F“The link between literacy and revolutions is a well-known historical phenomenon. The three great revolutions of modern European history — the English, the French and the Russian — all took place in societies where the rate of literacy was approaching 50 percent. Literacy had a profound effect on the peasant mind and community. It promotes abstract thought and enables the peasant to master new skills and technologies, Which in turn helps him to accept the concept of progress that fuels change in the modern world.”
Orlando Figes, A People’s Tragedy: The Russian Revolution, 1891 – 1924


The state of Tennessee recently announced the list of schools that are considered Reward Schools for the year 2022. These designations have presented the named schools with an opportunity for celebration, but I would advise that they do so with a healthy dose of skepticism. Let’s talk.

Federal law requires that each state identify the lowest performing 5% of schools, a requirement that was included in the NCLB waiver process. Not only are the schools to be identified, but the state also gets federal money in order to supply additional support to those schools. These schools are referred to as  Priority Schools and are defined as such by the state,

Priority schools are consistently low-performing schools based on multiple years of TCAP assessment data (bottom 5%) or have less than 67% graduation rate during the most recent school year. Priority schools are also known as Comprehensive Support and Improvement (CSI) Schools as they are eligible for additional federal funding and are supported by the department in developing an evidence-based school improvement plan. Priority/CSI schools identified in 2021-22 will receive the designation for 1 year and can exit the designation in 2022-23 by meeting exit criteria (see the 2021-22 Accountability Protocol for more information).

Furthermore, the federal government requires that the state also name and target for support, schools that meet the following definition,

Schools with overall accountability scores in the bottom five percent statewide for the performance of a given student group are identified as Targeted Support and Improvement (TSI) schools. Schools can be identified as TSI schools for any of the following given student groups when meeting the identification criteria: Black/Hispanic/Native American, Economically Disadvantaged, English Learners, Students with Disabilities, Hispanic/Latino, Black or African American, American Indian or Alaska Native, Native Hawaiian or Pacific Islander, Asian, and White. These schools are supported by the department and are eligible for additional funding

There is also a third group that must be identified,

Only schools identified as TSI based on the most recent TSI list will be eligible for ATSI identification. TSI schools whose student group success rates are less than or equal to the maximum success rate of any Priority school in their school pool will be identified as ATSI if they do not also have a score of 4 or 3 for each indicator for which that student group is eligible. Priority/CSI schools identified in 2021-22 will receive the designation for 1 year and can exit the designation in 2022-23 by meeting exit criteria (see the 2021-22 Accountability Protocol for more information).

When it comes to identifying these schools, the state has no choice but to do so, or else they would be out of compliance with the Federal government. At some point, it was decided that if there is going to be a naughty list, there needs to be a good list as well. Initially that it was supposed to be limited to the top 5% of schools, Well that got some people irritated because it only focused on achievement and failed to recognize growth. In response, the list was expanded to the top 10% based on achievement and growth.

That appeased some but remained a bit cumbersome. So a new formula was created. One that took into account both achievement and growth, while adding a few new factors. Instead of limiting selection to percentage, it gave reward school status to any school that scored over a 3.1 on the rubric. This year there are 427 schools in Tennessee that have accomplished this, while 101 schools will be finding coal in their stockings.

So what’s the rubric you might ask?

In the interest of brevity, I’m going to simplify the explanation considerably, but I encourage everyone to watch the latest MNPS school board meeting where Paul Changus and  Tina Stenson do an exceptional job of explaining the protocols.  It starts around the 30-minute mark.

Let’s explore how schools are essentially graded, even though the state is not offering a letter grade this year. District grading and school grading are virtually the same with a few caveats. At the center of all of this is the “success rate”.

“Success rate” is calculated using a formula that awards points for performance on TCAP, Annual Measurable Objectives(AMO), and value-added. The AMO is set by the state and is intended to be ambitious but reachable. The way that it is structured, the lower your score the higher growth you are expected to make to earn AMO points, there are also points awarded for doubling your AMO.  Points are assigned for measurable in all three categories, averaged, and a point value between 1-4 is assigned. Once the success rate is calculated, it is submitted into another rubric.

This is done for the categories of “all students” and each of the recognized subgroups, compiled together, and a combined score is issued. The same is done for individual schools with some differences in weighting.

It takes little more than a cursory glance to see how valuable that success rate score becomes. Schools that fail to reach higher achievement rates, or their AMO for whatever reason, find themselves at a disadvantage.

This rubric for k-8 takes the success rate –  TVAAS, chronically absent rate(defined as students who miss more than 10% of all school days), and English language learners proficiency assessment assigns points, averages – and assigns a numeric value, everything over 3.1 is considered an “A”. For high schools, the graduation rate and ready graduates are added.

Again, my explanation is very rudimentary and missing some of the nuances that go into calculations. But consider this for a minute.

Take two schools, both of which have traditionally earned a success rate of 22. COVID comes along and both schools, based on remote instruction and lower TCAP participation rates, among other variables, see their success rate plummet to 14 in 2021.  The next year comes along and students are fully back in the classroom and TCAP participation is back to 97%. Both schools rebound, but their level of rebound is different, and thus their success rates are impacted.

The first one rebounds higher, due to meeting their AMO and falling just short of doubling AMO receives a success rate of 22 – back to its pre-pandemic level. They get higher TVAAS points as well. School two only rebounds about halfway, failing to secure the AMO points and achieving a 17. School 1 becomes a Reward School while school 2 falls short.

So next year rolls around, and the AMO for both schools is different. While school 1 has traditionally earned a success rate of between 21 and 24, based on last years numbers, their new AMO may be set at  27.

School 2, also traditionally obtaining a success rate that falls in the 21-24 range, may have its AMO set at 24. due to achieving less last year. It may be an ambitious goal but based on existing data, a reachable goal.  Both schools hit the 24 mark on the 2023 tests,, which should be celebrated, but will penalize school 1 because they will fail to earn the AMO extra points, as well as the higher TVAAS points,  and thus likely receive a lower grade. School two will get the extra points, and thus  be perceived as more successful,

Admittedly this is an oversimplification, but in talking to several superintendents, schools flipping from Reward School to Priority School through no fault of their own is not out of the realm of possibility. This likelihood is increased due to the lists being scheduled to be run again next year, despite the cycle for running the priority list having traditionally been 3 years. A flip will be a hard explanation for school leaders and superintendents to make to stakeholders.

When I asked, why celebrate then, a concerning argument was presented. What choice do superintendents have? The average tenure for urban leaders is roughly 3 years, so nobody is looking at the long-term picture. We talk a lot about stabilizing the teaching profession, but there is scant attention paid to how do we stabilize the position of district leaders? It has got to become part of the equation.

In talking with various experts, the high degree of difficulty in creating an accountability system that serves both the federal requirements and the state’s desires, let alone one that both holds people accountable and is transparent, becomes readily apparent.

I would argue that the fundamental flaw in any accountability system is that it gives the illusion that we control all of the variables that go into producing student outcomes.  We don’t presently, and we never will, but for many, that is hard to accept. Children are not lab rats and we can not manipulate them as such.

My unsolicited advice is to take the accolades while recognizing that the very same efforts can produce completely different outcomes next year. The only way to truly be a rewards school is to always put students and teachers first and value learning over compliance. But that’s another argument for another day.


The hits keep on coming for Hillsdale College and by defacto the Tennessee State Charter School Commission. Yesterday was the scheduled public hearing for the appeal of a Hillsdale-affiliated Charter School whose application had been denied by the district. This was the opportunity for the public to weigh in on the need for the school, American Classical. Unfortunately, the number of people allowed to speak was limited to 15 – the majority of whom were in support of American Classical – with the rest being forced to submit their feelings via email. To me, this was an egregious error.

While admittedly I am not a fan of Hillsdale College and its affiliates, I’ve long argued that the process needs to be allowed to play out. The commission was created due to the perception that charter applications were not being treated fairly by local districts and that politics were bearing too much influence. Whether that’s a fair assessment or not, in order to justify its existence, running hearings that are beyond reproach is non-negotiable for the newly minted commission. Limiting public participation to just 15 people, the majority of whom spoke in favor of the applicant does not serve to further the commission’s credibility.

Why 15? Sure I understand time restraints, but why not devote a whole day to public opinion? What does the commission have to do that could possibly take precedence over securing local inputs? To put it bluntly, shouldn’t you at least kiss someone before you fuck them? A coarse comparison, but applicable to the perception of what transpired yesterday, All the commission’s executive director Tess Stoval did at yesterday’s hearing was deliver a couple pecks on the cheek, and now residents are expecting the main action come October.

Stovall is no rookie at this, She’s been hearing charter appeals for the state through the board of education for several years. For the most part, she’s been recognized for being fair and unswayed by politics. Yesterday’s, meeting is concerning because it leaves the door open for a sense of something changing. Not a good feeling. This is a huge misstep at a time when missteps can give the enemies of the commission the fuel needed to end the existence of the commission.

Lost in the uproar over the limited public participation were the hard questions that Stovall put to representatives of Hillsdale, and its CEO, Joel Schellhammer — specifically about the changing lineup of its governing board, which has removed some Hillsdale officials and now has four Tennesseans. Why weren’t Rutherford County officials kept appraised about these developments in a timely fashion?

In its written appeals, American Classical charged that denials of its applications by school boards in Rutherford and Madison County were “colored by politics.”  Stovall put that question to the Rutherford County contingency and was told, per ChalkbeatTN,

“Caitlin Bullard, the district’s school choice coordinator, said her committee conducted a “politically neutral” review that followed the state’s rubric for scoring charter applications. She added that all scores were turned in before Arnn’s comments aired.”

“However, ultimately, our (school) board does not operate in a vacuum,” Bullard said of its July 18 vote rejecting the charter application. “The comments that were made were problematic in the operation of our district, in terms of both our district mission and our support … for our teachers.”

Maybe it is impossible to have a charter-approving body that is effectively divorced from politics. It’s up to Stovall and the company to present evidence to the contrary. It’s not only the charter school applicants being evaluated, but the commission itself as well.


Congratulation to Rachel Elrod and Feda Player-Peter of the MNPS School Board. They have been elected by their peers to serve this year as chair and vice-chair respectively.

As we approach the implementation of Tennessee’s 3rd-grade retention policy for students who fail to meet the standards on this year’s TCAP, I’m hearing some interesting parental strategies. Some parents, recognizing that the schools will administer 3 benchmarks prior to TCAP, realize that they will have a good idea of whether their child will pass ornate, and if the answer is the letter, why not keep the student home and prevent the mandated retention? Yea, this legislation has more holes than a submarine with screen windows.

A couple of weeks ago Tennessee’s Assistant Superintendent of Accountability Rachel Maves tendered her resignation after a little over a year on the job. Her responsibilities were assumed by Eric Shay Olmstead – I know, sounds like a character from Elfstones of Shanara. At a recent conclave of heads of the schools for education, Olmstead introduced herself to the gathered leaders, and then just as quickly informed them that she too was headed for the exit. Just one more casualty of the Schwinn tenure, where lasting 18 months earns you a gold watch.

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Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. I fear that when we so gleefully embrace today’s Reward school designations, it makes it difficult to discount tomorrow’s “Failure” rhetoric from the state, rhetoric which is sure to return, given the state’s endless and myopic fixation on test score fluctuations. We need to look past the endless noise from the state, and instead focus on the core operational aspects of public education which drive the best outcomes for all students.

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