Extension please

Sponsor of Tennessee’s A-F school grading law wants launch postponed

Last year, Rep. Glen Casada proposed that all Tennessee schools be assigned a single A-F grade starting in the 2017-18 school year. His bill became law — but now he wants it delayed.

The Williamson County Republican and House majority leader says the state should hold off because this is the first year that elementary and middle school students will take its new test.

Last spring, the state canceled TNReady for grades 3-8, prolonging the transition to an assessment that is supposed to be more rigorous. The cancellation came just a month after Gov. Bill Haslam signed the law requiring the Tennessee Department of Education to develop a school grading system by this fall. Sen. Dolores Gresham, a Republican from Somerville, sponsored the bill in the Senate.

“I’m a big believer in transparency,” Casada said this week, “but this year’s data is not up to standard.”

Casada said that Department of Education officials are moving ahead with the grading system, which is now built into the state’s plan to comply with the new federal Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, but are listening to feedback.

Officials from Williamson County Schools, the system in Casada’s district, are among school leaders with a separate set of concerns. They worry that under the new A-F grading system schools with high test scores will post lower grades if they don’t show growth. The school board in Collierville, a wealthy Memphis suburb, voted this week to lobby against the new grading system for the same reasons.

That’s the inverse of concerns discussed when the bill was snaking through the legislature last year. Then, supporters considered it a common-sense aid to help parents understand school quality. Because test scores often correlate with wealth, critics charged that schools in affluent, high-performing districts like Williamson would always get As, and that schools with more poor students would get lower grades.

The Tennessee Department of Education officials took such concerns into account when they drafted the proposal for the grading system, which was part of their ESSA draft plan. ESSA focuses more on school-level accountability than its predecessor, No Child Left Behind. In the draft, both growth and raw achievement would be part of schools’ final grade, with the idea that schools won’t have an edge because of their demographics.

The performance of subgroups such as racial minorities also will be a determining factor in the ratings.

School leaders nationwide are facing the challenge of conveying school quality with a single letter grade as states and cities move to adopt such grading systems. Earlier this week, leaders of high-achieving districts in Texas urged state officials to repeal a new A-F system, but their lieutenant governor said it’s here to stay.

Michael Petrilli, the president of the Fordham Institute, says developing a fair and relevant grading system is a balancing act.

“If high-achieving schools end up getting low grades, people won’t trust the grading system,” he said.

But Tennessee officials say that historically high-ranked schools have nothing to worry about under the state’s proposal and that all schools will have the opportunity to make an A.

“… We were intentional about engaging all types of districts across Tennessee because this framework has to be able to work for the variety of schools we have,” said department spokeswoman Sara Gast.

Five questions

Why this Memphis Republican supports school vouchers — but is concerned about accountability

PHOTO: TN.gov
From left: Rep. Mark White of Memphis speaks with Gov. Bill Haslam at a bill-signing ceremony at the State Capitol.

Only one school voucher bill remains under consideration in Tennessee, and it’s all about Memphis.

The proposal, which would pilot a voucher program exclusively for students in Shelby County Schools, is putting a spotlight on the 16 state lawmakers who represent Memphis and Shelby County, including Rep. Mark White.

White is one of only four from the county’s legislative delegation to pledge support for the bill, which would allow some Memphis parents to use public education funding to pay for private school tuition.

The East Memphis Republican, whose district includes Germantown, has long supported vouchers. But he’s also concerned about how private schools would be held accountable if they accept public money.

Chalkbeat spoke with White this week about the legislature’s last remaining voucher proposal, as well as a bill to give in-state tuition to Tennessee high school students who are undocumented immigrants.

If vouchers pass, what kinds of things would you look for to ensure they’re effective?

PHOTO: TN.gov
<strong>Rep. Mark White</strong>

Accountability is important. Five years ago, when we we first considered vouchers full force, I was in agreement totally with vouchers, with not a lot of limitations. But … if we’re going to hold our public schools accountable, we need to hold everyone accountable, and that’s why I want to get to the part about TNReady (testing).

Can the Department (of Education) and can (the Comptroller’s Office of Research and Education Accountability) manage what the bill is asking them to do? I want to answer those questions. If we want to ensure that a student taking a voucher takes the TNReady test, who is going to oversee that? Who is going to make that happen? That’s the part I think we still need to work out if it moves forward through the various committees. It’s not good to go to the floor without all of the answers.

Most elected officials in Memphis oppose vouchers and are also concerned that this bill goes against local control over education. How do you respond to that?

I’d rather it be statewide. But you know, they’ve tried that in the past. The reason it got to be Shelby County is because we had more low-performing schools in the bottom 5 percent. And so therefore the bill got tied to Shelby County. If it was more someplace else, it would have gone there.

Shelby County Schools has made major improvements, boosting its graduation rate and receiving national attention for its school turnaround program, the Innovation Zone. Would vouchers undermine those efforts by diverting students and funding from the district?

Go back to 2002. We were looking for answers, so we started pushing charters. Those who wanted to preserve public schools fought that tooth and nail. Then we went to the Achievement School District. As a result, Shelby County Schools has created the Innovation Zone. …  Memphis is now known as Teacher Town. We’ve brought so much competition into the market. It’s a place where the best teachers are in demand. That’s what you want in every industry.

A lot of good things have come about, and I think it’s because we have pushed the envelope. Is this voucher thing one thing that keeps pushing us forward? I like that it’s a pilot, and we can stop it if we see things that aren’t working. I think trying all of these things and putting competition into the market has made things improve.

Every Memphis parent, student, and teacher who testified this week before a House education committee opposed vouchers. You’ve been steadfast in your support of them. What do you take away from hearing those speakers?

Any time you talk about children, people get passionate, and that’s a good thing. Conflict can be a good thing, because then we can move to resolve it. If you have an issue, look at it head on and let’s talk about it. If you don’t agree with vouchers, if you do agree vouchers, let’s talk about ways we can stop failing our children.

I’ve heard from just as many on the other side; they just weren’t here (on Tuesday). I’ve had an office full of people just begging us to pass this. I’ve had people on all sides want this.

I think this bill still has a long way to fly. We’ll see where it goes. But I think the challenge is good for all of us. It makes us look at ourselves.

You’re the sponsor of another bill to provide in-state tuition to undocumented immigrant students. This is the third year you’ve filed the bill. Why is that issue important?

What I’m trying to do is fix a situation for people who want to get a higher education degree. They’re caught up in the political mess of 2017, and all we’re trying to do is say, ‘Hey, you were brought to this country, and now we want to help you realize your dreams.’ We’re not trying to address any federal immigration issue. Everyone deserves a chance for an education.

how's it going?

She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

PHOTO: Scott Elliott

For years, Indiana’s state superintendents have made huge political waves while in office.

Tony Bennett was a major Republican proponent of choice-based education reform. Democrat Glenda Ritz led an administration filled with political clashes with then-Gov. Mike Pence, a staunch conservative.

But this could be changing with Indiana’s newest schools chief, Jennifer McCormick.

More than two months into her administration and more than halfway through the 2017 legislative session, educators and advocates are praising McCormick’s focus and remain optimistic about her tenure.

“The general perception is people are finding her and her staff are good to work with,” said Betsy Wiley, head of the Indiana Institute for Quality Education, a local school reform organization that made large donations to McCormick’s campaign. “I think she’s been working really hard on making sure people know that her door is open.”

As a Republican official taking office under a Republican governor, McCormick is better positioned politically to accomplish her goals. Her relationship with Gov. Eric Holcomb has appeared relatively tension-free so far. They’ve made joint announcements about state initiatives related to STEM education and workforce development, and McCormick has been on-board with his budget proposal.

McCormick said that so far, there has been lots of talking.

“We’re not always going to agree, but at least the conversations are happening,” she said. “We have our hands and eyes and voice in a lot of the education bills that we’re concerned about, so we’ve been right there at the table offering amendments” to legislators.

But mostly, McCormick has been quiet when it comes to public state policy debates.

“I think she’s learning the ropes, and rightly so,” said House Speaker Brian Bosma, R-Indianapolis, said. “She and her team are working closely with the state board, so I consider it very good — No controversy of any kind.”

Yet McCormick’s approach doesn’t sit as well with Minority Leader Rep. Scott Pelath, D-Michigan City. He said he’s worried she’s leaving too much power to top GOP lawmakers in charge of education and not taking enough initiative at the department of education.

“I’m not familiar with any of the work that she’s doing,” he said. “The work that is happening on education is happening in the House and Senate chambers … If it’s her aim to just be ‘go along, get along, whatever Rep. Behning says or Sen. Kruse says is A-OK,’ I don’t know that she’s going to have a major role to play.”

Bosma and Pelath’s difference in opinion reflects some of the debates occurring in the Indiana General Assembly this year about whether to make the state superintendent an appointed or elected position. Part of the conversation inevitably centers around how people view McCormick’s role and it’s purpose.

It’s not clear yet if McCormick will step forward with ideas of her own or be more of an administrator who solely implements the policies of lawmakers, which GOP leaders repeatedly. But she has supported Gov. Eric Holcomb’s plan to make the role an appointed one.

McCormick has testified once this year before the Indiana Senate. During that hearing last week, she expressed concerns about testing and teacher evaluation that routinely were dismissed when Ritz was in charge, such as advocating for “computer-adaptive” tests. She also told senators there should be more conversations about how test scores are tied into teacher evaluations and whether that provision should be removed.

McCormick isn’t — and never has been — in lockstep with other Republicans on education policy. That was clear during her campaign, when, despite having mostly school choice advocates and Republicans as donors, she disagreed with GOP policies and instead advocated for changes to the school funding formula and seriously evaluating the impact of state-funded vouchers for private school.

Wiley said that although McCormick hasn’t shown herself to be an aggressive supporter of all school choice policies, such as vouchers, Wiley still thinks her organization made a good investment in backing her.

“She knows she has at least four years in that role, and she intends to do and get stuff done,” Wiley said. “If she doesn’t get credit for it along the way, I just don’t think she cares.”

Todd Bess, executive director of the Indiana Association of School Principals, said he’s heard from school leaders that they’re seeing more timely responses to phone calls and emails with the department of education.

Teresa Meredith, president of the Indiana State Teachers Association, said she’s appreciated the time McCormick has made to talk with ISTA members, and she has no reason to believe she’s not going to support public schools — she’s “cautiously optimistic.”

Despite accusations during her campaign that she’d be too much like her Republican predecessor, Bennett, McCormick has not aligned herself with one particular education philosophy or camp. David Harris, CEO of The Mind Trust, said that independence is admirable.

“She is clearly her own woman, and I think there were some expectations,” Harris said. “She has been pretty clear that she’s going to follow the agenda and approach that she thinks is best.”