You’ve Got Questions

If you are involved in public education in Nashville, you’ve been hearing a lot recently about budget issues. You’ve got questions. The answers are still elusive, however.

TC Weber takes a crack at explaining a bit more about the MNPS budget and the two issues (an enrollment drop and a shift in funding priorities) causing some concern around the district.

Here’s some of what he has to say:

The first question is why this short fall wasn’t identified and adjusted for at an earlier date. Some of you may not be familiar with how the state funding process works. Each student is assigned a dollar value by the state. Every 20 days the district submits a count to the state in which funding is based on. Twice a year, the state cuts a check. So, I’m curious why this shortfall, or potential shortfall, wasn’t spotted in October. Or November. Or December, Finding it in February is a little curious. Unless people were just ignoring it till February when they went out to the mailbox looking for a check and the mailbox was bare, so then questions arose.

The second question arises from the size of the shortfall. I say, “$7.5 million” to you and your eyes get wide. But if I put that 7.5 next to 900 million, it ain’t so eye widening. What I’m saying is, we should be concerned, but does this warrant a crisis like reaction? And that’s how we’ve reacted. A hiring and traveling freeze has been imposed. Individual school budgets – monies that have been pre-approved and are part of the this years budget – if not already spent, are required to be re-submitted for approval.

TC takes the time to explain a bit more about Title I funding, too. Check out the post for more on the puzzle that is the upcoming MNPS budget.

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


 

 

$850

Metro Nashville Public Schools finds itself in a bit of a budget crunch. NewsChannel 5 has this report:

Teachers braced for impact after Metro Nashville Public Schools Director Dr. Shawn Joseph made the stunning admission that the district was set to lose $7.5 million in state funding, due to a unpredicted drop in student enrollment numbers.

A grim fiscal outlook for next fiscal years, means some principals may be forced to cut as many as 17 positions at schools where enrollment decreases are the highest.

For the first time in 15 years, Metro Nashville Public School’s enrollment numbers have dropped. District officials thought they would add more than 1,500 students in 2017 instead the district lost 500 students.

Nashville education blogger TC Weber offers this analysis:

The memo raises a number of issues for me. Joseph cites an unexpected enrollment decrease this year, which means $7.5 million less in state funds. Why the decrease? All of us can look around and see that Nashville is growing by leaps and bounds, so why is enrollment dropping? I’m not discounting that there may be perfectly legitimate reasons for this decline, but shouldn’t that be grounds for discussion? Shouldn’t there be a strategy to counter the pending decline in enrollment? Is this a trend or an outlier?

Joseph goes on to outline steps that the administration is taking to counter the loss. Steps that only make me more confused.

“All spending for the remainder of the year should be carefully reviewed and placed on hold if not essential to operation or to the implementation of our district priorities.” Huh? Does he presume that there are schools out there sitting on bags of money that they are planning to spend without consideration? Has this review not already been done? Shouldn’t this have been a part of the initial budget process last year?

His next bullet point talks about scrutinizing travel. Was this not promised last year? Did we stop scrutinizing travel somewhere along the way?

Here are some thoughts I’ve had as I try to digest this news and what it means:

First, how was MNPS this far off in projecting student enrollment? The district projections indicated growth of 1500 students and budgeted accordingly. As TC points out, Nashville is growing rapidly, so one would expect the student population to reflect that. Additionally, the team running the numbers at MNPS has been in the business for some time. Sure, they may not always hit the nail on the head, but they were significantly off the mark this time. In fact, district officials expected MNPS to grow by the size of an entire high school and instead, they lost the population of an elementary school. Why? As TC wonders, is this an outlier?

Second, in the grand scheme of the MNPS budget (approaching $900 million), the amount of funds lost is relatively small. To put it in context, let’s say your household budget was based on a family income of $100,000. Then, you learn that you won’t get the customary year-end bonus. Bummer! You’ll be out a total of $850 for the year. Yes, MNPS is losing less than 1% of it’s total projected revenue. If this were your family budget, would you freak out? Even if you knew you couldn’t count on that $850 next year, you’d probably make a few minor adjustments and move forward.

Now, I know school system budgets aren’t family budgets and that $7.5 million is certainly important. I also would expect MNPS to build-in funds for unexpected surprises — like losing an entire high school worth of students. Nashville as a city has the ability to provide excellent funding for schools. Instead, the city faces a teacher shortage and significant numbers of students shifted to virtual learning.

While there is certainly some blame to be laid at the feet of Metro Nashville leaders, it also bears noting that our state significantly under-funds public schools. According to Tennessee’s Comptroller, we’re short some $500 million as state in terms of what we need to properly fund the BEP — the state’s funding formula for schools. If that formula were properly funded, MNPS would see some $30 million a year in new revenue. Even if you account for the unexplained drop in students (and resulting loss of state funds), you’d see just over $21 million a year in new money.

The MNPS School Board is set to take up the budget issue at tomorrow night’s meeting. It will be interesting to learn more about why this situation happened and what can be done about it.

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


 

Teacher Voice Tuesday

A couple excerpts from blogs featuring teachers on this Tuesday.

First, from former (and now current) teacher Mary Holden, who blogs about her experience teaching and offers thoughts on her return in her most recent post:

I know what to expect. MNPS is struggling, as usual. We have some frustrating leadership issues, in my opinion. We have some scripted curriculum we are being directed to teach. We are being told there isn’t time to teach whole novels in English classes. We are being reminded frequently of the importance of the tests. We still have a culture of fear, where many teachers are afraid to speak out about issues. We still have an unhealthy obsession with data, data, data. We still have a HUGE over-reliance on tests and test data that is supposed to be used to inform our instruction.

READ MORE from Mary

Next, Scott Bennett offered a post on TC Weber’s blog about his experiences as an MNPS teacher. Here’s how it started:

When I left my teaching position there was no exit interview. No survey. No request for feedback from the district.* At the very least I was anticipating an email from H.R. I gave my notice and letter of resignation roughly 115 days ago, and I left my classroom on February 9th. So my departure wasn’t a surprise for anyone. Either they assume to know my professional opinions or they don’t want to hear them. Both are deeply troubling to me as teacher, a tax payer, a voter, and a parent. I’m not sure what kind of leadership doesn’t want feedback, but I’ve never met any great leaders who have insisted that they knew everything. Additionally, this district has difficulty recruiting and retaining teachers, support staff, and bus drivers. Some of that stems from the low pay, and some of it stems from the culture. If I’m a district leader and I can’t do much about the one, I’m sure as heck going to try and improve the other. As a teacher I’ve found that when students don’t care about the feedback I give, it is because they didn’t care about the assignment whether that is an essay or a presentation or a project. I end each semester asking about my teaching practices and how they can better align to student needs. I’m not sure what it says about an institution that doesn’t want feedback from it’s employees, but I’m pretty sure it isn’t good.

READ MORE of what Scott has to say about his time in MNPS and the challenges teachers face.

If you’re a teacher who’d like to share a story about your experience, email me at andy AT tnedreport.com — If you’d like to share anonymously, that can be arranged.

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


 

TC Has Had Enough

Some notes on gun violence and schools from a recent post by Nashville education blogger and possible School Board candidate TC Weber:

Some of you may argue that this is the new norm. I refuse to accept that. This country is made up of way too many good people to concede to a culture of fear. Because let’s face it, fear is what is at the heart of this whole argument. Fear that someone will come take what is yours. Fear that you will be injured by a fellow human being. Fear that a loved one will be hurt. Fear that you will be oppressed by the government.

 

We forget that schools are not just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. I don’t expect my kids’ teachers to function as surrogate parents, but I do expect them to help open their eyes to the wonders of the world. We need to understand that like it or not, schools and the environment they foster get translated into a definition of our society. As those children exit school and enter the adult world, they take with them outlooks and philosophies shaped by their K-12 experiences. It’s one of the reasons schools were started in the first place. So we need to constantly ask ourselves, is my kid’s school creating an environment I’d like to see replicated in society?

READ MORE>

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


 

From Blogger to Board Member?

That’s the leap Nashville education blogger TC Weber is trying to make.

He notes in his most recent post:

I am going to do my best to focus on why I am the best candidate  – the level of my current involvement, the network I’ve built, my knowledge of the system, willingness to be a teacher voice – and not on why the other candidates are not worthy. As far as I am concerned, they are all worthy candidates and I look forward to spirited conversations about the issues. How my opponents choose to campaign is entirely up to them. As I tell my children, do not focus on what others do, but rather on your own actions. That is my intention and time will tell if I’m successful.

Do not expect to hear me engaging in charter school rhetoric. My position on charter schools is well documented and all you have to do is read my writings. I see no need to spend a summer rehashing those positions. Those who hold different positions are not my enemies, but just people with a different opinion.  I don’t have to embrace their opinions to learn from them, I just have to respect them and I must say I’ve enjoyed our interactions over the past year.

READ MORE>

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


 

Open Seats

TC Weber reports that there could soon be as many as four open seats on the MNPS School Board.

He notes:

Pierce’s decision (not to run), along with an earlier announcement by District 6 Representative Tyese Hunter, means that at least two seats will change hands next go round. Word on the street has long been that District 2 Representative JoAnn Brannon also will not be seeking re-election. District 4 Representative and current Board Chair Anna Shepherd announced late last year that she intends to seek re-election.

READ MORE>

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


 

TC Ready

In his latest post, TC Weber takes on the Tennessee Department of Education blog Classroom Chronicles and the apparent disconnect from reality evident in a recent post on TNReady.

Here’s TC’s take:

So here’s the rub, the example she links to is nice, but so is a picture of a unicorn. As far as I know teachers at all grade levels don’t have access to individual scores yet and nor do parents.  So where are these reports coming from? Later she mentions using these reports to plan before the semester starts. What semester? Winter? Because results by schools just arrived recently and we are still waiting for individual results.

What happens when I read these TNDOE writings is I end up thinking up is down and I’m missing something. I call other activists and they confirm my thoughts and then we all end up confused. It’s  like we’ve fallen through the looking glass.

Here’s the thing, I don’t think this writing is intended for activists and educators. Its aimed squarely at parents who don’t know better and trust the TNDOE. When questions arise about the usefulness of TNReady people will pull this blog post out and say, “Nope, nope, you are wrong. It says right here that teachers are getting timely useful reports. You just hate all testing.” Mission accomplished.

The post closes with an admonishment for teachers “to remember that teacher attitude influences the classroom environment.” So buck up buttercup. Toe the line and remember…”The more I can emphasize TNReady’s worth as a tool for teachers, as well as parents and students, the better!”

It’d be great to emphasize TNReady’s worth as a tool for teachers, parents, and students — but in the case of students in grades 3-8, the results aren’t yet available. Maybe TNReady will provide me with some amazing insights about my child’s learning. But, by the time I have the results, she’ll be finished with the first semester of her 6th grade year. Those insights might have been helpful in August or maybe September. Now, though, they will likely add little value.

Maybe that’s why legislators like Bill Ketron are calling for a TNReady moratorium. 

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


 

Supposedly

Recently, Chalkbeat asked readers to pose questions about TNReady given the latest round of trouble for the state’s standardized test. One particular question asked about the validity of the scoring given that “scorers are hired off Craigslist.”

Here’s what the Tennessee Department of Education had to say:

“Questar does not use Craigslist. Several years ago, another assessment company supposedly posted advertisements on Craigslist, but Questar does not. We provide opportunities for our educators to be involved in developing our test, and we also encourage Tennessee teachers to apply to hand-score TNReady.

So, good news: scorers for the new vendor are not hired off of Craigslist. But, disturbing that the TDOE used the hedge “supposedly.” Back in 2015, I wrote about Measurement, Inc.’s ads on Craigslist:

Certainly, quality scorers for TNReady can be found for $10.70-$11.20 an hour via ads posted on Craigslist. I’m sure parents in the state are happy to know this may be the pool of scorers determining their child’s test score. And teachers, whose evaluations are based on growth estimates from these tests, are also sure to be encouraged by the validity of results obtained in this fashion.

My post even included a copy of the ad being used by Measurement, Inc. Then, in 2016, WSMV ran a story on scorers being hired via Craigslist ads.

Another response from the TDOE also caught my attention. This one dealt with the validity of comparisons between the old TCAP test and the new TNReady. The TDOE suggests this is like a group of runners changing from running 5Ks to running a 10K.

Runner and blogger TC Weber has a good response.

Then, when the issue of students not taking the tests seriously due to the perennial problems with returning data, the TDOE engages in more blame shifting:

“We believe that if districts and schools set the tone that performing your best on TNReady is important, then students will take the test seriously, regardless of whether TNReady factors into their grade. We should be able to expect our students will try and do their best at any academic exercise, whether or not it is graded. This is a value that is established through local communication from educators and leaders, and it will always be key to our test administration.

So, the fact that testing data has been returned late or that the quick score calculation method has changed has nothing to do with how students understand the test. If only those pesky school districts and their troublesome teachers would get on board and reinforce the right “values,” everything would be fine.

Here’s a hint, TDOE: Take some damn responsibility. TNReady has been a dumpster fire. Before that, you couldn’t get TCAP scores back in a reliable fashion. When districts told the TDOE that TNReady’s online administration wasn’t going to go well in 2016, the TDOE ignored them. Now, some students are wary of the test and whether or not it has any impact on their grades or any relevance to their learning. The TDOE simply responds by telling districts that if they just stopped asking so many questions and started drilling in the right messages, all would be well.

The disconnect is real.

As I noted in an earlier piece, accountability is a one way street when it comes to TDOE. This message is worth repeating:

How many warning signs will be ignored? How important is the test that it must be administered at all costs and the mistakes must be excused away because “accountability” demands it?

How can you hold students and teachers and schools accountable when no one is holding the Department of Education accountable? How long will legislators tolerate a testing regime that creates nightmares for our students and headaches for our teachers while yielding little in terms of educational value?

Apparently, according to Governor Haslam, everything is fine.

Still, the legislature meets again starting in January. And, there’s a Governor’s race on next year as well. Perhaps the combination of those events will lead to an environment that produces real answers.

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


 

TC Talks Testing

Nashville education blogger TC Weber talks about testing (and a lot of other things) in his latest post.

Specifically, he talks about the release of data on TNReady tests and the comparisons being made to previous TCAP tests.

Keep in mind: We didn’t have a complete administration of TNReady in 2016. Which means the 2017 test was the first year for TNReady. It also means the comparisons being made are based on different tests taken two years ago. So, you have analysis of 5th grade results and “growth” on TNReady being made in comparison to 3rd grade results on TCAP.

It’s apples and oranges. 

Here’s what TC has to say:

Let’s approach this in a different manner though. Say I annually run a 5k race and each year my timing goes up a little bit, so I’m feeling like  I want something different. After year 5 I change to a 10k race. My time for that race is substantially lower. What conclusions can I draw from that difference in time? Am I really not that good a 5k runner? Is the course really that much harder than the 5k I was running? Is my training off? Am I not that good a runner?
I’d say there are very few conclusions, based on comparing the results between my 5k and my 10k time, that can be drawn. It could be that the length of the course was a bigger adjustment than anticipated. It could be that conditions were worse on the day I ran the 10k vs the 5k. It could be that one course was flatter and one was hillier. A kid could be good at bubble in questions but not write ins. How do we know that improvement isn’t contingent just on familiarity with the course? Or the test?
I know people will argue that we should all be training to run hills instead of a flat races. But does running hills well really indicate that I am a better runner? Terrain is just another variable. My liberal arts education always explained to me that in order to get the most accurate measurement possible you need to remove as many of the variables as possible.
One year of data is not a real indication of anything other than, kid’s are not very good at taking this test. In order to draw any meaningful conclusions, you would have to have a set of data that you could analyze for trends. Simply taking a 10k race and comparing it’s results to a 5k race’s results, just because both are races, is not a valid means to draw conclusions about a runners abilities. The same holds true for students and testing.
If TNReady really is the amazing test we’ve all been waiting for, why not take the time to build a reliable set of data? The results from year one don’t really tell us much of anything. Because we skipped* 2016, it’s even MORE difficult to draw meaningful conclusions about the transition from TCAP to TNReady.
TC talks about these challenges and more issues. Check it out.
*We didn’t actually skip the 2016 test. Instead, many students attempted to take the test only to face glitches with the online system. Schools then were given various new times for testing to start only to have those dates changed and ultimately, to see the test cancelled. 
Kids were jerked around with messages about how the “important test” was coming up next week only to have it not happen. Teachers were told they’d be proctoring tests and instead had to quickly plan lessons. Our schools and students adapted, to be sure. But, there is no way to give back the instructional time lost in 2016.
Now, we have students taking THE test in 2017 only to see a slow drip of data come back. Students are told the test matters, it will count toward their grades. Teachers have growth scores based on it. Schools are assigned ratings based on it. But, getting it right doesn’t matter. Well, unless it does.
Oh, and we spend a lot of money on a testing system that produces questionable results with data coming back at a time that reduces usefulness.
What’s next? This year, we’ll try again to administer TNReady online across the state. That didn’t work so well with the previous vendor, but maybe it will this time. Of course, online administration adds another variable to the mix. So, 2018 will be the first time many students have taken a fully online TNReady test. Assuming it works, online administration could address the challenges of getting results back in a timely fashion. But, the transition could impact student performance, once again calling into question the legitimacy of growth scores assigned to students and schools.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport


 

TC Talks Chattanooga

Nashville-based education blogger TC Weber takes some time to explain a bit more about what’s happening with Chattanooga and the state’s Achievement School District in a recent post.

Here’s how he explains what’s happening since the threat of an ASD expansion team in Hamilton County became more real:

Let’s take a quick trip down to Chattanooga where last night a historic vote took place. The Hamilton County School Board voted 7 -2 to continue the conversation about creating a partnership zone with the Tennessee Department of Education. In case you are not familiar with the Partnership Zone plan, it’s the latest quick fix scheme developed by the TNDOE because people have started to catch on to the dumpster fire that is the Achievement School District. Under the Partnership Zone plan, both the county and the state would work together to improve underperforming schools in the district.

The plan calls for the a creation of an appointed board that would oversee the Partner Zone. This creates a bit of a conundrum. Under current law, schools governing boards can only be elected entities. So this would require a change in legislation. A change that could open a virtual pandora’s box because what’s to stop other districts from switching to an all appointed board, a hybrid, or turn control over to the mayor or other appointed officials?

The term partner is a little bit of a misnomer. The state is making it perfectly clear who wears the pants in this relationship right from the out set. The HCS Board was told that they could choose not to pursue the “Partnership Zone” but if they didn’t State Superintendent Candice McQueen would take all 5 of the priority schools plus two more schools and dump them in the Achievement District. If this is in fact a threat she was prepared to follow through with, it’s a little troubling and a clear sign that she’s willing to play politics with kids. The ASD is an unmitigated failure that should be ended this legislative session not used a stick to ensure district compliance.

As Weber points out, McQueen is using the threat of aggressive state action (takeovers, fines) to attempt to get her way lately. So far, that has not resulted in yielding in Nashville or Memphis. It will be interesting to see how the Partnership Zone plays out in Chattanooga.

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