From the Statehouse

Conference panelists urge stronger teacher prep

Teacher preparation needs to be more rigorous, Stanford University professor Linda Darling-Hammond Monday told a Denver conference on educator prep and licensing.

Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond (right center) addressed a Denver conference via an Internet video connection.
Stanford Professor Linda Darling-Hammond (right center) addressed a Denver conference via an Internet video connection.

The tone of the event contrasted with many of the conversations during meetings of the LEAD Compact, an appointed study that studied teacher licensure and that recently completed its work (see story). Much of the compact’s discussion involved ways to ease entry to the teaching profession.

Monday’s conference, organized by a group of education and community groups, was held as a counterpoint to the work of the compact. Conference moderator Dave Van Sant said, “Today’s event was designed as a supplement to that effort … to consider additional ideas.”

Darling-Hammond, a nationally known researcher, led off Monday’s conference at the University of Denver’s Morgridge School of Education. She spoke to the group and took questions for about 45 minutes via an Internet video connection.

“I do believe we need a major ratcheting up of the quality of preparation,” she said.

Much of her talk detailed how nations with high-achieving education systems like Finland and Singapore stress high-quality teacher preparation.

“If you look at the counties that are leading the world…all of them treat teaching as an expert profession,” she said. “The fact that we’re still debating that in the United States is shocking.”

In contrast, she said factors that undermine teaching as an expert profession — many of which are present in the U.S. — include addressing teacher shortages by reducing preparation, high teacher attrition, reduced investment in preparation programs, requirements for standardized teaching practice, failure to support teacher collaboration and learning time, and basing evaluation on bureaucratic measures rather than professional practice.

Darling-Hammond also stressed the importance of clinical training for teaching. As a slide in her PowerPoint put it, “In the U.S., teacher education is today where medical education was in 1910.”

Do your homework

“There is a lot of evidence that the quality of medical care and the outcomes of medical care” improved because of the standardization and improvement of medical education that happened in the last century, she said.

She closed her prepared remarks with two variations on an old cliché about teaching: “Those who can, do. Those who understand, teach” and “Those who can, teach. Those who can’t go into a less significant line of work.”

The second speaker, Vanderbilt University Gary Henry, walked through an extensive review of research in North Carolina that indicated better student achievement for teachers with high-quality preparation.

Henry said value-added teacher data is an important tool for state-level research but remains problematic for “high-stakes situations at this point.”

He said value-added data could be used to identify the 20 percent of teachers who are the lowest performing so they can receive coaching, mentoring and support. “Anything that’s more punitive … seems to us to be overly risky at this point.”

Other speakers at Monday’s event include Penn State University researcher Edward Fuller on the role of principals as instructional leaders and Doris Williams, executive director of the Rural Schools and Community Trust, who spoke about the staffing challenges for rural schools.

Teacher licensing and, to a lesser extent, teacher prep have been hot topics since last spring, when Denver Democratic Sen. Mike Johnston considered, and then withdrew, a bill that would have changed the current licensing system and used teachers evaluations as factors in license renewal.

It remains to be seen what, if any, licensing legislation will surface during the 2014 legislative session. Johnston told EdNews, “By far my top two priorities of the session by far are trying to secure funding to implement high priority components of SB 213 and effectively supporting district implementation of current reform efforts. Licensure is a distant third priority after those, so now that LEAD is concluded and we are far closer to an agreement we will move licensure to the back burner and get to work on school funding.”

The event was sponsored by several education and community groups, including the Colorado Education Association, the Colorado Rural Caucus, the public-interest law firm Children’s Voices, the Public Education & Business Coalition, the Colorado BOCES Association, the NAACP of Denver, the Colorado Latino Forum and the Boulder Valley Education Association.

More than 80 people attended the event in person, and organizers said more than 50 others observed a webcast of the session. Several members of the LEAD Compact attended the meeting, as did Tony Lewis, executive director of the Donnell-Kay Foundation, a funder of the LEAD group.

legal opinion

Tennessee’s attorney general sides with charter schools in battle over student information

Herbert H. Slatery III was appointed Tennessee attorney general in 2014 by Gov. Bill Haslam, for whom he previously served as general counsel.

Tennessee’s attorney general says requests for student contact information from state-run charter school operators don’t violate a federal student privacy law, but rather are “entirely consistent with it.”

The opinion from Herbert Slatery III, issued late on Wednesday in response to a request by Education Commissioner Candice McQueen, was a win for charter schools in their battle with the state’s two largest districts.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen

McQueen quickly responded by ordering school leaders in Memphis and Nashville to comply. In letters dispatched to Shelby County Schools Superintendent Dorsey Hopson and Director Shawn Joseph of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools, McQueen gave the districts a deadline, adding that they will face consequences if they refuse.

“If you do not provide this information by Sept. 25, 2017, to the (Achievement School District) and any other charter school or charter authorizer who has an outstanding request, we will be forced to consider actions to enforce the law,” she wrote.

Neither superintendent responded immediately to requests for comment, but school board leaders in both districts said Thursday that their attorneys were reviewing the matter.

Chris Caldwell, chairman for Shelby County’s board, said he’s also concerned “whether the timeframe stated gives us enough time to make sure families are aware of what is happening.”

Wednesday’s flurry of events heats up the battle that started in July when charter operators Green Dot and LEAD requested student contact information under the state’s new charter law, which gives districts 30 days to comply with such requests. School boards in both Memphis and Nashville refused, arguing they had the right under the federal student privacy law to restrict who gets the information and for what reasons.

The attorney general said sharing such information would not violate federal law.

The requested information falls under “student directory information,” and can be published by school districts without a parent’s permission. For Shelby County Schools, this type of information includes names, addresses, emails and phone numbers.

To learn what information is at stake and how it’s used, read our in-depth explainer.

The opinion also backs up the new state law, which directs districts to share information that charter operators say they need to recruit students and market their programs in Tennessee’s expanding school-choice environment.

However, the opinion allowed for districts to have a “reasonable period of time” to notify parents of their right to opt out of sharing such information. It was not clear from the opinion if the two school districts have exhausted that time.

A spokeswoman for Shelby County Schools said Tuesday the district had not yet distributed forms that would allow parents to opt out of having their students’ information shared, although the district’s parent-student handbook already includes instructions for doing so.

Below, you can read the attorney general’s opinion and McQueen’s letters to both superintendents:

Clarification, Sept. 14, 2017: This story has been updated to clarify the school boards’ arguments for not sharing the information.

First Person

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Grace Tatter covers a press conference at the Tennessee State Capitol in 2015.

For three years, I covered the Statehouse for Chalkbeat Tennessee, reporting on how policies from Nashville trickled down into more than 1,800 public schools across the state.

Now I’m starting back to school myself, pursuing graduate studies aimed at helping me to become a better education journalist. I’m taking with me six things I learned on the job about public education in Tennessee.

1. Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.

I heard from hundreds of parents, educators, and students who were passionate about what’s happening — good and bad — inside of schools. I covered crowded school board meetings and regularly scrambled for an open seat at legislative hearings where parents had filled the room after driving since dawn to beat the opening gavel. Not incidentally, those parents usually came from communities with the “worst” schools and the lowest test scores. While many disagreements exist about the best way to run schools, there is no shortage of people, particularly parents and educators, who care.

2. Tennessee has one of the most fascinating education stories in America.

I’ve had a front-row seat to massive changes in K-12 education under reforms ushered in by Race to the Top — an overhaul being tracked closely well beyond the state’s borders. But the national interest and import doesn’t end with changes stemming from the $500 million federal award. Tennessee is home to some of the nation’s premier education researchers, making its classrooms laboratories for new ideas about pre-K, school turnaround, and literacy instruction, just to name a few. And at the legislature, more lobbyists are devoted to education than to most any other cause. A lot of eyes are on Tennessee schools.

3. The education community is not as divided as it looks.

During the course of just a few years, I watched state lawmakers change their positions on accountability and school vouchers. I witnessed “anti-charter” activists praise charter leaders for their work. I chronicled task force meetings where state leaders who were committed to standardized testing found middle ground with classroom educators concerned that it’s gone too far. In short, a lot of people listened to each other and changed their minds. Watching such consensus-building reminded me that, while there are no simple debates about education, there is a widespread commitment to making it better.

4. Money matters.

Even when stories don’t seem to be about money, they usually are. How much money is being spent on testing, teacher salaries, school discipline reform? How much should be available for wraparound services? Why do some schools have more money than others? Is there enough to go around? Tennessee leaders have steadily upped public education spending, but the state still invests less than most other states, and the disparities among districts are gaping. That’s why more than a handful of school districts are battling with the state in court. Conversations about money are inextricable from conversations about improving schools.

5. Race is a significant education issue, but few leaders are willing to have that conversation.

More than 60 years after Brown v. Board of Education, Tennessee’s schools are largely racially segregated. Yet most policymakers tread lightly, if ever, into conversations about achieving real racial integration. And in many cases — such as a 2011 law enabling mostly white suburban Shelby County towns to secede from the mostly black Memphis district — they’ve actually gone backwards. Then there’s the achievement data. The annual release of test scores unleashes a flurry of conversation around the racial achievement gap. But the other 11 months of the year, I heard little about whether state and local policies are closing those gaps — or contributing to them — or the historical reasons why the gaps exist in the first place. To be sure, state leadership is trying to address some of Tennessee’s shortcomings. For example, the State Department of Education has launched modestly funded initiatives to recruit more teachers of color. But often, race and racism are the elephants in the room.

6. Still, there’s lots to celebrate.

If there were unlimited hours in the day, I could have written thousands of stories about what’s going right in public education. Every day, I received story ideas about collaborations with NASA in Oak Ridge, high school trips to Europe from Memphis, gourmet school lunches in Tullahoma, and learning partnerships with the Nashville Zoo. Even in schools with the steepest challenges, they were stories that inspire happiness and hope. They certainly inspired me.

Grace Tatter graduated from public schools in Winston-Salem, N.C., and received her bachelor’s degree in history from the University of North Carolina. She’s now pursuing a master’s degree in specialized studies at the Harvard Graduate School of Education.