Tennessee

Laughter may be the newest way to meet academic standards, research says

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Some research shows academic performance improves when students learn how to work together in groups, such as these Whitehaven Elementary students at a 2014 STEM expo in Memphis.

Teachers poked fun at each other and made off-the-cuff remarks about the everyday stresses of working at low-income schools during a recent conference in Nashville. It’s a little-known fact that laughter is key to making students memorize lessons, a trainer told teachers in between quips about Teach For America recruits and unruly students.

The conference was geared toward training teachers to help students cope with social and emotional stresses that can sometimes distract from classroom learning.

Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools has installed new learning standards, built academic academies in high school and increased the demands on teachers. But the district has also made a concerted effort to get teachers and students to bring a positive attitude to the classroom.

In 2012, they became the first district in the state – and one of only a handful in the nation –to hire a director of social and emotional learning. The director, Kyla Krengel, trains the district’s staff, from principals to bus drivers, on ways to help students cultivate skills like anger management, relationship building, and mindfulness. The thinking is that happier kids, with fewer discipline problems and the skills to cope with situations ranging from arguments with their best friend to extreme poverty, will more easily be able to focus on classroom lessons, leading to higher test scores.

“It’s not a curriculum that you have to sit back and teach,” said Tony Majors, the director of support services for Metro Nashville Schools. “It’s how you interact with children, it’s how you interact with adults.”

More than 400 educators from across Tennessee and eight other states attended last week’s conference at Cane Ridge High School in Antioch. The conference was sponsored by Metro Nashville Schools and Alignment Nashville, a non-profit committed to bring together community resources to help support public schools. For the first time this year, the conference was expanded to include more than 300 people outside the education sector, including mental health professionals and representatives from juvenile court.

Metro Nashville's director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.
Metro Nashville’s director of social and emotional learning, Kyla Krengel, speaks at the conference.

Teachers should share with students tasks that they find challenging, and tell students the tactics they use to overcome those challenges, said the keynote speaker, Sara Rimm-Kaufman, a professor at the University of Virginia’s school of education.

Knowing that even adults find certain tasks difficult helps students feel like their struggles with academic material aren’t exceptional or insurmountable, she said. Throughout the conference speakers like Rimm-Kaufman emphasized that social and emotional learning is as much about teachers’ state of minds as students’.

“We’ve got to make sure we take care of our teachers, as well as our students,” said Dottie Critchlow, Nashville’s head of instructional support.

An example of how teachers’ own feelings impacts classroom learning caused one outbreak of laughter in a session called “Brain Scans to Lesson Plans” led by Tara Brown, president of an education consulting agency.

Brown was reminding teachers that students can sense their attitude by how they carry themselves in the classroom, which impacts the overall learning environment.

“Kids in poverty read non-verbal cues, too,” Brown told the classroom of teachers. “We’ve all seen scared little white teachers from Teach for America and lord have mercy, we know they’re going to get chewed up and spit out.”

Brown told teachers that showing their enthusiasm and excitement for teaching will demonstrate to students that they are “actually worth listening to.”   

Rimm-Kaufman also specifically addressed how social and emotional learning can help students master new Common Core math standards. In Tennessee, curricula based off the standards often promote group work. She said that show-and-tell in the morning, where students learn to listen and ask each other questions, helps students work together on complex math problems later in the day.

Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
Tara Brown talked about how teachers can build more positive relationships with students, often evoking loud laughter.

Administrators in the Metro Schools say they can feel a difference in schools since the district expanded social and emotional learning through a grant from the NoVo Foundation and the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning (CASEL). But that difference can be hard to measure.

Krengel’s next project is to quantify the impacts of the districts’ work on social and emotional learning, which is so often manifested in intangibles, like laughter and relationships. She’s working to combine data on school discipline, attendance, drop-out rates, test scores, and classroom observations so Nashville can help share the impact of their work with other districts.

“The district is open to finding what really works,” she said.

 

a 'meaningful' education?

How a Colorado court case could change how public schools everywhere serve students with special needs

Dougco headquarters in Castle Rock (John Leyba/The Denver Post).

The U.S. Supreme Court on Wednesday grappled with the question of what kind of education public schools must provide students with disabilities, hearing arguments in a case that originated with a complaint against a suburban Denver school district and that could have profound implications nationwide.

The case involves a student diagnosed with autism and attention deficit/hyperactive disorder. His parents pulled him out of his Douglas County elementary school, saying he wasn’t making enough progress and the district’s response was lacking.

They enrolled the boy in a private school for children with autism and asked the district to reimburse them for the tuition, arguing their son was due a “free appropriate public education” as required by the 1975 Individuals with Disabilities Education Act.

The law spells out the requirements states must meet to receive federal money to educate special-needs students. The district declined, saying it had met the standard of the law.

The family eventually filed a lawsuit against the district. Lower courts all sided with the district, reasoning that it had provided the child “some” educational benefit — the standard cited in the federal statute at issue.

Lower courts across the nation have varied in their definition of the proper standard. The high court arguments Wednesday centered on whether “some” benefit was good enough, or whether special-needs students deserve a more “meaningful” benefit.

Jeffrey Fisher, an attorney for the boy’s family, told the justices that as a general rule, individualized education plans for special education students should include “a level of educational services designed to allow the child to progress from grade to grade in the general curriculum.”

Throughout the arguments, the justices expressed frustration with what Justice Samuel Alito described as “a blizzard of words” that the law and courts have used to define what’s appropriate for special needs students.

Chief Justice John Roberts said regardless of the term used, “the whole package has got to be helpful enough to allow the student to keep up with his peers.”

Neal Katyal, an attorney for the school district, argued that providing children “some benefit” is a reasonable standard.

“That’s the way court after court has interpreted it,” he said. “It’s worked well. This court shouldn’t renege on that.”

Ron Hager, senior staff attorney for special education at the National Disability Rights Network, attended the oral arguments Wednesday and said he was optimistic the lower court’s ruling would be overturned.

He said if the Supreme Court does overturn the federal Tenth Circuit Court’s ruling and requires a higher standard, it won’t necessarily come with major financial costs for school districts. Instead, he said, it will nudge them to be proactive and provide teacher training and intervention services early on instead of waiting until problems — and the expenses associated with them — snowball later.

Marijo Rymer, executive director of the Arc of Colorado, which advocates on behalf of people with intellectual and developmental disabilities, said she was heartened to see the case advance to the Supreme Court. Establishing a clearer standard on what constitutes a fair and appropriate education for students with disabilities is a civil rights issue, she said.

“It’s critical that federal law, which is what this is based on, be reinforced and supported, and the court is in the position to deliver that message to the nation’s schools and the taxpayers that fund them,” Rymer said.

Both Hager and Rymer acknowledged that even if the Supreme Court establishes a new, higher standard, it could be open to interpretation. Still, they said it would send a strong message to school districts about their responsibilities to students with disabilities.

Summer remix

Ten stories you may have missed this summer (and should read now as the new school year kicks in)

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Gabrielle Colburn, 7, adds her artistic flair to a mural in downtown Memphis in conjunction with the XQ Super Schools bus tour in June.

Labor Day used to signal the end of summer break and the return to school. That’s no longer the case in Tennessee, but the long holiday is a good time to catch up on all that happened over the summer. Here are 10 stories to get you up to speed on K-12 education in Tennessee and its largest school district.

TNReady is back — with a new test maker.

Last school year ended on a cliffhanger, with the State Department of Education canceling its end-of-year tests for grades 3-8 in the spring and firing testmaker Measurement Inc. after a series of missteps. In July, Commissioner Candice McQueen announced that Minnesota-based Questar will pick up where Measurement Inc. left off. She also outlined the state’s game plan for standardized tests in the coming year.

But fallout over the state’s failed TNReady test in 2015-16 will be felt for years.

The one-year void in standardized test scores has hit Tennessee at the heart of its accountability system, leaving the state digging for other ways to assess whether all of its students are improving.

Speaking of accountability, Tennessee also is updating that plan under a new federal education law.

The state Department of Education has been working with educators, policymakers and community members on new ways to evaluate schools in answer to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, which requires states to judge schools by non-academic measures as well as test scores.

Meanwhile, issues of race and policing have educators talking about how to foster conversations about social justice in school.

In the wake of police-related killings that rocked the nation, five Memphis teachers talked about how they tackle difficult conversations about race all year long.

School closures made headlines again in Memphis — with more closings likely.

Closing schools has become an annual event as Tennessee’s largest district loses students and funding, and this year was no exception. The shuttering of Carver and Northside high schools brought the total number of district-run school closures to at least 21 since 2012. And more are likely. This month, Shelby County Schools is scheduled to release a facilities analysis that should set the stage for future closures. Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has said the district needs to shed as many as two dozen schools — and 27,000 seats — over the next four years. A Chalkbeat analysis identifies 25 schools at risk.

Exacerbating the challenges of shifting enrollment, families in Foote Homes scrambled to register their children for school as Memphis’ last public housing project prepared to close this month amid a delay in delivering housing vouchers to move elsewhere.

The new school year has officially begun, with the budget approved not a moment too soon for Shelby County Schools.

District leaders that began the budget season facing an $86 million shortfall eventually convinced county commissioners to significantly increase local funding, while also pulling some money from the school system’s reserve funds. The result is a $959 million budget that gives most of the district’s teachers a 3 percent raise and restores funding for positions deemed critical for continued academic progress.

The district also unveiled its first annual report on its growing sector of charter schools.

With charter schools now firmly entrenched in Memphis’ educational landscape, a Shelby County Schools analysis shows a mixed bag of performance, while calling on traditional and charter schools to learn from each other and promising better ways to track quality.