Evidence Be Damned

Failed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, never one to consult actual evidence before making a decision impacting Tennessee children, is now recommending that more schools in Nashville and Memphis be placed in the Achievement School District (ASD).

The state-run intervention district consisting mostly of charter schools has so far failed to produce tangible results.

Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.

Even more alarming, data from the consistently     unreliable TNReady test will be used to make these determinations.  This would certainly seem to violate the spirit, if not the letter, of the “No Adverse Action” legislation passed by the General Assembly earlier this year.

Taking this action also places the kids in these schools into a cruel experiment… One where we know the outcome, but persist hoping this time will be different. It won’t be.

The next Commissioner of Education would do well to ignore this and any other recommendation from Candice McQueen.

Instead, Bill Lee and his team should focus on policies based on evidence (so not vouchers), teacher input, and student needs.

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

 


 

DeVos Disciple Lands Key Role in Lee Admin

Incoming Governor Bill Lee announced a round of Cabinet and staff appointments yesterday including the appointment of a leading backer of school vouchers to a senior policy role.

Lee named Tony Niknejad as his policy director.

Niknejad served as policy director in the Lee campaign and before that was the Tennessee State Director of Betsy DeVos’s American Federation for Children. He also served as a policy staffer for state Senator Brian Kelsey, one of the leading advocates of using public money for private schools in the legislature.

Lee has a track record of supporting the DeVos organization and ill-advised voucher schemes.

The announcement is another indicator that Lee intends to move ahead on school vouchers, perhaps as soon as the 2019 legislative session.

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


 

Reassuring?

Ever oblivious to past failure, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen sent out an “Educator Update” yesterday announcing the start of TNReady for high school students on block scheduling.

Here’s the text of her email:

Starting tomorrow, high school students on block schedule will take their TNReady end-of-course exam. We have been working hard to ensure they are both academically and technologically successful, and I wanted to make sure you were aware of those preparations and how we plan to address any issue that may arise, particularly if your students are taking their EOC this fall.

First, over the past several weeks, we have passed smoothly through key milestones, such as our verification test of the online platform, where about 50,000 subparts were submitted over the course of an hour – more than we expect to see in fall block during that same period of time. Additionally, we released a new set of online tutorials for test administrators, and more than 1,000 folks have completed those. And most importantly, you have been preparing students with the content knowledge and critical thinking and writing skills they need to have – not just to be successful on TNReady, but for life after graduation.

Every good planning process has to plan for issues that may occur, and we have communicated extensively with your district leaders, testing coordinators, and technology directors to make them aware of the variety of support and communications avenues available. If you or your students run into any issues, please immediately contact your building testing coordinator. You can also consult this one-page troubleshooting guide. If you do not see your issue addressed here, your building testing coordinator may have more information, and they can coordinate with your district testing coordinator to get assistance. We work directly with your district testing coordinator throughout each day of the testing window, communicating with them on daily webinars, a call line for immediate assistance, text message alerts, and constant email messages and one-on-one phone calls. From here, we can take a number of steps to solve problems, including sending a support team to your school. We have those teams stationed across the state so each school can be reached within 90 minutes.

Thank you for your patience with us and support of our students as we have worked toward this moment. We all want testing to be a seamless experience where students can show what they know, so you can better understand your students’ mastery of the standards and reflect on how you can continue to improve your practice. That is powerful information, and we want you to have it as easily and quickly as possible. We are continuing to improve as we aim for that goal.

A reminder

While Commissioner McQueen’s note sounds nice, let’s remember that last year, the Fall administration of TNReady went relatively smoothly. Then, there were dump trucks and hackers. It’s also not like we haven’t had some sort of testing problem every year in the past five years:

Lately, this season has brought another ritual: The Tennessee Department of Education’s failure to deliver student test scores. Each of the last three years has seen TNDOE demonstrate it’s inability to get state testing right (nevermind the over-emphasis on testing to begin with).

Back in 2014, there was a delay in the release of the all-powerful “quick scores” used to help determine student grades. Ultimately, this failure led to an Assistant Commissioner losing her job.

Then, in 2015, the way “quick scores” were computed was changed, creating lots of confusion. The Department was quick to apologize, noting:

We regret this oversight, and we will continue to improve our processes such that we uphold our commitment to transparency, accuracy, and timeliness with regard to data returns, even as we experience changes in personnel.

The processes did not appear to be much improved at all as the 2016 testing cycle got into full swing, with a significant technical failure on Day One.

Every year, we hear about how TNReady is ready. Sometimes, the early administration goes well. Then, all hell breaks loose. So far, the call for options or a pause on the test has not been heeded. Instead, our state continues testing and continues making excuses and continues telling everyone it will all be fine.

Will Governor Bill Lee and the new General Assembly take a new approach? Will a new Commissioner explore an ESSA waiver and testing options? Will the advice of a handful of districts and the state’s PTA be heeded?

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


 

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Reflections

With last week’s news of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen leaving her post in January, Chalkbeat featured education leaders around the state offering reflections on her time in the role.

While most of those cited made every effort to say nice words, I was struck by the comments from Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”

Brown took care to highlight two critical issues: Testing and funding.

The next Commissioner of Education will inherit a testing mess:

If this year had been the first time our state had faced testing challenges, one might understand (and forgive) the excuse-making. However, this is now the fifth consecutive year of some sort of problem and the fourth year testing administration has been, to say the least, a challenge.

Brown also points to a need for further investment in schools. While there have been additional dollars spent on K-12 education, Tennessee still lags behind our neighbors and the nation:

Tennessee is near the bottom. The data shows we’re not improving. At least not faster than other states. I’ve written about how we’re not the fastest-improving in teacher pay, in spite of Bill Haslam’s promise to make it so:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

School spending doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it’s not like when Tennessee spends, other states stop. So, to catch up, we have to do more. Or, we have to decide that remaining 43rd or 44th in investment per student is where we should be.

So, who will inherit these challenges? Some suggest Shelby County Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson is a leading candidate. He endorsed Bill Lee and is playing a role in Lee’s education transition. Other possibilities include some current Tennessee superintendents.

This look back at the last time the role was vacant offers some ideas of who is out there for Lee to consider.

What are your thoughts? Who should be Tennessee’s next Commissioner of Education? What’s the biggest challenge they will face?

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


 

 

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A Testing Lesson for Tennessee

As Tennessee continues to grapple with the failures of TNReady, this message from the former Superintendent of Camden, New Jersey Schools is especially relevant.

Essentially, he says the drawbacks of our current emphasis on testing outweigh the benefits. Here are some key points he makes:

We are spending an inordinate amount of time on formative and interim assessments and test prep, because those are the behaviors we have incentivized. We are deprioritizing the sciences, the arts, and civic education, because we’ve placed most of our eggs in two baskets. We are implicitly encouraging schools to serve fewer English language learners and students with an IEP. We are spending less time on actual instruction, because that’s the system we’ve created.

On what he heard while the system’s school report card including a heavy focus on math and ELA scores:

  • One of our very best eighth-grade math teachers tells me: “All I’m doing is collecting formative assessment data. Multiple times per month. I hardly have the time to analyze the data. Can we please just slow down the rapid assessment calendar?”

  •  In just about every high school student roundtable we held – and this is a self-selected, highly motivated group – a student would ask: “Superintendent, I love a good test, but all we’re doing is taking these multiple choice tests! Half the building shuts down and I can’t use the laptops in the library because they’re all being used for testing.”

  •  Questions I was asked by countless parents of middle and high school students: “How come there isn’t enough time in the day for Global Studies? Why don’t we offer a second foreign language? Or have year-round art and music?”

 

Unfortunately, much of this sounds very familiar to Tennessee teachers, students, and parents.

There are some proposes solutions, too:

First, high-stakes testing should be a dipstick to measure systems. Most of the rest of the developed world functions this way.

States could administer standardized tests like NAEP – meaning random samplings every two to three years. This would suffice. We would know the gaps. We could address inequities.

Third, we must build smarter tests. Tests, that, for example, address current challenges with race and class bias. In Louisiana, State Superintendent John White has piloted an innovative new state assessment that uses passages from books that students have already been exposed to in class, as opposed to something that’s brand new and just for the test.

Lastly, and perhaps most importantly, tests should inform and guide our actions, and not compel them. This may sound like shades of grey, but it’s an important distinction. We need talented, thoughtful systems leaders who act with urgency, but don’t assume simple proficiency and growth scores in two subjects should immediately require structural change leading to seas of collateral damage and unintended consequences.

While the current administration has been heavily resistant to meaningful change, there’s a new Governor coming into office in January and he’ll be joined by a General Assembly with a slew of new members. This is a perfect opportunity to push for real change in our approach to testing. Not marginal change. REAL change.

Step one would be to ensure we have a Commissioner of Education committed to moving beyond the current status quo of failed testing. That means ditching Candice McQueen immediately.

Next, Tennessee should explore an ESSA waiver to move toward a new testing model.

Several school districts and the state’s PTA are asking for a range of options on tests. Bill Lee and his team should talk with them and with teachers and pave a path forward that takes us away from excessive testing.

The time to act is now. We’ve seen TNReady fail time and again. We know that even if it “worked,” the drawbacks to our test-focused school days far outweigh the benefits. We can have both real accountability and increased instruction time with a more balanced, student-centered approach to testing.

We have to ask: Do we care about what’s good for kids or do we want numbers and data to make us feel better? If we care about kids, we’ll move in a new direction as quickly as possible.

 

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

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TN PTA on Testing

As Governor-elect Bill Lee prepares to take office, the Tennessee Parent Teacher Association (PTA) outlines a position on state assessments, including calling for flexibility at the high school level to choose tests outside the TNReady framework.

Here’s the full position statement as adopted on November 3rd:

After continued problems with the electronic administration of standardized tests, the Tennessee PTA board of managers calls for the Tennessee Department of Education to establish reliable administration of online tests through proven piloted or implemented testing methods and platforms that do not impede the learning environment of students and educators.

 

The Tennessee PTA board of managers believes in testing accountability; however, missed class time and the lack of new material not introduced is a deterrent to student achievement and to the social emotional well-being of students and educators. We continue to support and educate parents to advocate for their children to be successful in school and in life.

 

The Tennessee PTA board of managers:

• Believes that high-quality assessments provide valuable information to parents, teachers, community and school leaders about the growth and achievement of their students.

• Considers that a test should be one of multiple tools used in a comprehensive assessment system to evaluate and assess student growth and learning.

• Believes the current methods in grades 3-8 TCAP and high school EOC (End-ofCourse) assessments as administered causes loss of quality instruction time in the classroom.

• Calls for the Tennessee Department of Education to establish an annual assessment that is aligned with relevant and rigorous state standards in English/Language Arts (ELA), Math, Science, and Social Studies. These assessments should also be aligned to multiple tools that elicit timely feedback to be shared with the students, educators, and parents.

• Believes it is important to keep the testing window narrow enough to ensure all Tennessee students are adequately assessed in a timely manner.

• Believes that school districts should have the flexibility to choose high school standardized assessments that align with the ACT College Readiness Benchmarks and meet Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) criteria for determining students to be college and career-ready.

 

The Tennessee PTA board of managers acknowledges the effort of the Tennessee Department of Education’s Third Task Force on Student Testing and Assessment, and is confident that with a collaborative and transparent process the Tennessee Department of Education will regain the trust and support of students, educators and parents.

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


 

Perspective: Dean and Lee on Charters and Vouchers

Retired educator Dr. Bill Smith offers some perspective on charters and vouchers as they relate to the Tennessee Governor’s race in a column he wrote for the Johnson City Press.

Here’s a bit of what he had to say:

When I read “Profit before Kids,” I wondered if our next governor will look closely at the Tennessee Virtual Academy in Union County, a charter that is operated by K12 Inc. If our state’s lawmakers are genuinely opposed to taxpayer dollars being funneled to for-profit educational entities, the findings reported in “Profit before Kids” should raise some concerns.

It’s no secret that non-profit charter schools often divert money intended for children’s instruction to other priorities. For example, many charters compensate their “CEOs” two to three times the salaries of principals who perform the same functions in regular public schools. Vision Academy in Nashville pays its two top executives (a married couple) a combined $562,000, while reportedly charging students for textbooks. (Imagine the outcry if a local public school engaged in such financial behavior.)

A Call to Action:

In this time of hyper-partisanship and extreme contentiousness over issues such as immigration and tax policy, the dangers of school choice are not going to attract the attention of most citizens until Democrats stand forcefully united against it. If they don’t, I’m afraid we will wake up one day and realize that what David Faris called the Republicans’ “slow-moving hostile takeover” of our educational system has been accomplished.

With one week to go before Election Day, this column is worth a read.

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


 

Vouchers Gone Wrong

While significant evidence suggests that even with proper implementation, vouchers don’t improve student performance (and sometimes, make it worse), a cautionary tale out of Florida raises even greater concerns. What if a voucher program goes horribly, terribly wrong?

This question seems especially relevant given gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee’s backing of vouchers.

Here’s what the Orlanda Sentinel had to say about a range of problems in that state’s voucher program:

In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.

If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.

Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

I’ve written before about the mess made of schools (and of children’s lives) when voucher schemes go awry:

South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:

Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

That’s just one example, of course. The Sentinel series exposes significant problems across a variety of schools. Among the problems were schools closing with little notice, evictions, and teachers without credentials.

Those supporting a voucher-backing candidate for Governor should be very aware of what that policy could mean for Tennessee’s families.

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


 

 

Bill and Betsy: A Tennessee School Voucher Story

While Bill Lee is avoiding talking directly to Tennessee’s education leaders about his plans to use public money to pay for private school tuition by way of voucher schemes, his track record on the issue is clear. Bill Lee supports school vouchers.

Not only did he write an op-ed in 2016 encouraging support for voucher legislation, but he also has consistently supported the Tennessee Federation for Children financially.

The Tennessee Federation for Children is our state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, a political organization funded in large part by Betsy DeVos and her family. The mission of TFC is clear: Divert public money to private schools.

Since 2012, DeVos has provided just under $100,000 to the Tennessee organization. She’s been joined by some key local donors, including Lee Beaman and Bill Lee. Yes, since 2012, Bill Lee has given $11,000 to the Tennessee Federation for Children, the state’s leading political organization supporting school vouchers.

Here’s how Chalkbeat reported on the TFC when DeVos was nominated to be Secretary of Education:

This election cycle alone, advocacy groups founded and led by DeVos helped to oust at least one outspoken voucher opponent — and elect two new supporters — in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, the key arena for the state’s voucher debate.

From the helm of groups including the American Federation for Children and the Alliance for School Choice, DeVos, a staunch Republican, has contributed millions of dollars nationally to state legislative candidates in favor of vouchers and against those who do not, regardless of political party.

In Tennessee, most of that work has been done through the state’s affiliate of the American Federation for Children, which launched in 2012. The group has spent hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, reaching more than $600,000 for races in 2014. This year, organizers spent at least $169,777 on House races.

The Tennessee affiliate is currently led by Shaka Mitchell, who previously attempted (unsuccessfully) to expand the Rocketship charter school experiment in Nashville.

Let’s be clear: Bill Lee has written about his support of school vouchers. He’s indicated support of legislation that would silence school boards on the issue. He’s given thousands of dollars to an organization dedicated to enacting vouchers and electing voucher supporters.

While Bill Lee won’t talk to educators about his plans, his record speaks loud and clear.

 

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

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Bill Lee Skips TOSS

Every year, the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) holds a conference in Gatlinburg. The event is an opportunity for the state’s education leaders to come together, receive training, and learn from each other. Historically, during gubernatorial election years, the event has also featured the major party candidates for Governor outlining their education views and taking questions.

Not this year. Democratic candidate Karl Dean did attend the conference and gave a presentation on his agenda for public education in Tennessee.

However, Republican candidate Bill Lee did not attend. It’s true that Bill Lee has some education policy views that might not be welcomed by professional educators, but he certainly should take advantage of the opportunity to explain his vision in front of a nonpartisan group of state education leaders.

Back in 2016, Bill Lee wrote on op-ed supporting that year’s version of an education voucher scheme — one of many that have failed in the legislature in recent years. He’s also expressed support for legislation that would prevent school boards from actively lobbying against vouchers. During this year’s campaign, Lee has also indicated he would support a “voucher-like” program to use public funds to pay for private school tuition.

Lee’s support for vouchers is problematic not just because it represents a shift in taxpayer dollars away from public schools but also because recent evidence suggests vouchers don’t get results:

Recent evidence tells us that’s not the case. In fact, studies of voucher programs in D.C., Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio indicate students lose ground academically when accepting a voucher and attending a private school.

Writers Mary Dynarski and Austin Nichols say this about the studies:

Four recent rigorous studies—in the District of Columbia, Louisiana, Indiana, and Ohio—used different research designs and reached the same result: on average, students that use vouchers to attend private schools do less well on tests than similar students that do not attend private schools. The Louisiana and Indiana studies offer some hints that negative effects may diminish over time. Whether effects ever will become positive is unclear.

Lee has also expressed support for arming teachers, the Tennessean reports:

With school safety at the forefront of a national debate, Williamson County businessman Bill Lee said Monday he supports arming some teachers as a “cost-effective” way to increase security.

 

It seems likely the state’s school system leaders would like further information on Lee’s plans for schools, but Lee was unwilling to attend their annual gathering and provide that information.

Why won’t Bill Lee talk directly to those most likely to be impacted by his policies — or seek input from school system leaders on how a voucher scheme or armed teachers would work in practice? Moreover, why wouldn’t Bill Lee want educators to be able to clearly compare his views to those of Karl Dean’s?

If Bill Lee believes he’s the best candidate on education, he should be willing to stand in front of educators and make that case.

 

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

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