License to lead

Why Tennessee’s exam for principals might be a waste of time — and blocking candidates of color, too

If you want to be a principal in Tennessee, you have to pass a $425 licensure test.

But a new study by researchers at Vanderbilt University suggests that the test is a poor predictor of how effective you’ll be as a school leader. And if you’re a person of color, you’re less likely to pass the test, according to the data.

Tennessee is among 18 U.S. states and territories that require all principals to take the  School Leaders Licensure Assessment, administered by a national testing company. Ten years of data from Tennessee test takers was the basis for the study by Vanderbilt’s Tennessee Education Research Alliance.

Researchers found that principals’ scores on the licensure exam were unrelated to how successful they were on their performance evaluations, student achievement in their schools, and teacher survey ratings of school leadership. In fact, in some cases, a high test score correlated with lower evaluation ratings.

They also found that candidates of color were 12 percent less likely than similar white candidates to attain the required licensure score.

A lack of diversity in school leadership is a challenge in Tennessee. In 2016, some 20 percent of principals were non-white, compared to 35 percent of students.

That’s problematic, said lead researcher Jason Grissom. He cites other studies showing that teachers of color have lower turnover rates and better job satisfaction under principals of color, and that principals of color tend to expel or suspend students less often. Both impacts, he said, are tied to better student outcomes.

“Leadership diversity certainly seems to matter for teachers, and it matters for students as well,” Grissom said.

States might be able to justify the hit to diversity if the test offered valuable information, but Grissom said it doesn’t appear to do that.

“This is a really, really hard job,” he said. “In a way, it makes a lot of sense to have an exam on the front end to tell us who are good at these things and less good. … But it’s difficult to create a test that can capture all the difference facets.”

Tennessee requires the nation’s lowest minimum score to be licensed as a principal, meaning that the racial disparities in other states that use the same exam likely are much worse, Grissom said.

Paul Fleming, Tennessee’s assistant commissioner of teachers and leaders, said the State Department of Education has heard similar reports in the past. That’s why the state now has other requirements for aspiring principals, like having at least three years of acceptable experience as an educator, completing a state-approved instructional leader preparation program, and being recommended by the state-approved educator preparation program.

“The role of licensure more largely is to serve as a check on whether educators have demonstrated that they have the right knowledge base and skill set to be an effective educator, which is of course important,” he said. “However, we have other measures and supports for teachers and leaders once they are in those roles, like our TEAM evaluation model, school leader academies, and other professional learning opportunities, to determine effectiveness and support their growth.”


Memphis candidate no longer in running to lead Achievement School District

The only Memphis applicant to lead Tennessee’s school turnaround district is no longer under consideration.

Keith Sanders told Chalkbeat Thursday that Education Commissioner Candice McQueen called him with the news that he would not advance in the application process to become superintendent of the Achievement School District. Sanders is a Memphis-based education consultant and former Memphis school principal who most recently was chief officer of school turnaround at the Delaware Department of Education.

The state later confirmed that Sanders will not advance, citing concerns from the search firm hired to find the next leader of the turnaround district.

In a March 21 letter to McQueen, the search firm highlighted Sanders’ time as a charter school leader in New Orleans as a reason he should not advance. Sanders co-founded Miller-McCoy Academy, an all-boys public school that closed in 2014. The school was academically low-performing, and Sanders and his co-founder left the school before it shuttered amidst allegations of financial mismanagement and cheating, according to the letter.

“Given the visibility of the ASD role, I think there are too many questions about his time at Miller-McCoy for him to be credible,” wrote Mollie Mitchell, president of The K-12 Search Group, in the letter.

The announcement comes a day after Stephen Osborn, a finalist for the position, visited Memphis for a second time to meet with local stakeholders. Osborn is currently the chief of innovation for Rhode Island’s Department of Education.

Sanders said he was shocked to be eliminated, as just weeks earlier he was told that he would advance as one of two finalists.

“I was given an itinerary for two days next week for my final interview process,” Sanders said. “I’m shocked that I’ve been suddenly and abruptly removed from this process. I want to be clear in this community I reside in — I did not withdraw.”

In addition to Sanders and Osborn, other candidates under consideration are Brett Barley, deputy superintendent for student achievement with the Nevada Department of Education, and Adam Miller, executive director of the Office of Independent Education and Parental Choice at the Florida Department of Education.

McQueen emphasized during her Memphis visit on Wednesday that the superintendent search is still in progress.

“We certainly have an expectation that we’ll bring in others,” she told reporters. “At this point, we wanted to move one forward while we’re continuing to solicit additional information from the search firm on current candidates as well as other candidates who have presented themselves over last couple of weeks.”

The new superintendent will succeed Malika Anderson, who stepped down last fall after almost two years at the helm. Kathleen Airhart, a longtime deputy at the State Department of Education, has served as interim leader.

The job will require overseeing 30 low-performing schools, the majority of which are run by charter organizations in Memphis.

Editor’s note: We have updated this story with comment from the Tennessee Department of Education. 

Play nice

How can Michigan schools stop skinned knees and conflict? Use playtime to teach students kindness

PHOTO: Amanda Rahn
Macomb Montessori kindergartner London Comer plays with a ball during a Playworks session at her school.

Kindergartners play four square, jump rope and line up in two rows with outstretched arms to bump a ball during recess. What’s unusual is that the four- and five-year-olds don’t fight over balls or toys, and when one child gets upset and crosses her arms, a fifth-grade helper comes over to talk to her.

This is a different picture from last spring, when the students at the Macomb Montessori school in Warren played during recess on a parking lot outside. The skinned knees and broken equipment were piling up, and school administrators knew something needed to change.

“Recess was pretty chaotic, and it wasn’t very safe,” Principal Ashley Ogonowski said.

The school brought in Playworks, a national nonprofit that uses playtime to teach students how to peacefully and respectfully work together to settle disagreements — also known as social emotional learning, said Angela Rogensues the executive director of the Michigan Playworks branch.

Ogonowski said the change she has seen in her students has been huge. Kids are getting hurt less, and teachers have said they have fewer classroom behavior problems.

The program teaches better behavior through physical activity. Games focus on cooperation, not winners and losers. When tensions rise on the playground, kids are encouraged to “rock, paper, scissors” over conflicts.

Playworks is adamant that their coaches are not physical education teachers, nor are their 30-45 minute structured play periods considered gym class. But the reality is that in schools without them, Playworks is the closest many kids come to receiving physical education.

Macomb Montessori does not have a regular gym teacher, a problem shared by schools across the state and nearly half of the schools in the main Detroit district, and a symptom of a disinvestment in physical education statewide. In Michigan, there are no laws requiring schools to offer recess. As for physical education, schools are required to offer the class, but the amount of time isn’t specified.

But with Playworks, the 210 elementary-aged children at the school have a daily recess and a weekly class game time lasting about 30 to 45 minutes.

Another benefit of the program is the chance to build leadership skills with upper elementary students chosen to be junior coaches. Shy kids are picked, as are natural leaders who might be using their talents to stir up trouble.

“I made it because I’m really good with kids. I’m nice and kind and I really like the kids,” Samerah Gentry, a fifth-grader and junior coach said. “I’m gaining energy and I’m having fun.”

Research shows that students are benefitting from both the conflict resolution tools and the junior coach program.

“The program model is really solid and there’s so much structure in place, I can’t really think of any drawbacks,” Principal Ogonowski said.

The program, however, is not free.  

Part of the cost is handled on the Playworks side through grants, but schools are expected to “have some skin in the game,” Rogenesus said. The program at Macomb Montessori costs between $60,000 and $65,000, but poor schools can receive a 50 percent subsidy.

The cost hasn’t prevented eight Detroit district schools from paying for the program. Rogenesus said she is talking with Superintendent Nikolai Vitti about putting the program in even more schools next year. He also identified Playworks as one organization that could be brought in to run after-school programs at a time when he’s rethinking district partnerships.

Part of Playworks’ mission is to work together with schools, even if they already have gym and recess in place or plan to hire a physical education teacher.

“PE is a necessary part of their education in the same way social-emotional learning is a necessary part of that education,” she said.