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.

 

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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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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


 

Bill Lee wants to Raise Your Taxes and Silence Your School Board

Ok, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee didn’t actually say he wants to raise your taxes, though the policy proposal he’s put forward would likely result in local property tax increases. He did, however, suggest silencing school boards by way of curbing their ability to be represented in public policy debate in Nashville.

Erik Schelzig of the Associated Press reports:

Republican gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee said he supports spending more public money on private school tuition around Tennessee, and that restrictions should be placed on lobbying by government entities that oppose school vouchers.

I wrote previously about how Lee has been a staunch advocate of using public money for private schools by way of vouchers. I also noted that the most recent evidence indicates he’s wrong when he asserts that vouchers will improve education outcomes for Tennessee students.

The proposal to silence local school boards because they oppose school vouchers is not a new one. In fact, legislation to that effect was previously proposed by Lee’s Williamson County neighbor, Jeremy Durham. Here’s more on that effort:

Joey Garrison has the story about some legislators who wish that local school boards didn’t hire lobbyists to represent their interests before the legislature.

To that end, they’ve filed legislation that would allow County Commissions to revise a School Board’s budget as it relates to lobbying expenses (HB 229/SB 2525).

Many school boards in the state are members of the Tennessee School Boards Association, which hires a lobbyist to represent the interests of school boards at the General Assembly. Additionally, some local boards hire contract firms and/or in-house government relations specialists to monitor state policy.

Of course, many County Commissioners are members of the Tennessee County Commissioners Organization, which employs a lobbyist to represent the interests of County Commissions at the General Assembly.  And many local government bodies also contract for or hire government relations specialists.

The attempt at silencing voices opposed to school vouchers ultimately failed to advance. Lee’s embrace of the failed Durham proposal may be of note to school board and county commission members considering his campaign.

As it relates to taxes, Lee’s support for a broad voucher program would likely result in a tax increase of some form. I wrote last year about the cost of a “voucher school district” and noted that if a statewide proposal took hold, it would be rather costly:

Nearly 15,000 students who never attended public school suddenly receiving vouchers would mean a state cost of $98 million. That’s $98 million in new money. Of course, those funds would either be new money (which is not currently contemplated) or would take from the state’s BEP allocations in the districts where the students receive the vouchers.

Let’s look at Davidson County as an example. If three percent of the student population there took vouchers, and half of those were students who had never attended a public school, the loss to the district would be a minimum of $8.4 million.

Additionally, analysis by the County Commissioners Association (a group Lee would seem to want silenced as their positions don’t match his advocacy) shows that local property taxes would almost certainly go up as a result of a comprehensive statewide voucher program.

As TREE noted:

The property tax increases to offset vouchers seen on the spreadsheet is not something any county commissioner wants to pass on to property owners. Lauderdale County loses the most with an 84.23 cent increase per year. Davidson is looking at a 30.36 cent increase.

Even if you look at what’s happening in Indiana as an example, you’d see increases along the lines of 28 cents in Lauderdale County and around 10 cents in Davidson. Alternatively, Lee could look to state revenue to offset the increased costs of a voucher program.

So, in Bill Lee, Tennesseans have a candidate for Governor who has expressed unqualified support for a voucher program that has failed in Indiana, Ohio, and Louisiana and that will almost certainly increase state and local costs. Additionally, he wants to be sure local elected officials can’t bring a strong voice of opposition to this proposal.

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


 

Bill Lee Wrong on Vouchers

Back in January of 2016, now-gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee wrote an op-ed claiming that adding school vouchers to the mix in Tennessee’s education landscape would lead to improved education outcomes.

Here’s what he had to say:

This is where opportunity scholarships come in. The Tennessee Choice & Opportunity Scholarship Act would allow families to take a portion of the funding already spent on their child’s education and send him or her to the private school of their choice. For children languishing in schools that are failing to meet their needs, especially in urban areas like Nashville and Memphis, this proposal represents a much-needed lifeline for Tennessee families.

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.

Last year, Lee was peddling the myth that private schools offered better opportunity for kids. After analyzing the date, Dynarski and Nichols say this:

If the four studies suggest anything, it’s that private schools have no secret key that unlocks educational potential.

Visiting Lee’s campaign website yields little information about his views on actual policy. Of course, it is early in the campaign. However, it’s not clear if he still believes Tennessee tax dollars should be spent on voucher schemes that have been shown to have negative results in other states.

If Lee does in fact continue to advocate for vouchers, he’ll need to explain why Tennessee should invest in a program that has gotten such bad results across the country.

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