ESSA plan

Tennessee overhauls approach to low-performing schools under plan sent to Secretary DeVos

PHOTO: Micaela Watts
Aspire's Hanley Elementary is located in Orange Mound, a historic black community in Memphis.

Tennesseans who have been waiting to see which low-performing schools have improved enough to avoid consequences — and which ones are struggling so much that the state might step in — will have to wait longer.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Monday that the state will issue its next list of “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent in the summer of 2018 instead of this summer as initially planned.

The list will set the stage for school improvement plans ranging from local district-led interventions to takeover by the state’s turnaround district.

The State Department of Education also will elevate the state’s role in overseeing more than 200 “focus schools” struggling to close achievement gaps based on race, poverty, disabilities and language.

And it’s tweaking criteria for giving A-F grades to each of Tennessee’s 1,800 public schools beginning in mid-2018. The new grading system will put less emphasis on chronic absenteeism than originally planned and more weight on pathways that get students ready for college, career or the military.

The changes were revealed Monday as Tennessee joined more than a dozen states meeting the first deadline to submit plans to the U.S. Department of Education in response to a new federal education law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Tennessee’s plan, which will become effective on July 1 unless U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos takes the unlikely step of turning it down, details how the state will use federal funds for everything from guidance counselors to teacher preparation to arts education.

ESSA was co-authored by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and signed into law in 2015 by President Barack Obama. Its intent is to shift the power in public schools to the states — a pivot that some expect to be even more pronounced under the Trump administration.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen

Tennessee’s plan has stayed the course through the transition in Washington, and McQueen said the state “has one of the best ESSA plans in the country.”

“We can say that because of our focus on all students, our high expectations that this will ultimately lead to postsecondary and workforce success, and the collaboration we have had with our education community,” she said.

That collaboration — which began a year ago and has included working groups, town halls, and about 3,000 comments from Tennesseans and stakeholders — precipitated changes to a draft plan that’s been under public review since December. McQueen said the revised final plan strengthens accountability, among other things.

The changes include resetting the priority school timeline to align with the state’s new school grading system. And per state law, the State Department of Education also will issue a new “cusp list” this fall to notify districts and schools at risk.

Tennessee’s plan also clarifies entrance and exit criteria for schools in its pioneering Achievement School District. The charter-reliant turnaround district now has 33 schools in Memphis and Nashville in its portfolio but has been sluggish in meeting targets for improving test scores. If its schools don’t exit due to sustained improvement, they must be returned to their local districts within 10 years. The ASD remains the state’s most intense track for intervention but also will become a last resort under plans announced late last year to give local districts more time to turn around the schools themselves.

McQueen announced that, beginning July 1, all priority and focus schools will be overseen by the state’s new Office of School Improvement. That office will be staffed in the coming months and will report directly to McQueen, which the commissioner said “elevates the work significantly.”

Much of the conversations around the state’s new federal plan have centered on equity.

Gini Pupo-Walker, leader of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, says ESSA has inspired Tennessee to focus on equity more than ever before, ensuring that students of color and English language learners are accounted for in the state’s accountability systems. “It’s a really strong plan for all kids, and it’s grounded in equity, not just by word only,” said Pupo-Walker, also the senior director of education policy for Conexión Américas.

Others like the addition of graduate readiness as one of five indicators for grading Tennessee schools under ESSA. Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, called the metrics “an innovative way” to connect K-12 accountability to the state’s drive to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by 2025.

But some emphasize that Tennessee’s schools always will fall short without adequate funding — something that’s not addressed in the state’s plan.

“We need more resources. We need more wraparound services, and we need a better curriculum,” said Eligah Sledge, an organizer with parent advocacy group Memphis Lift.

The U.S. Department of Education has 120 days to respond to Tennessee’s plan following a review by a team of educators and experts to see if it complies with the new federal law.

Chalkbeat reporters Grace Tatter and Laura Faith Kebede contributed to this report.

hot off the presses

A silver medal for Detroit pre-K. Now where are the kids?

PHOTO: Getty Images

Detroit has earned a silver rating, the second-highest possible, in a national ranking of urban preschool programs published Wednesday. But the report by the advocacy group CityHealth also says that too few eligible 4-year-olds are enrolled.

CityHealth, a foundation-funded organization that rates America’s largest urban centers based on their public policies, looked at how big cities stack up in offering preschool programs in a report published Wednesday.

Researchers at the National Institute for Early Education Research at Rutgers University conducted the study and compiled the report.

Following standards set by the largest state-funded pre-K organization, the Great Start Readiness Program, Detroit requires teachers in state preschool to have at least a bachelor’s degree, limits class sizes, and requires health screenings of children.

Those are some of the hallmarks of a high-quality program, according to CityHealth.

Only eight of the 40 cities whose policies were reviewed earned a silver rating, and only five earned the top gold rating. A handful of cities — Indianapolis and Phoenix, Arizona, among them — were far behind, with low enrollment and few or none of CityHealth’s model policies in place.

Still, the gap in Detroit’s pre-K system is a big one. The city has far fewer pre-K seats than it reportedly needs. That’s the case in many of America’s largest cities, according to CityHealth. In nearly half of the cities studied, pre-K programs reached less than one-third of the cities’ pre-schoolers.

The lack of preschool slots is one reason advocates from Michigan’s largest cities are pushing lawmakers to put early childhood on the agenda in Lansing. And it’s part of why Detroit Mayor Mike Duggan has gotten behind the idea of a expanded pre-K system for Detroit.

Read the full report here:

School Funding 101

Report: Michigan has biggest school funding decline in nation

How’s this for a grim school funding statistic: A new report out Wednesday says total revenue for Michigan schools declined 30 percent from 2002 to 2015 — the largest decline for any state over the past quarter century.

The statistic, adjusted for inflation, is among findings of a report by researchers at Michigan State University that reviews school funding and recommends how the state can improve.

“Michigan has tried to improve schools on the cheap, focusing on more accountability and school choice,” wrote David Arsen, lead author and professor of education policy. “To make those policies effective, they have to be matched with adequate funding. We have been kidding ourselves to think we can move forward while cutting funding for schools.”

Co-authors are Tanner Delpier and Jesse Nagel, MSU doctoral students.

Here are a few of the highlights in the report — which is aimed at spurring public discussion of how to improve school funding in the state. The data were adjusted for inflation:

  • Dead last: Where Michigan ranks in total education revenue growth since the mid-90s, when the state’s current school funding formula was developed.
  • 60 percent: How much funding for at-risk students has declined since 2001.
  • 22 percent: How much per-pupil revenue declined from 2002 to 2015.

 The report comes about a year after the bipartisan School Finance Research Collaborative released a comprehensive set of recommendations for fixing the school funding system in Michigan. The MSU report provides a review of that report and adopts many of its recommendations.

It also comes after a December lame-duck legislative session in Michigan that ended with lawmakers voting to shift some funding from the state School Aid Fund to other priorities, such as road repairs and environmental cleanups.

Officials from the Tri-County Alliance for Public Education, a group that represents educators in Macomb, Oakland and Wayne counties, said the MSU report should be a wake-up call for lawmakers. They said it confirms that Michigan’s K-12 funding is in crisis.

“Lawmakers need to stop hiding behind talking points that claim they are investing in our schools when the reality is our funding hasn’t even kept up with the rate of inflation, let alone the increased cost of the services we are being asked to provide our students,” said George Heitsch, president of the alliance and superintendent of Farmington Public Schools. “When you see the numbers from this report showing the drastic funding cuts that have been forced on our schools in recent years, it should be no wonder why our state ranks at the bottom in reading and math proficiency. This simply has to change because our students deserve better.”

Read the full report for more information and recommendations: