Improving in the Wrong Direction

Last month, Education Week published the annual Quality Counts report on the state of education in the states. Rankings take into account school funding (both total dollars spent and equitable distribution of those dollars), K-12 achievement, and overall chance for success of people born in the state.

Since Governor Haslam likes to make much of the “success” of his Administration when it comes to education, I thought it’d be interesting to compare how the state was ranked back in 2011 when Haslam took over to today.

Haslam likes to say Tennessee is “fastest-improving” in education.

That’s interesting when you look at the 2011 rankings and see that in overall education climate, Tennessee received a grade of 77. Compare that to the 2018 rankings, and we’re at a 70.8. We’ve gone from a solid C and closing in on a B to a C- nearing a D. Back in 2011, Tennessee was ranked 23rd in the nation in education climate. Today, we’re ranked 37th.

Let’s dig a little deeper. It is noteworthy that in K-12 achievement, we’ve moved from a 66.3 to a 72. As for chance of success, we inched up narrowly, from a 72 to a 74.2. In funding, we’re not making much progress at all, moving from a 65.7 to a 66.2. Yep, still holding on to that D grade in school funding.

Governor Haslam will be the first to tell you about the hundreds of millions of new dollars he’s pumped into public schools. It is true that the state has added money to K-12 budgets over his term. However, that hasn’t happened in a vacuum. Other states also continue to increase investment in public schools. Clearly, other states are also moving forward in student achievement.

Going from 23rd in national rankings to 37th is the wrong kind of improvement. Failing to actually increase investment in schools relative to other states means you aren’t actually “fastest improving.” Our state’s own Comptroller says we’re at least $500 million short of adequately funding our schools. Large unfunded mandates remain and our teachers still earn about 30% less than similarly prepared professionals – though with a slight bump this year, we may finally edge Alabama in this category.

Admittedly, the Quality Counts data analysis is pretty hard on all the states. It’s disappointing, though, to see Tennessee lose ground in the rankings over the past seven years. Our state’s economy is going strong. We’ve had multiple years of revenue coming in over projections. We should be investing that money in our schools and providing them with the necessary resources to achieve at higher levels.

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


 

1 > 0

Tennessee is now four years into a program targeted at struggling students known as Response to Intervention and Instruction, or RTI2. For the first time next year, districts may actually receive some funding for this state-mandated program. That’s right, for the first four years of the mandated program, there was no state funding. This left districts struggling to make the program work.

Of the new funding, Chalkbeat reports:

This year for the first time, Gov. Bill Haslam is asking for state funding to help districts with RTI2. His proposed budget includes $13.3 million that would pay for at least one interventionist per district, along with additional resources, trainings, and tools to strengthen the program.

Back in 2015, Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat reported on the challenges faced by districts attempting to meet the state mandate without any supporting dollars:

Districts have had to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on assessments, and don’t have the money to hire educators with the expertise required to work with the highest needs students. Some schools are using their general education teachers, already stretched thin, and others are using computer programs.

Now, districts can rest easy. Entire districts will be able to use state dollars to hire exactly one RTI2 specialist. This may be great for tiny districts like Lexington City or Trousdale County, but not incredibly helpful in districts with more than two or three schools.

In fact, even as the program has moved into high schools, it’s been met with challenges:

 

RTI2 is now in place in all public K-12 schools statewide but launched just last school year in high schools — a rollout that has been especially challenging. The report notes that only half of those teachers say that the new program is helping students learn, compared to three-fourths of elementary school teachers. It also notes that — because the model depends heavily on collaboration among classroom teachers, interventionists, and special educators — struggles around scheduling and collaboration are heightened in high school.

“It still feels like we are trying to adapt an elementary-focused model to high school needs, and it is not working well,” according to one school psychologist.

One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Oh, and our state has the money. We’re on track to collect nearly $700 million in revenue above what we brought in last year. Plus, providing targeted funding for RTI2 would free up local dollars to boost teacher pay across the board or meet other district needs.

Instead, we’re left with a 1 > 0 scenario and told to be appreciative. Our Governor and Education Commissioner talk of the importance of helping our most vulnerable students, but their budget approach tells a different story.

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


 

A Taxing Vote

Voters in Williamson County approved a sales tax hike expected to generate some $60 million in revenue dedicated to school construction.

The Tennessean has more:

The tax increase — from 2.25 percent to 2.75 percent — is projected to raise about $60 million over three years to help pay for  school construction.

“Voters overwhelming support public education and have agreed to use sales tax to fund schools,” said Williamson County Director of Schools Mike Looney. “I am surprised at the margin. I thought it would be a tight race but it’s a 2-for-1 margin. This is a huge victory tonight for the commission’s plan for the school district.”

More on Williamson County school funding:

The Williamson County Game

Got mine, want more

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


 

 

The (Under) Achievement School District

Turns out, all that mission creep over at the Achievement School District (ASD) is really just creepy. Oh, and disruptive. And also not really all that helpful for kids. But, hey, they’ve got cool happy hours!

Gary Rubinstein has the latest update on how the ASD is doing relative to stated policy goals. Spoiler alert: Not good.

Here’s some of his analysis:

Though my own calculations made it clear that the six original ASD schools had not made it out of the bottom 5% after six years, it doesn’t become ‘official’ until Tennessee releases its next ‘Priority List’ which it does every three years.  But a few days ago, they released something just as good, the so-called ‘Cusp List’ showing all the schools in the bottom 10% which includes what percentile each school is at.

Here are the results:

School Percentile
Cornerstone 8.2%
Brick Church 4.3%
Humes (closed down and became Frayser Achievement Elementary School 1.3%
Corning 2.2%
Frayser 1.3%
Westside 2.2%

So, yeah. Not really moving the original schools into the top 25% of all Tennessee schools. At all. The best result was a single school moving from the bottom 5% all the way up to the bottom 9%. The other originals? Still in the bottom 5%.

The ASD’s directors, as Rubinstein notes, just keep moving on to new opportunities. The students in the ASD experiment don’t have that option, though.

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


 

Still Spanking Students?

Even as legislative efforts to limit the use of corporal punishment ramp up, some Tennessee school districts continue to incorporate physical violence against children into their discipline policies.

The Johnson City Press reports:

The Elizabethton Board of Education approved first reading of a disciplinary policy last month that continues to allow corporal punishment in the school system. Final approval of the policy will be made at school board’s next meeting.

As Elizabethton Bureau Chief John Thompson reported in January, the policy says “any principal, assistant principal or teacher may use corporal punishment in a reasonable manner against any student for good cause in order to maintain discipline and order within the public schools.”

The policy goes on to define corporal punishment as “spanking (striking the buttocks with the open hand) and/or paddling (striking the the buttocks with a paddle). All other forms of physical punishment are expressly forbidden.”

Should Rep. Jason Powell’s legislation gain approval, using corporal punishment against children with disabilities will be prohibited.

A report by WSMV-TV Nashville noted:

Rep. Jason Powell, D-Nashville, filed the bill Wednesday, after a News 4 I-Team investigation revealed students with disabilities received corporal punishment at a higher rate than their peers without disabilities at 60 Middle Tennessee schools.

It’s not clear whether the trend of hitting students with disabilities at higher rates extends beyond middle Tennessee. It is clear that School Boards in many Tennessee districts still condone the use of physical violence as a means of disciplining children.

I welcome hearing from school districts that expressly prohibit the use of physical violence (including corporal punishment) against students. Please send an email to andy@tnedreport.com

 

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


 

 

Grounded

It seems Rocketship Nashville has been grounded. Or, at least it won’t be flying as big a fleet come next school year.

The Tennessean reports:

One of Nashville’s three Achievement School District schools will close at the end of the semester due to low enrollment, just months after it opened.

Rocketship Nashville officials said Wednesday they will shutter Partners Community Prep, which serves grades K-2 and is overseen by the state-run district.

Rocketship has also repeatedly attempted to expand operations in Nashville and been rejected by both the local school board and the State Board of Education.

Then there’s the Achievement School District forcing districts to hand over schools to charters, as in the case of Neely’s Bend Middle School. Before they handed a beloved community school over to a charter network, the ASD set up an epic battle to see which school would survive. Oh, and the ASD has a track record of being not-so-successful.  Oh, and also not very truthful.

All this disruption means that fifty students will be starting at a new school… again. Rocketship leaders say the process was a learning experience for them. Wonder what kind of experience it has been for the students?

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


 

 

Beating Alabama

Governor Haslam gave his State of the State Monday and outlined budget priorities. Immediately, the Tennessee Education Association called on the General Assembly to improve on the small raise Haslam proposed for teachers.

Here’s the deal: A few years back, Bill Haslam promised to make Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation in teacher pay. That very same budget year, Haslam’s actual budget included no new money for teacher compensation. Since then, however, his budgets have included back-to-back four percent increases in funds for teacher compensation. This year, however, the budget proposal is for a more modest two percent increase. Should this budget pass as proposed, Haslam’s education budgets will have resulted in average annual increases in funds for teacher pay of about two percent. That’s not much faster growth than surrounding states. In fact, during Haslam’s term of office, actual teacher pay in Tennessee has increased by about one percent per year, very similar to rates in Kentucky, Georgia, and Alabama.

Here’s what’s interesting: Tennessee teachers still earn about $3000 less on average than their counterparts in Georgia and Kentucky. But, our teachers are actually closing in on Alabama. Current numbers suggest Tennessee teachers earn about $300 less on average than Alabama teachers.

Of course, Alabama will pass a budget this year, too. And, it will likely include additional funds for teacher pay. But, if Haslam and the General Assembly were to double the amount of money allocated for increases in teacher compensation in this year’s budget, Tennessee would almost certainly overtake Alabama in average teacher pay.

Can we afford it? The short answer is yes! Revenue has been growing at about 5% this year when comparing year-over-year numbers. If that keeps up, we’ll see about $700 million in new revenue. Sure, some of that is allocated, but moving around $55 million to bump the teacher pay raise from two to four percent shouldn’t be that difficult. And, if we do it, Tennessee will beat Alabama.

I’ve lived in Tennessee almost 20 years now. If there’s one thing I know about my fellow Tennesseans it’s that we love to beat Alabama. Come on, Tennessee General Assembly. You can do it! You can help Tennessee beat Alabama.

Watch out, Kentucky and Georgia, you COULD be next!

 

 

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


 

Got Mine, Want More

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s Education Committee voted unanimously Monday night in favor of a resolution supporting changes in the state’s BEP formula that would direct additional state resources to the wealthiest county in the state. Williamson County is also the 7th wealthiest county in the United States.

The Williamson Herald reports:

Members of the Williamson County Commission’s education committee voted unanimously Monday night to approve a resolution of support for state legislation that would modify the Basic Education Program (BEP) to provide Williamson County and others a more reasonable allotment of state funding for education.

I suppose “reasonable allotment” is in the eye of the beholder.

The state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP, is designed to provide all districts a base level of funding to support public education. The formula came about in response to a successful lawsuit by small, rural districts who sued suggesting the way the state was funding schools was unequal. In 1992, the General Assembly enacted the Education Improvement Act which included the Basic Education Plan (BEP) as a new school funding formula. One of the primary goals of this formula was (and still is) equity.

What the legislation sponsored by Jack Johnson would do is direct additional state resources to the five school districts in the state with the greatest ability to pay.

While the BEP certainly has shortcomings, I would suggest finding ways to direct more state funds to a county quite capable (but unwilling) to dedicate local resources to schools is not a very responsible use of state taxpayer dollars. To be clear, improving the BEP by making formula adjustments (adding a component for RTI, for example), would necessarily mean additional funds going to Williamson County.

Here are some fun facts about the county now begging the state for more cash:

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Middle Tennessee.

Williamson County has the lowest property tax rate of any county in Tennessee with a population over 100,000.

Williamson County is the wealthiest county in the state of Tennessee and 7th wealthiest in the United States.

Williamson County Commissioners have been reluctant to raise property taxes in order to continue to provide resources to schools.

An analysis of household income compared to property tax rates in similar affluent communities reveals that Williamson County’s tax burden is incredibly low. The chart below comes from public policy professor Ken Chilton, who teaches at Tennessee State:

That red bar on the chart is Williamson County, with a property tax burden on a $500,000 home of just over $3000. That’s just over 3% of the average household income, far lower than similar communities in Tennessee and across the country. Plus, as Chilton notes, Tennesseans pay no personal income tax.

Despite these facts, Williamson County Commissioners are headed to the state with their hands out, begging for more help.

Tennessee is a state making long overdue improvements in public education. As more state dollars become available, those dollars should absolutely be invested in continuing to improve our public schools. By closing the teacher pay gap, for example.

Giving money to those districts that have the ability to generate funds on their own but won’t is not a pressing need in our state. In fact, doing so would only serve to exacerbate the inequity the BEP was intended to address. Of course, these Williamson County Commissioners aren’t concerned about inequity. They are clearly concerned about ensuring one of America’s wealthiest communities continues to pay bargain basement prices for its public schools.

Policymakers should reject this rich get richer scheme and focus on education needs that will benefit every district and lift up those least able to generate funds for schools.

 

 

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


 

2018 Gubernatorial Education Forum

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

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

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

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

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

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

First, teacher pay: 

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

Plight of the DREAMers:

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

Supporting Public Schools:

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

READ MORE from Chalkbeat

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

Pre-K:

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

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

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

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

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

Just where was Diane Black?

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

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

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

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


 

Are TN Colleges Turning Out Bad Teachers?

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

The article notes:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

As noted in the article:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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