Sharing the Wealth

Last month, I wrote about ACLJ leader Jay Sekulow and his quest for financial gain based on the fear of Islam as one of the world religions covered in 6th and 7th grade social studies classes.

Now, it seems that Tennessee-based blogger and former radio host Steve Gill is getting in on the money grab.

Gill sent out a press release yesterday about an event in White County directed at removing textbooks that cover Islam. Gill is also listed as the media contact (and registered owner) of this website designed to keep the “controversy” going.  WPLN has this story which refers to the standards as new.

However, while the standards have been updated, the teaching of Islam as part of social studies in 6th and 7th grade is not a new practice in Tennessee. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen notes in a memo:

The content of religion in our social studies standards is not new in Tennessee, but the sequence has been revised. The content of the current Islamic World standards has been included in the state’s social studies standards for many years and what students are expected to know about the Islamic World is also consistent with years prior. The new standards have simply moved what was previously spread throughout the social studies standards prior to 2013 (those standards can be found here: http://tn.gov/education/article/academic-standards-archive) to one section in the seventh-grade World History course. Most of the current seventh-grade World History standards were previously contained in sixth-grade and can be found here: http://tn.gov/…/education/attachments/std_arch_ss_gr_6.pdf


The State Board of Education adopted the current social studies standards in July 2013. The standards were developed by a committee of Tennessee teachers and were available for the public and all Tennessee educators to review and provide feedback.

To be clear: The standards were developed and adopted more than two years ago. That process included Tennessee teachers developing the standards, a public feedback period, and the State Board of Education adopting the standards in a public meeting.

While updated, the standards continued the practice of covering the Islamic World in middle school social studies courses.

Where was Steve Gill in 2013 when the State Board adopted these standards that he now claims are responsible for “Islamic indoctrination?”

Why didn’t the ACLJ’s Sekulow cry out in 2013 when the State Board adopted standards he suspected would cause mass conversion of 7th graders to Islam?

And what about all the years prior to 2013 when the Islamic World was ALSO covered in middle school social studies? Was there mass indoctrination then? What about a slew of middle school students converting?

Gill and Sekulow don’t have answers to those questions … or, they haven’t been asked, it seems.

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

Clay County and the Broken BEP

Citing budget difficulties, Clay County Schools have closed (temporarily) and may not reopen until mid-November.

The Director of Schools, Jerry Strong, notes that the budget issues have been building over the past three years and have finally reached the tipping point. The County Commission doesn’t want to raise property taxes (the county is relatively poor, so a property tax wouldn’t necessarily generate a lot of revenue) and has placed a wheel tax referendum on the March ballot.

It’s interesting to see a school system close due to insufficient funds at the same time school systems across the state are suing due to inadequate funding from the BEP formula.

Moreover, the lack of funds comes at a time when the state is passing down expensive, unfunded mandates like RTI2.

It’s also hard to imagine that a fully-funded BEP 2.0 wouldn’t help address this situation. Under that scenario, Clay County would see some $450,000 in new revenue each year from the state.

While the situation in Clay County may soon see at least a temporary resolution that will get students back to school, it points to a larger reality: The BEP is broken.

It’s time to use the surplus revenue our state has to begin investing in schools in a meaningful, sustainable way.

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

 

 

TREE Takes on Charter Expansion

As the State Board of Education considers overruling the MNPS School Board and possibly approving charter schools for Nashville originally denied at the local level, grassroots advocacy group TREE is calling on citizens to take action.

From the inbox:

Attention Nashville and Tennessee Education Advocates! We need you to write the Tennessee State Board of Education TODAY! Be a voice for local control. Metro Schools recently approved two of fourteen charter applications.  Among the ten who were denied were KIPP, Rocketship and The International Academy of Excellence.

The International Academy of Excellence filled out an incorrect form and should have not been considered at all but was for legal reasons. These three charter companies are asking the State Board of Education to overrule the Nashville school board and divert funds from the Metro Schools budget to pay for opening their six proposed charter schools.

If you would like to see the local school board retain the ability to decide how to spend local tax dollars, and what schools should operate in Nashville, you must speak up NOW. Public comments are being received until October 7. Please copy this email list into your email recipient box:
Fielding Rolston <frolston@ecu.org>
Mike Edwards <medwards@knoxvillechamber.com>
Allison Chancey <achancey@bradleyschools.org>
Lonnie Roberts <lroberts@trh.com>
Carolyn Pearre <cpearre@comcast.net>
Lillian Hartgrove <lhartgrove@cookevillechamber.com>

It is fine to be brief. A few points you might to make:

1. Note if you are a Nashville taxpayer and/or public school parent.
2. Nashville currently has 8,112 charter school seats and will open another 8,157 over the next few years, under current approved charter contracts, effectively doubling the amount of charter school seats without ever approving another charter.
3. There is no evidence of demand for more charters and in fact there are currently many empty seats in Nashville charter schools.
4. If the state board of education overrules the local school board, it will force our city to fund a privatized public school.  A school that can not be shut down by our locally elected board if problems arise.
5. Nashville must be free to put its schools budget to the best use to improve education for ALL students. Under the law MNPS must adhere to their contract with approved charters and fully fund them.  Whatever amount is left gets divvied up among the remaining schools in the district continuing the trend of systematic underfunding which means not meeting the needs of our schools.

Thank you for your time and quick attention. Your voice is needed TODAY!
TREE

For more on the charter debate in Nashville:

The True Cost of Charters

Mary Pierce on Closing Charters

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

 

Quickly Dropped?

Some members of the Knox County School Board are considering action that would result in removing standardized testing “quick scores” from a student’s final grades.

This follows a year of changes to quick score calculations that created confusion for school districts across the state.

Discussing the matter, board member Karen Carson said:

“I think it’s one of those laws that generally you do it to hold students accountable and motivate them to do their best, but frankly it only increases the stakes for students,” she said.

“I don’t see that it benefits our students in any way. I don’t think student test scores, this test, should impact a student’s grade.”

Because of the transition to TNReady, scores will not be ready in time to be included in student grades this year. This prompted the Knox County Board to ponder asking the General Assembly to remove the requirement altogether.

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

Should TN Abandon Pre-K?

The recently released results of a study of Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program conducted by researchers at Vanderbilt has some Tennessee policymakers suggesting the state back off support for or expansion of the early education program.

The results of this study are similar to those of a study on Pre-K commissioned by the Comptroller’s office.

And here’s the secret: Both studies come to the same conclusion — Pre-K works.

That is, the state’s voluntary Pre-K program sends students to Kindergarten better prepared. And the effects of the program last through first grade. That’s right, one year of intervention yields two years of results as demonstrated by two different Tennessee-specific, longitudinal studies.

Here’s another secret: There are no silver bullets in education. Pre-K is one specific, targeted intervention. But Pre-K alone can’t solve the challenges faced by Tennessee’s low income students.

In fact, Jim Shelton in Education Week notes:

Second, there is no single moment or intervention in the life of a child that guarantees success. But research has identified several milestones on the path to adulthood that especially determine success at later stages. This is where evidence-based programs can have the greatest impact.

We know that a healthy and secure start in life is critical to the development of social and cognitive skills and other indicators of well-being. Entering school ready to learn is another vital marker. Parental education and access to high-quality preschool have been shown to improve a range of life outcomes, from earnings to crime. And kids who aren’t reading proficiently by 3rd grade are four times less likely to graduate from high school by age 19. Kids living in poor neighborhoods and not reading proficiently by 3rd grade are around nine times less likely to graduate on time.

Entering school ready to learn is one vital marker on the path toward closing achievement gaps and giving children from low income families a shot at succeeding in school and life. But it’s just ONE of the several ingredients in a system that would actually put kids first and move the needle on educational attainment.

Mark Lipsy, one of the researchers in the Vanderbilt study, says:

This study was meant to monitor the effectiveness of Tennessee’s voluntary pre-K program. But co-investigator Mark Lipsy says it really raises questions about early elementary grades.

“The biggest mystery here is what in the world is going on as these kids hit kindergarten, first, second, third grade, that is not building on what they seem to have come out of pre-K with?”

Raj Chetty, in a study of early grades education in Tennessee, offers some suggestions:

Chetty specifically points to improved teacher training, early career mentoring, and reducing class sizes as policies that could work to improve the overall quality of early (K-3) classrooms.

That is, it’s not enough to simply provide an intervention that sends kids to Kindergarten ready to learn and that has positive benefits through first grade, our state must also invest in the supports and resources necessary to allow early grade learning to build on the foundation established by Pre-K.

We know what works for our students.  We know how to close the achievement gap. We know that quality Pre-K is one piece of the puzzle. And we know that two different longitudinal studies have shown that Tennessee’s Pre-K program is effective. The question is: Will we invest in expanding Pre-K and also providing the resources necessary to make not only the early grades, but all of school an environment where all children can thrive?

Are Tennessee policymakers looking for the elusive silver bullet, or do they really want to find comprehensive policy solutions that help break barriers and close achievement gaps? More importantly, are Tennessee policymakers willing to invest in educational excellence from Pre-K through college in ways that are proven to have the most significant impact?

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

Schools Can Wait, We Need More Tax Breaks

That seems to be the message from state Senator Brian Kelsey of Memphis, who is suggesting using the state’s revenue surplus to eliminate the Hall Tax on investment income.

Kelsey’s plan would eliminate nearly $200 million a year in revenue. This at a time when school systems are suing the state due to grossly inadequate funding.

The push to provide tax breaks to the investor class comes as revenue is soaring above projections, as Rick Locker notes:

The state ended its fiscal year 2014-15 on June 30 with nearly $606 million more revenue overall than was projected and budgeted for the year, including $553 million more revenue in the government’s general fund than was projected. The general fund pays for most of state government’s non-transportation programs.

In addition to putting a call for tax breaks ahead of the need for improved investment in schools, Kelsey has also been a chief proponent of voucher schemes that would take millions of dollars from local school coffers. Not to mention there is scant evidence an expansive voucher plan like Kelsey’s would actually improve student outcomes.

Kelsey is not the only lawmaker whose priorities don’t include investing surplus dollars into public education. Earlier this year, House Speaker Beth Harwell suggested investing the surplus dollars into roads in order to avoid raising the gas tax.

What the General Assembly needs is a plan that would invest a significant portion of the surplus into schools and save the rest for future investment. Building a long-term, sustainable plan for improving the BEP (the state funding formula for schools) is critical, not just to avoid losing a lawsuit but also to support the excellent schools Tennessee families and communities deserve.

MORE on school funding in Tennessee:

Why is TN 40th?

Why Fix the BEP?

Why is he so angry?

 

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

The Simple, Painless ASD Conversion Process

Well, ok, the Achievement School District’s (ASD) conversion process is neither simple nor painless. But, you wouldn’t know that if you watched the ASD’s latest video promoting the process of conversion taking place right now.

I’m going to break the two-minute video down into four claims it makes and then analyze each. The four key claims are: The ASD is an intervention designed to provide the best for kids in persistently low-performing schools, the community gets a school back after an ASD charter conversion, the conversion is good for kids, and those who are skeptical should give charter operators a chance.

1) Intervention provides an improved opportunity for kids

It might be more accurate to say that the intervention provides a different opportunity for kids. As analysis noted here suggests, the schools under ASD control the longest still rank among the lowest-performing of all schools in the state.

Earlier this year, I wondered what might have happened if the ASD had stuck to its original design and focused on short-term, intensive support and intervention at the most persistently struggling schools.

Instead, the ASD can now say it provides a different name on the building, that’s the opportunity they offer kids.

2) Following a Charter Conversion, the community gets a school back

Except they don’t. Originally, the ASD plan was to intervene in schools, manage them in cooperation with the local district, and then turn them back over to the district within five years. By using the state’s charter law, the ASD now turns schools over to charter operators, who have a 10-year charter. Then, the district decides after 10 years whether or not to renew the charter. At that point, the schools is not the same — it’s now a charter school, likely with a new name and new management, and quite possibly, with frustrating results for kids. Ask the community at Neely’s Bend in Nashville if they feel like the result of the Thunderdome-style school matching process is a school that belongs to them. How will they feel in 10 years, when three groups of 5th-graders have completed their journey through 8th grade at a school changing to a charter grade-by-grade?

And how do they feel knowing that before the conversion happened, Neely’s Bend was already outperforming ASD schools?

3) ASD Conversions are Good for Kids

This may be true … if you believe that adding additional disruption to the lives of children who already face disruption on a regular basis is a good thing. As a charter conversion proceeds, the teachers at the school being converted are “invited” to reapply for their jobs. At ASD charter conversions, less than one in five teachers remain through the conversion process. No matter the reason, this initial turnover damages the stability of a school and the community that calls it home. Building names change. School leaders change. Approaches to learning change. And, while these schools were struggling before, as noted above, it is difficult to see new forward progress post-conversion.

4) Give Charter Conversions a Chance

The data about lack of improvement notwithstanding, outgoing ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic’s own words may be the best counter to this claim:

“As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

Admittedly, the mission of the ASD is inspiring. Work diligently with the most persistently struggling schools and get them on track. By contrast, the ASD, as currently operating, isn’t doing much of that. Instead, building names change, conversions take place, and schools and lives are disrupted. The shiny, happy video makes some strong claims amid little substance. Digging deeper reveals a reality that is much different.

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

 

Fielding Punts

State Board of Education Chair Fielding Rolston wrote last week about Tennessee’s social studies standards in light of a “controversy” ginned up by the ACLJ and latched onto by state legislators like state Representative Andy Holt and state Senator Dolores Gresham.

What’s the problem? It seems teachers across Tennessee are indoctrinating their students with Islam.

Not really, of course. And Rolston goes into some detail about the Tennessee social studies standards, the process for creating them, and the upcoming review of those standards. The review process invites feedback from any citizen and includes Tennessee educators.

Then, he punts:

Local districts determine the curriculum and instruction, adapting what classroom instruction looks like for the students and teachers.

There are no State Board of Education requirements regarding the length of time to be devoted to any topic or guidelines on how that topic is taught in the classroom. 

It is always a local decision how long a particular topic is covered in the classroom and the textbooks and curriculum employed.

These statements, while accurately describing the process, also left a door open, and the ACLJ walked right through.

Now, local school boards are responding to broad, expensive to fulfill open records requests. Legal responses will be required.

Rolston suggests that while the state’s standards should be rigorous, a local district can spend less time on topics that may be the subject of the controversy of the day.

Tennessee’s social studies teachers might have appreciated a more vigorous defense.

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

Financed by Fear: Jay Sekulow and the Imaginary Muslim Menace

Have you heard about it? Hundreds of seventh grade students all across Tennessee converting to Islam after their world history class. It’s happening everywhere. In rural and urban communities. It’s happening because Tennessee teachers are not just teaching world religions, they are specifically focusing on Islam and indoctrinating our children. They must be, with so many conversions happening every single week.

Actually, so far, no one has reported a single conversion of any student to Islam after taking a seventh grade history class. But you wouldn’t know that if you read the emails from Jay Sekulow’s ACLJ:

aclj email paint

Sekulow surely knows that the ideas espoused in his email are preposterous, but he persists. Likely because he knows ginning up this kind of fear is rather profitable. This report from 2011 details just how profitable his enterprises are.

While fear-mongering for cash is nothing new, it’s dangerous when it impacts the teaching and learning going on in Tennessee classrooms. In response to concerns magnified by Sekulow, the Chair of the Senate Education Committee, Dolores Gresham, sent a letter asking the Commissioner of Education to ensure Tennessee teachers aren’t indoctrinating kids with Muslim teachings.

Interestingly, Sekulow and Gresham aren’t concerned about indoctrination with other world religions taught over the course of the history curriculum. And so far, they haven’t expressed concern about other ideas Tennessee’s teachers may be planting in the unsuspecting heads of our state’s schoolchildren.

Nevertheless, all this “concern” has caused Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen to schedule an early review of the state’s social studies standards. Here’s her memo on the topic:

“In response to questions we have received from the field, we wanted to share clarifying and factual information on the state’s social studies standards, specifically how the standards address religion. We hope that the information below will help you respond to any questions that may arise from parents or community members.

Click Here to View the Social Studies Fact Sheet
Standards: http://tsba.us2.list-manage.com/track/click…


World History is taught at three different points in a Tennessee student’s K-12 schooling: grade 6, grade 7, and once in high school. The courses cover World History from the beginning of time to the present and are broken up as follows:

Sixth Grade: Early Civilizations through the decline of the Roman Empire
Seventh Grade: The Middle Ages to the exploration of the Americas
High School: The Industrial Revolution to the Contemporary World
Major religions, including Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Confucianism, and Shinto, are covered throughout the courses mentioned above. Although these religions will be taught at some point in these three courses, the focus on each religion will depend on the context and influence of the time period.

The attached document titled “Standards” shows the standards covering religion for the sixth- and seventh-grade courses. As you can see in the attached document, Christianity and Judaism are emphasized in the sixth-grade course while the Islamic World is covered in the seventh-grade course.

Click Here to View the Social Studies Standards: http://tsba.us2.list-manage.com/track/click…


The content of religion in our social studies standards is not new in Tennessee, but the sequence has been revised. The content of the current Islamic World standards has been included in the state’s social studies standards for many years and what students are expected to know about the Islamic World is also consistent with years prior. The new standards have simply moved what was previously spread throughout the social studies standards prior to 2013 (those standards can be found here: http://tn.gov/education/article/academic-standards-archive
) to one section in the seventh-grade World History course. Most of the current seventh-grade World History standards were previously contained in sixth-grade and can be found here: http://tn.gov/…/education/attachments/std_arch_ss_gr_6.pdf


The State Board of Education adopted the current social studies standards in July 2013. The standards were developed by a committee of Tennessee teachers and were available for the public and all Tennessee educators to review and provide feedback.

Textbooks and Curriculum

Standards are academic expectations that define what students should know and be able to do at each grade level. Because districts know their students and communities best, curriculum and instruction are local decisions made by the district, schools, and teachers.

There is no state required length of time to be devoted to any topic – that is a local decision; however, the department hopes to share a sample pacing guide soon to give to teachers as an example of how much time should be devoted to any one topic.

All textbooks and supplemental materials used to teach these standards are determined at the local level. Additionally, textbooks are not prescriptive of a course’s content and sequence. For example, many people have referenced the seventh-grade textbook, Discovering our Past. While it appears that some seventh-grade teachers are covering Islam longer than Christianity, it’s important to note, that the last chapter of the sixth-grade textbook covers the rise of Christianity extensively. That chapter is repeated at the beginning of the seventh-grade textbook.

The textbook commission was recently reconstituted and the new process for textbook adoption provides more opportunity for public input. Members of the public can review books/materials by contacting their local board of education, visiting the state textbook collection site at Middle Tennessee State University (MTSU), and/or viewing the materials posted on the department’s website. Comments can be submitted directly to the department or members of the public can request to speak before the Textbook Commission. All public comments will be posted on the department’s website.

Additionally, the bond requirement for textbook publishers was lowered, meaning smaller publishers will now have more opportunity to bid in Tennessee.

The State Board of Education annually adopts an approved textbook list, however, districts may request a waiver to use a book not included on the state approved list.

Assessment

A social studies field test was administered in the 2014-15 school year. Only a very small number of questions were on this topic. The field test was not used for accountability purposes, but was instead a test to collect information on a wide range of questions to ensure that potential questions are fully vetted and that the operational test uses appropriate questions to assess students learning.

Next Steps

Based primarily on the results from the field test and feedback from educators and stakeholders, we have made the decision to review the social studies standards earlier than the traditional six-year cycle.

Per Public Chapter 423, passed in 2015, the social studies standards review will go through a similar process our math and ELA standards are currently undergoing beginning in January of 2016.

This process requires the State Board of Education to post the current standards to a standards review website to allow the public to review and offer feedback. Following the public online review, educator advisory teams will use their expertise and the public comments to revise the standards. The revised standards will then be reviewed by a Standards Recommendation Committee (SRC). As laid out by the General Assembly in Public Chapter 423, the SRC committee members are appointed by the Governor, Lt. Governor and Speaker of the House. The SRC will then recommend the revised standards to the State Board of Education. Following this recommendation, there will be additional opportunity for stakeholder feedback before the State Board issues final approval.

The social studies standards review website will be launched in January of 2016, and we encourage educators and community members to utilize this opportunity to provide critical feedback.”

Despite the World History curriculum including learning about Islam and other world religions for years and despite the lack of any affirmative evidence of indoctrination and certainly no evidence of any child converting to Islam as a result of reading about it in a 7th grade textbook, Sekulow presses on. His bank account depends on it. The facts aren’t getting in the way of Dolores Gresham scoring political points, either.

Now, we can expect to see pressure put on those reviewing the state standards to remove or reduce any discussion of Islam and pressure put on teachers at schools to avoid discussion of the topic or its historical significance.

Legislators are also promising legislative action on the social studies curriculum — because what we really need is the Tennessee General Assembly designing curriculum for our schools.

In all of the storm over a curriculum that has been on the books for years, I go back to one central question: With all this supposed indoctrination going on, where’s the evidence that students have converted to Islam? And then, do they convert to Buddhism late on in the semester when that subject is taught?

I don’t suspect Sekulow or Gresham will be answering that question anytime soon.

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

 

Grassroots Education Groups Applaud Testing Task Force Findings

Following the release of Tennessee’s Assessment Task Force findings recommending reduced use of standardized tests in Tennessee schools and transparency for the tests that are administered, a coalition of groups that in June had called for just this sort of testing reform issued a press release applauding the findings and urging timely action to make them reality.

Here’s the release:

Pro-education groups today announced their support for recommendations issued by the Tennessee Assessment Task Force, chaired by state education commissioner Candice McQueen. The recommendations call for the elimination of standardized testing for kindergartners and first graders; fewer standardized tests for older students; a parent advisory group and greater testing transparency.

“This is a great step in the right direction,” said Lyn Hoyt, president of  Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE) and public school parent. “Professional educators, teachers, and students all know that the singular focus on standardized tests is counterproductive. The science is clear: Forcing the youngest students to take these tests is both useless and developmentally inappropriate. Hoyt also lamented about the shroud of secrecy that the Department of Education wraps around the tests. Touting their habitual inconsistency with reporting test scores, including delayed release of TCAP scores in 2014 and seemingly artificially inflated “quick scores” in 2015, and cut scores that change every year. “It is time for the secrecy surround these tests to end,” Hoyt said. “We called for testing transparency months ago and now it is time for Governor Haslam and the legislature to act.”

TREE in partnership with a dozen other advocacy groups circulated a petition earlier this summer calling for the publication of standardized test questions and answers; pre-determined cut scores; and a reduction in the use of standardized tests.

“We urge the state to adopt these recommendations in a timely manner and continue to make efforts to both reduce the testing burden, increase instruction time away from test prep and increase confidence in the process,” Hoyt said. “Standardized tests should be used as tools to guide future learning, not as a weapon to use against our teachers and students.”

The coalition includes the following groups:

Strong Schools (Sumner County)
Williamson Strong (Williamson County)
SPEAK (Students, Parents, Educators Across Knox County)
SOCM (Statewide Organizing for Community eMpowerment)
Momma Bears Blog
Gideon’s Army, Grassroots Army for Children (Nashville)
Advocates for Change in Education (Hamilton County)
Concerned Parents of Franklin County (Franklin County)
The Dyslexia Spot
Parents of Wilson County, TN, Schools
Friends of Oak Ridge Schools (City of Oak Ridge Schools)
TNBATs (State branch of National BATs)
East Nashville United
Tennessee Against Common Core (Statewide)
Coalition Advocating of Public Education (CAPE)

 

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