New York

High-stakes school accountability across the pond

At home and abroad, the ultimate consequence a failing school can face is closure. Under No Child Left Behind, schools can be restructured or even closed if they fail to make progress for several years at a time. Here in New York, the chancellor has the ability to close schools at will, and this past year he shut the doors of several schools where student performance hadn’t budged in years. In addition, last year the DOE released school progress reports for the first time; schools that receive a failing grade on those reports in the future will be subject to closure.

But the handful of school closures each year in the city is nothing compared with what Britain may face in three years. Last month, the British government’s year-old Department for Children, Schools, and Families launched “National Challenge,” an initiative to hold schools accountable for preparing at least 30 percent of their students to pass five comprehensive exams that are considered a first step toward winning university admission. The General Comprehensive Subject Exams, required before students can take the A-level tests required for admission to universities, are offered in dozens of subjects. Currently, only about half of all British teens pass five GCSEs, and a fifth of schools don’t meet the National Challenge requirements. The remaining 20 percent have only until 2011 to improve their performance.

In the initiative’s first phase, the government released a list of schools currently not in compliance with the National Challenge standards. The schools on the list contrast sharply with those considered unsatisfactory by Ofsted, the national unit that inspects schools. In fact, the BBC recently reported that only 10 percent of the schools given only three years to improve or be closed are considered “in need of intervention” by Ofsted. School heads resent the stigma being attached to their schools, with one telling the BBC, “Branding my school as weak is simplistic in the extreme and downright unfair.” The whole affair closely parallels the fallout  of the  progress reports’ release here in New York last fall, when it became clear that many schools with top grades were on the state’s list of schools in need of improvement, and some failing schools were actually quite high-performing. In England, pundits are asking, “Can naming and shaming help schools?” It’s a question worth considering. (Mike Baker,  the British education journalist who posed that question recently, said the answer is no — and that those who named and shamed schools in the past now regret it.)

Another question Britons are grappling with: whether the GCSEs are even valuable. GCSEs have traditionally been considered rigorous exams. But some believe the most popular exams have gotten easier in recent years. A new English course that focuses on “real-life contexts” where English is used rather than on literature will roll out in 2010. A media studies course requires students to analyze scenes from an action film. And in recent years, many independent schools have reduced the number of GCSE exams they offer, saying some subjects are “too easy” to merit class time. The British government seems to be out of step with A report being released this week by two influential British academics concludes that the multiple-test system encourages students to think of learning as a fragmented, disconnected experience. It suggests replacing the GCSE system with a single baccalaureate exam that all students must pass to graduate from secondary school. Here, Britain might learn from the example of the U.S. states that have adopted high school exit exams, only to find that they discourage high school completion.

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.

For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.

Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede