It's a start

Here’s a first look at how Tennessee schools could change under new federal law

PHOTO: TDOE
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen visits a Tennessee school as part of her Classroom Chronicles tour. The commissioner launched another statewide listening tour in May to gather feedback for Tennessee’s plan to transition to the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act.

Should schools in Tennessee be held accountable when students miss too much school?

That’s one question that the State Department of Education will float during town hall meetings kicking off this week about its proposed plan for the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. State officials on Tuesday released a preview of the evolving plan, which touches on everything from school turnaround work to teacher preparation to English Language Learners.

Tennessee doesn’t intend to stray far from its five-year strategic plan outlined last year. However, the preview highlights potential changes in how the state measures school quality, provides resources to schools, and addresses low-performing schools. State officials will release the entirety of Tennessee’s first draft by the end of the month.

Town Hall Meetings

  • Knoxville, Dec. 6, 5:30 p.m.
  • Jackson, Dec. 8, 5 p.m
  • Memphis, Dec. 14, 5 p.m.
  • Nashville, Dec. 15, 5 p.m.
  • Chattanooga, TBD

ESSA, which Congress passed last year to replace No Child Left Behind, gives states and local districts more flexibility in how they run schools. But the law also adds provisions such as one that requires states to identify a measurement for school quality that’s unrelated to test scores.

The first draft of Tennessee’s new schools plan was assembled with input from educators during a listening tour last spring, and from groups of advocates, policymakers and educators consulted over the summer and fall. State officials will incorporate further public feedback before submitting Tennessee’s final plan to the U.S. Department of Education next spring for approval.

It’s uncertain how President-elect Donald Trump’s administration will affect states’ plans under ESSA. The new administration will be in charge of interpreting and enforcing the civil rights and accountability law, potentially rendering months of guidance from current U.S. Secretary of Education John King moot.

At the very least, the transition in Washington, D.C., has pushed the deadline for states to submit their plans back by a month to April, and to implement plans back by a year to the 2018-19 school year.

Even so, Tennessee plans to stick to the original deadline and complete its final draft by March, one year after state officials first solicited public feedback on the law.

Here are some proposed changes highlighted in the preview:

Accountability

Tennessee would grade students in part based on chronic absenteeism as part of its new “opportunity to learn” metric, meant to satisfy ESSA’s requirement to evaluate schools with at least one “non-academic” measure. State officials want the new metric to show whether students are able to “grow and thrive” at their school, and might eventually incorporate a range of other data points into it, like school discipline.

Test scores still will figure prominently into how the state evaluates schools, although the preview doesn’t say how much they will count. In addition to achievement scores and growth, the state will grade schools on graduation rates, participation rates on state assessments, and for the first time, progress by English learner students in achieving English proficiency.

All of those factors will be used to assign schools with an A-F letter grade, a requirement of a 2015 state law. Although the letter grades are unrelated to ESSA, state officials are using the planning process to gather feedback on what factors should go into the grades.

“There will be multiple ways to show success, and all schools will have the opportunity to earn an ‘A,’” the preview states.

Low-performing schools

The preview suggests school improvement will become more transparent. ESSA still asks schools to identify its academically lowest 5 percent of schools, and the state would continue to issue a “priority list” of those schools every three years. But under the current draft, local districts would have more say in how to improve their low-performing schools. Currently, the state-run Achievement School District can take control of schools once they slip onto the priority list. The state proposes in coming years to give districts more time to improve schools on their own, and to clearly articulate its expectations and possible interventions for low-performing school according to set benchmarks for test scores and growth.

The state also might provide districts with more resources to improve priority schools through additional funding, as well as competitive grants.

English language learners

ESSA focuses more on English language learners than its predecessor, asking states to report on English proficiency and set clear guidelines for which students should receive English learner services. Beginning next July, Tennessee would use a new screener to determine that. For several years, the state’s English learner students have taken the WIDA assessment to test their language progress. Those scores would be publicly available for the first time under the state’s new plan, and would determine when students are able to graduate from English learner services.

Teacher and student support

Tennessee officials are using ESSA as an opportunity to focus on students’ needs beyond academics. The new U.S. law establishes a federal student support grant that districts can use for programs such as school counselors or school-based mental health services. The state’s plan would make sure that school counselors actually have time to counsel students, versus being tasked with other duties such as administering tests. Districts also would be able to apply for grants for arts, music and foreign language instruction and other enrichment opportunities.

Assessments

Like No Child Left Behind, ESSA requires at least 95 percent of students in grades 3-11 to take end-of-year tests. Tennessee already has pared down the length of its new TNReady assessments and is looking for ways to further winnow down tests for third- and fourth-grade students. The state also is considering subbing out end-of-year tests in 11th grade for the ACT, and is looking for ways to reduce smaller assessments throughout the year for the state’s academic intervention program, called  RTI, or Response to Instruction and Intervention.

Raise your voice

Memphis, what do you want in your next school superintendent?

PHOTO: Kyle Kurlick for Chalkbeat

Tennessee’s largest school district needs a permanent leader. What kind of superintendent do you think Shelby County Schools should be looking for?

Now is the chance to raise your voice. The school board is in the thick of finalizing a national search and is taking bids from search firms. Board members say they want a leader to replace former superintendent Dorsey Hopson in place within 18 months. They have also said they want community input in the process, though board members haven’t specified what that will look like. In the interim, career Memphis educator Joris Ray is at the helm.

Let us know what you think is most important in the next superintendent.  Select responses will be published.

Asking the candidates

How to win over Northwest Side voters: Chicago aldermen candidates hone in on high school plans

PHOTO: Cassie Walker Burke / Chalkbeat Chicago
An audience member holds up a green sign showing support at a forum for Northwest side aldermanic candidates. The forum was sponsored by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association.

The residents filing into the auditorium of Sharon Christa McAuliffe Elementary School Friday wanted to know a few key things from the eager aldermanic candidates who were trying to win their vote.

People wanted to know which candidates would build up their shrinking open-enrollment high schools and attract more students to them.

They also wanted specifics on how the aldermen, if elected, would coax developers to build affordable housing units big enough for families, since in neighborhoods such as Logan Square and Hermosa, single young adults have moved in, rents have gone up, and some families have been pushed out.

As a result, some school enrollments have dropped.

Organized by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association, Friday’s event brought together candidates from six of the city’s most competitive aldermanic races. Thirteen candidates filled the stage, including some incumbents, such as Aldermen Proco “Joe” Moreno (1st  Ward), Carlos Ramirez-Rosa (35th Ward), and Milly Santiago (31st Ward).

They faced tough questions — drafted by community members and drawn at random from a hat — about bolstering high school enrollment, recruiting more small businesses, and paving the way for more affordable housing.

When the audience members agreed with their positions, they waved green cards, with pictures of meaty tacos. When they heard something they didn’t like, they held up red cards, with pictures of fake tacos.

Red cards weren’t raised much. But the green cards filled the air when candidates shared ideas for increasing the pull of area open-enrollment high schools by expanding dual-language programs and the rigorous International Baccalaureate curriculum.

Related: Can a program designed for British diplomats fix Chicago schools? 

“We want our schools to be dual language so people of color can keep their roots alive and keep their connections with their families,” said Rossana Rodriguez, a mother of a Chicago Public Schools’ preschooler and one of challengers to incumbent Deb Mell in the city’s 33rd Ward.  

Mell didn’t appear at the forum, but another candidate vying for that seat did: Katie Sieracki, who helps run a small business. Sieracki said she’d improve schools by building a stronger feeder system between the area’s elementary schools, which are mostly K-8, and the high schools.

“We need to build bridges between our local elementary schools and our high schools, getting buy-in from new parents in kindergarten to third grade, when parents are most engaged in their children’s education,” she said.

Sieracki said she’d also work to design an apprenticeship program that connects area high schools with small businesses.

Green cards also filled the air when candidates pledged to reroute tax dollars that are typically used for developer incentives for school improvement instead.

At the end of the forum, organizers asked the 13 candidates to pledge to vote against new tax increment financing plans unless that money went to schools. All 13 candidates verbally agreed.

Aldermen have limited authority over schools, but each of Chicago’s 50 ward representatives receives a $1.32 million annual slush fund that be used for ward improvements, such as playgrounds, and also can be directed to education needs. And “aldermanic privilege,” a longtime concept in Chicago, lets representatives give the thumbs up or down to developments like new charters or affordable housing units, which can affect school enrollment.

Related: 7 questions to ask your aldermanic candidates about schools

Aldermen can use their position to forge partnerships with organizations and companies that can provide extra support and investment to local schools.

A January poll showed that education was among the top three concerns of voters in Chicago’s municipal election. Several candidates for mayor have recently tried to position themselves as the best candidate for schools in TV ads.