accountability movement

City begins setting ‘rigorous, but reasonable’ targets for Renewal schools

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
Chancellor Carmen FariƱa on one of her hundreds of school visits.

Since Mayor Bill de Blasio unveiled his strategy for turning around the city’s lowest-performing schools seven months ago, officials have said all 94 schools would have to meet specific goals to avoid serious changes, including closure.

The city is now moving closer to determining those goals, as officials shared initial rubrics with schools this month and began setting goals for the next two years. Unlike the city’s “school snapshots,” which measure schools in identical ways, the schools in the Renewal program will have some choice as to how the city determines whether they’re measuring up.

With state deadlines approaching, the Department of Education is finalizing that menu of data points that struggling schools will use to measure their progress over the next two years. Attendance, state test scores, and graduation rates are included, and officials said they are still crunching parent and student survey data to come up with a half-dozen other metrics.

Chancellor Carmen Fariña said the menu showed that she was serious about holding schools accountable for improvement.

“We have established clear and rigorous school-specific benchmarks that schools must meet, or they will face consequences including changes to leadership and faculty of the school, school consolidation, and even closure as a last resort,” Chancellor Carmen Fariña said in a statement.

Improved attendance will be a required goal for all schools and is the only metric that elementary and middle schools will be expected to show improvement on next year. High schools next year will also be expected to grow their share of students making progress toward graduation, based on how many courses and Regents exams they have completed.

In addition to attendance, elementary and middle schools will have to choose five other data points for which to set goals, three of which must be based on state test scores or former students’ credit accumulation in ninth grade. High schools can choose from graduation rates, pass rates on Regents exams, and course completion. The schools won’t be expected to hit targets for those categories until the end of the 2016-17 school year.

According to sample benchmarks provided to principals, a struggling high school with a four-year graduation rate of 54.8 percent last year would have to improve to 62.3 percent by the end of the 2016-17 school year, a 7.5-point gain over three years. A department official said the targets being set for the schools were “rigorous, but reasonable.”

The to-be-determined benchmarks will be based on a combination of data from parent and student surveys and scores from school quality reviews. Officials said they were only finalizing them now because the surveys were administered last month.

The details come seven months after de Blasio first pledged to spend $150 million over three years to help turn around the 94 schools. At the core of his plan is to flood the schools with resources aimed to support students living in poverty. The money will be used to pay teachers to work extended hours, add after-school summer programs, and hire extra guidance counselors, as well as to provide teachers with on-site training and bring in academic coaches.

It has been an uneven first year for schools under the program, with some receiving extra attention and others complaining that support has been slow to reach them. The program’s pace has been added fodder for critics who say de Blasio’s plan was not aggressive enough to fix schools that have been low-performing for years.

But the administration has put more of a focus on the Renewal schools in recent months, even redirecting more than $50 million from an expansion of the mayor’s after-school initiative.

A principal of a Renewal school said he had noticed the change, saying that a new deputy in his district superintendent’s office has been hired to specifically work with the struggling schools.

“Once I got that person, things started moving more quickly,” said the principal, who said he received a draft of the benchmarks more than a week before a customized version was sent to his school.

Principals and school leadership teams much agree on and submit the goals by June 15, a department spokeswoman said, four days shy of the June 19 deadline for the city to send in a more comprehensive plan for its struggling schools to the State Education Department.

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led to changes in school improvement strategies. Leaders also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede