A Righteous Anger

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fullsizerenderNote: I was busy finishing this blog post last night while the protests raged in Charlotte. After posting, I scrolled through my social media feeds and saw that many of my white friends could not understand the depths of rage felt by those in Charlotte. To them I would say, the seeds are right here in this post. There is not a wealthy white school in America that would tolerate the conditions of the school my kids attend. Children are resilient but they don’t forget. They will remember how we treated them, Our public education system has let down generations of children of color. We need to acknowledge that, But the solution does not lie in taking power out of the hands of communities and putting it in the hands of private entities. We need to tend to our public schools. The situation in Charlotte saddens me, but we have the opportunity to make change right here in our communities. The choice is ours.

 

It’s 4:30 in the morning, and I’m wide awake. I’m wide awake despite the fact that I didn’t get home until after midnight from working nine straight hours. I’m awake because despite everything our kids still don’t have the resources they need in their schools. My gut burns with anger towards the fight against charter schools and how we focus more on the supply than we do on demand. We celebrate our small victories in preventing the growth of charter schools, but are we really improving the system for all children? Are we making sure that all of our neighborhood schools have the resources they need? I’d argue no.

The charter school fight has been raging in Nashville for the last 5 years. It’s been fought passionately on both sides, and the conversation, to the credit of some dedicated advocates, has changed dramatically over the years. Like the rest of the country, Nashville once welcomed charter school expansion with open arms, it now voices a desire to keep them at arm’s length and instead support our traditional schools. It’s a transformation that I support; however, I question whether we’ve focused enough on improving our existing schools. Can we look parents in the eye and tell them that public schools are the best option and that there isn’t a need for alternatives? I’ve got my doubts.

I point to the war on drugs to further illustrate my point. Over the years we’ve sunk billions of dollars into combating illegal drug use. But we’ve focused almost exclusively on the supply end of things while ignoring the demand. We spend less and less on mental health issues. Poverty levels continue to grow. We celebrate financial success while the wage gap continues to grow. Yet we wonder why the drug trade still thrives. We are doing the same thing with our schools, expending 10 times the energy fighting the supply while all but ignoring the demand.

We all seem to be willing to work harder when there is a boogeyman to face. Charter schools make for a convenient boogeyman in the same way that the cartels do for the war on drugs – now before everybody loses their mind, know that I am not equating charter schools to drug cartels in any way but in their use as scapegoats. There wouldn’t be cartels in the illegal drug trade if there were no demand, and the same goes for charter schools in that there wouldn’t be charter schools if the demand wasn’t there. I do have to ask, though, what if the boogeyman is really us and our inability to provide equitable educational opportunities for all children? Case in point: have we expended as much energy in improving our schools as we have in fighting against their takeovers? Can we look at parents who are considering sending their children to a charter school and honestly say we’ve done everything to make the public option better? It is time to get beyond this single hot-button issue and focus on the inequities that exist in our schools.

We seem to focus so much on whether a person is on Team Privateer or on Team Status Quo that we lose sight of what’s actually happening. Charter school supporters are quick to defend their own against any charges of impropriety. And traditional school supporters quickly jump on any whiff of impropriety in charter schools while ignoring things that may be going wrong in their own schools.

Take Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), for example. We recently hired a brand new director of schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph, from Prince George’s County in Maryland, at a salary of $285k per year. A significant raise from the previous director’s salary. We all clapped ourselves on the back because he didn’t seem to be a reformer. But everything is not that simple. I recently put in a FOIA request for what has been spent since Dr. Joseph came to Nashville, and I found some pretty appalling things happening. Maybe the public and the school board have been too busy with other things to notice. But we ought to be asking questions, even if it’s unpleasant. Just because someone does some things that are okay, it doesn’t mean everything is okay.

Once Joseph began his tenure here, he proceeded to hire 4 “Chiefs,” 3 from out of state, at an annual salary of $185k each along with the use of a car. In order to attract a few other desirable hires, the pay schedule for Executive Officers was raised to $155k and there are 8 at that designation. If I’m reading the previous salary schedule correctly, EO’s should max out at $110k per year. To put things in context, the previous Number 2 person in the district, responsible for creating an academy model that has won national accolades, earned only $154k a year until he left the district in April. Just 5 months later and there are now 12 people making over that amount. Perhaps the district pay schedule was way out of line, but that is a significant difference, and if so, I’m not sure that it’s one that should be rectified in one year. Especially when teachers have been asked to be patient for so long.

 

Here is a chart of current salaries for the new Chiefs (the 4th Chief began her job after my FOIA request) and the Executive Officers, all of whom are making significantly more than their predecessors:

 

CHIEF – ACADEMIC OFFICER 7/1/16 185,000.00
CHIEF – FINANCIAL OFFICER 7/1/02 185,000.00
CHIEF – SCHOOLS 7/1/16 185,000.00
EXEC OFCR – SUPPORT SERVICES 8/26/92 159,120.00
EXEC DIR – TALENT STRATEGY 1/22/13 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – CHARTER SCHOOLS 7/1/16 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – EQUITY & DIVERSITY 7/1/16 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – HS 7/21/04 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – LEADERSHIP DEVELOP 6/1/10 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – MS 8/9/99 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – PRE-K & ES 7/15/13 155,000.00
EXEC OFCR – PRIORITY SCHOOLS 7/1/16 155,000.00

Each of the chiefs are also supplied an automobile. In this case, a Chevy Tahoe. A vehicle with a price tag similar to the salary of an MNPS teacher with 7 years of experience and a Master’s degree. District officials, when questioned, claimed that these vehicles were previously used by other administrators in the past. Which would beg the question of who was using them because the previous director drove a Ford Edge and his Number 2 used his own car except on rare occasion. It is also extremely fortuitous that we had 5 Tahoes already in the fleet given that the “Chief” positions are all new positions. I’d say this opens a lot of questions about our fleet management. It appears as though some of these Chiefs may have returned their Tahoes to the fleet. If true I have to ask, why did they wait until people raised a fuss?

In contrast, when recently elected Nashville Mayor Megan Barry took office, she was told that it was tradition to supply the new mayor with a new vehicle of their choice. Mayor Barry politely declined a new car. The vehicle of her predecessor would be sufficient for her. I’ve written about how teachers didn’t get into education for the money. Administration shouldn’t be the pathway to work in education and get wealthy. Much is written about the salary gap between workers and CEO’s. In this case you are looking at salaries nearly 4 times the salary of average teacher and the director almost 6 times as much. I thought the teacher was the single most important in school factor in a child’s education. These numbers don’t represent that.

Much has been written about the outside money that tried to buy this year’s school board race. In fact, last week the Election Commission announced that there was enough evidence to warrant an investigation into Stand For Children and the candidates they supported in the election. Dr. Joseph’s response was to hire Jana Carlisle as the new Chief of Staff. She is from New York City and knows virtually nothing about Metro Schools. She worked to enact the charter school laws that were recently ruled unconstitutional in Washington by utilizing a flood of outside money – the very same tactics that were employed in Nashville. Despite voters and parents clearly saying they were against the policies that organizations like Stand for Children support, Dr. Joseph ignored those voices and offered Carlisle $185k per year, a car, and money to relocate from NYC to Nashville. Dr. Joseph argues that she is extremely smart. I’d argue that there are a lot of smart people in Nashville who don’t have ties to dark money.

Now I ask: what’s the difference between a charter school’s board of directors that ignores the community and a Director of Schools who does the same? We argue often about the manner that charter schools lock out the voices of those who they serve. How many times have we heard it argued that with an elected board, a parent who has concerns has a venue to voice those concerns? But if a community makes its opinion known and a school board director chooses to ignore it, what’s the difference? I don’t know that there is a bigger expression of a community’s voice than the results of an election. So if nobody’s listening to our voices, we’ve got a problem.

Dr. Joseph recently spent $200k on a StrengthsFinder training program for approximately 60 administrators who work in central office. StrengthFinders is a respected program, but I question its current value in light of the fact that the last MNPS budget saw English Learner programs and Literacy programs funded at a less than requested amount. Are we to ignore this large sum of money being spent – money that wasn’t budgeted for this reason – on leadership training while other more pressing issues like EL and literacy programs are underfunded simply because our new Director doesn’t support charter schools? Are we blindly giving him a pass here?

Last week, the new school boardroom makeover was unveiled. Leadership offices have also been remodeled. Meanwhile, my children’s elementary school does not have a playground and backs up to a construction site for the new school, which is scheduled to open next year.  Here’s what it looks like right now. Sure glad that board room got remodeled.img_0962img_0961After I’ve raised a considerable fuss, district leaders have promised to look into the situation and see what can be done. But we are already well into this school year, and why is meeting the basic needs of children contingent on me jumping up and down and hollering? Shouldn’t I be able to send my children to a public school secure in the knowledge that their basic needs are being met?

Somehow, the fact that next year the kids will be getting a new school justifies them not having a playground this year. Initially, when I complained about boardroom renovation, I was told that the chairs in the old boardroom were uncomfortable and that people cringed whenever somebody tried to use the audio system. So those concerns get addressed, while 800-plus children, 97% of whom live in poverty and 71% of whom are English learners, attend a school with 23 portables that are inadequate by any measure and are packed in tight next to the construction site of their future school. Currently they have no playground. This is an unsafe situation, with many kids having nowhere to go during recess times. For many of these children, we have essentially taken them out of one refugee camp and dropped them into another. I love my kids’ school, but this shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone.

I’ve also got to ask, in this shuffling around of money, obviously all these items were not included in the current approved budget, what is being sacrificed? I’m told nothing in classrooms. Maybe not, but I find it hard to believe none of it has come from programs that directly affect children. For example, all the elementary coaches and principals attended work sessions in which they were instructed in literacy instruction with methods that many believe run counter to Reading Recovery, which is what the district currently uses and what they specifically presented to Metro Council when asking for additional funding last year. This comes on the heels of money already having been cut from Reading Recovery and designated teachers being reassigned. There is something that doesn’t seem quite ethical about this. It all makes one nervous. In other words, if these new programs, perks, and positions were truly in the budget, then damn! We’ve got money to spend on some extravagances! But I think this is not the case. We’ve got real needs to attend to. But no one is attending to them. Seems like we are focusing more on the comfort of adults new to MNPS than the children of MNPS.

Right now some of you might be saying, “Damn Dad! You sound like those people promoting charters. What’s up?” Don’t get confused. I am as anti-charter school as anybody you will meet and will continue to fight their expansion, but I will not argue for the eradication of charter schools only to force children into schools that are grossly inadequate. I will not focus on the fight against charter schools while ignoring the fact that the amount of time spent on testing is growing. And mark my words – right now, Nashville, the amount of testing is going to grow even more; in fact they’ve already added an assessment that benchmarks nationally despite parents overwhelmingly saying there is too much testing. I will not write blog posts about the horrors of charter schools while teachers are afraid to teach because we haven’t fully fleshed out our discipline policies to both support the at-risk child and ensure safety for everyone else. I still believe that charter schools create an environment where some are rescued while others are left further behind. I’ll never support taking the education of our children out of a community’s hands and placing it in the hands of private entities or one that further segregates our society.

Here’s the truly maddening thing. The level of instruction at my children’s school – and across the district, for that matter – is top notch. I am amazed at the ability these teachers and administrators have to show up daily and overcome the obstacles put in front of them. The word heroic gets tossed around a whole lot these days, but as someone with a front row seat, I can attest they earn that praise everyday. All across the district, every day, I see and meet dedicated professionals doing heroic work despite making one-fifth of the salary of a Chief and not having a Tahoe provided to them to get to work each day. We don’t need to invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to outside consultants or on new cars or office furniture without ever observing a large number of these teachers in action. Observe them, talk to them, then invest in the things that matter most to our children, based on what you see in our district, not the one you were previously in.

The true shame of all this is that the average parent has no way of recognizing the effort our teachers and school-level administrators are putting forth. They see the inadequate facilities, the low test scores, the unsafe conditions, and the underfunded mandates, and they rightfully question whether district schools can adequately meet the needs of their children. I would charge that we are fighting against charters while pursuing policies that drive parents into pursuing those very options. That’s something I’m not comfortable with. We should apply the same level of diligence to ourselves as we do to charter school operators. One of the reasons I get so incensed by charter school operators is their propensity to drive Tahoes, make exorbitant salaries, and have their administrators work out of pristine surroundings while children are under resourced and toiling in inadequate facilities. So why should that be tolerated from public school officials?

When I raise these concerns to district officials, I do get some acknowledgement that, yes, I’m right, the optics are bad. Let me be clear here – it’s not the optics that are bad, it’s the practices. If we want to stop the privatization of our public schools, then our administrators need to not act like corporate CEO’s at the trough. I spent an entire summer helping to fight off the attempt by private entities to buy a school board election. And through hard work, we won. But what did we win? The right for public officials to conduct themselves as employees of a private corporation rather than caretakers of a public trust? I’m using Nashville as an example here, but I don’t doubt that parents in other districts could present similar examples.

It is vital that as we fight off corporate attacks on our public schools that we are not just focusing on the supply, but have an equally diligent focus on the demand. We need to make sure that we are not falling into the trap of rewarding perks to adults while children are asked to make sacrifices. We need to ensure that we are applying every possible resource to directly impact the educational opportunities for our children. We need to demand that ALL of our public schools are better then charter schools. We need to shift the focus from just MY child back to OUR children. Because if not, then I see absolutely no reason whatsoever to continue to fight against the proliferation of charter schools while we are ignoring the needs of our children. As Nietzsche said, “He who fights with monsters should be careful lest he thereby become a monster. And if thou gaze long into an abyss, the abyss will also gaze into thee.” Words to heed.

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Teachers Need Time

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teachersBack in the early aughts, I ran a local rock and roll club that had air conditioning problems. My entire summer was spent listening to people tell me that a) it was hot in the club, and b) their diagnoses of what I needed to do about it. Needless to say, I quickly grew tired of the conversation about air conditioning because a) I knew what the solution was: buy a new system that actually met the needs of the space, and b) for whatever reason, the owner was unwilling to invest in the solution, and therefore, all we were talking about was band aids instead of solutions. The recent discussions I’ve seen on the teacher shortage feel eerily similar to me.

Over the last several months, there have been several articles written on the current shortage of teachers, why they leave the profession, and how best to recruit and retain more teachers. A lot of smart people are putting their heads together and trying to figure out solutions. Most of the solutions, though, are based on money and creating more pathways for teacher leaders. In my humble opinion, both these ideas miss the point and actually contribute to what I see as greater societal problem, the devaluing of service professions.

Now before we go any further, let me invoke my standard disclaimer. I am not a teacher, nor do I play one on TV. Furthermore, I would never attempt to speak for teachers either. All I can do is relay the conversations I’ve been privy to with teachers and encourage policy makers to actually talk to teachers more. That doesn’t mean just holding another forum where you invite a bunch of teachers and then either get them to agree with your suppositions or pretend to listen while proceeding down a different track. It means really listening and not trying to counter their views with results from a survey that anybody paying half attention to can figure out is not an accurate reflection of what’s really happening. Because if they were accurate, why are we even having this conversation? That said, let’s proceed.

In every conversation I’ve ever had with teachers, either directly or indirectly, the biggest complaint has never been about money, lack of professional development, or lack of leadership roles. It has been overwhelmingly about time. Loss of instructional time. Loss of planning time. Loss of personal time. The ever increasing demand on their time. Virtually every negative conversation has been rooted in the lack of time and how it’s causing teachers to not be able to be as effective as they would like and that they just don’t know how they’ll be able to keep up.

I am not dismissing the importance of money. Lord knows salaries are entirely too low. But if you talk to teachers, how many were inspired to teach by the lure of financial gain? Overwhelmingly, the teachers I’ve come in contact with over the years entered the profession due to a strong desire to work with children. Most did not expect to make a lot of money, but the chance to work with children and make an impact on future generations was so overwhelming that they were willing to overlook the financial drawbacks in order to serve a societal need.

Let’s be honest, the service professions – teachers, police officers, nurses, fire fighters, first responders, etc. – will never be paid as much as they should be. It’s an age old argument. I can remember growing up and reading articles about the salaries of sports stars versus teachers. Someone once explained to me that the only way to make real money was to sell something. If you generate more revenue, you will receive more income. Life has borne that out for me. So the best those in the service profession can expect is some small raises here and there and maybe a few small bonuses. Raises that we will trumpet with huge fanfare, but in reality put less than $100 a paycheck extra in their pocket. If you’ve got a family, you know how quickly that money disappears. This is despite the essential roles these service professions play in society. I shudder to think what life would be like without those willing to make the sacrifice.

It used to be that we respected that sacrifice and allowed teachers to really utilize their skills. We trusted them to do what’s best for educating children. In recent years, though, we’ve been bitten by the accountability bug. Not only are we going to ask for teachers to sacrifice, but we are going to demand that they account for it. We are going to make sure that we do everything possible to find who the bad teachers and get rid of them. Completely ignoring that teaching is not just a science but an art form.

Think about it like this: I’m going to give you a dollar a day to perform a task for me. The task is something you love doing, it comes naturally for you, and so you easily accomplish it every day.

Then one day I decide that I need to make sure you are actually doing the job, and so I ask you to fill out a few forms every day. You are fine with that because I am paying you, they don’t take too long, and you are still able to focus on the task. As the weeks go by, I keep adding forms for you to fill out and you keep completing them, but it is now leaving you less and less time to get the task done. Because of all the forms that I now require, your performance begins to slip and there are some parts of the job you just aren’t able to complete. You bring this to my attention, but I just brush it off, saying, “These forms are extremely important. Perhaps you are not managing your time properly. I need you to fill out these forms so I can determine if you are utilizing your time properly.”

Well, your performance continues to slide, so I decide that it is important to give you more training. Unfortunately that training comes during the time you are supposed to be performing the task I was paying you for. So you are either going to have to shortchange the job or come back later in the day when you are usually doing other things to complete it. You really like doing this job I was paying you for, so you make sacrifices to get it done. But you start to wonder is $1 a day really enough? With all the paperwork and training I’ve added, you are left with little time to do anything else. That’s when I decide to give you a nickel raise. Yep, a five percent increase.

At the same time, I realize I could get some high school students to do the job at 90 cents a day. I give them a little training, but you are such a wealth of knowledge that I am going to rely on you to take a leadership role and train them up. Asking you to assume a leadership role should be considered a sign of respect, even though it means you are spending less time doing the job you really love and that I originally asked you to do. Soon you are spending all your time on training these high school kids, going to training classes yourself, and of course, filling out forms about all of these things. In addition, there are tools you need to get the task done that I was not providing. You find yourself more and more investing your own money to secure those tools to complete the task.

Thus, a situation was created where you weren’t doing what you love to do, all your time was taken up doing things to prove you are completing the task, you were having to invest your own money on needed tools to the complete the task, and the pay wasn’t sufficient. You had friends of similar experience who were making $1.35 a day and were not nearly as stressed as you. You’re just not sure if you should continue in this line of work, even though you really do love completing the original task.

And that’s what we’ve been doing to our teachers.

Furthermore, we’ve shifted the conversation away from the true motivation of why people enter the profession to being one about money. In my opinion, this also changes the talent pool from which you are recruiting. You are not pulling from a group of applicants who feel the need to serve, but rather from one that sees money as being the prime motivation. Teach for America has already instilled a model where a young person can make some money now, but then utilize their experience into a higher paying future position. By changing the talent pool, we are leaving behind those who want to serve children and instead focusing on attracting those looking for financial gain. Doing so does not bode well for the future. We say it is all about the children, yet we continue to pursue policy that puts them secondary.

Lately there has been a push to develop more leadership roles in the classroom for teachers and that is a good thing to a certain extent, but we need to make sure that we are not downplaying the role of teacher who just wants to spend their career teaching. A number of years ago, my wife, a school teacher, took a leadership position in part because she felt the pressure of needing to do more. Two years ago, she returned to the classroom, and I can honestly say that she is 100% happier and a lot more impactful than she was in that leadership role. She maintains a team leadership role now,  but it is one that allows her to work with children daily and doesn’t take take her out of the classroom. I’m not downplaying the need for those who assume leadership roles; I’m just saying that for many, the desire is to work with children everyday. That desire should not be negated, but rather fortified.

Like the previously referred to air conditioning problem, I think the solution to retaining teachers is pretty clear but will require some investment. First of all, let’s let teachers be teachers. Talk to them and find out exactly what it is that is eating up instructional time, planning time, and collaboration time. If we can hire support staff to assume some of those duties, then we need to do so. If testing is eating up too much instructional time, then we need to adjust. Instead of simply demanding that teachers be mentors, we need to provide them time to actually mentor. We need to respect teachers and understand that most have already undergone extensive training to prepare for their jobs. Training should be easily applicable. More training with less time to implement is useless. We need to trust our teachers to do their jobs, and we need to give them the time needed to be effective.

In Tennessee in 2011, legislators removed teachers’ rights to collective bargaining and replaced it with collaborative conferencing. Since that time, Nashville teachers have worked without a contract. That translates to a lack of access to an updated employee handbook, minimum hours set but not maximum, and virtually no say in work place conditions. Currently, the Metro Nashville Education Association is soliciting signatures of teachers for the right to represent them and call for a collaborative conference to address these issues. This is an important step in the right direction, but still distressing in a lot of ways. Teachers should be consulted; they shouldn’t have to demand to be heard.

In closing, I’m certainly not going to downplay the need for salary increases. Money is important. But as a recent article in the Atlantic stated, “Just paying teachers more won’t stop them from quitting.” We need to do more. Satisfied teachers should be the number one tool for recruiting and retaining teachers. Giving teachers the time and respect they deserve as professionals would be a step in the right direction.

 

A Conversation With Nashville School Board Member Jill Speering

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jill sThis week, I sat down with Nashville School Board member Jill Speering. We met at the Sip Cafe to talk. Jill is a retired teacher who is a fierce advocate for literacy. Four years ago, her first election win came in a very close race. There is a certain gentleness that comes across when you talk to Jill that opponents often underestimate. Sometimes Jill uses this to her advantage. Opponents should not be lulled into thinking her a pushover. She will fight as hard as anybody for what she believes in, even if that means taking an unpopular position. People were worried that her reelection campaign would be close. They shouldn’t have. She won securing 58% of the vote in the process.

Here’s our conversation:

Dad Gone Wild: I’ve just sat down here at the Sip Cafe with Jill Speering, who recently won a second term as a school board member. Congratulations, Jill.

Jill Speering: Thank you.

DGW: This is a comfortable place here. First time I’ve been here. I understand Sip Cafe was actually a kind of campaign headquarters for you.

JS: Right, it was. Sip Café is located at the heart of Inglewood. It’s a place where you instantly connect with community. You come in and you see photos, you see neighbors, many of whom are people interested in the school system. It was a great place for us to use as our campaign headquarters.

DGW: In our conversations, community has always been a big thing to you. You feel very strongly about the concept of community, and the building and maintaining of a community, and the role schools play in that community.

JS: Yes, absolutely yes. During my last term, I had a chance to go to Pond Gap Community School, and what I loved about that (visit) was the way the school was open for the community after school (hours). They were able to bring in the parents, and by knowing what the parents needed, they really had a finger on the pulse of what was going on in that community. They had a wonderful community garden, and when the parents came to volunteer, they were allowed to go back to the community garden and pick a bushel of vegetables to take home. They thought parents weren’t coming out to school functions because they needed to do domestic chores during that time, to do the washing and drying and such. So the school, along with the community, bought washers and dryers. This meant the parents could come in, drop off their laundry, get that going, and then attend a class on parenting skills or how to complete your income tax or how to purchase a home – the various needs that the community demonstrated they wanted. And it changed the community, it changed the school, and now there’s a waiting list for students to get into that school.

DGW: That’s pretty incredible. Let’s back track a minute here. You’re one of the few board members who is actually a former teacher. You taught for how many years?

JS: 35.

DGW: Impressive. All here in Nashville?

JS: No, 10 of those were in Sumner County, and actually a couple of those were in Albuquerque. My husband was in the military, so I taught a little bit in New Mexico, also a little bit in Georgia, but when I came back to Tennessee, I started in Sumner County and then I was able to get into Nashville schools.

DGW: That’s quite a few years. I’m always curious about where people find their callings. At what age did you realize you wanted to be a teacher, and how did you end up in that profession?

JS: (laughs) In teaching? This is a long story. Well, I grew up in a dysfunctional family and my father was military, retired military, and you know he liked to bark orders at us and thought that children were to be seen and not heard. It was that kind of home environment. But I had a wonderful loving mother. When I was in fifth grade, I had a teacher who I absolutely hated, and she hated me. It was a miserable year for me and I had this mess going on with my father at home, and then I would arrive at school and I would throw up as soon as I got out of the car, just thinking about having to go into that school and spend the day with that teacher. I hated school. It wasn’t that way when I first started school. In first grade I couldn’t wait to get to school. So what happened between 1st grade (we didn’t have kindergarten in those days) and 5th grade that made me hate school? So my father was kind enough to put me in a different school the next year and when that happened, I went to a Catholic school. It was a very small school, and the teachers thought I was smart and they were kind to me. They made me feel welcome, and I fell in love with school again. So it was then that I decided I wanted to be a teacher because I didn’t want any child ever to live with what I lived through in school.

DGW: It’s amazing how different teachers can impact us. In 11th grade, I had a teacher who everybody thought was the worst teacher in the world. He was extremely strict, wore a bad toupee, spoke with a fake English accent, was sarcastic, and I actually loved him. I learned more from him than any other teacher, and his lessons still resonate with me. So it’s really interesting to me how a teacher can make such an impact on somebody’s life. Both bad and good. So after you retired as a teacher, what made you decide to run for school board 4 years ago?

JS: Well, a community representative came to me and said she was aware Mark North was not going to seek reelection, and a group of Madison residents were trying to think who might be a good school board representative. My name came up and so they called me and asked if I would consider running for school board. I really didn’t know what that would entail, but as I pondered it, I thought, well, I could make a difference in reading for children.  My experience with board members was they wanted to talk with teachers but then would easily dismiss any advice given. For example, I suggested that we needed a common definition of reading so that we could pick and choose the programs that work with what we believe reading is, and a board member said, “that will never happen.” But my first year being on the board, that’s exactly what did happen. In looking back on things, that’s what made me decide, Yes!  I want to run.  I can make a difference in the lives of kids!

DGW: I never knew that.

JS: During my first year on the board, Dr. Register invited me to work with a committee called the comprehensive literacy committee. At one point there were about 30 people on that committee, and we had a robust discussion of the definition of reading and over time, wrote a definition that we could all agree on– One we could all embrace.  When the Commissioner of Education, Candice McQueen, took office. that was the first thing she did. She appointed a reading commission and she charged them to define reading. She called them together from all different parts of the state and they debated what reading is and they came up with a definition of reading that the state of Tennessee now uses.

DGW: That’s amazing. The simplest thing like that is often the most overlooked. In doing a lot of this research, I find it amazing that often we don’t define our terms, the biggest lack of definition still being, what’s the purpose of education?

JS: Yes, yes.

DGW: And I don’t understand sometimes how you can figure out where you’re going if you don’t even know the definition of what you’re looking for?

JS: Yes, absolutely yes.

DGW: Unfortunately, we don’t have time here to define the purpose of education, but let’s go back. You decided to run. You won by a narrow margin. So when you came on the board, what did you think that you would be spending most of your time doing?

JS: One of my fears before I came on the board was that the board talks about a lot of issues, not just reading, and could I really get passionate about all those issues? It surprised me how easy it was to become passionate about everything on the agenda. It all caught my passion. I thought I would be busy, but I had no idea how busy I would be because I wanted to hear what teachers thought. I wanted to hear what principals thought. I sought out those opportunities to hear from them, not only on Facebook and social media, but also lunches and other functions. I think the biggest thing was how time consuming it became because I was so passionate about education. I wanted to just study the issues and talk with people.

DGW: It’s refreshing to hear that because I always say we don’t talk to teachers nearly enough. I call it running a restaurant without talking to servers.

JS: Yeah, good analogy.

DGW: We never sit down and let them tell us what’s actually happening in classrooms and what they are facing on a daily basis.

JS: Yes, and teachers feel so isolated. They’re in that classroom trying to teach students by themselves. It’s different for high school teachers from what I understand, but elementary school teachers, they don’t even have time go to the bathroom.

DGW: As a spouse of an elementary school teacher who taught middle school for 8 years, yes it’s a completely different world. One of the things that I’m struck by is that there is a lot of conversation lately about retaining and recruiting teachers, and we talk about money and everything, like leadership pathways, but the one common refrain that I repeatedly hear from teachers is that they’re lacking time. They just don’t have instructional time. They don’t have prep time. Is that congruent with your experience and what you hear?

JS: Absolutely, and they don’t have time to talk to each other. Again, I’m thinking about the elementary level because that’s where my level of experience and expertise is. I would love to see a way, and many schools have been able to do this, where they dismiss school early on Wednesday afternoon and schedule professional development with the teachers. Teachers get an opportunity to share. We don’t provide opportunities for teachers to talk with one another. When teachers do get a chance to talk, it’s like 10 minutes at lunch. Teachers need time! This time is an absolutely vital issue that we have to figure out. One thing we have discussed in the past in our teaching and learning committee meetings that I have chaired over the last three years, is  the issue of time. If we had five days that we could add to the school calendar, paid days, and use those five days for professional development at the school level, giving teachers an opportunity to learn from each other , it would be extremely beneficial. Another thing we’re doing that is exciting to me, is a program we’ve started called the literacy partnership. We have schools that go through this training through Lipscomb University, and it’s taught mostly by Metro teachers, and it allows for the creation of a model classroom in the building. Then teachers who want to learn how to do a better job at balanced reading or writing or any literacy component, can go to their model classroom and watch that outstanding teacher. Then that teacher can go back to her classroom and try the particular strategy and get feedback from the lead teacher. So that is a way to not only make professional development meaningful for teachers but also a way for teachers to have an opportunity to talk with each other. And again, we need opportunities to talk and sort through ideas, to read and discuss research, and then relate the research to our daily classroom practice.  That’s what we can do through some of our professional development.

DGW: One of the things that Finland does that is worth of emulating is how they emphasize continuity. Teachers are often involved with a kid all the way through their school years. So they can say, well, in first grade he was like this, and the third grade teacher understands maybe how they got there and would have a better understanding of what the child responds to. I think we, by constantly churning teachers, are losing some of that. Losing potentially valuable institutional knowledge.

JS: Yes, and I’ve noticed that when I talk to parents.  They want to see consistency in the teaching staff. They want to see a consistent principal, and they want our continuity with our teachers. I was in a meeting the other day, and parents were bemoaning how many teachers had transferred from one of my middle schools.

DGW: As a parent, you want to form a partnership. I have been very blessed; both of my kids have had the same kindergarten and now the same first grade teacher, so I don’t have to even look over anybody’s shoulder. When I drop them off for school, there are no worries. There’s a comfort level and developed trust level. That would not be possible with heavy turnover, and that’s a serious drawback.

JS: It is, it is, and I hope that that’s going to change.

DGW: It would be nice. My kids go to a high-needs school, so it doesn’t have to be a luxury for just our wealthier schools. Now let’s talk about your decision to run again for the board. Was that an easy decision, hard decision? What kind of conversation was that?

JS: Well, I had decided that I was not going to run again. And then the closer it got to the end of last year, maybe at Christmas time, I started thinking, oh, I’m not finished. There’s more to do. If I just had four more years, how far could we take our literacy initiative? Our comprehensive literacy initiative was only in 20 schools last year, so I thought if we’ve accomplished this much in four years, what could we accomplish in another four?  And just think…I was just getting my feet wet my first year on the board. The first year I was learning what a board member does, and now that I’ve gotten pretty solid in board working relationships, what could I accomplish with four more years with my love of literacy? That was the big turning point for me. By Christmas, I had decided I was definitely going to run.

DGW: It’s interesting, too, because people were worried a little bit about you because your first election was so close, and there was a lot of money spent against you, so they worried whether you’d be able to get reelected. It turned out that they shouldn’t have been worried because you ended winning 58 percent of the vote. That’s a pretty big margin.

JS: (smiling) Yes, yes.

DGW: It’s pretty amazing. What do you attribute that to?

JS: I think I have a reputation of being accessible to the parents. They see me in meetings. They see me at schools. They see me at PTO meetings, and they see me with the principals. When we made the principal announcements, I was right there. I think parents and teachers know that I am accessible and knowledgeable about education. I really believe that’s what did it for me.

DGW: I agree with that. I also think you outworked your opponent. I remember driving down this road and seeing nothing but your campaign signs, and thinking yeah, she’s out there, working it. So you’ve got four more years. I’m assuming literacy is going to be a primary goal, but what else?

JS: I would love to see more community schools. I’d like to see community schools advanced, especially in Madison. Inglewood is doing pretty well. Goodlettsville is doing pretty well. Madison is really having issues because of the high poverty, and I think we could do some tremendous things with our community schools. As the chair of the teaching and learning committee, I’m working on two field trips for November. One is to go to Pond Gap Elementary School and look at their community school model, and see what we can bring back. I’d like to learn as much as possible and not just have me see it. Monique Felder, Chief Academic Officer at Metro Nashville Public Schools, is going to go with me, and we’re going to take some administrators and some teachers, so that’s exciting,

DGW: Very exciting.

JS: The second field trip we have is to go to Atlanta, Georgia, to see the Ron Clark Academy.

DGW: I am not familiar with that.

JS: Ron Clark was the national Teacher of the Year many years ago and he was on Oprah’s TV show, and then he wrote a book. As a matter of fact, he’s written several books, and I have read all of these books. Then there was a story written about his life, and it was made into a movie. Now he has a school in Atlanta where teachers come to observe and learn in a model classroom environment. Children from diverse backgrounds attend and their tuition is paid through educators paying to observe and learn at the Ron Clark Academy. Pretty phenomenal.

DGW: Oh very cool, wow.

JS: And I saw him speak a few years ago in person, and it was so powerful. He exemplifies what I think we need in education, which is joy in learning.

DGW: That’s the biggest thing to me. I think it is a mistake when we focus everything on the data for data’s sake. I’ve told my kids’ teachers that I don’t care about levels; levels will work themselves out. What I care is that they fall in love with learning because if they fall in love with learning, everything else will fall into place.

JS: The sky becomes the limit.

DGW: Well, the last thing I want to say is that in listening to you describe going on these field trips and your passion for literacy, I have to chuckle, because in this last election, you were labeled as somebody who just wanted to support the status quo. It doesn’t sound like that is accurate at all. It sounds like there’s change going on constantly.

JS: Yes, absolutely yes. I think in the last election there was a lot of misrepresentation from my opponent about who I am and what I support.  At one point, my opponent apologized for the negativity generated through her campaign. She said she really didn’t support that. I appreciated her apology, but there was a lot of misinformation. That was unfortunate, but obviously it didn’t work.

DGW: No, you won and now you have four more years.  Thank you for your time Jill.

JS: Yes we do. And thank you.

A Real Partnership For Learning

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partnerOne thing I’ve learned over my years as an public education advocate is that being an advocate is a lot like that Charlie Brown cartoon with Lucy and the football. Every time you win one and think this is the one that’s going to make a difference, the football gets pulled away and you end up once again flat on your back wondering what the hell just happened. That’s why, while I have enjoyed the aftermath of the recent Nashville school board election results, I’ve kept one eye cocked, waiting for the other shoe to fall. This week it fell.

Nashville recently got a brand new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. Dr. Joseph comes to us from Prince George’s County in Maryland and most of his leadership cabinet choices reflect that. This week, he rounded out his cabinet with the selection of Jana Carlisle as his Chief of Staff, and that is the other shoe.

If you go to Carlisle’s LinkedIn page today, you won’t find the information I’m concerned about. Because it has been scrubbed. Here’s what it looks like now:

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But take a look at the accomplishments that were listed there earlier in the week:

 

linCarlisle apparently doesn’t want us to know anymore that she wrote the grant for Washington’s first charter school. Nor is she looking to publicize that she co-led Washington’s Coalition for Public Charter Schools’ efforts to secure I-1240 as Washington’s first charter school law. If you are not familiar with I-1240, it was the law that allowed charter schools into Washington despite three previous failed attempts to pass similar measures. It was later ruled unconstitutional and overturned. However, the judge that ruled the law unconstitutional, Barbara Madsen, is currently embroiled in a fierce reelection campaign with the usual suspects pouring in money.

If you watched Nashville’s school board races this summer, the campaign to enact I-1240 was run in an eerily similar way. Lots of big money. The Yes group, of which Carlisle was a leader, raised $10.8 million in just under 5 months. This is in stark contrast to the No group, which in 4 months raised just over $15 thousand. The Yes group utilized paid signature gathers to amass the needed signatures. Carlisle wasn’t just a participant in this campaign either; she was front and center as a recognized leader. After the election, Carlisle, as head of Partnership for Learning, stood shoulder-to-shoulder with her partners Shannon Campion of Stand for Children and Lisa Macfarlane of Democrats for Education Reform and took a victory lap. She also testified about what needed to be done to ensure reform happened the way she thought it should in Washington. Here’s part of her testimony to the State Board:

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This was, quite honestly, a pretty big deal for her. I don’t know why she wouldn’t want to list it on her LinkedIn page. After all, if I’d changed state law and manager a 10.81 million dollar budget I’d put it front and center.

Now here I am, on my back looking at the sky, as the football has been pulled out from me once again, and I’m thinking, what the hell? Through a summer of hard work, Nashville managed to deny Stand For Children a school board seat, despite their best efforts to purchase several of them. It was a victory that reverberated nationally. And yet, the new Director of Schools opens the back door and lets the failed usurpers come right in. The Chief of Staff job is all about access and who gets it to the Director of Schools. It’s human nature to want to work with people you’ve been successful with in the past. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume that those folks would get the most access. But if your peers are the very same people who tried to corrupt the system, well, that becomes a problem.

What further baffles me and is almost equally distressing is this: why would Jana Carlisle even want this job? She has an extremely impressive resume and is currently working as the Chief Strategy Officer at NYC Leadership Academy, though she’s only been there since 2015. Why would you sacrifice that and come to Nashville and work as Chief of Staff for a superintendent in his very first gig with a large school district? I love Nashville as much as anybody and more than most, but it ain’t NYC. She has continually pursued a career path that allows her to serve the most children in need possible, so why, at this juncture in her career, would she narrow that focus?

But if you look closer at Dr. Joseph’s leadership cabinet, you realize there is nobody – save one – with local ties, and that one is the man who has controlled the money for the last several years, so of course he gets a seat. But the rest are all from the East Coast. The more I look at it, the more it looks like Nick Saban at Michigan State, weighing his options before choosing the ultimately more lucrative coaching gig down at LSU. There, Saban spent some time getting his staff together so he was ready when the Alabama job opened up. True, he spent a little time in Miami before Alabama – this isn’t a perfect analogy – but he ended up being known as the highest paid and one of the most winning college coaches of all time. The point is, he used Michigan State to gather his coaching cabinet and set himself up for the job with the real payoff.

Now I don’t want to assign ulterior motives to anybody, especially not someone who I want to succeed as much as I want Dr. Joseph to succeed; however, there is a concern here. In my opinion, for whatever it’s worth, having an entire team that is more loyal to Dr. Joseph than they are to Nashville presents a problem. If Dr. Joseph were to leave, or God forbid, something unforeseen were to happen, what would Metro Nashville Publics Schools be left with?

There has been an increased focus on succession plans in the business world over the last several years. I don’t believe that it is ever to early in a leader’s tenure to start thinking about succession or to be vigilant about potential gaps. And as it currently stands, having only one representative left from the previous regime would leave Nashville’s schools in a very precarious position should Joseph and company, for whatever reason, move on. It’s one lesson we should have learned from Dr. Mike Looney turning down the job last year, which is that things change, and the interests of MNPS should always be at the forefront.

To keep the football references going, I’ve been a Denver Broncos fan since 1969. There was a lot of losing in those early years, but I stuck with them through thick and thin. I was extremely excited about John Elway when he joined the team. For many people, Elway soon became the focus and face of the Broncos, but for me it was always about the Broncos first and then individual players second. I cheered Elway on because if he did well, then the team did well. But for me, the focus should always be on the team. Elway did great things, but he didn’t win a Super Bowl until the team had a strong running game and a dominant defense. It’s the same with MNPS. I am first and foremost an MNPS fan. Dr. Joseph has the potential to do great things for Nashville, but at the end of the day, it’s going to take the whole team to push the ball across the end zone.

In order to have continuity and a strong succession plan it is important to not just look for new talent but also utilize existing talent. This requires a great deal of team building. Team building and, by default, leadership have always been of interest to me. At the root of the successful execution of both is communication. Communication is a funny thing because it transpires on many levels. There is the message that you deliver directly that people receive and evaluate. When you are a new leader and building a team, people will usually receive that message, give you the benefit of the doubt, and not test the veracity too much. But then comes the indirect communication. People will watch what you do and compare it to what you say, and if the two don’t match, well then, you lose buy in.

Buy in is the essential component for success. As attractive an idea as it may be, you can’t build a successful team with completely new players. First of all, existing players are the source for institutional knowledge. An understanding of how and why an organization has gotten to its current place is essential to moving it forward. Secondly, there are always a lot of talented and dedicated people within any organization that with the right leadership could really shine. Losing or marginalizing them only hurts the team and negatively impacts other members who want to buy in. People watch what leaders do and based on those actions make inferences about intent.

Here’s an example. If a new leader says they love Nashville, they are going to be here a long time, and we are going to do great things together, then people would tend to believe them and get excited. But if, in the coming weeks, every time they turn around, one of their previous teammates has been released or demoted while a seemingly limitless stream of new people are introduced and elevated, opinions are going to start to change. The past successes and contributions of previous members would be ignored, and those people would start to feel undervalued. They couldn’t be blamed for becoming defensive. When a large portion of your team becomes defensive, it means they are not receptive, and then working as a team becomes difficult.

There is a need to evaluate people and, through observation, decide if they are qualified or not. There is also a need to get buy in as quickly as possible. My experience is that it’s much easier to evaluate people’s skill sets when they’ve bought into your vision. It also becomes clearer to everybody if change becomes necessary, as to why that change was necessary, because there is an established reference point. I would question the value of evaluating people in a hostile environment. An environment where team mates don’t feel their work, past or present, is valued only leads to people not going the extra mile, not thinking out of the box, and wasting valuable time trying to decipher what they are being evaluated on i.e. self preservation. It smells a whole lot like setting people up for failure. That’s something that should always be avoided.

Dr. Joseph has asked that the board instead of dealing with central office, work through him. I can understand that desire but I think, and I don’t think Dr. Joseph or the board would disagree, there is still a lot of trust building going on between them. Unfortunately strong relationships need to go through a little fire to be truly forged. As Dr. Joseph brings change the board needs an independent source of information in order to truly vet what it hears and evaluate it as well. It benefits Dr. Joseph to be answering board questions that are based on independent observation instead of having to decipher what is fact and what is rumor. It’s in this light that I would encourage the school board and Dr. Joseph to hire an ombudsman.

This ombudsman would serve in an observational role. They would have access to everything going on in the district. They would verify that best practices were indeed being implemented. They would record the culture of the district. They would be free to talk with principals, teachers, and even students in order to get a sense of what was actually happening in the district. Each week they would submit a report simultaneously to Dr. Joseph and the school board on their observations. If a board member wanted more detail, they could schedule a follow up with the ombudsman. This meeting would be recorded, transcribed, and made available to everyone. I would even suggest making reports available to the public.

This would give Dr. Joseph the room to implement his policies without interference from the school board. An ombudsman would give him greater insight into how his policies are being received and implemented through neutral eyes. The board would have the same and an independent set of eyes to give them a comparison to what they might be hearing. Is buy in truly taking place and if not what’s preventing it. Having an ombudsman would go a long way towards preventing rumors and innuendo from taking root. Team members would get a sense that somebody was watching out for them as well.  It’s a win-win situation for everyone and clearly something that is needed in going forward. Hopefully this will be a consideration.

I’m also hoping that Dr. Joseph reconsiders his hire of Jana Carlisle, though I have little belief he will. I would tell Dr. Joseph that there are talented, dedicated educators already here in Nashville. I would urge him to find them quickly, embrace them and celebrate them. There is an old obscure Chinese Proverb – or maybe I just made it up – that says, “Tell me, I may listen. Teach me, I may remember. Involve me, I will do it.” Where ever they came from, those words need to be taken to heart.

Focusing On What’s Important

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focusSome of you may know that I am a runner. I try to average upwards of 100 miles a month. Being out of work the last couple months has made that goal pretty reachable. My running has dual purposes: I do it for stress release as well as weight management. The crazy thing is that despite hitting my monthly goals, I haven’t seen a lot of weight loss as of late, nor have I seen tremendous improvement in my running. Sure I’ve shed a pound or two and I’m definitely healthier, but I haven’t seen that overall shedding of weight or uptick in speed that I envisioned. There is a reason for that.

You see, while I have increased my time spent running, I’ve done very little to address my diet. I still eat my ice cream every night and catch myself snacking throughout the day. What’s become clear is that I can’t just run and lose weight, nor can I expect to see increases in my speed or duration by just running more. I’ve got to address the other elements as well. Our public schools are no different, but unfortunately as public school advocates we address the issues like I address my running. We fight against charter schools and other moves to privatize the system but we don’t always focus enough on recognizing and fixing the shortcomings of our public schools, nor we do focus enough on celebrating their successes.

A lot has been made of the recent school board race here in Nashville. And rightly so; it was a huge win for people who believe more charter schools are not the answer. The problem is, that is not enough. The elephant in the room is that if people believed in our public schools, we wouldn’t have to convince them that charter schools and other privatization efforts aren’t the answer. In my opinion, getting folks to believe in our schools requires a two-pronged strategy. The first prong being the dispelling of the myth that our schools are a dismal failure, and the second being to honestly assess some of the shortcomings and then work to address them.

Parents and community members are constantly bombarded by a long list of numbers that are supposed to demonstrate how abysmal our schools are performing. Take, for example, this article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press stating that nearly a third of Hamilton County teachers rank among state’s least effective. In the article, they talk about how children at schools with high poverty rates are most likely to have one of these least-effective teachers. Pretty scary stuff, no?

Let’s look at this paragraph over on the edge of the article though. It’s an explanation of how teachers earn their ranking:

Each year teachers are given a score from 1 to 5 on their effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers receiving a 1 or 2 ranking are considered to be least effective. A teacher receiving a score of 3 is considered to be of average effectiveness, and those with a 4 or 5 are considered highly effective.

These scores are derived from a teacher’s school-level evaluation score, growth measure of their students over the academic year, and a self-selected achievement measure. For teachers who teach subjects in which students do not take standardized tests, their growth measure score is determined by the school’s overall growth score during that year.

Did you notice that last sentence? What some parents may not know is that if you teach a subject in which students do not take standardized tests, your growth score is measured by the school’s overall growth. For the next two years, student growth will only count for 10% of a teacher’s overall rating, but I’m assuming when these scores were calculated it was set at 35%, the percentage rate scores will return to in 2 years. Since standardized tests do little to measure actual learning and serve more as an indicator of economic status, doesn’t it stand to reason that high needs schools would have lower overall scores thus creating more “ineffective” teachers? TVAAS scores have also been shown to display bias based on subject and grade level. So is the article an accurate reflection of the depth of the problem? I would argue not.

All this article does is paint a picture of a bunch of lousy teachers hanging out in the teacher’s lounge smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee all day. It totally ignores the hours of dedicated work being applied instead, under the guise of accountability, it works to create a straw man to blame. There is certainly room for improvement but the hyperbole is unnecessary and will hinder any collaboration. This exposes one of the drawbacks of focusing solely on accountability and not solutions. There is such a desire to stake blame that nobody is willing to actually collaborate at this point.

Think about your workplace. Say I put out a memo that says we are having a meeting this afternoon on how to improve your department’s output because it’s failing due to your laziness and ineptitude. Are you showing up at that meeting looking to collaborate in an effort to improve the department’s output, or are you showing up prepared to defend yourself? Are you looking to shine a light on strategies to improve the department or somebody else to shift blame to? If you haven’t read Leadership and Self Deception yet, this is where I’ll put in a plug, as it does a better job of illustrating this challenge.

The point is that we have to be able to have honest conversations that search for solutions instead of affixing blame. That’s what the charter school conversation of the last several years has been all about. It’s been either “public schools suck and therefore we need more charter schools” or “charter schools suck and we need to keep them from expanding.” And in establishing that these schools “suck,” we focus on teachers or the status quo, looking to affix blame instead of finding solutions. So of course the conversation goes round and round until voters do like they’ve recently done in Nashville and say enough is enough. It’s time for a new conversation. One that will get to the root of why we are arguing over charter school proliferation.

There is going to be resistance to this shift. Frank Daniels, a columnist for The Tennessean who regularly carries water for the reform crowd, recently wrote a piece calling for the district to create a strategic plan for charter growth. Why? Voters just sent a message that they were just fine with the way expansion of charter schools was being handled and were ready to talk about something else. You won’t find parents at the local Target saying to each other, “I wish the district would have a clear plan for adding more charter schools.” They are too busy discussing what they like and don’t like about their kid’s school and how they can make it better. That goes for both traditional and charter school parents. The only people who want a strategic plan are charter operators.

My prayer is that the school board and the newly hired Director of Schools in Nashville continue to set precedent and take charge of the conversation. That they put the argument over charter schools on the bench where it belongs and instead take up the conversation of how we make all our schools better. They should focus on things like teacher recruitment and retention, physical upgrades to our schools, programs and support for increasing literacy, and making education an equitable experience for all students.

I pray that we start to celebrate the amazing things happening in our schools. How many people know that Overton High School is the only high school that is an official member of the Associated Press? Their paper, the Bobcat Beat, is published regularly in 5 other newspapers across the state and has readers in 21 other countries. How many people know that Maplewood High School, a high needs school, has both a competitive chess club and an operational Firestone auto repair shop? There is a reason that President Obama visited McGavock High School in 2014, Chelsea Clinton visited JT Moore Middle School in 2015, and Bill Clinton visited LEAD Academy in 2014. We need to constantly spread that narrative and not in a way that lauds a particular school, but in a manner that builds up the whole system.

Many lengthy articles have been written about the negative aspects of our schools, but you have to dig deeper than that to get to the truth. Here in Nashville, there is a constant drumbeat about the incompetence of MNPS and how so many children are falling through the cracks. Yet over the last four years, MNPS has managed to create a system of high school academies that educators from around the world come to observe, expanded our pre-k program, developed an English Language Learner program that continues to exceed state expectations, and grown our business partnerships. That’s a whole lotta good being done.

On the flip side, we need to address our schools’ shortcomings. Too many kids are in schools that need major renovations. Nashville started off the school year, like many schools across the country, with a shortfall of teachers, but why? Rocketship Nashville Northeast and several other schools are performing below expectations, but why? We need to start talking about these subjects in a way that doesn’t affix blame, but rather looks for system-wide solutions. It’s not okay if one school finds the solution but another doesn’t. You can’t find those solutions if you are too busy defending your existence.

Too often the conversations have looked like this:

Person A: We need to get more teachers.

Person B: If we had more charter schools, that wouldn’t be a problem.

A: How is that going to help? I don’t want more charters.

B: What! Why are you anti-charter schools?

A: Well, charter schools do kick out kids that don’t meet their “guidelines.”

B: That’s not true. That never happens. I knew you were anti-charter schools. You want to trap kids in a failing system and support the status quo.

A: No I don’t. But you just want to privatize the system.

And before you know it, once again the conversation is no longer about recruiting more teachers or whatever the real issue was, but about charter schools. We can not afford to continue to lose focus. Yet we do, over and over and over again.

I firmly believe that if we focus on celebrating the successes and collaboratively looking for the solutions to our shortfalls, the strategic plan will become crystal clear. We don’t need to add more charter schools until we’ve fully invested in the ones we have. It’s like my father used to say when an appliance would break, “let me get in there and fix it.” There was never a conversation about replacing it until every effort was made to repair it. Our philosophy for our schools should be no different. Like my running, the system will not improve by just focusing on a single element. We have to make changes in all areas and ignore the charter school operators’ attempts to set the agenda for the conversation. If we stay focused on the things that matter, then everything else will come into focus.

A Conversation With Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge

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amy fI don’t think it would be breaking news for me to confess that I’m a big fan of Jennifer Berkshire and the work she does with her EduShyster blog. She’s inspired me to want to do a series of interviews with people who work in education in Tennessee. I think these interviews will be particularly relevant based on the impact Tennessee’s educational policy has on national educational policy. Our proximity to Louisiana, the cast of characters including Kevin Huffman, Todd Dickson, Ravi Gupta, and Chris Barbic, the over investment in politics by Stand For Children, being one of the first states to win Race To The Top money – these things, along with vibrant teacher/parent advocacy groups, have placed us at the forefront of the education reform movement.

For my first interview, I chose Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge. She is a parent who first decided to run for school board in 2012 and shocked everybody by winning big, despite her opponent raising $113k. And she didn’t win by a narrow margin. Outspent 5-to-1, Frogge beat her opponent by a 2-to-1 ratio — 3,524 votes to 1,725. Over the last four years, Frogge has used her position to fight for Nashville’s public schools. She pushed back against unchecked charter school growth. She fought for expanded recess and increased funding for community schools. She sounded the warning bell about over-testing and called for better treatment of teachers. Basically, she educated us about today’s prevalent issues before we were aware they were even issues.

Needless to say, this didn’t make Frogge very popular with the reform crowd. This year, she was up for re-election and along with fellow board member Will Pinkston, became a target for the privatizers. Stand for Children, along with the charter school crowd and the Chamber of Commerce, sunk over $200k in an attempt to defeat her. She failed to receive the endorsement of either the Chamber of Commerce or the local paper. In fact, the local paper used its endorsement release to attack her. They claimed, “Frogge also has served as a disruptive force unwilling to step outside her box and has shown a pattern of being responsive and respectful only when constituents agree with her.” Unfortunately for them, her constituents disagreed, and she went on to win reelection with over 60% of the vote.

Last week, Amy Frogge and I met at the local dog park to discuss a wide range of issues. I should disclose that Ms. Frogge and I are friends and often find ourselves on the same side of issues. Here’s our conversation that morning :

Dad Gone Wild: Good morning, Amy. I’d like to point out that we’re meeting at the dog park because if I’m not mistaken, your family is not just passionate about schools, but also about rescue animals.

Amy Frogge: Good morning. We’ve rescued a lot of animals and oftentimes we are not planning to rescue them, but we end up with a lot of stray pets. Right now, we have four cats, two dogs and a hedgehog. Two of our cats, I picked up on the campaign trail. They were strays.

DGW: That’s impressive. Speaking of the campaign trail, this is the second term you just won, but let’s go back a little bit. You are not originally from Nashville, are you?

AF: I’m originally from Mississippi, but we moved around a lot when I was growing up. I’ve been in Nashville since about the mid-1990s. I have been here longer than I’ve lived anywhere else.

DGW: So four years ago, you decided out of nowhere that you were going to run for school board. I should say it seemed like it was out of nowhere. Exactly how did that all come about?

AF: Well, I had been doing a lot of work at my children’s elementary school. When my daughter started at Gower Elementary, we had a very small PTO. The year after she got there, we were flooded in 2010 [Nashville was the victim of a flood in 2010], and we ended up having an immense amount of help from our neighbors and people throughout the city – and even people from other states – who were willing to come and help us rebuild our house and clean up the mess after the flood. There was just an immense amount of support, and I decided, in that process, that I wanted to give back to people. So I decided to become more involved at the school. The PTO had recently died out, and so essentially two of us parents offered to try to rebuild parent engagement at the school. We started small, but the more we did, the more exciting it became, and the more we were able to accomplish. We ended up building about 15 new community partnerships for Gower over the course of about a year, and we dramatically increased parent engagement through that process. We learned what an impact that had on the school’s performance and the atmosphere and culture of the school. Five years later, that school had a wait list and its performance improved. People in the neighborhood were excited about the school.

So having seen what happened at the local level, I hoped when I ran the first time that I would be able to do that sort of work on a larger level and support the schools in my area and throughout the city. That’s why I ended up running for school board.

I really did not understand all the outside influences bearing down on the school system, and I did not understand all the pieces of the puzzle. I learned that after I got on the school board. I’d hoped to talk about how to improve our local schools. I did not anticipate that we would end up talking about charter schools for four years, but that conversation ended up being a very necessary conversation for the city.

DGW: How aware were you of these outside interests when you were first elected, and how did you become educated? Was it a gradual awareness, or was it more akin to jumping into the deep end of a pool?

AF: The day after I was elected, the Wall Street Journal called me. That was my first inkling that I had gotten myself into something much bigger than just the local election and that there was a lot of national attention. I was really shocked by that. Our first vote on the board was to vote on Great Hearts, which was a highly controversial issue. I think it was unfortunate that we didn’t have time to learn the role of a board member and to adjust to our new roles before we were forced to vote on Great Hearts Academies. So once we were seated, it took off like a rocket.

But it would take me about a year to really put all the pieces together. I was able to do that because I worked at the State Legislature quite a bit, helping to advocate and learn what’s happening at the state level, and when I was able to see the amount of money pouring into the state and how laws were being passed to benefit privatization efforts, a lot of these pieces became clear to me. I did a lot of research on education policy when I decided to run, but I did another years’ worth of research as I was working as a board member, and that’s when I think it became clear to me what was happening.

DGW: That kind of mirrors the way I got involved. I started off really looking at TFA because it offended me that they thought people could be ready to teach with only five weeks of preparation, and then next thing you know, I’m looking at the Achievement School District. Then I started seeing all the money pouring in. It makes you start asking why.

AF: Exactly.

DGW: Now in that first race, your opponent raised over $100 thousand dollars?

AF: I think she ended up with a $125 thousand, and I ended up with about $25 thousand.

DGW: And that’s still the record for money raised for a school board race here in Nashville?

AF: Yes.

DGW: So in this last race this year, things got real. They tried to throw everything possible at you. We don’t actually know what amount was raised in this race yet, do we?

AF: We don’t have final totals yet. It was a different race because a lot of the money spent in this election was not given directly… but by outside organizations. It’s been estimated that around $150 thousand, maybe a little more, has been spent against me this election cycle.

DGW: It’s been interesting because with that kind of money involved, the conversation become about authenticity. It seems that authenticity is your not-so-secret weapon.

AF: I think that in both races, I went out and knocked on a lot of doors. I talked to a lot of people and ultimately I think we’re realizing that’s what works. You have to talk to people, you have to talk about the issues, you have to make personal contacts, and I think just having been very active on social media and responsive to constituents, that I have built a level of trust among parents and teachers who understand what I’m trying to do. And you can’t fake that in a campaign.

DGW: It’s amazing because the local media has not been very supportive of you. The Tennessean has attempted to marginalize you by running pictures of you with stories that are generally unflattering and have tried to make you look shrill or paint you as always complaining. In their endorsement editorial, they referred to you as divisive. Yet you won by over 60 percent?

AF: (laughing) About sixty-five percent.

DGW: So the narrative the paper is pushing and the narrative of what’s actually happening on the ground seems to be greatly different. Is that a safe assumption?

AF: Yeah, I would never have believed that the mainstream media is operating with such a slant, with such a bias, had I not walked through this experience myself. I have watched the local papers get the facts wrong and give misleading statements. I have never in my life been referred to as divisive; that’s not my nature. I really don’t have enemies, and so it’s been very frustrating to me to have the paper continually try to paint me in some light that’s just not true. I think we made it clear during the election that the paper has just been wrong, and I hope that we’ll be able to build a more truthful and collaborative conversation over the next four years. I think that a lot of folks behind the local media are supporting charter schools and the privatization of schools, and they do want to shut out voices that oppose that agenda. And that’s what it comes down to. Since I’m not beholden to anyone or any organization, I’m willing to stand up for what I believe in and tell the truth as I see it.

DGW: There has been some talk that this last election, because it was so overwhelming – you won by over 60 percent, Christiane Buggs won by 50 percent in a four-person race, and Jill Speering won by over 58 percent – and that all of you defeated candidates supportive of charter schools, that voters are saying they are tired of the charter school conversation. And they want to have a different conversation. What are the some of the things that you would like to see the conversation focus on?

AF: I think several of us who have served on the board laid the groundwork in the last four years. We have a good comprehensive EL plan in place, we have a good literacy program in place, and we are looking to increase the budget for community schools programs, which would partner schools with outside agencies to bring services to children in low-income schools. I have pushed to reduce testing and much of that is really a federal and state conversation, but I think there are things that we as a district can do to help reduce testing. We need to be driving the conversation with the state, and I hope that our new Director of Schools will be willing to have those conversations with the Tennessee Department of Education. I’ve also been very interested in whole child education, ensuring that we are meeting the needs of the whole child, so instead of just focusing on test results, we are making sure that we address social and emotional needs. We are providing each child with a rich, broad curriculum that includes art and music and opportunities for physical activity. I got the first policy passed to require daily recess for young children.

DGW: I’ve heard a lot about that. Parents are pleased because kids in elementary school are now getting two 20-minute blocks a day. Some people don’t understand the importance of that because 20 minutes seems like a long time, but when you line up kids and you take them out to the playground, line them back up, bring them back in, it’s a bare minimum.

AF: Right. And children learn through play, and there is a lot of evidence that if children have opportunity to move their bodies, they’re better able to focus in the classroom. There are social and emotional benefits to recess, there are physical and health benefits, and I think a lot of this is just common sense because I’ve been around children. But we’ve strayed so far from the focus on healthy child development that the way we’re educating children, it’s often just absurd at this point.

DGW: We were talking recently about the effect of trauma on kids and the importance of the community schools and being able to meet those children where they are. We can’t just tell them they have to overcome the trauma that’s in their daily life. Plenty of studies have shown the impact on the brain of the trauma that kids are facing at home. It’s not a matter of just having high expectations and instilling grit.

AF: I worked at a homeless shelter, so that’s why a lot of this makes sense to me. When we work with the homeless, we have to ensure that multiple needs are met at the same time. So when a homeless person seeks help, they often have different needs that are not being met, and unless you’re able to meet a variety of needs at the same time, they are unable to move forward. They may have a lack of education, they don’t have housing, they may have medical needs – if you address one of those needs and don’t address the others, then they’re not going to be able to move forward. I think it’s the same in the schools, in a sense that we’re meeting the child at the point of need. We have to make sure that they have glasses so they can see the chalkboard, they have a coat, that they’re fed, that they have opportunities for enrichment, that they have opportunities for good high-quality early learning experiences like pre-k. All these things prepare them to learn and set them up for success. You can’t leave out any one piece of the puzzle because then the child with unmet needs is not going to perform well in school.

DGW: Before we wrap up, I think one of the blessings in this day and age is that there is an alternative route to getting the word out. Can you speak a little bit on the value of social media?

AF: Yeah, I would not be here but for social media. The first time I ran, the common wisdom among politicos was that you don’t use Facebook in an election, and you don’t use social media. Things have really changed in the last four years. When I initially ran, I had to use Facebook. I kind of ran a Facebook campaign during the first election cycle because I didn’t have the money to get my word out otherwise. I think it’s a good thing that there are more voices involved in these conversations now and that there is a counter-narrative. You don’t want just those who have access to the mainstream media or people with money to influence all of the discussions. I think that social media can sometimes become negative, but I think in general it’s a good way to get information out and to share your message.

DGW: I’m 50, and my generation tends to ignore or downplay social media, to look at it as some kind of distraction, but I think that they’re missing the point. It’s a new form of communication.

AF: It is.

DGW: And as a new form, you’ve got to pay attention. The thing that I have found remarkable is it allows conversations that normally took place in back rooms, where I could tell you one thing and then go tell somebody else something else, and then go tell something else to another person – you can’t do that anymore. All of a sudden you have millions of fact-checking eyes on you, and you can’t just say something and have somebody believe it. So I think it ups the ante on every conversation.

AF: Right, and it increases the transparency. I think, since I was elected, I’ve tried to shine the light on certain things happening behind the scenes because those conversations really impact the public dialogue. We have to have honest conversations if we want to create change in the school system.

DGW: Making change in schools is hard work. It’s exhausting, and sometimes I get jealous of the reformers. They all collect paychecks, and we don’t see any of those kinds of monetary gains. There is no money in being on this side of the fight. Our gains are much more intrinsic.

AF: In the midst of the election, my husband sent me a clip of Reverend Barber discussing callings, and how when you’re called to service it’s often not convenient. It’s often very difficult and it is exhausting, but we are not allowed to give up. We don’t get to determine when it’s done. I think many of us have made huge sacrifices to continue to try to advocate for students and our teachers and our families. I’m a lawyer and I can tell you I’m not making much of a salary for this work, but I think it’s the most important and most meaningful work that I can do. I feel that I’ve been given a unique opportunity to make an impact, and not many people have that opportunity. I’m not allowed to squander it even though I often would like to just move to an island, buy a tiny house, and be done with the controversy because I really hate controversy. I don’t like conflict at all, and I’ve been in the midst of the worst sort of conflict for four years. But the work’s not done, though I think we have made a lot of headway. We’re ready now to have positive conversations and shift the focus on to work that I think will make the greatest impact on the greatest number of children. And I think that’s what the next four years will be about.

DGW: Last thing that I wanted to talk about is the role of our spouses and families. As activists, we get the feedback and sometimes the accolades. For our spouses and families, there isn’t that. This work consists of a lot of late-night phone calls, a lot of time writing blog posts – my children are fond of saying, “Are you on the phone again?” I think it’s one of the things that needs to be pointed out repeatedly – none of this would be possible without the support of our spouses.

AF: Absolutely.

DGW: And family.

AF: I mean, I wouldn’t be able to survive if my husband weren’t supportive of this effort. And I do think it’s been hard on our families and children a lot, but again I always sort of strive to find some sort of balance. I’m not very good at it sometimes, but I think it’s just very important work. And we are impacting not just the 88,000 children in our school system, but also we’re making a national impact here in Nashville. So we’re not allowed to give up, but we’re very thankful for the support of those around us because no one can do this work alone.

Teaching, a love story: PART 3

Mary Holden is an essential part of what I do. As a 15veteran of the classroom her experiences are invaluable to understanding the impact of our educational policies. I would strongly advise all to read her words.

MY TWO CENTS

Catch Part 1 and Part 2if you missed it.

Part 1 is where I discussed why I became a teacher and those early years of my career.

Part 2 is where I delved into my experiences from 2000-2008. It gives some insight into how we got where we are today in public education.

In my 15 years in the classroom as a high school English teacher, there were ups and downs, and over time, it seemed there were more downs than ups.

Here’s the continued saga of my career as a teacher.

THE NEED FOR SOME SPACE

After about eight years as a teacher, I felt led to be a leader. I thought of becoming an assistant principal and ultimately, a principal. Because of the role models I had as a teacher and the administrators I worked with, I knew the kind of leader I wanted to be: a…

View original post 1,407 more words

Of Teachers and Apples

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teachersThere once was a farmer who had a beautiful apple tree. This tree produced the best apples in the entire county, and as a result, the farmer’s wife became known far and wide for baking the best apple pies. Everybody raved about them and clamored to get them. The farmer and his wife recognized that the secret to the pies was in the quality of the apples from the tree, and so they took care of the tree. They made sure it got enough water and fertilizer and pruned it when necessary. The tree flourished and continued to produce beautiful apples that then produced exceptional pies. The farmer and his wife never focused on how much money they made, knowing that if they nurtured the tree and ensured that it produced the best apples, then their pie baking business would thrive.

As the years went on, the farmer and his wife got older and were no longer able to keep up with the maintenance of the tree and the baking of the pies. So they turned things over to their children. But the children didn’t have the appreciation of the tree that their parents had. They saw the baking of pies as nothing but a way to make money, and if you made more pies then you’d make more money. So that’s what they focused on. Instead of continuing to take care of the tree, they focused on the harvesting of the apples, and they began to automate the baking of the pies. After all, this was the 21st century, and it was important to take advantage of technology now.

Initially, they sold more pies and made more money than their parents ever did. Everybody congratulated each other and remarked how foolish their parents were to hold on to the old way of doing things for so long. Then a funny thing happened. People started to notice that the pies weren’t as good as they once were. The apple tree had not been tended to as well as in the past and had begun to produce less and less quality fruit. Soon the tree became nothing but a shell of its former self. The pie business began to suffer because there weren’t enough quality apples, and demand started to become impossible to keep up with.

The children of the old farmer and his wife began to curse the apple tree and blame it for the failure of their business. They said, Who needs that tree? We’ll just plant new ones. And that is what they did. They planted many new trees and experimented with ways to produce trees at the lowest cost possible. After all, if you study a tree you should be able to replicate and reproduce it at will.

Unfortunately, the new trees were not of the same quality as the old tree, and the fruit they produced had nowhere near the consistent output of the old tree. The children tried to pass off the fruit in the pies, but the public was not fooled and recognized that the pies were of an inferior quality than before. Business continued to suffer.

The children wrung their hands and searched for answers. Finally, they realized they would have to provide nourishment for the original tree. However, the tree was in such poor shape when it came to nutrition that it would take a substantial investment to restore it to its previous state. The children were unwilling to make such an investment on the original tree, even though they knew they would have to do something. They decided to provide the tree with a little more water and a little more fertilizer than before. Then, when the pie business returned to its former glory, they would invest more.

The tree recovered slightly and the pie business increased slightly, but it never returned back to the same level of success. The children continued to debate the proper amount of nutrients to provide to the tree, but never agreed to care for it in a manner that allowed the tree to produce enough quality apples to fully supply the pie business. The children always claimed they never had the resources to fully invest in the tree, despite always having money for sports cars, jewelry, and trips to Europe.

In case you haven’t guessed it yet, I’m not really talking about trees and pies here. I’m talking about teachers and a decade of bad education policy that has brought us to a point where it is becoming apparent that we don’t have enough teachers at all, let alone high quality ones. Though this analogy also applies to the state of public education as well.

As Andy Spears, an education blogger, points out this week in the Tennessee Education Report, things are a little rough in Tennessee, where Shelby County is starting the school year short 100 full-time teachers, and Nashville is starting 80 positions short. Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) countered his report with a correction that the actual shortage was 34.5 positions and that was better than in previous years, but I ask, is that really good enough? What if we’d be focusing on addressing teacher concerns all these years instead of focusing on policies that made the profession more unattractive. Things like over- reliance on TVASS to rate teachers, fights over teacher tenure, and performance pay.

Are we ever going to stop looking at incremental improvement as being good enough, or are we going to actually address the problem and solve it? As mentioned above and in Chalkbeat Tennessee, Memphis is short about 100 teachers. But what’s missing from this article is that starting in 2013, Memphis began referencing itself as “Teacher Town.” And who was at the center of that initiative? None other than the recently-departed ASD Superintendent Chris Barbic, with the assistance of Teach for America. So if “Teacher Town” is experiencing this kind of shortage, then I think it’s safe to say the planting of new apple trees ain’t working out so well.

I, along with others, have long charged that Teach for America has been a major contributor to the devaluing of the teaching profession. Defenders of TFA claim that it is unfair to affix such a large amount of blame to an organization that has such limited impact. The truth is that TFA spends a large amount of time on college campuses attempting to recruit high performing students to become teachers. That is a difficult task when these potential teachers take a hard look at their potential earnings as a teacher and how it relates to their peers. So the counter argument has to become that teaching really isn’t a career; it’s just something to do for a couple years to build your resume until you start your real career – and that’s what TFA has been selling to their recruits. That’s the narrative that gets passed around the dorm rooms and carried out to schools, and after 25 years has become part of the fabric.

That narrative held water when the country was in the throes of a recession. That is no longer the case, and as a result, TFA can’t meet their promised numbers. Now we are finding as a result of our dependence on the new apples, that their inability to produce at a sustainable rate means we have a shortage. The problem is that we have been so focused on planting new apple trees that we have neglected to nurtured our original prized apple tree, and the prized tree isn’t as strong as it once might have been. To bring it back to true life is going to take some investment and reexamining of policies put in place over last 20 years ago.

Policies have been implemented that made the teaching profession less and less attractive, and the result has been fewer and fewer young people choosing to pursue a teaching career while more experienced teachers exit at a faster rate. Fellow blogger and former teacher Mary Holden does an incredible job detailing how those policies became enacted in her blog post titled “Teaching, A Love Story: Part 2.” It’s a lengthy read, but essential to understanding how we got here. I’d also read Part 1.The bottom line is that we are now losing good teachers at alarming rates.

The teaching profession has also fallen victim to society’s devaluation of service-based professions. Teachers, along with police officers and first responders, are always among the lowest paid yet most criticized professions. People will make unfounded charges, like teachers have summers off so what’s their complaint? But that’s not an accurate reflection of reality. Breaks have become shorter and the increased pressure has translated into little down time. This year, MNPS paid for teachers to return to school two days before students arrived to prepare and get classrooms ready. That was helpful, but the truth is that most teachers had already started showing up at school two weeks before that knowing that there was no way 2 days was enough. So in order to make sure that things were ready to go when students arrived, teachers had to donate time. Next time you hear someone leveling crowing about teachers having a relaxed schedule, ask them what they though would happen if teachers only worked the time the got paid for. I guarantee school days would look a whole lot different.

A teacher friend who helped to unionize her charter school in Philadelphia related a story to me about negotiations with the school. The school wanted to provide after hour tutoring and was willing to pay the teachers. When the union rep tried to pin them down on the exact number of hours they were willing to pay for, the school balked at paying for anything but the required hour per day spent actually tutoring despite there being no curriculum created, and therefore teachers would have to invest additional time creating curriculum for the tutoring. Their argument was teachers are already doing that on their own time anyway, so why should we pay them? But that kind of thinking has got to stop. I’m sure just about every teacher who’s got a little experience can tell you a similar tale.

Here’s another story I’m sure just about every teacher can tell you. In Nashville, teachers get $200 per year to spend on supplies for their classroom. In my household, we blew past that in the first week. Now all you teachers, raise your hand if you fall into that category. Lots of hands up, I bet. In fact, the average teacher spends about $513 of their own money per year on school supplies. Now let’s do a little math. Teachers in Tennessee just got a raise. In MNPS, if you have been a teacher around 8-10 years, you were looking at the biggest raise, perhaps as much as 7%. Sounds great, right? Well, take $43k, which is the average salary for a teacher in MNPS with a Master’s degree. That comes to about a $3k raise. Sounds great until you take $600 out for taxes, subtract the $513, and you are left with $1887. Divide that by 22 paychecks, and you are left with $85 dollars more per check. That’s welcome money, but the Brinks truck is not exactly backing up to unload. Not the kind of money that legislators think is worthy of genuflection. Especially in light of the fact that Tennessee has the surplus money that could take substantial steps toward closing the wage gap.

It’s going to take more then just money though. We continue to devalue the teacher who remains a classroom teacher throughout their teaching career. Somehow, just teaching kids and impacting lives year after year is to be considered a negative, when it should be receiving the highest honor. So much of the retention effort is placed on finding leadership pathways and advancement opportunities, but why don’t we focus more on validating and respecting a teacher’s choice to stay in the classroom? We all get misty-eyed at pictures or video from a classroom teacher’s retirement celebration, yet we do everything possible to make that a pursuit of the Holy Grail. There should be no greater pursuit then preparing the next generation of leaders and citizens. After all, that’s what most teachers will tell you is the reason they got into education. To teach kids.

This is why teachers need to be given a larger seat at the table. And not some specially created, teacher’s-only table that takes things back to the main table. Teachers need a seat at the main table. For example, here in Nashville we have a new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. Dr. Joseph has created a transition team to look at district policy and make sure that we are following best practices. To his credit, it is a very diverse team, albeit one that only has two classroom teachers. What is the message that sends? Imagine the message that would have been sent had a large percentage of the team been made up of classroom teachers? We try to sell them on the importance of taking leadership roles while we exclude them from the most meaningful and overarching leadership roles.

Perhaps if we had teachers at the main table, we could have real conversations about quality teacher evaluation, the effects of trauma on our kids who live in poverty, meaningful standards and curriculum, and a host of other issues. We all bemoan the amount of time spent arguing about charter schools, vouchers, and other reform ideas that take the focus off children. But I can promise you this: if teachers, and principals, made up a substantial portion of the conversation, the focus would get directed where it belonged.

I’d be willing to bet that ridiculous ideas like using unlicensed teachers, developing standards for social emotional learning, and a more rigorous test for teacher licensure would get stopped before getting traction. Who but a politician or a corporate head would think that in a time of teacher shortages, you should create a more difficult test that comes at an increased cost of $300 to the candidate. I think back to when my wife and I were first married and she applied for her license. That amount of money was a week’s pay. A weeks pay in order to qualify for a job that would pay you substantially less then your peers over your lifetime. We say we want only the best and the brightest, well the best and the brightest ain’t falling for that three card monty trick. We are just blessed that there are enough dedicated, qualified, energetic, creative, caring, individuals willing to overlook our bull shit. (I know, I’m not supposed to swear. But sometimes when a word fits…it fits.)

We have a lot of quality apples out there. Teachers, who despite all the challenges, show up and produce everyday. But those numbers are going to continue to diminish unless we start nourishing the profession a whole lot more than we do now? And it has to be in a way that’s a whole lot more meaningful than 10% off at J Crew or a 3% raise every 10 years. As President of Math America John Ewing states, “If we truly want to respect our teachers, we need more then words – we must learn to trust them. We always like to say that a teacher is the most important in-school factor in a child’s education. It’s time our actions matched our words.

The Ever Under-Achieving Achievement District

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by TC Weber

 

achNow that the Nashville School Board race is over, it’s time to get back to a couple subjects I’ve been meaning to explore. As I’ve mentioned, back in July I went to the National Charter School Conference here in Nashville and was taken aback by the opening welcome session. After the welcome session, it was time to attend some breakout sessions.  In perusing the schedule of breakout sessions, one in particular jumped out at me: From Recovery to Extraordinary: States and Charter Schools Working Together. The description read as follows:

The Louisiana Recovery School District and the Tennessee Achievement School District have brought new attention to the role that charter schools can play in replacing poor performing schools. They have also tested the theory that the freedoms associated with chartering can in fact benefit those who are the most at risk. This panel will explore the role that charters have played in serving the hardest to educate and what policymakers should consider to better serve these students.

Featured speakers were:

Yep, this had potential. You see, I know a little bit about the Achievement School District (ASD). In fact, I’d sparred with founder Chris Barbic on more than one occasion, and don’t tell anybody, but I danced a little jig on the day he announced his resignation. Ok, never mind, you can tell everybody. The truth is that from the beginning in Tennessee, the ASD has never been anything but one big hustle, and somewhere along the way they became nothing but just another charter authorizer. But I’m getting ahead of myself.

The whole “achievement school district” trend began in New Orleans in 2003. It was meant as a means to take the lowest performing schools and devote more resources to them as a means to improvement. Pierre Capdau School in New Orleans became Louisiana’s first takeover school in August of 2004 and then became Louisiana’s first Recovery School District (RSD) charter school. Four more schools were added in the spring of 2005. On August 29, 2005, Hurricane Katrina hit and changed everything. In the wake of Katrina’s devastation, the Louisiana State Legislature passed Act 35, which resulted in the RSD taking over 102 out of 128 schools from the Orleans Parish School Board. Those schools were then converted to charter schools, and only five remained with the Orleans Parish. Today’s RSD bears little resemblance to what was originally envisioned.

Reformers like to talk about what a great success the RSD has been, but unfortunately a closer inspection of the numbers doesn’t bear that out and the RSD is now being phased out, albeit with some trepidation. Still, it was enough of a perceived success to get Tennessee to want their very own version of the RSD, called the Achievement School District. In 2011, the ASD was established with Chris Barbic as its head, and their assigned task was taking the bottom 5% of schools to the top 25% of schools within 5 years. I know, there will always be a bottom 5% and we could spend days outlining the ways the ASD has been a failure, but for the sake of brevity we’ll just leave that to educator and blogger Gary Rubenstein. Suffice it to say that Barbic left last year and Malika Anderson is now in charge, and she’s changing the mission a bit, trying to buy the ASD more time to bring up those test scores.

Hopefully that gives you enough background information so we can jump back to the breakout session. Paul Pastorek kicked off the session, and if there was any thought of this being anything but a victory lap, it was quickly dispelled. Pastorek produced a number of slides showing the fantastic growth of New Orleans students since Katrina. It was very impressive, except he forgot to mention a very important fact: these weren’t the same students as before. Katrina caused a mass exodus of the population because of its devastating effects. Many of those people never returned. Today, much of New Orleans looks like a totally different city than it did pre-Katrina. It is a whole lot more white and a whole lot less poor. This alone makes it impossible to compare results of schools and students.

Pastorek did share something that I’ve never heard before. The key to the Recovery School District was that they were not going to engage in anything they referred to as “contractual politics.” That means they weren’t going to tell schools when the buses should run, what to serve for lunch, what to pay teachers, how long the school day or year should be, or any multitude of other decisions that go into running a school. The RSD was only going to focus on making sure that all schools were “good ones,” and their major priority was shutting down “bad” ones. Pastorek never did say what constituted a good school, but based on the bragging he did about test scores, it wasn’t hard to decipher.

This is an interesting theory because it attempts to isolate what happens in the classroom as being the only thing that impacts learning. I would argue that transportation, quality of meal offerings, and satisfaction of teachers all directly affect a child’s educational experience. Nashville has learned this lesson the hard way when it tried to save money by outsourcing janitorial services. There may have been a slight cost savings in the beginning, but you’d be hard pressed to find anyone who’ll say that the environment of schools has improved or even been maintained since the change was implemented. Inadequate services have led to a proliferation of brown recluse spiders and mold. Neither which is conducive to learning. I can feel you Nashville teachers nodding as you read this. In fact, Nashville’s experience closely mirrored that of Chesterfield County Public Schools near Richmond, Virginia.

Pastorek cited this lack of focus on making sure schools are “good” as the main reason for the failure of the Michigan’s Education Achievement Authority. (Noticing a common theme here yet? Failure?) He related how he adopted the mantra of closing a bad school “at any cost.” During the question and answer period of this session, a gentleman who had been a teacher in New Orleans during Pastorek’s tenure took exception to this, pointing out that hundreds of teachers lost their livelihood because of the “close at any cost” mantra. There were many teachers and their families whose lives were irrevocably ruined, not to mention the students, whose lives were upended as a result of these closures. Pastorek walked his comment back a bit after that, but he never fully retracted it.

Malika Anderson spoke next and spun the narrative that the Achievement School District was a success in Tennessee because schools in Memphis’s Innovation Zone, or iZone as it’s commonly referred to, along with statewide priority schools, were performing so well. She stated that schools had years to improve and had failed to do so until now, and it was only because of the fear of a state takeover that made this happen. She glossed over how far the ASD was from reaching their goals. She completely ignored the fact that many were ready to see the ASD go the way of the RSD and have schools brought back under local oversight. Her argument was that in spite of failing to make real progress, the ASD should still be rewarded with more time for inspiring through fear.

Here’s my challenge to you. Go into work tomorrow and tell your boss that the only reason everybody in the company is doing so well is because they are all worried that you are going to suddenly stop sucking at your job sometime soon. Tell him you know your work isn’t up to par, but you should be considered an asset because you’re making everybody else perform at a higher level through fear of you actually doing your job. Make sure your boss knows they should be pouring more resources into you because this work is hard and eventually you might be, maybe, performing at a semi-acceptable level. Let me know how that goes because that’s what the ASD is doing, and it should be met with the same howls of laughter followed by dismissal that it would if you said it to your boss. Yet for some reason it is not the case with the ASD. They still keep dodging legislative bullet after bullet, buying themselves more time.

Chris Reynolds, head of LEAD schools, shared the great success that LEAD was having. This allowed me to ask a question, since it related to a school here in Nashville, Neely’s Bend Middle School. Neely’s Bend was one of two priority schools under consideration by the ASD for takeover last year. They were chosen despite parents repeatedly saying they didn’t want to be taken over. Parents got wind of a provision that supposedly stated that if a school made sufficient growth on the statewide standardized tests, they would not be taken over. Parents, along with teachers and other community members, pulled together and the students produced a 5 in growth, the highest possible. A score that was, in fact, higher than LEAD Academy’s other ASD school, Brick Church MS which produced a 1 in growth. Alas, the provision did not exist at that time and the takeover proceeded.

Anderson stepped in and  gleefully expressed how this situation lead to a new statute being written. One that gave a targeted school a year to show growth. Had this statute been in effect last year, Neely’s Bend would have remained with MNPS. Anderson thought this was a great new statute and that the Neely’s Bend community should be proud of their accomplishments. And yes, the takeover was continuing. Reynolds acknowledged that the scores were higher and the takeover was still proceeding. He did point out that LEAD’s other 3 schools were 5’s. So even though this district school was showing growth at the highest level, the ASD still took over. This just isn’t fair and goes against the ASD’s supposed model. But it will certainly make them look good since they won’t have to work as hard to turn the school around.

Voters in other states need to pay particularly close attention to these narratives since a move is afoot for other states to get their very own achievement school district. Is an achievement district really a wise investment? Chris Barbic has a new job that, along with former Mindtrust executive Ken Bubp, allows for him to promote achievement districts. (Nashville readers need to pay attention to the name of Bubp as he sits on the board for Project Renaissance.) Right now, legislators are hearing all puppy dogs and rainbows about how having an achievement school district will be a boon for children trapped in “failing” schools. Don’t let them fool you. There is no record of a successful achievement school district anywhere. In fact, it is just the opposite. Proponents are so desperate for a success story to point to that they’ve begun counting Denver as an achievement school district based on its use of the portfolio model. Again, don’t be fooled. Denver is also not what it appears, unless you are comfortable with 27 new charter schools in 5 years with 40% performing below standard.

I would be very careful in approving the creation of an achievement school district if I lived in Georgia, North Carolina, or anywhere, for that matter. Once empowered, dissolving it becomes very difficult and family input is minimized. In Tennessee, it seems to have become virtually impossible to get rid of the ASD. Louisiana is supposedly dissolving the RSD, but one needs to be cautious in being too celebratory. While schools in New Orleans are returning to oversight by an elected board, the elected board is extremely limited in the scope they can supervise these schools. The publicly elected board will be responsible for systemic functions like enrollment, discipline, and deciding whether to open or close schools. But the independence of individual schools will be protected by state law. This means that they will set hours, curriculum, staffing, textbooks – all devoid of interference from an elected board.

States are better off empowering local districts to create innovation zones. In Memphis, the iZone has been consistently outperforming the ASD. Part of the reason for that is the iZone is deeply entrenched in the local communities, whereas the ASD is viewed as an outsider taking over schools in a hostile manner. If states really want to help their low performing schools, models like the iZone are where they should be putting their money. Not in another scheme that will produce nothing but false narratives and more charter schools.

Charter school proponents like to level charges at public school supporters that they are supporters of the status quo. I don’t know how to break it to them, but at this point, after 10 years, the education reformers have become the status quo. We now have ample evidence that their way does not work. As Wendy Lecker, former president of Stamford’s Parent Teacher Council, says in a recent piece, “The evidence demonstrates that turnarounds produce at best temporary small increases in test scores, but at the high cost of destabilizing schools and communities in the long run.” She goes on to say, “While policymakers stubbornly pursue this dead end, they ignore evidence from science and educational practice pointing to methods that result in long-lasting improvements in both academic and life outcomes, especially for at-risk children.” The NAACP this week called for a moratorium on charter schools . The writing is on the wall – we just have to decide if we are going to read it and take action.

Nashville Says “Bless Your Heart” To Stand For Children

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blessThe last couple weeks, I have done a lot of soul searching. I’ll be honest, I’m often filled with self-doubt. The role of public education advocate is such an odd one. There is no money in it. It’s time consuming. I’m not a teacher, and therefore don’t have that experience or knowledge base to draw on. You never know if you are really making any kind of difference at all. Often times you feel like you are walking out into your backyard and screaming into the void while the neighbors snicker at you. “There’s crazy Uncle TC railing against the privatization of public education again. Does he have his tin hat on tonight?” But then there are nights – like this year’s school board election night – that change everything.

This summer, Nashville has been embroiled in a bitter school board race that lined up the charter school supporters against the incumbent board members who are skeptical of charters. Five seats on the MNPS school board were up for grabs, with incumbents – and ardent public school supporters – in four of them. But District 5 was up for grabs because incumbent Elissa Kim chose not to run again. Two main candidates quickly emerged, with Miranda Christy falling into the charter supporter camp and Christiane Buggs more closely aligned with the incumbents running for re-election. Adding fuel to the fire was national education reform advocacy group Stand For Children, who flooded the race with cash.

The race this summer was absolutely insane. Like you-can’t-make-this-stuff-up insane. You had SFC flooding people’s mailboxes  daily with opposition fliers, some even arriving the day after the election. You had a challenger in one race who probably should have been more forthcoming about his questionable past. There was the apparent coordinating between Stand For Children and a well-respected non-profit organization, not to mention an email that showed charter school leaders working to get school board members elected who were sympathetic to their issues. The local teachers union mistakenly sent out mailers that gave the impression that Buggs was an incumbent. The most vocal of the incumbents, who was endorsed by the local paper, became the recipient of a hit piece by that same newspaper four days before the election – a piece that revealed no new information and left out the fact that several of its sources were on the opposition’s payroll. Luckily, the local alternative newspaper rose to the challenge and pointed out the omissions. Two days before the election, a parent, along with Tennessee Citizen Action filed a petition for an investigation into potential campaign finance violations by Stand For Children.

On the eve of the election, I was filled with trepidation, praying that SFC wouldn’t be able to buy more than two seats on the board. Then the craziest thing happened: the voters cast their votes, and they saw through all the distractions to send a loud and clear repudiation of SFC and their cohorts. Jill Speering won with over 60% of the vote. Amy Frogge won with over 60% of the vote. Christiane Buggs won with over 50% of the vote in a four-person race. These are not close margins. The only race that was close was Will Pinkston’s race. He won by 36 votes, but considering all that he faced in the week leading up to race, it was amazing he was even standing. SFC had only one victory in this school board race when Sharon Gentry won, though she was not a beneficiary of their financial generosity, having received only $6k that came with their endorsement. But her challenger, Janette Carter, still managed to amass 3,200 votes out of roughly 8,000, with many of those votes coming from the congregations of local AME churches. Not a good sign for Gentry.

The results are a clear reaffirmation of the issues public education advocates across the city have been working on for the last several years. What makes things even more special is that this wasn’t a victory by one small group of advocates in one district. No, this was a true grassroots collection of city-wide advocates focusing not just on their district races but on all races. Over the last several months, through social media, these separate individuals from different pockets of the city reached out to each other and banded together across the city for the cause of public education. No one had the luxury of drawing a paycheck from a foundation. The work on these winning campaigns was all done by volunteers.

Calls were made to potential voters between dinner preparations and putting the kids to bed. Door knocking was done between running errands on the weekend. Teachers would set up their classrooms in preparation of the start of school and then come hold signs at the polls for a couple hours. The other amazing thing was the lack of any clear-cut leader. No one person called the shots or directed strategy in this movement. The candidates were obviously the rallying points, and as such, would offer some direction, but others would take point based on their recognized skill set and what was needed. It was really quite remarkable, especially since none of these parents and teachers had completed any kind of activist training that some parent organizations deem necessary.

Stand For Children has to be completely flummoxed by the election results. A loose union of parents and teachers – with no clear hierarchy, no clear messaging other than to tell outside forces and charter operators to back off, and not even an agreed upon method of communication (there was varied use of text messages, Facebook Messenger, Twitter, Slack, and occasional phone calls) – managed to decimate their three-quarters-of-a-million-dollar summer project. How do you explain that to the billionaires pouring money into school board races?  Seems to me that this calls for a complete re-evaluation of SFC’s purpose, and there are some who hope that this will lead SFC back to its origins.

It might mean walking away from the big dollars though. The question would be, will these education reformers – hedge fund managers and educational philanthropists like Bill Gates, Reed Hastings, Andre Agassi, and the like – continue to write checks for things like these?:

  • Health coverage for uninsured children
  • Monitoring the impact of welfare reform
  • More money for affordable, high-quality child care
  • Safe and productive after-school activities
  • Equitably-funded schools that have small classes, well-trained teachers, high standards, and involved parents.

Funding things like these that are truly needed in schools would certainly have a greater payoff in the long term than the money poured into this past school board race.

In looking at the total amount of money raised by all the candidates breaking it down to what it cost per vote cast for each candidate, all the SFC-endorsed candidates who lost had more outside donations from SFC and the like (with one exception discussed below) than the winners: Miranda Christy spent $40.68 per vote, Jane Meneely spent $29.14, Jackson Miller spent $40.19, and Thom Druffel spent $20.70 in their losing efforts. In comparison, the winners raised less money, and their cost-per-vote was significantly lower: for Christiane Buggs it was $12.92, for Jill Speering $13.66, and for Amy Frogge a mere $6.44. The only outlier was Will Pinkston’s race, where he raised more money than Miller and still won. What’s more, these totals do not include the money spent by Independent Expense Committees – Stand for Children’s IEC spent $55k per race in just the last month alone. And I know that this is not the most accurate breakdown, as winner will always have lower cost, but it does attach a value to what they purchased and that’s worth seeing.

The big take away in all of this is that democracy still matters in America. Parents and teachers – if they commit to working together and don’t get intimidated by the big bucks and attitudes of reformer groups like SFC, DFER, and the like – can still win. They don’t need to be trained in the ways of activism. They just need to educate themselves and speak out. Their authentic voices will resonate.

A few other things to take away: Former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean liked to refer to himself as the education mayor. As such, he promoted the introduction of Teach for America in Nashville and the unchecked growth of charter schools. His policies made the ground fertile here for groups like Stand for Children. But this election is a clear rebuke of those policies. That has to be a concern for Dean now, seeing as he is considering mounting a run for governor. In a statewide race, his education policies will certainly come under close scrutiny, and Nashville’s rejection of those ideas don’t make a strong case for him.

The relevance of the local newspaper, The Tennessean, also took a hit. At a time when new media is rapidly replacing the old guard, the last thing you want to do is appear out of touch. Which is exactly how The Tennessean appeared. While all but two of their endorsements managed to win, it seems like it was almost in spite of their endorsement instead of because of it. Readers clearly rejected their assertion that Amy Frogge was derisive and Christiane Buggs needed more seasoning. They also saw right through the hit piece on Pinkston, recognizing it for what it was: an attempt to influence an election. It had to sting a little bit when the alternative paper, The Nashville Scene, pointed out their inconsistencies. Speaking of the Nashville Scene, reporters Amanda Haggard and Steven Hale, along with editor Steve Cavendish really did a great job of helping people navigate the waters and even called out the election commission when they were slow to publish disclosures.

Nashville’s citizens sent a message that it is time for a new conversation on charter schools and reform policies. They are much more educated and astute than SFC gave them credit. It’s ironic that in an election with so much focus on bullying that it was the bullying of outside money that was firmly rejected by voters. For years, Nashville’s charter operators have bullied themselves to the top of the agenda. With these victories, we finally have the ability to move them down so we can focus on more important issues like educational equity, teacher retention, the impact of testing on students, and improved English learner services, among others. It’s imperative that the new school board act now on these mandates.

Mayor Megan Barry and others decried the tone of the race, admonishing that both sides needed to tone down the rhetoric. It’s understandable that one would make such a complaint when they are exposed to the tactics of Stand for Children and the charter school operators only during election season. Those of us who interact with them on a more consistent basis understand that it’s not possible to tone it down until they stop referring to their advocacy in military terms. It also won’t happen until people become much more transparent with their intentions. I’d also politely remind the mayor that her own race wasn’t exactly genial. We are nice folks here in Nashville, but please don’t underestimate us.

Today is a good day. Not just for Nashville, but for everybody throughout the country who believes in public education. What has happened in Nashville is proof that the conversation about what is needed in public education is changing. People are recognizing that the policies of the reform crowd are not good for kids. We need to seize on this momentum to drive home policies that are good for kids, like equitable funding for our schools, increased daily recess time, decreased emphasis on testing, empowering teachers, and more. Reformers like to point to Nashville as a “model” for their success stories. This election now provides a model on how to fight back and win against corporate reform.

We need to remember, though, that these victories are hollow if we just celebrate the political wins and then don’t show up to put in the work in at our schools. Nobody believes that our schools are currently the best that they can be, nor do we deny that for years they have come up short for many children of color. By recognizing those facts and using the support we’ve created, we can finally address those shortcomings in a meaningful manner. It would be a great tragedy if we as citizens failed to grasp this opportunity.

On election day, I heard a story about a mom who watched the conversation unfold this summer and as a result, felt empowered enough to pull her child from a perceived high-performing school in order to enroll her in their neighborhood school. Another neighborhood leader was so inspired by the election results that she is planning to commit to recruiting young families to support their neighborhood school. We need more of those stories, and if we keep working together and remembering what’s important, we will hear them. It really feels like a new day is dawning. And Stand for Children… as they not-so-nicely say here in the South, bless your heart.

 

TC Weber