As Tennessee governor’s race ramps up, so does the conversation around schools

CEO Jamie Woodson of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education speaks to education leaders from across Tennessee during an event in Nashville to unveil the group's priorities for improving K-12 education.

A powerful advocacy group helping to steer Tennessee’s education policy is now working to shape the conversation around schools heading into the 2018 governor’s race.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE, on Wednesday unveiled five priorities aimed at moving Tennessee up from the middle of the pack on student achievement.

The list offered no big surprises. The priorities are mostly based on strategies that have emerged in overhauling K-12 education during the last 16 years under two governors, Democrat Phil Bredesen and most recently Republican Bill Haslam.

However, this checklist offers a sharper focus than any previous ones from SCORE. The group’s leaders credit learnings from major reforms launched in Tennessee during the Race to the Top era.

The priorities are:

  • Make Tennessee the best state to live, work and grow as a teacher by recruiting preparing, supporting, and rewarding them.
  • Support every student to become a strong reader and writer by expanding access to materials and training teachers on literacy instruction.
  • Develop school leaders who are ready to lead learning and people by investing in high-quality principal preparation programs.
  • Make high school the on-ramp to postsecondary studies and jobs via redesigned high schools.
  • Provide students with the greatest needs a high-quality education through an equitable distribution of highly effective teachers, strong school leadership, and innovative supports.
Bill Frist

Since its 2009 founding by former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, SCORE has worked closely with education stakeholders and the State Department of Education to develop a roadmap for improving schools. The nonpartisan organization grew out of the state’s 2007 wakeup call from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, which gave Tennessee Fs for exceptionally weak academic standards and postsecondary and workforce readiness.

The state has since improved its standing through the National Assessment of Educational Progress, known as the Nation’s Report Card, but it’s still not risen above the national average on that important measurement.

The next few years will be critical, said Jamie Woodson, SCORE’s chief executive officer.

“Next year, Tennesseans will elect a new governor and at least 23 new members of the Tennessee General Assembly,” Woodson said. “Tennessee voters rank K-12 education among the top issues in the state, so there is no better time for those of us who care deeply about Tennessee students to put forth a new vision to achieve even greater academic success.”

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks during a panel discussion.

Six of the seven major gubernatorial candidates were on hand Wednesday as SCORE outlined its priorities in a new report and hosted a panel discussion in Nashville featuring Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson; Tennessee Teacher of the Year Cicely Woodard of Metro Nashville Public Schools; Nancy Dishner, president and CEO of the Niswonger Foundation; Eastman Chemical Co. executive David Golden; and Sharon Roberts, chief strategy officer at SCORE.

“This supercharges education as an issue,” Frist said of the report and the gathering. “It’s a complex issue that nobody has the answers for. The only way we’re going to make progress is to have knowledgeable leaders who can work with the education community.”

Future of Schools

Many Indiana schools receive F grades for how they serve students of color and those with disabilities

PHOTO: Peter Muller
Under ESSA, Indiana's federal grades include sub-scores for students of color, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and those learning English as a new language in an effort to offer a better look at how schools are educating all students.

For the first time, Indiana schools are getting graded on how well they’re serving some of the state’s most vulnerable students — and the data shows many are missing the mark.

Schools largely received lower grades for how they educated students of color, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and those learning English as a new language than for how they educated white students. Nearly half of those graded for the performance of students with disabilities were rated F, and almost one-third received Fs for the performance of their black students. By contrast, of the schools serving white students, only two percent were rated F for those students’ performance.

“It’s alarming that students are not being educated,” said NAACP of Greater Indianapolis interim education committee chairman Garry Holland. “If no one says anything about it, it just continues each year.”

This year, every school in the state received two A-F grades, which the state publicly released Wednesday. One grade was calculated under a state model that relies largely on test scores, and the other was determined under a plan that Indiana uses to comply with the federal Every Student Succeeds Act. These grades include sub-scores for students of color, students with disabilities, students from low-income families, and those learning English as a new language in an effort to offer a better look at how schools are educating all students.

Read: How many Indiana schools got As in 2018? Depends if state or feds are doing the grading.

For example, a school could receive a B overall, but be rated lower when it comes to the performance of English-learners or multiracial students. School-level grades under the federal model and grades for so-called “subgroups” of students do not factor into Indiana’s timeline for state intervention, but they are used to identify schools where the state needs to invest more resources.

Only 10 schools in the entire state received A ratings for their black student subgroup, five of which are in Brownsburg schools, a district that posted some of the highest test scores in the state in 2018.

Adam Baker, spokesman for the Indiana Department of Education, said the subgroup grades can’t necessarily be tied to overall school quality — some schools have one or two subgroups of vulnerable students, while others might have more. Schools might also not have enough students in a certain group to be graded.

“You should consider this information as areas where improvement could be made,” Baker said in an email. “We need to consider how are these subgroups doing in comparison to other subgroups at the school. For example, does the school see a huge disparity between its black subgroup and white subgroup? Or are all subgroups performing poorly?”

Disparities between white students and students of color were common, at the state and local level. In the vast majority of schools in Marion County where academic results from both white and black students were factored into grades, the performance of white students was almost always rated higher.

White students also earned more overall points, on average, for factors such as passing tests, test score improvement, graduation rate, attendance, and English proficiency, than black students in the county — 79 points compared to 64 points, corresponding to a C and D respectively. At the state level, the gap widens, with schools, on average, receiving a B for the performance of white students, and a D for the performance of black students.

Schools grades are highly reflective of state test scores, which have a well-documented history of gaps between certain groups of students. Although state test scores tend to make up a smaller overall piece of the federal grades than state grades, it is still the single largest factor, which raises some important caveats, experts say. Differences in test scores between groups of students, often called achievement or opportunity gaps, don’t reflect students’ innate abilities to learn. Nor do they always mean schools are doing a poor job educating different students. Rather, gaps can be attributed to any number of factors, including test question biases, parents’ education, students’ early childhood education, stress, trauma, and more.

Gaps in grades, in this case, could point out areas of inequities between students, such as differences in teacher quality, curriculum quality, and availability of honors courses. The gaps also show the extent to which income and poverty are present in a district. Students who come from low-income families and those who switch schools frequently tend to do worse on standardized exams, which would result in lower grades.

The Every Student Succeeds Act has been mentioned by some advocates as a way to address gaps between students, but Indiana’s plan to comply with the law has been criticized for not factoring the achievement of students of colors and those with more intensive education needs into overall federal grades.

Baker said the state has an advisory board dedicated to helping it guide schools on how to improve gaps between groups of students, among other resources. Baker also said the education department is working with the local NAACP and the Indianapolis Urban League to that end.


Decision day

A state board decision on two long-struggling Pueblo schools could affect the entire district

PHOTO: Andrea Chu/Getty Images

A year after running out of chances to improve on their own, two Pueblo middle schools will be making a return appearance in front of the State Board of Education this week.

Heroes Middle School and Risley International Academy of Innovation have spent the last eight years on a watch list for low-performing schools. A year ago, the state board ordered them along with five school districts and 10 other schools to craft plans to improve — and warned them that too little progress could lead to sharper consequences in the future. It was the first time state regulators faced these decisions under Colorado’s school accountability system.

Many of the schools and districts on the state watchlist have managed to improve enough to avoid further intervention, including Bessemer Elementary, also in Pueblo City Schools.

But even after working with a nonprofit group to improve the quality of teaching, the two schools failed to advance on Colorado’s school rating system, which is largely based on performance on standardized tests. Their test scores left Heroes at the second lowest rating, where it has been for several years, and Risley on “turnaround,” the lowest possible rating, despite some improvement in some subject areas and grade levels.

On Wednesday, state board members will hold a hearing on the future of Heroes and Risley— along with the entire Adams 14 district and its high school. They’ll be taking into account recommendations from independent reviewers who visited the schools, the Pueblo district, students and their families, and advocates who have been lobbying throughout the process.

If the board members take the same approach they did last year, they’re likely to let the schools continue with “innovation” status, with some additional external management. But some state board members have expressed frustration with the pace of change, and they have more drastic options available to them, including closure or turning low-performing schools into charters.

At least in the case of Risley, the recommendation to largely stay the course comes despite grave concerns about the school. The evaluators gave a damning report, rating its leadership “not effective” at implementing change or even having the capacity to benefit from the help of an external partner.

The evaluators described chaotic classrooms in which students slept at their desks or openly played on their phones. In classrooms in which teachers were able to engage students, too many of them were “doing the cognitive work” for the students rather than leading them in real learning, they said.

The school is using too many new programs at once without enough training for teachers, with the result that most of them were not being implemented as intended, the evaluators said, and there isn’t enough coordination. In one example, the school had adopted new reading and math curriculum designed for 90-minute blocks, but the school’s schedule only allows for 75-minute periods.

But closing the school or turning it over to a charter organization would be worse options, evaluators said.

Conversion to a charter school would be divisive and unlikely to better serve students, they said, and there aren’t any nearby schools that could absorb the students if Risley were to close. “There are no other viable options for students that would likely lead to better outcomes,” the evaluators wrote.

What’s more, they wrote, the school serves as an “anchor” to the community — a view that community members expressed in comments submitted to the state board. Parents described using the health clinic associated with the school or getting food from the food pantry, as well as the pride their children felt in their sports teams, which provide positive and structured activities after school.

“As a parent, I feel better after each time I volunteer,” one mother wrote. “My daughter is a cheerleader here and I enjoy going to all her games and support her school and represent red and black and showing bear pride. I am looking forward to my son attending here in years to come.”

In several letters, students said they were having to take so many tests as part of the turnaround process that they were bored and stressed out and did not want to come to school.

“If we’re testing every month, when the real test comes around, we get tired of it and guess or click through,” one eighth-grade student said. “They’re stressing us out, and we don’t really need them. I understand you guys need to see where we are, but this many tests are not helping any of us.”

The state review panel assessment of Heroes was more positive, even as evaluators noted ongoing problems and recommended an additional external partner to help manage the school, not just provide instructional support.

“The school needs more time to see the full benefits of participation in the Innovation Zone, but implementation thus far has proven effective,” they wrote. “Leadership is developing and beginning to create positive change.”

At Heroes, evaluators did not recommend conversion to a charter school in part because the school serves a high population of students with disabilities. The middle school is also part of a K-8 school with one principal, and disentangling the elementary and middle school would have financial implications for both.

In response to written questions from the State Board of Education, Pueblo district officials said converting both schools to charters would have a serious financial impact on the entire school system. The district, which already faces declining enrollment and operates on a four-day week while staring down a $785 million maintenance backlog for its aging buildings, would lose almost $5 million a year in state funding if Risley and Heroes students all went to charter schools. The school district would also lose one of its newer buildings if Risley converted to a charter.

The opposition to a charter conversion is about more than money. In a letter, Barb Clementi, vice president of the school board in Pueblo, pointed to the example of a struggling school that was turned into a magnet school. While it has a good rating, it now serves a student population that is almost entirely different, and the former students continue to struggle in their new schools. Converting Risley or Heroes to charters runs the same risk, she said.

Risley and Heroes are part of an innovation zone that provides schools more flexibility but also allows teachers and administrators to work together. While the state review panel said both schools need to take more advantage of the zone, other Pueblo schools have come off the state watchlist using the innovation approach.

“I urge you to consider the bigger picture of our entire Pueblo community and school system when making decisions,” Clementi wrote. “These two middle school have made progress and deserve the time and opportunity to continue their good work with perhaps additional partnership support.”

Suzanne Ethredge, president of the Pueblo Education Association, the teachers union, said both schools have suffered from a lack of consistent leadership and significant teacher turnover, an issue that evaluators noted as well. She said any plan to improve the schools needs to take seriously the issue not just of training teachers but keeping them.

Some teachers and parents have asked for the schools to be turned into “community schools,” though letters to the state board indicate this approach has some serious skeptics as well.

“There is a lot of buy-in and a lot of people are looking to this model as a way to engage authentically with our community and dig in and find those root causes that are holding students back,” said Robert Donovan, an eighth-grade social studies teacher at Risley and member of the Pueblo Education Coalition.

Community schools incorporate a wide range of services for students and their families, ranging from meals, health clinics, and laundry service to English classes and job training. These schools work to engage parents in their children’s education, and in their most ideal version, parents play a big role in shaping educational decisions.

Teachers unions have been strong advocates for community schools in response to persistent low test scores, including in Pueblo and Adams 14. They argue that community schools address the social and economic problems that make it hard for students to succeed at school. Research on the academic impact of this approach is mixed.

More than 97 percent of Risley students qualify for subsidized lunches, a measure of poverty, compared to 80 percent for the district as a whole. Nearly 80 percent of Heroes students are from low-income families.

“The concerns expressed by our community fall into several areas, including authentic parent and community engagement, culturally relevant curriculum, a focus on high-quality teaching and learning, positive discipline practices, and mental health supports, to name a few,” reads the online petition. “The most powerful voices speaking about what is needed were, in fact, students. Based on this engagement, a community schools model … is the best fit for what we need and want in Pueblo.”

At Wednesday’s hearing, district officials will lay out their plans in more detail — they declined to talk to us before the meeting — and face tough questions from state board members, who have until Thursday to render a decision on the two Pueblo schools and the Adams 14 district, which could face significant loss of control.

This week’s decisions will mark a test of how the state board will deal with struggling schools going forward. Pueblo City Schools and Adams 14 have both described a process for finding additional outside partners if that’s what the state board orders, but it’s not entirely clear what that will look like on the ground.

And then it will fall back to principals, teachers, parents, and students to do the work.