your police force should be and sending you the bill. This is just plain wrong.

Are you supportive of charter schools that get local approval or would you rather limit how many charter schools can open in the state?

A:  I do believe charter schools are a good option for LEA’s who need to try something different for students with specific academic needs.  Being a member of a local school board is a difficult task.  You are required and responsible for the academic achievement of all students in your district but have no say in the funding allocated by any of the funding entities.  I am not a fan of establishing limits on schools if the LEA has control of the authorization.

General Education Questions

If you were the commissioner of education, what would be the first thing you would do to improve public education in Tennessee?

A:  Three things simultaneously:  I would implore the Governor to make it our policy that no new changes would be sought or implemented for two years or until we can sort out the changes enacted in the last two years.

Next I would meet with the school directors and school boards, individually, of every district with a failing school and let them know we are going to become partners.  Instead of a shotgun marriage, it would be a partnership based on putting our resources where are mouths are and helping the failing schools first and immediately.  Students struggling in schools are very often victims of their home environment.  I would deploy an intervention team consisting of master level social workers, health professionals and academic coaches to these schools immediately to provide intensive work and support.

Lastly, I would work with the Charter schools to create a bold new platform for turning around these schools in our districts not meeting expectations.  We need to look beyond the numbers and think about year round charter schools, extended hours, or other non-traditional means to address the needs of the students and their families.  A charter school that mirrors a traditional public school hardly seems worth the effort.

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our LEA’s are performing at a high level, given the meager resources we allocate to them, and are open to our help, be it public or private, to give our students the best education experience possible.

Certain reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirst have very specific policy agendas for reforming education. Some of the typical policies associated with these groups include vouchers, charter schools, pay-for-performance, and ending seniority rules.

What’s the counter-argument?  What are the marquee policies Democrats embrace?  If there aren’t a set of marquee proposals everyone is on board with, why not?  What’s being done to get the Democrats on a united front, to have a set of counter proposals instead of just playing defense?

A:  The reform movement initiatives, added to the self-inflicted policy crush imposed on LEA’s over the past three years, is contributing nothing to the public discourse about improving student performance.  If you think about it, we made significant changes to public policy in education in 2010 as a part of our First to the Top agenda proposed by Gov Bredesen – a Democrat, followed by nightmarish changes to the teachers’ environment in 2011 by eliminating collective bargaining, tenure, and removing TEA from their seat at the table, all in the name of “reform.”

On top of all that we approved virtual schools, unlimited charter schools, put undue pressure on teachers and principals by adopting an assessment tool that is unnecessarily bureaucratic, adopted the Common Core, and are preparing to implement a new assessment called PARRC.  Now, we are attacking our teacher preparation programs by looking at putting artificial thresholds on ACT and SAT scores for students who wish to go through their respective College of Education.  I’ve said it before; we are giving our education system whiplash with these rapid-fire changes and creating massive confusion.  Who can blame more seasoned teachers from deciding to retire instead of continuing in a system that does not appreciate their significant achievement and experience in the classroom and will subject them to the latest reform experiment?

Perhaps the corporate robber barons of the reform movement need to be asked to leave the room and let the education professionals do their jobs.  I have complete faith in our school districts across our state if we can offer our help instead of the cram down policies that have little to no basis in fact or success.

 

Andy, John, and I want to thank Rep. Pitts for his time. Please follow us on twitter @TNEdReport and like us on Facebook.