Director of Clinton schools addresses letter grades

Susan EspirituFeature

This past week, Tennessee public schools were given a letter grade in achievement which seems to define each school. As a former principal, I know how that definition either unfairly inflates or deflates both the staff of the school and the community it serves.

My longtime colleague and current director of Clinton schools, Kelly Johnson, addresses this grading system in her recent blog which, with her permission, I am bringing to our readers in full.

Kelly D. Johnson

Director Johnson writes:

I can see it now – a dark room, filled with bourbon and cigars, incessant toasting, and large bellows of laughter as the media release individual school letter grades. These individuals are so pleased that “their created narrative” is finally playing out. It is even better that the media are doing the work for them as it will keep their hands cleaner. It has been a long time coming – all in the name of “transparency.” However, the story behind letter grades is FAR from transparent to the general public. So let’s share the true facts …

The law creating school grades is not new. The first school grade legislation passed in 2017. After its signing into law, the Commissioner of Education (Dr. Candice McQueen) put together a comprehensive working group to tackle the enormous task of defining the complexity of school success into a single letter grade. After a lengthy time of intense research and collaboration, a formula was created that would be implemented.

Then came testing debacles.

Then Covid-19.

In 2022, it was finally time to put the formula to work and release grades for the first time. Districts were prepared and ready. Suddenly, we were told by the Commissioner of Education (Dr. Penny Schwinn) that letter grades would NOT be released this school year. No explanation. No reason. No cause for concern. No intended follow up. Simply, no letter grades would be released.

I serve on the Superintendent’s Study Council Executive Committee which meets with the Department of Education monthly to collaborate on statewide topics. In our August meeting, the new Commissioner of Education (Lizette Reynolds) began discussing how she knows we have a hard task in front of us with the release of letter grades. We were all very confused. Districts have been anticipating letter grades coming for years. As the confusing conversation unfolded, we quickly realized what was happening. TDOE was being asked to change the formula all together!

Why? There were simply too many As. It was deemed as not transparent enough. In reality, it didn’t tell the story that they needed to create.

So, AFTER the data had been released to the districts, parents and public, the formula that had yet to be implemented was thrown in the trash and the process began again.

We were promised that this was the “public’s grade.” The new formula would include what the public wanted to be there. There would be public forums, public comments, a working group, etc.

Overwhelmingly, the public opinion supported the complex work of schools and how it was simply impossible to capture all the facets of work taking place inside classroom walls. Even more interesting, an impressive amount of the input didn’t support the creation of letter grades at all. There was overwhelming support for continuing to use Annual Measurable Objectives (AMOs) in the formula, but Commissioner Reynolds told the State Board of Education that, “As long as I am Commissioner, AMOs will never be used for Achievement.”


Whose formula is this supposed to be? The Commissioner of Education? Elected Officials? Or the public? Should it not be what the public input requests? The Tennessee Department of Education stated that other items were heard and implemented (meaning the removal of chronic absenteeism). However, it was very clear the 50% Achievement component was not open for discussion. Why? Because they need this formula to play out a certain way to create a specific narrative. Even more sinister, they already had the data in their hands. Before finalizing a formula, they could run the numbers and make sure the letter grades were low enough across the state to cause panic.

Here are some considerations for parents and community members:

  • Each school (in fact, any organization) is a work in progress and has areas of strength and areas to strengthen. No school will argue that. It is impossible to roll the complex work of a school into one letter grade. That is actually LESS transparent.
  • We had a letter grade formula that took into account the varying challenges of schools across the state. How do we know it was broken? We never implemented it! The public didn’t ask for it to be changed. A select few made the decision to recreate the formula.
  • The ENTIRE formula for letter grades, with the exception of college and career, is taken from ONE single test, given at ONE point in time. It doesn’t define or begin to describe the good work that happens EVERY OTHER DAY of the school year.
  • It doesn’t even include ALL children in the school. For example, kindergarten-second grade is nowhere in the formula.
  • I think the majority of parents would agree that one test will never define their child. Why should it define a school?

“Ultimately, here is the reason for letter grades – it is only one small piece to a much larger political agenda and the public deserves to know what is happening:

  • Gov. Bill Lee is a huge proponent of privatization of education (I do personally agree with him on many issues, but not this one).
  • He attempted to get vouchers passed several years ago, but had to settle for getting it passed in just two large, urban areas (Metro Nashville and Memphis).
  • It got held up in courts for several years, but was ultimately deemed legal.
  • He was able to add on Hamilton County.
  • He plans to seek approval for the Educational Freedom Act this session which will open up vouchers statewide. He needs there to be public outcry that public schools are failing students in order to have any success in spreading his political agenda.
  • He needs to create a narrative where he can get the votes. How does he achieve this? Attaching low letter grades to schools across the state, of course!
  • But the timing has to be impeccable redo the letter grade formula to tell the story he wants to tell, release the grades right before the General Assembly begins, let the media go crazy, let public panic set in, introduce vouchers statewide, get local state representatives to turn against their schools, set the narrative that public schools are failing kids, backdoor politics to get the votes … then BAM! Vouchers are here across the state. Many people in Nashville breathe a sigh of relief that all their “out of state” lobbying money has finally paid off! Best of all, the general public is unaware of the damage vouchers will do to their local communities. It will be another bourbon and cigar moment for them!

Here is the thing. I firmly believe the public is smarter than this. I believe that parents and community members are smart enough to see through this bureaucracy. I believe that parents and community members don’t appreciate being perceived as puppets who will believe in any narrative sent their way without critically analyzing all sides first.

I believe that parents and community members know BEST the good work that is happening in local public schools. It is part of the community’s identity. My staff and I would lay down our life for any of the precious children that walk through our door. I resent you trying to tell our story simplified in a letter grade wrapped in dirty politics. My school district, parents and community will tell OUR story … with accuracy

I’m sure that those who are reading might be curious to know our grades. It is public information – 2 As and a C. And I invite anyone to come see what is happening in all three schools because it is dang good stuff! I am proud of ALL my schools for the unique challenges that they face each day. With the support of our city council, school board and community, I would put all three of my schools up to any in the nation.

If you have questions regarding your school’s letter grades, I would encourage you to reach out to your child’s principal. Inquire about how the formula played out at the school level. Ask how your child is doing. Seek to understand instead of judge.

Since we are playing the letter grade game, let’s assign a letter grade to the transparency that has occurred with the TRUE STORY behind letter grades. Hmm … I think we all know what grade it would receive. Our children should never be used as political pawns.

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