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.

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

ESSA: From Hiding Black Students to Making Them Disappear

Tennessee schools might be “hiding dropouts” and gaming the accountability system. That’s the finding of a recent report by the data-centric journalism group ProPublica. The report, while focused mostly on Florida, suggests schools all over the country (again, possibly in TN) may be pushing low-performing students, many of whom are black, into “alternative schools,” as a way of preventing their low test scores and graduation rates from dragging down the average.

But the potential side effect is even more disturbing. Thanks to the wording in the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, these students, who are mostly black young men, don’t need to be counted at all. We can disappear them from our state’s accountability system with no questions asked.

Alternative schools aren’t necessarily bad. They were originally created to help students who have behavioral issues, or who just don’t do well in a traditional system–some students really do need an alternative pathway. But if the motive for transferring any of these students is to put on a front, and allow schools to act like they’re doing a better job helping kids then they actually are, then that’s a problem.

Unfortunately, there’s a lot we still don’t know. There’s not enough data in the report to say whether or not it’s happening in Tennessee, though they do flag Nashville as a place that is of concern. But we’ve seen this kind of thing come up before. It was just a little over a year ago when a group of teachers raised concerns that students were being put into credit recovery programs so they would not take year end tests, which beefed-up the district’s overall testing performance. A student also filed suit (now dismissed) based on the same allegations.

So it’s worth raising the question: Is there something fishy going on in Nashville schools?

While I am not interested in stirring up a bee’s nest about the testing behavior in Nashville, I can’t help but be concerned. I can’t help but wonder if someone’s trying to pull the wool over my eyes. Or if the state is creating an environment where that’s easier to do.

Under the Every Student Succeeds Act, states have unbelievable latitude in the definition of a school. Tennessee’s plan takes advantage of that flexibility and explicitly says in its state plan that we won’t hold ourselves accountable for alternative schools:

“ESSA requires states to meaningfully differentiate public schools on an annual basis. Tennessee will include all public schools within this framework, excluding schools that only serve K–2 students, or adult high schools, or schools that only serve students with special needs and/or disabilities, or alternative schools, or CTE schools.”

I see two problems with this. First, ESSA gives states authority to allow districts the freedom to create warehouses specifically for hiding marginal to poor performing students — free from accountability. Second, and the most chilling issue, is the notion that the students most likely to be hidden under the ESSA provision are black students in general, and young black men, in particular.

What Gets Measured, Gets Done

Based on 2015 student data, nearly every student sent to a Nashville alternative school was black. Under ESSA, students enrolled in alternative schools will not be counted. That means it’s possible that within a couple of years, we could see larger swaths of our black students dropping off the radar for states. They won’t be in schools where the state will ever try to intervene. They won’t be considered when we talk about the academic progress of black students, and they won’t be celebrated when they do make progress. Conceivably, in two years, we could experience large swaths of black males missing from the state’s accountability framework.

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For me, there’s no obvious reason why we wouldn’t count these kids. Don’t they matter too? Yet federal law allows it and states like Tennessee, and many others, are all-too-happy to jump on board. Tennessee never explains in their state plan why it’s okay. That worries me. I worry that we’re building a system that creates a big dark hiding place for certain kids so schools can keep their reputations up and keep kids who probably need our attention the most out of sight and out of mind.

 

According to Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., Federal Education Law is Good for Students of Color

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), we believe, offers African American parents more opportunities to get involved in determining the quality of education for their students at the local level.

This is an interesting take on the Every Student Succeeds Act offered by Dr. Benjamin F. Chavis, Jr., president of the National Newspaper Publishers Association (NNPA).

While the law is to be commended as a bi-partisan effort taking lessons from the challenges created by No Child Left Behind Act, I am concerned about the potential effect on students of color. This concern stems from the additional authority ESSA gives to states when historically federally-issued power to states has not been favorable to people of color.

Click on the link above to read his thoughts.

 

Screw You, Imma Do Me Thanks for Writing. Sincerely, Lamar

Y’all remember when I made an appeal to the distinguished gentleman from the great state of Tennessee, Sen. Alexander? Here’s the very canned response:

January 30, 2017

 

Ms. Alvesia Wilson-Hawkins

Hermitage, TN 37076-1370
Dear Alvesia,

Thanks very much for getting in touch with me and letting me know what’s on your mind regarding President Trump’s selection of Betsy DeVos to become the next Secretary of Education.

Betsy DeVos is an excellent choice. The Senate’s education committee will move swiftly in January to consider her nomination. Betsy has worked for years to improve educational opportunities for all children. As Secretary, she will be able to implement the Every Student Succeeds Act, the new law fixing No Child Left Behind, just as Congress wrote it, reversing the trend to a national school board and restoring to states, governors, school boards, teachers, and parents greater responsibility for improving education in their local communities. Under the new law, the federal government may not mandate or incentivize states to adopt any particular standards, including Common Core.

I also look forward to working with her on the upcoming reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, giving us an opportunity to clear out the jungle of red tape that makes it more difficult for students to obtain financial aid and for administrators to manage America’s 6,000 colleges and universities.

Improving our schools has been one of my top priorities in public service, both as a U.S. Senator and during my earlier service as governor, president of the University of Tennessee, and U.S. Secretary of Education. Better schools mean better jobs, which is why I have worked to support states and school districts in improving education so that our students have the tools they need for success.

We are unleashing a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement—one that recognizes that the path to higher standards, better teaching and real accountability is classroom by classroom, community by community, and state by state—and not through Washington, D.C. I appreciate your taking the time to let me know where you stand. I’ll be sure to keep your comments in mind as this issue is discussed and debated in Washington and in Tennessee.

Sincerely,

Lamar

So here’s how I see it, DeVos is happening whether we like it or not. Which means now more than ever we must stay vigilant in the educational environment we currently find ourselves. No Child Left Behind has been – ahem – left behind and is now the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). ESSA is the product of a colossal bi-partisanship effort that can be boiled down to three words – increased state authority. Scary.

Think of it like this, if someone like Betsy DeVos becomes the queen of education and you’re in a state that champions her ideology (and as in TN’s case serves as the power to the throne) against the backdrop of increased state control, we have ourselves a very real game of royal cat and mouse.

While the cat’s off ensuring photo opportunities have the perfect balance of children of color and poverty, the mice will be busy distributing vouchers to their deep-pocketed peers and holding the door open for money-hungry for-profits. We cannot stand for it.

Sen. Alexander states in his letter:

“…real accountability is classroom by classroom, community by community, and state by state—and not through Washington, D.C.”.

The president’s nomination of DeVos coupled with the good senator’s fervent push for her confirmation is in stark contrast to the statement above. DeVos is far from being the poster child for accountability and without robust oversight, we lose.