Second year

Her honeymoon over as Tennessee ed chief, McQueen enters second year under the cloud of TNReady and with a mission to combat illiteracy

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen congratulates a student at Springdale Memphis Magnet School during a September visit to acknowledge the school's improved academic scores.

As Candice McQueen marked her first anniversary as Tennessee’s education commissioner in January, teachers and policymakers alike praised her ability to gracefully navigate the state’s fractious education community.

And then, the computers crashed.

Just as the state’s long-awaited TNReady test was being rolled out, a major network outage halted the state’s transition to online testing on its first day on Feb. 8. The debacle smelled of incompetence at top levels and has threatened McQueen’s sterling reputation as the right leader to fortify Tennessee’s public education system following five years of unprecedented change.

Teachers, parents and students are furious that, after considerable local investment of money and time preparing for the online assessment, the state did not hold up its part of the deal — to develop a functional test. The fury is compounded by a general perception that the State Department of Education focuses too much on tests anyway.

Even so, frustrated educators are quick to laud McQueen’s quick response after realizing that TNReady’s technical problems went beyond isolated glitches.

“There was a decisive letter written about here’s what we were going to do,” said Sue Kessler, principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville. “It wasn’t, ‘We’ll get back to you in two weeks.’ It was ‘No, I see how this didn’t work, and we’re not going to just do something that’s not working because that’s what we wanted to do.’”

While students and teachers have been significantly impacted by the TNReady failure, Kessler gives McQueen high marks for managing the crisis.

“Too often when there’s a problem, everyone wants to spend time putting spin on it and, with her, I feel like it isn’t about spin; it’s about communicating,” Kessler said.

Candice McQueen by TN.gov
PHOTO: TN.gov

Communication has been a hallmark of McQueen’s first year as commissioner — not just top-down communication but creating an environment where educators’ concerns are heard and considered.

That is antithesis of the perception of McQueen’s predecessor, Kevin Huffman, who resigned at the end of 2014 after implementing sweeping changes during his four-year tenure highlighted by Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, particularly those related to teacher evaluations that now are tied to student performance. To implement such changes, Huffman, a lawyer and former Teach For America executive originally from Ohio, faced the steady ire of teachers who complained that he was antagonistic in his dealings with educators and out of touch with Tennessee schools.

Enter McQueen, then 40, a former classroom teacher from Clarksville, Tenn., who spent most of her career training teachers at Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. While attempting to hold the line on changes ushered in by Huffman, McQueen began her tenure in January of 2015 by announcing her plan to visit every school district in Tennessee. She has steadily done just that, while also convening teacher-dominated task forces and advisory groups, and initiating personal conversations with stakeholders from students to superintendents.

Despite TNReady travails, hiccups over student test scores, the state’s generally stagnant reading levels and her commitment to controversial policies, McQueen has emerged as a shining star for stabilization to Huffman’s lightning rod for change.

"I don't always agree with her, but I absolutely love her."J.C. Bowman, Professional Educators of Tennessee

“I don’t always agree with her, but I absolutely love her,” says J.C. Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Brandi Stroeker, a teacher in Memphis for 10 years, agrees. She says the work of state education leaders typically feels remote to the work she does in her classroom, but not McQueen. “Since she’s been in office, our voice is heard more,” said Stroeker, a teacher at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, where McQueen visited last year. “Now (the department) is reaching out to us, asking us, ‘What do you need?’”

Speaking in January to education students at Lipscomb University, McQueen said building relationships has been the primary focus of her first year. She acknowledged that fast-moving changes to state education policy in the last decade have sometimes bred confusion and even contempt from educators, politicians and parents. And she enumerated some of those shifts: new standards (twice), changes in tenure, changes in teacher evaluations, the expansion of charter schools, and creation of a state-run district aimed at turning around chronically underperforming schools.

“The intensity of change in Tennessee was being felt when I entered office,” McQueen recalls. “I wanted to see how implementation was happening, and what was happening on the ground.”

During her Classroom Chronicles tour, McQueen has heard repeated concerns about new state policies, especially related to testing. Such visits have been welcomed by educators, even when they wish McQueen would loosen her stance on including student test scores in teacher evaluations.

“She’s going across the state; she sees what’s actually happening,” Kessler said. “I think if I were to call her today, … she’s probably outside in some schools talking to some kids. That speaks volumes to me.”

Concerned about complaints of over-testing, McQueen created a task force last March to study the issue. Comprised of teachers, principals, researchers, elected officials and a high school student, the group recommended working with districts to limit standardized tests throughout the year and publicly releasing past standardized test questions in order to increase testing transparency. Nearly all of the panel’s recommendations are in the process of being implemented, either through the governor’s proposed budget or bills winding through the state legislature.

Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative for Reforming Education, said the task force set the tone for McQueen’s leadership style. “She brought together not just a departmental team but, from students to teachers to partners in the work, those who she knew would have valuable perspective,” Woodson said.

McQueen also learned from communication missteps, like when the State Department of Education failed last summer to communicate a change in how students’ scores on end-of-year tests were calculated. She has tried to increase communication to districts and principals and in January launched “McQueen Minutes,” brief video updates on the department’s work.

Her greatest communication tool, she said, has been the development of a five-year strategic plan outlining the department’s priorities for Tennessee’s schools, including district empowerment, postsecondary achievement, limiting achievement gaps and literacy. The plan was influenced by feedback during her “listening tour” and from superintendents across Tennessee.

“I knew immediately, when you think about the length of Tennessee and the number of districts we have, you have to create something that brings them together and aligns them around the same work,” McQueen said.

Kingsport City School Superintendent Lyle Ailshie says the strategic plan has set McQueen apart from any other commissioner he’s worked with.

“I remember clearly when she spoke to (the state’s superintendents) the first time as an entire group, and she laid out her five priority areas and how ‘all means all,’ and what we need to reach into our classrooms,” he said. “She really asked for feedback and took the time to say, ‘Hey, send me suggestions, not only today, but any time.’”

McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam listen during a meeting of the governor's teachers cabinet.
McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam listen during a meeting of the governor’s Teachers Cabinet.

READ OUR CHALK TALK Q&A WITH MCQUEEN AS SHE BEGAN HER JOB IN JANUARY 2015.


If McQueen’s focus on listening is what defined her first year, her focus on literacy is likely to define her second. This week, Gov. Bill Haslam, who appointed McQueen, will launch the state’s expansive $9 million literacy initiative that addresses a broad swath of Tennessee students, from infants to adults. McQueen has called Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores “a true ethical and moral dilemma.”

Improving the reading skills of Tennessee students is one of McQueen’s top priorities for 2016. Others include the transition to the state’s TNReady test and supporting teachers during the rollout of revised math and English standards. She’ll also keep a close eye on what’s going on in schools by dispatching the department’s senior leadership team to shadow high school students.

“We will improve student outcomes. … We will get more students to college,” she said. “We will continue to improve in our national rankings on the National Report Card, based on the improvements I know we will make on closing achievement gaps, and increasing growth for those who are farthest behind, particularly in the area of reading.”

“Why do I know we will do this? Because I’ve been around the state,” she told the Lipscomb students. “I’ve been in your classrooms, and I’ve been in your schools, and I’ve been in your communities.”

 

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.

teacher diversity

Indiana spends $3M on scholarships for future teachers, but few students of color win them

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum
A teacher leads an activity at the 100 Black Men of Indianapolis' Summer Academy at IPS School #74.

For the second year in a row, very few students of color received a prestigious Indiana scholarship designed to attract new teachers.

Out of 200 high school seniors and current college students who received the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship this year, only five come from under-represented minority groups, the Indiana Commission for Higher Education said.

It’s a “disturbing” problem, education leaders say, that both perpetuates the dearth of diversity in the teaching ranks and shows the state’s efforts to reach students of color are falling short.

“As hard as it is to talk about these numbers, I’m actually grateful that we’re looking at them,” said Teresa Lubbers, the state higher education chief. “We really are committed to trying to do more, but we could use help.”

The scholarship, aimed at top academic performers, is worth $7,500 per year — $30,000 over four years, which would cover most of the tuition at a state university — and comes with a commitment to teach in Indiana for five years. It was created in 2016 to address Indiana’s teacher shortage by encouraging high-achieving students to go into teaching by ensuring they could graduate with less debt.

But last year, in the scholarship’s inaugural year, just 11 out of 200 students were students of color. And this year’s class is even less diverse.

It’s a microcosm of the overall lack of diversity among teachers in Indiana and across the nation, and it highlights the challenges states face in attracting a diverse teaching staff. In 2016-17, only about 5,000 of Indiana’s 71,000 public school teachers — or 7 percent — were teachers of color, according to state data.

But, in contrast, about 20 percent of Indiana’s population is nonwhite, according to the most recent Census numbers. Indiana’s public schools are about 32 percent nonwhite. Even in Indianapolis Public Schools, which serves mostly black, Hispanic, and multiracial students, most teachers are white.

Research shows that students of all races benefit from having teachers of color, and that black students who have even a single black teacher are more likely to graduate.

Experts say the lack of teacher diversity makes it harder to recruit future teachers of color. Without many teachers who look like them, students of color might not aspire to teach, might not be encouraged to teach, and might be deterred by the implicit biases and lack of cultural competency in less diverse schools. For some of the same reasons, schools often also struggle to recruit male teachers.

That’s all in addition to other obstacles to drawing people to teaching, including the low pay, lack of respect for the profession, and chronically changing mandates on what teachers are supposed to teach.

“Frankly, people admire what they see,” said Mark Russell, education director for the Indianapolis Urban League. “If they don’t see blacks in positions of authority or being teachers, it sort of reinforces a myth that they are inferior. That under-representation has negative implications.”

Russell criticized the state for not doing enough to reach diverse teaching candidates.

“It does not seem like they made a concerted effort,” he said. “To me, that’s not acceptable. You have to show real intent to be diverse. It has to be intentional — not just, ‘Oh, if we can get that along the way, that would be fine.’”

Lubbers said the state partnered with organizations to promote the scholarship among students of color, including the Indianapolis Urban League, the Center for Leadership Development, and the Indiana Latino Institute.

“I think there are definitely more people who could qualify for the scholarship,” she said. “I think it’s more a matter of getting the applications.”

The state also reached out to all of the recipients of the Minority Teacher Scholarship, a need-based grant named after longtime black lawmaker William A. Crawford. The scholarship, which the state awarded to 164 students in 2016-17, is worth up to $4,000 each year with a lesser postgraduate teaching commitment and less stringent academic requirements.

But many recipients of the Minority Teacher Scholarship did not meet the academic standards for the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship, the state said.

Recipients of the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship must be in the top 20 percent of their high school graduating classes, or have ACT or SAT scores in the top 20 percent. They need to enroll in college full-time and maintain a 3.0 grade-point average. If they don’t fulfill their commitment to teach in Indiana after graduation, they must repay the grant.

The state spends $1.5 million each year on each class of scholarship recipients. This year, with two classes, that’s a $3 million public investment.

Ken Britt, senior vice president and dean of the Klipsch Educators College at Marian University, questioned why more students of color did not receive the scholarship. He noted that several prospective Marian students from diverse racial backgrounds did not win the scholarship.

More than 500 students applied for the Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship, the state said, including 32 minority candidates.

“Everyone is well deserved,” Britt said. “They’re in the top 20 percent of their class. So it would be interesting to see why some of these minority students didn’t get the final scholarships.”

Marian has used the scholarship as a tool to encourage students to pursue teaching, Britt said. But he added that the state should put a greater emphasis on attracting minority candidates during its application process, which includes in-person interviews.

“There are really talented minority students out there who want to become educators,” Britt said, adding that there needs to be “collective efforts to identify those students and push them into the classroom.”

Indiana’s teacher preparation programs at state universities are overwhelmingly white. But Marian has recently tried to improve its recruitment of minority teaching candidates in order to better prepare educators to work in Indianapolis schools, and it is about halfway to its goal of an incoming freshman class made up of 40 percent students of color, Britt said.

For Next Generation Hoosier Educators Scholarship recipient Dayla Bedford, her experience as a multiracial student in Indianapolis schools is both what led her to teaching — and what will help her connect with students, because she can tell them, “I’ve been there.”

Dayla, 18, switched schools often but kept coming back to Howe High School because of the teachers who helped guide her during times of instability. She wants to make changes in education, she said, after seeing how labeling a school as “failing” discounted the intelligent students inside the building.

As a first-generation college student, Dayla said the scholarship — along with others — made it possible for her to afford to attend Indiana University-Bloomington.

Dayla said she wants to return to Indianapolis to teach in the same community where she grew up.

“I’m a product of public education in Indianapolis, and I see the need, specifically in urban communities,” Dayla said. “And I know that’s where I want to be as a teacher.”