New ballgame

At long last, phase-out of Common Core is official in Tennessee

The object of years of political tension, backroom posturing and exhaustive examination, the Common Core State Standards are now officially on their way out in Tennessee.

In their place: the Tennessee Academic Standards for math and English language arts, coming to K-12 classrooms across the state in the 2017-18 school year.

The State Board of Education voted unanimously Friday for a second and final time in favor of the new standards, culminating 18 months of review and revisions that began with an order from Gov. Bill Haslam, as he sought to mitigate legislative efforts to scrap the Common Core outright.

After all of the political squabbles, the vote seemed almost anticlimactic as members signed off on the transition with little discussion.

Tennessee is the latest state to drop the Common Core, at least in name. Like Indiana, one of the first states to back out, Tennessee didn’t toss the Common Core out entirely, and in fact used it as the backbone of the new benchmarks.

“The Common Core standards were our starting point, but the revisions we have made our significant, and significant enough that we consider them new standards,” said Sara Heyburn, the board’s executive director. “The formatting is different. We’ve dropped standards, we’ve added standards, we’ve made changes to existing standards.”

Standards are grade-specific and subject-specific learning goals that serve as the foundation on which other education decisions are made — from curriculum to assessments. In Tennessee, there are 1,106 standards for English and 930 for math.

The incoming standards can be viewed online, and state officials say the response has been positive.

“We’ve received a lot of supportive emails,” said Laura Encalade, the board’s policy director. “Teachers are excited.”

The board now passes the baton to the Tennessee Department of Education, which will implement the standards. That will involve teacher training and making sure assessments and textbooks are aligned to the new standards, as well as the state’s teacher preparation programs.

Common Core has been in all Tennessee classrooms since 2012 after being approved by the State Board in 2010 as part of the state’s Race to the Top application. This year’s standardized assessment, known as TNReady, is the first to be aligned with Common Core, and state officials have maintained that adjusting the assessment to the new standards won’t be difficult or expensive.

Presented as a high-quality set of standards, Common Core was developed in a multi-state process spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, with the Obama administration offering incentives to states that embraced them. But in Tennessee and many other states, it became the object of political tension stemming from charges of federal overreach, among other things, prompting Haslam in 2014 to order a standards review two years ahead of schedule.

The Tennessee legislature further modified the review process last spring. In total, the final review included two online public reviews, legislative input, and two panels comprised of mostly educators to work through all the feedback.

State Board member Carolyn Pearce, chairman Fielding Rolston, and Commissioner Candice McQueen at the State Board's workshop Thursday.
State Board of Education members and staff meet this week in Nashville.

During the most recent online review last fall, the board heard from more than 2,600 Tennesseans, mostly teachers. Overall, 82 percent of the reviews indicated that the revised standards should be kept. And in all, more than 200,000 reviews and comments have been considered in the 15-month process.

The revisions range from clarifying word changes to sweeping content changes, such as revised learning goals for high school algebra. In English language arts, there’s a new emphasis on speaking and listening standards to address the gap in the current standards that assumes all students come to kindergarten ready to write words and sentences. But the true test of the new standards will be in the classroom.

Now that the new math and English standards are approved, the State Board is focusing on reviews of science and social studies standards. The board recently selected educators to serve on the science standards recommendation committee, and the first public review of social studies standards concludes at the end of the month.

Encalade says the science standards overhaul is particularly exciting. The state has not updated its science standards since 2009, and those were considered subpar. Unlike with math and English, the board started from scratch.

Are you a math or ELA teacher? What do you think of the new standards? How do you think they will impact your classroom? Tell us in the comments or send us an email at [email protected]

union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.