Hold Up

A Memphis principal was fired over flawed test scores. Should state law protect him too?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Academy of Health Sciences was one of the first charter schools in the city in 2003.

Reginald Williams was set to retire as principal of a Memphis charter school at the end of the school year. Instead, he was fired just days into the new school year, shortly after state test results showed the school’s scores had plummeted.

Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School, one of the city’s first charters, had within a single year dropped from the second-highest rating on student growth to a level 1, the lowest.

School leaders who do not move the needle for academics are frequently fired, especially as a growing body of research confirms principals play a key role in student achievement. But after major technical glitches interrupted computerized testing for tens of thousands of students this spring, state lawmakers sprung into action. They passed two wide-ranging laws designed to protect teachers, students, and schools from test results that might not be reliable.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Corey Johnson, seated right, is the executive director of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences.

Until now, no public challenge has emerged to see how far the legislation extends — and whether or not principals are covered under it.

“You would think, though, if it’s a flawed test, that would be given consideration,” said Antonio Parkinson, a state representative whose district includes the school. “I think I would stop short of telling schools if they can move their folks around. But I would hope they would give the same consideration we gave them.”

Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, told Chalkbeat he and Williams, who had served for four years as the school’s principal, had come to a “mutual agreement” about moving up the timeline for Williams’ retirement. However, emails between Johnson and the board’s president, Michael Dexter, explicitly tie Williams’ departure to poor 2018 results on the state test known as TNReady. (Chalkbeat obtained the emails through a public records request.)

“Instead of waiting until the year end, I believe it is critical to make this move now in order to show the community good faith that MAHS will moving to improve itself educational [sic],” Johnson said in the email. “It is difficult to promote high-quality education with a health science focus with the scores suggesting our school is a Level One.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange spoke at a board meeting for Memphis Academy of Health Sciences after principal Reginald Williams was fired.

When school parents learned of Williams’ departure, many of them, together with community supporters of the former principal, overwhelmed a board meeting last month to demand answers that were not given.

When Chalkbeat asked how the state law on 2018 scores influenced his decision to fire Williams, Johnson declined to talk about the network’s former employee. He also declined to say why his reasoning was not made public to parents at the board meeting.

“MAHS, since its inception in 2003, maintains that it is our mission to cement a high-quality educational experience by providing a continuous, health science-focused curriculum,” Johnson wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “Any changes in course in respect to that work, our faculty or administration are all made with that mission in mind.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

Williams attributed the large drop in scores to late delivery of laptops for students to practice on and a lack of motivation from students once they learned the scores would not count — a common observation among educators. When test scores came out this summer, Williams said he tried to work with Johnson on a plan to bounce back, but did not hear from him until he was fired on Aug. 10.

“I felt very strongly that’s the reason he was releasing me, but I couldn’t prove it,” he said. “I have a history of turning around programs.”

A spokeswoman for the state education department deferred questions about the legislation’s reach to local school board attorneys, though at least one state resource on interpreting the law said principals could void their evaluations based on the state law.

Shelby County Schools’ board’s attorney, Herman Morris, did not respond to several requests for comment. A district spokeswoman, meanwhile, told Chalkbeat to “speak with an attorney who is not affiliated with the charter school or the school district to answer your legal questions.”

The first year Williams was at the high school in North Memphis, the school earned the state’s highest score on student improvement. The following year it dipped, but mostly recovered before this year’s second drop.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education.<br />Note: The state does not publish school scores below 5 percent or above 95 percent to protect student data.

Parkinson, the state lawmaker, said Williams’ situation is a gray area in the law. For school staff, only teachers were specifically mentioned:

For the 2017-2018 school year, [local education agencies] shall not base employment termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by statewide assessments administered in the 2017-2018 school year

G.A. Hardaway, a state representative who helped establish Memphis Academy in 2003 as part of the 100 Black Men of Memphis, said he hadn’t given much thought to how the scores would impact principals.

“The goal was to make sure that everyone was held harmless from those corrupt scores and corrupt process,” he said.

At least one group is insisting that principals should be protected under the law. The legal experts at Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher group, said principals are included in the definition of “teacher” in the state law.

Back at Memphis Academy, the fallout has many parents on edge. Several of them said they are actively looking for another school for their children in light of Williams’ departure and the board’s refusal to answer questions about it.

School leaders also fired ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange, an outspoken supporter of Williams, who spoke during the board meeting. Ange said she still does not have paperwork detailing why she was fired.

De’Licia Jones, a parent who has sent her children to Memphis Academy since 2013, said the whole atmosphere has changed at the school since Williams left. Several other teachers have quit, she and other members of the school community said, and it’s impacting the students.

“Before, they would be sick and still want to go to school. They were excited,” Jones said of her children. “Now he gets to a point where he doesn’t want to go to school.”


Tennessee schools chief Candice McQueen leaving for job at national education nonprofit


Tennessee’s education chief is leaving state government to lead a nonprofit organization focused on attracting, developing, and keeping high-quality educators.

Candice McQueen, 44, will step down in early January to become the CEO of National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

Gov. Bill Haslam, whose administration will end on Jan. 19, announced the impending departure of his education commissioner on Thursday.

He plans to name an interim commissioner, according to an email from McQueen to her staff at the education department.

“While I am excited about this new opportunity, it is hard to leave this team,” she wrote. “You are laser-focused on doing the right thing for Tennessee’s students every single day – and I take heart in knowing you will continue this good work in the months and years to come. I look forward to continuing to support your work even as I move into this new role with NIET.”

A former teacher and university dean, McQueen has been one of Haslam’s highest-profile cabinet members since joining the administration in 2015 to replace Kevin Huffman, a lawyer who was an executive at Teach For America.

Her tenure has been highlighted by overhauling the state’s requirements for student learning, increasing transparency about how Tennessee students are doing, and launching a major initiative to improve reading skills in a state that struggles with literacy.

But much of the good work has been overshadowed by repeated technical failures in Tennessee’s switch to a computerized standardized test — even forcing McQueen to cancel testing for most students in her second year at the helm. The assessment program continued to struggle this spring, marred by days of technical glitches.

Haslam, who has consistently praised McQueen’s leadership throughout the rocky testing ride, said Tennessee’s education system has improved under her watch.

“Candice has worked relentlessly since day one for Tennessee’s students and teachers, and under her leadership, Tennessee earned its first ‘A’ rating for the standards and the rigor of the state’s assessment after receiving an ‘F’ rating a decade ago,” Haslam said in a statement. “Candice has raised the bar for both teachers and students across the state, enabling them to rise to their greatest potential. I am grateful for her service.”

McQueen said being education commissioner has been “the honor of a lifetime” and that her new job will allow her to “continue to be an advocate for Tennessee’s teachers and work to make sure every child is in a class led by an excellent teacher every day.”

At the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, she’ll work with states, districts, and schools to improve the effectiveness of teachers and will operate out of the organization’s new office in Nashville. The institute’s work impacts more than 250,000 educators and 2.5 million students.

“Candice McQueen understands that highly effective teachers can truly transform the lives of our children, our classrooms, our communities and our futures,” said Lowell Milken, chairman of the institute, which has existing offices in Phoenix, Washington, D.C., and Santa Monica, Calif.

In an interview with Chalkbeat, McQueen said numerous organizations had approached her about jobs this year as Tennessee prepared to transition to a new administration under Gov.-elect Bill Lee. She called leading the institute “an extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said.

McQueen’s entire career has focused on strengthening teacher effectiveness and support systems for teachers. Before joining Haslam’s administration, the Tennessee native was an award-winning teacher; then faculty member, department chair, and dean of Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. As dean from 2008 to 2015, Lipscomb became one of the highest-rated teacher preparation programs in Tennessee and the nation. There, McQueen also doubled the size and reach of the college’s graduate programs with new master’s degrees and certificates, the university’s first doctoral program, and additional online and off-campus offerings.

As Haslam’s education commissioner the last four years, McQueen stayed the course on Tennessee’s 2010 overhaul of K-12 education, which was highlighted by raising academic standards; measuring student improvement through testing; and holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable for the results.

Candice McQueen has been commissioner of education for Republican Gov. Bill Haslam since 2015.

One of the plan’s most controversial components was teacher evaluations that are tied to student growth on state tests — a strategy that McQueen has stood by and credited in part for Tennessee’s gains on national tests.

Since 2011, Tennessee has seen record-high graduation rates, college-going rates, and ACT scores and steadily moved up in state rankings on the Nation’s Report Card.

Several new studies say Tennessee teachers are getting better under the evaluation system, although other research paints a less encouraging picture.

Her choice to lead the national teaching institute quickly garnered praise from education leaders across the country.

“The students of Tennessee have benefited from Candice McQueen’s leadership, including bold efforts to ensure students have access to advanced career pathways to lead to success in college and careers, and a solid foundation in reading,” said Carissa Moffat Miller, executive director of the Council of Chief State School Officers.

Louisiana Education Superintendent John White said McQueen brings ideal skills to her new job.

“She is not just a veteran educator who has worked in higher education and K-12 education alike, but she is also a visionary leader with a unique understanding of both quality classroom teaching and the systems necessary to make quality teaching possible for millions of students,” White said.

Read more reaction to the news of McQueen’s planned exit.

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.