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.

Assessing assessments

New York legislators overhaul teacher evaluations, removing mandatory link to state test

PHOTO: Chalkbeat file photo
A New York City principal takes notes on her computer during classroom observation for new teacher evaluations.

State lawmakers easily passed a bill Wednesday that scraps the use of state tests when evaluating New York teachers, but even supportive lawmakers raised concerns about potential loopholes that could subject students to more high-stakes testing.

The union-backed bill is a reversal of a 2015 deal Gov. Andrew Cuomo reached with lawmakers, which tied teacher evaluations to performance on state testing, seen by many as a political move not rooted in education policy. Strong backlash over that deal led many families to opt out of state tests, and eventually led to a state moratorium on using certain state assessments for teacher evaluations.

The bill allows local districts and their teachers unions to decide what kind of assessments should be used to evaluate teachers and requires State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia to decide on a “menu” of alternative assessments for local districts.

The proposal, which now goes to Cuomo’s office for approval, jumps ahead of work the Board of Regents is attempting. Before the session started, the Board of Regents planned to extend the state-assessment moratorium by one year and created work groups to hash out the best policies for assessments and evaluations. Sen. Shelley Mayer, a Westchester Democrat and chair of the Senate education committee, said Wednesday she recognizes the Regents’ work, but “as legislators, we are doing what we are charged to do in making necessary changes in state law.”

“Since 2015, when these provisions were initially adopted, parents, teachers, and the legislature have — in a bipartisan way — have all recognized a flaw in this law,” Mayer said.

In a statement, Speaker of the Assembly Carl Heastie called the bill’s changes “common sense reforms” that will help teachers “prioritize the needs of their students.”

State Department of Education officials will “work to implement the new law” and will “continue to engage stakeholders in the process,” Emily DeSantis, a spokeswoman for the state education department said in an email.

The bill is not likely to have a drastic effect on New York City schools, since the district already chooses from a menu of local measures to evaluate teachers. United Federation of Teachers president Michael Mulgrew, who praised the legislation dismissed concerns about the bill leading to more testing, at least in New York City, because of how it already uses alternative local options.

“You should be active in making sure your school district is using performance indicators that are not tests, if you believe in that,” Mulgrew said.

Despite the bill’s passage — unanimously in the Senate — even supporters expressed concerns about allowing local districts to select their methods for evaluating teachers. What if another type of standardized test shows up on the “menu” that the state commissioner creates? Or, what if local districts decide they want to use more standardized tests?

“There are serious concerns that this bill will actually double the amount of testing (one tests for student achievement, the other teachers), while making it harder to compare across districts,” said Nathaniel Styer, a spokesman for teacher group Educators for Excellence, in a tweet.

When a similar question was raised on the Assembly floor, bill sponsor Assemblyman Michael Benedetto doubted the chances that local districts would agree to more testing.

Wary lawmakers also raised concerns about the bill not going far enough to decouple state assessments from teacher evaluations, formally called Annual Professional Performance Reviews or APPR.

The New York State Allies for Public Education, a coalition of parents and teachers who oppose standardized testing, believes that this law would subject students to more tests, a view shared by Sen. Robert Jackson, a Harlem Democrat. Jackson and Queens Democrat Sen. Jessica Ramos both voted to support the bill nonetheless, but cautioned that it “does not go far enough” to eliminate the use of assessments completely.

“We have an opportunity to take a couple more weeks before budget season  begins in earnest to really workshop these ideas,” Jackson said. “With so much riding on reforming APPR, we owe it to students, teachers, parents, and other  advocates to get this one right.”

measuring up

Gateway is only Memphis charter school flagged as low-achieving on district scorecard. How did your school do?

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman/Chalkbeat
Gateway University is already at risk of closure after a Shelby County Schools investigation found a slew of misconduct at the high school.

Most Memphis schools improved in academic achievement and student growth in the second edition of Shelby County Schools “scorecard.”

About two-thirds of 186 district and charter schools improved their score on the district’s tool that helps parents examine school-level data and compare it with other Memphis-area schools in Tennessee’s largest district.

The district grades each school on a 1 to 5 scale, with 5 being the most favorable. The tool relies on state data on test scores, academic growth, graduation rates, ACT scores, and other factors like attendance and suspension rates. But the district’s scorecard differs from the state’s report card in that it only compares Memphis-area schools with each other. The state compares the district’s schools with others across Tennessee.

The scorecard is also the district’s main measurement of charter schools, which are managed by nonprofits using public funds. Only one charter school, Gateway University, fell below a 2, the district’s threshold for charter schools to remain in good standing. The school scored 1.64.

None of the high school’s students performed on grade level in math on the state’s test TNReady. Less than 2 percent scored proficient in English, making it the worst performing of 54 charter schools in the district.

Gateway University, now in its second year, is already under investigation for a slew of accusations including awarding students grades for a nonexistent class, hiring an employee who did not clear a background check, and having an inactive governing board. Shelby County Schools administrators have recommended the school board close the charter school. The board will likely hold a hearing Tuesday afternoon and vote that evening.

Last year, the district flagged seven low-performing charter schools at risk of closure, but all have improved academics and other measures enough this year to escape the district’s watchlist.

However, the state uses a different yardstick and has placed four of those charter school on its list of lowest performing schools. The school board delayed a vote in October to close those schools and has not released a new date for a decision. (The other three schools either closed, converted to a different governing model, or are still in operation.)

Even if those charter schools didn’t improve, the district could not have used last year’s state test scores as a factor in closing them. A series of technical failures of the online test led state lawmakers to ban use of the scores in judging schools.

To view individual school report cards, search here.