Testing conundrum

McQueen wants to prevent non-tested early grades from becoming a dumping ground for weaker teachers

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks during a Brookings Institute panel discussion about pre-K.

The temptation for principals to place their best teachers in grades with high-stakes testing has Education Commissioner Candice McQueen concerned about the quality of teaching in Tennessee’s earliest grades.

Like other states, Tennessee doesn’t mandate testing until the third grade, when student scores are used to begin gauging the performance of students, teachers, schools and entire districts.

McQueen says local administrators are learning the hard way that reassigning lower-performing elementary school teachers to non-tested grades doesn’t help their students get the foundation they need for lifelong learning, a charge backed up by research from Vanderbilt University. 

“They would say … since we’re starting our value-added measure, starting our work around teacher evaluation, starting how we look at districts at third grade, they made some poor decisions about who they were putting in their kindergarten, first, and second grade classrooms, and pre-K,” she said Monday during a panel discussion about prekindergarten at the Brookings Institute in Washington, D.C.

The fix? Next school year, Tennessee will require its pre-K programs to evaluate teachers using “growth portfolio models,” which are based on samples of student work. The evaluations will help teachers identify their own strengths and weaknesses, and guide professional development. The state already has piloted portfolio models for kindergarten and first-grade teachers.

“All of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers in 97 percent of our districts will be going through a portfolio growth model that will allow us to actually look at effectiveness of our pre-K and kindergarten teachers,” she said.

McQueen isn’t the only Tennessee education leader seeking to address concerns around early education instruction. Sharon Griffin, Shelby County’s chief of schools, says pressures around testing have long warped teacher placement priorities in her district.

“I will be very honest and transparent,” Griffin told local school board members earlier this month. “There was once upon a time that when the test was only grades 3 through 12, we put the least effective teachers in K-2. We can’t do that anymore. We’re killing third grade and then we have students who get in third grade whose challenges are so great, they never ever catch up — because three years with an ineffective teacher is hard for you to catch up.”

The new teacher evaluation system is one of many changes around early education that the state is making with the support of researchers at Vanderbilt University. The changes are in response to a 2015 study that found the benefits of the state’s public pre-K program faded by second grade.

Paying for pre-K

With clock ticking on federal pre-K grant, districts in Shelby County and Nashville explore next steps

PHOTO: Porter-Leath

Tennessee’s elation at winning a $70 million federal grant to expand pre-K offerings in Memphis and Nashville is now being tempered by the realization that the four-year grant will run out all too soon.

The funds used to pay for dozens of new pre-K classrooms began flowing into five school districts in 2015 and will end in May of 2019.

How to sustain the expansion in Greater Memphis was on the minds of school leaders and pre-K advocates who gathered Wednesday for the second annual Shelby County Pre-K Summit.

Calling pre-K “one of the biggest economic investment opportunities we have,” Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said early childhood programs must be a priority.

“In order for us to create an educational system where our most fragile constituents can change their circumstances in life, we’ve gotta make sure that we’re giving them a better opportunity in our district and it starts with pre-K,” he told about 50 people at the summit.

Announced in 2014, the grant from the U.S. Department of Education was a huge win for Tennessee as Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration sought to grow and build a public pre-K program that began under a 2005 state law.

Shelby County Schools was among five needy districts chosen as recipients because of its commitment to developing and funding high-quality programming for their youngest children. The others were Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, the state-run Achievement School District, and districts in the suburban Shelby County towns of Bartlett and Millington.

The money has added 50 pre-K classrooms in Shelby County and four pre-K centers in Nashville.

Nashville school officials already have begun to develop a strategy to sustain the investments after 2019. At the city’s early education summit last week, Director Shawn Joseph said the district is working to shift money to allow the expansions to continue.

Hopson asked the crowd Wednesday to advocate for ways to sustain expansions in Memphis too — work that he said is key to the success of both the district and the city.

“When you think about correlations between poverty and poor student outcome, our babies who are living in poverty situations through no fault of their own … need to have the early start that it takes so that they can enter kindergarten ready,” Hopson said.

Research shows that disadvantaged young children who participate in high-quality pre-K enter school are more ready to learn than their peers, while also contributing to their success in adulthood.

The quality of Tennessee’s pre-K programs has come under a microscope following the 2015 release of a five-year Vanderbilt University study showing that students who participated saw the effects dissipate by first grade — and even turn negative compared to students who didn’t participate in the program. The researchers suggested that quality might be the issue, and the state has been working ever since to up its game.

The federal grant has been significant in Memphis, which has a high concentration of low-income students and low-performing schools. It now pays for 13 percent of pre-K programs for about 6,500 children in Shelby County. Each classroom costs about $160,000 annually to operate. The county’s long-term goal is for every 4-year-old who needs pre-K to have access to a high-quality seat.

early childhood

For the first time, Tennessee awards pre-K funding based on quality, not quantity

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Students at Casa Azafran, a Nashville pre-K center that collaborates with Vanderbilt University researchers to serve as a model for best practices in early childhood education

Tennessee will spread $84 million in state funding across more than 900 pre-K classrooms next school year under a new awards process designed to incentivize the quality of programming over volume of students.

The awards, announced Tuesday by the State Department of Education, will go to nearly 95 percent of the state’s 146 districts to serve at-risk 4-year-olds.

The competitive process marks a major shift aimed at tying state funding to quality for Tennessee’s Voluntary Pre-K program. In a landmark study released in 2015, the program came under fire by researchers of Vanderbilt University who found it mostly ineffective.

“High-quality early learning opportunities are one of the best investments we can make in our kids,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a statement. “We want to ensure we are supporting strong early learning opportunities for our students with the greatest need, and that is reflected in the updated application process and in these grantees.”

For Tennessee’s largest school district in Memphis, the new investments will mean about $1 million for 112 pre-K classrooms in Shelby County Schools.

The full list of funding and districts statewide is here for 2017-18.

Tennessee’s public pre-K program launched in 2005 with the goal of helping students from low-income families start kindergarten on an equal footing with their more affluent peers. But the Vanderbilt study shocked pre-K advocates with findings that the program’s benefits actually faded by the second grade. State lawmakers responded in 2016 with a law that, among other things, put the onus on local districts to address some of the findings.

As part of the overhaul, the Tennessee Department of Education created a new funding application that asked districts for details about standards such as curriculum and how they’ll structure their days to maximize student engagement and learning.

Districts that received funding for next year also will adhere to the state’s first pre-K evaluation system to determine teacher effectiveness.