charter debate

Tennessee NAACP backs away from national call for charter pause

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
NAACP Tennessee State Conference President Gloria Sweet-Love presents the state's response to the national NAACP board's call for a moratorium on charter school expansion.

Tennessee’s NAACP leaders on Tuesday distanced the state organization from its national board’s call for a moratorium on charter schools, even calling the charter-reliant work of the state-run school district “a progressive spot” in Memphis.

Gloria Sweet-Love, president of the NAACP Tennessee State Conference, said problems associated with charter growth elsewhere in the nation aren’t as prevalent in the Volunteer State, where authorization is restricted to local school districts and the state.

“In Tennessee, we have some of the best oversight laws,” Sweet-Love said at a press conference at First Baptist Church Broad in Memphis, just three weeks after the national board’s vote.

“If the guys here in Memphis don’t do right, you got elected school board members who are part of the (local education agency) that school has to respond to. That is not happening all over the nation,” she said.

The state group’s position, which is supported by the NAACP’s Memphis chapter, represents an about-face from Memphis leaders’ call earlier this year for a moratorium on expanding the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which uses mainly charter operators to turn around chronically struggling schools. That call came in response to a Vanderbilt University study labeling the ASD’s results marginal thus far and suggesting the city’s low-performing schools would be better off in Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone.

“I believe we’ll work through this,” Sweet-Love said, referring to ASD oversight and performance. “I believe the ASD is at a progressive spot now. I believe they’re moving to do some things to be more involved with the community.”

Sweet-Love said the state conference will advocate for “tightening” guidelines and legislation on how the state allocates funding for charters, referencing a recent state comptroller’s report citing “insufficient clarity, transparency, and verification” in how local school districts distribute that money.

The NAACP’s national board, which includes three Memphians, has instructed its chapters to advocate for legislation for a “reasoned pause” on the expansion of the charter sector nationwide until those concerns could be addressed. The vote puts Memphis in an unique position as home to both one of the nation’s largest NAACP chapters and a burgeoning charter school sector. The call also coincided with initiatives by Shelby County Schools to strengthen oversight of district-authorized charter schools and to tweak its process for revoking charters after receiving a strong reprimand from Tennessee’s State Board of Education about closing several schools this year.

Sweet-Love, who lives near Memphis in Brownsville, also serves on the NAACP’s national board and has been appointed to a task force examining charter schools. She reiterated the organization’s concerns about racial disparity in student discipline and the impact of limited funds on traditional schools.

Tennessee NAACP press conference from Chalkbeat Tennessee on Vimeo.

Tuesday’s press conference was attended by about 35 representatives from student, parent and charter school advocacy groups such as the Tennessee Charter School Center, Stand for Children and Memphis Lift, as well as the ASD. All were invited to stay afterward for a discussion that was closed to news organizations.

To some in attendance, the messaging shift was out of step with the spirit of the national call to stop charter school expansion. To others, the shift was not enough.

State Rep. G.A. Hardaway said he mostly supports the national NAACP’s position because he believes charter schools have strayed from their original purpose.

“My original perception of charter schools was here’s a chance to look at and develop best practices,” said Hardaway, founder of one of Tennessee’s first charter schools, Memphis Academy of Health Sciences. “We got away from quality when we took the cap off. … It was an open door for a lot of players not capable of delivering quality education.”

Local education leaders contacted later by Chalkbeat weighed in on the discussion.

Stephanie Love, a school board member for Shelby County Schools, said problems cited by the national NAACP board exist in Tennessee. She gets calls from involved parents at charter schools who have not been informed of charter board meetings or grievance processes, she said.

“Charters should be held to the same standard (as local school districts) because we’re all taking public dollars,” said Love, adding that transparency and accountability issues by locally authorized charters are being addressed by the district’s charter advisory committee. “And if that’s not happening in every charter school, we do have an issue.”

Keith Williams, who leads a leading teachers union in Memphis, echoed Love’s concerns.

Charter schools “may be public, but (their boards) are not elected. There’s no way you can put that up against public scrutiny. … It should not be at the expense of schools in the district,” said Williams, executive director of the Shelby County Education Association.

But Bobby White, the ASD’s chief of external affairs, praised the position voiced by Sweet-Love and said the national board’s call was too broad.

“She gets it and she knows what’s good about charter schools,” he said. “A few bad actors in a few bad places can make a stereotypical view of charter schools and how they operate. … The dynamics that led to this wide-ranging thought just don’t exist in Tennessee.”

Tennessee’s NAACP conference plans to conduct community meetings to take feedback to the national organization’s task force.

Teresena Wright, who works for Memphis Lift, said involving parents in the discussion is paramount. Her parent advocacy organization disrupted the national board meeting in Cincinnati over the organization’s stance, which Wright said has caused a rift between charter parents and the NAACP.

“That national issue is not a Tennessee issue, but it became a Tennessee issue because it had been nationally voted on,” she said.

fact-finding mission

Signal Mountain leaders look to Shelby County as model for school district secession

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
From left: Bartlett City Schools Director David Stephens and Lakeland School System Director Ted Horrell update state legislators on their new districts in 2015.

A cluster of towns that broke off from Shelby County Schools to create their own school systems in 2014 is about to host visitors from another Tennessee town looking into the viability of leaving Hamilton County Schools.

A committee from Signal Mountain, on the outskirts of Chattanooga, is scheduled next week to visit with leaders from Arlington, Bartlett, Collierville, Millington and Germantown. Along with Lakeland, the six towns have just completed a third year of operating their own school systems, just outside of Memphis.

Signal Mountain is in its second year of discussions about a possible pullout from the Chattanooga-based district. The community has three of Hamilton County’s higher-performing schools, as well as fewer poor and minority students. Its Town Council created the committee in January to look into the feasibility of creating a separate district, which would siphon off both students and revenue from Hamilton County Schools.

As part of their visit, the seven-member panel will hold open meetings with municipality leaders at Arlington High School. Signal Mountain Mayor Chris Howley and Councilwoman Amy Speek are scheduled to join the sessions.

“We felt it was valuable for us to meet with board members and school officials to gain insight on how the process went, what they learned, what they might do differently,” said committee chairman John Friedl.

“We’re not trying to reinvent the wheel,” he added.

The visit will come days after Shelby County’s secessions were spotlighted in a national report on the trend of wealthier and whiter communities to splinter off from larger school systems that are poorer and more diverse. The report was crafted by EdBuild, a nonprofit research group that focuses on school funding and equity. The report also listed Signal Mountain among nine towns across the nation that are actively pursuing pullouts.

The town of Red Bank, which is just east of Signal Mountain, also recently announced it will investigate launching a separate district.

If Signal Mountain residents vote eventually to create their own school system, they would use the same Tennessee law that allowed municipality voters in Shelby County to exit Tennessee’s largest district. The law, which EdBuild calls one of the most permissive in the nation, allows a town with at least 1,500 students to pull out without the approval of the district it leaves behind or consideration of the impact on racial or socioeconomic equity.

Signal Mountain leaders will focus next week on lessons learned by leaders in Shelby County.

After breaking off in 2014, the municipalities gained about 30,000 students, 33 schools and all of the challenges that come with launching new school systems. That includes funding, staffing and facilities. “We all started out with a central office staff of one, … and we had to build from there,” Millington Municipal Schools Director David Roper said during a 2015 presentation to state lawmakers.

The Shelby County breakaway also ended up in court over charges that the exit was racially motivated. But a federal judge eventually dismissed that lawsuit by Shelby County Schools.

The Signal Mountain exploration also has been met with some community resistance. A group called Stay with HCSD is advocating staying with Hamilton County Schools.

You can view the full schedule of Signal Mountain leaders’ visit below:

essa watch

Growth plus proficiency? Why states are turning to a hybrid strategy for judging schools (and why some experts say they shouldn’t)

PHOTO: Alan Petersime

A compromise in a long-running debate over how to evaluate schools is gaining traction as states rewrite their accountability systems. But experts say it could come with familiar drawbacks — especially in fairly accounting for the challenges poor students face.

Under No Child Left Behind, schools were judged by the share of students deemed proficient in math and reading. The new federal education law, ESSA, gives states new flexibility to consider students’ academic growth, too.

This is an approach that some advocates and researchers have long pushed for, saying that is a better way to judge schools that serve students who start far below proficiency.

But some states are proposing measuring academic growth through a hybrid approach that combines both growth and proficiency. (That’s in addition to using proficiency metrics where they are required.) A Chalkbeat review of ESSA plans found that a number of places plan to use a hybrid metric to help decide which of their schools are struggling the most, including Arizona, Connecticut, Delaware, Louisiana, Massachusetts, and Washington D.C.

The idea has a high-profile supporter: The Education Trust, a civil rights and education group now headed by former U.S. Education Secretary John King. But a number of researchers say the approach risks unfairly penalizing high-poverty schools and maintaining some of the widely perceived flaws of No Child Left Behind.

These questions have emerged because ESSA, the new federal education law, requires states to use academic and other measures to identify 5 percent of their schools as struggling. States have the option to include “academic progress” in their accountability systems, and many are doing so.

This is a welcome trend, says Andrew Ho of Harvard, who has written a book on the different ways to measure student progress. Systems that use proficiency percentages alone, rather than accounting for growth, “are a disaster both for measurement and for usefulness,” Ho said. “They are extremely coarse and dangerously misleading.”

Under a growth-to-proficiency model, Student A would be considered on track to proficiency by grade 6 based on the growth from grades 3 to 4, but students B and C would not. (Image: Ho’s “A Practitioner’s Guide to Growth Models”)

States that propose using this hybrid measure — commonly called “growth to proficiency” or “growth to standard” — have offered varying degrees of specificity in their plans about how they will calculate it. The basic idea is to measure whether students will meet or maintain proficiency within a set period of time, assuming they continue to grow at the same rate. Schools are credited for students deemed on track to meet the standard in the not-too-distant future, even if the students aren’t there yet.

This tends to rewards schools that serve students who are already near, at, or above the proficiency standard, meaning that schools with a large number of students in poverty will likely get lower scores on average.

It also worries researchers wary of re-creating systems that incentivize schools to focus on students near the proficiency bar, as opposed to those far below or above it. That phenomenon has been observed in some research on accountability systems focused on proficiency.

“As an accountability metric, growth-to-proficiency is a terrible idea for the same reason that achievement-level metrics are a bad idea — it is just about poverty,” said Cory Koedel, an economist at the University of Missouri who has studied school accountability. He has argued that policymakers should try to ensure ratings are not correlated with measures of poverty.

Researchers tend to say that the strongest basis for sorting out the best and worst schools (at least as measured by test scores) is to rely on sophisticated value-added calculations. Those models control for where students start, as well as demographic factors like poverty.

“If there are going to be high stakes — and I don’t suggest that there should be — then the more technically rigorous value-added models become the best way to approach teacher- and school-level accountability,” said Ho.

A large share of states are planning to use a value-added measure or similar approach as part of their accountability systems, in several cases alongside the growth-to-proficiency measure.

Some research has found that these complex statistical models can be an accurate gauge of how teachers and schools affect students’ test scores, though it remains the subject of significant academic debate.

But The Education Trust, which has long backed test-based accountability, is skeptical of these growth models, saying that they water down expectations for disadvantaged students and don’t measure whether students will eventually reach proficiency.

“Comparisons to peers won’t reveal whether that student will one day meet grade-level standards,” the group’s Midwest chapter stated in a report on Michigan’s ESSA state plan. “This risks setting lower expectations for students of color and low-income students, and does not incentivize schools to accelerate learning for historically underserved student groups.”

In an email Natasha Ushomirsky, EdTrust’s policy director, said the group supports measures like growth to proficiency over value-added models “because a) they do a better job of communicating expectations for raising student achievement, and b) they can be used to understand whether schools are accelerating learning for historically underserved students, and prompt them to do so.”

Of the value-added approach, Ushomirsky said, “A lower-scoring student is likely to be compared only to other lower-scoring students, while a higher-scoring student is compared to other higher-scoring students. This means that the same … score may represent very different amounts of progress for these two students.”

Marty West, a professor at Harvard, says the most prudent approach is to report proficiency data transparently, but to use value-added growth to identify struggling schools for accountability purposes.

“There are just too many unintended consequences from using [proficiency] or any hybrid approach as the basis of your performance evaluation system,” he said.

“The most obvious is making educators less interested in teaching in [high-poverty] schools because they know they have an uphill battle with respect to any accountability rating — and that’s the last thing we want.”

This story has been updated to include additional information from Education Trust.