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VOL. 35 | NO. 20 | Friday, May 20, 2011

Obama trip highlights state school concerns

BILL DRIES | The Daily News

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Associated Press photo

President Barack Obama’s visit to Memphis this week comes at an important time for education reform in Memphis as well as the state.

It also comes as local, state and federal voices in the reform discussion are asking some very specific questions about what standards matter in judging the value of a high school diploma.

Obama shook hands with every member of the graduating class of Booker T. Washington High School after each received their diploma Monday at the Memphis Cook Convention Center.

Much of the spoken emphasis was on the school’s heritage and the civic leaders it has produced over generations.

The mostly unspoken emphasis was on the school’s less than stellar showing in the last 30 years of education scorecards, test scores, proficiency exams, state rankings, and school by school rankings – all legacies of the phases of reform beginning with the “A Nation At Risk” report of the early 1980s through the No Child Left Behind standards at the dawn of the 21st century.

Obama said success at Booker T. Washington was a sign “it can happen anywhere in Memphis. It can happen throughout Tennessee. It can happen all across America.”

He was referring to the school’s graduation rate of more than 80 percent, up from about 50 percent.

“Ever since I became president, my administration has been working hard to make sure that we build on the progress that’s taking place at schools like this,” he told those at the ceremony. “We’ve got to encourage the kind of change that’s led not by Washington, D.C., but by teachers and principals and parents; by entire communities; by ordinary people standing up and demanding a better future for their children.”

The graduates walked across the stage approximately two years into reform efforts by Memphis City Schools superintendent Dr. Kriner Cash. And Cash was the next person each graduate shook hands with after they shook hands with the president of the United States.

Like Obama, Cash has said the test of education reform is its success in schools written off in the past as hopeless, beyond reform.

For Cash and his administration, the graduation was a chance to showcase a reform plan that has been obscured since November locally by the move to consolidation with Shelby County Schools.

Cash’s transformation of judging teacher effectiveness has been in its most crucial phase during that time, beginning a move into schools.

Before he walked onto the stage, Obama talked with Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam about the state’s role as one of the first two states to win Race To The Top funding – $500 million to Tennessee announced last year with lots of lobbying by Obama’s education secretary Arne Duncan to change the state’s cap on charter schools and to allow value-added student assessments to be used in making teacher tenure decisions.

“Obviously there’s a lot of debate about what happens next with No Child Left Behind,” Haslam said of his discussions with Obama. “We had a good discussion about that as well.”

In Haslam’s first five months in office, he has signed into law a bill that lengthens the time for getting tenure from three years to five years. Still pending are different bills that in each form would drastically limit collective bargaining rights for teachers. House Speaker Beth Harwell has said even the more moderate proposal would “end collective bargaining as we know it.”

Alexander has recently said No Child Left Behind standards should be changed to eliminate the Adequate Yearly Progress rankings that determine whether schools are judged by the federal government as failing or achieving adequate progress.

The former Tennessee governor and federal education secretary said in April he believes it is unnecessary with 41 states including Tennessee agreeing on a set of common standards for student achievement.

“I think we need to keep reporting by groups of children how they are doing,” Alexander said. “But then I think it’s up to the local school board and the state to decide whether the school or the teaching or the schools’ leadership deserves an ‘A’ or an ‘F.’”

Haslam has also been part of that discussion.

“What we would like to see is the state be able to have the prerogative to decide how we’re going to leverage that,” Haslam said. “What we all agree on is the need to keep raising standards.”

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