Here we go! The first pod cast from Dad Gone Wild! In this episode we’ll look at the legislative docket for Tennessee and discuss some changes coming to Nashville schools. This first one is a little rough, but we are on our way!
I first heard of Anna Thorsen a couple years ago. Some friends who had children at Eakin Elementary School in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) were singing her praises as president of the Parent Teacher Organization (PTO). After finishing up her tenure as PTO president, Thorsen transitioned into being an advocate for children with dyslexia, which is only natural because she is the mother of a child with dyslexia. As a former attorney, Thorsen conducts her advocacy work much as I imagine she did her law career: with lots of research. If you are going to engage her on issues, you better have done your homework.
We sat down to talk about her experience and research over biscuits last week at the newly opened Holler and Dash in Brentwood. What follows is a wide-ranging, free flowing, passionate conversation.
Dad Gone Wild: Good morning. Thanks for meeting me over biscuits.
Anna Thorsen: (smiling) I love biscuits.
DGW: Let’s start with your experiences with being president of the Eakin PTO. What made you decide to run? I know you have kids in school and you’re an advocate for public education, but what made you decide to take on this huge commitment?
AT: Honestly? (chuckles)
DGW: (laughs) Honestly. What made you say this is something that I want to do?
AT: I think it was a little bit daunting to consider. I think PTO leaders are the untagged heroes of the public education system because in essence you are undertaking a full time job. I had been the head of fundraising, which is also very hard job, because nobody wants to give you money – it’s really about like pulling teeth. But then you step back and you analyze. You realize just how important it is. And I think it becomes one of those practice what you preach moments.
There were so many things I wanted our school to do, and I saw so much possibility. The biggest thing I wanted to do was to share the good stories about everything that was happening in public education, and in particular, in our school. And I thought that this was a great way to be able to do that. In the end, it ended up being a great learning experience for me. I learned so much through being a PTO president. I learned about how the school really works, all the different stakeholders, and how complex it all is.
DGW: I experience that on a regular basis. Every time I think I have an understanding of how it all works, and I think I have a great grasp of it, something else is revealed. And I find myself saying, “Oh, I didn’t know that.” Without really getting in there, we constantly make these judgments on things that we don’t fully understand, and in some cases, just don’t know.
AT: Very true. As PTO president, and as a PTO member in general, you have such a unique opportunity to support the school, support the principal, and support parents in the community. There is always going to be the jokes about bake sales and the carnivals – which I never had a carnival on my watch because it’s not my thing – but there is so much more to it, and it really is a powerful way to get all families involved.
Say you have a family who are intimidated because they’re not English speakers, so they are hesitant to participate in academic conferences. But if you’re having an international potluck, and they can bring their family recipes, that’s where they’re going to come in the door. And then they’ll begin to become part of the active school community. I think you just need people to come in. I think we want to do a better job of educating children, and we get so focused on that we lose sight of the importance of families feeling welcome in our schools. And I think we tried to really make Eakin a welcoming environment for all so they could be a part of the amazing things that were going on.
DGW: One of the things that impresses me with Eakin is their use of clubs, and the fact that they utilize clubs to get kids engaged. I’ve never understood that in some of our poorer and more challenged schools, we extend the school day, but we do it with more direct instruction instead of utilizing a stamp club, the kite club, a chess club, in order to improve literacy. Kids are going to read about what they’re interested in, and we should use those interests to make them better readers.
AT: I think making learning exciting is essential. I think there has to be some self-direction of what we learn because that’s how we learn as adults. We choose books we want to read, shows we want to watch, we seek out more knowledge on the things we are interested in. Why shouldn’t the same apply to children? But it goes back again to parent involvement. The reason Eakin has amazing clubs is because the parents said we need amazing clubs. We had one or two parents – especially one mom – who came in and she just dedicated her time to this. Why did she do it? To benefit all of our children, which is why we should do it. It’s why we take these positions. Like we don’t do it for just our kids or our ego; we do it for everyone’s kids, and that’s what public education is about.
Eakin has benefited from this parent’s amazing, passionate hard work, but her child graduates this year. Her kid is in 4th grade. She’s moving on hopefully to West End Middle School, where her older daughter is. There has to be a next generation of stepping up, which is why I really feel like for the benefit of all the public schools, we have to really start investing in parent engagement, family engagement, and teaching parents that you can make a difference. You may not want to be a PTO president, because that’s a full-time job and it’s really stressful, but if you love clubs, if you have a passion for whatever, get involved. There is going to be some way that a school can use your talent. We have to do better about valuing parent’s abilities.
DGW: I was at a community schools coalition meeting yesterday, and the talk of PTO came up. And as we often do, we talked about educating parents and getting parents involved to increase their awareness, but then we never turned the lens backwards and asked what do administrators know about PTO and the value of it? What do teachers know about it? To many people, a PTO is nothing, but as you mentioned, it’s a fundraiser, a way to help get things funded that the official budget doesn’t cover.
AT: Absolutely. I noticed that when we came in, during my first year in PTO, teachers were standoffish towards PTO. And I was really confused until I went back and looked at some of the PTO’s history. I think a PTO has to be careful. They have to be supportive of the teachers and the administrators. They can’t have their own agenda. I think the PTO at Eakin historically, looking back to 2006, had taken sort of a “we know better” kind of approach, which is not the place for a PTO. If you want to be an advocate against your school and be overly critical, you need to do it a different way. I feel that a PTO really needs to be supporting parents and teachers. You can get some pushback from teachers, but if you can keep communication open and demonstrate support, you can overcome that pushback.
DGW: Let’s shift gears a little bit and talk about your work in regards to dyslexia. Your daughter was diagnosed when?
AT: My daughter was diagnosed in 2nd grade. At our Fall teacher conference, as the teacher told us how Clara was struggling and I knew instantly in that moment that she has dyslexia. I saw it because I, too, have dyslexia. I’ll never forget that first conversation with our school. I love our sweet school, but when I sat down and said “Well, I think my daughter has dyslexia, I would like her tested” the school said “Well, we don’t use that word. We don’t say dyslexia in Tennessee and we can’t test for it.” I was like, “Yes, you can say it because the federal government says it.” To say I was shocked by the schools’ response is an understatement. This is all a very long and complicated story, which I was actually interviewed about for an NPR Mindshift story, so you can ready the whole thing there, but what it boils down to is that our school and our district clearly wanted to do what was right for Clara, but they were not allowed to by the Tennessee Department of Education. Once I realized that all our issues were coming from the state, I ended up having to up to the federal government and have them intervene. After a stressful several months, Clara ended up getting an IEP for giftedness and a Specific Learning Disability, but they still would not allow us to use the word dyslexia anywhere in her IEP. Over and over our principal said “we can’t use that word.” It was not until October, 2015 when Secretary of Education Arne Duncan issued a “Dear Colleague Letter” telling schools that they can and should use the word dyslexia that we were allowed to write the word “dyslexia” into Clara’s IEP. Amazing, right?
Since that time, I really feel that with the new Say Dyslexia law that our state passed effective July 1, 2016, schools are becoming more supportive. With the new law, the state has created this advisory council, and we’re starting to say dyslexia more in our state. Now, are we doing it perfectly? Absolutely not, but I think we’re finally on the right path to start getting our school to say dyslexia and therefore provide real service for our kids.
DGW: What was the reception from lawmakers when you first started working on the bill? Were they receptive? I know that when I started working on education issues a couple of years ago, nobody wanted to talk; nobody wanted to hear what we had to say. We could sit down in the offices and talk and then get a smile, a handshake, and a thank you. “Make sure that you call us again soon.” And we were forgotten as soon as we walked out the door.
AT: For me, it was a bit different because I wasn’t as involved in the day to day. There was a mom in Clarksville, Lori Smith, who was really involved in actually going out and advocating. By the time I came on to the scene, State Representative Joe Pitts and JC Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee were already very much on board. Once you’ve sit and listen to the facts, it’s very difficult to say, “We don’t need to do anything to help dyslexia” because it’s so compelling. The statistics are so overwhelming about the consequences of not dealing with dyslexia.
So while legislators were very open to taking action, it’s the districts and the schools that still have a lot of work to do. “DYSLEXIA is hard to understand.” and new teachers are not being educated on dyslexia when they’re getting their teaching degree. I think we have to figure out as a state and as a nation where we’re going to focus our priorities.
DGW: In our last conversation, one of the eye-opening moments for me is when we talked about English learners and how many of them go undiagnosed because the assumption is made that their problems extend from language acquisition.
AT: It’s a very real challenge.
DGW: After our talk, I spoke with Kevin Stacey in the ELL Department at MNPS, and he confirmed the challenge but also informed me that they are very on top of this. They have a number of strategies in place to catch kids quickly.
AT: Great! Here’s something else: So dyslexia is neurobiological. It’s just a regularly occurring brain difference, and 20% of us are affected. Those numbers come from studies done at MIT and Yale, so there is no question that this is a truism. We know that 20% of our kids – all kids, kids around the world – are going to struggle with reading and language. Dyslexia is manipulating language being able to read words, being able to spell words. And so, if you’re coming to the U.S. as a foreign language speaker, some languages are much more transparent than English. Spanish is a transparent language. So if you have dyslexia, Spanish is easier to spell and read, making dyslexia harder to identify. When you’re coming in to English, it’s much more of a dense, less transparent language. So you’re going to have a huge problem. So you have these kids who are EL learners and are struggling with language acquisition because they also have dyslexia. The rule says 20% of them, right?
DGW: And that becomes a challenge not just for the students, but the individual schools as well. We’re not painting an accurate picture of a school’s performance if so many kids are going undiagnosed. Even if it’s just 7 or 8 kids, I don’t think most people realize how much 7 or 8 kids can change the outcome of a standardized test, therefore leading to an inaccurate narrative about the school.
AT: Timed stressful situations are the worst-case scenario for people with dyslexia. So they’re typically not going to test well at all. If that’s how you’re measuring success, it’s really dangerous. It’s a dangerous thing to look at because we really need to look at the why, the deeper why.
DGW: And in your research you’ve discovered certain strategies that you feel really work?
AT: “Absolutely. I hear frequently that we need to get kids reading Kindergarten through 3rd grade and there are a lot of programs to get kids reading at home. We send kids home with books and tell parents to read with them each night. So, we are suggesting that struggling readers will improve if they read more at home, right? Well, that totally misses the mark and seems silly to me. Dyslexia, which is why 20% of kids struggle to read, is hereditary. Forty percent of people with dyslexia have a parent, child or sibling with dyslexia. So, if our strategy to improve literacy is to have parents read to their kids and we give them books, there are pretty good odds that the parent also is a struggle reader. Many parents couldn’t read the book to their child even if they wanted to! And one of the strategies I think that’s the most important is getting kids and families access to audio books. You can get them at the library. You can get them online. There are so many sources.”
Audio books let the kids explore books. They let them explore complex sentence structure. They let them explore rich vocabulary higher than they can read. You may have a 4th grader with dyslexia who really struggles to read The Cat In The Hat, but if you let them put on those ear phones they can explore Percy Jackson and Harry Potter, and they get into all these amazing words. Studies show that your brain doesn’t care how you get the words and some of the structure into your brain. It’s not cheating to ear read, okay? And some of these kids have to rely on it.
If we’re really concerned about comprehension and literacy, then we have to make this resource more available to all of our students. Michelle Obama was trying to get more audio books into lower income neighborhoods, which would be huge. We can’t read the book together, but let’s listen to it because most of us have a phone or something that we can listen to books on.
DGW: What’s next legislative-wise? Do you have anything on the radar? Anything on the agenda?
AT: Well, the state Dyslexia council is up and running. All schools will be required to screen kids with the universal screener and add a dyslexia-specific component to it, and that will hopefully catch more students.
We are trying to identify kids in K-12. Once they’re identified as having characteristics of dyslexia, what the law says is that we’re going to give them appropriate interventions – because again, with these students, putting them in some other random intervention is never going to work. Science is absolutely clear on what these kids need. We know how to get these kids to read. The problem is that it’s intensive and it’s intentional and it’s systematic and it needs to be done one-on-one or two-on-one, which is really hard in a RTI setting.
But, Despite the challenges, this really does belong in those hours of RTI2 within general education. We can’t just keep only doing this in special education because we’re missing a huge percentage of the population and a huge opportunity to get our kids reading. So, I think that the first step is just to get the state and districts – all districts across Tennessee – to start doing the screener with all students.
DGW: That’s a lot of work, but I do think the Tennessee Department of Education is trending in that direction. Not just with dyslexia, but as a whole. I think I’m becoming guardedly optimistic about our state education policy. They seem to be at least trying to listen and improve right now. In the past, it didn’t always feel that way.
AT: Right. And I think they are trying. There’s a Decoding Dyslexia movement nationwide. Parents are starting to say, “Hey, why aren’t we doing this?” And I think there is such power in parents rising up and saying we need these services. Because if you’re a parent of a child with a disability, it’s like you are in a silo. You just feel so isolated, and that there’s no one else like you. But then when you start realizing that a lot of us are having kids who are struggling with reading, and if we can kind of have this collective voice, it makes all the difference in the world.
I’m sure you feel the same way about EL families. There’s are real challenges, not only a language challenge, but I’m sure cultural challenges as well. We have all these kids in our district facing challenges but we don’t have a collective voice because we’re all so isolated in our little silos of dyslexia, of autism, of physical disability, and even of English Learners. And so I really want to try to work to get those voices together, not just for kids with disabilities, but for all of our kids. Kids benefit from being around diverse populations, and disability is very diverse. So, I think we’re on the right track, but we need to keep getting better. And one thing I want to say about why we should care about dyslexia–
AT: Do you know about why we should care about dyslexia as a society?
AT: There are many reasons. So, one of the reasons is 85% of juvenile offenders have dyslexia. There is a study in Texas: 80% of the Texas inmates were functioning and literate, and 48% of them have dyslexia that was not identified at schools. So we have 48% of our prisoners who have dyslexia. A lot of them probably went to prison because of trouble resulting out of their inability to read. That’s a huge issue. So, if we help with dyslexia we’re going to help with our prison population. We spend about $32,000 on inmates every year, where how much do we spend on education in Tennessee?
DGW: About $9,000 a kid or something.
AT: Exactly, about $9,000 a kid. Now, also to do direct instruction – We talk about how direct instruction for kids with dyslexia can be expensive, right? It will cost about $8,000 per kid to do one-on-one direct instruction. I got this number from one of the Decoding Dyslexia Maryland branches because they researched it. And so if you take our $9,000 we already spend in Tennessee, plus $8,000, that’s about half of what it costs to put someone in prison. I feel like we need to start realizing that.
The other thing is this: there’s a study on teen suicide. They found that 89% of suicide notes were left by teens that showed signs of having dyslexia. Another study said that teens with learning disabilities like dyslexia are three times more likely to commit suicide. Additionally, the statistics on teen pregnancy, on welfare, are influenced by whether or not you have a learning disability. Only 67% of students with a learning disability graduate from high school. So that’s a huge issue. As a society, if we really care about the school-to-prison pipeline, addressing social problems is important. Just think how much progress we could make by teaching people to read.
I get so frustrated as an advocate for people with dyslexia. We will do anything to fix literacy except the one thing that 70 years of research shows works, which is structured literacy. So I really hope that we start as a district and as a state investing in teaching teachers and figuring out how to accommodate these kids. Not only do we want them to be alive and out of prison, but they have so much to offer. For example, 50% of the people at NASA have dyslexia and if you look at the list of famous people with dyslexia – Richard Branson, Jennifer Aniston, Lewis Carroll, Cher, Anderson Cooper, Charles Schwab, and the list goes on – it’s amazing.
We have these kids sitting in their room, who may or may not be our future business leaders, our future biologists, unsure they can read and write, so we treat them like they’re stupid. We teach them like they’re second-class citizens. We treat them like they’re never going to amount to anything. And the fact is they’re probably the brightest kid in the room, but they just can’t read or write or spell. So, we have to get better at seeing all kids.
DGW: Well thank you very much Anna. I appreciate you taking time. And these bisquits are great.
AT: I really appreciate it. And the bisquits were good. Thanks for picking this place.
Talking with Anna will certainly give you a lot to think about. I certainly learned a lot from her and very grateful that she took the time to sit down with me. If you’d like more information about how to get your child tested for dyslexia, please contact your child’s teacher or school psychologist. For outside testing in Nashville, contact Learning Matters, which is a non-profit who works frequently with Metro Nashville Public Schools and provides independent testing on a sliding scale.
For more information about dyslexia, here are some of Anna’s favorite resources:
1. Understanding Dyslexia: A Guide for Tennessee Parents and Educators. Tennessee Department of Education, January 2016.
2. Tennessee Department of Education’s Dyslexia Advisory Council Page. https://www.tn.gov/education/article/dyslexia-advisory-council
3. United States Department of Education, Office of Special Education and Rehabilitation Services “Dear Colleague” letter dated October 23, 2105.
4. TED Ed video “What is Dyslexia” by Kelli Sandman-Hurley on YouTube. (4 minutes.)
5. The HBO Documentary “The Big Picture: Rethinking Dyslexia” on You Tube.
6. The book “The Streets Lied to Me” by Actor, Advocate and Activist Ameer Baraka about how the pain and shame of dyslexia led him to prison. Also see his website for news clips about his powerful story: http://www.kingbaraka.com.
7. The Yale Center for Dyslexia & Creativity website at dyslexia.yale.edu especially the “Dyslexia Bill of Rights” and “How Parents Can Build a Word-Rich Life for Dyslexics” by Kyle Redford.
8. The MTSU Dyslexia Center website at http://www.mtsu.edu/dyslexia/. Especially the flyers featured on the “Publications” page.
9. The six part series by NPR called “Unlocking Dyslexia” by NPR from November 2016.
10. The six part series by MindShift by Holly Korbey. Especially the final installment entitled “The Dialogue Surrounding Dyslexia: Five Important Take aways” dated February 26, 2016.
11. Time Magazine’s “Dyslexia is More than a Reading Disorder” by Alice Park dated December 21, 2016 about the newest research by MIT published in the journal Neuron.
12. Washington Post’s “Is listening to a book ‘cheating’?” by Valerie Strauss July 31, 2016.
13. Decoding Dyslexia -Tennessee branch. https://www.facebook.com/decodingdyslexiatn/
14. Twitter resources: @ddtn13, @understood, @dyslexiaMTSU, @LearnNashvlle, @DyslexiaToday.
If you are interested in a presentation for your organization, please contact Anna Thorsen at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter @athorsen16. Presentations can be tailored from 20 minutes to 2 hours and can cover one or more of the following topics:
1. What is Dyslexia? A look at what dyslexia, what it looks like and why its hard.
2. Dyslexia and Classroom Hacks: how to create a dyslexia-friendly classroom.
3. Dyslexia and Assistive Technology: what dyslexia is and how technology can help.
4. Advocacy and IEPs: tips for parents navigating the special education process.
5. Dyslexia and Literacy: why should we care?
Last week President Trump enacted an Executive Order banning the entry of refugees for the next 90 days and Syrian refugees indefinitely, under the guise of a need to further vet them. Since my kids go to a school with a large refugee and immigrant population, I have some observations I’d like to share. By no means are my observations and experiences exclusive. Ask any teacher or parent whose kids attend a school with a high population of English learners like mine do, and you’ll hear similar stories. One of the things that impresses me all the time about these type of schools is how quietly and efficiently teachers and administrators go about servicing the children enrolled. Let’s be clear as well that not all of these teachers are of the same political mindset. I know of teachers who voted for Trump, yet are at the forefront of advocating and caring for these children. We need to never lose sight that this issue isn’t about politics; it’s about humanity.
We also need to make a distintinction between refugee children and immigrant children. The two are often lumped together, especially when politically convenient. Immigrant children are brought here by their families in search of a better life. They are from families that choose to come here. Refugee children are from families that are fleeing their home country. It’s two separate populations with two separate sets of needs and challenges. Politicians will tell you the ban on refugees is for our safety, but the odds of being killed in an attack by a refugee are less than winning the lottery jackpot.
A couple years ago, I got a couple of education reformers to tour my children’s school, Tusculum Elementary, with me. They’d been talking a whole lot about “failed schools” and I wanted them to see first hand the quality of instruction children at a so-called failing school were receiving. After touring several classrooms, they admitted that it was impressive. “But I’d like to see the other children,” said one of them.
I was puzzled. “These were all extremely well behaved children. I’d like to see the discipline problems.” I just shook my head. You see, before these children got to Tusculum, many of them were already taught a very hard lesson about what acting out and getting yourself noticed meant.
Many of the children at my kids’ school spent time in refugee camps before being allowed to come here. And I’m not talking about a weekend; I’m talking about years while they navigated the system to secure relocation to the USA.
Going through that process has taught them the value of appearing benign and doing as you are supposed to since anything different could result in disaster. One wrong move and you get sent to the back of the line or worse yet, returned to where you came from. Which in some cases means certain death. Despite what politicians may tell you, the vetting process is long and intense, with many places where a family can be removed from the process or denied entry.
Much has been made of the potential for terrorist infiltration into the refugee population. But as Lavinia Limón, a veteran of refugee work since 1975 and the president of the U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants says, “I think I can count on one hand the number of crimes of any significance that I’ve heard have been committed by refugees. It just hasn’t been an issue.” That being said, are all refugees free from terrorist influence? Absolutely not. There are students in my kids’ classes that have family or former neighbors that are members of, say, ISIS or some other terrorist organization. It is to be expected based on where they come from. But this is an opportunity to counter those influences. To demonstrate that you can be safe without a joining an organization and that there is a better way to live. It is an opportunity to demonstrate that religous freedom is real and that America is not at war with any religion.
Let me put it in terms that might be more familiar. If you grew up in South Central LA during the 90’s, odds were that you knew members of either the Crips or the Bloods. Odds are equal that they probably tried to recruit you. If you were worried about your safety or your family’s safety, you probably listened to what they had to say and tried at the very least to retain friendly relations. It’d be foolish to just outright reject their overtures, as the consequences could have a dangerous effect. The biggest reason you may not have joined was the ability to see an opportunity for a better life. The truth is that joining a gang is a decision that only a person with no hope for the future can make. These terrorist groups are in reality no more than sophisticated gangs with access to the means to carry out deadly attacks. They are defeated in the same way that regular street gangs are defeated – by showing people a better life and thats what our refugee resettlement program attempts to do. To deny terrorist groups access to potential members by showing them the promise of a better life.
I’m sure many of the people poised to relocate to the United States have rebuffed ISIS and others repeatedly. What President Trump’s Executive Order last Friday did was essentially erase that vision of a better life for them. Imagine that you were ready to leave Yemen or Syria and start your new life in the United States. You’d spent the last two years jumping through hoops and doing everything asked of you and even above that, surviving. Then out of nowhere, you get word that all relocations have been halted for four months with no guarantee that you’ll be allowed to relocate after that time. What would you do? Would you trust that in four months you’d be allowed to relocate, or would you do whatever necessary to keep you and your family safe? Hope has been taken from you and you have to make decisions based on the limited options in front of you. If joining ISIS – if that were a possibility, that is – meant that you and your family would have a higher level of security and comfort, wouldn’t membership in a terrorist organization suddenly become more attractive than the unknown? Remember, philosophy is a luxury for those who have established food and safety.
Anyone who has ever worked with children can attest that children that feel stereotyped often embrace that stereotype. I think the same holds true for all people. Treat me like a thief and eventually I will become one. Treat me and my religion as being preordained for terroristic intentions and eventually the intentions may become reality. This is how a ban backfires and makes us less safe. I very much agree with the words written in the blog Jason’s Connection where he talks about the Frankenstein effect: No one starts out as the monster we meet. As a society, we build our own monsters. I am not a monster. Neither was Frankenstein’s creature. We are merely people and beings with fresh wounds and terrible experiences.
An important role of the president, possibly the most important one, is to set the tone for the country. The tone being set right now is one of hostility and intolerance. My kids’ classmates and their families, both refugee and immigrant families, are rightfully frightened. They have no idea if they are going to be removed from the country or placed in internment camps.
Supporters of Trump’s legislation like to say that if you are here legally, you have nothing to fear. Well, that’s fine and good if you come from a place where the government governs by law. Unfortunately, many of our refugees and immigrants come from places where the police are more feared than terrorist organizations. Laws are applied at the whim of the police and family members sometimes just disappear. What evidence do our refugees and recent imigrants have that things are different here? And how is a couple years’ experience supposed to trump a lifetime of experience? As someone who, in his younger days, has had handcuffs applied for nothing more than being too loud and not properly responding to a police officer, I can testify that feeling never goes away. Too often we think that just because we don’t have fear, neither should others. That just because the experience doesn’t exist for us, it doesn’t exist at all.
I am the son of a refugee. During World War II, my mother fled to Germany from the Ukraine as a refugee. As a kid, we lived in Germany and toured the country extensively. The only city I never saw was Berlin. That was because my mother had a deep-seeded fear that if we went there, she would be taken back to the East. It didn’t matter that her brain told her she was now an American citizen; her heart would not let go of that fear almost 50 years later.
We continually fail to grasp the concept that terrorism is borne out of how people are treated. We think we can bomb people back to caves and build walls to separate us and there will be no consequences. It baffles me. I mean, think about your own personal life. Imagine if your neighbor suddenly put up a huge fence adjacent to your property. When you went and talked to him about it, he only brought up your negative impact on his property refusing to acknowledge any positive influence. Would this strengthen your relationship, or would you begin to build resentment and overemphasize every perceived slight? You might even take the attitude that if you think you can keep me off your yard, I’ll show you, and encourage detrimental behavior towards his property. The attitude grows out of the feeling that since you show no desire to be a good neighbor, why should I? How much would insult be added to injury if that neighbor also presented you a bill for that fence?
On the wall of our living room hangs the words of Maya Angelou:
I’ve learned that no matter what happens, or how bad it seems today,
life does go on, and it will be better tomorrow.
I’ve learned that you can tell a lot about a person by the way he/she handles these three things:
a rainy day, lost luggage, and tangled Christmas tree lights.
I’ve learned that regardless of your relationship with your parents,
you’ll miss them when they’re gone from your life.
I’ve learned that making a ‘living’ is not the same thing as ‘making a life.’
I’ve learned that life sometimes gives you a second chance.
I’ve learned that you shouldn’t go through life with a catcher’s mitt on both hands;
you need to be able to throw some things back.
I’ve learned that whenever I decide something with an open heart,
I usually make the right decision.
I’ve learned that even when I have pains,
I don’t have to be one.
I’ve learned that every day you should reach out and touch someone.
People love a warm hug, or just a friendly pat on the back.
I’ve learned that I still have a lot to learn.
I’ve learned that people will forget what you said,
people will forget what you did,
but people will never forget how you made them feel.
They are powerful words that we read often and try to incorporate them into our daily lives. It wouldn’t hurt if, as a country we did the same.
As adults, we often approach the thoughts and conversations of children with a high degree of hubris. We think they only form their opinions based on what we tell them. Guess again. They discuss their home lives with each other with as much complexity as we do. It broke my heart recently when my daughter chimed in from the back seat after school one day that she’d figured out why her friend was being bad all the time. “Daddy, it’s because he has a mean father who drinks beer all the time.” Her solution, though, made me smile: “I’m just going to be his friend because he likes me, and I think being his friend is the best action.” It’s called empathy and it’s something we could all do with a little more of.
My children see the television and they see the President, who they respect as the leader of their country, say over and over “America First.” My daughter asked me, “What does that mean?” I told her that he’s saying we will put American interests first when dealing with other countries. I asked her, “Is that how you interact with your friends? Do you put your interests first? Or do they put their interests first?” “No,” she replied, puzzled, “Valentino, Jennifer, and I just play. We talk. We take turns. That’s weird, Daddy.” Yes, it is weird, my dear. She seems to grasp what adults can’t – we all live in one small, crowded world that we need to figure out how to share.
My son has become the de facto welcoming agent for his class. Whenever a new child comes into the class with a limited English vocabulary, I’ve been told he takes it as his personal mission to make them feel welcome. He’ll often matter-of-factly tell me about a new child who doesn’t speak English whom he has become friends with. I ask him how they communicate. He just looks at me like that question makes less sense than his friend’s native language. Somehow, my son has managed to do what many of us adults seem incapable of: to cut through the differences and the barriers to find commonality for the benefit of both. I can’t say enough thank yous to his teachers for modeling and supporting that behavior.
Looking at the news now and going forward, I don’t know what is going to happen. I have a great deal of trepidation and am searching for my way of pushing back and making sure that the welcoming face of America is preserved. I take reassurance from the sight of my fellow Americans taking to the street with the same goal. My dear friend Mary Holden has written an excellent piece about channeling your rage. As she says, “Americans are rising up. We are standing up against alternative facts, hatred, intolerance, and injustice. We are determined not to let evil win. We will resist. We will overcome.” It’s not just happening in Washington either. Raleigh, New York, Seattle, Columbus, Minneapolis-St. Paul, along with others, are all raising their voices.
I have a friend who questions the value of protests. He tends to think in terms of elections being the place to make your voice heard. I disagree. I think it’s important that politicians don’t feel untouchable just because they’ve secured the position. We must always serve as watchdogs. We must raise our voices whenever we feel that our community’s policies are not reflecting our community’s values. Some wish the voices would quiet down so they don’t have to think about what’s happening. Maybe because they feel powerless. Maybe because they feel overwhelmed. Or maybe because they agree with the policies. Joining with others to raise your voice reaffirms beliefs as well as informs others. My family and I will be raising our voices. For us, it’s not just ethical. It’s personal.
We are a country founded on the principle of always offering a better way of life for immigrants and refugees. That principle comes with a certain amount of risk, and in order for America to remain as safe as possible, we must always serve as that shining beacon on the hill, best summed up by President Ronald Reagan in his farewell speech:
“I’ve spoken of the shining city all my political life, but I don’t know if I ever quite communicated what I saw when I said it. But in my mind it was a tall, proud city built on rocks stronger than oceans, windswept, God-blessed, and teeming with people of all kinds living in harmony and peace; a city with free ports that hummed with commerce and creativity. And if there had to be city walls, the walls had doors and the doors were open to anyone with the will and the heart to get here. That’s how I saw it, and see it still.”
In case you didn’t know, Bill Dunn is the driving force in the State House behind legislation that would cut funding for pre-k, change requirements for teacher tenure, and create a state school voucher program. Luckily, he hasn’t been very successful at getting most of his agenda passed, as vouchers have continued to fail in the House year after year and the importance of pre-K is becoming more and more universally recognized. Last year, his love of poor children so overwhelmed him that he was willing to modify his dream to only apply to poor children in Memphis. Fortunately, that failed as well. The creation of a voucher program is akin to the dispatching of life boats, some students will benefit but many more will suffer. Republicans decry government picking winners and losers, but that’s exactly what a voucher program does.
One would think that all this love of children would mean that Representative Dunn would be fully committed to making sure that our public schools are fully funded. But one would be wrong. Last year, Tennessee school districts began suing the state over recognized funding inadequacies. Dunn’s response was to bring forth a constitutional amendment barring courts from interfering in educational issues. It would have effectively killed any lawsuits from school districts. Of course it failed.
Based on his track record of passing legislation, if Dunn was a school, he’d be subject to takeover by the Achievement School District. (Though I will give him credit for passing the dyslexia bill last year, as one of 40 bipartisan sponsors of the bill. A much needed piece of legislation.) But Dunn is not easily deterred, so this year he’s doubling down. Buoyed by the election of Trump, who supports vouchers and charter schools, he’s bringing the voucher initiative back once again. And he’s got another bill poised to get rid of that pesky mandatory recess law that got passed last year. According to Dunn, “I think this might be something where the local schools need to decide how best do we burn off that energy that students may have.” Because that was working so well before.
When asked about that mandatory recess law, Lauren Hopson, the President of the Knox County Education Association, has gone on record stating that “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it.” and I agree with her. The mandates that the state puts on our schools are just too oppressive. Tennessee’s lawmakers have put an unreasonable burden on the teachers of the Tennessee. So to add a requirement that kids need to have a certain amount of time weekly spent on physical activity may have been a step too far, however well intentioned it was. It mandates something that ought to be happening anyway, but with all the other mandates, it’s hard – or nearly impossible – to get them all done. The problem is this – if we get rid of it, will schools then take away recess time to make more time for literacy and math? The demand for focus on literacy and math (because that’s what is tested), now coupled with the expectations of social studies and science, fail to take into account what actually encompasses a school day. So perhaps we shouldn’t repeal the recess bill but rather adjust our standards.
Let’s look at those standards. Tennessee was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. It didn’t take long for criticism to mount and lead to the repeal and replacement of Common Core with the Tennessee State Standards. According to State Board of Education Executive Director Sara Heyburn, “We started with the current state standards. From there, we executed an unprecedented transparent, comprehensive review and replacement process.” There was rigorous review to ensure that the standards were appropriate and that they were stacked; in other words, each year built on the previous year’s work. Funny thing, though, is that the “new” state standards look pretty much like the Common Core. Hmm. My question, though, is, how much time was spent on studying how they realistically aligned with an actual school day and the increased accountability that we are expecting from our teachers?
I love to use running metaphors, so let’s apply one here. Say I’m 16 years old. Say a bunch of track coaches get together and based on comparisons of other high school runners, they decide that they are going to set the standard for running a 100 yard dash at 10.5 seconds. Odds are that most kids will be able to hit that time, but not without significant sacrifice. For example, they will have to change their diet, and some favorite foods will have to be sacrificed. Training time will take away from family time and impact the ability to help around the house. Time with friends and music classes after school will also have to be sacrificed. If we run a cost/reward analysis, whether or not we hit the mark becomes irrelevant because the cost will far outweigh the reward. In my humble opinion, that’s what we have done with state education standards. We’ve set the bar so high that attainment comes at a detrimental cost.
The experts got together with some outside input and evaluated what kids were capable of learning, but nobody looked at how that fit in to an actual school day. How much time would be required for kids to acquire the required knowledge? How would that time affect lunch times? Would it impact recess? What kind of after school time would be required? Would there be time to feed kids in the morning and still be able to present the required instruction? And would this time frame be the same for every single student? As Hopson recently observed, “[Lawmakers] also didn’t understand that fifteen minutes to adults is not the same as fifteen minutes to children…. who have to get coats, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, walk to the playground with the sense of urgency of a 7-year-old, and completely refocus when those breaks occur.” Was this ever taken into account? Shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t teachers be the ones to have that say?
Recently, I wrote about how teachers need more time, and that hasn’t changed. Talk to a teacher – I know that is a novel idea – and they will tell you their day is made up of never-ending compromises. Do you spend more time on the literacy standards or the math standards? Which bit of paperwork do you sacrifice in order to be more prepared for tomorrow? How much time can you afford to spend on social studies? Do you stick to the district pacing guide, or do you focus on mastery? Do you focus on teaching to the test or try to ensure students are getting the necessary depth of instruction? That’s a lot of questions, a lot of compromise, and a lot of moral issues to expect from anyone on a daily basis. But not only do we do it, we add to the challenges each year with new legislation.
Back to the recess issue. I don’t think you’ll find a single teacher who wouldn’t acknowledge the importance of physical activity. As a parent of a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old, I can certainly testify to the need for daily physical activity for children. I learned really quick to make sure that every day out of school contained at least an hour or so of physical activity for the kids in order to maintain my sanity. Without recess, my son would lose learning time every day because he would be unable to shed his excess energy, resulting in decreased concentration. As Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, points out, “Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors. Let’s face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.” Yes, it is.
Further compounding the problem is poverty. A teacher at a school with a higher income demographic has a little bit of cushion because they know that the lessons taught in school are being reinforced at home. Schools with concentrations of kids from high poverty levels unfortunately don’t have that benefit. But it’s not because parents don’t care. Many of those children are being raised by families or single parents who work two jobs just to provide basic necessities. They leave early for work and come home late at night, often too exhausted to even interact with their children. The result is that teachers need every single moment in the school day, resulting in them making compromises that they don’t neccesarily agree with, like sacrificing play time for extra instructional time. But what are you going to do if your entire professional career depends on test results?
Poverty presents very real barriers to physical activity for children as well. Many of our impoverished children live in neighborhoods and apartment complexes that don’t have play facilities, or the environment is unsafe, requiring them to remain indoors when they get home. Financial restraints can make organized sports unavailable to them. It amazes me that we have elected officials in this state who would introduce legislation to curtail what food stamps can purchase at the same time we attempt to take away required periods of physical activity. And they do it all under the guise of caring for people.
It’s not like there isn’t evidence that shows the link between physical activity and learning. Recently, a school in Texas went to four recesses a day and discovered that it lead to increased academic performance. Initially, there was some nervousness from teachers. According to 1st grade teacher Donna McBride, “I was trying to wrap my head around my class going outside four times a day and still being able to teach those children all the things they needed to learn.” This experiment may sound far-fetched, but it has yielded some real results. “Some five months into the experiment, McBride’s fears have been alleviated. Her students are less fidgety and more focused, she said. They listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.”
I hate to evoke Finland in educational discussions – it becomes almost like Godwin’s Law – but the truth is, Finland has long recognized the link between physical activity and academic performance. They key is “unstructured play,” which is described as kids being allowed to run, play, and make up their own games while teachers mostly stay on the sidelines to make sure everyone is safe. And that’s the very thing that Dunn’s bill is trying to restrict.
Here’s a little sense of irony for you. According to Wikipedia, Dunn first earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science during 1983 and later completed a Master of Science degree in Extension Education from the University of Tennessee during 1985. He worked as a federal employee for the U.S. Agricultural Extension Service as a 4-H agent in Grainger County, Tennessee, for approximately eight years. William L. Sanders, a then (in the 1980s/90s) Adjunct Professor of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, developed the TVAAS. Both have been detrimental to Tennessee students and educators and I never realized there was such a correlation between agriculture and education.
So what’s the solution? I think it’s imperative that parents and teachers start to educate legislators. Let them know exactly what a school day looks like. Let them know exactly how their legislation is impacting teachers and their ability to educate kids. Teachers can’t just go behind closed doors and try to make things work on their own, like they have so often to date. They need to demand more time. Parents need to speak out as well. Together we can educate legislators, many of whom just don’t know anything about public education. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) sets up weekly days at Legislative Plaza during spring breaks across the state that provide the perfect opportunity for teachers to come educate our legislators. I’d specifically drop Bill Dunn a line or pay him a visit. Between his repeated support of vouchers, despite opposition by educators, and now the recess bill, he’s potentially doing real damage to our kids. We owe it to them to educate him.
The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Mom: What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this.” In it parent Laura Eberhart Goodman observes “The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are overworked. They are burned out. I feel as if I should make them a weak whiskey on the rocks, hand them their pipe and slippers and leave them alone for an hour to decompress.” This is the result of an over emphasis on standards and measurement and a heavy handed State Department of Education. Goodman goes on to document the damage we are doing to our kids with our unrealistic expectations. She sums things up succinctly in the following passage:
From a parental perspective, a good learning environment is one with positive energy. The teachers want to be there, and the children want to be there. No one is counting the minutes to the end of the day before it has even started.
From an educator’s perspective, an environment that is engaging, hands-on, with opportunities for meaningful learning, practice, discussions and creativity, makes kids happy. When kids are happy, they learn more, and without having to resort to bribery. It’s not rocket science.
When the learning environment becomes very serious and relies heavily on assessment and grades, learning targets and goals, it is not as enjoyable. It is “work,” and children don’t enjoy work. It’s not in their nature to enjoy work; children are created to learn through play.
Mr. Dunn this is something you would do if you truly loved kids.
In public education circles, we spend a great deal of time talking about equity. As much talking as we do, though, we struggle with actually defining it, and we have a hard time grasping that what is equal isn’t always fair, and what is fair isn’t always equal. We’ve all seen the graphic that illustrates the difference between equality and equity:
Recently I stumbled across a story by blogger Lara David that struck a chord with me, and I’d like to share. She has all her students sit in a circle, and she instructs each of the students to throw left shoes into the center. She then randomly begins to hand out left shoes to students. The students quickly begin to complain because the shoes are either the wrong size or mismatched. “What?” she asks. “I equally distributed the shoes. Everyone has two shoes, so what’s the problem?” Obviously, the answer is that the shoes were not the needed shoes. In order to be equitable, all students would need to have received the shoes that fit and matched. The same challenge exists in public education.
In education, the shoes that we tend to throw into the middle of the circle are teachers and rigorous instruction. How often have we heard the mantra A quality teacher in every classroom? But what does that even mean? Education researchers have provided characteristics of a great teacher – a great teacher respects students; a great teacher is warm, accessible, enthusiastic and caring; a great teacher sets high expectations for all students; a great teacher collaborates with colleagues on an ongoing basis – but do we evaluate and label teachers based on those characteristics? Or do we use a convoluted, biased mystery system?
I’d argue that rigorous instruction is also often defined differently based on the demographics the school is serving. If you are in a more affluent school, rigorous instruction translates to students being challenged by a wealth of educational experiences that come through field trips, outside speakers, after school clubs, etc. Poorer schools are left to rigorously focus on doing well on standardized tests, so that they make sure they don’t get on the naughty list, which makes them eligible for state takeover and to be labeled a failing school. In doing so, we create two separate, unequal tracks for kids upon graduation. Those who have been exposed to a wealth of experiences will gravitate towards entrepreneurial and management tracks, while those focused on test results will be relegated to service and hourly positions. The inequity created in schools will follow these kids throughout their lives.
I’m not downplaying the importance of looking at both teacher quality and curriculum as it relates to inequities. But in reality, inequities run even deeper than that. My kids have attended a high needs school for a number of years now, and I reached a point where I can recognize the inequities, but I have a hard time communicating them to others who don’t have children in high needs schools. Every once in a while, though, something will happen to reveal to me in a communicable manner just how deep these inequities run and just how important it is to rectify them.
Last month, I had lunch with a man, we’ll call him Ron, who has had quite a bit of experience with schools that have portables. Ron had done some research on Tusculum Elementary School, where my children attend and my wife is a teacher, and we were getting together to discuss some of his thoughts. He started off by praising the things he’d seen both instructionally and discipline-wise. I nodded, and then he said, “But I did notice one thing.” I leaned forward thinking, “Here it comes.”
“I noticed that Tusculum has 23 portables, but no covered walkways. How is that possible?” he asked.
I was dumbstruck, and all I could do was sit back in my chair. How was it possible? How was it possible that for over two years, Tusculum ES had been utilizing these portables, and it was deemed acceptable for children to walk in inclement weather to the main building several times a day fully exposed to the elements? And that’s when it struck me: that’s how deep the inequities run.
In case you didn’t know, Tusculum ES is a school with, depending on what day it is, approximately 98% of students coming from families with incomes below the poverty level and 73% of students who are English language learners. Last count showed that only 136 kids out of 750+ kids speak English as their first language. I use a caveat on these numbers because as I’m sure you suspect, we have a great deal of mobility. Many of these children are refugees, and they came from refugee camps before coming to Nashville. So who are they to complain about a school that looks eerily familiar to them?
To be fair, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is in the process of building a brand new school for Tusculum ES, and it will be beautiful when it opens. But is that where our obligation to these students end? If this scenario were to play out in an affluent school, would parents accept their children being exposed to the elements daily while a new school was being built? Or would they raise enough hell and bring enough political pressure to get covered walkways built? Don’t even get me started on the playground situation. I suspect that those parents would tolerate it for about half a day before speaking up, and I don’t fault them for that. But that’s the kind of advocacy we need for all our children.
Let’s also consider the message that we are sending to these children at Tusculum. We are telling them that they aren’t even important enough for us to protect them from the adverse weather conditions. We are telling them they are worthy of substandard facilities. All we are doing is reinforcing the messages that have already been taught to them in their home countries. Thank God Tusculum ES and most of these high needs schools have administrators and teachers capable of countering that message. But we as a community have to do a better job.
We can’t even begin to talk about teacher quality and rigorous instruction until we get the environment right. Just look at Maslow’s Pyramid. I don’t care what level of instruction or curriculum you bring, there is no way a child who is cold, hungry, or sick is going to be able to take full advantage of it. Yet we’ll look at test scores, scratch our heads, and try to figure out why these kids aren’t scoring higher. We’ll talk about whole child education, the effects of poverty, rapid language acquistion, and diversity all day long, and then daily drive right by Tusculum and not think for one minute about those kids being exposed regularly to severe weather and the impact it’s having on their development. We might even remark to ourselves how great the new school is going to look, forgetting all about today.
I’m not exempting myself here, either. I’ve advocated for the school for three years now and never once demanded covered walkways. I, like everyone else, figured the obligation began and ended with building a new school, and that there wasn’t money to make any improvements on the current school. That’s how deep the inequities run – that even someone who loves these kids and the school as much I do is willing to accept them being continually exposed to the elements daily. I won’t mince words here – it’s shameful.
Arguing that the district doesn’t have the financial resources to address the situation doesn’t hold water here either. This year, MNPS has remodeled the board room and the executive offices. Just this week, new carpet is being laid throughout central office. Why are adults getting amenities before children? Remember this statement – We believe public education exists to ensure equitable access and opportunities for all students from early childhood through graduation. Are we living it? Because a value ain’t a value unless we are living it.
Defenders of the of the budget say they were only able to do this because Dr. Joseph charged the staff with finding a way to do the central office remodel in a cost efficient manner. Somehow, through the use of in-house resources, a creative way to complete these remodels was found. Well, okay, then why hasn’t a similar challenge been issued for much needed projects in our schools? One MNPS school, Fall-Hamilton ES, was able to get school partners to chip in and make some early year improvements. But mostly, we shrug and say That new school’s going to be awesome! and then presume to judge as if all things were equal. They clearly are not.
This is not something that plagues just Tusculum either. Go over to McMurray Middle School, of which Tusculum is the feeder school, and you’ll see a similar situation. When Tusculum’s new school opens, McMurray will recieve the bulk of their portables. Here’s something to think about, 4th graders at Tusculum who have been in portables since third grade, will now go to a new school utilizing the same portables they’ve endured for the last two years. Talk about the ultimate bait and switch and a new definition of stability.
Why have we not built mobile covered walkways? These walkways could go with the portables from assignment to assignment. I fail to understand why this couldn’t be accomplished. The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) constantly reminds us about how much they care about the kids of Nashville. Are you telling me that if they decided to, they couldn’t find a private partner to execute this project? After all their mission satement is We believe every child in Nashville should have access to a great public education that prepares them fully for college, work and life. We do that through raising and managing funds, making strategic investments and bringing the community together behind efforts to accelerate progress. Time to put your money where your mouth is.
To me, it just comes down to will. These are the children who don’t have parents with political connections. These are the kids who are grateful for whatever we give them, therefore making it easier to give them less. These are the kids who, along with their families, are left to navigate our system largely unnoticed. I love that the state of Tennessee is trying to enact accountability measures before identifying needs. Per The Tennessean, “While the accountability section of the draft is strong, according to supporters of the plan, many others have felt the plan is short on specifics about how to address student subgroup needs, especially English learners.” Once again, the cart is placed before the horse, but at least they are promising to study how to meet those needs. I guess that is a start.
My 6-year-old son’s friend is a refugee child who attends Tusculum. He was out to lunch with us this week, and the kids were laughing and joking back and forth. As I watched them and looked specifically at my son’s friend, I started to get a vision of just how stacked against him the deck was. His pathway through adulthood is so much more perilous than my son’s is. We like to say kids can do anything and that poverty isn’t destiny, but how are we helping to that a reality? My feelings weren’t pity, just a deep facing of reality, and it saddens me. He is a bright, witty, energetic young man who has so much to offer. We need to be taking obstacles out of his way and not be placing more impediments in front of him. We can’t do that unless we really confront the inequities in our schools in an honest, rigorous manner.
As we head into the 3-day weekend celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr, I would like us to consider his words when he said, “Everything that we see is a shadow that is cast by that which we do not see.” It is imperative that we shine a light on all the inequities that are not normally recognized, whereever they may hide.
Last week, I was on the phone with a friend, and we were speculating on the incoming snow and the ability of the new leadership at Metro Nashville Public Schools to navigate the challenges of the upcoming bad weather. Let’s just say I was a little wary. Before I go any further, though, a little clarification is in order. Nashville is a Southern city, but Northern enough to receive what we call “snow storms” a few times a year. Now these “snow storms” usually result in just 1 to 2 inches of snow – not a lot by Michigan, New Jersey, or Prince George’s County standards – but let me refer back to my original statement, Nashville is a Southern city.
As a Southern city, we do not have access to the same resources as a Northern city, despite being just as large in most cases. As City Councilman Dave Rosenberg recently noted, Nashville has a huge network of roads (5,800 lane miles) spread throughout a huge city (4 times the size of Boston, 24 times the size of Manhattan). This is a lot of territory to cover with minimal snow removal equipment that only gets used a handful of times in a year. It should also be noted that nobody has snow tires on their cars, nor a whole lot of practice driving in snowy conditions. What this translates into is a city that gets shut down by a minimal amount of snow and the resulting ice.
What this also means is that when Northerners move here, they tend to translate their experiences with snow into what it should be like here. They assume the reaction to a dusting of snow would be the same as the reaction to a dusting where they are from, and thus, warrants the same response. Based on the arrogance and unwillingness to listen to the locals that new Director of Schools Dr. Joseph and his team have demonstrated, I predicted their response would be that of the typical Northern transplant. They didn’t disappoint with this first snow of the year.
Friday, January 6, would have been students’ second day back to school after winter break. At 6 AM that morning, when I woke up, there was already a covering of snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. I looked on the Facebook page for MNPS, expecting to see that schools were closed, but the message was that schools were open. At 6:30 AM, as snow was continually falling, it became clear that travel was becoming unsafe. At 6:45 AM, my wife, who teaches at the same school my kids attend, and I decided that she would be going, but they would not be. At 7 AM, it was more than clear that school should be called, yet there was no further communication from MNPS until 8:45 AM when they announced early dismissal.
At 10 AM, MNPS held a press conference hosted by Chief Operating Officer Chris Henson. In case you were wondering why it was Henson instead of the Director of Schools hosting the conference, well, me too. Apparently, when former COO Fred Carr left over the summer, Dr. Joseph combined the COO position with the CFO position and named Henson (formerly the CFO) the new COO. I guess it was because the CFO didn’t have enough to do, and by combining the two positions, money was freed up to import more friends from Prince George’s County. Or something like that. But I would argue that finance and transportation are two departments that require a great deal of focus. All Dr. Joseph had to do was talk to his friends in Prince George’s County for evidence of those challenges.
Back to the press conference, per coverage by The Tennessean: “As Henson addressed reporters Friday morning, Director of Schools Shawn Joseph arrived midway through the news conference and watched alongside other MNPS staff.” Yep, that’s right, the boss who gets paid nearly $300k a year, has a Chevy Tahoe with a driver, three months of his rent paid along with the security deposit and moving expenses, can’t make it on time to a press conference where one of his Chiefs throws himself on the sword for the district putting the safety of its children at risk. MNPS put out a message that your child’s safety comes first, yet the district’s number one man has better things to do rather than showing up to address why a decision that put children at risk was made. And he doesn’t even address the public himself, choosing instead to speak to camera’s after the press conference is concluded.
Let’s take it at face value that the decision to close schools does fall on the shoulders of the COO. Is a decision of this magnitude made without the Director of Schools signing off? Are we supposed to believe that Henson made the decision to close or not close schools by himself, without ever consulting with the Director of Schools? Furthermore, the Director felt no compulsion, when looking out the window and seeing snow on the ground, to call the COO and say, “Hey, you sure it’s safe out there?” This is a problem, and it demonstrates several disturbing elements, including, but not limited to, the chain of command. The idea that a superintendent would allow the COO to cancel or not cancel school without first getting a sign off is akin to allowing the Secretary of State to declare war without getting the sign off from either Congress or the President. It’s preposterous, and begs the question of how our leadership chart is structured. Unless maybe the COO was thrown under the bus on purpose.
Unfortunately for Dr. Joseph, a body of work is beginning to emerge. In his brief tenure as Director of Schools for MNPS, he has shown a tendency to allow others to take the podium to answer the hard questions for him. Back in the fall when there were questions about the qualifications of some of the people he had hired, it was School Board Chair Anna Shepherd answering the hard questions instead of the well-compensated Dr. Joseph. Now it’s COO Chris Henson taking the heat for a decision that should be the responsibility of the Director. After months of local News Channel 5 chasing after Dr. Joseph to answer some legitimate questions, he finally agreed to sit for an interview, only to walk out before the end of it. These actions are painting a picture of what kind of a leader Dr. Joseph is. Sure, people are investigating and questioning his decisions – this is to be expected – but it’s his own hand that is constructing the portrait of him as a leader, and the more it is revealed, the more troubling it becomes.
Over the last several months, MNPS has spent a small fortune on hiring outside consultants to focus on leadership and changing culture. Perhaps Dr. Joseph or one of the school board members could show me which chapter they read or out-of-town workshop they attended where they learned that leadership doesn’t accept responsibility and instead shifts it onto the shoulders of teammates or offers up excuses? A quick perusal of the Arbinger Institute (one of those well-paid outside consultants) website yields a couple of blog posts that would seem to offer different advice. One notes that “Good leadership is dependent on how we view people, situations, challenges and victories.” The other notes that “Our work flows better when trusting relationships have been established in every direction of our work (and we mean every direction).” Both would suggest to me that it should be Dr. Joseph in the chair handling the hard questions, demonstrating to his people and the public that he can be trusted and that he plans to lead by example. If we are going to be spending money on out-of-town jaunts and consultants, shouldn’t we at least try to follow the advice given by them? I know I haven’t been in on any of these transformative sessions, but it seems kinda obvious to me.
Another tendency that’s becoming more and more apparent is that the Prince George’s County transplant is having a hard time accepting that he’s no longer in Prince George’s County. Neither Dr. Joseph, nor any of his people, has shown an inclination to learn the history of Nashville’s school district. They’ve refused to really sit and talk with long time local educators in an effort to find out why certain decisions were made or strategies were implemented. How can you ensure that you won’t make similar mistakes if you don’t know how the previous ones were made? Truth is, there is a blueprint for this latest snow storm fiasco if anybody cared enough to look at it.
The last three Directors of MNPS have all faced the weather cancellation challenge. Back in 2003, Dr. Garcia refused to listen to the locals and insisted on keeping schools open. A decision with disastrous results. Then in 2009, Dr. Register decided that “Students’ Safety First” was not just a t-shirt slogan and closed schools. He was heavily criticized, but held firm on student safety first. Like many of the actions Dr. Joseph has taken, it seems he is intent on following the blueprint written by Dr. Pedro Garcia.
Which, in speaking of Dr. Garcia, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out again that part of Garcia’s downfall was connected to the hiring and continued support of an employee who was clearly unqualified and incapable of doing the job he was hired for, Gene Hughes. Dr. Joseph has his own Gene Hughes in Maritza Gonzalez. Gonzalez was hired by Dr. Joseph as the Executive Officer of the newly created Department of Diversity and Equity at a salary of 155k a year. The Department of Diversity and Equity as part of its responsibilty oversees the instruction of our English Language Learners. Gonzalez has no classroom experience nor any other kind of experience involving direct instruction, and every time she presents anywhere in the district, or at Vanderbilt, it quickly becomes apparent how unqualified she is, as she presents in a manner that is simplistic and fails to show a grasp of the complexities involved in creating curriculum for our diverse community of English Language Learners – something MNPS already excels in. Yet we start the second half of the year and she still holds her position. I wonder if that’s somehow connected to her having recently married Joseph’s second-in-command, Chief of Schools Sito Narcisse. Here’s a fun fact: as a household, Gonzales and Narcisse draw a combined salary of $340K from the district.
Before I get sidetracked though – because trust me I could, and may in the future, discuss that subject a whole lot more in depth – let’s go back to that press conference that was held on Friday. At that conference, Henson made the following statement: “Hindsight is always 20/20, and if we knew that the weather conditions were going to worsen and not follow forecasts, we would have made a different decision.” Well, that’s not exactly accurate. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Henson, but a simple perusal of tweets and forecasts from that morning tell a different story.
I get it. No one likes to be wrong. Especially if it puts children at risk. But when you are wrong, for God’s sake, own it. I’m not a highly paid outside consultant, though maybe I should be, but everything I’ve ever read about leadership says that moments like these are when you earn your stripes with people. More than if you got it right, they want to see you step up and lead. They are evaluating who you are as a person and whether you are trustworthy or not. They want to see what kind of character you have and if you are somebody worth putting their faith in. Unfortunately, once again Dr. Joseph fails to capitalize on the opportunity to earn real buy in so that he can start to shed the “new guy” benefit of the doubt and become the recognized leader of MNPS based on real accomplishments and not just the status of the position. Using the school board chair and the COO as shields and walking out on tough interviews does not paint a picture of trust and mutual respect.
There continues to be a reluctance by the school board and other community leaders to openly question Dr. Joseph’s actions for fear of angering him. I would argue that it’s not his anger they should fear, but rather that of principals, teachers, and parents. For some reason, it seems to be beyond the district leadership’s grasp that Dr. Joseph will be unable to enact his wide-sweeping reforms without buy-in from all stakeholders. That buy-in is not guaranteed; you have to earn it. This is where the school board is doing Dr. Joseph no favors. We talk ad nauseam about the importance of holding kids accountable, yet somehow that doesn’t translate to adults. By refusing to ever discuss any of Dr. Joseph’s shortcomings or question anything he’s done in public, the board has given him the feeling that he is beyond reproach, and therefore, nothing needs to change. I realize that they are doing everything they can to offer him support, and it may be beneficial in the short run, but we should have our eyes focused on long-term goals. Long-term success demands a leader who can build a strong team and who is willing to face his harshest critics head on.
It amazes me how little we as a society learn at times. We just came through a national election that has allowed, in my opinion, an unqualified candidate to ascend to the highest office in the country because we failed to listen to the people in the trenches. Same thing is now happening here in Nashville. The accolades fly from the mayor’s office, to city council folks, to other elites about what a transcending job Dr. Joseph is doing, but is anybody listening to what the people in the trenches are saying? Or are our leaders just assuming that they know best and if they just continue heaping on the praises, it’ll be accepted as fact?
(As a side note, since nobody seems to appreciate history in MNPS, somebody needs to remind those that are claiming that Dr. Joseph’s collection of experts are unprecedented that in 2011, in preparation for the implementation of the Common Core standards, former Executive Director of Instruction Kelly Henderson and her team brought in quality outside help every bit as impressive as the folks enlisted by Dr. Joseph. We were actually considered ahead of the curve in unpacking the standards. The difference between then and now was that the impact was in the classroom – where it should be – and not in the boardroom or newsroom.)
There is a reason snow days are built into the schedule. The day in question was a Friday and the second day back from winter break. Weather reports for two days prior called for snow. It seems to me that this would have been a perfect opportunity to burn a snow day. Call it early the night before so parents have a chance to make plans. We should also have a plan in place in case of a weather cancellation where we can get food to those families in need. I know for a fact that Dr. Tony Majors, former Chief Officer of Support Services, and Fred Carr, former COO, had previously developed such a plan. (Another side note, has anybody else noted the plethora of problems created this year by letting Fred Carr go in July? Just asking.) Dr. Register was perfectly willing to take the heat for actually living the statement your child’s safety comes first, and this administration should extend that policy.
At the end of the day Friday, everybody made it home from school safely and Dr. Joseph issued an apology. As a result, people have a tendency to be forgiving and chalk it up as a lesson learned. We should, though, listen to the words of my friend and fellow MNPS parent Chelle Baldwin: “Not sure how he [Joseph] defines ‘safely,’ but bus crashes, kids having to walk miles back home because buses couldn’t get down icy hills along with parents, and educators wrecking cars does not meet my definition of ‘safely arriving home.” This was not a lesson we should have needed to learn, as the two previous Directors faced similar challenges. Every lesson should not have to be relearned, and let’s be real, we escaped a catastrophe by sheer luck. What if, God forbid, a child or teacher was injured – would the cost of that lesson be appropriate? It’s nice that student absences will be considered excused, but word on the street is that all teachers who did not show up for work on Friday are being forced to burn a personal day. I certainly hope MNEA and PET are looking into that. No teacher should be punished for not risking personal injury.
On a final note, in his “apology,” Dr. Joseph continues on the same path that he has traveled for the last six months by stating, “Using a two-hour delay is something we will certainly do in the future if this same situation occurs.” Really? Has he talked to anybody about why the previous administrations did not utilize the two-hour delay? Has he studied the impact on our large English Learner population? How about our kids who live in poverty? Has he developed protocols to ensure that the delays won’t actually cause more problems? Or has he just erected some more mirrors and thrown smoke at them?
The apology I would have liked to hear would go something like this: “This is Shawn Joseph, and I would like to apologize for today’s fiasco. We got it wrong. My team and I thought that we were making the best decision possible, but in hindsight, we were wrong. This is my first experience with snow in Tennessee. Obviously, things work differently where I come from. Luckily, I am surrounded by many people with a lot of experience in dealing with the weather in Nashville. We will be talking with and listening to as many of them as possible to find the best strategies going forward because we owe it to parents, teachers, and administrators to get it right. When we say your child’s safety comes first, it’s not just something we say, it’s something we live.” Oh well, maybe next time. If not, there will be a whole lot more snow daze.
A few weeks ago, the Tennessee Department of Education released an early Christmas present: last year’s TNReady scores. In case you are not familiar with TNReady, it is Tennessee’s version of an annual standardized test. I know, you are probably like me and thinking, “What the hell good are scores from last year in the middle of December?” Releasing them now is just an offshoot of the multiple problems that Tennessee had with standardized testing last year. It’s really no surprise that they are just releasing them now, just in time for some holiday hand wringing.
According to Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales, “Only 22.8 percent of all high school students are listed as on track or mastered reading in their grade level, and 12.2 percent are on track or mastered their grade level in math.” That means if I walk into a roomful of 100 students in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), only 23 of them will be reading on grade level and only 12 will be able to do adequate math. Hmmmm…. What about in neighboring Williamson County where they are known for their superior schools? Take that same room of 100 and only 41 will be able to read or do math on a grade level. Anything starting to smell a little fishy?
Think about this. We are giving kids a test where only 41% are deemed on track or better in our very best schools under the very best circumstances. What? If I showed up at your place of employment and gave you a test that less than 41% of the staff could pass, would you not raise questions about the validity of the assessment? So why are we not questioning the validity of these tests? Why are we instead wringing our hands, rending our garments, and blindly accepting that our kids are underperforming?
What if I showed up in a classroom of 6th graders and said that I believe running a 100-yard dash in under 9 seconds is essential to your success as a human being? We all recognize that I would never get over 20% of the kids able to do that. It wouldn’t matter how much we practiced, how much we changed our diet, or bought new gear, the majority of the kids would fail. Yet if I raise that question about our literacy and math standards and the tests we use to assess them, people lean back, scowl, and say, “You don’t think all kids can learn. If all kids were held to high expectations, they would achieve.” Yeah, well you can expect things all you want, but if students are consistently falling way short, then I’d say you need to assess your assessments.
Invariably someone shows up and says, “You may be working hard, but you’re not working smart.” And they’ll proceed to lay out their brilliant strategies that always include longer hours and a narrower focus. After all, nobody ever got a 6-figure executive job by coming along and saying that the guy before them was doing it about right. Yet we continue to see similar results with the narrative of failing schools getting further and further ingrained into our day-to-day conversations. Periodically we see a large short-term gain and we rally around, slap each other on the back, and proclaim a success. But do those results hold upon deeper inspection? Not usually.
Last year, Neely’s Bend Middle School was a school that was in the bottom 5% of performers in the state, and therefore was subject to takeover by the state. In an effort to stave off the takeover, the school and the community rallied together and buckled down to show enough growth to make the argument that the school shouldn’t be taken over. Though they succeeded in showing great growth, they failed to prevent the takeover. Everybody took great pride, and rightfully so, as those numbers had been produced through tremendous dedication and work.
Recently I asked several district administrators if they felt that in working for those numbers the children had received an equitable education to their peers in whiter, wealthier schools. Yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, Neely’s Bend is made up of primarily black and brown children. Just like nearly all priority schools, but hey, there’s not a pattern there or anything, and poverty isn’t destiny and all… but I digress. As far as the question goes, none of the administrators were able to answer in the affirmative. This begs the question of who was the beneficiary of this undertaking? Was it children or was it adults? I’m not trying to take anything away from the hardwork of those administrators, teachers, or community members, but it’s essential that our actions always strive for equitable educational experiences and not just short-term test results.
Don’t think test scores overly influence our educational strategies? If you want affirmation, all you have to do is take a look at MNPS’s proposed vision statement: Metro Nashville Public Schools is the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, career and life – and that every school is a great school. How do you make the claim to be the fastest-improving urban school system without emphasizing test scores? So the vision for our district is based on an assessment that appears to be pre-disposed to ensuring that less than 50% of students pass. Is that really for the benefit of children, or does it give adults talking points up at Legislative Plaza and at cocktail parties? What will be sacrificed in the classroom for children so that adults can verify that claim? Will this not further instill the perception of education as a competition instead of a continuous process? Why are we content to reducing our children’s experience in schools to test scores? It isn’t right.
These are questions I continually wrestle with. We never stop talking about rigor and being college and career ready, but to what end? Are we teaching kids that is all there is to life? Are we teaching kids that their worth is entirely measured by how hard you work and how you scored on the annual standardized test? As a kid, my parents had high expectations for me, but they also had a bigger expectation that I would do my best. As long as I did my best, if the results fell short, they were disappointed but there was a recognition that different people had different skills. We seem to have lost this understanding and instead have become enamored with the so-called growth mind set.
On the surface, I take no exception to the growth mindset. We as people should never be completely satisfied with what we’ve learned and should always strive to go deeper. I do believe, though, that the belief that all people can reach the same heights if they just keep working harder is disingenuous at best. That’s like saying everybody could be a starting quarterback in the NFL or everybody could be a world class concert pianist if they just practiced harder. We also need to recognize the amount of sacrifice it took for that NFL quarterback or concert pianist to reach their pinnacle. That sacrifice is not, nor should it be, something everybody is willing to make. In thinking about the “Growth Mindset,” it’s important that we keep in mind the words of creator Carol Dweck on the false growth mindset: “It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets.”
I believe that in order to inspire a true growth mindset, our assesments must not demand unrealistic expectations. It is essential that our assesments reflect true learning and not just the creation of data points that cater to adult needs. And maybe more importantly, that growth itself isn’t best measured on a standardized test, but rather daily, by our teachers who know and observe our children best. The further away from assessments designed by actual educators we get, the more we run the risk of painting an inaccurate picture of our educational system.
These unrealistic expectations play out not just in our poorer schools, but equally as much and maybe more so in our more privileged communities. I have friends who are parents in those schools, and they’ve talked of the demands placed on their children. Of 6th graders getting home at 4 pm only to have 2 hours of homework, followed by dinner, bath time, reading time, and then off to bed by nine. Where does that leave time for kids to be kids? Where does that leave time for families to interact? My father used to say to me, “Enjoy these times because once you become an adult, you’ll have responsibilities and won’t have as much time to enjoy life.” I’d argue that kids today, as early as age 8, have nearly as many responsibilities as adults. How is that healthy?
I’ve worked hard all my life, sold at an early age on the mythos of the working class, and at age 51 I find myself with a bit of a crisis of faith. I remember being in my late 20’s and managing a music venue. The father and brother of the woman I was living with took an annual trip to Vero Beach for the Dodgers Spring Training, and they invited me. Of course I couldn’t go. The job needed me, and I needed to constantly prove how hardworking I was. In hindsight, I wish somebody would have instilled in me the belief that you don’t always have to be producing, and that sometimes life is just about enjoying the experiences. This is the kind of thinking that we are instilling in children – to think more of the achievement than the experience. But both hold valuable lessons and need to be balanced with the other.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the toll these unreasonable expectations place on teachers and principals. It is not uncommon during the school year for me to head to bed around 11:30 pm and find my wife on her laptop, still working on lesson plans or grading papers. I inquire if I can help, and she responds, “Sure, do these TLA’s, then write this discipline plan, and these papers need grading.” I just shake my head and go to bed, knowing that this scene is playing out in countless other professional educator’s homes. How do these demands lead to a sustainable profession? How does this enviorment get a quality teacher in front of every student? It doesn’t and we are already seeing cracks in the talent pool. These cracks will only grow as long as we foster unrealistic expectations. In my opinion, these unrealistic expectations divert teacher’s energies away from actual teaching and more into test prep.
In looking at the tests, it isn’t clear at all exactly what these tests are really testing. Is it a student’s knowledge of the state standards? Is it their ability to decipher the test? Is it their ability to use technology? Who knows what the results even mean. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat Tennessee does as a good job as anyone explaining it, but the bottom line remains: If less than 50% of students can be proficient, you are setting the bar wrong, and you open yourself to the question of whose benefit is this for? Is it administrators and lawmakers trying to build a resume or is it kid’s who are trying to attain skills in order to build a better life? If it’s for the kids, then it is imperative that we create accurate assesments of what teachers teach and what students learn not some hypothetical pipedreams of those who never enter our classrooms or interact with our kids.
Don’t think for a second that kids aren’t asking that question of who this is for. They can smell hustle a mile away. Talk to teachers, and they will tell you how hard it is to get kids to take the tests seriously. They’ll tell you of their frustrations at trying to get kids to understand the ramifications of these tests. But can you blame them? If I demanded you take a test that I couldn’t administer properly, and the odds were that you would fail it, would you take it seriously? Furthermore, as your teacher, would you take me seriously?
As Maury County Director of Student Services Ron Woodard pointed out in a recent blog, “The overemphasis on testing seems to create school and classroom environments where ‘test-prep’ is the priority. This ultimately thins the curriculum and narrows the focus of learning down to what will actually be assessed at the end of the year.” He goes on to give voice to the concerns of young teachers, who feel like this: “I need every single minute everyday. There never seems to be enough time to teach the standards that will be assessed and my overall evaluation will be impacted by these results.” Not to take fault with the young educator – after all, it is us who placed them in this precarious position – but who is benefiting from this setting of unreal expectations? And what are we asking to be sacrificed in pursuit of those so-called standards?
My children are still young and relatively new to the public school experience. I look at them, though, and silently pray that when they get to high school, it’ll be ingrained that learning is an ongoing process and doesn’t just happen in the classroom. I pray that they won’t be afraid to take a day to cut class. I know it’s heresy to utter such a thought, and I certainly won’t encourage it. After all, Dad’s approval would defeat the purpose, and if caught, I will mete out the appropriate discipline. But I hope that my wife and I as parents have instilled in them the knowledge that rigor, high test scores, and constant production are not the only things that one is measured by, and that sometimes it’s okay to just step out for a day and follow your heart. Sometimes just living life is the biggest learning experience and that all learning doesn’t have to go hand in hand with rigor.
In education circles, we talk ad nauseum about that word rigor. Unfortunately that means the majority of the focus is on the measurable results. I would argue that the imeasurable results are equally important, and that in our rigorous pusuit of academic standards we shouldn’t neglect all the other important work schools do. As Mike Bannen, a Kansas City teacher, writes in a recent article in the Kansas City Star, “But it is equally important to understand that the historical (and ongoing) struggles to provide equal education to women, minorities and the disabled demonstrate that public education has been about more than just providing access to the educational conditions needed to secure a good job; it is also about the democratic need to value human dignity in furtherance of democracy.” An important reminder that our schools are the source of the shape of our democracy. Neil Postman, former chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, puts it even more succintly “Public education isn’t important because it serves the public, it is important because it creates the public.” That needs to on the wall at the entry to everyone of our schools.
Since I started blogging, it’s never ceased to amaze me how the same thoughts seem to be on parents’ minds at the same time. I’d like to share a piece that was sent to me by a parent of two school-aged children. She’s been a fierce public education advocate who unfortunately has been placed in a position where she was forced to take a deeper look at her beliefs and make some tough decisions for her family based on those evaluations. Some may argue with her decisions, but few could say they aren’t what’s best for her family. At the end of the day, that’s what we all need to be able to say. This piece dovetails nicely into a piece I’m in the process of writing. So without further ado, I’d like to share her story:
In August of 2015, when my son (“J”) was in 6th grade in a local public school, the wheels, bumpers, headlights, etc. started to come off the proverbial bus. The teachers were not able to successfully differentiate his instruction, so he was bored and was not progressing at an appropriate pace. The district also had recently changed their discipline policies, which made it difficult for them to appropriately discipline the children who were inflicting emotional and physical abuse on my son. To top it off, a tenured teacher, who was clearly burnt out and ready to retire, inflicted emotional trauma on my son and other children.
Perhaps if J were not a highly sensitive child (http://hsperson.com/books/the-highly-sensitive-child/), he could have handled all of these issues. But he was depressed and despondent, so my husband and I made the only choice we could—we pulled him out of school and I homeschooled him for the second half of his 6th grade year. And then we–two graduates and advocates of public schools–did what just a few months previously was unthinkable: we applied for local private schools in the area.
We found a school that was a good match for him and he began attending 7th grade there in August. And he is happy again. He loves his classmates and teachers, and best of all, he feels safe and respected. (At this point I would sell a kidney to help pay for his tuition. That is how much this school has helped him.) But, here is the catch: J is having a difficult time adjusting to the demands of the school.
I have been told by many people that it’s very normal for children to struggle when moving from public to private school, especially when they are in middle school and all of the hormones and social pressures make the simple act of existing complicated. But this is different. My son, who normally brought home straight As, was suddenly failing tests on a regular basis–and he didn’t seem to care. When I tried to help him study, he often resisted, which ended up in arguments and hurt feelings. But on the few occasions where the planets aligned and he allowed me to help him, he got great grades on his tests.
We consulted with the school counselor, his advisor/home room teacher, school principal, and a variety of other specialists. We brainstormed solutions and we all shared them with J. But nothing we tried seemed to help. He often times refused to study for tests, and when he did, he didn’t know how to do so effectively. He also forgot to bring home materials for very important tests, which was so infuriating to his father and me. We could not understand how this straight A-child suddenly seemed incapable of functioning in his new school. He was angry and frustrated with his schoolwork, and he just seemed to give up.
Finally, after a semester of struggle, I recently contacted a tutoring service. After talking with the executive director and explaining what was going on, she said that it appears that J does not have the necessary executive function skills to succeed in the more rigorous academic environment. (Please see this link for an example of how a child with limited executive functions experiences life: https://www.understood.org/en/learning-attention-issues/child-learning-disabilities/executive-functioning-issues/a-day-in-the-life-of-a-child-with-executive-functioning-issues) I knew that J was having problems planning, organizing, staying focused, persevering, and self-advocating—but it blew me away when she put it in such terms.
Executive functioning is the brain’s way of managing its thoughts, tasks, and focus. These processes are generally performed in the frontal lobe of the brain and they do not come naturally to everyone. In many cases, they have to be taught explicitly. My son’s private school classmates have been working on executive functioning skills for years because the school they have been in does not focus on teaching to the test, as is done in public schools. The school is, instead, able to focus on teaching children HOW to learn.
So here is the conclusion that I have come to in just the past couple days: High-stakes standardized testing has handicapped our public school students. The curriculum is limited and focuses on teaching content—not on teaching children how to learn (i.e.., executive functioning skills). And Common Core standards absolutely do not solve this problem, as indicated by the incredibly low number of children who leave Metro Nashville Public Schools prepared for college. In fact, the executive director of J’s tutoring practice said it doesn’t matter what a child gets on a standardized test–what matters is if he/she is capable of effectively using executive functions to stay focused, organized, and motivated. Without those skills, a child will grow up to be an adult who has trouble succeeding in college, future careers, and life in general.
It is unfair that there are countless children going all the way through 12th grade without learning how to think. These children graduate from school and are left floundering because they do not know how to advocate for themselves, plan or organize their lives, or focus on a goal. In this day and age, you can find just about everything on Google, so cramming facts that will likely never be used again into a child’s head is not an effective way of making our children self-sufficient, successful adults–but teaching them how to learn is.
It is long past time that our state and nation take their focus off of the amount of stuff that children can regurgitate on a test. While it is important to have some very basic measure that reflects if students are learning the content being taught to them, it is much more important that these children learn how to access this content, organize their learning, and discover how to reach out for help when needed. If my son, who by all measures, is “gifted” and was raised in a highly supportive household, does not know how to do such things, I suspect that there are countless other children in public schools who are in desperate need of learning these executive function skills.
My fear is that our country that is known for innovation and creativity is going to lose this edge and become a society of people who do not “reach for the stars”. Not because they don’t want to, but because they don’t know how. And that is unacceptable.
I must admit that I have struggled lately with what to write. Between a local school board here in Nashville that continues to be unresponsive to legitimate questions about the practices of the new administration, the state of Tennessee continuing to refuse to address real school financing issues, and the recent nomination of Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education, things are feeling pretty grim, and I am questioning just how much impact I am capable of making. Being a public education advocate has always been like playing a game of three-tiered chess, and it often feels like as a parent you are relegated to the role of pawn. To exacerbate matters, right now it feels like I’m in check on all three boards and all that’s left are pawns.
There is one subject I have been meaning to write about for a while, but have never been able to find the courage or the right words to tackle it, and that is racial inequality. Having two children in a school as diverse as Tusculum Elementary School for the last three years has really been an education for me about how race and poverty still color our world. We like to say that we’ve entered a post-racial world, but nothing could be further from the truth. The truth is that whether we are willing to admit it or not, racism shapes our perceptions on a daily basis. We make assumptions about people’s intentions, expectations, and motivations based on the color of their skin while we try to tell our peers that we don’t see color.
As a middle-aged white male, I have struggled with talking about race. Lord knows there has already been enough written about the subject from the viewpoint of a white male. I wrestle often with my own thoughts on the subject, trying to evaluate the depths of my own bias until I came to the realization that it’s not mine to evaluate. Everyday I try to live the best I can and treat people as equally as I am capable of doing. If some of my actions strike others as racially motivated, all I can do is honestly listen, evaluate, and if possible, make adjustments.
Macklemore has a song on my running playlist called “White Privilege 2” that has a line that goes as follows: “It seems like we’re more concerned with being called racist than we actually are with racism.” It’s a simple line that lies in the midst of a lot of other powerful lines in the song, but I’ve spent many a run contemplating those specific lines. We get so outraged if someone even implies that we are acting in a racist manner that we are quick to dismiss any actual racist actions. Instead we need to stop, evaluate, and possibly adjust our actions or behavior. What is the possible harm in admitting that your actions might be colored by race? We have ample evidence of the harm manifested by not accepting it.
There is a line in “White Privilege 1” where Macklemore states that “Hip hop started off in a block that I’ve never been to, to counter act a struggle that I’ve never even been through.” As a white male, that’s something I really need to remember. I am evaluating my actions based on my experiences. To get a true evaluation, I need to put them up for inspection by those who have actually felt the hurt of racism. In doing so, I risk discovering parts of myself I may not like, but without that discovery, growth becomes an impossibility. There’s a poem by Mary Lathrap that was written in 1895 called “Judge Softly” that perceptively makes these points and concludes with the line, “Take the time to walk a mile in his moccasins.” The idea of seeing things through someone else’s world view is one we really need to consider.
I want to share a personal story. It’s a story that has shaped my beliefs on racism for almost 35 years. It happened when I was just a teenager, and it was a lesson imparted by other young men who had no idea that they were teaching a lesson that would impact me for the rest of my life. This is a chance for me to say thank you and attempt to share some of that lesson. If my story comes off as superficial or offends others, I’m sorry, and please know that it is only offered so that the conversation can be furthered. So without further ado, here it is:
First, a little background information. I grew up a military brat. My father was a noncommissioned officer in the Air Force, so we lived predominately in military housing or housing right outside military bases. The military is made up of a lot of the poor, and therefore, all races are represented. My world was one of color and diversity right from birth. Because of this, I assumed that I understood what it was like to grow up a child of color and that I had no prejudice myself.
In the summer of 1982, I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship to the Pennsylvania Governor’s School for the Arts. These scholarships were only awarded to 220 students per year, with 30 going to my discipline, which was theater. For 6 weeks, I was thrown together with other talented high schoolers from across the state. To say the whole experience was life altering is probably an understatement. It was the first time in my life that I was surrounded by people who truly understood me. Words can never express the joy of that summer. My fellow students at PGSA, or Govies, as we called ourselves at the time, would offer similar testimony.
Among the student population that summer was a handful of young African-American boys who naturally gravitated to each other. They didn’t exclude anybody, but this was 1982 and the world wasn’t nearly as integrated as it is today. However, that didn’t prevent me from spending a fair amount of time with them. They were talented and a lot of fun. Since I had no issues with race, why shouldn’t I spend time with them? Race issues were for other people, right?
We’d spend hours together cutting up. A lot of our jokes were far from politically correct and often played on stereotypes. I had a straw fedora hat that I’d taken to wearing, and they christened me MacDaddy. We created caricatures to amuse ourselves. We were all so enlightened until I made a joke that stepped outside the boundaries. I have no idea what that joke was. I don’t know if it was funny or not, nor does it matter. The only thing that I remember, and therefore mattered, was that it deeply hurt my friends. Intentional or unintentional, the pain caused was the same.
One of the people in this group of African-Americans was a young man named George Russell. George was a talented piano player and a man of grace even at the age of 17. I’m blessed to be able to keep up with George via Facebook and witness him continuing to live with that grace. Luckily, George wasn’t willing to just write me off that summer. George came to me and in plain terms informed me that I’d offended the group, and as a result, the group didn’t want to have a lot to do with me. I was crushed. I loved these guys and was mortified that I’d hurt them.
I explained to George how terribly sorry I was and that causing harm was never my intention. I asked what I could do to make it right because these guys were a big part of my world at PGSA. George was kind enough to facilitate me making an apology to the group, and the guys were gracious enough to accept it. We continued to hang together, but things were never quite the same. A line had been crossed, and it would take more than just an apology to erase it and more time than the summer had to offer. It saddens me to think of all the opportunities missed out on due to my insensitivity.
The lesson I learned was that just because I thought I had no racial bias did not make it true, and that just because I didn’t find something offensive did not mean others didn’t. If I wanted to have a diverse set of friends, I needed to try and become sensitive to their experiences and to own up to it when I fell short. Taking into consideration other’s experiences and how those experiences affect them is vital to forming relationships. Just because I’d never been discriminated against didn’t mean discrimination didn’t exist and that my friends hadn’t felt its ugly sting.
The lesson I learned from this experience has extended into many other situations as well. Just because I’d never been sexually assaulted didn’t mean that sexual assault wasn’t real and therefore should be fodder for jokes. Just because I hadn’t been denied basic human rights because of who I loved didn’t mean that it didn’t happen to others. Just because someone had deeper religious beliefs than I had didn’t give me cause to judge others for their beliefs. Over the years, I’ve found that having friends from different backgrounds has greatly enriched my life. This enrichment has only been possible through greater sensitivity on my part.
Have I been 100% successful? Of course not. Friends will tell you that I am still capable of the uncomfortable joke. That I sometimes say things with the potential to offend. What can I say? Like all of us, I am a work in progress. It’s important, though, to be willing, when confronted, to try put yourself in other’s shoes. Try to validate their life experiences instead of rejecting them because they don’t match yours. As I go through life, I try to keep that feeling from the summer of ‘82 close. Everyday I strive to never allow my actions or words to hurt people I care about in that manner again. That’s something I will continue to strive for no matter how many times I fall short.
I suspect over the next four years it’s going to become more important than ever for us to step out of our skin and become more accepting of others. We need to collectively resist falling for stereotypes. We need to understand that saying Black Lives Matter doesn’t marginalize white lives. We need to embrace the common ground between all religious faiths instead of allowing fear to cause us to focus on the differences and isolate us more. We need to understand that every immigrant and refugee does not have the same story, and in fact, many of their stories may resemble our own experiences. In short, we need to become more concerned with the effects of racism, misogyny, and xenophobia than being labeled as such. The work needs to start with our schools.
In a recent blog post, blogger and educator Russ Walsh points out three recent articles on race and schools that resonate with him. He states that these articles illuminate “how the public school can play a role in helping us improve this long-standing stain on the America of all of our imaginations. These articles suggest that what we need more than anything else to combat prejudice is to connect, to talk, and to deliberate.” I couldn’t agree more, and that belief plays out daily in our lives. Our public schools offer us the opportunity to let the the seeds of equity take root.
Some refer to Tusculum ES as a high needs school, but for us it’s been a high rewards school as well. My children have had the benefit of learning right next to children from every fabric of society. My son’s teachers have told me that he has a highly developed sense of empathy towards new children who come into the classroom, and he takes it upon himself to make them feel welcome. That is a direct result of his experiences at that school, and it fills me with a sense of pride, but more so, with a sense of relief. To put it bluntly, it’s more important to my wife and me that our children don’t grow up to be assholes than it is for them to amass academic accolades. The world has a surplus of the latter and not enough of the former (the non-assholes, that is). Albeit, we should not have to sacrifice one for the other. Often though, unfortunately, that becomes the challenge.
Like many of our high need schools, Tusculum has a high number of portables, lacks technology, and suffers from a number of other resource shortcomings. My wife and I are often forced to try and evaluate if we are hitting the proper balance or not. To be honest, it’s not an evaluation we are adequately qualified to make. If my wife wasn’t an educator herself, we wouldn’t be aware of the high level of instructional quality. By forcing parents to evaluate their children’s schools, it takes the onus away from the government to provide equitable educational resources and places it on the backs of parents. That shouldn’t be acceptable. As retired teacher and co-founder of the Alliance for Philadelphia Public Schools Lisa Haver notes, “Parents don’t want to go school shopping any more than consumers wanted to pick an electric company. They want districts to distribute resources equitably, so that children in every neighborhood have access to safe and stable schools.” I say amen to that. We should be able to trust districts to do so.
District and state leaders tend to get a little defensive when challenged about the inequity that exists at a school like Tusculum. In the case of Tusculum, they are quick to point out that students will be the beneficiary of a soon-to-be completed, multi-million-dollar construction project. As if the act of finally providing an adequate facility should somehow serve as an act of absolution for years, and in some cases, decades, of neglect. As if the arrival of a new building will suddenly make up for lost educational opportunities and level the playing field.
The new school will be very welcome, but I’d question why it took so long and why things were able to deteriorate to such a level before building actually started. I would also like to point out that being a high needs school means that there is a lot of mobility in Tusculum’s student body, so how many students will have sacrificed a year of their lives in an inferior facility for one in whose halls they’ll never walk? There are 138 students at Tusculum who speak English as a first language, which means there are over 600 for whom English is a new language. I can’t help but think that this played into why the facilities weren’t updated sooner. I can’t help but believe that the color of these children’s skin made it easier to ignore them longer and therefore fail to provide them with an equitable education experience. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s the kind of honest conversations we need to have with ourselves. Even if it’s uncomfortable. Even if it means admitting that we’ve been wrong. We owe it to all our kids.
Earlier this week, something interesting happened. Scrolling through my social media threads, I found several references to an article by Nashville school board member Amy Frogge on how KIPP made its money. The article was actually written last year by Frogge, but I wasn’t shocked that it was being reshared now because it really is quite good. In it, she countered arguments that former fellow board member, and now State Board of Education member, Elissa Kim made on the board floor during a meeting the night before. The article is an excellent primer for parents and community members on how money and politics intersect when it comes to our educational system. I am sure that it was appreciated by countless people. However, the irony now is that article wouldn’t be possible under the new policies the current MNPS board has adopted.
One of the first tasks that Dr. Shawn Joseph undertook upon his hiring as Director of Schools for MNPS was to train the school board on how to be a board (well, that, and open up the Prince George’s County federal witness protection program, as the majority of his hires have ties to Prince George, but I digress). Apparently the way the board functioned before Joseph’s arrival was unacceptable, despite the fact that the incumbents won their recent reelection campaigns by overwhelming margins. Voters, apparently, didn’t have any issues with the way things were being handled previously and expressed appreciation for the fact that Frogge, Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering wore their passions on their sleeves and were willing to fight for their convictions. In knocking on doors, calling people, or writing blog posts, I never heard a supporter say, “Please stop fighting.” Rather, it is important to have leaders who are willing to have the hard conversations in public and stand up for what they believe in. It’s part of what got them re-elected.
So where did this narrative of a school board that needs to be taught how to be a board come from? Well shockingly (yeah, not really), it came from wealthy people who never had the intention of sending their kids to public schools. The narrative was created by the Chamber of Commerce, The Tennessean, and private foundations that heavily funded the opponents in this summer’s school board election. Furthermore, a narrative was created that the first director search was a failure because of board members. It was this narrative that empowered Dr. Joseph to get the board under control.
Over the past several months, the school board has undertaken five out-of-town trips and utilized three consulting groups in order to “become a better board.” As part of this improvement, they’ve agreed to stick closer to policy governance, and, as related by Board Chair Anna Shepherd via a Facebook post, “at one of our recent retreats we all agreed, ALL NINE OF US, that we will speak as one voice. We will have discussion and dialogue on the board floor, take a vote if indicated, and speak with what the majority of us decided. No sulking. No social media posts. Just agreement that we will speak as one.” That’s all fine and good, but now apply that rule to the article written last year by Frogge.
In that article, Frogge counters a fellow board member. She continues the discussion past the meeting. She informs parents and community members where her fellow board member was wrong, and I would argue, because of her willingness to confront a fellow board member publicly, the district benefited as a result. You see, at that time, the board was made up of a majority of members who supported Teach for America, the Achievement School District, and unchecked charter school growth. The only way that the general public was able to beat back the direct attacks on our schools was through information garnered by social media posts from Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering. Think about the fights that have been fought over the last several years and where we might be without their very public leadership. Now, per the words of the board itself, that resource is not going to be there anymore, and I think that’s a huge loss. Our board members – and as a result, what they stand for – have been silenced in the name of getting along.
I’ve never understood how publicly questioning someone is the equivalent of undermining them. The only way that they are undermined is if they fail to be able to reasonably answer the questions. I also fail to grasp the concept that if you philosophically oppose someone, you must also personally dislike them. Here’s a news flash: I semi-regularly talk to many who fall into the “reformer” camp. We will argue as passionately as imaginable, yet that doesn’t prevent us from being able to behave towards each other in a respectful manner. The world is full of gray areas; it’s not just made up of for and against. I follow Voltaire’s words, “I detest what you write, but I would give my life to make it possible for you to continue to write.” (There is some question as to whether he actually ever wrote this, but for my purposes I’m appropriating it.) I would much rather see the board embrace this tenet as opposed to that of a style-over-substance approach.
In adopting this new approach to governance, school board members are asking for an unprecedented level of trust from the public. They are asking that we have faith that the hard questions are still being asked despite the lack of evidence of such. That’s a hard thing to ask, especially in light of what’s transpired in public education over the past several years, as well as what is currently transpiring in the world around us. It also means that we accept that board members have suddenly become omnipresent and can sense every threat. I’ve always believed in the power of the collective over the individual. The power of Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering derived not just from their innate intelligence and courage but their ability to draw the community together in a collective action.
Private entities have become very sophisticated and are utilizing more than one attack strategy in seeking to destroy our schools. Some of their methods are extremely overt, like spending on political campaigns, while some of their methods are much more subversive and deceptive. Writer Jeff Bryant does an excellent job of illustrating this distinction in a recent piece on Betsy DeVos and how rich people’s grip on the nation’s public education system has reached a choking point.
Bryant makes the argument that charter schools and vouchers almost serve as a distraction while the real threat of big money slips into our school system and quietly remakes it. As he states, “No doubt, education policy led by Trump and DeVos will differ from the previous administration, but what’s staying the same is how wealthy private interests will strongly influence policies. Grasping this essential truth matters a lot in the ‘nasty’ politics of education today, where the real debate is not so much about charters and choice as it is about who is in control.” In Nashville it is all around us. The Chamber of Commerce, Project Renaissance. Nashville Public Education Foundation, all funded by wealthy donors who are trying to exert their influence over an educational system their children or grandchildren will never participate in.
One of my favorite bloggers, Crazy Crawfish, made a similar observation in a recent blog post. He states, “What most folks don’t know is they or their meddlesome allies have been in charge the entire time in one form or another. It’s quite an ingenious strategy. Create a mess; invite yourself to clean it up, create more messes for yourself or others to clean up, blame any failure to clean up messes on predecessors (you/allies) and deflect the attention that should be focused on your failure as a need to do some new and expensive untested things someone saw posted on Reddit.” Man, those words ring true.
Here in Nashville, our millionaire meddlers adhere to the playbook religiously. What’s worse is that we allowed the failing school board narrative to open the door for them. For example, Nashville’s school board turned to Nashville Public Education Foundation to assist with the director search. At the time, I screamed that allowing them to pay for the search would just empower a private entity to meddle in our public school system. I was ignored, but unfortunately have been proven right as NPEF has continued to interject themselves into the workings of MNPS. Heck, Shannon Hunt is even helping Dr. Joseph find suitable housing. Hopefully advise is the extent of it.
Shannon Hunt, as director of NPEF, has used their involvement in the director search as leverage to have even greater influence on district policy. I’ve already pointed out that right from the beginning of Dr. Joseph’s tenure she was pushing for the director to meet with Josh Edelman and other representatives of the Gates Foundation. NPEF has also set up meetings with the director for the Scarlett Foundation, the Ingrams, and the Joe C. Davis Foundation. On the surface all appear highly altruistic but all are heavy investors in Teach For America, charter schools, and the candidates who ran against the incumbent board members on a platform of creating a more congenial board. In other words, the outcome of the school board election meant nothing because those with cash are still getting access and the ability to push their agenda to the district. NPEF is still pushing the Gates talking points.
Talk about a subversion of the democratic process. There is no need to look any further in trying to understand why less than 50% of the population voted in the last presidential election. What’s the point? If nothing changes why should the average person exert extra effort and get more involved? I can’t answer that.
Through the credibility gained from the director search, NPEF has become integrally involved in the process to create the district’s Vision Statement, Mission Statement, Core Values, and ultimately the Strategic Plan. Recently, NPEF sent out an email that included a link to an op-ed piece written by board chair Anna Shepherd and Dr. Joseph touting their involvement and a letter from John Ingram that included this admonishment: “Unfortunately, I have read recently, with great disappointment, that some level of sniping has begun to stir on the fringe of the discussion for better schools – silly comments about vehicles, salaries, and the number of seasoned administrators that Dr. Joseph has brought with him. As Nashvillians, we know there is no time for that.”
With all due respect, Mr. Ingram, I don’t consider putting unqualified or inexperienced people in charge of our neediest students education to be a silly issue, I consider it to be a moral issue. I would think that in order for someone to oversee our English Language Learners’ instructional practices or the professional development of our educators, some classroom experience would be a minimum requirement. The email from NPEF also provides a link to take the survey on our proposed vision, mission, and core value statements. These statements don’t seem to be reflective of the new administration’s actions over the last several months. How can you speak to the value of diversity and equity when some schools still look like this?
Quick side note here. The proposed vision statement is as follows: Metro Nashville Public Schools is the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, career and life – and that every school is a great school. Why do I care if we are the fastest-improving urban school system in America? That sounds like something somebody puts on a resume. Why is it too much to ask that you simply provide a quality education for my child? Also, who gets to decide the definition of great? Remember those reformers I talk to regularly? Their definition and my definition of a great school are a whole lot different. Who’s right? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet that will a passionate discussion. Until we start to define our terms, I’m afraid we will continue in the same constant swirl.
These are interesting times we are heading into. We’ve spent a lot of time in Nashville arguing about charter schools and choice, and I’ve slowly come to realize what Bryant gives voice to in his article: “In this sense, arguing for or against charters and choice has in many ways become a distraction. Many communities already accommodate charter schools and eagerly embrace the idea of offering parents a range of choices, if the district can afford it. What pisses people off, though, is when private foundations force charter schools on their community and parents are told by powerful outsiders what kind of choices they have.”
Bryant continues, “We should worry, Dorn and Potterton write, ‘when policies are shaped substantially outside ordinary public politics by an increasingly private set of actors, whose relationships with the public sphere can simultaneously be rivalrous, symbiotic, and parasitic. One does not need to be paranoid to worry about the concentration of decision-making in the hands of people who are friends and who are not accountable to the general public.” Dorn and Potterton elegantly write out the argument I continually try to fight for and which continually seems to slip further and further away.
So now, it is into this new reality we go without our leading voices. It’s my fear that this more congenial board has the potential to cost Nashville’s children a great deal. The current board members have worked to create a better culture for themselves, but while they’ve focused on themselves, a different culture has sprung up throughout the district. I talk with teachers and administrators regularly, despite their reticence to do so, and almost universally they express apprehension over job security, lack of clarity on objectives, the continued growth of testing, lack of support on discipline issues, and an overall feeling of uneasiness. Unfortunately, despite the promise by board members of great revelations and improvements coming in the near future, I see no signs of anything that will temper the growing feelings of apprehension and impact our students in a meaningful way. The resolution on TVASS was appreciated but more needs to be done.
How do you improve culture if you have done little to earn the trust of those most impacted? You can’t earn trust until you actually listen and appreciate those doing the heavy lifting. It’s way past time for things to come out of the boardroom and into the classroom. The only true measurement of success should come from its impact on students, and at present, unfortunately, we are falling short. It is in this light that I am reminded of a quote by Teddy Roosevelt, “The human body has two ends on it: one to create with and one to sit on. Sometimes people get their ends reversed. When this happens they need a kick in the seat of the pants.” That Teddy was a smart guy.