Who Is In Charge

Legislature debates whether grading schools boosts transparency or stigmatizes poorly resourced schools

Tennessee schools might soon come under the same grading system as the students they serve.

The state Senate unanimously passed a bill Wednesday that would assign letter grades to schools based on a combination of data including student growth and proficiency rates on state tests and ACT scores. A House committee approved the measure a day earlier.

For supporters, it’s common sense. Letter grades are easy for parents to understand when trying to determine how their child’s school is performing, or where they should send their child to a school.

Critics, however, say letter grades lack nuance. Instead of clearly identifying the quality of a school, letter grades could oversimplify their status and circumstances, further stigmatizing schools and communities with low-income populations.

During discussion Tuesday in the House Education Administration and Planning Committee, Rep. Johnnie Turner (D-Nashville) said giving a school a failing grade would be the equivalent of branding the school with a scarlet letter.

“I can see the headlines now: Blank Blank School — F!” she said. “I would ask that we not add another layer of embarrassment, of defeat, to those communities that serve particularly the poorest of the students.”

Rep. Craig Fitzhugh (D-Ripley) echoed Turner’s concerns, predicting that well-resourced schools would receive As while schools with significantly less resources would get Ds and Fs.

“What I’m afraid we’re going to have is the clearly A schools and then we’re going to have schools that are actually improving, that are actually doing a wonderful job based on the tax base, based on the amount of poverty in their community, and they might not be graded as high,”  Fitzhugh said. “I think that would just be a slap in the face to the students, the parents, to the leaders in the community, to the citizens of the community.”

Tennessee already is heralded for its detailed school report cards, which are accessible online. Currently, the report cards list school information ranging from proficiency rates to racial achievement gaps. But letter grades would add another layer of simplicity for Tennesseans curious about their schools, said Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin), who introduced the bill the House.

“I think it’s just good to have a macro-view,” in addition to the existing detailed information, Casada said.

Casada, who represents one of Tennessee’s wealthiest districts, said he understands that poverty and lack of resources would be obstacles for some schools to achieve a good grade, but that these are the realities of our world today. A businessman, he compared the challenges to how he is expected to make sales, even during an economic recession. “When we’re graded, when we’re analyzed, it puts us beyond our limits,” he said.

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.

The Foundation for Excellence in Education, founded by Republican presidential candidate and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush to promote education reform, has been at the forefront of the push for school letter grades. Florida began grading its schools in 1999 as part of a wave of changes designed to increase school accountability. Testifying last week before Tennessee’s Senate Education Committee, Christy Hovanetz, a policy fellow for the advocacy group, said the simple addition of letter grades to school report cards helped raise the quality of schools across Florida. “Our A-to-F focus really provided focus and guidance on where our schools should be heading in the future,” she said.

The group has advocated for passage of similar legislation in 16 other states.

Some states have experienced a backlash. In North Carolina, educators say the letter grades don’t accurately reflect school quality as much as a school neighborhood’s socioeconomic makeup. However, many politicians say they are pleased with the attention the grades are drawing to high-need schools.

Here’s what you had to say when we asked about the bill on Twitter:

Now that you’ve read about the debate, what do you think? Tell us here:

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”