Tuesday, July 30, 2013

What to Make of Latest TCAP Scores

Posted By on Tue, Jul 30, 2013 at 2:52 PM

The schools story has become so complicated that it’s unclear what’s to be made of the latest batch of TCAP standardized test scores released this week.

The scores got generally positive notices from officials of the state Department of Education and the unified Shelby County School System. Scores increased for the majority of school districts in Tennessee in nearly every subject. In its last year of independence, Memphis City Schools showed increased proficiency in math, science, and social studies. The legacy Shelby County School system did the same, and also improved in reading.

But “improved” or "increased" compared to what? The scoring system — the curve for those of you in the education game — changed a couple of years ago, making long-term comparisons impossible. There are new subgroups of schools, such as the Achievement School District and the Innovation Zone (I confess to not knowing there was such a thing). Apples to apples has become apples to oranges to bananas to mangoes to papayas. And scores for individual schools, including public charter schools, have not been released yet.

More on that in a minute, but first the official statements.

“Sustained improvements across the state show that our efforts to raise student outcomes are working,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. “Our students, teachers, and administrators worked incredibly hard. The results prove that if we continue to maintain high expectations and quality support for our teachers, our students will continue to grow.”

David Stephens, deputy superintendent for the Shelby County Schools, was more restrained. Legacy MCS and legacy SCS districts both earned an overall Level 5 rating for student growth - the highest level of growth possible. In grades 3-8 Reading/Language Arts, legacy MCS showed a slight decrease (-0.4), while legacy SCS showed a slight increase (+1.1). The details are here.

“We realize that we still have work to do, but are very pleased with these accomplishments, especially in the midst of a school year involving the merging of two systems. The results are proof that our teachers and leaders continued to effectively advance student achievement in the classrooms, while adjusting to changes at the district level and preparing for a unified district."

Statewide, 30 districts saw double-digit gains in Algebra I, some gaining more than 25 percentage points. More than 50 districts saw double-digit gains in Algebra II, some reporting growth over 40 percentage points.

Such gains are cause for inspection as well as celebration because they are probably due to a major change in the test-taking population or a small sample, which magnifies the change. If such a thing were replicable on a large scale, then the wizards who did it would be running every public and private education outfit in the country.

In Memphis, the seven Innovation Zone schools, which are hard cases like the ASD schools, showed an increase in proficiency from the previous year (Math +10, Reading +2.4, Science +13.4, Social Studies +11.9) that was at a higher rate than the state and the ASD.

Credit where credit is due, but the focus on small groups of schools at a time when the biggest school system merger in American history is nigh seems, well, curious.

Congratulations to all those who did better. But determining "better" these days is a little bit like making up a football schedule. If you can't find someone somewhere you can beat somehow then you're not trying very hard.

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Friday, July 26, 2013

Jock Tax on Grizzlies Under Fire in Nashville

Posted By on Fri, Jul 26, 2013 at 12:35 PM

Tony Allen
  • Tony Allen
The so-called "jock tax" on NBA and NHL athletes in Tennessee is tip money to them so it was sad to read in The Tennessean about the opposition to it in Nashville this week.

Tennessee has no state income tax and Memphis has no local payroll tax. To raise money, Memphis must increase the highest sales tax rate in the country or the highest property tax rate in the state. Both the Memphis City Council and Shelby County Commission raised property taxes this year.

The jock tax costs players a maximum of $7,500 a year. According to the fiscal note on the 2009 legislation, the total tax on NBA and NHL players this year is about $3.5 million, about half what Mike Miller will make next year when he returns to the Grizzlies.

Grizzlies fans pay a tax on seats, tickets, and concessions that helps pay the cost of the arena.

Tony Allen, who signed a new contract with the Grizzlies paying him $5 million a year, was in Nashville to oppose it. Allen, who has said he "bleeds blue," did not speak at the hearing Thursday. If he played in Georgia he would pay state income tax of 6 percent; in North Carolina, the state tab is 7.75 percent. In Tennessee, $7,500.

The Grizzlies ownership opposes killing the jock tax because the revenue is passed through to them. Jason Wexler represented the ownership group at the hearing. He told the Flyer the tax brings about $1.1 million a year to Memphis.

"We use it to recruit events to FedEx Forum," he said. "Memphis is a good market but not a must-play market. We get about ten concerts a year."

"It's working," he added. "It's an effective incentive tool."

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Wednesday, July 24, 2013

Smarter than a Fifth Grader? Maybe Not on TCAP Test

Posted By on Wed, Jul 24, 2013 at 12:29 PM

Chris Barbic, ASD superintendent
  • Chris Barbic, ASD superintendent
What I would love to see is the TCAP test for elementary school kids given to a random sample of adults in Tennessee. I bet a lot of them would fail it, or make a score far below what the state considers "proficient" in science, reading, and math.

Not because the adults are dumb but because school knowledge and test-taking skill are not the same as being a successful functioning member of society. Are you smarter than a fifth-grader? The answer is probably yes and no.

As you probably know by now if you are reading this, the TCAP scores for the six schools in the Achievement School District came out Wednesday. Five of the schools are in Memphis. Students improved in science and math, but the number of students deemed proficient in reading dropped by 4.5 percent to just 13.6 percent overall.

"It's the first year the kids have been held to a higher standard, and I think we need to continue to give the ASD our support," said school board member Dr. Jeff Warren.

Said board member Kenneth Whalum Jr., "The fact that some TCAP testing areas show improvement among ASD students proves that student achievement isn't rocket science. Focused attention, additional resources, smaller class sizes, and parental involvement usually enhance a poor student's ability to perform well in school. It also shows that "teaching to the test" works well. The fact that the Reading scores are down, as I understand it, proves that there is no guarantee that a child's comprehension skills are bettered by any measure aside from improving the home life of the child, as home is where
communication skills are honed."

I agree with both of these gentlemen.

The ability to read can't be faked, at least not on a standardized test. Most kids from reasonably well-to-do families learn to do it before they are in the third grade, with lots of help from family members. Kids who can't read a lick by then are screwed, and so is the teacher whose job rating depends on making them "proficient". My first job was teaching reading in Nashville, using flash cards, menus, road signs, and a baby book about "Cowboy Bob" to try to teach embarrassed teenagers how to read. Despite having the smallest classes in the school, I would not have made the ASD cut by a mile. Such is the road to journalism.

Basic literacy might not be enough to achieve "proficiency" because reading comprehension questions about random passages can be baffling and prompt a "don't have a clue" reaction. Reading for survival, entertainment, and spiritual sustenance has little relationship to the goofy questions that show up on tests and compare-and-contrast theme assignments.

Math is a code. If you have a fourth-grader or have ever been one, you know the tipping point is simple fractions, percentages, and relationships. Give Archimedes a lever and a place to stand he could move the world. Give a teacher a pizza, a pizza cutter, and a reasonable class size and he/she can move the scores. If you don't know what one-fourth means, much less that it is the same as 25 percent, you're screwed. Algebra? Bet there are plenty of college-educated business professionals who would flunk Algebra I today if they haven't been in a classroom in decades.

Science, I suspect, is a statistical outlier because it is rarely if ever taught at all in some failing schools, so any exposure at all, combined with practice testing, is likely to increase test scores.

So give the ASD some slack, and I hope the ASD gives its teachers some slack too, because longer hours and higher demands and drill and kill are going to turn classrooms into "sweat shops" as Kriner Cash said and drive them out of teaching, where most of them are badly needed.

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Friday, July 19, 2013

Wharton Says Memphis Is No Detroit

Posted By on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 4:59 PM

Memphis Mayor A C Wharton said Friday it is not a time to "pile on" Detroit in the wake of its bankruptcy, but took pains to make a case that Memphis is a much healthier city.

Wharton called reporters to City Hall for a comparison-making session that he admitted was not unlike the athletic director who calls a press conference to announce support for the football coach — which is often the kiss of death. He said his first reaction was that the comparison "is so inept that I am not going to dignify it by responding," but respond he did.

"They need to hear that we do recognize our challenges and are going to meet them head on," he said. "They need to hear that from me."

He produced a chart showing that the Memphis city pension plan is nearly 75 percent funded, with more than $2 billion in the bank. Memphis, he said, has roughly half as many city employees for close to the same population, and a budget approximately one fifth as large. Memphis has a more diverse economy. The "key difference" he said is "there is no denial in this city" that there are financial challenges even during the heat of council debate over the budget. As for the state comptroller's letter, "we had started down that path even before that without any warning or threats that said we have to change some things in the pension situation."

Wharton opened the session with some comments about Trayvon Martin.

"I have six sons and four grandsons and have been in courtrooms a good part of my life, so for me it wasn't just can you comment on something on a tv screen," he said.

He said he is "glad folks are going to rally" for a "noble cause, that is to ask for some redress."

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How Low Will ASD School TCAP Scores Be?

Posted By on Fri, Jul 19, 2013 at 12:10 PM

Chris Barbic
  • Chris Barbic
The superintendent of the Achievement School District, Chris Barbic, took the unusual step of explaining, or spinning if you will, the TCAP standardized test scores before they are released.

Barbic wrote a column for The Commercial Appeal Friday in which he let the cat out of the bag and confirmed what some teachers have been saying for a couple weeks — the state-run ASD schools (education jargon for failing schools) got mixed results.

"Not all is rosy. Our kids are far behind in reading and we need to catch them up. There are bright spots in reading — for example, students at Gordon Science and Arts Academy grew nearly three grade levels this year. But overall our students' reading scores dipped."

There was no accompanying news story on school-by-school TCAP scores, which Barbic wrote will be released the week of July 22nd. In an email to the Flyer earlier this week, Kelli Gauthier, director of communications for the Tennessee Department of Education, said the scores would be released next week. The statewide TCAP results have been released and can be found here.

The ASD has set a high bar for itself — to move the lowest-performing schools to the top 25 percent in five years. Teachers, especially those who lost their jobs because they were deemed mediocre or worse in raising student test scores, will be watching closely.

To its credit, the ASD has not cherry-picked students or schools — just the opposite. But raising test scores across the board in all subjects is, as Barbic wrote, "incredibly difficult work" because low-scoring students can pull down the average.

Veteran teachers are likely to say something like "welcome to my world."

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Thursday, July 18, 2013

Fact and Myth: Numbers Behind the Tax Numbers

Posted By on Thu, Jul 18, 2013 at 4:47 PM

Notes from a meeting Thursday with Shelby County Trustee David Lenoir, who can't send out tax bills until the Shelby County Commission sets the property tax rate at $4.38 or $4.36 or $4.40 cents or something else.

The population of Memphis has increased since 2010. This doesn’t necessarily mean there are more taxpayers, but population is the most basic measurement of a city’s health. The increase rebuts to some extent the contention of some Memphis City Council members that Memphians are “voting with their taillights.” A U.S. Census report that came out in May says Memphis is the 20th largest city in the country and its population has grown by more than 7500 people since 2010. The report says the population of Memphis grew from 647,612 in 2010 to 655,155 in July, 2012. The population of Shelby County increased from 928,792 to 940,764 during the same period.

More people (51 percent) are working in Memphis and living elsewhere than living in Memphis and working there (49 percent). This means Memphis does not get the benefit of their property taxes, the biggest contributor to the tax base.

DeSoto County has the opposite situation. Most people (68 percent) live in the county and work somewhere else (32 percent).

From a tax standpoint, the cost of living is lower in Shelby County than in DeSoto County. A family with $100,000 of household income pays $25,956 in taxes in Memphis and $31,534 in Southaven. Property taxes are higher in Memphis, but the Mississippi state income tax ($4,850) and vehicle registration fee ($2,908 on a $40,000 vehicle) offsets that.

Most people and businesses pay their taxes. The collection rate for the last six years ranges from 92 percent to 94 percent.

More property owners who appealed to the Board of Equalization got a reduction (24,001) than an increase (9,787) in the last 12 months. Owners can do this themselves or hire a professional tax representative. In many cases, a reduction will be offered by letter and the property owner does not have to personally appear.

Collections estimates are “conservative” so elected officials, like corporations and their earnings estimates, can beat them, Lenoir said. In other words, the county will take in a little more and refund a little less than it estimates.

The housing market is improving. There have been 5,767 sales in 2013 compared to 5,332 in 2012.

The suburbs, soon to have their own school systems, are where the money is in home ownership, and it’s not even close. The median sales price in Shelby County is $89,900, in Germantown $275,253, in Collierville $269,200, in Arlington $210,000, in Bartlett $150,000, in Lakeland $220,000. Only Millington lags, at $68,000.

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Monday, July 15, 2013

Paula Deen's Tunica Vanishing Act

Posted By on Mon, Jul 15, 2013 at 1:40 PM

Like a gambler who's had too much to drink, Paula Deen is getting the bum's rush from Harrah's Tunica Casino two weeks after her career imploded.

"Coming Soon! All New Buffet Experience" say the signs outside of the erstwhile Paula Deen's Buffet on the second floor of the casino.

Gone are the Paula Deen lifesize cutouts in the lobby, the Life-of-Paula photo collage next to the cash register, and most of the branded merchandise in the gift shop. Signs say all such merchandise is 50 percent off, but the markdowns were more than that last week on the cookware and relatively high-end stuff, according to employees.

I snagged a pink t-shirt, modeled here by Flyer colleague Bianca Phillips, for $9.99 and a pair of refrigerator magnets for a dime each (formerly $5) featuring Paula's sons Bobby and Jamie who, unlike most of Paula's corporate partners, defended her during the storm.

"Neither one of our parents ever taught us to be bigoted toward any other person for any reason," Bobby Deen told CNN's "New Day" in an exclusive interview with Chris Cuomo.

"Our mother is one of the most compassionate, good-hearted, empathetic people that you'd ever meet," he added. "These accusations are very hurtful to her, and it's very sad."

Harrah's Tunica spokesman Patrick Collins said "We have no news to report on the buffet at this time."

The 560-seat no-name buffet is still open and serving Deen's southern-style cooking and signs on the road to the casino still tout the Paula Deen Buffet as an attraction. At lunch hour Monday, the buffet was nearly deserted and some of the shelves in the gift shop had been stripped bare.

Caesar's Entertainment, the casino's parent company, announced on June 26th, the day Deen appeared on the "Today" show and five days after the story broke, that it was ending the relationship by "mutual agreement." But no details were disclosed, and employees said they did not know what would replace the Paula Deen Buffet, a fixture in the casino since 2008.

The Wall Street Journal reported last week that Deen has hired a new legal team to defend her in the racial and sexual harassment lawsuit. She has also parted ways with her agent who was head of media strategy for Paula Deen Enterprises.

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Friday, July 12, 2013

Roadtrip Nation Crew Visits Memphis

Posted By on Fri, Jul 12, 2013 at 2:36 PM

Do you remember what you were doing when you were 20?

If the answer is "not much" or "finding myself" or "I'd rather forget" you have lots of company. An outfit called Roadtrip Nation is in its 12th year of crossing America in a green and blue RV to document the stories of stumbles, false starts, failures of nerve, and other misfortunes on the road to success or, at least, something close to it.

The Roadtrip Nation RV was in Memphis Friday after overnighting on a side street at the south end of downtown. Its five occupants include a producer for public television, a camera guy, and three 18-to-22-year-old "roadtrippers" who do the interviews. Memphis was only a stop along the way on this summer's trip, but the door of the RV was open and Dan Ford, the producer, was inside poring over a map of the United States while his team went out for coffee.

The group set out from San Francisco three weeks ago and has stopped in Los Angeles, Phoenix, Taos, Dallas, and New Orleans enroute to St. Louis and points north and east for the next four weeks. They preschedule some interviews in each and wing it on others. The University of Phoenix, a for-profit network of online courses and operations in several cities including Memphis, is a key sponsor.

Cameraman Willie Witte (left) and producer Dan Ford
The basic question, Ford said, is pretty much this: "If you don't know where you want to go after college or while you're in college, how do you make a life and career that fulfills you?"

The idea is that by showing how other people came to grips with their failures and uncertainty, people watching Roadtrip Nation on PBS or using its curriculum in high school or college will take heart and find their own selves and their own definition of success.

"You see where people are at now but you don't see the hard and winding path to get there," said Ford, 29, in his seventh year with the project. "You have to fail to keep moving forward."

The inside of the RV was comfortable but not plush. Olivia ZanFardino, the only woman in the group, does most of the driving. So far she's accident free.

In New Orleans, the team interviewed a chef and an urban designer. Several of the interviewees over the years did not go to college, dropped out or changed careers in mid-life. "Renegade engineers" are especially commonplace, the crew said.

There are others who found their calling early, like the guy they met in Louisiana who wrestles alligators.

"He jumped right in the water to give us a demonstration," said ZanFardino. "The alligator looked like it was scared of him, like it knew this guy is not to be messed with. He told us he had been doing it since he was ten years old."

Memphis station WKNO does not broadcast the program but it can be viewed online.

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Wednesday, July 3, 2013

TV Minus Zombies, ESPN, and Food Channel

Posted By on Wed, Jul 3, 2013 at 1:38 PM

Six months ago I switched to basic cable, the cheapskate option in my AT&T U-verse package. I did it to save a little money, gain a little quality time, and make a symbolic protest against AT&T and ESPN, which I blame for jacking up my monthly bill to $174 and ruining civilization as we know it.

Resolutions are easy in January. Most of the football bowl games I wanted to watch were on broadcast stations ABC, NBC, CBS or FOX. There were Christmas gift DVDs to enjoy instead. Then it got harder. ESPN has fought back against people like me by capturing exclusive rights to more and more events. Here is my report.

Total Savings: The difference between my old 280-channel package and my new 15-channel package is $40 a month, or $240 for six months. The savings should be more than that, but AT&T charges cheapskates and Luddites $15 a month for equipment that is "free" with other packages. Offsetting expenses: Netflix subscription for $7.99 a month, $4 beers at sports bars.

Most Grief Taken: My wife loves the AMC zombie show "The Walking Dead." She reminds me about once a week. Offsetting factor: The Brad Pitt movie helped, but the zombie appetite is not easily sated. If I break it will be due to zombies.

Second biggest loss: Who knew the Grizzlies would go so far in the Playoffs, and that several of the games would only be on ESPN? Or that Michigan would beat Kansas in a thrilling game on TBS? Offsetting factor: Mooching off neighbors.

Third biggest loss: Watching people cook on "Chopped." Offsetting factor: Actually cooking.

Other regrets: French Open and Wimbledon early rounds. Offsetting factor: ABC highlights and replays, if you don't mind knowing Federer and Nadal lost.

Worthwhile discoveries on basic cable stations: None. The major networks are a wasteland and appear to have given up on everything except reality shows and copycat crime shows. Offsetting factor: Black Hawks and Bruins in NHL Playoffs and WKNO documentary on Henry Ford.

Best rented movies I would not have seen otherwise: "Sherlock Holmes" and "In Bruges".

Worst rented movie I would not have seen otherwise: "Extremely Loud and Incredibly Close".

Long books I probably wouldn't have read otherwise: "Blue Latitudes" by Tony Horwitz and "11/22/63" by Stephen King.

Smug moment: Pointing out newspaper stories about Evil ESPN and viewers cutting cable and asking people "Does Paula Deen have a show?"

Sick moment: ESPN ends sharing agreements with broadcast stations for major events. AT&T comes up with more fees.

Guilty pleasure: Surfing 200 stations while on vacation and watching Paula Deen and Matt Lauer on "Today" on NBC.

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