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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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!

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.



Tennessee’s Plan for Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) Due Today

Today is the first of two deadlines states must submit final Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plans and Tennessee, with 19 other states, has promised to honor the April 3rd deadline.

By most accounts, Tennessee has a sound plan which no doubt stems from the work of the past few years beginning with the implementation of the 2nd highest standards in the nation and ending with Race to the Top. The state that once owned real estate at the bottom of virtually all education rankings, finds itself rising amongst the ranks of those to watch.

Though our state leaders appear to have it all figured out, we know that the question of labeling a school by growth or raw performance indicators is still on the table. Last year, Tennessee legislators were eager to grade schools on an A-F scale to better help parents choose the school best for their child. A year later, legislators are walking back this bright idea fearing the onslaught of unintended consequences.

According to Mary Batiwalla, TNDOE director of accountability, at a March meeting in Washington D.C.:

“The lowest-achieving school could receive an ‘A’ under our [proposed] system — very low-achieving, but showing what we consider to be remarkable and life-changing growth,” she said. “It’s a tough conversation to have with folks because there is this very accepted notion that ‘If you say that school that is very low-performing is an A school, you are lying to parents.’ ”

I’m not sure to whom Batiwalla is referring when mentioning “tough conversation to have with folks”, but let me offer a bit of advice: please don’t make high stakes accountability decisions based on short-sighted assumptions. Surely, we are not in the business of deciding a school’s health based on the perceived difficulty of the conversation. Simply, is it right by kids?

Batiwalla went on to say, “Tennessee has decided we no longer want to reward simply having high absolute achievement. If you have students who come in at a certain level, the expectation is that you grow those students.”

Batiwalla is actually on the right track. The academic growth does matter. And as a parent, I think parents will get that. And the messaging isn’t really that hard, is it? I mean if you’ve got a 5th grader reading at a second grade level, and by the end of the year he’s reading at a 4th grade level that should be rewarded. That’s real growth, even if he isn’t quite at a 5th grade level, it doesn’t mean he’s not “achieving” or “reaching proficiency.”

Here’s hoping the final ESSA plan will address this issue. I’ll be watching…


Saturday Morning reMIX: EdStories from March 20 – March 24

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It’s Spring Break in Nashville and the most popular ticket in town was the voucher legislation dancing its way through the Tennessee legislature. The bill targeting Memphis families zoned to failing schools passed the House Education Committee this week. The legislation now moves to the House Government Operations Committee and is pending in the Senate’s Finance, Ways and Means Committee. And the tango continues…

Screenshot 2017-03-20 at 11.39.11 AM5 Things You Need to Know About Vouchers – You Decide


Listen to Rep. Johnnie Turner speak against the voucher legislation that seeks to use Memphis students “as guinea pigs.”


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Tennessee has been accused of possibly hiding poorly performing students, but the Every Student Succeeds Act gives districts an opportunity to make them disappear.


More on vouchers:

Peter Cunningham, Education Post – “What begins as a program for low-income kids could become a program for middle-income and even wealthy kids. It already has in Nevada. Public education desperately needs middle-class families in its coalition. If we lose them to vouchers, political support for traditional public education will weaken.”


Marilyn Anderson Rhames, parent and school administrator – “I felt that the free education my daughter was getting was just too expensive. I needed to find a school that would start filling her academic gaps while also providing culturally responsive pedagogy—with an extended-day option.”


More News…

Amongst my readers, it seems vocational education is a hot topic. The response from the Forbes article, Why We Desperately Need Vocational Training In Schools  proved there is strong interest in the Nashville community. Forbes

The president wants to cut after-school programs because he says they are not effective. No way, says Faces of Education blogger, Kerry-Ann Royes

What grade would you give your school? Tennessee lawmakers are considering bouncing the whole grading schools idea. Whew. Chalkbeat Tennessee

Dr. Benjamin Chavis believes the federal education law is good for students of color.

Bringing moms, dads, and grandparents into school life is challenging because there are so many other important things that their require time and energy. This is a good take on how schools can better approach parental engagement. EdLanta