Learning Problems: Knox School Achievement Gains are Lagging

Superintendent Jim McIntyre has been making the rounds of local media heralding the accomplishments of Knox County Schools. His talking points include a table of student achievement scores that proclaims, "Predominantly very good news." But my own reading of this past year's performance measures concludes that the bad news outweighs the good. Consider:

• Reading proficiency, as measured by the state's TCAP exam for grades three through eight, dipped to 56.8 percent of students from 57 percent the previous year. While TCAP math proficiency rose to 53.9 percent from 52.1 percent, it also failed to meet the three percentage point gain targeted by the state's Annual Measurable Objectives (although it qualified for a "safe harbor").

• The average score of high school seniors on the ACT test of college readiness dropped to 20.2 from 20.6 the prior year. While the decline was due in part to a change in methodology, it seems certain to lower the percentage of students scoring 21 or higher, which is deemed a benchmark of college and career readiness. The 49 percent who met this standard in 2012 was already far below a target of 71 percent contained in McIntyre's Five-Year Strategic Plan as a stepping stone toward a KCS goal-of-goals, which is 90 percent readiness by 2020.

• Perhaps even worse, the TCAP achievement gap between economically disadvantaged students and those who are not, which was already among the widest in the state, got even wider this past year. Despite having been placed on a state list of school systems "in need of subgroup improvement," the achievement gap for the economically disadvantaged widened by 2.8 percent in reading and 2.5 percent in math.

McIntyre doesn't have a ready explanation for these shortfalls. Rather, he points to a "generally upward trajectory in student achievement" over the four years his Strategic Plan has been in place. "I would encourage you and your readers to think about this longer-term trajectory…so if there are elements where we might see a slight downturn in one year, let's not walk away from all the important work we're doing, from all the strategies we've put in place because I believe that over time we will continue that upward trajectory in student achievement and success," he says. But he also acknowledges that "I don't think it's good enough. It's incremental…and as we look at our next five-year plan, how do we ensure that we see not just incremental progress, but transformational progress."

That's what it would have taken to achieve many of the ambitious goals set in the existing five-year plan. These included lifting TCAP reading and math proficiency rates to nearly 70 percent this past school year instead of leaving close to half the students below them.

When asked if he contemplates less lofty goals for the years ahead, especially the 90 percent ACT bar for college readiness, McIntyre responds, "I think you have to set goals that are within the realm of possibility, but that are aspirational. We have to aim high, and if we don't quite get there, I think we'll make more progress than if we set our sights lower."

To be sure, some goals have been met or even exceeded. The high school graduation rate, for example, has risen from 79 percent in 2009 to 90 percent in 2012, exceeding an 85 percent target. (The 2013 graduation rate is not yet known.) Algebra I exam proficiency has jumped from 42 percent in 2009 to 62 percent this past year, coming close to a 65 percent goal. And high school biology exam scores have also shown impressive gains.

Looking ahead, McIntyre singles out two "game changers" that he believes will accelerate student progress.

One is the introduction this year of what's known as the Common Core curriculum, on which 45 states have collaborated. "With Common Core we're setting the bar higher across the board, but it's also about teaching our kids to be thinkers and lifelong learners and problem solvers, and these are important skill sets."

The other is the use of instructional technology based on furnishing every student with a laptop, tablet, or other device and making extensive use of them. "I think it can make an enormous difference," McIntyre asserts. "Teachers can use it not only to provide creative and engaging instruction but also, I think, even more importantly, differentiated instruction. It's really hard to have 25 kids in a classroom who might be at different levels and have different learning styles. Technology can help our teachers meet their individual needs."

The new technology is being introduced this year at 10 of Knox County's 87 schools at a cost of $3 million. These schools won a competitive selection process in which their teachers collaborated. When asked if he envisions going system-wide with it next year, McIntyre winces a bit before reminding me that he failed to get a $27 million budget request for doing so in 2012. "What we hope now is that we will see great outcomes in terms of student learning, and that this demonstration of success will create the demand to put technology in every school."

Another step toward more individualized instruction at the high school level is the introduction of a process known as CLASP (for Customized Learning and Success Planning). "It's really robust and addresses not only the courses you are going to take and the sequence in which you are going to take them, but also the services and supports you might need to be successful," McIntyre relates.

All that said, despite his penchant for spin, I believe that McIntyre has been a very good superintendent. So his retention tops my list of requisites for the next five-year strategic plan. When asked if he expects to be here to bring it to fulfillment, McIntyre responds, "I hope so."