Explainer

The State Board of Education met yesterday to adopt emergency rules for schools in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Board noted there may be a need for additional changes, but for now, these changes address issues like grades and teacher evaluation. Here’s a great explainer from Knoxville-based online publication Compass.

Highlights:

  • School systems cannot require attendance or mark students truant for failure to participate in any remote learning activities they make available while schools are closed. Many school systems, including Knox County, are providing some level of instruction or review materials either online or via paper packets. Many teachers are also engaging students online via email or video conferencing. (Knox County’s resource page, consisting mostly of PDF worksheets, is here.)
  • High school seniors will receive grades for their classes no lower than what they were as of March 20 (This is true for ALL students). School systems have the option of providing extra work to allow seniors to raise those marks so that they can graduate with higher GPAs.
  • All year-end state testing is suspended, although school systems can choose to administer the tests if feasible.
  • Student performance data from this year won’t be used in teacher evaluations, but school systems can use information from classroom observations performed earlier in the year to make decisions about personnel placement and to provide professional feedback.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told the board that students may be nervous about having grades sufficient to qualify for the state’s HOPE lottery scholarship program, which requires a 3.0 GPA.

But he noted students can also qualify by scoring at least a 21 on the ACT college entrance exam or a 1060 on the SAT test. He also said the HOPE scholarships are not the only vehicle for post-secondary aid.

The article also referenced the controversy surrounding a survey sent by the Department of Education and subsequent revelations of a plan of action pushed by Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

The state survey caused some initial confusion, because the original version included questions that made it sound as if the state was considering adding instructional days during the summer in 2020 and/or 2021. But then those questions vanished, so that people who opened the survey Sunday saw different options than people who opened it when it was first sent out.

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Yeah, About That

So Jeb Bush’s school privatization group, Excel in Ed, is highlighting the Tennessee survey on the use of CARES Act funds. Trouble is, Jeb fails to mention that the survey has multiple versions and that the state’s Commissioner of Education accidentally revealed her desired outcome BEFORE the survey was finished.

Here’s the statement on Tennessee:

Tennessee officials have released a survey to gather public input on how the state should spend the funds received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to support the educational response work already underway and the future recovery efforts. Examples of eligible supports include better internet access and/or devices for students, addressing needs of special populations, professional development for effective distance learning strategies, online learning resources and mental health services. The deadline for completion is April 13. 

Maybe next time, Jeb should check with the folks on the ground before touting a plan he happens to like.

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TEA Statement on Emergency Rules for Schools

The Tennessee State Board of Education today adopted a set of emergency rules for schools in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The changes impact attendance requirements, grading, teacher licensure, and evaluation.

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on the changes:

“As educators and families continue to grapple with so much uncertainty, we appreciate the State Board of Education addressing some of the problems caused by school closures. The actions taken today are another step forward in ensuring students and educators are held harmless during this time.

TEA understands that this will not be the only round of emergency rules needed. As the Department of Education and local districts continue to get their arms around what public education looks like during an extended school closure, the state board will need to further adopt rules and approve waivers to allow for learning to continue in a way that prioritizes the health and well-being of Tennessee students and educators.

TEA is already hearing from members across the state with concerns about the impacts on tenure, differentiated pay and other issues affected by the suspension of evaluations and testing. The association will work closely with the department and the state board to ensure districts have access to the waivers needed to support teachers and students.”

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The Plan

Significant controversy has surrounded a survey put out by the Tennessee Department of Education in relation to the use of COVID-19 stimulus funds for schools. So much controversy, in fact, that the survey was changed to take away questions about summer school and extending the school day as ways to “make up” for time lost due to school closures during the global pandemic.

The flames were further fanned when what was labeled a “bold and visionary” plan from Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn was discussed in Education Week. The heat was so hot that the article ultimately changed to reflect a more nuanced discussion of Schwinn’s ideas.

Here’s the language that generated a LOT of interest from parents, teachers, and others involved in public education:

Penny Schwinn, understands that making up for lost time will be a multiyear effort that starts immediately. Her three-year learning plan—which should be a model for other states—retools the school year calendar with a mix of in-person and online learning, including a surge of 20 days of learning over the summer.

Her plan to retool time to support a coherent long-term, three-year academic plan for the students of Tennessee is bold and visionary. 

These remarks left the impression that no matter what happened with the surveys, Schwinn had already decided what options would be on the table for school systems.

Wondering where else the idea of extended school days and summer school as “make up” for lost pandemic time is mentioned?

Turns out, it’s in a March 30, 2020 document about how TDOE is responding to COVID-19.

On page 11:

Make-Up Missed Instructional Time

• Local districts may consider afterschool programs, optional summer school, and other locally-led strategies to extend learning time

Page 17, discussing use of funding:

Providing summer learning and supplemental afterschool programs (including on-line learning);

Page 29:

in 18 months, a full school year will have finished, with additional minutes recovered, potentially in a mixed learning format

And, of course, there’s MORE testing:

It will be important to measure student achievement and growth now more than ever, so that teachers and leaders know where to focus efforts. (page 10)

So, there’s a plan. According to one of Schwinn’s pals, it’s “bold and visionary.” And it involves re-tooled (longer) learning time (minutes added to days, summer days). Will this be a statewide mandate? That’s not likely. But, it is possible that local districts receiving CARES funds will need to follow rules created by the state. It’s also noteworthy that while Schwinn attempted to avoid the controversy by clarifying what was published in Education Week, the March 30th plan tracks with the original account.

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Penny’s Plan

So, it turns out the survey on how to spend COVID-19 stimulus funds — the one claiming to seek “stakeholder” feedback — was all window dressing. As some suspected, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn already has a plan. In fact, it’s all explained right here in Education Week.

In Tennessee, our member and future chief alum, Penny Schwinn, understands that making up for lost time will be a multiyear effort that starts immediately. Her three-year learning plan—which should be a model for other states—retools the school year calendar with a mix of in-person and online learning, including a surge of 20 days of learning over the summer, to make up for lost days. She is revisiting every element of her strategic plan to align with the needs for quality learning at a distance, for a more robust digital infrastructure, and for frequent checks to ensure students and adults are handling these enormous shifts emotionally as well as academically. She is working on plans now to develop her own statewide online tool that will provide a system for teachers to deliver content and remediation for small groups, participate in virtual professional development, and provide resources for families, including information on meal locations. Her plan to retool time to support a coherent long-term, three-year academic plan for the students of Tennessee is bold and visionary. 

UPDATE

While the Education Week article has been changed to reflect a more nuanced version of Schwinn’s response, there is a screenshot that still holds the original version as quoted above.

And, Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch is all over the changes with a series of key questions on Twitter:

So, Commissioner Schwinn has a “bold and visionary” plan she has yet to share with policymakers or parents or teachers. It includes a “surge” of summer learning. 20 days, to be specific.

It’d be nice if everyone else in the state could be clued-in to this “coherent, long-term, three-year academic plan.”

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Coronavirus and School Funding in Nashville

$100 million. That’s how much the already struggling Nashville school district is being asked to cut in the wake of the economic challenges created by the COVID-19 outbreak. The Tennessean has more:

Mayor John Cooper has asked Nashville schools to explore ways to potentially cut up to $100 million from its current budget as the coronavirus continues to take a toll on the city’s revenue collections.

As non-essential businesses remain closed and Nashville residents are spending less time outside, city officials are forecasting a $200 million to $300 million shortfall in expected taxes and other revenue for the current fiscal year. 

The potential budget cuts come even as Gov. Bill Lee insisted on $41 million in state funding for his voucher scheme while cutting funds sent to districts for teacher compensation.

Teachers in Nashville already lag behind those in other districts when it comes to pay.

It’s not clear where MNPS will find room for cuts, but based on past actions, it seems likely some savings would be realized by moving more students to virtual schools. It also seems likely entire programs could be reduced or eliminated.

This difficult climate is happening in a state that clearly has yet to learn the lessons of the Great Recession. Tennessee is at least $1.7 billion behind where it should be to adequately fund schools, according to a report from the bipartisan legislative study group known as TACIR.

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The Ever-Changing Survey

After the Tennessee Department of Education received tons of pushback from parents and teachers over a controversial survey suggesting adding summer school and/or extended school days to make up for days missed during the COVID-19 pandemic, the DOE just … changed the survey so the questions generating controversy weren’t there.

Yep. They just … changed it.

Here are some tweets explaining the changes from former TN DOE spokesperson Jennifer Johnson and some other individuals who noticed the differences:

https://twitter.com/un__anchored/status/1246938117984129025?s=20

It seems no one at the Tennessee Department of Education thought anyone would notice these … pretty big changes.

The arrogance is stunning.

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Survey Says

The State of Tennessee has a survey out about how to use one-time funds from the COVID-19 stimulus. Among the suggestions: somehow “making up” for the weeks/months lost in this school year by adding time to school days or adding days to coming school years.

Here’s teacher Mike Stein’s tweet with a link to the survey:

Take just a few moments and fill it out and then let your lawmakers and local school boards know how you feel.

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Tennessee Teachers: Focused on Students

The results of a survey conducted by the Tennessee Education Association indicate that Tennessee’s teachers are focused on and concerned about their students during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Here’s more from a press release:

Tennessee educators are most worried about learning loss, student wellbeing and how to engage students during school closures due to the Covid-19 outbreak, according to a statewide survey published by the Tennessee Education Association.

The survey of 319 educators across the state was conducted March 25-31 by TEA. The survey will be conducted again in coming weeks to reflect changes. 

TEACHERS’ GREATEST CONCERNS:

When educators were asked “what is your greatest concern regarding the remainder the school year,” the overwhelming focus was on students. Half of all teachers cited learning loss and student wellbeing as their greatest concerns. Lost instructional opportunities, difficult home environments, food security and the absence of social and academic engagement weigh heavily on the minds of teachers, according to the survey.

“I’ve worried so much about my kids regressing but everyone is in the same situation. Parents all have different home circumstances. For the ones working, it is hard to come home and homeschool. Some just have one computer per two-plus kids in the home,” wrote one respondent. “We know the kids will possibly be behind but that’s ok. That’s my job!”

The impact of the disruption will remain long after the outbreak is controlled, and classes resume.

“Students will struggle when we return to school and they will struggle next year, especially in math classes, to make up for the large gap in knowledge created by this disruption,” wrote one respondent. “This must also be taken into account when considering test scores as a factor for next year and how they impact high-stakes decisions for students as well as teachers.”

One in five teachers expressed uncertainty as their primary concern, as well as health and safety concerns for themselves and their families moving forward. One in 10 expressed professional or student accountability as the primary concern during the closure period.

GRAPPLING WITH STUDENT ENGAGEMENT DURING THE SHUTDOWN: 

When asked “what plans does your district have regarding ongoing instruction,” more than half of educators said they were allowed to work from home to provide learning opportunities that would not count for student grades, while 36% said their school system had no current mandate on activity.

“It is clear from this survey that teachers, parents and school systems are struggling to implement strategies to continue teaching and learning. With the timing of spring breaks and the statewide school shutdown, there wasn’t much of an opportunity to plan and organize materials,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “This is going to be an ongoing process, and we ask administrators and school boards to understand that teachers want to engage their students and promote learning as much as they do. We all will be working to find the most effective means of doing so with safety and health in mind.” 

For educators who have district instruction plans, the means of communication vary. Approximately half of teachers use the phone, text, and text apps to communicate with students, one-third use email or online platforms, and one in seven use social media. 40% of teachers use two or more means of communication. Most teachers report spotty participation among students, even those in honors or AP classes. Inequity among students in home support and internet access were major teacher concerns.   

One major issue for TEA was the widespread reports of mandatory reporting to schools after the statewide closure order. The survey found that while initially there were orders to report, only a small percentage of responders indicated they had to physically go to the school building as part of their duties. 

“I am proud of our cafeteria workers and teachers who are making sure students are fed while schools are closed,” said Brown. “I am also glad to see that systems are prioritizing public health and the safety of our educators by not requiring personnel to come into a school building.”


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Not Likely to End Well

Former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman notes that in light of the coronavirus pandemic, American schools are moving online and to homeschooling in a patchwork experiment that is “not likely to end well.” His article, in the Washington Post, follows a note from Donald Cohen about the inherent value of public schools. It also highlights what will be important challenges going forward.


As the coronavirus pandemic closes schools, in some cases until September, American children this month met their new English, math, science and homeroom teachers: their iPads and their parents. Classes are going online, if they exist at all. The United States is embarking on a massive, months-long virtual-pedagogy experiment, and it is not likely to end well. Years of research shows that online schooling is ineffective — and that students suffer significant learning losses when they have a long break from school. Now they’re getting both, in a hastily arranged mess. And the kids who suffer most from the “summer slide” are the low-income students, the ones already struggling to keep up.


First, research shows that even with great planning, a willing audience and lots of effort from teachers well-schooled in distance learning, results for K-12 students are lackluster. The author of one study of virtual charter schools (which have more online offerings and thus more to study than public institutions) noted that “challenges in maintaining student engagement are inherent in online instruction,” in part because of the limited student-teacher contact time. “Years of evidence [is] accumulating about how poorly these schools are performing,” the author of one multiparty report held in 2016. That report concluded, “Full-time virtual schools are not a good fit for many children.”


Finally, since states are losing standardized testing this spring, they’ll need to administer tests at the start of the next school year to see what students know after the crisis. Assessments should be informative and not used to measure or rate schools or teachers. Without this, it will be impossible to know the extent of the challenge and where resources should be deployed to deal with it.

READ MORE>

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