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


 

Knox County to Consider Resolution on A-F School Report Card

The Knoxville News-Sentinel reports that the Knox County School Board will consider a resolution in opposition to the state’s proposed A-F school report card. The A-F grading system has come under fire from educators and district leaders across the state.

The newspaper reports that Knox County’s Interim Director of Schools, Buzz Thomas, sent a letter to Education Commissioner Candice McQueen outlining his concerns:

“Branding a school with a single grade, on the other hand, could be both misleading and demoralizing,” Thomas wrote. “I can only imagine how it’s going to play in the African-American community when we place an F on several of their beloved, neighborhood schools.

“Yes, we need to be accountable. But a failing grade here is really a failing grade of the community – not the school. High poverty and high crime ravage people, and the schools those people attend will reflect those community realities.”

A vote on the resolution, sponsored by Board Vice Chair Amber Rountree, is expected to come this week.

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


 

 

Joey Hassell’s Tweetstorm of Truth

Ripley High School Principal Joey Hassell has been tweeting this weekend about the state’s move to an A-F grading system for schools. The new system came about because of a legislative mandate. Hassell’s not happy about it. Interestingly, Hassell was formerly an Assistant Commissioner at the Tennessee Department of Education.

Here are a few of his tweets about the A-F grading system for schools:

 

As you can see, Hassell is quite unhappy with the move to the new grading system. His opinion seems to be supported by at least some district-level leaders based on likes and retweets he’s received.

The A-F system is set to start next school year, based on results from this year’s battery of tests and other data.

The legislature could make changes to the proposal in the upcoming legislative session, which starts on Tuesday, January 10th.

 

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


 

Supplemental Letter

25 Republican House and Senate Education Committee members, including Tennessee’s Lamar Alexander, sent a letter to Education Secretary John King expressing displeasure with proposed rules on what it means for federal Title I funds to “supplement, not supplant” state and local funds.

The legislators contend the proposed rule violates the intent of ESSA and could damage local districts and impact spending flexibility.

Here’s what they had to say:

The Honorable John B. King, Jr.
Secretary
U.S. Department of Education
400 Maryland Avenue, SW
Washington, DC 20202

Re: RIN 1810-AB33
Proposed Rule on Implementing the Supplement, Not Supplant Provision Under Title I of the ESEA

Dear Secretary King:

We respectfully submit these comments in response to a Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) to create new regulations to implement programs under Title I of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act of 1965 (ESEA), as amended by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), which was published in the Federal Register on September 6, 2016. As Members of the United States Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions (HELP) and House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce, we are writing to express our strong concerns about the U.S. Department of Education (“the Department”) proposals to regulate the supplement, not supplant (SNS) requirement found in section 1118(b) of ESSA.

ESSA was signed into law by President Obama on December 10, 2015, after passing the U.S. House of Representatives (359 – 64) and Senate (85 – 12) with overwhelming bipartisan support. The new law represents a broad consensus to restore to States, Local Educational Agencies (LEAs), educators, and parents the responsibility for making important decisions about how to improve educational opportunities and outcomes for all students.

In Chevron U.S.A. Inc. v. Natural Resources Defense Council, the U.S. Supreme Court established that the test for reviewing an agency’s interpretation of a statute consists of two related questions. First, the question is “whether Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue. If the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter” because the court and agency must “give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” Second, if “Congress has not directly addressed the precise question at issue” or “if the statute is silent or ambiguous” the question is “whether the agency’s answer is based on a permissible construction of the statute.”

Unfortunately, the NPRM does not reflect the clear and unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. In the new law, Congress directly spoke to the issue by both clarifying and simplifying how LEAs demonstrate compliance with the SNS requirement under Title I of ESEA. The NPRM draws broad and inaccurate conclusions about what Congress intended when amending the SNS provision that are not supported by the statutory text and violate clear and unambiguous limitations on the Secretary’s authority. While the NPRM includes some provisions that accurately reflect the statute, it includes additional requirements on LEAs that are unlawful, unnecessary, and could result in harmful consequences to LEAs, schools, teachers, and students.

The intent of Congress in amending the SNS requirements under Title I of ESEA is clear and unambiguous in directly speaking to the issue of how LEAs must demonstrate compliance. As the Court has held, that should be “the end of the matter” for the Department, which through rulemaking should “give effect to the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress.” Instead, the NPRM violates this principle in imposing new requirements that reflect the Department’s own construction of the statute. We therefore strongly urge the Department to rescind this additional language and work with Congress in a bipartisan, bicameral way to implement ESSA as Congress clearly intended. The following outlines areas of agreement, and then describes the ways in which the Department’s proposal violates the letter and intent of the statute and could lead to negative results for low-income students and schools if it were implemented.
1. General Requirements in Compliance with ESSA and Congressional Intent
Sections 200.72(a) and (b)(1)(i) of the NPRM are consistent with the statute and Congressional intent by providing appropriate regulatory clarification that will enable LEAs to satisfy the requirements of the law. Consistent with section 1118(b)(1) of ESSA, the NPRM requires LEAs to use Title I, part A funds only to supplement the funds that would, in the absence of such funds, be made available from state and local sources for the education of students participating in Title I programs, and not to supplant such funds. This general requirement has been in ESEA since 1970 and is maintained under ESSA. Additionally, the NPRM repeats statutory language eliminating the non-regulatory “cost-by-cost” test. Accordingly, LEAs are no longer required to identify that an individual cost or service supported with Title I, part A funds is supplemental under ESEA. Finally, the NPRM also repeats statutory language that prohibits any requirement for LEAs to provide services with Title I, part A funds through a particular instructional method or instructional setting. Therefore, we recommend the Department maintain sections 200.72(a) and (b)(1)(i) of the NPRM.
2. Additional Requirements in Violation of ESSA and Congressional Intent
Section 200.72(b)(1)(ii) of the NPRM violates the “unambiguously expressed intent of Congress” and clearly contradicts provisions of the law that have existed since 1970 by outlining new and prescriptive methodologies from which LEAs must choose to distribute state and local education funding in order to demonstrate compliance with the SNS requirement under Title I, part A. Specifically, the NPRM would require each LEA to allocate “almost all State and local education funds to all of its public schools – regardless of Title I status” in a way that meets one of three federally prescribed tests. While the NPRM includes a “State-determined option for compliance” that the Department reasons is intended to “maximize flexibility for innovative approaches,” an LEA can only exercise this option if the methodology for distributing state and local funds is as rigorous, and results in substantially similar amounts of state and local funding for Title I schools in the district, as the other federally prescribed options. Furthermore, exercising this option must be ultimately approved by federal peer reviewers and the Secretary. Section 200.72(b)(1)(iii) also includes a “special rule” that provides a fourth option for how an LEA could comply with the new regulatory requirement, which is essentially the same Department proposal that was rejected during negotiated rulemaking. These new requirements on how state and local funds are distributed, which are not included in the law, violate the plain language of the statute, including limitations on the Secretary’s authority, and conflict with the unambiguous intent of Congress in amending the SNS requirement.
i. Section 1118(b)(2) of ESEA Does Not Require a Particular Funding Outcome

Section 1118(b)(2) of ESEA, as amended by ESSA, reads as follows:

(2) COMPLIANCE- To demonstrate compliance with paragraph (1), a local educational agency shall demonstrate that the methodology used to allocate State and local funds to each school receiving assistance under this part ensures that such school receives all of the State and local funds it would otherwise receive if it were not receiving assistance under this part.
The unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in adding the new paragraph (2) to the SNS provision was to clarify how LEAs should demonstrate compliance. This language replaces the test, established in non-regulatory guidance, that required most LEAs to demonstrate that each cost (i.e. material or service) charged with Title I funds was supplementary, which was criticized for being opaque, confusing, burdensome, incentivizing fragmented spending decisions, and otherwise in conflict with the purposes of Title I and the original intent of SNS. Instead, the plain language of ESEA now requires only that LEAs demonstrate that their methodology for allocating state and local dollars does not take into consideration a school’s receipt of Title I funds, which effectively means that the methodology must only demonstrate Title I neutrality. In other words, school districts cannot construct a methodology for distributing state and local funds to schools that deliberately reduces the amount of such funds that are allocated to Title I schools because they are also receiving Title I dollars. In doing so, Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue in setting forth an unambiguous auditable standard that does not require or support further regulatory clarification. That should be the end of the matter for the Department.

When the Senate passed its version of ESSA, entitled the Every Child Achieves Act, (S. 1177), which was approved unanimously by the Senate HELP Committee and passed the full Senate 81-17, it included language identical to paragraph (2) above, as well as a committee report negotiated between HELP Committee Republicans and Democrats. This report explained the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in how LEAs must demonstrate compliance with SNS under Title I, saying:
Specifically, the bill allows States and LEAs to comply with SNS for title I, part A funds if they can document that the manner in which they allocate State and local resources to schools is “Title I neutral,” or that the methodology does not account for the title I funds that schools will receive. Additionally, the bill removes requirements in regulation that force LEAs to identify individual costs or services as supplemental. Instead, the way in which State and local resources are allocated to a school must be examined as a whole to ensure that the methodology does not account for title I funds the schools will receive. This language will provide more flexibility for schools to utilize title I funds to implement comprehensive and innovative programs. LEAs will be able to demonstrate SNS compliance in a much less burdensome and restrictive way, while still making clear that Federal dollars are supplemental to State and local dollars and not be used to replace them.
The plain language and unambiguously expressed intent of this provision is to provide more flexibility to LEAs in complying with SNS by demonstrating that their methodology for distributing state and local funds does not account for the Title I funds, and, therefore, any federal Title I dollars that a school receives is clearly supplemental to the state and local funds that they would otherwise receive. Compliance is established once this methodology is demonstrated. Thus, this should be the end of the matter. However, the regulatory clarification proposed in the NPRM goes well beyond the requirement set forth clearly in statute and unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. The Department’s proposal prescribes four new standards from which school districts must choose, which collectively require either a specific methodology for distributing state and local funds or specific funding distribution outcomes. Congress deliberately chose not to create any such standards and added a paragraph on how an LEA would comply with the SNS provision to clarify that intent.
ii. The NPRM Violates Clear Prohibitions on the Secretary’s Authority
In ESSA, Congress spoke directly to limit the Secretary’s authority to regulate. First, section 1118(b)(4) of ESEA prohibits the Secretary from prescribing any specific methodology for allocating state and local funds. Second, section 8527(a) states:
Nothing in this Act shall be construed to authorize an officer or employee of the Federal Government, including through a grant, contract, or cooperative agreement, to mandate, direct, or control a State, local educational agency, or school’s … allocation of State or local resources, or mandate a State or any subdivision thereof to spend any funds or incur any costs not paid for under this Act.
Based on these clear prohibitions, that should have been the end of the matter for the Department. Instead, section 200.72(b)(1)(ii) of the NPRM violates the statute and the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in two ways.

First, the NPRM violates section 1118(b)(4) by prescribing the methodologies that LEAs may use to distribute state and local education funding. The Department reasons the NPRM is consistent with this prohibition because it provides a menu of options from which school districts can choose. However, in doing so, the NPRM creates a set of finite conditions for compliance with SNS, the practical effect of which is to prescribe specific methodologies that states and school districts must choose from to allocate State and local funds to all public schools. The proposal is also in violation of the intent of this prohibition, which was added to protect against any federal interference with school district funding methodologies, so long as those methodologies comply with paragraph (2) as discussed above.

Second, under the proposal, the Secretary is violating section 8527(a) by mandating, directing, and controlling how state and local resources are allocated, or alternatively, mandating states and LEAs spend additional funds not paid for under the statute. The fact that the NPRM will “mandate, direct, or control” the allocation of State or local resources or how a state or LEA spends its funds is not in dispute. The NPRM itself estimates that LEAs not in compliance would have to reallocate $800 million in State or local funds, or spend $2.2 billion in new State or local funds, or do a combination of both, in order to comply. The prohibition on such a mandate in section 8527(a) is not new to the law and its meaning is clear – federal officers may not mandate, direct, or control how States and LEAs spend or allocate their own dollars. This understanding of section 8527(a) was confirmed by a federal district court in School District of the City of Pontiac v. Secretary of the United States Department of Education. Therefore, by prescribing the methodologies that LEAs may use to distribute state and local education funding and effectively mandating, directing, and controlling how state and local resources are allocated, the NPRM violates clear prohibitions in the law and the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress to limit the Secretary’s authority to regulate.
iii. The NPRM is Not Supported by the Legislative History
The NPRM is not supported by the legislative history of ESSA in amending the SNS requirements. The Department reasons the proposed regulations “would ensure that Title I funds are used to fulfill their statutory purpose,” including to provide all children with a fair and equitable education, rather than to make up for “inequitable allocation of State and local funding to title I schools.” Many states have examined and are continuing to examine whether their own state and local funds are being allocated equitably to Title I and non-Title I schools. However, SNS has never required, nor is it intended to require, equity or fairness in the allocation of state and local education dollars.

As explained in a 2008 report, published by the Center for American Progress, under SNS “[a] district could provide half as much money for poor schools as middle-class schools, get Title I money, and then keep its own spending the same, using the new Title I dollars entirely for special programs in high-poverty schools.” The fact that Title I schools have received less state and local money than non-Title I schools would not violate the SNS requirement. The Department has maintained this interpretation of SNS since 1970.

The amendments made under Title I of ESSA do not alter this understanding of the purpose and intent of the SNS provision. The purpose of section 1118(b)(2) was not to prescribe how state and local funds must be distributed to Title I schools in comparison to non-Title I schools. Instead, it was to replace a complicated test for compliance issued by the Department in non-regulatory guidance with a simplified statutory requirement regarding how LEAs may comply with SNS. The Title I neutral test established by this provision is not new to the program. Guidance issued by the Department as recently as 2015 permitted LEAs to utilize a Title I neutral test to demonstrate compliance with SNS in schools operating a schoolwide program. Specifically, as articulated in the guidance, “the supplement not supplant requirement for a schoolwide program is simply that the school receive all non-Federal funds it would receive if it did not receive Title I funds.” The Title I neutral test does not change the purpose or expand the scope of SNS. As explained in a 2012 report by the Center for American Progress and the American Enterprise Institute, which recommended amending the SNS provisions in ESEA to provide the Title I neutral test for compliance that Congress ultimately included in ESSA:
It is important to note that this proposed test would not look at whether the amount of state and local money a Title I school receives is equitable. Given the significance of the problems caused by the current supplement-not-supplant test, this issue should be addressed on its own, separate from other Title I fiscal issues.
The legislative history of ESEA demonstrates Congress was aware of and considered language to address concerns about equity and fairness in the allocation of state and local education funds. Congress considered but did not approve proposed language that would have required spending in Title I schools to be measured against spending in non-Title I schools using actual per-pupil amounts. This proposal had been debated for years leading up to the enactment of ESSA. For example, the Senate HELP Committee debated but did not approve an amendment to ESEA’s comparability provision offered during Committee consideration of the Every Child Achieves Act by Sen. Michael Bennet (D-CO) that would have required LEAs to demonstrate that combined state and local per-pupil expenditures, including personnel and non-personnel expenditures, in each Title I school were not less than the average combined state and local per-pupil expenditures in non-Title I schools. Additionally, the House Education and the Workforce Committee debated and defeated a similar amendment offered by Rep. Marcia Fudge (D-OH) during Committee consideration of the Student Success Act. Instead, Congress added a new provision in section 1111(h)(1)(C)(x) that requires states and LEAs to publicly report actual per-pupil expenditures. Congress recognized the need for public scrutiny of funding allocations among schools. But Congress also recognized any mandates regarding actual per-pupil funding differences similar to what is proposed in the NPRM would cause far more harm than good for low-income students and chose not to enact them. Nobody involved in the negotiations that led to ESSA can plausibly argue that Congress intended to provide statutory authority for the requirements laid out in this NPRM.

Beyond the addition of this reporting provision, the issue of equitable funding between Title I and non-Title I schools was never raised during the subsequent Congressional negotiations that resulted in ESSA. During this process, the White House and the Department provided a list of priorities for Congressional consideration. This was not among those priorities. No member of the Conference committee ever proposed to amend either the comparability or SNS provisions under ESEA to address differences in actual per-pupil spending between Title I and non-Title I schools.

The NPRM does not reflect the plain language of ESEA or the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress in amending the SNS provisions in Title I of ESSA. As held by the U.S. Supreme Court, if “Congress has directly spoken to the precise question at issue” and “the intent of Congress is clear, that is the end of the matter.” ESSA clearly reflects the intent of Congress to clarify and simplify how LEAs must demonstrate compliance with the SNS requirements of Title I-A and places clear limitations on the Secretary’s authority to regulate beyond those requirements in statute. In requiring a particular funding outcome, prescribing the methodologies that LEAs must choose from to demonstrate compliance with SNS, and mandating, directing, or controlling how state and local funds are distributed to schools, the NPRM violates the unambiguously expressed intent of Congress. Furthermore, the NPRM is not supported by the legislative history of the SNS provision that has been in the law since 1970 or the amendments made to it under ESSA. Rather than deferring to Congressional intent, the Department, through the NPRM, seeks to impose its own construction of the statute, which does not stand up to scrutiny.
3. Potential Negative Impact of the Proposed Rule
The NPRM, if implemented, will have a harmful impact on low-income students, teachers, schools, and LEAs. First, the NPRM gives the federal government unprecedented control over state and local education finance systems and requires states to govern LEAs’ compliance, possibly in violation of some state and local laws. This will create chaos for State and local education systems and distract them from the important work of raising student achievement, especially for the most disadvantaged. Rather than improving academic outcomes, the NPRM would force state and local leaders to focus on arbitrary compliance targets.

Second, the NPRM would undermine school-based budgeting reforms. State and local leaders around the country have recognized that one of the best ways to improve school performance is to hire good principals and provide them the autonomy to hire the staff and develop the programs that will best meet the needs of their students. The prescribed methodologies set forth in the NPRM will likely require district office staff to make final decisions about which teachers and programs are placed in which schools. This is the only way to ensure spending is distributed in compliance with the NPRM. Staffing and program decisions will be based on a “numbers game” that focuses on meeting regulatory spending targets rather than the needs of students.

Third, most communities will not have the option of raising spending to comply with the NPRM. Therefore, because staff salaries are by far the largest cost within LEAs, the NPRM will force LEAs to transfer teachers out of their current schools to other schools chosen by the district. This will force many LEAs to violate collective bargaining agreements. But more importantly, it will likely exacerbate existing teacher shortage crises and in some cases force LEAs to place less effective teachers in higher need schools. Driving staffing decisions by arbitrary compliance requirements will harm low-income students.

Fourth, the NPRM ignores the reality of how certain costs critical to school operations, such as costs for school construction, transportation, and employee benefits and pensions, are accounted for by districts. The NPRM would force “almost all” state and local funds to be allocated directly to the school level, making it impossible for districts to reserve funds for these important functions. We are not aware of any LEAs that currently distribute “almost all” state and local funds to the school level – thus, this NPRM would drastically upset how local schools finance these costs.

It is unfortunate that, once again, the Department has refused to adhere to the letter and intent of the law, or listen to the many stakeholders who helped shape ESSA, are responsible for implementing the new law, and have already articulated the problems this NPRM would create. Congress will do everything in its power to ensure that this proposed rule never becomes final.

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


 

Still Too Much Testing

That’s the word from Maryville’s Director of Schools Mike Winstead.

Winstead, a member of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s assessment task force, told the group he believed reductions in testing time going into effect this year still create a climate of over-testing.

Winstead made his remarks during a recent meeting of the task force, according to a report by Grace Tatter.

Here’s what Winstead had to say about the current climate of testing in Tennessee:

“When we look at the states we’re chasing and trying to catch on NAEP and move up the ladder, I’d guess there’s none that test as much as (Tennessee does),” he said. “More tests are not going to help us catch them.”

Winstead said time spent testing has increased dramatically over the last five years, and this year’s reductions just bring the state back to a previous level of over-testing, rather than solving the problem.

It’s interesting that Winstead’s remarks suggest he believes we were testing too much even before implementation of Race to the Top and the Common Core/TNReady transition.

Winstead also has a point. While Tennessee had a good showing on NAEP in 2013, the 2015 results suggest that may have been an anomaly.

When the 2015 NAEP results were released, I compared them to 2013’s results and noted:

Note here that what I suggested then [2013] was an expected result (big gain, followed by holding steady) is exactly what happened in Tennessee this year [2015]. That’s good news — it means we’re not declining. But it also means we can’t really say that 2013 was something special. As I noted last year, Kentucky had a series of big gains in the 1990s and then again in the early 2000s. It wasn’t just a big bump one time. So far, Tennessee has had one banner year (2013) and this year, returned to normal performance.

This gets to Winstead’s point. Does an emphasis on testing make us more competitive with other states? Probably not. The NAEP is administered every other year to a random sample of students. It’s the gold standard in terms of scientific data on student performance. Recent results in Tennessee suggest a move in the right direction and an especially nice bump in 2013. But our results are not unique to states that test as much as we do. And we still trail states that place less emphasis on testing.

I’m going to go a step further than what Winstead explicitly said and surmise that he’d suggest we further reduce testing and focus more time on teaching and learning based on our state’s new, higher standards.

Some policymakers would suggest that won’t give us enough data — but we get reliable data every two years from the NAEP. I understand the desire to test all students every year, and federal policy requires this in some form from grades 3-12. But the new Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) also gives us an opportunity to propose innovative strategies and request a waiver from some requirements.

Tennessee should take advantage of the opportunity provided by ESSA and the current state climate around testing, including the task force, and pursue a new strategy that focuses on student learning rather than student testing.

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


 

 

What Does ESSA Mean to You?

Jon Alfuth is the newest addition to the Tennessee Education Report team. In his inaugural post, he breaks down the newly-signed Every Student Succeeds Act.

This last week saw the passage of the successor to No Child Left Behind (NCLB), the Every Student Succeeds Act. After months and months of negotiations, this legislation is suddenly a reality. I’m here to break to down and give you an idea of what it means for districts across Tennessee.

NCLB, Waivers and Race to the Top

First, you have to start with No Child Left Behind and education policy under the Obama administration. The legislation massively ramped up the Federal Government’s involvement in what was traditionally a state dominated education system. The 2002 law set ambitious long term goals that every student would be proficient by an agreed upon date, required states to establish systems to track student performance and set stiff penalties for schools that failed to make adequate yearly progress towards those goals.

It didn’t go as planned. Early in the Obama administration (and arguably before), it was clear that the 100 percent proficiency goals and timeframe was an admirable dream, but a dream none the less. The Obama administration chose to grant states waivers from many provisions of federal policy, but only if the states adjusted their education policy to fit the administrations education agenda. Specifically, states had to implement college and career ready expectations for students, target low performing schools and population groups and create teacher and principal evaluation systems with student growth as a component.

Then came the Race to the Top, a competition among states for funding to implement education reform policies in each state. Tennessee was one of the first states to receive funding and required states to build assessment systems for standards, adopt data systems, support teachers and school leaders and create interventions in low performing schools. Tennessee already had TVAAS in place, so we were a natural fit as two of the key requirements were already met. One of the biggest innovations that has come out of Race to the Top is the Achievement School District, which was spurred largely by federal money.

ESSA

Now we get to the Every Student Succeeds Act. The act tones down much of the direct or indirect influencing of local education policy that has been promoted by the Federal Government while keeping the “spirit” of NCLB in place.

The goal in the compromise bill that has now been signed into law is to keep in place the structure preferred by democrats that forces states to report on and take action to rectify education inequities while at the same time catering to republican desires for more state and local control.

Here are some of the highlights of how this bill differs from the NCLB and Obama era policy:

  • Testing– under NCLB, testing was once a year every year In grades 3-8 with one test in high school. ESSA keeps the frequency of testing in place, but allows states to be more flexible with what tests are given and when in the year they are given.
  • Standards- ESSA takes the same tack as NCLB, supporting higher standards, but includes an interesting provision that prohibits the Secretary of Education from “influencing, incentivizing or coercing” states to adopt common core.
  • Accountability–ESSA pulls back from the NCLB era significantly and allows states to essentially come up with their own accountability goals, as long as those plans are submitted to the Department of Education. This contrasts with NCLB, which prescribed interventions from the top down. ESSA also relaxes the influence that test scores are required to play in accountability systems.
  • School evaluation– under NCLB, evaluation focused mostly on test scores. ESSA allows states to expand the scope of their evaluation to include “other measures” such as graduation rate, student engagement and disciplinary data in evaluation.
  • Low performing schools –under NCLB states had to address low performing schools using mostly prescribed methods. ESSA specifies that states must address the bottom 5% of schools by assessment scores and high schools with low graduation rates or underperforming subgroups, but again leaves it up to the states to decide how.
  • Overtesting – the law contains a provision to encourage states to eliminate unnecessary state and local tests and provides them funding to do so. It also would provide support to districts to analyze the amount of time teachers test with the end goal of reducing that time.

Dramatic Change?

Looking over these provisions, the overall theme of ESSA in my eyes is state designed accountability monitored by the federal government. This differs markedly from the spirit of NCLB, which used heavy handed top down methods to impose change. Now states are much more on the hook to come up with their own strategies to improve schools.

That said, this isn’t that different than what has been done under the waivers granted by the Obama administration. Waivers required states to submit a plan, which was then reviewed by the federal government and approved or turned down. The same concept seems to be at play within ESSA, but with more freedom granted to the states to decide what and how to address the different requirements embedded within ESSA.

Short Term Impact

Here in Tennessee, we already do much of what the flexibility under ESSA would allow. We’ve already started breaking up our assessments over the course of the year with the upcoming implementation of TNReady, where students will take their yearly assessment in two different sessions in the spring. We’ve also started down the road of eliminating unnecessary assessments.

We also have two existing interventions for low performing schools (ASD and iZone), we report our test data and have established data systems in place.

We also effectively tackled the standards issue by writing our own standards by revising and adding to the common core.

In sum, I don’t think we’re going to see a dramatic transformation of how we conduct education in Tennessee a la Race to the Top. I think the more likely outcome is that teachers and schools will start seeing small tweaks here and there to the education policy frameworks established over the past few years.

One area in which I think we could see some movement is in the area of reducing redundant testing. My hope is that the Tennessee DOE takes advantage of the funds available through ESSA to study the number of tests and the time that is spent preparing for them to take these assessments.

Longer Term Impact

My final take on all of this is that much of the result of ESSA locally will depend on the actions taken by constituents and their interactions with state elected officials. I’ve already explained why I don’t think much will happen, primarily because we’ve taken advantage of much of the flexibility already afforded us under NCLB waivers.

But that could change quickly depending on constituent mobilization. Local and state level elected officials are much more responsive to public opinion and Tennessee’s legislators seem especially so. For example, if we see tremendous upswing in the opt-out movement we might see a large rollback in the amount, frequency and design of our accountability measures.

For advocates of the current system, much of ESSA will come down to defending what has already been won in the past decade. The systems for a standards based accountability system are in place, and those that support this vision of education will need to likely fight tooth and nail to keep it intact.

In the end, movement will be up to advocates for the new states quo to push to keep what we already have and for opponents of the system to push for what they want to see change. That’s something that is very difficult to predict.

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