Making the grade

Tennessee schools soon will receive letter grades. But will poverty be considered?

Tennessee is developing a new system to evaluate its schools based on the same A-F grading scale its students receive. But not everyone agrees on what should constitute an A.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education looked closely at grading models as they seek to comply with both a new state law that requires each school be assigned a letter grade and a new federal law that focuses on all aspects of school accountability.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has strong feelings about what shouldn’t be a factor: poverty.

“Poverty … shouldn’t be the reason you don’t even have an opportunity to get an A,” she told the State Board of Education on Thursday.

As such, state officials are proposing two avenues for schools to get an A on achievement: 1) high test scores, which would tend to favor schools with fewer poor students and more resources, and 2) substantial test score growth, which would provide a pathway for schools that are more diverse.

But others think that opening up the top grade to schools that aren’t necessarily top performers would undermine the grading system.

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney says growth is important, but that achievement scores are more important. He represents one of the state’s highest-performing and wealthiest districts and participated Thursday night in a town hall meeting in Nashville to discuss Tennessee’s accountability plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Earlier Thursday, Wendy Tucker, a State Board of Education member representing part of Nashville and Williamson County, expressed similar concerns. She said that including growth in a grade would be misleading, and not in the spirit of the state law.

“That statute was intended for parents to be able to look at a school and see what level of education they’re getting,” said Tucker, who is also co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a nonprofit organization focused on Nashville’s public schools. “I think growth is great. I just don’t think it’s an A.”

But McQueen and her team defended the two-pronged model. Test scores don’t paint the full picture of school quality, said Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns. “Just because you walk into a school that has a lot of high-achieving students does not mean there’s a culture of excellence there,” Towns said.

McQueen added that the state’s education messaging as a whole has been around growth, rather than raw achievement. Education leaders often tout Tennessee as “the fastest improving in the nation” as the state’s scores on national tests have moved from the bottom to the middle.

“Growth is the model we have used, and it has really worked for Tennessee,” McQueen said. “We believe that this is a fair, just model that we’ll continue to get feedback on.”

Under the state’s ESSA plan, one group of schools could not make an A. Schools that are dubbed “priority schools” — those ranking academically in the bottom 5 percent that also have low growth scores for two consecutive years — would receive automatic Fs.

While test scores or growth would be the driving factor in a school’s grade under the state’s proposed plan, schools also would be evaluated on chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, access to college credit courses, and the proficiency rates of  English language learners.

ESSA requires for the first time that states give their schools “summative” ratings. Those ratings don’t have to be A to F letter grades, but Tennessee’s legislature passed a law last year requiring schools be assigned a letter grade. The legislation was promoted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and has been adopted in several other states.

One, Virginia, already has repealed school letter grades, in part because ‘F’ schools had difficulty recruiting teachers. Other critics charge that letter grades lack nuance and oversimplify the link between poverty and low test scores, potentially stigmatizing low-performing schools that receive Fs, as well as students who attend those schools.

Future of Schools

For Indianapolis principals hoping to improve, one program says practice makes perfect

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
A kindergarten student reaches for crayons during a lesson at Global Prep Academy.

Mariama Carson has spent 20 years as an educator, first as a teacher and now as principal of Global Prep Academy. But in all that time, she never found training that prepared her as well as what she learned over two weeks last summer.

Carson, along with 23 other Indianapolis school leaders, was chosen to be a fellow in a principal training program through the Relay Graduate School of Education. Almost immediately, she noticed a big difference from previous coaching she’d had: They practiced everything.

How do you teach kids the right way to walk in the hallway? They practiced it. How do you let a teacher know she’s struggling? They practiced it. What are the precise words to use in an evaluation? More practice.

“The commitment to practice is what has been so different,” Carson said. “Whatever we learn in Relay … it’s not just something someone has told you about. You’ve practiced it. You’ve lived it.”

Relay, a six-year-old New York-based organization, was founded by a cadre of leaders from high-performing charter school networks. Practice, role-playing and applied learning are at the center of their work with educators, which for five years has included a year-long principal fellowship.

In the 2016-17 school year, Relay trained about 400 school leaders in the United States. Fellows from Indianapolis were chosen and sponsored by The Mind Trust, an Indianapolis-based nonprofit. Joe White, who directs The Mind Trust’s school support initiatives, said he was happy with the response during the last round of applications. The next cohort, whose members will be announced this month, will be larger and contain more Indianapolis Public School educators, as well as charter school principals, he said.

The Mind Trust wants to make the training “available to as many new operators as possible to continue expanding this work across the city,” White said. “We think that this is the way that we create sustainable schools that will provide high-quality results and outcomes for kids for a very long time.”

Two principals in the midst of the program told Chalkbeat that the fellowship is already changing the culture and efficiency of their schools. The principals spent the fellowship’s two-week summer training session in Denver learning how to best collect and analyze student data, give feedback to teachers and create a school building that runs smoothly.

“The practice and critical feedback we got was unlike anything I’d ever experienced,” said Mariama Carson, a principal at Global Prep Academy, which is housed in the IPS Riverside 44 building. “Usually as a principal, you don’t get that kind of feedback.”

But Relay, which also has teacher training programs, has its share of critics. Kenneth Zeichner, a researcher and professor at the University of Washington, analyzed non-university-affiliated teacher training programs, including Relay’s. Although he hasn’t looked into the principal program specifically, he said he is troubled that the teacher training curriculum emphasizes using test scores to gauge results at the expense of a more well-rounded assessment of students, who many times are coming from families living in poverty.

He also worries Relay as a whole is too focused on fast growth, rather than on proving its methods work. There have been no independent studies done on whether Relay produces better teachers than other alternative or university programs, Zeichner said, although one is underway.

“My concern about Relay is not that they exist,” Zeichner said. “If you’re going to measure the quality of a teacher education program — of any program — the independent vetting, or review, of claims about evidence (is) a baseline minimum condition.”

Chalkbeat spoke with Carson and Bakari Posey, principal at IPS School 43. The two just completed their second of several training sessions, which will continue through the rest of the school year.

Responses have been edited for brevity and clarity.

What made you want to be part of the fellowship?

Carson: The job of a principal is so lonely. To have the opportunity to work with high-quality, hard-working principals across the country is always inviting.

Posey: I wanted to make sure that I was able to appropriately and efficiently and effectively develop the people on our team. That’s what really drew me in. It’s shaped my thinking and sharpened my lens as a leader and what I’m looking for in classrooms.

What have you learned so far that you’re implementing in your school?

Carson: It’s been transformative in how our building is run just on the cultural side. Relay has really helped us understand that especially with adult learners, you have to start with the “why.” And then we model, and the teachers (in my school) play the position as students. We go into full acting mode, and then the teachers execute that practice. For two weeks before the kids even showed up, that’s what our teachers were doing. Normally, I’d hand my teachers a packet of procedures and expectations, but we never practiced.

Posey: We’ve started to implement already … around coaching teachers — how we give that feedback and give teachers bite-sized action steps to work on instead of making a list of 12 things to do at once. If you do one thing better every single day, then you get better overall. Something else that’s big for me is student work exemplars — actually having an example of excellence for student work that the teacher creates and uses to guide feedback. Overall it’s just kind of helped to organize my thinking as a school leader and really kind of give you a little bit of a road map towards student growth and overall school success. It’s the best professional development I’ve ever been a part of.

How have teachers back in your schools responded to the changes you have introduced, including suggestions on improving instruction, evaluations, etc.?

Carson: Teachers have been responding well, and they’re getting used to this culture, a culture of practice. Even in our feedback sessions where we’re coaching teachers, it’s “OK, execute the lesson — I’ll be the student, you be the teacher.”

Posey: They’ve been receptive. It’s not coming from a place of “gotcha” or I’m trying to make you look really bad. It’s really coming from a place of really getting better for our students to really give them the best, which is what they deserve.

gates keeper

Gates Foundation to move away from teacher evals, shifting attention to ‘networks’ of public schools

PHOTO: Department for International Development/Russell Watkins

Its massive education funding efforts have helped spread small high schools, charter schools, and efforts to overhaul teacher evaluations. Now, the Gates Foundation is going in a new direction.

In a speech Thursday, Bill Gates said the foundation is about to launch a new, locally driven effort to help existing public schools improve.

The idea is to fund “networks” that help public schools improve by scrutinizing student achievement data and getting schools to share their best ideas, he said. Of the $1.7 billion the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation will spend on U.S. education over the next five years, more than 60 percent will go to these networks — dwarfing the amount to be spent on charter schools, about 15 percent.

Gates said that’s both because he wants to go where other philanthropy isn’t and because the foundation’s strategy is to affect as many students as possible. (Only 5 percent of U.S. public-school students attended a charter school in 2014.)

“In general, philanthropic dollars there … on charters is fairly high. We will be a bit different. Because of our scale, we feel that we need to put the vast majority of our money into these networks of public schools,” Gates said. (“We love charters,” he quickly added.)

The Gates Foundation is a supporter of Chalkbeat.

The strategy appears to be a nationwide expansion of the work Bob Hughes, the Gates Foundation’s K-12 education chief, did in New York City as the longtime head of an organization called New Visions for Public Schools. New Visions started several dozen district and charter schools but also created tools for schools to check on student progress that were later adopted by New York City itself.

Gates offered other examples: Chicago’s Network for College Success, which works with about 15 high schools; the LIFT Network in Tennessee, which includes 12 school districts; and the CORE Districts in California. The foundation plans to fund 20 to 30 such networks, Gates said.

Also notable is where Gates said the philanthropy will no longer be sending money: toward efforts to encourage new teacher evaluation systems, which in some states have faced fierce political resistance in recent years.

The foundation’s new work to support school networks will be driven by local ideas about how to create the best schools, Gates said.

“The challenge is that, even that piece when it’s done very well, the teacher in the classroom — that is not enough to get the full result we want,” Gates said. “And this is something that I’m sure has been obvious to all of you. But it’s really the entire school, where the leadership, the development, the overall culture, the analysis of what’s going on with the kids — it’s that school level where you have to get everything coming together.”

The final quarter of that $1.7 billion will go toward research into how kinds of technology could improve student learning and ways to improve math instruction and career preparation.