New federal education law gives states more flexibility — but will Tennessee use it?

PHOTO: Amanda Lucidon/The White House
President Barack Obama signs the Every Student Succeeds Act in December 2015, surrounded by U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander of Tennessee and other champions and supporters of the new law.

Calling the nation’s new education law a “Christmas present to 50 million American children,” U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander has said the Every Student Succeeds Act will launch “a new era of innovation and excellence in student achievement.” But in the Tennessee Republican’s home state, the overhaul is not expected to change much for its million public school students — at least not at first.

That’s because the massive rewrite of No Child Left Behind, signed last week by President Obama, comes on the heels of Tennessee’s own massive redesign of its K-12 system through the federal Race to the Top competition. With new autonomy given states under the new federal law, there’s no immediate movement afoot in Tennessee to change course significantly from its current game plan centered on higher standards, accountability and turnaround strategies for the state’s lowest-performing schools.

Eventually, however, the new law could open the door to changes in testing and how schools and teachers are held accountable — but only if Tennessee leaders decide to make that shift of their own accord.

And there’s no indication that the state would embrace that flexibility — even with mounting calls from school districts to skip using test scores in teacher evaluations as the state transitions to its new TNReady test this year. The state already enjoyed more freedom in areas of accountability and school turnaround because of its waiver from No Child Left Behind — which had stipulated that all students must be on grade level by 2014, a target no state came close to meeting.

“It’s really unclear if the Tennessee Department of Education is bound by a lot of provisions it was waiting to be unshackled from,” said Jason Grissom, a researcher at Vanderbilt University’s Peabody College of Education in Nashville. “My guess is that this change will have bigger impacts in other states.”

The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) continues requirements from No Child Left Behind (NCLB) like annual testing for grades 3-8 and requiring special attention for schools that perform in the bottom 5 percent on annual tests. Those schools are known as “priority schools” in Tennessee.

But ESSA also allows states new flexibilities, like the ability to forgo using student test score data in teacher and principal evaluations, which states were required to do to get waivers from NCLB in recent years. Tennessee was one of the first states to embrace using student test score data in teacher evaluations, and state officials have been firm that they believe it’s a fair measure.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen says she’s optimistic about the new law’s impact as it begins to roll out next fall.

“Tennessee is in a remarkably positive place in making the transition to ESSA as we have created a solid foundation of rigorous standards, aligned assessment, increased accountability, and a focus on low-performing schools, “ she said in a statement.

The ESSA provides funding for training teachers on literacy instruction — a growing priority in Tennessee — where reading scores have stagnated while math scores have inched up.

But realistically, the new law’s statewide impact may be more about the changing mindset in education to acknowledge factors that testing alone can’t measure. One provision requires states to rate schools based on at least one non-academic measure, such as attendance and school climate, as well as by test scores.

“There’s increasing concern that academic measures don’t do a sufficient job in capturing the performance of schools,” Grissom said. “There’s a lot of concern that there could be schools that are having very high test performance but they’re doing it by implementing draconian instructional strategies. Those schools might be very unenjoyable, uninspiring places. This is a step in the direction of trying to hold schools accountable for students’ experiences.”

Here are some key differences between the old law and the new, and what Tennessee does now:

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

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

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”