A Farewell Assessment of Superintendent Jim McIntyre

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When Superintendent Jim McIntyre steps down next month, he deserves an acclaimed farewell. Despite the controversies that led up to his resignation in January, a great deal has been accomplished in Knox County Schools during McIntyre’s eight years at the helm, and he’s entitled to a lot of credit for these successes.

It’s easy now to forget that 2008 marked the advent of much more rigorous educational standards that brought Tennessee from being a bottom-feeder among the 50 states to the fastest improving in the nation as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress. But the process of implementing these standards and then assessing both student and teacher performance under them has been traumatic, to say the least.

The fact that Knox County Schools were recognized last year by the state as one of 12 Exemplary School Districts is testament to McIntyre’s success in doing so. The designation is based on “significantly improving student performance and narrowing achievement gaps,” and Knox County is the only large metropolitan school system in the state ever to be so recognized.

Yet McIntyre also became a lightning rod for a lot of teacher frustration and resentment over the evaluation methodology by which they are held accountable and by what many considered to be excessive standardized student testing. As he now acknowledges, “I think in hindsight that at a point in time when there was a lot of focus on reform and accountability, that we could have pivoted a little more toward support than accountability and we could have gotten there a little faster and more smoothly.”

So when asked what accomplishments he’s most proud of, McIntyre starts from a different place. At the top of the list is “the fairly extraordinary academic progress that we’ve seen in our high schools over the past eight years during which our graduation rate has gone from 79 percent to 90 percent. That’s 443 more students than we would have had whose lives have changed in terms of their opportunity for the future.” Also noteworthy is the fact that the percentage of high school graduates scoring 21 or better on the ACT test—considered a benchmark for college and career readiness—has grown from 35 percent to 42 percent (though it remains far short of an aspirational goal of 70 percent).

“Another thing I’m very proud of is that we’ve taken to heart the notion of personalized learning,” he says. He cites the creation of three new high schools, the L&N Stem Academy, the Paul Kelley Volunteer Academy (for nontraditional students), and the Career Magnet Academy as all embodying a commitment to providing “multiple pathways to success.” The school of communications at Fulton High School and the International Baccalaureate program at West High School are other examples of distinctive programs that are open to students system-wide.

Another pathway to more individualized learning in which McIntyre places great store is the augmented use of instructional technology. In 2012, he was rebuffed when he sought a tax increase that would have gone initially to fund acquisition of a laptop or tablet for every student in fifth grade or higher for one-on-one instruction. But in 2013 he managed to earmark funding to do so in 11 schools, and that number has since been expanded to 19 (out of 90). This coming year’s budget provides for buying a Chromebook for every high school teacher and McIntyre hopes that the same amount of funding will be earmarked over the next four years to buy one for every high school student. “Technology is an important tool. It’s a way kids will learn and communicate and interact, and they need to have those skills,” he says.

When it comes to where the most improvement is still needed, McIntyre cites closing achievement gaps for economically disadvantaged and minority students as well as those with disabilities. “We’ve made some progress in closing these gaps, but we have a lot more to do on these,” he says.

The state has set annual measurable objectives (or AMOs) for gap closure, and my own take is that while Knox schools are making strides in math, the reading results are troublesome. The only reason the Grades 3-8 reading gap for racial minorities has narrowed between 2012 and 2015 is that their TCAP reading scores have fallen by less than those of students as a whole. The decline in reading proficiency from 57 percent of all students in 2012 to 53.4 percent in 2015 is especially disturbing.

One possible explanation for the decline, which occurred statewide as well, is a misalignment between what was being taught and what was being tested. Full implementation of Tennessee’s version of the politically much maligned and misunderstood Common Core standards was originally intended to be accompanied by conversion to a new online test known as PARCC that was keyed to the new standards. But when the new test and its supplier were dropped by the state as a political hot potato, the old TCAPs continued to be administered while the state sought another vendor. The failure of the one selected to deliver in time for 2016 testing has produced a travesty that will deprive the state of both student proficiency and teacher value added (TVAAS) data for the year.

My final question of McIntyre was: Why did you tender your resignation in January after having sought and received a three-year contract extension by a 5-4 vote of the school board in November? An excerpted version of his response is as follows:

“I asked for an extension of my contract because I wanted to continue to serve and lead as superintendent of Knox County Schools…. What became clear between when I sought the extension and when I announced my resignation was that the school board was going to change substantially and that the board that would take their seats in September might want to go in a different direction and that I probably wasn’t going to be their guy…. I’ll also say I was surprised how difficult it was to get a contract renewal despite all the success we’ve had….I’m very proud of the work we have done for children over the past eight years, and if we were going to get to the point where the issues in this year’s election revolved around me instead of continuing to make progress and have academic success, then it was time for me to take myself out of the equation.”

Joe Sullivan is the former owner and publisher of Metro Pulse (1992-2003) as well as a longtime columnist covering local politics, education, development, business, and tennis. His new column, Perspectives, covers much of the same terrain.

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