The Bigger Picture

I wrote earlier this week about the continued existence of the Tennessee Virtual Academy operated by for-profit vendor K12, Inc. The school operates year after year despite repeated failures and disappointing results.

This Education Week story offers some insight into the bigger picture of online education and for-profit operators. The bottom line: These companies spend millions lobbying and making campaign contributions so they can gain access to public dollars. Then, they fail to deliver results. In fact, some would argue that’s the business model: Take all the money they can, then do as little as possible for kids.

Here’s the portion of the Education Week piece focused on the Tennessee experience:

Those issues are not unique to online charter schools—full-time online programs run through school districts have run into many of the same problems. And especially for a small, rural school system, the opportunity to enroll students in their district from across the state can offer a powerful financial incentive.

Take, for example, Tennessee, where K12 Inc. has spent between half a million and $1.1 million hiring lobbyists over several years. One of them was chief of staff to former Tennessee governor and current U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is the chairman of the education committee in the Senate.

The state passed a virtual school law in 2011 that mirrored model legislation written by The American Legislative Exchange Council, or ALEC, an influential conservative think tank. A few schools opened up, including one run by K12 Inc. through a poor, rural school district in the northeastern part of the state.

Since then, K12’s Tennessee Virtual Academy, whose enrollment at one point ballooned to nearly 2,000 students, has been one of the worst-performing schools in the state ever since, but has so far managed to avoid being shut down.

Both Democratic and Republican lawmakers have proposed bills that would have shuttered failing virtual schools. One, sponsored by a Democrat in 2013, was killed in committee, even after the lawmaker produced a leaked email from a K12 Inc. staff member that appeared to instruct teachers to change students’ grades. Lawmakers did go on to approve a bill that session that gave the state education commissioner the power to close a failing virtual school after three consecutive years of poor performance, but they struck language from the bill that would have capped enrollment.

Republican state Senator Dolores Gresham—who sponsored the original legislation to allow virtual schools—introduced a bill in 2015 that would have also cracked down on failing virtual schools, but it never came to a vote.

That same year, Gresham also sponsored a bill to extend the state’s virtual school program through 2019.

That one passed.

When Kevin Huffman, a former state education commissioner, tried to shutter the Tennessee Virtual Academy with the authority given to him under that 2013 legislation, it devolved into a years-long saga. Parents sued state officials to keep the school open and a judge ruled in their favor. The school could stay open through the 2015-16 academic year.

Then K12 Inc. caught another break.

A botched roll-out of Tennessee’s computerized testing system in 2015-16 forced officials to toss out all student testing data. That extended the life of the Tennessee Virtual Academy another year.

K12 Inc. said the school has persisted not because of lobbying on behalf of the management company, but because it should never have been targeted for closure in the first place. Although company officials acknowledge that the Tennessee school has struggled academically, they say the school was unfairly singled out by state education officials.

The experience led Huffman, a staunch supporter of charter schools who is now a fellow at New America, a Washington-based think tank, to shift his stance on full-time online schools and for-profit companies that run them.

“I don’t see evidence of for-profit models that work,” he said in an email to Education Week. “Theoretically, a for-profit operator could run effective schools, but in practice, the top charter school operators are all non-profits, and I don’t think it’s accidental.”

As I noted in an article years ago, this is one more example of the battle between money and kids. Guess which priority wins?

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Testing Choices

Oak Ridge is the latest school system to explore the idea of alternatives to TNReady for high school students. Specifically, members of the Oak Ridge Board of Education are discussing shifting to ACT tests.

More from the Oak Ridger:

School Board member Angi Agle said she had seen a newspaper article from Middle Tennessee that reported that another “high performing” school had requested to opt out of the TNReady test and instead use the ACT suite. While Agle did not mention the district by name, The Mount Juliet News identified Wilson County Board of Education as unanimously requesting that its district be allowed to replace TNReady with the ACT Aspire suite of assessments.

“This spurred a question. Do we want to look at that?” Agle said. She also said the Tennessee School Boards Association had requested that the Tennessee Legislature pass what she called “permissive legislation” allowing districts to choose whether to use the ACT suite, the SAT suite or the TNReady tests. Fillauer confirmed that statement.

Agle said the ACT suite is nationally recognized and “aligns with our standards.” She said some school systems fear the ACT suite is “harder,” but that did not worry her.

“I think that our students would do fine with that test because we know that we’re building toward the ACT. That’s what our teachers are doing already,” Agle said. While she said there may be reasons not to use the ACT Suite, she said “permissive legislation” would allow Oak Ridge Schools officials to choose.

Districts are suggesting a move to ACT due to persistent problems with TNReady.

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Loser Teachers

Tennessee Teachers:

Just wanted to be sure you knew that Team Trump thinks you are all losers and socialists. Don’t take my word for it, listen to Donald Trump, Jr. explain:

 

 

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An Actual Failure

The Tennessee Virtual Academy, run by K12, Inc. may be a virtual school, but in terms of student achievement, it is an actual failure.

I’ve written about TNVA before. Back in 2014, then-Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman recommended that the school be closed due to persistent low performance.

Now, legislation extending the state’s Virtual Schools Act — and therefore, the life of TNVA — has been filed.

While a number of districts operate effective, high-quality virtual schools, the program affiliated with Union County Schools and operated by K12, Inc. is not among them. Instead, the school is a persistent low-performer.

Let’s take a look at the State Report Card data for TNVA:

The overall success rate of the school is 27.9% — 12 points below the state average. This measures the number of students who are on-track or have mastered state standards. That’s actually a decline of more than 3% from last year.

TNVA also has seen declines of more than 5% in ELA and Science. The math score has declined by nearly 2% and sits at 14.% while the state average is 33%.

In terms of student academic growth, TNVA scores a 0.1 out of 4. Not quite a ZERO, but pretty damn close.

On the other hand, 13.4% of their students are “chronically out of school,” meaning they miss 10 percent or more of all school days. That’s an increase of more than 3% over last year.

Here’s the deal: TNVA hasn’t worked and isn’t working. It’s not entirely clear why TNVA hasn’t been made a “priority school” and subsequently taken over by the Achievement School District (ASD).

Commissioner Huffman got a lot wrong during his time in Tennessee, but even he knew TNVA wasn’t working. That was in 2014. Now, it’s 2019, and the school still isn’t working. Meanwhile, TNVA is clinging to life while K12, Inc. clings to Tennessee tax dollars. Should they get another four years?

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Coincidence?

Think Tennessee is out with a digital data dashboard highlighting Tennessee’s rankings in a number of categories related to health, education, quality of life, and well-being.

I present these two numbers without further comment:

 

 

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Race to the Bottom: NAEP

Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released a retrospective on Tennessee’s Race to the Top experience earlier this week. The document outlines both the process involved in applying for and winning the funding and the subsequent implementation failures by the Haslam Administration.

Pinkston notes that 2013 NAEP results boosted Haslam and his misguided education policy team. Here’s more on that:

On November 7, 2013, the Haslam administration got a public reprieve of sorts. The U.S. Department of Education announced that Tennessee had become the fastest-improving state in the history the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card.

The results were impressive. Tennessee’s 4th-graders climbed from 46th to 37th in math, and 41st to 31st in reading. In terms of overall student growth, “we literally blew away the other states,” Haslam said during a celebratory news conference at West Wilson Middle School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., outside of Nashville.

The governor failed to acknowledge that Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, which he initially refused to endorse, actually predicted steep gains on the Nation’s Report Card following implementation of more rigorous academic standards in the 2009-10 school year. The 2010 Race to the Top plan expressly noted: “On the NAEP, we know from experience that results are harder to shift, and that we will not likely see real gains until 2013 when students have had several years under the new standards.” Someone had a crystal ball.

While the Bredesen Administration team correctly predicted the 2013 growth, it’s also worth noting that some critics with at least a vague familiarity with statistics urged caution in getting too excited about the results. More specifically, I wrote at the time:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Turns out, I was correct — not that I’m bragging, anyone with a familiarity with how statistics actually work (meaning no one at the DOE at the time) would know that this type of bragging was misplaced. Of course, urging caution based on statistical reality isn’t good for the politics of oppression, but, let’s look at what had happened by 2017, years into the Haslam Administration’s incompetent management of state education policy:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

All of this to say: You can’t say you’re the fastest-improving state on NAEP based on one testing cycle. You also shouldn’t make long-term policy decisions based on seemingly fabulous results in one testing cycle. Since 2013, Tennessee has doubled down on reforms with what now appears to be little positive result.

Did Haslam apologize for Candice McQueen’s failures or fire her? No. He doubled down on failed policy in spite of evidence. Students suffered through years of TNReady being not even close to ready. Now, that same Bill Haslam is poised to make a run for U.S. Senate. No thanks. We don’t need someone who can’t be honest about how his policies failed Tennessee’s kids.

 

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A National Leader

According to a recent report, Tennessee’s education policies have resulted in our state becoming a national leader in at least one category. The Learning Policy Institute notes that Tennessee has the highest percentage of 1st- and 2nd-year teachers of any state in the nation. Nearly 20% of Tennessee’s teacher workforce is very new to the profession. That’s well above the national average of 12.7%. When that number is combined with the percentage of uncertified teachers (4.1%), the outlook is not good: Our schools are not retaining experienced teachers. The national average for classrooms staffed by uncertified teachers is 2.6%.

Check out the data:

 

 

Teacher compensation in Tennessee is certainly one factor playing into this challenge. Our teachers are paid 27.3% less than individuals in similarly trained professions. In fact, we have among the highest teacher wage gaps in the country.

Helpfully, the Learning Policy Institute offers some recommendations for improving this situation:

Service scholarships and student loan forgiveness:
The cost of high-quality teacher preparation is a significant obstacle to those considering entering the teaching profession. To overcome such barriers, at least 40 states have established service scholarship and loan forgiveness programs to recruit and retain high-quality teachers. These programs underwrite the cost of teacher preparation in exchange for a number of years of service in the profession. Research has found that effective service scholarship and loan forgiveness programs leverage greater recruitment into professional fields and locations where individuals are needed, and support retention.

High-retention pathways into teaching:
Teacher turnover is higher for those who enter the profession without adequate preparation. However, teachers often choose alternative certification pathways that omit student teaching and some coursework because, without financial aid, they cannot afford to be without an income for the time it takes to undergo teacher training. High-retention pathways are developed to subsidize the cost of teacher preparation and provide high-quality training for incoming teachers. These pathways include teacher residencies and Grow Your Own programs that recruit and prepare community members to teach in local school districts

Mentoring and induction for new teachers:
Evidence suggests that strong mentoring and induction for novice teachers can be a valuable strategy to retain new teachers and improve their effectiveness. Well-mentored beginning teachers are twice as likely to stay in teaching as those who do not receive mentoring. However, the number of states supporting mentoring and induction programs decreased during the recent recession, and a 2016 review of state policies found that just 16 states provide dedicated funding to support teacher induction. Under ESSA, states can leverage federal Title II, Part A funds to support new teacher induction and mentoring. Indeed, a number of states, including Delaware and Ohio, are taking such an approach. Other states have invested state funds to support new teacher induction, including Connecticut and Iowa.

High-quality school principals:
Principals play a central role in attracting and retaining talented teachers. Teachers cite principal support as one of the most important factors in their decision to stay in a school or in the profession. Therefore, states can benefit from building effective systems of preparation and professional development for school leaders. Title II, Part A of ESSA provides states with new opportunities to invest in and improve school leadership in ways that could increase teacher retention, including by reserving up to 3% of their state Title II, Part A funds for school leader development. Many states—including North Dakota and Tennessee—are seizing this opportunity, with nearly half of states using the optional 3% set aside and 21 states using ESSA funds to invest in principal preparation. The North Carolina Principal Fellows program is an example of a long-standing, successful state effort to support principal development.

Competitive compensation:
Not surprisingly, the lack of competitive compensation is one factor that frequently contributes to teacher shortages, affecting the quality and quantity of people planning to become teachers as well whether people decide to leave the teacher workforce. Even after adjusting for the shorter work year in teaching, beginning teachers nationally earn about 20% less than individuals with college degrees in other fields—a wage gap that widens to 30% by mid-career. Large inequities in teacher salaries among districts within the same labor market leave some high-need, under-resourced districts at a strong disadvantage in both hiring and retaining teachers. More competitive compensation can be a critical strategy to recruit and retain effective educators, although different approaches may be necessary depending on the state, regional, and district context.

Recruitment strategies to expand the pool of qualified educators:
In light of fiscal constraints, many states are also opting for low-cost policy solutions that expand the pool of qualified teachers. Such strategies include recruiting recently retired teachers back into the classroom to fill open positions and strengthening licensure reciprocity to ease undue burdens to cross-state mobility and allow experienced and accomplished educators the opportunity to seamlessly transition into service in a different state. Colorado, for example, is actively pursuing both strategies, and Idaho, Oklahoma, and West Virginia are also recruiting retired teachers to help address teacher shortages.

Tennessee should certainly move forward with a serious effort to improve teacher compensation as well as an early career mentoring/induction program. Coupling these two items with meaningful new investments in our schools could make both coming to and staying in teacher a more attractive proposition in our state.

Until then, it’s likely we’ll continue to see teachers leave the profession at higher than the national rate. We simply haven’t been committed to investing in our teachers and it shows.

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First

Governor Bill Lee’s first legislative initiative focuses on education, specifically, vocational education.

Here’s the press release announcing the GIVE Act:

Today, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced his first legislative initiative, the Governor’s Investment in Vocational Education (GIVE) to expand access to vocational and technical training for Tennessee students.

“I believe that expanding our vocational and technical offerings will be transformational for Tennesseans and the future of our state,” said Lee. “We have the opportunity to help students discover quality career paths and gain skills that are needed right now in the workforce by emphasizing career and technical education.”

The GIVE initiative is a two-pronged approach that utilizes regional partnerships to develop work-based learning and apprenticeship opportunities. Communities will now have the funding and flexibility to build programs that best reflect local needs and work directly with private industry to structure programming.

GIVE also provides funding for high school juniors and seniors to utilize four, fully-funded dual enrollment credits for trade and technical programs. Previously, high school students only had access to two fully-funded dual enrollment credits. With access to four credits, students will now be better prepared for entry into the workforce within two years of graduation.

“With GIVE, there is now a framework in place to partner with the private sector in addressing gaps in our workforce,” said Lee. “This initiative also puts students in charge of their future by preparing them for a good job right out of high school.”

Two grant programs will fund the initiative: GIVE Community Grants and GIVE Student Grants. Using the framework of the state’s Labor Education Alignment Program (LEAP), the governor will recommend new funding in support of work-based learning through GIVE Community Grants. These competitive grants will go to regional partnerships between TCATs, industry, and K-12 to build new programs in work-based learning and apprenticeships, market-driven dual-credit opportunities, and the expansion of industry-informed CTE offerings at local high schools.

GIVE Student Grants will be funded via the Tennessee Lottery and support expanded access to dual enrollment.

“It is time to make sure education in Tennessee embraces multiple pathways to success,” said Lee. “We believe GIVE is a key step for the future of our kids and ensuring we can fill the jobs of tomorrow.”

 

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Race to the Bottom: Testing

Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released an analysis of the Race to the Top experience in Tennessee yesterday. The document highlights the failures of the Haslam Administration to effectively implement the program as had been envisioned.

Pinkston references testing and TNReady as among the ways Team Haslam failed our students and schools. Specifically, in Chapter 18:

TNReady, the $30-million standardized testing system a blogger once dubbed “Haslam’s Hindenburg,” still isn’t ready for prime time. A new assessment vendor, Questar, managed to deploy tests in spring 2017, but mostly in paper form versus the comprehensive online platform promised in Race to the Top seven years earlier. In a ham-handed attempt to boost students’ spirits ahead of testing season, Gov. Haslam mailed out Number Two pencils to kids across the state. The blog Tennessee Education Report derided him in a headline — “Haslam to Kids: Be Ready Even Though TN Hasn’t Been.”

In 2018, TNReady actually fared worse. Hiccups included problems with students and teachers logging into the online test as well as a severed fiber cable delivering internet service to schools. Candice McQueen, the education commissioner, even brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security to investigate a supposed cyber-attack. But she ended up with egg on her face again after state officials determined that Questar caused TNReady’s problems by making unauthorized changes in the testing system. Later, state auditors acknowledged that McQueen’s oversight of test administration “fell short of expectations.”

Thankfully, new Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has promised to make TNReady her top priority. If she were making students her top priority, she’d propose taking at least a year off of testing altogether and re-evaluating how Tennessee assesses student progress.

Not surprisingly, the failed Haslam education team left Schwinn a mess to clean up:

With just months to go before a company is supposed to take over Tennessee’s troubled assessment program, the state has yet to release its request for proposals, potentially putting its next vendor on course for another rushed timeline to testing.

The state’s education department had aimed to solicit proposals by December, receive bids by February, and make a decision by April. Now officials are looking at February to unveil the document that will outline Tennessee’s testing requirements after three straight years of headaches under two different companies.

Will Tennessee keep on moving in this direction? Racing to the bottom? Will we continue taking pride in our status as the “one glaring exception” among states shifting to online testing?

While lots of states are moving to online testing, one expert says Tennessee is unique:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

 

Why is Tennessee in the unique position of having the worst online testing transition in the country?

The reality is that Tennessee’s online-testing mess has left everyone in a difficult position, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization.

“The state has not [made] stability a key priority in their testing vendors,” Aldeman said.

 

So, here we are. 2019, a new commissioner, and a huge mess. That’s just testing. As Pinkston notes, there’s much more.

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A Voucher By Any Other Name

Is still bad for Tennessee students and a raw deal for Tennessee taxpayers.

The Tennessee Education Association has some analysis:

It is clear that privatizers are favoring Education Savings Accounts as a new means to try to change the conversation after five years of stinging defeats when peddling more traditional voucher legislation.  While ESAs are referred to by some as “vouchers light,” nothing could be further from the truth.

ESAs are vouchers on steroids, as recipients are sent money directly rather than applying it toward the cost of private school tuition.  As such, parents can then spend the funds however they like, even if that means keeping their children home and not attending school at all.

This super voucher has been used in other states with disastrous results.  Sending funds directly to parents has invited widespread fraud and abuse of voucher funds.

“The fact is, we have truant officers for a reason,” says TEA chief lobbyist Jim Wrye.  “The state will be providing a monetary incentive for the misuse of funds and children will suffer as a result.”

Stay tuned as the legislative session develops and vouchers in some form emerge at the General Assembly.

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