Analysis

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:

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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