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Here’s what charter school advisers want to see change in Memphis

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
State Rep. G.A. Hardaway asks the State Board to reject the Shelby County board's decision to close three Memphis charter schools in May 2016.

The national charter group that Shelby County Schools is considering hiring already has evaluated the district on its charter sector management — and the results paint a picture of a district with deficient oversight.

The National Association of Charter School Authorizers presented its findings to Tennessee’s largest district, home to about half of the state’s charter schools, in February. But the report — which praises the district’s efforts so far while also calling for significant changes — was not made publicly accessible.

Now, the Shelby County Schools board is set to vote Tuesday on a $152,000 grant from the Hyde Family Foundation to implement some of the group’s recommendations, which center on building systems to reward and replicate schools that boost students’ test scores. (Hyde also supports Chalkbeat. Learn more about our funding here.)

Here are five things NACSA concluded that Shelby County Schools isn’t doing well enough when it comes to charter schools.

Decisions about which schools should open don’t weigh academics enough.

Reviewing the last three years of new charter applications, NACSA found that district evaluators’ “evidence to substantiate ratings are sparse.” Evaluators focused more on whether the operators’ plans complied with state law than on whether they were likely to lead to high-performing schools. The critique is especially relevant given the latest round of charter appeals to the state, where the two national networks denied by the school board defended their academic record in Memphis.

Policies to guide charter school decision-making are inconsistent or nonexistent.

When it comes to existing charters wanting to expand, the state and Shelby County Schools do not have criteria on what makes a charter operator ready to add more schools. When problems arise in charter performance, the district’s policies are not clear whether the district or the charter operator should form a plan to correct them. And the district does not systematically track grievances, making it hard to use them consistently in deciding how to handle schools that are struggling. NACSA wants the district to develop all of these policies, which charter authorizers with strong records typically have.

There’s especially not enough academic oversight of charters.

Beyond state test scores, “the district has not established specific standards for performance,” the report said. Inconsistent standards have led to confusion among charter operators, coming to a head this spring when three charter schools challenged the district’s decision to revoke their right to operate. The district said the schools’ performance did not merit continued operation, but the charter operators argued that they had not agreed to any particular performance goals. NACSA wants Shelby County to prioritize following through on plans to create a “school performance framework” that lays out these expectations going forward.

The district treats all charter schools alike, regardless of how well they’re doing.

NACSA reports that charter operators under Shelby County Schools say they’re being given the autonomy that the charter movement promises is essential for better schools. But while it’s ideal to leave high-performing schools alone, other schools might need a tighter leash, the report says. The group calls for “a system of differentiated oversight that supports the district in implementing a more robust system of accountability without unduly constraining the autonomy of schools that are meeting and exceeding expectations.” Such a system could cause tensions within the charter sector and between schools and the district office.

The district’s charter schools office could be more effective.

NACSA praises the district office for what it does with its small staff — which it notes is “lean for a portfolio of its size.” But it also concludes that by taking an “all hands on deck” approach, the team experiences “a missed opportunity to strategically allocate resources to allow for deeper planning and a higher level of execution that can come with greater specialization.” By figuring out what each team member is responsible for, the report says, all of the work can be done better. The report also concludes that board members could help with charter school decision making, if only they got reliable information with enough time to consider it. That hasn’t happened, board members routinely complain, and the report seems to bear out their concerns.

try try again

Feds to Colorado: You must count students who opt out of standardized tests

Seniors at Fairview High School in Boulder protested a standardized test in November 2014. (Photo by Nic Garcia/Chalkbeat)

Colorado’s policy of not penalizing schools that fail to meet federal requirements for student participation in state tests isn’t going over well with the federal government.

The U.S. Department of Education told state officials in a letter Friday that the policy is not acceptable. Colorado faces losing millions in federal funding if it doesn’t change course.

Federal officials flagged the opt-out policy in a response to the state’s plan to comply with the nation’s new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act.

The federal government’s feedback to states is being closely watched for signs of how the department, under Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, enforces a law that was meant to shift more decision-making away from the federal government and back to states.

“It didn’t come as a surprise,” Pat Chapman, the Colorado Department of Education’s executive director of federal programs, said of the feedback. “There’s a need to reconcile state board, state legislature and federal requirements and policies.”

In 2015, Colorado became a national epicenter for the testing opt-out movement, with thousands of students refusing to take state-required tests they didn’t see as valuable.

The State Board of Education, reasoning that it wasn’t fair to punish schools for something not in their control, adopted a policy forbidding the state education department from lowering schools’ quality ratings or otherwise punishing them for high refusal rates.

Previously, schools and districts could have seen their quality ratings lowered if they failed to annually test 95 percent of students in math and English. Schools that receive the state’s lowest quality ratings for five consecutive years face state intervention.

Education Commissioner Katy Anthes is expected to brief the state board at its regularly scheduled meeting this week on possible responses. The state has until Aug. 24 to submit a revised state plan or ask for an extension.

State board Chairwoman Angelika Schroeder, a Boulder Democrat, said Monday she doesn’t expect the board to take any formal action on rethinking the board’s policy this week. She declined to elaborate further.

“The board should have an opportunity to talk about this before I publicly comment,” she said.

Board member Steve Durham, a Colorado Springs Republican who championed the policy, also held back Monday.

“I’m not sure what all the options available are,” he said. “We’ll wait and see what the staff’s analysis is and go from there.”

The state’s unique opt-out policy wasn’t the federal government’s only criticism.

The U.S. Department of Education also raised concern about the state’s long-term academic goals, using an average of test scores to determine school quality and monitoring how well students are learning English as a second language.

The federal department is asking the state to resubmit long-term academic goals for particular student groups, including different ethnic groups and students with disabilities.

In the current version of the plan, all student groups are expected to have the same average test score in six years, which is slightly higher than the state’s current average. The goals seem confusing and unattainable. For example, students with disabilities would need to make unprecedented progress, while Asian students would need to lose academic ground in order for the state to meet its targets.

As part of its plan, Colorado also proposed rating schools based on averages from English and math test scores, not how many students met grade-level proficiency as it did in the past.

While the use of average test scores was applauded by some, it isn’t flying with the federal education department. It wants Colorado to better explain how using average scores relates to measuring whether students are at grade level.

Moreover, U.S. officials want an assurance from Colorado that students who are far above grade-level won’t “overcompensate” for students who are not proficient. In other words, the department wants to make sure high-performers aren’t masking serious problems.

Dale Chu, vice president of policy and operations for America Succeeds, a nonprofit of business leaders that support education reform, helped a coalition of education groups review state plans independently of U.S. education department. The group, the Collaborative For Student Success, was critical of Colorado’s switch to using an average of test scores.

“There’s no sense of proficiency,” he said. “There has to be some sort of sense that kids are coming out school being able to read and compute and be on a successful path.”

Finally, the U.S. education department is also seeking more clarity on how the state is tracking the progress of students learning English as a second language. It said the state needs to provide a clear timeline on when it can provide specific goals and more detail about how the state will use data to determine school quality.

Chapman said the state education department did not have the data available to provide the federal government the information it needed. However, that’s changing and he expects that portion of the plan to be accepted.

The Every Student Succeeds Act was signed by President Barack Obama in 2015. The law required states to develop plans to outline how it would use federal dollars to improve schools, teacher quality and boost language proficiency for students learning English as a second language.

Pushback from the U.S. education department to states has been more stern than many education policy observers expected given DeVos’s support of school choice and local control.

Chapman said the federal department has been helpful.

“They’re asked to uphold the letter of the law, he said. “I do think they’re approaching it in anyway that they’re being helpful to states to write a plan that’s consistent with statue.”

Job One

Nashville’s grieving mayor visits schools on first day back to work

PHOTO: Michael Bunch/Metro Nashville
Nashville Mayor Megan Barry visits with a student at Buena Vista Elementary School on Monday, her first day back to work after the death of her only son to a drug overdose.

When Nashville Mayor Megan Barry came back to work this week after losing her only child to a drug overdose, her first stop was school.

She handed out backpacks and hugged children as they arrived at Buena Vista Elementary School on the opening day of a new school year. She also dropped by Pearl-Cohn High School to chat with students in the hallways.

“That was really meaningful and special to me,” Barry told reporters later, “because the first day of school in our household was always a joyous occasion. Max loved school, and our ritual was always that we would take a picture every day of the first day of school.”

Barry’s first order of business was both symbolic and therapeutic for the mayor, whose 22-year-old son died July 29 in Littleton, Colorado, where he had been working in construction.

“It was really great to be with kids this morning,” she said during an emotional news conference from her office on Monday. “The last nine days has been pretty — I don’t even have words.”

She noted that “every first day of school is a new beginning.”

In Nashville, home of the state’s second largest school district, Barry doesn’t control the schools, but she’s used her bully pulpit to help reshape public education since taking office in 2015. She worked with the school board to jump-start a misfired search for the city’s next schools director, ending with the hiring last year of Shawn Joseph, a top administrator from Maryland’s Prince George’s County.

She’s also sought to put 10,000 Nashville youth to work with “paid, meaningful internships” through an initiative that she says was inspired by a conversation with her son. He had bemoaned having to use his family connections to secure an internship while he was in college.

“My goal after that conversation with Max was to open the door for all of our kids in Nashville,” recalled Barry, who has pushed to combat rising youth violence by creating more activities outside of school.

Barry with Max as a youngster

Now, she has another new mission: fighting opioid abuse, after an autopsy showed that Max died from a combination of several drugs, including opioids.

“I don’t want his death to define his life, but we have to have a frank conversation about how he died,” she said. “The reality is that Max overdosed on drugs.”

“This is not an unfamiliar community and nationwide conversation,” she said, noting that Nashville alone had 245 overdoses involving opioids last year. “It’s a national epidemic.”