Are Children Learning

For representatives at Nashville education summit, Common Core number one issue

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Gov. Bill Haslam and Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson at the education summit in Nashville.

Politicians homed in on the validity of the Common Core standards and the assessment that will test those standards at an education summit Thursday in Nashville. The forum, which included Department of Education officials, several state representatives, and members from education-related professional groups, hinted that Common Core is likely to be a central education battle this upcoming legislative session.

The education summit was convened by Gov. Bill Haslam, and brought together forty participants that ranged from a representative for the Tennessee Education Association, which has historically opposed Gov. Haslam’s education reforms, to representatives from the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce, which has been an engine of new proposals involving new standards and revising the state’s career preparation.

Department of Education officials, Candice McQueen, the dean of Lipscomb University’s school of education,  and Ron Zimmer, a professor from Vanderbilt, presented on accountability, assessments, and school choice respectively. Each presentation was followed by a question and answer session, in which participants aired concerns or words of support for reforms.

“We’ve got to reinstall confidence in Tennessee and our education system, and I think that can only be done by Tennesseans doing standards, and by Tennesseans building an assessment that goes with that,” Rep. Judd Matheny, a Republican from Tullahoma said.

Despite the politically charged topics, the roundtable never took the tone of a debate and remained relatively tame. Gov. Bill Haslam never defended the reforms he’s spearheaded, and spent most of the time listening to participants.

Controversy over the Common Core State Standards has been mounting since the state first adopted the learning standards for math and language arts in 2010. The standards determine what children must learn by the end of each grade. Last year, the first year the standards were fully implemented, conflict over the standards reached a high point during the legislative session. Mirroring conservative action in other states, legislators protested the standards, arguing they were a means of federal control. With the help of the Tennessee Education Association, they successfully delayed the implementation of the PARCC assessment,  a Common Core-aligned exam that was designed with other states.

This year, several politicians could work to pull the state out of the standards all together. Should Tennessee adopt new standards for math and English, it would be the third time since 2008. Considerable funds have been devoted to training teachers on transitioning to the Common Core State Standards and the department is on track to contract with a testing vendor for a Common Core-aligned test by November.

Twice during the forum Thursday, representatives raised concerns that the federal government pressured Tennessee to adopt the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee and most other states use for math and English. Rep. Susan Lynn, a Republican from Mt. Juliet, asked if the standards were necessary for continued funding, and Sen. Mike Bell, a Republican from Riceville, asked if Tennessee could have received Race to the Top funds if they hadn’t adopted the standards. Race to the Top was a competition held by the U.S. Department of Education in which Tennessee won $500 million to improve low-performing schools, better train teachers and principals, and train educators on new Common Core standards.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said federal funding was never contingent on the Common Core. “There is a compulsion to adopt college and career ready standards,” he said. “Those do not have to be the Common Core State Standards.”

Rep. Bill Spivey, a Republican from Lewisburg, said that by the time the legislature was done arguing about the standards, they would be outdated. “We need to be talking about what we’re doing next,” he said.

A bus sponsored by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity was parked in front of the education summit at its start.
PHOTO: G. Tatter
A bus sponsored by Koch-funded Americans for Prosperity was parked in front of the education summit at its start.

Common Core was also the focus of about 50 protestors outside the Sheraton. A coach bus emblazoned with “Stop Common Core” that accompanied the protestors was sponsored by Americans for Prosperity, an advocacy organization funded by the billionaire Koch brothers. The protestors wore shirts with the same message and waved signs for Tea Party U.S. Senate candidate Danny Page.

Eli Broadstreet, an eighth grader from Rutherford County who was at the protest with his mother, said his family was against the Common Core because the math standards were stressful and illogical, and because the standards promoted a biased view of history that promoted Islam and Buddhism over Christianity.

“It’s just a big mess,” he said.

The Common Core standards do not address history.

Representatives, business leaders, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey and teachers at the forum said they were all were curious about the state’s next assessment. Although the TCAP, which students will take for the last time this year, has been narrowed to only address material covered by the Common Core State Standards, speakers including Candice McQueen, a dean at Lipscomb University’s school of education, and Rep. John Forgerty, a Republican from Athens, said that it was still not adequately aligned with what students are learning and teachers are teaching.

A competitive bidding process for a new test is currently underway, with a committee of undisclosed teachers, state officials, and higher education administrators working to select a test developer by November. Gov. Haslam checked with the office of procurement, who is in charge of the bidding process, during the summit, and announced that there are five vendors under consideration. You can read about some of the probable candidates here.

In addition to the state standards, participants raised concerns about teacher evaluations and the quality and number of assessments students take.

School vouchers, a topic that has been hotly debated in past legislative sessions, went almost uncommented on at the summit. Ron Zimmer, a professor at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education, presented research on school choice options, including vouchers. Zimmer cited both positives and negatives for options like charters and vouchers, but repeatedly asserted that neither reform was a “silver bullet.” No one asked questions about the possibility for vouchers in Tennessee in the near future, although a participant from the conservative think tank the Beacon Center said he supported vouchers.

Rep. Matheny said he was glad to discuss a range of education issues before the legislature convenes in January.

I appreciate this kind of round table so we can start thinking about these things,” he said.

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Sayonara, SESIS: New York City to scrap its beleaguered special education data system

PHOTO: Patrick Wall/Chalkbeat

New York City is scrapping a special education data system that has frustrated educators since it launched nearly a decade ago.

The troubles of SESIS, as the city’s Special Education Student Information System is called, are well known. Since its launch in 2011, the system — which required over $130 million to build — cost the city tens of millions of dollars in settlements, at times malfunctioned more than 800,000 times a day, and made it difficult to track whether students with disabilities are getting the services they need.

Education department officials said they have been able to “stabilize” the system in recent years. But they also have concluded that an entirely different system is needed. On Friday, they announced that they would phase SESIS out and replace it with something new — at a cost and on a timeline that is not yet clear.

The announcement comes on the eve of a City Council hearing set for Monday where council members say they will press for more transparency about special education.

“It was originally designed as a document management system,” Lauren Siciliano, the education department’s Deputy Chief Operating Officer, said about SESIS. “Think more of a filing cabinet right now as opposed to being able to follow a student through the process.”

Special education teachers often spent hours navigating a maze of drop-down menus — inputting data such as whether they met with a student and for how long — only to experience error messages that erased their answers.

Megan Moskop, a former special education teacher at M.S. 324 in Washington Heights, said she once encountered 41 error messages in two hours. What’s more, she said, the system didn’t reflect the experiences she had with her students.

“At the end of the day, I would be expected to go in, mark that they are present, mark whether they made progress toward a goal,” Moskop said. “It’s very standardized.”

It is not yet clear how quickly the education department will phase SESIS out. Officials said the city would begin a multistage process of identifying a vendor to create a new system by the end of March, then would ask for more detailed plans by the end of 2019. An official purchasing process would happen after that, Siciliano said, meaning that construction of  a new system will not begin for well over a year. Families and educators would be consulted throughout, officials said.

Linda Chen, the department’s chief academic officer, said a new system would lead to tangible improvements for students with disabilities.

“I do think that if we have clear and reliable visibility into the data it would absolutely allow us to better serve our students,” Chen said.

Flaws with SESIS have made it difficult to know how well the city is serving students with disabilities. Because the system was not set up to communicate with other city databases, city officials have had to manually tabulate data across systems. And the annual reports that show whether students are receiving required services may not be accurate because of the system’s flaws, officials have warned.

The system’s glitches also made the user experience so cumbersome that teachers had to spend time on nights and weekends entering data. An arbitrator eventually ordered the city to pay over $38 million in teacher overtime.

Additionally, the system has sparked legal action. Former Public Advocate Letitia James filed a lawsuit claiming that SESIS was to blame for some children not receiving services as well as lost Medicaid payments. Between 2012 and 2015, according to the IBO, the city collected $373 million less in Medicaid reimbursements than officials projected.

Some advocates said that given SESIS’s troubled history, it makes sense to find alternatives.

“There has to be a strong data system in place,” said Maggie Moroff, a disability policy expert at Advocates for Children, a nonprofit advocacy organization. “We are eager to see a better system to be put in place, but are really worried about that transition period.”

Advocates have also pushed the city to make the data SESIS tracks directly available to parents.

“We will absolutely be looking at that,” Siciliano said.

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Charter schools racing to find new buildings as district ends their leases

PHOTO: Koby Levin
Escuela Avancemos will move to a new building.

At least two Detroit charter schools are racing against the clock to find new buildings for more than 500 students next fall after the city district decided not to renew their leases.

It’s the latest move in an ongoing effort by the Detroit Public Schools Community District to get out of the charter business, and it means another bout of uncertainty for schools that enroll hundreds of children in Detroit.

Leaders of GEE-Edmonson Academy and GEE-White Academy face the daunting challenge of finding new buildings before the start of the next school year. Another school, Escuela Avancemos, already found a new building. More schools, including Rutherford Winans Academy, have leases that expire this year, but their representatives did not return requests for comment on whether their lease was renewed.

Most students at the two schools run by Global Educational Excellence (GEE) walk every day, Superintendent Michael Conran said. If a new building can’t be found in those neighborhoods, the school’s would face new transportation challenges, casting doubt on their ability to maintain their enrollment.

“We were clearly not anticipating that the leases would not be renewed,” Conran said. “That news came pretty late, I believe it was after the New Year. That’s quite a notification to the boards in such a short period of time.”

The challenges for these schools don’t end there. The district could also decline to renew their charters for the GEE schools when they expire in June, potentially forcing them to find new backers as well as new buildings.

More than one charter school has already jumped ship. Escuela Avancemos, a small school in southwest Detroit, will begin the coming year in a new building and with a new authorizer, Central Michigan University. Officials had begun searching for a new building even before they were notified last month that their lease would not be renewed.

“For the protection of our school, we’ve had to take matters into our own hands to guarantee our future,” said Sean Townsin, principal at Escuela Avancemos.

Superintendent Nikolai Vitti made clear soon after he took the helm of the district in 2017 that he believed the district’s resources should be channeled toward its own students, not toward charter schools.

He reiterated that position last year when the district severed its ties with a three-school network of charter schools, forcing it to scramble to find new buildings and a new charter. Parents were forced to choose between an extraordinarily long commute to the new site and making an unwanted switch to another school. Enrollment was cut in half.

Supporters of the move pointed out at the time that those schools had been district schools until they were spun off by state-appointed emergency managers. In a city with lots of school options and few quality schools, they argued, some consolidation is necessary.

Most charters in Detroit are overseen by Michigan’s public universities, but 10 schools are supervised by the Detroit district.

A handful of those schools also rent their school buildings from the district, putting them in a particularly vulnerable position should the district decide that it would rather not support charter schools — its chief competitors for students and state funding.

In a statement about those schools, Chrystal Wilson, a spokeswoman for the district, said the the charter schools could eventually be replaced with district schools.

“Now that we have the leadership to rebuild the district, we need to review and maximize our property assets. This means possibly re-using currently leased schools for new DPSCD schools, replacing older buildings with high repair costs, or adding a school in an area where facility usage and class sizes are high where another traditional public school does not exist. We understand and accept if district charters are leaving for other authorizers.”

No matter the district’s plans, Conran said the Global Educational Excellence schools would continue trying to serve students.

But he asked for transparency from the district and time to plan.

“I’m just simply waiting to hear from DPS any decisions they anticipate making in as timely a manner as we need to make sure we can continue to support these students and their families,” he said.