looking forward

Here are the education issues we’re watching in Tennessee’s statehouse in 2019

PHOTO: (Malcolm MacGregor | Getty Images)
A birds eye view of the Tennessee State Capitol building in Nashville.

With a new governor, a new education commissioner, and new lawmakers steering school policy, 2019 could be a big year for education in the Tennessee statehouse.

Exactly what’s coming isn’t yet clear, although recent hires by gov.-elect Bill Lee offer some possible clues. The newly elected lawmakers haven’t yet been sworn in, and a new education commissioner still hasn’t been named.

Still, we know that some issues will be on the table when the General Assembly convenes on Jan. 8. Here’s what we’ll be looking out for. As always, let us know what you think we should be watching at tn.tips@chalkbeat.org

1. New governor and legislature take charge

Lee will take office on Jan. 19. He’s taking the reins from Bill Haslam, a fellow Republican who once said he most wanted to be remembered for what he did to improve education. Haslam led the state for eight years, the maximum allowed.

Lee has promised “fresh ideas” but offered few specifics about his education plans, though it’s clear that he’s pro-voucher and open to making changes on testing. You can read his ideas in his own words here.

In the coming weeks, Lee is expected to appoint an education commissioner, which will offer big insights into the direction he wants to take the state’s schools. His priorities for his first proposed state budget also will be telling — for instance, if he includes more money for school safety as Haslam did last year, or seeks to increase teacher pay or beef up career and technical education, two priorities discussed on the campaign trail.

Lee will need support from the legislature to make many changes. How readily that might come is not yet clear: At least a fourth of the General Assembly’s members will be new to Capitol Hill.

Among those who did not seek reelection were the leaders of three of four House education panels — all East Tennessee Republicans who have wielded considerable power in controlling the flow of bills in their committees or subcommittee. Their successors will be chosen by the new House speaker, likely to be Rep. Glen Casada, a Republican from Franklin who has the blessing of the majority caucus. The speaker also will decide if he wants to keep or change the current two-committee structure for education to handle the large volume of bills focused on education.

2. The voucher debate continues, with powerful new allies

Tennessee lawmakers have toyed for years with the idea of starting a school voucher program, which would allow families to use taxpayer money for private school tuition or services. But while such a program came close to passing in 2016, an unlikely coalition of Democrats and rural Republicans have consistently fended off such legislation. (One exception: A voucher program for some students with disabilities launched in 2017).

Republican Bill Lee delivers his victory speech in Franklin after defeating Democrat Karl Dean in Tennessee’s race for governor.

One question now is how the makeup of the new legislature will play out on vouchers or bills for voucher-like programs like tuition tax credits.

Another question is how and when Lee, who campaigned actively for more school options for Tennessee families, will push the issue. Will he try to get a voucher program approved, or will he hold off until later in his administration when he’s got his first budget and legislative session under his belt? Either way, he has several of the state’s strongest voucher advocates in his corner, having hired the former Tennessee director of the pro-voucher group American Federation for Children as his policy director and the former leader of another pro-voucher group as his legislative director.

3. Another year of TNReady, with changes looming

After three years of struggles, Tennessee’s embattled state test, TNReady, will be back this spring for most students. A new round of testing will start in the shadow of a recent state audit of the testing program and 1,700 pages of mostly negative feedback from teachers about its administration.

The audit was released as Tennessee prepares to invite more companies to submit proposals to take over TNReady testing beginning this fall. That request for proposals, which initially was to be released in late 2018, is now set for early 2019 and will include requirements for both online and paper testing.

Tennessee’s most recent testing woes – namely computer glitches – have largely been blamed on testing company Questar. But the audit also criticized the education department for inadequate oversight of the program and said the push to switch to online testing “may have been overly ambitious.”

Also at issue is whether Lee’s administration will move to further reduce testing that was central to Tennessee’s accountability system under Haslam’s administration. The education department already dropped two end-of-course exams for high schoolers this school year in its most significant reduction of state testing in recent years.

4. State funding lawsuit could see its day in court

One looming issue will advance first outside of the legislature. A 3-year-old lawsuit challenging Tennessee’s system of funding public schools is closer to trial than it has ever been, with a tentative start date set for April in Davidson County Chancery Court. If successful, the lawsuit could ultimately force Tennessee to invest more in public education, which already is almost at $5 billion out of the state’s $37.5 billion annual budget.

The litigation pits Tennessee’s two largest districts against the state over whether it allocates enough money to provide an adequate education, particularly for urban school systems that serve more students who live in poverty, have special needs, or come from non-English-speaking homes. Memphis-based Shelby County Schools filed the suit in 2015, and Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools joined the litigation in 2017.

So, as lawmakers look to draft a new budget this year with the possibility of more money for teacher pay, they’ll keep an eye on the bigger question of whether state funding for schools is adequate. That’s a different question from two earlier cases that ended up at the Tennessee Supreme Court and led to smaller and rural school systems receiving a greater share of school funding than they previously were getting.

Civics lesson

Water fountains, a march, and dreams: Brooklyn kindergartners learn about the civil rights movement ahead of MLK day

PHOTO: Reema Amin/Chalkbeat
Kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie learned about the civil rights movement and Martin Luther King Jr. by staging a peaceful march in the school hallway.

A dozen kindergartners held picket signs and marched down their third floor hallway, chanting about Martin Luther King Jr., “He was great, and he was good. He taught peace and brotherhood.”

Stopping in front of the nearest water fountain, one student taped to the wall a sign that, in child’s penmanship, read “White Only.”

“Did people get punished for drinking out of the wrong water fountain?” asked their teacher, Diamond Mays.

“Yes,” several of the children, all of whom are black, responded.

How, Mays asked, did black people who couldn’t use certain water fountains feel, especially on a hot day?

“Sad!”

“Frustrated!”

This scene on Thursday was one of several exercises the kindergartners at New American Academy Charter School in Canarsie participated in ahead of Martin Luther King Jr. Day. Each year, the school commemorates the day with lessons or activities tailored to each grade.

Since the students are so young, teachers have mostly focused on King’s promotion of peace and his legacy, rather than the more violent aspects of the American civil rights movement, said Fatima Toure, a kindergarten teacher at the school. It’s part of the school’s model to promote King’s vision and ideology, which is what “we want for our students,” said Lisa Parquette, the school’s headmaster.

The activities at New American are one slice of what schools across the city are doing to teach their students about King ahead of the national holiday, which marks when the civil rights leader would have turned 90. Brooklyn’s PS 261 participated in an annual march to Borough Hall. P.S. 770 in Brooklyn will hold a volunteering event Monday to commemorate the holiday, which children have off from school.

Toure said the activities also appeal to students’ natural curiosity. “They seem more curious as to, you know, why it was happening because I believe they just heard about Martin Luther King, but they didn’t really understand what he did,” Toure said. “They would ask questions about why African Americans have to sit in the back of the bus, why was everything separated, why were there colored signs in certain places.”

Since kindergartners do better with visuals, school leaders chose the march and water fountain activity so they could actually see slices of what life was like before and during the civil rights movement, Toure said.

Over the past week, kindergarten classes reviewed a few readings about King. With a teacher’s help, they wrote about the ideas King pioneered that left an impact on their daily lives.

A guest speaker visited students on Tuesday and answered questions about segregation and King’s biography.

They learned key terms like segregation and Jim Crow and helped make their “protest” signs featuring facts about the civil rights movement.

“Jim Crow laws legalized racial segregation,” one kindergartener read proudly from her sign before their march.

After the march, the students returned to their classroom to share their dreams (with inspiration from King’s “I Have A Dream” speech). Several of the children, a little confused by the lesson, wished that black and white people could use the same water fountains, and their teacher gently reminded them that this was already the case. One girl hoped to “get more big and grow up.”

Then it was Nathan’s turn.

“My dream is white and black people can come together,” he said.

where's the research

Summit Learning declined to be studied, then cited collaboration with Harvard researchers anyway

English teacher Adelaide Giornelli works with ninth grade students on computers at Shasta charter public high school, part of the Summit public school system. (Photo by Melanie Stetson Freeman/The Christian Science Monitor via Getty Images)

Summit Learning, a fast-growing “personalized learning” system, touts a partnership with Harvard researchers even though Summit actually turned down their proposal to study the model.

The online platform is backed by Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg’s philanthropy and is now being used in 380 schools across the U.S.

The program “is based on collaborations with nationally acclaimed learning scientists, researchers and academics from institutions including the Harvard Center for Education Policy Research,” Summit’s website says. “Summit’s research-backed approach leads to better student outcomes.” Schools have used that seeming endorsement to back up their decision to adopt the model.

In fact, though, there is no academic research on whether Summit’s specific model is effective. And while Summit helped fund a study proposal crafted by Harvard researchers, it ultimately turned them down.

“They didn’t tell us explicitly why,” said Tom Kane, a Harvard education professor and faculty director of the Center for Education Policy Research. “All I can say is that the work that we did for Summit involved planning an evaluation; we have not measured impacts on student outcomes.”

Summit’s founder Diane Tavenner said the organization had a number of reasons for not moving forward with the proposed study, including its potential to burden teachers and to limit the platform’s ability to change or grow. Their general approach is backed by other research, she said, and their track record as a charter network.

As to the mention of the Harvard center on Summit’s website, Tavenner said the organization had learned a lot from the process of developing a potential study. Tavenner said that, after Chalkbeat began reporting this story, she offered to change the website’s language, but said Kane had not asked her to do so.

More broadly, Tavenner says she is skeptical of the usefulness of large-scale research of the sort the Harvard team proposed, saying the conclusions might be of interest to journalists and philanthropists, not schools.

“I’m not willing to give up what’s best for kids for those two audiences,” Tavenner told Chalkbeat last month.

It’s a notable stance for Summit, given its ambitious claims and the platform’s wide reach.

As “personalized learning” becomes a more popular idea among those trying to improve America’s schools, Summit’s platform has been adopted for free by schools across the country. That’s thanks largely to the backing of the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, the philanthropy poised to receive Zuckerberg’s billions. Summit’s model has drawn praise from parents and teachers in some schools, but proven controversial in others.

Regardless, CZI’s support means Summit could continue to grow rapidly — which has some observers wondering when its backers will show that what it’s offering is particularly effective.

“I do think that there is an obligation to provide credible evidence to schools when you’re trying to convince them to adopt things,” said John Pane, a researcher at the RAND Corporation who has extensively studied personalized learning initiatives.

Summit spreads, but research talks with Harvard team fizzle

Summit’s claims about a Harvard collaboration have their roots in conversations that began in  late 2016.

Zuckerberg’s wife, pediatrician Priscilla Chan, took a fateful tour of a school in the Summit Public Schools charter network two years earlier. The network soon began working with a Facebook engineering team to build out its technology.

Summit’s model has a number of components: a curriculum in core subjects for grades four through 12; weeks scheduled for students to deeply examine a topic of interest; long-term mentors for students; and a technology platform, which serves as the approach’s organizing structure. The goal is to better engage students and to give them more control over what and how they learn, Summit says.

By the 2016-17 school year, Summit had rolled out its program to more than 100 schools outside its own network. That’s also about when Summit started talks with Harvard professors Marty West and Kane.

An ideal study might have randomly assigned schools or students to use the learning platform, creating two groups that could be compared. That was a non-starter for Tavenner, as it would limit schools’ access to the platform. If 250 schools were assigned to use it, and another 250 expressed interest but were not, for example, that would be bad for students, she said last month while discussing the organization’s approach to research.

“Am I really going to say to 250 people, ‘You know what, we’re not going to actually help you, even though we actually could right now?’” she said.

Kane says they came up with a few alternatives: comparing students using Summit to others not using it in the same school or comparing schools that had adopted Summit to similar schools that hadn’t. They suggested tracking test scores as well as suspensions and attendance, measuring the effectiveness of the support offered to teachers, and using surveys to measure concepts important to Summit, like whether students felt in control of their schoolwork.

But Summit passed on an evaluation. “After many conversations with Harvard and the exploration of multiple options, we came to recognize that external research would need to meet certain baseline criteria in order for us to uphold in good faith our partnership with schools, students, and parents,” Tavenner said.

Metrics were a particular concern. “Standardized tests are not good measures of the cognitive skills,” a Summit spokesperson said, saying the organization had developed better alternatives. “Attendance and discipline are not measures of habits of success, full stop.” Tavenner said she feared that a study could stop Summit from being able to make changes to the program or that it might stop participating schools from adding new grades. (Kane and West say their plan wouldn’t have limited growth or changes.)

Tavenner told Chalkbeat that research of the kind the Harvard team was offering isn’t needed to validate their approach. Summit is based on decades of research on ideas like project-based learning, she said, citing the organization’s report titled “The Science of Summit.”

Dan Willingham, a University of Virginia educational psychologist, said that’s useful, but not the same as knowing whether a specific program helps students.

“You take a noticeable step down in confidence when something is not research-based but rather research-inspired,” he said, while noting that many education initiatives lack hard evidence of success. “There’s a hell of a lot going on in education that’s not being evaluated.”

What about Summit’s original charter network, now 11 schools? Summit cites internal data showing its graduates have success being accepted to college. But outside research is limited. A 2017 study by the Stanford-based group CREDO found that attending Summit led to modest declines in students’ reading scores and had no clear effect in math, though it looked at only a small portion of the network’s students.

The Summit charter schools are also part of an ongoing study of economically integrated charter schools, and a few were included in two widely cited RAND studies looking at personalized learning, though they didn’t report any Summit-specific information. California’s notoriously limited education data access has stymied more research, Tavenner said.

What does philanthropy owe the public?

Today, Summit’s learning platform has far outpaced its charter network. About 380 schools, with over 72,000 students, use the platform; the national charter network KIPP, by comparison, runs 224 schools serving around 100,000 students.

Summit now gets its engineering help from the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, not Facebook. That philanthropic partnership has fueled its growth: While CZI has not disclosed how much it’s given to Summit, the Silicon Valley Community Foundation — through which CZI funnels much of its education giving — lists grants to Summit totalling over $70 million in 2016 and 2017.

Summit has also netted $2.3 million for the platform from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation in 2016, and another $10 million in 2017. (CZI, the Gates Foundation, and the Silicon Valley Community Foundation are all funders of Chalkbeat.)

Some major foundations regularly invest in research to better understand whether their gifts are doing good, noted Sarah Reckhow, a Michigan State professor who studies education philanthropy. In a number of instances, that research comes to unfavorable conclusions, like a Gates-funded study on its teacher evaluation initiative or a Walton Family Foundation-backed evaluation of charter schools’ propensity to screen out students with disabilities. (A Gates spokesperson said that part of its $10 million to Summit was set aside for “measurement and evaluation.”)

Reckhow said she hasn’t yet seen that same inclination from CZI. And she worries that school districts might be less likely to carefully examine programs that are offered free of charge, like Summit.

“If you reduce that barrier, you’re making it potentially more likely to adopt something without as much scrutiny as they otherwise might do,” she said. “That increases the obligation of Summit and CZI to evaluate the work.”

CZI spokesperson Dakarai Aarons said the organization is committed to research and to Summit, and pointed to a number of schools and districts that saw academic improvements after introducing Summit’s platform. “As the program grows, we look forward to expanded research to help measure its long-term impact,” he said.

Tavenner said Summit is exploring other options to prove its approach is working, including talking to researchers who study continuous improvement. “We can’t just keep saying no to [randomized studies],” she said. “We’ve got to have another way, but I don’t have another way yet.”

Researchers Kane and West, for their part, say Summit’s concerns about evaluating its evolving model should also raise questions about Summit’s swift spread.

“The evaluation we proposed would have assessed the impact of the model at that point in time, even if the model continued to evolve,” they wrote in an email. “When a model is still changing so radically that a point in time estimate is irrelevant, it is too early to be operating in hundreds of schools.”

“Unfortunately, Summit is closer to the rule than the exception,” they said.