For many of the last several weeks and months, there have been public inquiries, questions and concerns which center on several education-related issues. Education, a reflection of our democratic society, has been called the great “Equalizer.” State and local education leaders will soon meet in Chattanooga to plot a course forward, and we can only hope that our children and community will be the recipients of sound and meaningful policies and objectives. The question that is currently before this community is if we should stay the course and support the local efforts that are geared towards improving the educational attainment of our students, or should we follow the recommendation of various State officials and put our trust in an interesting but fairly unproven method advocated by policy groups and authorities from outside the State and District? There are many dispositions to consider before making any such determination.
A first area that merits further comprehensive review is the development of the State's Every Student Succeeds Act (2015) draft plan which has been compiled in order to comply with the most recent re-authorization of the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (1965).
The draft plan is a document in excess of 300 pages and whose vast nature deserved and warranted more opportunity to review and contribute public feedback on. It includes aspects such as a reduction in testing, more support for teachers and school personnel, and a commitment to increase literacy and proficiency in reading, particularly amongst Pre-K and English Language Learners. Likewise, many worthy goals are highlighted in the All Means All report section including new models for school safety and campus climate, initiatives such as PROJECT AWARE (Advancing Wellness and Resilience Education ) that concentrate on student physical and mental health, programs aimed at reducing chronic absenteeism and truancy, and a recognition that through the non-discriminate administration of discipline there must be a reduction in exclusionary practices and a promotion of restorative practices. An additional component of the ESSA Plan is to provide targeted spending, particularly in Title I. schools, in order to decrease some of the habitual detriments experienced by historically disadvantaged children, assist in teacher training and development, and increase learning outcomes amongst all students.
In April, the Department of Education announced the proposed creation of a Partnership Zone. The Zone would be a semi-autonomous mini-district within HCDE and would grant ultimate decision making authority to the State. The new mini-district is based on a model developed by Empower Schools of Massachusetts that seeks to create an entity that infuses the best practices of charter schools with those of local districts. These schools will have a separate superintendent, an unelected and appointed school board, an evolving curriculum, discretionary authority on hiring and the length of the school day. and other elements that will create what they call a "Third Way."
While advocates stress the benefits of what has often been labeled as a fresh and innovative approach, there are problems. Test scores for these schools have yielded mixed results; teacher turnover has been rampant; real collaboration with stakeholders and vested communities has at times been called into question; adequacy in funding is a concern because despite the best estimates and projections, the needs of individual students, availability of community and school resources, and targeted spending for the specifically designed school plans are just some of the major areas of contemplation.
Creation of the Zone has created a new set of questions as well. How will the new Zone deal with students with physical, mental or learning disabilities? Will IEP's and other student plans be infused into the school program, or will there be widespread and rampant skimming, creaming and cropping? How will the new Zone deal with the high rate of migrant and transient students that reside and periodically enter and exit the Zone throughout the school year? How will community engagement be conducted in order to report performance and progress? These are just a few of the pressing questions that need further clarification and elaboration.
The options available to the district’s priority schools is another topic worthy of discussion. While the Department of Education has stated that Hamilton County schools are limited to two interventions, educator groups such as the Tennessee Educators Association list five which includes Community Schools; the Achievement School District; District-Led Interventions; and School-Level Grants in addition to the proposed Partnership Zone. Furthermore, the State's Achievement School District option has come under increased public scrutiny in recent months. The ASD has experienced a depletion of sustainable funding as federal monies and grants like Race to the Top have been fully maximized or subsided. Another query that surfaces is if the ASD, that not long ago announced the elimination of dozens of core staff positions, will become more reliant and dependent on the downsizing of schools it operates and outsourcing of services to private contractors and corporations in order to maintain viability?
Many of these consequences are best illustrated by what has occurred in Memphis, which is home to 31 of the State’s 33 privately contracted schools. Two contractors have announced they will leave those turnaround districts ahead of their ten year agreement’s being fulfilled. There are also numerous reports of decreasing student enrollment numbers, a high teacher turnover rate, and dwindling community buy-in. Within the last month alone, Memphis Schools has rejected 13 potential charter school operators and Nashville 2. The legality of the expansion of school grades is also a subject of debate in Memphis.
The Innovation Zone in which Hamilton County's five lowest-performing schools are associated with is yet another intervention that some reports cite to be the most productive of those available. Research provided by Vanderbilt University (Tennessee Education Research Alliance of Peabody College), who are tracking data and statistics for Tennessee’s turnaround district, suggest that the I-Zone approach is more effective than the ASD. Many I-Zone schools, while incapable of producing miraculous feats, have shown substantial improvement and markedly increased progress. By maintaining stability with school administration and personnel; increased funding for specific and targeted programs; emphasizing literacy and community engagement; and providing bonuses to recruit and retain the most effective teachers, could the I-Zone continue to produce fruitful dividends?
It remains to be seen the route our school leaders will choose to embark upon, but what is clear is that there needs to be more public discourse, dialogue and debate on the pivotal education issues that affect the welfare and fortunes of our communities and children. A constant question that persists is if the proposal of a school partnership zone, based on the model developed by Empower Schools, stands for effective educational progress,or is it merely a prelude that paves the way for widespread public school privatization? We can only hope it's the former so that other issues that need attention like equal educational opportunities, equal access to technology, resources and instructional materials, and diversity can begin to be sufficiently addressed.