The Buck Stops Nowhere

By now it is clear that TNReady simply didn’t go as planned this year. Sure, the tests were administered and students completed them — largely on pencil and paper. But, the raw data from the tests used to generate the “quick scores” for student grades isn’t getting back to districts on time. At least not in time to include it in report cards.

The Department of Education says that’s the fault of districts. Here’s how a TN DOE spokesperson explained it to the Clarksville Leaf-Chronicle:

But Sara Gast, spokeswoman for the state Department of Education, said school districts would receive their scores based on how quickly they returned their materials.

This was the first week school districts could receive data back, and districts across the state will get their scores on a rolling basis over the next couple of week through the week of June 5, she said.

She said some districts will not get their scores in time to be counted in final grades “because they did not meet the deadlines.”

The district says that’s simply not the case and that they met the established timeline:

Shelton said tests from all Clarksville-Montgomery County schools were definitely turned in according to the state’s timeline to have them back before schools let out Wednesday, and the school district was not at fault.

All of this may sound a bit familiar to those who watched the blame game play out last year during the total meltdown of TNReady.

Then, neither testing vendor Measurement, Inc. nor the Department of Education took responsibility for a test that clearly failed.

Here’s what’s interesting this year. The state admits that more than 75% of districts will not get scores back on time. This, they claim, is because of missed deadlines. Districts dispute that claim.

Educators will tell you that if more than 75% of students miss a test question or fail a test, there’s a problem – and the problem is with the question or the test, not the students. More than 75% of districts supposedly missed established deadlines. It seems clear the Department of Education has a problem. It’s also clear that adults are failing kids.

Students are told the tests matter. They are told the tests factor into grades. Schools are held accountable based on results. Despite statistical validity issues, the test is used to evaluate teachers — so, those teachers reinforce the importance of the test to their students.

Then, after the answer sheets have been bubbled in and the test booklets sent to the vendor for grading, students are told the tests won’t count. Or, they may count, but report cards will be late. But it’s okay. The adults got it wrong. Just keep showing up and taking the test seriously. No big deal.

If you want the students to take testing seriously, you should take your job seriously. This is the fourth year in a row that there have been challenges with testing and/or returning results. When district leaders have stood up and spoken out, Commissioner McQueen has threatened to withhold funding.

Here’s a crazy idea: Stop using this single test as the primary indicator of student performance, teacher effectiveness, and school accountability.

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


 

 

Rhetoric vs. Reality: TNReady 2017 Edition

Here’s what Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen had to say about this year’s TNReady tests in an email sent to educators on May 16th:

This year’s administration of TNReady was a success, both online and on paper, in schools across Tennessee. Thank you for you partnership and for preparing students with strong instruction every day. Stay tuned as we continue to share updates and resources.

Since then, it’s become clear that TNReady results won’t actually be ready for most districts in a timely fashion — meaning they’ll either be excluded from student grades or report cards will be held until results are available.

WPLN’s Blake Farmer reports on the scope of the problem:

The state department of education says less than a quarter of districts finished testing in time to get the results by the end of May. For those that did wrap up early, they started getting results back this week.

Yes, that’s right. More than 75% of districts won’t have results back before the end of May.

That’s an odd definition of success.

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


 

McQueen Joins Chiefs for Change

Education Week reports that Tennessee’s Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen, has joined education reform group Chiefs for Change. Her predecessor, Kevin Huffman, was also a member of the group that has advocated for expanding charter schools and using value-added data in teacher evaluations.

Here’s more:

Chiefs for Change, once part of the former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s Foundation for Excellence in Education and comprised solely of state education chiefs, has spun off as an independent organization.

And on the addition of McQueen among the group’s four new members:

The lone state chief in the group is Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s commissioner of education.

While McQueen has been Tennessee’s Education Commissioner for three years now, she is new to Chiefs for Change.

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


 

Definitely Not Ready

Last year, I wrote about how Tennessee students, teachers, and parents have come to expect that there will be issues with state tests and timely distribution of results. Last year was the biggest testing disaster in recent memory, but it seems there are problems popping up again this year.

Williamson County Schools recently posted this message about TNReady results and report cards:

The State Department of Education has notified the district that results from this spring’s TNReady testing will be delayed so grades cannot be calculated by the timeline established. The district is in the planning stages of determining how to proceed.

“We are disappointed in this delay,” said Superintendent Dr. Mike Looney. “The school district is preparing an action plan so we can accurately communicate to parents how their student performed during the 2016-17 school year.”

This marks the fourth consecutive year the state has not been able to produce testing results as promised.

Interestingly, earlier this week, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen declared TNReady a “success.”

Here’s what Chalkbeat reported:

Testing results won’t be in for months, but Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is giving this year’s TNReady run an A-plus.

TNReady’s second year — and first full year for grades 3-8 — was a success on both paper and online, McQueen told education stakeholders in an email on Monday.

While the administration of the test may have been uneventful, the release of scores is proving problematic. I wrote in December about the State Board of Education getting involved late in the game on whether and how much TNReady scores should count in student grades.

Now, with a delay in scores being released, local school boards will have to decide what to do with the results. Will they hold report cards until quick scores can be reported OR will they release report cards with grades that don’t include TNReady scores?

In either case, we’re now on year four of testing trouble in Tennessee. Will next year continue the cycle?

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


 

Opportunity to Learn

Natalie Coleman, Sumner County Teacher and HSG Tennessee Teacher Fellow

originally posted on TNTeacherTalk

 

Any teacher can tell you that students who miss too much school are at a disadvantage compared to their peers. Regardless of whether absences are a result of illness, personal reasons, or suspensions, missed time in school is detrimental to the individual student’s learning. The Tennessee Department of Education hopes to improve students’ opportunity to learn by reducing absenteeism. In Tennessee’s Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan, one nonacademic indicator for school and district accountability is the “chronically out of school” metric, which will evaluate progress in reducing the number of students who miss ten percent or more of the school year.

Before finalizing the state’s ESSA plan, the TDOE tasked the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows with collecting feedback from teachers across the state of Tennessee about their experiences with chronic absenteeism and with student discipline. This spring, the Fellows released a report based on the valuable input of over 2,000 teachers who participated in an online survey and nearly 400 who provided their insights in focus groups. The report includes six recommendations that the Fellows presented to Commissioner McQueen and the TDOE and is now available for the benefit of all stakeholders in Tennessee education.

The report details the results of the survey and summarizes the trends of teachers’ comments in focus groups, and a look through the report shows many connections between teachers’ experiences and the recommendations made to the Department of Education.

Recommendation 1 focuses on helping schools and teachers address the problem of students chronically missing school. Based on the survey data, even though 95% of teachers affirmed that chronic absenteeism affects student achievement, many teachers also reported that they have received little or no training in how to reduce student absences. 90% of teachers reported that they had not received training on strategies for reducing chronic absenteeism, and 92% reported that they were unfamiliar or only somewhat familiar with the state’s initiatives in addressing this issue. In response to this feedback, the Fellows recommend, “To ensure that teachers are fully aware of TDOE efforts, CORE offices could build teacher awareness of the draft ESSA plan (2016) through trainings that highlight key plan features that are designed to reduce chronic absenteeism.”   

Recommendation 2 seeks to provide schools and teachers with more resources to address this issue. On the Fall 2016 survey, 69% of teachers reported that they believe problems at home are the most significant barrier to student attendance, but only 30% report that they are aware that Family Resource Centers are available to help families and students who struggle with absenteeism. In fact, teachers who chose to write in their own answers about the family support services offered by their schools overwhelmingly responded with none. As a result, the second recommendation says, “To alleviate teacher concerns about this issue, TDOE could build awareness of an increased TDOE focus in 2017 on reducing chronic absenteeism through Family Resource Centers. Additionally, TDOE could remind teachers of the 103 Family Resource Centers in 78 districts and highlight the various needs-based services and training provided to parents and families through these centers.”

Recommendations 3 and 4 focus on student behavior and discipline. In focus groups, teachers shared various obstacles they encounter in implementing effective discipline policies. The third recommendation connects these teacher concerns to resources the TDOE could provide in conjunction with Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior (RTI2-B): “Because TDOE focuses on RTI2-B in the draft ESSA plan (2016), TDOE could expand the RTI2-B framework to reach more districts and schools through CORE offices or Tennessee Behavior Supports Project (TBSP), thereby providing additional targeted support in areas highlighted as obstacles by teachers.” The fourth highlights strategies for improving student behavior that are both research-based and frequently cited by teachers themselves in their focus group responses: “Through CORE offices or Tennessee Behavior Supports Project (TBSP), TDOE could emphasize how the following teacher suggestions for improving student behavior are research-based and addressed in RTI2-B: promoting positive behavior and prevention efforts and encouraging restorative behavior practices; involving parents in student behavior efforts; nurturing positive student-teacher relationships; and providing appropriate consequences in response to student behavior issues.” This recommendation encourages the TDOE to promote these research-based practices which teachers also know to be effective.

Recommendation 5 addresses the all-too-familiar concern of bullying in school. 14% of teachers report they feel unprepared or very unprepared to handle incidents of bullying in their classrooms, and 20% rate the effectiveness of their schools’ response to bullying as ineffective or very ineffective. These numbers show that many schools and teachers need additional support in addressing the issue of bullying and validate the fifth recommendation: “Because 20 percent of teachers shared that their schools’ response to bullying is ineffective, TDOE could provide resources to CORE offices for dissemination to districts and schools.”

Recommendation 6 highlights previous Hope Street Group findings about RTI2 and urges using prior teacher feedback to inform implementation of RTI2-B, Response to Instruction and Intervention for Behavior, which features in the state’s draft ESSA plan. This recommendation reads: “TDOE could revisit the recommendations provided in the Spring 2016 Hope Street Group Report on RTI2, including those related to scheduling and structuring RTI2; promoting whole school support and reducing negative perceptions of RTI2 effectiveness; and providing funding for additional RTI2 resources (e.g., professional development) and staffing.” This previous report, detailing teacher feedback regarding RTI2, is also available on the Hope Street Group website.

To learn more, visit the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows website and download the full 2016-17 report. You can also stay connected by liking and following the Tennessee Teacher Fellows’ Facebook page, Tennessee Teacher Voice.

 

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


 

Vouchers: The Ultimate Non-Solution

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen expressed frustration recently at years of ineffective education reform efforts. Specifically, she said:

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

McQueen was lamenting the lack of progress made in school turnaround efforts and pointing lawmakers toward proven solutions. In fact, she noted the state’s ESSA plan focuses on strategies that have gotten results:

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far and have undergone case studies. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Candice McQueen is frustrated, and rightly so. As a result, her Department of Education is using ESSA to focus Tennessee’s school improvement efforts and even rein-in the Achievement School District (ASD).

What’s interesting in all of this, then, is that some state lawmakers seem intent on pushing through a voucher program for Shelby County.

McQueen told lawmakers they can’t keep throwing millions of dollars at solutions that are not solutions. But, according to the Fiscal Note on SB 161/HB 126, the bill will result in spending nearly $9 million on the voucher “solution” next year and more than $18 million per year once fully implemented. Of course, those estimates assume the program doesn’t expand beyond Shelby County.

A voucher program that started small in Indiana just five years ago now costs that state $131 million per year.

Talk about an expensive non-solution. In fact, the most recent research indicates that vouchers actually can have a negative impact on student academic achievement.

Kevin Carey summarizes:

The first results came in late 2015. Researchers examined an Indiana voucher program that had quickly grown to serve tens of thousands of students under Mike Pence, then the state’s governor. “In mathematics,” they found, “voucher students who transfer to private schools experienced significant losses in achievement.” They also saw no improvement in reading.

The next results came a few months later, in February, when researchers published a major study of Louisiana’s voucher program. Students in the program were predominantly black and from low-income families, and they came from public schools that had received poor ratings from the state department of education, based on test scores. For private schools receiving more applicants than they could enroll, the law required that they admit students via lottery, which allowed the researchers to compare lottery winners with those who stayed in public school.

They found large negative results in both reading and math. Public elementary school students who started at the 50th percentile in math and then used a voucher to transfer to a private school dropped to the 26th percentile in a single year. Results were somewhat better in the second year, but were still well below the starting point.

In June, a third voucher study was released by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative think tank and proponent of school choice. The study, which was financed by the pro-voucher Walton Family Foundation, focused on a large voucher program in Ohio. “Students who use vouchers to attend private schools have fared worse academically compared to their closely matched peers attending public schools,” the researchers found. Once again, results were worse in math.

So, we have an Education Commissioner pleading with the General Assembly to focus on what works AND we have evidence from other states telling us vouchers don’t get the job done. At the same time, we have evidence from schools right here in Tennessee that tells us what IS working.

It’s time for the Tennessee General Assembly to heed the advice of Candice McQueen and stop attempting to throw millions of dollars at “solutions that are not solutions.”

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


 

Russo on Tennessee’s Alternative Graduation Facts

Much has been made about a state report seeming to indicate that one third of Tennessee’s high school graduates finished school without meeting state minimum requirements.

The initial release of the report caused alarm, of course. Then, the state walked back the numbers after admitting a data error.

Alexander Russo takes a look at the report and the surrounding news coverage and comes to this conclusion:

The state issued  a bad number without carefully considering its flaws or making them clear to reporters and board members, then belatedly realized its mistake and walked the initial figure back. But news outlets contributed to the problem by rushing to report the initial figure without questioning just how iffy it might be, unintentionally delivering inaccurate information to the public. The end result has been widespread confusion that will take a long time to clear up – if it ever is.

While Russo suggests media outlets should have done a better job of both raising questions and seeking clarifying information, he notes the state bears the brunt of the responsibility:

To be clear, the state department should have checked with the districts before presenting this information to the board and to the public. The state should also have anticipated that the graduation rate number would attract enormous amounts of attention and include additional warnings and caveats about the preliminary nature of the number. The primary responsibility was theirs.

The Tennessee Education Association pointed to the state’s responsibility to release accurate data and noted that the initial claims may have helped advance the arguments of school privatization advocates.

From a TEA press release:

Organizations backing privatization schemes like private school vouchers, rapid charter expansion and high-stakes testing, need people to believe that public schools are failing. Undermining confidence in public schools is an important step to build support for radical and dangerous proposals to destroy public education.

“As a state that consistently ranks at the bottom in student investment, we are consistently in the top 10 for graduation rate because of the commitment of Tennessee educators. Our students and teachers already often have the odds stacked against them, they don’t need damaging misinformation piling anything else on,” [TEA Executive Director] Crowder said.

To be sure, both the initial data release and the subsequent reporting created a sense of alarm in the state’s education policy community. Taking just a few extra steps could have prevented what turned into a rather messy scene.

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


 

 

McQueen’s Non-Response to Intervention

State Representative Joe Pitts of Clarksville has filed a bill (HB501) that would require the state to include funding for three Response to Intervention and Instruction positions for each public school in the BEP formula.

The idea is a sensible one. The state has mandated RTI2 without funding for years now, with a devastating impact on both budgets and services offered. Districts can use the “flexibility” offered by the state to choose which students get services and also use state instructional funds to pay for new RTI teachers, often meaning existing teachers receive smaller salary increases, if any are received at all.

The RTI staffing shortfall is a perfect example of why the BEP formula is inadequate. In fact, the formula is some $400 million short of what current staffing levels suggest is needed.

So, of course, in a year with a nearly $1 billion budget surplus, the state is moving to address the RTI issue as Pitts has suggested, right? Wrong!

Asked in a House education committee hearing today about new funds for RTI, Commissioner Candice McQueen said “not this year.” She did mention that she considered the Read to be Ready initiative (which receives $4.5 million in new funding this year) to be a part of RTI. Other than that, though, there’s no planned money to fund an ongoing, unfunded state mandate.

Here’s the thing: The bill sponsored by Pitts creates three new BEP-funded positions for each public school in the state. The cost of that as a portion of the BEP instructional component is $167 million. The state pays 70% of $44,000 for each instructional position funded through the BEP.

If Pitts’ legislation were adopted, districts would receive a dedicated funding stream for RTI positions. This would allow them to use their base instructional funding to improve the salaries of their existing teachers.

The additional funds would also allow for a more robust implementation of RTI. Districts may be able to expand the number of students receiving services or at least, provide better RTI service to the students in the program.

The Comptroller has identified a funding shortfall in our state’s schools. The issue is related to staffing ratios and state funding. Joe Pitts has a solution that would help address this concern. That solution would cost about 17 percent of the total current budget surplus. Yes, it’s an ongoing commitment, but it’s an expense recent budget cycles indicate our state can absorb.

We have a clearly identified problem. We have a simple, relatively affordable solution. And we have a Commissioner of Education who says, “not this year.”

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


 

Why Doesn’t 4=4?

For the past two years, Gov. Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has adopted education budgets that included four percent increases in state appropriations for the instructional salary component of the BEP. That means Tennessee teachers have received four percent raises in back-to-back years, right?

Wrong.

Instead, some teachers have seen no raise at all or very small salary increases while the average has hovered in the 2-2.5% range.

What’s going on?

I’ve attempted to explain this phenomenon here and here.

Those posts point to the State Board’s insistence on flexibility for local districts as a part of the equation. And, to be sure, the State Board’s refusal to adjust the state salary schedule by the same percentage as the salary appropriation does play a role.

But, there’s a bigger problem. The state is simply under-funding teaching positions through the BEP formula. I wrote about the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability (OREA) study and pointed to a $400 million difference between the BEP-generated allocation of teaching positions and the actual number of teachers hired by local school systems. Since then, OREA has been informed by the Department of Education that some of those positions not funded by the state are entirely funded by federal dollars. The revised estimate, then, is that school districts in Tennessee are paying for between 12-18% of their teaching positions exclusively through local funds.

Yes, local districts are hiring between 12-18% more teachers than the state pays for through the BEP.  Imagine your school district with a teaching force reduced by an average of 15%. Could your schools function? Would students be well-served?

Since districts are responsible for 100% of the cost of any teacher hired beyond the BEP, they must make their available salary dollars stretch. So, when a district receives a 4% increase in salary funds, those funds are spread out among both the BEP-generated teachers and another 15% of teachers the district requires but which are not paid for at all by the state.

Stretching those dollars turns a 4% salary component increase into a raise of around 2% for most teachers. Some districts use 100% of their BEP salary allocation increase to hire new teachers, which means existing staff get no raise at all.

Fortunately, Governor Haslam just held budget hearings and Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen presented her proposed budget, including a recommended increase in the BEP. In fact, the issue of salary is discussed during the hearing when Finance Commissioner Larry Martin brings up BEP components. You can watch that discussion at around the 38 minute mark here. 

Unfortunately, McQueen is not proposing a solution to the BEP funding problem.

Grace Tatter reports:

Earlier in the day, Commissioner Candice McQueen asked for a 1.4 percent increase in education spending next school year, mostly to accommodate a projected 1.8 percent increase in student enrollment statewide, a driving component of the state’s school spending formula, called the Basic Education Program, or BEP.

In addition to wanting $58 million more for the BEP, McQueen asked for an extra $4.4 million for the state’s Read to Be Ready literacy initiative; $379,000 more on educator preparation programs; and $2 million to train teachers on new standards for science and the fine arts. She also is requesting $28.9 million for rural education programs.

It’s nice to see normal growth funded through the BEP, but districts will need a lot more than their share of $58 million to make up for the teacher funding shortfall under the current formula.

An increase of teaching positions of 15% through the BEP formula would cost $367 million. That’s without a salary increase. Of course, our state ended last year with a surplus of over $900 million and is starting this year with revenue coming in well over projections.

Here’s what Governor Haslam has to say about that:

Haslam said the increase would be substantial, although not as much as the state could afford with its considerable surplus. That’s because any pay hike must be sustainable in lean years, he said.

“We will continue to invest in education whenever we can, but we would like to be thoughtful,” Haslam told reporters after hearings on the budget for 2017-18.

If Haslam and the DOE were actually being thoughtful, they’d propose adjusting the BEP formula in a way that provides personnel funding that matches school system needs. Instead, teachers can likely expect that whatever raise is proposed and adopted will be cut in half as a result of the inadequacy of the BEP.

As for those “lean years,” we’re now in our third consecutive year of very significant surpluses. Investing 50% or so of last year’s surplus could beef up the BEP formula and still leave half a billion for other priorities or the rainy day fund.

The BEP is broken. A state experiencing significant budget surpluses should be able to fix it. What’s missing?

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


 

Learning 1, Imaginary Menace 0

Despite the best efforts of Jay Sekulow and Steve Gill, it seems Tennessee’s 7th grade social studies standards will still include learning about Islam in the world religion portion of the course.

The Tennessean reports:

In total, the department’s social studies review team has cut down the number of 7th grade standards, where Islam is taught, from 75 to 67.
The process has included a name change of standards under the “Islamic World, 400 A.D/C.E.–1500s” to “Southwest Asia and North Africa: 400-1500s C.E.” Some references to the “Islamic World” have been changed to “Africa.”
And under the new draft standards, students are asked to learn the origins, spread and central features of Islam. These include the founder Mohammed, sacred texts The Quran and The Sunnah and basic beliefs like monotheism and The Five Pillars. The diffusion of Islam, its culture and Arabic language are also still included in the standards.

A little over a year ago, I wrote about Sekulow and his fear-mongering for profit around Tennessee’s social studies standards. Citing one of his emails, here’s what I wrote about the alternate reality in which Sekulow apparently lives:

Hundreds of seventh grade students all across Tennessee converting to Islam after their world history class. It’s happening everywhere. In rural and urban communities. It’s happening because Tennessee teachers are not just teaching world religions, they are specifically focusing on Islam and indoctrinating our children. They must be, with so many conversions happening every single week.
Actually, so far, no one has reported a single conversion of any student to Islam after taking a seventh grade history class.

Despite the lack of any actual problem, Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen called for an early review of the state’s social studies standards. And, State Board of Education Chair Fielding Rolston punted on the issue. That’s what prompted the changes noted in the Tennessean story cited above.

The good news is the standards (as proposed) leave the teaching of Islam as part of a broader curriculum on world religions largely intact.

It’s not clear (yet) if Sekulow and Gill will find a new way to gin up fear and pad their wealth as the state enters a comment period for the proposed revisions.

The comment period for the standards has been extended to December 15th. Those wishing to review the standards and offer feedback can do so here.

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