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Vanderbilt Attrition Study – What it Does and Doesn’t Tell Us

Earlier this summer, four Vanderbilt graduate students released a report, “Examining Student Mobility and Attrition in MNPS.” These students looked at a set of data provided by Metro Nashville Public Schools to find patterns in student mobility during the school year. The report was immediately hailed by charter school advocates as putting to rest questions about student attrition, particularly movement from charter schools to traditional district schools. It was reported as such by the local media. But is that the full picture? What did the lauded Vanderbilt attrition report really say? In this blog post, TREE takes a closer look.

Limited Scope

First, we note that the authors repeatedly stress that their research and conclusions were very limited in scope. They were confined to the data set that they received from MNPS. The authors looked only at student movement from one school to another during one academic year, 2012-13, and they limited their review to grades 3-8. They did not look into students leaving a school after the end of the academic year to enroll in another for the next grade level or into student movement during years other than 2012-13. They did not look at high schools or early grades. Further, they make clear that the data they received were very incomplete. Indeed, one of their primary suggestions to MNPS is that the district maintain better information on student mobility, so that more meaningful conclusions can be drawn and so that the district is better able to address the negative effects of student mobility. They offer helpful suggestions for improving the MNPS enrollment and transfer processes in order to facilitate communication between schools and the keeping of more useful information.

Highly Mobile Students Score Lower, and Mobility Harms Student Learning

Students who change schools during an academic year “scored an average of fifteen percent or more below the below the district average TCAP Reading, Math, and Science Exams. The percentage of transfer students that score in the Below Basic range is nearly double that of the MNPS average.” (Report, page 31). “Simply put, a student who transfers school during the year is likely to score nearly half an achievement lever lower on TCAP.” (Report, page 34).

The report note that the increase in school choice options increases student mobility across the district during the year. (Report, page 5). It also states that moving between schools has a negative effect in student learning. If increased mobility is an unintended byproduct of increased school choice, then the district must move to curb mobility and work harder to keep students in a school. (Report, page 53).

Burden of Student Mobility Falls Mostly on Traditional Zoned Schools

The most reported aspect of the study is that students are highly mobile across the district and exit all types of schools mid-year, including zoned, charter, and other choice schools. This does not mean, however, that the impact of students movement is the same across school type. The authors discuss the “challenge of helping transfer students adapt to a new school culture after the start of the year.” (Report, page 40). The beginning of a school year is a time when school expectations, procedures, and communities are built and set. When a student arrives mid-year, that student has missed out on this process and has a harder time adjusting to the new environment. This creates additional work for school faculty and can disrupt the classroom environment, and the authors suggest that MNPS provide more resources to schools to assist in this process.

The work of acclimating transfer students to a new classroom falls most heavily on traditional zoned schools. When a student who lives within the attendance zone shows up at a zoned school, the school must admit them. Such students may arrive with no notice to school personnel, and sometimes with no parent accompanying them. In contrast, charter and other choice schools have the option of deciding whether to admit a new student during the year. If school officials deem it disruptive to the academic year to bring in a transferring student, they can decline to do so. Further, if they decide to accept a student transferring in, then they can set a date at which the student will enroll and can prepare for the new student.

While it may be true that students are leaving schools regardless of school type during the year, the work of serving and acclimating these vulnerable students mid-year falls heavily on zoned schools. Further, since mobile students tend to be lower scoring than their peers, as noted above, and most transferring students are transferring INTO zoned schools, it is reasonable to ask whether student mobility over time has a negative effect on zoned school performance on state assessments.

Same Students?

The report did not draw any conclusions about the million dollar question surrounding school choice in Nashville. Do charter schools really enroll the “same students” as their neighboring zoned schools? There are, however, a few reasons to believe the answer is no. This question takes on increasing importance as test scores are used in a simplistic fashion to label which schools are “better” and merit replication and resources, and which schools are “worse” and therefore, some argue, should be wound down and closed. If there are key differences in the student bodies of the schools being compared, then the logic for this simplistic use of test scores falls apart.

For starters, there is the obvious fact that choice schools, whether charter or district, enroll only those students whose parents have proactively filled out a choice school application in advance. Indeed, some charter schools mandate parent attendance at orientations and conferences. Enrollment at these schools requires a certain degree of parental involvement and ability to navigate a choice system that not every student or parent has.

Further, as previously noted, transferring students, who tend to be lower-scoring on state assessments, move OUT of both zoned and choice schools during the school year, but primarily IN to zoned schools. So one type of school has these lower scoring students leaving and coming, and another type primarily has them leaving.

The report states that choice schools have a different point at which “the school can say enough is enough” when it comes to student behavior. (Report, page 39). Choice schools are able to remove students from the school for behavior at a lower threshold than traditional schools. When this occurs, and disruptive students are sent “back” to their zoned school, what impact does this have on the comparative makeup of the student bodies with regard to discipline issues and behavior? As the authors note, “For these school leaders, the behavior of students who transfer from schools of choice impacts their ability to develop a positive school culture where all students can learn.” (Report, page 38). The authors also noted that in charter schools, students who enroll after 5th grade struggle to meet behavior and academic expectations, and often leave, creating a “revolving door” of students until the school fills the seat with a “student who adapts quickly.” (Report, page 40).

Interestingly, authors state that “[s]upporting choice should include educating school staff throughout the district about the key differences between traditional and choice schools, and explain the rationale for allowing schools of choice to operate differently than traditional schools.” (Report, page 54). No details are offered as to what differences are being referenced, but certainly the public, in addition to school staff, needs to hear about these differences, their justifications, and their impact.

A Starting Point

In short, the Vanderbilt attrition student is a multi-faceted, complex first look at students mobility in a high poverty school district. It offers useful suggestions for further data collection and study, and presents interesting ideas for MNPS to consider in sharing information among schools and supporting highly mobile students. It emphasizes the importance of helping traditional schools market their successes and offerings and compete for students in a choice environment, and acknowledges that often a negative perception of a traditional school is undeserved. It finds no evidence of nefarious intent or practice among schools leaders. It does not, however, neatly resolve all questions about the impact of school choice and the validity of comparing scores of different schools, nor does it claim to do so. If you’d like to read it in its entirety, you can find it here.


Who’s Backing Your School Board Candidate?


While much of education policy comes from the state level, local school board elections are critically important to the direction of your local public schools. School board elections will be held all over the state this summer. What do you know about the candidates running in your county?

In Nashville, special interests pushing unlimited charter school growth have invested lots of money in four particular candidates.

 From the Nashville Scene  “Those with the biggest war chests have something in common: a friendly, if not embracing, attitude toward charter schools. In the four races — touching the Antioch, Hillsboro, McGavock and Overton clusters — each features… challengers who want charters to play a bigger role in Nashville’s education system…

While people with deep pockets and a desire to see more charter schools have cut meaty checks in this race, they’ve done so individually. Two years ago, a trio of pro-charter activists created a political action committee called Great Public Schools that handed out some $20,000 to their candidates. But that strategy is a no-go this year, said Bill DeLoache, a leading charter advocate and member of the threesome. He declined to comment on why.

But his wife, Mary DeLoache, has spread $6,000 evenly among this year’s four charter favorites. Other former organizers of the PAC have given too, including Townes Duncan (who gave the maximum contribution of $1,500 to Pierce and $500 to Dixon) and John Eason (who split $1,000 between the same two). Both Duncan and Eason work for investment companies… Others in the business community have also spread their wealth, giving maximum or near max donations to all or most charter-friendly candidates.”

Be sure to look closely at your school board candidates, their financial supporters, and whose agenda they will carry. Will the candidate you vote for represent you, or special interests?

Local pro-public education groups that are covering local races include the following:

Williamson Strong

SPEAK: Students Parents Educators Across Knox County

Strong Schools PAC (Sumner County)

You can look at the full election calendar here.

EARLY VOTING Runs through August 2nd. Election Day is August 7th.

We’d love to hear more about races across the state.
Below listed are all TN counties with links to their full Candidate  Lists. This lists are not limited to School Board candidates and may include entire county ballots and candidate listings. You may need to know your precinct to determine your sample ballot. Some county website info is incomplete but, we included a link in case information is updated soon. Please notify us of any errors or omissions.

Anderson County: Page 3/4
Bedford County:  ballot page 11
Benton County : download August doc.
Bledsoe County: sample ballot
Blount County: sample ballot
Bradley County: sample ballot
Campbell County: sample ballot
Cannon County: sample ballot
Carroll County: sample ballot
Carter County: sample ballot
Cheatham: sample ballot by precinct/choose general
Chester County:  sample ballot
Claiborne County: sample ballot
Clay County: sample ballot
Cocke County: sample ballot
Coffee County: sample ballot
Crockett County: sample ballot by precinct/choose general
Cumberland County: sample ballot
Davidson County: sample ballot
Decatur County: sample ballot
Dekalb County: sample ballot
Dickson County: sample ballot
Dyer County: sample ballot
Fayette County: sample ballot list by precinct/choose general
Fentress County: sample ballot
Franklin County: sample ballot
Gibson County: sample ballot
Giles County: sample ballot
Grainger County: sample ballot
Greene County: sample ballot
Grundy County: sample ballot
Hancock County: sample ballot
Hamblen County: sample ballot
Hamilton County: sample ballot
Hardeman County: sample ballot
Hardin County: sample ballot
Hawkins County: sample ballot
Haywood County: sample ballot
Henderson County: sample ballot
Henry County: sample ballot
Hickman County: sample ballot (link is problematic)
Houston County: sample ballot
Humphreys County: sample ballot
Jackson County: sample ballot
Jefferson County: sample ballot
Johnson County: sample ballot
Knox County: sample ballot
Lake County: sample ballot
Lauderdale County: sample ballot
Lawrence County: sample ballot (5 seats up- a lot for a small county)
Lewis County: sample ballot
Lincoln County: sample ballot
Loudon County: sample ballot
Macon County: sample ballot pg 12
Madison County: sample ballot
Marion County: sample ballot
Marshall County: sample ballet
Maury County: sample ballot
McMinn County: sample ballot
McNairy County: Link to County and Eastview ballots
Meigs County: sample ballot
Monroe County: sample ballot
Montgomery County: sample ballot
Moore County: sample ballot
Morgan County: sample ballot
Obion County: sample ballot
Overton County, sample ballot
Perry County: sample ballot
Picket County: general election sample ballots by district
Polk County: scroll down sample ballot
Putnam County:sample ballot
Rhea County: sample ballot
Roane County: sample ballot
Robertson County: candidate list
Rutherford County: sample ballot pg 15
Scott County: sample ballot
Sequatchie County: sample ballot
Sevier County: sample ballot
Shelby County: sample ballot
Smith County: sample ballot
Stewart County: candidate list
Sullivan County: sample ballot
Sumner County: sample ballot
Tipton County: candidate list
Trousdale County: sample ballot
Unicoi County: sample ballot
Union County: sample ballot
VanBuren County: sample ballot
Warren County: sample ballot
Washington County: sample ballot
Wayne County: sample ballot
Weakley County: sample ballot
White County: sample ballot
Williamson County: link to several sample ballots
Wilson County: sample ballot

 Source to links:





Standardized Testing, Trust & Accountability TN Style


A re-post of Thomas Weber’s Editorial 6-9-14 in the Tennessean “Bring Transparency to School Testing Process” adapted from his blog post which poses more questions on “Accountability Huffman Style”.

This has been the year of heavy scrutiny of standardized tests. Parents are paying more attention than ever to what kind of testing their children are being subjected to and have started to raise questions. It’s fair to say that a level of distrust has begun to ferment. If there ever was a time for a process to run smoothly and error-free, now is the time.

Unfortunately, the Tennessee Department of Education has failed to rise to the challenge (“TN’s Common Core test delay disappoints, concerns Kevin Huffman,” April 17). They have preached the importance of standardized testing to alleviate a crisis in education. These tests are supposedly essential in holding people accountable, yet they can’t even complete their end of the bargain in a timely and transparent fashion. Instead, they offer excuses that we would never accept from our children, and cast the results in doubt.

How valid can we now really consider these scores to be? You may call it “post-equating,” but to me it sounds like manipulation. It’s a well-known fact that “cut scores” change annually, but with every aspect of testing so clouded in secrecy it was easy for administrators to defend their policies. However, this latest debacle blows a hole in the argument that scores aren’t massaged — sorry, I mean “post-equated.”

Added to the “post-equating” defense is some mumbo-jumbo about making sure questions “align with Common Core.” To me, that sounds like arbitrarily looking at questions and throwing a few out. Anybody who’s ever looked at these tests in-depth is aware of how much just changing one or two variables can change the whole narrative. Back home, we call it cooking the books.

Here is another truism that I’ve lived with my whole life in the customer service realm: Perception is nine-tenths of reality. That’s why these results have now been corrupted beyond redemption. There will always be a question of their authenticity. This is inexcusable, and someone needs to be held accountable.

The ramifications of test scores have grown exponentially. State Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman was willing to stake teachers’ careers on test results. Parents hire tutors and make decisions on extracurricular activities based on the test. Schools throw “test pep rallies” to alleviate student “test anxieties.” The Tennessee Department of Education’s actions have taken all that focus and made it for naught.

Commissioner Huffman’s response further reinforces the worthlessness of the results by granting waivers. All school districts that request a waiver for these scores being used in final grades will receive a waiver to include scores in final grades. When questioned about the legality of this action, the Tennessee Department of Education points to a statute that clearly states the commissioner cannot grant waivers in regard to “federal and state student assessment and accountability,” which is somehow interpreted as granting powers.

Hopefully, by now the scope of this fiasco is clear. It’s not some harmless clerical error. Those of you who have ever proctored one of these tests know how fiercely the propriety of these tests is guarded. Walls are covered up, teachers swear blood oaths, and parents are never allowed to see the questions. That has to change.

Mr. Huffman needs to resign and we need to bring transparency to the testing process. A test is only as good as its perceived integrity.

 T.C. Weber is a Nashville parent, TREE board member and Recording Secretary.


Federal Funding a Gravy Train for Charter Schools


TREE has a rare ask. We are typically very focused on state-level issues around education reform; but, today we are asking you to look at legislation being pushed at the federal level. The federal government is pushing through The Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) which will promote charter school proliferation by providing federal grant dollars, on top of current state and local tax dollars, to charter schools.  The grant money can be used for administrative costs and to garner private investments for charter schools.

Our public schools are charged with educating ALL students regardless of disability, economic status, or language proficiency. Charter schools typically serve a lower percentage of English Language Learners and those with disabilities than traditional schools. Instead of holding the charters accountable for this discrepancy, some in the federal government now want to give charter schools extra cash! The bill also requires the grant-receiving state to establish a “charter school facilities funding” program, which will have to be funded with state tax dollars after the grant money is gone. This bill, a tax-dollar funding stream for charter schools, lacks any requirements for accountability or oversight since all amendments asking for transparency and fraud abuse regulation were shot down.

This legislation, that has already passed in the US House, will also allow a parallel private-school system funded with public dollars to be built across the country. Many lawmakers seemingly have no interest in helping us improve our current public school system. H.R. 10 gives the “charter school industry” more financial help by allowing them to pad their locally funded BEP money with federal dollars, while also providing them increased access to private funding. Rather than serving our children’s needs, these lawmakers are giving up on funding the current system in favor of pouring federal dollars into a private corporate-led, taxpayer-funded education system.  These funding choices will manipulate the current system into funding chaos–like a hostile take over–that forces public school failure due to lack of resources.

With little federal regulation and no elected body to oversee them, charter schools have moved from experimental schools trying to overcome public education challenges to tax shelters for the rich and powerful. This bill exempts charters from accountability with our tax dollars, thereby cloaking the investors of the funding system. The real cost of educating a child in the public system will never be known without transparency.

We are very concerned because some supporters of this bill, like education analyst Don Soifer, feel that Title I–a federal program that provides extra money to schools with a majority of students receiving free & reduced lunch–is not working and should be removed. Soifer stated that, “other programs could use some more controversy…The effectiveness of Title I overall is widely pointed to as an expensive program with an important goal that has not produced the sorts of academic results and outcomes it was created for.” Statements like this make us wonder if the life line for our neediest students and schools–Title 1–is next in line to be cut. Like punishment though starvation, money that could help our public system is being siphoned off, leaving our neediest children to suffer with inadequate services. H.R. 10 will proudly write the checks to charters without question, even in the face of face of rampant charter school fraud.

This bill  has passed the US House and is headed for the Senate–and we need your help to stop it. Please write your US Senator in Washington as soon as possible. 

Find your U.S. Senator

and let them know your opinion. If you need a starting point, copy and paste the text below into your email.  By participating in the legislative process you can make sure our current public education system is not left behind. Thank you.

Dear Senator ___,  
Please vote no on the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (HR 10). Instead of giving our tax dollars to private entities who are unaccountable to the public, please support legislation that will increase charter school oversight. Please support our children’s traditional zoned schools, rather than defunding them to the point of extinction. We need reform that strengthens our overall system of public education–not reform that destroys the system in exchange for tax shelters and corporate spending abuse. Please vote no on HR 10. 

Please include your State, zip code and if your are a parent, teacher and or public school supporter.

Learn more. (This spells out amendments that were tried and failed.)


Image provided by Archie McPhee. Buy it here.

Thank You for Making a Difference in Tennessee’s Schools!

The Tennessee General Assembly has completed its work for the year. We didn’t win all the battles we fought, but given the millions of dollars and dozens of lobbyists anti-public school groups spent, it’s nothing short of incredible what the parents, teachers, and concerned citizens who support public schools accomplished.

The school voucher program championed by Governor Bill Haslam, Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, Speaker Beth Harwell, Lieutenant Governor Ron Ramsey, and Majority Leaders in the House & Senate was unable to pass out of the Finance Committee due to a lack of support.

Did you catch that? Everybody in a position of power in our state government backed this bill, and lobbyists and “reform” groups pushed for it hard–and it still failed. Why? You! TREE is proud of the hundreds of phone calls and thousands of e-mails that poured into Legislative Plaza telling House members to say no! There is no doubt his bill would have passed without your help.

Status: Victory!

Speaker Harwell’s pet project, which replaces local elected officials with a state bureaucracy, passed the House in 2013. The Senate, which is closely aligned with Governor Haslam and Kevin Huffman, passed the bill this year. That left the House with a final vote on a minor change, which seemed to opened the door for reevaluation of the House’s passage of the bill. However, Speaker Harwell quashed all attempts by legislators to have a discussion on the virtues of the bill.

Status: Stay tuned for litigation when an unwanted (i.e., unnecessary, redundant, or poor quality) school attempts to force its way into a community using this tactic.

Big time national money got behind the movement to expose Tennessee to profit-driven school operators, but reason won. A House committee voted down the bill.

Status: Victory!

Supporters of public education had a lot of success stopping bad legislation this year, but this was a unique victory in that this was GOOD legislation that passed overwhelmingly. The parental notification bill requires the Tennessee Department of Education and local school districts to provide parents with information about mandated tests. Included will be each test’s date, purpose, use, and method of informing parents and teachers of the results.

Status: Victory!

The Achievement School District (ASD) is a group of schools with lower test scores that have been placed under state control with the goal of helping the kids in those schools. This year, in clear violation of that supposed intent, legislation was put forward permitting the ASD to pull in students from other schools in an attempt to widen the Department of Education’s reach into local communities, increase the prevalence of charter schools, and obsure the ASD’s failure to make any progress. The Education Committee voted in favor of the legislation, but the bill’s sponsor couldn’t get a single member of the House Finance Committee to support the bill and, consequently, it died.

Status: Victory!

This year’s “parent trigger” bill sought to make it easier for parents to force the conversion of their neighborhood school into a charter school, fire the principal, and fire or reassign at least 50% of the school’s teachers. The law, which purports to give parents a voice in the direction of their schools, has in practice led to incidents of bullying, harassment, and misinformation as well-funded “reform” groups swoop into the affected community to campaign for the solution that benefits them. This bill was passed by the Education Committee, but not a single member of the Finance Committee supported it.

Status: Victory!

Legislation was proposed to increase the clout of “education reform” groups at the state legislature–organizations whose lobbyists outnumber public school advocates by a margin of 8:1. The legislation would have hampered the voice of our elected school boards in the legislative process, and further skewed this imbalance. This bill failed on the House floor when Republicans and Democrats joined forces to defeat the bill.

Status: Victory!

A series of bills that would have done great things for our schools were killed in the House Education Subcommittee without the opportunity for real debate. Among them: allowing parents to opt-out of some testing; requiring the Department of Education to fund the standardized tests that local school districts are required to administer; requiring the Commissioner of Education to be qualified.

Status: We’ll be back next year!

Thank you for all of your efforts over the past several months! The children of Tennessee will be well served by the fact that we have parents who are keeping careful watch over the policies that affect our teachers, the quality of our schools, and the future of our state.

TREE has been thrilled to work with individuals and groups across the state and are proud of the impact our coordinated efforts have had. We’re confident we’ll be able to accomplish much more, but to do so, we need your support. A contribution to TREE will help us to continue to educate and inform concerned citizens across the state of Tennesseee about important education issues. Please take a moment to contribute $5, $10, or whatever you can offer to help our efforts. We look forward to continuing our work with you and building on our strong network of engaged parents, teachers, and citizens. Onward!