Weighing in

Tennessee teachers group cautions Alexander about Trump’s pick for ed chief

PHOTO: Courtesy betsydevos.com
Betsy DeVos of Michigan has helped shape her state's schools through advocacy and philanthropy and is President-elect Donald Trump's nominee to be U.S. secretary of education.

Tennessee’s second-largest teacher organization wants U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander to hear teachers’ reservations about Betsy DeVos before voting whether to confirm her as the nation’s education chief.

In a letter to the Tennessee Republican released Wednesday, the leader of the Professional Educators of Tennessee questioned President-elect Donald Trump’s pick to lead the U.S. Department of Education due to her avid support for school vouchers and lack of experience in public schools.

2014-06_sq_jcbowman-3
PHOTO: ProEdTN.org
J.C. Bowman

“Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware,” writes executive director J.C. Bowman on behalf of the group’s 8,000 members.

Bowman said DeVos’ advocacy of using taxpayer-funded vouchers to pay for private school tuition may “well cloud her desired support of public schools.”

“We must focus on making our public schools successful,” Bowman writes. “…Choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.”

Chairman of the Senate Education Committee, Alexander already has promised to ensure DeVos’ “swift nomination.”

DeVos, a Republican billionaire from Michigan, has never worked in public schools, but she and her husband, Dick, have been long-time advocates and philanthropists in support of school choice policies. Groups that receive funding from her have spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on Tennessee legislative races in the state’s ongoing tug-of-war over vouchers.

U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander
U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, R-Tenn.

Alexander is a prominent voice on national education policy. A former governor of Tennessee and education chief under President George H.W. Bush, he has served in the Senate since 2003, and co-sponsored the new federal education law known as the Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA. Alexander was quick to laud Trump’s selection of DeVos last month, calling her an “excellent choice.”

Bowman’s letter is significant because the Professional Educators of Tennessee strives to distance itself from either major party’s political agenda and does not spend money on political campaigns, though Bowman previously worked with Republican lawmakers in other states, including former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush. By contrast, the Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teachers organization, often aligns itself with Democratic lawmakers.

TEA’s parent organization, the National Education Association, has released a statement expressing similar reservations about DeVos, while national education groups that favor tuition vouchers have heaped praise on Trump’s choice. TEA also urged its members on Facebook to sign an open letter from NEA and the American Federation of Teachers expressing concerns about DeVos. 

Discussion on DeVos’ nomination among Tennessee’s education community has been confined mostly to social media, with few groups speaking out either in support or against Trump’s pick.

Here is Bowman’s letter in full:

Dear Senator Alexander,

Thank you for your continued leadership as Chairman of the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, as well as the recently-passed Every Student Succeeds Act. A strong public education system is a key to our democracy, a foundation to build our economy, and the means by which we can help all Tennessee children achieve their dreams.

Professional Educators of Tennessee is the fastest growing teacher association in our state. We are non-partisan and our organization is unaffiliated with the national teacher unions. Not all educators are members of the NEA or AFT. In fact, there are more educators that are members of independent education associations than the AFT. We are completely funded by the dues of our members. Our members are educators from the state of Tennessee. We do not endorse political candidates, or use their members’ dues to fund political candidates.

I have worked with you previously on numerous occasions from American Legion Boy’s State as a teenager, to various political endeavors, and to address numerous public education challenges within the state of Tennessee. Today, I am writing to share our organization’s reservations in regards to the nomination of Ms. Betsy DeVos for the position as Secretary of Education.

There are two issues of immediate concern for our members. The first is that Ms. DeVos has no direct experience with public education as a student, employee, parent, or school board member, of which we are aware. In your case, when you served as Secretary of Education, you had the prerequisite background, having grown up as a child of public school educators and an advocate of public schools as Governor of Tennessee. Ms. DeVos lacks that background and may not fully understand the historical and philosophical basis for public education. Out of the roughly 55.5 million K-12 students in America, 49.5 million of them are in our public schools, which is a little over 89%.

The second issue, her advocacy of vouchers funded through the use of public tax dollars, may well cloud her desired support of public schools. Vouchers are not a magic bullet, and may do little to improve the quality of public schools. Vouchers are also not a solution to problems in urban cities. These cities face societal challenges well beyond the classroom door. Most communities lack the number of high quality private schools to meet any real demand created by vouchers. It is clear that for now and the foreseeable future, a vast majority of children will be educated by public schools. We must focus on making our public schools successful. Therefore, choosing an education secretary that is so pro-voucher sends a negative message to the hard working educators in our public schools.

I appreciate your strong support of students, educators, and public education in Tennessee, especially your commitment to local control of public education. We encourage Ms. DeVos to go out and visit our public schools and see the incredible things that educators are doing every day across our state and nation. We think she would be amazed. We welcome a dialogue with Ms. DeVos and yourself to address our concerns and invite you both to talk directly to our members to assure them that as Secretary of Education she will support the mission of public schools and has the necessary experience in improving them.

Warmest Regards,

JC Bowman, Ph.D

Executive Director

Roll call!

What states told Chalkbeat about how they will monitor their chronic absenteeism data

PHOTO: Erin Einhorn

Now that students’ rates of chronic absenteeism are being used to judge schools in most states, there will be new incentives to manipulate this data. So Chalkbeat asked the 10 state departments of education whose approved ESSA plans use chronic absenteeism how they plan to guard against that. Nine got back to us. Here’s what they said.

Arizona

As with all school attendance data our School Finance and accounting department have certain controls in place to make sure reporting is accurate – since state funding for schools is based in AZ on average daily attendance it is very important.

As for our newly approved ESSA plan, the Department is meeting with various stakeholders to determine ways to improve reporting of attendance and absenteeism. Our goal is of course to try to reach students that are frequently absent and hopefully help get them back in the classroom.

— Dan Godzich, Arizona Department of Education

Connecticut

Connecticut has been collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data for many years. The data collection system has many in-built edits checks to ensure data quality.

Here are some examples:

  • Attendance must be submitted for all students who are enrolled in the district.
  • Every student with perfect attendance is flagged for district review.
  • Any school that has an increase or decrease of chronic absenteeism rates of more than five percent is flagged for district review and response to [Connecticut State Department of Education].

In addition to edit checks, districts are provided with numerous attendance reports to review their data prior to finalization. Ultimately, the superintendent is required to certify that their data are accurate. Staff also monitor the data during the collection process and reach out to districts when there are anomalies.

Our accountability system is not intended to be a “gotcha.” It’s much more a resource to inform improvement. From the state perspective, we are not looking to name/shame people but partner with them and bring the requisite support to collectively problem-solve with them, which would give districts much less of a reason to cheat or manipulate the data.

— Laura Stefon, Connecticut State Department of Education

Delaware

Delaware school districts and charter schools have been collecting and reporting data regarding attendance as well as absences for many years, so this is not necessarily a new data point in our system. The Department is reviewing current processes around absenteeism and chronic absenteeism, and will work with districts and schools to determine consistent rules for using this information in the accountability system.

— Susan Haberstroh, Delaware Department of Education

Illinois

Historically we have collected school level absence data in summary (e.g. this school had x total absences and x number of students who were chronically truant). Starting this year, 2017-18, we are collecting student-level absence data. As with most of the data we collect from districts, it’s self-reported. We will only know about the absences they report. There are audits and data quality procedures we utilize in order to make sure the data is as accurate possible, for example, a student can’t have more absences recorded than days enrolled in the school (how can you have 30 absences if you’ve only been enrolled for 20 days). In addition, several times a year staff from the Data Analysis division attend conferences and answer questions on a variety of [Illinois State Board of Education] data collection systems … Those dialogues produce suggestions directly from districts that influence changes we make to those systems to improve usability and data accuracy.

— Jackie Rodgers, Illinois State Board of Education

Maine

Maine is planning on using chronic absenteeism and looking at students who have absences of more than 10% of the school year. Student level attendance data must be submitted and “reviewed” quarterly by school districts. The “reviewed” means that they state that they have submitted attendance data to date. At the end of the school year, superintendents will be required to certify that the data is complete and accurate. In addition, one of the duties of the new ESSA Data Coordinator, a new position at the Maine DOE, will be to monitor this data. The exact procedure and policy around this is in process of being written.

— Rachel Paling, Maine Department of Education

Massachusetts

Our system collects attendance data directly from the district student information management systems on a daily basis and also receives any changes made to the student record on a daily basis. So any data manipulation would need to be done systematically and could not be done after the fact without raising flags as to why so many post-dated attendance changes were being made. That being said, it’s something we’ll monitor closely.

— Jacqueline Reis, Massachusetts Department of Elementary and Secondary Education

Oregon

Districts submit attendance data for individual students to [the Oregon Department of Education] four times a year. These data are submitted according to rules published in our data collection manuals; rules that conform to State Board adopted administrative rules and to state statute.

Once the data is loaded into ODE’s data system, ODE staff evaluate the data (such as comparing to historical trends) in order to identify unusual aggregated data, unusual shifts in aggregate trend data, and the plausibility of the individual student level data. (This is part of our usual data quality assurance process, which we use to help ensure data is as accurate as possible.) We know that accidental data submission errors do occur, so our process is designed to help find and correct these.

Once we see data with an unusual pattern we notify the affected districts and ask them to review their submitted data. In some cases districts confirm the data as accurate, in other cases they realize they’ve need to correct an (unintentional) data submission error.

We have not yet done any audits of local district data on attendance. However, the accountability office has conducted such audits on other accountability data. I would anticipate that we might do the same with assessment data submissions, should concerns arise regarding the validity of that data.

— Jon Wiens, Oregon Department of Education

New Jersey

New Jersey has collected chronic absenteeism data for many years. In the School Performance Reports, New Jersey has included chronic absenteeism data for elementary and middle schools for years, and beginning this last year, in the 2016 School Performance Reports, chronic absenteeism data was included for high schools. By publicly posting the chronic absenteeism data for each school on the [New Jersey Department of Education] website, the public is able to have conversations with schools about their data.

— David Saenz, New Jersey Department of Education

Tennessee

There are checks in place to ensure that our large-scale data collection processes are as accurate as possible. In addition to our auditing and compliance processes, which ensure districts are following proper procedures, the department also collects data separately through our assessment and evaluation process, and that provides another check. Teachers claim the students who have been present for the vast majority of instructional time for the purposes of their evaluation. If this data does not align with chronic absenteeism rates reported for the school, it would indicate something was off, and we could investigate further. Additionally, teachers and administrators have another incentive to mark attendance data correctly. If a student is marked as present but is really absent, there could be liability issues for the school. For example, if the school said a student was in class all day but got in an accident or committed a crime during that window, the school could be liable. Liability is a concern we hear from districts, so we know this is on the minds of many administrators.

— Sara Gast, Tennessee Department of Education

Taking attendance

Student absences are about to have higher stakes in most states. Will cheating follow?

PHOTO: RJ Sangosti, Denver Post

Schools across the country are about to be held accountable for student attendance — attaching stakes to a measure that previously had much less significance and increasing the risk that schools will try to manipulate that data.

But it’s unclear how effectively states have prepared for that possibility, or have systems in place to accurately monitor absenteeism data at all.

“It’s human nature, when the stakes rise, to want to game the system,” said Phyllis Jordan of the Georgetown-based think tank FutureEd. She recently wrote an analysis finding that 36 states plan to use chronic absenteeism to measure schools under ESSA, the federal education law. “In that regard, I don’t think chronic absenteeism is any different than other measures, like test scores.”

Of course, one way for schools to improve their chronic absenteeism marks is to add support that helps students to show up to school. That’s exactly how experts and policymakers hope educators will respond, and because states are only using chronic absenteeism as a small portion of the accountability system, the incentives for cheating may not be strong. But past experience with evaluation systems suggests that a small number of schools will resort to unscrupulous means.

“When you’ve got high stakes on something, if there’s a way to corrupt it, some people are going to corrupt it,” said Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education researcher at Northwestern who wrote a brief highlighting the advantages of using chronic absenteeism to measure schools. “The question is, how big is this incentive? How many schools are going to engage in this bad behavior?”

High stakes could lead to manipulation, but how big of a problem this will be is an open question

A 2003 study in Chicago found evidence of cheating on standardized tests in about 5 percent of elementary classrooms. More subtle gaming has also occured: research found evidence that teachers focused on topics likely to appear on the state test, at the expense of other academic standards.

The potential problem may be more acute when it comes to student absences because of the all-or-nothing way chronic absenteeism is measured.

In most states, a student is deemed chronically absent if they miss 10 percent of school days — around 18 days for those enrolled for a full school year. That means that schools might be especially tempted to mark a student present on the day of their 18th absence. (If student attendance rates are bunched right below the chronic absenteeism bar — say, many more are gone 17 rather than 18 days — that could be evidence of manipulation.)

“We need to use accountability to promote an early warning approach — not just making sure kids are one less day absent,” said Hedy Chang, the executive director of Attendance Works, a nonprofit that promotes efforts to improve school attendance.

Both Jordan and Schanzenbach noted that, because states are generally counting chronic absenteeism for only about 5 to 10 percent of school ratings, the incentives to cheat are likely to be fewer.

“It’s going be an empirical question about how big is the corruption of this — my prediction is it’s going to be reasonably small,” said Schanzenbach.

“This is why we encourage people to keep chronic absence to a relatively low percentage of the overall weighting — if it’s less than 10 percent … it’s not worth investing in trying to game it,” said Chang.

Still, attendance manipulation scandals have cropped up before: A 2016 investigation in Chicago, where student attendance rates are a part of school scores and principal evaluations, found that four high schools had systematically changed attendance records.

Others are concerned about data issues beyond obvious cheating.

“I’m worried about outright manipulation, but I’m also worried about sloppiness of reporting and inconsistencies,” said Chad Aldeman of Bellwether Education Partners, a reform-oriented consulting firm that has undertaken an extensive review of state ESSA plans. Details like how schools count partial-day absences, or what happens when a teacher forgets to take attendance, will take on new importance.

States are taking different approaches

Experts agrees that there should be some protections against manipulation of attendance data. But it’s unclear to what extent states have those safeguards in place.

Chalkbeat reached out to the 10 states that plan to use chronic absenteeism and have had their ESSA plans approved by the federal government. Nine of the state departments of education responded.

A representative for the Massachusetts Department of Education said that because the state can see changes to attendance rates, “any data manipulation would need to be done systematically and could not be done after the fact without raising flags as to why so many post-dated attendance changes were being made.”

Oregon already looks for unusual trends in attendance data, but does not conduct audits of local districts. “However, the accountability office has conducted such audits on other accountability data,” an education official said. “I would anticipate that we might do the same with attendance data submissions, should concerns arise regarding the validity of that data.”

But some states mention checks that might not catch most manipulation.

Illinois, for example, ensures that “a student can’t have more absences recorded than days enrolled in the school.”

A spokesperson from the Tennessee Department of Education noted just one kind of potential irregularity: “If the school said a student was in class all day but got in an accident or committed a crime during that window, the school could be liable.”

Some states said that they are working on this issue, but specifics have not yet been fleshed out.

Delaware “is reviewing current processes around absenteeism and chronic absenteeism.” Maine will be hiring an ESSA data coordinator “who will monitor data integrity,” but “the exact procedure and policy around this is in process of being written,” according to a spokesperson.

In Arizona, “the Department [of Education] is meeting with various stakeholders to determine ways to improve reporting of attendance and absenteeism.”

States that have already been using chronic absenteeism or attendance rates to determine funding may face less of a learning curve.

In its school performance reports, “New Jersey has included chronic absenteeism data for elementary and middle schools for years,” a spokesperson said.

Connecticut, meanwhile, has been “collecting and reporting chronic absenteeism data for many years” and has a number of checks in place, including flagging any school with large increases or decreases in chronic absenteeism, according to a spokesperson.

See all nine states’ full explanations for how they plan to protect against manipulation of absence data. Want more education news? Subscribe to Chalkbeat’s new national newsletter here.