plan b

Students in Memphis schools didn’t walk out this week, but they will soon

PHOTO: Alex Zimmerman
Students from the Urban Assembly Gateway School for Technology and Stephen T. Mather Building Arts Craftsmanship High School walked out Wednesday in New York City.

As thousands of students across America walked out of their schools Wednesday to demand action on gun violence, high school campuses in Memphis were strikingly quiet.

School is out for spring break this week in Shelby County Schools, the state’s Achievement School District, and the county’s suburban districts.

However, students from at least six Memphis-area high schools are planning similar walkouts for April 20, in conjunction with the 19th anniversary of the Columbine High School shooting that killed 13 students and wounded 20 others in Littleton, Colorado.

So far, student-organized walkouts are on the calendar for White Station, Whitehaven, Germantown, Collierville, Houston, and Lausanne high schools. Like this week’s demonstrations, they will include at least 17 minutes of silence to honor the 17 people killed on Feb. 14 at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. There also will be voter registration drives for older students, and information will be distributed on how to contact state lawmakers.

But first, Memphis-area students plan to participate in the nationwide “March for Our Lives” on March 24. The event is being organized by Parkland survivors, who are rallying supporters in Washington, D.C., and in communities across the nation. The Memphis march will be held on a Saturday morning as students and other supporters walk from Clayborn Temple to the National Civil Rights Museum.

Students say they want to push state lawmakers to include student and teacher voices in their deliberations on how to make Tennessee schools safer. Currently, a school safety task force convened by Bill Haslam is holding meetings, and a bill to arm some Tennessee teachers is expected to be revived next week in the legislature.

Savanah Thompson, a student organizer who is a freshman at White Station High School, said she wouldn’t trust some teachers with a gun.

“If you lay a gun on top of that lack of trust, it’s only going to expand that divide between teachers and students,” she said. “Even though it’s meant to protect us, I don’t think it will help any.”

Thompson said students have been talking with school administrators about planned walkouts. She added that student organizers have not received threats of suspension or detention from school officials, as they have in some other communities.

Shelby County Schools is encouraging principals to work proactively with students organizers to ensure student safety.

“District leaders have continued to hold discussions on ways to embrace our students’ rights to free speech and expression on this important topic,” a spokeswoman said in a statement.

White Station senior Brittany Mensah said she hopes both the march and the walkouts will bring a greater sense of urgency to finding solutions for gun violence. For instance, she’d like a higher age limit to purchase guns and mandatory mental health examinations to “make sure that those who do hold guns are 100 percent responsible for them.”

“It’s honestly a shame that kids have to worry about if they’ll come out of the school alive or dead,” she said. “They should not have not have to worry about the status of their life during the school day.”

Chalkbeat reporter Caroline Bauman contributed to this story.

working toward proficiency

Maine went all in on ‘proficiency-based learning’ — then rolled it back. What does that mean for the rest of the country?

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Students work on English and math skills. Hawthorne Elementary School, in Warren Township, Indiana has adopted a "competency-based" learning model where kids can move on to other material once they've shown they have mastered a skill or concept.

When Ted Finn first heard about the new way of running a high school, he was excited.

Forget students squeaking by with Cs and moving on without truly understanding math or biology. Throw out the idea that a student has to pass a collection of classes to earn a diploma — instead, tell them what essential skills they need. Instead of letting a bad test grade derail a student, give them multiple chances to demonstrate what they know.

“The idea of having an identified set of standards and expectations that would be put out there, so that … everybody would know that if you had earned credit in, say, an Algebra I class, you did in fact meet specific identified standards — at first I was thinking, this is great,” said Finn, a longtime Maine educator and the principal of Gray-New Gloucester High School, about 20 miles from Portland.

For the last several years, he has been part of an ambitious experiment to take that approach, known as proficiency-based education, statewide. In 2012, Maine passed a law changing how high school diplomas were awarded. To earn one, students would have to demonstrate that they had mastered material in eight subjects. This advocates said, would better prepare students to compete in the future economy.

But the latest developments suggest that Maine may become a cautionary tale rather than the successful proof point advocates had hoped for.

Across the state, districts struggled to define what “proficiency” meant and teachers struggled to explain to students how they would be graded. Those challenges, plus strong backlash from parents, caused the state to scrap the experiment earlier this year, allowing districts the choice to return to traditional diplomas.

“If you don’t have the buy-in of your community, you’re in for a world of hurt,” Finn explained.

Maine’s meltdown matters because the ideas at the core of the state’s efforts are influencing states and school districts across the country. Forty-eight states have adopted policies to promote “competency-based” education to varying degrees, often at the urging of a constellation of influential philanthropies, including the Nellie Mae Foundation, which poured at least $13 million into Maine’s effort.

Meanwhile, new research documents the challenges that beset the effort seemingly from day one. And there remains little evidence that proficiency-based education has boosted student learning, in Maine or elsewhere.

“A lot of folks are looking closely at what’s happened in Maine and trying to draw lessons from it,” said Charlie Toulmin, the policy director of the Nellie Mae Foundation.

Maine schools quickly faced hurdles

Earlier in 2012, the Massachusetts-based Nellie Mae Foundation awarded nearly $9 million to two of Maine’s largest school districts, Portland and Sanford. The money was meant to help them adopt what the organization calls “student-centered” approaches. That includes what’s called mastery, competency, or proficiency-based learning, which means that students progress at their own pace, moving on only when they demonstrate they’ve learned a certain topic.

Those districts quickly got to work. “Parents may ultimately stop seeing report cards with A, B, or C grades on it and instead start seeing what it is that their student can do,” the Sanford superintendent said.

Those district’s moves made what came next seem less radical than it might otherwise have. With bipartisan support, Maine lawmakers passed the bill revamping graduation requirements statewide, titled “An Act To Prepare Maine People for the Future Economy.” It required all districts to begin awarding diplomas based on student proficiency in several years.

Then it fell to districts and schools to make sense of the new rules — a complicated endeavor that sometimes meant scrapping key elements of how high school traditionally worked.

Each district was tasked with determining what it meant for a student to be “proficient” in the subjects Maine required. Officials knew that if they set standards too high, an unprecedented number of students could fail to graduate. Too low, and it would defeat the purpose of the whole exercise.

Those questions reverberated in schools, too. Schools weren’t required to change their grading systems, and some held onto their A-Fs. Teachers in many others starting awarding students scores of 1 through 4, with 3 equalling proficient, for each of the key standards.

The law required that students be able to demonstrate that proficiency in a variety of ways, whether through a traditional exam, a portfolio of work, a project, or a performance. But what that meant varied widely between classrooms, creating headaches for students.

Many let students take and retake tests to prove they were proficient, and some stopped grading homework or classwork altogether.

“Each teacher has their own system,” Ellie Roy, a senior at Gray-New Gloucester High School, told the Hechinger Report last year.

Evan Cyr, a high school teacher in Auburn, Maine, said the changes forced him to get “really explicit with students” about the connection between the work they were doing in class and the standards that they would actually be tested on.

At the same time, teachers began evaluating students on things like being a critical thinker or an informed citizen — qualities that were included in the new graduation requirements.

The shifts left plenty of students and parents confused and frustrated. Proficiency was the goal, but doesn’t 3 out of 4 equate to a C? Would out-of-state colleges be able to make sense of the new and confusing transcripts? And how did any of these scores translate into the information that undergirds many of the traditional trappings of high school, like sports eligibility, class rankings, and a valedictorian?

Research, including a series of papers released by the University of Southern Maine and a  study funded by Nellie Mae released this month, has examined how a number of districts responded to those challenges.

They found that most teachers continued using traditional exams, not portfolios or performances. Some teachers remained overwhelmed by the prospect of helping struggling students clear the bar without more guidance.

“We’re only till the end of quarter one, and they’re already not able to meet the standards from quarter one of that class, so it’s very concerning,” one special education teacher told researchers. “How is this going to work? And to be honest, nobody really … has a good answer for us.”

Others remained concerned that allowing students to demonstrate proficiency whenever they wanted could have unintended consequences. Cyr said this was the most controversial aspects with parents in his district. “Some of our students have developed some bad habits that are really going to plague them about deadlines,” said one teacher.

A few students agreed. “I just feel like I’m not getting challenged enough because I know if I don’t pass it, I can just do it again and do it again,” one 10th-grader told researchers.

Concerns began mounting among district leaders, too, about how the changes might affect their graduation rates. Since 2011, Maine, like virtually every other state in the country, has seen its graduation rate climb.

“We heard school administrators indicate that their graduation rate wasn’t going to plummet — because they would just change their definition of proficiency,” said Erika Stump, one of the researchers.

Then there was the issue of funding. Districts got a 0.1 percent boost in state funding to implement the law, which in most cases amounted to just a few thousand dollars. This ran headlong into some of the ramped-up graduation requirements, like proficiency in a foreign language. One Maine district resorted to purchasing the Rosetta Stone program after being unable to find French or Spanish teachers.

Nellie Mae tried to fill in some of that funding gap. The foundation has given nearly $9 million since 2010 to the nonprofit Great Schools Partnership to help schools implement the law and to build support for the policy. The state department of education was also supposed to provide support; it created a help website, including a best practices page also funded by Nellie Mae.

But the foundation’s outsize role has drawn criticism. “The proficiency-based diploma law has created a niche market for a special group of education ‘consultants’ with financial backing, mostly from the Nellie Mae Foundation, to dictate to policymakers what a diploma should mean,” one skeptical Republican state legislator wrote in March.

Toulmin of Nellie Mae said the philanthropy wasn’t the driving force some made it out to be. “There was already some energy in different places of the state to do this before any of our support came along,” he said.

It’s unclear whether Maine’s new approach led to better results

Did all of that change help students?

The patchwork of local policies mean it’s difficult to measure just how much instruction in Maine high schools changed. The recent Nellie Mae-funded report found that across 11 high schools, most students still weren’t experiencing much “personalized” instruction.

It did find that students who were exposed to more of the approach had slightly lower SAT scores but a higher feeling of engagement in school, though the study couldn’t show whether the proficiency-based approach was the cause of either one.

As for educators, a survey found that only 18 percent of high school teachers believed that the new graduation requirements “increase academic rigor.” But some did say it pushed them to focus more intensely on struggling students. In a number of places, schools added tutoring and after-school programs to help kids who were behind.

“I want them to meet the standard, and the only way to meet some of those kids is to sit down one-on-one,” one math teacher told researchers. “I’ve done a lot more conferencing, and a lot more walking around the room, and a lot more helping them than I have before.”

Any educational successes, though, weren’t enough to keep the experiment from becoming a political failure.

Earlier this year, talk of changing the law attracted hundreds of comments from parents and teachers, sometimes spurring fierce protest.

The state legislature soon conceded. Lawmakers repealed the requirement that districts issue proficiency-based diplomas in June — before a single class of students statewide was required to earn them. Maine Governor Paul LePage, who backed the 2012 law, signed off on the changes in July.

A few districts quickly jumped at the chance to scrap the proficiency-based diplomas.

“Student achievement will be recognized as it has historically been recognized with honor roll, with valedictorian, salutatorian, top 10 percent of the class, some of the historical things that we’re familiar with will be in place,” explained a principal in York, Maine.

Other districts have announced they’re going to keep going. The state department of education says it doesn’t have a count on how many districts have moved back to the traditional system.

Finn, the principal at Gray-New Gloucester High, is still optimistic. He wants his district to continue working to get proficiency-based education right, particularly after the time and money that’s already been invested.

“Can you imagine shifting gears?” he said. “We’ve got kids right now, members of the class of 2020, who are under the new graduation requirements.”

Advocates push forward

Proponents of proficiency-based learning argue that none of this reflects flaws in the concept. Maine struggled, they say, because they didn’t introduce the concept thoughtfully enough, moving too quickly and requiring change rather than encouraging it.

“When there was poor implementation — and there was poor implementation — then of course the parents and the community members start saying, hey, we don’t like this competency-based education,” said Chris Sturgis, co-founder of CompetencyWorks. “But it wasn’t really competency-based education.”

“It is a lesson on the perils of putting a mandate in place and not having organized for the necessary clarity and guidance for the field,” said Toulmin, Nellie Mae’s policy director.

Those lessons matter far beyond Maine. Competency-based education and other related approaches, like “personalized learning,” are spreading across the country, catalyzed by prominent advocates and influential funders. They include the U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos, as well as philanthropies like the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, Laurene Powell Jobs’ Emerson Collective, and the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. (Chalkbeat is funded by CZI, Emerson via the Silicon Valley Community Foundation, and Gates.)

Many have made arguments strikingly similar to the ones Maine lawmakers used to push for the new graduation requirements — that schools haven’t changed in many years and they need to in order to prepare students for a rapidly changing economy.

Neither of those claims is nearly as clear-cut as advocates contend, and there remains limited research on whether competency-based or personalized approaches boost students’ success in school. Existing studies have often focused on schools that are best poised to implement such changes and have generally found small to moderate learning gains.

“A lot of it says: The reality is that there is some initial early results, and that we don’t know enough,” said Eve Goldberg, the director of research at Nellie Mae.

Today, almost every state support proficiency-based education in some way — a number that has increased dramatically since 2012, according to CompetencyWorks. Fifteen districts in Illinois are participating in a competency-based high school graduation pilot program. In Arizona, students can opt to earn a proficiency-based diploma. Examples of schools and districts trying the approach also exist in Indiana and Colorado, among others.

The concept has particularly taken hold in the Northeast, often with funding from Nellie Mae, which focuses on the region. New Hampshire now requires districts to base academic credits on mastery of content.

Most similar to Maine is Vermont, which is set to require students to earn proficiency-based diplomas in 2020. That’s causing pushback there too.

“We are leapfrogging everyone,” one resident said at a Vermont house committee hearing in April. “We are running an educational experiment on our kids based on theory, not proof that this has worked in another state.”

Election 2018

It’s not just the governor’s race. Here’s what Tennessee’s big legislative turnover could mean for education.

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam receives an ovation during his final State of the State address in January before a joint session of the 110th General Assembly, cabinet members, and guests.

The battle to replace term-limited Gov. Bill Haslam has consumed the spotlight for Tennessee’s education-minded voters, but more than a hundred legislative races will decide who the new governor will work with on school policy for the next few years.

In addition to either Democrat Karl Dean or Republican Bill Lee as the state’s new chief executive, at least a fourth of the General Assembly’s members will be new to Capitol Hill in January. That’s because of an unusually high number of legislative departures, due mostly to retirements or the pursuit of other government jobs.

Incumbents aren’t running to fill 25 out of 99 seats in the House of Representatives and six out of 33 seats in the Senate — setting the stage for the biggest turnover since at least 1995, according to legislative librarian Eddie Weeks.

Among those opting against re-election bids are the leaders of three of four House education panels — Harry Brooks, John Forgety, and Roger Kane — all East Tennessee Republicans who have wielded considerable power in controlling the flow of bills in their committees or subcommittee. The fourth chairman, Rep. Mark White of Memphis, has been in office since 2010 and faces Democrat Danielle Schonbaum on Election Day on Nov. 6.

“It’s like getting Jupiter, Mars, the Earth, and the sun all lined up at the same time. It’s a ton of change,” said Kane of getting a new governor, a new education commissioner, and a critical mass of freshman legislators, in addition to administrative staff turnover.

At stake is whether Tennessee will stay the course on a massive school improvement plan launched in 2010 under former Democratic Gov. Phil Bredesen and continued since 2011 by the current Republican governor. The overhaul, spurred by Tennessee’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, is grounded in higher academic standards; a new test to measure student growth and proficiency based on those new standards; and policies that hold students, teachers, and schools accountable for results.

The years since the overhaul have coincided with student gains on national tests, but also major headaches in administering the state test known as TNReady, now entering its fourth year. Technical glitches disrupted two years of giving the new computerized assessment, while scoring and score delivery problems marred another year.

“I hope we don’t try to reinvent the wheel,” said Rep. John DeBerry, a Democrat and education committee member who is running unopposed in his Memphis district. “We’ve laid a very good foundation that’s been proven by a lot of measurable factors.”

Kane, who serves on the other side of the aisle, agrees.

“I worry that you could see a total change in philosophy and literally everything we have done the last 10 years could become unwound,” he said. “When you have people coming in who are totally against any kind of testing but the ACT, as well as people who want to test everything, that’s a wide disparity.”


Read why Haslam worries that TNReady problems could unravel Tennessee education policy


Both gubernatorial candidates want to take a closer look at testing, but the next General Assembly will have a lot to say about steps moving forward.

“We’re the ones who pass the laws,” said DeBerry. “The governor has tremendous influence, but he doesn’t cast votes either in committee or on the floor.”

Still, uncertainty about legislative turnover, especially in the House, was on the minds of members of the State Board of Education on Thursday as they discussed how to make TNReady work better this school year, as opposed to just gutting the test and starting over.

“That’s the big unknown at this point that quite honestly nobody has control over,” said Wayne Miller, the former state superintendents chief whom Haslam recruited to facilitate his recent statewide listening tour on testing.

 “If we start to slide off track, it will be important for this group and others to speak loudly that this is not where we want to go,” Miller told the board.

A lot will depend on new legislative leadership, especially in the House which, like the Senate, has a lopsided majority of Republicans that likely won’t change significantly.

The speaker of the House decides committee appointments, both for membership and leadership, but that job is up for grabs too due to the exit of Nashville Republican Beth Harwell after her unsuccessful bid for governor. The Republican caucus is scheduled to elect a new speaker on Nov. 20, and candidates thus far are Reps. Glen Casada of Franklin, David Hawk of Greeneville, and Curtis Johnson of Clarksville.

The next speaker is expected to maintain Harwell’s two-committee system for education legislation because of the large number of bills on K-12 and higher education. Kane said the system has worked well.

PHOTO: Grace Tatter/Chalkbeat
Rep. Roger Kane of Knoxville is the retiring chairman of the House Education Instruction and Programs subcommittee.

“Last year there were 400 education bills alone,” Kane said. “That number would be grueling for one committee in the House. We have more members than the Senate committee and therefore more discussion.”

The Senate is less likely to see any kind of fruit basket turnover, and Dolores Gresham is expected to continue chairing her chamber’s education committee. The Somerville Republican has served in the legislature since 2002 and is not up for reelection this year.

But the huge turnover in the House will mean a significant loss of institutional knowledge on education policy. At the same time, the handoff presents an opportunity to gain fresh and innovative ideas, according to Brooks, the powerful committee chairman who is retiring after 16 years in office.

“I’m not worried,” Brooks said. “This legislature has been around for over a hundred years, and it’s managed to pick up and go after huge shifts in the past. There’s a lot of quality people returning, and there will be a lot of good folks who are going to be elected.”