Tennessee’s Smallest Urban District Needs Speedy Turnaround for Distressed Schools

According to an article in the Times Free Press, Hamilton County Public Schools is in peril and what happens to children anywhere in Tennessee matters to all Tennesseans. Recently released state test scores show the district produced the lowest possible score in all areas but one. It doesn’t matter if you are not a fan of the type of assessment, standardized testing as a whole, or the robust reliance on high-stakes tests — results are results. We have them and must respond swiftly.

The district’s low performance certainly warrants the attention this article offers, but it misses a critical point that must be addressed. Though the writer points out disparities in performance among schools, he failed to spotlight the characteristics of the higher performing and lower performing schools.

Based on the 2015-2016 State Report Card, the student population at schools performing at the lower end is comprised of 90% or more students of color and high poverty. Meanwhile, the higher performing schools listed in the article are majority white students and minimal poverty. This narrative plays over and over again in school systems across the nation as schools with large vulnerable populations tend to have high concentrations of ineffective and/or the least experienced teachers, minimal parent engagement, a revolving door for principals, and little belief in the kids with the greatest needs.

We must be honest about the disparities among schools and groups of students. To bury or ignore this information is dishonest reporting and parents deserve better.

Incidentally, I have high hopes for the embattled district with its new superintendent Bryan Johnson who, by all accounts, was a strong leader in Clarksville/Montgomery County. Expecting a change in trajectory for our Chattanooga babies.

Read the Times Free Press article in its entirety.

 

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.

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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)

crystalclear

 

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.

 

 

The Night Before the First Day of School and All Through the House

Look, I’ve been in your worn out shoes with the holes in the big toe area. For most Nashville public school families, the countdown to crazy has reached zero and all heck is just about to break loose (at least that was my experience).  I remember so well, two weeks before the start of school I would start preparing the kids (and adults) for the grind, I mean, routine. I would be a wreck! My kids hated me. So did I.

The fourteen days leading up to the first day of school would be a series of mini-nervous breakdowns and I made sure everyone under the sound of my voice felt my pain. To get an idea of my back-to-school induced insanity, I’ll share with you the adventures from the Hawkins household. Ready?

Uniforms – It seemed both kids grew like 6 inches every summer. I could never find the right color khaki (how many shades of khaki are there?) or the coolest non-striped, tiny-logoed polo shirt.

Before and After Care – Why is it so expensive? (The fees rarely changed but somehow I was never prepared)

Summer Reading – Daily screams throughout the house “did you finish your reading list!” and “Oh really? I want proof right now!”

New Teacher(s) – While I’m wreaking havoc at home, I was also stalking the school to get the news about our new teachers. Yes, there was the daily drive-by to see if anything had been posted on the door or if the principal’s car was in the lot (you know, just to say hello).

School Supplies – Man! I was obsessed with getting my hands on that supply list (far worse than the mild preoccupation with finding out the new teacher). I would be on around-the-clock email watch just to get my hands on that list. I love school supplies.

Uniforms – It’s been covered already, I know. But I gotta tell ya, it took the patience of Job to adhere to the myriad of uniform guidelines while trying to make sure the kids (I’m talking middle and high schoolers) felt the clothes were cool enough to walk the school halls. Lots of brawls over this one. I was so over this by the time they reached high school. I had no idea a million more fights awaited me.

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Planning for the Routine – The older they became, my children did not go to bed when asked nor did they wake at the appointed time. They didn’t plan their uniforms or clean their rooms in preparation for the new school year. Until…

Until — the crazy lady made her annual cameo appearance. This is the point at which my outside voice would become the very loud and sometimes shrill inside voice — no matter the location — home, the car, the department store. Yep, the point when my nerves rested on ten and even the appearance of disrespect got an unreasonable consequence. Crazy.

And all this before the start of school.

Old Mama’s Wisdom

So take the advice from someone who now has the benefit of learning from hindsight. Planning is a must, but if it’s not your forte (and I clearly had some issues) please start the school year strong by communicating with your teacher.

If you do nothing else, let the teacher know your child is loved and supported at home and that you expect the same from school. This communication will mean everything for you, the teacher, and the success of your child.

Most importantly, stay calm. It will work out.

Have a great school year!

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.