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 tn.tips@chalkbeat.org.

Momentum

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.

Only 45 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 45 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.

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

Priority schools

Struggling Tennessee schools find out Friday if they could face state intervention

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Tennessee's 2018 list of priority schools will chart the state's school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year. The state issued earlier priority lists in 2012 and 2014.

School communities hovering at the bottom on student achievement have been watching anxiously to see how they could fare under Tennessee’s new system for holding schools and districts accountable.

They’ll begin to find out on Friday when the Education Department releases its 2018 list of “priority schools” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the threshold for determining state investments such as extra money — and interventions as harsh as takeover and even closure.

The unveiling will come as the state Board of Education signs off on the list during a specially called meeting.

The 2018 priority list will be the state’s first in four years, as well as the first under a new accountability system developed in response to a 2015 federal education law. The roster will chart the state’s school improvement strategies, investments, and interventions for at least the next year.

Underperforming charter schools could face the toughest consequences. Those making the list will be shuttered next spring if they were authorized by local school districts. (Tennessee has state-authorized charters too, but those schools face closure only if they rank at the bottom in both 2018 and 2021.)

Calculating this year’s priority list — which initially was supposed to factor in the last three years of student test scores — has not been simple.

Because technical problems marred Tennessee’s return to online testing this spring, state lawmakers passed legislation ordering that the most recent scores can’t be used to place new schools on the priority list or move them into the state’s Achievement School District for assignment to charter networks. Instead, the newest priority schools are based mostly on student achievement from the two prior school years. However, a school on the 2014 list could potentially come off the new roster if its scores were good this year.

The legislation doesn’t mean that some repeat priority schools can’t be taken over by the state based on previous years’ test results. However, most of those are expected to continue under their current state-monitored school improvement plans. Schools that are new to the list will have to develop similar plans in collaboration with the Education Department.


READ: One state, three lists of troubled schools — another consequence of Tennessee’s testing mess


The newest priority lineup will be among a flurry of school accountability lists being released on Friday. The State Board also will sign off on “reward schools” that have achieved the highest performance or made extraordinary progress since last year, as well as a district roster that rates 145 Tennessee school systems based on a multitude of new measures under the state’s education plan as part of the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

You can find the list of schools at risk of making the newest priority list here.