Op-Ed published January 25 in The Tennessean:
Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman continues a series of victory laps that began in the fall, when results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) showed improvement in reading and math scores for Tennessee’s fourth- and eighth-graders. Tennessee, however, remains far from the finish line in the federal Race to the Top that Tennessee entered in 2010.
In 2013 Tennessee and the District of Columbia were the only two (out of 19) Race to the Top grant recipients to show performance gains over 2011 NAEP scores, a hard fact that softens claims by the Obama administration and Commissioner Huffman that harder tests and teacher evaluations based on test scores are responsible for raising NAEP scores in Tennessee’s schools.
It was just two years ago, in fact, when Huffman found himself on the defensive after the 2011 NAEP scores showed that, despite realigned policies to fit federal mandates in January 2010, Tennessee’s ranking among states had dropped since 2009 from 45th to 46th in the nation in fourth-grade math, 39th to 41st in fourth-grade reading, 43rd to 45th in eighth-grade math and 34th to 41st in eighth-grade reading. An interesting correlation here: In 2012 Tennessee schools ranked 46th in terms of funding level and funding distribution.
The 2013 NAEP scorecard in Tennessee represents a recovery, then, to a level slightly higher than 2009. At the same time, NAEP achievement gaps continue to widen for disadvantaged students, despite a long history of business-friendly reforms ostensibly aimed to close those gaps. Interestingly, a recent analysis shows that Kentucky schools, similar in terms of demographics, continue to outperform Tennessee schools despite the fact that Kentucky has not adopted corporate charter schools, teacher evaluations based on test scores, or other lucrative reform measures required by Race to the Top grants written by the Gates Foundation and monitored by federal officials.
Even though Commissioner Huffman may regard the most recent NAEP gains as vindication enough to continue another generation of value-added testing policies and privatization efforts that began in 1992, resistance is now growing. Forty percent of states’ superintendents have denounced the current corporate education agenda, and increasing numbers of teachers and parents are speaking out, opting out and preparing lawsuits to challenge the state’s unreliable, invalid and unfair system for teacher evaluation, which requires the majority of Tennessee’s teachers to be evaluated by using test scores in subjects they do not teach.
Despite an absence of policymaker accountability for almost a quarter century of value-added testing that has not delivered expected results, and despite state resistance to a string of court rulings requiring adequate funding for all of Tennessee’s schools, state politicians continue to blame parents and teachers as achievement gaps deepen. At the same time, state officials have adopted federally mandated school turnaround strategies that increase segregation and inequality while turning over state education funds for the poorest schools to corporate foundations and education management companies. Neither strategy will reduce the education inequities that continue to haunt Tennessee and threaten to open new rounds of litigation from school districts.
Much will depend upon future policy directions, but the effects of past decisions cannot alter the damage that has already been done to student preparedness for college and careers.
As they celebrate the latest NAEP results, state officials do not talk about the fact that average ACT composite scores for Tennessee high school students have gone down four of the past five years, with 2013 the lowest. Tennessee ranks fourth from the bottom in the nation on the ACT, just ahead of Louisiana, Mississippi and North Carolina.
There is little doubt that state education officials plan to use recent NAEP scores as the primary justification for pushing ahead with more of the same kinds of policies that are increasingly toxic to the educational health of the state. Even now, state education officials and legislators have begun remixing the same tasteless cocktail of tired remedies for extending privatization with more school voucher legislation, more high-stakes testing and more charters, all of which have demonstrated records for failure to improve learning or educational inequality.
Until state education officials, the business community and legislators acknowledge our funding obligations to all of Tennessee’s children, the state will remain dependent upon federal handouts and grants written by corporate foundations with long strings attached to every taxpayer in the state. Surely, we can delay our victory celebration at least until we have paid the full entry fee, a fully funded Basic Education Program, for the race to save and renew our public schools before they disappear.