by Vanese Griffin, special education master teacher
With debates on testing and standards dominating the news, you’re probably unaware the Tennessee Department of Education told over 180 special education students it is shutting down their school. It is a school that serves a higher percentage of special education and economically disadvantaged students than the state average. It also happens to be the fastest improving public school in the state with some of the biggest improvements in academic outcomes over the past year. The Department says closing this school is in the best interest of the students.
Parents vehemently disagree. Two families with special education students at this school recently filed a lawsuit against the state to block it from taking this action. The parents said their children have thrived since enrolling in this school and will suffer harm if the state succeeds in shutting it down.
Furthermore, the Department ordered the school closed without any input from the school community, and without ever speaking with the school’s parents, students or teachers. They never bothered to meet these students. They don’t know them.
I am the lead special education teacher for Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA), a nonprofit public virtual school. TNVA provides public education to students in grades K-8 and, because it is an online school, can serve students throughout the state. It’s also a public school that accepts all students regardless of academic need. This quality is what makes TNVA so special and my job so rewarding.
I work with TNVA’s special education students every day, providing them educational services and personalized instruction. These kids have numerous challenges: autism, medically homebound, ADHD, and other learning disabilities. Many were bullied in their previous schools, failed academically, or did not receive the services they needed.
Parents tell me TNVA is the only public school that works for their children, and I agree. I’ve seen it firsthand. One of our seventh grade students came to TNVA as a non-reader and is now reading only one grade level below his peers. In just two years at TNVA, he was able to achieve more academic growth than he made in six years at his local school.
In judging TNVA, however, Department officials look only at results from the Tennessee Value Added Assessment System, or TVAAS. It’s the same system used to evaluate teachers, which has sparked a separate lawsuit by the Tennessee Education Association. They want the state to stop using TVAAS to measure teacher effectiveness.
The TVAAS system gave TNVA the lowest rating, Level 1, the past three years. This rating is the justification used by the Department to close my school. Never mind that more than 125 other Tennessee schools – some very highly regarded – also had Level 1 ratings for three consecutive years. The Department hasn’t ordered them to close. Compared to these 125 schools, TNVA had the biggest academic gains and fastest rate of improvement. It’s progressing while others are regressing. Yet, only TNVA is targeted for closure. It’s unfair and unequal treatment. The Department calls it “accountability.”
Look even closer and you will see my school significantly boosted its outcomes from 2013 to 2014, raising proficiency, academic growth, and meeting five of its six annual goals. This is meaningful progress not captured by a simple 1 through 5 rating system.
Tennessee’s teachers are rightly concerned the state is relying too heavily on rolled up student test results funneled through complex data systems to draw sweeping conclusions about their effectiveness, while ignoring the daily challenges they face, and the real – but sometimes difficult to measure – impact they are having on students.
Tennessee needs real, student-centered accountability. Assessments should be highly personalized and used to refine and improve student learning, not used by the state as blunt instruments to punish teachers or unfairly close schools. Such actions have serious consequences on children’s lives. Just ask my special education students who worry the state will close the one school they desperately need.
Vanese L. Griffin is the lead special education teacher for Tennessee Virtual Academy. She previously taught in Memphis City Schools.