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.

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.”

reaction

Tennesseans reflect on Candice McQueen’s legacy leading the state’s schools

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen speaks with Arlington High School students during a school visit Tuesday that kicked off a statewide tour focused on student voices.

As Candice McQueen prepares to leave her role as Tennessee education commissioner in January, education leaders, advocates, and parents are weighing in on her impact on the state’s schools.

McQueen, 44, will become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching in mid-January after about four years under the outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam administration.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy. But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Here are reactions from education leaders and thinkers across the state:

Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and programs at Conexión Américas:

“It was her commitment to transparency, equity, and strong accountability that helped create a nationally recognized framework that places students at its center. Commissioner McQueen’s commitment to inclusion and engagement meant that our partners across the state had the opportunity to weigh in, share their experiences, and to ask hard questions and conduct real conversations with policymakers. Tennessee continues to lead the nation in innovation and improvement in K-12 education, and that is due in no small part to Commissioner McQueen’s leadership.”

Shawn Joseph, superintendent of Metro Nashville Public Schools, who in August co-penned a letter declaring “no confidence” in state testing:

“Since joining MNPS just over two years ago, I’ve had the pleasure of working closely with Commissioner McQueen and her team. She has been a strong advocate for Tennessee’s children, and I especially want to thank her for her support of the work that is taking place in Nashville. We send her our very best wishes — and our hearty congratulations for accepting her new role.”

JC Bowman, executive director of Professional Educators of Tennessee:

“Commissioner Candice McQueen is one of the most visible members of the Haslam Administration. She took over the department during a dark period in public education, and she made a significant difference within the department, particularly in the infrastructure. Those changes are not readily noticeable, as they include systems, processes and human capital. There are some exceptional people within the Department of Education working to make public education a success in our state. It is unfortunate that online testing continues to be a point of contention, but the state is moving in a positive direction. The next Commissioner of Education and the 111th Tennessee General Assembly will need to make adjustments in student assessment as we move forward.   We will always be grateful to Commissioner McQueen for her unwavering support of increasing teacher salaries and commitment to student literacy.”

Sharon Griffin, leader of the state-run Achievement School District:

“I have truly appreciated Dr. McQueen’s leadership and vision for the Department of Education.  From a distance and even closer in recent months, I have clearly seen the integrity and passion she brings to the work of improving student outcomes.  We have absolutely connected around our shared belief in how what’s in the best interest of students should guide our work.”

Jamie Woodson, CEO of SCORE:

“Tennessee students have been served very well by the steady and strong leadership of Commissioner McQueen. Her priorities have been the right ones for our children: improving student achievement, with a specific focus on reading skills; advocating for great teaching and supporting teachers to deliver high-quality instruction; and emphasizing that students and schools with the greatest needs must receive targeted focus and support in order to improve.”

Sarah Carpenter, executive director of parent advocacy group Memphis Lift:

“Memphis parents want decision makers to be accessible, and we appreciate that Commissioner McQueen made a point to build relationships and hear concerns from the entire community. Hopefully, the next education commissioner will bring parents to the table for conversations about our kids’ education.”

Mendell Grinter, leader of Memphis student advocacy group Campaign for School Equity:

“In our collaborative work and position in the educational landscape, we have witnessed firsthand how Commissioner McQueen has served as a tireless advocate for students and families in Tennessee. Over the past two years her leadership has inspired school leaders, and teachers alike to recognize the sense of urgency for improving school equity and academic outcomes for more students.”

Andy Spears, author of Tennessee Education Report and vocal critic of state test, TNReady:

“After what can charitably be called a rocky tenure at the helm of the Tennessee Department of Education, Candice McQueen has miraculously landed another high-level job. This time, she’ll take over as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, an organization apparently not at all concerned about the track record of new hires or accountability.”

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee Education Association:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”