This is Not the Time to Sleep On Federal and State Education Policy Talk

Recently, I sat through a daylong bootcamp sponsored by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition to take in additional information about the new federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). After the third person inquired into my reason for being there, I began to wonder ‘Why in the hell am I sitting through hours of policy talk?’

Because it matters.

Sure, the federal law seems as far away from the classroom as the distance from Nashville to D. C., but it’s in how a state responds to the law that should make parents say, “wait, what?”

Why It Matters

When you live in a southern state and are aware of the history and vestiges, thereof, and happen to be a person of color, it’s difficult to trust the system to work on your behalf.

Yet, by all accounts, Tennessee has crafted a solid plan to satisfy ESSA requirements and meet the needs of all of children. State leaders asked for feedback from a wide range of people and got it. They even made adjustments based on that feedback before turning the plan into the feds in April. This plan has a direct impact on our kids. It affects teaching in the classroom, how students are tested, how states will track the quality of each school and report that back to parents, and what they’ll do if kids aren’t getting what they need. Note: just because some people say it’s a good plan, doesn’t mean you should hand over the education of your children to something that may or may not be true — for you.

So, for several months I’ve pored through portions of the plan and sat through several meetings on ESSA with education commissioner Candice McQueen speaking passionately about meeting the needs of all children. I believe her passion, but it just doesn’t align to the “all means all” commitment.

You See, There’s This Subgroup… 

You may remember the hoopla around subgroups during the advent of No Child Left Behind. Also known as nickelby, NCLB forced school districts to pinpoint achievement across demographic groups for each child. For instance, a black female low-socioeconomic special education student would be listed across four subgroups – Black, Female, Low-Socioeconomic, and Students with Disabilities.

Today, under ESSA that same student would be combined with Hispanic and Native American students in a grande group (the state calls it a super subgroup) known as BHN, Black, Hispanic, and Native American. During the bootcamp, we had the pleasure of hearing from TNDOE executive director of accountability Mary Batiwalla, who works hard to distill findings in an effort to make it palatable for the masses. Though, the explanation supporting the creation of the grande group was not satisfying. Batiwalla explained that without the grande group, 43,000 students would be left unaccounted for, but offered little information about the composition of this group when asked. Look, I’m no statistician, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. I believe if the will outranked the need for neat calculations, there would be no BHN.

And I’m Not Alone

The bootcampers were also privileged to hear from Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. King explained the role her coalition plays to ensure historically underserved groups are provided the basic civil right of an excellent education. Most poignantly, King expressed concerned about combining the three groups into one group as each have very different experiences. I think I may have said “amen” out loud, but one can never be sure about these things.

What I am sure about is the need to stay woke. It’s more than just a cool saying. You must ensure your child is counted and we must see to it that BHN gets the proper consideration. Because, after all, what gets measured gets handled.

So, I will stay up-to-date on Tennessee’s plan for ESSA, it’s “all means all” promise, and a couple of additional issues that I will write about in the coming weeks.

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Teacher Residency Program Committed to Quality, Diversity, and Nashville’s Future

After bellyaching about the disproportionate ratio of teachers of color to students of color, nationally and locally, a friend recommended a visit to the local teacher residency program working to be part of the solution. According to its website, the Nashville Teacher Residency program:

“recruits and trains recent, non-education major college graduates to become high-performing middle and high school math and English teachers serving low-income students in Nashville’s district and charter schools.”

In other words, they help recent college grads, and working professionals from other industries become teachers. Our schools need people with different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, and different perspectives. And the Nashville Teacher Residency provides it, at least for some schools.

So I reached out, and got an invitation to come and see what they’re all about.

The Program

On a late afternoon in May, just as the school/work day transitioned, I stepped into one of Nashville’s oldest school buildings. What used to be Cameron High School is now home to two LEAD Schools: LEAD Academy High and Cameron Middle.

Two friendly faces greeted me to the historic space: The residency’s director, Randall Lahann—a teacher-prep veteran hailing from a Boston residency program—and managing director, Holly Tilden. The residency program is in good company as the high school recently celebrated its 3rd consecutive year of 100 percent college acceptance for its graduating class. Meanwhile Cameron, a traditional Metro School converted into a charter school, is a 2015 Tennessee Reward School, recognizing superior academic progress.

After finding an open classroom, Lahann and Tilden gave me a rundown of the program’s inaugural year before excusing themselves to begin part two of their day. The director and managing director literally do it all (well almost). Besides running the place, they also meet with local bloggers (ahem), handle all the HR stuff for recruiting and selecting new residents and even teach the residents.

At the present, the dynamic duo is successfully leading the first group of soon-to-be teachers to completion, which, noticeably, is powered by an authentic commitment to quality and diversity.

Seeing is Believing

I heard the words “commitment to diversity” and read them on the Nashville Teacher Residency website, but the proof is ever in the pudding. After my brief (but information-packed) meeting with the residency’s multi-faceted leaders, I walked across the hall into a classroom of young adults, some at their desks, others stocking up on snacks, all preparing for the evening ahead.

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Saniha, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency 
As I meandered through the desks, the commitment to diversity was confirmed. Yes, 70 percent of the residency’s first cohort is comprised of residents of color with an astounding 100% cohort retention rate. Impressive. Resident retention is important here because the program does something different by offering classroom experience on the front end.

Instead of theorizing teaching techniques and offering scenarios that might misrepresent urban district’s realities, inexperienced hopefuls are submerged, feet first, in an effort to thwart the typical travails of a first-year (and, many cases, one-time) teacher.

Surprisingly, this eight week trial by fire did little to deter the inaugural class which entered the residency in July 2016 and is now headed for teacherdom. For ten months, two days a week and three hours an evening, residents are instructed in math and English as well as community and culture. Classes are led by Lahann, Tilden, and KIPP Nashville High School mentor teacher Kate Stasik and special guests are invited to speak on community and culture.

The program also requires residents to work with a mentor teacher inside a real classroom setting. Yes, the residency program is intense, yet, many of the residents have full-time jobs while fulfilling the program’s requirements and a fraction are themselves parents.

But, I saw no regrets.

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Ciana Calhoun, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency

 

 

For instance, twenty-six year old MTSU graduate and entrepreneur Ciana Calhoun commented on the intensity and authenticity of the program saying “I’m tired, but they have prepared me for real classroom experiences.” Resident Eric DeVaughn, a musician and former W. O. Smith drum teacher, also expressed excitement about entering the classroom next fall at Lead High School.

Life Happens Fast

Sometimes a dose of real life is required before one’s career path becomes clear. The Nashville Teacher Residency provides second chances to recent college graduates with a clearer understanding of their passion. Additionally, partner schools invest in residents by providing a $25,000 stipend and a place to work and study. For residents with children, a $5,000 loan is available. Sounds good to be true? Soon-to-be teacher Ciana thought so, too, “I thought it was a hoax!”

The Real Deal

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Eric DeVaughn, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency
Currently, eight partner schools invest in the residency program and soon hundreds of students will benefit from a full-time Ciana and Eric who are fully equipped to deliver top-notch instruction without losing time to acclimation and re-training. The program succeeds through its commitment to diversity, solid retention rate, intense program of study, classroom experiences that represent urban school district realities, and commitment to its residents.

 

Why Alternative Licensure Programs?

Ever the company girl, there was a time I was completely skeptical of outsourcing. I get it now! Residency and other alternative licensure programs like Nashville Teacher Residency, Relay and Teach for America, provide an integral service to school districts with deficits in minority representation and teachers prepared with tools not typically offered in traditional programs.

Like other urban districts, Nashville suffers from a deficit of teachers of color in proportion to its students of color. I know Metro Schools has committed to increase these numbers and I hope they take advantage of programs like the Nashville Teacher Residency that can help ramp up diversity and quality.

Oh yeah, a huge congratulations to Nashville’s Teacher Residency’s first cohort who completed their residency as of this writing!  Onward!

 

Tennessee Graduation Rate Exceeds National Average… For Some

A GradNation report released last week offers a report card on graduation rates across the country. GradNation’s goal is to “increase the on-time graduation rate to 90% by the class of 2020″ and provides data and best practice opportunities to help states reach this goal.

Graduation rate is one those things we’ve come to depend on when assessing the health of a school. This would be fine if there were no instances of attempting to the game system by hiding students in alternative schools or employing “creative” tactics during testing.

The authors of this report acknowledge the skepticism, but make the point that while there is some truth to the skepticisms, for the most part, graduation rates are still a good way to see one slice of how students are doing.

According to the report, Tennessee has a graduation rate of 87.9% which is above the national average of 83.2%. This would be promising if we hadn’t just discovered hundreds of students graduating without the proper number of credits. While this little tidbit of information doesn’t alter the graduation rate, it does influence its credibility.

Still, with improved standards courtesy of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Tennessee is poised to realize a 90% graduation rate by 2020. Or is it?

The subgroup breakdown tells a different story (doesn’t it always?).

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The gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, low socioeconomic and non, and students with disabilities and students without disabilities are astounding. How is it possible to celebrate a state graduation rate that beats the national average while only 80% of its black students and 70% of students with disabilities are so disturbingly below the mark? No celebrating here, but hope lies ahead.

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One of the components of Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds is aptly titled All Means All created specifically to address inequities. The state department of education is to be commended for acknowledging the importance of closing achievement gaps by making it a priority. Because what gets measured gets done, right?

Thankfully, we’ve learned hard lessons from No Child Left Behind where subgroups were measured to death, so today states are doing everything possible to neutralize the effects of the well-meaning but off-putting education policy. And by most accounts, Tennessee is at the head of the class thanks to Race to the Top reforms and a solid ESSA plan.

Tennessee’s graduation rate is headed in the right direction and possibly moving on a faster clip than most states. Most significantly, there is a real possibility that the finish line will include all students. Fingers crossed.

See Tennessee’s GradNation report here.

2017 Testing in Tennessee Is Off to a Great Start…Whether We Like It or Not

It’s Day 3 of TNReady, Tennessee’s renamed standardized test, and so far, so good! You may remember last year’s fatal glitches, but by all accounts, this year’s tests are smooth sailing. Check out Commissioner Candace McQueen below:

Standardized Tests or Nah?

Let’s be real, nobody loves standardized tests. But name another way to find out if our children’s performance is better (or worse) than the year before? Or how groups of children perform in comparison to others? (Why State Tests? Click here)

Like brussel sprouts, standardized tests fall at the bottom of my list.  Funny looks aside, there is no amount anything that can drown out its natural flavor. But here’s the kicker, those baby cabbages are loaded with protein and I sorely need healthier options rather than my go-to cheeseburger.

Think of it this way, you know how important education people (politicians, too) love to talk about the Achievement Gap? Well, from those pesky standardized test results performance gaps are revealed allowing schools to correct teaching and learning for children of color, poor children, students with disabilities, and English Learners. The information gleaned from test results in invaluable to educators and parents alike.

So while testing may not be good TO us, it’s certainly good FOR us. Accountability is never a bad thing where children are concerned!

Pay for Performance Makes Sense to Me, But I’m Just a Blogger [Vanderbilt Study: Teacher Merit Pay]

Once upon a time, the topic of merit pay (also known as incentive pay and pay-for-performance) was hot button issue for the players in the education game in Nashville. The teacher’s union was strongly against it, while business and political leaders were crowdfunding to finance an incentive plan.

In 2010, Vanderbilt University released the first scientific study ever conducted on the impact of merit pay on student test scores. The study concluded that merit pay had no impact on increasing student test scores even though the teacher is aware of the reward. Yikes!

“…if teachers know they will be rewarded for an increase in their students’ test scores, will test scores go up? We found that the answer to that question is no. That by no means implies that some other incentive plan would not be successful.”

Recently, Vanderbilt University released a meta-analysis of 44 studies on the same subject, but with a somewhat different conclusion. There are documented instances of success with merit pay’s effect on increasing student test scores, depending on program design and implementation.

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Interestingly, the analysis provides lukewarm support of the argument that merit pay provides teachers motivation to do well, attracts higher quality talent, and inspires retention.

 

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Read more about Vanderbilt’s recent study here.

Tennessee Set to Grade Schools in 2018, Tool to Help Parents Make Informed School Decisions

It’s official. Tennessee schools will now be graded on an A-F scale beginning in 2018. Tennessee Department of Education officials and other education policy wonks believe this grading system will be a helpful tool for parents choosing a school for their child.

They might be right, but I think it’s risky. I’m glad those leaders are considering parents’ need for an easy way to see how schools are doing, but as a parent who has exercised choice, I know it’s not a simple task. There are so many things to consider when choosing a school and my hope is that parents see the grade for what it is, a tool to assist in the process.

Beyond the Grade

While I typically side with tools and practices that help parents do what’s best for their children, I’m slow to jump on this bandwagon. Grading systems, either for children or schools, don’t always paint an accurate picture of what’s really happening. When present, the grades often become the only thing parents look at and all other factors are suddenly ignored.

Lane Wright, an editor at Education Post  wrote about school grades recently and said, “without such a system, parents are on their own to figure out how much more important graduation rates are than test scores, or growth scores, or test participation rates.” I respect that argument, but while these data points are important factors for considering a school, they are not always at the top of the list for most parents.

af773c1312b5de1f490c188afc53e956There is no shortage of studies that tell us why parents choose schools. But more often than not, these decisions seem to be rooted in race and socioeconomic status and indicators such as school distance, extracurricular activities, and school climate are top considerations.

For instance, a Washington D.C. study funded by the Walton Foundation found:

Middle school parents were willing to travel a half-mile farther to go to a school if 50 percent of students are the same race as their children. But they were willing to drive even farther to avoid having their children be in a small minority—say a school where 10 versus 20 percent of the students are in the same group.

Further, in this 2015 New Orleans study, “the lowest-income New Orleans families were even more likely to pick schools that were close by, that offered extended days, and that had football and band in high school — and, conversely, they had a weaker preference for schools based on test scores.”

Climate and Culture Matter, Too

While these two cities are vastly different from nearly every city Tennessee, my personal experience echoes these studies. I know parents who dig into the minutiae of growth, achievement, teacher efficacy, and staff/leadership retention, but I also know parents whose chief concerns are for a school to be welcoming, safe and accessible.

In short, I fear the over-reliance on letter grades. I agree it’s an easier way for parents to assess a school’s performance, but it’s also an easier way for parents to dismiss important aspects of a school’s performance without even realizing they’re doing it. So it is incumbent upon school and community leaders to do their due diligence by ensuring parents continue to do the work that comes with choosing a school.

Tennessee’s Achievement School District Intervention of Last Resort for Low Performing Schools

As mentioned earlier this week, Tennessee, along with 19 other states, have submitted their final Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans to the U.S. Department of Education and the people at Betsy DeVos, Inc. have 120 days to respond.

In this Chalkbeat Tennessee article, we learn that the Achievement School District (ASD) will remain a thing in Tennessee. Schools performing in the bottom 5% will continue to move from the district’s responsibility to the watchful eye of the state.

So What’s Different?

Apparently, the difference in the work of the ASD under the new federal law will be the creation of a new office at the TNDOE (an even more watchful eye?) that comes with a 10-year expiration date.

“If its schools don’t exit due to sustained improvement, they must be returned to their local districts within 10 years.”

Also, poorly performing schools will be afforded more turnaround time making the state the intervention of last resort. I’ll repeat that — poorly performing schools will be afforded more turnaround time.

Am I the only one who thinks the state is being overly generous with time?

 “The trouble is, you think you have time.” Buddha

Read Tennessee overhauls approach to low-performing schools under plan sent to Secretary DeVos and you be the judge.