mixed feelings

Regents balance praise and criticism in Core forums debrief

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Six weeks into Commissioner John King’s high-profile and often contentious meetings across the state focusing on the rollout of Common Core learning standards, state education officials praised—and raised new concerns about—those forums this morning.

At the Board of Regents’ monthly meeting in Albany on Monday, some applauded King for taking time to conduct the forums, which they suggested were often less than civil. “I cannot believe that the commissioner spent so much time away from this office trying to dispel misinformation and trying to explain what we’ve been doing,” said Anthony Bottar, a Regent who represents parts of Central New York.

But statewide, educators, parents and politicians remain divided over pushing forward with the reforms, and those tensions were evident in the room on Monday.

Political pressure to slow down the state’s implementation of the Common Core standards has been growing throughout the fall, sparked largely by the August release of test scores showing huge drops in proficiency on the English (24 points) and math (33 points) elementary and middle school state tests. In New York City, the drops were less severe, with 26 percent of students passing the English tests and just under 30 percent passing math, down from 47 percent and 60 percent, respectively.

That pressure was on display again last week, when state Senator John Flanagan released a report calling for reductions in early grade testing and raising doubts about the credibility of standardized state tests.

On Monday, some Regents directly criticized the public forums. Rochester’s Andrew Brown said that the meetings he attended didn’t include many minorities, which he called “concerning.” Bronx Regent Betty Rosa, whose forum last week was sparsely attended—likely because King did not attend—has been among the most critical board members, saying recently that the state’s policies were being driven by testing that produced “false information.”

To King, Rosa said, “I was really concerned it was our first meeting in the Bronx and you weren’t there, and I would be remiss if I didn’t express my concerns.”

King acknowledged the concerns shared by parents and teachers at the forums. But he said that those were “sometimes based on conflation of the Common Core with lots of other things,” such as testing requirements being imposed as part of new teacher evaluation systems. Other concerns weren’t related to state decisions, but to tests that had been negotiated locally between districts and local unions, he said. (Some have already begun to eliminate those tests after finding them burdensome.)

Untangling those tricky policy distinctions to allay criticism of the Common Core standards was the goal of the community forums when they were planned back in October. A contentious initial forum in Poughkeepsie, and King’s response of canceling future events, then became a national story, forcing officials to organize a new set of meetings that were more on the state’s terms.

King said that the push back he heard at the public meetings were often in “stark contrast” to what he witnessed in nearby schools, which he said were embracing the standards. “[In] schools, people are, I think, very thoughtfully implementing the work on the Common Core,” King said.

After Monday’s meeting, state teachers union Vice President Maria Neira said she appreciated King taking the initiative to listen to local communities, but was “extremely disappointed by his lack of responsiveness.”

“I was very disappointed to hear how they characterized their listening tour,” Neira said of the Regents conversation.

The discussion also got a bit testy, in comparison to the dry collegiality of a typical Regents meeting. When Westchester’s Harry Phillips repeated his call for the state to acknowledge that it didn’t understand what effect the new cut scores would have on the state’s tests, Binghamton’s James Tallon rebuffed him. He pointed to a summer meeting where officials presented to the board the results from their cut-setting process, which has been scrutinized by some who participated.

“I understand that my dear colleague believes that the board did not fully understand the implication of the test cut scores,” Tallon said. “I just want to indicate that, as one board member, I sat in a meeting in this room with a presentation that was a lengthy presentation on the cut scores.”

pushing back

State’s most drastic school intervention plans won’t work, say Memphis board members

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede
Shelby County Schools board member Stephanie Love

School board members in Memphis are pushing back on the state’s plan to intervene in two low-performing schools.

In their first public discussion of an intervention plan outlined this month by the Tennessee Department of Education, members of Shelby County’s board of education said they aren’t convinced the most drastic recommendations will work for Hawkins Mill Elementary and American Way Middle schools.

The state has recommended closing Hawkins Mill because of its low enrollment and poor academic performance. American Way is on the state’s track either for takeover by Tennessee’s Achievement School District or transfer to a charter organization chosen by Shelby County Schools beginning in the fall of 2019.

But school board members said they’d rather move both schools to the Innovation Zone, a turnaround program run by the local district which has had some success since launching in 2012.

And Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said he wants to keep Hawkins Mill open because the Frayser school is in its first year under his “critical focus” plan to invest in struggling schools instead of just closing them.

“I would prefer to stay the course,” he told board members Tuesday evening. “I don’t think the board should be forced to close something by the state.”

Whether local school leaders can make that call is up for debate, though.

The intervention plan is the first rolled out under Tennessee’s new tiered school improvement model created in response to a 2015 federal education law. State officials say it’s designed for more collaboration between state and local leaders in making school improvement decisions, with the state education commissioner ultimately making the call.

But Rodney Moore, the district’s chief lawyer, said the state does not have the authority to close a school if the board votes to keep it open.

Both Hawkins Mill and American Way are on the state’s most intensive track for intervention. The state’s plan includes 19 other Memphis schools, too, with varying levels of state involvement, but only Hawkins Mill and American Way sparked discussion during the board’s work session.

Until this year, Hawkins Mill was one of the few schools in the Frayser community that hadn’t been under a major improvement plan in the last decade — unlike the state-run, charter, and iZone schools that surround it. But last year, Hopson’s “critical focus” plan set aside additional resources for Hawkins Mill and 18 other struggling schools and set a three-year deadline to turn themselves around or face possible closure.

School board members Stephanie Love, whose district includes Hawkins Mill, said that timeline needs to play out. “I am in no support of closing down Hawkins Mill Elementary,” she said. “We have what it takes to fully educate our children.”

PHOTO: Tajuana Cheshier
Protests over the state takeover of American Way Middle School in 2014, which is in Rep. Raumesh Akbari’s district in Memphis, motivated her to file legislation designed to limit the power of the state’s Achievement School District.

American Way Middle has been on the radar of local and state officials for some time. In 2014, the state explored moving it to the ASD, but that didn’t happen because the southeast Memphis school had higher-than-average growth on student test scores. American Way has not kept up that high growth, however, and Chief of Schools Sharon Griffin considered it last year for the iZone.

Board member Miska Clay Bibbs, whose district includes American Way, was opposed to both of the state’s intervention options.

“What you’re suggesting is something that’s not working,” Bibbs said of the ASD’s track record of school turnaround based on its charter-driven model.

Bibbs added that any improvement plan for American Way must be comprehensive and offered up a resolution for consideration next week to move the school into the iZone next school year.

“We can no longer be: change a principal, tack on an extra hour. It has to be a holistic approach,” she said, adding that feeder patterns of schools should be part of the process.

Turnaround 2.0

McQueen outlines state intervention plans for 21 Memphis schools

PHOTO: TN.gov
Candice McQueen has been Tennessee's education commissioner since 2015 and oversaw the restructure of its school improvement model in 2017.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen has identified 21 Memphis schools in need of state intervention after months of school visits and talks with top leaders in Shelby County Schools.

In its first intervention plan under the state’s new school improvement model, the Department of Education has placed American Way Middle School on track either for state takeover by the Achievement School District or conversion to a charter school by Shelby County Schools.

The state also is recommending closure of Hawkins Mill Elementary School.

And 19 other low-performing schools would stay under local control, with the state actively monitoring their progress or collaborating with the district to design improvement plans. Fourteen are already part of the Innovation Zone, the Memphis district’s highly regarded turnaround program now in its sixth year.

McQueen outlined the “intervention tracks” for all 21 Memphis schools in a Feb. 5 letter to Superintendent Dorsey Hopson that was obtained by Chalkbeat.

Almost all of the schools are expected to make this fall’s “priority list” of Tennessee’s 5 percent of lowest-performing schools. McQueen said the intervention tracks will be reassessed at that time.

McQueen’s letter offers the first look at how the state is pursuing turnaround plans under its new tiered model of school improvement, which is launching this year in response to a new federal education law.

The commissioner also sent letters outlining intervention tracks to superintendents in Nashville, Chattanooga, Knoxville, and Jackson, all of which are home to priority schools.

Under its new model, Tennessee is seeking to collaborate more with local districts to develop improvement plans, instead of just taking over struggling schools and assigning them to charter operators under the oversight of the state-run Achievement School District. However, the ASD, which now oversees 29 Memphis schools, remains an intervention of last resort.

McQueen identified the following eight schools to undergo a “rigorous school improvement planning process,” in collaboration between the state and Shelby County Schools. Any resulting interventions will be led by the local district.

  • A.B. Hill Elementary
  • A. Maceo Walker Middle
  • Douglass High
  • Georgian Hills Middle
  • Grandview Heights Middle
  • Holmes Road Elementary
  • LaRose Elementary
  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Wooddale High

These next six iZone schools must work with the state “to ensure that (their) plan for intervention is appropriate based on identified need and level of evidence.”

  • Sheffield Elementary
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Lucie E. Campbell Elementary
  • Melrose High
  • Sherwood Middle
  • Westwood High

The five schools below will continue their current intervention plan within the iZone and must provide progress reports to the state:

  • Hamilton High
  • Riverview Middle
  • Geeter Middle
  • Magnolia Elementary
  • Trezevant High

The school board is expected to discuss the state’s plan during its work session next Tuesday. And if early reaction from board member Stephanie Love is any indication, the discussion will be robust.

“We have what it takes to improve our schools,” Love told Chalkbeat on Friday. “I think what they need to do is let our educators do the work and not put them in the situation where they don’t know what will happen from year to year.”

Among questions expected to be raised is whether McQueen’s recommendation to close Hawkins Mill can be carried out without school board approval, since her letter says that schools on the most rigorous intervention track “will implement a specific intervention as determined by the Commissioner.”

Another question is why the state’s plan includes three schools — Douglass High, Sherwood Middle, and Lucie E. Campbell Elementary — that improved enough last year to move off of the state’s warning list of the 10 percent of lowest-performing schools.

You can read McQueen’s letter to Hopson below: