help wanted

After 18 months, Shelby County Schools is still without a leader to drive academic improvement

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Heidi Ramirez, the then chief academic officer for Shelby County Schools, speaks at a charter advisory committee meeting Oct. 26.

It’s been 18 months since Shelby County Schools had a chief academic officer and leaders say the search is still ongoing.

The chief academic officer is responsible for creating benchmark goals for schools, training and recruiting teachers and principals, and overseeing academic strategy. Now, Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said the district has interviewed about 12 people for the top academics job and is still searching.

When Heidi Ramirez announced her resignation in February 2017, Sharon Griffin took some — but not all — responsibilities of setting the academic agenda for Tennessee’s largest district. The search continued even as Griffin helped teachers transition to two curriculums meant to be more aligned to Tennessee’s new requirements for student learning. When Griffin left to lead the Achievement School District in May, another void in leadership formed.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson speaks to reporters on the first day of school Monday at American Way Middle School.

“It’s got to be somebody obviously who knows and understands teaching and learning very deeply, understands the impact of these academic standards, but is also going to be able to inspire and motivate principals and people at the district,” Hopson, an attorney, said Monday.

In the meantime, Angela Whitelaw, interim chief of schools, Joris Ray, assistant superintendent for academic operations, and Antonio Burt, assistant superintendent for the district’s lowest performing schools, have been filling in the gaps, Hopson said.

They have their work cut out for them. The district made significant gains in early literacy this year, but is still far from its goal for 2025 to have 90 percent of third-graders reading on grade level. The team is also working to revise and refine the academic plan to help Shelby County Schools reach those goals.

The Memphis district has been the epicenter of Tennessee’s school improvement efforts since 2012, when 69 of the 83 worst-performing schools in the state were located in the city. Since then, the Innovation Zone, a local initiative to improve schools with state funding, continues to outpace the state-run district, which has relied on privately managed charter organizations to turn around schools.

Getting the right person to carry on that work will be vital to the district’s future.

“The search is ongoing. I hope to have some announcements soon but we’re not going to rush it,” Hopson said.

Reading revisited

McQueen ends her Tennessee tenure the same way she started — focused on reading

When then-newly appointed Education Commissioner Candice McQueen began touring Tennessee schools in 2015, she was “ashamed” of the dearth of strong reading materials available for many students and their teachers.

“Depending on what districts and classrooms you were in, some people had resources and curriculum and some did not,” recalls McQueen, a former classroom teacher and university dean of education.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen reads to students during one of her classroom tours. (Courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

The shortcoming was just one of several that helped explain Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores and why only one in three students was considered proficient in reading, based on national tests.

There also was a gap in how teachers or teacher candidates were being equipped to teach reading, a lack of attention to fostering reading skills in students’ early years, and little to no public education programming to address “summer slide,” the tendency for especially low-income students to regress in academic skills during their summer break from school.

McQueen has sought to address all of those weaknesses through various investments and supports under Read to be Ready, which was her first sweeping initiative under Gov. Bill Haslam.

Now, as she winds down her four-year tenure this month, the outgoing commissioner considers that work — launched in 2016 with the support of Haslam and his wife, Chrissy — among her most important legacies as education chief.

Last week, as a fitting bookend to her statewide leadership before starting her new job as CEO of a national education organization, McQueen put reading front and center during three days of regional gatherings of teachers and literacy coaches in Memphis, Nashville, and Knoxville.

“We’re just now beginning to see progress on TNReady,” she said of last year’s reading gains in grades 3-5 on the state’s standardized test.

“It’s progress we’re proud of, even though it’s not as much as we want,” she added.

Indeed, the climb ahead is steep, despite this year’s 2.3 percent increase to almost 37 percent of third-graders reading on or above grade level. To reach Tennessee’s lofty goal of 75 percent by 2025, the state will have to move 5 to 6 percent more third-graders to proficiency every year.

McQueen says reaching the goal is “absolutely doable” and cites the groundwork laid through Read to be Ready. Since 2016, Tennessee has launched a statewide coaching network for elementary reading teachers, offered new training for educators, and made investments in better resources for students. There are also new standards and expectations in teacher training and summer reading camps for first- through third-graders who are furthest behind.

McQueen is especially encouraged by summer camps that have shown statistically significant reading improvements for participating students during the past two years. She recently announced $8.9 million in state grants to 218 public schools to host even more camps next summer.

PHOTO: TDOE
Children participate in a 2016 summer reading program in Lauderdale County in West Tennessee as part of the new grant-based literacy program overseen by the Tennessee Department of Education.

As for the lack of high-quality textbooks and materials she first encountered in 2015, the state has identified texts that align with Tennessee’s new academic standards, and McQueen is urging districts to plan now to budget more for them.

“We’re building in this idea that you don’t just adopt; you purchase,” she told Chalkbeat. “Sometimes we see adoption where you have a set that all teachers are sharing. We feel like every teacher needs their own sets of books, their own curriculums, so they can adequately support all their students.”

Recognizing that strong reading skills are the foundation for learning and success in all subject areas, most Tennessee’s districts have embraced some or all parts of Read to be Ready. It’s popular as well with teachers, who say they like having both guidance and flexibility to help their students learn to decode letters and words, expand vocabularies, and deepen comprehension skills.

“This makes concrete resources available, but we’re also empowered to use our own teacher resources,” said Emily Townsend, who teaches kindergarteners in Coffee County.

Others are concerned that the focus on young children is coming at the expense of struggling middle and high school readers. “These are not throwaway kids,” said Stephanie Love, a board member for Shelby County Schools.

Love said the effects of poverty are also at play and require a deeper look at illiteracy in large cities like Memphis.

“I don’t think we need more initiatives; I think we need to reevaluate and see what’s preventing so many of our students from reading well,” said Love, a proponent of more state funding for schools. “Do they need glasses? Are they dyslexic? Did they not attend a pre-K or Head Start program?”

McQueen agrees that illiteracy is a “true equity issue.”

“Reading skills are a predictor of so many things across a lifetime,” she said of navigating school and jobs and avoiding crime and poverty. “We know that if you’re not reading proficiently by the third grade, you can still catch up, but it gets harder over time. Our passion for this work comes from what we know happens when kids are not reading.”

more money more learning

Does money matter for schools? Why one researcher says the question is ‘essentially settled’

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Educators wearing red and holding signs rally for more education funding at the Colorado Capitol on April 26, 2018.

“Throwing money at the problem” has long gotten a bad rap in education.

“The notion that spending more money is going to bring about different results is ill-placed and ill-advised,” U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos said last year.

But a string of recent studies have undermined that perspective. Now, a new review of research drives another nail into the argument’s coffin.

The review looks closely at 13 studies focused on schools nationwide or in multiple states. Twelve found that spending more money meant statistically significant benefits for students, including rising test scores and high school graduation rates.

“By and large, the question of whether money matters is essentially settled,” Northwestern economist Kirabo Jackson concludes. “Researchers should now focus on understanding what kinds of spending increases matter the most.”

In the paper, which was released Monday through the National Bureau of Economic Research and has not been peer-reviewed, Jackson looks at attempts to pin down the effects of school spending. This is critical, because policymakers like DeVos often focus on correlations between spending and test scores.

The results of the 13 studies are remarkably consistent, even though they span different time periods.

For instance, students saw big gains in school districts where spending jumped between 1972 and 1990, one study found. A 10 percent increase in spending across a student’s 12 years in public school led students to complete an additional one-third of a year of school and boosted their adult wages by 7 percent. The gains were largest for low-income kids.

Studies of more recent changes tell a similarly encouraging story. States that increased school funding between 1990 and 2011 saw substantial gains on federal exams soon after, another analysis found.

A separate paper found that 12 percent increases in school spending boosted graduation rates by several percentage points

And another study found that cutting funding in the wake of the Great Recession hurt student test scores and graduation rates.

Jackson identifies just one national paper without clear positive effects.

“Money used wisely clearly matters,” said Lori Taylor, a Texas A&M school finance researcher  who praised Jackson’s study. “One of the takeaways from this newer literature might be that schools are more wise than we thought.”

Studies looking at single states have also found largely encouraging results. One recent study in New York took advantage of a quirk in the state’s funding formula that allowed certain districts with falling enrollment to get extra funding. Those extra dollars led to higher scores on state exams, it found.

Another New York study found that a 2 to 3 percent increase in funding led to a 0.5 to 0.8 percentage point decline in the high school dropout rate.

Head over to Ohio, and the results look similar: passing a funding ballot measure caused a boost in test scores. Three separate papers in Michigan, as well as a study in Massachusetts, found positive results, too. And Jackson’s overview may actually understate the evidence, as it does not include recent research in California and Texas, which also found gains from additional funding.

The only state study that showed unrestricted funding increases did not result in any improvements was a 2003 paper looking at Kentucky.

The pattern is consistent with other recent research overviews, but it’s a sharp departure from an older one by Eric Hanushek, a Stanford economist who has frequently testified on behalf of states defending against lawsuits aimed at increasing school funding. His 1997 review looked at studies conducted before 1995, and found that only 27 percent of the results showed statistically gains from additional school spending.

Jackson argues that Hanushek’s review — which was vigorously challenged even at the time — is dated and relies on studies with crude methodologies.

Hanushek concedes that, but says his view on the matter is largely unchanged. The gains shown in the studies in Jackson’s paper differ in size, he said. And he noted a similar correlation to ones that DeVos cites: as spending has increased over the past several decades, scores on 12th grade federal tests have remained largely stagnant.

“The variation in the results that you get indicate quite clearly if I want to fix [a school district] and I just drop money on them, they may or may not get better,” Hanushek said. “It’s how the money is spent more than how much.”

Still, even Hanushek acknowledges there is a case for spending more money in schools.

“I think we’re underinvesting in education in the U.S. and I think it’s pretty serious,” he said. “But I don’t want to just do what we’ve done in the past and hope for something different.”

Jackson’s results are a bit murkier when examining state spending that is earmarked for specific uses. School construction spending, for example, led to gains in some cases but no clear effects in others. A trio of New York City studies found that federal Title I funds targeted at disadvantaged students did not have clear positive effects.

Jackson’s paper also does not review research on spending increases to pay for smaller class sizes, teacher salary increases, tutoring programs, or school turnaround efforts. A number of turnaround initiatives with big price tags have yielded disappointing results.

On balance, Taylor of Texas A&M says that the research points in a clear direction — though it still may not persuade skeptics.

“There were some circles that never bought the premise that money doesn’t matter,” she said. “There are other circles that will never accept the premise that money does matter.”