PET on Common Core Lessons

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) President Cathy Kolb and Director of Professional Development Bethany Bowman talk about lessons learned from Common Core implementation.
There are several words that are called “fighting words” these days, but “Common Core State Standards” may head the list in public education. The only other item that may come close is standardized testing.

Just the phrase “Common Core” can invoke passions, debate or a heated quarrel. Interestingly, there doesn’t seem to be a battle about standards in the private sector.

Mark Twain popularized the adage that there were “three kinds of lies: lies, damned lies, and statistics.” Research, design of study, methodologies, sample selection, quality of evidence all determine how the statistics will be shaped. The use of the data will then drive the decision-making. Policymakers can justify any position for or against an issue based on their view of the available information. Toss in a political agenda, add some cash and you have a recipe to be persuaded for or against any issue. A political maxim is: “money changes behavior, lots of money changes lots of behavior.”

We should be weary of many education reforms, and generally opposed to a one-size fits all approach – especially when there is “lots of money” involved. There is always good and bad to most issues, and reasonable people can generally argue either side. A civil debate can serve a practical purpose in public policy. Common Core is an issue that makes sense in theory, and results may show it makes sense in practice. Time will determine that debate. As an organization, we support higher standards.

Who can be opposed to raising the standards in public education? Let’s face it, our economic strength as a state and a country is linked to the performance of our public schools. Yet, not all students are educated in a traditional public school. Traditional schools are wary of being accountable for students’ scores on standardized tests which do not give an accurate picture of teacher performance.

There are a growing array of education choice options available in America such as controlled open enrollment, charter schools, charter districts, online schools, lab schools, schools-within-schools, year-round schools, charter technical career centers, magnet schools, alternative schools, vouchers, special programs, advanced placement, dual enrollment, International Baccalaureate, early admissions, and credit by examination or demonstration of competency. If you can conceive it, more than likely some school, district or state will probably try it. But will all of these options include the use of Common Core State Standards, and if not, why not?

In Tennessee, for example, any cursory review demonstrates that Common Core State Standards were superior to the standards previously employed. But it is debatable whether recommending a common set of standards for all 50 states was necessary. In fact, Common Core could be properly viewed as a disruptor. In that regard, Common Core served a useful purpose of blowing up the status quo.

In education circles people are now discussing standards, curriculum and testing. Don’t believe for one minute that Common Core State Standards are a “be all, end all.” They were not an insidious plot by the Obama Administration, but they were not exactly crafted by real public educators either. Many of the elements of Common Core were a response that has been kicked around for a quarter-century. In fact, one could pinpoint the genesis of the national curriculum debate at the feet of Chester Finn, who proposed it in an Education Week article in 1989.     Nobody should be thrilled with watered down standards. Yet we must critically scrutinize the curriculum, textbook, and testing clique that have turned into profit centers for a few corporations that seem to have garnered an inside advantage. Bluntly, there may be too many education lobbyists and corporate interests driving manufactured problems in the name of education reform. It is definite that we have tilted the debate too far to the side of the federal government in harming state sovereignty and local control of public education.

The implementation of Common Core went better in Tennessee than in many other places in the country. The real problem was the failure of many policymakers to address the legitimate concerns of stakeholders on other peripheral issues. Organizations that were engaged to take the lead in addressing criticisms were viewed as impertinent and disrespectful and operated as if they themselves were the policymakers. In fact, it bordered on arrogance.

It is accurate that those for and against Common Core have taken liberties with the truth. However, if the debate exasperates people enough perhaps it will spark needed changes such as a real review of standardized testing and a focus back on student-centered instruction. The lesson learned is that the federal government is often too prescriptive in their participation in public education, and most decisions should be left to states, districts, schools and educators.

F0r more on Tennessee education politics and policy, follow @TNEdReport

Shiny, Happy Teachers

It seems the Knox County Board of Education wants only shiny, happy teachers to speak at public meetings.

That’s the implication from a Board policy discussed this week.

Here’s the basic thrust of the policy:

The policy says that an employee may come before the board after they have exhausted the normal chain of command.

The board says they want teachers and other KCS employees to put their concerns in writing, and document each step up the chain of command, so that if the process breaks down, they will know where the break down occurred and be able to address it at that point.

Essentially, an employee must demonstrate, in writing, that they’ve exhausted all other channels before appearing before the Board.

One Board member said they didn’t want the system to look bad because teachers raise concerns on TV.

Board member Karen Carson worried that “bringing concerns up, on TV, is not good for public education”

Perhaps the Board, which has seen some contentious meetings recently, wants to prevent scenes like this:

 

 

 

In any case, the policy certainly appears to be intended to chill discourse.  While citizens who are not teachers are free to complain about policy in public, teachers must have written documentation to justify their appearance.  This type of double standard for speakers at public meetings just might run into some constitutional issues.  If some citizens can speak without a note from the Board Chair and others must have permission based on written evidence, you create two classes of citizens for the purpose of speech.

If public comment is allowed at public meeting, the rules must be uniform for all participants.  It would seem the Knox County Board policy may violate that precept.

It will be interesting to see what, if anything, is done with this policy in coming months.

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

A Tennessee Teacher Talks Tenure

In light of the Vergara decision in California, a Tennessee teacher talks about why tenure is important for teachers. James Aycock, an educator in Memphis, offered his thoughts over at Bluff City Ed.  Aycock offers some thought-provoking analysis, especially when considering that just after Vergara was announced, Senate Education Chair Dolores Gresham asked for an Attorney General’s opinion on Tennessee’s tenure laws.

Aycock notes that the fears teachers express over losing tenure essentially come down to a trust issue.  He suggests that good teachers don’t want to protect bad teachers, but they do want due process in order to prevent unjust termination. Without tenure, teachers could be non-renewed due to personal disagreements or political activity.

Another interesting point Aycock raises is a financial one. Would a loss of tenure result in veteran teachers being non-renewed because they cost too much? And, should we have a teaching force made up of the lowest-cost employees?

Here’s what he has to say on this point:

Teachers fear that personnel decisions will be made based on money rather than quality.

There is some legitimacy to this claim, though not with any malicious intent. I’ve witnessed first-hand school leaders discussing the merits of having two veteran teachers at $60,000 apiece versus three new teachers at $40,000 each. If you have $120,000 for staffing, what do you do? What is more important, quality or quantity, experience or class size? The question is a budgetary one, not one about teacher quality.

This is less of a concern at traditional district schools, although district policies can make this a factor. It’s much more of a concern, though, in autonomous schools. Don’t get me wrong – I’m all for school autonomy. But think about it for a second. A principal at a traditional school has positions to fill according to a staffing formula, but doesn’t necessarily have budget restrictions for those positions; if you need a math teacher, you get the best math teacher you can find, with salary not really an issue at the school level. However, a principal at a more autonomous school may get a budget and have the freedom to hire and program within that budget; here, quality is certainly important, but salary comes into play as well.

If principals are given budgets, as opposed to just staffing positions, then they may face the choice between one veteran or two new teachers, leading to the scenario described above. Whether or not that veteran teacher has tenure plays a huge role in a school leader’s ability to make that decision.

As Aycock notes, school-based budgeting makes this type of decision-making more likely. And not necessarily for malicious reasons. Arguably, a mix of veteran and new teachers is desirable at a school for a variety of reasons. But an excellent veteran teacher shouldn’t have to fear they may lose their job just because they cost too much. In fact, we should be creating an environment where teachers know that if they work hard and do a good job, they’ll be rewarded.

Read more of what James Aycock has to say about tenure.

And read more from teachers in Memphis and Shelby County at Bluff City Ed.

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

Gresham Takes Swipe at Teacher Tenure Laws

Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham this week began the process of questioning Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws.

According to a press release, Gresham has requested an Attorney General’s opinion on the constitutionality of Tennessee’s teacher tenure and employment laws in light of the recent decision in the Vergara v. California case.

From the release:

“This is a very important decision regarding teacher employment laws, which will reverberate to states across the nation, said Senator Gresham. “Tennessee, like California, has its own constitutional provision regarding student’s education rights in addition to the Equal Protection Clause afforded by the U.S. Constitution. We certainly need to make sure that we are on sound constitutional footing, and especially whether the reforms passed over the last several years will satisfy the constitutional tests as decided in this ruling.”

Gresham asked two specific questions:

1) Whether the current statutes or state law in effect prior to July 1, 2011 governing permanent employment violate students’ rights to a free education under the equal protection provisions of the Tennessee or U.S. Constitution.

2) If Tennessee law or the statutes in effect prior to July 1, 2014, governing layoffs or the dismissal and suspension of teachers violate student’s rights to a free education under the federal and state constitutions.

The Tennessee Constitution in Article 11, Section 12 states:

The General Assembly shall provide for the maintenance, support, and eligibility standards of a system of free public schools.

It’s not clear how tenure protections for teachers would inhibit the provision (on an equal basis) of a free education for all students.

Tennessee’s tenure laws were changed in 2011.  Under those provisions, teachers must teach 5 years before tenure is considered. Only those teachers with two consecutive years of evaluation scores of 4 or 5 (the highest two scores) may be granted tenure. Teachers who fail to meet that standard cannot be granted tenure.

Under Tennessee law (TCA 49-5-511 and TCA 49-5-512), tenure affords simple due process rights to teachers.

That means that if a Director of Schools wishes to dismiss a tenured educator, the reason for dismissal must be provided in writing to the teacher.  Should the teacher wish to appeal the dismissal, the teacher has 30 days to request a hearing by an impartial hearing officer. That hearing must be scheduled within 30 days of the receipt of the request (a maximum of 60 days would pass between the notice of dismissal and the hearing).

In 2012, the Supreme Court of Tennessee, in a unanimous decision, upheld the Tennessee law that requires both written notice and the opportunity for a hearing.

What’s not clear from Gresham’s early salvo is what about affording employees basic due process impedes a student’s right to equal access to a free public education.

It seems that abiding by a process that prevents arbitrary dismissal of teachers demonstrates to students a fundamental concept of fairness.  All teachers receive a TEAM evaluation score and since 2012, that score has been used in determining the granting of tenure. The dismissal process for tenured teachers is straightforward and allows both sides to present a case.  It prevents principals or Directors of Schools from simply dismissing teachers for reasons such as politics or personality issues.

Meanwhile, the free public education to which Gresham seems concerned that all students should have access to, is undermined by a General Assembly that balances the state’s budget on the backs of teachers and schools.  In the case of Gresham specifically, she has been a tireless champion of K12, Inc., a private, virtual school that receives Tennessee tax dollars yet fails to even approach adequately educating Tennessee students.

While the Governor has appointed a duplicative BEP task force designed to avoid the uncomfortable conversation around the inadequacy of current BEP funding, Senator Gresham is starting a fight about teacher tenure.  It’s the BEP funding that could, in fact, be unconstitutional in its current form as many systems find it inadequate to meet the needs of students.

Whatever the AG opinion says, this may only be the beginning of a legislative and legal fight over teacher tenure in Tennessee.

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

TCAP Results Show Growth

After a delay in releasing TCAP “quick scores” that led to TCAP results not being included in final grades for students in a number of Tennessee school districts, the results are finally in and they look positive.

The Department of Education Reports:

  • While  it was a year of transition for Tennessee teachers and students as they fully  implemented the state’s new standards in math and English, scores increased on the majority of  assessments.
  • Nearly 50  percent of Algebra II students are on grade level, up from 31 percent in 2011. More than 13,000 additional Tennessee  students are on grade level in Algebra II than when we first administered the  test in 2011.
  • High school English scores grew  considerably over last year’s results in English I and English II.
  • Achievement gaps for minority students narrowed  in math and reading at both the 3-8 and high school levels.
  • Approximately  100,000 additional Tennessee students are on  grade level in math compared to 2010.
  • More than 57,000 additional Tennessee students are on grade  level in science compared to 2010.

In response to the release of the results, JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) issued the following press release:

Data from TCAP should continue to be analyzed and evaluated. It is unclear from a cursory glance of results exactly what this means to Tennessee educators.
 
We are pleased to see the gains in High School Math. That is a good sign. We must sustain that effort, and it bodes well for STEM programs in our state.
 
“It is clear we need to carefully consider the consequences of making a one-time standardized test the be-all, end-all for our students and educators” according to JC Bowman, Executive Director.  
 
He added, “some evidence suggests improvements in student performance. But credit should also be given to school district policies and programs, as well as to educators focused on test-based accountability.”
 
“While performance is improving, the contribution of high-stakes testing to that effort remains unclear. It is critical we use data to improve instruction — but the verdict on the value of assessments this year is mixed” Bowman stated.
 
He concluded: “This year data provides general information about student performance, but lacks the nuance to provide any real instructional guidance for educators. Most educators believe TCAP or any state assessment should be used as a diagnostic tool, rather than as a punitive measure.” 

Bowman echoes the concern of many educators when he urges caution regarding how the scores are used in the teacher evaluation process.

Additionally, Bowman has written recently about a possible moratorium on the use of testing data in teacher evaluations during the transition to Common Core-aligned tests.

Similarly, new Tennessee Education Association (TEA) President Barbara Gray lamented the over-reliance on standardized testing in a recent interview.

Finally, there’s the experiment of Performance-Based Assessment in at least one Kentucky school district. It’s an experiment set to expand and some are suggesting replacing standardized tests with performance-based assessment.

As Tennessee transitions to Common Core and puts out a bid for a test to assess the standards, now is a critical time to consider the type and frequency of testing in Tennessee and also to have a conversation about how that data is used for both teachers and students.

 

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

Rural Charters Denied

Charter school proposals in both Cheatham and Robertson counties were denied at the School Board level last night.  As was reported here, the Cheatham proposal was particularly controversial. In addition to opposition from at least one candidate for School Board, the proposal brought state Senate candidate Tony Gross and his wife out to express opposition.

Joey Garrison reported on the two rural charter proposals and also on a slate of new charters proposed and approved for Nashville.

Cheatham Charter Fight Tonight

Tonight the Cheatham County School Board will consider an application for the district’s first charter school, Cumberland Academy. If approved, the school would open in the 2015 and start with 5th grade.  The school proposes to add a grade each school year until it serves students in grades 5-12.

The charter school proposal has been controversial, with at least one School Board candidate, Tracy O’Neill, raising concerns about charters.

Also, the Tennessee BATs (Badass Teachers) are promoting attendance at the meeting to express opposition to the charter proposal.

Earlier this month, the board adopted a policy on charter schools.

The Board meets tonight at 6 PM at Ashland City Elementary.

 

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

Reforming the Reformers

Below is a piece from JC Bowman, Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET), on the current state of education reform.

 

A young monk named Martin Luther wrote ninety five theses then nailed them to a church door in Wittenberg, Germany. He welcomed public debate on the subjects of concern that he raised. This gave birth to the Reformation.   Against all the political (and spiritual) powers of the day, Luther was put on trial. He was ordered to repudiate his positions. He refused. Luther understood that his conscience is captive to the word of God. He said, “I cannot and I will not retract anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand. I can do no other. So help me God.”

Luther chose the difficult path. In the duration of our lives we must face a simple struggle: accept what is or work to change it. Some things need to remain, but eventually, most everything will be swept away.

When I entered Lee University and enrolled in my first education class, professor Dr. Gene Christenbury told us to challenge the status quo. He said, “Never let anything get between you and your students.” I didn’t understand at the time, but I think I have a better grasp today than at any other time in my life.

The education reform movement, which I have embraced and have helped lead in Tennessee, as well as in several other states, is very much in need of reform itself. It has lost its way. As I look at the political landscape I see the leadership of the reform movement is not connected to the actual practitioners in the classroom. Education reform is no longer focused on students or teachers. It is focused on ancillary issues, folks who profit off the system, and those who want to create workers. This is not a judgment on motives, rather pointing out a perception. (In my defense as an education reformer, at least I spent over a decade as an actual public school teacher in Tennessee.)

For example, the concept of “college and career ready” is a worthy goal. However, if we lose creativity or fail to develop critical thinking skills what are we really accomplishing? If students score higher on the ACT or the SAT, will that make them better citizens? What purpose does it actually serve? We understand that it is morality, not intelligence, which makes civil society possible. How we think reflects who we are? What is considered intelligence today? Is it shifting? For centuries philosophers have tried to pinpoint the true measure of intelligence. Socrates said, “I know that I am intelligent, because I know that I know nothing.” Are we actually teaching/testing/measuring the right things?

In 1985, Robert Sternberg put forward his Triarchic Theory of Intelligence, contending that previous definitions of intelligence are too narrow because they are based solely on intelligences that can be assessed in IQ tests. Instead, Sternberg believes types of intelligence are broken down into three subsets: analytic, creative, and practical.

Educators understand that critical thinking, creativity, conflict resolution, communication, and teamwork cannot be lost in our efforts. Research reminds us that well-rounded people strive for personal fulfillment and typically have more self-confidence. Education is not strictly about preparing students for a specific career. Unmeasured objectives like teaching students lifelong values, discipline, and the ability to explore new ideas and to think independently are very much essential. Should that not also be an education objective? Albert Einstein, a genius by most accounts, said, “The true sign of intelligence is not knowledge but imagination.”

The issues of the day, the ones that perplex us now, may not even be relevant in the next election cycle.  When we watch policymakers grasp at the complex issues facing public education, we realize that outside influences and political donations are having greater influence over our classrooms and often fail to connect the educator with the policy. Policymakers surely understand how educators deliver instruction and how we measure success in our classrooms being led by non-practitioners will create problems.

Too many reforms are proposed or pursued with very little evidentiary basis. In efforts to drive up student academic performance we cannot disregard an educator’s insights into their student’s academic and social and emotional growth. Simply raising a test score will not guarantee success in life, especially if we fail to develop social skills and fine motor skills. In fact, we know the development of fine motor skills plays a crucial role cognitive development.    So is it also true we may not even be using the correct metrics in determining success? Can we keep gambling on our children’s future? How long will education reform be ongoing before someone asks for the results? Who do you trust – the teacher at your child’s school that lives in your community, or a think tank of non-educators in Nashville or Washington DC?

We know top performing nations like Singapore and Finland have reduced standardized testing and increased curriculum flexibility on their road to success. They stress teacher professionalism and connecting actual practitioners with policymakers. That is what has been missing among reformers and in the education debate, in general.

I welcome the debate. Like Martin Luther, here I stand. I can do no other.

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

An Interview with TEA President-elect Barbara Gray

Below is an interview with incoming TEA President Barbara Gray who will take over from Gera Summerford on July 1st.

 

What are your goals for TEA during your term?

My goal as TEA president is to continue advancing the association’s mission to promote, advance, and protect public education by:

  • Educating the public about the good things happening in public schools;
  • Continuing to build positive relationships with legislators, the state board of education and other key policy makers whose decisions impact students, public educators (this include ESPs, teachers, administrators) and our profession; and
  • Organizing our members to work together to reverse decisions made by elected officials that have been detrimental to public education and the teaching profession.

 TEA membership has been declining since the loss of collective bargaining. What are your plans to reverse this trend?

In recent months, TEA has begun a shift to more of an organizing culture. This move, prompted by the hiring of a new executive director at the end of 2013, will help us engage our members in a new way. We will be placing more emphasis on organizing members around issues which affect our profession at both the local and statewide levels.

TEA will continue to be a vocal advocate and provide the high quality legal and professional development services that helped us become the largest professional association for educators in the state.

 

 Do you foresee TEA fighting to restore collective bargaining rights for teachers in the near future?

Collective bargaining is an important tool in protecting students’ learning environment and the rights of our teachers. I do believe TEA will fight to restore bargaining rights for Tennessee’s educators in the future, but it is not a top priority right now. TEA was advocating for teachers’ rights long before collective bargaining was implemented and will continue to do so.

 

Outgoing TEA President Gera Summerford has talked about de-emphasizing the importance of standardized tests.  Do you support that stand? Do you believe Tennessee should explore deployment of alternative models of assessment?

Yes, I share President Summerford’s belief that there is too much emphasis on standardized tests in Tennessee. The state continues to tie more and more high-stakes decisions to these tests, and it is simply inappropriate. We need to take a serious look at alternative models of assessments and how multiple measures can be implemented to ensure fair, reliable results.

I do not believe, and I know many educators share this belief, that a one-time test at the end of the school year accurately tells me how much a student learned in my classroom. Teachers assess students throughout the year in many different ways – common formative assessments (CFA), projects, teacher-made assessments, student portfolios and more. These methods are far better indicators of student achievement and teacher effectiveness than standardized tests.

 

TEA has taken a strong stand against the use of TVAAS data in teacher evaluation. What do you propose as an alternative method of teacher evaluation?

TVAAS is a flawed, unreliable and inaccurate way to measure teacher effectiveness. TEA is leading the fight against the inappropriate use of TVAAS in our state, but we are hardly its only critic. It seems every week there is a new study coming out about the inaccuracies of value-added measures nationwide.

TEA proposes basing teacher evaluation on a system that includes multiple measures of student achievement, instead of relying only on the unreliable TVAAS estimates. I believe a pre-test/post-test assessment would be a more accurate indicator of the effectiveness of a teacher. Measuring how much a student learned during the school year by testing the student’s knowledge at the beginning of the year and then again at the end of the school year would show the true impact of a teacher.

As I mentioned above, teachers evaluate their students in many different ways to determine academic achievement. Teacher evaluation should be approached in the same way.

 

Could you foresee TEA supporting an evaluation system along the lines of Peer Assistance and Review (PAR) which has had some success in Ohio and Maryland?

I am not very familiar with the Peer Assistance and Review program. From what I have read, it does sound like an evaluation model worth exploring. TEA supports learning from other states’ best practices. The ultimate goal is to get an evaluation system in place that is fair and clearly understood by educators. A solid evaluation system will support teachers and provide quality professional development to help those who are struggling, which is not being accomplished by what Tennessee currently has in place.

What would you say will be TEA’s top 3 legislative priorities in 2015?

TEA’s number one priority will be pay raises for teachers. The governor promised to make Tennessee the fastest improving state in teacher salary and we plan to hold him to it. To recruit and retain the best teachers, we must make sure that promise becomes a reality and our teachers receive a well-deserved raise.

Another priority for the association will be to increase per-student funding from the state. It is unacceptable to be below Mississippi in what the state invests per child. Tennessee educators are performing miracles in their classrooms every day. In order to sustain and improve on that success, the state must properly fund our schools.

The third legislative priority will be to continue the fight against privatization. Vouchers, for-profit charters and less restrictive parent trigger laws are all schemes that threaten the livelihood of public education in Tennessee. Out-of-state organizations are funneling millions of dollars into Tennessee because they mistakenly believe there is an opportunity to make a profit off of our students. TEA, along with the help of some new parent and teacher grassroots groups, had great success last year in defeating these bills and will continue the fight in the upcoming session.

 What’s your view of the education landscape in Tennessee? What would you do differently?

The education landscape in Tennessee is constantly changing. First, let me say that there are a lot of things going right in Tennessee schools. Our students are graduating in record numbers. Our classrooms are filled with qualified, committed educators who work tirelessly for their students. Parents and teachers are uniting in the fight against over-testing and privatization.

It feels now like we are starting to see the light at the end of the tunnel after years of negative changes. This legislative session we saw groups of angry, engaged educators, parents, students and even legislators standing together to say, “Enough!” Enough with the unproven reform initiatives, enough with placing the weight of the world on our students and teachers, and enough with making a one-time test the center of the public education universe.

We pushed back together and we won on numerous issues.

Part of the landscape that I would love to see change is the public perception of Tennessee schools and teachers. TEA research has shown that people think their local public schools are doing great. However, when asked about the performance of public schools statewide, the response is often negative.

I want to change that perception. Commissioner Huffman is so often in the news saying negative things about our students, teachers and schools. I want to do everything in my power to combat the image he paints of public education in our state by educating Tennesseans about the many great things happening inside our schools.

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

 

Accountability Doesn’t Have to Be Punitive

Professional Educators of Tennessee’s (PET) JC Bowman and Audrey Shores on the TCAP delay and the TN DOE. They argue that rather than blame and punish, serious questions about what happened and when should be answered.

In Tennessee we appreciate straight talk and candor. We unquestionably detest hypocrisy. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies and even by our government. This has been quite evident in recent days by the Tennessee Department of Education, who inexcusably failed to get test scores to districts on time after months of preparation.

Perhaps in a kinder, gentler world we could shrug our shoulders and say “go get them next time.” However, this is the age of accountability, with the “survival-of-the-fittest” or “me-first” attitude that thrives, largely driven by the politics and culture in which we live. In this case, accountability in public education on the TCAP problem begins and ends with the Tennessee Department of Education.

Test results, as pointed out by one editorial in Knoxville “are used in teacher evaluations, in grading the overall performance of individual schools and systems and for other purposes.” State law requires that TCAP results account for 15 percent to 25 percent of a student’s final grade. An argument can be made that Common Core and TCAP are not aligned, so it does not make sense to use the TCAP scores in calculating students’ final grades. An appropriate response to that statement would be: perhaps they should not have been teaching standards that did not align with what students were going to be tested over the last couple of years and making it part of a student’s final grade.

Our belief is that this latest testing gaffe was simply due to incompetence, rather than any intentional violation of laws, regulations or established procedures not being followed. The men and women at the Tennessee Department of Education work extremely hard, just like the men and women who teach in our schools. They strive for excellence, and should not be impugned by this particular fiasco, no matter how well intentioned the stated objectives for the delay. A mistake was made, and we should endeavor to make sure it does not occur in the future.

As an organization, we believe in due diligence and avoiding overreacting to issues. We have adopted discipline by choosing our words carefully, like the carpenter who measures twice, cuts once. At times, systems simply do not work, and they need to be corrected. That is our message to policymakers and stakeholders alike; there is no attempt to imply any nefarious activity.       However, there is no denying that school systems across the state were blindsided by the delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores. Every system in the state was impacted. Policymakers must ensure the public is served: especially the children, families and school districts across the state. To that end, we requested that legislators inquire, formally or informally, specific information from the Tennessee Department of Education immediately. In fact, if the Tennessee General Assembly were in session we believe a hearing on this matter would be appropriate. The goal here is not to blame, but rather correct system failure.   We would suggest asking the following questions:

  • When was Ms. Erin O’ Hara, assistant commissioner for data and research, made aware of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores.
  • When were other state officials and members of the General Assembly, such as Commissioner Huffman and Governor Haslam, made aware of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores?
  • Who made the decision to not notify superintendents immediately of the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? And when was that decision made?
  • Who were the unnamed “external experts” that signed off on the validity, reliability and accuracy of the results? Please list their names, qualifications and any existing contract authorizing their role in this issue.
  • Was any unnamed “external expert” granted access to individual student data?  If so please disclose the names, qualifications and contract that granted experts access to the information they utilized.
  • Where in current existing state law is permission granted to the Commissioner of Education to issue waivers for exemption from a state requirement that TCAP scores account for 15-25 percent of students’ final grades?  (According to the Tennessean 104 school districts requested waivers).
  • What is the financial cost to the school districts and state created by the timing issue and delay on releasing end-of-year state test scores? Will the state cover this cost for districts?
  • What safeguards can be put in place to avoid any future issues, or should we simply not count test results in students’ final grades?

The use of high-stakes testing as the sole measure of student achievement is justly under increased scrutiny. We welcome that discussion and debate.   As we have continuously pointed out, in transitioning to any new test the most common issues that the state has not addressed are ongoing or increasing costs, technical concerns, and fears that the test could limit flexibility in crafting future curriculum. Transitioning Tennessee’s value-added data from TCAP to whatever future test the state ultimately adopts and utilizes will also take some time and adjustment -that is to be expected. A potential issue we anticipate is that the state has not adequately made clear how TVAAS will handle the transition from all bubble-in tests to constructed response tests. Legislators must start asking more detailed questions, and seeking answers from educators in our schools. There will always be issues, debate and discussion in public education.

In the end, getting accountability correct is the objective. The decisions policymakers make on behalf of students are actions of no small consequence. No one, least of all educators, would desire to see students victimized by testing. When we make decisions on the basis of untimely data or careless research, we place students at risk. We can and we must do better.

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