Are Children Learning

Educators, not politicians, take the reins in developing Tennessee’s new academic standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
The Common Core standards for high school math adorn the walls of Christi Root's classroom at Monterey High School in Putnam County.

Though Tennessee’s review of the Common Core State Standards was borne out of fiery rhetoric and political maneuvering, the newest panel of reviewers in the process are quietly focusing on small changes to the once-controversial standards.

Members of the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee hope the revisions, which were proposed by a panel 42 educators appointed by the State Board of Education, will make the standards more developmentally appropriate for students and easier for educators to understand and teach.

The committee, which convened its second meeting Tuesday in Nashville, is scrutinizing the work of the revision panel of educators who spent the past four months culling through public feedback on the Common Core and revising and rewriting standards as needed. The public input was collected during a six-month online review open to all Tennessee residents and completed in April.

“This is an exciting time,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools and a member of the recommendation committee, whose members were appointed by Gov. Bill Haslam, Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey and House Speaker Beth Harwell. “It just really makes you proud that this kind of work is being done by educators across the state.”

That sentiment is in stark contrast to the political furor only a year ago over the Common Core, a set of K-12 academic standards in math and English language arts that set out what students should know and be able to do. Billed as a move to higher expectations, tougher tests and significant instructional shifts in the classroom, they were adopted in Tennessee in 2010 and implemented beginning in 2012. However, a political backlash erupted over charges of nationalized education reform at the expense of homegrown values and input. The hullabaloo led to the current multi-layered standards review process, including the work of the Standards Recommendation Committee, created under a bill approved by the legislature earlier this year.

The committee heard Tuesday from several educators who helped revise the standards over the summer, including Joseph Jones, math coordinator for Cheatham County Schools. He said it helped that most participants in the first period of public review last winter and spring wanted to keep most of the standards.

“That just told me that our initial thinking was right in that the standards were pretty good,” Jones said. “It wasn’t like we were starting from ground zero.”

All of the members of the newest committee are educators, like the teachers who did most of the heavy lifting in revisions.

There was no dissension during the first part of Tuesday’s meeting, which focused on the modified version of the English standards. The educator-reviewers kept most of the writing standards, even ones that had been considered too challenging for their grade level, but added new standards to help support teachers and students.

They also added standards related to literacy, a competency that has befuddled educators across Tennessee because the state’s poor reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged in recent years. And they rephrased standards to make them more understandable. For example, for standards that included suggestions of what materials teachers could use to teach the standard, the reviewers removed the examples.

“Let’s focus on the skill and the point,” said Susan Groenke, a professor of English education at the University of Tennessee, who helped revise the English standards. “We don’t want to tell teachers what literature to teach.”

Though the recommendation committee members and educator-reviewers all called upon their own classroom experiences, they were quick to refer to the public feedback, considered key to the review process.

Allowing the public to be involved will mitigate mistrust that surrounded the Common Core, said Sharen Cypress, dean of the College of Education and Behavioral Sciences at Freed-Hardeman University and a member of the Standards Recommendation Committee selected by Haslam.

“When people lack knowledge or information about what students are learning, they fear it,” she said. “There will be no problem implementing these standards.”

The educators’ revisions went online on Tuesday and will be open for another round of public comment for one month. Then, the 12-member Standards Recommendation Committee will consider the second round of public feedback before sending its recommendations to the State Board of Education about what the final standards should look like.

In addition to feedback from the public, the committee will receive a report on the standards from higher education officials in the next month. The proposed version of the standards will be previewed at public meetings across Tennessee.

While the review process was designed to be transparent, it has so many layers that stakeholders might need a map to keep up.

The process began last fall when the governor ordered the public review of the standards amid growing calls for repeal of the Common Core, a lynchpin of Tennessee’s education overhaul that began when the state threw its hat in the ring for the federal Race to the Top competition, and the money that went with it.

While Ramsay had predicted that Common Core would not survive during the last legislative session, it did. Through a compromise pounded out, at least in part through the work of Americans for Prosperity, a well-funded conservative advocacy group based in Washington, D.C., the legislature opted instead to insert an additional layer into the governor’s standards review process by creating the Academic Standards Recommendation Committee.

The committee was a concession to both Common Core supporters, who believed the standards were a rigorous improvement on the benchmarks used before 2010, and its ardent detractors, who viewed the standards as federal overreach. The compromise specified that Common Core be “reviewed and replaced,” a directive previously avoided by Haslam but championed by Common Core opponents, including Ramsey.

Are Children Learning

Chicago is sending more high schoolers to college — but how to get them to graduate?

PHOTO: Adeshina Emmanuel / Chalkbeat
Mayor Rahm Emanuel, CPS CEO Janice Jackson, and other city officials convened at Michele Clark Magnet High School in the Austin neighborhood to announce the latest college enrollment statistics.

Senior Tanariya Thompson, 17, said she and her friends at Michele Clark Magnet High School are constantly asking each other about where they want to go to college. But they’re not just talking, they’re doing their research, too.

“In a lot of our seminar classes I see more kids on the computers applying for colleges instead of just sitting there looking or saying, ‘I ain’t going to college,’” she said. “We’re serious: We want to go to a college so we can become somebody. Next week, I will have my top three.”

Chicago Public Schools released data today showing that more students than ever before are enrolling in college. The mayor and district officials announced the encouraging figures on the West Side, at Michele Clark High School, where students said they’ve seen more energy, excitement and urgency among their peers around the idea of enrolling at college.

The data shows that 1,000 more Chicago Public School graduates from the Class of 2017 enrolled in college compared with 2016, a 4.8 percent increase and the biggest one-year jump in nearly a decade.

Chicago still has a problem with public school graduates staying in and completing college. In 2016, just 18 percent of ninth graders were projected to attain a bachelor’s degree within six years of high school graduation, and four-year college graduation rates have remained pretty stagnant since 2009, according to a fall 2017 report by the UChicago Consortium on School Research. (The report didn’t calculate two-year degree attainment).

But Mayor Rahm Emanuel called the latest enrollment data “an incredible statement about where Chicago Public School students are,” adding that nearly 90 percent of high school freshmen were on track for graduation.

“Every time they walk around and say, ‘not those kids, not from that school, not that background, not that ZIP code, not that family’ — you come here to Michele Clark and you tell these kids that,” Emanuel said, knocking on the wooden podium before him for emphasis.  “You guys have proved them wrong every step of the way.”

From 2010 to 2017, the college enrollment rate increased from 53.7 percent to 64.6 percent, according to the school district.  Officials credited everything from partnerships with OneGoal and other organizations focused on getting kids to and through college, to a summer text messaging campaign to nudge graduates toward completing action items along the enrollment path, and scholarships to city colleges for students who attain a B average or higher.

They also noted a shift in perspective.

“I think it’s because people have become more serious,” said Michele Clark Principal Charles Anderson. “I’ve seen it in action with people doing more college trips, people getting out to scholarship fairs, students having a different mindset.”

From 2016 to 2017, college enrollment rates for African-American and Latino students improved by 2.3 percentage points and 7.2 percentage points, respectively, according to the school district. The African-American college enrollment rate increased from 55.4 percent in 2016 to 57.7 in 2017, and the Hispanic college enrollment rate leaped from 59 percent in 2016 to 66.2 percent in 2017, according to district data.

Flanked by Chicago schools chief Janice Jackson and City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado, Emanuel said, “it used to be as a system, we were done just getting you to high school graduation, and our responsibility was over,” but now it’s different. The mayor added, “the biggest transformation is the mindset not just of our kids, but of the system.”

“It’s why we’re also making sure we set a goal that by 2019, every child has a plan for what comes next,” Emanuel said, alluding to a new CPS graduation requirement that demands every student “has a meaningful planning conversation with an adult, and graduates with a plan to map out their future.”

The data indicate more students are enrolling at City College of Chicago.

The district said 5.8 percent more students enrolled at city colleges in 2017 compared with the previous year. Of district graduates who attended two-year colleges in 2017, 84.5 percent enrolled at city colleges compared with 78.7 the previous year, according to the district. City Colleges Chancellor Juan Salgado praised the mayor and schools chief’s leadership, saying CPS’ gains were strong steps toward officials’ goals of “a more inclusive economy,” in Chicago.

“We also want to make sure that each of you has in a role in this economy, whether it’s downtown, or in our health-care centers, or at a logistics company, or engineering or manufacturing company or a tech company,” Salgado told the students. “This city will have a place for you.”

Officials said the climbing college enrollment rate mirrored the increasing number of district students earning high school diplomas, and also reflected district students’ overall strong academic progress. Yet the percent of students who enrolled in college in 2015 and were still enrolled the following year, 72.3 percent of graduates, is actually down slightly compared with 2010, when it was 72.8 percent.

That — and the low rates of Chicago Public School students who eventually graduate with a two- or four-year degree — are worrisome figures.

Furthermore, African-American and Latino students and students with disabilities still graduate from high school, enroll in and graduate from college at lower rates than the general population. It’s a sobering reminder of inequities in the school system.

Officials acknowledged that work remains to get more students to and through college.

That point that wasn’t lost on Michele Clark senior Naquanis Hughes, 17, who wants to study business in college but is still undecided on where. Hughes said staff, students, and even alumni offer this encouragement about getting through the hard knocks that some students encounter in higher education:

“If you come to a hard place, don’t just fall down, don’t just give up, keep pushing yourself.”


Memphis moves from problem child to poster child on Tennessee’s new school improvement list

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Memphis has been a hub of local, state, federal, and philanthropic school improvement work since Tennessee issued its first list of "priority schools" in 2012.

The city that has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement work since 2012 got encouraging news on Friday as fewer Memphis schools landed on the state’s newest list of troubled schools.

Forty-three public schools in Memphis were designated “priority schools,” compared to 57 in 2014 and 69 in 2012.

Meanwhile, more schools in Nashville, Chattanooga, and Jackson were among the 82 placed on priority status, either for being ranked academically in the state’s bottom 5 percent or having a graduation rate of less than 67 percent. They are now eligible for a share of $10 million in state grants to pay for extra resources this year — but also interventions as harsh as state takeover or closure.

Half of the schools are new to the list but won’t face takeover or closure. Those school communities will begin working with the state education department to develop district-led improvement plans, a change from previous years.

Charter schools face the most dire consequences for landing on the list if they’re authorized by local districts. In Memphis, seven will close at the end of the school year, impacting more than 1,700 students:

  • City University School Girls Preparatory
  • Du Bois Elementary of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Arts Technology
  • Du Bois Middle of Leadership Public Policy
  • Granville T. Woods Academy of Innovation
  • Memphis Delta Preparatory
  • The Excel Center (adult education)

Two other priority-status high schools already closed their doors in May. They were operated by former city schools superintendent Willie Herenton’s W.E.B. DuBois charter network.

This was the first priority list issued under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable and is based mostly on student test scores from 2015-16 and 2016-17. No negative results from last school year were factored in because of emergency state legislation passed to address widespread technical problems that disrupted Tennessee’s return to online testing in the spring.

The distribution of more priority schools beyond Memphis was notable.

“Shelby County in particular has had some momentum … (but) we have other districts that have not had that same momentum,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen during a morning call with reporters.

She praised Shelby County Schools for “changing the landscape” in Memphis by closing at least 15 priority schools since 2012 and for creating its own Innovation Zone to improve other schools. Another catalyst, she said, was the 2012 arrival of Tennessee’s Achievement School District, which has taken over dozens of low-performing Memphis schools and assigned them to charter networks, spurring a sense of urgency.

But student gains have been better under the iZone than within the state-run district. Of the 25 priority schools absorbed by the iZone, 16 have moved off of priority status, compared to eight that have been taken over by the state. 

“When you really try and find great school leaders and great teachers, when you extend time, when you focus on professional development, and when you also focus on accountability, good things are going to happen in schools,” said Brad Leon, a Shelby County Schools strategist who supervised the iZone in its early years.

Of the 43 Memphis schools on the newest list, less than two-thirds are within Shelby County Schools, and five of those could be eligible for state takeover, according to Antonio Burt, who oversees priority school work for Tennessee’s largest district. He declined to name them.

The state Board of Education signed off on the priority list on Friday during a special meeting. The board also approved its 2018 list of “reward schools” to acknowledge a fifth of the state’s public schools for student achievement and academic growth in the last year.

Tennessee’s priority list is issued every three years, and this was the third one since 2012. But unlike with the two earlier rosters, 2018 priority status does not necessarily put a school on track for state takeover. That’s now an option of last resort as the state seeks to be more collaborative with local school leaders.

PHOTO: Ruma Kumar
Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson visits classrooms and students in 2015. He’s led Tennessee’s largest district since 2013.

“Our new school improvement model takes a student-focused, evidence-based approach to tailor interventions for our priority schools,” said McQueen, who promised to work closely with school communities to provide new resources. 

Those new resources will be welcomed in Memphis, where Shelby County Schools has absorbed the cost of continuing interventions even as federal and state grants expire.

“At the end of the day, we’re very proud of the work, but we’re not satisfied,” said Superintendent Dorsey Hopson. “We’re going to keep on working.”

In Nashville, Mayor David Briley called the increase from 15 to 21 priority schools “unacceptable” and promised to make swift improvements in the state’s second largest school system. The city is also home to two state-run schools placed on priority status.

Below is a sortable 2018 list, and you can learn more about the state’s 2018 accountability work here.