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.

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below:

Student recruitment

How common is it for districts to share student contact info with charter schools? Here’s what we know.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Staff members of Green Dot Public Schools canvass a neighborhood near Kirby Middle School in the summer of 2016 before reopening the Memphis school as a charter.

As charter schools emerge alongside local school districts across the nation, student addresses have become a key turf war.

Charter schools have succeeded in filling their classes with and without access to student contact information. But their operators frequently argue that they have a right to such information, which they say is vital to their recruitment efforts and gives families equal access to different schools in their area.

Disputes are underway right now in at least two places: In Tennessee, school boards in Nashville and Memphis are defying a new state law that requires districts to hand over such information to charters that request it. A New York City parent recently filed a formal complaint accusing the city of sharing her information improperly with local charter schools.

How do other cities handle the issue? According to officials from a range of school districts, some share student information freely with charters while others guard it fiercely.

Some districts explicitly do not share student information with charter schools. This includes Detroit, where the schools chief is waging an open war with the charter sector for students; Washington, D.C., where the two school sectors coexist more peacefully; and Los Angeles.

Others have clear rules for student information sharing. Denver, for example, set parameters for what information the district will hand over to charter schools in a formal collaboration agreement — one that Memphis officials frequently cite as a model for one they are creating. Baltimore and Boston also share information, although Boston gives out only some of the personal details that district schools can access.

At least one city has carved out a compromise. In New York City, a third-party company provides mass mailings for charter schools, using contact information provided by the school district. Charter schools do not actually see that information and cannot use it for other purposes — although the provision hasn’t eliminated parent concerns about student privacy and fair recruitment practices there.

In Tennessee, the fight by the state’s two largest districts over the issue is nearing a boiling point. The state education department has already asked a judge to intervene in Nashville and is mulling whether to add the Memphis district to the court filing after the school board there voted to defy the state’s order to share information last month. Nashville’s court hearing is Nov. 28.

The conflict feels high-stakes to some. In Memphis, both local and state districts struggle with enrolling enough students. Most schools in the state-run Achievement School District have lost enrollment this year, and the local district, Shelby County Schools, saw a slight increase in enrollment this year after years of freefall.

Still, some charter leaders wonder why schools can’t get along without the information. One Memphis charter operator said his school fills its classes through word of mouth, Facebook ads, and signs in surrounding neighborhoods.

“We’re fully enrolled just through that,” said the leader, who spoke on condition of anonymity to protect his relationship with the state and local districts. “It’s a non-argument for me.”

A spokeswoman for Green Dot Public Schools, the state-managed charter school whose request for student information started the legal fight in Memphis, said schools in the Achievement School District should receive student contact information because they are supposed to serve students within specific neighborhood boundaries.

“At the end of the day, parents should have the information they need to go to their neighborhood school,” said the spokeswoman, Cynara Lilly. “They deserve to know it’s open.”