Celebrating Tennessee’s Top Teacher Cicely Woodard, Metro Nashville Public Schools


Cicely Woodard, a middle school math teacher at West End Middle School and Metro Schools 2017-18 teacher of the year has been crowned Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year! See TN Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s announcement at last night’s ceremony.

In addition to being an amazing educator, Ms. Woodard is also a leader among leaders eager to share her talents with other educators across the state. We are so proud to have a Metro Schools educator as the state’s top teacher! (I’m beaming and I don’t even know her!)

I want to thank Ms. Woodard for putting in the hard work and serving as a source of inspiration for her students and their families. Ms. Woodard is now the standard-bearer for excellence across the state, making her one of the best in the country.

Education in Nashville needed a win and Cicely Woodard’s win is something everyone can celebrate.


“The classroom presents a unique chance for young people and caring adults to build positive relationships with each other. It’s the place where teachers and students motivate each other to be their best selves. In the classroom we have a chance to help students to fall in love with learning and to understand the power of education.” – Cicely Woodard

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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Why is Tennessee’s Education Commish Blasting the Achievement School District?

Earlier this week we received reports of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s unhappiness with the Achievement School District, calling its results ’embarrassing’ and basically, a waste of money.

Admittedly, anyone would be hard pressed to debate results coming out of the embattled state agency of last resort for perennially failing schools. A 15% success rate is nothing to write home about. Especially since the ASD is responsible for turning around schools almost completely filled with students of color and in poverty. The Commish’s comment were not out of line, but I think the blame has more than one owner.

The ASD is an accountability measure carved out of promises made in the effort to obtain Race To The Top funds. It takes in the bottom 5% of schools in the state and loads up the schools with extra resources and the freedom to innovate. Sadly, the magic happened in only 20 of 126 ASD schools. So, I get McQueen’s exasperation, but…

Was this just bad policy from the start? Did the remaining schools warehoused in the ASD not receive the same extra supports as those achieving expected successes?  

Looking for answers to these questions, I reached out to the commissioner’s media director. I suspect there was fallout from McQueen’s comments because I was sent the packaged response below:

The comments made in the education committee yesterday were regarding our ESSA plans for school turnaround, as ESSA allows for districts new to the Priority school list to engage in turnaround efforts before the state’s most rigorous intervention – the ASD – is an option. So, we are analyzing how districts have used state funds for turnaround efforts to date, what accountability has been in place and to what results, and the “urgency” with which we have moved to serve current priority schools. ESSA requires intervention to be based on evidence-based practices, and that is why we studied what has worked in Tennessee to see how we can replicate those schools’ success.
As the state determines the supports needed to improve schools in need of turnaround, we are specifically studying what we know has worked from our past turnaround efforts that have received School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds. To date, we have had 20 schools out of 126 Priority schools come out of the bottom 5% of schools. We have specifically done case studies on 10 of these schools – eight of which have received SIG funds with monitoring from the state, and the two schools that have exited the Priority list from earning a one-year success rate, which demonstrates remarkable growth in achievement. From these case studies, we have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools. On the flip side, of the over 100 schools that have not moved out of the bottom 5%, some of these schools have received significantly more state funding since SIG’s inception, but little progress has been realized. In fact, some schools have been identified for improvement since as early as 2002 under NCLB and have received various funds over the time period with district-led intervention with little to no progress.
What we can’t do as a state is support – in terms of funding and time – district interventions that don’t work. We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need. As we have stated, publicly and in our ESSA plan, the ASD is a critical part of the state’s school improvement work, and we will continue to strategically use it to intervene in our lowest-performing schools. Yesterday’s comments were made ultimately to highlight we all need to do a better job of supporting all of our students. For decades, and for a variety of reasons, we have failed to ensure that every child in Tennessee has an equal chance to receive a high-quality education from their public school. We want to learn as a state how can we best intervene to change this, particularly given the limited amount of funding we have to do so and the urgency to help so many students for whom nothing yet has changed this trajectory.

Still so many questions. 

Welcome to Tennessee, Where a Diploma Isn’t Really a Diploma For Too Many

UPDATE: Immediately after this post was first published, I was directed to an article by Chalkbeat’s Grace Tatter published “22 hours ago” offering evidence that clearly refutes the numbers originally reported by the State Department of Education relating to Tennessee’s diploma drama. Even as the number of students who didn’t meet the necessary requirements is not as large as we thought (just a few minutes ago), I maintain one student is too many. So, the percentage of students affected doesn’t change the message of this post. And give us a break, SDOE!


So you know how our students graduate from high school believing when they walk across the stage for that hard-earned diploma they are ready for the next level? Yeah, not so much.

Thanks to a state-sponsored audit, we now know that a large portion of Tennessee graduates really didn’t graduate. Not at least with the necessary course requirements.

The data reported last week by NPR’s Blake Farmer looks at 2015 high school graduates in Tennessee, but I can’t help but wonder how many more cohorts of ill-prepared students were sent out into a black hole of postsecondary prospects.

The report responsible for fueling Farmer’s article was released by the Tennessee Department of Education titled Seamless Pathways – Bridging Tennessee’s Gap Between High School and Postsecondary. It’s clear the fault does not lie with students. The report suggests a faulty checks and balances system within our schools, which would be digestible if it didn’t heavily impact our students’ futures.


And sure, you might argue that missing a couple foreign language courses doesn’t mean our kids are graduating stupid. But the truth is, when our kids don’t get all the courses the state decided they need, there are very real consequences. The reason the department of education decided to look into this was because they noticed that so many of our graduates were struggling in college.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due (ha ha)

Even though thousands of our students have been stiffed, I’m offering up credit to Governor Bill Haslam and Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen for making real progress re-building the historically poor-performing state education framework. Discovering this massive failure in our schools that could prove fatal to our children’s postsecondary prospects and deciding to publicly address the problem gives me hope.

However, until corrected, we’ve got a serious problem. We have former students hanging in the balance between high school and career with no safety net. Because we failed them. Currently, our schools are inadequately resourced to properly prepare students post-high school. So, we are failing them.  

For me, the only thing scarier than discovering a devastating flaw in your system is uncovering a disconnect in awareness amongst those working the system. In this case, teachers and guidance counselors are working independently, unaware of what the other is doing, and students are falling through the cracks.

So, the picture becomes more clear. Guidance counselors are busy moonlighting as testing administrators and performing a gazillion other duties leaving little time for college preparation. Teachers, noticing the constant stream of students in and out of the guidance counselor’s office, believe the college stuff is handled. Of course, it’s more complicated than this, but it does illustrate the big, gaping holes to which our students are falling victim.

Let’s be clear, I’m not pointing fingers. But we cannot allow one more student to graduate unprepared. Just as we are trying to ramp up our graduation rate, let’s be sure to do it the right way.

You know how I like to say STAY VIGILANT? Well, here’s yet another reason to listen to your girl!

(By the way, my weekly rants about staying vigilant are not just for the reader. Believe me, I’m on a steady diet of practicing what I preach. Thanks to Betsy DeVos, a vessel representing both my hopes and fears, I eat and sleep all things accountability.)