2018 Gubernatorial Education Forum

Last night, candidates vying to be Tennessee’s next Governor participated in a forum on education held at Belmont University and sponsored by SCORE (Statewide Collaborative on Reforming Education).

Five of the seven candidates attended the event. Mae Beavers had a death in the family and was unable to attend. Congressman Diane Black cited a “scheduling conflict.” That’s typically political speak for not wanting to answer tough questions.

Yes, Black is a Member of Congress and yes, Congress is in session. However, key votes on reopening the government after a brief shutdown had already taken place. Further, Black’s vote would not have been a pivotal one in that process.

Diane Black is asking Tennesseans to trust her to lead the state and she couldn’t be bothered to join a forum and answer direct questions on one of the state’s largest expenditures and a top priority issue for voters.

Now, a roundup of reporting on the candidates who did attend and participate: House Speaker Beth Harwell, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh, former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, businessman and former Economic Development Commissioner Randy Boyd, and businessman Bill Lee.

Here’s Chalkbeat’s report, noting a significant amount of agreement among the candidates on a range of issues.

First, teacher pay: 

Every candidate said they want to boost pay for Tennessee teachers on the heels of two years of increased allocations under outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam. Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean, a Democrat, offered the most direct pledge, calling higher salaries his “No. 1 priority,” while House Speaker Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville, gave a more restrained endorsement. “We have now given two back-to-back 4 percent pay increases to our teachers,” Harwell said. “Would I like to do more? Of course. And when the budget allows for that, I will.” On a related note, most candidates said it’s also time to revisit the state’s formula for funding K-12 education.

Plight of the DREAMers:

Republicans said they would not sign legislation that would provide so-called “Dreamers” with the tuition break to attend the state’s higher education institutions, while Democrats said they would. “I’m the only person on this panel who has voted to do that, and I will vote to do that again,” Fitzhugh said of unsuccessful bills in Tennessee’s legislature during recent years. “It is cruel that we do not let these children that have lived in Tennessee all their life have in-state tuition,” he added. Republicans emphasized the letter of the law. “It doesn’t seem fair to me that we would offer something in college tuition to an immigrant that was here illegally that we wouldn’t offer to an American citizen from Georgia,” said Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County.

Supporting Public Schools:

Fitzhugh was the only candidate who said that he and all of his children are products of public schools, and that his grandchildren attend public schools as well.

READ MORE from Chalkbeat

The Tennessean has this break down of answers to three key questions:

Pre-K:

Boyd: “We need to find the programs that work well and duplicate those.”

Dean: He would like to see pre-K statewide and “available in all school systems.”

Fitzhugh: “Under Gov. Haslam’s leadership we have moved pre-K where it needs to go and I would like to see it ultimately for every single child.”

Harwell: She cited “mixed results” of existing programs, wants to lean on nurturing high-quality options.

Lee: “Strong pre-K programs move the needle.” He wants to “make certain that the program that we currently have is quality, and we should move on that first.”

Just where was Diane Black?

The Tennessean reports she was in Tennessee, raising money instead of talking with voters about her education policy plans:

Black declined to participate in the forum because of a scheduling conflict. According to an invitation obtained by the USA TODAY NETWORK – Tennessee, she was attending a campaign reception at Southeast Venture, a development firm near 100 Oaks, that cost $250 per couple to attend and included hors d’oeuvres.

While I’m sure the snacks were nice and the haul of campaign cash significant, Tennessee voters surely expect a person running for the state’s top job to join with her opponents in answering relevant questions.

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


 

Are TN Colleges Turning Out Bad Teachers?

You might think Tennessee’s public schools of education are doing a poor job of turning out effective educators if you read this story in yesterday’s Tennessean.

The article notes:

Many of Tennessee’s teacher preparation programs aren’t at the quality the state expects. A number of those underperforming are at state colleges — with none of those schools performing at the highest level.

It’s a “sobering” data point education officials are highlighting as they work toward addressing fixes in Tennessee’s teaching programs.

The article references the redesigned teacher preparation report card produced annually by the Tennessee State Board of Education.

I’ve written before about the problems with this approach.

The revamped report includes candidate profile (who is enrolling in teacher prep programs), retention (whether grads stay in teaching), and “teacher effectiveness” (which is measured primarily by the flawed TVAAS system).

TVAAS scores of graduates account for 25 of the 75 points available to rate teacher prep programs. That means the rating formula is heavily skewed toward an unreliable statistical estimate of performance.

At best, TVAAS is a rough estimate of teacher performance. A fairly solid indicator that a teacher earning a “5” is NOT a “1,” but relatively meaningless otherwise.

Now, of course, Tennessee has transitioned to new tests. TNReady has been fraught with problems, but even if it hadn’t been, the results would render TVAAS data highly suspect. So, 33% — the largest single portion — of the score attributed to teacher prep programs comes from a number that is essentially meaningless. Let me be clear: Schools receiving grades of 4 (the highest) or 1 (the lowest) on this metric are getting numbers that have no basis in statistical reality.

The next area of importance to a program’s score is the profile of the candidates enrolled in their program. Here, the state is looking for high academic achievers and overall diversity.

As noted in the article:

McQueen also has plans for a statewide tour to schools with the purpose of getting high-achieving, young students into the education profession, especially since preparation programs are having trouble getting qualified candidates in the doors.

This is predicated on the assumption that students with higher ACT scores will ultimately become better teachers. Whether or not that’s true, it ignores the underlying reality: Teaching just may not be a very attractive field. That’s not the fault of schools of education and it certainly isn’t their responsibility to fix it.

In fact, Tennessee has been looking at a coming teacher shortage for years now. Districts like MNPS are already seeing the impact.

Why might teaching be unattractive? Well, for one, the pay is not exactly great. In fact, Tennessee teachers earn about 30% less than their similarly prepared peers. Boosting pay may be one way to help make the field more attractive. Alternatively (and much cheaper), the state could send the outgoing Commissioner of Education on a tour of schools to attempt to persuade high achieving students to enter a profession where they can expect to earn significantly less than other professionals and be subjected to a testing and evaluation system that according to some is “driving teachers crazy.”

Another factor? Our state under-funds the BEP (the state’s funding formula for schools) by around $500 million. So, new teachers face low pay, a problematic evaluation system, and under-resourced schools. Is it any wonder teacher prep programs aren’t getting enough qualified applicants?

Nevertheless, teacher prep programs are being held “accountable” for fixing problems over which they have little control. Makes perfect sense.

*NOTE: An earlier version of this story indicated TVAAS accounted for 40 points on the scale. That has been corrected to accurately reflect the 25 points TVAAS scores comprise.

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


 

Lightning Can Strike at Any Time

One of Tennessee’s top advocates of using public money to fund private schools through unproven voucher schemes issued a bit of a warning for defenders of public schools recently. After offering up a number of excuses about why voucher legislation has failed in recent legislative sessions, Tommy Schultz of the ironically named American Federation for Children said:

“We understand,” Schultz said, “that lightning can strike at any time.”

The comment was in reference to a surprise voucher win through a wolf in sheep’s clothing tactic in Illinois last year. As Chalkbeat noted:

But he pointed out that school choice legislation can move forward under surprising circumstances — such as in Illinois last year where a legislature dominated by Democrats created a massive tax-credit scholarship program.

While pro-schools lawmakers and advocates should certainly remain vigilant, it does appear that voucher legislation won’t advance during the 2018 legislative session.

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


 

2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

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


 

A Broken System

A former Memphis principal writes about a broken accountability system in Tennessee:

We set goals for students to meet 100 percent college readiness, but we don’t align our resources and professional development to help teachers to attain it.

We force teachers to use resources that are not useful because they come with perks and personal gains to the district level administrators.

We promote students to the next grade when they do not meet the standards and expectations of their current grade.

We develop compensation structures based on a mythical system of accountability and achievement goals we know we can’t attain.

He writes more and it’s worth a read.

Similar evidence of a broken system can be found in MNPS, where students in some schools are shuffled into virtual classes due to a teacher shortage that still hasn’t been solved.

His is the frustration expressed by many teachers, parents, and administrators around the state: We set goals, but don’t align our resources to meet those goals. Our state’s BEP is underfunded by some $500 million, we haven’t (yet) funded Response to Intervention, and TNReady has yet to have a successful year. Oh, and to top all of that off, our teachers are paid significantly less than similarly prepared professionals.

Mackin’s voice should be heard — and policy makers should respond not with words, but with action.

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


 

Dead Already?

Is voucher legislation dead before the 2018 legislative session even starts?

Chalkbeat is reporting that the Senate sponsor of voucher legislation won’t bring the bill up for consideration in 2018:

Sen. Brian Kelsey said Monday that he won’t ask a Senate committee to take up his bill — which would pilot a program in Memphis — when the legislature reconvenes its two-year session in January.

Kelsey’s retreat calls into question the future of the voucher legislation in Tennessee, home to a perennial tug-of-war over whether to allow parents to use public money to pay for private school tuition. It also comes as U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has focused national attention on the policy.

The early setback for vouchers could mean the legislation won’t advance for a fifth consecutive year.

Polling has shown Tennesseans reject the idea of spending public money on private schools. Additionally, a number of lobbyists ended contracts with pro-voucher groups after the issue failed last session.

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


 

Driving Teachers Crazy

State Representative Jeremy Faison of Cosby says the state’s teacher evaluation system, and especially the portion that relies on student scores on TNReady is causing headaches for Tennessee’s teachers.

Faison made the remarks at a hearing of the House Government Operations Committee, which he chairs. The hearing featured teachers, administrators, and representatives from the Department of Education and Tennessee’s testing vendor, Questar.

Zach Vance of the Johnson City Press reports:

“What we’re doing is driving the teachers crazy. They’re scared to death to teach anything other than get prepared for this test. They’re not even enjoying life right now. They’re not even enjoying teaching because we’ve put so much emphasis on this evaluation,” Faison said.

Faison also said that if the Department of Education were getting ratings on a scale of 1 to 5, as teachers do under the state’s evaluation system (the TEAM model), there are a number of areas where the Department would receive a 1. Chief among them is communication:

“We’ve put an immense amount of pressure on my educators, and when I share with you what I think you’d get a one on, I’m speaking for the people of East Tennessee, the 11th House District, from what I’m hearing from 99.9 percent of my educators, my principal and my school superintendents.”

Rather frankly, Faison said both the state Department of Education and Questar should receive a one for its communication with local school districts regarding the standardized tests.

Faison’s concerns about the lack of communication from the TNDOE echo concerns expressed by Wilson County Director of Schools Donna Wright recently related to a different issue. While addressing the state’s new A-F report card to rate schools, Wright said:

We have to find a way to take care of our kids and particularly when you have to look at kids in kindergarten, kids in the 504 plan and kids in IEP. When you ask the Department of Education right now, we’re not getting any answers.

As for including student test scores in teacher evaluations, currently a system known as Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) is used to estimate the impact a teacher has on a student’s growth over the course of the year. At best, TVAAS is a very rough estimate of a fraction of a teacher’s impact. The American Statistical Association says value-added scores can estimate between 1-14% of a teacher’s impact on student performance.

Now, however, Tennessee is in the midst of a testing transition. While McQueen notes that value-added scores count less in evaluation (15% this past year, 20% for the current year), why county any percentage of a flawed score? When changing tests, the value of TVAAS is particularly limited:

Here’s what Lockwood and McCaffrey (2007) had to say in the Journal of Educational Measurement:

We find that the variation in estimated effects resulting from the different mathematics achievement measures is large relative to variation resulting from choices about model specification, and that the variation within teachers across achievement measures is larger than the variation across teachers. These results suggest that conclusions about individual teachers’ performance based on value-added models can be sensitive to the ways in which student achievement is measured.
These findings align with similar findings by Martineau (2006) and Schmidt et al (2005)
You get different results depending on the type of question you’re measuring.

The researchers tested various VAM models (including the type used in TVAAS) and found that teacher effect estimates changed significantly based on both what was being measured AND how it was measured.

And they concluded:

Our results provide a clear example that caution is needed when interpreting estimated teacher effects because there is the potential for teacher performance to depend on the skills that are measured by the achievement tests.

If you measure different skills, you get different results. That decreases (or eliminates) the reliability of those results. TNReady is measuring different skills in a different format than TCAP. It’s BOTH a different type of test AND a test on different standards. Any value-added comparison between the two tests is statistically suspect, at best.

After the meeting, Faison confirmed that legislation will be forthcoming that detaches TNReady data from teacher evaluation and student grades.

Faison’s move represents policy based on acknowledging that TNReady is in the early stages, and more years of data are needed in order to ensure a better performance estimate. Or, as one principal who testified before the committee said, there’s nothing wrong with taking the time to get this right.

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


 

Early Warning

At last night’s Knox County School Board meeting, Director of Schools Bob Thomas reported that the district has been informed that 2017-18 TNReady quick scores for grades 3-8 will likely not be returned within five days of the end of the school year. He noted that per the district’s policy, this means TNReady scores will not be included in student report cards. Thomas also said that since the high school EOC tests are being delivered online, there should not be a problem with timely delivery this year.

The good news is districts are learning about this likely delay in December, instead of in May as was the case last year.

The bad news is, well, it’s still TNReady and Tennessee is still clearly not ready. Last year was the fourth consecutive year of problems with the release of quick scores — the scores used in student grades. This year, it looks like districts will again be faced with a decision: Wait for quick scores and delay report cards OR release report cards without using TNReady scores.

Senator Bill Ketron, who is introducing legislation that would place a moratorium on TNReady testing for two years, asked a very simple question: Why can large states like Texas, California, and New York handle testing and score reporting while Tennessee, with significantly fewer students, struggles with this year after year?

It’s a fair question. What policy barriers or other challenges in Tennessee prevent us from successfully administering a test and delivering the test results in a timely fashion?

As Ketron notes, until that question is answered, maybe we should just stop giving the test.

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


 

TC Ready

In his latest post, TC Weber takes on the Tennessee Department of Education blog Classroom Chronicles and the apparent disconnect from reality evident in a recent post on TNReady.

Here’s TC’s take:

So here’s the rub, the example she links to is nice, but so is a picture of a unicorn. As far as I know teachers at all grade levels don’t have access to individual scores yet and nor do parents.  So where are these reports coming from? Later she mentions using these reports to plan before the semester starts. What semester? Winter? Because results by schools just arrived recently and we are still waiting for individual results.

What happens when I read these TNDOE writings is I end up thinking up is down and I’m missing something. I call other activists and they confirm my thoughts and then we all end up confused. It’s  like we’ve fallen through the looking glass.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think this writing is intended for activists and educators. Its aimed squarely at parents who don’t know better and trust the TNDOE. When questions arise about the usefulness of TNReady people will pull this blog post out and say, “Nope, nope, you are wrong. It says right here that teachers are getting timely useful reports. You just hate all testing.” Mission accomplished.

The post closes with an admonishment for teachers “to remember that teacher attitude influences the classroom environment.” So buck up buttercup. Toe the line and remember…”The more I can emphasize TNReady’s worth as a tool for teachers, as well as parents and students, the better!”

It’d be great to emphasize TNReady’s worth as a tool for teachers, parents, and students — but in the case of students in grades 3-8, the results aren’t yet available. Maybe TNReady will provide me with some amazing insights about my child’s learning. But, by the time I have the results, she’ll be finished with the first semester of her 6th grade year. Those insights might have been helpful in August or maybe September. Now, though, they will likely add little value.

Maybe that’s why legislators like Bill Ketron are calling for a TNReady moratorium. 

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


 

Ready to Stop?

Murfreesboro State Senator Bill Ketron is proposing legislation that would place a two year moratorium on TNReady testing, he told the Daily News Journal.

Ketron said he will sponsor legislation for a two-year moratorium on the standardized testing mandate from the Tennessee Department of Education until all data is accurate and can be released to school districts in a timely way instead of being too late to be of use in evaluating performance.

Ketron’s legislation goes further than proposals made by legislators earlier this year that would continue the testing, but not use the results for student scores or teacher evaluation.

The move comes as Tennessee has experienced yet another round of testing trouble.

Tomorrow is December 1st and students and parents still do not have results from a test administered in April.

Members of Murfreesboro’s School Board expressed frustration:

“I do believe we are overtesting,” Terry said.

The lawmakers listened to school officials complain about the standardized testing.

“The system has not worked like it’s supposed to,” County Board of Education Chairman Jeff Jordan said.

The money spent on TNReady testing is “in large part being wasted,” Jordan said.

“It’s just thrown away,” Jordan said.

Murfreesboro City School Board member Nancy Rainier said the “testing debacle” has been hard on children.

“They are the ones being tested to death,” Rainier said.

Fellow county school board member Lisa Moore agreed.

“It’s a never-ending source of frustration,” Moore said.

Tennessee taxpayers spend millions of dollars on testing that so far, hasn’t proven very useful.

Ketron’s legislation will need to gain sufficient support to receive positive votes in House and Senate Education committees before getting a floor vote.

It seems certain Commissioner McQueen and Governor Haslam will oppose the measure, as both have expressed (misplaced) confidence in the current system.

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