Making the grade

Tennessee schools soon will receive letter grades. But will poverty be considered?

Tennessee is developing a new system to evaluate its schools based on the same A-F grading scale its students receive. But not everyone agrees on what should constitute an A.

This week, officials with the State Department of Education looked closely at grading models as they seek to comply with both a new state law that requires each school be assigned a letter grade and a new federal law that focuses on all aspects of school accountability.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has strong feelings about what shouldn’t be a factor: poverty.

“Poverty … shouldn’t be the reason you don’t even have an opportunity to get an A,” she told the State Board of Education on Thursday.

As such, state officials are proposing two avenues for schools to get an A on achievement: 1) high test scores, which would tend to favor schools with fewer poor students and more resources, and 2) substantial test score growth, which would provide a pathway for schools that are more diverse.

But others think that opening up the top grade to schools that aren’t necessarily top performers would undermine the grading system.

Williamson County Schools Superintendent Mike Looney says growth is important, but that achievement scores are more important. He represents one of the state’s highest-performing and wealthiest districts and participated Thursday night in a town hall meeting in Nashville to discuss Tennessee’s accountability plan under the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA.

Earlier Thursday, Wendy Tucker, a State Board of Education member representing part of Nashville and Williamson County, expressed similar concerns. She said that including growth in a grade would be misleading, and not in the spirit of the state law.

“That statute was intended for parents to be able to look at a school and see what level of education they’re getting,” said Tucker, who is also co-CEO of Project Renaissance, a nonprofit organization focused on Nashville’s public schools. “I think growth is great. I just don’t think it’s an A.”

But McQueen and her team defended the two-pronged model. Test scores don’t paint the full picture of school quality, said Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns. “Just because you walk into a school that has a lot of high-achieving students does not mean there’s a culture of excellence there,” Towns said.

McQueen added that the state’s education messaging as a whole has been around growth, rather than raw achievement. Education leaders often tout Tennessee as “the fastest improving in the nation” as the state’s scores on national tests have moved from the bottom to the middle.

“Growth is the model we have used, and it has really worked for Tennessee,” McQueen said. “We believe that this is a fair, just model that we’ll continue to get feedback on.”

Under the state’s ESSA plan, one group of schools could not make an A. Schools that are dubbed “priority schools” — those ranking academically in the bottom 5 percent that also have low growth scores for two consecutive years — would receive automatic Fs.

While test scores or growth would be the driving factor in a school’s grade under the state’s proposed plan, schools also would be evaluated on chronic absenteeism, graduation rates, access to college credit courses, and the proficiency rates of  English language learners.

ESSA requires for the first time that states give their schools “summative” ratings. Those ratings don’t have to be A to F letter grades, but Tennessee’s legislature passed a law last year requiring schools be assigned a letter grade. The legislation was promoted by the Foundation for Excellence in Education, a research and advocacy organization founded by former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and has been adopted in several other states.

One, Virginia, already has repealed school letter grades, in part because ‘F’ schools had difficulty recruiting teachers. Other critics charge that letter grades lack nuance and oversimplify the link between poverty and low test scores, potentially stigmatizing low-performing schools that receive Fs, as well as students who attend those schools.

names are in

Ten apply for vacant seat on the Memphis school board, but six live outside of seat’s district

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Former Shelby County Board of Education Chairwoman Teresa Jones confers with then Superintendent Dorsey Hopson during a 2015 school board meeting. Jones' seat is now up for an interim appointment.

Ten people have put their name in to become the next board member of Tennessee’s largest school district.

The appointee will fill the seat Teresa Jones vacated following her recent appointment as a municipal court judge, and would serve until the term expires in August 2020, not October as previously reported.

The interim member will join the school board at a crucial time, amid the search for a new superintendent to replace Dorsey Hopson, who left the district in December. Currently, Joris Ray is serving as interim superintendent.

Jones’ district 2 serves neighborhoods including North Memphis, Binghampton, and Berclair. Six applicants live outside of the district and Shelby County Commissioner Michael Whaley said this would likely prevent them from an appointment, but the commission is seeking clarity from the state and election commission.

Whaley also said the interim appointment was extended to August 2020 because Tennessee law doesn’t specify that special elections are necessary for the school board, so the interim will finish out Jones’ term.

The county commission is scheduled to name a successor on Monday Feb. 25, a day before the school board’s meeting that month. The commission is slated to interview candidates Wednesday at 10 a.m., but Whaley said more names could be added by commissioners prior to the vote on Monday We’ve linked to their full applications below.

Applicants are:

Althea Greene

  • She is a retired teacher from Memphis City Schools and childcare supervisor with Shelby County Schools. She is currently Pastor of Real Life Ministries.

Arvelia Chambers

  • She is a senior certified pharmacy technician with Walgreens. She said she’s a “passionate aunt” of three children in Shelby County Schools.
  • Her listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Aubrey Howard

  • He works as the executive director of governmental and legislative affairs in the Shelby County Trustee’s Office. He formerly worked for the City of Memphis, and said in his application that he previously ran for school board and lost.

Charles McKinney

  • He is the Neville Frierson Bryan Chair of Africana Studies and associate professor of history at Rhodes College. He is on the board of Crosstown High Charter School, and is the father of two Shelby County Schools students.

David Brown

  • He is the executive director of digital ministry at Brown Missionary Baptist Church and graduated from  Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly east of District 2.

Erskine Gillespie

  • Gillespie previously ran for City Council district 7 but lost. He is an account manager at the Lifeblood Mid-South Regional Blood Bank. He said in his application that he was one of the first students to enter the optional schools program in the Memphis district.

Kenneth Whalum, Jr.

  • He is a pastor at The New Olivet Worship Center and previously served as a school board member for the former Memphis City Schools; he was first elected in 2006. He has vocally opposed the process behind the 2013 merger of the city school system with legacy Shelby County Schools.
  • Whalum ran against school board member Kevin Woods in 2012 and lost.
  • His listed address is near the University of Memphis, not in District 2.

Makeda Porter-Carr

  • She is a research administrator at St. Jude Research Hospital.
  • Her listed address is in southeast Memphis, not in District 2.

Michael Hoffmeyer Sr.

  • He is the director of the University of Memphis’ Crews Center for Entrepreneurship in which he works with college and high school students. He graduated from Craigmont High School.
  • His listed address is slightly north of District 2.

Tyree Daniels

  • He helped found Memphis College Prep charter school. He lost to Jones in a school board race in 2012. Daniels is now a part of Duncan-Williams Inc. — the firm handling public financing for the project Union Row.
  • His listed address is in east Memphis, not in District 2.

new money

House budget draft sends more money to schools, but not specifically to teacher raises

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat

Despite months of heated debate, Indiana House Republicans are not setting aside extra dollars for meaningful teacher raises in their version of the state’s $14.5 billion education budget plan released Monday night.

Even though lawmakers are proposing preserving a controversial merit-based bonus pool and adding small amounts for teacher training programs, their budget draft would largely leave it up to school districts to dole out raises through increased overall funding.

The budget draft proposes increasing what Indiana spends on schools overall by $461 million — or 4.3 percent — through 2021, a little more than increases in years past. The basic per-student funding that all districts get would jump from $5,352 per student this year to $5,442 per student in 2020 and $5,549 per student in 2021. House lawmakers are also adding in a one-time payment of $150 million from state reserves that would pay down a pension liability for schools. But while lawmakers and Gov. Eric Holcomb have said that pension payment would free up about $70 million in schools’ budgets each year, the state likely wouldn’t require the cost-savings be passed along to teachers.

Although increasing teacher pay is a top goal for House Republicans, lawmakers have crafted bills that hinge on districts spending less money in areas such as administration or transportation rather than adding more money to school budgets and earmarking it for teacher salaries.

Their criticism of school spending has raised the ire of superintendents and educators who say they have little left to cut after years of increasing costs and state revenue that has barely kept pace with inflation.

But budget draft, which is expected to be presented to and voted on by the House Ways and Means Committee on Tuesday, doesn’t completely omit efforts to incentivize teachers to stick around. Unlike Holcomb’s budget proposal, House lawmakers are keeping in the current appropriation of $30 million per year for teacher bonuses.

The House budget draft would also set aside $1 million over two years for a teacher residency pilot program and $5 million over two years for schools that put in place career ladder programs that allow teachers to gain skills and opportunities without leaving the classroom.

Teacher advocacy groups, such as the Indiana State Teachers Association and Teach Plus, have been supportive of residency and career ladder programs, but the organizations have also called for more action this year to get dollars to teachers. Additionally, the ideas aren’t new — similar programs have been proposed in years past.

Calls for the hundreds of millions of dollars it would take to raise teacher salaries to be more in line with surrounding states will likely go unheeded for now as the state instead prioritizes other high-profile and expensive agencies, such as the Department of Child Services and Medicaid.

But while plans for major teacher pay raises appear to be on hold, House lawmakers are looking to boost funding in other areas of education to support some of the state’s most vulnerable students.

The budget draft would increase what the state must spend on preschool programs for students with disabilities from the current $2,750 per-student to $2,875 in 2020 and $3,000 in 2021 — the first such increase in more than 25 years.

House lawmakers are also proposing the state spend more money on students learning English as a new language, at $325 per student up from $300 per student now. While all schools with English learners would receive more money per student under this plan, the new budget draft removes a provision that had previously allocated extra dollars to schools with higher concentrations of English learners.

A 2017 calculation error and an uptick in interested schools meant state lawmakers did not budget enough money for schools with larger shares of English-learners in the last budget cycle, so they ended up getting far less than what the state had promised. But even the small increases were valuable, educators told Chalkbeat.

House lawmakers also suggested slashing funding for virtual programs run by traditional public school districts. Going forward, funding for both virtual charter schools and virtual schools within school districts would come in at 90 percent of what traditional schools receive from the state — now, only virtual charter schools are at the 90 percent level. It’s a marked change for House lawmakers, who in years past have asked that virtual charter school funding be increased to 100 percent.

The virtual funding proposal comes as lawmakers are considering bills that would add regulations for the troubled schools, where few students pass state exams or graduate.

The budget draft also includes:

  • $5 million per year added to school safety grants, totaling $19 million in 2020 and $24 million in 2021
  • Doubling grants for high-performing charter schools from $500 per student to $1,000 per student, at a cost of about $32 million over two years. The money is a way for charter schools to make up for not receiving local property tax dollars like district schools, lawmakers say.
  • $4 million per year more to expand the state’s private school voucher program to increase funding for certain families above the poverty line. Under the plan, a family of four making between $46,000 and $58,000 annually could receive a voucher for 70 percent of what public schools would have received in state funding for the student. Currently, those families receive a 50 percent voucher.
  • About $33 million over two years (up from about $25 million) for the state’s Tax Credit Scholarship program.