Attendance revisited

This morning, I took the opportunity (as I often do when the Legislature is in session) to review a list of education-related bills under consideration by our General Assembly.  One in particular jumped out at me in a bad way, even though I know the sponsor to be a thoughtful and intelligent person.

SB3896/HB3826 (Burchett, McCord) would dictate that "For each five (5) times a student is tardy to school in a school year, the student shall be counted as having been absent one (1) day from school."  The implications of absences can be quite serious — affecting school funding, as well as consequences up to and including families’ referral to juvenile court.

I’ve discussed my concerns about the attendance policy (here, here and here, to start) at length, but this bill would intensify the problem.  Consider for a moment the following situation, which occurred just this week:  the mother of an 11-year old receives a referral to "campus court," administered by the juvenile court in Anderson County.

The crime?  Little Johnny was tardy 10 times over the last six months.  "Tardy," in this child’s classroom and many others, is defined as "not being in one’s seat when the bell rings."  He was delivered to school in plenty of time, ate breakfast, stopped by the library and his locker… but managed to get distracted along the way and wasn’t in his seat when the bell rang.

On those ten days over a six-month period, he missed — at most — ten minutes of homeroom.  No instructional time at all.  However, if this bill should pass, that would equate to two full days (roughly 14 hours’ worth) of absences for the purpose of school funding as well as little Johnny’s attendance record. 

Remember to e-mail your state senators and representatives about things that are important to you; it does make a difference.  I already have.

*  *  *
And don’t worry about Little Johnny.  The safeguards we put into place last January (to ensure that families are not frivolously referred to court for attendance matters) worked, and the court referral was cancelled.  The letter never should have gone out to begin with, but with a little oversight, the problem was fixed in time.

Free the grapes!

Talk to a legislator about the bill to allow Tennesseans to purchase wine online and have it shipped, and you’re likely to encounter the response that the law is designed to keep alcohol from minors.


The Tennessean captures it more accurately:

To outsiders, the debate may seem like an arcane regulatory struggle. But wine enthusiasts have found common cause with free-marketeers who argue that systems such as Tennessee’s, which relies on large wholesalers, stifles free enterprise and a booming Internet wine market, to the detriment of consumers.

Such laws are under scrutiny because of a 2005 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that shook up a long-standing system of wine distribution and helped spur a boom of Internet wine sales.

The debate has pitted small vineyards, wine collectors and specialty retailers against large distributors that have dominated wine distribution since Prohibition.

Pure and simple, our current system creates a protected monopoly for middlemen who both stifle the choices available to consumers and inflate prices.

The biggest barrier to changing Tennessee’s laws, according to critics, is the lobbying clout of alcohol wholesalers. Wholesalers donated some $50 million to state political campaigns between 2000 and 2006; more than $800,000 was spent in Tennessee, said Tom Wark, the executive director of the Specialty Wine Retailers Association.

"If I was a wholesaler, I’d be concerned about maintaining a monopoly, too," Wark said.

Today would be a good day to e-mail your state senator and state representative, and express your support for this concept.  While you’re at it, you might also consider expressing support for allowing wine sales in grocery stores — another measure that would improve price and selection for the consumer.

I spoke to Sen. McNally about it last week, and pointed out that it makes little sense to me that we don’t allow wine to be sold in a grocery store, but it’s perfectly okay to sell beer in a gas station.  What message does that send??

As a mother of teenagers, I’m quite on board with efforts to deter alcohol sales to minors.  However, given that retailers are now required to check ID for anyone purchasing alcohol — including obvious senior citizens — it really doesn’t make a hill of beans’ worth of difference where the products are sold.  What matters is diligence in following the law, ensuring that the purchaser is 21 or older.  That’s not too hard.

The current law supports archaic protectionism and unfair restrictions of trade, and it’s wrong.  Make some noise!

A Loss for Education

Tennessee will suffer a significant loss on Feb. 1, when Commissioner of Education Lana Seivers leaves that post to take a job in Mississippi.

Word on the street is that Deputy Commissioner Tim Webb is her likely replacement.

Working through the first five years of No Child Left Behind and other challenges, Commissioner Seivers has guided our state through steady improvements — in accountability, in funding, in a variety of ways.

Lana served previously as the Superintendent of Clinton City Schools, and at one point, was Principal of Oak Ridge’s Linden Elementary.  She has been open and accessible to those of us who approached her about improving education, and she will be missed.

Rising Standards

Tennessee standards in K-12 education are on the rise, with new curriculum standards and new (harder) TCAP tests likely to be phasing in next year. The lower grades are driven in part by the significant gap between proficiency on our state tests, and the state’s proficiency on the NAEP.

Concurrent with those changes, we’re very likely to see higher standards for high school graduation as well, as a result of the Tennessee Diploma Project (view the whole report). In the near term, that will mean requiring four years of high school math (instead of the current three), requiring a half-year of "personal finance," and replacing the Gateway exams (passage of which is required for graduation) with more rigorous end-of-course exams (which will count for a higher percentage of the final grade than the Gateway’s 15%).

Current research shows that college-readiness and workforce-readiness are pretty much the same thing, so the old two-tiered system (college prep vs. vocational) is going away. That doesn’t mean that we’ll do away with courses like welding, manufacturing, networking, etc. — but it means that students in vocational courses will be expected to meet the same level of academic rigor as those headed for college.

Without question, higher standards will benefit our students and our state in the long run. Also without question, they will cause some pain. Some students may not graduate on time, bringing the risk of still more dings to the graduation rate (the calculation of which is, in my opinion, flawed), and unless we lengthen the school day, the additional course requirements will further squeeze an already limited schedule so that students have fewer options than before.

For example, a high school student may not be able to take three or four years of foreign language (two are required) AND four years of marching band (one year of fine arts credit is required). One way around that could be zero-hour courses — optional class offerings at 7 a.m. or 3 p.m., for example; another would be to allow additional high school course credits to be earned in middle school. Already, many students take Algebra I in middle school; if we could expand that to allow foreign language credits to be earned in middle school as well, that would ease the schedule somewhat.

New, higher standards are on the way. And, it’s a good thing — but there’s going to be some discomfort in the process. Schedule-wise, something will have to give.


School Biz

The State has ruled that public schools "must waive fees for low-income students to participate in school-day fundraising celebrations." That means that the school has to pay any cost associated, which would sort of defeat the purpose of having a fundraiser at all if any significant portion of the student population falls in that category.

My first question is, why is any school having a fundraiser during the school day anyway (except for the traditional book fair, which is education-related)?

My next question is, just how far does this rule extend? Does it cover the book fair too, if students are allowed to purchase books during the school day?

The concept of buying a $25 ticket for a day of fun instead of a day of school beckons a recollection of the old practice of the catholic church selling indulgences, which led to Luther’s 95 Theses and the Protestant Reformation.

Yes, schools need more than the available funding will provide. But there has to be a better answer.

Let’s get it right

An AP story ran in the News-Sentinel yesterday, and in the Oak Ridger today, entitled "School officials reviewing state’s bus policy after death." Unfortunately, the story contains some errors — very slight, perhaps just sloppy wordsmithing — but errors nonetheless.

If people are to effect policy change, they must understand clearly who’s policy is what.

Tennessee’s policy states that all students who live more than a mile and a half from their school are allowed to ride the bus.

That’s not quite right. The State of Tennessee makes no policy about who can or cannot ride the bus. The State’s policy is that they will partially reimburse school districts for the cost of transporting students who live more than 1.5 miles from school; however, school districts are not prohibited from offering more — they just have to come up with all of the money.

What State policy does say is that school districts who accept any state funding for transportation are forbidden to charge a fee to any student for riding the bus, even those students who live within the 1.5 mile radius, for whom the State pays nothing.

Bus service was curtailed in 2006 in order to balance the budget. It wasn’t a political ploy (as many assume, including one of today’s letter writers); is was, quite simply, an unpleasant choice between cutting educational services and non-educational services.

Many people have indicated that they would be willing to purchase bus tickets or passes, and that would certainly be one of the easier options. To do so, though, we need for the State to change their policy prohibiting such. I have inquired, but still do not know, whether that’s a law passed by the Legislature, or simply a rule of the State Board of Education.

We have our work cut out for us.

So Wrong it’s Funny

A letter in today’s News Sentinel is so senseless that it serves to illustrate one of the problems faced by those earnestly trying to improve education in Tennessee: the pure ignorance of some of our adults.

Later school start

better for Tennessee

At least 90 percent of the people in Tennessee are for a later school start.

State Sen. Jamie Woodson, chair of the Senate Education Committee, is against this.

She has never been for the benefits of school students. She wouldn’t allow a vote to lower the requirements for the Hope Scholarship to keep 70 percent of college students eligible.

Everyone sees the hardships created by starting school the first of August (Aug. 9). Schools need to start after Labor Day, which they do in most states.

This is part of the reason Tennessee ranks near last in education. The only way we can start to change this is to vote Woodson out.

Sam Doughty


90% favor a later start date? I doubt that; I serve on a local school board, and I’ve had exactly one person tell me — and that was in passing at a public place — that they want school to start after Labor Day. If there’s a survey to back up that assertion, please point me to it.

To say that Sen. Woodson "has never been for the benefits of school students" is simply dead wrong. Although she and I have disagreed from time to time (and I’m not one to keep my opinions to myself), everything that she does is, at least from her perspective, with the best interest of children as the foremost priority.

A prime example of that is her steadfast opposition to lowering standards, including the reasonable standard for achieving and keeping the Tennessee Education Lottery Scholarship. Lowering standards might help some parents, but it would be a gross disservice to the students. Face it, the GPA standard for scholarship eligibility is an incentive for students to do well. The standard to achieve the scholarship out of high school is exceedingly modest; students who cannot attain either a 3.0 GPA or a 21 on the ACT just aren’t going to make it in college. I think there’s only one four-year school in the state who will even accept students with less than a 21 on the ACT.

Lastly, the start date has nothing to do with the reason that Tennessee ranks near last in education; the reason, quite simply, is that we rank near last in funding education. That’s why Sen. Woodson worked so hard last year to pass the BEP 2.0, providing funding targeted specifically to academic improvement, and increasing accountability measures for the adults in charge of those funds.

Sam Doughty can’t vote against her, and I can’t vote for her. Let’s hope the folks in her district pay a little more attention to the facts.

Dropout Factories

The Associated Press released a hot story this week, claiming that 1 in 10 US high schools is a "dropout factory."

Tonight though, WATE passes along the caveat that Roane County disputes the claim that Midway and Rockwood high schools are among those.  From WATE:

State data shows Midway High has an 80% retention rate, not 56% as the AP claims.

And the state says Rockwood High has a 75% retention rate while the AP claims the rate is 59%.

I would add that the state’s figures are often misleading as well — and not in the schools’ favor.  The "graduation rate" measures those students who graduate in four years plus a summer, but does not include those who receive a special education diploma, who take an extra semester to graduate (for any reason, including illness or serious injury), who get a GED, etc.  The "dropout rate" is a different number — not the difference between graduation rate and 100%.

Even so, some students are miscategorized as dropouts, when they aren’t.

To honestly address the problem, we must first honestly accept what the problem is, and what it is not.  To be constantly fighting a public relations battle simply takes time and focus away from the real issues.


Simple mistake, or panic time?

I got an unsettling call from the election commission this morning, informing me that Nashville had issued a report stating that Alpha’s social security number was previously assigned to someone in Shelby County.

After double-checking that the number Anderson County has on file is the same as on our last several years’ tax returns,, as well as Alpha’s tax returns, and on her card, the nice lady from the election commission went downstairs to the Department of Safety to check and see what number they had on file for Alpha on her driver’s license.  It was the same.  Knowing that she had to show her social security card to get her license, the election commission is now satisfied that Alpha’s number is correct.

The fellow in Shelby County’s license is revoked, so he’s theoretically not driving on it… but her social security number is evidently the one attached to his revoked license.

The Social Security Administration was most unhelpful; they’ll only change the number if it’s a life-or-death stalking situation.  They’re not interested in any report of someone using her number fraudulently. 

There are a couple of possibilities: one, that this guy mis-remembers his number, and the folks in Shelby County just aren’t diligent about asking to see the actual card, or, two, that this stems from personal information (tax returns, bank statements, etc.) that may have been taken in our burglary a couple of years ago — the house was so trashed and files strewn all over, it’s hard to know what was missing and what wasn’t.  Maybe it’s just one digit off or something… I don’t know.

Either way, it’s a pretty scary problem.  I’ll have her pull copies of her credit reports (which should be absolutely blank, except for the existence of a bank account).  Assuming those are okay, we’ll file a fraud report with the FTC and put in an alert with the credit reporting agencies, just to be safe.
*   *   *   *   *
I’ve always been very protective of the kids’ social security numbers; the school requires them at enrollment, but on the forms that come home each year, I simply write "on file" in that blank.  I had them check the "do not show" box for their social security numbers on their driver’s licenses, because it’s really not necessary for every store clerk taking a check to see that number.  Besides, kids lose purses and wallets, so it’s one more way to guard against identity theft.

In spite of all that, there’s still a problem.  Any other suggestions would be most welcome.

“Can I have the keys?”

The more restrictive teen driving laws enacted six years ago aren’t working.  Actually, the death toll has risen rather than being reduced.

From the News-Sentinel:

Studies show that strongly restricting teen driving privileges leads to a 25 percent drop in teen driving death rates because stringent laws protect teen drivers from their own deadly mistakes.

Tennessee uses a graduated driver’s license system, where teens gain more driving privileges with age and experience, but some experts say it may not be restrictive enough.

Among the recommendations by the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is to set the learner’s permit age at 16 rather than 15 as it is in Tennessee.

I’ve taught three children to drive now, and there have been no serious incidents.  We’ve had a couple of parking-lot paint scrapes, but nothing even remotely dangerous.  They’ve all learned on a standard transmission (stick shift), all driven at night, in the rain, and the older two have snow experience.  Gamma will too, after this winter, because there’s always snow at Grandma’s house between November and March.

I’m a firm believer that more practice (with a parent in the car) makes a better driver.  If it were up to me, I would allow a learner’s permit at 14 — two years of learning to drive before the license was granted.  I’d also drop the restriction on having more than one sibling in the car, for one simple reason: siblings overwhelmingly rat each other out.  They just do.

*  *  * 
There’s an odd thing, though; it seems like a lot of kids today don’t look forward to driving, and delay getting the learner’s permit, license, and the whole deal.  I don’t understand it, and haven’t seen it in my own kids… but I do know of several others who have little or no interest in learning to drive.

It’s a little scary to think of that many teens delaying the permit, shortening the learning period… and yet, you know that many will receive new or nearly new cars.  I don’t have any stats, but it’s been my observation that a new or expensive car in the hands of a 16 year-old is just asking for a serious accident, while something old and cheap is excellent insurance that any collisions will be of the insignificant, hardly-scratch-the-paint variety.

*  *  *
I do wonder how many Tennessee school systems have dropped Driver Education over the past six years, due to budget constraints.  Oak Ridge did.  Knox County did.  Might the rise in teen driving deaths be due to less instruction and practice?

« Prev - Next »