Second year

Her honeymoon over as Tennessee ed chief, McQueen enters second year under the cloud of TNReady and with a mission to combat illiteracy

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Education Commissioner Candice McQueen congratulates a student at Springdale Memphis Magnet School during a September visit to acknowledge the school's improved academic scores.

As Candice McQueen marked her first anniversary as Tennessee’s education commissioner in January, teachers and policymakers alike praised her ability to gracefully navigate the state’s fractious education community.

And then, the computers crashed.

Just as the state’s long-awaited TNReady test was being rolled out, a major network outage halted the state’s transition to online testing on its first day on Feb. 8. The debacle smelled of incompetence at top levels and has threatened McQueen’s sterling reputation as the right leader to fortify Tennessee’s public education system following five years of unprecedented change.

Teachers, parents and students are furious that, after considerable local investment of money and time preparing for the online assessment, the state did not hold up its part of the deal — to develop a functional test. The fury is compounded by a general perception that the State Department of Education focuses too much on tests anyway.

Even so, frustrated educators are quick to laud McQueen’s quick response after realizing that TNReady’s technical problems went beyond isolated glitches.

“There was a decisive letter written about here’s what we were going to do,” said Sue Kessler, principal of Hunters Lane High School in Nashville. “It wasn’t, ‘We’ll get back to you in two weeks.’ It was ‘No, I see how this didn’t work, and we’re not going to just do something that’s not working because that’s what we wanted to do.’”

While students and teachers have been significantly impacted by the TNReady failure, Kessler gives McQueen high marks for managing the crisis.

“Too often when there’s a problem, everyone wants to spend time putting spin on it and, with her, I feel like it isn’t about spin; it’s about communicating,” Kessler said.

Candice McQueen by TN.gov
PHOTO: TN.gov

Communication has been a hallmark of McQueen’s first year as commissioner — not just top-down communication but creating an environment where educators’ concerns are heard and considered.

That is antithesis of the perception of McQueen’s predecessor, Kevin Huffman, who resigned at the end of 2014 after implementing sweeping changes during his four-year tenure highlighted by Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, particularly those related to teacher evaluations that now are tied to student performance. To implement such changes, Huffman, a lawyer and former Teach For America executive originally from Ohio, faced the steady ire of teachers who complained that he was antagonistic in his dealings with educators and out of touch with Tennessee schools.

Enter McQueen, then 40, a former classroom teacher from Clarksville, Tenn., who spent most of her career training teachers at Lipscomb University’s College of Education in Nashville. While attempting to hold the line on changes ushered in by Huffman, McQueen began her tenure in January of 2015 by announcing her plan to visit every school district in Tennessee. She has steadily done just that, while also convening teacher-dominated task forces and advisory groups, and initiating personal conversations with stakeholders from students to superintendents.

Despite TNReady travails, hiccups over student test scores, the state’s generally stagnant reading levels and her commitment to controversial policies, McQueen has emerged as a shining star for stabilization to Huffman’s lightning rod for change.

"I don't always agree with her, but I absolutely love her."J.C. Bowman, Professional Educators of Tennessee

“I don’t always agree with her, but I absolutely love her,” says J.C. Bowman, who heads the Professional Educators of Tennessee.

Brandi Stroeker, a teacher in Memphis for 10 years, agrees. She says the work of state education leaders typically feels remote to the work she does in her classroom, but not McQueen. “Since she’s been in office, our voice is heard more,” said Stroeker, a teacher at Maxine Smith STEAM Academy, where McQueen visited last year. “Now (the department) is reaching out to us, asking us, ‘What do you need?’”

Speaking in January to education students at Lipscomb University, McQueen said building relationships has been the primary focus of her first year. She acknowledged that fast-moving changes to state education policy in the last decade have sometimes bred confusion and even contempt from educators, politicians and parents. And she enumerated some of those shifts: new standards (twice), changes in tenure, changes in teacher evaluations, the expansion of charter schools, and creation of a state-run district aimed at turning around chronically underperforming schools.

“The intensity of change in Tennessee was being felt when I entered office,” McQueen recalls. “I wanted to see how implementation was happening, and what was happening on the ground.”

During her Classroom Chronicles tour, McQueen has heard repeated concerns about new state policies, especially related to testing. Such visits have been welcomed by educators, even when they wish McQueen would loosen her stance on including student test scores in teacher evaluations.

“She’s going across the state; she sees what’s actually happening,” Kessler said. “I think if I were to call her today, … she’s probably outside in some schools talking to some kids. That speaks volumes to me.”

Concerned about complaints of over-testing, McQueen created a task force last March to study the issue. Comprised of teachers, principals, researchers, elected officials and a high school student, the group recommended working with districts to limit standardized tests throughout the year and publicly releasing past standardized test questions in order to increase testing transparency. Nearly all of the panel’s recommendations are in the process of being implemented, either through the governor’s proposed budget or bills winding through the state legislature.

Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative for Reforming Education, said the task force set the tone for McQueen’s leadership style. “She brought together not just a departmental team but, from students to teachers to partners in the work, those who she knew would have valuable perspective,” Woodson said.

McQueen also learned from communication missteps, like when the State Department of Education failed last summer to communicate a change in how students’ scores on end-of-year tests were calculated. She has tried to increase communication to districts and principals and in January launched “McQueen Minutes,” brief video updates on the department’s work.

Her greatest communication tool, she said, has been the development of a five-year strategic plan outlining the department’s priorities for Tennessee’s schools, including district empowerment, postsecondary achievement, limiting achievement gaps and literacy. The plan was influenced by feedback during her “listening tour” and from superintendents across Tennessee.

“I knew immediately, when you think about the length of Tennessee and the number of districts we have, you have to create something that brings them together and aligns them around the same work,” McQueen said.

Kingsport City School Superintendent Lyle Ailshie says the strategic plan has set McQueen apart from any other commissioner he’s worked with.

“I remember clearly when she spoke to (the state’s superintendents) the first time as an entire group, and she laid out her five priority areas and how ‘all means all,’ and what we need to reach into our classrooms,” he said. “She really asked for feedback and took the time to say, ‘Hey, send me suggestions, not only today, but any time.’”

McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam listen during a meeting of the governor's teachers cabinet.
McQueen and Gov. Bill Haslam listen during a meeting of the governor’s Teachers Cabinet.

READ OUR CHALK TALK Q&A WITH MCQUEEN AS SHE BEGAN HER JOB IN JANUARY 2015.


If McQueen’s focus on listening is what defined her first year, her focus on literacy is likely to define her second. This week, Gov. Bill Haslam, who appointed McQueen, will launch the state’s expansive $9 million literacy initiative that addresses a broad swath of Tennessee students, from infants to adults. McQueen has called Tennessee’s stagnant reading scores “a true ethical and moral dilemma.”

Improving the reading skills of Tennessee students is one of McQueen’s top priorities for 2016. Others include the transition to the state’s TNReady test and supporting teachers during the rollout of revised math and English standards. She’ll also keep a close eye on what’s going on in schools by dispatching the department’s senior leadership team to shadow high school students.

“We will improve student outcomes. … We will get more students to college,” she said. “We will continue to improve in our national rankings on the National Report Card, based on the improvements I know we will make on closing achievement gaps, and increasing growth for those who are farthest behind, particularly in the area of reading.”

“Why do I know we will do this? Because I’ve been around the state,” she told the Lipscomb students. “I’ve been in your classrooms, and I’ve been in your schools, and I’ve been in your communities.”

 

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to cburke@chalkbeat.org

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.

Man Up

With Man Up, a new Memphis teacher prep program is training, mentoring men of color

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Founder Patrick Washington discusses his program Man Up with current Relay Graduate School of Education participants. The program aims to partner with Relay to train more male teachers of color.

Patrick Washington has teaching in his blood.  

Washington’s great-great-grandfather, Richard Adkins, was born a slave in Marshall County, Mississippi. After the Civil War, Adkins, who was separated from his parents early on, worked as a sharecropper. Despite long hours picking cotton, he learned to read and write.

Soon after, Adkins taught other former slaves to do the same. He did so just years after anti-literacy laws, which forbade the education of slaves, were abolished. And he did so, Washington believes, because he imagined a better life for his children and grandchildren.

“He saw me,” Washington, a Memphis-based teacher and school administrator, said.

For Washington, 43, teaching is “the best profession on this side of heaven,” and it’s all he ever wanted to do. But he wishes more men of color saw the promise of a career in education. That’s why he’s partnering with Relay Graduate School of Education and Blue Mountain College on a new Memphis-based teacher preparation program called Man Up.

The goal: Train more men of color from various walks of life to become teachers in Memphis, and provide them with mentorship along the way.

According to a 2016 study by the U.S. Department of Education, black males make up just two percent of the teaching workforce nationwide. Statewide, that number is nearly the same, and in Shelby County Schools, men of color make up about 9.5 percent of teachers.

That lack of classroom representation, Washington believes, is often internalized by male students of color.

“That’s why they raise their hand and say, ‘Hey, I want to play basketball; I want to be a rapper; I want to be a policeman,’” Washington said. “Because that’s what they see.”

He said some are also dissuaded because they perceive teaching as a low-paid, low-status career.

Two years into his first teaching job at Memphis’ Evans Elementary, Washington was the school’s only teacher of color. And, over the next ten years, as Washington took on administrative roles at two other area schools, he noticed a pattern: There were few black male teachers, if there were any at all.

Those experiences, he said, were socially isolating. He also said that at schools that disproportionately discipline black male students, male teachers of color often find themselves in the role of disciplinarian. He said that here in Memphis, single mothers of boys have come to him, seeking behavioral support because they see him as a “father figure.”

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
Man Up currently has seven cohort members for its Graduate Lane, and is seeking three more applicants.

Were schools to employ more teachers of color, they would be less likely to enact the kind of zero-tolerance disciplinary policies that have often fallen on Washington to enforce, he said. A study from the Center for Education Data & Research seems to support that theory; it found that students were 46 percent more likely to be seen as disruptive by a teacher of another race.

Man Up seeks to help diversify the teaching force by providing accepted applicants with a fully funded teacher preparation program, thanks to grants and philanthropic dollars. In exchange for free training, participants agree to spend at least five years teaching. In addition to their salaries, they receive annual $5,000 stipends.

The program, he said, will eventually have five different tracks to help men of color obtain teaching licenses. Those so-called “lanes” are:  

The Graduate Lane: For recent college graduates, this program enables trainees, studying towards their master’s degree in education, to teach alongside a mentor teacher over a two-year period.

The Undergraduate Lane: Man Up is currently exploring a partnership with the University of Memphis, where the program would identify aspiring teachers among undergraduate students and provide them tuition assistance to complete their licensing requirements, alongside their degrees.

The High School Lane: This track would identify high school juniors and seniors with an interest in becoming teachers. It will pair them with non-profit organizations like the Boys and Girls Clubs of America, with the goal of helping them develop mentoring skills. They would also attend monthly seminars, similar to introductory education courses, and they would get hands-on practice in the classroom. After enrolling in a partnering college or university, students would move up to the Undergraduate Lane and graduate with up to six years of classroom experience.

The Teach 2nd Lane: This track would be for career changers — specifically retired servicemen or businessmen. They would attend a five-week boot camp, enroll in a partnering college or university, and take part in monthly Man Up sessions while gaining classroom teaching experience over the course of two school years.

The REVERSE Lane: In an effort to reverse the school-to-prison pipeline, Man Up hopes to partner with local Departments of Correction to identify men with expungeable misdemeanor offenses who aspire to teach. These students would enroll at a partnering college or university, where they would be required to attend monthly Man Up sessions, teaching labs, and a summer intensive course before receiving a teaching license.

The only track currently on offer is the Graduate Lane, which currently has three open slots for its ten-member cohort. So far, seven recent college graduates have begun summer training sessions at Freedom Preparatory Academy in Memphis, where they will work with Washington and Relay staff to complete a two-year curriculum.

PHOTO: Rebecca Griesbach
David Tillman, right, is a current Man Up participant.

Washington said he intends to expand graduate cohorts by five each year, reaching his goal of training 30 new male teachers of color annually by 2023. By the fall of 2019, Washington plans to roll out the next four tracks in concert with nearby colleges.

David Tillman, who recently graduated with a degree in exercise science  from the University of Memphis, is among the current graduate cohort. He first heard about Man-Up after asking about a teaching position at Promise Academy, a local charter school that was founded by Washington.

Tillman, whose mother is a retired teacher, said he was drawn to teaching because “I understood the struggles of the students, especially students of color in the school systems, and I wanted to find a way to give back.” He remembered how one of his middle school teachers, a black man, saw that a young Tillman had potential but was “hanging out with the wrong crowd.” The teacher, who was also Tillman’s football coach, used to remind Tillman that he was a leader.  

“He actually believed in me,” he said. “He spent a lot of one-on-one time with me, and that meant a lot to me, because I grew up without a father. So, he was that male, father-figure role model for me.”

Tilllman now wants to be that kind of mentor to Memphis students.

“Boys can see that, yes, it is ‘cool’ to be a teacher,” he said.

Alongside their graduate coursework from Relay, Tillman and his fellow trainees will spend two years co-teaching small groups of students and will meet monthly with Washington, who will provide supplementary training in areas such as reflection and feedback, results-driven teaching, and empathy and compassion.

Current Man Up participants are expected to mentor students or color, to identify practices to improve black male academic success, and to develop lessons for special needs learners.

While completing their training, Man Up graduates will be paired with a mentor, who is a male educator of color, which will continue as they begin full-time teaching. 

“With two percent of the classroom population,” Washington said, referring to the percentage of black male educators, “we have a collective responsibility to each other, we have a collective responsibility to our country, we have a collective responsibility to our communities, and we have a collective responsibility to our kids. This is something that we must do.”