What’s Your Story?

Tennessee Education Report is committed to telling the story of K-12 education in Tennessee. Since 2013, this publication has reported on state policy changes and education politics.

Recently, there’s been a focus on issues like portfolio evaluation and TNReady.

While I love digging into an issue and providing analysis I hope readers find insightful, there’s no substitute for the voice of educators. Teachers doing the work every single day know exactly what’s happening in our schools and are uniquely positioned to offer advice to policy makers.

Now is a great time to share that voice. We have a new Governor coming into office in January. Our General Assembly will have many new faces and new leadership.

I want to share your story — to publish your article or commentary on issues like teacher pay, TVAAS, teacher evaluation, portfolios, testing, and whatever else is of interest to you.

I’m also happy to hear from you and use your ideas to investigate and report on a story or issues impacting schools in our state.

If you have a story idea or want to write a commentary, email me at andy@tnedreport.com.

What’s your story?

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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Shining a Light

Since I published “Eric’s Story” last week on the issue of the new (and troublesome) Kindergarten portfolio, I’ve received a number of emails offering further insight.

These messages indicate that our state’s system of evaluating teachers is broken and that those making decisions are both disconnected from and indifferent to what happens each and every day in classrooms around our state. I’ll be sharing these (while protecting the names of the senders) over the next few days. If you have an evaluation or portfolio story to share, please send it to andy@tnedreport.com

Never felt more defeated in my life…

First of all, thank you for shining a light on some of the realities of this portfolio debacle. It was clear to me in August of this past year that this particular portfolio process was going to not only consume classroom time, but would take in excess of over 40 hours of uncompensated personal time.

Back in the fall, with the inconsistencies between the rubric for the portfolio and the state mandated standards glaring at me, I knew this was probably the beginning of the end of my teaching career. My colleagues and I were very concerned and decided to reach out to our local and state officials to make them aware of what we could already see was a train wreck. This was met with some mixed reactions. When I shared with a local board member that this was the type of thing that will drive good educators out of the classroom, I was told that is the ultimate goal, to see public education crumble and was somewhat dismissive of what I was saying in a way that made me believe nothing could ever be done to fix it. That tune changed once we had the attention of several people on the state level who came to our school to hear a presentation by my grade level about the problems and possible solutions.

It was through this meeting that two of us were invited to the capital to speak on the matter. While we felt this was a step in the right direction we still had to continue working on the portfolio because there was no word on what would happen. During this part of the portfolio process, members of my team reached out to “specialists” assigned to our school who responded with contradictory information, or rudeness, or not at all.

We are all still waiting to hear an answer to a question one of our colleagues sent by email 4 months ago. There has been NO support, NO encouragement, and NO input from teachers as to how this portfolio could or should even work. The very teachers who have to live these demands on top of teaching 5 and 6 year olds to read and write and a million other big and small things that no one even acknowledges are the ones who should be making decisions but that is certainly not happening. I

can honestly say I have never felt more defeated in my life. Frankly, I’m tired of feeling this way. I work hard. I go above and beyond because that’s how I was raised. I give my all in teaching because I believe the students entrusted to me deserve the best I can give.

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

Do you have a story about what’s happening in Tennessee schools? Get in touch at andy@tnedreport.com

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You’re Fired….uh, Hired!

The Chattanooga Times Free Press notes that Governor Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen are considering ending the state’s relationship with Questar:

Gov. Bill Haslam said the state is conducting an independent review of its current contractor running the problem-plagued TNReady student testing system and, depending on its findings, the company could be out of the picture once its current contract ends in November.

The likely replacement for Questar is Education Testing Service (ETS):

McQueen said that in addition to the state’s third-party review of Questar’s operations, the state is already going to move “all of our test development and design” to Educational Testing Services, which she said has a “reputation for very high quality work.”

Sounds great, right? Firing the vendor that was baffled by hackers and dump trucks and replacing them with a group with a solid reputation.

Except for just one thing:

Education Testing Services, the global billion dollar nonprofit that administers more than 50 million tests (including the GRE and TOEFL) across the world, recently sealed an agreement to acquire Questar, a Minnesota-based for-profit testing service, for $127.5 million. According to the press release, Questar will become a separate for-profit subsidiary of ETS.

Questar offers what they describe as a “fresh and innovative” method of testing for grades 3-8—providing states with summative assessments, design support, scalable technological innovation, administrative help, scoring and reporting services.

Ok, so maybe ETS will step in and give its baby brother Questar some guidance going forward? Well:

The changes highlight a possible strategic shift for ETS whose reputation came under fire last year when the nonprofit had to pay $20.7 million dollars in damages and upgrades after multiple testing problems in Texas.

Let’s get this straight: Governor Haslam and Commissioner McQueen think no one in Tennessee understands Google? They are “firing” the company that messed up this year’s testing and hiring a new company that owns the old one and that also has a reputation for messing up statewide testing.

Solid move.

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

Keep the education news coming!


 

YOU’RE FIRED Rubber Stamp over a white background.

Volunteer Strike?

Nashville teacher Amanda Kail offers thoughts on the current national climate with teacher strikes or other actions in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona. She takes a moment to explain (from a teacher’s perspective) why this is happening and if it might happen in Tennessee.

Here are her posts:

If you are not a teacher, here are some things you might not know about why so many teachers are striking right now:

1. Most public employees, including teachers, have had their salaries frozen since 2008. In Nashville, step increases that are meant to keep up with inflation and encourage teachers to stick with the job were reintroduced only last year, and only then because MNEA stood up and fought for it. Even so, with the reintroduction of step raises (such as they are- in Nashville it takes a teacher with a MA 10 years to earn $50,000), teacher salaries are now barely above what they were 10 years ago, while cost of living and health care (because our legislature refused to expand medicaid) has sky-rocketed. In Oklahoma, many teachers were seeing the cost of their health insurance exceed their paycheck. This is why you are seeing teachers demand significant raises, not because we are greedy or want gold-plated glue sticks.

2. In states without strong teacher unions, state funding for public education has been continually slashed. In Oklahoma, many districts have been forced to go to a 4 day school week. Here in Nashville, a city with a booming economy that outpaces national averages, parents and teachers find themselves having to fight not only for school employee raises and basic supplies, but for funding school lunch programs and filters to remove lead from school drinking fountains. How can this be? Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation for per pupil funding, and our state legislature which is so generous with its offers of guns and “In God We Trust” signs, only gives us about 60% of the money we are allocated in the state budget. So 60% of already drastically underfunded = hungry kids drinking leaded water in the “It City”. And guess who mostly makes up the difference for public school kids, who provides not only school supplies, but clothing, food, medical care, transportation, and even emergency housing? Teachers. Out of our own pockets. With our low and stagnant wages. This is why you are seeing teachers who have never attended a political rally before suddenly fighting so fiercely. We ARE doing it for the kids.

3. When teachers say we want “respect”, we don’t mean more cheap tchotchkes that say “we  teachers”, or more politicians to say, “thank you for all you do for our kids blah blah blah”. We mean that we want evaluation systems that are fair. That we want our professionalism to not be measured by tests that are deeply flawed and poorly planned (TN’s state tests have had major problems 3 years in a row, including one year that the test had to be abandoned mid-session). That we want leaders who have proven themselves in the classroom first, not hatched out of some neoliberal think-tank dedicated to robbing public schools for the DeVosses of the world. That we want to have the time to design lessons, grade, and teach without interruption by more unfunded mandates. It means that teachers who choose to work with low income students, students with disabilities, and immigrants should have the time, resources, and even more importantly, the trust that we know what we are doing, so we can fill in the foundational skills our students need in order to grow so that they can function on grade level, or beyond! It means giving us class sizes and case loads that are manageable. It means that our districts should consult us as experts in the field on curriculum design and proper assessment before throwing away millions on more pre-packed crap that will end up collecting dust in the closet somewhere. It means valuing veteran teachers with teaching degrees from respected universities enough to pay competitive wages and offer paths to leadership. Seriously, you can keep the tchotchkes.

4. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Trust teachers. We are fighting not only for our own babies, but yours. We stand up for EVERY kid in our community, and we see first hand what happens when communities refuse to do the same. If we say there is a problem, we mean it. Support your local teacher union. Advocate for your neighborhood school. Question why the schools that serve mostly poor kids often look so neglected. Demand that the political candidate of your choice fight to support public schools. Vote like every kid in your state is depending on you. Teachers should not have to put our whole careers on the line to show how badly things have gotten, but we will. So listen. And join us.

On whether there may be strikes in Tennessee:

I have had several people ask me about the possibility of Nashville teachers going on strike. Here is what I will say: Sometimes a walk-out doesn’t look like a picket line. It looks like the 100 or so vacancies our district can’t fill. It looks like increasing numbers of teachers leaving in their first and second years. It looks like veteran teachers deciding to leave the career they loved because they can’t take anymore of the insanity and nonsense wrought by testing. It looks like unstaffed after-school programs because most teachers have to work second and third jobs. It looks like less and less experienced teachers in the classroom, because no one else will put up with it.

Every time a teacher leaves, the students of that teacher lose ground. I’ve seen classrooms become revolving doors of inexperienced and overwhelmed teachers, giving way to subs or overloading other classrooms. Our kids deserve better.

Here is the thing. Teachers really can’t go on like this, and we are having less and less to lose. I think it is HIGH time that the city of Nashville, not just Dr. Joseph and the BOE put school employee raises as a number one priority. The 2% “raise” we are currently being offered barely covers inflation. It still takes teachers with an MA 10 years to reach $50,000, at the same time the administrators at Bransford make more than our city’s mayor. Something has got to give.

 

 

Teachers, what are your thoughts?

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


 

2018 Legislative Preview

The Tennessee General Assembly is back in session today. Here’s an overview of some education topics that are likely to be considered this year. Of course, more issues always arise, but these issues will most certainly be given attention.

Testing

Senator Bill Ketron has indicated he’s proposing legislation that will place a moratorium on any new testing until the current TNReady tests are successfully administered. Initially, it sounded like his proposal would stop all testing, but Ketron has since clarified that to indicate he wants to see the current test done right before any new tests are added.

Representative Jeremy Faison has proposed separating TNReady test scores from student grades and teacher evaluations. There have been significant problems with getting scores back in a reliable way in order to include them in student grades. Additionally, the apples to oranges comparison of TNReady to the old TCAP tests renders any teacher growth scores essentially meaningless.

Representative Matthew Hill has proposed shifting high school testing from TNReady to the ACT suite of assessments. Hill says there’s too much emphasis on testing and too many hours spent away from instruction.

Combined, these initiatives represent a shift in attitude about TNReady and testing in general that could lead to some changes in how tests impact students and teachers. Decoupling tests from student grades and teacher evaluations would likely have the effect of reducing the influence they have over instructional time.

RTI

Response to Intervention and Instruction (RTI2) has been a state mandate for several years now, but state funding to carry out the program’s demands has not been provided. This has led to some creative (and not terribly effective) implementation strategies. Districts are responding to the mandate to the best of their abilities, but due to lack of financial support, this doesn’t always lead to the best outcome for students.

In her budget presentation to Governor Haslam, Commissioner Candice McQueen indicated she’d propose dedicated funding for RTI in a BEP update. It was not immediately clear how much funding or how it would be integrated into the school funding formula. Rep. Joe Pitts offered a possible option last year, but his proposal was not embraced by the Administration.

It’s encouraging to see this item being discussed. Many districts have used the state’s salary increase funding for teachers to hire RTI teachers — which means lower or no raises for teachers across a district. Providing dedicated RTI funding would allow districts to use state salary funds to boost pay across the board, and that’s good news in a state that pays teachers 30% less than similarly educated professionals.

Teacher Pay

Following up on the RTI discussion as it relates to overall teacher pay, Governor Haslam has proposed and the General Assembly has approved BEP salary fund increases of 4% per year over the past three years. Because of issues like RTI and the general inadequacy of the BEP, teachers haven’t always seen 4% raises. The average, in fact, has been just under 2% per year. Still, Governor Haslam gets some credit for maintaining investment in teacher compensation. Some speculate he’ll go a step further in his last year in office, adding 5% to teacher compensation through the BEP. If this is coupled with a significant investment in RTI, it could mean the largest raise teachers have seen in years. The cost of making this investment would be around $125 million. With revenue continuing to outpace projections, this level of investment is both possible and wise. Tennessee still has a long way to go in terms of improving teacher compensation and support, but these two steps would signal a positive trend.

Vouchers

Both the House and Senate sponsors of voucher legislation have indicated they will not pursue the idea this year. In fact, both have said they want to focus on finding ways to invest in teacher pay and RTI, signaling a level of agreement with Governor Haslam. Last year marked the fifth consecutive year vouchers were defeated. It seems, for now at least, that advocates of using public tax dollars for private schools will wait to fight another day.

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


 

A Late Call

Yesterday, the State Board of Education met and amended the state’s high school policy, including how End of Course exams factor into a student’s final grades.

As I reported earlier, this meeting happened just days before the semester ended for many students.

Here’s a note from Commissioner McQueen’s latest message to educators on the topic:

Yesterday, the State Board of Education voted on final reading to approve the department’s proposal to phase in EOC scores into high school students’ grades beginning this school year and continuing during the next few years. Also in the proposal, the department recommended to provide districts with students’ raw score points earned out of the total available instead of the conversion score that the department provided previously, commonly called quick scores. Please reference this memo (here) and FAQ document (here) for additional context. This policy becomes effective immediately for all 2016 fall block courses taking EOCs. The exams will account for 10 percent of students’ course grades this year.

Remarkably, the memo McQueen cites notes that the first reading of this policy change was in October. However, the special called meeting on adopting the change and making it official didn’t happen until yesterday. While the October meeting may have signaled the Board’s intent, there was no official policy change until just days before the semester ended.

Between October and now, of course, two large school districts have seen their boards pass resolutions asking the State Board and General Assembly to not count these tests in either student grades or teacher evaluations as we transition to a new test with a new vendor. Those concerns were apparently ignored at yesterday’s meeting.

The legislature could take action on the issue in 2017, but doing so may create confusion since students on block scheduling will have completed courses and received grades.

One provision of the change that is worth noting is that if EOC scores are not available to districts at least five instructional days before a course ends, the district may elect NOT to use those scores in a student’s final grade. For many districts, that day was yesterday.

If districts do decide to use the scores for this semester and next, they may only count for 10% of a student’s final grade.

I’d suggest that the more prudent course is for districts to not count the scores at all this year as we are in a transition year.

The late call (why not a special meeting a few weeks after the first meeting?) raises questions about the State Board’s responsiveness to the concerns of those officials doing the day-t0-day work of running a school district.

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


 

 

Who is Sara Heyburn?

Jon Alfuth over at Bluff City Ed has an interview with the former teacher who is now the Executive Director of the Tennessee State Board of Education.

One note that struck me in the interview was her expressed desire to hear more from teachers in the policy making process. Here’s what she had to say:

“We need to hear from teachers who are interested in policy making. Continue to persevere and look for those opportunities and find ways to make your voices heard.”

She also speaks to the strengths of existing policy outlets, and advises teachers to take part in them.

“The outlets we have now in our state are great. There are lots of opportunities for teachers to get involved.” However, she also emphasizes that teachers aren’t seeing what they want, they should work to create additional opportunities.

I absolutely agree that policymakers should look to teachers for guidance and insight on education policy decisions. Heyburn’s words sound like a welcome invitation for teachers to offer their perspective as policy is being made.

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

 

Education Monday

Monday will see two events focused on the state of education policy in Tennessee.

The first is sponsored by newly-launched TREE and will be held at 9:30 AM in Legislative Plaza Room 31.

The event features Elaine Weiss discussing Race to the Top, Poverty, NAEP Scores, and the state of Tennessee schools.  Weiss is the National Coordinator of the Broader, Bolder Approach to Education.

The next event is hosted by SCORE. At 11 AM SCORE will release and discuss its “State of Education” Report highlighting Tennessee’s education status and listing priorities for 2014.

SCORE has released such reports in the past. They have focused on student achievement, educator quality, teacher evaluation, and teacher preparation among other topics.

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