hitting pause

State lawmakers unite to support two-year Common Core delay

PHOTO: Geoff Decker
Cuomo spoke to Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver last month before delivering his State of the State speech. Silver is among the many lawmakers calling for a pause on Common Core consequences.

ALBANY — State lawmakers today issued a bipartisan call for a two-year moratorium on consequences attached to the Common Core standards, potentially paving the way for revisions to the state’s teacher evaluation law.

Assembly Speaker Sheldon Silver and Education Committee Chair Catherine Nolan announced today that they support a two-year delay — “at a minimum” — on using tests aligned to the Common Core learning standards to evaluate teachers. Leaders in the Senate, including Republican Dean Skelos and Education Committee Chair John Flanagan, seconded the request this afternoon.

Such a moratorium, which the state teachers union has lobbied for, would not remove the Common Core as the standards in use in New York’s schools. In fact, all of the legislators said the State Education Department and local districts should continue to develop and implement curriculums aligned to the standards, which are meant to ensure that students are prepared for college.

But a moratorium would dramatically lower the stakes for districts and teachers to hold students to the standards, because Common Core test scores would not be used to evaluate teachers and principals.

Detaching test scores from teacher evaluations would require legislators to revise the evaluation law for the third time since it was first passed in 2010. State officials have so far resisted such a change, in part because they fear it could jeopardize $700 million in federal Race to the Top grants that New York won to install teacher evaluations that weigh student growth.

But lawmakers are under pressure now, given that teachers outside of New York City are being evaluated for the second time under the new system this year. The law allows districts to move to fire teachers who receive two consecutive “ineffective” ratings. (New York City is evaluating teachers under the new system this year.)

National and local teachers union leaders have been calling for a delay for nearly a year. NYSUT has called for a three-year moratorium, while Randi Weingarten, president of the American Federation of Teachers, called for a national moratorium on Common Core stakes in a speech last April.

Any bipartisan proposal to change the evaluation law would put pressure on Cuomo, who praised the system in his State of the State speech last month. In a statement, Cuomo’s office suggested today that legislators had inappropriately conflated the teacher evaluation system with the new standards.

“The Governor believes there are two issues — Common Core and teacher evaluations — and they must be analyzed separately,” a spokeswoman said. She said Cuomo had determined that the State Education Department’s rollout of the Common Core had been “flawed, leading to too much uncertainty, confusion and anxiety among students and their parents.”

Parents and local educators protested the standards’ implementation in Albany and at heated public meetings with State Education Commissioner John King and with lawmakers last year. They charged that schools had not had time or support to adjust to the new standards before testing students on them.

The moratorium would also delay consequences for students’ scores on Common Core-aligned tests. Those scores are sometimes used to determine whether students are promoted to the next grade or accepted into specialized schools, but those decisions are made by districts, not the state.

Responding to the criticism, Cuomo — who is up for reelection this year — recently announced that he would form a panel to study the state’s implementation of the Common Core. “It would be premature to consider any moratorium before the panel is allowed to do its work,” he said today.

The call for a moratorium comes just days before a separate task force formed by the Board of Regents is expected to come up with its own proposals to change. State Education Commissioner John King, who is a part of that task force, has remained steadfast in his insistence that the state not slow down its pace of implementation.

A spokesman for the department said King and Tisch would have more to say after it releases recommendations next week.

As the legislative session got underway last month, lawmakers from across the state have talked about the possibility of a Common Core “delay.” Today’s announcement offers clarity about what that would look like. In addition, today revealed New York City legislators’ stance on the Common Core, which has drawn the most heated opposition in suburban districts.

Nolan and Silver, who are part of the Assembly’s Democratic leadership, have previously raised concerns about the standards, but had yet to indicate where they would come down on the issue. Martin Golden, a leading Republican senator from the city, also said today that he supported a delay.

“I think it needs to be delayed a little bit,” Golden said. “Probably about two to three years so that the educational system can get caught up to the Core curriculum.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: