Are Children Learning

Commercial about state educational standards makes Super Bowl splash

A 30-second commercial created by a Nashville-based nonprofit educational advocacy group says it features "real Tennessee moms" calling for "results not rhetoric," including higher academic standards, more accountability and more choices for parents.

Amid much-hyped television commercials about cars, candy, beer and digital products, many Super Bowl viewers in Tennessee noticed that an educational advocacy group went on the offense during Sunday’s big game.

Tennesseans for Student Success, a Nashville-based nonprofit organization, aired a commercial during the football championship that pointedly referred to the fight brewing in the Tennessee General Assembly over whether to repeal the Common Core State Standards, which Tennessee – along with most other states – use for math and reading.

The 30-second commercial told viewers that “some politicians want to drive us back to the days of lower standards, less accountability and fewer choices for parents,” and implored Tennesseans to “tell your legislators to focus on results — not rhetoric.”

Local ads that played on Nashville’s NBC affiliate during the game went for between $60,000 to $70,000. The ad also played in the Knoxville market during the Super Bowl, and will run in the Memphis market during the next two weeks. In addition, the group is running a radio ad with a similar message in markets across the state.

Tennesseans for Student Success is led by Jeremy Harrell, a former campaign officer for Gov. Bill Haslam and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander.

During his first term in office, Haslam helped usher in the Common Core and more rigorous accountability measures such as test score-based teacher evaluations. However, Common Core has since come under fire from many state legislators who view the standards as federal overreach because of its ties to federal education grant programs under the Obama administration.

The media campaign by Tennesseans for Student Success is one of the most visible efforts to counter those arguments, although it does not specifically refer to Common Core. According to spokeswoman Ashley Elizabeth Graham, the 4-month-old organization is “committed to advancing and protecting the gains Tennessee’s students have made our last several years.”

She said the Super Bowl was the perfect time to introduce a wider audience to the organization and its message.

“What a better time to reach Tennessee citizens than during the Super Bowl, when people are actually watching commercials!” she wrote in an email responding to Chalkbeat’s inquiry. “We’ve said all along that we would use every tool in our toolbox to protect and advance Tennessee’s education gains.”

The commercial first began airing on Jan. 16, but Graham said the Super Bowl airing prompted an increase in traffic on the organization’s website. On YouTube, the commercial had logged more than 1,100 views as of midday Tuesday.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

“Education conversations are happening around kitchen tables across the state, and this effort was successful because we got to come into those homes and living rooms and be a part of that education conversation,” Graham said.

The commercial was financed with the help of the Tennessee Association of Business Foundation, a branch of the Tennessee Chamber of Commerce tasked with creating a better workforce for Tennessee businesses. The foundation has received funding from the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, which supports Common Core as a “roadmap of clear expectations for college readiness.”

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. Before they were adopted by most states, state standards varied widely across the nation. The initiative was launched in 2009 by state leaders, including governors and state education commissioners from 48 states, two territories and the District of Columbia. The goal was to create consistent, real-world learning goals to ensure all students, regardless of where they live, are graduating high school prepared for college, career and life. However, three states — Oklahoma, Indiana, and South Carolina — have since repealed the standards, and Tennessee lawmakers are considering a proposal to repeal them as well.

Have you seen the Tennessee commercial? Did it sway your thinking about Common Core? Share your reader comments below.

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more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.