Tuesday, June 28, 2016

What We Learned – and Where We Can Improve – on Testing in Tennessee

The following blog was written by Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candice McQueen on June 7th and has been edited for length. I appreciate her candor and her effort to communicate with interested stakeholders. If you would like to read the full version, you can find it on Classroom Chronicles at http://tnclassroomchronicles.org/learned-can-improve-testing-tennessee/ Below is a selfie that I took with Dr. McQueen at a recent Hope Street Group convening.

Today’s blog kicks off a summer series through which I want to share some of my thoughts on assessment. In my conversations with more than 10,000 teachers and parents over the past year and a half, and through the various letters and emails I’ve received, testing has been the issue about which I’ve received the most feedback – and understandably so.
There are very few people who would argue that no statewide check on student knowledge, skills, and standards attainment is the best direction for Tennessee. On the other hand, there are few people who believe the current assessment program in Tennessee is exactly right. Most of us are somewhere in the middle and are looking to continuously improve our testing program while not “throwing out the baby with the bath water.”
I am one of these individuals. I pledge to both create better tests aligned to Tennessee’s rigorous standards while also looking for opportunities to improve test structure, time, delivery, logistics, and scheduling. I ask that you engage with me in this conversation knowing that we are partners in this work.
As I’ve considered where we are and what we can do to move forward productively, I asked three questions. First, what is the goal of a new and improved test? It is meant to better show students’ ability and progress on both the breadth and depth of the content. This year’s test included questions that pointed to students’ ability to problem solve, think critically, write, and read more deeply.
Second, what did we accomplish this year in the midst of delivery challenges? This year, we were unable to fully provide TNReady in the way we expected: online for all third through 11th graders.  But we accomplished a great deal...new and better test questions, navigating challenges related to online testing, learning how to better structure the testing experience, and re-discovering that our best way to continually improve is to listen – to our students, our educators, our parents, and our administrators.
Finally, how will we recover and what will next year look like? Our goals remain the same: ensure we have an assessment that better tests the reality of students’ content knowledge and skills, maximize instructional time, and deliver the tests as thoughtfully as possible as we move more online.
To this end, the department has already announced some changes – including reducing overall testing time. Furthermore, we are committed to phasing in online testing in a smart and reliable fashion that puts students first. Students deserve to be able to show what they know in a way that is as seamless and non-stressful as possible, and then to know how they are doing in their big-picture progress toward college and workforce readiness. Students also deserve the best instruction and rich learning experiences, rather than learning how to game questions on a test. This is what TNReady was always about and this is what we commit to achieving.

Tuesday, June 21, 2016

All Means All

If you have a child enrolled in public schools, then he or she is in Response to Instruction and Intervention, or RTI2, whether you realize it or not. The Tennessee State Board of Education adopted RTI2 in 2013 and mandated that districts begin implementing it in 2014 through a phase-in process that is just now reaching high schools across the state.
What, exactly, is RTI2? Basically, all students are divided into three groups: the majority of students who are at or near grade level in math, reading, or Language Arts are in Tier 1, students who are considered to be in the bottom 25th percentile in either of those subjects are in Tier 2, and students in the bottom 10th percentile are in Tier 3. In general, 10-15% of students will qualify for Tier 2 intervention and 3-5% of students will qualify for Tier 3 intervention. Students in Tier 2 or Tier 3 intervention will receive further instruction in addition to what they receive in the regular education classroom. The idea behind this program is to keep students from slipping through the cracks when it has been determined that they are lacking mandatory skills, such as reading comprehension or solving word problems in math.
While the intentions of RTI2 are great, this mandated program came with guidelines on how to implement it and no additional funding. As you might expect, educators have mixed feelings about RTI. Essentially, schools are now asked to do more of what they’re already doing anyway--help students. At the same time, RTI2 also stretches educational resources that are already pretty thin.
Hope Street Group Teacher Fellows worked with the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) to survey and conduct focus groups with teachers across the state about what’s working with RTI2 and what’s not. Most teachers use a blend of purchased and currently existing classroom resources and most are in favor of the program and have seen students improve, which, of course, is the ultimate goal. With that said, there are some specific areas of RTI2 that need to be improved.
Teachers expressed their collective voice, and the results of the survey and focus groups indicate that TDOE should consider providing schools with additional support in four key areas: scheduling and structure, improving school attitudes toward RTI2, communication around RTI2, and resources and staffing. Because some teachers believe they do not have enough resources and staffing, TDOE should consider providing additional funding to support implementation, and they should provide additional training to teachers on how to successfully implement this program. Teachers want this training to include explicit information on where they can find resources so they can best help their students.
The good news is that additional training is on the way. I just completed training from TDOE on instructional strategies for teachers--especially for those who teach students in Tier 2 or Tier 3. Twenty-nine teachers from around the state and myself will train approximately 1,200 RTI2 teachers the week of June 27th. RTI2 classes are purposely smaller, averaging around 10-15 students. This means that roughly 18,000 Tier 2 and Tier 3 students will benefit from this training, with even more Tier 1 students who will benefit.
Our society generally appreciates and respects educators for the hard work that we accomplish every day without really knowing what that hard work entails. Effective teaching involves much more than creating solid lessons and executing them. Students who are lacking specific skills must be identified and remediation must occur so they do not remain perpetually behind their peers and so that they can eventually graduate and be productive members of society. Many people are unaware that RTI2 exists and how difficult it is to help students who have fallen behind when their motivation is low and when proper training and resources are lacking. Every school in every school district seems to do it differently, with varying degrees of success. At the end of the school day, the expectation of educators across the state is that all students can and will learn.
If you are interested in reading the Executive Summary of Hope Street Group's report over RTI, please click on this link. If you want to read the FULL report, click here!

Friday, June 17, 2016

Measuring the Unmeasurable

Last week, I attended a convening of Hope Street Group teacher fellows from across the state. There are 30 of us who are all dedicated to elevating teachers’ voices in this state. On the first day of the convening, I was blessed to participate in a listening session over state testing with Dr. Candice McQueen, the Commissioner of the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). She will travel around the state and conduct more of these listening sessions so that teachers can tell her directly how the state can improve its system of evaluating students.

Many great ideas were expressed in this listening session, the details of which I don’t want to publicize at this time because education policy is a tricky thing. Nothing is ever changed solely in isolation without affecting something else. I don’t know how many of the good ideas that we expressed are actionable, but I left that session feeling confident that Commissioner McQueen listened to them intently.

Lunch quickly followed this listening session, and at my lunch table we continued to discuss the weighty topic of evaluation, which veered into a discussion on how teachers and schools are evaluated.

Most teachers across the state are evaluated using the Tennessee Educator Acceleration Model, or TEAM. In a nutshell, this model that is used for classroom observations uses a rubric that lists characteristics in several different domains on a 1, 3, or 5 level, with 5 being the highest. After the teacher’s lesson is evaluated, there is a post-conference where the teacher meets with the evaluator (usually a principal) and the strengths and weaknesses of the lesson are discussed. Classroom observation(s) comprise 50% of a teacher’s overall evaluation score for that year, which is also on a scale of 1-5. According to TDOE, the TEAM evaluation model improves the quality of education and teachers feel more positive about it than ever. Anecdotally, no one at my table--nor any other teacher that I have ever talked to about the TEAM model--could support that notion. The way teachers are evaluated in this state is ridiculously flawed.

Schools have been graded using a school report card for a number of years now. New to this report card (thanks to the state legislature) will be grades that range from A to F for every school. These grades will be based primarily off of how well students perform on state tests as well as national tests like the ACT. This raised a series of questions during our lunch discussion. What performance levels signify an “A” versus a “B” or “C”? Are schools who obtain an “A” on the school report card actually graduating students who are well-prepared for college and the “real world,” or are they better at preparing their students to test well?

The larger issue here is that in education, we constantly strive to measure the unmeasurable. For example, on a student’s report card, a grade of 75 is a “D” and a grade of 85 is a “B.” As a teacher, how on earth can I honestly say that the “B” student has mastered 10% more of the knowledge than the “D” student? I can’t, because it’s it’s not quantifiable. Likewise, is a teacher who is considered to be a level 5 significantly better than a level 3 teacher on the TEAM rubric? On the school report card, will an “A” school be significantly better than a “B” or “C” school?

I greatly appreciate Dr. McQueen taking the time to listen to a group of teacher leaders from around the state. Without question, there are areas of improvement for TNReady. Because the law requires state testing, our students deserve to have the best evaluation system that we can provide. Hopefully, the state’s ensuing discussion over how to improve TNReady will boil over into other areas of evaluation that correspondingly have glaring areas of improvement. There are more organic methods of evaluating teachers and schools than subjectively grading them. When we figure this out, Tennessee educationally will be a model for the nation and the positive change will be precipitous.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

An Open Letter to my County Commission

Dear County Commissioner:

I would first like to take this opportunity to thank you for all of the hard work you put into making decisions in order to better our community. The work you do balancing the financial needs of this county is certainly difficult and should not go unnoticed. Your position as a county commissioner is a thankless one.
I feel that a very important matter needs your attention, and if it is ignored the community will suffer devastating effects. Over the past several years, the county school’s budget has not been fully funded and pay raises for teachers has been denied, causing highly experienced, good teachers to go to other school systems. As I mentioned in a previous Manchester Times article, there are currently eighteen school districts within an hour drive from here who pay their educators more than Coffee County Schools. Gone are the days when educators will stay with a school system purely out of loyalty. With higher expectations than ever before, and a constant barrage of attacks on the teaching profession by the state legislature, it is difficult to argue against educators deserving to be paid like the professionals that they are. The cost of living in this country has risen by 20.4 percent over the last ten years. In essence, even with the step ladder increases, teacher’s salaries have decreased by an average of one percent per year, every year, for the past decade. Experienced teachers with 25 years of experience or more do not get the meager step increases, so they have beared the full brunt of the increased cost of living.
The current pay increase for educators in this year’s Coffee County Schools budget utilizes money sent to them from Governor Haslam for that purpose. While that money needs to be used to increase the salaries of teachers and teacher’s aides, it’s crucial to remember that the other eighteen school districts who pay more than Coffee County are also getting money from the state for that same purpose. Teachers set the foundation for our society, and the time has come to support education in more than theory.
I submit a three step plan to help get educational funding on the right track in this county. Step one is for you and for the citizens of this county to have important conversations with Mayor Lonnie Norman and the six Manchester City aldermen and implore them to allow the voters of Coffee County and Manchester City to have a voice on consolidating Manchester City Schools with Coffee County Schools. It is not too late for this measure to be placed on the November ballot, but this process would need to be initiated very soon. A substantial amount of taxpayer money is wasted every year by maintaining these separate school systems.
Consolidation would make step two much easier to accomplish, which is to make a goal to fund a 2% teacher salary increase each of the next two years. It’s widely known that property taxes here are the third highest in the state. With property taxes this high, and with a county school system beginning to hemorrhage because of a lack of financial support, the time has come for our tax dollars to be prioritized in such a way that helps people become educated so they can stay out of jail, instead of taking care of them once they’re there. Raising educator’s salaries will help prevent the best and most experienced teachers from leaving for higher-paying positions elsewhere, while also attracting highly qualified, dynamic teachers to this area. Additionally, it will make a statement to local businesses that Coffee County is dedicated to investing in its children and graduating skilled workers.

Step three is for you to submit a formal letter to Governor Haslam and the state legislature asking them to fully fund the BEP, update it to reflect what the county actually has to pay for education, and stop under funding schools leaving our local government and taxpayers to pick up the slack.