middle ground

Responding to educator concerns, Haslam proposes teacher evaluation changes

PHOTO: G. Tatter

Gov. Bill Haslam will ask lawmakers to reduce the weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations in the first year of tougher new tests, he announced today.

The proposal is one of four initiatives that Haslam announced that aim to support teachers throughout the state. A press release from his office says the initiatives reflect “direct feedback from educators across the state,” gathered during months of meetings with more than 150 Tennessee educators and an education forum he hosted this September in Nashville.

The initiatives — some of which would require legislative sign-off — would give teachers more input on how state tests are designed, connect educators with state policymakers, and temporarily diminish the weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The Tennessee Education Association, the state teachers union, has called for all of those changes as part of ongoing criticism of Haslam’s education policies. The union filed two lawsuits challenging the state’s teacher evaluation rules, which currently require student test scores to count for 35 percent of a teacher’s final ratings.

Under the rules that Haslam proposed today, student test scores would account for only 10 percent of teacher evaluations in 2015-2016, before gradually rising back to 35 percent in 2018, the end of his term. Students will take overhauled tests for the first time that year, and state officials have warned that scores are likely to fall. Haslam is also asking legislators to reduce permanently the weight of test scores in the ratings of teachers whose classes do not culminate in state tests, from 25 percent from 15 percent.

Coming weeks after Haslam’s hard-driving state superintendent, Kevin Huffman, announced his resignation, the new initiatives reflect a softer tone from the governor toward educators. Haslam long stood by Huffman, a staunch advocate of test-based teacher evaluations, and he exhorted educators earlier this year, in an open letter that was not well received, to support the policy changes that Huffman spearheaded. Haslam also angered many teachers this spring when he reneged on a promise to raise their salaries.

“Educators are vital to continued progress in Tennessee, and we want to make sure we’re supporting them in meaningful ways and giving them the tools they need to lead their classrooms, schools and districts,” Haslam said in a statement today.

TEA President Barbara Gray said she was surprised by Haslam’s shift on evaluations. But she said the union’s position remains that the state should not use “value added” measures that aim to calculate teachers’ impact on student learning to rate teachers at all.

“He’s moving in the right direction,” Gray said.

Ultimately, it is the legislature, not Haslam, who has the authority to change teacher evaluation policy.

The other proposals are in his hands, and in fact, at least one — a Common Core-aligned state test for 2015-2016 — is already in the works, and widely known about. Although the state has used those standards since 2010, it is still administering standardized tests that are tied to old, less rigorous standards. Educators say the misalignment between standards and the state test, known as TCAP, causes confusion for teachers and students.

According to the press release, the Department of Education will release practice questions for the new test before it is administered; involve more than 100 teachers in the review and selection of test questions; and provide training for all teachers on the design of the assessment. The press release didn’t provide specifics on how the governor might achieve this in a year money is tight.

Representatives from both TEA and Professional Educators of Tennessee, another statewide teacher group, said they welcomed increased transparency around testing.

Samantha Bates, a PET official, said training about the new test could help teachers better prepare their students for it.

“The last time new standards were brought in, in 2009, and the test was changed, [teachers] were given sample questions but not trained on the design,” Bates said. Come test time, “we were shocked.”

The final proposal in the press release is the establishment of a cabinet of teachers from across the state that would meet with the governor quarterly.

Haslam has already addressed another issue that was highlighted at September’s education summit: skepticism about Common Core. In November, he unveiled a statewide review of the standards.

Although today’s press release referred to the state standards for math and English several times, the words “Common Core” never appear.

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.”

Unleashed

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.