Cooper: What do Hamilton County schools do for encore?

Cooper: What do Hamilton County schools do for encore?

August 17th, 2019 by Clint Cooper in Opinion Free Press

Hamilton County Schools Superintendent Bryan Johnson speaks during a news conference unveiling the Hamilton County Schools' TNReady test scores and TVAAS scores at the Tennessee Aquarium on Wednesday.

Photo by C.B. Schmelter

Perhaps lost in the deserved hoopla surrounding the Hamilton County Schools' celebration of the district's achievement of the highest possible level of academic growth this week was Superintendent Dr. Bryan Johnson's comment to the Hamilton County Board of Education Thursday.

The district, he said, would have to retire the goal "of being the fastest-improving school district in Tennessee."

That's the problem with achieving the top levels possible, based on the Tennessee Value-Added Assessment System (TVAAS) scores and TNReady test results during the 2018-2019 school year. Anything less than 5's (the highest growth possible) in the future looks like the district is going backward.

Trust us when we say Johnson is delighted so much progress was made. Being "the fastest-improving district" is what he promised when he was hired by the school board two years ago. And accomplishing what you said you'd do is a significant achievement for any executive (especially if there was doubt said achievement could be accomplished).

But it does, in fact, come with some drawbacks.

» The 5's (achieved in composite score, literacy, numeracy, literacy and numeracy, and social studies) are deceiving in that some will look at them and believe they mean county students have mastered the subjects. Been there, done that, got the report card.

But that is far from the truth, as some schools did not improve and some even went backward in some areas. Others have a long way to go but have found the right direction.

Take, for example, Calvin Donaldson Elementary School, which is a state priority school for having academic achievement in the lowest 5% of schools in the state. But in the recently released TVAAS scores, the school registered a composite score of 5, including 5's for literacy and literacy/numeracy. In other words, the school still has a way to go, but the trajectory is positive.

The district's multitude of 5's, though, indicates that so much growth occurred in so many subject areas and in so many schools, surpassing the state in multiple content areas, that the district earned the top marks on the 1-5 scale.

Indeed, 45 schools were judged to be Level 5 schools, and 66 were either Level 5 or Level 4. It was an unprecedented success for local public schools.

» It's reasonable to believe, though, that schools with top academic achievement and top growth might be punished in future assessments because they don't have as far to climb in either area. But schools Chief of Staff Dr. Nakia Towns Edwards said that's not so.

The metrics in the way the assessments are measured, she said, allow schools with such success to be judged equally and fairly with other schools that have much farther to climb.

» Some Hamilton County residents will look at the results the district achieved without the benefit of additional operational money (beyond annual growth money from the state) and wonder why a large property tax rise for schools was suggested in the county budget earlier this year (and defeated by Hamilton County commissioners).

If they can make this much progress without higher taxes, the conventional wisdom would be, why would they need to have more?

» Johnson may have pushed the district so far so fast that people will heap unreasonable expectations on him, and sour on him if he doesn't meet them.

Make no mistake, the young superintendent has come to Chattanooga, promised growth, changed the culture of the district to achieve it and now achieved a measure of it. But the district has struggled with numerous problems for so long that simply moving off the bottom of state lists — as the district did in the recently released TVAAS scores — looks mammoth.

Mammoth problems remain, though — maintenance issues in the hundreds of millions of dollars, the consideration of closing some schools and merging others to foster a more efficient district, and rezoning that must consider growth patterns, geography and school facilities, are a few of the problems.

The superintendent can go only as far as school board members, county commissioners and taxpayers will let him. If all of the aforementioned share in the recent success, all must insist on bearing the burdens of the challenges that remain.

Nevertheless, we should all be delighted in the accomplishments the school district had during the 2018-2019 school year. That success, and more like it in the future, means more than just the K-12 education of individual students. Better educated people go on to college degrees, finish technical training programs and earn vocational certifications. Better educated people obtain better jobs and earn more money in order to raise successful families. Better educated people, in turn, make a difference in their communities.

Isn't that what we all want?

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