middle ground

Responding to educator concerns, Haslam proposes teacher evaluation changes

PHOTO: G. Tatter

Gov. Bill Haslam will ask lawmakers to reduce the weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations in the first year of tougher new tests, he announced today.

The proposal is one of four initiatives that Haslam announced that aim to support teachers throughout the state. A press release from his office says the initiatives reflect “direct feedback from educators across the state,” gathered during months of meetings with more than 150 Tennessee educators and an education forum he hosted this September in Nashville.

The initiatives — some of which would require legislative sign-off — would give teachers more input on how state tests are designed, connect educators with state policymakers, and temporarily diminish the weight of student test scores in teacher evaluations.

The Tennessee Education Association, the state teachers union, has called for all of those changes as part of ongoing criticism of Haslam’s education policies. The union filed two lawsuits challenging the state’s teacher evaluation rules, which currently require student test scores to count for 35 percent of a teacher’s final ratings.

Under the rules that Haslam proposed today, student test scores would account for only 10 percent of teacher evaluations in 2015-2016, before gradually rising back to 35 percent in 2018, the end of his term. Students will take overhauled tests for the first time that year, and state officials have warned that scores are likely to fall. Haslam is also asking legislators to reduce permanently the weight of test scores in the ratings of teachers whose classes do not culminate in state tests, from 25 percent from 15 percent.

Coming weeks after Haslam’s hard-driving state superintendent, Kevin Huffman, announced his resignation, the new initiatives reflect a softer tone from the governor toward educators. Haslam long stood by Huffman, a staunch advocate of test-based teacher evaluations, and he exhorted educators earlier this year, in an open letter that was not well received, to support the policy changes that Huffman spearheaded. Haslam also angered many teachers this spring when he reneged on a promise to raise their salaries.

“Educators are vital to continued progress in Tennessee, and we want to make sure we’re supporting them in meaningful ways and giving them the tools they need to lead their classrooms, schools and districts,” Haslam said in a statement today.

TEA President Barbara Gray said she was surprised by Haslam’s shift on evaluations. But she said the union’s position remains that the state should not use “value added” measures that aim to calculate teachers’ impact on student learning to rate teachers at all.

“He’s moving in the right direction,” Gray said.

Ultimately, it is the legislature, not Haslam, who has the authority to change teacher evaluation policy.

The other proposals are in his hands, and in fact, at least one — a Common Core-aligned state test for 2015-2016 — is already in the works, and widely known about. Although the state has used those standards since 2010, it is still administering standardized tests that are tied to old, less rigorous standards. Educators say the misalignment between standards and the state test, known as TCAP, causes confusion for teachers and students.

According to the press release, the Department of Education will release practice questions for the new test before it is administered; involve more than 100 teachers in the review and selection of test questions; and provide training for all teachers on the design of the assessment. The press release didn’t provide specifics on how the governor might achieve this in a year money is tight.

Representatives from both TEA and Professional Educators of Tennessee, another statewide teacher group, said they welcomed increased transparency around testing.

Samantha Bates, a PET official, said training about the new test could help teachers better prepare their students for it.

“The last time new standards were brought in, in 2009, and the test was changed, [teachers] were given sample questions but not trained on the design,” Bates said. Come test time, “we were shocked.”

The final proposal in the press release is the establishment of a cabinet of teachers from across the state that would meet with the governor quarterly.

Haslam has already addressed another issue that was highlighted at September’s education summit: skepticism about Common Core. In November, he unveiled a statewide review of the standards.

Although today’s press release referred to the state standards for math and English several times, the words “Common Core” never appear.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.