Sen. Kelsey Offers Limited Voucher Plan

After watching competing voucher plans stall last year, Governor Haslam and Senator Brian Kelsey have both made statements this year that they’ll work together to pass a voucher plan.

Perhaps to that end, Sen. Kelsey filed a bill that proposes a limited voucher plan, initially allowing for 5,000 “opportunity scholarships” in the first year of the program.

Post Politics has the full story.

And Jon Alfuth in Memphis makes a case against vouchers here.

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

The Education Agenda

What’s the best way to move Tennessee schools forward? It seems lots of people have opinions about this.  And some organized groups (teachers, superintendents, parents) are familiar faces around the General Assembly as education legislation is discussed, debated, and voted on.

Here, I attempt to break down the education agenda according to various groups attempting to influence the debate at the General Assembly this session.

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET)

This group of teachers is the smaller of the two organizations in the state representing teachers (the other being the Tennessee Education Association).

We’ve written about PET’s 2014 agenda before.

Essentially, they are focusing on teacher licensure (and the use of TVAAS to determine continuation), protection of student and teacher data, and testing.

Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE)

We reported last week on the launch of this new group. They appear to stand in opposition to much of the current reform agenda in Nashville (state charter authorizer, vouchers, etc.). They also support full funding of BEP 2.0.

Tennessee Education Association (TEA)

TEA is the state’s oldest and largest association of teachers.  The TEA has historically opposed the expansion of charter schools and the use of public dollars for private schools (vouchers). They have a fairly wide-ranging legislative agenda. Additionally, they are currently undertaking a “road trip” to expose flaws in the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS).

Tennessee School Boards Association (TSBA)

As its name implies, this group represents school boards across the state.  Though a few systems are not members, most in Tennessee are.  Here’s their complete agenda.  The organization opposes vouchers and opposes revoking a teacher’s license based solely on TVAAS data.

Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS)

The statewide organization representing school superintendents.  Their full legislative agenda can be found here. TOSS opposes vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and the revocation of a teacher’s license based on TVAAS data.

Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)

SCORE is headed-up by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist.  The organization is comprised of many education stakeholders and aims to provide information to policymakers as they make decisions that impact schools.  They have been supportive of the new teacher evaluation model and are the leading organization in Tennessee in support of the Common Core State Standards.  More on SCORE here.

Stand for Children

This organization has been active in Tennessee since 1999.  For the sake of full disclosure, I worked for Stand in TN from 2007-2009. The organization made its mark in Tennessee advocating for expanded access to Pre-K.  According to a recent email from new Executive Director Betty Anderson, the organization plans to focus this year’s legislative efforts on maintaining the Common Core State Standards.  They are also supportive of expanded access to Pre-K and to improvements to the BEP.

StudentsFirst

This is the Tennessee affiliate of Michelle Rhee’s nationwide StudentsFirst organization. Here’s the group’s official issue agenda.  They have been supportive of vouchers, a statewide charter authorizer, and teacher merit pay.

Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA)

The Tennessee PTA is comprised of parents organized at the local school level. While these groups typically support their specific school, the PTA also supports schools and students in the community and state. Their complete legislative agenda can be found here. The PTA includes in its agenda support for the inclusion of parent and student feedback in teacher evaluation and the use of “strategic compensation” for teachers.  They also support the Coordinated School Health program and changes to the BEP that would provide funding for additional nurses. The PTA opposes vouchers.

School Choice Now

This group is a joint project of the Tennessee Federation for Children and the Beacon Center of TN.  Their focus is on a statewide school voucher program, which they call “opportunity scholarships.”

Those are the major groups I’m aware of attempting to influence education policy in Tennessee. There are likely others.  But this is a starting point to understanding what’s going on at the Legislative Plaza regarding education policy and who is pushing for what policies.

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

 

A New TREE Takes Root

A new advocacy group focused on countering corporate education reformers in Tennessee announced its formation this week. Calling itself TREE (Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence), the group is focused on advocating for quality investment in schools, accountability and transparency in the education system, and local control of schools.

The group is at odds with many of the heavily-funded major players in Tennessee education — StudentsFirst, Stand for Children, Tennessee Federation for Children/Beacon Center, and others.

Unlike those groups, which receive significant funding from out-of-state special interest groups and foundations, TREE is a grassroots, citizen-funded group born in Tennessee.

It will be interesting to see what, if any, impact TREE’s presence has on issues like school vouchers and a state charter school authorizer.

Here’s their announcement press release:

A grassroots group of Tennesseans backed by concerned parents, teachers, and taxpayers today announced the formation of Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE), a new advocacy group focused on protecting and strengthening Tennessee’s schools.
TREE is dedicated to stopping attempts by special interest groups to dismantle Tennessee’s public education system. “Well-funded, out-of-state special interest groups are now doubling down on their efforts to influence laws that will divert public money to private entities, further eroding our already underfunded schools,” TREE president Lyn Hoyt, parent to three Metro Nashville Public School students, said. “Public school parents, teachers, and advocates must be heard by our legislators.”
TREE will pursue several goals based on the group’s core values: quality investment in schools, transparency and accountability throughout the education system, and local control of our schools.
“We don’t plan to match corporate funded lobbying groups dollar for dollar,” Hoyt said. “TREE will be an authentic parent voice for legislators. We will work to educate legislators, parents, and citizens across the state about the dire consequences of legislation, pushed by special interest groups, that will negatively impact our public schools, teachers, and tax dollars.”
 
 
Twitter: @TNExcellence 
For more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow us @TNEdReport

Wonder if the State Charter Authorizer Will Approve?

Blake Farmer of WPLN notes that legislation creating a state charter authorizer is just one vote in the Senate away from becoming law.  The legislation would allow charter schools to apply directly to the state, or to apply to the state if denied by a local school board.  Some have speculated that out of state organizations (like Great Hearts) will simply go straight to the state authorizer rather than dealing with the sometimes contentious local boards.

Cari Gervin points out that Governor Bill Haslam is on the board (albeit in honorary fashion) of this organization which is seeking to open a charter school in Knoxville.

If, despite all the Knoxville luminaries on the board, the group gets turned down at the local level, one wonders how receptive a state charter authorizer with members appointed by honorary board member Bill Haslam would be?

How to Properly Deploy a New Teacher Evaluation System

Like Tennessee, Kentucky has a new teacher evaluation model — The Professional Growth and Effectiveness System (PGES). Similar to reforms in Tennessee, the new model uses multiple measures to evaluate teachers, including classroom observation and student growth.

Unlike Tennessee, Kentucky has rolled out its new evaluation in phases, improving it along the way based on feedback from teachers and administrators.

Here’s a description of how the model, to be fully implemented in 2014-15, has been rolled out:

During the 2012-2013 school year, over 50 school districts in Kentucky have participated in a field test of the new system.  The field test has allowed educator experience and feedback to inform improvements prior to the statewide pilot during the 2013-2014 school year.  During the statewide pilot in 2013-2014, as least 10% of the schools in each district will implement the Professional Growth & Effectiveness System.  In 2014-2015 the system will be fully implemented statewide with full accountability in Spring 2015.

That’s two years of pilot work before a single teacher is held fully accountable for the results of the new system.  Of course, those evaluated get the chance to have their practice informed by the strengths of the new system. But they also are not held back by problems that may need reform or improvement.

Contrast that with Tennessee, which implemented a new evaluation system in 2011-12.  Teachers were responsible for meeting the evaluation standards immediately.  There was no statewide pilot, no partial implementation, testing, and then improvement.  The evaluation has been changed or “improved” along the way, but that process has caused confusion as the standard by which teachers are evaluated seems to change from year to year.

Yes, there are strengths to evaluating teachers through multiple measures. Certainly, the old evaluation system warranted improvement.  But the implementation process directed by the Department of Education failed to adequately take into account teacher and administrator feedback. A more measured approach, as seen in Kentucky, could have helped build educator support and buy-in and could have improved the process without the fear that comes with instant accountability for a previously unused standard.

It’s not too late for Tennessee to “re-launch” it’s evaluation process in light of new Common Core tests.  A suspension of the use of TVAAS for teacher evaluation, as called for by PET and others could allow the state to re-examine the evaluations and phase-in improvements, fully implementing the new system as Common Core tests replace the old TCAP and EOC tests.

Doing so would require a step back from the rapid pace of recent reforms in the state. But the best way forward is not always the fastest. Tennessee would do well to emulate our neighbors, slow down, and focus on getting education reform right.

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

 

A Case Against Vouchers

Memphis teacher Jon Alfuth writes a compelling piece arguing against the adoption of vouchers in Tennessee.

Here’s an excerpt providing some very good reasons why vouchers should be looked at skeptically by Tennessee lawmakers:

Voucher programs also struggle to achieve their mission of providing low-income students with a way out of failing schools.  For example a critical study of the Milwaukee program found that it overwhelmingly helped those already receiving education through private means.  Two thirds of Milwaukee students using the voucher program in the city already attended private schools.  Instead of increasing mobility for low-income students, the program primarily served to perpetuate status quo.

Voucher programs have also caused to students inadvertently attending failing schools, thereby maintaining the very problem they are meant to solve.  It’s often difficult to determine the quality of the schools serving voucher students because private schools are not required to make public the same amount of student data as public schools.  An example of this occurring can be found right next door in Louisiana where approximately 2250 students were recently found to be attending failing schools through the state’s voucher program.

Alfuth writes from the perspective of a teacher at a charter school who supports much of the current education reform agenda, including expansion of school choice.  His concerns about vouchers are reasonable, fair, and insightful.

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

 

 

PET Agenda

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) recently released their 2014 legislative agenda.  They have three key areas of focus for the upcoming legislative session.

1) Teacher Licensure. PET is asking for a straightforward, common sense appeal process to address concerns regarding the proposed changes to teacher licensure. PET has also been asking for the suspension of the use of TVAAS data until Common Core is fully implemented. The group also mentions a need to focus on teacher remediation and targeted professional development.

2) Student/Teacher Data. PET is seeking legislation that will ensure the privacy of both student and teacher data.  Specifically, they want to ensure no personally identifiable data on students and their families religion, political affiliation, psychometric data, biometric information, or voting history is collected or otherwise tracked and that such data is not provided to either the federal government or private vendors.  They are also seeking limits on who may access teacher evaluation data.

3) Testing. PET notes the “overuse of testing in our schools” as a key area of concern.  While PET notes that testing comes with good intentions, the result of an increased focus on testing is now a “detriment to public education.” PET suggests policies that find a balance between the need to assess in order to gain knowledge about what’s working and what’s not working for kids and the over-reliance on tests for uses beyond their intended, useful purpose.

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

 

 

Dr. Register, Tear Down Those Data Walls

Or, what a progressive Karl Dean might have said at yesterday’s Nashville Chamber education report card “party.” If you’d like to read his defense of charter schools and warning to MNPS, read this.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean yesterday took on the education establishment and challenged the city to do more for its children and families. The remarks came as stunned members of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce looked on in disbelief.

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.

With his voice raised and fist clenched, Dean said, “Dr. Register, tear down those data walls.”

Dean seemed to be suggesting that School Board member Amy Frogge has a point when she continues to ask about how much all the spending and preparation for tests costs Metro Schools.

He further added that a teacher’s value is about more than the points she might add to her students’ test scores.

Dean proceeded to challenge the popular and oft-repeated notion that Nashville is home to failing schools.

“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.

“When Nashville families are struggling, their children struggle,” Dean said.  “It’s hard to focus on school when you don’t know where your next meal will come from or what to do when you can’t see to read and can’t afford glasses.

“Quite simply, Nashville must do a better job of reaching out and lifting up all our citizens.”

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.”

Dean also said he will be asking Metro Council to expand the hours at all the city’s libraries so students can have access to its materials and computers.

“Our children need consistent, reliable access to our magnificent library facilities.  They should be centers of learning and excitement and they will be open to serve that need.”

Following Dean’s speech, he walked to the park across from the downtown library to meet the homeless men and women he’d be spending his nights with until January, when he’ll take them to their new rooms at MCC.

Alas, Dean’s actual remarks are chronicled here.

 

Time to Fix the BEP?

The Metro Nashville School Board this week suggested that the state revise and improve its funding formula for schools, known as the BEP.

A resolution drafted by board member Amy Frogge and passed unanimously by the MNPS board indicates that the current formula does not allow districts to properly implement rigorous news standards and provide improved salaries for teachers.

If legislators and Governor Haslam want to take a look at improving the BEP, they need only take a look at the BEP 2.0 formula developed under Governor Phil Bredesen with significant input from then-state Senator Jamie Woodson, who now heads SCORE.

Of course, current Metro board member Will Pinkston was a key Bredesen staffer when the BEP 2.0 formula was developed, so he’s quite familiar with how it would improve the funding situation not just for MNPS but for most districts in the state.

Fully funding BEP 2.0 may take incremental steps and perhaps could be complete in two to three years with some focus and budget prioritization from the General Assembly and the Governor.

If the current formula is not re-examined and improved, it seems likely that districts large and small will continue to complain of mandates coming from the state without adequate funding for their implementation.

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

Strategies for Retaining Educators

Memphis teacher and blogger Jonathan Alfuth writes about strategies for retaining educators in an urban environment.

This past June, I completed my second year as a Teach for America teacher.  I’d worked in one of the most struggling high schools in Memphis but rather than being scared away, it strengthened my commitment to teaching.  Yet I knew that there was no way I’d return to my placement school.  The culture didn’t promote student achievement, individual teachers operated in isolation and we had little shared vision for where we were going as a school.

Over the next few weeks, I did a comprehensive search of schools across Memphis. While I turned up several schools that I believed embodied the type of culture I desired, none of them were Shelby County Schools (all were charter).  I made the choice to move to a charter school and I’ve been amazed by the difference in culture and its impact on student achievement.  Our leaders are hardworking and dedicated to a common mission.  My colleagues and I are given common planning time in content and grade level teams each and every week. And most importantly, we work together to develop the kind of school culture that drives students to success.  I see its impact each and every day in the quality of my students work and their academic outcomes as so far, 100% of our graduating students have been accepted to 4-year schools.

My dilemma was recently discussed at the policy level in Shelby County during the school board’s decision whether or not to extend Teach for America’s contract with the district.  The board voted to extend the contract, but the two opponents of extending the contract cited poor TFA retention beyond the program’s two year commitment in their opposition to its continuation.  In the same piece, she also quoted Superintendent Hopson in a statement that perfectly encompasses my dilemma and the dilemma of second year TFA teachers every year.  Hopson said, “I have to say, if effective talent is leaving the district at a 70-something percent rate, we have to look at strategies we can use to retain talent.”

I often find myself thinking that we’ve done so much to improve education both here in Memphis and across Tennessee.  We’ve reformed teacher evaluation to identify our best and brightest.  We’re on the verge of dramatically reforming teacher compensation in Tennessee.   And yet all this means NOTHING if we cannot keep great teachers in high need classrooms once they are placed.  This begs the question; what do educators really want?  What will keep them in district classrooms?  In my experience, young education professionals, TFA or otherwise, aren’t much different from most other young professions.  We all have highly varied motivations for entering the profession.  But in the end, great teachers gravitate towards environments with great school and district leaders, great office (or in this case school) culture that focuses on achievement and great colleagues that work together to achieve a common vision.

I am a TFA alumni but I also work closely with young educators from both alternative and traditional certification programs.  And I believe strongly that my decision is one that almost every young educator in Shelby County faces at some point in their first two years.  At the end of two years, many young educators, TFA or otherwise, feel a strong sense of commitment to their children and a desire to continue in education.  However, we are often placed in such dysfunctional environments that we have to make a choice which feels like choosing between being a martyr for our kids by staying or abandoning them by quitting or moving schools.  And so often the challenges inherent in district schools make the former untenable, and so we leave, either choosing a different school like I have or leaving the profession all together.

I should add that some schools in Shelby County have found a way to make it work and retain young educators beyond their first few years.  Colleagues of mine at Ridgeway High, Whitehaven and Kingsbury High consistently tell me about the strength of their school leadership and the support they receive from their colleagues.  We should certainly study these schools further, but they represent the exception rather than the norm.

Until district leaders devote attention to improving school cultures to make them attractive and professional work environments that attract young educators, we will continue to see an exodus of young teaching talent to other systems, schools or professions.  And it won’t matter what program those educators come from if conditions are so challenging that teachers can’t fathom working in high need environments.  We can extend or eliminate contracts with organizations like Teach for America, but that won’t fix the underlying fact that many young educators simply don’t feel that the school culture where the work is one where they can be successful.

I don’t want to leave this post without offering some solutions.  I’ve already written a seven part series on a package of strategies that could be used to promote teacher retention in SCS, so I  won’t rehash it here. If you’re interested in some research based strategies for how we could start building the types of school cultures that attract and retain high quality educators by enacting district level policies, I invite you to check the series out here.

Jonathan Alfuth is a math teacher at a charter school in Memphis.  He blogs about education issues at Bluff City Ed

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