year in review

Ten stories defining Tennessee public education in 2016

Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen have helped steer Tennessee education policy during a challenging year.

From testing and standards to school funding and bus safety, Tennessee has navigated a tumultuous and historic year. Here are 10 defining stories for K-12 public education in 2016:

Tennessee wasn’t ready for TNReady.

The state began the new year poised to launch a new era of testing and accountability. It ended 2016 by releasing scores for only a third of its grades — and struggling to rebuild trust with educators, students and parents following a testing fiasco. The months in between were among the most frustrating, arduous and disappointing in the history of Tennessee schools as technical and logistical problems led to the eventual cancellation of TNReady, the state’s first online assessment, for grades 3-8. As a result, most students (and teachers) who had prepared all year were left wondering if they were on target in math and English language arts. “#WeDidntGetToTakeIt. Bummer,” wrote fifth-grade Memphis teacher Cheryl Rose, summing up the collective frustration of Tennessee educators. On a wider scale, the void leaves Tennessee with challenges for years to come, including how to address federal requirements to use test scores in tracking achievement gaps and education equities. The state also uses the data to determine which low-performing schools to take over, and districts use the information to evaluate teacher performance and identify students who need intervention. The stakes will be even higher in 2017 as the State Department of Education works to right the ship under new testmaker Questar.

School spending gets another boost under Gov. Bill Haslam.

Haslam wants to be known as Tennessee’s “education governor” and, for a second straight year, successfully lobbied for increased spending on K-12 education. This year’s boost was by $200 million, mostly for teacher raises, although the impact varied and schools across the state still wanted for funding. The increase did nothing to stop three major funding lawsuits against the state by district leaders in Memphis, Chattanooga and, most recently, Nashville. Meanwhile, in its first response to the Memphis suit, state officials said they’re sticking by Tennessee’s school funding model.

Tennessee celebrates fastest growth in the nation — again.

Since 2013, Tennessee leaders have framed the state’s schools as the “fastest improving in the nation” due to growth on the Nation’s Report Card. This year’s results means the slogan isn’t going anywhere any time soon. Tennessee outpaced almost all other states in gains on a science exam administered by the National Assessment of Educational Progress, or NAEP, between 2009 and 2015. Though it’s impossible to ascertain exactly what’s led to the marked improvement, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave credit to higher academic standards.

Changes to academic standards are in the works for all four core subjects.

This is the final school year for teaching to the Common Core State Standards in Tennessee, which transitions next fall to newly named standards for math and English language arts. But that’s not all that’s changing. In the last year, Tennessee has undergone a flurry of activity to revise and update its standards, which identify what students are expected to know at each grade level. New science standards were approved recently by the State Board of Education and are due to reach classrooms by the fall of 2018. Social studies revisions have been far more controversial, with state leaders extending its public review this fall after getting pushback on proposals that streamline the standards at the expense of numerous historical events and people.


The Achievement School District pauses on school takeovers.

Tennessee’s school turnaround district has been at the center of the state’s education reform efforts and a controversial entity since beginning to take over low-performing schools in 2012. But this year, the ASD has stayed mostly under the radar after Superintendent Malika Anderson announced a one-year pause in takeovers. She cited the transition to TNReady, since test scores are the measure used to create the state’s list of “priority schools” eligible for state intervention. The “hold harmless year” has given the ASD an opportunity to focus on improving supports for its shrinking portfolio of charter networks, as well as its own administrative issues. Anderson said the district would authorize its next round of charter operators next spring for more potential takeovers in 2018-19. However, that timeline is now uncertain because of big changes that Tennessee is making in the way it addresses low-performing schools.

Considered a sure thing, tuition vouchers fizzle in the state legislature.

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Voucher opponents cheer Tennessee lawmakers after voucher legislation is tabled.

Support has grown in recent years for a tuition voucher bill, which appeared this year to be on track to finally pass as the Senate-approved bill hurtled toward the House floor for the first time. But that didn’t happen. As constituents rushed to their representatives with concerns about siphoning off much-needed funding from local public schools, the bill’s prime sponsor pulled the proposal at the last minute, saying he didn’t have the votes. Tennessee’s voucher tug-of-war continues next year, and the scales could tip following this year’s statehouse elections, which included financial backing from a pro-voucher group supported by Michigan billionaire Betsy DeVos, Donald Trump’s nominee for U.S. education secretary.

Uncertainty looms under President-elect Trump as Tennessee prepares for a sweeping new federal education law.

Donald Trump arrives in Washington, D.C., with a markedly different education philosophy than his predecessor. The president-elect has said he wants to eliminate or severely cut the U.S. Department of Education, the entity through which Tennessee won $500 million in Race to the Top funding to overhaul its schools. That overhaul, which began in 2010, has set the course for holding Tennessee schools accountable through test scores, teacher evaluations and state takeovers of chronically low-performing schools. State leaders want to stay the course but are making adjustments as they create the state’s new K-12 education plan in response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act, known as ESSA.

PHOTO: Meghan Mangrum

Chattanooga’s fatal school bus crash reopens the conversation on the cost of safety belts.

The tragic deaths of six elementary school students in November have state lawmakers talking about putting seat belts on school buses. It’s not the first time. A similar proposal was filed in the legislature in 2015 after two students and a teacher’s assistant were killed in a Knox County bus crash. Lawmakers later tabled the measure due to the price tag, but are resurrecting the idea after losing more youngsters in Chattanooga. The governor agreed. “It’s time to have that conversation,” Haslam said.

The state’s charter sector grows and evolves.  

Tennessee first introduced charter schools as a tool for innovation beginning in 2003 under a new state law. Today, about 100 of the publicly funded but independently operated schools serve about 30,000 students in Memphis, Nashville, Knoxville and Chattanooga, or about 3 percent of the state’s public school students. Now the focus is on overseeing the growing sector to ensure quality and improve processes — issues prompting new appeals this year to the State Board of Education and growing the panel’s influence over the sector.

Racial disparity on discipline gets a closer look.

Commissioner McQueen began to take a deeper look at school discipline this year, with an eye toward one day including discipline metrics in school accountability. “Startling” is how she described the latest discipline data showing that half of the state’s suspensions in 2014-15 were handed out in just 8 percent of schools, many of which serve black students in Memphis. The numbers are important as educators increasingly seek to use other forms of discipline that can address behavior problems while keeping students in school.

Which stories did we miss? Include your comments or email us at about education issues that are important to you.

Reporters Grace Tatter, Laura Faith Kebede and Caroline Bauman contributed to this report.

year in review

State leaders took a hard look at the teacher shortage in 2017

Retired English teacher Peggy Allen, center, speaks with Otis Principal Michelle Patterson, left, and Superintendent Kendra Anderson at Mama's, the town's lone restaurant. (Photo by Nic Garcia)

The problem of teacher shortages has plagued some Colorado school districts for years, but it reached a tipping point of sorts in 2017.

With a growing trove of anecdotes about teachers who can’t afford housing, who work second jobs to make ends meet or who leave the profession early, state education officials hit the road last summer. They conducted a series of town halls to learn more about the problem, which is particularly acute in the state’s rural areas and in certain grades and subjects.

The input they collected informed a sweeping strategic plan mandated by legislation passed during the 2017 session. It included recommendations ranging from student loan forgiveness to exploring the possibility of a minimum salary for teachers tied to the cost of living.

Some school districts also attacked facets of the teacher shortage issue with their own initiatives over the past year. Denver Public Schools considered converting an old elementary school into teacher housing, though it may not follow through, in part because of neighborhood opposition. In Aurora Public Schools, officials have partnered with a local university to give teacher prep students paid jobs at one elementary school while they take college classes.

The teacher shortage problem — and potential solutions — also came up at a recent panel discussion sponsored by the Denver-based Public Education and Business Coalition. A half-dozen superintendents weighed in on the issue, with several calling out Colorado’s failure to adequately or equitably fund schools.

year in review

How President Trump’s immigration policies made waves and stoked fears in Colorado schools in 2017

PHOTO: Melanie Asmar
Denver students walk to a rally September 5, 2017 to protest President Trump's decision to end DACA.

President Trump’s hard-line immigration policies had a profound effect on Colorado’s education community in 2017, with students taking to the streets, teachers recasting lesson plans, and school boards seeking to calm fears.

At a gathering at Denver’s South High School, a group of teenagers whose families fled persecution and war in their native countries decried Trump administration actions they say betray American values they hold dear.

Denver Public Schools took a number of steps this year as fears spread in immigrant communities about enforcement crackdowns under Trump, assuring families that the district will protect students’ constitutional rights. The state’s largest school district also joined with the Mexican consulate in those efforts and promised to build on their longstanding partnership.

Students made their voices heard loud and clear. In February, several Colorado school districts reported a spike in absences among students and staff during a “Day Without Immigrants,” a demonstration of  immigrants’ contributions to society.

At northeast Denver’s Bruce Randolph School, sixth and seventh graders in an English language development class spent an afternoon tweeting to President Trump about their experiences, pride, and fears.

Trump’s plans to roll back protections for undocumented immigrants who came to the U.S. as children generated a whole new wave of protest and concern.

Denver schools Superintendent Tom Boasberg predicted that repealing the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals policy, or DACA, would prove “catastrophic” for the school district and the city.

Not all superintendents were so vocal. Across Colorado, officials in districts with large numbers of immigrant students took different approaches to support kids without over-promising security they may not be able to guarantee.

In September, students from more than 20 Denver schools walked out of class and converged on a downtown college campus to protest President Trump’s order to end the DACA program.

The Aurora school board grappled with heightened concerns about immigration policy, too. Dozens of Aurora students and parents pressed the board to adopt a proposed resolution for “safe and inclusive” schools. The board ultimately adopted a resolution, but not before fault lines emerged over the intent.