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.

moving on up

With Holcomb’s support, Indiana’s next education plan heads to Washington

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Gov. Eric Holcomb address lawmakers and the public during his State of the State Address earlier this year. Today, he signed off on Indiana's ESSA plan.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has given his stamp of approval to Indiana’s next education plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act.

In a tweet Monday afternoon, state Superintendent Jennifer McCormick thanked Holcomb for his support:

Holcomb was required to weigh in on the plan, but his approval wasn’t necessary for it to move forward. If he disagreed with the changes proposed by McCormick and the Indiana Department of Education, he could have indicated that today.

So far, it seems that the state’s top education policymakers — Holcomb, McCormick and the Indiana State Board of Education — have reached some level of consensus on how to move forward.

The state has worked for months to revamp its accountability system and educational goals to align with ESSA, which Congress passed in 2015.

Although there are many similarities between this plan and the previous plan under the No Child Left Behind waiver, several changes affect state A-F grades. Going forward, they will factor in measures that recognize the progress of English-learners and measures not solely based on test scores, such as student attendance.

However, the new plan also alters the state’s graduation rate formula to match new federal requirements, a change that has a number of educators, policymakers and parents worried because it means students who earn a general diploma no longer count as graduates to the federal government.

You can read more about the specifics of the state plan in our ESSA explainer and see all of our ESSA coverage here.

Politics & Policy

Over pulled pork, rural Indiana parents make the case to Betsy DeVos that public schools are important

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Betsy DeVos met with families at Eastern Hancock High School.

At Eastern Hancock High School in rural Indiana, the hog roast is an annual tradition.

This year, the event was also a chance to show off a thriving traditional public school to U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, who often highlights private and charter schools and advocates for school choice.

“We wanted to make sure that she understands the importance of public education,” said Natalie Schilling, a parent of two students at Eastern Hancock.

Schilling and her husband, Eric, had the chance to share their perspective sitting with DeVos over pulled pork sandwiches in the high school cafeteria. They were surrounded by families grabbing food ahead of a football game between Eastern Hancock and rival Knightstown. DeVos was there, she said, for a great game.

The visit was the conclusion of a six-state trip branded as the “Rethink Schools” tour. On the tour, DeVos visited several schools serving unusual populations, such as an Indianapolis high school for students recovering from addiction and a Colorado private school for students with autism.

“It was really, really exciting to see all these opportunities that kids have to learn in different environments or different approaches,” she said. “It just once again reaffirms to me the importance of the opportunity for every child to find that right niche for them.”

Earlier Friday DeVos stopped at charter schools in Gary and Indianapolis. But Eastern Hancock was the only traditional public school on her itinerary in Indiana.

Eastern Hancock, however, has been reshaped by school choice policies like those that DeVos has long supported. Indiana allows open enrollment, so students can attend schools in neighboring districts if they can get transportation. At Eastern Hancock, DeVos noted, many students come from other districts.

Eric Schilling said many of those students come because of the strong agriculture programs at the school, including an animal science facility and horticulture building.

The hog roast Friday night was a fundraiser for FFA, an agricultural education program. Students in the organization spent months planning the event, roasted the hogs and pulled the pork themselves, said Gracie Johnson, a senior at Eastern and the chapter and district president of FFA.

It was a little bit thrilling to have secretary DeVos visit her school, Johnson said. “I think it’s pretty awesome. Especially since we’re so small, it kind of makes us feel like we’re important.”

Natalie Schilling said that one of the most important things DeVos can do is support agricultural and career and technical education. But she said that she was a bit concerned about DeVos’ past experience and agenda.

“I think everybody is a little worried,” she said. “We have to keep talking about it and keep pushing it so she will understand what skills students are learning. It’s going to be able to fuel the workforce.”