change of plans

With A-F grades off the table, Tennessee gets creative about rating its schools under federal law

PHOTO: Getty Images/danchooalex

Tennessee’s plan to start grading its schools this year has taken a big detour.

Days of online testing problems this spring forced officials to toss out a new A-F grading system, under development for more than a year as part of Tennessee’s sweeping plan to usher in a new era of school quality.

Now the state Education Department has come up with a different approach to help parents and communities understand how their schools performed in 2017-18.

The state will rate each school on a scale of 0-4 on six different performance indicators. And in a major concession to local district leaders, schools won’t receive a single overall grade or rating as initially planned.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the change complies with a new state law ordering that this year’s TNReady scores “shall not be used to assign a letter grade to a school” — a nod to concerns that the test results may be unreliable. She believes it also complies with the Every Student Succeeds Act, also known as ESSA, the 2015 federal law that requires every state to adopt a rating system that distinguishes each of its schools in a meaningful way.   

McQueen’s approach is drawing mostly praise from education leaders and groups, even as some wonder whether a numeric system will provide the simplicity and clarity of one that grades schools on an A-F scale.

“I give the department credit for going much further than I thought they could or would based on the TNReady law. They were very creative and ambitious,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, who leads the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition, which seeks to improve education quality for students of color.

Sen. Dolores Gresham, who chairs the Senate Education Committee, says the numeric system “is not ideal, but it does allow for some accountability and fulfills our requirement” under ESSA.

Federal officials are expected to approve the numeric rating concept and a few other revisions on Tennessee’s updated ESSA plan shared last month with the U.S. Department of Education.

McQueen recently told the task force advising her on testing matters that the numeric system will still provide useful information about how schools are doing in areas such as chronic absenteeism; out-of-school suspensions; student readiness for college, career and the military; and a variety of student achievement and growth data. The indicators are meant to give families a fuller picture of school performance than test scores alone.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen is greeted by students and staff at Springdale Memphis Magnet Elementary School during a 2015 svisit.

The commissioner also believes the ratings will follow the intent of the emergency TNReady laws, which shield schools from any “adverse action” from this year’s scores.

The ratings will be accessible online by December. For now, state officials are calling the new platform a “dashboard,” and school superintendents got an early peek last week at its design.

The dashboard will be separate from Tennessee’s existing State Report Card, another online tool showing annual data such as demographics, per-pupil funding, and student achievement by school and district.

“The current report card has dozens of data points, but we know it may not be a user-friendly tool for every parent to understand how a school is doing” said state spokeswoman Sara Gast.

“The dashboard will condense the number of data points to highlight what we think are some of the key indicators of success, and provide some context about what those scores mean,” she said.

But whether using the 0-4 system will be as easy to understand as A-F grades is a concern.

State lawmakers passed a 2016 law requiring an A-F system for schools beginning this year, and the Education Department adopted that approach as part of Tennessee’s ESSA plan. The idea was to provide parents with an easy-to-use tool to understand how their child’s school is performing. After all, that’s what their children get on their report cards.

For several years, the plan to give each school an overall grade — in addition to grades for each performance indicator — has been a point of contention for local education leaders. The state superintendents organization has fought the idea at every turn and was pushing legislation this year to roll it back before this year’s online TNReady problems made the issue moot.

“We’ve never opposed getting grades for individual areas,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. “But many superintendents and school boards felt very passionately that giving schools a single letter grade was not the right approach to give parents the best and most accurate information.”

"I believe (the changes) get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish."Sen. Dolores Gresham, R-Somerville

Gresham, who sponsored the A-F bill that became state law, is equally passionate about the importance of providing parents with one summative grade for their school. She’s also concerned that the numeric system won’t pack the same punch as letter grades.

“I believe that both choices get away from the simplicity and transparency that an A-F system was trying to accomplish,” Gresham told Chalkbeat. “The parents and our communities are our audience, not school administrators.”

Pupo-Walker would rather have overall grades too. But, for now, she’s mostly concerned about whether the dashboard will help parents and communities have robust conversations about the strengths and weaknesses of their schools.

“The onus is on the state to present the information in a way that parents and schools and community members can understand it,” she said, “and then for the information to be actionable.”

In partnership with the state, the coalition is sponsoring five regional meetings beginning June 26 in Nashville to discuss updates to Tennessee’s ESSA plan, including the new rating system. You can find the details here.

IPS School Board Race 2018

Indiana teachers union spends big on Indianapolis Public Schools in election

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy/Chalkbeat
IPS board candidate signs

The political arm of Indiana’s largest teachers union is spending big on the Indianapolis Public Schools board. The group donated $68,400 to three candidates vying for seats on the board this November, according to pre-election campaign finance disclosures released Friday.

The three candidates — Susan Collins, Michele Lorbieski, and Taria Slack — have all expressed criticism of the current board and the leadership of Superintendent Lewis Ferebee. Although that criticism touches on many issues, one particular bone of contention is the district’s embrace of innovation schools, independent campuses that are run by charter or nonprofit operators but remain under the district’s umbrella. Teachers at those schools are employed by the school operators, so they cannot join the union.

The trio was also endorsed by the IPS Community Coalition, a local group that has received funding from a national teachers union.

It’s not unusual for teachers unions to spend on school board elections. In 2016, the union contributed $15,000 to an unsuccessful at-large candidate for the Indianapolis Public Schools board. But $68,400 dwarfs that contribution. Those disclosures do not capture the full spending on the election. The three candidates endorsed by Stand for Children Indiana — Mary Ann Sullivan, Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, and Evan Hawkins — are likely getting significant unreported benefits.

Stand for Children, which supports innovation schools, typically sends mailers and hires campaign workers to support the candidates it endorses. But it is not required to disclose all of its political activity because it is an independent expenditure committee, also known as a 501(c)(4), for the tax code section that covers it. The group did not immediately respond to a request for information on how much it is spending on this race.

The candidates’ fundraising varied widely in the reporting period, which covered the period from April 14 to Oct. 12, with Taria Slack bringing in $28,950 and Joanna Krumel raising $200. In recent years, candidates have been raising significantly more money than had been common. But one recent candidate managed to win on a shoestring: Elizabeth Gore won an at-large seat in 2016 after raising about $1,200.

Read more: See candidates’ answers to a Chalkbeat survey

One part of Stand for Children’s spending became visible this year when it gave directly to tax campaigns. The group contributed $188,842 to the campaign for two tax referendums to raise money for Indianapolis Public Schools. That includes a $100,000 donation that was announced in August and about $88,842 worth of in-kind contributions such as mailers. The group has a team of campaign workers who have been going door-to-door for months.

The district is seeking to persuade voters to support two tax increases. One would raise $220 million for operating funds, such as teacher salaries, over eight years. A second measure would raise $52 million for building improvements. Donations from Stand for Children largely power the Vote Yes for IPS campaign, which raised a total of $201,717. The Indiana teachers union also contributed $5,000.

Here are the details on how much each candidate has raised and some of the notable contributions:

At large

Incumbent Mary Ann Sullivan, a former Democrat state lawmaker, raised $7,054. Her largest contribution came from the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which donated $4,670. She also received $1,000 from Steel House, a metal warehouse run by businessman Reid Litwack. She also received several donations of $250 or less.

Retired Indianapolis Public Schools teacher Susan Collins, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $16,422. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $15,000. She also received several donations of $200 or less.

Ceramics studio owner and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Joanna Krumel raised $200. Her largest contribution, $100, came from James W. Hill.

District 3

Marian University Executive Director of Facilities and Procurement and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Evan Hawkins raised $22,037. His largest contributions from individuals were from businessmen Allan Hubbard, who donated $5,000, and Litwack, who donated $2,500. The Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee contributed $4,670 and web design valued at $330. He also received several donations of $1,000 or less. His donors included IPS board member Venita Moore, retiring IPS board member Kelly Bentley’s campaign, and the CEO of The Mind Trust, Brandon Brown.

Frost Brown Todd trial attorney and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Michele Lorbieski, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $27,345. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $24,900. She also received several contributions of $250 or less.

Pike Township schools Director of Information Services Sherry Shelton raised $1,763, primarily from money she contributed. David Green contributed $116.

District 5

Incumbent Dorene Rodríguez Hoops, an Indianapolis Public Schools parent, raised $16,006. Her largest contributors include Hubbard, who donated $5,000; the Indy Chamber Business Advocacy Committee, which gave $4,670 and web design valued at $330; and the MIBOR PAC, which contributed $1,000. She also received several contributions of $500 or less, including from Bentley.

Federal employee and Indianapolis Public Schools parent Taria Slack, who is one of the candidates supported by the union, raised $28,950. The Indiana Political Action Committee for Education contributed $28,500.

Innovation zone

Two more Denver schools win additional freedom from district rules

PHOTO: J. Zubrzycki/Chalkbeat
Alex Magaña, then principal at Grant Beacon Middle School, greeted students as they moved between classes in 2015.

Two more Denver schools this week won more flexibility in how they spend their money and time. The schools will create a new “innovation zone,” bringing the district’s number of quasi-autonomous zones to three.

The Denver school board on Thursday unanimously approved the schools’ application to operate more independently from district rules, starting in January.

The new zone will include Grant Beacon Middle School in south Denver and Kepner Beacon Middle School in southwest Denver. The two schools are high-performing by the district’s standards and follow a model that allows students to learn at their own pace.

With just two schools, the zone will be the district’s smallest, though Beacon leaders have signaled their intent to compete to open a third school in the growing Stapleton neighborhood, where the district has said it will need more capacity. The district’s other two innovation zones have four and five schools each.

Schools in zones are still district schools, but they can opt out of paying for certain district services and instead spend that money on things that meet their specific needs, such as additional teachers or aides. Zones can also form nonprofit organizations with their own boards of directors that provide academic and operational oversight, and help raise extra dollars to support the schools.

The new zone, called the Beacon Schools Network Innovation Zone, will have a five-member board of directors that includes one current parent, two former parents, and two community members whose professional work is related to education.

The zone will also have a teacher council and a parent council that will provide feedback to its board but whose members won’t be able to vote on decisions.

Some Denver school board members questioned the makeup of the zone’s board.

“I’m wondering about what kinds of steps you’re going to take to ensure there is a greater representation of people who live and reside in southwest Denver,” where Kepner Beacon is located, asked school board member Angela Cobián, who represents the region. She also asked about a greater representation of current parents on the board.

Alex Magaña, who serves as executive principal over the Beacon schools and will lead the new zone, said he expects the board to expand to seven members within a year. He also said the parent council will play a key role even if its members can’t vote.

“The parent council is a strong influence,” he said. “If the parent council is not happy, that’s going to be impacting both of the schools. I don’t want to undersell that.”

Other Denver school board members questioned the zone’s finances and how dependent it would be on fundraising. A district summary of the zone’s application notes that the zone’s budget relies on $1.68 million in foundation revenue over the next 5½ years.

Magaña said the zone would eventually seek to expand to four schools, which would make it more financially stable. As for philanthropic dollars, he said the zone would work to ensure any loss of revenue doesn’t hurt the schools’ unique programs or enrichment.

“I can’t emphasize enough that it won’t impact the schools,” he said.

Ultimately, Denver school board members said they have confidence in the Beacon model and look forward to seeing what its leaders do with their increased autonomy.