Smartest kids: In Tennessee, an epic turnaround

NASHVILLE, Tenn. – Rose Park didn’t used to have much to brag about – a low-performing school in a struggling urban district in a state lurching around the bottom of national academic rankings.

Today, Rose Park Math and Science Magnet Middle School has a waiting list of more than 300 students for enrollment. Though most of its students are poor, its academic performance puts it in the top 5 percent of schools in Tennessee – a state that has shot past Michigan on some key measures of the National Assessment of Educational Progress (or NAEP) test and is now the fastest improving education state in the country.

Michigan’s scores on the NAEP, the gold standard of cross-state academic comparisons, are average or below average in every measurement.

What is happening in this nondescript building, and in thousands of other schools across Tennessee, that isn’t happening in Michigan?

Bridge visited Tennessee and three other states that are high-achieving or fast-improving to look for answers: Tennessee and Florida, where academic achievement was similar or worse than Michigan a decade ago, but where state policies have led to stunning growth; and Massachusetts and Minnesota, both acclaimed for their high-achieving students.

Tennessee’s turnaround isn’t the result of money – the state spends less per pupil than Michigan, and pays its teachers substantially less (an average of $48,049 a year, compared with $61,866). It isn’t charters - the percentage of students enrolled in charter schools is one-sixth that of Michigan.

What Tennessee does have, though, is a commitment to a set of reforms that, combined, have changed the course of its public schools. One of those policies - high-stakes teacher evaluations based partly on student test scores - is on a path to being implemented in Michigan. Other reforms, including an increased investment in teacher training and collaboration, and quick-turnaround student data, haven’t happened in Michigan.

For Tennessee, it all started with a hard look in the mirror.

Tennessee rising

Tennessee is a poorer state than Michigan. The median household income in the Volunteer State is $42,764 (44th in the nation), compared to Michigan, $46,859 (33rd); more live below the poverty line in Tennessee, and fewer have a college degree.

And, until recently, Tennessee’s children were performing worse academically.

Today, test scores tell a story of two states on different trajectories. In 2003, Michigan had NAEP scores well above Tennessee in all academic measurements. By 2013, Tennessee had raced past Michigan in 4th grade math and reading scores and was nipping at Michigan’s heels in 8th-grade measurements. Make no mistake, Tennessee remains a long way from joining the nation’s elite. Indeed, it’s scores still place Tennessee in the bottom half of states nationally. But its gains, in just a few years, are the steepest in NAEP history.

Education Trust-Midwest, an education reform advocacy group based in Michigan, estimates that, based on NAEP scores, African-American fourth-grade math students in Tennessee are now a half-year ahead of African-American students in Michigan.

Michigan was one of six states in the nation that lost ground in fourth-grade reading scores over the decade, and tied with South Carolina for the worst growth in the county in 4th grade math (Tennessee, meanwhile, tied for third best).

Jamie Woodson, president and CEO of Tennessee SCORE, an education reform group based in Nashville, tracks the turning point to 2007. That year, nine of 10 Tennessee students were judged proficient in reading on the state’s own standardized test, similar to Michigan’s MEAP. But when those same students took the National Assessment of Educational Progress, the test taken by students across the country, only three out of 10 Tennessee students were proficient.

“It was an embarrassing and public moment,” recalled Woodson, who was Republican chair of the state Senate Education Committee at the time. “It was a truth moment as a state.”

The truth was that Tennessee wasn’t very good at educating its children.

Tough love

Republicans and Democrats rallied around a series of reforms focusing on accountability for students and teachers. Tennessee became one of the first in the nation to adopt the Common Core State Standards, now in more than 40 states, a set of concepts and skills that students are expected to learn at each grade level in math and English language arts to succeed after high school. It dumped the cupcake state standardized test and replaced it with a more rigorous exam and higher “cut scores” for students to be judged proficient. Proficiency rates were cut in half overnight. (Michigan students were similarly jolted in 2012 when the state significantly raised “cut scores” on the MEAP; as in Tennessee, the move was aimed at more closely aligning the state test with more rigorous national standards.)

Tennessee set about toughening teacher evaluations. Evaluations had been required only twice every 10 years (“They were often done in years nine and 10,” Woodson said.) After the reforms, evaluations are required annually, and those evaluations have teeth. Teachers are scored on classroom observations and on how much their students learned; poor evaluations could cost teachers their jobs.

“Bad teachers went to low-performing schools to hide,” said Rose Park Assistant Principal Jackie Freeman. “Now, they’ve been exposed.”

In reality, though, few teachers have been fired. Teachers must have three straight years of evaluations in which they earn a score of 1 on a 1-5 scale to be eligible for termination. At the end of the 2012-13 school year, 70 of Nashville’s 5,700 teachers were put on notice that they would be terminated if their evaluation scores didn’t improve in the next school year. Of those 70, about half raised their evaluation scores to a 2 or higher, about a quarter resigned, and “a handful” are now facing termination, said district spokesman Joe Bass.

The firing of a few bad teachers gets headlines, but it’s other elements of Tennessee’s educator evaluation system that are improving learning, said Cicely Woodard, a math teacher at Rose Park during the 2013-14 school year.

Classroom observations, previously rare, occur regularly now. “Principals are in the classroom all the time now,” said Woodson, who left the Tennessee Senate in 2011 to run SCORE, founded by former Tennessee Sen. Bill Frist. “There are major (positive) implications from that.”

Tests to measure student learning are given three times a year in Tennessee. Unlike MEAP results, which teachers don’t receive for months, results of the online, multiple-choice tests in Tennessee are available at the school within hours. Teachers can see what lessons worked and which need repeated while their classes are still working on a concept. “Conversations about data are happening all the time,” Woodard said.

Results are specific enough that teachers can see which children need help on which lessons.

One room in the school, open only to teachers, is lined with cards, one for each student. On each student’s card are numbers indicating if the student has exceeded, met or still working on a multitude of concepts. The cards can be moved up and down the wall as a students’ challenges and successes change. “Teachers are tenacious with their data,” Rose Park Principal Robert Blankenship said.

The results are easy to see at Rose Park, nestled in a worn, working-class neighborhood in Nashville. About 57 percent of students are eligible for free and reduced lunch. Seventeen languages are spoken in students’ homes. Despite those challenges, the school’s state standardized test scores are about 50 percent higher than the district average.

Teacher evaluations have been controversial, with teacher unions complaining loudly about top-down reform and a group of 60 school superintendents signing a public letter accusing Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman of considering teachers, principals and superintendents of being “impediments to school improvement.”

But the evaluations, along with other reforms, have survived Republican and Democrat governors. The share of Tennessee teachers who say they are satisfied with the teacher evaluation process increased from 28 percent in 2012 to 48 percent one year later.

“I think (evaluations) had a positive impact on learning,” Blankenship said. “This has given tools to the teachers to be better at their craft.”

“I’ve never seen a public policy change behavior immediately like teacher evaluation,” Woodson said. “It’s changed how teachers collaborate with each other.” Teachers themselves are often involved now in team observations of colleagues’ classrooms, with discussions about expectations before the observations, and in-depth critiques afterward replacing the rote, checklist-style evaluations that teachers used to receive.

Michigan created its own high-stakes teacher evaluation system in 2011. But unlike Tennessee, Michigan still does not have a statewide protocol for how those evaluations are to be performed. A panel of education experts led by University of Michigan Dean of Education Deborah Lowenberg Ball developed an evaluation system for the state, but the plan has foundered in a deeply divided Legislature. Without a uniform system for evaluating teachers, there is no way to compare how teachers are performing across Michigan.

“It is important to underscore that in the initial year of implementation (2011-12), Michigan had over 800 unique district evaluation systems,” warned a Michigan Department of Education report on teacher evaluation reform. “This makes direct comparisons of district effectiveness ratings and systems extremely difficult, as ratings were not determined with standard rigor across districts.”

In Tennessee evaluations, standardized across the state, “It’s completely clear what the expectations are,” said Woodard, the Rose Park teacher.

Real teacher training

As a Republican legislator, Woodson was a big supporter of teacher accountability. After she left the senate and began working on education reform, though, she realized the importance of coupling accountability with adequate teacher support and training.

“You have to have a plan with accountability and support - you can’t have just one,” Woodson said. Once a high-stakes evaluation system is in place, “teachers will be hungry for information on how to improve. They’ll need simple, actionable information.”

To fill that need, Tennessee provides a stunning level of professional training.

In the summer of 2013 alone, 30,000 teachers were trained in Common Core standards, led by 1,000 teachers who’d been trained as coaches instructors (Woodard is one of 25 Algebra 1 coaches in the state). In the past few years, 70,000 teachers have received training through the state and its Common Core coaches.Those teachers then become instructional leaders in their own school buildings.

Like Tennessee, Michigan has also adopted Common Core education standards. But Michigan has never provided a statewide training program for teachers in the new standards, leading to criticism even among teachers who strongly support Common Core.

In Michigan, “local districts and (intermediate school districts) have been left to figure out - or not - this training on their own,” said Amber Arellano, executive director of Education Trust-Midwest. “This has led to inconsistent access to quality training and support -- and often, no training at all.”

“The way this stuff gets done is two or three or four or five governors in a row keep plugging away at stuff. Everybody puts their own mark on it but you don’t just go careening off in some new direction every time there’s a change in control.” – Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen on the need for sustained, bipartisan commitment to education reform.

In Tennessee, every teacher is expected to use the same standards, and every teacher is assessed using the same rubric and tests. That clarity of expectations benefits teachers and students over the long run, Tennessee education experts say.

“There was an intentional focus on implementation,” said David Mansouri, executive vice president at SCORE. “Some states, they pass a policy and that’s it. In Tennessee, there was an acceptance of being patient, because it takes time.”

That message was driven home in November 2013, when the former Democratic governor and the current Republican governor of Tennessee stood on the same stage, sharing the announcement that Tennessee schools had made the largest gains in the nation in learning.

“The way this stuff gets done is two or three or four or five governors in a row keep plugging away at stuff,” former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen told The Commercial Appeal newspaper of Memphis. “Everybody puts their own mark on it but you don’t just go careening off in some new direction every time there’s a change in control.”

‘Go big or go home’

The Tennessee turnaround could happen in Michigan, Woodson said, if leaders are willing to work together, follow a plan and shake up the K-12 system.

“I don’t think tinkering with the edges will get you the gains you’re seeing in Tennessee,” Woodson said. “You’ve got to disrupt multiple systems. Go big or go home.”

Everyone has to be rowing in the same direction to make major changes – something that hasn’t always happened among legislators and education leaders in Michigan. “Don’t assume that government or education or any single partner can get this work done alone,” Woodson said. “You’ve got to put your partners at the table and hold each other accountable.”

Woodson’s other advice: Patience. “Take the long view,” she said. “Where do you want to be, and figure out how to get there.”

NEXT: How Minnesota students became academic superstars

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Jennifer Smith
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 9:35am
This story is unbelievable. Not once do you mention that this school was made an open-enrollment feeder for MLK High School--an academic magnet that is ranked among the top 100 in the nation based on test scores. For those who want to guarantee their child a spot at MLK, some will rent rent cheap apartments in this area so they can use that address to get their children into Rose Park for their 8th grade year and, subsequently, into MLK for 9th grade. (This is a widely known fact here in Nashville.) And I can guarantee you that if the kids who actually live around Rose Park only went to the school, there would be a much higher Free and Reduced Lunch rate than the 57% the school currently has. (The area is, sadly, rife with poverty.) Kudos to Rose Park for their success, but I don't think there is any way you can say that the reforms the state has mandated on our schools are the reason. If that were the case, all schools in TN would be making the same progress. It is pretty clear to a lot of people in this city that the real reason for this uptick in tests scores at Rose Park is the result of an influx of higher-income kids into the school who are trying to ultimately get into MLK. (And research has proven time and time again that tests scores are strongly correlated to parental income.) I am also sure that the influx of parents who have the time and resources to provide more financial support to the school are helping all children in the school. What you are seeing are the positive results of socioeconomic integration in a school. ( But instead of our state and districts working toward such integration, they continue to throw unproven "reforms" at our school that are causing "churn" and chaos at our schools and harming our students and teachers: Good teachers are leaving the profession in droves, children are losing 1-2 months of instruction/school year due to excessive test preparation and administration, related arts classes are a dying breed, and physical education and recess are an afterthought. It's time that the TN Department of Education (and groups such as SCORE) stop spending so much time trying to prove that their faulty privatization agenda is working and start focusing on true reforms--such as economic integration--that actually help our schools, teachers, and students. All they have to do is take off their blinders and take a long hard work at what is truly working at Rose Park...
Ron French
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 9:46am
Thanks for the great comments Jennifer, glad you found the article. I would point out that, at 57 percent free and reduced lunch, the school has fantastic scores. I'd also point out that we're using Rose Park as an example of what's happening around Tennessee - scores are rising rapidly. That's not happening by accident, something is causing the increase in NAEP scores. I've suggested some state policies that have led to increased learning. What are your suggestions for what is causing Tennessee's scores to increase faster than any other state in the nation? Let's figure out what is leading to that rise and scale it up to the nation.
another Jennifer
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 11:42am
Here is the real reason why the NAEP scores went up in TN: NAEP is only given every 2 years to random selections of 4th and 8th graders in each state. Before the last NAEP test, a new law was passed in TN that prohibited the social promotion of 3rd graders. Thus, non-proficient 3rd graders were held back to repeat 3rd grade, which meant they were not there to take the 4th grade NAEP test. By eliminating the bottom-scoring kids from 4th grade that year, Tennessee's NAEP score average drastically jumped to make it the "fastest improving state in the nation on the NAEP". (Read more about the law: Don't believe this NAEP magic? Then explain why TCAP scores were flat or lower this past year in TN (even after they eliminated the non-common core questions on the TCAP test and "aligned" the cut scores). This magic won't happen on the next NAEP test. Misleading articles such as this one mask the real problems in our schools, which is poverty. The fact is: these reforms are not working, they are only making people at the top richer.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 11:38am
another Jennifer September 9, 2014 at 11:42 am Thanks for your comment and your perceptive conclusion. I checked the the 2013 ACT scores for both states and Mich is 19.9 and Tenn 19.5. I think that supports your conclusion. Good job. Loen
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 6:14pm
Another consideration from the Michigan side. In the last decade, most states have raised the Kindergarten qualification date from 5th birthday by December 1 to September 1 while Michigan did not do so until last year (and will not be fully implemented for another 2 years). I am convinced that this 3-month developmental lag for Michigan students explains a great part, if not the entire gap between Michigan's student scores and those of other states. Strangely, it is unacknowledged, even unknown, by many analysts who have presented to Michigan's State Board of Education (on which I serve).
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 09/15/2014 - 11:24pm
DrZeile September 14, 2014 at 6:14 pm Good point!
Jennifer Smith
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 12:05pm
Ron--Don't have time to type much now, but you need to read this blog for more information: The NAEP scores were clearly rigged to show overall improvement--but they still couldn't hide the fact that the achievement gap is not closing in our state. So much for those "reforms"...
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 8:57pm
I see my previous post was deleted, as well as the links disproving Bridge's article from several posters. Educators want the best for both Tennessee AND Michigan, in fact all states and all kids! This is a Right Wing site straight out of the Mackinac Center. The comments are much more important and credible than the content of the article. Don't forget their agenda: pit public against teachers, district against district, and state against state. Public schools are not designed to be money makers and that IS the goal for these groups. V-O-T-E
Ron French
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 10:23pm
Hi Linda, I'm not seeing a previous post from you. Can you send it again? As far as this being a right wing site, we get just as many readers protesting that we are too liberal. Have a good evening
Ann Eddins
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 8:19pm
Perhaps it is due to teaching kids how to take a test. That is not real learning and is not what education should be about.
Charles Richards
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 3:19pm
Ms. Smith, I'm impressed. I'm so thankful you made your valuable contribution to the discussion. I do have a question though. You say that we need economic integration, but I wonder if that isn't just a proxy for cultural integration. And how would you achieve "economic" or "cultural" integration. Obviously, neighborhoods self-segregate along both dimensions. Even if you require a certain percentage of low-income housing in a neighborhood, it is very likely that you run a risk of non-poor residents leaving and resegregating the neighborhood. And what percentage of poor, or culturally disadvantaged students could you introduce into a school without destroying the very culture you were trying to take advantage of?
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 10:26am
Whenever one sees such huge changes in scores one has to be skeptical. How many times have we seen this kind of thing only to be followed (in a year or two or more) by scandals about teachers and schools giving students 'help' with the answers. And 'teaching to the test' instead of educating. Remember Michelle Rhee and the DC school scores - they weren't real? Georgia, Nevada, etc.
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 11:13am
Unfortunately, your article leads one to believe that scores are rapidly rising in TN. This simply is not the case. This year scores are flat on our own TCAP assessments. Many places have shown a downward trend. Its much easier to "show gains" on the NAEP the year after you stop social promotion in many places so that the lowest performing students don't actually take the test.
Ron French
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 12:54pm
Looks like we've picked up some readers in Tennessee! Welcome to Bridge. A couple of things to address here. We can't make cross-state comparisons using your own state's unique standardized test, any more than Michigan can compare itself to Massachusetts by looking at its MEAP scores; there is only one real cross-state comparison at this point, and it's the NAEP, where students in every state take the same test. Tim, with all due respect, you're just plain wrong that scores aren't going up in Tennessee. We can debate the reasons for that increase, but the numbers are the numbers. Are the increases the result of the holding third-graders back who score poorly on a third-grade reading test the year before the 2013 NAEP? let's look: 4th grade reading: Tennessee's improvement was way outpacing Michigan from 2003-2011, before the third-grade retention policy you believe may skew the numbers. So something was going on during those years that was positive. What was it? Let's figure it out. Most of the breakdowns by race and poverty show big increases before 2013. In one demographic - white kids - there is a spike in 2013. 4th grade math: there's a definite spike in 2013 scores among white, non-poor students. But a sizable jump was occurring from 2003-011 among black and poor students. 8th-grade scores: Obviously the 2013 NAEP scores aren't impacted by a third-grade retention policy that took effect one year earlier, right? so, it would make sense that 8th grade scores wouldn't show the same spike as 4th grade. But 8th grade reading and math scores made huge jumps in 2013. What's going on there? Something positive. Tell us - Michigan would love to see the kind of gains Tennessee is experiencing, so if you don't think we're highlighting the correct reasons for Tennessee's improvement, please share your ideas.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 11:47am
Ron French September 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm You said, 'there is only one real cross-state comparison at this point, and it’s the NAEP, where students in every state take the same test.' I think the ACT would be a suitable cross-state test that might be compared. Tenn tests 100% just like Mich. I checked the 2013 ACT scores for both states and Mich is 19.9 and Tenn 19.5. This ACT data is for 11th graders of course. It does not reflect your conclusions.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:38pm
Ron French September 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm You said, 'But 8th grade reading and math scores made huge jumps in 2013. What’s going on there? Something positive. Tell us...' I'm looking at the 8th grade data from 2003 to 2013, it looks like a consistent trend to me paralleling Michigan, except the low data in 2011 which exaggerates the jump you see in 2013 data. The detail data available shows this is due to the data available for white students only and is not reflected in the other subgroups. I think there is likely something wrong with this data in 2011 for 8th grade white students. Did they do a social adjustment that dumped students 'into' 8th grade? Leon
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 09/13/2014 - 9:21pm
Ron French September 9, 2014 at 12:54 pm I checked the date that Tennessee passed legislation for 8th grade social promotion. (One year later) It is July 1, 2012 as SB2156 and HB3269. So the data you present for NAEP 2013 represents a cadre of students, where the social promotions had recently been removed, just as we saw with the 3d graders. This is a select group of students that one might reasonably expect to score higher than the the previous trend for this class. As the legislation for these two years in Tenn only affected these two exact cadres of students, and not the entire student body, the intent seems to be consistent with misrepresenting the data from Tenn NAEP you are using to base your conclusions on. I recommend you use this information to eliminate Tenn from the states you using to base your recommendations on. Leon
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Sat, 09/13/2014 - 11:23pm
re: Leon L. Hulett, PE September 13, 2014 at 9:21 pm Ron, a further observation. Since the data from 8th grade Reading for 2013 is exaggerated due to social promotion, then the data from 2011, and all earlier years, is also diluted by including such students in their NAEP testing data. The data from Tennessee does not support the national media, or anyone, saying they have the most improvement in America. Leon
Ron French
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 12:13am
Good evening Leon! I can't begin to tell you how happy it makes me to see smart people like you spending their Saturday evenings reading Bridge Magazine! Of course, maybe that's part of what makes you smart, but I digress. Thanks for adding to what has been a thought-provoking discussion of Tennessee's large increase in NAEP scores over the past decade. I look forward to hearing your thoughts on Minnesota's student achievement success Tuesday. Regarding Tennessee, the reasons for the increase, I suspect, are numerous. You appear focused this evening on Tennessee grade retention policies and how they impact scores, so let's look at that. A number of commenters have said third-grade retention policies skew fourth-grade NAEP scores in Tennessee by holding back low-performing students who would otherwise, presumably, fail miserably on the test. You've suggested, on the other hand, that eight-grade retention policies, that retain low-performing 8th-grade students, are HELPING eighth-grade scores. So here's where I think your theory falls apart: You can't say that having fewer low-performing students increases NAEP scores in fourth grade, but having more low-performing students increases NAEP scores in 8th grade. One of those theories may or may not be true, but I'm pretty darn sure they're not both true. Second, to say NAEP scores from before retention policies went into effect are somehow suspect because of retention policies implemented after those kids put down their pencils, is just plain wrong. Leon, there's a great discussion to be had about how Tennessee raised student achievement; to spin wheels arguing over whether achievement has actually increased is the K-12 equivalent of the 2012 political argument over whether the presidential polls were skewed. Instead, let's look at what works and what doesn't work in Tennessee state education policies, and figure out what Michigan can learn. Does third-grade retention work as a policy to help students achieve more in the long run? That's a worthwhile debate to have.
Leon L. Hulett, PE
Mon, 09/15/2014 - 11:21pm
Ron French September 14, 2014 at 12:13 am Thanks for your comment. I'll be traveling and probably won't have so much time on my hands for a while, as of Tuesday. You said, 'that eight-grade retention policies, that retain low-performing 8th-grade students, are HELPING eighth-grade scores.' No. You seem to have confused what I meant about the 8th graders. There is a law effective 1 July 2012 that retains some 8th graders before the 2013 NAEP tests. So only the smarter kids took that test. They had improved scores. My theory is the same as the 4th grade commenters you mentioned. So this means that these kids, as a group, must not be compared to Michigan kids. Our 8th graders still have social promotion. I also said, these 2013 kids should not be compared to all the earlier NAEP kids for the same reason; apples and oranges. I'm saying, this is not a good example to use, or hold up for Michigan, as far as the test scores are concerned; apples and oranges. You said, 'Regarding Tennessee, the reasons for the increase, I suspect, are numerous.' I'm saying there is no 'increase.' We must reject the data because it is substantially different from the data in the trend for Tennessee and the data for Michigan. You said, 'You appear focused this evening on Tennessee grade retention policies and how they impact scores' That was why I was focusing on their retention policies. The two new laws, the one for one 4th grade class only, and the one for one 8th grade class only, are the key information in this issue. We can not use that Tennessee NAEP data to make valid comparisons to Michigan students. Also, you said, 'Second, to say NAEP scores from before retention policies went into effect are somehow suspect because of retention policies implemented after those kids put down their pencils, is just plain wrong.' I think it is wrong to compare those scores with their 2013 scores. Let me say it more clearly, we should put a Red Flag on the 2013 data. It is too different to be including in any rational comparisons. I do not suspect the earlier data. 'Does third-grade retention work as a policy to help students achieve more in the long run? That’s a worthwhile debate to have.' I think retention is better. I think retaining only in third-gade, is probably not understood by kids. Retaining in only third and eighth is probably not understood by kids or parents. The best policy would be to require a teacher, by a clause in their contract, to help each student to achieve grade level that same year. Such a clause is called a Liquidated Damages Clause and is present in all the contracts I have seen with the State of Michigan. The State of Michigan can require such a clause for each teacher. For example the teacher could hire a tutor to bring each student to grade level that she could not. If she does a good job, no tutor is needed. We all want her to be a good teacher, and we want all students to be at grade level, each year. The Michigan Constitution actually requires this.
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 11:59am
Ron, We ended social promotion for both 3rd and 7th graders. I wonder why? When the scores for NAEP were lauded, Common Core was the reason given by our state department. However, CCSS had not been introduced across the board in time for them to have any additional influence on NAEP. Can I give you other reasons for the scores going up? Nope. I can't. I'm looking forward to seeing what the scores do next time. I can, however, tell you that scores are flat in TN, and down in many districts. The state held back scores while national figures were in town and released them within 48 hours of them leaving. Then held them in embargo longer than normal while they still take a look at what's going on. Now our state assessment person has left for "family reasons." I'm not saying good things are not happening in TN. But we've had the PR machine of our governor and DOE leader shoved down our throats until we are gagging down here. Tennessee has now replaced Lake Wobegon as the only place in the world where every child is above average. What we want in Tennessee is an honest, open dialogue about education, reforms, standards, assessments, results, and teacher evaluations. We're not getting it. What we are getting is secret meetings of the Governor with "selected" teachers who will most likely tell him everything is great. Just this week the US DOE was present in TN. At a local meeting they had a "table discussion" on education issues. The US DOE, the State DOE, and business leaders were at the table to talk about how wonderful reforms were going. Who wasn't at the table? The local Board of Education. While we appreciate your article, and the wonderful, glowing comments about people in our state, we wish it was just a little more realistic and not so filled with rainbows and unicorns.
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 12:55pm
First: "I’d also point out that we’re using Rose Park as an example of what’s happening around Tennessee " Then: "Girls are better suited than boys (in a generalized sense) for the new emphases on education. Girls like writing far more and reading as well. Boys tend to be more active and hands on. (We send our interested kids to a local vocational school in the morning. These kids self-select. The program includes everything from culinary arts to floral design to welding and autos. Boys outnumber girls in this program 4 to 1.)" WHAT? If you think this is in any way similar to what is happening across Tennessee, you clearly have not looked. There is NO way one could begin to compare this to the torturous schedule of testing focus and actual, documented, DESTRUCTION of arts and vocational programs that is occuring in Tennessee.
Ron French
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:07pm
Hi Jennifer O. The first quote is from me, the author; the second is from a commenter Steve K. His comments are not referring to a program at Rose Park. Thanks for reading
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 5:37pm
One point to make on the fly-teachers in TN are not evaluated on a standard model across the state. Those were left up to the systems. I am all for increased standards-ours were a joke ten years ago-but we are so data driven the kids are miserable. Also, you should find a counter opinion to your SCORE sources. They are NOT education experts.
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 6:27pm
I'm a parent in Knoxville, so not Nashville, and what has happened in our state is horrid for our children. I have a 1st grader and a 3rd grader who hate school. Is that what you want in Michigan? Kindergartners who hate school? Here, it is ALL about the test scores. Nothing else matters. Recess and enrichment have been cut, music education now includes math (to up those test scores), and my kindergartner took 4 standardized tests last year of which was 4 days long, 2 hours per day. She was 5. It's really sad to me when we are no longer fostering a love of learning. A test score is all that matters. That score not only counts for a teaches eval, but also for 25% of the students final grade. We just found out that my 3rd grader has severe dyslexia, so he has been subjected to these stressful high stakes tests (and his teacher has been evaluated on them) for the past 4 years, no IEP until this year. This is truly a horrible thing that is happening. Personally, I believe that school should be about more than test scores, especially American schools. We are known for our inventors from Thomas Edison to Steve Jobs. Focusing so much energy on standardized education squashes that creativity, and we should all know by now that all kids are not standardized anyway. I'll say it again, it's horrid. And as mentioned above, our test scores are flat this year, not rising. So we are doing all of this why? Why in the world would you want to follow us? Oh, and I'd love to see some professional development in dyslexia! Our reading coach had no clue what that was, but she could recite the TCAP or PARCC requirements to me in her sleep! It's not good .....not good at all ....
Jamie House
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 7:15pm
The following has never been true with state tests in TN. "Tests to measure student learning are given three times a year in Tennessee. Unlike MEAP results, which teachers don’t receive for months, results of the online, multiple-choice tests in Tennessee are available at the school within hours. Teachers can see what lessons worked and which need repeated while their classes are still working on a concept. “Conversations about data are happening all the time,” Woodard said. Results are specific enough that teachers can see which children need help on which lessons." And I'm surprised you didn't mention anything about the "post equating" fiasco that the state did to the scores this year.
Ron French
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 9:33pm
Hi Jamie, Apparently we have different information, or perhaps you're referring to different tests that I am in the story - Tennessee schools do a much better job of quick data turnaround on assessment tests, allowing teachers to adjust on the fly. Perhaps you're referring to an end of year test? In any case, I'll ask you the same question I've asked other Tennessee educators who've commented on this story - if the reforms I've written about aren't some of the causes of Tennessee's higher test scores, please tell me, from your experience, what are? We're looking for answers that can be copied here. Why do you think Tennessee kids are learning more today than a decade ago?
John Q. Public
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 11:43pm
You don't think the comment by "another Jennifer"' above is explanatory, revealing and worthy of investigation?
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:17pm
"Tennessee schools do a much better job of quick data turnaround on assessment tests, allowing teachers to adjust on the fly. " HAHAHAHA! I don't know where you are getting that information, but you should really look for a new source. Of course, there are some ways that the statement could be twisted around to be true: Tennessee spends much more time testing than teaching, which means that there is really no time to look at any kind of student grown that is not directly correlated to testing... So, if one is continually forced to teach to the test, continually adjusting toward that end is the only thing that can happen. But, when it comes to the data we are promised, by our own Tennessee Department of Education, fast isn't what they are known for:
Tue, 09/09/2014 - 9:26pm
How does teaching to a test prove learning is actually going on? What a fraud and a delusional myth the profiteers are pushing!
Steve K
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 9:45am
Ron, I hate to say it but the commenters are spot on. You took an oversimplified view of what's going on in Tennessee. Maybe Tennessee was already tracking upward but it was very small and incremental. Then they had a big jump. After they stopped social promotion of third graders. I mean, isn't it obvious that if every school can hold back their lowest performing third graders then those who move to fourth grade will have a higher average? It's like making cuts for a team. (I'd point out that Florida did the same and saw "improvement.") Secondly, their scores have flatlined this year. Are we supposed to admire gaming the system? Also, Tennessee teachers are judged quite a bit on test scores. So I guess that they probably spend a lot of time prepping kids for tests. So if you equate test scores with achievement, I could make the argument that test scores can be flawed due to such tactics. Remember testing only applies to reading and math. My guess is that Tennessee elementary teachers are under pressure to spend tons of time on that to the point of excluding or reducing time spent on other subjects. This narrows the curriculum. The standards argument doesn't work either. Michigan has them. They apply to every school. No different here. The difference is that we haven't made the test a be-all end-all. Other places have. That doesn't signal achievement. It signals that a game is being played. How can we get the best scores is the game. That doesn't necessarily mean kids are better educated. It just means they're more prepared for the test. Take it from me. I teach AP History. The test can get kids college credit cheaply. Parents want test prep for their kids. I can tell you the test scores don't always reflect a kid's ability but rather their preparation for that specific test and what it expects.
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 10:35am
Hi Steve, Ron makes the point that 8th grade scores went up dramatically too, unaffected by the 3rd grade social promotion policy change the previous year. However, the larger point made in these comments is the culture of "learning" in schools that focus exclusively on high-stakes tests. It's drudgery for many students, and I would suspect boys are disproportionately impacted by the loss of recess time, not to mention all who suffer for dramatic reductions or eliminations of art and music. I do grieve for children in a system that does not include joy and arts and outdoor freedom for their children. It shouldn't be that only richer students, and those who attend private schools receive these basics.
Steve K
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 7:03pm
Hi Philip, I did see the point regarding 8th grade scores. Of course, Ron fails to mention the flatlining of other assessments this year. The 8th graders could simply be an outlier group. They could also be the result of gaming methods I mentioned otherwise. Even if it does hold true, one miraculous graduating class with one higher than expected jump isn't proof of a system that works. These results would have to be sustained over time. The second part of your reply is 100% correct. Girls are better suited than boys (in a generalized sense) for the new emphases on education. Girls like writing far more and reading as well. Boys tend to be more active and hands on. (We send our interested kids to a local vocational school in the morning. These kids self-select. The program includes everything from culinary arts to floral design to welding and autos. Boys outnumber girls in this program 4 to 1.) Meanwhile, options outside of reading and math are increasingly limited. I'm under pressure, as a history teacher to focus on reading rather than the study of history. I have numerous students who love the anecdotes and trivia of history. For them that's the joy. I've always included analysis of primary documents among other materials. There used to be a balance of these approaches. But now it's all about using history to teach reading. That should be a corollary goal, not the primary one. Good post, Philip.
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 11:33am
Assorted groups will continue to squabble about best methods for preparing children for what might be termed the challenges of life. In the 1950s, students paid $75/term to attend the University of Michigan and that figure now far exceeds the effects of inflation. However we want to assess progress in education, the cost will continue to rise as the Michigan legislature withdraws support from the process. What we are seeing are the results of this policy.
Bethany B.
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 2:24pm
The Tennessee Value-added scoring system is completely unfair to teachers. What makes up a school's overall score is the results from the Math and English state testing score. However, this scores counts toward every teachers' evaluations regardless of what subject they teach. They can be an awesome teacher in a low performing school. Even if they may make good scores on their personal observations, they still figure in the school's scores into their personal scores bringing down their overall score. How is this fair to anyone?
Wed, 09/10/2014 - 10:43pm
Bethany, Each of us seems to do better when we know what is expected (a score), what do you think should be part of the scoring? If you would, please include you think each part should be included in the expectations/scoring. As an example I feel that a student/class improvement in level of demonstrated application over the term/school year would be important as it would show the progress. I would also like some measures of the students participation in the learning process, I feel that without the student commitment/participation a teacher has little hope of succes.
Jennifer Smith
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:16pm
Ron, Do some research on the community-school model if education and you will get an idea of what work. Schools that provide wrap-around services in community schools are able to help ameliorate the effects of poverty (and/or lack of parental involvement) on children so they will be better able to learn in school. I will not go out of my way to link the research for you because I honestly don't believe you would read it anyway--it doesn't for with the privatization agenda that you clearly promote.
Jennifer Smith
Thu, 09/11/2014 - 1:19pm
Please excuse the typos. Having autocorrect issues on my phone. Or maybe I can't spell because I just got my education from a plain old neighborhood school that didn't test me two months out of the year. Hm...
Fri, 09/12/2014 - 10:17am
Wow. This article is an embarrassment--a re-hash of pre-packaged talking points, supporting US ED policies. Not even close to investigative journalism. Most commenters have covered the basic errors in "research"-supported advocacy--and a BIG welcome to TN readers for telling it like it really is, from the standpoint of folks who have to live with these "miracle" policies and schools. This Bridge piece looks like it came out of Secretary of Education Arne Duncan's current playbook on how to make ED policies appear to be working: for a deft and scholarly deconstruction of the "research," check out Rutgers professor Bruce Baker's "Smoky Mountain Smokescreen:" this piece represents Bridge's editorial policy--for shame.
david zeman
Fri, 09/12/2014 - 11:32am
Hi Nancy, Thank you for your perspective and your links. I will rely mostly on Ron French's points elsewhere in these comments in defending Bridge's takeaways from the reforms in Tennessee. But I wanted to add a few thoughts of my own. My first thought is this: We don't adopt talking points from any one side. We are a nonpartisan journalism site devoted to analyzing innovative policies from across the political spectrum that can help Michigan move forward. We very deliberately selected four states that are very different from one another -- politically, geographically, economically and educationally -- to study approaches that may be useful in Michigan, a state which by any measure has declined to the bottom tier of states nationally in academic performance. Massachusetts and Minnesota were interesting to us because their students have shined for years. Florida and, yes, Tennessee drew our attention because of their dramatic gains on national tests. I can assure you that we are not holding out ANY of these states as utopias of education; they all have faults, Tennessee among them, which Ron has also detailed in this package. That said, Tennessee's gains in the NAEP, at least among fourth graders, are hard to ignore and worth exploring, particularly since they coincide with some disruptive reforms implemented in Tennessee (teacher eval, common core, tougher academic standards, etc.). We absolutely recognize that there are unanswered questions about all of these changes. It is far from certain, for instance, that value-added scoring is a completely or even somewhat-reliable measure of a teacher's impact on student performance, at least as it has been implemented in many states. And as many others have pointed out above, there are real questions about the ways that many states, most notably Michigan, have allowed charter schools to expand without implementing quality measures to ensure they bring excellence and innovation to the public school system. So too, our reporting here in Michigan has led to many changes that you would likely endorse, including additional funds to expand early childhood education for tens of thousands of Michigan children who did not previously have access to these programs. So we're looking at all of these issues, and I would remind you and your colleagues that Tennessee is just the first of four states we're visiting and drawing ideas from. Give us the benefit of profiling all four states and providing readers with key takeaways before you conclude we're in Arne Duncan's or anyone else's pocket. And then I would ask you this: How willing are you to consider perspectives and approaches that differ from your own? Why are you so invested in finding weaknesses and picking apart all of these reforms, instead of trying to find aspects (however tiny) that might hold promise? Surely you don't believe that students in Tennessee were being adequately educated before these reforms, do you? Surely a checklist-style, all-teachers-are-graded-as-excellent evaluation system wasn't helping struggling teachers reach their potential in Tennessee or anywhere else, was it? I hear your concerns that Tennessee schools aren't getting enough money to adequately support teachers' efforts to educate children. And you may be right. I think most reasonable folks would agree that it makes little sense to beat up some teachers for not being better without giving them the resources and support that would allow them to raise their game. But pointing Bridge to this blog from the Rutgers professor doesn't advance the conversation. This link isn't scholarly, it's a bunch of yelling and screaming with no ideas of his own. To paraphrase Truman Capote, that's not writing, that's typing. I love that you and others wrote in. Many of you certainly know education in Tennessee on a far deeper level than Bridge ever will. But I would also ask that you contribute ideas that you believe would raise education, in addition to shooting down efforts that you oppose. Thanks for listening. David Zeman Bridge Editor
Mel Hamilton
Fri, 09/12/2014 - 9:01pm
But many of these assertions are wrong. The story is full of half truths and misleading supposition. You siad that the evaluations had lasted through republican and democrats as governors- WRONG> First of all, for the sake of sequence, we had a democratic governor before our republican Haslam. The new unfair and biased evaluations were not pushed down the throats of teachers until our governor and his cronie Debra Maggart destroyed our rights to representation by making our collective bargaining illegal. THEN, they passed the new evaluations all the while tricking TEA, our state teachers' association into getting their help to win Race To The Top funds then they threw them under the bus. We have been lied to and coerced into giving up our souls. If we are so successful in Tennessee it isn't because of Common Core standards -we aren't even using them fully nor have we had ONE test tied to them- so you have basically lied to everyone in your article. But so what is new- the media has been paid rather handsomely I see to sway public opinion with misinformation. Whatever- but how do you sleep at night knowing you are duping people at the expense of good people- mostly women I might add- over 80% in the field in Tennessee. Really - how do square this pile of bull with a responsibility to tell the truth. Must have taken your cues from Dickinson's poem, "Tell it All but Tell It Slant" Or do you even have a degree in journalism- can't tell it by your writing. Actually I heard you are writing for Haslam and Huffman and you are probably twelve like all of the children working in the state department of ed. Pitiful.
Sat, 09/13/2014 - 9:58am
Hi David. Thanks for your long and measured response. I certainly look forward to hearing about MN and MA, where fully public education has long been cherished and considered a public investment. I am especially interested in hearing Bridge's take on the Common Core in both those states, given that MA is widely considered to have had much better (and custom-tailored) academic standards than the CCSS, and had to give up their own standards in order to compete for RTTT dollars (an irony if there ever was one). MN doesn't even use the Common Core math standards. I am hoping that your series correctly identifies the roots of successful public education in these states: financial and social supports, not "disruptive" policies designed to raise test scores (a very different goal than improving public education). "Disruptive," by the way, is code language for education policy analysts--one of those shorthand words that indicate neo-liberal, grant-funded, profit-making initiatives chipping away at the mostly untapped K-12 public (formerly public) education market. As an education consultant and policy analyst, I also did work in both FL and TN and agree that the educational climates there--educational climate being a very real thing--had led to some near-criminal neglect of children and their education in some regions of the state, and even some schools w/in districts. It's appalling what long-term poverty and neglect look like, over the long term, all right. And that's precisely what the early commentary on this article showed: much of TN's "miracle school" recovery trend is based on the fact that scores were so very low before. Here's an example of just how that works, in TN, with TN's version of the EAA: is being highlighted by Arne Duncan because they embraced the US ED's policies most fervently and got a big chunk of RTTT cash to implement them faithfully. MI made many of the same promises (teacher eval, more charters, more computer-based testing, adopting CCSS), even passing a package of laws, but didn't get the cash. (Largely, from what I understand, because two strong teacher unions expressed serious concerns about these policies, even while signing off on the RTTT application). As you yourself point out, there were good reasons to be wary of more charters as solution to "failing" schools. And of course, the biggest policy change in MI was disenfranchising the teacher unions (making us much more like TN). Whether taking control over their own work away from teachers results in higher test scores remains to be seen, but early indications in MI are not promising. Once again, TN was an entirely different climate--and comparing them to Michigan is apples to grapefruits. It is actually my job to consider multiple educational perspectives and approaches, using--with a great deal of wariness--available data and research. Which is why I found this piece so disappointing, and hope that subsequent state evaluations on MI, MA and FL use multiple perspectives, and not EdTrust's pre-packaged figures. (EdTrust is not a neutral source, by the way. NAEP data, for example, was designed to be longitudinal and a 2-year swing shows us almost nothing about achieving long-term goals (a better educated populace, for example). Bruce Baker is a national expert on analyzing educational data. When he yells and screams, it's because pundits misuse data to make specious claims. Here's Baker on the misuse of NAEP scores: I appreciate your lengthy response, and will continue to be a Bridge reader, especially on subjects other than education, your education reporting has veered seriously into neo-liberal talking points. There are plenty of smart people in Michigan with deep experience and knowledge around education policy who think the whole RTTT package--more charters, going after "bad" teachers, alternative school governance, the Common Core as "necessary" for state-to-state comparisons, and endless, computer-based testing (no matter when the results come)-- will weaken public education further. I try not to be a conspiracy theorist (you know--the privateers are demolishing public education so they can profit), but this piece was obviously a paean to current US ED policy goals, and very disappointing for a public forum that is, in general, thoughtful and centrist. Any time you want an op-ed on my suggestions for raising public education (besides a better, more reliable, funding stream), let me know.
Mary Mason
Sun, 09/14/2014 - 9:03am
How did you determine the amount Tennessee spends on education per student? Did you include Race to the Top finding? The reforms you are talkng about - teacher evaluation, standards/Common Core, and testing - were all RTTT requirements. Tennessee got a lot of federal money to develop and implement those reforms. Michigan did not. Setting aside the question of whether the reforms created a miracle, a fair comparison between the two states has to take that money into consideration. Did you do that? If so, how?
Mon, 09/15/2014 - 10:26pm
I have to agree with Jennifer above. I have a child at Rose Park and we are there, like most of the families we know, because of the pathway to MLK Academic Magnet. The free and reduced lunch rate is significantly lower than the district as a whole. Parents much choose this school and must provide transportation (no free buses like regular schools get). This eliminates the very poor and disinterested segment of the population that brings down test scores at other schools. While there are some good (and some not so good) things happening at Rose Park, it is unfair to hold it up as an example of what is happening in Tennessee. Rose Park is an outlier.
Roy Wellington
Sat, 09/27/2014 - 10:10pm
Rose Park is a 2012 Reward School (Top 5%) for Performance and Progress. You do not get to be a Progress school simply by loading it up with students trying to get into MLK: the students actually have to learn a lot. Many of the students benefit from being at Rose Park instead of their zoned middle school, many of which are dead ends instead of a pathway to the academic magnets. Rose Park deserves their accolades and I wish them well. I think that they have failed to repeat is due to the competition getting tougher, which is good for all of Tennessee. This article should not have been afraid to mention the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System (TVAAS) by name. After fifty student-years navigating at least nine Nashville schools (including Rose Park) I will attest that the TVAAS is spot on. As a parent I absolutely prefer knowing about classroom quality in advance, not after a wasted year. We think each school's scores should be posted at the front entrance visible from the road. Schools should be about learning. Now all of the principles and teachers know their value-added scores and have strategies in place to deliver results. Just like Professor Hirsch said about his Core Curriculum: teaching to the standards should only take up half of the school day. Unfortunately, many schools use the other half of the day to double up on standards teaching making for a really dull day. We have also seen instances of homework overload that wipes out student (and parent) nights and weekends to the extent that other homework also doesn't get done, nor are students alert for class the next day. The most egregious abuses happen when teachers use classroom time to have students grade each others' homework because of the quantity and there is no time for instruction that would help ease the next night's homework. The latest school district fad is parents should "home school" their children during the hours not in class. Where teachers are falling down: they are not conveying why the subject matter is exciting and something you really, really want to know. But they absolutely should be evaluated on what a student has learned in the year. You get what in IN-spect, not what you EX-pect. The article should have also mentioned the Achievement School District which has had some spectacular results with the help of several charter schools. Three years ago a lot of the failing, oops, I mean Priority schools (bottom 5%) were in the Memphis area. Now, three years later, the Priority schools all seem to be in Nashville, despite the hard work and progress at all levels of the district. The Achievement School District is bringing up the bottom so fast that many were caught by surprise to find themselves now in the bottom 5%. This is also good for Tennessee.
Roy Wellington
Sat, 09/27/2014 - 10:33pm
I'll reply to my own note: I believe that the TVAAS scores should be turned around a lot faster to help in school selection. Testing April and results in November is beyond ridiculous. I think they should be able to test in April, results in May in time for choice school selection before school is out. Right now the Middle School lottery (5th grade) depends on 3rd grade test results. Also, TVAAS scores should be calculated off of a norm referenced test like in the old days and like the NEAP test. Since the NCLB law focused only on adequacy and not achievement, state tests have only tested for adequacy. For value added scores to work well there should questions from the grade level below and above to discover where the student's achievement lies. The TCAP tests are actually fairly easy; if you are taking 7th grade algebra you can probably get the TCAP Math 100% correct. How do you calculate the value added in that? I meant "principal". SORRY!
Shannon W.
Wed, 10/08/2014 - 1:54pm
Thank you for that encouraging article concerning Tennessee Teachers. We have been through a lot to improve scores and to close that learning gap. We have been recognized by the governor, other states, and educational committees on our Herculean efforts. However, they never give us a raise. I have been teaching for 5 years and I make 33,000 annually with raise in sight. It baffles the educators that the state takes credit for all that has been done but will not compensate us. I just felt it was necessary for you to know that as a level 4 teacher, I get nothing in return.
Dr. Richard Zeile
Mon, 10/02/2017 - 11:59pm

The author does not compare the ages of Michigan and Tennessee students. During the decade Michigan students started to fall behind, other states raised their Kindergarten starting date from December 1 to September 1, meaning that Michigan students are a quarter year younger than those in other states. Michigan changed the start date two years ago but it will take 11 years for the ages to be equivalent in all grades. The giveaway in the story is that "By 2013, Tennessee had raced past Michigan in 4th grade math and reading scores and was nipping at Michigan’s heels in 8th-grade measurements. " This suggests that the age/developmental readiness of the younger students is a factor.