A Failed Business Plan

Nashville teacher JH Rogen offers a Twitter thread on the entirely predictable teacher pay crisis facing Nashville (and, frankly, the rest of Tennessee). It starts like this:

I’m starting a business and looking for workers. The work is intense, so the workers should be highly skilled. Experience preferred. Starting salary is 40k with the opportunity to get all the way to 65k after 25 years of staying in the same position. See how dumb that sounds?

 

He adds:

You say: talking about salary shows an ignorance towards the economic situation many of our kids come from. I say: offering salaries so low that kids have classrooms run by computers instead of functional adults shows an ignorance towards what it takes to create great schools.

 

Read it all. Think about it.

Nashville offers relatively low salaries to teachers in a state that trails the region and the nation in teacher pay. The value proposition for teachers in our state is low. We offer bargain basement salaries to educators and then demand more and more from them.

Is that a recipe for success? Does it demonstrate that we put our children first?

Think about it.

We hear all the time that “kids matter” and we should worry about the concerns of the students in the room rather than the adults. But the adults are sending a clear message: Schools don’t matter. The teachers don’t matter. It’s not important to pay those who are entrusted with the care and education of our children a reasonable salary.

Do you think the kids haven’t noticed?

They have and they do.

Will anything change?

Maybe if there’s a strike. At least for a little while. But how long would a strike go on until teachers were told to get back to class “for the kids?” Meanwhile, the policymakers sit back in comfort and refuse to make so-called “tough decisions” that should be easy.

It should be easy to pay teachers a living wage and to invest in and support schools. But instead, our policy leaders play games and hope we don’t notice.

It WOULD be easy to pay teachers a living wage if our leaders — our policymakers really wanted to do that. But they don’t. Because the adults who elect them haven’t insisted on it. Because it doesn’t matter.

Yes, the kids in the schools are watching. They see what’s happening.

The message is clear.

 

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


 

 

 

Fortune Teller

While reading this piece on Nashville’s large and possibly unsustainable debt burden, I was reminded of the time I imagined what former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean might have said (and done) on a range of issues had he actually been a progressive.

Imaginary Karl Dean had this to say back in 2013:

Dean first suggested that Metro Nashville Schools stop its over-reliance on testing in spite of state mandates.  He noted the practice of data walls as emblematic of the current emphasis on test-based measures of student success and suggested that the schools might try focusing on the whole child.

Turns out, the warning about testing perhaps foretold years of problems ranging from TCAP quick score issues to TNReady failure and lies.  If only policy makers had been paying attention.

Imaginary Karl also offered this:

“It’s not the schools that are failing,” Dean said. “MNPS teachers work hard every single day to reach the children in their care.  But too many of those students arrive hungry and without access to health care or basic shelter.  It’s our community that has failed the families of these children.”

Dean noted that nearly 3 of every 4 MNPS students qualifies for free or reduced price lunch.  He went further to note that 7500 Davidson County families with school age children earn incomes below the federal poverty line (Source: American Community Survey of the U.S. Census).

“We’re simply not supporting the ENTIRE community,” Dean said. “When so many families are working hard and can’t make ends meet, there’s a fundamental problem in the local economy.  Rising income inequality is bad for Nashville.  We must work to address it together now.”

Dean pledged to push for changes in state law to allow Nashville to adopt a living wage and also pledged to use his considerable clout with the General Assembly to advocate for a $10 an hour state minimum wage.

Fast forward to 2019 and we see a city that’s pricing out working class families. Meanwhile, the legislature overrides any attempt at improving wages or working conditions. The situation makes this suggestion seem even better now than it did back in 2013:

Dean said he would work with the staff at Music City Center to turn the nearly $600 million facility into a community center and transitional housing for the working poor.  He noted that it would include free dental and vision clinics for children and an urgent care center for basic medical needs.

“This facility will set Nashville apart as a city that puts people first and will no longer fail its children and families.”

The basic point: We keep having the same conversations. Nothing actually happens. City and state leaders keep saying words, but failing to take action to move us forward.

Another recent story further brings this point home. Much has been made of the relatively low pay Nashville teachers receive. A proposal to provide some form of “low-cost” teacher housing is getting discussion — and pushback:

Mayor Briley is spearheading the proposal to turn the 11-acre property in South Nashville currently used to store and repair school buses into affordable housing for teachers. The city wants to trade it, meaning a developer could build on the land in exchange for other land where the district can build a new bus barn.

“A lot of us have families.  A lot of us have advanced degrees. We don’t want public housing, we want a professional salary,” said Amanda Kail, who teaches at Margaret Allen Middle School. “If you have to public housing for teachers then there is something seriously wrong with our city.”

The underlying issue here is pay. It’s something I’ve written about quite a bit. Specifically, I wrote this in 2015 about Nashville’s then-emerging teacher pay crisis:

Long-term pay increases in MNPS don’t keep pace with those in other, similar districts. Taking Denver as an example, a teacher who received NO ProComp incentives and maintained only a bachelor’s degree would make at Step 13 very close to what an MNPS teacher with similar education makes at Step 20. In all other cities examined, the top step is higher (from $3000 to $15,000) than it is in MNPS.

Two years later, I added this:

Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?

Then this:

No, better pay alone won’t solve the teacher shortage being experienced in MNPS. But, failure to address the issue of teacher compensation will mean more virtual Ravens, Cobras, and Bears in the future.

This is a problem that could be clearly seen years ago and which still hasn’t been adequately addressed.

It’s now 2019. Still, nothing. No significant movement on a teacher pay crisis that was looming years ago. Decision makers had information available and did nothing.

While we’re on the topic of predicting the future, back in 2013, Governor Bill Haslam and then-Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman made a big deal of Tennessee being the “fastest-improving” in national test scores as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Here’s what I wrote then:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Then, in 2015, added:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Turns out, those predictions were rather accurate:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

 

So, here’s the deal: If you want to know not only what IS happening in Tennessee education policy, but also what WILL happen, read Tennessee Education Report.

What’s coming in 2019? Vouchers!

Also ahead: More platitudes about “access” and “equity.” Oh, and you can count on some words about the importance of testing and benchmarking and rigor and high standards.

What’s not going to happen? There will be no significant new investment in schools initiated by our Governor or legislature. Our state will not apply for an ESSA waiver to move away from excessive testing. There will be no large scale commitment to a living wage or health care access.

Instead, our state (and it’s largest, most vibrant city) will continue to fail many among us. Our policymakers will continue to spread the lie that we just can’t afford to do more.

Maybe one day, Imaginary Karl (or someone with his views) will lead Tennessee out of the wilderness and into a land where we honestly approach (and tackle) our many great challenges.

 

 

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

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On Teacher Morale

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, offers his thoughts on boosting teacher morale

We know psychologically that there is a connection between feeling of self-worth and actions. When teachers lose hope in their career, eventually they change the direction of their own future and in turn it impacts the future of our children. If you are an educator or have friends who are educators, you have undoubtedly discussed teacher morale in public education and thoughts on the future of education. Sadly, those thoughts were most likely negative. Educators who enter the field are often bright-eyed, confident, and enthusiastic. Teacher turnover is continuing to climb higher, yet those entering the field is going lower. What happened? That is the problem we must solve.

Teacher turnover holds back our schools and our students. How do you improve morale? It will take multiple strategies, which differ from community to community, district to district, school to school. Let’s look at four of the most prominent issues: educator compensation, lack of respect for educators, testing and out of control students.

Educator Compensation. Compensation is everything that is provided to the educator for their services. Compensation alone will not impact teacher morale. Governor Bill Haslam made teacher salaries a priority, and should be recognized for his efforts. It is debatable if dollars allocated for salary increases reached all classroom teachers. This may be attributed to district implemented pay plans. Educators should be involved in the development of those plans. Governor-elect Bill Lee indicated he intends to develop a pipeline of well-trained, highly compensated educators who can flourish in the teaching profession. This will likely include incentive compensation programs, together with stipends, and associated benefits that are based on professional employee performance that exceeds expectations. Compensation can also be used to aid in hiring, and/or retaining highly qualified teachers for hard-to-staff schools and subject areas.

Lack of Respect for Educators. Teaching, a profession once held in high esteem, is being de-valued both by stakeholders and policymakers for a variety of reasons. Teachers, who are on the frontlines of parental dissatisfaction with the system, are often made scapegoats by people who have lost trust in the system. This lack of respect is reflected by lack of parental support and engagement. In fairness, some parents are supportive and work with educators to help ensure their children get the best possible education. Yet more often than not, parents simply blame the teacher for the problems at school. But even more than that, teachers often lack the support of their administrators, district, and even the state. Bureaucrats keep piling on more requirements of educators with barely a nod of appreciation. Teachers, above all other professions, deserve the recognition and gratitude of a job well-done. Doing so on a regular basis will be a small step toward improving the teacher turnover rate.

Testing. The testing culture has killed the enthusiasm of many educators. Nobody would object to testing that benefits the teaching and learning process of students. As it stands currently, the data is not received in a timely manner and the results yield little or no benefit to the students. Educators would welcome a robust, practical solution to current assessment issues. A portfolio-based assessment model is also problematic. However, it may be a preferred model of student evaluation if it is not too time-consuming. It is based on a wide range of student work done over a long period of time, rather than on a single, paper-and-pencil test taken over a few hours. We must work to ensure that our assessments and the subsequent results are empowering and informing without being a time drain. Assessments should not inhibit quality instruction but provide accurate feedback for educators, parents, and students. Most importantly, assessments should be not used a punitive measure against teachers.

Out of Control Students. Effective educators consider the root causes of misbehavior and develop appropriate solutions on a consistent, ongoing basis. However, some students need attention and intervention beyond the scope of what a classroom teacher can provide. It is imperative that a school and district adopt policies that support effective classroom management, as well as student instruction for all students. One possible policy has to be a better tracking of the time an educator has to spend on discipline issues. Do parents have the right to know, for example, if one student disrupts their own child’s education so frequently, they lose instruction time? School districts must balance their responsibilities toward the community with the responsibility to nurture students. Without discipline, students cannot learn. Students themselves must respect rules and authority regardless of underlying disabilities/issues. Districts must have policies in place that protect all students’ right to learn.

There is no one size fits all strategy that will work in every school or district. This is a recurring theme among those who believe in local control in public education. Together, we can work to address teacher morale issues. Once a plan is in place, it is very important to examine, evaluate, and adjust as necessary.

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


 

Building a Table

Teachers in Shelby County are seeking to build a negotiating table with the school district, according to a story from Chalkbeat:

The district’s two organizations, which represent teachers and other licensed educators, say their priorities are restoring automatic pay increases and higher pay for educators with advanced degrees, and giving more flexibility to teachers in the classroom.

Despite evidence that pay schemes based on TVAAS aren’t impacting student achievement, district superintendent Dorsey Hopson continues to push merit pay schemes:

Hopson has tried for several years to switch teacher pay to a merit system based on evaluation scores that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises.

A report based on a Gates Foundation-funded experiment in a number of districts across the country, including Memphis/Shelby County, found:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s multi-million-dollar, multi-year effort aimed at making teachers more effective largely fell short of its goal to increase student achievement—including among low-income and minority students, a new study found.

Should teachers win the right to negotiate, this issue will surely be a hot-button and the evidence directly from Memphis should certainly weigh-in to the discussions.

If the groups representing teachers successfully win the first phase, a final vote will be taken in November to determine which organization teachers want to represent them. Then, seats at the negotiating table will be divided among the two groups according to the percentage of votes received.

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


 

Bargain Prices on Teachers in Tennessee

Two years ago, I wrote about the teacher wage gap in Tennessee — the fact that teachers in Tennessee earned nearly 30% less than similarly prepared professionals. Now, the Economic Policy Institute has updated their study of teacher pay relative to other professions.

Guess what?

Tennessee teachers still come at bargain basement prices!

While there is some (slightly) encouraging news, the bottom line: Teacher pay in Tennessee is still not really improving relative to other professions.

This year’s results indicate a national average teacher pay gap of 23.8%. Tennessee’s gap is 27.3%. That’s an improvement of two points for Tennessee, which had a gap of 29.3% two years ago.

That said, Tennessee’s gap is still worse than the national average and among the worst in the Southeast.

Of 12 Southeastern states, Tennessee ranks 8th in teacher pay gap — that’s up one place from 9th two years ago.

Here are the numbers:

Mississippi                   18.9%

South Carolina            20.5%

West Virginia              21.2%

Louisiana                     23.5%

Arkansas                      24.3%

Kentucky                     24.6%

Florida                         25.7%

Tennessee              27.3%

Georgia                       29%

Alabama                     29.4%

Virginia                      33.6%

North Carolina         35.5%

 

Yes, the authors acknowledge that teacher benefit packages tend to be more generous than those offered other professionals. By their analysis, teachers have a benefits package that is a bit more than 7% more generous than similar professionals. The most expensive of these benefits is healthcare, followed by defined-benefit pensions.

Tennessee teacher healthcare benefits vary by district, but for the purpose of this discussion, we’ll assume that Tennessee teachers receive the national average benefits advantage.

Doing so means Tennessee teachers are still paid 20% less than similarly-trained professionals.

While some progress on this front is better than none at all, continuing down this road is not sustainable. Investing in teachers by providing compensation on par with other professions requiring similar education and training is essential to recruitment and retention.

Tennessee’s next Governor and the General Assembly sworn-in in January of 2019 should move past studying the issue and get to work finding long-term solutions to close this gap and pay our teachers the salaries they deserve.

 

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

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A Nashville Teacher Speaks Out

MNPS teacher Amanda Kail last night delivered a speech to the School Board detailing the needs of teachers in terms of compensation and support.

Here’s the full text of her remarks:

Good evening ladies and gentlemen of the board. My name is Amanda Kail, and I am an MNPS teacher.

I am here today as part of the #Red4Ed movement that began in West Virginia, and has since spread to Oklahoma, Kentucky, Arizona, and now Nashville. In our city, teachers across the district have joined together by wearing red on Tuesdays. We are doing this for 2 reasons: First, to show that we are united in our desire to see our district fully-funded, and second, because we are no longer content to sit back and donate our own money and time to subsidize what state and local officials won’t fund. So we plan to be at BOE and Metro Council meetings on Tuesdays, keeping track of votes and demanding change.

We find our current situation intolerable. Our district is ranked 12th in the state for average wages, yet we have one of the highest costs of living in the state. It takes a teacher with a Masters Degree 11 years to earn $50,000. We have lost vital staffing positions like the psychologists and social workers that keep our students OUT of the school-to-prison pipeline. Our schools are enduring painful cuts to the very resources and programs that support our students social-emotional well-being the most: arts and music, after school programs, and field trips. Maplewood needs its auto shop reopened.

I would also like to say that teachers not only have been subsidizing the district by donating our labor at sub-standard wages, we have been subsidizing the needs of our students and families. Like many teachers, I have fed, clothed, taken to the hospital, paid prison fees, and paid for the funerals of my students.

We say this is intolerable, but we are not content just to complain. We are here to demand change. Because by joining #Red4Ed, we join teachers across the country in becoming warriors for the dignity of our profession, and for the needs of our students and their families.

To that end, we are asking you to do what you can within the powers of your office.

The compensation committee will meet tomorrow to begin the process of recommending raises for teachers. We ask you to join us by making the work of the compensation committee a priority, and immediately begin working with Metro Council for a short-term plan for the 2019-20 budget to include 5% raises for faculty and staff, along with step raises, and a long-term plan to increase wages by a minimum of 5% every year until MNPS ranks in the top 50% of The Council of the Great City Schools. We also demand a revision to the salary schedule that allows teachers to reach competitive salaries in a reasonable amount of time.

Second, BOE shift priorities from increased pay for outside vendors and top administrators to affording the men and women on the ground who are actually doing the work of educating our city’s children (because honestly, right now the city can’t afford us).

Do right by Nashville’s families. Start the process to fully fund #ItCitySchools NOW.

 

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

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Graphs!

I’ve written a lot about school funding and teacher pay in Tennessee. About how our state pays teachers at a discount rate and hasn’t really been improving that much.

Now, I’ve found a couple of helpful graphs to demonstrate that in spite of all the rhetoric you might hear from Governor Haslam and some legislators, Tennessee still has a long way to go in order to be making proper investments in our schools.

First, we’ll look at per pupil spending in inflation-adjusted (2016) dollars:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating. Further evidence can be found in noting that in 2014, Tennessee ranked 43rd in the nation in spending per student. In 2015, that ranking dropped to 44th. 2016? Still 44th.

Here’s the graph that shows per pupil spending by state for 2016:

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

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

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

 

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


 

 

Mike’s Misnomer

State Representative Mike Sparks feels like Tennessee teachers are adequately paid. In fact, he’s so sure of this fact, he wants a website to demonstrate the generous pay teachers in our state receive.

Michelle Willard in the Murfreesboro Voice has more:

“It seems like there’s a misnomer out there that teachers are very low paid,” Sparks said at the State House Education and Planning Subcommittee

Sparks was promoting a bill to require teacher salaries to be posted online.

Here’s the thing: Districts already post pay scales online.

Also, the state sets minimum pay standards — and they are, in fact, pretty low. The current state pay scale indicates a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience must earn a starting salary of at least $33,745. Put in 10 years and your minimum jumps up to $40,595. And, that’s it! If you have a bachelor’s degree and 10 or more years of experience, your district is not required to pay you anymore than just over $40,000.

Now, most districts offer pay that exceeds the state minimum. In some cases, though, it’s not by much. Further, the state’s BEP Review Committee (the group that studies and reports on the school funding formula) notes a pretty steady gap of around 40% between the highest and lowest paying districts in the state.

When that gap hit 45% percent back in the early 2000s, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that school funding in our state was unconstitutional because it was not substantially equal across districts.

Sparks is also apparently not concerned that Tennessee teachers earn about 30% less than comparably educated professionals. He would do well to take some time and understand the deeper issues in our state’s funding formula — namely, that it’s not exactly adequate and that it continues to foster inequality across districts.

Instead of seeking solutions, Sparks wants to let Tennesseans in on the secret of just how much teachers are paid. Those of us actually paying attention already know – it’s not nearly enough and it’s not getting better.

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


 

Listen to the Money Talk

Does basing teacher evaluation on student test scores get results that impact student outcomes?

No.

That’s the conclusion from a years-long study funded by the Gates Foundation that included Memphis/Shelby County Schools.

Education Week reports:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s multi-million-dollar, multi-year effort aimed at making teachers more effective largely fell short of its goal to increase student achievement—including among low-income and minority students, a new study found.

Under its intensive partnerships for effective teaching program, the Gates Foundation gave grants to three large school districts—Memphis, Tenn. (which merged with Shelby County during the course of the initiative); Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Fla.—and to one charter school consortium in California starting in the 2009-10 school year. The foundation poured $212 million into these partnerships over about six years, and the districts put up matching funds. The total cost of the initiative was $575 million.

The school sites agreed to design new teacher-evaluation systems that incorporated classroom-observation rubrics and a measure of growth in student achievement. They also agreed to offer individualized professional development based on teachers’ evaluation results, and to revamp recruitment, hiring, and placement. Schools also implemented new career pathways for effective teachers and awarded teachers with bonuses for good performance.

During the course of this failed experiment, Tennessee as a state also implemented the TEAM evaluation system and encouraged districts to offer merit pay schemes to teachers. Additionally, the state used a turnaround strategy for “low-performing” schools known as the Achievement School District. Data released after five years of that project indicates it has made essentially no impact on student outcomes.

Also, for the past four years, Tennessee has been attempting to administer TNReady — to no avail.

Tennessee policymakers are spending millions on education experiments that have yielded no results.

Here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: In 2010, Tennessee was ranked 45th in investment in education per student. In 2017, we’d improved — all the way up to 43rd.

Instead of directing funds to experiments that end up not doing much of anything, perhaps we should be investing our dollars in our schools and teachers. Then, we should also try the one thing we haven’t: Dramatically increasing our per pupil investment in schools.

Tennessee should be funding excellent teacher pay instead of trying to get and keep teachers at discount rates.

Tennessee should be investing in school buildings, to ensure all students have a safe, excellent environment in which to learn.

If Tennessee really wants to turn the tide, we ought to invest like it — ask teachers what they need to be successful and put our money there. For too long, education reform has been something “done to” teachers instead of done with them.

Here’s what we don’t need: Another round of expensive experiments that will leave our students and schools right where we started – behind.

We can do better — we know the answer. Does Tennessee have the political will to make lasting change for our schools through sustained investment in the people that make them work?

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

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Outlier

Statisticians define an outlier as an observation point that is distant from other observations in a statistical analysis. Often, this occurs by chance. Additional modeling or deeper analysis (including more data, for example, or a longer range of data) can often correct for this. Outliers that are not the result of measurement error are often excluded from analysis about a data set.

Today, the 2017 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released. This release made me think of a particular outlier.

Back in 2013, Tennessee demonstrated what some heralded as an incredible achievement on the NAEP. In fact, a press release from Governor Haslam at the time noted:

Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Tennessee had the largest academic growth on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of any state, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation. (emphasis added)

Those words — “fastest improving state in the nation” — have been uttered by Haslam and many political leaders in our state for years now. Often, this 2013 “success” is used as justification for “keeping our foot on the gas” and continuing an aggressive agenda of test-based accountability and teacher evaluation based on methods lacking validity.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2013 when these results were released:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Two years later, when the 2015 results were released, I noted:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Fast forward to today. The leveling off I suggested was likely back in 2013 has happened. In fact, take a look at this chart put out by the Tennessee Department of Education:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

All of this to say: You can’t say you’re the fastest-improving state on NAEP based on one testing cycle. You also shouldn’t make long-term policy decisions based on seemingly fabulous results in one testing cycle. Since 2013, Tennessee has doubled down on reforms with what now appears to be little positive result. Instead, as Rep. Jeremy Faison said recently, our policies are “driving teachers crazy.”

Oh, and that new TNReady test has so far not been very ready.

But what about the good policy coming from this? You know, like Governor Haslam’s plan to make Tennessee the “fastest-improving state in teacher pay?”

About that:

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

Surely, though, all this focus on education since the NAEP buzz has meant meaningful investment in schools, right? Well, no:

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

Maybe we’ve taken a minute to get serious about investing in programs targeting struggling students? Also, no:

One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Maybe we are closing achievement gaps? Again, no.

Back in 2013, Tennessee students eligible for free/reduced lunch had an average NAEP reading score of 256 and scored 20 points below the non-eligible students. Now, that average score is 252 (four points worse) and 19 points below. For 4th grade, there’s a similar story, with free/reduced lunch eligible students scoring 25 points below their non-eligible peers this year. Four years ago, it was 26 points.

We’re not moving the needle. Our most vulnerable students continue to be left behind. Meanwhile, we hear nice words from top policymakers and see little actual result in terms of tangible improved investment in schools or any meaningful upgrade in teacher pay. Our testing system has yet to be proven.

Maybe now Tennessee policymakers will stop repeating the “fastest-improving” line and start doing the actual work of investing in and supporting our schools.

In any case, the next time you hear someone spout off that tired “fastest-improving” line, just yell back: OUTLIER!

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