A typical 8th grade public school student is 13 or 14 years old. But in thousands of cases each year in Tennessee, 8th grade students do not earn enough credits to move on to 9th grade. That could mean a student who is 15, 16 or older is kept behind in 8th grade if not for a common practice in Tennessee public schools called social promotion.
“Social promotion allows the principal to make decisions to promote that kid on to the next level for several reasons, based on what’s best for the kids in the class and what’s best for the student who’s obtaining the social promotion,” says Jay Steele, associate superintendent of high schools for Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Steele says the principals of both schools must agree to the social promotion, but it’s an important tool for school administrators and involves more than the student’s age.
“Holding a 15 or 16 year old back and keeping them in a class of 12 year olds, that is a concern as a parent I would understand that concern also. And, is the child receiving any benefit from being held back?”
According to Tennessee Department of Education figures, about 8,000 Tennessee 8th grade students scored below basic level in reading—a benchmark for advancing to the next grade. But the idea of socially promoting over-age students should stop, says to Tennessee Senator Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown).
“There are thousands of students that are simply being pushed through the system and it’s wrong and it’s unfair and its setting them up for failure.”
Sen. Kelsey is co-sponsoring a bill (SB 2156) to end social promotion from 8th grade to high school—similar to a Tennessee bill passed last year that outlaws third-grade social promotion in public schools. Kelsey says his research shows that about 45,000 students in Tennessee are socially promoted each year.
“High school is the level at which most of our students in Tennessee drop out from school. And so if we are sending students to high school and they don’t have the skills to succeed there, then we’re basically setting them up for failure and setting them up to drop out,” says Kelsey.
But dropping out is just as likely if a student is not promoted, according to some public school educators. They say changing the law without funding for programs to help failing students could be disastrous.
“I think if the law allowed flexibility for a district to be creative and design those programs based on the needs of the kids, That’s what’s important,” says Steele. “It’s difficult to make a blanket statement that no social promotion takes place when you’re not considering the needs of every child. Family situations, health—there are so many things that affect an urban student’s life.”
Steele says Nashville school officials will ask the School Board to fund a “bridge” program designed for students who are over-age and under credit in grades 8 through 10. The program will provide quick, intensive academic help for students to help them earn credits at a faster pace, get back on track to return to a traditional high school and graduate.
“Things like the course recovery, credit recovery programs; virtual programs; extended day and night offerings. We have to be very creative in how we offer the curriculum to those students in order to let them catch up,” says Steele.
He says the MNPS balanced calendar beginning next year will be an advantage in early identification of students who need academic intervention. The balanced calendar includes intersession periods in the fall and spring during which students can take remedial or enrichment courses.
Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) received critiques recently from two influential groups about what is and is not working in the district’s improvement plan called MNPS Achieves. The plan is closely monitored by the National Advisory Panel of 5 education experts recruited by the Annenberg Institute for School Reform (AISR), which consults for MNPS.
Members of the panel recently visited Nashville to meet with public school leaders about their findings during last year, the second year of its evaluation. One of the advisors is Dr. Andy Hargreaves, is a Boston College professor and author of 2 dozen books about education change.
“Metro Schools are progressing well. It’s clear that this is a change in working with the professionals, a change through working with the culture, a change in terms of building on the assets that the schools already have in this city,” says Hargreaves.”
Hargreaves says the ambitious 9-step MNPS Achieves is based on best practices of high-performing systems around the world. He and other national advisors praise Metro Schools for trying to make real reform in the last two years and avoiding quick fixes like ramping up testing.
Those findings are included in the year 2 report by the AISR. Other positive findings include Metro Schools’ efforts to provide more training for principals and teachers; finding quality teachers; and encouraging customized learning plans by using information from the data warehouse known as LEADS- Longitudinal Educational Analytics and Decision Support System.
The panel’s main criticisms are directed at communications from the Central Office, and a need to narrow the focus of the school improvement plan.
“It’s fairly typical at this stage of change—Nashville is not unusual in this sense,” explains Hargreaves. “When you start many things, it’s really about pulling them together and leaving some things on one side so people aren’t overloaded. And through that, which is the second thing, is building the quality of communications.”
Within days of receiving the report from Annenberg Insitute, Metro Schools also heard from the Nashville Chamber of Commerce in its annual Education Report Card. It, too, points to a need for better communication within the school district and more effective usage of student data—especially to improve scores on college entrance exams like ACT.
The school day has just begun at the Academy at Old Cockrill Academy at Old Cockrill in Nashville, when a loud air horn goes off in the hallway. The noise brings students and teachers from their classrooms with smiling faces, knowing looks and a buzz of excitement.
Everyone at this non-traditional high school knows what it means when Principal Elaine Fahrner sounds the air horn.
“It is my pleasure to introduce to you… three graduates this morning!” Fahrner shouts, with a whoop.
The place erupts in cheers and clapping as the first student’s name is called and she walks along the hallway receiving hugs and high fives—a scene that is repeated for two more students. In fact, several times a month at the Academy at Old Cockrill, there is this kind of celebration—every time a student achieves the required number of credits to graduate. Each student also gets to place a progress card with his or her photo among other graduates on what everyone here simply calls “The Wall.”
“For me, being a visual person, I need to be able to keep up with everybody,” explains Fahrner.
Initially, the photo cards list which courses or credits the student needs to complete in order to graduate– a required 22 credits in Tennessee since 2009
(Tennessee Department of Education). Each time a course is completed, the student stamps it with a tiny, red graduation cap.
“So now I can come by and I can look and see Jasmine’s just about done and I can say I wonder what Renald’s doing– because he hasn’t stamped anything,” explains Fahrner, as she points to various photo cards on The Wall.
Fahrner’s goal is to offer a pathway to graduation for high school students who won’t make it the usual way before they turn 19 (as required by school district rules), but who are under age 22 and have at least 14 high school credits. It’s an alternative to graduation; but don’t label Old Cockrill an “alternative school.”
“Some see us as an opportunity to rid their schools of troublemakers,” says Fahrner. “We are not an alternative in that sense. We are alternative in the fact that we have a different way we do.”
The graduation rate for Nashville Public Schools is 76%, according to the 2011 Report Card released this month by the Tennessee Department of Education. That number reflects students who complete high school “on time,” defined as earning 22 credits within four years after starting 9th grade. Fewer Nashville public school students achieved that goal between the 2010 and 2011, according to the Report Card.
“I think there are two levels of drop outs,” says Fahrner. “There are ones that can’t academically do it. And then there are others that life has started for them, and sometimes it’s just too difficult to give up a day. And what we try to do is be flexible enough that traditional high schools can’t do.”
Students at Old Cockrill are allowed flexible classroom time, options for online learning, frequent one-on-one meetings about their progress, and additional support to make the grade– things that Fahrner admits wouldn’t happen in many public high schools.
“It says that high schools are too big and counselors are overworked. We (Fahrner and her staff) are all up in everyone’s business all day making sure. Like the kids that come in (to see me) have a spreadsheet and that child’s name and every class they need to get the requirements.
“When you look at schools that are as large as small cities in Tennessee, the very nature of how they’re built is detrimental to a lot of kids.”
In those environments, Fahrner says, students might wind up missing graduation because they lack one or two credits. The reasons can range from skipping school to help out at home, having a baby, not understanding English—or simply not paying attention to their credit count.
Fahrner tells the story of one student who came to Old Cockrill because she failed English IV. That left the student with one too few credits to graduate, even though her other grades were A’s and B’s.
“Are you kidding me? How did that happen? She said that her mother was very ill and she was responsible for guiding her younger sisters on the bus to get them to school. So, she was at school everyday by second period. And I’m thinking English IV must have been first period. She said ‘Yes ma’am. I went to my teacher…She told me to try harder.’ And I said ‘I can’t think of anyone trying any harder than you are right now.’ She came to us, and in nine weeks she was a graduate.”
Other stories are similar to Jessica Farley, who flunked out of 4 high schools—public and private—before she came to Old Cockrill after being diagnosed with a learning disability.
“I guess it was just about me learning my way, which I feel like I’m a visual learner,” says Farley, who expects to graduate this month. “So now that I do know the skills I need to learn, it’s easier. I’m doing well. I’m actually preparing for college!”
Christopher Thomas also hopes to soon be able to go to college. With mentoring and online courses, Thomas has reached a milestone he didn’t think possible at other schools he attended.
“This is the last test I have to take, and I graduate today if I finish it.”
Thomas admits he’s nervous, but confident as he completes an online test in government. Since 2009 when the Academy at Old Cockrill opened, more than 340 students have graduated; students who most likely would not have finished high school otherwise.
In the beginning, Fahrner’s goal was simply to help those students obtain a full high school diploma. But she now says that aim was not high enough.
“Diplomas don’t mean anything if you don’t do something with them,” says Fahrner. “A couple of years ago, ACT wasn’t really in our vocabulary, but now we are offering ACT prep. I think the average ACT score for kids coming in to us is like 13 or 14. But they really weren’t seeing the importance of it because they had not planned on doing anything with it. So now, the fact that they’re even talking about wanting to raise their ACT scores is amazing.”
Chris Thomas can now join that conversation. He passed his online test—just in time to join the hallway celebration, bringing to four the number of graduates on this day.
Principal Fahrner is giddy with happiness as she shouts the announcement. “Give it up for the last graduate today at the academy at Old Cockrill, Mr. Chris Thomas!”
As the celebration continues, Fahrner still isn’t satisfied. Her goal is to bring in more students BEFORE they drop out or age out, when they first realize they’re short on credits needed to graduate. She has a simple argument for more funding of programs like this.
“They (high school graduates) are going to spend more, which means they’re going to be less likely to be incarcerated, less likely to be on food stamps. That’s where the drain is. And if I could, I’d have everybody get a little dividend check every year that says ‘This is what happens. This is the money you saved because these children graduated and went on and had a better life.’
What do Tennesseans think about some hot-button education issues? According to a recent poll by Vanderbilt University, pre-kindergarten and early childhood education are high priority for people in Tennessee.
More than 3 out of 5 Tennesseans say the state should spend more money on pre-k programs. Currently pre-k in Tennessee is funded at $ 83-million a year and is available in 94 out of 95 counties. But it is still a voluntary program with too few openings for the demand– even though research shows Tennessee pre-k students out-perform their peers when they reach kindergarten.
The Vanderbilt Poll also finds that a majority of those who responded think teachers are underpaid and need more support.
Parents like Tiffany Kollicker agree. She has 2 sons in elementary school in Lebanon City School District.
“I think the schools need more money for education assistants,” says Kollicker. “The teacher can not do all the work on her own. There’s a lot to it and a lot of one on one time needed, especially in the earlier grades.”
The poll also finds that most people surveyed do not approve of a new state law that puts limits on teachers unions. A majority also do not support tax-funded vouchers for students to attend private schools.
The state legislature is considering a proposal by Sen. Brian Kelsy, R-Germantown, to fund school vouchers for low-income students. Several organizations representing public school systems, including The Coalition of Large School Systems and the Tennessee School Boards Association recently voiced objection to the proposal. Nashville Public Schools is among those.
“It’s not good legislation for a number of reasons. Philosophically, it’s do we use public money to support private schools? ,” says Dr. Jesse Register, Director of Nashville Public Schools. “It’s not good timing from a standpoint of so much has changed in this state in the past 2 years: we’ve eliminated collective bargaining, we’ve got a new teacher evaluation system, we’ve significantly raised standards in this state. The public school systems have under gone a great deal of change… And we think the voucher legislation is another piece that we don’t need at this time.”
The poll found that Tennesseans rank education as a priority, topped only by jobs.
The poll was conducted by the Center for the Study of Democratic Institutions at Vanderbilt. It polled 1,500 Tennesseans from October 28-November 5, 2011.
The road to China starts on Hillsboro Pike in Nashville for some high school students in Davidson County Public Schools. They are learning Chinese from Mei Ni, a teacher who traveled half-way around the world, leaving behind a university teaching job in China, to establish the Confucious Classroom at Hillsboro High School.
“I think it is a great honor,” says Mei Ni.
“It’s my aim to let them learn more about China, including Chinese culture, the way Chinese people live, and the way Chinese people think through language.”
The Hillsboro Confucious Classroom is the first in Davidson County Public Schools and one of only 12 classrooms in Tennessee funded by the Confucious Institute at the University of Memphis. Nashville public school officials believe language lessons like this can evolve into sophisticated opportunities in the global economy for some of these students. Mandarin Chinese is the most spoken language in the world and China has the world’s second largest economy—behind the United States.
In summer 2011, a few Hillsboro High students and teachers visited China. Hillsboro already had a focus on international business and communication, so the Chinese class is becoming a popular language choice. Cortland Owens says he expected to take Spanish his freshman year, but opted instead for Chinese.
“I felt I’d have another opportunity to take Spanish in the future, so I chose Chinese while it was available now,” says Cortland Owens, who says he has an “A” and is doing well in the class. “At the time I took it I was not aware of how unique it was. But now that I am a part of it I’m really excited and want to do well.”
Those words—in any language– Dr. Hsiang-te Kung, who directs the Confucious Institute at University of Memphis and helped arrange grants to fund the program at Hillsboro High.
“Because of economic growth in china, they do have a lot of money and instead of using the money for something else, they think the cultural exchange, through language– the people understand each other,” explains Dr. Kung. “So instead of fighting, people can actually can communicate, can talk to each other and create a harmonious society. That’s really the purpose. That’s what I really believe in.”
Dr. Kung traveled to Nashville in early November to join Metro School officials for the dedication of the Confucious Classroom. He also visited the classroom and met with students—giving them his approval.
“I think Miss Mei Ni has done an outstanding, great job of teaching the students and students like her, and she works with them and they have learned a lot of Chinese language and also culture. They seem to really adapt and adopt well,” says Dr. Kung.
Dr. Kung is a native of China, and you could say he has a birthright to assess a classroom named after the ancient Chinese philosopher, Confucious. Kung is a 75th generation descendant of Confucious.
“If we can all understand each other better, know each other better, and communicate with each other better with the language—then I think the work can be more harmonious,” says Kung. ”That’s really even 2,500 years ago what Confucious trying to say. He really thinks about a harmonious world.”
That is an ancient Chinese proverb that seems to still have meaning for a new generation of learners at Hillsboro High– like Jared Akers, who spoke during the dedication program for the Confucious Classroom.
“I hope to be part of a society that bridges the international gap through my future endeavors. I hope one day to be an influence to other young people and to help create opportunities like this. Again, thank you for being here and making Hillsboro part of this unique relationship. Xie xie (thank you).”
School choice is an important component of the federal No child Left Behind Act (NCLB) . It requires districts to offer students in failing schools the choice to opt out and attend a higher performing school.
One common choice in many school districts is magnet schools. This year, Davidson County Public Schools added six magnet schools for a total of more than 30 theme-based or academic options for students. These options include schools that offer programs in: science, technology, and engineering or STEM; the arts; business and finance; museum education; entertainment; an international baccalaureate; and more.
In Nashville, students must apply to attend these public schools– a process that began November 7 and runs through December 2.
“A lot of people don’t realize that almost one in four students in this district make a choice in a school other than a zoned school.” says Dr. Jesse Register, Director of Davidson County Public Schools. “We’ve got great zone schools…. But we also have other choices for parents and we encourage them to look at the options that are available.”
To help promote that idea, the district offers magnet school applications in several languages and is working with the city of Nashville to provide more free bus transportation for students who choose schools out of their zone. It is part of a larger strategy to improve student performance under federal mandates, while also maintaining racial balance and diversity.
“If we go to school options and let students choose a high school based on what that high school offers, then it really negates No Child Left Behind school choice. There won’t be a need for that because students can choose and have transportation to any school,” says Jay Steele, assistant superintendent of high schools. “ I think by opening up niche markets in each school, learning how to sell that product to the community, then that will take care of balancing diversity in the schools and if it doesn’t then we will have to address that.”
The move toward open enrollment by Metro Schools is cited by some researchers as one approach to the problem of providing quality options for parents in low-performing schools under NCLB. Several national studies show that only about 2% of parents of students in failing schools exercise their option to choose a different school, according to Claire Smrekar of the National Center on School Choice and associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University.
“Parents only have a choice if they have a choice to move to a better school, a school that is performing at a higher level. And it turns out that in most cases parents don’t have a good choice. So the choice is a false choice because most of the schools around them are also failing. “
Smrekar says besides open enrollment within the district, a few school systems are trying to offer enrollment choices that cross district lines – or INTER-district enrollment.
“It’s the difference between a closed system of choice and a more expended system of choice that breaks down those school system boundaries that provide parents with a stronger set of options than are currently available,” explains Smrekar.
Joe Phillips sits in a 5th grade classroom at John Colemon Elementary in Smyrna, Tennessee. He’s writing furiously, rarely looking up. After about 40 minutes, Phillips gets up and leaves while class continues — clipboard in hand, still writing– and goes to the principal’s office: his office.
Phillips has been school principal here for 13 years, and never have his duties been as challenging as they are now, under Tennessee’s new teacher evaluation system.
“This probably added about 30% to our workload, maybe 25%. It’s a lot of work,” says Phillips. “Some things are put on the back burner, plus you have over 500 kids, 60 employees and no assistant, no help.”
Observing teachers in action is one step in the state’s new evaluation process. Phillips also must compile pages of notes, send the data via computer to the Tennessee Department of Education, then meet with teachers one-on-one to review and rate their work.
Shortly after leaving the classroom where he observed veteran 5th grade teacher Carolynn Kobiske, Phillips is in his office sitting across from first-year teacher Crystal Coleman for her post-observation review. Phillips tells Coleman to relax and be calm and confident, then begins discussing the lesson he saw her teach on plural and possessive nouns.
“In a couple of areas, I gave you higher scores than you gave yourself, which is a good thing,” Phillips tells Coleman. He also gives her suggestions for improvement near the end of the conversation, before showing Coleman her rating on a scale of 1 to 5, then having her sign the evaluation.
For each teacher, Phillips must repeat the observation and review 4 to 6 times a year, taking about 3 hours of his day several times a week. He opens a drawer to show us a file filled with folders for each teacher, saying he’s more than half finished with the first round of evaluations.
“I’ll take this stack and we’ll go to the TEAM (Tennessee Educator Accelerator Model) web site on the state department of education and we enter all the information. And again, it’s just a little time-consuming. But those things I try to do after work, when nobody is bothering me and the phone is not ringing.”
Phillips says the new workload was too much for some of his colleagues: four principals in Rutherford County resigned at the start of this school year.
“I’d say the evaluation process played a part in all four of their decisions,” Phillips says. “It’s the biggest driving force in education right now– the evaluation system.”
When it’s time for school to start, Jayla Slater doesn’t leave her dining table at home.
The 5th grader receives her lessons through a computer. She and her sister, Jalea, are enrolled in Tennessee Virtual Academy—the state’s first public online school.
“It’s not a person speaking in front of you, but it is kind of neat because it explains it so you can understand it,” says Jayla.
A new state law this year allows districts to set up virtual schools, making a free education available online to any student in Tennessee. Signing up her kids was a no-brainer for Ester Slater.
“I like the flexibility,” says Slater. “I like that if we are really excited about something we can dig in deep. We don’t have to stop. We’re not moving at anybody else’s pace but our own—within guidelines.
The Slater girls were already home-schooled, but Ester expects her daughters to go the traditional route when they are older. She views the online public school as the perfect bridge.
“Because it’s offered through a public venue I know its closely related to what the public schools are doing or maybe even more advanced than what the public schools are doing. So when they enter traditional school they’ll be with their peers.”
More than 2-thousand students have signed up for Tennessee Virtual Academy run by K-12, a company based in Virginia. The academy is statewide, paid for by tax dollars, and free to residents of Tennessee. A few local districts also have online programs for their students, like Nashville-Davidson County—which has about 135 high school students enrolled. Jay Steele supervises the Nashville program.
“What I like to call the dinosaur is traditional classroom in straight shows with lecture style only,” Steele says. “Those days are gone and kids can text, kids can watch videos and kids can listen to music and learn at the same time. This really meets kids where they are and that’s very important.”
Steele says online public school students must meet the same state standards as others: attendance– monitored electronically; testing; and GPA requirements. Online teachers check in and help students stay on track. Slater confirms that.
“We have a teacher assigned to our family,” says Slater. “ So there is accountability there. And there is very strict attendance. If you don’t log in attendance, after 10 days they’ll send you in to truancy.”
But there are critics of online public schools. Some question for-profit companies being paid with tax dollars to educate students— even if hired by the local districts. Others say free online education will drive more people away from their districts into home-schooling. Steele disagrees.
“I see that as an opportunity because there’s no real policing of home-school curriculum and I think this is a rigorous approved curriculum that covers state standards and it is an opportunity for the public schools to pull those students back into a rigorous curriculum.” Steele says. “I predict that within 5 years this could be one of the largest schools in Tennessee.”
And Slater believes that possibility can also be good for traditional schools.
“Everyone can’t stay at home or bring their kids to work or have those things. But—it can make them place a demand on their schools and their school boards and the lawmakers in their area to make a change and have better things and quality education available to them.”
Children who attend pre-kindergarten in Tennessee are much better prepared for school, especially in literacy and math, according to early findings by researchers at Vanderbilt University Peabody Research Institute. The results show pre-k students (typically age 4) have gains over their peers in all subject areas as well as indicators that affect future school performance such as paying attention, love of learning, and following instructions.
“From the standpoint of what we see in research these were surprisingly large effects,” said to Dr. Mark Lipsey, professor of human and organizational development and Peabody Research Institute director.
“These programs have been studied a lot…” he added, ” but actual studies that look at the effects that were attributable, that were produced by these programs and the learning trajectories are surprisingly few.”
The findings are part of a long-term study that will track the children through at least third grade to determine if the gains continue. During the first phase, which began school year 2009-10, 23 public schools agreed to participate, and researchers began collecting data in the classrooms. They also interviewed parents and kindergarten teachers who work with these students when they move up.
The study is led by Lipsey and Dr. Dale Farran, professor of education and psychology at Peabody.
“What really excited me is that all the kindergarten teachers had a series of measures to rate about these children,” says Farran. “On issues like ‘Does he like to come to school?’ which all kindergarten children do, ‘Does he get along with friends?’ they didn’t rate them any different. But in terms of being prepared for kindergarten and having the learning dispositions that make a difference long-term, they rated them higher.”
“We have many programs for which there is no evidence at all; there’s just advocates and critics on one side or the other,” Lipsey said. “So I think that an important contribution here—however it’s used—is that we have evidence, and it’s credible evidence. We actually have two parallel studies that produce very similar results with different samples, so we’re pretty convinced that we’re seeing positive results here.”
When a small town school fails under No child Left Behind, it affects more than just those students. It can leave an entire community scrambling to deal with the implications.
For one thing, many rural school districts have so few schools that if one fails, there is not another choice for students to attend—even though federal law requires school districts to offer a choice to parents at failing schools.
That’s an example of the unique challenges for rural and small town school districts under NCLB, according to Dr. Tim Webb, director of Cheatham County Schools in Tennessee. Webb is becoming an outspoken advocate for rural districts like his in the cacophony of requests for waivers from states that want out of the federal education program.
In the most recent NCLB report for Tennessee, Cheatham County has twice as many schools on the list that did not meet standards. That translates to six schools in a district that has only 13 schools total and a student population of 6,800—less than one-tenth the size of Nashville Public Schools about 30 miles away.
Webb says the definition of a failing school is the same for rural counties, but the impact is much different.
“It becomes a personal issue… because they went to school there and it was good enough for them and now we’re saying it’s not,” says Webb. “Most of the public schools in rural environments are very community oriented. They’re community schools, they belong to the community. So when they start to get negative marks, it becomes difficult to maintain morale and keep folks focused on our core mission.”
Webb says it also becomes difficult to change attitudes and behavior rooted in rural and small-town culture.
“The rural environments have traditionally been agrarian… folks working in the factories for 30 years and staying here and settling. We’ve always considered state average to be good enough. That’s the target to which we aim. The challenge now is that when we realize that if the state is 44th, 45th– state average is not a place to be aiming.”
It seems the equation for NCLB does not account for what happens in rural school districts, according to Claire Smrekar, associate professor of public policy and education at Peabody College of Vanderbilt University.
“They don’t have the number of kids, therefore they don’t have the number of schools, therefore they have far fewer options,” says Smrekar. “So if we think beyond school district and think about what we can do in terms of geography and new pathways for parents to make better choices, that would go along way in supporting rural schools as well.”
Smrekar is also a researcher for the National Center on School Choice and has looked at unique approaches to dealing with a lack of choice in areas with failing schools. One concept is an interdistrict open enrollment partnership to provide more options for rural and small town schools. In other words, two nearby school districts agree to ignore the usual boundaries of a student’s home district in order to provide parents choices within a broader regional area.
Such an effort is now underway in Omaha, Nebraska, which has a mandatory interdistrict student enrollment policy for public schools. Education officials there have created a regional partnership of 11 school districts that gives parents and students many more choices of schools within that broader geographical area. The intent is to address low-performing schools as well as combat increasing segregation in the school districts. (Click here for a report on a study of the Omaha interdistrict plan.)
Smrekar says the key to success for such efforts is mutual support between the school districts involved, which means each has to realize some benefits.
“There must be some federal incentives, some federal supports that go along with that kind of option to provide transportation, information to parents who may not be plugged into the channels of information that other parents are… and incentivizing this kind of arrangement,” says Smrekar.
“Thinking very deeply about what school district lines might be transferrable, what school districts lines would provide a pathway from moving kids from failing schools into schools that are thriving.”
Back in Cheatham County, Tim Webb only has the options within his existing school district boundaries. So, he has come up with some ideas of his own to improve school performance. This school year, Webb launced a 5-year improvement plan that includes bold steps like:
1. Ending Advanced Placement or AP courses (due to weak performance on the AP exams)
2. Offering dual-enrollment: high school students earn college credit through a partnership with Nashville State Community College
3. Learning plans for each student using digital technology to track and analyze progress
4. Recruiting teachers from non-traditional training programs, like Teach for America
5. A 5-step plan to improve test scores and academic benchmarks in 3rd, 8th, and 11thgrades
Webb says one tool he’s missing is more time. Like a growing number of school officials, he believes the deadline for No Child Left Behind of 2014 is too tight. That’s why he supports the request by Tennessee for a waiver in the federal program and pushing the timeline to at least 2018.
“We don’t want to step away from those standards but give us more time,” says Webb. “2014 is not a realistic deadline if here in 2010 we changed the whole ballgame. We moved the goal way on down the field but we still have the same timeline. “
Federal officials are starting to agree. U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan says Tennessee’s commitment to tougher standards—like those in Cheatham County– is a plus as he decides which states to give waivers for No child Left Behind.
And in late September, President Obama announced his support for allowing states to request exemption from some requirements of NCLB if they meet certain conditions.