Hold Up

A Memphis principal was fired over flawed test scores. Should state law protect him too?

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Memphis Academy of Health Sciences was one of the first charter schools in the city in 2003.

Reginald Williams was set to retire as principal of a Memphis charter school at the end of the school year. Instead, he was fired just days into the new school year, shortly after state test results showed the school’s scores had plummeted.

Memphis Academy of Health Sciences High School, one of the city’s first charters, had within a single year dropped from the second-highest rating on student growth to a level 1, the lowest.

School leaders who do not move the needle for academics are frequently fired, especially as a growing body of research confirms principals play a key role in student achievement. But after major technical glitches interrupted computerized testing for tens of thousands of students this spring, state lawmakers sprung into action. They passed two wide-ranging laws designed to protect teachers, students, and schools from test results that might not be reliable.

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Corey Johnson, seated right, is the executive director of Memphis Academy of Health Sciences.

Until now, no public challenge has emerged to see how far the legislation extends — and whether or not principals are covered under it.

“You would think, though, if it’s a flawed test, that would be given consideration,” said Antonio Parkinson, a state representative whose district includes the school. “I think I would stop short of telling schools if they can move their folks around. But I would hope they would give the same consideration we gave them.”

Corey Johnson, the charter network’s executive director, told Chalkbeat he and Williams, who had served for four years as the school’s principal, had come to a “mutual agreement” about moving up the timeline for Williams’ retirement. However, emails between Johnson and the board’s president, Michael Dexter, explicitly tie Williams’ departure to poor 2018 results on the state test known as TNReady. (Chalkbeat obtained the emails through a public records request.)

“Instead of waiting until the year end, I believe it is critical to make this move now in order to show the community good faith that MAHS will moving to improve itself educational [sic],” Johnson said in the email. “It is difficult to promote high-quality education with a health science focus with the scores suggesting our school is a Level One.”

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange spoke at a board meeting for Memphis Academy of Health Sciences after principal Reginald Williams was fired.

When school parents learned of Williams’ departure, many of them, together with community supporters of the former principal, overwhelmed a board meeting last month to demand answers that were not given.

When Chalkbeat asked how the state law on 2018 scores influenced his decision to fire Williams, Johnson declined to talk about the network’s former employee. He also declined to say why his reasoning was not made public to parents at the board meeting.

“MAHS, since its inception in 2003, maintains that it is our mission to cement a high-quality educational experience by providing a continuous, health science-focused curriculum,” Johnson wrote in an email to Chalkbeat. “Any changes in course in respect to that work, our faculty or administration are all made with that mission in mind.”

PHOTO: Courtesy of Reginald Williams
Reginald Williams

Williams attributed the large drop in scores to late delivery of laptops for students to practice on and a lack of motivation from students once they learned the scores would not count — a common observation among educators. When test scores came out this summer, Williams said he tried to work with Johnson on a plan to bounce back, but did not hear from him until he was fired on Aug. 10.

“I felt very strongly that’s the reason he was releasing me, but I couldn’t prove it,” he said. “I have a history of turning around programs.”

A spokeswoman for the state education department deferred questions about the legislation’s reach to local school board attorneys, though at least one state resource on interpreting the law said principals could void their evaluations based on the state law.

Shelby County Schools’ board’s attorney, Herman Morris, did not respond to several requests for comment. A district spokeswoman, meanwhile, told Chalkbeat to “speak with an attorney who is not affiliated with the charter school or the school district to answer your legal questions.”

The first year Williams was at the high school in North Memphis, the school earned the state’s highest score on student improvement. The following year it dipped, but mostly recovered before this year’s second drop.

Source: Tennessee Department of Education.<br />Note: The state does not publish school scores below 5 percent or above 95 percent to protect student data.

Parkinson, the state lawmaker, said Williams’ situation is a gray area in the law. For school staff, only teachers were specifically mentioned:

For the 2017-2018 school year, [local education agencies] shall not base employment termination and compensation decisions for teachers on data generated by statewide assessments administered in the 2017-2018 school year

G.A. Hardaway, a state representative who helped establish Memphis Academy in 2003 as part of the 100 Black Men of Memphis, said he hadn’t given much thought to how the scores would impact principals.

“The goal was to make sure that everyone was held harmless from those corrupt scores and corrupt process,” he said.

At least one group is insisting that principals should be protected under the law. The legal experts at Tennessee Education Association, the state’s largest teacher group, said principals are included in the definition of “teacher” in the state law.

Back at Memphis Academy, the fallout has many parents on edge. Several of them said they are actively looking for another school for their children in light of Williams’ departure and the board’s refusal to answer questions about it.

School leaders also fired ACT prep teacher Patricia Ange, an outspoken supporter of Williams, who spoke during the board meeting. Ange said she still does not have paperwork detailing why she was fired.

De’Licia Jones, a parent who has sent her children to Memphis Academy since 2013, said the whole atmosphere has changed at the school since Williams left. Several other teachers have quit, she and other members of the school community said, and it’s impacting the students.

“Before, they would be sick and still want to go to school. They were excited,” Jones said of her children. “Now he gets to a point where he doesn’t want to go to school.”

reading science

Reading instruction is big news these days. Teachers, share your thoughts with us!

PHOTO: Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Lately, lots of people are talking about reading. Specifically, how it’s taught (or not) in America’s schools.

Much of the credit is due to American Public Media reporter Emily Hanford. In September, she took an in-depth look at what’s wrong with reading instruction in the nation’s classrooms and how explicit, systematic phonics instruction could help.

The crux of the issue is this: In the 1980s and 1990s, the “whole language” approach to teaching reading took hold, relying on the idea that learning to read is a natural process that could be helped along by surrounding kids with good books. At many schools, phonics was out.

In time, many educators brought small doses of phonics back into their lessons, adopting an approach called “balanced literacy.” The problem is, neither whole language nor balanced literacy is based on science, Hanford explained.

Her work on the subject — an audio documentary called Hard Words, a follow-up Q&A for parents, and an opinion piece in the New York Times — has spawned much discussion on social media and elsewhere.

A Maine educator explained in her piece for the Hechinger Report why she agrees that explicit phonics instruction is important but doesn’t think “balanced literacy” should be thrown out. A Minnesota reporter examined the divide in her state over how much phonics should be included in reading lessons and how it should be delivered.

In a roundtable discussion on reading last spring, Stephanie Finn, a literacy coach in the West Genesee Central School District in upstate New York, described the moment she became disillusioned with the whole language approach. It was while reading a story with her young daughter.

“The story was about gymnastics and she had a lot of background knowledge about gymnastics. She loved gymnastics. She knew the word ‘gymnastics,’ and ‘balance beam’ and ‘flexible’ and she got to the girl’s name and the girl’s name was Kate, and she didn’t know what to do,” said Finn. “I thought ‘Holy cow, she cannot decode this simple word. We have a problem.’”

In an opinion piece in Education Week, Susan Pimentel, co-founder of StandardsWork, provides three recommendations to help educators promote reading proficiency. Besides not confining kids to “just-right” books where they already know most words, she says teachers should increase students’ access to knowledge-building subjects like science and social studies. Finally, she writes, “Let quality English/language arts curriculum do some of the heavy lifting. Poor-quality curriculum is at the root of reading problems in many schools.”

Meanwhile, some current and former educators are asking teacher prep program leaders to explain the dearth of science-based lessons on reading instruction.

An Arkansas teacher wrote in a letter to her former dean on Facebook, “while I feel like most of my teacher preparation was very good, I can say I was totally unprepared to teach reading, especially to the struggling readers that I had at the beginning of my career in my resource classroom.”

Former elementary school teacher Robert Pondiscio, a senior fellow and vice president for external affairs at the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, wrote to his former dean, “I’m grateful for the professional credential … But if there’s anything one might expect an advanced degree in elementary education to include, it would be teaching reading. It wasn’t part of my program.”

Teachers, now we’d like to hear from you. What resonates with you about the recent news coverage on reading instruction? What doesn’t? Share your perspective by filling out this brief survey.

Indiana's 2019 legislative session

Raising teacher pay likely to be at the forefront for Indiana lawmakers and advocates in 2019

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar/Chalkbeat
Colorado teachers rallied for more education funding on April 27, 2018.

Indiana lawmakers and education advocates are making raises for teachers a priority for the upcoming legislative session.

As top lawmakers — Republicans and Democrats — prepare to craft the next two-year state budget, they have been in talks about how money could be set aside for teachers and other educators. But it’s unclear how much of a pay hike is on the table or how the dollars would get from the state to teacher paychecks.

“The governor’s office and both Republican caucuses are seriously looking at this as an issue,” said Rep. Bob Behning, a Republican who chairs the House Education Committee. “If we’re focused on really making (teaching) more of a profession, you can’t do it by grants here, grants there. People need to see the opportunity.”

While Indiana’s teacher pay has not fallen as dramatically as it has in other states, salaries are down from 2009 when adjusted for inflation. The average teacher salary in 2018 was $54,846, down about 4.5 percentage points from nine years earlier, according to data from the National Education Association teachers union. An analysis of data from the National Center for Education Statistics and Council of Community and Economic Research ranks Indiana 18th highest in the nation for teacher salaries adjusted for cost of living.

Teacher pay has been central to education policy debates in 2018 across the nation, with teachers in several cities staging walkouts and protests to urge officials in their states to increase funding for classrooms. Indiana teachers have not gone on strike, but the national uproar around funding and teacher compensation has been felt among Hoosier educators — especially as schools across the state struggle to hire enough qualified teachers. In Indianapolis Public Schools, raising teacher pay was the driving motivation behind asking voters to approve a tax increase of $220 million over eight years.

“I don’t think I’ve talked to anyone who said they’re fully staffed in special education,” said Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association. “But if you get them and you can’t keep them because they can’t pay bills, and they have no hope of having a family or getting a house … they’re going to look elsewhere.”

It’s too early to know how lawmakers would approach raises logistically for the state’s more than 71,000 public school teachers or how much they’re willing to support, but there does seem to be some initial consensus that the increases should go to base salaries, not just stipends as previous efforts have involved.

“We need to look at how do we make a significant impact to the base for all teachers,” said Sen. Eddie Melton, a Democrat from northwest Indiana. “That’s where we’re going now, to figure out what’s a sustainable method to fund this — not just for one or two years, but ongoing.”

In previous years, the state has set aside a few million dollars at a time for teacher bonuses or stipends for teaching advanced courses or subjects in shortage areas, such as science, math, and special education. The state’s pool for merit pay raises this year for teachers rated effective and highly effective is $30 million, amounting to typically small bumps for teachers.

But a noticeable raise for every teacher in the state would cost many millions of dollars, a considerable undertaking at a time when state revenue has been shrinking and competition among lawmakers and agencies to get a slice of state funding is high.

It’s also unclear if the money for raises would be figured into the state’s school funding formula or as a separate line item. It could be especially complicated because in Indiana, there are no common teacher pay guidelines. Each district or charter school creates its own pay scale, which often involves union negotiations as well.

Lawmakers and advocates alike say they expect this to be a top issue for the legislature. Still, any proposal to increase teacher pay would be competing with other issues — chief among them increasing funding for the Department of Child Services. Earlier this year, the resignation of the agency’s director set off a major review of its staffing and caseload, stretched further by the number of children needing services because of Indiana’s opioid crisis.

Teacher salaries could also square off against other education issues, such as school safety improvements and initiatives to increase class offerings in science and math.

In Indianapolis Public Schools, district officials have been stressing the need to increase teacher pay — a key lever to convincing voters to pass a property tax increase to raise an additional $220 million for the district over eight years. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said he’s also been having conversations with lawmakers about potential ways that the state could address the problem.

“They appreciate the need to address the teacher shortage, and they understand it’s an issue not only impacting Indianapolis Public Schools but it’s also an issue that’s statewide,” Ferebee told Chalkbeat two weeks ago.

Teacher hiring has continued to be a struggle for districts across the state, a survey from an Indiana State University professor said. Of the 220 districts surveyed, 91 percent said they’d had trouble filling jobs, with special education, science, and math being the hardest to fill.

According to state data, Indiana issued licenses to 4,285 new teachers in 2018, down slightly from 5,016 in 2017 and 4,566 in 2016. A survey conducted by the Indiana Department of Education reported 88 percent of educators who responded were unsatisfied with their pay, and it was the reason most frequently given for leaving the teaching profession.

“Based on conversations with some lawmakers, based on what’s going on across the country, I think our lawmakers have seen there’s reform fatigue,” Meredith said. “Let the dust settle and figure out how we come back and demonstrate respect for teachers.”

In other states where lawmakers have approved statewide teacher pay raises, the process has differed. Oklahoma raised the salary floor for all teachers, with an average increase of $6,100 per year. The state budgeted more than $425 million for the salary increases, which are to be covered by new higher taxes on cigarettes, cigars, and gas. In West Virginia, a nine-day strike ultimately led lawmakers to increase pay for all public employees by 5 percent.

Gov. Eric Holcomb has not yet weighed in on whether he would support a statewide teacher raise, but Behning said he’d been in conversations with the governor’s office. Indiana’s next legislative session begins in January.