The big lift

Tennessee has an upward mobility problem. Can schools help?

Despite significant investments in education in recent years, Tennessee isn’t successfully moving its citizens up the ladder of opportunity.

The numbers are clear:

Only 2.6 percent of Memphians born into the bottom 5 percentile in wealth will rise to the top 5th percentile.

And the average salary for Tennesseans who entered high school in 2008 and didn’t matriculate to any sort of college program is only about $9,000 a year — far below the poverty level.

Entrenched inequality, and schools’ role in reversing it, was the topic of a panel discussion Tuesday in Nashville sponsored by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also known as SCORE, an education advocacy and research institution founded by former U.S. Sen. Bill Frist of Tennessee. The forum featured Gini Pupo-Walker, education director of Conéxion Americàs, a nonprofit organization supporting Tennessee’s immigrant population; Mike Krause, director of Tennessee Promise, the state’s program to allow nearly all Tennessee students to attend community college tuition-free; and Mike Petrilli, president of the Thomas Fordham Institute and author of Education for Upward Mobility, which explores the role of school and education policy in helping children born into poverty enter the middle class in adulthood.

The panel highlighted the mantra “all means all,” meaning that students of all races, economic backgrounds and ability levels should be prepared to succeed after high school.

“… Tennesseans should have a shot (at success), and the reality is a lot of them don’t,” Krause said.

Prescriptions offered up included providing undocumented immigrants with in-state tuition and the Tennessee Promise scholarship, bolstering career and technical education, and even teaching Tennessee high school students more comprehensively about effective birth control. (That suggestion, offered by Petrilli, was met with laughter from the audience.)

Focusing on policy, Petrilli, a strong advocate for “school choice,” applauded Tennessee’s charter school movement as an instrument to level the playing field. He said the state should be looking closely at how Tennessee’s new assessment and standards serve students in preparing them for further education and successful careers. And he suggested Tennessee work with third-party organizations to ensure the standards and test are properly measuring skills and knowledge that students need to succeed.

Pupo-Walker, who recently spearheaded a statewide network to advocate for students of color, emphasized school culture, noting that many parents are disenfranchised. She said they often feel uncomfortable entering schools and talking with teachers. Meanwhile, students without parents being active in school often face lower expectations.

“We’ve seen for too long our lowest-performing schools and our poorest students have … less rigorous course work, less options, less opportunities, and folks [who] are teaching them don’t necessarily understand the communities they come from and … how to provide the right supports.”

Former Metro Nashville superintendent Jesse Register attended the panel discussion and advocated for pre-K as a means to increase equity.
PHOTO: Grace Tatter
Former Metro Nashville superintendent Jesse Register attended the panel discussion and advocated for pre-K as a means to increase equity.

The audience included school superintendents, former Nashville director of schools Jesse Register, State Board of Education members, and representatives from various education advocacy groups, many of whom also had ideas to support students living in poverty. Register spoke up to advocate for increasing access to early education, a push he made during his tenure at the helm of Nashville schools.

SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson, who moderated Tuesday’s discussion, encouraged more focused discourse and collaboration on how schools can be the engines of upward mobility.

“How do we make sure educators receive the support that they need, schools receive the support that they need, and that we change the level of expectation?” Woodson asked. “Those kids need a bright future.”

getting to graduation

A capstone project before graduation? New York debates new ways to earn a diploma

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air last spring at the conclusion of their graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

As New York continues to rethink what students must do to graduate high school, state policymakers floated their latest idea Monday: Let some students complete a “capstone project” on their path to a diploma.

State education officials have long grappled with graduation requirements. Traditionally, students have had to pass five “Regents” exams in order to graduate. But in recent years, the state has created additional options after policymakers argued that strict test-score requirements can hold some students back.

The debate in New York comes as several states have decided to drop or deemphasize their own exit exams. In New York, policymakers are caught between two cross-currents, said Bob Lowry, deputy director of the New York State Council of School Superintendents.

“One is assuring students a fair chance at earning a diploma,” he said. “The other current is to try and ensure a diploma means something.”

New York is one of only two states that require five or more exams to graduate. Several states have moved away from exit exams. Just last week, California’s governor officially abolished theirs.

New York currently allows students to replace one of the Regents exams with alternative assessments, including a career-focused exam or an arts test. The state has also made exceptions for students with disabilities, who only need to pass two Regents exams to graduate.

Last year, the state Board of Regents discussed allowing students to substitute a project-based assessment for a failed Regents exam. Allowing students to swap in a capstone project for a Regents exam would fit that trend.

However, when asked about the proposal, State Education Commissioner MaryEllen Elia said students would be able to complete it in addition to the exit exams — not in lieu of them.

“It would not replace Regents exams,” she told Chalkbeat. “Be real clear about that.”

But if Elia is cautious about replacing Regents exams, some board members want to radically rethink the state’s graduation requirements.

Regent Roger Tilles said Monday that the exit exams might be “holding students back as opposed to helping” them. In the past, he has said the state should “start from scratch” and come up with a totally new path to a diploma. (Another board member, Lester Young, proposed on Monday creating a commission to study alternative graduation options.)

Tilles’ remarks earned a round of applause from a group of parents who have been attending meetings to push for more diploma options. One parent advocate, Wendy Harnisher, said Elia should not rule out making the capstone project one option for students who are struggling to graduate.

“For her to say no,” Harnisher said, “I think that’s closing a door on an opportunity that could potentially help a lot of kids.”

The state education department has not made a final decision about the capstone project proposal, and will solicit public feedback before doing so, said spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that the state is committed to giving students multiple ways to graduate.

“This is not about changing our graduation standards,” she said. “It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma.”

diploma dilemma

New York’s graduation rate could drop under new federal education law

PHOTO: Christina Veiga

New York state’s high school graduation rate may take a hit due to an under-the-radar provision in the new federal education law.

The Every Student Succeeds Act, or ESSA, requires states to count only “standard” diplomas earned by a “preponderance” of students or honors diplomas in their federal graduation rate. It’s possible that definition would exclude New York’s “local” diploma, a less rigorous option earned by only about 4 percent of graduating students. (Most students earn a “Regents” diploma, which requires higher exit-exam scores than the local version.)

The U.S. Education Department is currently reviewing New York’s ESSA plan. It’s unclear how the federal agency will enforce the graduation rule — and whether New York’s local diploma will pass muster — but experts say it does not appear to meet the requirements of the law. If so, New York may be forced to lower its graduation rate or report separate state and federal rates.

“The law is really clear about what can be counted,” said Anne Hyslop, an education consultant who formerly worked as a senior policy advisor at the U.S. Department of Education. “As long as the Regents is the standard diploma, the only diploma that can be counted is a higher, more rigorous diploma.”

U.S. education department officials declined to say whether New York’s local diploma will count towards the state’s graduation rate under ESSA. New York officials noted that their plan is still under review.

Indiana has already felt the effects of the new rule.

Indiana’s education department announced that in response to the federal law its “general” diploma which is earned by about 12 percent of Indiana graduates who struggle academically or have a disability will no longer be included in its federal graduation rate.

The federal rate is used to hold schools accountable for their performance. States must target any school with a graduation rate below 67 percent for improvement, though states can decide which interventions to use. (New York’s plan allows schools to use their six-year graduation rates to meet that benchmark.)

In response to the new rule, Indiana officials are considering using two different graduation rates: one for the federal accountability system and the other for the state’s. In practice, that would mean different sets of criteria for when state and federal school interventions kick in.

New York could theoretically use two separate counts as well. In that scenario, it would use the lower federal rate for ESSA accountability purposes, such as identifying low-performing schools. But it would still maintain a state rate that factors in local diplomas — a move that would enable students to keep earning the local diploma, which is recognized by colleges and the military.

“The local diploma can still be awarded,” Hyslop said. “That diploma still carries meaning.”

But reporting two separate graduation rates has drawbacks particularly for anyone who wants to understand how schools are performing, said Michael Cohen, president of the nonprofit Achieve, which helps states work on academic standards.

“It would be confusing to anyone who wants to know what the actual graduation rate in the state is,” Cohen said. “If I were a resident in a state that did that I would wonder what’s going on.”

The intent of ESSA’s “preponderance” rule is to push states to issue a single diploma option without lowering the bar for any students, including those with disabilities. Many advocates think if states create easier options it will lower expectations for some students.

“We do believe that students with disabilities largely can achieve the regular standards diploma options,” said Melissa Turner, senior manager for state policy at the National Center for Learning Disabilities.

But sticking to a single graduation cutoff inevitably means leaving some students without a diploma, which can thwart their job or college ambitions.

Rather than withhold a diploma from students who score below the cutoff, New York created the local diploma option. It functions as a safety net for students who are struggling academically, still learning English or have disabilities. There are several ways students with disabilities can earn the credential, but the most recent option allows students to graduate by passing only the math and English Regents exam.

“It’s about providing different avenues – equally rigorous – for kids to demonstrate they are ready to graduate with a meaningful diploma,” said state education department spokeswoman Emily DeSantis, adding that officials would include ESSA in their graduation discussions over the coming months.

Still, experts warned that New York’s alternative diploma options may run afoul of ESSA.

If New York was “really following the letter of the law they would just drop their graduation rates,” by a few percentage points, said Monica Almond, the senior associate for policy development and government relations at the Alliance for Excellent Education.