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Here’s what charter school advisers want to see change in Memphis

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway asks the State Board to reject the Shelby County board's decision to close three Memphis charter schools in May 2016.

The national charter group that Shelby County Schools is considering hiring already has evaluated the district on its charter sector management — and the results paint a picture of a district with deficient oversight.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers presented its findings to Tennessee’s largest district, home to about half of the state’s charter schools, in February. But the report — which praises the district’s efforts so far while also calling for significant changes — was not made publicly accessible.

Now, the Shelby County Schools board is set to vote Tuesday on a $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation to implement some of the group’s recommendations, which center on building systems to reward and replicate schools that boost students’ test scores. (Hyde also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Here are five things NACSA concluded that Shelby County Schools isn’t doing well enough when it comes to charter schools.

Decisions about which schools should open don’t weigh academics enough.

Reviewing the last three years of new charter applications, NACSA found that district evaluators’ “evidence to substantiate ratings are sparse.” Evaluators focused more on whether the operators’ plans complied with state law than on whether they were likely to lead to high-performing schools. The critique is especially relevant given the latest round of charter appeals to the state, where the two national networks denied by the school board defended their academic record in Memphis.

Policies to guide charter school decision-making are inconsistent or nonexistent.

When it comes to existing charters wanting to expand, the state and Shelby County Schools do not have criteria on what makes a charter operator ready to add more schools. When problems arise in charter performance, the district’s policies are not clear whether the district or the charter operator should form a plan to correct them. And the district does not systematically track grievances, making it hard to use them consistently in deciding how to handle schools that are struggling. NACSA wants the district to develop all of these policies, which charter authorizers with strong records typically have.

There’s especially not enough academic oversight of charters.

Beyond state test scores, “the district has not established specific standards for performance,” the report said. Inconsistent standards have led to confusion among charter operators, coming to a head this spring when three charter schools challenged the district’s decision to revoke their right to operate. The district said the schools’ performance did not merit continued operation, but the charter operators argued that they had not agreed to any particular performance goals. NACSA wants Shelby County to prioritize following through on plans to create a “school performance framework” that lays out these expectations going forward.

The district treats all charter schools alike, regardless of how well they’re doing.

NACSA reports that charter operators under Shelby County Schools say they’re being given the autonomy that the charter movement promises is essential for better schools. But while it’s ideal to leave high-performing schools alone, other schools might need a tighter leash, the report says. The group calls for “a system of differentiated oversight that supports the district in implementing a more robust system of accountability without unduly constraining the autonomy of schools that are meeting and exceeding expectations.” Such a system could cause tensions within the charter sector and between schools and the district office.

The district’s charter schools office could be more effective.

NACSA praises the district office for what it does with its small staff — which it notes is “lean for a portfolio of its size.” But it also concludes that by taking an “all hands on deck” approach, the team experiences “a missed opportunity to strategically allocate resources to allow for deeper planning and a higher level of execution that can come with greater specialization.” By figuring out what each team member is responsible for, the report says, all of the work can be done better. The report also concludes that board members could help with charter school decision making, if only they got reliable information with enough time to consider it. That hasn’t happened, board members routinely complain, and the report seems to bear out their concerns.

'a bit stuck'

Impasse declared in Denver teacher contract negotiations, prompting criticism from union

PHOTO: Marissa Page
Teachers watch a bargaining session between Denver Public Schools and the Denver teachers union on June 22.

For the first time in recent history, Denver Public Schools has declared an impasse in ongoing negotiations with the teachers union over a contract governing teacher pay, workload and more.

The declaration means the two sides, which have been bargaining since January, will continue negotiations but with the aid of a mediator. In the past, DPS and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association have mutually agreed to mediation without one side having to call an impasse to trigger it, said DPS deputy general counsel and lead negotiator Michelle Berge.

But this year, the union refused. DCTA wanted to keep negotiations as public as possible and avoid private meetings with mediators, said DCTA deputy executive director Corey Kern.

In 2014, Colorado voters approved a change to state law that requires contract negotiations between school districts and employee groups to be open to the public. The Denver teachers union has been taking advantage of the public sessions, inviting teachers to attend and talk to negotiators about their experiences and how various proposals would affect them.

Union leaders see the impasse as a way to silence that voice. Their belief stems in part from the fact that the district wants to use a mediator from the Federal Mediation and Conciliation Service, which helps resolve collective bargaining disputes free of charge.

Although the bargaining sessions would still be public, the mediator could meet with each side separately in private to help them craft proposals, a spokesman for the service said.

That’s not true public bargaining, Kern said.

He said it’s been DCTA’s experience that “the two parties spend most of the time in two rooms apart and the mediator is shuttling back and forth between those two rooms and talking about issues without the public present.” The two sides’ proposals would be shared publicly, but the public would miss out on hearing the thought processes behind them, Kern said.

Even though the district had requested several times to move to mutually agreed-upon mediation, Kern said DCTA was “blindsided” by the impasse declaration a day after a bargaining session that the union felt was productive.

Berge said the district decided to call an impasse because “a number of challenging issues remain where we’re a bit stuck.” Those issues include how much teachers should be paid, the benefits they receive and how they should be evaluated.

The hope, Berge said, is that a mediator will help the two sides find common ground. The mediator DPS wants to use is someone whom the district and union have worked with before.

“Those of us who are involved, we are deep in on this,” Berge said. “Sometimes we’re emotional. It’s tough stuff. A mediator is an independent person who can step above that.”

The current teachers contract expires Aug. 31. The two sides are scheduled to meet again July 24 at McKinley-Thatcher Elementary School in Denver. There are two bargaining sessions set for late July and five scheduled for early and mid-August.

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Tennessee’s ESSA plan gets solid marks in independent review

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

Tennessee’s proposed plan for school accountability rates strong on measuring academic progress, but weak on counting all kids, according to an independent review released Tuesday by two education groups.

For the most part, the state landed in the upper middle of an analysis spearheaded by Bellwether Education Partners and the Collaborative for Student Success.

Their panel of reviewers looked into components of state plans  ranging from academic standards to supporting schools under the new federal education law.

“Tennessee has submitted a very solid plan for which they should be proud,” said Jim Cowen, executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success. “Their ideas for ensuring academic progress and supporting schools are exemplary. We hope that other states will look for ways to incorporate these best practices.”

The groups brought together education experts with a range of political viewpoints and backgrounds to analyze 17 state plans submitted this spring to the U.S. Department of Education in response to the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Calling Tennessee’s plan “robust, transparent and comprehensive,” the review praised its “clear vision for reform” and its design of “district and school accountability systems that rely on high-quality indicators.”

The state received the highest rating possible for its proposal for tracking academic progress.

“Tennessee’s plan clearly values both growth and proficiency,” the review says. “Every school, even high-achieving ones, have growth and proficiency targets, and even the growth measure tracks student progress toward grade-level standards.”

The state’s lowest rating — a 2 out of a possible 5 — was for how Tennessee plans to identify and rate schools in need of targeted support for certain groups of students. Reviewers questioned whether the state’s system might mask the performance of some by proposing to combine the scores of black, Hispanic and Native American students into one subgroup.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tennessee is committed to supporting all students, especially those in historically underserved groups.

“When we say ‘all means all,’ that means much more than just accountability for subgroup performance,” McQueen said in a statement on the eve of the review’s release.

“The state’s accountability framework is designed to hold as many schools accountable for subgroup performance as possible while maintaining statistical reliability and validity, and it provides safeguards to ensure student information is protected,” she said. “In schools where there are a smaller number of students from a specific racial or ethnic category, we are combining them into one group. In doing so, we are actually able to hold schools accountable for more students — more than 43,000 black, Hispanic, and Native American students would be excluded from subgroup accountability if we did not use the combined subgroup.”

Congress passed ESSA in 2015 as a bipartisan law co-sponsored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee, a former U.S. secretary of education. Signed by President Barack Obama, the law ended the No Child Left Behind era and redirected education policy back to the states.

States have since been working on their accountability plans, and Tennessee was among the first to submit a proposal. The state is now awaiting approval by the U.S. Department of Education, which would make it eligible for receiving federal funds.

For a breakdown of analysis on state plans including Tennessee’s, visit Check State Plans, an interactive website that spotlights the best elements of ESSA plans and those that fall short.