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Louisiana and Tennessee education leaders share reform strategies at Bridge

On April 28-30, 2019, philanthropists, policymakers, educators, and community leaders joined together in Greensboro at the Proximity Hotel to learn about and discuss the work being done and the work to be done to orient North Carolina’s students, educators, and leaders towards readiness and attainment. For the next two weeks, EducationNC will be sharing content from Bridge.

During Bridge, participants heard from education leaders in two states, Louisiana and Tennessee, that have pursued innovative reform strategies that have led to more students graduating from high school and enrolling in postsecondary education. John White, Louisiana State Superintendent of Education, was joined by Lynn Moody, Rowan-Salisbury Superintendent, to discuss systems change at a state and district level. David Mansouri, CEO of Tennessee SCORE, and Drew Kim, President of P3 Consulting, shared how Tennessee has become a leader in increasing attainment. 

Two superintendents who have built educational systems from the bottom-up shared their visions of change and accountability at EducationNC’s April Bridge convening. After Hurricane Katrina devastated Louisiana, John White, then the superintendent of New Orlean’s schools and now the state superintendent, started from scratch and created a new educational model. Lynn Moody, Superintendent of Rowan-Salisbury Schools, runs a district that has been given a unique status from the state as a renewal district, which allows flexibility in most areas of the educational experience. 

White started with recognizing that Louisiana, like other Southern states, has a history of slavery, oppression, and discrimination against people of color. He said political education topics like school choice have gotten in the way of the big responsibility that educational systems have. 

“The politics of education, sadly, in most states — I can’t speak for yours but I can speak for mine — and in our country writ large, have badly distracted our country from the task of assuring a high quality education to every young man and woman in spite of that deep and dark history,” White said.

White shared five areas that ground him and his team’s work, which he described as hard but not complicated.

“The challenge that states, like North Carolina or Louisiana, or big school systems like Guilford County or New Orleans or New York City, face is largely in how do you do, at extraordinary scale, for a set of families and kids who have never had it done before, a set of extremely simple things?” White said. “And how do you do it year after year after year, time after time after time?”

  1. High-quality child care that benefits children and their parents: White asked: “Can we assure mom and dad that they can go to work and get a leg up in life — that they can dig themselves out of poverty and be comforted that their child is being well cared for over the course of the day?”
  2. Standards, tools, curriculum, alignment: White asked: “How do you give a teacher the actual tools to teach [standards] every day?”
  3. Educator preparation: White shared Louisiana is the only state to require a full year of residency for education students. 
  4. Postsecondary readiness, including investment in CTE education: “When poor kids leave school with no plan, or with a poorly-thought-out plan, it is at great financial peril. It is likely that it will lead to debt. It will almost certainly lead to underemployment, and it will not breed upward mobility,” White said. “We have to return our high schools to what they were supposed to do, which was to be engines of upward mobility.”
  5. Support for struggling schools in rural areas: “We have to figure out how do we do those four basic things and how do we ensure people of rural parts of our states, smaller cities in our states — where most people who are disadvantaged live.”

Moody shared her experience since receiving her district’s new status in August 2018 of rethinking and building a new system. 

“We had to turn over transformation to teachers inside the classroom and take it away from Raleigh, or take it away from Washington, D.C.,” Moody said. “The people closest to the source are the people who can reinvent education the best.”

Moody said the design process has been led by teams of teachers who applied to do this work, the first phase of which was finding the overall direction of the school. The teacher-led design teams came up with three main educational components: academic skills, unique life goals, and interpersonal skills.

Under academic skills, Moody said teachers have tried to pick the standards they feel are the most important and useful in life. 

“We quit talking about the test in our district,” she said. “… We talk about accountability differently. We’re accountable to our community, not to the state. So in our community, what are those standards and how do we do real-world problem solving on those standards?”

Unique life goals encompass students’ passions, interests, and dreams. Moody said students will maintain digital portfolios that document this category and can eventually be shared with postsecondary institutions. 

Lastly, Moody said the school has decided that interpersonal skills are just as important as academic skills. The design teams are starting the process of writing metrics to gauge progress in this category. 

“You might get a job because you have the academic skills but you’ll get fired because you don’t have the interpersonal skills to keep that job,” she said. 

A big difference the renewal status brings compared to traditional districts is that the district receives its money in one big chunk instead of allotments that have requirements on how to spend that money. That financial flexibility, Moody said, has changed how they hire and pay teachers and administrators. It has allowed staffing flexibility, like hiring dance and karate teachers instead of a physical education teacher. It has also been a challenge to make sure that funding is spent equitably, she said. 

The new standards the district is designing still must be approved by the local school board. Moody said she is asking: “What does it feel like to be a renewal school board?”

White agreed that more schools and principals need more financial autonomy.

“We’ve got to put principals at the top of the organizational chart,” White said. “Too often they’re quite literally viewed as being at the bottom of the organizational chart.”

Without school-based funding, White said fair funding is out of reach and elevating the principal profession is difficult. More responsibilities for principals will raise the quality of their roles, he said. There are some things, however, that schools and school leaders should not do by themselves, White said. 

“I have become deeply skeptical that teachers should themselves be designing whole-scale curricula, and I am 100 percent confident that they should not be designing formative and summative assessments.”

White said often the publishing industry is not offering high-quality curricula, so teachers start supplementing the materials.

“If states and school systems really drove a hard bargain into publishers as to what they want for their kids, we could take a huge burden off of teachers by actually giving them something that they can use, they know will equip their kids with the skills necessary to demonstrate that they’re learning rather than putting the burden of curricula design and test design on teachers that I, by and large, don’t really think that individual schools are in a position to do.”

Moody said the district is still figuring out an evaluation system that make sense for them. 

“I can tell you what it’s not. It’s not a standardized test,” Moody said. 

She said the district is partnering with N.C. State University’s Friday Institute to create an accountability system, which will probably include a mix of standardized tests, digital portfolios, and ways to measure interpersonal skills like leadership and collaboration. 

White agreed that nontraditional measures are important, and that standardized tests need major reform. He cautioned, though, that centralized agencies play an important role in ensuring high-quality standards are met. 

“Understand that accountability systems are problematically flawed but also indispensable, and they cannot just be thrown out,” he said.

From left to right: Courtney Brown, Drew Kim, and David Mansouri. Yasmin Bendaas/EducationNC

When North Carolina leaders set a statewide postsecondary attainment goal in February 2019, they joined education and business leaders in more than 40 other states who are facing the challenges of meeting workforce demands and preparing students for equal opportunities of success.

“Globalization and technology have delivered a one-two punch to our traditional labor force, eliminating many jobs and transforming others, putting pressure on wages, and underscoring the importance of new and advanced skills,” said Courtney Brown, vice president of strategic impact at Lumina Foundation, at Bridge. “Meanwhile, the costs of higher education and training are skyrocketing, and the majority of states have cut resources to them. This is a national crisis.”

Brown introduced two education leaders from Tennessee, David Mansouri, president and CEO of Tennessee Score, and Drew Kim, president of P3 Consulting, to share their strategies in facing a changing world and educational system. As part of the reforms the state has made over the last 10 years, Tennessee set a postsecondary attainment goal in 2013 to ensure 55% of Tennessee adults have some kind of postsecondary credential or degree by 2025. 

But the reforms started way before 2013. Government and education leaders were shocked when, in 2007, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce gave Tennessee three Fs in its “Leaders and Laggards” report — on truth in advertising about student proficiency, academic achievement of low-income and minority students, and postsecondary and workforce readiness. Mansouri said the report was a wake-up call.

“This was really our burning bridge moment,” he said. Mansouri shared comparisons between student proficiency levels on the state assessment at the time and proficiency levels from NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) tests. 

In fourth grade math, 90% of Tennessee students were scoring proficient on state assessments. At the same time, 29% of fourth graders were scoring proficient on the math NAEP test. In eighth grade reading, the same was true: state assessments were saying 92% of students were proficient, while 26% were NAEP proficient. 

“This was really the moment in Tennessee where stakeholders across the state recognized that we had a problem, that what we were telling kids about how prepared they were for the future was not honest and was not a true indicator of their success,” Mansouri said. “That moment really spurred what now is at least a decade of reform work in K-12 and higher education.”

Mansouri said the state, with cross-sector support from government, philanthropy, and business, has focused on three priorities over the last 10 years when it comes to K-12 education: raising academic standards and aligning them with rigorous assessments, establishing a new multi-measure teacher evaluation system, and looking at how to turn around low-performing schools. 

He said they found “more data is better” and that using data to guide instruction improves learning. From 2011 to 2015, Mansouri said Tennessee had more progress in NAEP achievement than any other state. The new tests tell a more realistic story about students’ level of preparedness for life and work after high school. In 2017, 36.5% of fourth graders scored proficiently, compared to 33%  on NAEP tests.

“Again, these are not good numbers, but we are being honest with students in Tennessee now about how they’re doing,” Mansouri said. 

The state implemented a new teacher evaluation system. When their work started, Tennessee was only evaluating teachers twice every 10 years. The evaluation was “generally thumbs up or down,” Mansouri said. The new system, which started in 2010, used multiple measures like student achievement and growth and observations from principals to evaluate teachers every year. Mansouri said this change has made a difference in teacher effectiveness.

“They became better faster compared to teachers across the country,” he said. 

On the higher education side of things, Tennessee has increased its postsecondary attainment rate by 11 percentage points. After the launch of their attainment goal in 2013, they created Tennessee Promise, which provides mentors and covers tuition for students going to community colleges and technical schools. In 2017, the state established Tennessee Reconnect, which serves adults looking to learn new skills or switch careers. Mansouri said the state focused on FASFA completion, and this year ranked the first in the country on completion rates.

Mansouri said Tennessee is currently around 42% when it comes to postsecondary attainment. 

“That is significant progress compared to where we were, but we are obviously not making enough progress,” he said. He shared that challenges still exist.

Completion and persistence rates in community colleges, for example, are low. When high school students enter the workforce without a postsecondary credential or degree, their average annual income is $11,600.

“While we’ve increased our graduation rate in Tennessee, increased certainly our assessment scores across the state, we also know that still most of our students are not prepared for college/career and for life,” Mansouri said.

Kim said sticking with specific programs and focuses in both K-12 and postsecondary reform — as political leadership changed at the state level — has been a testament to good leaders and strategic partnerships. Since 2007, the state’s leadership has gone from a Democratic governor and legislative majority to a Republican governor and legislative supermajority to another Republican governor and legislative supermajority.

At the end of the day, I think what we have done a good job of in Tennessee as a whole collective ecosystem is focused on those priority core things,” Kim said. “You can’t program your way to success, so at the end of the day, it’s about the leaders…”

Kim said strong leaders who have “a north star” to look towards and planning how to continue the work through administration and political changes was key to success.

“That actually matters, that you have leaders who are interested in moving the work forward regardless of political ideology,” he said. “I think that’s a certain kind of leader. It’s hard to do.”

He also said choosing the right partnerships was important. Governor Bill Haslam, for example, chose a business leader without a traditional background in the education world as his postsecondary advisor. Kim said Haslam’s pick was important because he knew he cared about students and their transitions from high school to postsecondary institutions. Because of the business leader’s work talking with stakeholders, including students and families, the attainment goal was launched.

“That happened because Gov. Haslam, with a business leader, got together and said, ‘How do we actually transform the way we’re doing business in Tennessee when it comes to high school to postsecondary?'”

Liz Bell

Liz Bell is the early childhood reporter for EducationNC.