Saturday, August 24, 2013

Did I Hear That Right?

In the final Work Session of the Shelby County School Board 2.0, I can't have been the only person dismayed by the comedy of errors that unfolded.  This mixture of inherited, appointed, and elected individuals just can't quite seem to keep it together.

Blunder after blunder.

There was Commissioner Mary Anne Gibson carefully explaining the root cause of the transportation problems to the man now in charge of transportation, Hitesh Haria.  It was kind of her to take the time to clarify just why parents were so upset.  Except for her fundamental misunderstanding of how budget cuts work, and how they impacted who was eligible for bus service.  You see, according to Commissioner Gibson, the expansion of the hilariously-titled Parent Responsibility Zone (handily-acronymed as "PRZ", since it's not a "thing" until it has an "acronym") has resulted in an increase of what she actually called "new riders".  There are just so many new families using bus service now, that Central Office should understand that these folks are frustrated because of their difficulties navigating transportation services.

Except for the fact that the changes to the transportation system were specifically designed to save money.  The way that the changes saved money, partly, was that the number of eligible riders was reduced.  Commissioner Gibson correctly understood that the PRZ had been expanded, but failed to understand what that did - that by increasing the number of parents now responsible for their children's transportation, there was a reduced number of riders.  There are definitely new riders, but it's not due to an expansion of bus service - any new riders would just be new to local schools or new to a neighborhood far enough way from school that bus service is provided.  Commissioner Gibson had it right that parents were frustrated, but her explanation belied some very fundamental misunderstandings about the impact of some of her votes for budget cuts in transportation services.

Commissioner Kevin Woods had a real doozy, too.  He started off okay - after all, he brands himself as a fiscal conservative, actively looking for any trace of waste, fraud, or abuse.  In the discussion about the delayed paychecks to about 130 teachers, what Commissioner Woods wanted to do, we can only assume, was ask about the level of attention paid to the possibility of accidentally paying people who shouldn't be paid.  And his question did actually lead to the newsworthy acknowledgment that Central Office accidentally paid a dead person.  Computers!  Data entry!  [Insert cuss word here!]

But Commissioner Woods couldn't have been more disrespectful in how he asked his question.  My description just above is quite generous, as it turns out.  What Commissioner Woods actually asked was how the school district was trying to prevent giving anyone an "extended vacation".  I'm not sure there could be a more awful way to characterize the current financial status of those employees that the district has been forced to lay off.  It's not just the terminations - that Commissioner Woods voted for - it's the hurry-up-and-wait approach that the School Board took to its critical staffing decisions.  Take, for example, a Central Office person who had been working long enough to be eligible for retirement but who was not selected for the positions to which they applied.  Not only were they not eligible for the much-touted severance packages because they were eligible for retirement (this, for the record, is called "being forced into retirement"), but because of the timing of the district's selection process and the timing of the state retirement office, such an employee would wait for at least two months for any income after their last paycheck.  Such an individual would not be eligible for unemployment either, because their employment ended with the school year and they had filed retirement paperwork.  They just had to wait.

The School Board did not exactly take care to make sure that their terminated employees, employees who had devoted their careers to Memphis City and Shelby County Schools, were treated as well as they should have been.  Add to this shabby treatment, Commissioner Woods' classification of any errant payroll payment to such an employee as contributing to that employee's "extended vacation". 

This is the same Commissioner Woods whose seat is now in question, and who must stand for election again since Chancellor Armstrong threw out the August 2012 election results for the District Four race.  Commissioner Woods will again face former MCS Commissioner Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr.  After Commissioner Woods' low blow to the district's laid-off employees, Commissioner Whalum had no comment.  Because he wasn't there.  Because while he still collects his School Board paycheck, Commissioner Whalum is currently (still) refusing to perform a critical function of elected officials by not attending the public meetings of the body on which he serves.  Good luck, District 4!

Unfortunately, the mis-steps were not limited to our inherited, elected (?), and appointed public officials.  New cabinet member and Chief Innovation Officer Brad Leon, proudly thirty days on the job, still is not quite sure how Innovation Zone schools have been selected.  The Innovation Zone is, of course, his primary area of responsibility.  Thankfully, Dr. Rod Richmond was there to fill in the School Board (again) about the process for selecting Innovation Zone schools.

Other high points:  the ongoing inability of Commissioners to correctly identify whether a staffer's first name is actually that staffer's first name or last name, a refusal to compare an initial charter school application to a revised charter school application in order to understand what deficiencies were addressed, and an apparent lack of memory of the Board's recent reauthorization of a charter school in the bottom 5% of the state (wait, there are charter schools that perform WORSE than traditional public schools?  yes.  yes, there are. and, um, you voted for them.)

An actual real-life gold star should go to outgoing Commissioner Sara Lewis who has apparently been running a free, volunteer taxi service for carless parents who are told to report to the Gray's Creek facility for certain student services.  Commissioner Lewis noted that no public transportation is available to the office building, and that some parents just cannot easily get out there.  Hopefully, a solution will be forthcoming.

Shelby County School Board 2.0 will end this week after its last business meeting.  Shelby County School Board 3.0 will be back down to 7 members - well, six anyway - for the September meetings.  The old SCS and MCS board members are not the only ones who have been doing some posturing in the two years since Judge Mays brokered the 23-member School Board deal.  Often, the County Commission's 2011 appointees tried to cast themselves as the voices of reason, above the fray of the bickering of the entrenched legacy school boards.  Less than all of them are correct.  My take is that we're about to find out if they actually have picked up enough skills to govern:  to ask the tough questions, to take the tough stands, to stand up to the public, or the superintendent, or to the state as needed.  Too often, the folks who are keeping their seats have been happy to deflect, to distract, to roll their eyes, to step out of the room for important votes.  Once there are only seven (six) Commissioners left, it will be much more difficult to avoid more individualized public scrutiny. 

I, for one, am hopeful that the robust discussions and full airing of important issues to which we've become accustomed will continue.

Friday, August 16, 2013

State Board to Revoke Licenses of Effective Teachers

Tomorrow, the State Board of Ed will consider changes to the state's teacher licensing process.  This comes on the heels of their unfortunate decision to lower the already-low floor of this state's teacher salaries.

So what is this about?  The state wants us to believe that this is about increasing the qualifications of teachers entering the profession, but it still provides the same license to people who have graduated with an education degree as those with five weeks of training after a bachelor's degree in a field unrelated to what they will be teaching.  The PRAXIS scores required in Tennessee are already higher than those in Arkansas and Mississippi which, at least in our corner of the state, means that our teachers are often better-qualified - according to the almighty test - than those in surrounding districts.  Of course, the PRAXIS is not required for the teachers that helicopter in from Teach for America and some other "alternative pipelines", so while teachers from the education schools still have to meet minimum requirements, there is no such threshold for favored "stakeholders".

If we want to "raise the threshold" by "increasing the minimum score", we know how to do that - believe me, the state education department is particularly good at that particular trick.  But Commissioner Huffman is not willing to submit a proposal that raises the threshold for all teacher candidates, only the teacher candidates without lobbyists.

The real debate in this latest round of the Haslam administration's efforts to put teachers in their place is over whether a teacher's license should be linked to their students' performance.

Let's start with how other state-licensed professions govern themselves.  Turns out whether we're talking about doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, or nail technicians, the license issued by the state has to do with whether the candidate has met Tennessee's academic and practical requirements, and maintenance of the license has to do with obtaining continuing education credits.  Revocation of the license has to do only with disciplinary issues, not generally with everyday performance.  Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and nail techs don't have to show acceptable levels of performance, no one checks in on them, they mainly have to hope that none of their customers complains to their respective Boards.  Based on my quick review, most of the common reasons for discipline have to do with substance abuse or criminal convictions.

Certainly, I think that our children deserve better than the general public deserves from their doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and nail techs.  Our responsibility to them, vis a vis their education, should be much greater.  But let's be honest about how we treat the most well-respected professions - we give them a high level of autonomy in how they provide their services, we generally allow the professions to govern themselves, and once they meet the entry requirements, as long as they get their continuing ed credits, we pretty much leave them alone.  That's how we treat professionals.

So let's just dispense with casting this proposal as elevating the classroom education profession to the level of "real" professions.

This is about a very particular kind of micro-management by the state's Department of Education, and it actually does not have anything to do with teachers, or really even the kids.  It has to do with principals and school districts.  The Haslam administration does not actually believe that principals and school districts will hire the "right" people.  As much as Commissioner Huffman and the TNTPers tout the concept of "mutual consent", they don't actually believe in it.

Cast in the most favorable light, here's the scenario that the state wants to prevent:  a teacher realizes that their overall evaluation score will come in at a "2" or below, and resigns before they are terminated.  They then seek another job in another district and manage to get hired, because their license is valid anywhere in Tennessee, where they continue to teach at an under-performing level.  ADDITION:  the proposal requires that teachers achieve a 2 in two of the last three years in both evaluation and the value-added measure, prior to the year where the license is up for renewal.

Look, no one's arguing that ineffective teachers should manage to effectively stumble their way to their more and more Datsun-like retirement benefits on the backs of under-educated children. 

But beyond arguing that Tennessee school districts don't have the ability to correctly evaluate job candidates that apply for jobs - that they could be tricked, Tricked I tell you, by a smooth-talking classroom teacher - or that they don't have the ability to ask the teacher about his or her performance and/or challenges, or verify it by talking to the teacher's former principal or district officials, Commissioner Huffman must believe that principals and school districts are protecting their own ability to continue to employ ineffective teachers.  In order to protect them from their bad decisions, Commissioner Huffman's proposal is to prevent these incompetent?  untrustworthy?  bumpkin?  bribed?  related?  principals and school districts from being able to continue to employ teachers by preventing those teachers from even being eligible to teach.

So why am I so concerned about these teachers?  Let's review the teacher evaluation system.  Test scores (well, TVAAS) make up 35% of a teacher's overall score, with another 15% made up of another test metric (chosen from several options) - this was true in both legacy districts (MCS using its own system, SCS using the state system), and is true in the merged district.  Back when BCG was comparing these things for the Transition Planning Commission, the average MCS overall score was 2.7, and the average SCS overall score was 2.9.  Review BCG's analysis here. 

So the average overall score in both legacy districts was in the 2.0 to 2.9 range.  Below 3.  Not the same as a median, but notable, primarily because of the outsize number of Level 1 teachers (more than any other Level) in each legacy.

So let's quickly review teacher evaluation.  Let me just repeat to you what I have heard at least a dozen district-level administrators explain:  a Level 3 teacher is a rock solid teacher, who is doing exactly what they need to do to get one year of growth from their classroom.  In order to obtain a Level 4 or 5, the teacher must be getting more than one year's worth of growth.  This is most important for students who are not proficient in a subject, who must make more than one year's worth of growth to have any hope of ever catching up to where they are supposed to be.

So why would any teacher worth their salt (or our taxpayer dollars) possibly obtain less than a Level 2?  Well, they might, for instance, be one of the 60% (SIXTY PERCENT) of teachers in this state who don't teach a tested grade or subject.  If a non-tested teacher teaches at a school that is under-performing, then they get the school's under-performing score.  Let's say a teacher only gets a Level 4 for their evaluation (remembering that Level 3 is rock-solid, meeting expectations, doing what they are supposed to do), and their school is a Level 1 school - that teacher ends up below the required Level 3 to maintain their license.  Here's a more accurate scenario lifted from Andy Spears over at Tennessee Education Report:  "Math Teacher has overall performance evaluation scores of a 3 in all three of the years before his license is up for renewal.  However, his value-added scores are a 1-2-1.  So, he’s license is not renewed, he goes under review and could potentially lose his license.
     Band Teacher has performance evaluation scores of 2-2-1 in the three years leading up to renewal.  Band Teacher has no value-added data. Band teacher is automatically renewed under the streamlined licensure scheme.
     So, Math Teacher, whose overall scores were higher than Band Teacher’s, is in danger of dismissal.  Band Teacher is renewed.  Math Teacher (and other teachers similarly situated) complain and/or sue."

Let's say that teacher is only a rock-solid teacher who is exactly meeting pedagogical evaluation expectations and gets a rock-solid Level 3 - they better be teaching at a Level 2 school or better.  Why would they ever teach at a school doing worse than that if they had any choice in the matter?  You know, if they want to maintain their license?

Under this rubric, a Level 1 teacher terminated for ineffectiveness may not lose their license, but a Level 4 or Level 5 teacher per the evaluation could lose their license and their ability to teach in the state of Tennessee because of the school at which they teach.

This is the part where the Haslam administration will explain to you that they are trying to minimize the number of teachers who teach in untested subjects and grades by promoting the standardized testing of students in kindergarten, first, and second grades.  The test promoted by the state is the SAT-10.  How do you test students who can't read?  Why, you read the test to them.  Because you don't have enough teachers to individually read the tests to each student, you seek volunteers - volunteers who you hope won't let the inflection of their voice suggest answers.  After all, it worked for the ASD's schools, right?  When they had to recruit volunteers, in some instances from some of their philanthropic-funding organizations to "proctor" the exams to students who couldn't yet read?  Totally reliable - testing children who don't yet know how to fill in bubbles with recruited volunteer proctors with no education training.  Should be fine.

It is, of course, in the Haslam administration's interest to reduce the number of teachers whose scores rely on kids not currently in their classrooms.  A similar scheme in Florida - where teachers at K-2 schools were evaluated based on the scores of the 3-5 schools that their kids fed into - was invalidated when the state legislature passed a law that teachers could not be evaluated based on the scores of students that they didn't teach.

Why else should we be concerned about these teachers with low scores?  The Gates folks want us to believe that a great teacher will be great anywhere.  What the research shows is that for teachers who stay in the same school, "teachers who were ranked the highest on average produced the highest student achievement the following year".  This makes sense within a school - where kids are more or less from the same kind of neighborhoods year-over-year.  The researchers did not attempt to move teachers to different schools.  We know, intuitively, that's that a different question entirely.

It will take at least another post, maybe a book, to explain why I just don't buy that student test scores are an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness.  My conclusion is that student test scores are fundamentally unreliable indicators both of how well a teacher taught the material, or of how well a student learned the material - there are just too many other variables.  Those variables keep a teacher's overall evaluation scores, likewise, too variable.  Read here about a teacher's whose scores have fluctuated from a Level 5 to a Level 1and back.  While the state reassuringly tells us that the test scores are a snapshot, one measure of student achievement, I'm yelling plaintively "the test scores are only a snapshot, only one measure of student achievement!"

I'm also convinced that there are shenanigans in the teacher evaluation process, but that's also another post I haven't had time to write.  While the state is concerned about principals inaccurately judging their teachers too high, I'm concerned about principals using the evaluations to undermine teachers they don't like.  Ask many of the excessed teachers Level 3, 4, and 5 teachers of Shelby County whether they were fairly treated by their principals during that process, or whether less-good teachers were kept because the principals liked them better.  By trying to convince us that teaching can be accurately measured by purely objective methods ("objective methods" administered by humans observing other humans and making judgments about those humans), and trying to take subjectivity out of the equation, the state has created a situation where principals are incentivized to manipulate the objective measures to take their sometimes-very-valid, sometimes-much-less-valid subjective concerns into consideration.

These proposed changes are yet another solution without a problem.  I don't believe that there's a historical problem with poor teachers manipulating their way past hapless hiring officials and principals, hopscotching their ineffectiveness across the state by lying about their abilities. A teacher's performance is easily verified by previous employers.  Linking student performance to licensure will reduce the number of effective teachers eligible to teach (Level 3 and Level 4 teachers in untested subjects at Level 1 schools, for instance), particularly in under-performing schools, where the new policy will also contribute to the instability of more constant turnover, as teachers are incentivized to get out of those under-performing schools just as quickly as they can.

Another solution without a problem creating more problems.  Hard to say whether Commissioner Huffman likes the solutions to those problems - increasing non-traditional teacher pipelines - even more than this disingenuous solution which will absolutely have the effect of reducing the number of traditionally-trained effective, rock-solid, experienced teachers in hard-to-staff classrooms.

If you'd like to know more about the Tennessee Board of Ed, here's the link.  Our representative from Memphis (the 9th Congressional district, anyway) is Teresa Sloyan, the Executive Director of the Hyde Family Foundations. 

If you'd like to email them your views, you can just cut and paste this list:,,,,,,

The Third District representative does not have an email address listed, and there is no information about the student member of the Board.

[Author's note:  I've updated this article as of the evening of August 16 to better reflect the details of Commissioner Huffman's proposal.  I appreciate your patience.]