Are Children Learning

Superintendents to General Assembly: Please do not ‘derail’ standards

PHOTO: G. Tatter
Flanked by several school district superintendents and directors, spokesman Wayne Miller addresses media at the State Capitol in January. Miller is executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

School superintendents across Tennessee urged state lawmakers Tuesday not to “derail” the state’s educational momentum by repealing the Common Core State Standards during the current legislative session.

In a letter signed by 114 of the state’s 141 superintendents, district administrators asked lawmakers instead to maintain the state’s current academic standards, at least until Gov. Bill Haslam’s administration and the state Board of Education completes their review of the standards this fall.

The superintendents also asked that the planned 2015-16 implementation of Tennessee’s new standardized test, which is under development to align with the current standards, be allowed to proceed without delay.

“Teachers have been working hard and preparing for this assessment,” the letter says. “It would be a huge blow to the morale of educators if the General Assembly passes legislation that puts Tennessee on a path to change standards once again or alters the timeline for the new assessment.”

Common Core State Standards are benchmarks in English language arts and math that clarify the skills each child should have at each grade level. In 2010, Tennessee joined most other states in implementing the standards and has been developing a test to align with them to accurately measure students’ academic progress. However, the standards have come under fire from many state legislators who view them as federal overreach because of their ties to education grant programs under President Obama’s administration. Two bills before the Tennessee General Assembly would repeal the standards, including one scheduled to go before a House subcommittee on Wednesday.

The superintendents’ letter was released by the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS), which represents local superintendents and school directors, to interject the voices of educators in the debate.

“This work is paying off,” said TOSS board chairman Randy Frazier, director of Weakley County Schools. “Tennessee has received national attention for historic gains in student achievement. That’s why we say to the General Assembly, please do not derail this momentum.”

Among those signing the letter were the superintendents of all four of Tennessee’s largest school districts.

In his 2015 State of the State address on Monday, Haslam called for more stability in the state’s education policy and urged lawmakers to stick with the current standards, at least for now. Last October, Haslam announced that the standards would undergo a period of intense review and, a month later, his administration established a website seeking comments and feedback. The site has received 82,000 comments so far.

“There has been unprecedented participation in the review process, especially by Tennessee teachers,” the superintendents’ letter says. “We ask that their input be valued and that we move forward with efforts to improve and enhance our current standards and truly make them our own, while also giving educators and students the stability they desire and deserve.”

If lawmakers vote to replace the standards, it will be the third time in seven years that Tennessee has done so. In 2008, Tennessee adopted the Tennessee Diploma standards and, two years later, began to implement Common Core and a bevy of other reforms tied to winning $500 million in federal money through Race to the Top.

“Teachers have worked for years learning through the professional learning opportunities through the state and districts, countless hours, and funds,” said Lyle Ailshie, superintendent of Kingsport City Schools, during a TOSS news conference outside of the Senate chambers in Nashville. “They’ve created curriculums that will go along with these standards that will be challenging and engaging for our students.”

Ailshie acknowledged concern that the current standards weren’t developed by the state for the state. However, he said they are a good foundation to build on. “I’ve maintained these are our standards, and we could even make them more our standards if we maintain the course the governor has set out for us,” he said.

The superintendents say that switching standards this year — just months before the state switches to a new assessment, TNReady — will cause confusion and stress for teachers whose evaluations are tied to student achievement.

The Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the state’s largest teacher union, also supports the current review process and urges teachers to participate. “It’s time we settled down and utilize the things we have now,” said TEA lobbyist Jim Wrye.

TOSS executive director Wayne Miller said much of the standards controversy stems from misinformation. For instance, he said, assertions are untrue that Common Core was created by the federal government, or that they are a set of prescriptive tasks teachers must undergo in the classroom. He said participating in the review process, which involves reading each standard and offering suggestions to improve them, would help allay concerns.

Creation of Common Core was sponsored by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers. Before they were adopted by most states, state standards varied widely across the nation.

Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.
Follow the status of education-related bills in the 109th Tennessee General Assembly.

Despite pleas from Haslam and education advocacy groups, key lawmakers expect the legislature to continue with its own assessment of the standards and possibly to repeal them. “I think it’s a given: Common Core is dead in the state of Tennessee, and everybody knows it,” Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey (R-Blountville) told The Tennessean following Haslam’s address.

Miller said TOSS is ready to talk with standards naysayers such as Sen. Delores Gresham (R-Somerville), chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee and sponsor of a bill to replace Common Core before the review is complete.

“[Gresham] understands there needs to be a balance between what she’s hearing from her constituents, and what she knows to be happening in classrooms,” Miller said.

Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]

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union power

Gutting Wisconsin teachers unions hurt students, study finds

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Michael Vadon
Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker in 2015.

The high-profile fight to limit union power was replete with drama — including a recall election and state legislators fleeing to neighboring states.

In the 2011 battle in Wisconsin, Republican Gov. Scott Walker ultimately came out the victor. The controversial law passed, Walker won the recall, and the Democratic-aligned unions have lost much of their power.

But new research points to other losers in the fight: students in the state’s already struggling schools.

The first study to assess how Wisconsin’s high-profile weakening of unions, particularly teachers unions, affected students finds that it led to a substantial decline in test scores.

The findings come as the U.S. Supreme Court is set to hear arguments for a case, known as Janus, that could dramatically scale back union power across the country — essentially taking aspects of the Wisconsin model national. And they give credence to concerns from unions and their defenders that weakening teachers bargaining power would ultimately make schools worse, not better.

A report from the left-leaning Center for American Progress released Wednesday highlights this research — and the fact that teacher pay and average experience declined in the wake of the law, known as Act 10 — to argue that weakening unions ultimately harm schools.

“Those concerned about the quality of public education — and of all public services — should understand that Wisconsin’s Act 10 and associated budget cuts have not had the positive impact on education that its proponents claimed it would,” the CAP report argues.

Still, the research, which has not been formally peer-reviewed, only assesses the short-term impact of Wisconsin’s law. It adds to a complicated set of research findings on unions that doesn’t render a clear verdict.

Short-term effect in Wisconsin is negative, especially for low-achieving schools

The new research looks at the effects of Wisconsin Act 10, which became law in 2011 and severely limited the scope of collective bargaining and allowed members to opt of unions.

The paper’s author, Jason Baron, took advantage of what was essentially a natural experiment set up by the law. Act 10 did not affect all school districts at once — a handful of school districts were allowed to maintain union rules until their existing contract expired up to two years later. That helped isolate the immediate impact of the law.

Baron found that weakening unions led to declines in test scores, particularly in math and science. The effects were fairly large, comparable to sharply increasing class sizes. And the harm was not evenly distributed: Schools that started out furthest behind were hurt the most, while higher achieving schools saw no impact.

Other research may help explain why.

The law led to big cuts in teacher compensation, particularly for veteran teachers and especially in health insurance and retirement benefits, according to one paper. There was also a spike in teacher retirement immediately following the law’s passage.

As compensation drops, it may become harder for district and teachers to recruit and keep teachers. An increase in retirement also reduces teacher experience, which has been linked to effectiveness.

Another study found that some Wisconsin districts moved from a single salary schedule to a performance-based pay system after Act 10’s passage. Those performance pay systems were more likely to be adopted by higher-achieving districts, potentially allowing them to lure effective teachers away from struggling schools.

“Following Act 10, high-performing schools filled vacancies from teacher retirements by poaching high-quality teachers from low-performing schools through attractive compensation schemes,” the paper concludes. So while those retirements might have hit all districts equally, high-performing districts were better able to make up the difference — at the expense of low-performing schools.

There is one study that complicates the narrative in Wisconsin. As retirements spiked, it found that academic achievement actually increased in the grades that teachers left. It’s not clear what explains this.

The larger question of how teachers unions affect learning remains up for debate

A number of other recent studies have examined the relationship between teachers unions and student outcomes outside of Wisconsin. The results aren’t consistent, but the trend has been more positive for unions of late. A caveat: Some of these studies have not been published in peer-reviewed academic journals.

  • On recent efforts to weaken unions: Research in Tennessee found that it led to a drop in teacher pay, but had no effect on student test scores. But a study of four states, including Wisconsin, that recently weakened unions found evidence of reduced teacher quality as a result.
  • On what happens when charter schools unionize: Two studies in California came to differing conclusions. One found that when charters unionize, student test scores go up, but the other showed no impact.
  • On the initial rise of collective bargaining: Another paper finds that students who went to schools where districts negotiated with unions earned less money and were more likely to be unemployed as adults. But this study looks at a fairly old data set — examining those who attended schools between 1965 and 1992.

Meanwhile, it’s not clear if any of this research is likely to influence the Supreme Court, as it considers the Janus case that could make life more difficult for unions. Last month, Chief Justice John Roberts called empirical studies on political gerrymandering “sociological gobbledygook.”

study up

Trump education nominee pleads ignorance about high-profile voucher studies showing negative results

At his confirmation hearing, Mick Zais, the nominee to be second-in-command at the Department of Education, said that he was not aware of high-profile studies showing that school vouchers can hurt student achievement.

It was a remarkable acknowledgement by Zais, who said he supports vouchers and would report to Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, whose signature issue has been expanding publicly funded private school choice programs.

The issue was raised by Minnesota Sen. Al Franken, who asked whether Zais, who was previously the South Carolina schools chief, was “aware of the research on the impact of vouchers on student achievement.”

He replied: “To the best of my knowledge, whenever we give parents an opportunity to choose a school that’s a good fit for their child the result is improved outcomes.”

Franken responded, “No, that’s not true. The academic outcomes for students who used vouchers to attend private school are actually quite abysmal.”

Franken proceeded to mention recent studies from Louisiana, Indiana, Ohio, and Washington, DC that showed declines in test scores after students move to private schools with a voucher.

Zais responded: “Senator, I was unaware of those studies that you cited.”

Franken then asked if Zais’s initial response expressing confidence in school choice was anecdotal, and Zais said that it was.

What’s surprising about Zais’s response is that these studies were not just published in dusty academic journals, but received substantial media attention, including in the New York Times and Washington Post (and Chalkbeat). They’ve also sparked significant debate, including among voucher supporters, who have argued against judging voucher programs based on short-term test scores.

Meanwhile, it’s worth noting that the research confusion was a bipartisan affair at Wednesday’s confirmation hearing.

Although Franken, who referred to a New York Times article on voucher research in his question, was broadly accurate in his description of the recent studies, he said that a DC voucher study showed “significantly lower math and reading scores”; in fact, the results were only statistically significant in math, not reading.

Franken also did not mention evidence that the initial negative effects abated in later years in Indiana and for some students in Louisiana, or discuss recent research linking Florida’s voucher-style tax credit program to higher student graduation rates.

In a separate exchange, Washington Sen. Patty Murray grilled Jim Blew — the administration’s nominee for assistant secretary for planning, evaluation, and policy development — on the performance of Michigan’s charter schools. Murray said that DeVos was “one of the architects of Detroit’s charter school system,” describing the results as “disastrous for children.”

Blew disputed this: “The characterization of the charter school sector in Detroit as being a disaster seems unfair. The most reliable studies are saying, indeed, the charter school students outperform the district students.”

Murray responded: “Actually, Michigan’s achievement rates have plummeted for all kids. In addition, charter schools in Michigan are performing worse than traditional public schools.”

(Murray may be referring to an Education Trust analysis showing that Michigan ranking on NAEP exams have fallen relative to other states. The study can’t show why, or whether school choice policies are the culprit, as some have claimed.)

Blew answered: “The most reliable studies do show that the charter school students in Detroit outperform their peers in the district schools.”

Murray: “I would like to see that because that’s not the data that we have.”

Blew: “I will be happy to get if for you; it’s done by the Stanford CREDO operation.”

Murray: “I’m not aware of that organization.”

CREDO, a Stanford-based research institution, has conducted among the most widely publicized — and sometimes disputed — studies of charter schools. The group’s research on Detroit does show that the city’s charter students were outperforming similar students in district schools, though the city’s students are among the lowest-performing in the country on national tests.