Early Childhood

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Early education

Is Tennessee moving its weakest teachers to early, non-tested grades? New research says yes.

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Tennessee’s education insiders have whispered for years that some elementary school principals were moving their least effective teachers to critical early grades, which are free of high-stakes tests. That’s despite clear evidence that those years are the most important for preparing students for a lifetime of learning.

Now a new study has confirmed that the shift is real.

Researchers examining 10 years worth of state data through 2016 found that low-performing teachers in grades 3 through 5 were more likely to be reassigned to non-tested early grades than their more effective peers.

The findings, released Friday by the Tennessee Education Research Alliance and Vanderbilt University, may be an important piece of the puzzle in figuring out why almost two-thirds of the state’s students are behind on reading by the end of the third grade.

“These trends matter because having effective teachers in the early grades helps establish a foundation for success as students progress into later grades,” the research brief states.

The authors used Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, including classroom observation scores and student achievement data, to track the reassignment of elementary school teachers by their principals. They found that only a hundred of the lowest-rated teachers were shifted to the lower grades in any given year, making for a relatively small impact across Tennessee. However, the pattern was consistent for all reassigned teachers who scored in the bottom three evaluation ratings on a scale of 1 to 5.

It’s not conclusive, though, whether those teachers remain ineffective when moved to kindergarten, first, or second grades.

“This could be counter-productive, but it could actually be productive if school leaders are finding better fits for their elementary school teachers,” said Sy Doan, who authored the research brief along with Laura K. Rogers.

Another study is in the works to examine whether students’ academic growth is stunted by re-assigning less effective teachers to lower grades.

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

But research elsewhere has shown that the pressures of such accountability systems for higher elementary grades can unintentionally give administrators incentives to “staff to the test” and move their weakest teachers to the early years.

“The patterns we found in Tennessee are consistent with similar studies conducted in other states,” Doan said.

Advocates of early education say the latest findings — while not surprising — should be a powerful reminder to school administrators that kindergarten through second grade are high-stakes for students’ learning and development, even if those years are free of high-stakes testing.

“I think it’s going to raise some important conversations,” said Lisa Wiltshire, policy director for Tennesseans for Quality Early Education. “If we want to improve third-grade outcomes, Tennessee has got to start prioritizing investments in the early grades, particularly in the quality of teachers.”

Sharon Griffin, a longtime Memphis school administrator who now leads Tennessee’s school turnaround district, made that point last week during a presentation to state legislators on the House Education Committee.

“When I was a principal …. there was this unprecedented norm where you would put your most effective teachers in grades that are tested,” she said. “Now we know from lessons learned that it’s really pre-K, kindergarten, first and second grades where you need the strongest teachers, so that our kids can be on grade level by third grade and we are not trying to close the gap continuously from third grade on.”

Tennessee has done some serious soul-searching about why most of its third-graders can’t pass the proficiency bar in reading, which is considered the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas.

The frustrations deepened in 2015 when a landmark Vanderbilt study showed that academic gains achieved by students in Tennessee’s public pre-K classrooms were fading out by first grade and vanishing altogether by third grade.

Since then, the focus has been on why. Is it the quality of pre-K? Or could it be missteps and misalignment in instruction and curriculum from kindergarten through the third grade?

Upcoming research will dig into those questions as other Vanderbilt researchers visit Tennessee classrooms next school year to observe instructional quality and teaching practice in the early grades.

“We know surprisingly little about the connections among the experiences children have across the early grades of school,” said Caroline Christopher, who will co-lead the work with Dale Farran, director of the Peabody Research Institute.  

Their study will be funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation and conducted through the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a partnership between Vanderbilt’s Peabody College of Education and Human Development and the Tennessee Department of Education.

Piece of the pie

Colorado bill would take back money from state-authorized charter schools

PHOTO: Denver Post
Students at James Irwin Charter Academy in Colorado Springs

A bill introduced in the Colorado House this week would take back money set aside for state-authorized charter schools and return it to the general fund, where it would be available for any purpose.

The bill, sponsored by state Rep. Cathy Kipp, a Fort Collins Democrat and former Poudre School District board member, would repeal one portion of a key compromise from the 2017 legislative session.

That bill required school districts to share money from mill levy overrides, a kind of local property tax increase, with charter schools that they had authorized. It also said that the legislature should set aside state money for schools authorized by the Charter School Institute, a state entity, to serve as the equivalent of that mill levy money. This money is on top of the base per-pupil funding that goes to all schools, much of it provided by state dollars.

This new proposal doesn’t affect charters that are authorized by districts, which would still be required to share additional local property tax money. But it does away with the fund within the state budget that provides extra money to state-authorized schools.

The Charter School Institute oversees 39 schools serving more than 18,000 students.

It’s unclear whether the bill will get traction. Kipp is the sole sponsor right now, and charter schools have enjoyed broad bipartisan support at the Capitol in the past. Gov. Jared Polis, a Democrat, is the founder of the New America charter network, which has schools authorized by the Charter School Institute as well as by local districts.

Charter schools are publicly funded but independently run nonprofit organizations. Opponents see them as siphoning students and money from traditional, district-run schools, while proponents argue they provide much needed diversity of school types within the public system and with that, options for parents and students.

The 2017 legislation passed with bipartisan support but divided Democrats, who now control both chambers of the Colorado General Assembly. This is the first legislation of the 2019 session to attempt to roll back gains made by charter schools under previously divided state government.

The 2018-19 Colorado budget includes $5.5 million, roughly $300 per student, for state-authorized charter schools to make up for local mill levy money they don’t get, and the proposed 2019-20 budget calls for that to almost double to $10.5 million. “Fully funding” the charter institute schools — meaning providing them the equivalent of what they would get from local property taxes if they were authorized by their districts — would cost $29.7 million.

Kipp said that with education funding tight, the state cannot afford to share with charters. She calls the plan to spend state money to make up for local property tax revenue “taxation without representation.” Mill levy overrides are approved by voters in those school districts, while there is no equivalent special tax approved statewide to help charter institute schools — or any Colorado schools, for that matter.

“You have a person who has never voted for a mill levy override, and their school may be drowning, and their tax dollars are going to another district,” she said.

Mill levy overrides, which can amount to thousands of dollars per student, provide important supplemental funding in districts where voters agree, but they’re also a major contributor to inequity in Colorado school finance. In the case of charter schools, the 2017 legislation means district-authorized schools benefit from those dollars, and state-authorized schools get some extra money from the state.

But district schools in places where voters have turned down requests for additional property taxes don’t get any additional money, even as the state continues to withhold money from schools under the budget stabilization factor.

Terry Croy Lewis, executive director of the Charter School Institute, calls the bill “very disappointing.” The extra state money, known as the mill levy equalization fund, represents a fraction of the money that charter schools would get if they had district authorization and access to mill levy overrides. It’s also a tiny fraction of the more than $7 billion that Colorado spends on K-12 education.

“We’re starting from way behind on funding equity,” she said. “To say that any charter is getting more than their share is just inaccurate. We still have a long way to go.”

Lewis sees the taxation question differently than Kipp. Parents are paying higher property taxes to support their district schools, while their children in charter schools don’t see the benefit. Meanwhile, charter schools have to pay for their buildings out of operating costs, meaning they have less money for teacher salaries and other educational needs.

At Mountain Song Community School, a 300-student Waldorf charter school in Colorado Springs, the extra $300 per student has allowed the school to hire an additional special education teacher and classroom aides to better serve students with disabilities.

“Our costs are rising rapidly because more and more severe needs students are coming to our schools,” said Teresa Woods, principal at Mountain Song. “Districts have economies of scale. As a single school, we’re doing the work that a district would do to meet our students’ needs, but we don’t have any resources to pool.”

“If the mill levy funds were cut, it would definitely cut into our ability to meet the needs of all our students, and we’re mandated by law to serve those students, including severe needs students,” she added.

At the Thomas MacLaren School, another Colorado Springs institute-authorized charter school serving roughly 800 students, administrators have treated the mill levy equalization money as one-time funds and used them for building upgrades, but if that money were reliable each year, the school would raise teacher salaries, which lag far behind those in the surrounding school district, Executive Director Mary Faith Hall said.

The Colorado Early College network, serving more than 2,900 students on campuses in Colorado Springs, Aurora, Parker, and Fort Collins, has used the additional money to provide bus transportation, to increase teacher salaries, and to cover some tuition, books, and fees for college courses. The early college model helps students earn college credit while still in high school, with many students graduating with both a high school diploma and an associate degree.

“The CEC Network of schools would be devastated to lose this funding” Chief Executive Administrator Sandi Brown wrote in an email.

Kipp said these financial challenges don’t mean the state should kick in more money than it does for district-run and district-authorized schools. These issues are embedded in the charter school model, she said, and it’s not the state’s job to solve them.

“Charter schools have always said they can do better for cheaper,” Kipp said. “So do better for cheaper, and don’t ask for disproportionate share.”