On ESSA

Sen. Lamar Alexander on the nation’s new education law, and how it could shape Tennessee schools

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
From left: U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander (R-Tenn.) speaks with former Nashville superintendent Jesse Register about the Every Student Succeeds Act.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee has one underlying message to share about the federal education law he co-authored and co-sponsored last year in Congress: Leave decisions about schools up to local stakeholders.

Alexander, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, spoke Monday to an audience of Tennessee educators and policymakers at Belmont University in Nashville about the revised federal Elementary and Secondary Education Act, formerly called No Child Left Behind and now known as the Every Student Succeeds Act. The discussion was moderated by Belmont professor and former Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools Director Jesse Register.

Alexander knows Tennessee education from numerous angles. The son of a kindergarten teacher and elementary school principal in Maryville, he promoted standardized skills for students and merit pay for teachers as governor of Tennessee from 1979 to 1987. Prior to his 2002 election to the U.S. Senate, he also served as president of the University of Tennessee at Knoxville and U.S. education secretary under President George H.W. Bush.

Here’s what Alexander had to say about his experiences with education policy, and what he hopes is in store for his home state:

On why No Child Left Behind had to go

No Child Left Behind was passed under President George W. Bush’s administration in 2001, and signed into law in 2002. The law dramatically ramped up the federal government’s role in education and had a lofty goal: that all students in the United States would be “proficient” in math and reading by the 2013-2014 school year. Schools, states and districts that failed to comply with No Child Left Behind were penalized financially.

It quickly became apparent that most schools would be labeled as failures under this ambitious metric, and President Barack Obama in 2011 offered states waivers to the law. In order to receive a waiver, states were required to adopt rigorous “career-and-college” readiness standards. Though no specific set of standards was mandated, almost all states, including Tennessee, moved to adopt the Common Core State Standards.

The U.S. Department of Education also asked states applying for a waiver to focus on schools in the bottom 15 percent, and to create teacher evaluations at least in part based on teacher evaluations.

Alexander called the waivers overly prescriptive and said they created the appearance that the federal government was requiring states to do things they might have done anyway, significantly undermining certain reforms.

“The department was in effect acting as a national school board for the 42 states with waivers — 100,000 schools,” he said. “The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back. So it was important to get the balls back in the hands of the people who really should have it.”

On testing and accountability

The Every Student Succeeds Act mandates annual testing in math, English and science in grades 3-11. It also mandates states break down the test scores to look at achievement gaps among various subgroups of students by race, socioeconomic status, and even homeless students and students in foster care.

“There are more things you have to look at in your accountability system, but what you do about those things is up to you,” he said.

"The states were doing fine until the federal government stuck its nose into it and created a huge backlash on Common Core, a huge backlash on teacher evaluation and really set both those efforts back."

Alexander said he went into the process of rewriting No Child Left Behind thinking it would eliminate federally required tests. However, he changed his stance after realizing, he said, that people had fewer concerns about the federally required tests, and more concerns about what was being done with test results.

“The problem was Washington telling people what to do with those tests — states were using those tests for everything!” he said. “So schools were giving dozens of tests to prepare to that test. We found one district in Florida was giving 183 tests. But only 17 were required by the federal government.”

Like past federal regulations, the new act requires states to break out their lowest-performing schools. But it leaves the decisions on how the state identifies its lowest schools to the state, and the decisions about how to turn around those schools to districts. (The law will not interfere with state turnaround districts such as Tennessee’s Achievement School District, Alexander’s policy aides clarified after the discussion.)

On TNReady

Alexander charged that the state’s TNReady woes — including the state’s failed new online standardized test and numerous delays in shifting back to paper tests — are a direct result of federal meddling.

“The problem is the federal government stuck its nose in Tennessee and helped create a huge backlash against Common Core,” he said. “As a result, the legislature and the governor changed that. And when you change the academic standards and when you change the test, it’s very expensive and it takes awhile. So my view is, if the federal government had kept its nose out of it, Tennessee was doing just fine. And I think Tennessee will do fine in the future, as soon as it gets back on track.”

The Common Core, which was was developed in a multi-state process spearheaded by the Council of Chief State School Officers and the National Governors Association, was endorsed by the U.S. Department of Education.

Regarding presidential candidates who want to repeal the Common Core, Alexander said he was exasperated even by the inclusion of Common Core into recent presidential debates.

“We still have people running against it — even though it’s not there unless the governor and the legislature and the school board and the teachers want it to be there.” he said. “As of last December, there’s a law that says the federal government is not authorized to set standards.”

On next steps for Tennessee

"The exciting thing about (this law) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee."

“The exciting thing about (the Every Student Succeeds Act) is that it … recognizes that the path to better teaching, higher standards, higher achievement, lies through classroom teachers, the local school board, and the state of Tennessee,” Alexander said.

He urged state policymakers to submit a plan on what they want to do under the new law — not to wait for regulations from the U.S. Department of Education.

“Come up with your own ideas, and then fit it into the federal template,” he said.

Alexander warned educators not only to be on the lookout from federal interference, but state interference as well.

“If there’s overtesting in any Tennessee school, it’s Tennessee’s responsibility,” he said.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: