Are Children Learning

Tony Bennett: Indiana should have renamed Common Core at the start

(The first of two stories with experts from former Indiana Superintendent Tony Bennett’s interview with Chalkbeat Colorado. For the second part, go here.)

Indiana’s former state Superintendent Tony Bennett was his usual outspoken self on a recent trip to Denver.

He was invited there to speak at a Donnell Kay Foundation speaker series and while he was in town he sat down with Chalkbeat Colorado Bureau Chief Maura Walz. (The foundation also is a financial supporter of Chalkbeat Colorado.) Bennett, who faces a May hearing on ethics charges for allegedly using the resources of his office for campaign purposes, talked about the case, Indiana’s dumping of Common Core standards, his attitude toward his critics and what he hoped his legacy would be.

Bennett was a strong early champion for Common Core, education standards that 45 state ultimately agreed to follow. Indiana last month passed a bill to void its adoption of Common Core and draw up new state standards. Here’s what Bennett had to say about Common Core.

Lawmakers, he said, didn’t always know much about Common Core:

Bennett said the pushback that led Indiana to void its adoption of Common Core, and other states to consider following its lead, is unfortunate:

“I think we have legislators that are against something that they really haven’t researched very well. For instance, I can tell you, I am not certain some of the legislators I’ve dealt with who are opposed to Common Core could stand up and tell you why they’re against Common Core.”

On Indiana’s adoption of Common Core, Bennett explained his motives:

“When I was in Indiana, I pursued adoption of the Common Core in large part because I was very alarmed at the percentage and rate at which students had to be remediated leaving high school. So I thought that was a terrible drain on our system; I thought it was wrong. Gov. (Mitch) Daniels one time referred to it as a breach of warranty, that when we send kids out of the K-12 system and they need to be remediated. So I looked at Common Core as a potential solution to that. Higher standards, greater rigor, greater expectations, and an opportunity to elevate our children to be more competitive. The discussion has been lost in all of this, federal overreach, by inserting the word curriculum as opposed to standards.”

Bennett blamed messaging for the Common Core backlash:

“It is unfortunate that the federal government felt the need to be so visibly in front of this issue. Because it wasn’t their issue. So that’s been a problem. In conservative states that are worried about federal overreach, that in and of itself created a problem.”

But Indiana’s Common Core adoption, he said, was not influenced by U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan or the federal government:

“I never one day felt pressure from Secretary Duncan to adopt Common Core. Never once. And we were a state that dropped out of Race to the Top. So believe me, if a state could have walked in and said, hey, we’re not going to do this Common Core thing, it could have been us.”

Criticism of Common Core, he said, is often contradictory. Critics say the standards are too weak and at the same time they say Common Core tests are too hard:

“It’s been an argument that comes out of both sides of one’s mouth. In one instance, we don’t think that the standards are very good, but on the other instance, we don’t like the fact that our students’ performance might go down.”

The majority of Indiana teachers, Bennett said, support Common Core:

“We were all-in in Indiana. As a matter of fact, I think that Indiana is going to be a really interesting study going down because I frankly think teachers were ready to move in that direction.”

Bennett said there never would have been a Common Core controversy in Indiana if the state had just adopted them with a different name:

“I always told my staff, it was one of my greatest mistakes in office: I should have re-branded those things as the Hoosier Standards for College and Career Readiness. And these are Indiana’s new standards! These are not Common Core, these are Indiana’s new standards and we’re going to adopt them like Indiana standards are always adopted! Which we did. We’re going to implement them the way we’ve always implemented standards so that there was this total buy-in.”

Indiana’s well-regarded prior standards were not superior to Common Core, as critics often argue, he said:

“Indiana standards that we worked off of prior to the adoption and implementation of Common Core, we referred to as a mile wide and an inch deep. They did more to take away local control than Common Core did! We had so many indicators and so many standards that teachers were literally trying to make sure they hit every one and jam all this information into 180 days of school. With Common Core, the fewer, clearer, deeper standards — it enabled, in my opinion, and I’m a former classroom teacher, my daughter is currently a third grade teacher and has taught in the fifth grade, if you ask her, you know what she would say? This gives me greater flexibility, greater autonomy, to be more creative about developing state of the art, 21st century lessons for my kids.”

more digging

Kingsbury High added to list of Memphis schools under investigation for grade changing

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Kingsbury High School was added to a list of schools being investigated by an outside firm for improper grade changes. Here, Principal Terry Ross was featured in a Shelby County Schools video about a new school budget tool.

Another Memphis high school has been added to the list of schools being investigated to determine if they made improper changes to student grades.

Adding Kingsbury High School to seven others in Shelby County Schools will further delay the report initially expected to be released in mid-June.

But from what school board Chairwoman Shante Avant has heard so far, “there haven’t been any huge irregularities.”

“Nothing has surfaced that gives me pause at this point,” Avant told Chalkbeat on Thursday.

The accounting firm Dixon Hughes Goodman is conducting the investigation.

This comes about three weeks after a former Kingsbury teacher, Alesia Harris, told school board members that Principal Terry Ross instructed someone to change 17 student exam grades to 100 percent — against her wishes.

Shelby County Schools said the allegations were “inaccurate” and that the grade changes were a mistake that was self-reported by an employee.

“The school administration immediately reported, and the central office team took the necessary actions and promptly corrected the errors,” the district said in a statement.

Chalkbeat requested a copy of the district’s own initial investigation the day after Harris spoke at the board’s June meeting, but district officials said they likely would not have a response for Chalkbeat until July 27.

Harris said that no one from Dixon Hughes Goodman has contacted her regarding the investigation as of Thursday.

The firm’s investigation initially included seven schools. Kingsbury was not among them. Those seven schools are:

  • Kirby High
  • Raleigh-Egypt High
  • Bolton High
  • Westwood High
  • White Station High
  • Trezevant High
  • Memphis Virtual School

The firm’s first report found as many as 2,900 failing grades changed during four years at nine Memphis-area schools. At the request of the board, two schools were eliminated: one a charter managed by a nonprofit, and a school outside the district. The firm said at the time that further investigation was warranted to determine if the grade changes were legitimate.

The $145,000 investigation includes interviews with teachers and administrators, comparing teachers’ paper grade books to electronic versions, accompanying grade change forms, and inspecting policies and procedures for how school employees track and submit grades.

Since the controversy started last year, the district has restricted the number of employees authorized to make changes to a student’s report card or transcript, and also requires a monthly report from principals detailing any grade changes.

Silver Lining Playbook

Memphis’ youngest students show reading gains on 2018 state tests — and that’s a big deal

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
A student works on reading comprehension skills at Lucie E Campbell Elementary School in Memphis and Shelby County Schools.

Those working to improve early literacy rates in Shelby County Schools got a small morale boost Thursday as newly released scores show the district’s elementary school students improved their reading on 2018 state tests.

The percentage of Memphis elementary-age students considered proficient in reading rose by 3 points to almost one-fourth of the district’s children in grades 3 through 5. That’s still well below the state average, and Superintendent Dorsey Hopson said “we obviously have a long way to go.”

PHOTO: Caroline Bauman
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson has overseen Tennessee’s largest public school district since 2013.

Strengthening early literacy has been a priority for the Memphis district, which views better reading skills as crucial to predicting high school graduation and career success. To that end, Shelby County Schools has expanded access to pre-K programs, adjusted reading curriculum, and made investments in literacy training for teachers.

Hopson said the payoff on this year’s TNReady scores was a jump of almost 5 percentage points in third-grade reading proficiency.

“It was about five years ago when we really, really, really started pushing pre-K, and those pre-K kids are now in the third grade. I think that’s something that’s really positive,” Hopson said of the gains, adding that third-grade reading levels are an important indicator of future school performance.

TNReady scores for Shelby County Schools, which has a high concentration of low-performing schools and students living in poverty, were a mixed bag, as they were statewide.

Math scores went up in elementary, middle, and high schools in Tennessee’s largest district. But science scores went down across the board, and the percentage of high school students who scored proficient in reading dropped by 4 percentage points.

The three charts below illustrate, by subject, the percentages of students who performed on track or better in elementary, middle, and high schools within Shelby County Schools. The blue bars reflect the district’s most recent scores, the black bars show last year’s scores, and the yellow bars depict this year’s statewide averages.

Hopson said he was unsure how much the scores of older students — all of whom tested online — were affected by technical problems that hampered Tennessee’s return this year to computerized testing.

“From what people tell me, kids either didn’t try as hard in some instances or didn’t take it seriously,” Hopson told reporters. “We’ll never know what the real impact is, but we have to accept the data that came from these tests.”

But students in two of the district’s school improvement initiatives — the Innovation Zone and the Empowerment Zone — showed progress. “We’re going to double down on these strategies,” Hopson said of the extra investments and classroom supports.

In the state-run Achievement School District, or ASD, which oversees 30 low-performing schools in Memphis, grades 3 through 8 saw an uptick in scores in both reading and math. But high schoolers scored more than 3 percentage points lower in reading and also took a step back in science.

The ASD takes over schools in the state’s bottom 5 percent and assigns them to charter operators to improve. But in the five years that the ASD has been in Memphis, its scores have been mostly stagnant.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said she and new ASD Superintendent Sharon Griffin are reviewing the new data to determine next steps.

“We are seeing some encouraging momentum shifts,” McQueen said.

Chalkbeat illustrator Sam Park contributed to this story.