Future of Schools

Q&A with Speaker Beth Harwell: Tennessee will probably develop own standards

PHOTO: Wikipedia Commons
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is a Republican from Nashville.
PHOTO: Capitol.tn.gov
Speaker of the House Beth Harwell is a Republican from Nashville.

Speaker Beth Harwell, historically a supporter of the Common Core State Standards, said she recognizes they might be on the way out — and as long Tennessee retains high standards, she’s not worried.

“I really think Tennessee is going to get to the point where they’ll just develop their own standards and try to make them some of the best standards in the nation,” she said Thursday in an interview with Chalkbeat Tennessee.

When asked if Harwell supported the Common Core State Standards, spokesperson Kara Owen didn’t answer directly, but said that Harwell believed that “Tennessee — and not the federal government —  knows what is best for Tennesseans.”

Harwell’s comments mirror Gov. Bill Haslam’s shift in tone about the standards, which are often criticized by parents and policymakers for limiting local control of schools and being confusing. Haslam, a staunch supporter of Common Core, insists that his devotion to the standards hasn’t softened in face of heightened political opposition to them. Still, these days he talks publicly less about the need for Common Core standards specifically, and more the need for  “higher standards” in general.

Last month, the standards were one focus of an education summit he co-hosted with Harwell and Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey. Harwell’s prediction that the standards might be on their way out was supported at that summit, where at least two legislators called for Tennessee-designed standards.

Last legislative session, Harwell helped defend the standards as some of her Republican colleagues became increasingly wary of them, although she did sign the bill that delayed the implementation of a Common Core-aligned assessment [read more Common Core coverage here].

The Republican from Nashville became the Speaker of the House in Tennessee’s General Assembly in 2011, and has been in the General Assembly since 1988. She has supported Gov. Bill Haslam’s educational agenda, which included rolling out the Common Core standards for math and English as part of a larger push to increase the number of Tennesseans qualified for higher education and the workforce.

Harwell spoke with Chalkbeat about her educational priorities, and the priorities of her constituents on Thursday.

 What educational bills were most important to you last session?

A: Most important was maybe not a bill, but the outcome that we came to the conclusion that we have made great strides; that we don’t want to go backwards; that we want to maintain high standards in our state even though that’s challenging;and we want to keep accountability. We are one of the first states and the few states that have true accountability in our school system and it’s paying off because were were the fastest growing state on national exams.

We passed some other legislation, for example, in the area of charters. We tried to make it easier for public charter schools to come to our state. We have some great charter schools in our state, and we want to keep that momentum going. They are some of our best performing. We only want the very best charters to locate here, so we’re very picky. [For more about Tennessee’s charter sector, read here.]

What issues do you most from your constituents?

A: I think a lot of it revolves around the whole Common Core issue. I don’t hear people say we shouldn’t have high standards. I think there is concern that Common Core — some people think they’re not high enough standards; some people think they’re confusing; some people think it has something to do with President Obama so they’re scared of it. I really think Tennessee is going to get to the point where they’ll just develop their own standards and try to make them some of the best standards in the nation. We’ve proven we can do that, and we just need to keep going.

I do occasionally get questions about funding. We’re not the highest funded state in the nation, but I think we do a fairly good job of holding harmless education, we haven’t cut the education budget. And in times of fiscal rough waters, that in itself is remarkable.

Since I’ve been speaker, those have been the highest profile (issues). We’ve talked a little bit about vouchers. We do not have a voucher program in Tennessee, and I don’t know whether that will come up again this year or not. There were a lot of concerns about if that would take funding away from our public schools, and an issue about whether or not state dollars should be going to religious institutions was very much in the mix, in the discussion. I would imagine that will be discussed again in years coming. [For more on how vouchers might shape Tennessee, read here.]

What are you most hopeful for this upcoming legislative session?

We cannot go backwards. We are making great strides. If you looked at the state budget and saw how much money went to education, the taxpayers should demand nothing but the best education. More importantly than that, our children deserve nothing but the best education system. And we’re not only competing with neighboring states around us, we’re competing with the whole world for jobs. It’s really important to keep our standards high and it’s really important to keep in place accountable. Teachers should be held accountable and school systems should be held accountable.

Hello Again

Debora Scheffel chosen by acclamation to fill State Board of Ed vacancy

State Board of Education member Debora Scheffel at a campaign event in 2016. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

A Republican vacancy committee unanimously selected Debora Scheffel to fill the opening left by Pam Mazanec on the State Board of Education.

Mazanec, a staunch defender of parental rights and school choice who represented the 4th Congressional District, resigned at the end of January to focus on her other obligations. Scheffel previously represented the 6th Congressional District on the board but lost that seat in 2016 to Democrat Rebecca McClellan.

McClellan’s narrow victory gave control of the board to Democrats for the first time in 46 years. Scheffel, who serves as dean of education at Colorado Christian University, moved to Douglas County, and ran unsuccessfully for school board there in 2017.

Scheffel’s selection does not change the balance of power on the state board because she replaces another Republican. Scheffel faced no opposition at the vacancy committee meeting, which took place Saturday in Limon.

Scheffel has said she wants to continue Mazanec’s work on behalf of rural schools and in support of parent and student choice, as well as work to protect student data privacy, a cause she previously championed on the board.

The district takes in all of the eastern Plains, as well as the cities of Longmont, Greeley, and Castle Rock.

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: