Is there really a point to it all?

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eliot“Where is the wisdom we have lost in knowledge? Where is the knowledge we have lost in information?” — T.S. Eliot

That quote by Eliot has been resonating lately with me. I find myself reading about and looking at all this focus on rigor, high quality seats, and test performance, and asking myself, what does it really mean? Please don’t get me wrong. I’m a huge proponent for education, but I find myself questioning our focus. Ten years after a child leaves school, does it really matter if they scored a 20 or a 21 on the ACT, or if they are in the top 20% versus the top 5% of their class? If all that rigor does somehow translate into financial success, are our children equipped to really experience all that life has to offer? Does getting into Harvard make you any better at navigating the challenges life throws at you than say, going to Tennessee State would? If a child’s developmental years are all spent chasing some high-performance metric, how will they live when things settle into the mundane day-to-day rhythms that life always brings, or is this the generation that will break those rhythms and do nothing but exceptional things 24/7?

Perhaps that’s what it will be. Maybe the next generation will do nothing but create exceptional businesses and tackle exceptional challenges. They will read only exceptional books and listen only to exceptional music. I certainly hope not because they’d miss out on the joy of dancing around the living room to “Shake It Off” with your five-year-old or chuckling at an old episode of “Benny Hill.” It’s just that I look at this constant drum of high achievement, and I can’t see a translation to real life. I can’t help but think that we are squeezing children for their data points while leaving them ill-equipped for life. In fact, my Spidey sense tells me that we are setting unrealistic expectations and setting children up for failure. We are, in essence, producing a whole generation of former high school quarterbacks incapable of reproducing the glory days of their youth and thus failing to find joy in their present adult life. The truth is, that while we all seek excellence, the majority of us will live average lives and there should be pleasure in that. This average life has served me well.

Yesterday I was engaged in a conversation with a fellow parent about a proposed switch in high school math curriculum. They threw out the fact that their child was excelling at the current math curriculum, maintaing a 100 in AP Calculus. My first thought was, of course they are, and then it suddenly dawned on me, we only have two kinds of students in our system: those who are excelling and those the system is failing. If there are others, we certainly don’t talk about them. When was the last time you had a conversation with another parent about their child who was getting B’s and high C’s, playing in the band, not first chair but certainly enjoying it, and nobody was wringing their hands? When was the last time you heard a conversation about an average kid with average friends having an average school career, but who was happy and well-adjusted? I’m betting that if some well-meaning adult overheard that conversation, they’d quickly try to move that child into one of the two categories.

After all, with a little extra effort that child could become a highly-achieving data point. If they would just buckle down and realize how important all this was, one more adult could sleep easier at night knowing they made a difference. Or perhaps, if the narrative was needed, we could point to the lack of engagement the school was creating for the child. It could be pointed out that with more rigor, that child could grasp their full potential. This would demonstrate the failing of the public schools and the need for more charters. Would anybody consider for a moment that the child might be engaged in a well-rounded childhood, collecting experiences inside and outside of school that would produce a future well-adjusted adult?

It’s my theory, and remember I’m just a regular guy full of crap on a regular basis, that education these days is being used in a similar fashion as religion has been used in the past. My non-rigorous liberal arts education introduced me to Voltaire who said, “If God did not exist, it would be necessary to invent him.” My interpretation of that quote is that the vast uncertainty that is life is so overwhelming that man needs to create something in order to be able to cope with it and give it some structure. I have a co-manager at work that every time she sees my disorganized desk it literally puts bugs under her skin, and she can’t help but try to subtly move a few things to give it some order. That’s indicative of people and the world as a whole. Life is such chaos, and when confronted with it, we feel an overwhelming compulsion to try and create order.

There are countless studies available that show the world has become more secular. However, that doesn’t necessarily translate into acceptance of unpredictability. We still seek order over chaos. It appears to me that we are now grasping at education to serve as a means to control that chaos. By creating a common measurement and aspiring all to fit into its structure, we attempt to make things a little more predictable. If we can get our kids to study hard enough, score high enough on tests on subjects we deem important, get into schools that we consider excellent, that somehow they will live a life free of uncertainty and challenge. Look at the term we throw around regularly, career ready. That conveys an image of being wholly prepared to face life with no need for additional learning. We should try to instill wisdom by demonstrating how education is a tool to be used in navigating the uncertainty of life instead of a weapon capable of conquering it.

As a parent I can easily see how appealing the conquering concept is. I often find myself looking at my children and reflecting on the challenges life has dealt me. High test scores offered no protection against addiction which led to unemployment and almost derailed me for life. I think about my health issues and the challenges they provide. Even though in my head I know that as people, my children will face many of the same challenges and some unique ones, instead of praying that they have the strength and tools to overcome these challenges, I pray they won’t have to face them. In our heads we recognize the need to provide children the tools to handle life’s challenges, but our heart often overrules and defaults to protect. The problem is, this leads to acceptance of a false premise. We also run the risk of creating adults who are intellectually incurious. They have been fed the myth that they’ve learned everything they need to succeed, and thus permission is implied to become static.

Going to an Ivy League school does not offer protection from cancer. Scoring a 21 on the ACT is not a shield against addiction. Being in the the top 10% does not guarantee that you won’t be hit by a car. All the knowledge we are imparting is certainly valuable, but only if we provide the tools to translate it into wisdom. A child’s formative years should be spent showing them the richness of life and the opportunities it offers. If an impoverished child scores a 21 on the ACT, enters a top school, and makes the Dean’s list, will the doors to life magically fly open and they suddenly walk through them to a better life? I don’t know. Consider the life of Robert Peace. Robert did everything we tell our children is important. He was from the projects of Newark and escaped to go to Yale, where he excelled. Unfortunately that wasn’t enough, and his life was tragically cut short. Despite it all, in the end he was just another murdered drug dealer. I understand that this is anecdotal evidence but should certainly be used as a tale of caution. We need to do more than just teach our children academic rigor. Learning to read and add at an accelerated level is just not enough.

One exciting benefit to being a member of the Education Bloggers Network is that it plugs you into a collection of people who are weighing similar thoughts and hypotheses. Recently a comment was made about the need to redefine success. I’ve thought a lot about that over the weekend, and I have to agree. I certainly want my children to, as the Army says, be all they can be. But I want that to come with a balance. I want them to know that the pursuit of a goal is admirable unless it disengages them from living life. Laying on the front yard and contemplating a leaf for a couple hours is just as worthy an activity as spending hours preparing to be competitive in the global economy. Sometimes it is all right to just read and let the author’s words wash over you instead of focusing on the author’s intent and focus, enjoying the magical ability some authors have in bringing words together and transporting us to another world. We need to nurture the concept that it is alright to engage in an activity, be it athletic, artistic or vocational,  just for the simple pleasure it brings, without concern for mastery or outcome.

If we produce adults who drive the global economy yet fail to see the magic in life, is that successful? If we push children to develop skills so they can leave their communities behind, what happens to those communities, and is that considered successful? Shouldn’t our definition of success include the ability to navigate both the unpredictability and the mundanity that life offers? If we treat education as a competition, are we not also instilling the belief that life at its root is a competition? Teddy Roosevelt once said, “To educate a man in mind and not in morals is to educate a menace to society.” We need to keep that in mind in our relentless pursuit to make all kids career and college ready.

A popular refrain with education reformers is that “it should be all about the kids.” I’d add the caveat that we never forget that the kids of today are the adults of tomorrow. Are the data points of today going to translate into the success stories of tomorrow, and what will those success stories look like? As John Dewey once stated, “Education is not preparation for life. It is life itself.” We must never lose sight of that. We must not only fill children’s minds with the measurable but also teach them the value of the unmeasurable. We must instill that life is a journey, and you can only quit learning when you reach the final destination. As Hemingway said, “Everyman’s life ends the same way, it is only the details of how he lived and how he died that distinguish one man from another.”

 

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Teacher Power!

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teacherLast night my wife and I were having one of those rare after dinner conversations. We have a four year old and a five year old, so when I say rare, I do mean rare. The topic of the conversation was our daughter’s kindergarten teacher and how impressed we are with her. I made the comment, “We got lucky.” My wife’s response was, “No. I don’t think we got lucky at all.” Puzzled, I asked, “What do you mean?” She replied, “I think that she’s a great teacher but there are a lot of great teachers out there. In fact, our daughter’s school is filled with great teachers doing great work in an unrecognized urban school. There are great teachers doing great work all over.” It hit me then just how deep this anti-teacher rhetoric has imbedded itself in our collective thinking.

Think about it, if someone married to a teacher and as active in education issues as I am can take the default position that we “got lucky” to get a good teacher, what about the general public and what their perception must be. The illusion has been created that having a great teacher is an outlier and not the norm. There is a quote from Metro Nashville School Board member Mary Pierce in a recent Salon article that says,“If the school is doing the job it’s supposed to be doing, then the test scores will follow.” This is indicative of the culture we’ve created. The test scores aren’t generated to assess the needs of the child and give guidance on a direction for instruction; they are seen as  a method for a teacher to demonstrate their competence. In essence, we’ve morphed into a culture of guilty until proven innocent.

This runs counter to the way almost every other profession is rated. For example, I’m a big fan of the NFL. I watch games almost every week during the season. It’s not uncommon for me to curse at the television over a player that I think is incompetent. However, my focus remains on that player, not the entire league. I don’t think there is a single sports bar you could go watch games at and make the indictment that the majority of the players are terrible players who don’t perform at a high level. People would roll their eyes and you’d be dismissed from the conversation. Try going to a convention for the American Medical Association and make an accusation that the bad doctor you had was indicative of the whole profession. Good luck with that.

Recently we’ve seen attempts to paint the actions of a few bad police officers as representative of the whole profession, and I’m not getting into whether that is justified or not; my point is, that it led to people speaking out and defending police officers. Even those that were roundly criticizing the actions of the police, were still clear in their defense of the police as a profession. Where are the people organizing to defend teachers? Where are the ones pointing out that the actions of a few do not represent the whole profession? Instead of defending them, we allow our legislators to authorize more assessments in order for them to prove their competency. We allow the narrative of teachers being incompetent and fearful of accountability to grow, placing them in a position to prove their competency over and over again. You know, guilty until proven innocent.

This weekend I attended a meeting of the Tennessee BATS. For some reason they allow my semi-humble self to be an honorary member and I’m extremely grateful. The meeting was on a beautiful 50 degree afternoon in the middle of January. Heading to the meeting, I was thinking to myself about all the other things I could be doing and how I was only going to stay for about an hour because who could spend four hours on a Saturday focused on this stuff? I’ll tell you who, about 40 teachers from across the state. As I sat in that room, I was struck by their dedication and the breadth of their experience. My guess is the the average length of service was about 12 years. The other thing that I was struck by, was the depth of their knowledge. I thought to myself, these are the very people that programs like Teach For America and other alternative licensing programs are looking to replace. These are the people that we are allowing to be phased out, when in reality they are the people we should be turning to for answers. If TFA was serious, they would be looking to create a buddy program that paired up a new teacher with a veteran teacher. We need to create processes to preserve our institutional knowledge, instead of trying to eradicate it.

I recently heard a quote from a teacher union representative. Now before you get all defensive, keep in mind two things. First,he role of the union is not to protect the institution; it is to protect the worker so that they can work under conditions that allow them to improve the institution, it’s not the role of the players union to make Major League Baseball a better product. It is to make sure that the players labor in conditions that allow them to focus on improving the product. Secondly, that all-powerful union that reformers evoke to scare you into believing their rhetoric just doesn’t exist. I’m hoping that doesn’t offend my union friends, but the truth of the matter is that public perception and legislation has, in keeping with my sports metaphor, hamstrung teacher’s unions. There are signs that they are attempting to mount a comeback, but they’ve got a long way to go to become the boogeymen worthy of the status that corporate education reformers assign to them.

I probably ought to point out as well who makes up that awful scary union. Its teachers. Teachers like the person who guides your child through their daily learning. Teachers like the ones who sacrifice their lives when violence erupts in schools. Teachers like the ones who deliver food to the homes of poverty stricken children who otherwise might not eat during extended school breaks. These people are not the scary union thugs that they are made out to be. They are regular people who work hard and pay their dues in order to have due process if needed as well as a voice at the national level when it comes to education policies in our country.

The quote referenced above was, and I am paraphrasing here, that he won’t say there are bad teachers until we have fully equipped all of our teachers to succeed. It took a bit of time for me to digest this, but I think there is a very valid point here. Until we pay teachers a competitive wage, assign them manageable-sized classrooms, ensure adequate planning time, provide meaningful personal development, and offer assistance for the out of class needs of their students, how can we label someone a bad teacher? Until we develop a true measurement of a teacher’s body of work, how can you label a teacher a bad teacher? Under the current construct, TVAAS, if a teacher teaches a subject which is not associated with a standardized test, approx. 30 percent of their rating is based on the schools rating. What????

That’s like me going into Jim in the shipping department and saying “Jim, you do good work, but part of your job performance ranking is going to be based on what Joe in marketing does. I know Joe works at the other end of the building, you hardly know each other, and only see each other at company staff meetings, but you both work for the same company so it shouldn’t be an issue.” I suspect Jim would’t accept this arrangement for one minute. Yet, we expect our teachers to and when they balk, the narrative is that it’s because they don’t want accountability. The truth is it’s not accountability that teachers fear, it’s the unfair method of labeling them “bad teachers”. Nobody likes being judged by a system that sets them up for failure from the onset.

Let’s revisit the NFL analogy again. A team drafts a high quality recruit to their team. He shows all the attributes of being a player that can make a difference for years. However, the team has an inadequate training facility and so the player is never able to train properly. The team refuses to pay competitive salaries and so our recruit is surrounded by inadequate talent. The team plays in a facility that has been in need of repairs for years, but the team refuses to make these repairs leaving a field that is uneven and pockmarked with divots. These factors combine to lead the recruit to be seen as ineffective, as well as often injured. The injuries become both physical and mental and soon he is pushed out of the NFL. Would it be fair to label that player a bad football player? Yet that’s what we do to our teachers on a regular basis. In talking about whether a player is a bad player or not, an evaluation of the franchise often comes in to play. In education, if someone brings up any of the factors out of a teachers control that may cause a teacher to have a low evaluation, we call that “making excuses”.

I ran night clubs for a number of years before getting married and starting a family. We used to have a running joke that bars are the only business that just because people hung out in one, they felt qualified to own one. I need to amend that to include schools. Just because we were all once students doesn’t mean that we are experts at education. This may be an unpopular thought, but being a parent doesn’t give us a doctorate in education automatically either. I try to make it a practice in my life to consult with experts, in whatever job I’m tackling, before proceeding. Why should my child’s education be any different? Especially when the experts are so readily available.

I don’t know what I can do to change the national perception, but as with anything else, I believe it starts with me. I am going to be hyper sensitive that a teacher has to prove to me that they are a “bad” teacher, not that they are a “good” teacher. I’m going to try to always come from a place that assumes there are way more good teachers than bad teachers. It means that as this legislative session in Tennessee begins, I’m going to lobby for things that get my children’s teachers the tools they need, like adequate funding for schools, smaller class sizes, less testing, more instructional time, and competitive wages. I urge everyone else to do the same. We can not let the forces for privatization color our views so that they can further their agenda while continuing to disrespect and discount what teachers do. We can not afford to keep allowing good teachers to continue to be driven from the profession because of these misguided practices.

In closing, I want to say a heartful thank you. Thank you to my daughter’s teacher and the tremendous amount she has contributed to preparing my daughter for life. I hope my son will be in her class next year. Thank you to my wife and her colleagues who continue to strive to make the world better by ensuring that all students have the tools they need to contribute to making life better for the next generation. Thank you to all the teachers willing to take four hours on a beautiful day thinking of ways to fight for our children. And a big thank you to all of the teachers who suit up and show up every single day. You make a difference.

Please abolish the term “turn around”

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turnHere we go again. Last year Metro Nashville Public Schools(MNPS) found out that they had fifteen schools that were classified as priority schools by the state of Tennessee.  A priority school is a school ranked in the bottom 5% of the state based on TCAP scores. Of course, nobody had any idea that this was coming, which is a story for another day, so now everybody is in reactive mode. There is a cry to get rolling on a “turnaround” strategy. In response MNPS has created a “Turnaround Corps,” a highly recruited, both in district and out, group of teachers specializing in “turnarounds.” Meetings have been held with parents, teachers and community members at the named schools, and a freshly-created citizen’s advisory board has begun meeting. MNPS has even hired an outside “turnaround” consultant group. You can read more about them here. The only thing missing is a clear definition of what a “turnaround” means.

Dr. Register, Nashville’s superintendent of school, has made a decree that MNPS shall have no priority schools in three years, so I’m assuming that’s the definition we are working off of. But what happens a year after that if those schools, no longer in the spotlight and still facing a multitude of challenges, slip back on the priority list? What about if it happens in four years? Ten years. My question is, when is a school considered turned around?

What if, in our mad dash to meet this lofty goal, we deprive other borderline schools of much needed resources, and they slip onto the “priority” list. Mathematically, there will always be a bottom 5%, so its a very real possibility. I recently posed that question to the driving force behind MNPS’ newly created “Turnaround Corps,” the Executive Director of Talent Strategy.  I’d heard that several teachers from not-quite-priority schools have applied to be member’s of the Corps, , since membership includes higher pay and other perks. The Executive Director’s response was that teachers can make up their own mind and that the district can’t tell them where to apply their skills.

To incentivize quality teacher to leave one needy school to go to another needy school is potential devastating. What assurance does the first school have that they will receive a teacher of equal quality?  How can this not be interpreted as  a game of hide the peanut, moving one school off of the list only to be replaced by another? Reformers often paint supporters of the public school system as being more concerned about adult jobs then children. How does this program not serve to protect adult employment by helping to create an endless churn of priority schools?

This strategy also serves to illuminate the primary goal of the district, getting the existing schools off of the list. It sounds to me like adult needs are superseding the needs of children. What children need, and what parents demand, are quality schools for all. That’s hard work – the day to day grind, in the trenches – and it’s not sexy. Oprah never had a school administrator on her show who simply made sure that his or her school had equitable resources and opportunities for all students. But she did have guest educators who have executed these supposed “turnaround” strategies. You know, those brave souls who have dared to challenge the system and were agents of change. What happens though, when the spotlight is off and the change agents leave? What happens when all the adults get done clapping each other on the back and congratulating each other about how they’ve turned around the school? Education is often sold as a means of “escape” for those in poverty schools. If they are encouraged to “escape” and not be a part of the lifting up the community, how is the “turnaround” sustained?

Imagine there was a school that had been successfully “turned around” and was taken off the bad list of priority schools? What happens next? I suspect that after a school is removed from the list, things soon revert to what they were before. Those dedicated teachers of the “Turnaround Corps” most likely leave because either other schools need saving or the amount of sacrifice demanded to be a change agent becomes overwhelming. There is no guarantee that the teachers who follow will be of equal quality. And the odds are these replacement teachers  will be young, inexperienced teachers or worse, from TFA, because despite the recent success of the school, it will still be considered challenging and who would want to risk their TVAAS score on a school that is no longer the focus? The funding for those short-term fixes that got the school removed from the naughty list will eventually dry up or get diverted to a different initiative, and, as a result, some of the services that proved successful for the school will drop off. Good news though: administrators get to put “turnaround specialist” on their resume which leads to them being courted by consulting agencies or a being hired by the State Department of Education. For the adults, it’s a win. Kids, not so much.

That’s my issue with the whole term “turnaround”- it connotes a very short-term action. It gives the appearance that if we just focus in with laser-like intensity, that we’ll be able to fix the challenges a school faces. It allows us to take steps that give an appearance of solving problems while overlooking the real issues. Is the consultant group going to help lobby for affordable housing? Will the turnaround corps be able to service the health needs of the disadvantaged student population, or would the long-term investment of a school nurse do more to increase the in school learning? To be fair, in Nashville, the newly created Community Focus Group is looking at some of those issues and attempting to find strategies that will lead to long term success. This begs the question: based on other programs enacted, how focused will the district be on their long term strategies vs the turnaround strategies? Will the district actually listen to their community advisors or is it just a political exercise?

My suggestion is this: instead of trying to turn things around, we focus on creating quality schools. That might mean using the priority list as a jumping off point. How did those schools get there, and why were they not provided the needed resources in the first place? Then, look at the next level of schools just above the priority schools, and see what similar needs exist and discuss how we can intercede in those schools to ensure they don’t fall on the priority list. In other words, take a proactive stance at trying to keep those struggling schools off the list by investing in long-term goals for all schools. Next, we would analyze the reward schools and attempt to identify scalable programs that have proven successful. We should create a teacher recruitment strategy that puts high quality teachers in every school and compensate them at a more respectable and equitable level. We should also consider providing basic health and dental care for students who need it.

Since I’m writing a pipe dream, we should also end the ranking of schools. This artificial ranking based on standardized test creates the false illusions of winners and losers. It’s defeating before the bell even sounds. Schools are either doing the job or not. Serving the needs of the community or not. Technology gives us many new tools for assessing school’s performance that goes deeper than just testingFairTest,  is an organization that was created to push back against the misuse of summative evaluations and is promoting a better way of evaluating schools. This method would include three key components: limited large scale standardized testing, extensive school-based evidence of learning, and a school quality review process.

I find the idea of school quality review particularly intriguing. This system would involve an extensive review of every school by a team of qualified professionals every 4-5 years. They would file a report that would give parents and community members a much clearer picture of what is transpiring in the schools. They would also offer recommendations for improvements in schools where needed, and more frequent reviews could be scheduled for high need schools. It’s similar to the accredation process schools already go through. Perhaps that could just be modified and expanded. It makes a whole lot more sense then just looking at test numbers.

I also believe that central office administrators need to be part of the review teams because dependence on data is not a phenomenon just in education. Its widespread across just about every field you could name. It has a tendency to make us lazy and think data tells the whole story. All EL kids become the same and an administrator loses the ability to differentiate levels and challenges of poverty. Data can be a very useful tool, however its effectiveness is limited when its not coupled with actual observation. It’s so important to put things in context by getting out and reminding yourself that those data points are actual humans. Take that leader of the Turnaround Corps that I mentioned earlier, for example. A couple months ago I invited her to join me at my daughters school when I went to read to her class. The Corps leader’s response was, “I’d like that. I’ve never been in that school.” How can you find teachers to make a difference for a school you’ve never been in? Shouldn’t that be a priority?

It is way past time we stop looking for short-term results and, instead,  focus on the long term. In a recent blog post, Peter Greene writes about the reasons why he supports public schools and the first one out of the box is stability. This system has served us well for decades and will continue to serve for decades more. In contrast, take a look at the reform movement, you know the ones who claim to be turnaround specialists. Michelle Rhee is out of education. Chiefs for Change, a coalition of current and former state education chiefs that formed just a few years ago to push a reform agenda now consists of more former than current education chiefs, and the ones still employed are hanging by a thread. Teach for America is closing a training center in New York because of a lack of recruits. I could go on, but you get the picture. The wave of those with perceived solutions is crashing, and we are left with the people we’ve always depended on: the dedicated public servants of the teaching profession. Our resources need to support the success and stability of our public schools, rather than being diverted to those high-profile corporate education reformers who may or may not be around in education in the next few years.

Those in favor of “turnarounds” like to point at the children in the so-called failing schools and say, “But they can’t afford to wait. We need to act now.” My response to that is, do you know any child that can afford to wait? Is there any child that deserves to have their resources sacrificed so that other schools can improve quickly? Is there any child who can spend a year with a sub-par teacher while we dedicate the best to another child? Is there any child that deserves less then the full fervor we bring to “turning around” a school? Those are the questions we should be asking ourselves. After all, if we provided equitable resources to all schools, we wouldn’t need “Turnaround Corps”, “Turnaround Specialists” or a “turnaround strategies” and we could abolish those terms.

 

The Belief Gap as created by Chris Barbic

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strawHere in Tennessee we are blessed with a very unique educational entity. It’s called the Achievement School District and it was created hand in glove with Louisiana’s Recovery School District to move schools in the lower 5% achievement-wise to the top 25% with in five years. Mind you, this ranking is all test score based. I know, there will always be a five percent and standardized tests tell us more about demographics than learning, but this is what the ASD has been tasked with. Charged with leading this endeavor and executing it with an evangelical furor is former Yes Prep founder Chris Barbic. The ASD has been primarily focused in Memphis, but things have gotten a little hot there, so Chris is bringing the troops to Nashville this year and unfortunately for him, its not much cooler here.

The truth is, a lot of people are downright hostile to the ASD in general. It seems they don’t want to embrace the turnover of locally controlled schools to a state entity with limited success. The ASD may have very lofty goals, but as Gary Rubenstein has on numerous occasions pointed out, they haven’t been very successful at achieving them. They’ve also shown a tendency to want to game the system. These are a few things that taken alone, would make people wary. Put them together and people get hostile.

Apparently things have gotten so heated that Mr. Barbic felt compelled to write an Op-Ed piece. The focus of this piece was on the supposed “Belief Gap.” In Mr. Barbic’s view, some people don’t have enough belief in the poor children of Nashville. His piece is a call to arms against this perceived slight and its crippling effects. Initially, I just chuckled at this Op-Ed, but then I re-read it several times and realized it was a brilliant example of how the reform movement uses language to confuse the issues. I decided to break it down paragraph by paragraph.

Let’s start with the title, “Charter School critics blinded by ‘Belief Gap’.” Right off the bat he’s setting the stage. The people who were upset by the Achievement School District’s proposed takeover were not necessarily anti-charter school. Granted, many of them were, but the thrust of the argument was with the ASD, not charters. However, if the title would have said “Achievement School District critics blinded by ‘Belief Gap’, I doubt there would have been as much sympathy. But with the title as it is, the group being attacked is widened, enlisting potential for sympathy from pro-charter supporters. This could have been the papers doing, but lets move forward and see what else we find.

In the first part, he introduces his theory of the belief gap and defines it as such.

“The Belief Gap is the persistent and deep divide between what parents believe their children are capable of and what some elected leadership, through word and deed, believe the very same kids can do.”

In other words, poverty is just something that kids need to deal with. We all have challenges, but what’s really holding these kids down is that adults aren’t believing in them. It’s not that they are hungry. It’s not that they didn’t get enough rest. It’s not that many are unhealthy or don’t speak fluent English. It’s not even that some don’t even have homes to go to after school. Nope, it’s that adults don’t believe in them. This despite the numerous studies that show poverty is the number one determinant on how kids perform in schools. Mr. Barbic apparently feels that if we just believe kids will perform at a high level, results will follow.

Let’s be clear here, I’m not downplaying the amazing potential of children. I’ve got two myself and they never cease to amaze me with what they grasp. It’s important, though, to remember that they are still children and therefore subject to certain developmental limitations. For example, the University of Alabama has a very good football team. Some of their more ardent fans might argue that they are capable of beating a professional football team. However, the serious student of the game knows that assertion is ludicrous. The pro’s are more developed, can spend more time focused on training, are monetarily incentivized and so on.

What if I said, you just have to demonstrate that you believe in them and then the college team would rise up and win? What if it happened one time and then I turned to you and said, “See it can be done” and offered that as evidence that a college team can defeat a pro team? A serious sports fan would laugh me right out of the conversation. Barbic submits it as academic theory and expects us not to laugh him out of the conversation.

In the next part of his piece he points out that this belief gap,“is most glaring and devastating in communities with high percentages of low-income and minority children.” The subtle interjection of the idea that he is on the right side of  “the civil rights issue of our time” and opposing the ASD and charter schools is akin to opposing equal rights for all. It’s a subtle effort to paint anti-ASD forces as people who don’t believe in equality. Object to that and it’s easy to walk it back and say, “That not what I said, I was just pointing out how devastating it is for the communities we work in.” Very subtle and very effective. Its also very difficult to argue back against. That’s why the reform community has been utilizing this tactic for years despite the fact that they are the ones perpetrating segregation.

The next part is spent attacking an elected official through an out-of-context quote.

“For instance, it appears in the following quote from the Facebook page of a Metro City Councilmember. Keep in mind that he is referring to Neely’s Bend Middle School, which ranks in the bottom 5percent of all schools in Tennessee, a state that despite much progress, still remains in the bottom half of student performance in our country. “They (the ASD) are really stretching with takeovers, to schools that need work, but aren’t faring that bad…”

The elected official might have said the schools weren’t faring that bad but the rest of the quote is just as important. “especially compared to the schools they already have and need to focus on.” Context is everything, isn’t it. To further weaken Barbic’s argument, said official goes on in their post to say that he doesn’t care what the school looks like, magnet, traditional or charter – he just believes that until MNPS and Nashville’s elected officials have exhausted all avenues, they are the ones that should be held to solving the issue. The Councilman even says, “I want to see a full scale project/task force called We Learned this stuff from Charters, MNPS plan. A long, goofy title and everything.” Hmmmm….I thought this Op-Ed was about Charter critics…that doesn’t sound like a charter critic, does it? But when you have nothing else, you have to create a straw man.

This is where things get good. Barbic proceeds to attack the data that two MNPS School Board members got directly from the district, then calls into question the board members very belief in data, all while ignoring the fact that he frequently picks out certain data points to use whenever he pleases.

On one hand they rail against the use of standardized tests, and on the other hand they use the narrowest of data points pulled from the very same assessments to make their case against LEAD. So, do these two board members believe in data or don’t they?

What  logic is he applying here? That’s like my other favorite argument on the importance of having an open mind. You have to have an open mind and if you have an open mind it will lead you to these conclusions. Otherwise, you don’t have an open mind. Makes my head hurt just typing it.

Then for good measure he attacks the school board members for the growth of priority schools on their watch. Of course he fails to mention that based on the formula for declaring a school a priority school, there will always be a bottom 5% . Or that Memphis closed 10 priority schools, thus opening slots for 10 more schools. It’s not that performance levels necessarily sunk; these schools just got caught in a numbers game. Please keep in mind as well that these classifications are based on standardized tests and what do standardized tests most accurately measure? Demographics.

In his second-to-last paragraph, Barbic brings it all home and really evokes the spirit of the straw man.

“Maybe what they worry about is that we at the ASD may actually succeed. We are still only two years into this effort, and our second-year charters have made strong gains. So when we do succeed, what will that mean to the system they are working hard to protect? Maybe it is just easier to not believe.”

Ahh… the old “adults protecting adult’s interests” argument. First of all, the ASD wasn’t created to be a charter school clearing house. The purpose was for the state to apply additional resources to turn around schools, be it through charter or a traditional setting. It’s been the ASD’s own initiative to do that almost exclusively by turning over schools to private entities. Most people would agree that schools should be accountable to local citizens not private boards, but that’s not what the ASD apparently believes. Seems to be a bit of belief gap here.

Barbic suggests that his critics are worried or afraid of his success. But in order to be afraid of something, doesn’t that thing have to actually be a little threatening? Looking at the data clearly shows that the ASD is in no danger of being successful by any measurement anytime soon. Unfortunately for Barbic there are plenty of adults capable of reading data and realizing that this is all one big experiment, one that’s not likely to succeed, using our children as lab rats. They don’t agree with that on principle and would rather time be spent focusing on real solutions and proven best practices.

Mr. Barbic closes with his best sleight of hand.

“During this season of hope, please know that we at the ASD believe —and we partner with school leaders, teachers and parents who also believe—that every single student can realize their full potential, regardless of ZIP code or circumstance. We believe that our schools have both the ability and responsibility to unlock this potential.”

Wait a minute. This isn’t what he was talking about at the beginning of his piece. He began talking about performance and now he ends by talking about potential. It’s a very subtle sleight of hand, and he executes it deftly. We can say two athletes have the potential to run the same time in a race, but if we fail to provide proper training, nutrition, and rest to one, it’s doubtful that the performance will be similar. Everyone believes in the potential of children. Some just have realistic expectations about performance and seek real solutions to unlocking that potential.

We are wasting time offering “belief” as a solution for children of poverty, when we should be advocating for policies that will have a real effect. Policies that make affordable housing readily available would go much further than belief. Policies that fund psychologists and schools nurses in every school would be more effective than belief. Ranking schools on more factors than just standardized test scores – or even better, not ranking schools at all – would further student learning more than just believing. It’s time to stop using the idea that if you just believe something should happen that it will; this shortchanges our kids and serves as a distractions from addressing the needs of kids in poverty and the growing opportunity gap in America. Its time to have an honest conversation and stop playing word games.

I also believe, unlike Mr. Barbic, that kids don’t need a white knight to unlock their potential. I believe what they really need is for us to all act like citizens of a democracy and provide them the basic needs and stability to enable them to unlock their own potential. See, I believe in children. I don’t believe in Mr. Barbic or the Achievement School District’s ability to provide the best education for my community’s children.