TN in DC

Tennessee school board leaders met this week with Sen. Lamar Alexander. Here’s what they talked about.

Members of the Tennessee School Boards Association meet with lawmakers in Washington D.C., including U.S. Sens. Lamar Alexander and Bob Corker.

A contingent of school board members from across Tennessee traveled this week to Washington D.C., to talk with the state’s congressional delegation about three issues shaping public education in their home state.

Most notably, leaders of the Tennessee School Boards Association spoke with U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who chairs the Senate education committee and helped to engineer the new federal law that replaced No Child Left Behind. The Tennessee Republican also has been at the forefront of Senate confirmation hearings for Betsy DeVos, the Michigan philanthropist and school choice advocate nominated by President Trump to lead the U.S. Department of Education.

Here’s what they discussed:

School choice

As the Senate prepared to cast its confirmation vote on DeVos, TSBA leaders wanted to know Alexander’s definition of “school choice.”

“We were very pleased his definition were things we were already doing in Tennessee,” said Executive Director Tammy Grissom, citing magnet schools and open enrollment.

DeVos is a staunch proponent of tuition vouchers and has used part of her family fortune to advocate for them in her home state of Michigan as well as other states, including Tennessee. That’s a red flag for Tennessee school board members who have lobbied their state lawmakers against starting a voucher program. They argue that vouchers, which would enable some families to use public money to pay for private school, would siphon off badly needed resources from public schools.

“We want choice for disadvantaged students, but we already have it. We believe vouchers would create a system of the haves and have-nots,” Grissom said.

Alexander assured them that vouchers won’t be crammed down their throats from the federal government. The new Every Student Succeeds Act aims to give states greater flexibility in overseeing their schools.

“He is very much for local control. It’s all about giving control back to the states,” Grissom said. “The best form of governance of public education is the local school board.”

If DeVos is confirmed, she has said states would make their own decisions about whether to implement vouchers.

PHOTO: Tennessee School Boards Association
Alexander (left) talks with Wayne Blair and Tammy Grissom, president and executive director of the Tennessee School Boards Association.

Career and technical education

An effort to reauthorize federal funding for career and technical education, known as the Carl D. Perkins Career and Technical Education Act, stalled in the Senate last year. It was continued for one year for the 11 million U.S. high school and postsecondary students affected. But TSBA members urged Alexander to push for the act’s reauthorization.

“Districts depend on that funding to continue career and technical classes,” Grissom said.

Career and technical education is an important component of Gov. Bill Haslam’s Drive to 55 initiative, which seeks in part to increase participation in certificate programs.

Alexander listened to concerns about the need for federal funding but did not indicate if he would sponsor legislation to reauthorize it, said Ben Torres, staff attorney for the TSBA.

Special education funding

School services for students with disabilities receive federal funding under the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA), but Congress currently funds less than half of the maximum 40 percent of cost.

That’s not enough, according to TSBA leaders.

In Memphis, for instance, Shelby County Schools and the state-run Achievement School District struggle to keep up with the demand for special education services. Both districts serve primarily minority and impoverished students.

The TSBA-sponsored group traveling to Washington included:

  • Wayne Blair, president, Tennessee School Boards Association and Rutherford County Schools board member
  • Tammy Grissom, executive director, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Ben Torres, staff attorney and director of government relations and policy, Tennessee School Boards Association
  • Miska Clay Bibbs, Shelby County Board of Education
  • Bob Alvey, Jackson-Madison County Board of Education
  • Alicia Barker, Franklin Special Board of Education
  • Jimmie Garland, Clarksville-Montgomery Board of Education
  • Faye Heatherly, Campbell County Board of Education
  • Aaron Holladay, Rutherford County Board of Education
  • Tim Stillings, Franklin Special Board of Education

newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

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: