Looking back

Top 10 stories defining Tennessee education in 2015

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses in October with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee's 2015 NAEP results.
  1. Tennessee finishes its Race to the Top. Almost six years ago, then-Gov. Phil Bredesen urged lawmakers to “seize the moment” to improve Tennessee’s system of K-12 education — and, in the process, win $500 million in federal funds to pay for the changes. The resulting First to the Top legislation overhauled standards, instruction methods and teacher evaluations — and gave low-performing schools an unprecedented boost to turn them around. But teachers say it also left them caught in the middle of dueling drives to improve their quality of teaching and increase accountability through student test scores. The question that remains is whether that tension is healthy — or debilitating.
  2. Addressing the Common Core quandary. What began as an attempt to elevate the state’s academic standards unraveled across Tennessee as the Common Core label became associated with federal intrusion. But instead of scrapping Common Core altogether as some state lawmakers proposed, Tennessee launched a complex and exacting review process that state leaders have trumpeted for its thoroughness, transparency and homegrown sensibilities. Beginning with a six-month online public review of standards for math and language arts, the work shifted this year to two panels of mostly educators tasked with weeding through the feedback and drafting new standards to recommend to the State Board of Education. The timeline calls for approval in early 2016. Next up: teacher training for the new standards, scheduled to reach Tennessee classrooms in the 2017-18 school year.
  3. The rollout of TNReady. In a seismic shift in testing, the state launched a new standardized assessment that moves Tennessee from pencil-and-paper to online systems — as well dropping multiple-choice formats in favor of questions that require critical thinking and writing skills. And to top it all off, the new TNReady assessment is finally aligned with Common Core, just as the state is about to revise its standards again. (State officials say the test has been developed to adapt.)  Spring marked the last time Tennessee students would take their Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program tests, known fondly as TCAPs. As districts have ramped up their digital infrastructure for online testing, TNReady got its first official test in November from high school students on block schedules. Some technological glitches occurred, but not as many as had been feared. The bigger test comes in February when a significantly larger number of students log in. Meanwhile, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen warns that next year’s scores likely will drop under the more difficult assessment.
  4. Despite its race to the top, Tennessee stays somewhere in the middle. After a significant leap on the 2013 NAEP exam, Tennessee’s scores were flat on this year’s national tests for fourth- and eighth-grade math and reading. But since the scores of many other states actually declined in 2015, Tennessee’s performance improved relative to other states. In the next five years, education leaders hope Tennessee will be considered not only the fastest-improving state in the nation, but also one of the top performers. McQueen said the NAEP results point to areas where more work is needed, especially in fourth-grade reading where just a third of Tennessee students passed NAEP’s proficiency bar. Only six states had lower scores.
  5. Why can’t Tennessee students read? This year, state and district leaders got serious about addressing a persistent and disturbing trend: Even as Tennessee’s steadily climbing math and science results have garnered national attention, reading scores for grades 3-8 haven’t budged. Calling the stagnant reading scores a “true ethical and moral dilemma,” McQueen announced a Department of Education plan in August to boost students’ literacy skills, starting even before they enter school. In her first major initiative as education chief, the commissioner directed that educators receive additional training on how best to teach reading and provided support from a growing fleet of literacy coaches. In addition, state agencies will team up to grapple with the realities that cause many poor children to start kindergarten without basic literacy skills. Reflecting the statewide concerns, Shelby County Schools, the state’s largest public school system, rolled out its own reading plan to address the district’s abysmal literacy rates — only 30 percent of its third-graders and half of its 8th-graders read on grade level.
  6. Local districts go to court over state ed funding. One could argue that there actually are three things that are certain — death, taxes … and debate over what constitutes adequate state funding for local education. Disagreement over the third issue bubbled over into the legal system in 2015 as at least eight school districts took their case against the state to court. Firing the first volley in March, Hamilton County’s school board joined with six smaller districts asking a judge to order the legislature to address a funding formula that the suit says is antiquated and possibly broken, resulting in hundreds of millions of dollars of underfunding. Shelby County’s school board took a different approach in its lawsuit filed in August, contending that the state does not provide adequate funding for students who are minorities, have disabilities and live in extreme poverty. Shelby County has had to make significant budget cuts since its 2013 merger with Memphis City Schools, including closing 20 schools. Both lawsuits could take years to wind through the legal system and, meanwhile, the governor says he may increase state ed funding for a second year in a row.
  7. As Tennessee’s school turnaround initiatives mature, so does examination of their efficacy. Two bold initiatives are receiving the most scrutiny — the Achievement School District, which relies on state intervention to assign local schools to charter operators, and Shelby County Schools’ Innovation Zone, which allows struggling schools to remain within the local district but provides administrators with similar flexibilities designed to turn them around. Memphis is ground zero for both approaches, putting the city on the front lines of school improvement work and under a national microscope for best practices. In December, Vanderbilt researchers studying both reported that the iZone has been more effective than the ASD thus far. Their study’s release came days before the state-run district announced its expansion to four more Memphis schools, fueling community furor over state intervention in local schools.
  8. Vanderbilt study raises questions about the power of pre-K. Other researchers at the same Nashville university raised eyebrows with their landmark study finding that Tennessee’s public pre-kindergarten programs might actually negatively impact students as they advance through school. The results of the five-year study surprised even the researchers and has prompted early education advocates to reexamine pre-K programs in their quest to close the achievement gap between lower- and higher-income students, as well as minorities. Such was the takeaway from the study’s lead researchers, who urged policymakers to look at quality instead of abandoning such programs altogether. Education leaders locally and nationally have pledged to learn from the Vanderbilt study, while some policymakers view it as a validation of their cost-cutting efforts to curtail pre-K. The discussion is expected spill over into next year’s legislative session, as the governor sets his budget for pre-K programs for 2016-17.
  9. The governor gives teachers a long-awaited pay raise — sort of. Haslam kicked off 2015 with an exciting announcement — pledging $170 million toward his goal of making Tennessee teacher salaries among the fastest-growing in the nation. (He had reneged on a similar promise a year earlier.) The action was praised by educators and government officials alike as a step in the right direction, but not all teachers saw a bump in their paycheck. Teachers in 75 percent of districts got raises this year, according to Sylvia Flowers, director of educator talent for the state Department of Education. Most other districts put that money toward their differentiated pay plans, meaning only some teachers got bonuses, based on their experience or other qualifications. District officials say adequate state funding for teacher salaries remains an issue, and Haslam has said he wants Tennessee’s pay scale to continue to climb.
  10. Private vouchers get a foot in the door. Tennessee became the nation’s 22nd state to enact legislation allowing public funds to go to private schools when the governor signed a law in May aimed at special-needs students. The Individualized Education Act, which takes effect in January of 2017, will provide families of about 18,000 students with severe disabilities the option to forego public schooling for a bank account holding public funds for “education-related expenses” such as physical therapy, private schooling, home schooling, textbooks and even college courses after graduation. Proponents say the program will give disabled students the option of receiving a customized education that is of higher quality than offered in public schools. Others are concerned that parents will unwittingly waive rights and protections granted under federal law to special education students in public schools, and also that public schools will lose much-needed funds. Having passed easily in this year’s legislature, the law could lead the way for private vouchers — a perennial legislative battle — to finally become a reality in Tennessee in 2016.

BONUS: Best education quotes of 2015.The above hot topics, as well as a few others, generated lively discussion this year.  From policymakers to parents, here are some of our favorites.

survey says

More bullying reported at New York City schools, study shows

PHOTO: Anthony Lanzilote

More New York City students say there is bullying in their schools, a report released Monday showed. The findings also revealed that many schools reporting the greatest number of violent incidents on campus have no social workers on staff.

The report was commissioned by New York City Comptroller Scott Stringer.

Stringer also released an audit of how school safety matters are recorded, and concluded that the education department should provide more oversight and streamline incident reporting rules.

“The audit found clear breakdowns in communication in the reporting and tracking of incidents and actions taken,” according to a press release from Stringer’s office.

The education department disputed some of the comptroller’s findings, and in a written statement, spokeswoman Miranda Barbot wrote: “We have detailed protocols in place to ensure allegations of bullying are immediately reported, investigated and addressed, and are investing in both anti-bullying initiatives and mental health supports.”

But the pair of reports raises scrutiny of Mayor Bill de Blasio’s school discipline reforms, which favor  “restorative” practices that emphasize mediation over punishment, and make it harder to suspend students.

Advocates of the de Blasio reforms say the shift is necessary because black and Hispanic students are more likely to be arrested or disciplined at school. Research has shown such disciplinary action can lead to higher dropout rates. Critics of the reforms, meanwhile, say the changes have created more chaotic schools.

The findings are also likely to add to a chorus of parents and elected officials who say more emotional supports are needed for the city’s most vulnerable students. Students who experience a mental health crisis during the school day may be handcuffed and shuttled to hospitals. The city’s latest budget, which was approved last week, includes an additional $2 million to hire social workers and guidance counselors in schools that currently don’t have any.

Here are some highlights from the reports.

More students report there is bullying in their schools — but the data comes with a catch.

Last year, the education department’s annual survey showed that 82 percent of students said their peers “harass, bully, or intimidate others in school.” That’s up year over year, and up significantly from 65 percent of students in 2012, which was the lowest rate recorded since at least 2010. (De Blasio’s discipline reforms started to take effect around 2015.)

A note about these numbers: Prior to 2017, the survey asked whether students harass, bully or intimidate other students none, some, most, or all of the time. The most recent survey responses were slightly different: none of the time, rarely, some of the time, or most of the time — a change that may have artificially inflated the bullying numbers.

That’s enough to render the survey data unreliable said Max Eden, a researcher who has studied school climate for the conservative-leaning Manhattan Institute — a critic of the mayor’s discipline reforms. Still, taken with other findings, it’s reasonable to think that bullying is on the rise at city schools, he said.

Among the other evidence: A first-of-its-kind report, released this month under a new city law, that showed substantiated bullying incidents are on track to increase this year.

Schools that log the most violent incidents often lack mental health supports.

Guidance counselors and social workers are key when it comes to creating safe schools because they can help address the root cause of violent or troublesome behavior, advocates who want more mental health supports say.

But many of the city’s neediest schools go without that help.

Of the schools reporting the most violent incidents on campus, 36 percent lack a full-time social worker, the comptroller found. On campuses where there are social workers, caseloads are a staggering 700 to one. That far exceeds the recommended ratio from the National Association of Social Workers of 250 general education students per social worker — and it’s higher than the citywide average of 612 students per social worker, according to the comptroller.

The comptroller’ compares that to the ratio of New York Police Department school safety agents who are placed in schools: There is one safety agent per 228 students, according to the report.

“Our city is failing to meet the social and emotional needs of our students,” Councilman Mark Treyger, of Brooklyn, who has pushed the city to report more up-to-date bullying data and to hire more school counselors, said in an emailed statement.

Schools may be underreporting violent incidents, something the education department disputes.

In a separate audit, the comptroller compared logs kept by school safety agents to incident reports filed by school leaders. In 21 percent of cases, incidents that were noted by safety agents were not reflected in the school reports.

The school data, in turn, are used to report incidents to the state for its Violent and Disruptive Incident Report, or VADIR. The discrepancy could raise questions about the already-controversial reporting system. (VADIR has been criticized for classifying schoolyard incidents as serious offenses, and the state has tweaked its definitions in response to those kinds of concerns.)

This finding also comes with some caveats. The comptroller looked at only 10 schools — a tiny sample of the city’s portfolio of about 1,800. And the education department took issue with the methodology.

In its response to the audit, education department officials said that the police data doesn’t align with the state’s reporting categories, and that the information may not be comparable because of student privacy concerns and recordkeeping issues on campuses where multiple schools share a building.  

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.