Beauty in Broken Places

CBS news reported that Memphis has one of the worst unemployment rates for any major American city. The 2015 report also points out Memphis has a shrinking tax base, urban blight and a high violent crime rate, which has created the economic problems in Memphis. CBS listed Memphis as the fourth poorest city in America. This is not the recognition Tennessee wants for our communities and municipalities.
 
However, rather than simply focusing on the negative we have to look for the talents, skills, ideas, and creativity of our citizens in places of such despair. It is there in Memphis in abundance, just as it is found across our entire state. We just do not hear about the ingenuity or success of our entrepreneurial spirt or see it highlighted like we should. In the state where the greatest civil rights warrior in American history, Martin Luther King Jr., was murdered for his beliefs, we should never surrender to despair.
 
Make no mistake, our educators face unbelievable challenges across the state, especially with low-social economic students. We take all students. This includes students who have a lack of preparation, limited vocabulary, poor nutrition, lack of medical care, high mobility, dysfunctional families, lack of English, and lack of enrichment. This does not even factor in mental, physical and health challenges. That is not an excuse, nor should we accept diminished expectations because of race or economic conditions. The idiom “soft bigotry of low expectations” is still alive and well in some circles, but we must reject it once and for all. As Danielle Belton, Editor-in-Chief of The Root said, “If you go into the game expecting to lose, you are most certain to find failure.”
 
In Memphis, there is hope being realized in the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone (iZone). In Chattanooga, Hamilton County is launching a similar vehicle to address the challenge of chronically under-performing schools. Leaders are working together to design different schedules, as well as oversight models, implementing creative content coaching, and empowering their principals with autonomy to be creative. They are hiring new teachers in hard to staff schools with better compensation. We are meeting children where they are.
 
In Memphis, the results are somewhat promising, in comparison to the state’s own Achievement School District. Test scores in the Shelby County Schools Innovation Zone have increased faster than other school improvement efforts. Some of the chronically under-performing schools have now moved off of the state’s Priority list. The model can be replicated, with the right leadership and support. We must enhance and sustain student engagement and transform school culture. They are finding beauty in broken places in Memphis.
 
Test scores are not the most important measure in our schools. It is the intangible factor of the human will to succeed despite obstacles. As Hanna Skandera, former Commissioner of Education of New Mexico wrote: “we cannot ignore the need for our system to be agile and adaptable, and proactively develop new ways to prepare the next generation in an ever-changing world.” This means that as educators we must build a system that gives students the educational foundation to succeed, despite whatever dire circumstances our students may come out of personally. Martin Luther King Jr reminded us, “Change does not roll in on the wheels of inevitability, but comes through continuous struggle.” Let’s strive to educate all of our kids to their highest potential, no matter where they live.

JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited.

Thoughts on Testing

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In April, 2018, Professional Educators of Tennessee raised the issue on Testing, with a hard-hitting editorial called the Trouble with Testing. Now the Superintendents of two low performing districts, Shelby County and Metro-Nashville Public Schools are eliciting media attention by challenging testing across the state. Welcome to the club.

Testing has taken a wrong turn in public education. I have always tried to keep it simple: testing is like your school picture; it is what you look like on that particular day. Kids go in to take a test. Teachers show up to make sure kids are taking their own test. Parents encourage their children to do their best. However, like Ozzie & Harriet, Leave it to Beaver, and the Lone Ranger, those days are gone.

With an infusion of $501 million federal dollars of Race to the Top money we hurried to increase standards by adopting Common Core, which was soon corrected by moving back to state standards. We then increased testing, changing both format and frequency. Tennessee also adopted new evaluation methods. The teachers’ union supported the incorporation of TVAAS data into the state’s teacher evaluations, which landed Tennessee $501 million from the federal Race to the Top grant in 2010. Professional Educators of Tennessee did NOT support the use of that data on teacher evaluations, nor did they sign a support letter on the original grant submission.

Not everything Tennessee tried was damaging, but it is not debatable that, thus far, the Age of Accountability has failed students, teachers, parents and taxpayers. Since 2012, Tennessee has had one misstep after another in testing. In 2013, our tests were not aligned to our standards. In 2014, the issue was transparency, notably quick scores and test score waivers for final semester grades were the major issue. In 2015, the new TNReady online tests had issues in the post equating formula. In 2016, we fired the vendor, Measurement, Inc. because after the online platform was botched, they were unable to get out a paper version of the test. In 2017, we were again plagued by issues due to scoring discrepancies. This year 2018, had issues related to testing, including the belief by the testing vendor, Questar, that the Questar data center was under attack from an external source, although it is never thought that any student data was compromised.

At no point since 2012 were any of the testing issues the fault of students or educators. However, for educators, they are often the ones who bear the brunt, quite unfairly, of parental anger. Students also suffer, with everything from loss of instruction time to not understanding their educational progress. When we make education decisions on the basis of unreliable or invalid test results, we place students at risk and harm educators professionally. This is especially unfair to the hardworking teachers in our state. To policymakers and stakeholders alike we must ask these questions:

  • Why are we relying so heavily on test scores to make important educational decisions about students, teachers or schools, especially when the process is flawed? For example, when officials thought the Questar data center was under attack from an external source, there should have been no greater priority by the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation to identify and prosecute those individuals guilty of this activity and confirm that no student data was compromised. Fortunately, there was no attack.

  • Should we question the reliability, validity, and accuracy of testing in Tennessee since 2013? Especially when shifting between online to paper tests? Note: Reliability relates to the accuracy of their data. Reliability problems in education often arise when researchers overstate the importance of data drawn from too small or too restricted a sample. Validity refers to the essential truthfulness of a piece of data. By asserting validity, do the data actually measure or reflect what is claimed?

In Tennessee we appreciate straight talk and candor. We unquestionably detest hypocrisy. We understand mistakes are made by individuals, by companies and even by our government. We are not pointing fingers, just stating a fact. Clearly there is a problem with testing in Tennessee. It isn’t our students or our educators. It is a flawed testing system.

Shawn Joseph and Dorsey Hopkins timed the announcement of their joint press release well. A sitting group of mostly outgoing legislators were at the Capitol at the time to discuss education. It is also political season. Their joint letter will momentarily take the attention away from their own issues. However, we welcome the discussion. Unfortunately, simply offering the much-ballyhooed solution of another “blue ribbon” panel to discuss the testing issue is a mere diversion. For teachers, thank Race to the Top which was supported by the previous Superintendents of Shelby County and Metro-Nashville Public Schools and the teachers’ union. I wish both men had offered a solution. We will help you out- Eliminate TVAAS data from teacher evaluations. That would an enormous leap forward.

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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. For more information on this subject or any education issue please contact Professional Educators of Tennessee.