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


That’s Attractive

The Shelby County School Board will review proposed changes to benefits for future employees at today’s meeting, Chalkbeat reports.

The move comes as the district seeks to realize cost savings by reducing long-term costs:

Memphis leaders have been grappling for years with how to cut a $1 billion-plus liability for retiree benefits through Shelby County Schools. But even as they’ve put options on the table, they’ve never settled on a sure-fire reduction plan.

Now school board members are exploring one extreme option anew: eliminating all retiree benefits for employees hired after January of 2018.

Currently, employees must work 15 continuous years in Shelby County Schools to be eligible for retirement benefits beyond the state pension. District leaders say that savings will be realized in 20 to 30 years. It’s not clear what the total savings would be, but the district says about $570 of current per pupil spending goes to these benefits.

One concern is the impact the benefit elimination would have on attracting new teachers. Some suggest that impact could be lessened by raising salaries, but the savings from the reduction won’t come for 20-30 years and the salaries would need to be increased now in order to make up for the benefit loss.

When a proposal was floated in Nashville for teachers to trade their pension for higher pay during their years of service, I did an analysis on what it would cost to make up the difference.  It’s an expensive proposition. While these benefits are not as costly as a pension (which is managed by the state), it’s not difficult to imagine a pay raise of $5,000 or more per year being necessary to offset the future benefit loss.

Additionally, one promise of a teaching career historically has been the promise of a secure retirement. No one gets rich off a teacher pension, but having that guaranteed income combined with access to affordable health insurance certainly makes life easier.

It will be interesting to see how Shelby County leaders handle this issue and how that action impacts the recruiting of new employees.

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


LEAKED: Testing Task Force Reveals Secret Plan

The Tennessean reports that Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen is reconvening the state’s testing task force in the wake of yet another round of TNReady testing troubles.

From the story:

“This task force has been critical in our work to improve the testing experience for students while providing better information to teachers and parents,” McQueen said in a news statement. “As in the past, I am confident that this group will continue to provide meaningful, actionable recommendations for improving both district and state assessment programs.”

TNEdReport has obtained a copy of the proposed recommendations from the task force:

  1. Get Rid of TNReady
  2. Fire Candice McQueen

These recommendations are to be announced at what will surely be hailed as the shortest yet most effective meeting yet of the task force.

Stay tuned to hear more about this important meeting.

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


Virtual Equality?

As the school year began, I wrote about how students at some MNPS high schools were forced into online classes due to a teacher shortage. This impacted students primarily at Antioch, Whites Creek, and Cane Ridge High Schools. According to my sources, it’s still going on to some degree. That is, actual teachers haven’t been found to fill many of the positions that were empty at the beginning of the year. So, the students are taking courses from Edgenuity.

Here’s what I noted about Edgenuity at the time:

Here’s a review of materials developed by Edgenuity for grades 9-12 ELA done by the Louisiana Department of Education. Here’s the short version: Edgenuity received a Tier III (the lowest) rating for the quality of the materials it provided to students for grades 9-12 ELA.

Here’s what Louisiana had to say about Edgenuity’s 6-8 math materials. Also an overall Tier III rating, but mixed reviews depending on grade level and specific learning objective.

Now, there’s a court case about whether virtual classes provide a “substantially equal” educational opportunity for students.

Education law professor Derek Black notes:

The Tennessee Court of Appeals has taken up a fascinating issue regarding students’ access to teachers.  The problem could only arise in the brave new world of computers.  In short,  a student at a Tennessee high school had fallen behind in algebra and end-of-grade assessments were looming.  The school pulled the student  out of the class and placed the student in a computer based credit recovery program.  Apparently, this occurred with several other students.  The student claims that the school did this to help increase its standardized test scores.

The disputed issue in the case seems to be a narrower one: do students have the right to access a teacher?  The plaintiff says yes.  The school’s attorney says no.

And here’s Black’s analysis of the legal issue at hand:

The Supreme Court in  Tennessee Small School Systems v. McWherter, 851 SW2d 139 (1993), held that students have a constitutional right to “substantially equal educational opportunities.”  The underlying facts in the case involved disparities in teacher salaries across the state.  Consistent with the overwhelming social science consensus, the court indicated that “teachers, obviously, are the most important component of any education plan or system.”  Because salary disparities resulted in students having unequal access to teachers, the Court ordered the state on more than one occasion to remedy is system of funding teacher salaries across the state.

So while state statutes may not create any specific property interest in access to a teacher, the state constitution creates a right to equal educational opportunities, which teachers are the most important part of.

And that’s why the situation at these schools is so interesting. The students at Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Whites Creek didn’t sign up for or choose virtual education. They were not offered the same or similar educational opportunity as students at other MNPS high schools — that is, students at most MNPS schools were assigned to an actual teacher who appeared in-person every day to provide instruction. These students were denied that opportunity and assigned to a program of questionable quality.

Why did this happen? One factor (though certainly not the only one) is teacher salaries. Teacher pay in MNPS is simply not competitive relative to the cost of living. It’s definitely not competitive relative to similar districts around the country.

The teacher salary issue is an important one, because it is the issue that drove the Small Schools court decision. In fairness, teachers at Antioch, Cane Ridge, and Whites Creek earn the same salaries as any other Nashville teachers. However, Nashville’s inability to adequately staff schools creates substantially unequal educational opportunity across the district. In fact, the district cited lack of adequate state resources as one reason it joined Shelby County in suing over BEP (Basic Education Program) funds.

It’s difficult to argue that students who signed up for and planned to attend traditional classes and then were forced into online learning were provided educational opportunities that are “substantially equal” to their peers at schools where this did not happen.

How this will be addressed remains to be seen.

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


Can you believe this guy?

Remember when the state hired a testing vendor to deliver a new online test and from day one, it was a total disaster? Remember how that vendor kept getting second chances and kept missing deadlines? Remember how we paid a bunch of money to have the tests graded by a different vendor? Then we moved on to Questar and forgot all about Measurement, Inc?

Well, Measurement, Inc. hasn’t forgotten about us. Like an unfortunate Craigslist encounter, the company just won’t go away.

Now, they are asking the state for $25 million for “services rendered” for a test that didn’t even happen.

Nope, I’m not kidding. Chalkbeat has the story:

Henry Scherich says Tennessee owes Measurement Inc. $25.3 million for services associated with TNReady, the state’s new standardized test for its public schools. That’s nearly a quarter of the company’s five-year, $108 million contract with the state, which Tennessee officials canceled after technical problems roiled the test’s 2016 rollout.

Given Scherich’s track record, this doesn’t seem surprising. Remember when he took full responsibility for all the testing problems? Oh, right, he didn’t. Instead:

“You just can’t take the test off line and put it on a printing press,” President Henry Sherich said by phone Friday. “We’re not failing to deliver. We are delivering as fast as possible.”

Sherich revealed his company is only working with one printer as other printers they work with are booked. This after a delay in delivering Phase I of the tests in March.

Sherich didn’t offer an apology or express concern for the students, parents, and teachers who have suffered as a result of this delay.

After all of this, the state may still end up on the hook for $25 million for a test that didn’t happen. That’s on top of the millions we’re spending for a test from which parents have yet to see results.

Can you believe this guy?


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