From the Statehouse

Plan to trim social studies tests comes to screeching halt

House sponsors of a bill to cut back on the state’s new social studies tests asked the House Education Committee to kill the measure Monday afternoon, and the panel did so on a 13-0 vote.

“This bill is trying very hard to be responsive to what we’ve been hearing,” said sponsor Rep. Millie Hamner, D-Dillon. She was referring to rising parent and teacher complaints about the amount of state testing.

But, she added, “We haven’t been able to work with our stakeholders on a solution that has been fully vetted.”

“We need to take a close look at the whole testing regime,” said her cosponsor, Rep. Dave Young, D-Greeley. He noted that another bill proposes a wide-ranging study of testing this summer and fall. That measure, House Bill 14-1202, received final Senate approval last week.

The social studies measure, Senate Bill 14-221, surfaced just last week, the brainchild of two Democratic senators from Jefferson County, Andy Kerr and Rachel Zenzinger. It passed the Senate 24-11 Monday morning and was immediately introduced in the House.

It proposed delaying next fall’s first 12th grade social studies tests for a year and then moving all three sets of tests to a “sampling” schedule under which an individual school would have had to give the test only every three years. The tests also are given in the 4th and 7th grades. Schools still could have administered the tests every year if they chose to do so.

The bill was criticized for doing too little about the testing burden and for singling out social studies. There reportedly weren’t enough votes on House Education to pass it on to the floor.

The panel also voted 10-0 to kill Senate Bill 14-185, which proposed creation of a “pay for success” method to fund early childhood programs. Sponsor Rep. Brittany Pettersen, D-Lakewood, asked that the bill be killed, saying, “We have a lot of work to do to ensure we have the correct guardrails in place.” (Get more background on this innovative but complicated idea in this story.)

Senate whittles down its calendar

The Senate worked through a long list of education bills as it attempted to clear its calendar ahead of adjournment on Wednesday.

Perhaps the most significant for education was House Bill 14-1319, which received preliminary approval. It would create a new funding formula for the state’s higher education system that gives greater weight to enrollment and would base a modest amount of funding on institutional performance measures such as graduation and student retention.

There was no Senate debate; most of the concerns with the bill were dealt with before it reached the floor in the House. The bill gives substantial flexibility to the Department of Higher Education and the Colorado Commission on Higher Education in designing the new funding formula, which won’t go into effect until 2015-16.

Nearing the finish line

These bills received final Senate approval Monday but still require House consideration of Senate amendments before passage.

House Bill 14-1118 would budget $261,561 to provide incentives for rural school districts to offer Advanced Placement classes. It passed 21-14.

House Bill 14-1301 allocates $700,000 to the Safe Routes to School program, which provides information for students and parents about safe walking and biking to school, as well as grants for driveway and sidewalk improvements and similar work. It passed 24-11.

On the the governor

These bills have passed – or been re-passed – and are on their way to the governor:

House Bill 14-1085 – The Senate voted 20-15 for this bill, which provides $960,000 in funding for adult literacy programs.

House Bill 14-1156 – The House accepted Senate amendments and passed the measure 39-26. The $809,095 proposal would make 3rd-, 4th- and 5th-graders now eligible for reduced-price lunches able to receive free lunches.

House Bill 14-1288 – This is the controversial vaccination education proposal, which was amended to remove its original requirement that parents who choose to opt out of immunizations first receive education on pros and cons. The measure now basically requires the state to set up an immunization information website and requires schools to maintain and provide data on the number of students who haven’t had their shots. The House agreed to Senate amendments and re-passed it 39-25.

House Bill 14-1294 – The House accepted Senate amendments and voted 62-0 to re-pass this measure, which sets various data privacy and security requirements on the Department of Education.

Senate Bill 14-124 – This bill would set up a $2 million program to train leaders for turnaround schools. The House passed it 37-28.

Use the Education Bill Tracker for links to the texts of bills covered in this story and other information.

Field trip

Here’s what Superintendent Hopson told state lawmakers in Nashville about Memphis schools

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits in the halls of Legislation Plaza Tuesday after speaking before a legislative committee at the State Capitol.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson came to Nashville on Tuesday seeking to break the stigma and stereotypes of Memphis schools, as well as to build better relationships with state lawmakers.

He left calling his time in the State Capitol “a good first step.”

“Oftentimes, the discussion around Shelby County is somewhat negative. And we certainly have a long way to go,” Hopson told legislators on two House education committees. “I’m not going to sit here and say we’re doing everything right, but there are some things to be proud of.”

His presentation came as lawmakers begin to review legislation that could have a major impact on Memphis schools. Lawmakers are considering two private tuition voucher bills, one of which would target Memphis as a pilot. Leaders of Shelby County Schools vehemently oppose both proposals.

Lawmakers also will consider several bills that would change how Tennessee addresses its lowest performing schools, most of which are in Memphis. The State Department of Education backs those bills, which are part of Tennessee’s proposed education plan under the new federal education law.

Hopson joined school board members and other district officials in Nashville as part of the Tennessee School Boards Association Day on the Hill.

He began his presentation promising to do a better job of telling the story of Memphis schools and working with legislators to improve education in Tennessee.

Hopson then cited the district’s growth in math and literacy in 2015, the latest available testing data for all schools, as well as highlighting a number of high-performing schools and the district’s turnaround work through its Innovation Zone.

Hopson noted the poverty rate in Memphis — 40,000 students live in households where the income is less than $10,000 a year — and its affect on education of students. He also appealed to the Christian faith professed by many state lawmakers.

“When you think about faith, the word compassion comes to mind,” Hopson said. “In my mind, compassion is: You see a need, you’re moved by that need, and then you act on that need.”

He went on.

“Our district is so unique because we have suffocating poverty that many of our kids live in. And if you just think about that for a minute — what that would be like to live in a house with five, six, seven people on 200 bucks a week — … I mean, it just creates really significant challenges because kids are not always prepared to show up to school ready to learn.”

Poverty is “not an excuse” for poor performance in schools, he continued. “But I think it is important when you think about our school district and some of the challenges we have to just take a moment and think about the population that we serve,” Hopson said.

Unfortunately, the superintendent’s presentation was cut short after just 10 minutes, following Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s remarks on school turnaround work that went long. He said later that he wanted to talk more about the challenges faced by Memphis schools, many of which are priority schools that are academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

“We’ve got kids with severe, severe social-emotional needs,” he said of the state’s largest school system. “And absent a strategic attempt to address those needs, we’re not going to ever see the progress in accelerated fashion we want to see. It is what it is. I hope they heard that.”


McQueen rips Tennessee’s school turnaround work as ineffectual, overdue

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks at an event in Memphis in 2015.

In a fiery speech to state lawmakers on Tuesday, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave a stinging assessment of Tennessee’s school turnaround work, even calling the outcomes “a little embarrassing.”

McQueen noted that the state has moved only 10 schools off its “priority” list since compiling its first list in 2012, beginning with 83 low performing schools.

“We can’t keep throwing $10 million, $11 million, $12 million, $15 million at solutions that are not solutions,” she told legislators on House education committees.

The remarks were a departure from McQueen’s usual placating tone — and her most direct condemnation of school turnaround work to date in Tennessee. That work includes programs spearheaded both by local districts and the state’s Achievement School District, which has authority to take over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent, generally assigning them to charter operators.

But her indictment stretched far beyond the state’s role in those programs, which serve mostly poor communities. She took aim at efforts that began with the 2002 federal education law known as No Child Left Behind, which prescribed how states must deal with struggling schools.

“This is probably going to come across as a little preachy, but it is preachy,” said McQueen, who became commissioner in 2014. “We’ve got kids who were sitting in schools that we knew — we knew — and I want you to listen to the years, back in 2002, 2003, 2004, that they were in a low performing school that needed to turn around fast. (Those students have) now graduated, and we did not have the increases we needed at those schools to set them up for success.”

While McQueen didn’t single out specific turnaround initiatives, she stressed that Tennessee needs to focus on what has worked — specifically, at the 10 schools that have been moved off the state’s priority list so far. McQueen named common themes: strong school leaders, quality instruction, and community and wraparound supports, such as mental health care services.

Those successes helped to inform the school improvement component of Tennessee’s proposed new education plan under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Under that plan, the state would work with local districts to improve their lowest-performing schools through academic and wraparound services. The ASD, which McQueen refers to as the state’s “most rigorous intervention,” would be reined in, making it a last-resort when other efforts have failed. Lawmakers will vote on components of the plan in the coming months.

Under ESSA, states have more flexibility on how to spend money for school improvement. In the past, the federal government gave states school improvement grants with explicit instructions on how to spend them. But those grants ultimately didn’t work, according to a recent study by the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen told lawmakers that, under the plan, the state would give low-performing schools more resources than ever, but also would expect a quicker pace of change.

“This work is about shorter time frames with more support and expectation of outcomes that ultimately will make or break the future of Tennessee,” she said.