Make Believe

The land of make believe is apparently where Gov. Bill Lee and his team go to find justification for their bad public policy. WMC-TV out of Memphis has the story about how the Lee Administration is using old data from a study based on projections to justify a demand that schools return to in-person learning.

Here’s more:

Despite new data suggesting COVID-19 learning loss wasn’t as severe as predicted, state leaders continue to use old data, which some have called misleading, to pressure school districts like Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person classes.

The ACTUAL data from students suggests any “loss” of ground due to the pandemic is relatively minimal. Lending credence to claims made by Nashville blogger TC Weber and others that the entire concept of “learning loss” is pretty much ridiculous.

For example:

Shelby County Schools also released its own data in November, showing that while learning loss did occur in reading and math, it wasn’t as bad as predicted.

For instance, 28% of students placed below grade level in reading compared to 27% historically.

In math, 29% of students placed below grade level compared to 23% historically.

Despite the newer data, the governor and his administration continue to use projections from the April NWEA study to pressure school districts like SCS to reopen to in-person classes.

Calling out hypocrisy

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray noted that while calling for students to return to in-person learning, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn appeared via video to legislators:

“Watching state leaders call for in-person learning on the state legislature’s virtual video meeting today sends a mixed and hypocritical message. We invite state leaders to step away from privileged podiums and try to understand the many concerns of our students, parents, and teachers,” Ray said.

Whether it is Bill Haslam’s Commissioner of Education telling tales about TNReady or Bill Lee’s Commissioner appearing virtually using make believe data to push for in-person learning, Tennessee’s recent history indicates education policy is made independent of actual facts.

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So This Actually Happened

Here are some responses to a Facebook Post by Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA) President Amanda Kail from MNPS School Board member Fran Bush.

Enough of your bull! We are going to open in person soon. Either you want to teach or quit your day job with MNPS, I am sick of your tactics and your agenda!! Our kids deserves better than this and they will not be held as pawns to your demands. Girl bye!!!😡

Franchata Goodrich-Bush

Oh, and I failed to mentioned, parents are signing up to be subs to mitigate the loss of teachers in the union who wants to leave. We are prepared to fill the gaps!! We are ready to lead!!!!

And a response from Board member Rachel Elrod:

As a MNPS Board Member and the Vice Chair of the board, any harassment, threats, or taunting of our teachers or staff by board members is unacceptable. Thank you to all MNPS teachers and staff for your continued dedication to our students and families, especially since March. I am grateful for your work and deeply appreciate you.

To read the entire thread and see for yourself, go here:

https://www.facebook.com/amanda.kail.73/posts/10158069246399157

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I Don’t Even Have a Headline

So, the General Assembly has passed a bill essentially creating mandatory retention for third grade students who fail to meet certain benchmarks on TNReady tests.

Here’s the key text from HB 7004, that passed overwhelmingly in both chambers:

(1) Beginning with the 2022-2023 school year, a student in the third
grade shall not be promoted to the next grade level unless the student is
determined to be proficient in English language arts (ELA) based on the student’s achieving a performance level rating of “on track” or “mastered” on the ELA portion of the student’s most recent Tennessee comprehensive assessment program (TCAP) test.

The bill outlines a series of potential ways a student may ultimately be promoted even if they fall into this category. Attending a summer “mini-camp,” for example.

But, as Senator Jeff Yarbro points out, 62% of third graders currently fall into the category where retention is the default action. And, students who are retained at this age end up more likely to not complete school or graduate from high school. There’s definitely mixed data on the benefits and drawbacks to retention.

Of course, there is the “Mississippi Miracle.”

There’s a lot to read in that article by Paul Thomas, but here are some key points regarding third grade retention:

But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)

Thomas adds:

This last concern means that significant numbers of students in states with 3rd-grade retention based on reading achievement and test scores are biologically 5th-graders being held to 4th-grade proficiency levels. Grade retention is not only correlated with many negative outcomes (dropping out, for example), but also likely associated with “false positives” on testing; as well, most states seeing bumps in 4th-grade test scores also show that those gains disappear by middle and high school.

So, we’ve adopted as the official policy of the state of Tennessee a policy that Mississippi used to create a mirage of educational improvement while changing precious little in terms of actual investment in kids.

It seems Tennessee policymakers are once again looking for some sort of “fastest improving” press release instead of looking for meaningful policy change.

Oh, and here’s another interesting note. The test being used to determine retention is the TNReady test. Yes, that one. Yes, THAT one.

While the tests were ultimately suspended last year due to the COVID-19 pandemic and are currently envisioned as being delivered on pencil-and-paper, the goal is to return to online testing. However, that return is fraught with potential problems. Not least of which is the fact that our state has had some . . . uh, trouble, with administering an online test.

Here’s how one national expert described Tennessee’s experience with online testing:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Of course, those third graders also need to watch out for hackers and dump trucks, because we all know those two things can really foul up a test!

Here’s Sen. Yarbro explaining the problems with this bill:

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The Biggest Factor

State Rep. Bruce Griffey lists some states that outperform Tennessee in terms of academic achievement and then suggests “the biggest factor” is that those states pay their teachers a whole lot more.

He’s not wrong. Teacher pay in our state lags behind the rest of the nation. We also don’t invest in our schools and we don’t use available resources to improve our investment.

What’s wrong, though, is Griffey’s solution. He’s proposing some bizarre tax on money sent outside the country. Here’s the thing: We can fund a significant increase (around 10%) in teacher pay and still have a budget surplus. So far this year, our state is nearly $715 million ahead of projections.

The TEA estimates that teachers have worked an average of 13 additional hours each week this year. That amounts to at least $5700 in additional compensation. We could give every teacher a $5700 raise with $399 million – leaving $316 million and 7 more months of the fiscal year for additional collections.

In short, we have the money. Our policymakers should choose to invest it in teachers.

Here’s Griffey making the case that we need more investment in teacher pay:

https://twitter.com/TheTNHoller/status/1352277936787873793?s=20
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Take the Money and Run

If school districts don’t do what House Majority Leader William Lamberth wants, he’s going to take their money and run. Seriously. It’s actually pretty much the text of HB7021.

As introduced, the bill says that if districts fail to provide at least 70 days of in-person instruction for students in grades K-8 in the 2020-21 academic year and 180 days in the 2021-22 academic year, the Commissioner of Education may withhold all or a part of that district’s BEP funds.

I mean, I wrote a few days ago about carrots and sticks, but this is taking it a bit far.

It’s not clear to me what Lamberth hopes to accomplish by this other than forcing districts to make a decision to return to in-person learning at a time when COVID is still surging in our state.

Here’s the deal: Districts can’t take the risk they’d lose any BEP money. In fact, the BEP is inadequate (by $1.7 billion) as it is. So, it’s not like there’s tons of extra cash sitting around and districts can just ignore this ridiculous request.

While most people agree that in-person learning is the best possible climate for students, especially in grades K-8, not dying or carrying COVID home to parents is also a worthy outcome.

The bill appears designed to force districts like Memphis and Nashville, both of which have been and are still completely virtual in all grades, to return to in-person learning. In other words, Lamberth wants to overturn the will of the district leaders and school boards in these two cities (and others that have made similar moves).

It’s interesting that this bill comes even as Gov. Lee revealed his not so special legislative session legislative package last week. That package of bills includes a number of unfunded mandates. So, Lamberth is going to take money from districts that put student safety first and Lee is going to hit those same districts with a host of unfunded mandates. Makes tons of sense!

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WTF is Learning Loss?

Nashville education blogger TC Weber calls bullshit on the latest term meant to provide full employment for the edu-elite. In a post examining legislation Gov. Bill Lee wants in the upcoming special session on education, Weber lays bare the truth behind the bogus term and further exposes the dark side of the bills being considered.

Here’s how TC explains the issue:

The term “Learning Loss” is a made-up term, created primarily to retain and obtain funding.

We have no assessment that measures this hypothetical phenomenon. It is a tool utilized to prey upon the fears of parents as their children navigate unprecedented times and to make sure that companies who provide so-called student supports don’t lose money.

Kids may be learning at a slower pace, or they may be learning things differently than what current assessments measure, but they are still acquiring important knowledge and previously acquired skills are not fleeing their brains.

First of all, there is no data, historical or current, that can accurately support the supposition of a learning loss percentage. NWEA markets the MAP test, which does a fantastic job of measuring growth and proficiency. Both are very different than “learning loss”. 

Research supports the idea that as we regularly use a skill it stays at the forefront of our brain, readily called upon. If we don’t regularly engage the skill it recedes to a storage shelf in the back in order to clear space for new skills. After a couple of months or longer, of sitting on the shelf, the ability to instantly recall fades. But the skill is not lost, and depending on the length of time between usages, can be readily recalled with some refreshers. However long it takes, is shorter than the initial learning period.

Think of it this way. Back in high school you probably read the Great Gatsby. You probably reflected on it for a bit after completion, but eventually, you put it on the shelf and made room in your brain for other books. If I gave you a test today on the book’s content, you probably would not fair very well. But if I showed you a few passages, and some reviews, before testing, you’d in all likelihood fare much better. Might even say things like, “Not sure how I remember this but…”The information wasn’t lost, it was merely shelved for future recall.

READ MORE from TC about the special session on education.

More on the special session from Nashville’s Amy Frogge>

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A Word on the Special Session

Gov. Bill Lee’s “Not So Special Session” on education starts tomorrow at the Tennessee General Assembly. Former Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge offers some insight into what to expect this week.

Here are her thoughts:

The Governor has called a special legislative session this week to address three administration bills. Heads up to educators, parents and friends- we need your help to reach out to legislators who will be voting on these bills!

1. Senate Bill 7001: This testing waiver/hold harmless bill would require school districts to test 80% of students in-person (with pen and paper) in exchange for exemption from the A-F district grading system, placing districts into the Achievement School District, and placing schools on the state priority list (bottom 5%). This bill would require districts to return to in-person instruction. It is unclear how this bill will effect teacher evaluations. The question to ask here is why we are even testing at all this year, during a pandemic and so much chaos. (Hint: follow the money.)

2. Senate Bill 7002 addresses “learning loss” during the pandemic. (This, by the way, is a political- not an education- term.) It would require districts to create in-person, summer mini-camps to help children who are struggling this year. While these camps could be helpful to students, the state is creating another unfunded mandate, because only $67 million will be allotted statewide for the initiative, not nearly enough for implementation. The administration also envisions paying for the camps with stockpiled Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds, which is likely illegal. BUT here’s the biggest concern about the “learning loss” bill: It will require districts to hold back third graders who are not deemed “proficient” in standardized testing. (Proficiency rates can be manipulated by the state through cut scores.) If you google the term “Mississippi miracle,” you will find that Mississippi used this very same trick to create the appearance of a sudden increase on NAEP test scores. Holding back low-performing third graders creates the illusion of huge one-time testing gains, and implementation of the bill would take place just in time for the 2023 NAEP tests. This is not about best serving the children of Tennessee; it’s about gaming the system. Furthermore, the costs for holding back large numbers of third graders, as mandated by this bill, would be astronomical.

3. Senate Bill 7003 would implement a phonics-based literacy program that proponents claim helped Mississippi’s test scores. In reality, holding back low-performing students caused the increase in scores, as I’ve explained above. Aside from the ruse to game NAEP scores, this bill is problematic, just like the “science of reading” literacy bill that Commissioner Schwinn pushed last year. It opens the door to more school privatization. Schwinn, a graduate of the Broad Academy, has been pushing preferred vendors and no-bid contracts (just like our former superintendent). Reducing the complex art of teaching reading to a marketable, scripted phonics curriculum allows school districts to hire cheaper, inexperienced teachers and allows for vendors to make a lot of money by control the curriculum. District should be embracing balanced literacy instead, of which phonics is just one component.

While Tennessee continues to push the narrative that schools and teachers are “failing” in order to open the door to more and more private profit, we should be instead investing in our students, schools and teachers. The state has long failed to properly fund Tennessee’s schools. This year, there is a surplus of $369 million in our rainy day fund, and the state is about to put another $250 million into that fund. We have more than enough to pay our teachers reasonable salaries and to truly address student needs through more social workers, school nurses, guidance counselors and wrap-around services.

The Governor is also expected to announce a 2% statewide teacher raise tomorrow, but beware of the spin on this promise as well. Already, the state is shorting school districts by not paying enough through BEP funds to fully cover teacher salaries. The BEP funds approximately 66,000 teachers, but according to the state’s own report, there are approximately 77,000 teachers in Tennessee. Local districts must make up for this funding shortfall. The 2%, $43 million teacher raise will only be allotted for 66,000 teachers- not all of the teachers in Tennessee, and it will be paid for through non-recurring funds, which means that local districts will cover the difference in future years. Finally, this raise amounts to $10 per week per teacher- 10 cents on the dollar– an insult to teachers. Please reach out to your representatives to share your concerns about these bills. We should particularly focus on those legislators listed in the comments below who are serving on the education committees. Although this is a quick special session, legislators are not expected to vote on these bills right away due to the MLK holiday today. You have time!

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10 Cents on the Dollar

That’s what Gov. Bill Lee is proposing for teachers in his COVID-19 package for education. This is just the latest in what has become a pattern of showing blatant disrespect for educators in his budget proposals.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) breaks down the proposal and what it will mean for educators:

“Tennessee’s educators have worked hundreds of additional hours during the fall semester to maintain instruction and keep our students engaged during this pandemic,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “The proposed $43 million in one-time teacher salary funds is far lower than what the state can afford, and far less than what educators have earned and deserve.”

TEA estimates the average educator worked more than 13 additional hours per week this fall to maintain daily instruction—virtually, in-person, or a hybrid—with a large portion of Tennessee’s educators working 20 or more additional hours. The value of the additional instruction work was approximately $5,700 per educator. The administration proposal comes to approximately $570.

The General Assembly eliminated a $117 million 4% educator raise in June, citing falling revenue due to the pandemic. Since then, the state recorded $369 million in surplus to end the last fiscal year and has collected $715 million surplus revenue in just the first five months of this fiscal year. 

“In the upcoming special session, the administration and General Assembly have an important opportunity to recognize the sacrifices made for our students and to take steps toward making educators whole for the unpaid hours we’ve worked,” Brown said. “What has been initially proposed does not do that. Appropriating $200 million — just a fifth of the surplus revenue collected since June  – would be more appropriate and still be affordable. A more significant investment will go a long way in recognizing the extraordinary effort of our state’s educators.”

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Another F

The Education Law Center recently published its annual analysis of school funding in the states. Once again, Tennessee received a grade of “F” in both funding level and funding effort. I could actually write this exact same story every single year. Tennessee doesn’t adequately fund our schools. The bipartisan group TACIR – Tennessee Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations – says the state is $1.7 billion behind where we need to be in funding for schools.

We also fail at funding effort – that is, we have significant untapped revenue and high dollar amounts held in reserve while our schools lack the critical resources they need to be successful.

Meanwhile, so-called education advocates like SCORE run around touting the latest new thing (this year, it’s a literacy scheme) instead of using their considerable clout and fundraising ability to push for meaningful investment in schools. Of course, the leadership over at SCORE is not hurting for cash based on their salaries.

Here’s the Education Law Center’s state-by-state breakdown on school funding:

Here’s data on funding level:

Here’s what the ELC has to say about funding level:

A state’s funding level is measured by analyzing the combined state and local revenues provided through the state school finance formula, adjusted to account for regional variations in labor market costs.

A state’s funding level grade is determined by ranking its position relative to other states; the grade does not measure whether a state meets any particular threshold of funding level based on the actual cost of education resources necessary to achieve state or national academic standards

Here’s information on funding effort:

Here’s what ELC has to say about funding effort:

Depending on a state’s overall wealth, every tenth of a percent (0.1%) of state GDP invested in PK-12 public education can have a big impact. For example, that figure is $33 million in Vermont – the nation’s smallest economy – and up to $3 billion in California – the nation’s largest. Figure 3 juxtaposes a state’s relative effort (compared to the national average) with its per capita GDP to contextualize how the effort index interacts with the state’s relative wealth to produce high or low funding levels.

So, here’s the deal: Tennessee has the resources to make meaningful investments in our schools. Our leaders are choosing not to. Year after year after year. Policymakers run for office making all sorts of promises about investing in schools, and fail to deliver. Of course, in the case of Bill Lee, he promised to privatize our schools and he’s attempting at every turn to deliver on that promise.

Tennessee isn’t adequately funding schools, and despite political rhetoric to the contrary, our leaders aren’t trying. At all. Ever.

So, when your local representative or senator comes to an event and tells you they support your schools, you can tell them the truth. Their actions suggest otherwise.

The ELC Report Card tells the real story.

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Voucher Vulture Kelsey Named Chair of Education Committee

Lt. Governor Randy McNally has named long-time school voucher advocate Brian Kelsey chair of the Senate Education Committee. Kelsey sponsored Gov. Bill Lee’s voucher scheme (ultimately ruled unconstitutional) in 2019. He’s currently involved in litigation attempting to validate the scheme. He even mentioned it in his Christmas card this year.

The move could signal that legislative leaders will join Lee and again push for voucher legislation in 2021.

It should be noted that one of Kelsey’s first tasks as Education Committee chair will be to weigh-in on the appointment of Laurie Cardoza-Moore to the state Textbook Commission.

More on Kelsey>

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