On the uptick

Greater Memphis gets encouraging report on student graduation rates

PHOTO: Brad Vest/The Commercial Appeal
Booker T. Washington High School seniors toss their graduation caps into the air at the conclusion of their 2016 graduation ceremony at the Orpheum Theatre.

Graduation rates for most Memphis-area schools climbed in 2015-16, with the city’s largest district enjoying an increase of almost 4 percent to 78.7 percent.

While well below the statewide average of 88.5 percent, the increased rate puts Shelby County Schools ahead of pace to reach the goal of 90 percent in its Destination 2025 strategic plan.

It’s also the second straight increase for the district, which saw a slight bump in 2014-15 based on about two dozen high schools.

“I’m extremely proud of this accomplishment,” Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said in a statement released Tuesday. “So much credit goes to our teachers, school leaders and district staff who work so hard every day to implement effective strategies for preparing our students for on-time graduation.”

Graduation rates for other Memphis-area districts were also up, except for in Millington and Tennessee’s Achievement School District:

  • Arlington Community Schools rose 1 percent to 96.4 percent;
  • Bartlett City Schools up 3.1 percent to 88.6 percent;
  • Collierville Schools rose 1.1 percent to 92.4 percent;
  • Germantown Municipal Schools increased 4.9 percent to 94.4 percent;
  • Millington Municipal Schools fell 3.1 percent to 81 percent.
  • The Achievement School District’s rate dropped more than 7 percent to 40.4 percent.

It’s significant to note that the ASD is tasked with turning around the state’s lowest-performing schools. Its graduation rate is based on four state-run high schools in Memphis, including two alternative schools.

“The dip in grad rate isn’t reflective of fewer ASD students graduating overall,” said Margo Roen, chief of strategy and portfolio management. “Instead it speaks to the challenges that many of our students have in graduating on time based on the number of earned credit hours they have when their schools join the ASD.”

Meanwhile, the statewide graduation rate of 88.5 percent is the highest on record since Tennessee changed to a more rigorous calculation of graduation rates in 2011. The state reported that about 60 percent of Tennessee’s 146 districts saw their graduation rates increase or stay the same when compared with last year’s rates.

Tennessee’s rising graduation rate received accolades from a national group last year for consistently outpacing the rest of the nation. However, another recent study pointed out the “jaw-dropping” gap between graduation rates and college readiness for black students in Tennessee. Seventy-eight percent of the state’s black students graduated from high school in 2013, but only 4 percent tested as college-ready in all four ACT-tested subjects, according to the report.

“… As more Tennessee students are earning their diplomas, we must ensure that they are all leaving with the knowledge and skills to be successful in college and the workforce,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said Tuesday.

Other highlights of Tennessee’s 2015-16 graduation report include:

  • Twelve districts improved their graduation rates by 5 percentage points or more. Districts with the most significant gains were Alvin C. York, 18.1 percent; Tullahoma City, 11.6 percent; Trenton Special School District, 11.1 percent; and Grundy County, 10 percent.
  • 95 districts — over 70 percent of the districts in the state — have graduation rates at or above 90 percent, up from 81 districts last year. Fentress County, Alcoa City, South Carroll Special School District, Milan Special School District, Meigs County, and Crockett County all had graduation rates at or above 99 percent.
  • 76 districts — roughly 60 percent of districts in the state — had graduation rates at or above 90 percent for both 2014-15 and 2015-16.

schools of the future

What does the ‘future of work’ mean for schools? Big claims leave educators with more questions than answers

PHOTO: Photo by Andrew Burton/Getty Images

“It’s time to update our schools so they work better for today’s students,” Stacey Childress, the head of NewSchools Venture Fund, said earlier this month at the organization’s annual summit — a who’s who of charter school leaders, their funders, their advocates, and others promoting school choice or education technology.

“With the twin forces of automation and globalization just absolutely changing the very nature of opportunity and work, this is more important than ever.”

It’s a message that’s hard to miss.

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos recently told the Wall Street Journal that schools need to change because by the time current kindergarteners reach the job market, 65 percent of jobs will be newly invented. The XQ Initiative to reinvent high school claims that the “jobs of tomorrow will look totally different than those of today or the recent past.” A special report in Education Week on the future of work says that “technological change, globalization, and climate instability are happening at an accelerating pace all across the world.”

These warnings of dramatic change are increasingly being used to promote advocates’ favored solutions for improving schools, and the results are trickling down into real classrooms — not just through the expansion of established career and technical education programs, for example, but with calls to upend traditional schooling altogether.

Dig into these claims about our changing economy, though, and you end up knee-deep in mixed messages and muddled statistics. While there is good reason to think that America’s job market will look different in the years to come, some of the data being used to make that point in the education world is overstated or misleading.

That’s leaving educators and policymakers wondering how best to prepare students, especially since one commonly promoted strategy, expanding the use of technology in schools, may be promising but is largely unproven as a way to improve learning.

Diane Whitmore Schanzenbach, an education economist at Northwestern University, agrees the economy is evolving and schools need to pay attention. But calls to respond with dramatic overhauls are worrying, too.

“The risk of doing it wrong and really making a disaster is bigger,” she said.

Some researchers suggest substantial change in the economy is likely in the near future.

Leaders trying to understand the connection between education and the workforce often turn to two reports that model the future economy: a 2013 study out of Oxford — which found that 47 percent of U.S. employment was at risk of being automated out of existence at some point — and a more recent report by the consulting firm McKinsey.

Michael Chui, one of the authors of the McKinsey report, argues that there’s a good chance that the American economy will face substantial change.

“Roughly 50 percent of the time people are at work, they’re doing activities which theoretically could be automated by adapting currently demonstrated technology,” Chui told attendees at the conference hosted by NewSchools Venture Fund, which funds other education organizations. “These technologies will affect everyone.”

Another recent study, by Harvard economist David Deming, found that the skills employers prioritized had changed somewhat in the 2000s to place greater emphasis on social skills, though mathematical skills were still highly valued.

“Our best guess is that what people are going to be good at, that robots aren’t good at, are these non-cognitive skills: caring for people, getting along,” said Schanzenbach.

There are a number of reasons to temper those predictions, though.

Those findings sound pretty intimidating. But the fine print of some of these studies suggest their conclusions are somewhat less clear.

Both the McKinsey and Oxford statistics refer to jobs or tasks that could, in theory, be automated — neither predicts that they all necessarily will be. “We make no attempt to estimate how many jobs will actually be automated,” write the Oxford researchers, pointing out that many factors affect whether a technology is adopted, including cost and government regulation.

The McKinsey report predicts that by 2030, 23 percent of current work hours will be automated, far from the 50 percent theoretical figure, which Chui said likely won’t happen “any time soon.”

There’s another reason to think the pace of oncoming change may be overstated. Although it doesn’t get much attention in education circles, economists are increasingly worried about declining, not rising, rates of productivity and innovation, referred to as “economic dynamism.” There have been fewer people moving between states or switching jobs, fewer start-ups, and generally sluggish economic growth compared to before the Great Recession.

Meanwhile, predictions by the federal Bureau of Labor Statistics for professions poised to add the most new jobs between 2016 and 2026 include software engineers but also personal-care aides, fast food cooks, nurses, janitors, and waiters. Those aren’t the positions that are typically the focus of conversations about the future of work.

Where that leaves teachers and schools is not entirely clear, and some say that ambiguity makes preparing students all the more challenging.

“I don’t think the onus is on schools to change to meet the needs of an economy that’s full of uncertainty,” said Nate Bowling, an AP Government teacher in Tacoma, Washington and a former state teacher of the year. “There should be a certain skill set that we endow students with … but [to prepare for specific jobs], what we really need is school–industry partnerships.”

Some frequently cited stats are misleading or wrong.

There’s another problem with the prevailing narrative about jobs of the future: some advocates have a habit of relying on bad data.

One statistic in particular has gained a lot of traction: more than half of the jobs of 2030 “have not even been invented yet.” This figure — or something like it — has been repeated over and over by DeVos, by North Carolina Governor Roy Cooper, and by Childress and her organization, among many others.

They often cite specific reports, but when Chalkbeat previously tried to track down the basis of those numbers we hit a dead end. The claims rely on unexplained predictions by “experts” or even popular YouTube videos, but not specific analyses. (A spokesperson for NewSchools noted that Childress described this prediction as “aggressive” and said that the group relies on a number of different sources to inform its work, including its own interviews with teachers and students.)

The McKinsey report suggests, based on historical data, that just 8 or 9 percent of jobs in 2030 will be new occupations.

Here’s another common but misleading claim: that millennials are changing jobs at faster rates than the previous generation. In fact, more comprehensive federal data shows that the latest generation is actually switching jobs at a similar or slightly lower rate than previous ones did at the same age.

“If you want to generalize about philanthropy a bit, there’s this tendency time and again to make inflated or headline-grabbing claims about either what they’re going to accomplish or why there’s this enormous need for these investments,” said Sarah Reckhow, who studies education philanthropy at Michigan State University.

Some say the solution is to bring more tech into schools. Will that help?

Even if you accept the idea that the economy is about to see substantial change, what are schools supposed to do? And are schools able to do it?

Some of the ideas that get discussed include placing a greater emphasis on teaching social skills, changing accountability systems to focus less on standardized test results (and thus better measuring those social skills), and adding job training programs for careers with the most promising outlooks.

Another consistent one is to expand the use of technology in schools — to better engage students in traditional academics or to more directly prepare students for jobs requiring tech skills.

NewSchools, for instance, recently launched a future of work initiative that awards $50,000 to $150,000 grants to “entrepreneurs developing technology-enabled” products “that will help [students] succeed in the jobs of tomorrow.” The McKinsey report on future jobs suggests embracing “digital learning resources,” which it describes as more flexible than traditional classroom setups. Teaching computer science is also increasingly popular, backed by groups like Code.org that say students will benefit by gaining both computational thinking and career skills.

And some of the same groups or leaders emphasizing concerns about the future of work are also enthusiasts for technology-based “personalized learning.”

“Whether it’s technology as a subject matter to be taught more effectively in schools or technology as a medium for delivering education … I see it as a revolving set of arguments that tend to coalesce around the same underlying strategy and principle,” said Reckhow. “There can be really good reasons for [expanding technology], but it would be nice to have good data to support that.”

Although advocates can point to some encouraging evidence about the use of technology in schools, research is still limited and benefits are sometimes overstated.

“Whatever investments we make in ed tech tools, we want to be very thoughtful about how these tools are implemented in the classroom and whether or not they make teachers lives easier versus harder,” said NewSchools managing partner Tonika Cheek Clayton.

NewSchools sees another potential use for technology in helping students learn about the workforce.

“Ed tech can provide a platform and an opportunity for students to connect with professionals that are outside of their school environment,” Clayton said.

A recent study found mixed evidence that this sort of approach could work. A partially virtual career mentorship program in New York City slightly improved 10th grade students’ self-reported critical thinking and college aspirations, but it had no effect on students’ grades, attendance, credits earned, or their likelihood of doing things like studying for the ACT or visiting a college.

Childress of NewSchools argues that innovation means trying new things even when there is limited evidence. “For those of us who are working towards steady improvement, [we should] resist saying that innovators shouldn’t try anything that isn’t already proven,” she said at this month’s summit. NewSchools also promotes broader ideas like improving access to college and career counseling and using “experiential learning” to connect school and work.

Bowling says certain basics are still overlooked in conversations about preparing students for the future: proposals to increase school funding to pay for things like highly qualified teachers, more guidance counselors, or the hardware that makes technology programs viable.

“We want students to learn computer science,” he said. “OK – who’s literate in computer science [and] is going to teach computer science for the salary that we pay K-12 teachers in the United States right now?”

Accolade

In his last year as governor, Tennessee’s Haslam picked for national education award

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam celebrates in 2016 after Tennessee outpaced almost all other states in gains on a science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. The outgoing Republican governor was named Tuesday as the 2018 recipient of the James Bryant Conant Award, a national honor recognizing outstanding individual contributions to American education.

Gov. Bill Haslam will receive one of the nation’s most prestigious education honors for his policy work to expand college access for Tennessee students and prepare them for the workforce.

The Republican governor, who will finish eight years in office next January, is the 2018 recipient of the James Bryant Conant Award, which recognizes outstanding individual contributions to American education.

Haslam is scheduled to accept the award next month in Washington, D.C., during the national forum of the Education Commission of the States, a nonpartisan group that helps governors, legislators, and other state officials develop education policies.

Announcing its decision on Tuesday, the commission cited Haslam’s leadership to help students be job-ready through his Drive to 55 initiative. The program aims to increase the number of Tennesseans with degrees or credentials after high school to 55 percent by 2025.

Haslam also spearheaded Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect, two college scholarship programs that offer two years of tuition-free education to high school graduates and adults. After Tennessee pioneered those efforts, 18 states created similar programs.

In addition, Haslam’s home state has seen academic gains in its K-12 schools since he became governor in 2011. The Republican built on the plan he inherited from his predecessor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, after the state won a $500 million federal Race to the Top award. From 2011 to 2016, Tennessee was among the fastest improving states in America on the Nation’s Report Card. And last school year, the state’s high school graduation rate rose to a record-high 89 percent.

PHOTO: TN.Gov
Gov. Bill Haslam visits with Rutherford County students at Central Magnet School in Murfreesboro in 2017.

“Gov. Haslam’s unwavering commitment to educational attainment — and providing all students with the opportunity for a quality postsecondary education — is admirable,” said Jeremy Anderson, the commission’s president. “The Drive to 55 and programs such as Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect exemplify his visionary leadership and set the bar for excellence in education around the country.”

The award is named for a co-founder of the Education Commission of the States.

The most recent Tennessean to receive the honor was William Sanders, the statistician and researcher who developed Tennessee’s system known as TVAAS for evaluating teachers and schools. Sanders accepted the award in 2015.

Other past recipients include former U.S. Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall, American educator and Memphis native E.D. Hirsch, children’s television icon Fred Rogers, Children’s Defense Fund founder Marian Wright Edelman, and U.S. Sen. Lamar Alexander, who is also a former Tennessee governor and U.S. education secretary.