Breaking Down ‘Race to the Top’

Lawmakers will spend the next few days changing Tennessee’s education laws to make the state eligible for an infusion of federal education funding.

But the hottest issue up for debate at the statehouse this week — how strongly to tie student test scores to educators’ tenure and yearly evaluations — accounts for only 12 percent of the overall “Race to the Top” federal grant application.

“That’s just one little technical piece to be taken care of,” said Rachel Woods, spokesperson for the Tennessee Department of Education.

Race to Top pie

The $4.35 billion grant competition, which is a part of the federal stimulus package, will award the top 10 to 20 states with leading education reforms that boost student achievement and graduation rates, according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Tennessee is slated to receive more than $400 million if it wins the grant money.

U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan, who called this a “once in a lifetime chance” to propel student achievement, will be most interested in how Tennessee fits into the grant’s four-pronged approach for reform.

He and the U.S. Department of Education will measure how well the state can:

  • Adopt measures to better prepare students for college, work and compete in the global economy
  • Build databanks that measure students’ success; use that information to fuel instruction
  • Attract, develop, reward and keep effective teachers and principals, particularly in tough-to-teach classrooms
  • Turn around low-achieving schools.

The 102-page grant application — which scores much like a high school final exam — looks for a state to pitch several education reforms. Sections range from finding ways to improve the transition between preschool and kindergarten, how to use student data to drive instruction, and methods to better prepare students for jobs in complicated subjects like math and technology.

The application, which is estimated to take 681 hours to complete, is cut into several pieces. The slice with the heaviest weight calls for states to find, keep and develop quality teachers.

That section, worth 28 percent of the total evaluation, asks for Tennessee to prove how it will support several initiatives, such as alternative teaching certification programs and attracting quality teachers to struggling schools.

The section also calls for making professional-development programs for teachers and principals more rigorous. It also and includes linking student-performance data to salary, tenure and firing decisions — which accounts for 58 out of 138 possible scoring points.

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a Washington D.C.-based nonprofit research and advocacy group, suggests a state’s performance in this teachers section will “make or break” their application, while winning proposals break new ground in this area.

“It will require break-the-mold initiatives and iron political will on the part of states to undertake a human capital reform agenda — and, accordingly, the Department has assigned the big points and promised the big money for this tough work,” read NCTQ’s “Race to the Top Scorecard” (pdf).

Lawmakers expect to reverse a current ban on using annual standardized tests to help determine whether teachers receive tenure.

In 1992, schools began collecting student performance data through standardized tests. But the Tennessee Education Association convinced lawmakers to make it illegal to use those scores to help evaluate teacher performance for tenure.

Gov. Phil Bredesen called the special session specifically to pass legislation to help the state compete for “Race to the Top” grant money and other education issues.

He said last month the scores would have to weigh in at 50 percent or more to engage the issue. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey, a Republican, agreed last week with 50 percent mark and expects to push the measure through.

The main opponent, the Tennessee Education Association, said it is willing to support test scores accounting for 35 percent of teachers’ and principals’ evaluations.

For “Race to the Top” grant money, Tennessee will also have to prove it has the statewide capacity to follow through on promised reforms and show that — since at least 2003 — it’s already made good headway in improving student achievement, according to “Race to the Top” documents. The section, called “State Success Points,” represents a quarter of the grant application.

About 14 percent of the application depends on the state’s commitment to developing standards other states can later adopt on their own.

Another 11 percent is given based on the state’s recent track record for shifting more dollars to education each year and 9 percent is for using student data to drive instruction. An additional 3 percent — considered a tie-breaker — is given for developing a plan to help emphasize student studies on science, technology, engineering and math, called STEM. The application does not dictate any other specific areas of student study.

Another section includes turning around lowest-achieving schools. To do this, lawmakers expect to create a statewide “achievement” school district that will adopt those institutions and take over instructional oversight such as hiring and firing decisions.This section makes up 10 percent of the application and requires lawmakers to pass new legislation this week.

The application is due by 4:30 p.m. Jan. 19. Winning states will be announced in April.

The U.S. Department of Education will accept a second wave of applications on June 1, 2010, from states that missed the first deadline or were rejected in the Spring.

Upcoming Leglislative Session’s Focus on Fiscal Concerns

Lawmakers say they don’t need a crystal ball to know that passing a budget will likely be the greatest challenge in the Tennessee General Assembly this year.

“This is going to be my 14th budget, and this is going to be the toughest one,” said Rep. Mark Maddox, D-Dresden.

The current year’s budget is roughly $1.5 billion in the hole due to lackluster state revenues, said Sen. Republican Leader Mark Norris, a lawyer from Collierville. With unemployment up and family incomes down, next year doesn’t look much better.

Because 2010 is an election year, lawmakers will be cautious not to upset voters too much, which makes filling the hole with a tax increase unpopular and unlikely, said Maddox. Last fall, Bredesen asked state departments to highlight ways they can cut up to 9 percent from their budget.

The legislature could also dabble with cleaning up the guns in bars legislation, moving more money to the TNInvestco to invest in capital investment firms, increasing transparency and possibly paring down programs the Tennessee lottery is funding, lawmakers said.

First on lawmakers’ 2010 calendar, though, is a special session designed to try and help Tennessee gobble up a chunk of $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” education grants. To do that, the legislature will have to tie teacher evaluations to student test scores before the Jan. 19 deadline.

Gov. Phil Bredesen also wants lawmakers consider linking the state’s higher education funding formula more heavily with performance measures like higher degree completion rates. That topic, too, might come up in the Jan. 12 special session.

“These are all things that need to be done. I’m not sure they need to be rushed in a special session when we have other burning and otherwise unresolved financial issues,” said Norris.

Charter Schools Could Offer Ideas in Teacher Evaluation Talks

Charter school proponents are hopeful the governor and state lawmakers might take a page or two from their playbook as they discuss education reform in the upcoming special legislative session.

Gov. Phil Bredesen wants lawmakers to tie at least 50 percent of teacher evaluations to student performance, in order to qualify for additional federal stimulus dollars.

“This year we’ve had a couple of unique, unexpected opportunities drop in our lap that I believe will allow us to focus on the entire education pipeline in one fell swoop and hopefully make some changes that will be felt for years to come,” Bredesen said in a press release.

During the Jan. 12 special session, Bredesen wants lawmakers to find a way to tie K-12 teacher tenure to student performance in order to line the state up for a chunk of $4.35 billion in federal “Race to the Top” grant dollars. He also wants to see changes in higher education funding.

The legislation needs to be approved by the time the state files its federal application on Jan. 19.

Charter school principals and teachers already use student performance data, said Matt Throckmorton, executive director of the Tennessee Association of Charter Schools.

But charter schools, which act as experimental teaching labs, use those statistics to drive instruction and improve teacher development, Throckmorton said, which is not always tied to teacher evaluations.

Giving teachers those data tools help them stay on top of student performance. Teachers regularly give frequent but short tests to measure student comprehension and help identify which strategies better reach the class, Throckmorton said.

He said this creative use of student performance data will take education “to the next level.”

Twenty-two of the publicly-funded, privately-run schools are currently operating across the state. Another school will open in Nashville next summer and as many as six more new schools are being founded in Memphis.

Unlike traditional public schools, charter schools are evaluated based on how well they meet student achievement goals outlined in their charter contract with the local school district. Schools that fall short risk losing their charter.

The schools are filled with students who were attending failing schools, came from poor families or were failing in school them self, said Janel Lacy, spokeswoman for Nashville Mayor Karl Dean. The city announced in early December it would open a charter school incubator, a program that takes a hands-on approach to training future principals how to run a school.

The Tennessee Education Association says strongly tying student performance to teacher evaluations is a bad idea because teachers can’t control all of the factors that go into a successful test score.

Parents have to be held accountable, too, said union president Earl Wiman.

“We understand that student performance may need to be a part of a teacher’s evaluation. But what we’re saying is it doesn’t need to play a major role in the evaluations,” said Wiman.

Education Group says State Drink-Vending Rules Too Strict

A rule designed to prevent children from gulping down too many liquid calories at school is having the impractical effect of banning all but bottled water in some campus vending machines, says the Tennessee Association of Middle Schools.

Currently, the state Board of Education, with input from the Department of Education and the Department of Health, passes regulations governing “nutritionally sound portion sizes” for food and drink products sold to students of middle-school age or younger.

The result has been that schools are prohibited from selling any drinks in containers larger than 8 oz., and it is preventing schools from selling juices — not to mention costing districts money in vending sales to children, complained Richie Stevensen, principal of Lake Forest Middle School in Cleveland.

Stevensen, testifying before the House Education Committee this week, said his school district, located about 30 miles west of Chattanooga, is losing out on as much as $6,000 a year in vending machine income as a result of the ban.

“We can’t sell an orange juice or an apple juice or anything because none of the manufacturers with the Minute Maid Corporation, PepsiCo, manufacture a product either 10 or 12 ounces,” said Stevensen, who also represented the middle schools association before the committee.

The state Department of Public Health opposes the proposal, saying that with one in ten Tennesseans suffering from diabetes, increasing portion sizes will weaken the state government’s fight against fat.

The smaller bottles help teach children portion sizes, says Nan Allison, a registered dietitian and lobbyist for the Tennessee Dietetic Association. Larger sizes mean an extra 100 calories a day or an extra five to ten pounds a year.

Nationally, 7.8 percent of people have diabetes, according to the American Diabetes Association. Tennessee’s rate is 10.3 percent, according to the Department of Public Health.

The Senate voted 30-1 in favor of its version of the bill back in March.

A minor political kerfuffle flared at the time after the sponsor of the legislation, Republican Sen. Dewayne Bunch, made a comment about “nutritional Nazi police on school campuses” during the brief Senate floor discussion.

State Democratic Party chairman Chip Forrester later seized on Bunch’s remark, calling it “the height of insensitivity.” Bunch later apologized and indicated he was merely channeling Seinfeld’s “The Soup Nazi” episode.

Report: TN School Safety Gets Passing Grades

The state comptroller’s office says there’s always more that could be done to protect students from harm on school grounds, but that most K-12 facilities are meeting recognized safety benchmarks.

State funding for school safety has dropped over recent years, falling from $12.1 million in 2004 to $9.7 million in 2008, legislative research analyst Susan Mattson, who works for the state comptroller’s Offices of Research and Education Accountability, told members of the Joint Education Oversight Committee Tuesday. It’s unclear as yet how much of the remaining state funds will survive the latest round of budget reductions.

“Schools need additional guidance and tools to determine the appropriate balance between security and prevention methods to most effectively address the potential for violent incidents in their particular circumstances,” according the comptroller’s report (pdf).

But not all the changes to make schools safer need to cost more money, said Mike Herrmann, executive director of the Office of School Safety and Learning Support.

Schools should be teaming up with local police departments, mental health officials and others to develop a safe school environment, he said.

“Really what we’re talking about is tools. And in a lot of ways, the tools are only as effective as the people using them,” Herrmann said.

He added that Vanderbilt Mental Health has helped train school counselors to develop a trauma support team, a practice which has been ongoing for the last four years. Meanwhile, more than 550 police officers have regular contact with Tennessee schools, Herrmann said.

Oftentimes, making schools safer could boil down to something as simple as making sure students have adults they’re comfortable confiding in and who can accurately identify troubled students.

A key to better safety, Mattson said, is devising better violence prevention and security measures.

Mattson also recommended the state consider standardizing building security measures. And the state should develop more statewide assessments of overall school safety, offer guidance on school safety methods and consider how to more effectively allocate state and federal dollars to achieve the best results.

Over the last 15 years, nine violent incidents were reported on school
property, resulting in 10 deaths, she said.

In 2007, six percent of students said they have carried guns to
school, compared to 18 percent in 1997, according to Mattson.

Committee Questions Need for Sex-Offender Oversight Board

NASHVILLE – A state panel that develops standards and guidelines for monitoring and treating sex offenders after they’re released from prison is in limbo due to spotty board member attendance at regular meetings.

Lawmakers discussing whether or not to advise the full Legislature that the Tennessee Sex Offender Treatment Board should continue to function chose to offer “no recommendation” this week after the board failed to produce members’ attendance records for the last two years as requested by a recent Division of State Audit performance inquiry.

Rep. G.A. Hardaway, a member of the Joint Government Operations committee, also called it “disturbing” that members known to be repeatedly absent from the treatment board’s meetings typically never sent proxies to sit, observe or act in their place.

At a subcommittee hearing Oct. 21, the Memphis Democrat said he wonders if the absences reflect a fading need to keep the board running.

Hardaway added that he wouldn’t support the board’s continued existence until it had at least complied with the request by auditors to examine board-meeting attendance records.

“I don’t see how we can evaluate this…we don’t even know if the board members are showing up,” said Hardaway.

Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, who chaired the hearing, warned that “failure to respond to questions appropriately” by members of boards, commissions and departments called before Joint Government Operations subcommittees for performance reviews will result in a “no recommendation” finding. A “no recommendation” subcommittee stamp means that a board or agency will have to convince the full Government Operations committee of its legitimate necessity during the 2010 legislative session, or face sunset termination.

Created in 1995, the board is charged with establishing best-practices for how sex offenders should be treated after they’re released to ensure public safety. The board designs treatment programs, trains treatment providers and assesses the likelihood of recidivism.

Board member Dr. J. Michael Adler, a licensed psychological examiner, says the board’s goal is to change behaviors among sex offenders by setting guidelines and offering training to treatment providers.

Adler was nominated to chair the board after Dr. Jeanine Miller, former director for the Department of Corrections’ mental health division, left the post after taking a job with TennCare.

Adler says less than 15 percent of sex offenders are rearrested after undergoing treatment programs. Sex offenders who haven’t undergone treatment programs have a 30 percent chance of being arrested again for similar acts, he said.