Say it fast and it sounds good.

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qualityLast night I was discussing the current state of education reform with a friend whom I seldom agree with, when he countered with, “Why can’t all of our schools be like Hume-Fogg and MLK Magnet?”.  In case you are not familiar with those two schools, they are magnet high schools in Nashville that are consistently ranked in the top 10 of schools in the state. My initial response was, “Yea why can’t they be.” Then I realized I’d just fallen prey to one of corporate reformers favorite tactics, the use of emotive language. Its no different then when Arne Duncan refers to education reform as the civil rights issue of our time when recent events, as Steve Hinnefeld points out, (http://inschoolmatters.wordpress.com/2014/12/29/school-politics-and-the-english-language/) , show civil rights issues are the civil rights issues of today.

The one thing I really admire about the reform movement is their uncanny ability to manipulate language. They use language to end the discussion before it even starts. Words like “high quality” “rigor” “failing” etc. … highly charged words that evoke emotional responses instead of thoughtful discussion. To the less informed, they create an illusion of desired outcomes. Upon review though, they take on the air of nonsense phrases from a Dr. Seuss book.

Lets take that question of why can’t all schools be exceptional. Of course that’s something we all desire, but the honest answer would be because not all kids are exceptional. Now before that gets twisted, I am not saying that some kids are not capable of learning. What I am saying is that not all kids are capable of performing at an exceptional, as we currently measure it, level. There’s a multitude of reasons for this, genetics is a big one.

I have a hard time understanding why that causes such outrage for some people. We don’t believe that every child is capable of playing in the NBA or that every child is capable of painting the ceiling of the Sistine Chappell. We don’t expect every child to be able to draw plans for City Hall nor do we expect that they will all be able to take apart an engine and put it back together. Yet we expect all children to be able to read at or above an arbitrary level and to embrace the readings we deem important. Talk about one size fits all. Another emotive phrase that gets tossed around a lot.

My mother-in-law taught for 35 years in a high poverty school. She’s told me the story of how she had a young man in her class that hated reading but had an insatiable appetite for cars. She used to bring him automotive magazines, and he’d devour them. She used his interest in cars as hook to increase his desire to read, and his reading skills grew exponentially as a result. Did that translate into increased test scores? I don’t know, but I’m willing to bet it translated into better life skills. I’d also bet that it kept him more engaged in school than a forced reading of The Gettysburg Address. Teachers need to have the freedom to identify a child’s aptitude and develop it instead of being under pressure to raise test scores in order to squeeze out a few more useful data points from them. I know that as a parent I would be much more appreciative of the teacher who expanded my child’s world then I would of the one who just raised their test score.

Do we believe for a minute that if the benchmarks that equate to a “high quality school” were being hit that those benchmarks would remain unchanged? If every child was reading on grade level, or whatever benchmark makes a school exceptional, would the bar remain the same, or would some well meaning Samaritan say, “Its not enough rigor. The kids of the Maldives are reading better. We’ve got to expect more!”? If, perhaps that Samaritan has a vested interest in showing how well the kids are doing under the current policies, might they not suggest lowering that bar a bit to show even more “growth” than before? (http://www.slate.com/articles/news_and_politics/do_the_math/2013/08/tony_bennett_education_an_astonishing_act_of_statistical_chutzpah_in_the.2.html

I liken it to the NBA when they introduced the three-point line. Initially, NBA officials set it at 23 feet 9 inches from the front of the basket. However, they were having a lot of low-scoring games, and so they decided to bring it in a bit to decrease the difficulty and thus, increase the scoring in each game. Well, things got out of hand and so three years later they moved it back. The point is, that line was generated to create a desired result. They adjusted it in order to create the desired perception: high-scoring, better quality games. Sound familiar? Education officials do the same with schools and their test scores as well. Welcome to the world of “cut scores’.

It’s been said more than once that he who controls the “cut score” controls that narrative. It’s not a new phenomenon. Politicians have been utilizing this tactic for years. Of course, everyone involved denies it and claims its highly scientific. (http://www.measurementinc.com/News/CutScores). However, just try to lay your hands on the information they use to plug into these formulas. But wait-you can’t. It’s  proprietary. So until evidence is produced otherwise, I’ll hold to the belief that cut scores are political tools. Just ask John White down in Louisiana. (http://www.nola.com/politics/index.ssf/2013/05/john_white_cover_up_test_score.html)

Another dichotomy is that we want all our schools to be high-performing schools but we don’t want them to conduct business like high-performing schools. I can assure you that at Hume-Fogg and MLK there is very little teaching for the test going on. Teachers are encouraged to engage and inspire students. Whereas in so called low-performing schools there is a constant threat of retribution if scores don’t improve. Time that could be spent engaging students has to be sacrificed to appease the gods of assessment. Time that could be used to instill the joy of learning is substituted for instilling  knowledge as a means to an end.

The MLK and Hume-Fogg student population is made up of students that teachers do not have to search for ways to engage. The students want to be there, and the value of education is reinforced at home. I know nobody likes to hear this, but there are students who don’t want to go to school, and that disdain is reinforced at home, “When I was your age I was already working. I didn’t have time for school”, “I know how you feel, I used to skip school all the time” “I never used what I learned in school” are all refrains heard in American households. In some schools with heavy EL populations, depending on the country of origin, some parents see no value in educating children, especially the females. Others schools face a transient population that has children on the move so much due to socioeconomic reasons that they can never fully engage. Its a problem with public schools, they are made up of the public. One more example of it not being a one size fits all proposition.

The bottom line is that under our current method of measuring schools, not all schools can be “high performing schools” because they don’t all serve the same population. They can though, be “high-quality schools” if we expand our view of what that means. They can be places where all students are welcome and are encouraged to discover and refine their aptitude. They can all be places where the value of education is instilled as a part of life and not just something one undertakes to hit an arbitrary mark. They can all be places that shape society and not just the individual.

Please do not misconstrue what I’m saying as promoting a lack of emphasis on reading or mathematics. I certainly don’t underestimate their value. Being able to utilize those skills is vital to being an active participant in society. I just don’t believe that they should be the ultimate evaluation on a person’s worth. Some kids, for whatever reason, may never hit grade level on reading or math. Its heart-breaking when a child falls short, and we should do everything possible to see that they reach their goals. But we should also recognize the effort and the growth that they’ve made. Scoring a 21 on the ACT is admirable, but again, its not the complete summation of an individual.

We don’t need to label children as failures. That becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. The truth is that no matter how much you attempt to lay the blame at the feet of teachers, schools, or communities, ultimately the message that gets sent to the child is that they are a failure. That they are the ones not realizing expectations. Nobody should be made to feel like a failure because they don’t meet our  financial or political agenda. There are extenuating challenges that are out of a child’s control and a child should never be classified based on those factors. That’s not an excuse. It’s reality.

It’s extremely important that we emotionally divest ourselves from the emotive response that the reform movement’s words evoke. We need to ask, what does “rigor” really mean? “Failure”? “High Quality Schools”? Unless we are willing to divest, and really break down what is actually being proposed, we are never going to have an honest conversation. We need to recognize that all children are not the same, one size does not fit all, but all children are valuable and their unique gifts should be equally celebrated. Schools are a place to find your voice. Traditionally, public schools have known that for years, but the narrative began to change when outside forces began trying to paint them all with the same brush. We need to put away that brush and break out the crayons again.

 

 

 

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What does College and Career readiness really mean?

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insaneI am not an educator. That’s something I always want to be clear about. I have two children and I am married to an educator, but I do not earn my living through instructing children. Having a spouse as an educator does provide me with some insights though it is like having a BS meter installed in the house. There have been so many instances where I thought I had some brilliant observation or revelation only to have the meter go off. “No thats not how its works” or “Thats not as big a deal as you think it is” or “No they don’t have the best interests at heart” are phrases that are often used when I bounce my latest postulation off of her or one of her colleagues. It may be humbling at times, but I actually highly recommend being married to an educator and do think that the DOE would be better served if they had at the very least a deputy director that hadn’t been out of the classroom for more then a year. Of course a director would be even better though I suspect the sound of the BS meter might turn out to be a bit deafening  for the first couple of years.

There is one educational concept though that I have never had to bounce off of her or anyone else to validate its complete inanity. Thats the concept of “all children being college and career ready”. It just reeks of a nonsense phrase that if repeated enough starts to take on some meaning. Why would I want to instill in my children the belief that if you just get college and career ready you will somehow live a fulfilled life, because your career and work are central to life. Raising a family, building a community, appreciation of the arts, travel all come secondary to what you do at work. Work will define who you are as a person, so get ready to fill in that definition. It reminds me of the hated “lucky to have a job” statement. Do you hear the meter going off?

A person is not “lucky” to have a job. Its capitalism at its core. The worker through diligence has acquired skills that the employer needs in order to further their goal. The two mutually agree on a value to those skills. So perhaps both are lucky, because they were able to connect to fulfill a mutual need. Now what happens if you are an employer and there are not enough potential workers with the skills you need to meet your goals at the price you’re willing to pay? If you have enough cash you probably start to exert influence on the local school districts to start focusing on the skills that you deem important. What happens then if there is soon a glut of potential workers with the skills you require? Do those skills retain the same value or is the value diminished? If the value of the skills are diminished and the amount of labor required to meet the workers needs are increased, has the student really been made career ready? Thats the myth they want you to buy into.

In my twenties I bought into that myth. It was not rare for me to work 60 and 70 hour weeks. It was a life that gave the appearance of fulfilling but was very one dimentional. You see, when you work those kinds of hours you don’t do anything else. You don’t interact with friends and family. You don’t travel. You don’t read books and you don’t play music. Its go to work, eat, sleep and prepare to go to work. Work has got such a hold on you that even when your body is not at work, your mind remains.

I was pretty successful. I reached the top rung, made a decent amount of money and had lots of associates. Everybody knew my name. Then I found out the hard way, it didn’t matter. You see when I started to falter a bit and got a little tired of the long hours, somebody else was ready to step in. The business did what was good for it, not what was good for me. When I started to wake up I realized friends and family had established different routines and I didn’t fit those. Money got spent and associates moved on as well. My name was forgotten. Why would I want my children to fall in to this trap?

Here’s another secret that won’t sit comfortable with some. We spend a child’s formative years celebrating nothing but excellence. Then as they get older the realization sinks in that life is not an endless series of excellent endeavors. In fact, life is filled with days of mundanity, interrupted by bursts of exception. I can hear the chorus now, “Oh no my life’s not like that. I jump out of bed everyday knowing that I will face some exceptional challenge.” Sorry, got to hit the meter. Even if you are daily searching for a cure to cancer there are still days of rest. There are still sheets to be changed, food to be prepared, bathrooms that need cleaning, clothing that needs to be bought, bills that need to be paid, unless those are tasks assigned to others. In a world focused on the exceptional, who will those others be? I suspect the answer but then I’d be labeled as a conspiracy theorist.

What I’m saying is not a negative. In fact I believe you can find people’s true selves in how they cope with the mundanity. How do they spend the time they are given? Do they curl up with a good book? Sit at a piano and play unconcerned with their skill level? Do they experiment in the kitchen? Rearrange knick knacks that they collect? Go for a walk in the woods and experience the beauty of nature? These are all activities that aren’t rigorous but make life more exceptional. These are things that we are slowly eroding every time we discontinue an arts class, an industrial arts class, a home economics class, or any class that can’t lead to a measurable outcome. Have you tried lately to go back and watch an old movie and not been able to enjoy it as much because the pace was so slow? Film is a mirror of our lives. The ones considered classics are the ones that connect with our lives. If we are not able to enjoy films that don’t provide constant stimulation what does that say about our lives? Read the papers and you will find ample evidence of people unable to cope with the daily grind. They find escape by medicating, drinking, over exercising, over eating, over working or any other number of other detrimental behaviors. Is it a stretch to link this to schooling? Maybe, but they do call it the formative years.

We are selling children a false bill of goods when we consistently deliver a message that scoring well on tests will lead to a life of fufillment and that everything they do needs to be exceptional. We don’t spend nearly enough time on preparing them for the day to day and introducing them to the things that make life worth living. We don’t spend nearly enough time instilling the necessity and joy of life long learning. My father used to like to work with his hands. He’d come home from work and tinker with the car or build something around the house. He most likely developed an appreciation for these endeavors in high school shop and automotive classes. How many schools still have those classes? Imagine how the quality of my fathers life would have differed if he’d never had a place to discover and sharpen those skills. My mother was a reader and you could often find her curled up with a book, most weren’t classics. What if she’d been taught in school that reading is only a means to an end and?

An education advocate, that I sometimes debate with, made a statement the other day that “We could probably agree on what makes a quality education.” I disagree. Reform advocates lobby for schools focused on the measured and getting people ready for careers. I prefer a school that puts as much stock in the unmeasurable and prepares kids for life. That means introducing children to things that give life depth, be it the arts, athletics, industrial arts, literature or any of the other things we can’t measure. I believe in schools that celebrate the effort as much as the excellence. The child who has a learning disability that makes huge gains but still falls short of proficient deserves as much celebration as the student who wins a national merit scholarship. I prefer an education that teaches that failure can often be the best teacher and creates an environment were lessons can be learned from failure without a fear that your failure will lead to a labeling of your teacher, school and community. I believe in an education that exposes my child to the people they will be building the future with. All of them, not just the ones who look and think like them.

I may not be an educator but I do know that children are always learning. They are designed to learn. The more sources of learning they are exposed to the more well rounded they become. They don’t need white knights agenda setting for them. A twenty something that works with me recently asked, “Is there anybody you meet for the first time that you can’t hold a conversation with?” My answer is, no. Thats because my schooling didn’t make me college and career ready, it made me life ready.

 

 

A change in leadership is not a change in policy.

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candicemcqueenThis week the edict went out. Tennessee has a new State Superintendent of Education. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/news/education/2014/12/17/sources-haslam-name-candice-mcqueen-new-education-commissioner/20535427/) Dr. Candice McQueen is the new boss and she’s being lauded as a former classroom teacher and someone who as overseen a high quality teacher preparation program. Its also being noted that she’s a strong proponent of the Common Core Standards. Its very fair to say that during her tenure, David Lipscomb has turned out some of the finest teachers in the country. People that were opposed to Huffman are welcoming this change and calling for everyone to greet this selection with open arms and give her a chance. At the same time the reform crowd is lauding the selection. Giving her time is all fair and well, except for a few red flags. You didn’t really expect me to be the come along go along guy did you?

The first red flag is the very timing itself. They just announced her selection and she takes office on January 20th. This is just shortly before the next legislative session. A session thats lining up to be pretty contentious. Bills have already been introduced to put an end to Common Core. Hey look at that, her specialty is Common Core. So if all give her some time and be open, say a couple months, that takes us right through this session. Hmmmm….nothing gets done and everything gets a little more entrenched.

I’m not trying to come off as a conspiracy nut, but that is standard operating procedure for the reform crowd. They love to play upon your reasonableness and get you talking. See reasonable people believe that while you are talking, both sides are suspending activities. Thats the trap. The reform crowd talks and builds at the same time. You don’t have to look any further then East Nashville to find evidence of that. While neighborhood groups were engaged in dialog about a KIPP take over and what it would look like, KIPP was meeting with the school district, hiring a principal and recruiting in the neighborhood. So guess what, they are now ready to implement their plan despite the fact that the community still hasn’t accepted it and the band plays on.

The next red flag is that I can’t find a single person that can tell me where she has taught, despite the fact that she’s being touted for her classroom experience. This may seem like a small deal but in the age of TFA and other teacher programs what counts as classroom experience has become a little fluid. The bio says five years elementary and middle, both private and public. Thats a little bit of movement. Now I get that it could have been public elementary and private middle, but still. I understand as well, that this kind of movement is par for someone in the beginnings of an admin career, still you would think that since she taught here in Nashville, somebody would be able to say, “I taught with her at XYZ and…” I’m afraid that might say as much about out teacher demographics as it does anything. Early retirement and the relentless pursuit of a younger teaching force may have thinned the ranks of her peers. (As a disclaimer the closest I have come to classroom experience is a couple summers as camp director for 6th graders a few years ago and vicariously through my wife and her family of educators. As well as the many teachers I call friends.)

This classroom experience needs to be taken in context with the very close relationship that Dr. McQueen has nurtured with Teach for America. TFA has served as the shock troops for every plank of the reform movements platform. They’ve helped increase achievement district and charter school proliferation. They are champions of Common Core. Merit pay, early retirement plans, lobbying to change the definition of “high quality teacher.” all advanced by TFA. Thats right, thanks to TFA and Senator Harkin, five weeks of training continues to qualify one as a “high quality teacher.” (http://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/answer-sheet/wp/2013/10/16/the-debt-deals-gift-to-teach-for-america-yes-tfa/) That seems to run counter to the fine work at David Lipscomb. Why a highly respected teacher education school would get so cozy with a program that seems to undermine their commitment to quality has always baffled me. Since people’s deeds are always more important then their words, this relationship should be a big part of  the conversation in reference to the new superintendent.

Yesterday Dr McQueen released a letter to Tennessee teachers. (http://tnedreport.com/?p=1193). As you can see its filled with many of my favorite phrases. “We are on the right path” ,”Fastest rising state in country” ,”We have to do more”, “This is hard work.”, and my favorite, “I can commit to you that I will always put children first in making decisions about policy or practice.” That last one always sets my radar off. I thought that was kind of implied in the job description. Its like when people tell me how honest they are. I don’t need you to tell me if your honest or not, I can pretty much tell from your actions. Same goes for if you are really putting children first. You don’t have to tell me, I’ll be able to figure it out.

The truth is, we should not have any real expectations for an ally in the department of education as long as we continue to have the same state leadership. Remember this is a governor that has promised teacher raises and never delivered. He continues to support common core and is currently just playing politics with it. Right now the focus is on floating the idea that its just the name that bothers people not the actual standards. (http://www.tennessean.com/story/opinion/contributors/2014/12/19/politics-common-core-name/20559849/). In fact Governor Haslam has never once been critical of either Mr Huffman or his policies. Based on the evidence here is no reason to believe that his appointee will do any different. Since we are on the “right path”, right?

I’m not trying to be disparaging of Dr. McQueen, many have spoken highly of her, but based on current climate and some of the concerns I’ve brought up, there is plenty of cause for trepidation. It is in that light that my suggestion would be to continue on as we have over the last several years. There are very real policies that many feel are harming children in the state of Tennessee. There continues to be the potential for more legislation that will damage our public school sysytem. There fore we need to continue to fight against these policies and legislation. Now is not the time to give anyone a pass. We have been very successful by taking allies where we find them and focusing on the policies primarily and personalities secondarily. Personally I am thankful that Kevin Huffman is leaving, but if his policies are staying thats not a victory. Lest we forget, unless he’s loading up the car with all his minions, there’s still plenty of  near-do-wells to go around.

There has been much talk of setting up meetings and reaching out to Dr. McQueen and scheduling an audience. Pun intended. My question would be why? Again I don’t mean that disrespectfully but she’s been fully vetted by the governors allies way before this point. They have decided on an agenda and she may or may not share that with us. It doesn’t change the fact that we’ve got to change the minds of legislators and educate the public. We may want to introduce ourselves but based on the recent twitter followers several of us have picked up in the last several days, she knows who we are and what we stand for. Is meeting with, say Momma Bears, suddenly going to make her go, “Wow those mothers in Memphis really hate testing”. Is a conversation with BATS going to open her eyes to the misguided state evaluation of teachers policy? Or is it more likely to lead to the tossing of a few bones to slow the opposition down?

I don’t see anyone accepting those bones as enough, but its the political reality of how these things are played out. Its important to recognize the time factor as well. The leadership of SCORE, the Charter Incubator, TFA, Stand for Children, Students First, have all day to work and push their agenda. As for the rest of us, we all work other jobs, have families many with children and other charities we volunteer for. Time is a precious commodity. So if we can steal the time to schedule a meeting with five legislators that we may be able to convince of the situations urgency, versus one person that would still have to advocate, I opt for the legislators. Thats just me and others may see it differently and thats why they make Fords and Chevys. In my opinion the need to meet with Dr McQueen will come when the things she pushes start to mirror the things that are truly in the best interests of Tennessee children.

I’m not saying this with any hostility or attempt to hinder. I hope she turns out to be an amazing superintendent. I hope she reverses all the mis-guided policies of the last several years. I hope we find a long term ally. The truth though is, she’s got her job to do and we’ve got ours. It would be insulting to insinuate that she’s not as informed as we are. She is going to pursue her agenda just as we are going to pursue ours. We need to continue on with our work as reality presents itself. There is a change in leadership not a change in policy. If she wants to reach out to us and talk wonderful. If her actions lead her to become ally, even better. However, time is of the essence and now is not the time to take the foot off the peddle. Now is the time to identify which policies we want to target and to start to bring the troops together. Its time for us to do our job and wish Dr. McQueen the best of luck at hers.

Dear ASD, Its not the tone that’s the problem

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1111Chris Barbic of the Tennessee Achievement District has been out making the interview rounds of late. One of his primary themes has been the tone surrounding the conversation on education. He’s been lamenting how people have lost sight of the kids and that they are the only ones that matter. He’s really bummed that people say awful things about reformers and himself. Of course, there is not a single mention of the role the tourists, as I’ve taken to calling reformers, play in this conversation. Its the classic everybody but I set the tone argument.

In a recent blog post Peter Greene is brilliant in labeling the reform movement as tourists. (http://curmudgucation.blogspot.com/2014/12/homeostasis-tourists-stability-and-feds.html?spref=tw) Just like tourists they go into an area and impose their agenda and views on the natives and then get indignant when the natives snap back. Think about how the French react to American tourists. Where do you think the term “ugly American” originates? Instead of trying to understand the ire of the native though, the tourist just labels them as uncooperative and hostile.  They decry, “If only they would get into the 21st century!” Hmmm…sound familiar?

The other caveat in the tone discussion is the lack of honesty on the tourist side. Like classic bullies they are willing to scrap until someone actually punches them in the nose. I get labeled as obtuse and acting like a bully on occasion, but the truth is I’m just tired. I’m tired of the condescending rhetoric. I’m tired of the parlor tricks and most of all I’m tired of the lying. That weariness leads to the lowering of the filters and I’m sorry Chris, but you just happen to be one of the worst offenders. You are condescending and rude to dissenters until they call you on it then you stand by awkwardly singing Magic! “Why you gotta be so rude? Don’t you know I’m human too.”

Lets take a look at this past week, for examples. The ASD was set to announce their next round of takeovers. Do they do it on a Monday morning when we can all read about it and discuss? Do they even do it in the middle of the week? No, they do it on a Friday at 5pm, a time traditionally reserved for delivering bad news.  The reason being that nobody reads the paper over the weekend and by Monday something else has replaced the story in the news cycle. Hence the name, Friday afternoon news dump. You’re not supposed to know that though.

How about Chris’s lament about not focusing on the kids enough. It wants you to forget a few things. Public education is not just about immediate needs i.e. reading on grade level, generating test scores etc. Schools should be reflections of our society. If schools are being rigged so that society is further stratified how are we watching out for the kids? If we demand that all kids go to college even though the job market doesn’t support that, how are we watching out for the kids? If we narrow their focus to just the measurable and deny them the life broadening experiences of art, music, industrial arts, how are we watching out for the kids?  All you’re supposed to know is that he cares and the rest of us are out representing “adult interests”.

Their is another part of Peter Greene’s article that really hit home for me. So much of the reform rhetoric is about leaving something behind. Charter’s constantly tout themselves as a means to leave poverty behind but what happens to what’s left behind? Are those communities left to languish? Do we use our commitment to the kids as an excuse to do nothing about the ever widening income gap in America? Its interesting that in underdeveloped countries we focus on educating females because they will stay in the village and raise the level of education for all while in America we preach abandonment.

Take a look at the schools the ASD is poised to take over. Barbic says its all about the kids, but the ASD is only taking over one class a year starting with the incoming class of fifth graders. That means that all those kids who he’s lamenting that we’ve failed, he’s just written off. The only kids the ASD is concerned about are the ones coming in that can generates numbers to justify his savior complex. The others will be left to languish and try to find their own way. MNPS probably won’t divert more resources to their school either  because, well that’s an ASD school now. Forgot to mention that part huh?

I was always taught not to judge people on how they interacted directly with you but to judge them on their interactions with others when they thought you weren’t watching. Barbic has touted LEAD schools for their experience with the EL population. Well I was at the Neely’s Bend meeting and not only was there an insufficient number of translators but initially they were very selective with what they translated. None of the speakers that were critical of the ASD were translated. Hmmm…is this a sample of that LEAD school experience or just something else that was forgotten?

In a recent Op-Ed piece Barbic called out critics for misleading people about Charters being privateers.

We saw fliers handed out with false data about ASD schools. We heard charters being called profiteers, even though all of our charters are nonprofit public schools. State law prevents for-profit charters from serving students. This false information leaves parents angry and confused, and even sadder, it drowns out parent voices.

Well lets look closer. Rocketship is an ASD partner right? (http://tn.chalkbeat.org/2014/09/08/rocketships-nashville-debut-highlights-tennessees-place-in-the-charter-landscape/#.VI8G62F0xnI) Rocketship buys buildings under a private corporation that in turn leases to the “school”. (http://www.shesellsnashville.com/2014/12/11/andre-agassis-fund-acquires-murfreesboro-pike-building-murfreesboro-tn-real-estate/) They kind of  move the money around a bit so they look like non-profits. (http://www.tnledger.com/editorial/article.aspx?id=72653) So Chris is this another something you forgot or….oh yea I’m working on tone.

Lastly but certainly not least, is the ASD’s focus on data. Chris is out championing his data but when confronted with it, well it doesn’t exactly tell the complete story. Both School board Members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering confronted the ASD on their data at the recent meeting. By the way Chris, this is what elected officials do. They dig into arguments and make sure that the people who elected them have their voice heard. This democracy thing is really a pain in the butt.

Well the scores the school board member’s presented didn’t jibe with the ASD’s. Barbic’s answer. Frogge and Speering were using the raw scores. You didn’t get an accurate picture until you added some good old value added voodoo, which by the way has proven to be highly unreliable. (http://nepc.colorado.edu/blog/problem-value-added-measures) Oh well, so much for data. You argue data while we argue that data can be manipulated and then when we confront you with your own data it becomes, well you know data can be manipulated. Its like living the Bugs Bunny episode of “Rabbit season. Duck season.”

Are you starting to get the idea of why the tone has gotten so ugly? If you had a friend who was constantly giving false information and when confronted about it just shifted the parameters of the conversation, would you spend much time hanging out together? Would you continue to give them the benefit of the doubt when they spoke? Would you introduce them to new people? Its time to supply the same criteria to Chris Barbic and the Tennessee Achievement School District and actually the whole tourist movement. You claim to want to have a conversation but you refuse to facilitate it. Stop lying and we may want to hang out more.

I don’t think that’s going to happen though. At least not with out the intervention of elected officials. Chris Barbic doesn’t believe that he has to answer to anyone. He believes that he has unchecked power to take what ever school he wants and the only accountability is internal “We’re going to hold ourselves accountable for results. There will be no such thing as slow failure in the ASD. If after three years our schools are not improving at an acceptable pace, we will replace them.” That’s not acceptable and we should demand that our lawmakers review the ASD’s Charter. That’s what I’m going to do and I hope all of you will join me. This predatory entity needs to be reigned in.

 

 

Christmas Letters

111This is the time of year that we start to receive Christmas letters from friends and family. We enjoy them a great deal around the Weber household and are extremely happy that everyone is doing so well. That said, if the Weber’s sent one out, it probably look a little different. In fact, it might look a little like this:

Friends and Family,

Well we’ve come to the end of another year and Priscilla and I would like to report that once again we’ve managed to stay married, stay employed and stave off bankruptcy. Since love is never in shortage in our household, you would you think the aforementioned would be a given, however outside forces continue to conspire against us and we never take for granted our ability to beat them back.

We are still living in the same house in a neighborhood we adore despite the apparent ongoing shrinkage of the domicile and the pets and children’s incessant attempts to dismantle it. We are discussing whether to remodel or  relocate. Luckily we’ve had this discussion in both 2012 and 2013 so there is not a lot of ground to cover and the outcome should be fairly predictable.

Priscilla is still teaching. As you may know she teaches in a school with a high EL population and finds the children both challenging and rewarding. Luckily there is no shortage of people who can offer instruction and guidance on how best to serve this population, many of them unencumbered by degrees and experience. As we all know, those are things that can lead to making excuses for children and not allowing them to reach their full potential.

Thomas just completed his second fourth quarter managing a benefit call center. Since October and November are months that he virtually disappears from family life, the approach of Christmas is a time of renewal for the Webers. He has also increased his education policy advocacy work. Which has had little affect other then making the retention of Priscilla’s job a little more difficult and more hours away from the family, but he enjoys it and occasionally gets free meals out of it.

The children have been extremely healthy this year for which we are grateful. Avery has started kindergarten which has proven much less earth shattering then anticipated. We love her school, as well as her teacher and principal and despite the fact that it could soon be labeled a failing school by outsiders, she is learning to read, write and add at an astonishing pace. Peter is finishing up his final year at daycare where he has been fortunate to have been friended by some older boys who’ve taught him the finer arts of pulling peoples legs off, elves, superheroes and not letting adults boss you around. Both children have mastered technology and debate this year. When not on their Ipads they can often be found fighting with each other.13

The pets are also doing well. Shelby has made it clear that any attempts at restraint are not appreciated. In her desire to be unencumbered and lounge freely in the porch area she has broken a door, a front window and partially dismantled the gate of her fenced back yard. She is a true canine free spirit and we celebrate her when not cursing her. This year saw a new cat join the family leading Thomas to reset the pet free clock. The other cats are doing well and look like they will be living long lives in the Weber household.

This year saw the Weber’s take trips to both Florida and Pennsylvania. Both kids proclaimed that living in these locales would be preferable to our current location. We also took trips to Franklin, Wilson County and Murfreesboro for a mixture of educational and entertainment purposes. The Wilson County Fair was especially enjoyable this year.

Lastly but not certainly not least, once again the end of the year has us filled with gratitude. At a time when so many have so little we are in awe of all we have and the fact that we have each other. I once heard it said that anyone can do the exciting things with you in life, but whats truly special is the person that can be with you for the mundane moments that fill everyday life. Well I’ve got three of those and I wouldn’t change them for anything. In fact I’d like to quote Tim McGraw to each of them,

Slide, slide over nice and close
Lay your head down on my shoulder
You can fall asleep Ill let you
Dream, life aint nothing but a dream, dont wanna be
Cruisin through this dream without you.
I love you Weber’s and hope each of you never forget just how much a blessing you are and that I will never take a single run of the mill day with you for granted because you make them all exceptional.
12Peace out and happy holidays to all!!!

The future is so bright I’ve got to wear shades

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aaaYou hear the craziest things at school board meetings. Last night I heard a former teacher talk about how we’ve completely stopped asking what we can do for children and have started demanding that they supply our needs. You see junior, you may be cold, hungry and homeless but we need you to focus, because we need these data points. Our agenda completely depends on you delivering these numbers, so lets get to it. We need those number so we can close some schools, fire some teachers and demonstrate how ineffective local school boards are. We also need to able to add to our resumes and drive our Priuses to our suburban homes free of guilt.  So buckle down and start producing.

On the way home from the ASD meeting last week I was discussing with a local school board member the state of the education conversation in America.  Reformers have so controlled the conversation and language that we are now reduced to arguing over data points like they are stats in a football game. We have become completely blinded to the fact that these data points are actually real live human beings. They have hopes, dreams and fears that don’t necessarily align to ours, yet we are arguing whether they are learning fast enough or not. We are not just doing it in a broad sense either. We dissect the numbers to the minutiae, ignoring everything about that person but that number. One side argues the other while the other claims that its not exactly how it appears. I don’t know about you, but that makes me feel a little dirty and we should all be ashamed of ourselves..

I hear the chorus now. “We have to have accountability,” “Kids demand more rigor”, “Assessments allow us to truly gauge results.”, and my favorite “We owe it to the kids!”. Really? Kids are demanding that you take everything in their extensive world and reduce it to a single number and then rate schools, teachers, and friends based on it? yea, color me doubtful. Parents don’t even demand it. All they demand is a quality education. The only people I’ve heard demand it are those with a financial stake. They’ve come along and taken parents demand and added their definition while scaring parents into acceptance. After all if Johnny’s in third grade and not reading at a 5th grade level, well he’s probably doomed to a life of….well you know…bad stuff.

Lets carry the conversation a little further. These numbershave led us to only focus on the exceptional. Just getting on the honor roll is not enough. A child needs to be working on a cure for Ebola or finding a way to structure a community on the moon in order for us to pay attention. It used to be that every school had a collection of kids that were considered the brains while the rest of us just kind of squeezed by and learned the business of life. That doesn’t work in todays world. The tables have been flipped. You need a school full of brains with just a few squeaking by.

Here in lies the great lie. I may get grief for it, but somebody has to say it. Its alright to strive for exceptional-ism, but the truth of the matter is, most of us are going to live quite ordinary lives flecked with moments of exceptional-ism. That’s not a bad thing and in fact its been pretty damn good to me over the years I’ve never walked on the moon, I’ve never stopped a plague and I’ve never been financially secure, but I’ve had a life well lived. Its the kind of life I’d wish for my children. Well maybe without the years lost to addiction, though a life without challenge is never full. The point is, we teach teach children that the only thing that matters is rigor and high performance and they completely fail to learn what makes life worth living.

The pursuit of the measurable leads to a falling away of the immeasurable.  A child loses the opportunity to appreciate the sound of a French horn. They never get to experience the emotions of looking at a Bosch painting. “Reading Still Life of a Woodpecker” just because it makes you laugh and ponder is sacrificed because well…we need those data points. I hate to admit some of the best lessons I ever learned in school came when I was goofing off. I know three reformers just lost their wings. School was always a laboratory for me though. Lessons learned in the classrooms and in the halls. Lessons that have served me well in adulthood.

We always seem to forget when designing education policy that the children of today will become the adults of tomorrow. Further segregate our schools and the future will be further segregated. Create schools that are all about the individual child and you shouldn’t be shocked when our world is populated by people that think the world is all about them. Teach children that anything less then exceptional is failure and that life demands more rigor, don’t be surprised when we have adults incapable of living well adjusted lives. Its easy to forget that children become full grown people when you begin dehumanizing them at an early age.

When my first child was born, I told my wife all I wanted for her was to learn to tell a story and not be afraid of life. I stand by that. If you learn to tell a story, math and reading will become part of the equation because you’ll develop a thirst to improve the tale. you’ll also understand that life is a narrative filled with multiple chapters. If a child is not afraid of life they won’t be crippled by fear of failure and they’ll seek to understand the unknown. They’ll understand that failure is a path to knowledge and not a tool to be used for punishing those they love.

If we were serious in our pursuit of what’s best for children,the tests and surveys we administer would include how many meals did you eat yesterday? Do you have your own bed? What’s the educational level of your parents? How many days were you here last month? How often have you moved? How many tests have you taken this year and what are the cumulative results? Who are your friends? These are just a few of the questions we should ask. If we did we might be able to address the actual needs of the child and not just satisfy our needs. Education should be about growth, not constant measure and rank.

Earlier I mentioned that you hear the craziest things at school board meetings. There was a women that was waiting to speak right before me. Her child attended the school that was up for conversion consideration. She was very nervous but very angry. She understood the numbers but she also understood the challenges. She was very adamant that she was not turning her child over to the school just to learn to read and add at a high level. She wanted a place that would love her child and provide a safe and nurturing place for them to grow to maturity. It was important to her that her child understand their place in a community. All the things her child was currently getting at their public school.

I’ll be honest. Her speech was not exceptional. It didn’t flow like the Gettysburg address. There were probably as many grammar errors as there are in this piece. She stumbled over words and had long pauses. However, it was effective and it demonstrated courage. It put a lump in my throat and humbled me. I applaud her and wish that we would create schools that did the same. Places that celebrate the effort as much as the exceptional. Places that truly address a child’s need to grow and not just an adults need to measure.

 

 

Gaslighting ASD style

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thI don’t know how many of you are familiar with the term “Gaslighting”. Here’s the definition from Wikipedia:

Gaslighting or gas-lighting[1] is a form of mental abuse in which false information is presented with the intent of making victims doubt their own memory, perception, and sanity.[2] Instances may range simply from the denial by an abuser that previous abusive incidents ever occurred, up to the staging of bizarre events by the abuser with the intention of disorienting the victim.

I went to a meeting sponsored by the Achievement School District last night to educate parents about a proposed take over and if this isn’t a description of what look place then I’m at a loss as to what it was. The ASD for those not familiar is a state created entity charged with taking the bottom 5% of schools and converting them to the top 25%. They kind of ignore the fact that there will always be a bottom 5% and if they keep turning schools over to charters eventually there won’t be anymore public schools, or perhaps they don’t ignore that and its all part of the plan. Let’s all sing “Gaslight” to the tune of George Clinton.

I’ve been in a fair amount of schools that are described as failing schools over the last several years. The thing that always baffles me is that they never feel like places of failure. When you describe failing to me, I expect to find hallways littered with debris and broken lockers. I expect to find sullen students and teachers that aren’t engaging. You expect to walk in and its like walking into a old coal town where dreams have gone to die.

This description doesn’t fit any of the schools I’ve been in. In each of them I’ve been hit by an overwhelming wave of community. Last night teachers from the school were introduced at the beginning of the meeting and they were greeted like they were the Rolling Stones taking the stage. So wait a minute, you mean the community loves the very people that are robbing their children of their future? How is that possible? In fact the crowd was so anti-ASD that if I was them I would have packed my stuff and gone home, but I don’t have a savior complex.

It was interesting that when the opposition spoke there was an energy in the room, but when the ASD representative spoke the room felt heavier, the shuffling louder, and the sound of side conversations increased. Looking around I see a well kept school. Examples of student work litter the halls. Teachers move about interacting with students and their families. They obviously have formed strong bonds. Trust me, I know failing and this didn’t look like it.

Next up the gentleman from the ASD makes an impassioned declaration about how ASD schools remain part of the community. Though wait, only fourth grade parents who’s kids attend the school were invited to the meeting. When a woman asks, “Why didn’t you invite all elementary parents. They’ll be impacted by this.”  The ASD responds, “That’s a good idea. We didn’t think of that.” Hey wait! I thought you were all about community. Which community were you talking about? Either they were making things up or they just don’t understand community. Either way is not good and now my head is starting to hurt.

Next comes a big effort to make sure that all the English Learner parents are sitting with translators. A big deal is made of making sure all are near a translator. However, once State Rep. Bill Beck and School Board Member Amy Frogge speak out against the ASD, the translators fail to translate their statements. I believe that trend would have continued all night had several people not drawn attention to it. That one is pretty bold, but hey I’ve grown accustomed to the ASD going big.

Amy Frogge spoke to the crowd and pointed out that the data the ASD was presenting was, to put lightly, misleading. She pointed out that actually the ASD has had negative growth over the last couple years and that this school was actually trending in the right direction. This earned an angry rebuke by the ASD rep and the dispatching of a you data master to correct Ms Frogge. Unfortunately it was the data master who got corrected. Below is the referenced data. You can read it and draw your own inferences.

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While the data master was attempting to school Ms Frogge, I took the opportunity to share the recruitment tactics of Lead Academy in South Nashville. How they go into apartment complex’s populated by refugees and scare them into enrolling in LEAD, telling them how bad the neighborhood schools are. Promising Ipads and such if their children enroll in LEAD. She said she could only engage in facts and pointed to her data. I replied these are facts and have been documented, would you like me to send you the testimony’s? She again pointed to her computer and reiterated, “she can only deal in the facts”. Only problem, her facts weren’t so factual.

Just down the road, about 10 miles according to my iPhone, a similar scene was playing out simutaneously. This one hosted by the head of the ASD, Chris Barbic. Barbic didn’t attempt to hide his disdain for elected school board officials. He’s a big fan of appointments. When Ms. Speering confronted the ASD about their same fallacies he was downright disrespectful to her. The council woman for the district later pointed out that that’s not how we do things in Nashville. His response? Well she gave out my phone number, acting like a petulant child. Barbic once told me that he answered to elected state officials. Recently he’s stated that he could take all of the schools in the lower 5% if he desired and no one could stop him. Seems like he doesn’t feel as if he has answer to anyone anymore. Perhaps his state bosses need to look closer at that statement in the spring. Hubris brought down his comer boss, its important to remember Ibsen. The sins of the father often follow the son

This leads me to the most disturbing revelation of the evening. The so-called reformers, and the members of the ASD have so set the tone of the conversation and the language, that the conversation is centered about the size of the numbers and whether they are big enough or not. We are arguing over the scores as if they are just points on a map. Lost is the fact that these numbers are actually living breathing children reduced to a single data point. Why in god’s name, if you say you truly care for a child, would you want them summed up by a simple number based on a single test. My child is much more complex then that and I would argue that yours is as well.

I thought about this on the way home. It really struck me how immoral it all was. I thought about the parents that showed up. I thought about the children in attendance that interacted with teachers that sacrificed time with their own families to support this institution. I thought about community members impassioned enough to take time out of their schedule and show up even though they may not have kids enrolled in public school. I thought about the heartfelt stories told by alumni and what the school meant to them. All of that is wiped from the equation and is reduced to a single data point that translates into a passing or failing school. That’s criminal.

When Chris Barbic as head of the ASD says “I’m just here to make a bad school better” and chooses to ignore all the factors that go into that school, that’s immoral. When teachers tell me that the ASD representatives who toured the school were more interested in the property then the actual students, that’s immoral. When you refuse to provide adequate translators to parents who are going to be affected by your actions, that’s immoral. I also believe, when you stand and preach about how every dollar goes to the child yet you draw a salary of 200k from working with kids that live in poverty, that’s immoral. The whole process is predatory and immoral.

I’ll be honest with you. I consider quitting this fight on a daily basis. It makes me nuts. It impacts my home life. It takes time away that I could be spending with my family and truth be known, we have other options. Then on a day like today, when I go read to my child’s class at a school that because of demographics could be labeled a failing school, it becomes crystal clear again. When I look out at all those kids who are all facing their own individual challenges that reformers expect them to overcome alone or they’ll label failures, I remember. Going to this school is going to make my children better people and their presence is going  to make those children better people. I owe it to my children to give them that chance.

A former head of TFA Nashville once said to me that its important to remember that children of color are not in a classroom to be my child’s sociology experiment. I bought into that at first and then as I thought about it, I realized, that’s hogwash. That kid is certainly there to be my child’s sociology experience and my child is there to be their sociology project because that’s how the world looks and children need to learn to navigate it together. They need to learn to read and write, add and subtract, negotiate and compromise together. There is more to being career and college ready then the measurable and that’s what reformers fail to acknowledge about our challenged schools. So Achievement School District keep on trying to gaslight, because this Dad, he made a promise to his kids and every kid. As the spouse of a teacher I also made a promise to fight for her right  to utilize the skills thats she’s worked so hard to develop to help all children reach their full potential. I plan on keeping those promises.