Obion County Director of Schools David Huss, Union City Director of Schools Gary Houston and Weakley County Director of Schools Randy Frazier
Tennessee’s newly-approved education accountability system “gives everyone a chance to succeed,” according to state Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman.
The state’s go-to man for schools met directors of those institutions from across West Tennessee Monday morning at Westview High School in Martin to explain the practical effect of the federal No Child Left Behind waiver recently granted to the Volunteer State’s educational system. It was one of three Grand Division sessions planned across Tennessee to acquaint local education leaders with the new rules that will govern their systems in the coming months. Meetings are also set for Knoxville and Nashville over the next few days.
Next will come in-person meetings and webinars with school staff to make sure they “understand more of the details and specifics.”
Huffman also assured those attending they will be getting more information about the connection between the waiver and federal programs related to education as those details are released by the U.S. Department of Education.
Tennessee is one of 10 states notified recently that the proposals they submitted for evaluating their own educational programs and designing plans to ensure school improvement had been approved. The other nine included Colorado, Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, Massachusetts, Minnesota, New Jersey and Oklahoma.
Huffman noted that despite dramatic changes Tennessee school systems had experienced since 2009, 80 percent of the state’s schools and at least 40 percent of its school districts would fail Adequate Yearly Progress standards — the yardstick component of NCLB — based on this year’s results.
“There was good work going on in Tennessee, but it wasn’t being recognized under the AYP system,” Huffman said. “In fact, school systems could be punished for doing the right thing. We wanted an accountability framework that brought growth and improvement together.”
As the 2014 deadline for NCLB’s ambitious but – some say – unrealistic goal of having every child perform at grade level in English and math approaches, more and more states are coming up against some hard realities, even as they enjoy increased federal funding to help them attain the laudable goals.
In the Volunteer State, education officials began a wide-spread overhaul of Tennessee’s dismal education ranking by raising standards, rather than lowering expectations and/or fiddling with the assessment component to paint a rosy picture.
The initial effort came through the Diploma Project and the passage of broad education reform legislation. As the tougher standards took effect, the proficiency results, predictably, dropped state-wide in 2009-10, but the next school year, those rates began to climb, with high value-added growth scores.
Despite that growth – hard-won by many teachers and administrators – half the schools in the state and 53 of the districts failed to meet AYP standards. Part of the reason was that the standards, in effect, increased year by year, reaching toward the 2014 “perfection” goal.
School officials across the nation began to agitate for changes as they insisted they saw proof of improvement in their school systems but still found themselves labeled failures because they could not force every child to learn at a “standardized” rate.
They pointed to the demoralization of teachers who felt they were working harder but could never quite keep up with the ever-increasing demands of the system. Many also argued that school systems alone could not force students to learn and families must accept their share of responsibility.
A new plan
In Monday’s session, Huffman provided the timeline for Tennessee’s success in achieving the valuable waiver from the federal government and said efforts to establish an alternative to AYP began in July 2011 when a formal waiver request was submitted to the U.S. Department of Education.
There followed meetings with directors of schools and district staff from the state’s 136 Local Education Agencies and with other shareholders, such as legislators, members of the state school board, special education and English as a Second Language practitioners and community representatives.
The full waiver application was finally submitted in November and revisions were made throughout the next two months.
The eagerly anticipated waiver news was officially delivered Thursday.
Tennessee’s approved accountability system will still include a public reporting and transparency of data for all students, paired with “ambitious but achievable goals around growth and improvement from current baselines,” according to Huffman.
In addition, Tennessee educators will be working from a “focused list of goals” in terms of accountability and differentiated consequences, rather than NCLB’s “laundry list” of goals and “lockstep consequences” for missing any goal by any amount.
Local school districts will also bear responsibility as the key point of action for institutions facing challenges, with state intervention coming into play only in a small number of schools.
This differs drastically from the NCLB intervention plan for hundreds of schools.
The two over-riding objectives of the new accountability system include:
• growth for all students, every year;
• closing achievement gaps by ensuring faster growth for students who are the most behind.
In practical terms, this means Tennessee’s school districts and the schools within them will set their own achievement and gap closure annual measurable objectives, with these two objectives being equally weighted. Further, districts will be assessed on “achieving” or “missing” in each part of the system.
The top 10 percent of schools, based on absolute performance and value-added growth, will be rewarded. The 10 percent of schools with the largest achievement gaps will become focus schools and the bottom 5 percent will have “priority school” status.
Communities are being promised full transparency related to progress against the AMOs; achievement data by assessment by sub-group performance; participation rates; graduation rates; and reward, focus and priority status for schools.
Huffman says districts will, in the future, be judged on the totality of their performance and will not be penalized for missing just a single goal, with this approach intended to encourage systems to set ambitious goals to improve performance and close achievement gaps.
Union City Director of Schools Gary Houston, who attended Monday’s session, said, “Commissioner Huffman was very thorough in his explanation of Tennessee’s waiver from the U.S. Department of Education. School systems are still challenged with attaining measurable growth and closing achievement gaps, but hopefully this waiver has allowed systems more flexibility in accomplishing these goals.
David Huss, who manages the Obion County system, added, “Today was very informative and the dialogue with the commissioner seemed to be well received; however, there still seems to be a lot of uncertainty about the NCLB waiver and how the new Race to the Top achievement measures will affect education. It was good to see the commissioner and his staff reach out to the school districts of West Tennessee in an informal setting.”
What if …
The commissioner said a totality of results will place school systems in one of three stages of educational development in the future.
Some systems will be labeled “Exemplary” and will be recognized through inclusion on a list of such districts.
They will be able to make plans for their system without the need for Tennessee Department of Education approval and will be granted priority consideration for TDOE waivers and for support of proposals for alternative teacher evaluation models.
Those models have been a cause of concern for many educators this year as tough and time-consuming approaches have gone into effect across the state. Gov. Bill Haslam has said recently that designing those assessments must be, in effect, an ongoing process and he is willing to listen to suggestions and to have the matter studied carefully.
To achieve exemplary status, schools must hit the majority of their achievement targets and the majority of their gap closure targets and must ensure that no individual sub-group moves backwards in a majority of the target areas.
Had such a system been in place last year, 92 districts, or roughly 3/4 of the state’s systems, would have scored well on achievement measures, but only 30 would have managed sufficient gap closure measures. Estimates say 22 systems would have managed exemplary status in both measures.
Other schools – the majority, officials believe – will be designated “Intermediate” and will be expected to provide a detailed analysis of testing results and plans for achieving goals in the coming year, subject to TDOE approval.
These schools can attain their status in multiple ways, such as making achievement measures but missing gap closure measures or missing achievement measures but making gap closure measures.
Last year, 63 districts would have reached that level, with 57 districts making progress toward reducing gaps overall, but missing half or more gap closure targets. Six districts would have made some growth in overall proficiency but missed half or more achievement targets.
“Needs Improvement” systems will appear on a list, available to the public, of districts in need of improvement and personnel associated with the system will be meeting with TDOE to create aggressive goals — similar to the recent Race to the Top plans — to be met in the coming year.
Gap closure efforts will focus on the following:
• racial/ethnic sub-groups versus all students;
• economically disadvantaged versus non-economically disadvantaged;
• English learners versus non-English learners;
• Students with disabilities versus students without disabilities.
Schools designated to need improvement must have missed both achievement measure attainment and gap closure measures; or they may have performed acceptably on achievement measures but missed and moved backwards on gap closure measures; or they may have missed achievement measures and moved backwards, but achieved gap closure measures.
A full 50 systems would have fallen into this category, based on last year’s scores.
Bottom line, according to Huffman: Districts that grow and improve will succeed in Tennessee’s new accountability system and he expects that most systems will continue Race to the Top-style planning, with a focus on key areas of need. Those systems looking to improve will work closely with TDOE on aggressive plans to meet goals, he added.
In addition, three categories of schools have been identified for differentiated recognition and support.
Local schools can expect to join other Tennessee systems in receiving status reports that show which of the three groups their schools would have fallen in and, over the next few weeks, preliminary lists of schools facing problems will be rerun and those schools and their districts will be notified of their status. This effort does not involve sanctions for schools needing improvement, but does place them on alert, along with those “on the cusp.”
Final lists will be run, including data from the 2011-12 school year, this summer, but only schools with three years of data will be included.
The three new categories will include the 5 percent of schools with the highest overall performance in overall proficiency and the 5 percent of schools with the fastest progress on Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System – the state-wide accountability program.
Schools in this category will be labeled “Reward Schools” and will reap a share of the $2 million available in the form of competitive grants.
Their successes will be recognized and celebrated and their practices will be put into effect where useful.
“Focus Schools” will be made up of 10 percent of the schools with the largest within-school achievement gaps and they will also be able to compete for substantial grants from a pool of $10 million and will engage in planning with districts to help minimize those differences in achievement.
“Priority Schools,” making up the bottom 5 percent by absolute performance, will have significant financial and staff resources committed for support. These schools will also become part of district-run “innovation zones,” created by the districts and approved by TDOE.
The new accountability system will rely on data from this school year, Huffman noted.
Editor’s note: Glenda Caudle is Special Features Editor at The Messenger in Union City. She may be contacted by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.