Future of Schools

Tennessee scores C on StudentsFirst report card

StudentsFirst, an advocacy group founded by former D.C. schools chancellor Michelle Rhee, released its second annual report card today, and Tennessee earned a C.

The StudentsFirst report card ranks states on how well their policies “Elevate the Teaching Profession,” “Empower Parents,” “Spend Wisely and Govern Well.”

A state’s score in each category is determined by whether it has adopted a number of individual policies StudentsFirst advocates for: For instance, the “Elevate the Teaching Profession,” states received points for policies that establish evaluations for teachers and principals; use those evaluations for personnel decisions; end seniority-based layoffs; eliminate tenure; implement “performance pay” for teachers; and creating alternate pathways to teaching, among other suggestions. Here are more details about the other policies StudentsFirst looked for as it ranked states.

Though Tennessee’s 2.1 “GPA” on the StudentsFirst report may not seem like much to brag about, Tennessee was actually ranked above more than half of all of the states. The report’s national average was a D+.  Not a single state received an A. Rural states overall performed worse on this measure.
A few states’ scores, including Tennessee’s, improved from last year to this year.

The report card evaluates policies, not students’ academic achievement. And alignment with these policies does not line up with states’ overall performance on national standardized tests, for instance. Florida and Louisiana, which are top scorers on the StudentsFirst report card, received average and below-average scores on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, this year, for instance.  

StudentsFirst says Tennessee’s recent improvement on the NAEP is evidence that some recent policy changes – which put it more in alignment with StudentsFirst’s priorities – are working.

“Tennessee’s recent improvement on student achievement provides some evidence that meaningful education reforms are working,” said StudentsFirst Tennessee State Director Brent Easley in a press release. “Our leaders should be encouraged by the rise in Tennessee’s report card grade, and motivated to continue the course for reform.”

StudentsFirst says it will spend next year advocating for further changes to Tennessee’s education policies. StudentsFirst’s recommendations for the state: “And as reflected by the report card, Tennessee can continue to build on progress by prioritizing the growth of high-performing charter schools through better authorization and more rigorous accountability, and expanding opportunities for low-income students in struggling districts by creating a targeted scholarship program.”

Those priorities are not uncontroversial. A proposed voucher program and the expansion of the charter school sector have stirred debate in Nashville and beyond, with critics claiming that such policies will, among other outcomes, drain financial resources from regular public schools. 

Tennessee’s standards and teacher-based policies were also applauded in a recent Education Week report, Quality Counts.

word choice

A quietly edited report and dueling blog posts reveal a divide over the ‘portfolio model’

Diane Ravitch speaks at California State University Northridge. (Photo by Michael Buckner/Getty Images)

A report on school choice released last month offered this in a list of strategies for improving schools: “creating a portfolio approach that treats all types of schools equally.”

Today, that reference is gone from the report — a small edit that reveals notable disagreements among prominent names in education who often agree.

The report was issued by the Learning Policy Institute, an education think tank started by Linda Darling-Hammond, an influential Stanford professor. Then came a critique from Diane Ravitch and Carol Burris of the Network for Public Education, a pro-public education group that opposes charter schools. And then came the edits to the original report, first noted by Burris and Ravitch.

At the center of the disagreement is the report’s use of the word “portfolio.” The portfolio model is a strategy offering parents the choice of different school types (typically including charter schools) and having a central body holding all schools accountable for results and manages certain functions like enrollment. And the Learning Policy Institute praises Denver, a district that has adopted it.

Denver’s collaboration agreement with its charter schools “drives equitable funding and access for all schools, and strives to replicate the most effective schools of all kinds,” the report says. The report also recommends putting the “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures,” and notes that most school choice in the U.S. involves options within traditional districts.

Ravitch and Burris pushed back on the Washington Post’s Answer Sheet blog. “School governance directly affects the rights and well-being of students,” they wrote, pointing to instances where charter schools have pushed out students with disabilities or shut down abruptly.

That criticism seems to have gotten through. Since the debate began, the Learning Policy Institute has edited its report to remove the term “portfolio” and changed other language. One recommendation — “focus on educational opportunities for children, not governance structures for adults” — became “focus on high-quality learning for children, not the preferences of adults.”

“The language change was made after some public feedback suggested that the use of the word ‘portfolio’ in the report was being misinterpreted,” Barbara McKenna, a spokesperson for the Learning Policy Institute, said in an email. “The report used the word ‘portfolio’ in one of the recommendations in the most straightforward sense of the term — an array of options.”

The report does not indicate that it has been updated since it was published late last month. McKenna said that’s because the revisions weren’t substantial.

Meanwhile, Darling-Hammond and co-authors have responded, and Ravitch and Burris offered an additional rejoinder.

Darling-Hammond said in an interview that she neither rejects nor wholly subscribes to the portfolio model. “Unplanned, uncoordinated, unmanaged choice has a lot of challenges and problems,” she said.

This debate comes as a new group, known as the City Fund, has raised at least $200 million in order to spread the portfolio model to dozens of U.S. cities. Whether the approach reliably improves academic outcomes remains up for debate.

public comment

What to expect from six hours of charter school hearings Wednesday night

PHOTO: Chicago Tribune

The public can weigh in on three new charters, 11 renewals and one potential revocation on Wednesday night during a marathon session of hearings at Chicago Public Schools headquarters on 42 W. Madison Street.

One school, the Near West Side campus of Urban Prep Charter Academy for Young Men High School, could lose its charter and be forced to close. Parents and families will have a chance to weigh in during a public comment section.

Urban Prep operates three campuses in Bronzeville, Englewood, and University Village. Only the latter, which reported 176 students this fall, is on the list to potentially shutter.

The first hearing, from 4 p.m. to 5:30 p.m., will be about new charters with proposals to open in the fall of 2019:

  • Intrinsic Charter School for a traditional citywide high school;
  • Project Simeon 2000 for a school that would serve at-risk students in middle grades in Englewood, where the district is planning a new $85 million high school to open in 2022;
  • Chicago Education Partnership to open a traditional K-8 school in Austin.

From 6 p.m. to 10 p.m., the district will hear public comment on renewal applications from 11 private operators as well as the proposal to revoke Urban Prep’s University Village campus. The charter and contracts under consideration for renewal are:

  • Noble Network of Charter Schools (whose founder Michael Milkie just resigned amid allegations of improper conduct with alumni)
  • Namaste Charter School
  • Kwame Nkrumah Academy Charter School
  • Horizon Science Academy Southwest Chicago Charter School (Chicago Lawn Charter School)
  • Great Lakes Academy Charter School
  • Foundations College Preparatory Charter School
  • Chicago Math and Science Academy (CMSA) Charter School
  • Hope Institute Learning Academy
  • Excel Academy of Southshore
  • Excel Academy Southwest
  • Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts)

Those interested in submitting comment may register in person before the meetings, send a fax to 773-553-1559, or email iandipublichearings@cps.edu.