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Huffman: TN Report Card a Tool for Improvement, Parental Involvement

The Tennessee Department of Education has released a searchable 2012 schools report card, which offers detailed breakdowns of successful and failing schools across the state.

“I actually think this report card gives a better lens into the school’s absolute performance in growth,” state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman said at the unveiling of the website Wednesday. For example, “If I were a parent in a low-performing school but with high growth I would feel like, ‘This is good, this is a good sign that the school is starting to make some progress.’”

Here’s the problem, though: For parents with students in failing schools, such as Brick Church Middle School in Davidson County, which has received ‘F’ grades from the state three years running for academic achievement in science, math and language, or in Memphis high schools which have double-digit dropout rates, there is little to be done except look at the numbers and hope for the best.

That’s because in many cases parents cannot select another school for their child. They are stuck with the hand they are dealt.

“Some districts have good choice opportunities. Other districts don’t,” Huffman said. “I think parents should be engaging themselves at the school level and engaging themselves at the district level to ask for and demand the kinds of choices and options that show that their kids have the ability to attend high-performing schools.”

Huffman’s comments come at a time when the debate over school choice has consumed Metro Nashville Public Schools officials. The Legislature next year will likely consider the creation of a statewide agency to authorize charter schools, taking away that power from local school boards.

Huffman said that he was pleased that the scorecard showed statewide upticks in both math and science.

“Most schools across the state had impressive gains,” Huffman said. “We feel good about our progress last year, but we also feel like there is a long way to go before we feel close to satisfied with how things are going.”

The scorecard also details categories such as disciplinary actions and dropout rates. For example, it shows the number of suspensions increased at Davidson County schools to 11,023 students in 2012 from 10,404 students in 2011.

So, how do failing schools get fixed? According to the state, one of the ways is providing more money to the schools.

“Well, we don’t punish low-performing schools,” Huffman said. Indeed, the lowest-scoring five percent of schools have a range of options from having the state take them over to being infused with additional cash to pay for more instructional help.

To search the state’s report card, click here.

To see the full Department of Education news release, click here.

Trent Seibert can be reached at trent@TNReport.com via Twitter @trentseibert or 615-669-9501.

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Education NewsTracker

In Memphis Merger, Here Comes the Judge

A judge has decided to personally mediate the talks between governments over the consolidation of the Memphis and Shelby County school systems, talks that one party has described as futile.

U.S. District Judge Samuel Hardy Mays ordered the Shelby County Schools, Shelby County Commission, Memphis City Schools, Memphis City Council, city of Memphis and state Department of Education to appear today, indicating that he would handle the talks directly after a court-appointed mediator failed to make headway, the Commercial Appeal reports.

Steve Mulroy, a county commissioner and law professor at the University of Memphis, said judicial mediation enhances the “arm-twisting” ability of a judge. The judge can signal strongly that he’s inclined to rule a particular way in order to nudge one or both parties from their stalemated positions.

The parties disagree over the process for merging the two systems. The city, council and commission seek an expanded county school board now, while Shelby County Schools favors a plan passed by the legislature and keeping the Memphis City Schools board as-is until the consolidation process is completed.

County Commissioner Walter Bailey, who represents the commission in the mediation, said the talks so far have been “futile.”

“If this new mediation process does not work Mays’ first order of business would be to decide whether to let the commission move ahead with appointments or grant an injunction sought by five of the seven county school board members to keep the appointment process on hold,” the Memphis Daily News reports.

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Education NewsTracker

Financial Disclosure Info Lacking on State Board of Education Members

Two state Board of Education members never filled out conflict-of-interest forms during their tenure, a review by the state comptroller’s office found, despite a board policy that requires disclosure to help guard against ethics lapses and ensure transparency.

In a review of disclosures submitted from 2006 through August 2009, auditors found that two members had not completed forms at all. One served for nine years without ever filling out a disclosure form.

The ethics forms are aimed at revealing whether board members or their families have financial stakes in companies licensed by the board or department.

The findings were detailed in a wide-ranging state audit of the state Board and Department of Education by the comptroller’s office. The audit criticized inspections of pre-K and other child care providers, poor handling of students’ identifying information that allowed some of it to be made public, and the process for verifying information submitted by local school districts.

In reviewing the board’s ethics forms, auditors found one form that was rendered useless because the signature was illegible, and there was no line on the form to print the filer’s name.

Auditors recommended the board require members and staff to complete the ethics forms on an annual basis and keep the forms on file for at least three years. In its response, the board agreed.

Other highlights:

  • In late 2008, a state contractor, Public Consulting Group, posted student data including dates of birth and Social Security numbers to a website that could be accessed via a Google search; in some cases, parents’ information was also made public. The data was removed about three months later, after a Metro Nashville Public Schools employee stumbled on the information. The audit says Public Consulting Group provided identity theft and credit monitoring services to the students and their parents, communicated the issue to the national credit bureaus, and implemented new policies to keep the problem from recurring. When news of the security breach broke in April 2009, a principal for the company expressed regret, telling WSMV Channel 4, “We take full responsibility for this incident, and we formally express our sincere apology to the students and parents of Metro Nashville Public Schools.”
  • Department staff were also faulted for poor control of personal information. Student names and Social Security numbers were included in two PowerPoint presentations available on the department website for about two years. Though one was removed immediately after auditors raised the issue, the second presentation was still available six months later. According to the audit, the department paid for credit monitoring services for the affected students and their families.
  • The department’s process for inspecting child care programs was weak, and recordkeeping was inconsistent, the audit found. Auditors became concerned after spot-checking files for three facilities kept at the central office in Nashville and finding that some inspection reports were missing in all three. They moved on to district offices, where they reviewed files for 110 programs and found inconsistencies in the forms and in the way they were filled out. Also puzzling were 10 annual inspection forms that were dated as completed on a weekend. According to the audit:

“The auditors questioned whether the inspections were as thorough as intended by the legislature. We also questioned certain activities in one field office. We referred our concerns to the appropriate staff at the Department of Education and submitted our work to the State Attorney General’s Office for further review.”

In its response, the department said it had developed new training and switched to an electronic system of inspections.

  • Auditors said the department should create a centralized system for verifying compliance information submitted by local school districts.
  • The board did not submit notices of vacancies to the Secretary of State for any of the seven board vacancies that occurred from 2006 to 2009, hindering the state from announcing open appointments, auditors found.
  • Auditors said the department should develop a formal plan to address teacher shortages. Even though the department responded to the criticism by producing a plan, staff later said that little had been done with it because of lack of funding. The plan apparently became obsolete before it could be used or implemented.