who's who

Here are the players helping to draft Tennessee’s transition plan to the new federal education law

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

An array of educators, researchers and advocates will help the State Department of Education plan for a new era in Tennessee education dictated by the new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA).

While most of Tennessee’s existing laws and practices are already in line with ESSA requirements, the law provides flexibility for the state to reinvent, or at least tweak, its education system. Department officials say they’re eager to take that opportunity.

“Tennessee’s schools and students have made tremendous strides over the past few years to become the fastest improving state in the nation,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said in a press release Wednesday announcing the list of stakeholders. “We believe bringing a broad set of perspectives into that conversation — and ultimately keeping students at the center of every decision — will help us refine and capitalize on what is working.”

The department established six working groups focusing on standards and assessment, accountability, support for English learners, educator support and effectiveness, school improvement, and student support.

Among group members from Shelby County Schools are Chief Academic Officer Heidi Ramirez and Innovation Zone leaders Brad Leon and Sharon Griffin. Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson is also on the list.

In addition to feedback from the six new panels, the Tennessee Department of Education last month launched a new listening tour to gather feedback from educators across the state related to key components of ESSA, as well as a website where the public can provide input on the state’s new plan.

This department will share a draft of the ESSA transition plan for further public feedback in the fall, and finalize it next spring. All provisions of ESSA will go into effect in August 2017.

Here is the list of working group leads and members recruited:

Standards and Assessment

State leads:

  • Laura Encalade, director of policy and research, State Board of Education
  • Nate Schwartz, chief research and strategy officer, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Tracey Beckendorf-Edou, executive director of teaching and learning, Oak Ridge Schools
  • Michael Cohen, president, Achieve
  • Patricia Griggs-Merriweather, principal, Sheffield Elementary, Shelby County Schools
  • Brad Leon, chief of strategy and innovation, Shelby County Schools
  • Cindy Massaro, parent, Rutherford County Schools
  • Mary Cypress Metz, chief of staff, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)
  • Philip Oldham, president, Tennessee Technological University
  • Eddie Pruett, director of schools, Gibson County Special School District
  • Robert Sharpe, assistant superintendent, Hamilton County Schools
  • Cathy Whitehead, third-grade teacher and 2015-16 Tennessee Teacher of the Year, West Chester Elementary School, Chester County School System
  • Maria Zapata, family engagement manager, Conexión Américas


State leads:

  • Mary Batiwalla, executive director of accountability, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Nakia Towns, assistant commissioner of data and research, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Lyle Ailshie, director of schools, Kingsport City Schools
  • Ashley Aldridge, principal, Jack Anderson Elementary School, Sumner County Schools
  • Dawn Bradley, special education supervisor, Wilson County Schools
  • Maya Bugg, chief executive officer, Tennessee Charter School Center
  • Karla Coleman Garcia, policy manager, Conexión Américas
  • Corey Kelly, principal, Sherwood Middle School, Shelby County Schools
  • Shawn Kimble, director of schools, Lauderdale County Department of Education
  • Phyllis Nichols, president and chief executive officer, Knoxville Area Urban League
  • Sharon Roberts, chief strategy fficer, State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)
  • Clint Sattler, supervisor of research and evaluation, Knox County Schools
  • Ronald Woodard, principal, Maplewood High School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Daniel Zavala, state policy director, StudentsFirst Tennessee

Support for English Learners

State leads:

  • Jan Lanier, director of English learner, immigrant, and migrant programs, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Joann Runion, coordinator of English learner instruction and intervention, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Eben Cathey, advocacy director, Tennessee Immigrant and Refugee Rights Coalition (TIRRC)
  • Laura Delgado, program director for Increasing Teacher Diversity, Lipscomb University
  • Nona Hall, Title III director, Rutherford County Schools
  • Dale Lynch, director of schools, Hamblen County Department of Education
  • Gini Pupo-Walker, senior director of education policy and strategic Growth, Conexión Américas
  • Angela Rood, ESL teacher and interventionist, Dyersburg City Schools and Board Member for Tennessee Teachers of Speakers of Other Languages (TNTESOL)
  • Sarah Sandefur, associate professor in the School of Education, University of Tennessee at Chattanooga
  • Dana Siegel, ESL teacher, Sycamore Elementary School, Collierville Schools
  • Samantha Singer, English teacher and chair of the English department, John Overton High School, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Kevin Stacy, executive director of the Office of English Learners, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Educator Support and Effectiveness

State leads:

  • Paul Fleming, assistant commissioner of teachers and leaders, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator talent, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Kasar Abdulla, director of community relations, Valor Collegiate Academies, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Robert Blair, president, Greater Nashville Alliance of Black School Educators
  • Bethany Bowman, director of professional learning, Professional Educators of Tennessee
  • Tim Haney, principal, Peabody High School, Trenton Special School District
  • Mark Hogan, professor and Education Department chairman, Belmont University
  • Jeanine Johnson, chief human resources officer, Clarksville-Montgomery County School System
  • Chris Marczak, director of schools, Maury County Public Schools
  • Bill O’Donnell, coordinator of instructional advocacy, Tennessee Education Association
  • Heidi Ramirez, chief academic officer, Shelby County Schools
  • Shannon Streett, sixth-grade English and science teacher, Woodbury Grammar School, Cannon County School District
  • Mike Winstead, director of schools, Maryville City Schools

School Improvement

State leads:

  • Malika Anderson, superintendent, Achievement School District
  • Rita Fentress, director of school improvement, Tennessee Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Tait Danhausen, school director, Cameron College Prep, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Sharon Griffin, iZone regional superintendent, Shelby County Schools
  • Joey Hassell, principal, Ripley High School, Lauderdale County Department of Education
  • Shannon Jackson, executive director of curriculum and instruction, Knox County Schools
  • Beverly Miller, supervisor of curriculum and instruction 9-12, Maury County Public Schools
  • Cardell Orrin, Memphis director, Stand for Children
  • Elaine Swafford, executive director, Chattanooga Girls Leadership Academy
  • Greg Thompson, program officer, The Pyramid Peak Foundation
  • Cindy White, principal, Vine Middle Magnet School, Knox County Schools
  • Clarissa Zellars, director of school improvement strategy, Metro Nashville Public Schools

Student Support

State leads:

  • Mike Herrmann, executive director of conditions for learning, Tennessee Department of Education
  • Danielle Mezera, assistant commissioner for college, career, and technical Education, Department of Education

Working group members:

  • Brian Bass, principal, Renaissance High School, Williamson County Schools
  • Laura Brimm, principal, Dyer County High School, Dyer County Schools
  • Nicole Cobb, executive director of school counseling, Metro Nashville Public Schools
  • Nancy Dishner, president and chief executive officer, Niswonger Foundation
  • Kelly Drummond, chief administrative and human resources officer, Boys and Girls Clubs of the Tennessee Valley
  • Elaine Jackson, coordinated school health director, Stewart County Schools
  • Troy Kilzer II, director of schools, Chester County School System
  • Theresa Nixon, director of instructional technology, Knox County Schools
  • Greg Wallace, supervisor of safety and mental health, Johnson City Schools

Signed and sealed

Federal officials deny New York testing waivers but sign off on its plan for judging schools

PHOTO: Monica Disare
State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia and Board of Regents Chancellor Betty Rosa

New York cannot create special testing rules for students with disabilities or those still learning English, the U.S. education department said Tuesday.

The decision to deny New York the testing waivers it had sought came on the same day that the department signed off on the state’s plan to evaluate and support schools under the new federal education law. The plan, required by the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, was the product of more than a year of writing and revision by state officials and over a dozen public hearings.

The federal education department approved most of New York’s vision which aims to move beyond test scores when evaluating schools and places new emphasis on whether schools have the resources they need though they required some changes, which the department first proposed in feedback last month.

One of the revisions affects the way schools are rated when many students refuse to take the state exams. Meanwhile, the federal reviewers did not appear to require changes that could have lowered the state’s graduation rate, which some experts had said was possible under the new law.

Here’s what you need to know about the federal government’s feedback to New York’s plan:

1.) Two testing waivers were rejected

At the same time that New York submitted its ESSA plan, it also requested three testing-related waivers — two of which federal officials shot down on Tuesday.

One of the rejected waivers would have allowed students with significant cognitive disabilities to take tests below their grade level, which New York officials said would have resulted in more accurate measures of their progress. However, special-education advocates and the New York City education department had raised alarms about that request, saying it could lower standards for those students and potentially violate federal law. In denying the request, the U.S. education department appeared to validate those concerns.

The other denied waiver had asked that schools not be held accountable for the English test scores of newly arrived immigrants until after those students had been in the U.S. for three years. Without that exemption, school evaluations will factor in the English scores of students who are still learning that language after their second year in the country.

New York did, however, receive approval for one waiver to allow middle-school students to skip the state’s annual math or science exams if they instead sit for the Regents exams in those subjects, which are required to earn a typical high-school diploma.

2.) A change for schools with high opt-out rates

New York must treat students who boycott state tests as having failed them when evaluating schools’ performance though state officials don’t expect that to trigger interventions for high-performing schools with high opt-out rates.

In its ESSA plan, New York officials had wanted to make sure that schools were not penalized if a large number of students sit out the state exams — as 19 percent of students across the state did last year. To that end, they created two accountability measures — one that counted boycotted exams against a school’s passing rate and another that did not — and allowed schools to use the higher of the two ratings.

But the U.S. education department blocked that methodology, instead requiring the state to treat boycotted exams as the equivalent of failed tests when judging their academic performance. (They are still allowed to use the other metric to evaluate schools, just not under strict federal guidelines for what count as academic measures.)

State education department officials said Wednesday that the changes will like result in slightly lower ratings for schools with high opt-out rates. However, they said they do not expect those schools to face serious consequences as long as they perform well on other metrics.

Lisa Rudley, a founding member of New York State Allies for Public Education, which helped organize the opt-out movement in New York, said she expects the state to protect schools where many students boycott the exams.

Otherwise, she predicted, “There’s going to be outrage.”

3.) New York’s graduation rate is in the clear for now

Federal reviewers could have forced the state to lower its graduation rate, but they appear to have decided against that drastic step.

ESSA requires states to include only diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students when calculating their graduation rates. Several experts thought New York’s “local diploma,” a less rigorous diploma awarded to only about four percent of students, did not meet that requirement.

If federal officials had agreed, the state could have been forced to recalculate its graduation rate and possibly eliminate some newly created options that allow more students to graduate with local diplomas. However, the officials appear to have let New York’s graduation rate stand with the local diploma in place.

a closer look

Fact-check: Weighing 7 claims from Betsy DeVos’s latest speech, from Common Core to PISA scores

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy

In a speech Tuesday at the American Enterprise Institute, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos made the case for giving up on the type of school improvement efforts favored by Presidents Obama and George W. Bush. In its place, she argued, the federal government should encourage tech-infused innovation and school choice.

Looking to weigh her claims? Here’s a closer look at a few.

1. DeVos: “The most recent Program for International Student Assessment, or PISA, report, with which you are all familiar, has the U.S. ranked 23rd in reading, 25th in science and 40th in math. And, you know this too: it’s not for a lack of funding. The fact is the United States spends more per pupil than most other developed countries, many of which perform better than us in the same surveys.”

This stats are accurate, but may not be fair. The U.S. does spend more per pupil, in raw dollars, than most other countries. But international comparisons of these sorts are complicated, and American spending is similar to countries with similarly sized economies.

As we’ve written previously, it’s also misleading to say that more money wouldn’t help American schools. A number of studies have found precisely the opposite, including a recent one showing how cuts to schools during the Great Recession lowered student test scores and graduation rates.

2. DeVos appeared to refer to Common Core as “federal standards,” saying, “Federally mandated assessments. Federal money. Federal standards. All originated in Washington, and none solved the problem.”

That’s off the mark. As advocates for the Common Core never tire of pointing out, the creation of the standards was driven by state leaders through the National Governors Association and Council of Chief State School Officers, with the support of several private organizations, most prominently the Gates Foundation. (Gates is a funder of Chalkbeat.) As DeVos notes earlier in the speech, the Obama administration did incentivize states to adopt the standards, though, and Secretary Arne Duncan was a vocal champion.

3. DeVos: “At the U.S. Department of Education, Common Core is dead.”

This is true, in a sense — the Every Student Succeeds Act, which passed before DeVos became secretary, prohibits the federal government from pushing states to adopt specific standards. But DeVos doesn’t control what academic standards states adopt, and most states are still using use some version of the Common Core.

4. DeVos: “Throughout both initiatives, the result was a further damaged classroom dynamic between teacher and student, as the focus shifted from comprehension to test-passing. This sadly has taken root, with the American Federation of Teachers recently finding that 60 percent of its teachers reported having moderate to no influence over the content and skills taught in their own classrooms. Let that sink in. Most teachers feel they have little – if any — say in their own classrooms.”

The statistic DeVos pulled from this poll is accurate, though her framing may be more negative than the results suggest. It asked teachers to rate how much control they had over “setting content, topics, and skills to be taught.” The most common answer was “a great deal” (at about 40 percent of teachers), and another 30 percent or so chose moderate control. Twenty percent said minor, and only 10 percent said they had no control.

5. DeVos: “To a casual observer, a classroom today looks scarcely different than what one looked like when I entered the public policy debate thirty years ago. Worse, most classrooms today look remarkably similar to those of 1938 when AEI was founded.”

This statement is misleading but has a grain of truth. We examined a similar claim when the TV program produced by the XQ prize argued that schools haven’t changed in 100 years. In short, DeVos is right that many basic trappings of school — a building, a teacher at the front of the class, a focus on math, reading, science, and social studies — have remained consistent. But this glosses over some substantial changes since 1938: the end of legally mandated race-based segregation, the rise of standards for special education students, and the expanded use of testing, among others.

6. DeVos: “While we’ve changed some aspects of education, the results we all work for and desire haven’t been achieved. The bottom line is simple: federal education reform efforts have not worked as hoped.”

This is a big assertion, and it’s always tricky to judge whether something in education “worked.” As DeVos pointed out, a federal study showed the federal school turnaround program didn’t help students. She also highlighted relatively flat international test scores, and others have pointed to flat national scores in recent years.

That said, there were substantial gains in math in fourth and eighth grade, particularly in the early 2000s.

But raw trend data like this can’t isolate the effects of specific policies, particularly when other unrelated changes — like the Great Recession — can also make a big difference. Studies on No Child Left Behind have shown positive results in math, but little or no effect in reading. An analysis of Race to the Top was inconclusive.

One bright spot: a program that paid performance bonuses through the federal Teacher Incentive Fund led to small test score bumps, according to a recent study by DeVos’s Department of Education.

7. In response to a question about school performance in Detroit, DeVos said she shouldn’t be credited — or blamed — for the results in the city. “You’re giving me a whole lot of credit to suggest that whatever happened in Detroit was as a result of what I did,” she said. “We have been long-term supporters of continued reform and choice in Michigan.”

This one is up for debate, though it’s clear DeVos has long been a major player in Detroit’s education scene. She has supported charter schools, which educate about half the public school students in that city, and been a major donor to Republican politicians and causes in the state. She started an influential advocacy group in the state called Great Lakes Education Project.

She was also a key opponent of a commission that would more tightly oversee Detroit charter schools, which ultimately failed amid GOP opposition. It’s clear she has had an impact in the city, but that doesn’t mean she’s gotten everything she’s wanted: in 2000, Michigan voters rejected a DeVos-funded effort to fund vouchers for private schools. She also hasn’t gotten her wish that Detroit have a traditional school district eliminated entirely.