As Summer Fades, Education Stories in Tennessee Heat Up and Urban Districts Are on the Hot Seat

And all at once summer collapsed into fall. – Oscar Wilde

I seriously cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in edu-world today – like Wednesday today, not the universal today. I’ve scrolled through a number of articles that forced a pause only to be preempted by the next pause-worthy story. It seems a perfect storm of good-to-great and bad-to-worse is converging upon us as the school year settles in and long-awaited test scores make an appearance. Let’s dig in, shall we?

A bit of good news…

Nashville’s crack edu-watcher and writer Zack Barnes recently went on a data bender and tweeted out the amazing growth outcomes for many of our schools – traditional and charter. The most fascinating chart shows a list of schools achieving the greatest growth (level 5) for the 2016-2017 school year.

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Great for these schools!

Note to ponder: every level 5 performing school on this list is a magnet or charter except for the dual-enrollment Middle College.

Follow @zbarnes for more chart love!

Not so good news…

Did you see the story “Regular Public School Teachers Miss More School Than Charter School Teachers?” 

A study performed by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that on average traditional public school teachers miss 10 more of school than charter school teachers. The EdWeek article explores two possible reasons for this gap in teachers showing up to work — collective bargaining and school culture.

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Teachers in traditional public schools are protected by unions that negotiate sick leave while the majority of charters are not unionized. For instance, Tennessee’s teachers are greatly protected by the Tennessee Education Association (MNEA in Nashville) while not one of Tennessee’s charter schools has union influence. Could that be the reason our traditional public school teachers miss 25.3% of school while charter teachers miss 7.6%?

Of the 6,900 charter schools nationally, about 1 in 10 have teachers’ unions. According to the report, 18 percent of teachers in unionized charter schools are chronically absent. It’s about half that in charter schools without unions.

Culture is the other possible explanation. Charter schools pride themselves on creating a culture of exceedingly high expectations for students, parents, and faculty.

Teachers who work in charters “agree to go there as an at-will employee in most cases,” said Miller, who once served as a president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, Calif. “This means you’re buying into a school culture and a way of doing business. That doesn’t include the elaborate leave policies you can often find in a collective bargaining agreement.”

But the million dollar question is “does teacher chronic absenteeism affect student achievement?” The article briefly touches on a study by Raegan Miller, a Georgetown University researcher quoted in the article, that concludes math students fall behind and are less engaged when their teacher is chronically absent. I’m no researcher, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the “less engaged” part of his conclusion is pretty important.

For the past two years, Tennessee (and Nashville, specifically) has been plotting and planning to triage the chronic absenteeism problem within our schools — for students. Maybe they are following the examples set before them? Don’t misunderstand me, parents need to be sure their child is in her seat, but if we have a problem with teachers showing up, then let’s make it, too, a prominently acknowledged and measured indicator for student success.

Downright ugly…

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Tragically, the districts with the greatest number of vulnerable students are not growing. Hamilton County has gotten unwanted attention after scoring ones across-the-board except in one area. There is no shortage of articles about Memphis and their academic struggles, but Nashville has avoided the spotlight – until now.

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An overall score of one is a sure-fire way to regain exposure – whether you want it or not.

Admittedly, I’ve been generous to the district that educated my entire family and helped me provide a nice life for us. Additionally, working hard every day are Metro School staffers I care for deeply making it more difficult for me to call foul when foul clearly needs to be screamed.

But where I’ve failed to acknowledge weaknesses in our district, fellow blogger Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild (norinad10) has been on the case- for years. While we tend to see things differently, I understand the importance of respecting different points of view

You never know, there might come a time when the two points of view converge.

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TN-ESSA: This Ego Trip Doesn’t Help Kids But…Told You So

I will beat a drum to its death. And through this platform, I’ve beat several drums and lucky for you they still have a lot of life left in them. 😉

Let’s see, there’s the drum designated for Nashville’s marginalized families. A drum for children of color consistently on the wrong side of the achievement, opportunity, and belief gaps. Then there’s the drum for Nashville’s increasing homelessness amongst the shadows of dozens of cranes, taunting those without a bed to lay their head.

You get the point.

In this post, I’m pulling out the BHN drum. You know the super subgroup Black-Hispanic-Native American designated by Tennessee’s Department of Education? Well, if you’re not familiar, here’s a brief primer:

As part of Tennessee’s strategic plan, TN Succeeds (which has just been approved by DeVos & Co.), as directed by the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Black, Hispanic, and Native American students will be combined into one group for reporting purposes. You don’t need a degree in education to know these groups are different, with unique challenges requiring customized attention and remedy.

I have sat through multiple presentations led by state officials and asked any number of questions about the super subgroup trying to make sense of it. The state insists ALL MEANS ALL as it relates to student success.

As mentioned several times in this blog, Tennessee’s ESSA plan is a good plan according to every external organization that assesses state plans. In this Chalkbeat article, TN Succeeds gets high marks from another independent reviewer in nearly every area. Can you guess the area with the greatest weakness?

“The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.”

Yeah, I told ya so.

Read the Chalkbeat article on Tennessee’s ESSA plan.

Tennessee’s Literacy Initiative Must Work Quickly for Today’s Students

In 2025, seventy-five percent of Tennessee’s third graders will read at grade level. At the present, not even half of third graders are there. This Chalkbeat article shares the good news of Tennessee’s year-old effort to boost reading proficiency with the addition of literacy coaches to school districts that sign on to the initiative.

So far, 99 out 146 school districts are part of the literacy initiative as it begins its second year. Unfortunately, we don’t know if the reading coaches hired in the initiative’s first year made an impact on reading scores, because, you know, no 2017 scores as of yet. Another blog. Another time. But here’s hoping. If Candice McQueen is willing to expand the program, maybe she knows something we don’t.

The Future is Now

Education officials ALWAYS speak in terms of long-term goals that really only benefit the reputation of the system. Think about it: in eight years Tennessee promises all but 25% of its third graders will be able to read at grade level. We are preparing for partial success of students who have yet to be born, but it’s good to know most will be able to read.

What about today’s living, breathing 3rd, 4th, 5th, 6th, 7th, 8th, 9th, 10th, 11th, and 12th graders who are not reading at grade level? I’m eager to compare the scores of 2015’s third graders and 2017’s fifth graders (same students), these students have just entered 6th grade. See how that works? Accountability requires that we understand the current situation to prepare for tomorrow, whether it’s eight years, eight months, or eight days. Time is not on our side.

Reading to Learn

We know students learn to read in K-2nd grades and begin reading to learn in 3rd grade. To put it plainly, the expectation is that students have mastered basic reading skills by 3rd grade. Students must be able to read and understand what they’ve read in order to learn other subjects.

So when I hear an 8th-grade teacher talk about having to re-work her lesson plans because half of her students showed up on the first day reading at a fourth-grade level –well, that’s quite troubling. 

I’m not knocking the literacy initiative or the 2025 goal, but we must work fast for our older students who continue to matriculate without basic reading skills.

Read the entire Chalkbeat article here.

Is This A Fight to Protect Student Information or Yet Another Tactic to Deny Parents Choices?

Last week, the Tennessean reported that Nashville’s school board wants to keep student contact information to themselves and away from public charter schools. Nevermind the fact that public charter schools are PUBLIC SCHOOLS, and should have the same kind of access other public schools get. Not allowing public charter schools to have the contact info needed to reach out to families is against the law.

The school board claims their proposal is all about protecting student data (there’s also a law for that), but they know very well that charter schools can (and do) use the information to market to parents, and that scares them. The optics suggest traditional public schools are afraid they can’t compete.

The Nashville school board’s argument of protecting student information would be believable were it not for a number of charter school annihilation tactics recently deployed. Just saying.



Memphis, Though

To the west, Shelby County Schools (SCS) is a step ahead of Nashville in the student information sharing showdown. Superintendent of schools Dorsey Hopson has already declined a request for student information from Green Dot Schools, a charter management organization with five schools in Memphis. The student information battle stems from Shelby County accusing the Achievement School District of passing along student information to parent group The Memphis Lift for their parent outreach efforts. (Full disclosure: I am 100% on the side of parents who pose a threat to education as-is.)

Enter Commissioner Candice McQueen

Apparently, state law trumps board policy and a superintendent’s (or board member’s) hurt feelings. As a former district employee, state law wasn’t always my friend but respected it because bad things happen when you break the law (see how state responds by withholding $3.4m from MNPS in 2012).

So, in response to Memphis’ insubordination, the Commish sends Superintendent Hopson a little reminder (3-page letter) about the law that rejects his rejection. The Tennessee High Quality Charter Schools Act is considered moderately strong legislation in the charter world, but in this instance, the law aggressively protects charter schools from anti-charter school boards and school leaders.

Basically, the law says any charter school that has been approved to open at least one school should get “at no cost a list of student names, ages, addresses, dates of attendance, and grade levels completed…” Once they get it, charter schools can’t share it with anyone outside school leadership unless they get permission from the parent.

And to make sure the message is clear, the letter to Hopson ends with, “The commissioner of education is required by state law to see that the school laws and the regulations of the state board of education are faithfully executed. TDOE directs SCS to immediately comply…”

Clear? Crystal. (h/t to Colonel Jessup and Lt. Kaffee)



We know how this ends, Nashville, let’s not go there — again.


Read the full Chalkbeat article and Commissioner McQueen’s full letter to SCS superintendent Dorsey Hopson.



Poll Says Education is on Tennessee’s Mind, Sees Rise in Expectations

Tennessee’s governor’s race is off and running and to some degree, education is on everyone’s mind according to a recent poll conducted by State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE). The state advocacy organization’s findings tell us that both Democrats and Republicans are satisfied with outgoing Governor Haslam’s (R) education policies. In contrast, both parties in the deep red state are less optimistic about our state’s progress with educating its smallest citizens.

Still, it’s refreshing to know Tennesseans hold high expectations for our schools and are on board with the current upward trajectory set a decade ago by Democratic governor Phil Bredesen. I agree with SCORE CEO David Mansouri’s assessment:

“As we move into an important election cycle, this poll shows us that Tennessee voters continue to support the innovations that have been introduced to help students learn at higher levels.”

But, Third Place?

Even with rising expectations, education in Tennessee does not rank as a top priority. Yep, the 42nd ranked state in education (according to Wallethub) thinks education is the third most important issue in our state. Imma let that digest for a moment.


Maybe Tennesseans need another crash course on TNReady high school End-of-Course scores released just last week. Click on the link for the crash course. 

In a nutshell, the state department of education released a very charming chart highlighting growth across all content areas. The kicker: the chart represents less than one-quarter of the state’s public school students, spotlighting the highest performers.

“What’s not shown in this graph are the 78.5% of students who are scoring in Levels 1 (Below) and 2 (Approaching).

The percentage of students underperforming across the board is staggering: 

  • English 66.6%
  • Math 78.5%
  • Science 49%
  • U.S. History 70.1%”

Any Tennessean armed with this information would be all too eager to make education job #1.

Get more information about the SCORE survey in this Chalkbeat article.

Tennessee, You Do Nobody Favors by Hiding How Many of Our Students Are Struggling

Last week I posted a blog about my wobbly hope in Tennessee’s education future, only to declare two hours later that my hope took a nosedive after receiving “good news” from the Tennessee Department of Education about our students’ latest standardized test scores.

Just because it glitters…

Don’t Fall for the ‘Good News’ Graph

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This is the first and only graphic state education officials pushed out for our consumption. “Look, y’all, we’re moving on up!”

If you are a visual learner your eyes will likely fixate on the height of the bars. If you are an optimist, your attention may be drawn to the growth between 2016 and 2017. If this type of reporting doesn’t interest you then you are subject to take the state’s word as bond.

The Whole Truth and Nothing Less

First, it’s always important to recognize and celebrate growth—and that’s clearly the aim of the state’s announcement. Thousands of teachers and leaders across Tennessee execute back-breaking work to ensure students get what they need and these efforts must be acknowledged.

But what are we sacrificing when we report out only part of the story? Who really gets hurt?

I want you to go on a journey with me through graphland where things are perfectly packaged and presented with a glossy finish. The graph presented above is well done, easy-to-understand and downright deceptive.

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First, the graph (as seen above) only goes as high as 55%. Hold that thought for a moment.


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Second, the reporting focuses solely on students scoring in two categories: On Track (Level 3) and Mastered (Level 4). Third, look at the graph in its entirety and check out the growth numbers. Again, all growth is important, but…

So, let’s talk about it.

I could be wrong, but I think most people expect measurements to range from 0 to 100. So if you’re looking at a graph and a bar goes halfway to the top, one automatically thinks 50% i.e., out of 100 students, 50 students made a passing grade.

But the state’s “good news” graph goes from 0 to 55 (using a really small font), accessorized with bright colors and bars that are seemingly headed toward the heavens. To put it in perspective, if the bars only go halfway in this graph, we’re talking only 27.5% of students.

Stay with me.

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Take a look at this graphic showing growth from 2016 to 2017. So, in 2017, 21.5% of students (up less than a point from 2016) taking these high-stakes math exams are either on track or have mastered the standards.

This means more than three-fourths of Tennessee’s high school math students are not even on track! I don’t know about you, but to me this is feeling less and less like good news.


Remember, the graph only represents students who score in Levels 3 and 4, the highest performing students. But it’s the students they don’t show us that concern me. What’s not shown in this graph are the 78.5% of students who are scoring in Levels 1 (Below) and 2 (Approaching).

And that’s just in math. The percentage of students underperforming across the board is staggering:

  • English 66.6%
  • Math 78.5%
  • Science 49%
  • U.S. History 70.1%

Further, we have no data about the groups represented in these percentages. If tradition serves as a guide, we will discover Black, Brown, and low-income students disproportionately represented in Levels 1 and 2.

So spare us the smoke screens. The deception will create acrimony and distrust reversing the goodwill the state has produced in recent years. Celebrate the growth but amplify the deficits, to do the former without the latter is dishonest and our families deserve better.

Here’s to keeping hope alive.

Remembering the Lens of Hope…

Just two hours ago I published a short post on Tennessee’s plan to educate every child through innovative strategies and how the state is leading the nation in changing the game. I wrote of belief in our state officials and of hope (though cautious).

Then this happened.

What do you see? Or better question, what’s missing?


Click here for more information on the initial analysis of TNReady scores.