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.