Who Is In Charge

‘Religious indoctrination’ bill could restrict teacher autonomy beyond social studies

PHOTO: Nicholas Garcia
Indianapolis Public Schools has long struggled to find substitute teachers, but a new program has nearly solved the problem.

A Tennessee bill aimed at addressing concerns about “religious indoctrination” in seventh-grade social studies classes also could impact the teaching of all core academic subjects in grades 6-12.

The measure, prompted by concerns from activists and parents that students are being “indoctrinated” into Islam while studying world geography and history, would require that any inclusion of religion in textbooks, instructional materials and curriculum “be for educational purposes only and not be used to promote any religion.” In addition, each district must “make publicly available a syllabus” for math, science and English language arts subjects in middle and high school that includes major assignments and field trips.

It’s the second part of the bill, which doesn’t have to do with religion, that concerns teachers who view the legislation as a license to impede their creativity in the classroom.

The bill is scheduled for a vote on the Senate floor on Wednesday after sailing through the House 83-2 last week. Debate thus far has focused on whether the bill would remove mentions of religion. (It would not, according to the sponsor.) However, little has been discussed by lawmakers about how it might limit teachers’ ability to teach.

Currently, all Tennessee public school teachers use the same academic standards, which prescribe what students at each grade level should know. But districts do not create a syllabus for each subject and grade level to dictate to teachers how to teach to those standards — for instance, what to read or assign and which field trips to take.

It’s unclear if, by mandating districts to post “a syllabus” for each core academic course in grades 6-12, every teacher would be able to design their own syllabus, as they do now. Teachers say they value making their own lesson plans and crafting their own assignments.

“I follow the standards to a T, but I can maneuver within them according to what my students need,” said Nashville teacher Nick Rossi, who teaches seventh-grade social studies at Apollo Middle Prep School. “I know my students. I want to make the decisions on what I teach.”

Rossi noted that teachers have an outline of what they’ll teach throughout the year, but it’s not set in stone and allows for flexibility. Assignments can get scrapped, or ideas for new engaging assignments can emerge from conversations with other teachers. “No one knows what March will be like in July,” he said. “You don’t know what the kids are like yet.”

Nationally, teachers’ freedom to be creative in the classroom is closely associated with their job satisfaction, according to a 2015 report from the National Center on Education Statistics.

Others say that a districtwide syllabus could be helpful — if thoughtfully done.

Robert Pondisco, a senior fellow for the Thomas Fordham Institute, points to the Core Knowledge Curriculum, which briefly set the curriculum in Nashville elementary schools in the mid-2000s, as an example of a strong shared curriculum. “It needn’t be an affront to the profession,” he said. “It could be an opportunity to share best pracitices.”

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Rep. Matthew Hill of Jonesborough, who is sponsoring the bill in the House, said the measure ultimately is about lessening the influence of religion — any religion — in classrooms. “This is a direct response to concerns across the state about the way religion is taught in Tennessee public schools,” he told colleagues last week.

In part due to concerns about the issue, the State Board of Education launched a review of the state’s social studies standards in January, two years ahead of schedule.

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: