Looking back

Top 10 stories defining Tennessee education in 2015

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses in October with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee's 2015 NAEP results.
  1. Tennessee finishes its Race to the Top. Almost six years ago, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen urged lawmakers to “seize the moment” to improve Tennessee’s system of K-12 education — and, in the process, win $500 million in federal funds to pay for the changes. The resulting First to the Top legislation overhauled standards, instruction methods and teacher evaluations — and gave low-performing schools an unprecedented boost to turn them around. But teachers say it also left them caught in the middle of dueling drives to improve their quality of teaching and increase accountability through student test scores. The question that remains is whether that tension is healthy — or debilitating.
  2. Addressing the Common Core quandary. What began as an attempt to elevate the state’s academic standards unraveled across Tennessee as the Common Core label became associated with federal intrusion. But instead of scrapping Common Core altogether as some state lawmakers proposed, Tennessee launched a complex and exacting review process that state leaders have trumpeted for its thoroughness, transparency and homegrown sensibilities. Beginning with a six-month online public review of standards for math and language arts, the work shifted this year to two panels of mostly educators tasked with weeding through the feedback and drafting new standards to recommend to the State Board of Education. The timeline calls for approval in early 2016. Next up: teacher training for the new standards, scheduled to reach Tennessee classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.
  3. The rollout of TNReady. In a seismic shift in testing, the state launched a new standardized assessment that moves Tennessee from pencil-and-paper to online systems — as well dropping multiple-choice formats in favor of questions that require critical thinking and writing skills. And to top it all off, the new TNReady assessment is finally aligned with Common Core, just as the state is about to revise its standards again. (State officials say the test has been developed to adapt.)  Spring marked the last time Tennessee students would take their Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests, known fondly as TCAPs. As districts have ramped up their digital infrastructure for online testing, TNReady got its first official test in November from high school students on block schedules. Some technological glitches occurred, but not as many as had been feared. The bigger test comes in February when a significantly larger number of students log in. Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen warns that next year’s scores likely will drop under the more difficult assessment.
  4. Despite its race to the top, Tennessee stays somewhere in the middle. After a significant leap on the 2013 NAEP exam, Tennessee’s scores were flat on this year’s national tests for fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. But since the scores of many other states actually declined in 2015, Tennessee’s performance improved relative to other states. In the next five years, education leaders hope Tennessee will be considered not only the fastest-improving state in the nation, but also one of the top performers. McQueen said the NAEP results point to areas where more work is needed, especially in fourth-grade reading where just a third of Tennessee students passed NAEP’s proficiency bar. Only six states had lower scores.
  5. Why can’t Tennessee students read? This year, state and district leaders got serious about addressing a persistent and disturbing trend: Even as Tennessee’s steadily climbing math and science results have garnered national attention, reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged. Calling the stagnant reading scores a “true ethical and moral dilemma,” McQueen announced a Department of Education plan in August to boost students’ literacy skills, starting even before they enter school. In her first major initiative as education chief, the commissioner directed that educators receive additional training on how best to teach reading and provided support from a growing fleet of literacy coaches. In addition, state agencies will team up to grapple with the realities that cause many poor children to start kindergarten without basic literacy skills. Reflecting the statewide concerns, Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest public school system, rolled out its own reading plan to address the district’s abysmal literacy rates — only 30 percent of its third-graders and half of its 8th-graders read on grade level.
  6. Local districts go to court over state ed funding. One could argue that there actually are three things that are certain — death, taxes … and debate over what constitutes adequate state funding for local education. Disagreement over the third issue bubbled over into the legal system in 2015 as at least eight school districts took their case against the state to court. Firing the first volley in March, Hamilton County’s school board joined with six smaller districts asking a judge to order the legislature to address a funding formula that the suit says is antiquated and possibly broken, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars of underfunding. Shelby County’s school board took a different approach in its lawsuit filed in August, contending that the state does not provide adequate funding for students who are minorities, have disabilities and live in extreme poverty. Shelby County has had to make significant budget cuts since its 2013 merger with Memphis City Schools, including closing 20 schools. Both lawsuits could take years to wind through the legal system and, meanwhile, the governor says he may increase state ed funding for a second year in a row.
  7. As Tennessee’s school turnaround initiatives mature, so does examination of their efficacy. Two bold initiatives are receiving the most scrutiny — the Achievement School District, which relies on state intervention to assign local schools to charter operators, and Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, which allows struggling schools to remain within the local district but provides administrators with similar flexibilities designed to turn them around. Memphis is ground zero for both approaches, putting the city on the front lines of school improvement work and under a national microscope for best practices. In December, Vanderbilt researchers studying both reported that the iZone has been more effective than the ASD thus far. Their study’s release came days before the state-run district announced its expansion to four more Memphis schools, fueling community furor over state intervention in local schools.
  8. Vanderbilt study raises questions about the power of pre-K. Other researchers at the same Nashville university raised eyebrows with their landmark study finding that Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten programs might actually negatively impact students as they advance through school. The results of the five-year study surprised even the researchers and has prompted early education advocates to reexamine pre-K programs in their quest to close the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students, as well as minorities. Such was the takeaway from the study’s lead researchers, who urged policymakers to look at quality instead of abandoning such programs altogether. Education leaders locally and nationally have pledged to learn from the Vanderbilt study, while some policymakers view it as a validation of their cost-cutting efforts to curtail pre-K. The discussion is expected spill over into next year’s legislative session, as the governor sets his budget for pre-K programs for 2016-17.
  9. The governor gives teachers a long-awaited pay raise — sort of. Haslam kicked off 2015 with an exciting announcement — pledging $170 million toward his goal of making Tennessee teacher salaries among the fastest-growing in the nation. (He had reneged on a similar promise a year earlier.) The action was praised by educators and government officials alike as a step in the right direction, but not all teachers saw a bump in their paycheck. Teachers in 75 percent of districts got raises this year, according to Sylvia Flowers, director of educator talent for the state Department of Education. Most other districts put that money toward their differentiated pay plans, meaning only some teachers got bonuses, based on their experience or other qualifications. District officials say adequate state funding for teacher salaries remains an issue, and Haslam has said he wants Tennessee’s pay scale to continue to climb.
  10. Private vouchers get a foot in the door. Tennessee became the nation’s 22nd state to enact legislation allowing public funds to go to private schools when the governor signed a law in May aimed at special-needs students. The Individualized Education Act, which takes effect in January of 2017, will provide families of about 18,000 students with severe disabilities the option to forego public schooling for a bank account holding public funds for “education-related expenses” such as physical therapy, private schooling, home schooling, textbooks and even college courses after graduation. Proponents say the program will give disabled students the option of receiving a customized education that is of higher quality than offered in public schools. Others are concerned that parents will unwittingly waive rights and protections granted under federal law to special education students in public schools, and also that public schools will lose much-needed funds. Having passed easily in this year’s legislature, the law could lead the way for private vouchers — a perennial legislative battle — to finally become a reality in Tennessee in 2016.

BONUS: Best education quotes of 2015.The above hot topics, as well as a few others, generated lively discussion this year.  From policymakers to parents, here are some of our favorites.

Inside Chalkbeat

I’m Chalkbeat’s new audience engagement editor. Here’s how I think about community and impact.

PHOTO: Sam Hodgson / Voice of San Diego
A throwback to 2014; Catherine Green co-hosting a live podcast recording for Voice of San Diego

Technically my first day at Chalkbeat was January 7, but I hope you’ll forgive the delay in saying hello. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been meeting people left and right, bookmarking community organizations and movers-and-shakers in the seven locations where we operate, and getting up to speed on our audience engagement strategies. Now that I can catch my breath, I wanted to take a moment to share my own perspective on engagement and what I’m hoping to do at Chalkbeat.

A lot has changed since I started working in engagement six years ago, but plenty remains the same. Comment sections are still prone to devolving into petty fighting without rigorous moderation. News organizations are still sorting out which traffic metrics they pay attention to, and which ones define success. The role of “engagement editor” in newsrooms, unlike “City Hall reporter” or “editor in chief,” can still resemble an amorphous blob, containing as much or as little as an outlet cares to hear from its audience.

Chalkbeat lands on the upper end of the spectrum, and its engagement-centric approach is part of what drew me to work here. I first learned about Chalkbeat back in 2013, when I was engagement editor at Voice of San Diego.

What immediately stood out: Chalkbeat’s MORI system, which remains the most thoughtful approach I’ve seen for measuring impact in the communities a news outlet covers. This isn’t the case everywhere, but to me, and most importantly to Chalkbeat, engagement and impact are intertwined; journalists’ work doesn’t yield impact if readers aren’t part of the conversation. While growing our audience is important (have you told a friend about Chalkbeat yet? We’d appreciate the help!), and will be a significant part of my job, our bureaus are motivated by doing work that matters, that informs debate and spurs action that results in better schools — not necessarily work that will go viral.

Since then, Chalkbeat has grown to seven bureaus with national coverage on top of that, and there are plans to expand to even more cities around the country in the future. Though my career path had carried me away from mission-driven nonprofit newsrooms, I found myself checking back in on Chalkbeat.

I spent 2018 as a senior editor at The New Republic, focused on engagement; before that, I was assignment editor and managing editor for the website of The Atlantic. I’d spent three years at legacy institutions, and though I’d known going into those experiences that the audiences would be bigger, and the metaphorical walls surrounding the newsrooms higher, than they had been in the nonprofit world, I don’t think I appreciated how different the mindsets around engagement — and impact — would be.

In the last few weeks, I’ve heard about several Chalkbeat stories that came directly from community engagement. One in particular stands out in my mind: the story of Javion, a 16-year-old in Chicago’s public school system who reads at a second-grade level. Our reporter Adeshina Emmanuel learned about Javion’s difficulties during last year’s listening tour, a series of in-person events where Chalkbeat staff aimed to empower people in the community to share their own stories.

Here was the engagement I cared about, where journalists sought to report with and for communities, not just “on” them; here was the commitment to driving impact by working with our readers, aiming for results above and beyond a CNN chyron name-dropping our cover story or Donald Trump tweet-ranting against our work. Here was journalism as public service.

So what will I be doing at Chalkbeat? I’ll be making it easier for us to reach more people in our communities, in person and online. I’ll be fine-tuning our social media practices, establishing and maintaining partnerships with other media outlets and community organizations, and helping our bureaus pull off events that amplify diverse voices. Generally, I’ll be managing how we talk to and hear from our audience — which includes you.

As I get started, I’d love to hear from you. What do you want to see more of from Chalkbeat? What are you hoping to get out of the newsletters? If you live near one of our bureau locations (especially Indianapolis, where I’m currently based), I’d love your suggestions for potential partners: Who’s doing good work in your city to improve education and build a stronger sense of community? Let’s chat: cgreen@chalkbeat.org

growth plans

Now hiring: Chalkbeat Newark is set to expand

PHOTO: Bene Cipolla/Chalkbeat
A Chalkbeat Newark focus group in 2018. The nonprofit news organization will add a new reporter in June.

Chalkbeat Newark has some breaking news of our own to report: We’re expanding.

Less than a year after Chalkbeat opened a new bureau dedicated to New Jersey’s largest school system, we’re adding another reporter in June. We’re expanding through Report for America, an innovative program that places beginning journalists in communities that need — and deserve — more on-the-ground reporting, and we especially welcome applicants from Newark.

“We are thrilled to have support to add more reporting capacity to our team in Newark,” said Elizabeth Green, Chalkbeat’s co-founder, CEO, and editor-in-chief. The bureau is the organization’s seventh; Chalkbeat also has reporters in Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, New York, and Tennessee, and is continuing to grow.

“We launched coverage in Newark at the request of a diverse group of community members,” Green continued. “Since then, more and more members of the community have told us they value the work we are doing: holding officials accountable, keeping the conversation honest, and shedding light on the consequences of major decisions that affect public education.”

The new reporter will bolster Chalkbeat’s coverage at a pivotal moment for Newark, as the district completes its transition from decades of state oversight back to local control, and as a new superintendent begins to make his mark on the 36,000-student school system.

The reporter will be partly funded by Report for America, a nonprofit organization dedicated to strengthening local news coverage. The group, which is modeled on Americorps, is helping this year to place 60 journalists in newsrooms across the country — from Puerto Rico to Wisconsin to California and now New Jersey. Report for America will split the cost of the journalist with Chalkbeat and local donors.

Report for America was founded by two media veterans, Steven Waldman and Charles Sennott, who worried that the downsizing of newsrooms across the country threatens democracy. The nonprofit organization receives funding from a number of donors, including the Ford Foundation, Facebook, and Google.

Newsrooms that host Report for America-funded journalists have complete control over their work; donors play no part in the editorial process.

“Like all support to Chalkbeat, this gift comes with no strings attached,” Green said. “Our ultimate responsibility is always to tell the truth.”

Journalists interested in covering Newark schools (or any of the other RFA-sponsored roles) have until Feb. 8 to apply for the position. Along with their normal reporting duties, Report for America hires must also participate in a community-service project, such as mentoring student journalists.

We especially welcome Newark-based reporters to apply. If you know someone who’s right for the job, please encourage them to submit their information.