Education News Tax and Budget

TN Looks to NC, FL for Education Reform Ideas

There aren’t any silver-bullet reform measures to solve all education problems in Tennessee, but with the right combination of policy and school leadership, student achievement can be improved without increased spending, a new state report suggests.

Assigned to study states that’ve shown education progress without breaking taxpayers’ pocketbooks, Office of Research and Education Accountability Director Phillip Doss told the House Education Committee during a presentation last week that school systems in Florida and North Carolina tended to perform well “regardless of what we were analyzing.”

Both those states also show shared similarities with Tennessee’s per-pupil spending and family characteristics, and both have shown consistent gains in student test scores, OREA’s study indicated.

However, Florida and North Carolina were both given A’s for the percentage of students scoring at or above the proficient level when accounting for state expenditures. Tennessee received a C on the same report, which was sponsored by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.

In Florida, which passed its “A+ Plan” in 1999, schools with higher scores get more funding and autonomy. Schools with poorer performances are required to implement state sanctioned reforms.

In addition, the state offers a variety of nontraditional school options, including charter schools and its “virtual school” program, which allows students to take distance and online courses.

Florida is among states in the vanguard of the school-choice movement, and is ranked third for number of charter schools and second for charter-school enrollment.

Like Florida, North Carolina offers non-traditional options, too. Students there can earn a high school diploma and two years of college credit simultaneously.

“They focused on teacher policy as well,” said OREA Assistant Director Russell Moore. “Beginning teachers are required to participate in a three year induction program.”

North Carolina conducts teacher working conditions surveys, Moore said. Results showed “effective leadership” is essential for recruiting and retaining quality teachers.

Another North Carolina program provides outstanding high school seniors with college scholarships in exchange for a four-year teaching commitment.

“Policies may look similar from state to state, but we believe the implementation is where the difference is made,” Moore said.

He also cited a study on the Chicago education system, which included a look at schools with disadvantaged student populations. The study notes five key elements required for student success: school leadership; parent-community ties; faculty and staff capacity; safety and order; strong curriculum; and instructional support.

“Those supports have to work in combination, in tandem. They have to be interwoven, and schools have to be strong on all of these to show improvement,” Moore said. “(The researchers) likened it to baking a cake –without the right ingredients the whole enterprise falls flat.”

Rep. Harry Brooks, R-Knoxville, chairman of the House Education Committee, said his goal for Tennessee education is to lead the Southeast, and incorporating policies that work in North Carolina and Florida into the Volunteer State’s system would seem an appropriate strategy for success.

“I think the targeting of North Carolina and Florida is critical,” said Brooks “If we can exceed their competency and output, we will accomplish substantial gains in this state.”

Education News Tax and Budget

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.