Arne Duncan

Memphis school improvement efforts in spotlight as Duncan finishes back-to-school tour

Efforts to improve historically low-scoring schools in Memphis were in the national spotlight Wednesday as U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan ended his back-to-school bus tour of southern states with a pep rally and town hall meeting at Cornerstone Prep, a charter school that’s part of the state-run Achievement School District.

Duncan said he chose to end his tour in Memphis in order to “look at the turnaround work that’s happening there and the overall improvement in schools.”

At the town hall at Cornerstone Prep, Duncan told a crowd, “I want you to understand the possibility here… If you can, for all the challenges of poverty and history—if Memphis can break through, what kind of message does that send to the country? I want people to seize the moment, seize the collaboration. Keep your eyes on the prize. If you stay the course, you’ll stun the world.”

After the meeting, Shelby County superintendent Dorsey Hopson II said he hoped some of the national attention being paid to education in Memphis would be echoed in town. “I can’t go anywhere without hearing about Memphis and education,” he said.

Duncan, Hopson, ASD superintendent Chris Barbic, principal Lionel Cable of  Shelby County school Douglass K-8, Cornerstone teacher Brittany Ordue, and Cornerstone parent Yolanda George participated in a question-and-answer session led by Reggie White, the director of Streets Ministries, a local nonprofit.

A student at Cornerstone Prep holds a sign as eventgoers move from the pep rally to an indoor town hall.
A student at Cornerstone Prep holds a sign as event-goers move from the pep rally to an indoor town hall.

Both Barbic and Hopson specifically emphasized collaborative efforts between the ASD and Shelby County Schools. They also raised concerns about finding and retaining enough teachers to work in low-performing schools and about scaling up successful efforts.

The districts were touting results from last school year’s state standardized test: While scores within each district were mixed, there are 4,500 fewer students in Memphis attending schools ranked in the bottom 5 percent in the state based on their test scores this year than in 2012. And while low-scoring schools’ scores had hovered around 16 percent proficient on state tests in 2012, they are now closer to 25 percent proficient. Tennessee also was rated the fastest-growing state in the country on the National Assessment of Educational Process last year.

Hopson said the district has been focusing on teacher effectiveness, early childhood education, and literacy. He also singled out “our relationship with Mr. Barbic and his team…as he likes to say, we’re in ‘co-opetition.’ When you bring people together where the agenda is what’s best for kids, you see the successes we’ll talk about today.”

Barbic echoed the sentiment. “There’s not a city I can think of when you can pack a room like this where you don’t have people lobbing bombs…charter and non-charter, we have to come together to get this done,” he said.

“We have one common enemy—academic failure. We all have to work together to eliminate failure,” Duncan said.

When asked what led to improvements in test scores at his school, Cable, the principal at Douglass K-8, a school in Shelby County’s Innovation Zone, pushed back against a common buzzword: “There’s no innovation there, just really rich, very strong teaching. If you introduce innovation—people put it out there but they don’t talk about sustainability,” he said. Innovation Zone schools received federal School Improvement Grant funds, longer school days, and more flexibility in hiring staff.

Education secretary Arne Duncan addresses the crowd outside Cornerstone.
Education Secretary Arne Duncan addresses the crowd outside Cornerstone, formerly Lester Elementary, in Binghamton.

“We’re supposed to race to the top. But sometimes it’s okay to come in last as long as we’re doing what’s right by the children,” Cable said. A 2011 Race to the Top grant—one of Duncan’s education department’s signature programs—funded the creation of the ASD. Several changes prompted by the grant, including tying teachers’ evaluations to test scores, have drawn the ire of the state’s teachers’ union and some district leaders.

Duncan said that while Race to the Top had been significant, his department had spent more on school turnaround programs such as the Innovation Zone schools. The federal School Improvement Grant program has had mixed results nationally; Duncan recently expanded the options for districts seeking to use federal dollars to turn around schools.

The panelists fielded questions about how to expand successful school turnarounds.

“That’s the million-dollar question,” Barbic said. “How do you take pockets of excellence and scale them?…That comes down to how Dorsey and I work together to be strategic with our resources.”

“What we’ve found, particularly in turnaround schools, is that the most important thing is to have a strong leader, a strong group of teachers who beieve all kids can learn,” Hopson said.

Cable said that in his experience, “it’s certainly not the money…The important thing is for principals to have the autonomy to make decisions in the best interest of kids. I think that can be duplicated, but the handcuffs have to come off.” He said he had used the extra funds his school received to hire quality teachers rather than on new technology.

Keith Williams, the president of the Memphis Shelby County Education Association, asked Barbic whether the ASD, which aims to turn around schools in the bottom 5 percent in the state, would always exist. Barbic said that while the legislation that created the district did not specify, he thought the ASD would be around until the bottom 5 percent was scoring well above where it was when the district was created.

Duncan said that he was concerned that most districts were not sending their best teachers to the neediest schools. Barbic pointed out that Shelby County’s I-Zone schools only hire teachers who have earned high scores on evaluations. “But the question is then how do you backfill to other schools?” Board members and administrators in the district have echoed this concern.

A former teachers raises a sign contesting some of Duncan's favored policies.
A former teacher raises a sign contesting some of Duncan’s favored policies.

He said that districts and schools need to figure out “how to make sure teaching doesn’t feel like a two-three year thing on the way to something else. How can teachers feel like they can grow?”

The panelists were near-unanimous on the last question: When White asked what gave them hope for the city’s future, each said the city’s students inspired them.

“I moved to Memphis thinking I’d change lots of lives every year. But really, my life has been drastically changed,” said Ordue.


The right stuff

Who will be Tennessee’s next education chief? Gov.-elect Bill Lee is getting lots of advice

As outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam looks on, Gov.-elect Bill Lee speaks at the state Capitol the day after being elected the 50th governor of Tennessee. His 75-day transition will end with his inauguration on Jan. 19.

The changing of the guard that’s coming to the Tennessee governor’s office will now definitely come also to the department overseeing state education policy.

Candice McQueen took herself out of the running to continue as education commissioner with last week’s announcement that she’ll transition in January to a new job as CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching.

While it was unlikely she would have stayed on permanently given the challenges with testing during her four-year tenure, McQueen’s planned departure cleans the slate for Gov.-elect Bill Lee to start fresh in finding the right fit to lead his vision for Tennessee schools.

The Republican businessman faces lots of choices in making one of the most important picks of his 23-member cabinet: Homegrown talent or a national search? Classroom teaching experience or workforce expertise? A quick hire or an extended search?

And he’s been getting a lot of advice.

From advocacy and philanthropic groups to the higher education and business communities, Tennessee has a large number of partners and stakeholders who care deeply about continuing the state’s momentum to improve student achievement.

“We believe that decisions made around talent and who is going to be working on education — either in the governor’s office or state Department of Education — are some of the most important decisions that the next governor will make,” said David Mansouri, president of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE, a nonprofit group that works closely with the education department.

“We’re looking for someone who’s going to hold the line on the school accountability framework that the state has worked so hard to build,” said Gini Pupo-Walker, a leader with Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville. “We want to keep up the urgency around improving performance of different student groups and making sure that we are bringing up all kids.”

Transition period

Since winning the election on Nov. 6, Lee has huddled with a small team of advisers in a windowless office at the state Capitol to plan the transition to a new administration, including sorting through about 600 resumes submitted for various jobs in all departments.

Transition spokeswoman Laine Arnold said the plan is to have the full cabinet in place by Lee’s Jan. 19 inauguration. But, she added, “we will be open to extending this process if needed.”

Lee’s pick for schools chief is considered key — and not just because the governor-elect made education a priority on the campaign trail, including a frequent call for stronger career and technical education.

The new commissioner eventually will manage a department of more than 600 employees overseeing a public school system for about a million students, 78,000 certified educators, and $6 billion in school funding.

And because Congress voted to cede much control over K-12 policy to state officials under a 2015 federal law, the commissioner plays an even larger role than in decades past.

Homegrown vs. national

Because of the high stakes, groups like SCORE are urging Lee to cast a wide net in his search for a successor to McQueen.

“We should aspire to have best-in-class and best-in-the-nation talent, just like we’ve had the last 10 years,” said Mansouri. “That may mean the person is from Tennessee, or from somewhere else.”

Education Commissioner Candice McQueen was one of Gov. Bill Haslam’s most visible cabinet members.

Other groups emphasize the value of being familiar with Tennessee schools.

“As an organization comprised of school district leaders, we believe it would be an advantage for a state commissioner of education to have experience both in the classroom and as a public school system leader in Tennessee,” said Dale Lynch, executive director of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents.

Adds Beth Brown, president of the Tennessee Education Association: “The next commissioner should have a practical understanding of what goes on in our public schools. Having that kind of leader in place will go a long way to restoring teachers’ confidence in our Department of Education.”

Last handoff

When Republican Bill Haslam took the baton from Democrat Phil Bredesen in 2011 in the last gubernatorial handoff, he conducted a national search before plucking Kevin Huffman from the ranks of the education reform movement as his point person on schools.

A lawyer who was an executive with Teach For America in Washington, D.C., Huffman was tasked with managing Tennessee’s just-approved overhaul of K-12 schools as part of its $500 million federal Race to the Top award. The Obama-era competition had incentivized states to adopt shared academic standards, improve its lowest-performing schools, measure students’ growth over time, and design policies to reward and retain top teachers.

State education commissioner Kevin Huffman.
Kevin Huffman was Tennessee’s education commissioner from 2011 to 2014.

A polarizing leader, Huffman left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, district leaders, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and Common Core.

Haslam then turned to McQueen, a native of Clarksville, Tenn., former teacher, and respected dean of education at Nashville’s Lipscomb University.

“She was a kinder, gentler Kevin Huffman,” said Dan Lawson, long-time school superintendent in Tullahoma. “They shared the same political agenda and underpinning, but Candice was able to deliver it in a smoother, less abrasive fashion.”

McQueen held the rudder steady on the state’s new roadmap, plus bolstered supports for teachers, tweaked school turnaround strategies, and launched a major reading initiative. But ongoing fumbles delivering a state test took their toll.

Interim or not

The complexities of education policy, including Tennessee’s pioneering changes over the last decade, are why SCORE leaders hope that Lee doesn’t rush to make a hire.

“We think that having a thoughtful approach that looks for the best in the nation is the right one,” said Mansouri. “If that takes time, that’s OK. It’s about getting the right person.”

There’s precedent here.

Before Haslam hired Huffman several months after taking office, he leaned on acting commissioner Patrick Smith, who had led the state’s Race to the Top oversight team under Bredesen.

Other groups agree that a thorough search is in order.

“My sense is that the Lee administration will look for top talent and let quality drive their hiring decisions. But having some ties to Tennessee will be a huge bonus,” said Shaka Miller, state director of the American Federation for Children, a group that Lee has supported and that backs a “school choice” agenda, including charter schools and voucher-like programs.

Qualities and qualifications

On the campaign trail, Lee pledged to hire the most talented and qualified people for his administration.

Arnold adds: “He’s looking for those who share his vision in making Tennessee a national leader, while also ensuring geographic and individual diversity.”

While she declined to discuss names, Lee has sought advice from two superintendents from West Tennessee — Dorsey Hopson in Shelby County and Marlon King in Fayette County — both of whom were on a 72-person campaign list of Tennesseans who supported or advised him on education.

Dorsey Hopson is superintendent of Shelby County Schools, Tennessee’s largest district.

Hopson’s backing of the millionaire Republican candidate from affluent suburban Williamson County raised eyebrows — and some fury — among his mostly urban Democratic district in Memphis, which has the state’s highest share of impoverished students.

Hopson told Chalkbeat at the time that he was “not angling for a job,” but rather that he and Lee had developed a mutual respect while getting to know each during the last year and a half.

“We routinely discussed faith, family, government, and education issues,” said Hopson, a lawyer who has headed Tennessee’s largest district since 2013. “I appreciated the thoughtful and humble way that he sought my input.”

Asked last week about Hopson, Lee told Memphis TV station Local 24 News that he hadn’t spoken with the superintendent specifically about his administration but added: “He has a role. We talk. We’ve become friends. I have a great deal of respect for his expertise.”

Hopson would have to take a pay cut, however, if Lee offered and he accepted the commissioner’s job. As superintendent, he makes $285,000 a year. The salary for the state’s education chief is $200,000.

Follow the ratings

Illinois education officials laud their school ratings — but critics say they don’t go far enough

Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State education officials publicly lauded their new school rating system Friday, even as a new, nationwide analysis of school improvement plans criticized Illinois’ approach as too hands-off.  

While the state developed a clear rating system as the federal government requires, Illinois falls short in follow-through, according to the report from the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit advocacy group, and HCM Strategies, a policy analysis group.  

“The state is taking too limited a role in leading or supporting school improvement efforts,” said the report, which examined how 17 states are implementing school improvement plans under the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, which was passed in 2015 and replaced the No Child Left Behind Act.

Both those federal laws task states with identifying and helping improve underperforming schools and with creating criteria to judge which schools are doing well. Illinois rolled out its new school accountability system in the Illinois Report Card late last month.

State officials disagree with the criticism.

“Illinois is being held up as a model for other states to follow,” said Ralph Grimm, chief education officer of Illinois, speaking at the monthly state board of education meeting on Friday. “The entire (state) team has to be commended for providing useful information.”

Illinois’ rating system places every public school in the state into one of four categories based in part on scores on the annual PARCC standardized tests (click here to see how Chicago schools ranked).

Only about a third of Illinois students scored proficient or higher on PARCC tests administered last spring. In reading, 37 percent of students in grades 3 through 8 met that benchmark, while in math 31 percent did. Despite that, the state awarded 80 percent of its schools a “commendable” or “exemplary” rating. 

The state labeled 20 percent of schools “underperforming” or “low performing,” the only designations that could trigger state action. Intervention measures include improvement plans, visits from specialists, and additional funding.

The state released its ratings just days after Chicago released its own batch of school ratings, which take into account a different set of metrics and a different standardized test.

Grimm said the next step will be asking the state’s lowest-performing schools to draft improvement plans and then connecting them with experts to implement their changes.

The state ratings pay particular attention to how schools educate certain groups of students — such as children of color and English language learners. Improvement plans will focus on ways to raise their achievement levels.

Under the latest state rankings, nearly half of Chicago schools failed to meet the state’s threshold for performance, with a disproportionate number of high schools on the low-performance list. Nearly all of under- and low-performing Chicago high schools are on the South Side and sit in or border on the city’s poorest census tracts.

The state could grant underperforming schools $15,000, and  the lowest performers can apply for $100,000 under its IL-Empower program — which helped schools improve by funneling federal funds to them. Advocates have welcomed the change to a carrot to help schools pull themselves up, after years of sticks that overhauled and cut funding for low-performing schools.

Nationally, the Collaborative for Student Success report applauded Colorado for its streamlined application system, and Nevada for asking districts to directly address equity.

The collaborative criticized Illinois for failing to involve parents and community members in its plan. The group also said the state needs to give districts more guidance on putting together school improvement plans.