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.

listening tour

Tour notes: What we heard when we listened to our communities in a new way

PHOTO: Scott Elliott/Chalkbeat
At a Chalkbeat Indiana listening session, kids made their own fun.

As with many initiatives at Chalkbeat, the idea started in one location. Our seventh bureau had just launched in Chicago, and our first order of business was to introduce ourselves to the city. But our new bureau chief, Cassie Walker Burke, knew we had to listen as well as speak.

She proposed a listening tour — a roving set of sessions where our top priority would be empowering our audience to share with us. The launch went so well that our entire news organization took up the initiative this summer and fall, holding 14 events in six locations across our network.

A deep belief in engagement has been encoded into Chalkbeat’s DNA from its founding in 2013, and it was one of the aspects that drew me to join the organization last year as executive editor. Our core values include putting down roots in local communities, and working with and for readers. We track shares, retweets, and readership the same as any other publication, but we are most committed to driving impact: bringing stories, people, and stakes alive for readers so they can engage in informed action and debate.

Before our readers can go out there and make their voices heard, we have to listen — to their concerns, their questions, and their critiques of our coverage. We’ve heard from parents, teachers, counselors, administrators, education wonks, legislators, and policymakers since the beginning, and we have appreciated and used their insights. But it’s a constant work in progress. Especially because we report for people who have historically lacked access to a quality education, we always aim to amplify and empower new voices.

Setting off on a listening tour, starting in Chicago and spreading out across our other local markets, emerged as the perfect strategy to make this happen.

Our goals

Before we set out on our tour, we identified four goals for the project. This also helped us think through how to structure the “stops” on the tour, as well as how to measure success.

  1. Generate story ideas
  2. Build and diversify our source network
  3. Deepen the understanding of the Chalkbeat brand as community-oriented
  4. Deepen community participation

The planning process

We shied away from a one-size-fits-all approach, allowing each bureau to tailor the program to fit their needs. An action force that included at least one representative from each bureau met regularly to discuss progress. That group designed a worksheet to help teams organize their listening sessions: by topic, by audience, by location, or by some combination of the three approaches. In some cases, we decided to center listening sessions around topics we knew we wanted to focus enterprise reporting on in the coming year.

We invited engagement-minded folks from other media organizations to share their expertise with us, too. Alexandra Smith of Whereby.Us, Ashley Alvarado from KPCC, and Jesse Hardman from Listening Post Collective helped us mightily during the planning process, answering our questions and offering suggestions. We also partnered with community organizations on the ground to help with logistics, audience-building, and trust. By seeking out established organizations to co-sponsor events, we signaled to potential attendees — especially those who were new to Chalkbeat — that we were to be trusted too.

The results

Chalkbeat put on a total of 14 events across six out of our seven markets (one bureau sat out for logistical reasons), with most teams executing one or two events. Chicago went all-in with seven listening tour stops as part of the bureau’s launch efforts. Here are some other key results:

  • Nearly 400 attendees in total
  • 84 percent hadn’t read Chalkbeat before
  • More than 70 story ideas
  • Close to 150 new sources
  • About 220 email subscribers

In our newer bureaus, we got a lot of questions about our organization: How are we funded? What do we cover? Why and how can our readers participate? In our more established markets, we were able to home in on audiences we wanted to reach in a more targeted way, and topics the community was passionate about.

Following up

Listening is great, but we knew that if we did not carry forward what we heard, we would be failing our readers. So we made sure to follow up by emailing participants to thank them and publishing posts after events when it made sense. Michigan Radio covered one of our Detroit sessions, our Newark bureau designed a survey to keep the conversation going, and Denver used a feedback form to solicit input on how the sessions went. We also used a text-messaging platform, GroundSource, to follow up with attendees in Memphis.

We’re continuing to sort through the 70+ story ideas we gathered, and using those to inform some meaty enterprise work. Whenever we publish stories that tie back to the listening tour, we’ll inform participants. We’re also planning to designate stories on our site that emerged from community conversations, so all our readers have proof that we’re not just listening, we’re acting on what we hear. And we know that listening isn’t a one-time event. We’re keeping up with our tour participants throughout the year to keep the cycle going, so we can report for their communities even better.

One powerful quote from a Memphis reader drove it home. It reminded us that the hard work that went into this project — planning, wrangling logistics, making it happen on a nonprofit budget — was all worth it, and intentionally listening to our communities makes our journalism stronger.

“It was really inspiring to be a part of this. It was also really empowering, like what we say doesn’t just go into some black hole. You’re here and listening.”

— Chalkbeat Tennessee listening tour attendee

the starting line

Chalkbeat’s launching a newsletter all about early childhood. Sign up here.

PHOTO: Craig F. Walker, Denver Post

Our newest newsletter is called The Starting Line, and it’s all about early childhood — those brain-building years from birth to 8 years old.

As the Chalkbeat team has grown over the last five years, so has our coverage of early childhood education. Now, we’re making an even bigger investment in the topic with a monthly newsletter that will feature key early childhood stories from Chalkbeat as well as other news outlets.

In recent months, we’ve written stories about new child care rules that could threaten funding for hundreds of Illinois providers, Teach For America’s efforts to mint preschool teachers in Colorado, and discussions among Indiana leaders about where to find the money for new preschool seats.

Our goal is to keep you informed about broad policy issues in the early childhood world while also sharing on-the-ground stories that provide a window into how it all plays out in the lives of real people.

Expect to see the first issue of The Starting Line in early November. And remember to let us know what you think as it takes shape. If there’s a compelling early childhood topic, trend or study you’d like us to dig into, or an early childhood leader we should profile, let us know.

If you’re interested in receiving The Starting Line, sign up below. Then, send this link to a friend or colleague who cares about early childhood issues, too.

Finally, for those of you who want even more Chalkbeat, we have a ton of other newsletters as well: local dispatches from each of our bureaus — Chicago, Colorado, Detroit, Indiana, Newark, New York, and Tennessee — plus a national newsletter, one designed especially for teachers, and a Spanish-language roundup out of Colorado. Sign up for all our newsletters here.