Rural Charters Denied

Charter school proposals in both Cheatham and Robertson counties were denied at the School Board level last night.  As was reported here, the Cheatham proposal was particularly controversial. In addition to opposition from at least one candidate for School Board, the proposal brought state Senate candidate Tony Gross and his wife out to express opposition.

Joey Garrison reported on the two rural charter proposals and also on a slate of new charters proposed and approved for Nashville.

Cheatham Charter Fight Tonight

Tonight the Cheatham County School Board will consider an application for the district’s first charter school, Cumberland Academy. If approved, the school would open in the 2015 and start with 5th grade.  The school proposes to add a grade each school year until it serves students in grades 5-12.

The charter school proposal has been controversial, with at least one School Board candidate, Tracy O’Neill, raising concerns about charters.

Also, the Tennessee BATs (Badass Teachers) are promoting attendance at the meeting to express opposition to the charter proposal.

Earlier this month, the board adopted a policy on charter schools.

The Board meets tonight at 6 PM at Ashland City Elementary.

 

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

Reforming the Reformers

Below is a piece from JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET), on the current state of education reform.

 

A young monk named Martin Luther wrote ninety five theses then nailed them to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He welcomed public debate on the subjects of concern that he raised. This gave birth to the Reformation.   Against all the political (and spiritual) powers of the day, Luther was put on trial. He was ordered to repudiate his positions. He refused. Luther understood that his conscience is captive to the word of God. He said, “I cannot and I will not retract anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

Luther chose the difficult path. In the duration of our lives we must face a simple struggle: accept what is or work to change it. Some things need to remain, but eventually, most everything will be swept away.

When I entered Lee University and enrolled in my first education class, professor Dr. Gene Christenbury told us to challenge the status quo. He said, “Never let anything get between you and your students.” I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I have a better grasp today than at any other time in my life.

The education reform movement, which I have embraced and have helped lead in Tennessee, as well as in several other states, is very much in need of reform itself. It has lost its way. As I look at the political landscape I see the leadership of the reform movement is not connected to the actual practitioners in the classroom. Education reform is no longer focused on students or teachers. It is focused on ancillary issues, folks who profit off the system, and those who want to create workers. This is not a judgment on motives, rather pointing out a perception. (In my defense as an education reformer, at least I spent over a decade as an actual public school teacher in Tennessee.)

For example, the concept of “college and career ready” is a worthy goal. However, if we lose creativity or fail to develop critical thinking skills what are we really accomplishing? If students score higher on the ACT or the SAT, will that make them better citizens? What purpose does it actually serve? We understand that it is morality, not intelligence, which makes civil society possible. How we think reflects who we are? What is considered intelligence today? Is it shifting? For centuries philosophers have tried to pinpoint the true measure of intelligence. Socrates said, “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” Are we actually teaching/testing/measuring the right things?

In 1985, Robert Sternberg put forward his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, contending that previous definitions of intelligence are too narrow because they are based solely on intelligences that can be assessed in IQ tests. Instead, Sternberg believes types of intelligence are broken down into three subsets: analytic, creative, and practical.

Educators understand that critical thinking, creativity, conflict resolution, communication, and teamwork cannot be lost in our efforts. Research reminds us that well-rounded people strive for personal fulfillment and typically have more self-confidence. Education is not strictly about preparing students for a specific career. Unmeasured objectives like teaching students lifelong values, discipline, and the ability to explore new ideas and to think independently are very much essential. Should that not also be an education objective? Albert Einstein, a genius by most accounts, said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

The issues of the day, the ones that perplex us now, may not even be relevant in the next election cycle.  When we watch policymakers grasp at the complex issues facing public education, we realize that outside influences and political donations are having greater influence over our classrooms and often fail to connect the educator with the policy. Policymakers surely understand how educators deliver instruction and how we measure success in our classrooms being led by non-practitioners will create problems.

Too many reforms are proposed or pursued with very little evidentiary basis. In efforts to drive up student academic performance we cannot disregard an educator’s insights into their student’s academic and social and emotional growth. Simply raising a test score will not guarantee success in life, especially if we fail to develop social skills and fine motor skills. In fact, we know the development of fine motor skills plays a crucial role cognitive development.    So is it also true we may not even be using the correct metrics in determining success? Can we keep gambling on our children’s future? How long will education reform be ongoing before someone asks for the results? Who do you trust – the teacher at your child’s school that lives in your community, or a think tank of non-educators in Nashville or Washington DC?

We know top performing nations like Singapore and Finland have reduced standardized testing and increased curriculum flexibility on their road to success. They stress teacher professionalism and connecting actual practitioners with policymakers. That is what has been missing among reformers and in the education debate, in general.

I welcome the debate. Like Martin Luther, here I stand. I can do no other.

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

PET Applauds Gates Call for Testing Moratorium

Professional Educators of Tennessee announced today it supports the call by the Gates Foundation for a two year moratorium on tying test results to teacher evaluation or student promotion. The Gates position is in response to the move to Common Core State Standards and the accompanying tests. While Gates supports Common Core, they are suggesting that states and school districts be given time to adjust to the new tests.

Here’s PET’s statement:

In September of 2013 we recommended to the Tennessee General Assembly that they impose a delay using student test results for Teacher Evaluations, at least until 2016-2017 at the earliest. Yesterday, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation announced its support for a two-year moratorium on tying results from assessments aligned to the Common Core State Standards to teacher evaluations or student promotions to the next grade level. Vicki Phillips, the Gates Foundation’s director of college-ready programs, said that “while the common core is having a very positive impact on education, that doesn’t mean teachers and schools shouldn’t be given more time to adjust.” So we expect to see a continued debate statewide on this issue. We are pleased with the Gates Foundation recognition that this will be a serious issue. 
 
We have steadfastly maintained that requiring school districts to simultaneously implement new standards, new teacher evaluations and perhaps a new curriculum, as well as new testing demands, will continue to place enormous pressure at the local level. The use and/or overuse of testing remains a conversation worthy of public debate. Educators themselves understand they are accountable for the instruction of their students and need to produce valid evidence regarding their effectiveness. We agree that the education of children is far too important a task to not be evaluated. However, by using the wrong assessment instruments to evaluate educational quality we may actually do more harm than good. Teachers should not be punished by a testing system that remains a work in progress. So we join the Gates Foundation in calling on state policymakers to consider that assessment results should not be taken into account in high-stakes decisions on teacher evaluation or student promotion for the next two years, during this transition here in Tennessee.

An Interview with TEA President-elect Barbara Gray

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

 

What are your goals for TEA during your term?

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

 

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

We pushed back together and we won on numerous issues.

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

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

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

 

Charter Growth Should Be Looking Down (Not Up)

Charter schools are formed on the idea that the traditional public schools are not doing what they need to do to help kids succeed. Charter schools are there for a choice for the parents. Charter leaders will tell you that they have to catch the kids up when they get them in middle school. The students have fallen so far behind that it will take years to get the students back on track. Their goal is get them on track when they leave for high school. Charters are opening high schools so their middle school students can continue on until the student graduates.

For a system that decries that students are behind out of elementary school are not doing much to fix that. If the students are failing in elementary school, go and open elementary charter schools to fix that problem. If charters are truly helping students, they should start at kindergarten (or even pre-k!). At risk students are already coming in behind when they start kindergarten. If charters can get them in kindergarten, they won’t be behind when they head to fifth grade. This is a method that can really work to improve the outcomes of at risk children. It will also show if charters are really successful in helping students more than traditional zoned schools.

This is what baffles me about the charter growth in Nashville. Currently, there are five charter elementary schools, thirteen middle schools, and two high schools. Two of the charter elementary schools were recently opened and only have kindergarteners. If more charter schools opened up in elementary schools, there wouldn’t be so many students falling behind at the middle school years. The question is why aren’t there more charter elementary schools?

Elementary schools are the time when you can really find the struggling students. There are many tests and assessments to know if a student is on track or needs extra help. You won’t have to wait around to 5th grade to help a struggling reader or find out that a student has a learning disability if you have a great school. You can start the intervention there. You can help catch the student up before they head into 5th grade.

So I asked Greg Thompson, CEO of the Tennessee Charter Center, why there aren’t more elementary charter schools.

Charter growth has been driven by education entrepreneurs proposing promising new education models to help students achieve at a higher academic level.  Many charter founders in Tennessee have gravitated toward middle/high school models (typically because those grade levels fit with their experience and skill set as educators).  Why middle/high school education leaders make up a larger percentage of charter applicants and leaders is up for debate.  But, there is a trend developing in which charter operators are creating K-12 feeder patterns within their network of schools (recognizing that it is essential to have a strong academic program from Kindergarten through high school to prevent students from falling behind).  KIPP and LEAD are good examples of that in Nashville (when one looks at their growth plans).

The Center has focused its efforts on finding talented leaders who can create great schools, and we have been mostly agnostic on the type of school created (elementary, middle, or high).  The need is so great in Nashville in terms of the number of students who need better academic options, that we have been supportive of all models.”

I understand that many of the school leaders have experience in the upper grades, but let’s not forget the students in the lower grades. They need strong leadership with teachers who can use evidence-based methods to help kids succeed. If we can catch failing students earlier, the rest of their lives will be much better. I think this could be an avenue to see a charter take over a failing elementary school. We know that Metro Nashville Public Schools are trying to pinpoint certain locations for charter growth. Maybe it is time to give up another schools to a charter, like they did with Cameron. But with an elementary school, you need experienced and high quality teachers and administrators to lead the way. It will be interesting to see how the charter growth continues in Nashville.

 

TEA Elects New Leadership

From a TEA press release:

Nearly 800 educators from across the state gathered at the Nashville Convention Center this weekend to elect a new president and vice president of the Tennessee Education Association. This year marked the 81st annual Representative Assembly for the state’s largest professional association for educators.

Barbara Gray, a Memphis-Shelby County Schools administrator, was elected TEA president. Gray has served as the association’s vice president for the past four years. She has been in the education profession serving Shelby County Schools since 1972, where she currently works as an assistant principal at Northaven Elementary School. Gray has been an active member of the Shelby County, Tennessee and National Education Associations for many years.

Beth Brown, an English teacher at Grundy County High School, was elected TEA vice president. Brown has been an active member of the Tennessee Education Association since she began her career. She has served in numerous leadership roles at the state and local levels of the association.

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

Toward a New Model of Testing in Tennessee?

Shelby County teacher Ezra Howard has an informative post on the current testing model in Tennessee and a proposal for how to improve it over at Bluff City Ed. His comments come on the same day Nashville’s WPLN posted an interview with TEA President Gera Summerford in which she raises questions about the state’s current testing model.

Here are some noteworthy excerpts from Howard’s piece:

Standardized Testing Doesn’t Aide Instruction

Within all the rancor against testing, we often forget that there are two important reasons for assessments in education: (1) to gauge student’s learning and their level of ability, and (2) to guide instruction and inform future teaching. Current high stakes testing succeeds at the first intention but fails at the second. TCAP, PARCC, and other forms of standardized testing are given too late and too infrequently to effectively guide instructional practices. They are useless to educators other than to facilitate teaching to the test at the school level and direct carrot-and-stick measures at the district, state, and federal level.

Toward a Portfolio Model

It’s time we move toward more student-centered and differentiated assessments. Where assessments are tailored to some degree by learning plans that are informed by but not limited to language needs and IEPS. I personally don’t think Pearson or any other testing corporation is up to the task or, even if they are, ought to be trusted with such responsibility. Therefore, I believe education should move toward a portfolio model of assessment. Achievement in the portfolio model is defined by rubrics, individualized to the student and their needs, and completed throughout the year by the student with the aide of the teacher. A contracted company, at best, may be necessary to monitor the completion and scoring of these portfolios against the rubric.

Empower Teachers

While there is some room for compromise between a standardized model and an individualized model, I ultimately think the power of assessment needs to be put back in the hands of the teachers. Yes, consistency in assessments is necessary. But that is the point of academic standards. As I’ve illustrated, a one-size-fits-all assessment is blatantly biased and inappropriate for the myriad of students with special needs. Educators should strive to meet our students at their level, not only with instruction but with assessments as well. Our current system of standardized assessment, whether it’s with TCAP and the proposed PARCC, is failing to do this. For these reasons, yearly-standardized tests need to be set aside and give room for a new comprehensive system of assessment.

Read all of Howard’s thought-provoking post here.

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

TEA President on Testing and Education Reform

Blake Farmer of WPLN in Nashville has an interview with TEA President Gera Summerford that hits topics including an over-reliance on standardized testing, using value-added data to evaluate teachers, and charter schools.

In the interview, Summerford suggests a move toward common assessments, developed by teachers, to supplement or replace standardized testing.

She notes that the current model of teacher evaluation is not complete, and that multiple measures of effectiveness should included.  And Summerford notes that there are serious concerns about the validity of value-added data and it’s significance in the current teacher evaluation scheme.

The write-up and the entire interview can be found here.

Accountability Doesn’t Have to Be Punitive

Professional Educators of Tennessee’s (PET) JC Bowman and Audrey Shores on the TCAP delay and the TN DOE. They argue that rather than blame and punish, serious questions about what happened and when should be answered.

In Tennessee we appreciate straight talk and candor. We unquestionably detest hypocrisy. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies and even by our government. This has been quite evident in recent days by the Tennessee Department of Education, who inexcusably failed to get test scores to districts on time after months of preparation.

Perhaps in a kinder, gentler world we could shrug our shoulders and say “go get them next time.” However, this is the age of accountability, with the “survival-of-the-fittest” or “me-first” attitude that thrives, largely driven by the politics and culture in which we live. In this case, accountability in public education on the TCAP problem begins and ends with the Tennessee Department of Education.

Test results, as pointed out by one editorial in Knoxville “are used in teacher evaluations, in grading the overall performance of individual schools and systems and for other purposes.” State law requires that TCAP results account for 15 percent to 25 percent of a student’s final grade. An argument can be made that Common Core and TCAP are not aligned, so it does not make sense to use the TCAP scores in calculating students’ final grades. An appropriate response to that statement would be: perhaps they should not have been teaching standards that did not align with what students were going to be tested over the last couple of years and making it part of a student’s final grade.

Our belief is that this latest testing gaffe was simply due to incompetence, rather than any intentional violation of laws, regulations or established procedures not being followed. The men and women at the Tennessee Department of Education work extremely hard, just like the men and women who teach in our schools. They strive for excellence, and should not be impugned by this particular fiasco, no matter how well intentioned the stated objectives for the delay. A mistake was made, and we should endeavor to make sure it does not occur in the future.

As an organization, we believe in due diligence and avoiding overreacting to issues. We have adopted discipline by choosing our words carefully, like the carpenter who measures twice, cuts once. At times, systems simply do not work, and they need to be corrected. That is our message to policymakers and stakeholders alike; there is no attempt to imply any nefarious activity.       However, there is no denying that school systems across the state were blindsided by the delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores. Every system in the state was impacted. Policymakers must ensure the public is served: especially the children, families and school districts across the state. To that end, we requested that legislators inquire, formally or informally, specific information from the Tennessee Department of Education immediately. In fact, if the Tennessee General Assembly were in session we believe a hearing on this matter would be appropriate. The goal here is not to blame, but rather correct system failure.   We would suggest asking the following questions:

  • When was Ms. Erin O’ Hara, assistant commissioner for data and research, made aware of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores.
  • When were other state officials and members of the General Assembly, such as Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam, made aware of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores?
  • Who made the decision to not notify superintendents immediately of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? And when was that decision made?
  • Who were the unnamed “external experts” that signed off on the validity, reliability and accuracy of the results? Please list their names, qualifications and any existing contract authorizing their role in this issue.
  • Was any unnamed “external expert” granted access to individual student data?  If so please disclose the names, qualifications and contract that granted experts access to the information they utilized.
  • Where in current existing state law is permission granted to the Commissioner of Education to issue waivers for exemption from a state requirement that TCAP scores account for 15-25 percent of students’ final grades?  (According to the Tennessean 104 school districts requested waivers).
  • What is the financial cost to the school districts and state created by the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? Will the state cover this cost for districts?
  • What safeguards can be put in place to avoid any future issues, or should we simply not count test results in students’ final grades?

The use of high-stakes testing as the sole measure of student achievement is justly under increased scrutiny. We welcome that discussion and debate.   As we have continuously pointed out, in transitioning to any new test the most common issues that the state has not addressed are ongoing or increasing costs, technical concerns, and fears that the test could limit flexibility in crafting future curriculum. Transitioning Tennessee’s value-added data from TCAP to whatever future test the state ultimately adopts and utilizes will also take some time and adjustment -that is to be expected. A potential issue we anticipate is that the state has not adequately made clear how TVAAS will handle the transition from all bubble-in tests to constructed response tests. Legislators must start asking more detailed questions, and seeking answers from educators in our schools. There will always be issues, debate and discussion in public education.

In the end, getting accountability correct is the objective. The decisions policymakers make on behalf of students are actions of no small consequence. No one, least of all educators, would desire to see students victimized by testing. When we make decisions on the basis of untimely data or careless research, we place students at risk. We can and we must do better.

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