Digging in

We read all 279 pages of reports about grade changes in Memphis. Here are five big takeaways.

PHOTO: Seth McConnell/The Denver Post
At least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant High School shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade alterations, according to a report.

Reports detailing how grades were falsified at Trezevant High School have called into question whether grade changes happening at other Memphis high schools are legitimate.

Shelby County Schools released the results last week of a six-month investigation into how grades are handled at all 41 high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. The probe launched after a new Trezevant principal reported inconsistencies between report cards and transcripts at his school in September 2016.

We read all 279 pages of the reports by legal and accounting firms hired to look into the matter. Here are five takeaways:

1. Some of the allegations have merit.

Complaints that some grades had been changed on transcripts at Trezevant High ring true, according to the report, and there’s cause for suspicion at some other high schools, too.

A team of investigators led by former U.S. attorney Ed Stanton said at least 53 students who graduated from Trezevant shouldn’t have received their diplomas due to improper grade changes.

But Trezevant might not be alone. A separate report by a North Carolina accounting firm found a high rate of grade changes at six other high schools within Shelby County Schools. The average number of grade changes across all high schools was 53, but Trezevant had 461 and Kirby logged 582 between 2012 and 2016. A deeper probe into those schools has been ordered.

2. District leaders weren’t caught totally off guard

While expressing surprise at the findings, district administrators began building in safeguards to prevent illicit grade changes months before Trezevant Principal Ronnie Mackin reported finding discrepancies. Under a 2016 change, Shelby County Schools began requiring all teachers to use the same electronic grading database known as SMS.

“The District implemented this policy in an effort to effectuate a uniform and consistent method for grade entry which was designed to ensure truthful grading data,” the report said. “As an additional safeguard, SCS also required school principals to implement grading protocols aimed at ensuring the accuracy of the grades that teachers entered into SMS.”

Additionally, Mackin told investigators that Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin “informed him that there was an ‘adult culture problem’ and ‘a financial mess’ that needed to be ‘cleaned up’ at Trezevant.”

And this week, Hopson said rumors of grade-changing have been floating around for years.

“As a Memphian, who went to school here, far back as high school, I would always hear rumors of people changing people’s grades,” he told reporters. “That’s persisted for a long period of time.”

3. Grade floors and grade tampering aren’t the same thing.

Around the same time that Mackin turned over evidence of falsified grades, he implemented a “grade floor” policy in which Trezevant students don’t receive grades below a certain threshold.

So if a student was failing a class, Mackin discouraged teachers from giving that student a grade below 60 percent because “there is a mathematical impossibility of scoring high enough to make up the grade in the future,” he wrote in an email to then-supervisor Tonye Smith-McBride. Such low grades would contribute to a lack of student motivation and behavior issues, he argued.

Mackin told investigators that he was referring to future grades, but the timing of his directive appeared to contribute to confusion about grading policies at Trezevant, making some teachers think that their principal was instructing them to retroactively change failing grades to passing ones.

Trezevant isn’t alone in having grade floors. Hopson said other schools have similar practices and that he would like a uniform policy on the issue. Stanton’s report makes that recommendation.

4. Investigators found no evidence to support other complaints that were not about academics.

Mackin’s six-page resignation letter on June 1 accused Shelby County Schools of a cover-up and said that he was being painted as a scapegoat for questionable finances at Trezevant.

“Our investigation has determined that no cover up occurred,” the report read, adding that investigators found no evidence that Mackin was “wrongfully targeted” either as the district looked into finances.

In fact, the report noted that, in several public statements, district leaders hailed Mackin for unearthing suspicious activity on grades. As for a cover-up, Hopson alerted the State Department of Education in a timely matter that the district was conducting an internal review into Mackin’s concerns.

Investigators also found no evidence to support Mackin’s allegations that Trezevant’s football coach mis-reported the school’s enrollment to state athletic officials and that his supervisor had sexually harassed him.

5. There’s still lots of questions to be answered.

The accounting firm hired to review transcript changes at Memphis high schools found that 10 schools had more than 200 instances from 2012 to 2016. However, the review team could not determine if any were fraudulent and concluded that “additional investigation around grade changes is warranted.”

Investigators also were hampered from getting to the truth at Trezevant without the subpoena power that compels witnesses to speak up.

For example, investigators could not locate several people that Mackin claimed had evidence that would incriminate football coach Teli White, who has since been fired, regarding allegations that he paid student-athletes. They also could not search White’s email or bank accounts to look into allegations of financial fraud.

Hopson told reporters this week that his administration is considering turning over a list of former school administrators to Shelby County’s district attorney, who would have subpoena power in the matter. The superintendent, who is an attorney, said the findings of the first external review may merit a criminal investigation.

The full report by Butler Snow & Dixon Hughes Goodman is available here.

The full Ogletree Deakins report is available here.

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, call 313-309-8100 or email frontdesk@detroitparentnetwork.org.

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to tips.detroit@chalkbeat.org, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.