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.”

 

Academic Accountability

Coming soon: Not one, but two ratings for every Chicago school

Starting this month, Chicago schools will have to juggle two ratings — one from the school district, and another from the state.

The Illinois State Board of Education is scheduled to release on October 31 its annual report cards for schools across the state. This year, for the first time, each school will receive one of four quality stamps from the state: an “exemplary” or “commendable” rating signal the school is meeting standards while an “underperforming” or “lowest performing” designation could trigger intervention, according to state board of education spokeswoman Jackie Matthews.

A federal accountability law, the Every Student Succeeds Act, requires these new ratings.

To complicate matters, the city and state ratings are each based on different underlying metrics and even a different set of standardized tests. The state ratings, for example, are based on a modified version of the PARCC assessment, while Chicago ratings are based largely on the NWEA. The new state ratings, like those the school district issues, can be given out without observers ever having visited a classroom, which is why critics argue that the approach lacks the qualitative metrics necessary to assess the learning, teaching, and leadership at individual schools.

Patricia Brekke, principal at Back of the Yards College Preparatory High School, said she’s still waiting to see how the ratings will be used, “and how that matters for us,” but that parents at her school aren’t necessarily focused on what the state says.

“What our parents usually want to know is what [Chicago Public Schools] says about us, and how we’re doing in comparison to other schools nearby that their children are interested in,” she said.

Educators at Chicago Public Schools understand the power of school quality ratings.  The district already has its own five-tiered rating system: Level 1+ and Level 1 designate the highest performing schools, Level 2+ and Level 2 describe for average and below average performing schools, respectively, and Level 3, the lowest performance rating, is for schools in need of “intensive intervention.” The ratings help parents decide where to enroll their children, and are supposed to signal to the district that the school needs more support. But the ratings are also the source of angst — used to justify replacing school leaders, closing schools, or opening new schools in neighborhoods where options are deemed inadequate.

In contrast, the state’s school quality designations actually target underperforming and lowest-performing schools with additional federal funding and support with the goal of improving student outcomes. Matthews said schools will work with “school support managers” from the state to do a self-inquiry and identify areas for improvement. She described Chicago’s school quality rating system as “a local dashboard that they have developed to communicate with their communities.”

Staff from the Illinois State Board of Education will be traveling around the state next week to meet with district leaders and principals to discuss the new accountability system, including the ratings. They’ll be in Bloomington, Marion, O’Fallon, Chicago, and Melrose Park. The Chicago meeting is Wednesday, Oct. 24, at 5 p.m. at Chicago Public Schools headquarters.

Rae Clementz, director of assessment and accountability at the state board said that a second set of ratings reveals “that there are multiple valid ways to look at school quality and success; it’s a richer picture.”

Under auspices of the Every Student Succeeds Act, the state school report cards released at the end of the month for elementary schools are 75 percent based on academics, including English language arts and math test scores, English learner progress as measured by the ACCESS test, and academic growth. The other 25 percent reflects the school climate and success, such as attendance and chronic absenteeism.

Other measures are slated to be phased in over the next several years, including academic indicators like science proficiency and school quality indicators, such as school climate surveys of staff, students and parents

High school designations take a similar approach with English and math test scores but will take into account graduation rates, instead of academic growth, and also includes the percentage of  9th graders on track to graduate — that is freshmen who earn 10 semester credits, and no more than one semester F in a core course.

Critics of Chicago’s school rating system argue that the ratings correlate more with socioeconomic status and race than they do school quality, and say little about what’s happening in classrooms and how kids are learning. Chicago does try to mitigate these issues with a greater emphasis on growth in test scores rather than absolute attainment, school climate surveys, and including academic growth by priority groups, like African-American, Latino, ELL, and students in special education.

Cory Koedel, a professor of economics and public policy at the University of Missouri, said that many rating systems basically capture poverty status with a focus on how high or low students score on tests. Chicago’s approach is fairer than that of many other school systems.

“What I like about this is it does seem to have a high weight on growth and lower weight on attainment levels,” he said.

Morgan Polikoff, a professor at University of Southern California’s school of education, said that Chicago’s emphasis on student growth is a good thing “if the purpose of the system is to identify schools doing a good job educating kids.”

Chicago weights 50 percent of the rating on growth, but he’s seen 35 to as low as 15 percent at other districts. But he said the school district’s reliance on the NWEA test rather than the PARCC test used in the state school ratings was atypical.

“It’s not a state test, and though they say it aligns with standards, I know from talking to educators that a lot of them feel the tests are not well aligned with what they are supposed to be teaching,” he said. “It’s just a little odd to me they would have state assessment data, which is what they are held accountable for with the state, but use the other data.”

He’s skeptical about school systems relying too heavily on standardized test scores, whether the SAT, PARCC or NWEA, because “You worry that now you’re just turning the curriculum to test prep, and that’s an incentive you don’t want to create for educators.”

He said the high school measures in particular include a wide array of measures, including measures that follow students into college, “so I love that.”

“I really like the idea of broadening the set of indicators on which we evaluate schools and encouraging schools to really pay attention to how well they prepare students for what comes next,” he said.

First Person

How football prepared me for my first year of teaching (but maybe not the second)

Football brought me to Memphis, and Memphis brought me to teaching.

That’s how, last August, I found myself the solo teacher for seventh grade science at a KIPP middle school in North Memphis that hadn’t had a teacher in that role make it to May in four years.

I completed and even enjoyed that year of teaching, despite its challenges. And while I don’t think my years of high school and college football gave me every tool or personality trait I needed to do that, the experience helped.

First, football taught me to perform when I was not at 100 percent. One of my former coaches used to ask ailing players, “Are you hurt, or are you injured?” in an attempt to parse the words of high schoolers. Hurt was a bruise; injured was a break. I learned to play with bruises.

I found myself asking the hurt or injured question one early morning in February, when I woke up with a throbbing headache. I was hurt, not injured. I made it in.

But physical ailments aren’t the only ones that can sideline a teacher. Teachers have bad days. Frankly, teachers can have bad weeks or months. The same can go for football players. All-star quarterbacks throw interceptions, and gutsy linebackers miss tackles.

The same coach used to tell me, “The only play that matters is the next play.” I found that true last year, too. I couldn’t go back and change the way I unduly reprimanded a student any more than a wide receiver can get another shot at catching a dropped pass.

Some days, though, you “learn” more than you bargained for. In football, those days may be when you feel like you probably should have never tried to play. Those days you drop every ball that comes your way, you forget where you’re supposed to be on every play, and you wonder if the knitting club has any openings.

Football taught me how to drown out these thoughts of inadequacy with positive visualization and by staying focused on concrete goals. As my coach used to tell us after a particularly good play, or a particularly bad one: “Never too high, never too low.” Just as the bad days will soon be washed away in the unrelenting tide of the school year, so will the good ones.

Retaining any sense of perspective on the school year was hard, and there’s no easy fix to an extended period of self-pity or frustration at a string of bad days. My goals were to help kids learn to appreciate science, and to be an adult that students felt they could go to for support. Keeping them at the front of my mind was the best help I could find.

On that note, I have a confession to make. Before my first year of teaching, I was one of those people who didn’t truly understand how difficult teaching was. The reality of how many hours teachers spend outside of school putting their lessons together never crossed my mind. The fact that planning units ahead for my students felt like scouting out my opponents didn’t make the long hours any easier. That first month of teaching was a shock to my system, and the only solution was to put my head down and go, the way I had been taught to do.

Football also left me with some loose ends. The sport taught me next to nothing about patience or about the virtues of benevolence; it never pays to be gentle on the gridiron. Football also didn’t teach me anything about working with people you don’t agree with. On a football team, everyone is united under the same cause: winning.

The parallels I discovered also raise a few uncomfortable questions. I decided to pursue an advanced degree instead of continuing to teach a second year. Does football truly inform teaching as a career, then, or just that first year? A main tenet of football is to never quit. Did I violate that by switching career paths?

Pushing past pain, and centering most hours of one’s life around one goal, can be difficult principles to build a life around. They were also valuable to me when I needed them most.

And regardless of whether football continues to be popular among young people, I hope that parents still find ways to give their kids a chance to compete — a chance to win, and more importantly, to lose.

Having to do that time and time again made me able to accept struggle in life, and it made me a better learner. I think it made me a better teacher, too.

Evan Tucker is a former teacher at KIPP Memphis Academy Middle. He is now pursuing a master’s degree in ecology.