A Plea for Caution from Russia

A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to Tennesseans About Education

By VLADIMIR V. PUTIN

Published: September 12, 2013 

MOSCOW — Recent events surrounding education policy in Tennessee have prompted me to speak directly to the people of Tennessee and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.

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Oliver Munday

Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.

The potential rebalancing of the education policy debate — towards more thoughftulness, critique, and effective collaboration — despite strong opposition from many education organizations and major political and education leaders, will result in more innocent victims.

Russia must ask: What about the children?

Any effort to depart from your current reform path, and embrace countervailing viewpoints, would undermine effective, unilateral efforts to resolve the pressing teacher evaluation, pay, and licensure issues, as well as the Charter schools-Traditional schools conflict.  Departing from the current reform path could also destabilize Metro Nashville Public Schools and Memphis City Schools. It could throw the entire emerging system out of balance.

Tennessee, and these school systems, are not witnessing a battle for public education, but the equivalent of an armed conflict between defenders of the status quo and those worried more about the children, rather than adults.  There are few champions of education reform in Tennessee. But there are more than enough defenders of the status quo and extremists of all stripes. The Tennessee Department of Education should consider formally designating certain groups, fighting with the defenders of the status quo, as education terrorists.

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue — that is, a positive and collaborative tone — enabling those truly dedicated to public education in Tennessee to develop a plan for their own future.  We do not advocate protecting any particular set of policies, but rather the law itself, as passed by the Tennessee legislature and the Tennessee Board of Education.  Russia believes that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep education policy from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not, even if it sometimes means issuing harsh sanctions.

No one doubts that spurious character attacks, politically-motivated statements, articles, op-eds, blog posts, and tweets, and selective use of research and anecdote have been used during education debates in Tennessee. But there is every reason to believe these were used not by the those truly dedicated to the cause of education, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful patrons.

It is alarming that debate in policy discussions is becoming increasingly commonplace in Tennessee. Is it in Tennessee’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around your country increasingly see Tennessee, not as a state making innovative, cage-busting strides towards high-quality seats under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us,” but rather as a model of collaborative debate and democratic critique and discussion.

But discussion and debate have proved ineffective and pointless. Memphis is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after state oversight withdraws. Metro Nashville Public Schools is divided into tribes and clans, and the civil war continues, with dozens Tweeting at each other, incessantly, each day.

No matter how targeted the discussions or how sophisticated the debate, casualties are inevitable, particularly of students left without high-quality seats, whom the debates are meant to protect.

We must stop using the language of deliberation and collaboration, and return to the path of urgent, rigorous, and innovative educational reform.

A new opportunity to avoid thoughtful debate has emerged in the past few days. Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and all members of the educational community must take advantage of both sides’ willingness to destroy any possibility of collaboration on the issues of charters.  Judging by the statements of many in the state, both sides see ramping up the rhetoric as a good alternative to considered and thoughtful debate and policy solutions.

I welcome the any Tennessean’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on education policy. We must work together to keep this hope alive, and enforce the law, as written.  We must keep moving forward.

If we can avoid any slowdown of progress and any deliberative, community- and state-wide discussions, this will improve the education atmosphere in Tennessee and strengthen the respect of others within the United States, and around the world.

My working and personal relationship with education and political leaders in Tennessee is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I have carefully studied their public (and private) statements over the last several years. And I would rather disagree with a recent case made on Tennessee’s deliberative and collaborative spirit, stating that Tennessee’s efforts at honest and thoughtful discussion, and true collaboration is “what makes Tennessee different. It’s what makes Tennessee exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to be thoughtful and deliberative, whatever the motivation. There are big school systems and small school systems, rich and poor, those with long education reform traditions and those still finding their way to true education reform. Their policies differ, too, though Russia is happy to help in fixing this. We are all different, unfortunately, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God wants every child to have a high-quality seat, and does not care how we get there, so long as we do it quickly.

Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia.

A Taxing Proposal

Amelia Morrison Hipps is advocating the idea of giving School Boards taxing authority.

It’s a good idea and one which can certainly be handled in such a way as to build in accountability.  For example, setting a maximum amount taxes can be raised before a public referendum is required.

Letting School Boards set policy and establish budgets WITHOUT also giving them the ability and responsibility to raise revenue creates tension between two governing bodies that should be working together to better communities.

Hipps writes:

In other words, the people held the school board members accountable for the whole kit-and-caboodle. In Tennessee, school board members can hide behind the shield of county commissioners when they “mismanage their finances” by saying, “We had no choice. They only gave us so much money, and we had to spend it on X instead of B like we said. The children needed it.”

I urge Tennessee’s leaders to be courageous and bold. Open up a true and honest dialogue about our schools’ funding mechanisms. A saying I hear a lot in Wilson County is, “He who holds the gold, makes the rules.”

 

It’s an idea that’s been discussed and debated before — but also one meriting more attention.

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

 

Huffman on the Hot Seat?

Is Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman finally feeling the heat?

A group of 60 Directors of Schools from around the state signed a letter calling for a halt to the fast pace of education reform — reform that some critics suggest has little to do with helping students.

Some recent proposals for changing public education have included changes to teacher licensure (that could result in more testing of students) and an unproven teacher merit pay plan that could place an unfunded mandate on local governments.

In addition to the concerns of the Directors, at least one state legislator is complaining about the most recent proposal.

Having a letter signed by 60 Directors suggesting that the pace of reform slow and that the actual reforms be re-evaluated seems unprecedented in the state.

Now, the question is: How will Governor Haslam and the Commissioner respond?

 

 

 

Craig Fitzhugh Welcomes Back Tennessee’s Teachers

Last week Governor Bill Haslam released a video welcoming teachers back to the classroom. This week, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh makes his own video welcoming Tennessee’s teachers. I think teachers will really appreciate Fitzhugh’s message. Watch below.

Hi, I’m House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

Last week, Governor Haslam sent a message to teachers welcoming them back to another year of school. I too would like to extend a welcome back and a thank you for your service to our children and our state.

In his message, Governor Haslam said he “could imagine how challenging it is to teach in an environment with a variety of factors beyond your control.”

Quite frankly, I could not agree more.

That is why I have been so deeply disappointed in this Governor and his Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman. I’m disappointed in their continued refusal to fix an evaluation system that is driving quality teachers out of the profession. I’m disappointed in their push to cut teacher salaries, while asking them to contribute more to a less secure retirement plan. I’m disappointed in their work with the State Board of Education to revamp the process for licensing teachers—all without consulting the elected leaders in the General Assembly.

Like my wife, my sister-in-law, my niece & my daughter, I know most of you became teachers to make a difference in the lives of the children you encounter. Unfortunately, outside so-called “reform” groups have used their mounds of out-of-state cash to lobby the General Assembly and make your job more difficult. These groups are more concerned with standardized testing & fundraising for their PACs than they are about the future of our children.

As teachers, you are responsible for molding Tennessee’s most precious resources. Unlike Commissioner Huffman who taught for two years and moved on to the lucrative world of education reform, many of you have foregone more lucrative careers because of your passion and dedication to our students.  That is why teachers must always be at the center of our education reform efforts—because you are on the front lines. You know what works, and you know what doesn’t.

Thank you again for another year invested in our education system. Times are tough, believe me I understand that. But always know that you have a friend in our caucus on whom you can call anytime. Thank you.

 

 


 

Why Tennessee Should Invest More in Schools

Quite simply, because it pays off.  Workers get better wages, the economy thrives, businesses locate here.

Yes, all that makes sense and we hear it all the time.  Now, there’s some pretty clear evidence that having a well-educated workforce is more important than low taxes when it comes to improving a state’s economic outlook. In fact, according to the Economic Policy Institute, there is NO correlation between a state’s tax rate and it’s relative prosperity.

On the other hand, look at this graph and note where TN stands — on the low end in terms of both number of residents with a college degree and median wages.

median wage and education

 

So, while offering all kinds of tax breaks seems to be the trend when it comes to Tennessee cities and the state government luring business to our state, we’d be better off in the long term to ramp up or investment in and support of public education.

Perhaps along the lines of this proposal.

Crowe “Disappointed” by State Board Decision on Teacher Licensing

State Senator Rusty Crowe of Johnson City recently penned a column directly addressing his disappointment in the State Board of Education’s decision to link teacher licensing to student test scores.

Crowe suggests that using value-added data to inform teaching practice and even as a portion of a teacher’s evaluation is appropriate.  But using it to take away a teacher’s license is not acceptable.

Crowe concludes his piece by noting that he expects some level of legislative intervention in the matter.  Hardly an idle threat given that Crowe is a long-time member of the Senate Education Committee — the very committee that oversees State Board of Education action.

A simple, straightforward legislative intervention might be worded in such a way as to prohibit the Tennessee State Board of Education from enacting any policy that would cause a teacher to lose his/her license on the basis of student test scores.  Of course, it may have to repeal any such policy previously enacted, but since the testing proposal doesn’t take effect until 2015, it may be sufficient to prevent its implementation.

While teachers have been under attack by state policymakers for several years now, it seems in this case, the State Board may have gone a step too far.  At the very least, there’s sure to be legislative discussion around this issue in 2014.

 

Bruce Baker on Tennessee

Bruce Baker has taken notice of all the exciting education reforms happening right here in Tennessee. He thinks they are so great, he’s calling them a smokescreen.

You’re welcome to read the whole post. It has neat graphs and everything.  Here’s what I found most interesting:

…what do we know about the great state of Tennessee?

In short, Tennessee is simply NOT investing in schools.  And historically, the state hasn’t invested in schools.  As others have noted, all the education reform in the world won’t do anything without significant investment.

Baker concludes with this brilliant statement (admonition)?

My point here is that we all need to start looking at the BIG PICTURE regarding these state systems of schooling – the context into which new policies, new strategies, “reforms” if you will, are to be introduced. As I’ve noted previously, even if some of these reform strategies might be reasonable ideas warranting experimentation, whether charter expansion or teacher compensation and licensure reform, none can succeed in a system so substantially lacking in resources, and none can improve the equity of children’s outcomes unless there exists greater equity in availability of resources.

Perhaps it is no coincidence, then, that Bluff City Education noted yesterday that Tennessee’s high school graduation rate dropped by 2.2% and that since 2010 (when Tennessee “won” Race to the Top) the state’s ACT scores have remained relatively stagnant.

What Tennessee needs is not more reform for the sake of reform.  Tennessee needs a sustained commitment to investment in its schools.

 

Changes to Teacher Licensure — and MORE Testing

Today, as this piece is being published, the Tennessee State Board of Education will vote on changes to teacher licensure standards in Tennessee.  Here are all the details of the proposal.

Some elements are very good — a streamlined renewal process, a higher standard for entry based on content knowledge as demonstrated on the Praxis.

And then, there’s the part about tying teacher licensure to performance on evaluations and value-added assessment scores.

At first glance, it may sound great to expedite the dismissal of “bad” teachers.  But, that’s not exactly what this policy does.

Here’s the deal:  A teacher MUST have a score of 2 on both the overall performance evaluation AND their value-added score in two of the three years before their license is up for renewal.

But wait, you may be saying, not every teacher HAS value-added data available.

Yes. That’s true.  And that’s precisely the problem.  Both Professional Educators of Tennessee and the Tennessee Education Association have expressed concern about the use of TVAAS data in licensure decisions.  And of course, not only does every teacher not have value-added data, there are also concerns about using TVAAS at all for employment decisions.

The point, though, is that teachers will be treated differently based on whether or not they have value-added scores.

Here’s a scenario.  Math Teacher has overall performance evaluation scores of a 3 in all three of the years before his license is up for renewal.  However, his value-added scores are a 1-2-1.  So, he’s license is not renewed, he goes under review and could potentially lose his license.

Band Teacher has performance evaluation scores of 2-2-1 in the three years leading up to renewal.  Band Teacher has no value-added data. Band teacher is automatically renewed under the streamlined licensure scheme.

So, Math Teacher, whose overall scores were higher than Band Teacher’s, is in danger of dismissal.  Band Teacher is renewed.  Math Teacher (and other teachers similarly situated) complain and/or sue.

Solution? Just add MORE tests so that every single teacher has value-added data.

This at a time when school systems like MNPS are studying the amount and cost of testing and it’s overall usefulness.

Randi Weingarten of the American Federation of Teachers was quoted recently as saying, “If you have been properly prepared and supported and still can’t make the grade, you don’t deserve to be a part of our profession.”

And that’s the second problem with this scheme.  John wrote yesterday about the need for a meaningful, focused program of teacher induction.

Until that’s in place, it is difficult to say that teachers have been properly prepared.  The lack of ongoing support and meaningful professional development is also critical.  If teachers are going to be “under review” then support and assistance must be provided to help them get back on track.

I’ve written before about the need for better pay and more support for all teachers, including an early career mentoring program.

Changing the standards for licensure and renewal of licenses should not happen until these measures are put in place.  Even then, there is serious and legitimate concern about the reliability and validity of TVAAS as an instrument for making employment decisions.  And certainly, parents are concerned about their children’s performance on a week of testing (or more) determining whether or not certain teachers keep their jobs.

The issue of teacher quality is certainly an important one.  The State Board of Education and Department of Education should focus on addressing it with meaningful investment in and support of teachers, not a mandate for more and more testing of students.

A Positive Education Agenda

The use of this image is in no way sarcastic.  Well, maybe a little.The last few years of education debate and policymaking in Tennessee have seen a lot of negativity.  You can name the fights off the top of your head: teachers’ unions and collective bargaining, vouchers, teacher evaluations, Great Hearts, charters vs. traditional public schools, K12, Inc., teacher pay, etc.  There are more.

I, for one, have been preaching, to everyone I can think to, that people on all “sides” of the debate have a lot more in common than we/you/they think.

I truly believe this.

What we need, then, is some common ground. Not faux common ground, couched as a talking point and then used to attack (“How can you not agree with X?”), but real, actual common ground.

Looking back at the pieces from my school board campaign last year, I came to re-read my “issues” section from my campaign website.  I put a lot of thought and research into it at the time, and I think it still reads true.  So, if you haven’t had a chance, here’s what I think the (beginnings of) a positive education agenda look like.  It’s incomplete, for sure.  But it’s a start.  I’d love to hear what you think.  P.S. I’ve cut out the “I’m going to be a great school board member” intro and skipped right to the issues.

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Community-Supported Schools

No student should get a worse education because of their wealth or zip code.  As research has shown, however, a student’s home life, socioeconomic status, and the health of their community have a strong correlation with that student’s ultimate academic success.  Research has shown the increasing importance of communities and community support to schools.  Professors Ellen Goldring, Lora Cohen-Vogel, Claire Smrekar, and Cynthia Taylor discussed this very issue in “Schooling Closer to Home: Desegregation Policy and Neighborhood Contexts,” a study specifically of Nashville schools and communities.  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 112, No. 3 (May 2006), pp. 335-362).  Cohen-Vogel, Goldring, and Smrekar also wrote an article entitled “The Influence of Local Conditions on Social Service Partnerships, Parent Involvement, and Community Engagement in Neighborhood Schools.”  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 117, No. 1 (November 2010), pp. 51-78).  Both of these articles shed light on this crucial issue, and support the idea of the importance of communities and community context in building strong schools and supporting student learning.

To a large extent, wealth and zip code determine student outcomes, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can and must do everything in our power to support the educators and staff in our most at-risk schools, and provide them the support they need to overcome the achievement gaps our at-risk students suffer.  Ultimately, this can only ever be an incomplete solution.  Our schools need to become the centers of their communities again, and I will work to connect our parents, churches, neighborhood associations, community groups, and local residents to our schools.  To achieve this goal, we need a board member involved with and connected to the community and community leaders so that we can tailor the resources and strategies needed in each school to fit the community those schools serve.

High Standards, Less Testing

High standards are excellent — there is no question that all children can learn, and that we do a disservice to them by lowering standards, or assuming they cannot think critically or master difficult concepts.  Unfortunately, one of the most unintended, but very real consequences of the standards movement was the massive increase in testing of our students.  These days, students spend up to several weeks out of their school year taking mandated tests.  As well, because these tests are “high-stakes,” often determining funding and local control over schools and school districts, together with a  focus of laws such as No Child Left Behind on reading and math skills, there has been a movement away from rich curriculum including science, art, music, physical education, and more.  (See, for example, Richard Rothstein, “The Corruption of School Accountability,” (School Administrator, Vol. 65 No. 6 (June 2008) pp. 14-15).  Good schools and good teachers constantly assess student progress, little by little, not just with a massive test at the end of every quarter or every year (if that even ends up being necessary).  Good assessment shows where students are learning, and where teachers need to spend more time.  Good assessment happens mostly in the background, and is supplemented by longer traditional tests like chapter tests and end-of-course tests.

As a school board member, I will push our district towards the latter concept of assessment, making use of technology such as Kickboard, so that, as a policy matter, we do not put massive, unwanted pressure on our schools, educators, students, and parents, with all the negative consequences that come with high-stakes testing, while still preserving the inherent good of standards-based learning and assessment.  We can accomplish this by committing, as a district, to moving towards a collaborative model of teaching, where teachers are highly trained to use assessment and data in the classroom, and have mentors, master teachers, and coaches to help them, both in the use of that data, and in responding to the needs of their students.

High-Quality Teachers

Teachers are the backbone of our public schools.  As discussed above, though non-school factors play a major role in predicting student success, schools all over Nashville and Tennessee have shown that committed schools, with the right people and resources, can overcome a child’s background Though it is not within the province of a school board member to recruit teachers to our system, we can put in place research-based policies that will lead to higher quality teachers who stay in our system.  When asked, teachers overwhelmingly identify school leadership and school culture as reasons they do or do not stay at their school.  For example, Tennessee’s own teacher survey, TELL Tennessee, shows the following results:

Teaching_Conditions_TELL_Tennessee

These results are typical — teachers want a strong school culture with a good principal, as well as support for good instruction.  These are policy choices as to where we spend our dollars, and the latter option, “instructional practices and support” is a crucial issue addressed above with respect to assessment and support.  As a school board member, I will support the district in finding school leaders who are quality instructional leaders, but who also reach out to and build connections with their teachers and the community around them.

Teacher turnover is also a problem, especially in an urban district like Nashville.  Paying teachers commensurate with our surrounding cities is a first step, and rewarding our excellent teachers must also be a priority.  However, Nashville has a gaping hole when it comes to developing its newest teachers, so that we support and retain them.  As I know personally, the first year of teaching is especially hard.  Many teachers leave the profession during or after their first year.  Again, it does not have to be this way.  Nashville needs to make a multi-year induction, evaluation, and support program a cornerstone of our practice.  The article, “What are the Effects of Induction and Mentoring on Beginning Teacher Turnover,” by Tom Smith and Richard Ingersoll, among others, shows that such programs can have an outstanding impact on developing and supporting excellent teachers, and retaining them in the district.  (American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 41 No. 3 (September 2004) pp. 681-714).  In fact, this is something beginning teachers are not being provided, though they want it (I certainly would have appreciated it during my first year teaching).

Mentoring_TELL_TennesseeAs you can see, though many teachers have a “formally assigned mentor,” a large majority of them do not have formal time to meet with that mentor during school hours, nor do they have time to observe other teachers, or have a reduced workload in order to learn how to be a good teacher.  During my time at the Mayor’s office, working on the ASSET program, I pushed for such an induction and mentoring policy, and I will continue to do so on the Board.

I believe deeply that we must support our teachers; we cannot fire our way to success.  The labor pool does not exist to replace a massive amount of teachers in our system, and the resources we would expend would be wasted.  There will always be some number of teachers who should not be teaching; I absolutely support removing such teachers.  However, the vast majority of our teachers want to be good teachers.  The vast majority are good people, committed to Nashville’s children.  I will put in place policies on the Board to support those teachers, and give them the tools they need to be better.

MNPS to Study Testing

Andrea Zelinski had this story last week on MNPS Board Member Jill Speering and a possible resolution challenging the current climate of testing.  Instead of the resolution passing, MNPS Director of Schools recommended a study session where many of the questions raised by the resolution can be addressed.  Speering and fellow Board Member Amy Frogge (a frequent critic of the current testing emphasis) agreed and the Board will now examine in study session the number of hours students spend taking tests, test prep hours, cost of tests, etc.

Perhaps more interesting, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has had this to say about testing:

“We at the state level feel like we need to measure results and we need to know how we’re doing. There’s no way to know what areas you need to improve in if you aren’t measuring something,” Huffman told reporters last month.

This is of note because it implies that without testing at every level and in every subject, it is impossible to tell if teachers are doing well or if schools are meeting the mark.

Huffman added:

“I think we can’t live in a world where we pretend that everybody is doing OK, so it’s necessary to measure and see whether we’re making progress, what are the things we do well, what are the things we have to do better. If you don’t measure, you don’t really have a sense of how you’re doing,” he said.

Huffman failed to indicate how he knows that Harpeth Hall, where one of his own children attended school, is doing OK.  There’s no state mandated standardized testing there, no TVAAS scheme.  How, exactly, did Huffman know his child’s teachers were doing ok? Because he paid money for it? Because other people say it’s good?  Or is it that good teaching and learning is about more than numbers on a spreadsheet.

Could it be that the music teacher gets a kid so excited about school that they soar in all their other subjects? Could the history teacher who is not the strongest in content be the one who serves as a mentor to children with no other adult role models?  Could it be that Huffman can observe (just as other parents do) that his child is excited about school, is improving from the first day to the last?  What about the kid who works hard and gets a C in Algebra just so he can keep playing football? How do you measure that? Was it the Algebra teacher’s inspiring lessons or the coach’s mandate to get good grades that “added value” to that kid’s education?

Is it worth the time and expense it takes to test in every single grade across multiple subjects — taking time away from instruction and growth?  Would a simpler, streamlined set of tests be both more cost effective AND better for kids?

As MNPS studies the issue further, parents and the community will at least gain a better understanding of how often and for what purposes their kids are tested.  And we’ll know more about the costs.  Perhaps the next step will be to move forward with an agenda that’s good for kids (and works at Harpeth Hall), even if all the policy-making adults in Nashville aren’t happy.