Nail biter

Tennessee lawmakers take another whack at shielding teachers from TNReady test flubs

PHOTO: TN.gov
Tennessee lawmakers convene in a joint 2016 assembly at the State Capitol. The most recent General Assembly adjourned for the year on Wednesday.

An 11th-hour compromise by Tennessee lawmakers on the last day of their legislative session makes it so “no adverse action may be taken” against any student, teacher, school, or district based on results from this year’s bungled state standardized tests.

The vote was the legislature’s second TNReady-related action in the last week. The first gave districts options for lessening the impact of this year’s assessment on students’ final grades, and also prevented them from using the results for any decisions related to hiring, firing, or compensating teachers.

But concern that lawmakers hadn’t gone far enough led to Wednesday’s legislation after a day-long standoff over how best to address the testing glitches, most of them online but some on paper too.

House members initially sought to yank student growth scores from teachers’ evaluations and, at one point, even held the state’s $37.5 billion budget hostage for a second time in a week, refusing to send the approved spending plan to Gov. Bill Haslam until a resolution could be reached. That stance brought the legislature to a grinding halt on its final day.

Rep. Eddie Smith of Knoxville stands at the podium of the Tennessee House of Representatives on Wednesday as the chamber’s education leaders press for a bill to hold teachers harmless for this year’s TNReady scores.

“If you don’t understand — from the school district to the superintendents — that we want our teachers held harmless, then I’m sorry, you’re tone-deaf,” said Rep. Eddie Smith, a Knoxville Republican who led the charge in the House.

Haslam’s administration and leaders in the Senate sought to hold the line.

“We do know that teacher evaluations are key to the success of our children here in Tennessee,” said Sen. Dolores Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, during a legislative hearing earlier in the day.

In the end, both chambers approved another bill hashed out in a conference committee that said: “No adverse action may be taken against any student, teacher, school or [local education agency] based in whole or in part on student achievement data generated from the 2017-2018 TNReady assessments.”

The bill went on to say that an “adverse action” would include identifying a school as a “priority school” in Tennessee’s bottom 5 percent, the starting point for state intervention.

“It ain’t perfect. But it is an absolute huge step forward,” said Rep. William Lamberth, a Republican from Cottontown, in explaining his vote for the compromise.

Rep. Bo Mitchell of Nashville questioned why the House was blinking in the standoff, but Rep. Craig Fitzhugh of Ripley said the bigger goal was to clear up any ambiguity.

“This body made it abundantly clear that no adverse action can happen. It’s that simple,” Fitzhugh said.

However, it’s still uncertain what the bill means for how test data is used in teacher evaluations. Earlier Wednesday, the state Department of Education was still working through the legislature’s order from last week to figure out those impacts.

"This body made it abundantly clear that no adverse action can happen. It’s that simple."Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, D-Ripley

Teachers groups were appreciative of the final bill, though.

“We have worked closely with legislators to advocate for further measures to protect teachers,” said Professional Educators of Tennessee COO Audrey Shores. “We are pleased that legislators unanimously provided that students, educators or schools will not be held responsible for unreliable results from the failures of the TNReady online assessment platform this year.”

The Tennessee Education Association tweeted that the legislation covers all laws, rules, and policies and promised to be “watching it like a hawk” to see that the legislature’s intent is followed.

Lawmakers have been inundated with phone calls and emails from teachers and parents angry about the most recent blunders with TNReady and concerned that the resulting data would be flawed. The upheaval began last week when technical problems erupted on the online version. At one point, the state and its testing company, Questar, blamed some of the glitches on a cyber attack.

The language in both bills seeks to keep Tennessee’s school accountability plan in compliance with a federal education law that requires states to include student performance in their teacher evaluation model — or risk losing federal funding for schools. Lawmakers also cited the state’s tenure rules in preserving the data.

TNReady is now in the second of a three-week testing window, with serious problems cropping up during at least four of those days, including on Wednesday when an overnight software upgrade by Questar affected online rosters for high schoolers.

This story has been updated.

First Person

We work at Denver’s Title I schools, too. Here’s why we’re ready to strike.

PHOTO: AAron Ontiveroz/The Denver Post
Students in kindergarten on the first day of school at McGlone Academy.

We are a group of teachers representing schools in the far northeast region of Denver. Many of us now receive “incentives” for working at Title I schools where many students live in poverty — and we are also willing to strike in support of the union’s proposed salary structure, which moves some of the money used for those incentives into long-term base pay.

Why? In short, we would rather have our base pay prioritized than earn bonuses that are not reliable, may not be working, and may also take the pressure off the district to solve systemic problems our schools face.

Issue #1: The current bonuses can’t be relied on. The “hard to serve” school label is based on free and reduced-price lunch percentages, which vary on an annual basis. Teachers at Marie L. Greenwood Academy, for example, could lose their “hard to serve” label because their school dropped just barely below the threshold. Additionally, John Amesse Elementary School and McGlone Academy are less than two miles apart, serve similar populations, and are a part of the same network; however, due to ambiguous calculations based on test scores, free and reduced-price lunch numbers, and teacher turnover rates, McGlone teachers receive larger bonuses than John Amesse teachers. This is not fair nor equitable. Teachers need money they can depend on.

Issue #2: It’s not clear that the current bonuses are working. We have not seen conclusive evidence that the incentives we receive for working in hard to serve schools have affected teacher retention or recruitment. Every year, schools in our area are hiring for positions that often get filled by first-year teachers. Many of the schools that receive these incentives still suffer from the same high turnover rates the bonuses were meant to remedy.

Issue #3: The current bonuses let the district off the hook. Some have argued that teachers in Title I schools deserve significant bonuses because the challenges faced in our work are difficult and taxing. However, many of these issues are due to systemic problems that the district would be better off trying to solve directly.

We know that increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around segregation in Denver Public Schools. Increasing incentive pay to work at “hard to serve” schools will not fix the issues around some schools lacking nurses, social workers, counselors, support for Spanish speaking and emerging bilingual students, and support for special education programs. It will not solve issues around the lack of reliable technology, funding for arts, comprehensive neighborhood schools, or the flood of issues that we all feel in our schools on a daily basis.

We support the union’s proposal because we want the decisions we make as educators to stem from a love of our schools, a desire to serve our students, and a hope to support our community. We want teachers to seek out and stay at our schools because they believe in our vision, our mission, our students, and our community.

We are also passionate about a clear and transparent pay schedule. We want that structure to recognize our dedication to the field and our commitment to furthering our education – not a system that provides one-time bonuses that are in our checks one year and absent the next due to circumstances outside our control.

Anyone who enters our classrooms will see that we are doing our best with the resources we have in order to lift up the students in Denver who are most impacted by systemic racism and poverty. Let us come together on this idea: Fair pay for teachers means better outcomes for students. If we can stand together on this, then we can help improve the lives of so many more students, teachers, and families.

This piece was written by Jessica Schneider, Noel Community Arts School; Tanessa Bass, John H. Amesse Elementary; Rebecca Roberts, John H. Amesse Elementary; Valerie Henderson, Sandra Todd Williams Academy; Brian Weaver, Florida Pitt Waller ECE-8; Michelle Garrison, Farrell B. Howell ECE-8; Michael Sitkin, DCIS @ Montbello; Cory Montrieul, DCIS @ Montbello; and Nik Arnoldi, Escalante-Biggs Academy.

Last minute

Teachers union continues voting on possible Denver strike

PHOTO: Michael Ciaglo/Special to the Denver Post
Eagleton Elementary School first grade teacher Valerie Lovato, left, and East High School French teacher Tiffany Choi hold up signs as the Denver teachers union negotiates with district officials.

Denver teachers resumed voting Tuesday evening on whether to go on strike, a decision that will touch tens of thousands of people in Colorado’s largest school district.

The vote comes after months of negotiations left Denver Public Schools and the Denver Classroom Teachers Association still $8 million apart and with serious philosophical disagreements about how teacher compensation should be structured. Denver teachers are riding a wave of activism by their peers across the country that began last year and continues to build. Teachers in Los Angeles just reached a tentative deal with their district after more than a week on strike.

Members of the teachers union began voting on a strike Saturday. A final round of voting began at 4 p.m. Tuesday and will end at 9 p.m. Union officials said Tuesday evening that results would be announced at 9:30 p.m.  

On Tuesday evening, a steady stream of teachers bundled against the cold made their way into a Knights of Columbus Hall in downtown Denver where the last voting session is taking place.

Maria Cruz, an early childhood education teacher for the past two years who previously worked as a paraprofessional in the district, said she voted “yes” to strike hoping it will push the district to close the gap between its offer and what the union is seeking.  

“Teachers come and go and come and go and they never stay because there is not enough pay,” she said. “It doesn’t validate the teaching profession.”

The earliest a strike could start would be Jan. 28. On Tuesday evening, district families received a robocall from Denver Superintendent Susana Cordova making clear that classes would go on as normal on Wednesday, and that district officials intend to keep schools open for the foreseeable future.   

Cordova has said she’ll ask for state intervention if the vote is yes, which could delay a strike. If teachers do walk out, the district intends to keep schools open and students learning by relying on substitutes, tapping central office staff with past teaching experience, and using pre-packaged lessons plans for every grade and subject area. 

A Denver strike would affect roughly 71,000 students in district-run schools.

District officials went on the offensive over the weekend, making the argument that their offer was generous and responsive to longstanding teacher complaints about stagnant salaries.   

The district also published its new salary schedule online alongside the salary schedules of other Denver metro area districts.

The two sides disagree on how much new money the district should put into teacher compensation and also on how that compensation should be structured. The district has said it will not compromise on offering bonuses to teachers at high-poverty and hard-to-serve schools. The union wants smaller bonuses and more money to go into base pay.

This would be the first teacher strike in Denver in 25 years.