TNReady Testimony

Few answers as state education officials testify about testing breakdown

PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Tennessee Assistant Education Commissioner Nakia Towns confers with Education Commissioner Candice McQueen on Wednesday before appearing before a state Senate hearing about TNReady.

Lawmakers who tried to shed light on the murky reasons for Tennessee’s botched transition to online testing generated more questions than answers on Wednesday.

Members of the Senate education and government operations committees pressed State Department of Education officials on what went wrong with the state’s brand new testing system, and why they had been confident in a testing company that had never before undertaken a project of that scale.

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said her department had done everything it could to prepare for testing, including administering millions of student practice tests and taking “painstaking efforts” to fix bugs reported by students and teachers.

But when testing began on Feb. 8, the testing system crashed while thousands of students were mid-test. Education officials quickly blamed Measurement Inc, the North Carolina vendor hired to develop the test, but have not explained what caused the system to fail.

“Who had oversight over this?” asked Sen. Mike Bell. “Were we just trusting the vendor to get it done?”

(While the hearing was underway, Gov. Bill Haslam announced in an email that test scores would not factor into teachers’ ratings this year because of the testing snafus.)

Department officials said they worked closely with Measurement Inc. throughout the development process, alerting its representatives of technological problems they saw and helping the company test how many students could log on to its system without crashing.

But the problem that crippled servers on Day One of the testing was not due to overload or any bug they’d seen before, said Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer for the department.

“The system was not under tremendous load when it fell over,” Lloyd said. “Unfortunately, what we saw wasn’t a consequence of load. The system was running at about 15 percent of its expected load. What we saw were a combination of factors that could have been avoided, and that is probably the saddest aspect of this.

“We didn’t see a server blow up; we didn’t see insufficient money spent on server capacity; we didn’t see problems with broadband in our schools; we didn’t see all the things you would’ve thought would have been the problem,” Lloyd continued. “What we saw were some bad choices … that really could have been avoided.”

"What we saw were bad choices ... that really could have been avoided."Cliff Lloyd, chief information officer

Lloyd did not specific what those choices were. But he signaled that he did not believe anyone at the state department had made them. “That talks really to the internal processes of another organization that we really don’t have control over,” he said.

Measurement Inc. won the contract with the state in 2014 after receiving the highest technical score from an anonymous group of evaluators, and offering to create the test for the lowest cost — about $20 million less than the next lowest offer.

The company had never taken on a statewide online assessment contract before. But Stephen Smith, deputy commissioner of policy, said the State Department of Education had no reason to doubt that the company was up for the job.

“We went through a very extensive (selection) process … and it was really an unprecedented process,”  Smith said. “We had leaders from local districts on the content side and the technical side. … At the time, we felt very positive about the selection.”

McQueen, who became commissioner months after the contract was signed, suggested during the hearing that the department’s confidence had been quickly shaken — and then restored.

“There was a bit of a concern there early on about the capacity for them to understand what the issues were and for them to fix them quickly,” she told senators.

So the state worked with Measurement Inc. to do several “stress tests,” ensuring that the company’s servers would not be overwhelmed by the high volume of traffic when students began testing. They also worked to fix bugs that caused the program to freeze during practice tests.

“We were as ready as we could be for Monday, Feb. 8,” McQueen said.

That is little consolation for students and school personnel who were flummoxed when exams started last week. Now, schools that prepared to take the test in early February are waiting for the arrival of paper tests that have yet to be printed — which are actually more expensive for the state to administer. Smith said officials are working to ensure that the state won’t be left with a larger-than-anticipated bill.

In the meantime, students and teachers alike are confused, said Sen. Lee Harris of Memphis. He said his fifth-grade son had brought up concerns about TNReady and the state’s response at the dinner table.

“This is the first time my son has taken an interest with what’s going on the state level because he’s prepared, and his classmates have prepared, with a great deal of effort, for this test. So he wonders what’s going on, and he brings that to the dinner table,” Harris said.

“Assure your son, he will take TNReady,” McQueen said. “He will get the paper version of the test, and he will be taking it.”

“Can you tell him when?” Harris countered.

Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns said officials hope that Shelby County students will take the test in mid-March before spring break — a month after they originally planned.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Man Up

With Man Up, a new Memphis teacher prep program is training, mentoring men of color

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Founder Patrick Washington discusses his program Man Up with current Relay Graduate School of Education participants. The program aims to partner with Relay to train more male teachers of color.

Patrick Washington has teaching in his blood.  

Washington’s great-great-grandfather, Richard Adkins, was born a slave in Marshall County, Mississippi. After the Civil War, Adkins, who was separated from his parents early on, worked as a sharecropper. Despite long hours picking cotton, he learned to read and write.

Soon after, Adkins taught other former slaves to do the same. He did so just years after anti-literacy laws, which forbade the education of slaves, were abolished. And he did so, Washington believes, because he imagined a better life for his children and grandchildren.

“He saw me,” Washington, a Memphis-based teacher and school administrator, said.

For Washington, 43, teaching is “the best profession on this side of heaven,” and it’s all he ever wanted to do. But he wishes more men of color saw the promise of a career in education. That’s why he’s partnering with Relay Graduate School of Education and Blue Mountain College on a new Memphis-based teacher preparation program called Man Up.

The goal: Train more men of color from various walks of life to become teachers in Memphis, and provide them with mentorship along the way.

According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education, black males make up just two percent of the teaching workforce nationwide. Statewide, that number is nearly the same, and in Shelby County Schools, men of color make up about 9.5 percent of teachers.

That lack of classroom representation, Washington believes, is often internalized by male students of color.

“That’s why they raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I want to play basketball; I want to be a rapper; I want to be a policeman,’” Washington said. “Because that’s what they see.”

He said some are also dissuaded because they perceive teaching as a low-paid, low-status career.

Two years into his first teaching job at Memphis’ Evans Elementary, Washington was the school’s only teacher of color. And, over the next ten years, as Washington took on administrative roles at two other area schools, he noticed a pattern: There were few black male teachers, if there were any at all.

Those experiences, he said, were socially isolating. He also said that at schools that disproportionately discipline black male students, male teachers of color often find themselves in the role of disciplinarian. He said that here in Memphis, single mothers of boys have come to him, seeking behavioral support because they see him as a “father figure.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Man Up currently has seven cohort members for its Graduate Lane, and is seeking three more applicants.

Were schools to employ more teachers of color, they would be less likely to enact the kind of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that have often fallen on Washington to enforce, he said. A study from the Center for Education Data & Research seems to support that theory; it found that students were 46 percent more likely to be seen as disruptive by a teacher of another race.

Man Up seeks to help diversify the teaching force by providing accepted applicants with a fully funded teacher preparation program, thanks to grants and philanthropic dollars. In exchange for free training, participants agree to spend at least five years teaching. In addition to their salaries, they receive annual $5,000 stipends.

The program, he said, will eventually have five different tracks to help men of color obtain teaching licenses. Those so-called “lanes” are:  

The Graduate Lane: For recent college graduates, this program enables trainees, studying towards their master’s degree in education, to teach alongside a mentor teacher over a two-year period.

The Undergraduate Lane: Man Up is currently exploring a partnership with the University of Memphis, where the program would identify aspiring teachers among undergraduate students and provide them tuition assistance to complete their licensing requirements, alongside their degrees.

The High School Lane: This track would identify high school juniors and seniors with an interest in becoming teachers. It will pair them with non-profit organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, with the goal of helping them develop mentoring skills. They would also attend monthly seminars, similar to introductory education courses, and they would get hands-on practice in the classroom. After enrolling in a partnering college or university, students would move up to the Undergraduate Lane and graduate with up to six years of classroom experience.

The Teach 2nd Lane: This track would be for career changers — specifically retired servicemen or businessmen. They would attend a five-week boot camp, enroll in a partnering college or university, and take part in monthly Man Up sessions while gaining classroom teaching experience over the course of two school years.

The REVERSE Lane: In an effort to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, Man Up hopes to partner with local Departments of Correction to identify men with expungeable misdemeanor offenses who aspire to teach. These students would enroll at a partnering college or university, where they would be required to attend monthly Man Up sessions, teaching labs, and a summer intensive course before receiving a teaching license.

The only track currently on offer is the Graduate Lane, which currently has three open slots for its ten-member cohort. So far, seven recent college graduates have begun summer training sessions at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, where they will work with Washington and Relay staff to complete a two-year curriculum.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
David Tillman, right, is a current Man Up participant.

Washington said he intends to expand graduate cohorts by five each year, reaching his goal of training 30 new male teachers of color annually by 2023. By the fall of 2019, Washington plans to roll out the next four tracks in concert with nearby colleges.

David Tillman, who recently graduated with a degree in exercise science  from the University of Memphis, is among the current graduate cohort. He first heard about Man-Up after asking about a teaching position at Promise Academy, a local charter school that was founded by Washington.

Tillman, whose mother is a retired teacher, said he was drawn to teaching because “I understood the struggles of the students, especially students of color in the school systems, and I wanted to find a way to give back.” He remembered how one of his middle school teachers, a black man, saw that a young Tillman had potential but was “hanging out with the wrong crowd.” The teacher, who was also Tillman’s football coach, used to remind Tillman that he was a leader.  

“He actually believed in me,” he said. “He spent a lot of one-on-one time with me, and that meant a lot to me, because I grew up without a father. So, he was that male, father-figure role model for me.”

Tilllman now wants to be that kind of mentor to Memphis students.

“Boys can see that, yes, it is ‘cool’ to be a teacher,” he said.

Alongside their graduate coursework from Relay, Tillman and his fellow trainees will spend two years co-teaching small groups of students and will meet monthly with Washington, who will provide supplementary training in areas such as reflection and feedback, results-driven teaching, and empathy and compassion.

Current Man Up participants are expected to mentor students or color, to identify practices to improve black male academic success, and to develop lessons for special needs learners.

While completing their training, Man Up graduates will be paired with a mentor, who is a male educator of color, which will continue as they begin full-time teaching. 

“With two percent of the classroom population,” Washington said, referring to the percentage of black male educators, “we have a collective responsibility to each other, we have a collective responsibility to our country, we have a collective responsibility to our communities, and we have a collective responsibility to our kids. This is something that we must do.”