Throughout the Covid-19 pandemic, 50CAN will be working to connect with some of our country’s leading thinkers, educators and policymakers as they share their best thinking on needed adaptations for our education system, districts, schools and classrooms that will best serve students during this challenging and chaotic time.
Tennessee recently held a special legislative session to address the Covid-19 education crisis, resulting in three pieces of monumental legislation that was signed into law earlier this year. TennesseeCAN’s Victor Evans, who called for many of these changes back in April of last year, joins 50CAN’s Marc Porter Magee to discuss the victories and his team’s 2021 legislative agenda.
Marc Porter Magee: Well, welcome back to another interview series in the New Reality Roundup. And this week we’re talking with Victor Evans, the executive director of TennesseeCAN. So welcome, Victor.
Victor Evans: Thank you, Marc. Thank you for having me.
And I appreciate you making time with us, not only because I know it’s really busy with legislative session, but you also have a new baby boy at home. So congratulations on that, and I know that he’s keeping your life very busy now.
Yeah. Yeah, he is.
And I know that brings a whole new perspective, obviously, as an advocate for kids when you have a kid at home yourself. And it helps you really see what it’s like as a parent, trying to juggle all this, particularly in a pandemic.
Yeah. Absolutely. Absolutely.
So I thought we could start by talking about how kids are doing right now in Tennessee. I know there was a recent article that came out in Chalkbeat, talking about some pretty stark numbers in middle school. 8% of kids are proficient right now, on the latest assessments, in reading; 10% in math. And I know there’s challenges across the state right now. So what are you and your team seeing of how students are handling the challenges of this pandemic?
Yeah. Thank you, Marc. So first off I’d like to say that, I mean, 8% is just unacceptable, right? That is just really putting our kids at a disadvantage, and likely kids who have already been behind, pre-pandemic. And so now we’re looking at, “Will our kids ever catch up?” Right? So then, they’re not catching up, then that means what does life look like after high school? Will they have the opportunity to go to college? Will they have the opportunity to even enter into the workforce? What does their trajectory of the quality of their life look like? And it looks pretty dim, based off of what those scores are. And so I always say we’re in a state of emergency, for sure. And talking to parents– since the onset of this pandemic nearly a year ago, there’s just been lots of concerns about the quality of virtual learning. And looking at Shelby County schools, based in Memphis, really one of the last school systems in our state that was strictly virtual learning. Nashville– Metro Nashville Public Schools announced about three days ago that they will go into in-person– or at least provide an in-person option. I think today is the first day that they’re doing that.
And so, I mean, throughout this pandemic we’ve heard from– my team and I have heard from parents who’ve just been concerned about the quality of online learning, right? And they’ve just been concerned about– it’s not the same. Either the device doesn’t work or they feel like they’re not getting– their child’s not getting the special attention that they need in that particular subject area, right? That same type of quality in-person instruction that you would get if the teacher were able to come over to you and spend a little bit more time with you in person, in the classroom. And so those are some of the concerns that we have been seeing for over a year, and it looks like we’ll continue to see some of those, unfortunately.
Yeah. And it’s great to hear that schools are starting to open back up again and providing that choice to kids. And it almost feels like we’re hopefully moving from this emergency moment into a recovery moment. And we’ve got to start thinking about how do you recover from the drops we’ve seen? I know that you were one of the earliest and strongest advocates for bringing online new tutoring programs. As one way to catch kids up. What was it that drew you to that idea? Back in last year?
Well, the first thing was that there was millions of dollars flowing into Tennessee, right? In the federal government. And one of the few times that the federal government is giving money away, but not really restricting the uses of those dollars. So saying, “Hey, this is for the education of kids during COVID.” And so, we saw an imperative that we start talking to our Governor, start talking to our Department of Education right away. And saying like, “These are some things that we can do.” Obviously, the pandemic has– unfortunately caused a healthcare crisis for a lot of people. And so people have not been– comfortable going back into the school building. And if that’s the case, then like, let’s provide another option for those families. So why not have a tutor– be a certified teacher? Or a menu of tutoring services that a child or a family could use with those dollars? And we’re continuing to advocate for that. We’re kind of seeing now, well, what if more districts would take action with that? Would we still be having doubts from parents and families about the quality of online learning? We’ll never know, right? Those
steps were never taken.
So I think, obviously, based off test scores, right? We use test scores to measure our outcomes, right? To see where our kids are. The scores are horrible. There’s only been one option, right? Virtual learning. So again, we need to continue to explore the options for these families. Because at the end of the day, this tug of war about should we be in person? Should we be virtual? Should we be hybrid? At the end of the day, the kids are stuck in the middle. And it’s their lives that are being affected. And you can’t put kids’ lives on pause like some Netflix you’re watching during the pandemic, right?
Absolutely. Every month, every year counts. We used to talk about every minute counts.
Right. But we’ve got to make up for this lost ground. And I know it can feel sometimes like you’re a lonely voice in the wilderness, in education, obviously. But on this question of tutoring, it seems like pretty quickly a coalition emerged. Including the strong support from the governor. And that you actually went and got a big win, a win that people can learn from. So maybe tell us a little bit about that coalition, and tell us about what you got done.
Right. We’re fortunate to be a part of a coalition of– education advocacy groups in our state. And kudos to the governor, and the leadership, and the legislature. I mean, they took bold action saying, “We have got to do something right away.” And what made this action even– even more immediate was the fact that there was actually legislation moving to address at least some of the literacy pieces of our education system for kids. And the deficiencies there right when COVID hit. So we’ve kind of had some unfinished business. And then we said, “Data show that the learning loss is pretty high among kids.” And obviously, the kids who were already behind are even more behind. So how do we– how do we attack the learning loss? How do we address literacy? And of course, how do we do all that while keeping our accountability framework of our of our states, so our state assessments and our teacher evals keep that intact, so it’s not blown up because the first thing people want to do when things go south is to just get rid of something, right, “Okay. Well, we don’t need to take the test this year.” Well, parents I’ve spoken to said, “I want to know how my child is doing.” Okay. “I want to know if they’re actually learning something in this virtual classroom. I want to know how far they’ve fallen behind.” And actually, one of our campaign goals this year was to require districts to release data to families, so they know how their children– so kudos to Shelby County Schools and other school districts who are doing that.
But it’s important to keep that pressure on those school districts to get those results out to families, so parents and families know how children are doing. And as a result of a call to action, I would say, between literacy, learning loss, and obviously accountability, our governor and the legislature, they had us convene a special session a couple weeks ago to address those things. The special session only lasted four days, and you had three historic, monumental pieces of legislation that passed at the end of those four days. And we were fortunate enough to be– TennesseeCAN was fortunate enough to be part of that bill-signing ceremony for that legislation yesterday. And so now we go to implementation, right? If a district is supposed to continue sharing reading scores or interim assessment reading scores or math scores, then they need to do it, right? We can’t just stop. We can’t say, “We passed it, okay. Hands off.” No. We need to continue to ensure that it occurs, and even in talking to legislatures yesterday at the bill-signing ceremony, they were saying the same thing about, “The work does not stop here. We have to ensure that there is accountability and what we’ve just codified comes to fruition.”
That’s great. So kudos for the four-day productive session. I know it sounds like you got done in four days what often takes four months or four years. And I thought it was really powerful that the governor called a special session because this is an emergency. It’s an education crisis, so hopefully, we’ll see that approach from more states. And it sounds like the power of this if you were to just kind of communicate the formula, it’s more support, but it’s also more transparency and more accountability going forward. Is that formula that the Tennessee model is putting forward?
Absolutely. And oftentimes, you hear about a piece of legislation that’s moving or a piece of legislation that has passed, and they’re grumblings. It’s like, “Oh, well, they never spoke to us about that. We’re the ones being impacted by it. Why didn’t they speak to us?” So on the front end, there’s conversations with superintendents, conversations with school leaders, conversations with teachers throughout this entire time. So that already sows the seeds of trust amongst the administration, amongst school systems, obviously amongst advocates, and then, of course, amongst the legislature. So bringing all of those groups to the table for those that lead negotiations so that you at least get to as close to a finished product as you had liked to have, right? No legislation is ever, in my opinion, perfect when it’s drafted, and there’s usually some sort of amendments or technical cleanup or something to get it just right, but in order to mitigate what could be a big headache on the back end, you bring everyone to the table on the front end. And, again, kudos to our governor for bringing and allowing everyone to have a seat at that table to engage in what would be the best legislation for kids and just for our state overall.
Yeah. That’s great. So I know you and your team aren’t stopping there. You’ve still got many months of work ahead. What are a few of the other goals you’re aiming for this year?
Right. So we want to continue to– again, following-up on the learning loss. Making sure that the implementation goes through successfully. Something else that was kind of part of the package, where we were able to secure an early win, was around successful administration of the spring ’20-’21 state assessment. So that looks like it will be going through successfully. We also want to ensure that there’s a reinvestment in the charter school facilities grant fund. It’s an amount of funding for our public charter schools, and ensuring that they have money to repair their school, their system, and whatever facilities costs that they may incur because it’s– many of us in this work know, a lot of times the buildings in which our friends in charter schools reside are not in the best of shape. So a pause was put on that funding last year, and we’re fortunate to live in a state where we’re fiscally responsible and are able to take money from our own budget and invest in that. The federal government helped us out this year, but we want to get back to funding that directly through our own state. Something else that we’ve been talking about for a while, and this kind of bleeds over into the tutoring, is around using federal stimulus dollars to expand a microgrant fund for all students.
And so if you recall, Marc, I guess it was in June of last year, then-Secretary of Education DeVos, she launched a Rethink K-12 Education models grant. Tennessee was the only state to receive the full $20 million, and so we’ve been advocating for families to get those direct payments so they can use them for tutoring or other allowable educational expenses. And, obviously, there’s a need for that or, at least, the option for some of that. And then the other thing that we are pushing for, and it looks like it’s starting to happen, requiring districts to release data assessing student learning loss, and ensuring there are no rollbacks on our accountability system used typically when spring assessments start occurring in April or so. That’s when you hear a lot of angst around the assessment, and questioning the validity of it, and if we actually need to have this, And so we’ll make sure that we are looking at ways in which we can not only play defense there, but continue to provide recommendations on how in an offensive way, provide recommendations on how we can safely administer assessments to kids agnostic of what their learning environment is, be it in-person, be it virtual, or be it some sort of hybrid.
Sounds like a very full plate. So I’m excited to see how you and your team tackle that together, and I wish you the best of luck. For those following at home, what’s the best way to stay connected as you take on these goals?
Yeah. Absolutely. We’re on Twitter at TennesseeCAN, all spelled out. It is long. So it will take up some of the characters in your Tweet, for those of you who like to use up all your characters. We’re also on Facebook and then, of course, you can follow me at Victor J Evans on Twitter, as well. And then our website is TN-CAN.org, and you can look at our policy goals. You can view our annual policy report card and other policy reports that we’ve produced, and you can also sign up to advocate. We have a page on which you can do that. So I’m looking forward to hearing from everyone, and working with everyone, and appreciate all the work that you do, Marc, and working with you.
Thank you, Victor. Thanks for making time out of your busy day and good luck.