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 gtatter@chalkbeat.org.

Follow us on Twitter: @GraceTatter, @chalkbeattn.

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Speaking Up

Letters to J.B.: Here’s what 10 Illinois educators said governor-elect Pritzker should prioritize

PHOTO: Keri Wiginton/Chicago Tribune/MCT via Getty Images

As governor-elect and national early childhood education advocate J.B. Pritzker assembles his transition team and builds out his early agenda, we asked educators to weigh in with items he should consider.

Here are 10 of their responses, which range from pleas for more staffing to more counseling and mental health services. Letters have been edited only for clarity and length. Got something to add? Use the comment section below or tell us on Twitter using #PritzkerEdu.

From: A non-profit employee who works with schools in the city and suburbs

Letter to J.B.: I work with a number of students from the City of Chicago and sadly most of them lack basic skills. Most of the students lack the ability to read and write properly, and perform below grade level. It is alarming how many students don’t have critical-thinking and analytical skills. The lack of education in low-income and minority population will hurt our city and state in years to come.

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From: A youth organizer at Morrill Elementary, a K-8 school on Chicago’s Southwest Side

Letter to J.B.: Morrill School has suffered from constant turnover due to an unstable Chicago Public Schools environment that cares more about upholding its own self-interest than the people it should be serving. We need representatives that will advocate for what communities say they need!

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From: A music teacher at a Chicago charter school

Letter to J.B.: I work at a charter school and I don’t think we are doing the best we can for our kids. Our school’s policies are too harsh and dehumanizing.

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From: A Chicago charter school social worker

Letter to J.B.: We’ve cut mental health services throughout the city and that has crippled us. Parents have a hard time getting jobs and having enough money to supply basic needs.

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From: A Chicago principal

Letter to J.B.: My school is 100 percent free- and reduced-price lunch-eligible, or low-income population. We are a middle years International Baccalaureate school. Our children were once were the lowest performing in the area and now we are a Level 1-plus school. Our school was on the closing list back in 2005 when I took over.

But now we are an investment school. Teachers are dedicated and work hard. We need funding for a new teacher to keep classes small and additional funds to purchase multiple resources to continue and strengthen overall academics. We have a vested interest in educating all of our children!

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From: A teacher at A.N. Pritzker Elementary in Chicago’s Wicker Park neighborhood

Letter to J.B.: Great kids. Great staff. No librarian. Extremely poor special education services. No substitute teachers. No time for planning. No time for anyone to provide mental health services for those in need.

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From: A teacher at Whitney Young High School on Chicago’s Near West Side

Letter to J.B.: Every teacher knows that well over 90 percent of the students with academic problems have serious problems at home and in their neighborhoods. In the suburbs, social worker and psychologist staffing levels are often five to 10 times what they are here in the city, where kids are dealing with way more challenges, not less. If you’re looking for bang for your buck, fund psychologists and social workers!

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From: A teacher in the Galesburg CUSD 205

Letter to J.B.: Our school is diverse in all definitions of the word. We have a diverse population in terms of race, money, and ability. We currently don’t have the money to keep all of the schools in our district open and are in the process of closing some of the buildings in order to get the others up to code and comfortable; many of our schools don’t even have air conditioning.

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From: A teacher at Kiefer School, a Peoria school that educates children with severe behavioral and learning challenges

Letter to J.B.: We work with students with behavioral and mental challenges who need more help getting mental health services. We’ve had children deflected from being hospitalized due to no beds being available.

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From: A teacher at Unity Junior High School in Cicero

Letter to J.B.: People often think that our school is “bad,” but the truth is, we have so many staff and students that work hard every day to bring positive change.

Who's In Charge

Who’s in charge of rethinking Manual High School’s ‘offensive’ mascot?

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
Manual High School is one of three Indianapolis schools managed by Charter Schools USA.

As other schools in Indiana and across the nation have renounced controversial team names and mascots in recent years, Emmerich Manual High School in Indianapolis has held onto the Redskins.

One of the reasons why the school hasn’t given it up, officials said during a state board of education meeting this week, is because it’s unclear whose responsibility it would be to change the disparaging name.

Is it the obligation of the district, Indianapolis Public Schools, which owns the building and granted the nickname more than 100 years ago?

Is it the duty of the charter operator, Charter Schools USA, which currently runs the school?

Or is it the responsibility of the state, which took Manual out of the district’s hands in 2011, assuming control after years of failing grades?

“I don’t care who’s responsible for it,” said Indiana State Board of Education member Gordon Hendry, as he acknowledged the uncertainty. “I think it’s high time that that mascot be retired.”

The mascot debate resurfaced Wednesday as state officials considered the future of Manual and Howe high schools, which are approaching the end of their state takeover. Charter School USA’s contracts to run the schools, in addition to Emma Donnan Middle School, are slated to expire in 2020, so the schools could return to IPS, become charter schools, or close.

Manual is only one of two Indiana schools still holding onto the Redskins name, a slur against Native Americans. In recent years, Goshen High School and North Side High School in Fort Wayne have changed their mascots in painful processes in which some people pushed back against getting rid of a name that they felt was integral to the identity of their communities.

Knox Community High School in northern Indiana also still bears the Redskins name and logo.

“The term Redskins can be absolutely offensive,” said Jon Hage, president and CEO of Charter Schools USA. “We’ve had no power or authority to do anything about that.”

He suggested that the state board needs to start the process, and that the community should have input on the decision.

An Indianapolis Public Schools official told Chalkbeat the district didn’t have clear answers yet on its role in addressing the issue.

Even if the state board initiates conversations, however, member Steve Yager emphasized that he does not want the state to make the decision on the mascot.

“We don’t have to weigh in on that,” Yager said. “I feel like that’s a local decision.”