A Different Kind of Test

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

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

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

Doctors recommend a simple blood test to determine exposure levels.

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

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


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

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

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

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


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

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Buildings Matter

While Governor Bill Lee’s administration distributes money to charter schools by way of a capital slush fund, schools in Shelby County and across the state are struggling to maintain infrastructure. More on the current challenges in Shelby County from Chalkbeat:

This week, when temperatures in Memphis dipped to an unseasonably chilly 20 degrees, his first two classes had no heat. The problem was partially caused by a gas leak that led to an early dismissal Tuesday, but Scott said cold classrooms are common. Walking into a classroom with no heat, “I could feel this fresh coldness like a window had been opened.”

Building conditions impact student outcomes

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

The report on infrastructure challenges in Shelby County comes on the heels of another report about lead in water at schools across Tennessee.

It’s absolutely clear that the State of Tennessee needs to make significant investments in our schools. It’s also clear that legislative leaders and Governor Lee have shown zero interest in making that happen. Instead, the Plaid Privatizer seems content to push an agenda of disruption while promoting charter schools and voucher schemes.

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

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Changing School Culture


Bethany Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee offers this insight from school leader Ryan Jackson:

Perhaps the foremost expert on changing school culture in Tennessee is Dr. Ryan Jackson. People from across the country have taken notice of the amazing turn around he has done at Mt. Pleasant PreK-12 School in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. Ryan Jackson is beginning his 3rd year at Mt. Pleasant School in Maury County, and the culture shift that he has instigated is nothing short of amazing. We wanted a deeper probe of what he was doing, so his methods could be replicated.

In 2016, when Ryan Jackson first came to Mt. Pleasant School, it had a negative stigma attached to it. He immediately realized that the school lacked an identity. Being a firm believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he realized he needed to create a sense of belonging. The first thing he did was create ‘The Mount.’ More specifically, #TheMount which was strategic for a couple of reasons. Jackson relays, “One, it side-stepped the stigma. This was new. Some people thought it was like putting lipstick on a pig. But it did create a psychological shift. ‘We are The Mount’, not the old Mt. Pleasant and everything you thought about Mt. Pleasant before July 2016 has just changed including how we identify ourselves.” He continued, “It was more than just a rally cry; it was the beginning of this new identity and getting people to see Mt. Pleasant differently so we could one by one, person by person, student by student, teacher by teacher, community member by community member get them to come on board and feel like they belong.” It was not an overnight process but through repetition, constant branding, constant messaging, it was successful.

We have learned, as educators, that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you. Ryan Jackson made social media an integral part of the culture shift. He stated, “Social media is a high yield strategy that costs absolutely nothing financially, just a time investment. It gives everyone, but specifically the immediate community, the windows of insight into what’s going on at the school. It gives them a proud thing to hang their hat on that they didn’t have in the past. I wanted them to see the fact that we had seven different CTE programs. We had multiple forms of art being represented. I wanted the community to see some of the cool project-based learning experiences that we had for kids…things that they would not know if they weren’t here on a day to day basis. I wanted the community members to have access into the school day via the social media platform. By doing so, we are getting the attention of more than just the community, but also the state and the nation as well.”

Jackson sees the social media posts as sort of a mini-commercial for his school. The community now sees them as a positive influence and thinks, “Wow, things really are changing [at Mt. Pleasant].” He reiterates, “Not only that, social media gives you the opportunity to highlight teachers, students and programs while reinforcing the belonging. When people have emotional connections to something, they will share it with others. You are literally evangelizing your message, your school.”

The rebranding, done primarily via social media, has also led to grants/partnerships from the community. Jackson attributes the Theater Renovation Grant for $67,000 that they got from Lowe’s to social media branding. These organizations vet the recipients of their grants, and when they google Mt. Pleasant High School, they start to see everything that they’ve done. Jackson reminds us, “No school is perfect, but you want to make sure that daily you are putting in enough credit that when something bad does happen, your credit is so high that there isn’t a negative impact.” They also got a $500,000 grant from Parker Hannifin Corporation with which they built an Innovation Lab. “Any school that is not leveraging social media power is missing an incredible opportunity,” Jackson emphasized.

Jackson admits that grants have assisted in the cultural turn-around by being financial affirmations. “Organizations see their money going to a school as investment which they believe they will see a return on. Those grants help to foster a shift from momentum to inertia. And now we are a school that cannot be stopped.”

Working with educators, we know there are a few who are resistant to change. When asking Jackson how he dealt with those who did not buy into his vision, he stated, “In any organization, there is always going to be the ‘toxic 2%.’ Annually, you’ve got to get rid of the toxic 2% because if you don’t, it can be like cancer and it will spread. Teachers/staff must grow or go. You will have that core group of people who will buy into your vision immediately.”

Ryan describes himself as a strength-finder leader. “We focus on our strengths and talents while managing our weaknesses. We devoted the first year entirely to changing the culture. We didn’t start on changing the curriculum until year two. We lifted people up, building capacity, building, supporting the teacher leaders. Then they took their network and influence to bring over the early majority. We showed wins in grants, school discipline, attendance etc. When you see your school logo on T-shirts at Walmart and RiteAid, the late majority is starting to look at it like ‘Wow, I want to be a part of this thing.’ Now we have buy-in from the early and late majority.”

Changing the school culture has not just changed the school, but it has transformed the community. Mt. Pleasant is a community of about 5200 people. Mt. Pleasant School is sort of a mini school system. Jackson explains, “[The school] has been a catalyst for everything. We have been positioned as the lighthouse for rural development and that starts with education. People are only going to move back to Main Street, America if they think their children have a great shot at an excellent education.”

Jackson continues, “We understood that fundamentally and made sure the city had something they were proud to hang their hat on in terms of their schools. Once we gave them a taste that this could turn out to be something incredible, we saw parental involvement go up. We started to see the community come out for football games and other events. Every 30 days we are showcasing something new and different such as the ‘Tiny House’ project we are working on or a mid-town barbeque festival with the community. Now we have the cooperation with the city government to raise $155,000 to build a Splash Pad for the community. It’s a multitude of things such as building an authentic partnership with city government and its schools so we can do things together that will improve the quality of life. It’s showcasing the programs in such a way that you can get parents and business owners excited about their local schools.”

Not only that, when you create a high-profile buzz with the rest of the country looking at you, it becomes infectious. Jackson proudly brags, “When the folks in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee hear that people from Palm Beach County, Florida, the 11th largest school district in the nation, are coming to visit to see what we are doing, they can’t argue with success. That is the attitude you have to adopt. The city is starting to feel like a winner again and it is long overdue.” He reiterates, “After you feel like you belong, then you will start feeling efficacious and capable. Then and only then can you transfer to self-actualization, just being your best. Mt. Pleasant’s new business owners are feeling capable. Now let’s give this thing a go because we all feel like we belong.”

When Ryan Jackson was asked what advice he would give to struggling administrators, he said, “First and foremost, be a leader, not a figure-head. You have to be present. People want to see their shepherd – ten toes down leadership. You are in the halls, in the classrooms. You’re engaging the students with fist-bumps, high-fives, ‘how you doing?’ You need to have mini conversations with kids and identify their passions. Get to know your staff on a personal level. For far too long leadership programs have emphasized that being a good manager is where you draw a firm line. I think things have just changed. [As administrators], we have to be smart, we have to be savvy and we have to be professional, but most importantly, we have to be present.”

With all that being said, part of partaking in a cultural shift is to change things. Jackson declares, “Sometimes, you’ve got to disrupt the norm. Be comfortable in being a stimulus for change. Great leaders are comfortable with dissent. You have got to understand that not everybody is going to see things as they should right away. But it is our job as a leader to influence them. Leadership is the art of influencing and you cannot influence people from behind a computer screen. If you are sending emails that are fear-based, that may last for a little bit, but everything is built on relationships. You have to establish those kinds of ground level relationships first.”

Jackson concludes, “It is your job as an administrator to become your biggest evangelist. Share your story. Highlight your success. Don’t be afraid to share some of your struggles or setbacks, because we are all human and fallible. We are looking to learn from our networks. So, you share within your networks- ideas, struggles and celebrations- in an effort to get better together.”

His biggest piece of advice is to “get out of the office, get in the hallways, in the classrooms, in the community. Be present at games and events. Get to know your students on a first name basis. Kids get excited when they know you know who they are and what they are passionate about. That stuff is life-changing; it’s psychological solutions. You can’t put a dollar amount on that.” No school in Tennessee has changed its culture more than ‘The Mount’. This school culture is an example of a strategy that other schools and districts can duplicate.

 

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


 

Improving in the Wrong Direction


Last month, Education Week published the annual Quality Counts report on the state of education in the states. Rankings take into account school funding (both total dollars spent and equitable distribution of those dollars), K-12 achievement, and overall chance for success of people born in the state.

Since Governor Haslam likes to make much of the “success” of his Administration when it comes to education, I thought it’d be interesting to compare how the state was ranked back in 2011 when Haslam took over to today.

Haslam likes to say Tennessee is “fastest-improving” in education.

That’s interesting when you look at the 2011 rankings and see that in overall education climate, Tennessee received a grade of 77. Compare that to the 2018 rankings, and we’re at a 70.8. We’ve gone from a solid C and closing in on a B to a C- nearing a D. Back in 2011, Tennessee was ranked 23rd in the nation in education climate. Today, we’re ranked 37th.

Let’s dig a little deeper. It is noteworthy that in K-12 achievement, we’ve moved from a 66.3 to a 72. As for chance of success, we inched up narrowly, from a 72 to a 74.2. In funding, we’re not making much progress at all, moving from a 65.7 to a 66.2. Yep, still holding on to that D grade in school funding.

Governor Haslam will be the first to tell you about the hundreds of millions of new dollars he’s pumped into public schools. It is true that the state has added money to K-12 budgets over his term. However, that hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Other states also continue to increase investment in public schools. Clearly, other states are also moving forward in student achievement.

Going from 23rd in national rankings to 37th is the wrong kind of improvement. Failing to actually increase investment in schools relative to other states means you aren’t actually “fastest improving.” Our state’s own Comptroller says we’re at least $500 million short of adequately funding our schools. Large unfunded mandates remain and our teachers still earn about 30% less than similarly prepared professionals – though with a slight bump this year, we may finally edge Alabama in this category.

Admittedly, the Quality Counts data analysis is pretty hard on all the states. It’s disappointing, though, to see Tennessee lose ground in the rankings over the past seven years. Our state’s economy is going strong. We’ve had multiple years of revenue coming in over projections. We should be investing that money in our schools and providing them with the necessary resources to achieve at higher levels.

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


 

SCORE Announces Statewide Campaign To Recruit New Teachers


Today, the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) announced a statewide campaign to recruit millennials into the teaching profession. The campaign–Teach Today. Change Tomorrow–will include statewide radio ads, resources for prospective teachers, and recruiting current teachers to help recruit others into the teaching profession.

I love the forwardness of this campaign to actively recruit the next generation of teachers, and I hope it works in recruiting great teachers. We need teachers out on the front lines showing college students how important education is for our country’s future. 

Here’s the press release:

Tennessee needs high-quality teachers across the state, and Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. is committed to helping place a great teacher in front of every student. With more than 20,000 anticipated job openings in education by 2024 in Tennessee, Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. seeks to motivate passionate young people to pursue a career in teaching and ensure future teachers are prepared.

The mission of Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. is to inspire talented young people across Tennessee to become our state’s next generation of teachers,” said Jamie Woodson, SCORE executive chairman and CEO. “By illustrating the positive impact that great teaching has on a community, we will show them that they have the power to change the future beyond the classroom.”

Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. will look to empower millennials to go into the teaching profession. Tennessee has many high-needs schools in rural and urban districts and needs to recruit more STEM (science, technology, engineering, math) teachers, an area where the state faces a critical shortage. Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. will also address the need for more diversity in Tennessee’s teacher ranks. Students of color make up 35 percent of the public school population, yet just 15 percent of teachers in the state identify as persons of color.

The campaign includes a website, TeachTodayTN.org, and presences on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, supported with statewide radio advertising. The website contains information about the path to an education career, testimonials from current teachers and links to all Tennessee educator preparation programs.

From mentorship through its Ambassador program, made up of teachers and education professionals throughout the state, to providing the tools and information necessary to become a teacher in Tennessee, Teach Today. Change Tomorrow. will be an essential resource for millennials who want to make a difference through teaching.

“Kids all across Tennessee deserve adults who will support them, cheer for them, and are champions for them,” said Cicely Woodard, a teacher at West End Middle Prep. “Our students need more educators who will listen to them and who want them to be successful in the future.”

More information can be found at TeachTodayTN.org.

Partners in this work include the Hyde Family Foundations, Nashville Public Education Foundation, Memphis Education Fund, Public Education Foundation Chattanooga, Conexión Américas, Lipscomb University, Teach for America Nashville, Crisp Communications, Tennessee Charter School Center and the Tennessee Department of Education.


 

 

A-F Grading System for Schools to be Delayed?


That’s what House Majority Leader Glen Casada, who sponsored the legislation, is saying. Under his proposal, which mirrors A-F school grading systems in other states (Texas, Florida, Indiana), the Tennessee Department of Education’s annual school report card would assign a letter grade from A-F to each school in the state.

The legislation mandated the creation of the A-F scale, and the Department has designed a plan. Now, after seeing the proposed plan, Casada says it may need some work and a one year delay could give the state time to improve the proposal.

Emily West reports:

“We have been working with the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents and delayed the A-F grading one year,” Casada said. “It gives heartache to many systems. We called all parties. We said there are problems with the way you want to implement it.”

As written and passed by the legislature in 2016, new accountability standards that give letter grades to each school across the state should go into effect for 2017.

The news of the possible delay comes as some education leaders are calling for the proposal to be scrapped altogether.

Legislative action is required to delay the implementation and it seems likely there will also be legislation that aims to eliminate the system entirely.

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


 

How Did MNPS High Schools And Subgroups Do On The ACT?


I recently wrote about the release of ACT scores for the state and specifically for Nashville. We learned that only 11% of MNPS students were college and career ready according to the ACT. 

Today, MNPS released more in depth information on the individual high schools as well as information on specific subgroups in Nashville. 

According to MNPS, 4,376 seniors took the ACT with the average score of 18.2. Seniors need to have a composite score of 21 or above to qualify for the HOPE scholarship. While the percent of high school students qualifying for HOPE scholarship decreased, the number of students qualifying for the scholarship actually increased from from 1,131 to 1,219 students.

Achievement Gap

Before we look at the scores of individual high schools, I want to look at the ACT scores based on subgroups. Below we see the gap between Black (16.7), Hispanic/Latino (16.9), and White (20.7) students. That’s a 4 point different between Black and White students and a 3.8 point difference Hispanic/Latino and White students.

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How did individual high schools do?

The top traditional high schools for ACT achievement are Hume-Fogg (26.8), MLK (26.3), and Nashville School of the Arts (20.5). The lowest traditional high schools are Pearl Cohn (14.5), Whites Creek (15.7), and Maplewood (15.7). Obviously, the top three schools are all magnet schools.

MNPS points out a few things about this year’s data:

Stratford tested many more students in 2016 and had an increase of 0.5 points. East Nashville, Whites Creek and Metro Nashville Virtual School saw test score increases while having modest increases in the number of test takers. LEAD Academy tested slightly fewer students but saw an increase in scores.

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How do we improve?

MNPS is working with Alignment Nashville to give free ACT preparation classes to students who cannot afford them. Last year, Alignment Nashville worked with Hunters Lane, Hillsboro, Maplewood, and Overton. Additional schools may be added this year.

I am so glad that Alignment Nashville is partnering with our schools to prepare our students for the ACT. We are doing a disservice to our students who graduate from high school not prepared for college or career. It breaks my heart that thousands of students are missing out on the HOPE scholarship. More must be done to help these students, and all of that shouldn’t be left to our high school teachers.

Preparing our students for graduation starts before the students even get to the high school level. MNPS transformed our high schools years ago towards the academy model. I think it’s time to start looking at the transformation of elementary and middle schools.

Elementary and middle schools need more supports in place to help close the gaps before students move on to high school. I don’t have all the answers, but I hope MNPS will be looking into ways to give more support to our lower grades.

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


 

More Needed For Gifted Students


According to the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, Tennessee scores low on tracking accountability for gifted students. Tennessee received one out of four stars in the report. Grace Tatter and Nic Garcia at Chalkbeat:

To improve accountability, Tennessee should give additional points to schools that boost student scores to the highest possible level on state tests, the report said. It also should report gifted and talented students’ scores separately, as it does for racial minorities, English language learners, and other subgroups of students.

Fordham’s report asserts that an unintended consequence of previous accountability systems is that high-performing students, especially those at struggling schools, were left without support to push them even further in their academic pursuits.

Specifically, the report says that Tennessee “includes high-achieving students in its growth model but does little else to encourage schools to pay attention to them.”

You can read the full report here.

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


 

The ACT Results Are In. How Did We Do?


Tennessee tracks if students are career and college ready by requiring all students to take the ACT. On the ACT, college and career ready is determined by a score of 21. A score of a 21 allows students to qualify for the HOPE scholarship, and students will be able to skip remedial courses in college.

How did the state do? Chalkbeat has the answer:

Tennessee held steady with an average score of 19.4 out of a possible 36, increasing its standing from eighth to seventh among the 18 states that require students to take the ACT. The national average score was 20.8, down from 21 last year.

Even so, state officials celebrated that nearly 1,300 more Tennessee public school students hit the college-ready mark this year than last.

In 2016, only one-fifth of Tennessee public school students taking the ACT met all four subject benchmarks for being considered college-ready. English drew the best showing, with about 55 percent meeting that benchmark, followed by 34 percent in reading, and 27 percent each in math and science

What about individual districts? In Nashville, only 11% of students are college and career ready. The Tennessean has the Nashville numbers:

Metro Schools tallied an 18.4 composite score, marking a 0.3 point drop over the 2015 year‘s 18.7 composite score across all students tested, according to 2016 ACT numbers released to districts Tuesday. Only 11 percent of all Metro Schools students are ready for college, a three-point dip over last year.

We must do better in preparing our students for college and career state-wide, but especially in Nashville. The average MNPS student will need remedial courses if they go to college. That means MNPS students and their families will be paying more money to take courses that may not even count towards their post secondary degree. That’s a disservice to our students.

How does MNPS with the rest of Middle Tennessee?

  • Cheatham County: 19.6 composite; 17 percent college ready
  • Dickson County: 19.4 composite; 16 percent college ready
  • Metro Nashville: 18.4 composite; 11 percent college ready
  • Robertson County: 19 composite; 14 percent college ready
  • Rutherford County: 20.2 composite; 21 percent college ready
  • Sumner County: 20.8 composite; 23 percent college ready
  • Williamson County: 23.8 composite; 45 percent college ready
  • Wilson County: 20.3 composite;  19 percent college ready

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


 

 

Teacher Shortage Hits Tennessee Cities


Chalkbeat reports on the state’s big cities missing a significant number of teachers at the start of the school year:

About 100 Shelby County Schools classrooms still lack full-time teachers, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said Monday, the first day of school, after a tour at Bruce Elementary.

And the problem wasn’t limited to Shelby County:

And it’s not the only district with vacancies left open. Metro Nashville, a slightly smaller district, lists nearly 80 open teaching jobs, and the third-largest district in the state, Knox County, needs more than forty. Across the board, districts are most hurting for special education teachers, though there are vacancies in nearly every subject.

The shortage noted in the big districts tracks information reported at TNEdReport back in 2014:

Since 2009, Tennessee has identified shortages in the overall numbers of K-12 teachers needed for public schools as well as teachers for specific subjects. There is a critical need in the state for STEM teachers, as well as shortages in high school English, social studies, world languages, Pre-K through high school special education, and English as a second language.

While there are many reasons for the shortfall, it’s worth noting that the first days of school set the tone for the entire year. So much so that incoming MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph has said it’s critical that every classroom have a full-time teacher on day one.

UPDATE: MNPS reports that the actual number of unfilled vacancies on Day 1 was 34.5, a better number than they’ve had in recent years.

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