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.

survey says

Support for boosting teacher pay is at a 10-year high, new survey finds

After a year of teacher protests, an increasing number of Americans think teachers should be paid more, according to a new national survey.

Sixty-seven percent of respondents said that teacher salaries should increase, up from 61 percent last year, according to a survey conducted by the research magazine Education Next. The poll is notable for its close tracking of parents and teachers’ opinions on contested education issues, in addition to those of the broader public.

The 67 percent figure is the highest support for increasing teacher pay has been since 2008, just before the financial crisis. Support rose this year among members of all political parties, and was especially high among those from states with recent teacher protests, like West Virginia and Arizona.

Support for increasing teacher pay is slightly lower when respondents are told the average annual salary for teachers — 49 percent say we should increase it — though that number has risen 13 points since last year.

What’s behind this rise in support? The researchers offered two possible explanations: one, that those teacher walkouts and protests have bolstered support, and two, that people are more receptive to the idea of salaries rising when the economy is in good shape and wages across the economy are increasing, as they are now.

“These two explanations may in fact work together,” said Marty West, a Harvard professor and the magazine’s editor in chief.

Here are five other things we learned from the survey:

Agency fees are unpopular. In June, the Supreme Court said public unions — including teachers unions — cannot charge mandatory fees to non-union members. The decision is in line with public opinion: 56 percent of respondents oppose requiring teachers to pay agency fees, according to the survey.

A large gap exists between members of different political parties, with 56 percent of Republicans opposing the fees compared to 35 percent of Democrats. Notably, the survey was conducted before the Janus Supreme Court decision, so the researchers are unsure whether pro-union or anti-union campaigns since then have changed public opinion.

When people are given the arguments for and against agency fees, support increases by several points.

Support for charter schools has rebounded a bit. Last year’s survey included a 12 point drop in support of charter schools, one of the largest changes in public opinion in the survey’s 12-year history. This year, opposition to charter schools held steady (36 percent in 2017 to 35 percent in 2018), but support for charter schools increased 5 points, to 44 percent. The increase was concentrated among Republicans, widening the partisan divide on the issue.

Americans don’t like using race or income to assign students to schools. The survey finds that the majority of the public opposes taking race into account in school assignment decisions, with 57 percent opposed and only 18 percent supportive. Black and Hispanic respondents were also generally against the idea, though somewhat less so than white respondents.

Income-based affirmative action policies are equally unpopular, though opposition to both income and race-based policies has fallen slightly since the poll last asked the question in 2008.

In July, the U.S. Department of Education withdrew several Obama-era documents that had offered advice about how public schools could legally consider race to assign students to K-12 schools.

Support for school vouchers has increased. Opinions on sending public money to private schools in the form of vouchers are famously difficult to poll, because the results vary drastically based on how the question is worded. Here, 54 percent of the public backed a program described as giving families a “wider choice” in school; that’s up 9 points since last year. That’s surprising, since Education Secretary Betsy DeVos has championed the policy and is widely unpopular, according to previous polling.

In the Education Next poll, support is 10 points lower if the word “voucher” is introduced — which is likely why private school choice advocates often avoid the term. And a 2017 poll from another organization found that only 39 percent of respondents backed “allowing students and parents to choose a private school to attend at public expense.”

Teachers really oppose charter schools, vouchers, and merit pay. On those issues, teachers’ views diverge from the general public’s.

Fifty-five percent of teachers oppose charter schools, compared to 35 percent of the public. For vouchers, 58 percent of teachers oppose them, while 31 percent of the public does. And a full 73 percent of teachers oppose merit pay, compared to 36 percent of the public.

Future of Teaching

Undocumented students face hurdles getting into college. Here’s how Indiana teachers have helped them succeed

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Cinthia, Jessika Osborne, Angela Adams, and Karina Garduño were panelists featured in a discussion moderated by Mike Elsen-Rooney, a reporter with the Teacher Project. The event focused on undocumented students' access to college.

Navigating the college admissions process can be a challenge for any student, but in Indiana, undocumented students can face extra hurdles in pursuing higher learning. That’s because Indiana is one of just six states that prohibits undocumented students from receiving in-state tuition rates at public universities.

Helping Indiana teachers identify pathways to college — and through college — for their undocumented students was a focus of a panel discussion Wednesday, put on by WFYI Public Media and the Teacher Project, an education reporting fellowship at Columbia Journalism School. Educators in the state say that in recent years, they have noticed an increase in undocumented students in their classroom, and many of these students assume that higher education is out of reach for them.

Under federal law, all students must be allowed to attend public K-12 schools, regardless of immigration status. But access to public colleges in Indiana is inextricably tied to immigration status. While it’s possible for undocumented students to be accepted at and to enroll in colleges, entrance exams and figuring out how to cover the tuition, can be tricky, especially because undocumented students can’t receive federal student aid. They also worry that the application process puts themselves and their families at greater risk of deportation.

Wednesday’s event was held at the WFYI offices in Indianapolis and brought out dozens of educators, students, and community members. The gathering was part of an ongoing series about the intersection of education and immigration.

The panel featured Cinthia, an undocumented student who graduated from Emmerich Manual High School in 2015. Cinthia did not provide her last name because of her immigration status. She spoke passionately about how instrumental her English-as-a-new-language teacher, Jessika Osborne, was in eventually getting her to college and ensuring she felt safe once there.

“She’s always been in my life,” Cinthia said. “I felt like Osborne would protect me no matter what.”

Cinthia, Osborne, and two other panelists answered questions and participated in a moderated discussion about advice for other educators struggling with how best to help their students who are undocumented pursue higher education.

Read more: Should undocumented students be afraid? These are their rights.

Work to build trust.

Karina Garduño, IUPUI’s assistant director of multicultural planning and another panelist, said one of the biggest hurdles for teachers is determining which of their students might be undocumented, and therefore might need extra help with the college admissions process.

Garduño said the first step is establishing a good rapport. When students trust you and feel comfortable, they are more likely to disclose their immigration status and open up about whether or not they need assistance with the college process.

“A lot of these students will not share this information with just anybody,” Garduño said.

Making the time to do this outreach is no easy feat for many educators in the state. Garduño said she’s known guidance counselors who are responsible for hundreds of students. Such ratios aren’t uncommon in Indiana or across the country.

“As much as you are well-intentioned and really want to help, your human capacity is not necessarily always there because you have so many students to serve and they each have so many individual needs,” she said.

Osborne said she, too, has felt overwhelmed juggling her classroom responsibilities with the intense needs of her students, especially amid changing policies around immigration and undocumented populations. Still, she’s seen how consistent effort to build trust with students can pay off.

“There wasn’t a time where I remember Cinthia saying, ‘I’m undocumented,’” Osborne said. Rather, there were just hints over time that Cinthia needed help applying for college and getting paperwork that proved she was in school.

To help students like Cinthia, Osborne said she sometimes gives up her lunch hour and planning time. She also makes herself available after school and before sports practices begin.

Don’t panic.

Angela Adams, also a panelist and an Indianapolis-based immigration attorney, said she gets a lot of questions about whether teachers need to report students who disclose they are undocumented, or whether helping them is “aiding and abetting” some kind of crime.

“First of all, don’t panic,” Adams said. “You’re not doing anything wrong by not reporting this person or by having this person in your classroom.”

Adams said FERPA, the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act that protects certain information about students, applies here.

“You can’t disclose to third-parties even if you wanted to — you’d probably be losing your job,” Adams said.

Know your limits.

Adams and Garduño encouraged teachers to be supportive, but not to go beyond their roles as educators. For example, they can reassure their students that they won’t tell anyone about their plight without their permission. But they shouldn’t be giving out legal advice. Rather, they can recommend speaking with an immigration attorney.

“Be careful,” Adams said. “Because you don’t know what you don’t know … you could end up getting someone in a worse situation even if you’re trying to do the right thing.”

And in the meantime, panelists advocated that teachers familiarize themselves with available resources, such as the American Immigration Lawyers Association, Indiana Undocumented Youth Alliance, La Plaza, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

In the classroom, Osborne suggested teachers identify when it might be wise to avoid working in large groups on college-related assignments. At Manual, she said, students have been taken in groups to a computer lab to fill out college financial aid forms. But undocumented students might not feel comfortable in that setting — and some just didn’t show up, she said.

Osborne said her department has also held smaller parent nights for information about immigration, the college application process, and the federal Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.

Most of all, Cinthia said, she appreciated that Osborne and other teachers never made her feel like her dream to complete her education and become a nurse was out of reach — even if she faced more challenges along the way.

“Don’t make them feel like they’re not going to finish,” Cinthia said. “Just help them and support them through the whole way.”