Sometimes you have to know when to quit.

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Brett-Favre-Jets-vs-Rams-Nov-9-08Brett Favre had a long and by most counts Hall of Fame career with the Green Bay Packers but as retirement loomed he decided he wasn’t ready to quit. He signed with the Jets and played another year or two. I should be able to tell you how many years it was but truth is it was so painful that I’ve blocked it out. At the end Favre was just a shell of his former self. Something that was apparent to everyone but himself.

Then there was Randy Moss. One of the most exciting players in the NFL that limped through the final years of his career as an after thought. I think when he was a Titan, they threw him the ball maybe twice in 6 games. It was very disappointing to watch and while I don’t pay attention to “legacy destroying” talk, it was not the way you want to remember him. The point is, sometimes you have to know when its time to go.

Here in Nashville we have a similar situation evolving with our superintendent of schools. Dr Register has had a very distinguished career and done extraordinary work with MNPS over the last several years. Unfortunately this last year hasn’t lived up to previous standards. Early in the year he was stung by heavy criticism for perhaps the first time in his tenure here. He reacted not by self evaluating but by becoming defensive and aligning with the very people he’d spent several years opposing.

The shift became evident when a couple months ago Dr Register announced his third way plan. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/09/09/jesse-register-calls-swift-shake-struggling-schools/15370817/) the plan would basically turn over the low performing schools over to Charter Operators either independently or through the State Achievement District. Needless to say the plan was not met with enthusiasm, nor was it particularly original. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/09/29/registers-exit-may-snarl-east-nashville-schools-overhaul/16410829/)

You’ll notice in the article referenced above Dr. Register is quoted as saying “”It sounds like this community does not want this school to convert to a charter school. We need to hear that. I would be very hesitant to recommend a conversion here.” Unfortunately recently obtained emails through a open records request tell a different story. It appear as if Dr. Register and KIPP have been in talks all along and perhaps the listening tour isn’t as much for listening as one might hope. Its not very surprising because in this day and age of message manipulating, nobody ever truly listens. Its all a bit infuriating.

Other then being infuriating, this turn of events is a little saddening. I’ve always found Dr. Register to be a very honorable man but these revelations paint a different picture. On top of that, East Nashville United was promised a focus group that would have input into whatever shape the restructuring plan took. Don’t ask how that’s been going because its first meeting hasn’t even been announced yet. However this isn’t slowing Dr Register down because he’s on a “December timeline to get this done.” (http://www.nashvillescene.com/pitw/archives/2014/10/27/register-flips-hasnt-ruled-out-giving-inglewood-to-kipp) It doesn’t sound like there is a whole lot of room for input and adjustment, but if you are going to have a listening tour where you don’t want to have to listen, November and December are good months to do it.

The Achievement District plays a big part in this plan, so lets talk about the Achievement District. Its not been a good month for them. Actually it hasn’t been a good year, but in the interest of brevity lets focus on the last week. Two Charter Operators, KIPP and Freedom Prep, decided they don’t have the resources to take over two public schools and pulled out of the process. (http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/10/27/citing-capacity-concerns-kipp-freedom-prep-pull-out-of-asd-takeover-process/#.VFAgH2F0xnI). Then parents decided that they are not that excited about Yes Prep taking over their school and let them know it. (http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/10/28/hundreds-of-community-members-protest-state-takeover-charters/#.VFAhC2F0xnI). The best part is that YES Prep is at the root of a 20 million dollar law suit against the ASD. (http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/09/09/lawsuit-alleges-achievement-school-district-favored-barbics-schools-over-competitors/#.VFAhX2F0xnI). It gets even better. As I was writing this it was reported that parents are now wanting a memorandum on ASD takeovers. (http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/10/28/hopson-wants-to-expand-izone-board-member-seeks-asd-moratorium/#.VFD-G2F0xnK)

It is interesting that the ASD announced potential takeovers in Memphis with nary a mention about their intentions in Nashville, despite obviously chomping at the bit to grow its presence. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/07/30/state-led-district-expects-take-nashville-schools/13357951/). Could it be that East Nashville United looks a little too united for their tastes. Perhaps they are not relishing a repeat of the events in Memphis. After all when there is no shortage of questions about your success, you tend to favor a lower profile.

I’d like to say that’s it for the plans, but nope. In an effort to once again include a policy that makes better copy then practice, MNPS announces a new “100 Teachers in 100 Days” program which kicked off yesterday. (http://mnpschildrenfirst.com/2014/10/27/metro-schools-launches-campaign-to-recruit-100-turnaround-teachers/) They’re calling this the “Turnaround Corp”, which I admit is a pretty catchy name and the endeavor itself is quite worthy. However, I have a number of questions.

First and foremost, who interviews and recruits in November and December? It’s always been my experience that all recruiting efforts shut down between November 1 and the second week in January. People tend to be focused on closing out the year and celebrating the holidays. Interviewing for jobs, is a bit much to add to that. Wouldn’t this be better undertaken in the spring?

Secondly, these 100 teachers are not actually getting hired by a school as they are going into a pool where a school could select them. Due to Mutual Consent laws MNPS can’t force a principal to take on a teacher. So as a “Rockstar” are you really going to be enamored with interviewing to get in the pool so that you can interview again? Maybe, maybe not.

Thirdly, “The Turnaround Corps will be made up of elementary, middle and high school teachers in the core subjects of reading/language arts, math and science. Applicants must have at least three years of successful teaching experience in a turnaround setting and will be expected to present evidence of that success. The application process will be extensive, including an essay detailing turnaround work, surveys on educational beliefs and instructional skills and a rigorous set of interviews”

Maybe I don’t know enough teachers, but the ones I do know tend to utilize best practices, period. They don’t tend to walk around with a “turn around” portfolio in their pocket. If they’ve managed to be involved in a successful turn around its because their innate skill, the strength of their team, and the incredible amount of work needed to get student, parental and community buy in. Which leads me to ask, if you’ve been involved in a turn around, why would you leave instead of reaping the benefits of your investment? After creating a support system that allowed for success, why would you gamble on getting those tools again?

The biggest question I have though is, if my child’s teacher is chosen to be a member of the Turnaround Corp who is going to replace them? Will my child go from a 5 star teacher to a 2 star? What about the teachers currently at the priority schools? Are you going to relocate all? Some? Are you sure there are a 100 that need replacing? Based on what? A system that is being utilized in a matter that it was never intended? Why would I want to come to a system that ranks its teachers on an unproven metric? Do a really want to move my family when I may be punished by a rating system that is not considered reliable. That’s a big gamble. Unless we’re not looking for teachers with families…but that’s a different post.

I’m sure the plans come with the best intentions, but I don’t understand why we have to rely on stunts instead of just supplying good teachers and equitable resources to all schools. Every job assignment has its pluses and minuses. Good recruiters make applicants focus on the positives and ignore the negative’s.

I liken improving schools to improving neighborhoods. You can’t improve a neighborhood without fixing the structure. Just moving new residents in doesn’t instantly transform the neighborhood. This plan reinforces the myth that teachers can fix all problems regardless of leadership and social influences. Even the most ardent reformers are starting to recognize this fallacy.

This bears the question where is the teacher retention portion of this program? As Peter Greene points out, that’s a subject we don’t like to talk about. ( http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/10/why-arent-we-talking-about-teacher.html) Its much easier to write headlines about getting fresh new exciting faces then about keeping the ones that have been doing the heavy lifting for years. We are all to willing to demand accountability for teachers and students, but a little reticent to demand the same from administrators.

The ideas are simple even though the execution is complicated. There are a couple tenets that can’t be compromised though, the process needs to be transparent  and all participants need to be forthright. You can’t say there is no plan when its clear that you’ve been working on a plan. You also need to recognize the social contract schools have with their communities and honor it.

Dr. Register has announced that he will not seek a contract extension. That’s a little bittersweet. I’m grateful that he has made it possible for my children to attend a quality school but I believe its time for someone to take us to the next level. When I reflect back on Favre I prefer to remember the game after his father passed away when every pass he threw seemed to have eyes. Reflecting back on Dr. Register’s tenure, I would prefer to remember him as the man who brought MNPS back from the abyss and not the man who would do anything to string out his career and who wouldn’t listen to people who told him things he didn’t want to hear.

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When Charters get Angry

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education-nycWhen I was a teenager I was given some advice that has proven valuable over the years. If you want to know someones true nature, don’t base it on how they treat you. Base it on how they treat the waitstaff at a restaurant. This advice has proven invaluable over the years in assessing the people I want to associate with. You can be pretty sure that if someone’s rude and inconsiderate to a waiter, that’ll eventually they’ll get to you. If someone is dishonest with a bartender well that’ll carry over eventually. You don’t always have to go out to eat to apply this test either. Sometimes you can just sit back and watch how they treat others to get an assessment. Over the last couple of years I’ve applied this test to charter operators and found them incredibly lacking.

They are all feel good with supporters but watch how they treat anyone who even remotely challenges them. Just ask New York Mayor Di Blasso. He suggested Success Academy start paying some rent. He got a 2000 person march on the Capitol (http://www.capitalnewyork.com/article/city-hall/2014/02/8540831/charters-start-albany-push-capitol-rally).  Give off even a whiff of criticism of charter operators and I can guarantee you a parade of people bused in, chanting and hinting of racism. Now they will never come out and call you racist but they will certainly leave the dots clear as day for connecting. We often talk of code words in race conversations and rightfully so. However, words and phrases like “affluent” “their children” “well intention” are code words in their own right. I’ve often said the brilliance in the reform movement is their ability to shape language.

Race is such a difficult subject that has been manipulated in so many ways by so many people that having an honest conversation becomes nearly impossible. As someone writes about education practices I often need to include race in my musings. Truth is it scares me to death and I often avoid it. I am scared to write something that isn’t perceived as sensitive enough. To write something that will label me as a racist. So I end up shying away from the conversation. I move to a different subject and skirt away from the elephant in the room. I’m not proud of this because I truly believe that in order for us to affect true changing of perception and opinion we need to get to a place where we can voice any opinion and have it discussed. Ignorance never thrives in sunshine.

Recently here in Nashville we have an ongoing discussion about the direction our schools will take in the future. The superintendent of schools Dr Register announced an outline of a plan to deal with the districts priority schools. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/09/09/jesse-register-calls-swift-shake-struggling-schools/15370817/0) The outline included turning over several schools to charter operators and working with the Achievement School District on others. This plan did not sit well with many parents on the Eastside. The formed a group to fight this plan called East Nashville United. Right from the beginning ENU made a concentrated effort to include all parents. They went door to door to recruit. They arranged transportation and babysitting so all parents could make the meetings. The created an open Facebook page that welcomed all views. I honestly don’t know what more they could have done to be inclusive. Apparently though it wasn’t enough.

At that this past weeks school board meeting they got an education on what happens when you challenge the charter community. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/10/14/east-nashville-groups-flood-metro-schools-board-meeting/17285975/) Apparently a new group called East Nashville Believes showed up in light blue T-shirts at 2:45 for a 5pm meeting, effectively filling the meeting room to capacity. The ENU folks were not admitted due to lack of room. ENB leaders led their group in chants of “choice is power”. They were here despite the fact that nothing in the plan challenged their schools. ENU was also not proposing that any child who wanted to go to a charter be denied that chance. You see the East Nashville Charters are not filled to capacity. In fact most to the charters in Nashville are not filled to capacity and are still actively recruiting. So what was the impetus to get out and fill the room and deny entry to parents who’s children’s education options were actually subject to change?

Let’s take a look at the the cast for East Nashville Believes. The leader leading the chants is a long time political operator who has had a great deal of success running campaign’s for charter sympathetic candidates. So much so that he recently won an award from a local paper as best lobbyist. He is also the director of Community Engagement for the Tennessee Charter Association. The head of the ASD’s wife was in attendance. She by coincidence is the Head of Democrats for Education Reform, a supposed Democratic organization that attacks unions.. Several local founders of charter schools were also there wearing the light blue. Buses brought several children and parents directly from school to the meeting. Box lunches were provided for supporters. When questioned about the funding for T-shirts and box lunches, the answer was vague at best and an outright refusal to deny that funding came from charter foundations. Another coincidence was that just the week before Nashville Stand for Children was out in the neighborhood telling parents about services available to them and I’m sure using those code words. I don’t want to call it astroturf but…yea, I want to call it astro turf.

The show of force seems to have knocked ENU for a little bit of a loop. Questions of whether they are being truly inclusive have led to internal soul searching and repurposing of communication. Thats the power of words, it can often stop us and make us question our actions and motivations. Sometimes warranted and sometimes not. It can also lead to unproductive dialog. Reformists love talking. While your talking they are still implementing and you’re not opposing. By the time you realize that the conversation is futile, 12 more charters have opened and the whole conversation has changed. Collaboration is a word that charter schools like to throw out but have you ever heard them touting something they’ve taken from a traditional school? In reform talk,  collaboration means you let us do what we want and just agree.

East Nashville has a large population of people of color. I get that this population has been historically let down by our traditional system. The power though doesn’t lie in destroying that system and replacing it with one that educates some children very well but leaves a majority without opportunity. The true power lies in coming together as a community and forcing our schools to be properly funded. To force our schools to create productive citizens that are more then just good test takers. To make sure our schools remain a pillar of our democratic society. To address the needs of ALL our children. To do that we have to be able to talk about race in an honest manner without the constant fear of offending.

We also have to recognize that we have to very different views. Charter supporters like to say, “We all want the same thing. A quality education for the kids. We just differ how to get there.” Like the only difference is trying to take the highway or a back road. Thats a fallacy at the root of the whole conversation, because the definition of quality education is not the same. A quality education for some entails performance on testable measures, elevated discipline and a focus on the measurable. A quality education for others entails a more rounded approach that doesn’t put as heavy stock in the testable, that encourages the challenging of accepted ideas, and doesn’t require longer hours and elevated discipline. One looks to produce a more employable citizen. The other a better citizen. Two very different ideals and not at all in agreement.  So no we don’t all want the same thing and we need to be honest and admit that..

I don’t know where East Nashville Unites goes from here. Having been kicked in the head by the reform movement several times myself, I know how overwelming  it can be. You question everything you believe. Including your motives and things you know to be true. The beautiful thing is the more you stay in the fight. The more you research. The more you talk to experienced advocates. The more hollow the alternative becomes. Its nice to be involved in a conversation where you don’t need to convince people, you just need to lay out the information. We know what works and doesn’t work in education. We know whats scalable and whats not. We just have to have the backbone to stand up to private interest and keep our public institutions public and meet the needs of ALL children.

 

A New Day For Teachers

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th2M1BSQQZThe Superintendent of Nashville Schools is currently out doing a listening/promo tour for his proposed “Third Way” plan. If you’ve been paying any attention the last couple of years you’ll be familiar with this plan. It involves turning some schools over to the Achievement School District, allowing charter conversions for others and making the whole district “choice”. The whole plan is disturbing on its own, but there’s one component I found especially disturbing.

I was at a meeting at a priority school that had been deeply affected by two charter schools opening up nearby. The Superintendent was explaining what a great job the charters were doing recruiting students and in order to counter their efforts he had to have good schools. One of the parents asked, “What makes a “good” school.” There were a number of factors in the response but key was that community members and teachers had to convince parents to send their children to that school.

A short time later a teacher asked, “Why is it my job to not only teach but also to get out and help market my school. Shouldn’t it be enough that I give it all in the classroom.” The response was, “Its a new day.” Think about that. It’s a new day.

In this new day its not enough for teachers to spend hours preparing for class. Its not enough to give every ounce of energy they have in the classrooms. Its not enough to spend hours collaborating with other teacher to arrive at best practices. Its not enough to spend hours at home grading papers. We now expect teachers to get out in the community and market the school and convince people that what they are doing is quality work. That to me is insane.

The problem is that we may be inadvertently adding to this perception. My daughter started kindergarten this year and at the beginning of the year I remarked about how another school’s teachers had shown up at each new student’s house the day before the start of school with a welcome and a t-shirt. Our daughters school hadn’t done that so perhaps we should have sent our daughter to the other school.

The nice thing about being married to a public education teacher is that whenever you have moronic ideas like that, they shoot holes in them. Truth is if reformers were married to public educators who were in the classroom daily, most of these ideas wouldn’t leave the front door. This time she gave me a look of sheer incredulousness. “What about knocking on somebody’s door and giving them a t-shirt translates to good teaching?” she asked.

Sheepishly, I responded, “It’s nice. It means they care.”

That was not the right answer. “How is that at all connected to pedagogy?”,  she retorted.

I realized she was right as usual. Unwittingly, I was allowing the definition of quality teaching to be modified. My thinking was allowing the creation of unrealistic expectations. What teacher had the time and energy to excel in the classroom and then go out and knock on doors to promote her work? I’ll tell you who, a young energetic unmarried fresh out of school teacher. Sound familiar?

There is no way a teacher with a family can meet the obligations that are becoming expected. There is a lot to be said about a teacher with a family. My son has a pre-k teacher that has been outstanding for him. A big part of that is that she has three boys of her own, so she gets it. I’m not saying that a teacher without children is less qualified but I don’t think a talent pool devoid of teachers with families is desirable either and we’re chasing these teachers from the profession. Luckily Teach For America is standing by ready to supply young fresh faced teachers willing to sacrifice to go out in the community and market.

This completely adds to the reshaping of the profession. Teaching  stops being something that you devote your life to and becomes something you do for a couple years and then move on. I get that times have changed and nobody supposedly stays in a profession their whole life anymore but do we really want a temp agency pool shaping future generations?

Some may chime in here and say, teachers are hired to teach academics not to shape people. Raising children is a parents responsibility. They know what’s best for a child. Well I don’t know what goes on in your household, but I need all the help I can get. I need somebody with a little bit of a track record. Someone who can help me decipher the instructions. To this point, I’ve been extremely blessed. The teachers in my children’s life have helped shape them in amazing ways and I will eternally be grateful. I’d like to take full credit for whom they’ve become to this point, but I’d be a liar.

We need to take these things into account when listening to “third way” plans. Its why the devil is really in the details. We need to make sure that the “good schools” we are creating are really “good” schools for the community. If they create an environment were teachers from competing schools are out offering I pads or to wash our cars and do our laundry  to get us to choose these “good” schools are we really looking at what’s best for the kids. If the heavy demand on teachers time creates an endless churn, how do we get to know the people we are entrusting our kids present and future  with?

I have heard endlessly on this listening tour about the importance of “rock star” teachers. (God I hate that term) Yet we create a hostile work environment by not giving them enough planning time, increasing class size, not backing them in discipline practices and by not listening to their voices. Then we turn around and say, “I got an idea. Lets throw a few bucks to the ones that’ll go to the extra challenging schools.” I got an idea why not address the issues they find pressing and challenge them to work in an environment that may be difficult but they’ll be given the tools and ears to make a real difference. Do you think anybody has proposed guaranteeing an hour of planning time a day if a teacher accepted a position at a challenging school? What about child care if a teacher worked at a challenging school? Those may not be a great ideas but they are certainly better then asking them to work overtime as marketers.