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My letter to the MNPS School Board

Dear Board Members,
obamaTomorrow we celebrate the President of the United States visiting Metro Schools once again, but tonight you will discuss the future of the man who’s policies directly led to the Presidents first visit. That is a huge accomplishment and speaks volumes for his ability to be the interim superintendent for Metro Schools. The future leadership of our system is incredibly important but should not over shadow the immediate needs of our students. They deserve leadership that will be more then just a placeholder until a permanent replacement is found. They need someone who has demonstrated that they can implement and manage forward thinking policies that will advance our system. Jay Steele has proven to be such a man.
I know that the search firm has fears about the level of candidate that we could attract with a potential permanent candidate serving as interim manager. To be frank, that is their challenge, not yours and if they are not up to it, perhaps we need a another search firm. The challenge that you have been dispatched with is to insure that all children have a quality teacher in every classroom and a quality leader in every building. That mission starts with having a quality leader at the top of the organization. That challenge was met with the appointment of Dr. Steele.
There is no guarantee that any of the finalists that the search firm brings forth will be the right fit for Nashville. If that becomes the case we need to ensure that we haven’t painted ourselves into a corner. Dr. Steele gives us the option to tell the search firm that they have to do better and bring us a higher quality candidate. Otherwise, we force ourselves into the position of having the select  the best of  a mediocre lot. Something that the search company has already hinted a recent evaluation of applications.
In discussing the potential of reversing last weeks appointment, the messages that will be delivered to the general public need to be considered. First and foremost will be that this board is incapable of meeting a task as important as hiring a superintendent of schools. To this point in the process, the timeline has already been botched and adjusted and now you are signifying that the appointing of the interim superintendent was botched as well and requires adjusting. Who is to believe that the next step won’t also be botched and require adjustment as well. After all actions speak louder then words. So far the boards actions are not offering evidence that our faith is being placed in the right hands.
The other message you will be sending is one of how we treat our own. Regardless of personal opinion, Jay Steele has been a large part of the success that Dr. Register is now taking a victory lap for. Is he not worthy of some of the same respect that is being bestowed on Dr. Register? Is this how we show our respect and support for someone who has spent the last several years in the service of our children? If this is how we do our own, why would a high quality candidate want to become one of us? Does this really speak to who we are as a community?
I urge you, preserve the integrity of the superintendent search. Demonstrate that as a board you truly are capable of meeting the challenge and ensuring that our children are in highly qualified hands. Parents and members of the community are watching and deciding, is MNPS truly up to the task of educating our children or do we need to seek services elsewhere? You made a wise decision with the appointment of Dr. Jay Steele. Lets not follow it up with a foolish one.
Thomas A Weber
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Lies My Charter Operator Told Me

liesThe two biggest claims of the reform movement seem to be “all children can learn,” which no one disputes, and “charter schools are public schools,” which is hogwash. The only time a charter school is a public school is when they are cashing the BEP (Basic Education Program) check. Any other time, charters are busy trying to distance themselves as far as possible from the rules and regulations that public schools have to cope with daily. It says so right here in Tenn. Code Ann. 49-13-108(f):

  1. Upholding School Autonomy. To uphold school autonomy, the State Board will:
  2. Honor and preserve the independence of its charter schools’ governing boards.
  3. Preserve core school autonomies related to educational programming, financial,

personnel, school culture and scheduling decisions.

  1. Assume responsibility not for the success or failure of individual charter schools in

its portfolio but for holding schools accountable for their performance.

  1. Focus on school accountability for outcomes rather than inputs and processes.
  2. Minimize, within state and federal law, administrative and compliance burdens on

charter schools in its portfolio.

Nowhere did this intended autonomy become more clear than at the most recent Governance Committee meeting for the school board of the Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Though charter operators preach collaboration it quickly became apparent that their definition of collaboration did not include negotiation and that they felt that they should be subject to regulation by the elected school board.

The agenda of this meeting was to hear MNPS legal counsel’s opinion on the legality of the recently adopted Annenberg Standards. The standards were implemented in order to provide an even playing field between charter schools and public school. Too often, when comparing outcomes between the two, it’s like comparing apples to oranges. The Annenberg Standards are meant as a means to make the comparisons more like apples to apples. They are designed to set basic standards that all schools would be accountable for, in what ever form those schools embodied. The standards are very broad, so it was necessary for the MNPS school board to vet them with their legal counsel to ensure the individual standards weren’t redundant or in contrast with state law.

From the moment the meeting began, it was apparent that the implementation of these standards was not something charter schools were interested in participating in. Board member Mary Pierce, whose election was widely supported by charter advocates, immediately began to try making the waters as muddy as possible. Raising questions on who these standards applied to, what charter contracts currently stated, what the implementation schedule should be, all in a manner meant to confuse rather than elucidate, she insured that the meeting would be as long as it would be unproductive.

As I sat and listened to her raise passive-aggressive question after passive-aggressive question, I couldn’t help but think to myself what this conversation might look like if charter schools were truly interested in collaboration rather than autonomy. Charter operators had ample time to review the standards, and I accept that they may have qualms about some of them. But where are the specific claims and potential solutions? Instead of just dismissing all oversight, what if Ms. Pierce would have brought suggestive language that would alter things slightly but still hold to the stated goal?

For example, one of the standards called for any school’s governing board to be made up of at least 50% parents or students. Sound unreasonable to you? Apparently it does to charter operators, as their Representative Ms. Pierce tried to eviscerate it. My theory on that is that it potentially cuts the money. If you’ve ever sat on a non-profit board before, then you are familiar with the expectation to be a contributor financially as well as through your time. In light of this, who would you rather have sitting on your board, a local struggling parent or a local successful hedge fund manager? It seems to me that the hedge fund manager would be a much more reliable financial pipeline, both through their individual donations and the potential donors they could bring to the table.

I get that and appreciate it, educating children is expensive, but this could have been a prime time for the charter community to demonstrate that they are fully vested in the collaboration process and come to the table with some concessions. How about 30%? But that has never been the way of the charter movement. It’s always been about their way or no way. Next time you tour a charter school, I challenge you to ask them what practices they import from local traditional schools. I’d be interested in the answer.

If Ms. Pierce had spent half the amount of time trying to offer collaborative solutions to standards that could potentially provide a legal challenge as she did attempting to establish potential legal exposure, it would have been a much shorter meeting. Instead, every attempt to place potential increased oversight or transparency on charter operators was met with a reference back to state law and taken as an opportunity to deflect oversight by the cities elected body.

Laws do not get written without an agenda. Murder is against the law because we don’t want people killing each other. Robbery is illegal because if people kept stealing from each other they’d eventually start killing each other. So what’s the agenda for a law that prevents local school boards from adding oversight and transparency to charter school operations? To me, the answer is clear: to allow adults to practice their chosen business model unencumbered by regulation.

Which brings up one of the other fallacies – that this is all about the kids. All you have to do is sit in one school board meeting and watch the efforts to prevent any kind of regulation of charters and you’ll see that it’s really all about adults. At this recent meeting, in arguing against a standard that would require all schools to have the same basic offerings (i.e., art, music, etc.), TFA executive and board member Elissa Kim asked how this would further instruction. Board member Will Pinkston fired back by asking how it wouldn’t and that should be the bar. The proof should be on proving that it doesn’t impede and not that it furthers instruction.

In forcing the burden of proof on showing that a policy furthers instruction, you are conceding that only the measurable is important. You are allowing charter schools to narrow the field of measurement instead of making it broader and requiring all schools to rise to it. Again, it allows charters to set the terms of collaboration. They determine what is important and no one else.

Collaboration would mean all vested parties discussing what is important through elected representation and setting how that looks for everyone involved. That’s not something charter proponents are interested in. As evidenced later, after Kim had again tried to talk proceedings in circles, committee chair Amy Frogge called on her to make a motion. Ms. Kim had no motion. After all, that would have been collaboration. That would have doing something for the kids and not just protecting adult autonomy.

Need further proof that charters only consider themselves public schools when convenient? Consider this recruitment poster for the new Rocketship Academy opening up in Nashville this fall.

rocket ship

Public schools are a part of a public school system. They are not entities of themselves. Do you see the MNPS logo anywhere on this flier? How about a mention of the MNPS public school system at all? The flier goes one better, not only does it not mention MNPS but it disparages them. According to Rocketship, they go where “access to excellent schools is limited” and who is responsible for putting an excellent school in every neighborhood? That would be your local school system. Which apparently Rocketship does not consider themselves a part of and seeks to undermine. This flier makes it clear that they wish to usurp the public school system.

You shouldn’t be surprised though, charter school operators have mastered the ability to talk out of both sides of their mouth. At the aforementioned meeting, after the 33 out of 55 suggested standards were implemented, KIPP Academy Nashville founder Randy Dowell expressed frustration that academic magnet schools were exempt from the rule banning schools from excluding certain students, saying, “If this is what’s best for schools, why are we not doing this for our schools with the most affluent kids?” Magnet schools base enrollment on academic standards. KIPP preaches that poverty is not an excuse. So why is Mr. Dowell assuming that our highest performing schools are made up of our most affluent students?

So it goes with every platitude that gets uttered by the reformers. They sound good until you really break them down, and then you realize we all know the same things. Poverty matters. There are no secrets to unlocking the doors of knowledge. Best practices are best practices. The immeasurable is just as important as the measurable. The only question left is what are we going to do with that knowledge and if we are going to be honest with it.

As this conversation plays out in Nashville, in Washington, a funding bill that includes an 8% funding increase for charter schools advances. This happens while Tennesseans are fighting to get the state BEP fully funded. Once again, while our traditional schools are fighting for resources, charters are reaping benefits from an uneven playing field without producing greater results. They do this because they continue to control the conversation, thereby leading us to not ask the questions that we should be asking.

Is true collaboration ever possible when one side continually plays loose with the facts? Are we ever going to create a system that truly serves all kids and is accountable and transparent to the entire community, not just the families that enroll in that school? The choice is really ours – level the playing field or continue to let select players game the system. We just have to separate the slogans from the facts. We have to commit to creating a system of equity and transparency, and that requires being honest about our strategies and our intentions.

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The Race For Mayor Heats Up

tAs we move into June here in Nashville, more than just the weather is heating up. With a little over two months remaining until election day, things are also heating up with the mayor’s race. This is the first time in eight years that the mayor’s race doesn’t have an incumbent in the running, so it’s a chance for a real change in direction. In a recent Tennessean article, candidate Jeremy Kane called attention to a recent poll that showed education is fast becoming the leading issue in the upcoming election. In the article, he attempts to draw a line between himself and another candidate, Bill Freeman, painting them at opposite ends of the spectrum on the issue of education.

I’m a little unsure as to why he chose Freeman to compare himself to, as there are other candidates who have positions that are as equally varied. David Fox has all but promised to throw the gates wide open for charter schools and prescribed a more involved role for the mayor. Megan Barry has a moderate’s view of public education that seems to support public schools but at the same time leaves the door open for more charters and more mayoral control. In looking at their web sites, Charles Bone, Linda Eskind Rebrovick, and Howard Gentry all apparently don’t think education is important enough an issue to stake a position on or, at the very least, publicize it. Though it should be noted that Bone has political operative John Little, formerly of the Tennessee Charter School Association, working for him. That should give a little indication of his position.

I can only surmise that Kane chose Freeman to compare himself to because polls have Freeman leading the race and Freeman has recently picked up the endorsement of the Metro Nashville Education Association (MNEA). Freeman has positioned himself as being a champion for the public school system, pledging to give the elected school board the support and resources needed to continue to improve the city’s educational opportunities. He’s also embraced the idea of community schools. Freeman has a tendency to talk more about ways “we” can solve our education challenges as a community than ways “he” can solve those issues, so that would be one place where they are polar opposites.

In attempting to draw a line in the sand differentiating his plans from Freeman’s plans, Kane draws attention to his experience as the founder of a charter network in Nashville, LEAD Public Schools. LEAD, by certain measures, has been very successful, and Kane should rightfully be proud of their accomplishments. Two years in a row, LEAD has had their entire graduating class accepted into a four year college, though there is a discrepancy between the number graduating and the number enrolled as freshman at LEAD. They’ve produced exemplary test scores on the state’s annual TCAP tests. But are the results really all they are portrayed as being, and are they scalable?

If we base our inferences off LEAD’s record, let’s talk about what we could expect Nashville’s education system to look like with Kane as mayor. Well, right off the bat, we better get ready to do some fundraising because that is something LEAD Public Schools is very good at and pursues very aggressively. They have a donor list that is as deep as it is wide.

Through an open records request, I was able to secure that donor list, which includes amounts given to the school. Very impressive. This year, the philanthropy budget is for 1.3 million dollars. Hmmm… I don’t know about your neighborhood school, but mine doesn’t have that kind of budget. So I’ll have my work set out for me. Just for the sake of contrast, Freeman has spoken of raising the MNPS budget by 1%, and combining that with increased business involvement through community schools.

Next, we’ll have to get used to a whole lot more involvement from the State. You see, LEAD is very involved with Tennessee’s Achievement School District, and is, in fact, one of their prime charter operators. It’s interesting to me that last year when the ASD was in the process of taking over one of our public schools in Nashville, Kane wasn’t bonding with the community and helping defend the school. No, he was collaborating with ASD head Chris Barbic on how they could make the whole transition more palpable to people in the community. It’s equally interesting that one of those people, Representative Harold Love, recently sent out endorsement letters for Jeremy Kane.

I find that a little troubling. In my mind, the person controlling the funding to Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) – the mayor – should at least believe in the community’s ability to face their education challenges. If not, what’s the point? Let’s just turn the whole system over to the State. It sends the message that we are only capable of educating kids who aren’t living in poverty or who are English language proficient, which, in my opinion, is just wrong. The mayor owes it to the city to invest in the future of all its children and not just the selected ones.

Let’s look closer at some of those results that LEAD touts as successes. Career educator and education blogger Gary Rubenstein did just that around recent claims regarding Brick Church College Prep, a LEAD School. Rubenstein quotes what Barbic said in a recent article:

“One of those three schools on the right trajectory is Brick Church Pike College Prep in Nashville, which is slowly being converted into a charter school run by LEAD Academy. Barbic says if Brick Church matches this year’s student growth in math and reading, it would leap into the top quartile a year early.”

Dig into the numbers a little bit and the reason for this becomes apparent. The ASD has a mission of taking the bottom 5% of schools into the top 25%. Well, that is a lot easier when your incoming kids don’t fall into the bottom 5% to begin with. Despite having a ‘growth index’ around 0, those scores look respectable. It allows Kane and LEAD to create the narrative of doing something extra special, when in fact they haven’t.

Then there is LEAD Middle School. Last year, they were given a letter of academic concern.Letter 1 This week, LEAD petitioned the school board to consolidate its enrollment across its schools. Which is a fancy way of saying, “Can we close our middle school because it’s really hard work and it’s dragging our overall scores down?” Now, to be fair, LEAD has promised to help those displaced students find homes at other LEAD schools, which, for some, will be closer to their homes. You have to wonder how many of the lower performing students will make that transition, and I share school board member Amy Frogge’s concern:

“I worry about the precedent we’re setting. It feels to me like a game, you know the numbers. They’re shutting down the grade levels not doing well so they can promote their performance at other schools.”

LEAD has also employed a very aggressive recruitment plan. South Nashville has a large population of refugees. As typically happens, many of these refugees tend to take up housing in the same apartment complex. LEAD has made it a practice of going into these complex’s and telling these refugee families how bad their zoned schools are and even promising free iPads if they enroll their children at LEAD instead. Local teachers collected affidavits and turned them over to the MNPS’s Office of Innovation. I followed up on these complaints with the Head of the Office of Innovation for MNPS, Alan Coverstone, and he responded that he had looked into it and as long as they delivered the promised iPads, he was good with it.

Is that what we want from our mayor? Someone who looks to outside entities to face our challenges? Someone who games the numbers to give the appearance of better results? Someone who is willing to provide exceptional service for some but not all? Someone who allows others to do the hard work while they face the lesser challenges and claim greater successes?

Or do we want someone who gets out into all our schools? Someone who is willing to highlight our successes as well as our failures? Someone who searches for and helps provide local solutions to local challenges? Someone who is committed to providing equitable opportunities for all?

Taking all factors into consideration, a picture emerges of a policy that assigns more value to the narrative then to the reality. That’s the choice Nashville faces in less than 90 days. It is a choice that is going to shape the future of our city and play a major role in whether we continue to be an “It” city or not. For me, it’s pretty clear, but for everybody else, I hope we make the right choice. Just because you own a car doesn’t make you a mechanic.

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The BS Gap Continues to Grow

Snake-oil-salesman475Earlier this year, the head of the Achievement School District in Tennessee, Chris Barbic, wrote a piece about the supposed belief gap. A few months later, another gap was floated by Forbes – the Honesty Gap. Supposedly, the scores our kids are getting on state tests aren’t matching up with NAEP scores, leading to a false sense of proficiency. Based on recent results from this year’s TCAP tests in Tennessee, I couldn’t tell you if that’s true or not because I’m not even sure what our scores mean (That’s not making parents and teachers very happy, but that’s another tale for another day.)

Then April rolls around and Mr. Chris “Poverty-is-no-excuse” Barbic starts talking about the different types of poverty and the challenges each brings, something we all had been telling him about for years and to which he’d just respond with his “all kids can learn” mantra. Yesterday, he did an interview with the Commercial Appeal in Memphis, which is unfortunately behind a pay wall, that indicated perhaps the Achievement School District had bitten off more than it could chew. Add all of this together, and I’m starting to get the stench of a different kind of a gap. A bullshit gap.

American lore is filled with tales of the “Snake Oil Salesman.” Unfortunately, nowadays it’s not a persona only tied to the Old West. The original description came about in the 1800s, as Chinese workers arrived in the United States to work on the railroad as indentured servants. They brought several medicines with them, snake oil being one. Apparently, in its original form, made from the oil of Chinese water snakes, it was quite effective in treating arthritis and bursitis. As Chinese workers began sharing the oil with their American counterparts, the Americans marveled at its success, and tales of its miraculous powers began to grow. Of course, being Americans, people began to make their own snake oil and assign all kinds of magical prowess to it.

I find the story of Clark Stanley, aka The Rattlesnake King, particularly relevant here. Stanley claimed that he had learned about the power of rattlesnake oil from a Hopi medicine man. Unfortunately, he failed to mention that Chinese water snake oil had three times the content of Omega-3 acids as rattlesnake oil; therefore, the rattlesnake oil was considerably less effective. This didn’t deter him, though, as he unveiled his magical discovery at the 1893 World’s Fair. Joe Schwarcz, the director of McGill University’s Office for Science and Society, describes the scene in this 2008 article:

“[Stanley] reached into a sack, plucked out a snake, slit it open, and plunged it into boiling water. When the fat rose to the top, he skimmed it off and used it on the spot to create ‘Stanley’s Snake Oil,’ a liniment that was immediately snapped up by the throng that had gathered to watch the spectacle.”

Well, it’s not exactly the World’s Fair, but I think the Oprah show is a reasonable facsimile. Barbic appeared on her show in 2010, where, with a dramatic flourish, she awarded him a check for a million dollars because of his vision for YES Prep. Fresh off that million-dollar spectacle, Barbic was snapped up by Tennessee in 2011 with a prescription to cure all ills. As Barbic stated in the recent Commercial Appeal interview,

“That was the first order of business when I arrived,” Barbic said. “‘What are we going to do here? What is our goal?’ I talked to a lot of people who said, ‘Let’s get the schools off the priority list’ (those schools in the bottom 5 percent). Everyone here is working too hard. That is not an ambitious enough goal.”

Unfortunately, ambition wasn’t enough and reality has begun to sink in that things haven’t turned out quite as he imagined they would. Even the successes that Barbic tried to tout weren’t exactly as he portrayed them. So the narrative had to change. Time was running out and a few more sales have to be wrung out before the market dries up completely.

In the interview with the Commercial Appeal, Barbic refers to the ASD as an “expansion team”: “In NBA terms, he said, the ASD was the “expansion team,” forced to build a brand-new organization, including inventing pipelines to provide strong teachers.”

I’m assuming the pipeline he invented was Teach for America, because as far as I can tell, the ASD is not drawing teachers from anywhere else. This is where I’d refer you back to the difference between Chinese water snakes and rattlesnakes. It feels apropos here. Barbic goes on further to say,

“We had to create a game worth playing, a game that was going to allow us to attract the people that could potentially win the game. … Now, the third part is you gotta win the game. We’re in the middle of playing the game. It’s an important game. Kids’ lives are at stake.”

It’s nice of him to recognize that he’s playing this “game” with real live students who will suffer the consequences of the losses a whole lot more than he and his cadre will. After all, a child gets one chance at childhood. Shouldn’t it be a little more precious than to be used as fodder for Barbic’s expansion team?

There’s something about this quote that is even more troubling. Barbic states that they are in the midst of playing the game and trying to win the game while his former boss, Kevin Huffman, is out selling it as a win. Last month, Huffman told a crowd in Pennsylvania that things were so great in Tennessee that Pennsylvania needed their own Achievement School District, too. In his words, “Indeed, doing nothing would be unconscionable.” Yeah, as Gary Rubenstein has again pointed out, not so much. It’s one thing to try to fix your failed experiment, but it’s a whole other thing to try to export it. Efforts are afoot to create Achievement School Districts in Nevada, Texas, and Georgia as well. Apparently, a trip to Gamblers Anonymous might be in order for some folks. When losing, one walks away from the table; they don’t slide more chips on to it unless they have a problem.

As far as current goals go, Barbic is a little vague:

“Maybe it’s the top 25 percent in seven years or six years,” Barbic said, adding that o rganizations that get “pounded over the head” for taking risks learn to be so “risk adverse, you don’t do anything. I think what we have to be able to do is have the courage to say, ‘Look, we tried this. It didn’t work. Yes, we need to be held accountable for that, and if it turns out that we are off by a year or two, that’s OK as long as we are still making progress.”

Earlier in the interview, Barbic says,

“We could say tomorrow we are changing the goal. The only blowback we would probably get is from you guys (media). But there is nothing stopping us. I could wake up tomorrow and decide I want to do something different.”

Wow. If we were making porn movies, that would be what they call the money shot. The hubris is appalling. I guess he forgot that part about kid’s lives being at stake. Hey, when you’re building a franchise, it’s hard to keep track of the players. It’s interesting that this line appeared in the original story in the Commercial Appeal but by mid-afternoon the next day it and two other paragraphs had oddly disappeared only to be replaced by more flattering paragraphs like below,

By comparison, the ASD is the “expansion team,” Barbic said, building from the ground-up, which includes creating pipelines for finding teachers.
If some schools take longer to improve, the ASD will “have to have the courage to say that,” Barbic said. “Maybe it’s the top 25 percent in seven years or six years.”

Makes you wonder why it was changed and what kind of sway Barbic has over the hometown papers. The ASD has had a long line of apologists since the beginning but that line is dwindling. From the same Commercial Appeal article,

SCS school board member Chris Caldwell finds it “very interesting” that a state that passed that legislation “would give one person that much authority over a school system in which he never lived or was never voted on by any local body.”

In the midst of all this, Barbic has become one of the newest members of the Chiefs for Change. The Chiefs are an organization founded by Jeb Bush to push the reform agenda. Initially, it was made up of State Superintendents, but since they showed a propensity for either losing their job or running afoul of regulations, the membership rules had to change. For some reason, Barbic felt this was an organization he wanted to be a part of. Personally, if you came knocking at my door asking me to join a group that has lost 75% of its member because of their dubious behavior, I’d have to beg off. But that’s just me. Chris Barbic might consider it an honor.

This brings me back to the story of Clark Stanley. You might be asking, whatever happened to him? Well, eventually it was revealed that his whole empire was one big lie. He was found to have violated the Pure Food and Drug Act of 1906 and was fined 20 bucks for “misbranding” his product by “falsely and fraudulently representing it as a remedy for all pain.” It is not to hard to draw parallels, the difference being that Barbic’s rattlesnake oil is taking advantage of children’s future. It’s way pay past time to close this modern day snake oil salesman’s wagon up.


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Well, That’s Clear As Mud

Clear-as-MudLast week, I wrote about what has become an annual event in Tennessee: the botching of the release of TCAP results. Last year, they came out late, which prevented many schools from being able to include them, as is required by state law, in students’ report cards. This year, they released the quick scores on time but failed to mention that the method of calculation had changed. Last year, we learned the term post equating. This year, we are learning about cube root formulas. Unfortunately, both are adding up to more questions than answers.

I want to clarify something right from the beginning here. I am not a statistician nor do I play one on TV. I am just a parent, who, while my children are currently not subject to these tests, is looking for an equitable and accurate way to gauge our students’, teachers’, and schools’ performance. Personally, I believe that it shouldn’t be a system that fails to report timely results on a regular basis, nor one that needs outside counsel to interpret how scores are determined, but that’s just me. Apparently, though, this is a view quite a few parents and teachers share as well because Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen felt enough pressure that she issued some communication on the confusion caused by the release of “quick scores.”

In a posting on Classroom Chronicles, a TNDOE blog, disseminated through social media, McQueen mainly spends time thanking teachers for all their hard work and efforts. She also addresses the change in the method of calculating quick scores. She chalks it up to it being a decision made by the previous regime and then not communicated effectively after the decision was made. Fair enough. But… there is this line: “I became aware of the issue after quick scores were released and have been working to communicate about the issue since that time.”

Wouldn’t it stand to reason that there would have been some inter-department communication in regards to the scores before they were released? Would there not have been some kind of evaluation and a general discussion about the level of scores and how they reflected on ongoing processes? Would this not have lead to someone making sure Ms. McQueen completely understood the methodology of the scores and what their results meant? I guess my real question is this: Wouldn’t somebody have raised the same questions that teachers across the state are asking? And I’m not talking one or two teachers – I’m talking the vast majority. Apparently not and that’s a little disconcerting.

In her post, Ms. McQueen links to another TNDOE blog, Educator Update. Here’s where things get real interesting. Under “Quick Score Clarification” is this passage:

Quick Scores Not Tied to Proficiency

It’s important to note that while quick scores are the first indicator parents and students receive about TCAP results, quick scores are not tied to TCAP performance levels (i.e., a quick score of 85 is not equivalent to the cut score for proficient). Quick scores are not the percent correct or a percentile rank. Quick scores are only used for one purpose; they are created to be factored into a student’s grade, as required by law. Quick scores are designed on a 100-point scale to match district-grading systems. Please see the TCAP Scoring Flow chart, and you’ll notice that quick scores inform no other part of the scoring process. Quick scores are not intended to be a parent or teacher’s primary window into student performance.

So walk me through this. Quick Scores are not intended to be a true representation of a student’s performance. However, they are factored into a student’s report card, which I assume is supposed to be an accurate representation. That absolutely baffles me. In my non-education related life, if you add something inaccurate into a report, then it tends to make the whole report inaccurate, but it seems that doesn’t hold true here. Then there is this passage:

Based on feedback from superintendents, principals, and teachers, the department has provided additional information for districts regarding quick score methodology options. Because there is no standard grading scale for grades 3-8, districts can utilize the information we provide to make decisions about which methodology option is best for them. Most districts are using the current methodology, including the cube root calculation method for grades 3-8, due to timing of these options and grade releases. Some districts are using the same quick score methodology as we did for grades 3-8 last year. All districts have received the raw student scores. Data for all calculations have been made available to each district for their use.

So if I’m reading this right, all districts are not even using the same methodology in applying these scores to kids’ grades. How is that not completely distorting the picture? But we are not done yet.

Regardless of the method used to calculate quick scores, the bar for student proficiency has not changed. However, we are providing more information than in previous years to ensure local leadership and educators have the information they need to best understand and use their scores. It’s important to remember that quick scores have no impact on district, school, or teacher accountability and changing the methodology to calculate quick scores will in no way impact the number of your students that are proficient on TCAP. Quick scores are developed for the sole purpose of inserting a grade on a report card, as required by state law.

Again, my interpretation of this passage is this: Hey, those scores don’t mean a thing. They are just giving you a number to plug into the grades so they can comply with the law. Later in the summer, when that pesky law requirement thing is out of the way, we’ll let you know what it all really means. Until then, stay calm and input those grades. Is that not a problem? The piece closes thusly:

In summary, we apologize for the communication failure on the quick score methodology shift that occurred in the fall. We will be creating protocols and processes that avoid this in the future. We want to continue to celebrate our progress as a state and our educators’ role in this success. You have made progress every year on the state tests since 2010. You are raising expectations and getting results. We look forward to working with you as we serve our students.

In other words, the state is saying these meaningless scores show what a great job you are doing. Well, at least until the summer, when they give you a true evaluation. Maybe I’m the only one who finds this whole process alarming, but based on the teacher responses I’ve heard, I don’t think so.

I haven’t even touched on questions of why the methodology for K-8 was changed. Since we aren’t going to a new test until next year, why did the TNDOE make the decision to make the change? Is it going to change again next year? Nobody feels the necessity to explain why the change was made, just that it was made and then poorly communicated.

With so much riding on these test scores – student grades, teacher evaluations, the way we determine whether or not a school is “failing” and might need to be closed – we desperately need to examine why so much emphasis is placed on what is clearly a confusing and meaningless system. Imagine if you are a student who has heeded the mandate to “rock ” the test only to find out that your score doesn’t mean what you thought it did. What a shame for our students and teachers. Our obsession with test scores has got to stop.

That’s the one thing that this whole fiasco reiterates, we need a new process with new timelines and new guidelines. If we are just generating numbers to meet a mandate, and the numbers aren’t accurate or easily interpreted, perhaps the law needs to be changed. In one Facebook posting I read, an explanation of cube rooting was given, but it took several paragraphs and plenty of reflection to get even a minimal amount of understanding. Does the process really have to be this complex?

Regardless, we need a system that all stakeholders can easily understand. One that we don’t have to depend on people with doctorates in math and statistics to explain. One that the explanation of why we apply it can be easily communicated to everyone. One that doesn’t leave parents so baffled that they afraid to question it. I have a saying that if the apology takes as long as the offense, then you’ve committed a second offense. It’s safe to say that rule easily applies here.

In response to this years debacle, a dozen parent and educator groups across the state have banded together to demand action by creating a petition calling upon the state to address our testing issues. Improving the process is essential and I urge everyone to sign the petition. Candice McQueen just finished a listening tour of the state’s school districts and has shown a willingness to listen. It’s important that she receive a little extra feedback. Transparency and trust in the system is imperative, and right now, we have neither.