Time to End the ASD Fiasco

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achievementFiling a Freedom of Information Act(FOI) or Open Records request, as it sometimes referred to, is always an interesting proposition. Over the last several years, I’ve filed several and to be honest, most have been worthless. Sometimes depending on who the agency is, you’ll get a little insight into the inner workings of a government entity, but for the most part, what you don’t get is more interesting. A few years ago, I filed an FOI with the Tennessee Department of Education to include all emails involving Teach For America. The returned file was rather light. Only when I reminded them that over half of the Department of Education’s leadership were TFA alumni and that I found it hard to believe that there was so little conversation involving TFA did they suddenly remember that they “forgot” to include the 6 million dollar Race to the Top contract. Ooops.

It then became crystal clear on how it all works when once I went up to the Department of Education offices to pick up an FOI request. As I was picking up my packet, I looked across the room to see then-Commissioner Huffman texting away on his phone. It didn’t take me but a minute to realize how most communication took place at the DOE and that I would never be privy to most of it. My other favorite strategy they employ is to tell you it will take a couple weeks to fill a request, and then when the due date arrives, they send you a link to a public web site. That’s what they did with my latest request for all copies of financial audits for the Achievement School District.

Go ahead and take a look. I will show you more of what we’ve come to expect from the Tennessee’s ASD, which is more sloppy work and inattention to detail. Since inception, its been nothing but one issue after another for the ASD. In the past they’ve failed to report their per pupil spending, even though all other districts were able to. Back in September, reporter Ezra Howard analyzed the state data and showed that local efforts in Memphis were performing better than the ASD. October came and Bluff City, an education blog out of Memphis, reported the city in near revolt against the ASD.  To close out the year, they engineered a hostile takeover of a Nashville school.  Perhaps a few more Happy Hours are needed.

When looking at this audit it becomes clear once again that the Achievement School District’s forte is not in the details. Details like, failure to have contracts overseen and ensuring that they are in compliance with regulations, allowing Charter Management Operators to get paid before they paid their vendors, and billing salaries to the wrong programs. The amounts of money are albeit small and therefore for many not that concerning, but I would argue that, when coupled with the entire body of evidence, it shows a pattern of behavior. A pattern that is not beneficial to the students or the tax payers of the state of Tennessee.

Here’s a quote from the audit

During the audit, we were told that ASD experienced high turnover in its Public Grants Manager position during the fiscal year. We also determined that when the position was vacant, no other employee assumed the role of reviewing and approving invoices in order to mitigate the risk of paying inaccurate, unsupported, or fraudulent invoices. By not ensuring that invoices are properly reviewed, approved, and adequately supported, ASD runs the risk of paying CMOs for activities that are not allowed under federal program requirements.

So let me see if I get this straight. The ASD had a revolving door in the Public Grants Manager’s office, and when somebody didn’t happen to be available when an invoice needed approval, well they just cut the check anyway. I guess they figured they’d work it out later. I would think, though, that this position is kind of important. Shouldn’t some effort have gone into stabilizing it? Perhaps since the ASD is fond of using TFA temps, they figured a temp is a good fit for any job, and they just contracted a local temp agency and filled the position that way. After all, when nobody is holding you accountable why should you take time away from writing PR pieces and doing self declared victory laps to keep up with the money? When we entrust the school districts of Tennessee with our most prized resource  – our children – and they fail to put processes in place to protect those resources, then they are failing the citizens of Tennessee, and that should be unacceptable no matter what the level.

Here’s another little tidbit from the audit:

Before entering the invoice into Edison, ASD’s Accounts Payable Clerk is responsible for verifying that the Public Grants Manager has approved the invoice and that the invoice amount requested is within budget. However, during our review of the 12 invoices charged to the SIG program, we found that the ASD Accounting Manager and Accounts Payable Clerk processed 5 invoices, totaling $477,166.14, without the documented approval of the Public Grants Manager.

What do you need approval for? It’s only a half million dollars.  Chris Barbic, the head of the ASD, is fond of saying that the Achievement School District is different from the traditional school district in that 100% of the BEP follows the student. That other districts are encumbered by high central administration costs. I’m thinking a couple of those central administration positions might be a good thing for the ASD in helping them avoid mismanagement of federal and taxpayer funds. Unless, of course, you’re just following the lead of your former boss who showed similar tendencies. It’s all about patterns.

A few years ago I oversaw a summer camp for kids. I would preach to my staff the importance of modeling and how kids will pick up your behaviors when you think nobody is looking. The ASD likes to preach accountability. Students must accept responsibility. Teachers need to accept responsibility. Administrators and schools need to accept responsibility. Well then, when does the ASD accept responsibility? When do they start to become accountable for mediocre results and sloppy book keeping?

If the the ASD was working off a successful model, these issues could be chalked up to growing pains. Innovation doesn’t burst from the incubator without flaws. That’s is not the case here though. Unfortunately, Louisiana provides us with a case study to examine. As Mercedes Schneider, an educator and a researcher from Louisiana, documents, it is not a pretty picture nor a successful picture. Michigan also has a “Achievement District” with similar results. Put it all together and you get the picture of a failing experiment that uses our kids as test subjects. An experiment that we may not even be able to accurately measure for a couple years. My children did not sign up to be guinea pigs for an academic exercise.  There is a little to much at risk for that.

That very risk is what causes us to grasp at the straws that the ASD offers. Unfortunately for them, there are alternatives that have already shown positive results. Community schools address the very issues that hinder a child learning and offer wrap around services that combat them. They foster a sense of community vs a sense of disruption. They bring communities together without segregating them. Just think of the results that would be possible if Community Schools were funded like the Achievement School Districts have been funded. Unfortunately for the reformers, there’s not as much chance to turn a profit in a Community School, so I’m sure that hurts their appeal.

Luckily, there are a couple of State representatives that are wise to what’s going on. Representative Bo Mitchell has introduced a bill that will dissolve the ASD. His Senate counterpart is the esteemed Thelma Harper. Senator Harper has not made a long and storied career by attaching herself to bills with no merit. I can’t predict how far this bill will get, but I do know that it’s high time some accountability was brought to the Achievement School District. Mr. Barbic and his minions have long showed a lack of respect for the priorities of elected officials or community members, and that can’t be allowed to continue unabated.

Governor Haslem has made a welcome change at the top of the Department of Education, but like with any illness, the body can only heal when all of the infection is removed. Chris Barbic and the Achievement School District were brought here by Kevin Huffman through their shared experience as Teach For America members. Time proved that Kevin Huffman was not a good fit for Tennessee. Time has also shown that TFA is not a great fit for Tennessee. They are a part of the past and Tennessee needs to look forward. It’s time to add the Achievement School District to that list of failed experiments and embrace policies that will take us into the future, before the damage is irreversible.

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Keeping it in Perspective.

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kidsThis week Metro Nashville School Board Member Jill Speering wrote a Facebook post that started with the following question:

At last week’s meeting, an MNPS Board member suggested that there are 35,00o seats in Metro Schools that lack “quality” so I’ve been thinking about this language and what this term means. What do we mean by student “success”? What do we mean by “quality” seats?

It’s a question that I wrestle with on a regular basis. As I’ve previously mentioned, I have two small children. My daughter, Avery, is 5 and half, (that half is extremely important to her), and a four-year-old named Peter . Six years ago when my wife was pregnant, we had many conversations about how we wanted to raise our children. We both agreed that we wanted independent, intellectually curious, verbal children who would be equipped to stand up for themselves and navigate the uncertainty that is life. Well, guess what I’ve learned in the last 5 years? I’ve learned that raising children with that skill set is a pain in the ass.

I’m not afraid to say it – it’s hard work and sometimes I’m not sure I’m equipped for it. I come home from a lousy day at work and they are ready with a thousand must-be-answered-now-not-later questions. If you tell them to do something, often they’ll question the motivation and offer their not-always-welcome insight. My son is fond of telling me I’m not in charge, God is. The other day he had a laundry basket on his head, and he was preparing to submerge it in the toilet. He was interested in what was in there. My daughter likes to proclaim she’s an artist as she spreads paint everywhere. Other times they’ll lay on the couch with their ipad and you’ll be lucky to get a grunt out of them.

Yesterday after I got home from a grueling day at work, everybody wanted to get a last bit of sledding in. It was late in the day and temperatures were dropping, so what was once snow was quickly transitioning into ice.  As we made our way to the sledding spot, Avery and her brother ran on the ice and got into other mischief that their mother and I tried to caution against. Of course, every rebuke was met by a defense of why they were engaged in said activity.

I was tired, grouchy, and getting cold. “We need to stop the back talk, or we are going home.” I said. “But Daddy….” Avery began. That was the last straw; I picked her up and immediately began the trek home. “I told you about that back talk. Now we are going home and no ipad when we get there”, I began to lecture. She bravely listened, fighting back a rebuttal. We’d gone about 10 yards when it became apparent that the dog wasn’t following. As I called for the dog,  but she wasn’t listening either.

“Daddy, I can get her to come.” My daughter had a plan.  “I get down and do my hands like this.” She said putting her hands together. “Please let me do it. I’m sorry, I know you said not to run but I just wanted to have more fun. I haven’t cried either because you always say crying makes it worse.”

It began to dawn on me that she was realizing a whole lot more than I was giving her credit for. I slowly let her down, and she called the dog. As the dog came along, I picked up my daughter, hugged her and told her I loved her. Then I asked her if we could please work on the back talk. She nodded yes. Her mother and brother caught up, and we went home.

When we got home, my daughter said she needed to have a conversation with just me. We went into her room and she started with, “I know I back talked but I called the dog and got her to come and I didn’t cry, because like you said, that just makes it worse. But since I did those…could I…um…please…have my ipad?” I looked her and repeated the “work on the back talk” question and then said yes. You may think I was a pushover, but in my mind she was practicing the skills that would serve her as an adult. She was taking in a situation, analyzing it, and proposing action. Skills that were actually more important than not back talking.

There is a thin line between critical thinking and back talk, but how is a child supposed to develop that skill if they are never allowed to practice? Self-analysis is an equally important skill. Do I think she was doing some deep higher level thinking? Of course not, but the mastery of all skills needs to start somewhere. In the beginning it may be clumsy and annoying, but hopefully by adulthood it’s a fine tuned symphony. There has never been a  single master concert pianist who has not made their family suffer through endless off key, out-of-tune plunking when they were starting out. Why should growing up be any different?

Our schools should be an extension of our families. They should be places where children get to hone and practice skills that they will utilize as adults. It’s one of the qualms I have with eye tracking, where students are forced to keep eyes on a teacher throughout class. Sure, it makes for an orderly environment where learning can take place, but what’s it’s real world application. Who is going to fill the management roles: the advanced reader who lacks the ability to take a command, process it, discern its value, and formulate a response or my back talking daughter? Besides, does learning demand a specific environment to transpire or can it thrive in a multitude of environments?

The accountability era has created a plethora of ideas that exist to bring a sense of comfort to adults. Let’s be honest, public education, like democracy, is a very messy proposition and like democracy, we never know if it’s really working or not. Test results make us comfortable that it’s working. “No Excuses” brings us comfort that discipline is being introduced to children that we perceive as lacking discipline. Vouchers, choice, charter schools, all designed to tame an uncomfortable system. After all, isn’t the public often the worst part of public education?

The problem is, we can’t just do what we find comfortable and pass it off as a child’s best interest. Sometimes children talk out of turn. Sometimes they learn things at their own speed. Sometimes they have things going on in their lives that are more important then what we think they should be focused on and it impacts their learning. Schools and instruction need to be responsive to the child and not the manufactured mandates created to give the illusion of accountability and comfort adults fears..

Kids can score well on tests all day, but if they lack the skills to translate that to real world application’s, then what’s the point other then to validate an adult’s existence? We’ve created a learning environment where everything is measured, and there is no margin for failure. There are businesses with similar cultures. In these cultures, there is no incentive to take risks or innovate because that means potential failure, which will reflect poorly on performance. We know these companies aren’t market leaders and that companies that foster innovation thrive, so why would we foster the former over the later? As  hedge fund manager James Altucher says, “Your competition is not other people but the time you kill, the ill will you create, the knowledge you neglect to learn, the connections you fail to build, the health you sacrifice along the path, your inability to generate ideas, the people around you who don’t support and love your efforts, and whatever god you curse for your bad luck.”

Don’t be mistaken, I may quote a hedge fund manager, but I still believe we need to push back against the commerce narrative of education. Education is about creating better citizens not workers. I can promise you that I’ve never had a conversation with my children about competing for jobs. The same holds true about talking to them in regards to competing against the Chinese or anyone else in the global market. Instead, the conversations in our household center around the skills that will make for better lives and better people.

My son is encouraged to read not because it’ll make him career and college ready, but because it’ll unlock the magical realms of his beloved comic books. My daughter and I engage in math games not to reach a goal but because they are fun.  Both are regularly taken outside to play or on inclement weather days we find an indoor play facility. We do this because exercise and nutrition are every bit as important as high performance in math. The importance of balance needs to be instilled at an early age.

During the recent snow days here in Nashville, it drove me insane to see administrators take to social media to admonish kids to read during this off day. How about go out and play on this rare snow day? How about mentioning that learning takes all shapes and embracing a rare free day has equal value. What would your reaction be if your boss took to social media to issue instructions for you on a snow day? “Hey TC, make sure you spend the afternoon reading about life insurance. Can’t let a day go by. The Chinese might catch up.” I can tell you how that would be met by me. Unfortunately we have put teachers and administrators in an untenable situation. Because of the false air of accountability that permeates everything, they have no choice but to focus on the measurable and attempt to take advantage of every minute available.

It seems that we’ve gotten ourselves involved in some kind of race were perpetual forward motion is a requisite. A fellow parent forwarded me an email in regards to valentine’s day celebrations that they received from their child’s principal. Apparently we’ve reached a place where we can’t even take time to celebrate a day of love lest we lose a minute of instructional time. After spelling out rigid dress code and time constraints for a holiday they “rename friendship day”, the email closes thusly:

We have many skills that still need to be taught and practiced, therefore every moment we have with your child is important. Thank you and have a great evening.

Have we become so focused on preparing children for life that we are failing to demonstrate to them how to live it? To paraphrase the rapper Ice Cube, we better check ourselves before we wreck ourselves. This is not the path to a healthy society.

We are in danger of running down a rabbit hole where the practice for life overtakes the the practice of living life. We are so focused on quality seats that we’ve begun to narrow the definition to a point where it neglects the whole child and fails to include all that is involved in a child’s life. I’m fifty years old now and when I reflect back on my public school career and how it’s helped me navigate the challenges of life. I realize that it was as much the extracurricular activities that shaped me, as the classroom work. Solar day and History day inspired me more then any assessment I ever took. Truth be told, cutting class and the machinations that it required went a long way to fostering a gift of planning, while also presenting a lesson in accountability.

If you talk to most teachers they will agree with that we are narrowing our focus to our detriment. Its not hard to find them lamenting against the rise in testing and other reforms and how they’ve affected their ability to reach the whole child. A whole advocacy group of teachers, known as BATS, who recognized the dangers of the path we were on and the need to push back rose up last year to defend the needs of the whole child and attempt to shift the focus of our policies. As evidenced by the growth in the anti-testing movement, parents are also expressing concerns. If not parents and teachers who should we listen to?

We need to step back and reassess. A large portion of an adults life is spent earning a living and the quality of employment directly affects their quality of life, but it shouldn’t be the sole focus. Life is filled with many rich opportunities and one never knows where life may take them, this is why its so important to equip children with the tools to take advantage of those opportunities. If we don’t, in my opinion, we are doing a disservice to the child and furthermore to society. Locking children in to a predictable future locks society into a predictable future, to the detriment of both.

I’m going to close like I opened, with Ms Speering’s words. I hope you all will take them to heart, because they offer some very sage advice.

“Quality” results when students learn the relevance and inter-relationships of each and every subject. “Quality” results when students work together cooperatively rather than competitively. Working together in teams more closely resembles real world experiences and helps prepare our children for the expectations of an unknown future.

The Charter Conversation takes a page out of Edward Lear

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Be wiseIt’s been a couple weeks since I’ve written anything. There has been plenty on my mind, but I’ve got a full time job and parenting is a full time job and my wife would like a little attention as well, so it’s been hard to carve out some time. I need one of those lobbyist jobs or a gig like Andy Smarick over at Bellwether Education Partners has. One where I can read about education, write papers, and pontificate on Twitter all day. Alas, I am stuck in the world I live in, which can sometimes be a little bizarre. This week is a prime example.

Tuesday night was the monthly meeting of the Metro Nashville Public School Board. I had some prepared remarks that I was going to deliver to urge passage of a new communications bill. When I arrived, the room was already full. A brief glance showed it to be a packed room of charter school supporters. A little puzzled, I sat down and looked at the agenda and saw nothing to warrant this level of interest. I shrugged and thought, well, public interest is always good. What a naïve old man I am.

It seems there were plans afoot for this meeting. School Board Chair Sharon Gentry wasn’t in attendance, but she had some prepared remarks that she wished to share with the public and asked fellow member Jo Ann Brannon to read them. Apparently, Gentry’s had enough of the arguing over charter schools and such and deemed it time to put these differences aside and adopt positions agreeable with her. (Well she didn’t say that exactly, but that was the point.) At the conclusion of the speech, the room full of charter folks leapt to their feet in applause. Elissa Kim, who as vice chair was chairing the meeting, did nothing to quell the outburst.

It should be noted that Ms. Kim is the Executive Vice President, Recruitment and Admissions for Teach for America Greater Nashville. I know, you’re probably thinking, isn’t that a conflict of interest? Apparently not because she also works closely with MNPS Human Capital on the recruitment of teachers for the district, and nobody thinks that’s an issue either. Yeah, it all gets a little goofy, but that’s the world I live in.

Sitting at that meeting, it suddenly dawned on me that I was in the middle of yet another charter school publicity stunt. I’ve written previously about what happens when charters get angry and I guess they were angry again because they had astro-turfed yet another meeting. The thing that really opened my eyes with  this incident though, was the number of leadership people present. The folks present were equivalent to the top leadership at MNPS. I can only imagine what would happen if I called up Jay Steele, chief academic officer for MNPS, and asked him to get his office to show up and leap to applaud a letter that I’d written to disavow charter schools. He’d stop taking my calls. Not neccesarily out of disagreement or agreement, but because he’s kinda busy educating kids.

That line, between educating and marketing, doesn’t seem to exist with charter operators. It all begins and ends in the marketing department. How is what they are doing perceived and if there is the slightest provocation, then they pull out the full public relations machine to attack. Things getting a little heated right before testing time? Time for a brand new shiny brochure. When a legislative session opens on the Hill, its time to get some kids up there. You’ve been to Public School Day rally’s with kids on the hill right? Didn’t think so, because they don’t exist. You see a group ushering kids through the capital building hallways during session and, dollars to donuts, its a charter school.  If people are still questioning the purpose of charters schools, then it’s time for a straw man building op-ed. This is a very organized movement that does not allow dissent. It’s also a zero sum game.

I’ve heard more than one charter operator argue that they are just part of the solution and that nobody plans on privatizing the whole district. Yet, they continue to grow at an alarming rate. Metro has 19 applications pending this year. Ever ask a charter operator when enough is enough? You’ll never get an answer because the true end game is to eradicate public education like it’s been done in New Orleans and being proposed in Atlanta and York. But they can’t really tell you that, can they? They’ll tell you its all about demand.

In fact, this week I actually heard the argument put forth that just because all existing charters aren’t full, it doesn’t mean there is a lack of demand. If you had charters in every neighborhood, the demand would go up. Of course they won’t mention that if there was a charter in every neighborhood, since Public Schools don’t have the private monetary support that charters enjoy, it would starve the local public school. This demand argument probably has something to do with that goofy disruption theory that’s been circulating and I’ve been trying to make heads or tail of over the last 6 months.

In the reform world, New Orleans has been nothing short of a booming success. Unfortunately, a closer look at the numbers tells a different story. Mercedes Schneider points to ACT scores to show the disconnect between the myth and the reality. A charter supporter might ask, but what about that 2013 CREDO study  on charter schools? Well, let’s look at one of the reform movements champs Neerav Kingsland’s very own words to see how that was pulled off – by closing schools. The CREDO study shows massive improvement over the last couple of years by charter schools. But, the way this was accomplished was by constantly closing low performing schools and further destabilizing schools in the neighborhoods were children are starved for stability.

Its like this, if I have a little baseball team and we have to play everybody on our team, common sense tells me we’ll be more competitive if I continue to get rid of and replace the less proficient players on the team. But, will this lack of stability really lead to more victories? Don’t teams that have the opportunity to mesh and balance each other’s strengths and weaknesses tend to be more competitive? In playing little league baseball do the victories only come from outscoring the other team or are there other goals? Those are questions we need to ask ourselves as it relates to charters and their constant churn – is this really what’s best for kids? Kingsland feels it’s a viable strategy. I disagree.

The thing that most baffles me about this conversation is the complete and utter lack of evidence-based dialog that takes place. There are countless, and I could literally sit here and write a whole blog of hyper-links, that show that charters don’t educate the same students as public schools, that charters perform no better than public schools, that charters rob a district of precious resources, and that charters have a higher attrition rate. Yet, when confronted with the evidence, the conversation becomes about whether or not we believe all children can learn. A fact that I don’t think anybody has ever disputed, yet somehow has gotten twisted into a t-shirt slogan that plays on past prejudice.

These past prejudices give fuel to the desire to stifle dissent by labeling the choice movement as the civil rights issue of our generation. News flash, civil rights are the civil rights issue of our generation. We still have a long march ahead of us before we achieve actual civil rights for all. Claiming otherwise is just a distraction that deflects and prevents the evidence from being considered. Any evidence based argument is written off as biased or anecdotal. You know, like the story about how Johnny’s mother was a drug addicts and his father used to beat him. Public schools were failing him and his 8 brothers and sisters that he had to tend to, but he thrived once he got into KIPP. Yea, that’s not anecdotal. Just more rules that apply to thee but not for me.

It’s intriguing to me as well, that the very people who are championing civil rights are demanding that a child surrender their civil rights to attend a school that they are entitled to because of civil rights. The study linked is pretty damning in its evidence of charter school’s discipline policies not aligning with federal and state laws. But then, some kids need that right? In my eyes, it’s like asking someone to walk into a flaming building to keep from being burned. How do you even counter that argument?

It takes me back to childhood and there would always be that one kid who would create a game that only he knew the rules to and if you started to win the game he’d change the rules. Object to the rule changes and you were considered a bad playmate and he’d take his game and go home. This discussion on charter schools and education policy is the most bizarre conversation that I’ve ever been involved in. There seem to be no tenets or touchstones and it seems to be a small minority that constantly drives the conversation. In Metro Nashville we expect kids in charter schools to make up only 10% of student body in 2016-2017 yet charter schools are discussed at virtually every school board meeting. They are a constant looming specter over the system preventing focus on real issues.

The charter conversation is also the most serious conversation I’ve ever been involved in, because, not only will increased growth financially hurt the overall system, but because, despite the fact that charter supporters refuse to acknowledge that the delivery system matters, what our schools look like is what our society will look like. Create a stratified school system and you create a stratified society.

Peter Greene’s piece on what every child should know got me thinking. Our public school system is design to give the opportunity for society to make a collective decision about what every child should know. We elect a school board made up of fellow community members to oversee that process. It’s democracy at its purest and gives all a voice.

Creating a privatized system that removes that decision from the community and places it in the hands of an individually-appointed board of directors is about as un-democratic an action as I can imagine. Under the current system, you may not think that reading Shakespeare is important, but if the collective voice of your community thinks it is, then your child is reading Shakespeare. That’s important because as an adult, there will be laws and regulations that you disagree with, but as a member of the community, you will abide by anyway. We don’t get to go off individually and create our own governments, so why should we get to do it with our school system?

Nashville is at a tipping point right now. We’ve begun a search for a new Director of Schools with a school board made up of very different philosophies. The charter folks are going to go to any length necessary to convince people that their vision is the only one that matters and that the rest of us are just trying to maintain a system that serves the needs of adults over children. Though a look at the salaries of  Charter Operator CEO’s would counter that argument. None are doing volunteer work.

I urge everyone to temper this hyperbole and make it an evidence-based search. Trust, me that’s not a conversation charter operators want to have.  We need to resist their demands that we ignore outside markets and we can’t buy into the myth that Nashville outcomes will somehow be different then national outcomes. What happens in NOLA will happen in Nashville. What happens in Ohio will happen in Nashville. The evidence is out there, we know the proper course to chart. We know what practices are scalable. We know what practices benefit ALL children. That’s the point of having a research based discussion.

It’s imperative that we demand a system that will educate ALL children. We have to demand a system that doesn’t attempt to determine winners and losers. A system that supports ALL children’s needs so that they can truly learn at their full capacity, because its not enough to just say, “all children can learn.” True civil rights can only exist when all children are given an equitable opportunity to shape their future.  We need to confront the opposition with the truth about their proposed system and the impact it will have on children and their communities.

Charter schools have grown exponentially out of the fears that have been instilled in parents and fanned by the reform movement. This leads me to think about some advice my father once gave me. His words were to, “Always make sure you are running towards something and not away from something.” That idiom has served me well over life and is applicable here. Charter operators want you to flee the current system. I choose to run towards a stronger more responsive public system that reflects our democratic ideals. I urge you to join me and make this a evidence-based story and not an added chapter to Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense.

 

Are we funding a School District or a PR Firm?

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chrisThis week I got the results back from a open records records request I made with the state of Tennessee’s Achievement School District. It’s taken a while for me to fully digest them. The Tennessee Achievement School District was created as one of the latest tools of the reform movement to destroy our public education system. They are in the midst of taking over a local middle school here in Nashville, and I wanted to get a behind-the-scenes look at exactly what their plans are, the research they’d done, and how they planned to turn around this so-called failing school. I expected to get reams of independent research, emails filled with pedagogy, and an examination of just how they would staff this new school. Since they were only taken over fifth grade, I thought maybe there would be some discussion on the impact that would have on the other grades. Surely somebody had begun preliminary talks on how to reach out to existing staff and begin that collaboration. Unfortunately there was none of that in the emails I got. Ninety days of emails instead resulted in ninety days of PR work. Here’s an example:

All-
I hope this note finds you doing well and enjoying a wonderful holiday with friends and family.  I am gearing up both personally and professionally for a terrific 2015 that I look forward to sharing with each of you.
 
To that end, I am writing to request a favor.  There is something I’d like for you to share with as many people as possible. This week, I wrote an opinion piece for Nashville’s Tennessean newspaper that will run on Monday (it will likely be posted online tomorrow).  While the piece is focused on education reform battles in Nashville, it contains some big ideas that are familiar to any of us who do this work.  It speaks to our shared belief that kids in failing schools can do so much better—a belief not shared by many of our detractors.
 
We know that national anti-reform efforts are zeroing in on Tennessee’s education battles at an increasing pace (the NEA bussed teachers in from out of town to attend ASD-hosted parent meetings last month here in Nashville) and the ASD is becoming a target of their nationally coordinated efforts.  This makes good sense.  Some ASD-authorized charter schools earned over 10 point gains last year and are already proving what is possible when we set high expectations, support our kids in reaching them, and treat educators like professionals by giving them the autonomy to make decisions based on what’s best for their kids.  Stopping us is critical for those who want to protect the status quo.
 
Like many of you, I get frustrated whenever there is an appearance that there is more opposition than support for positive change.  As we know, parents want good schools for their kids.  Period.  Unfortunately, the colorful tactics of our detractors get more attention in the press than the voices of positive change.  But we can help make these voices louder.  And sharing an opinion piece is a major way to show support for what we believe. 
 
An anti-ASD piece in the Tennessean was recently shared 550 times on Facebook because of a coordinated effort by our opposition.  I think we can do better than that.  And I hope you’ll help us.  Please consider taking these three easy actions tomorrow when the link to the opinion piece goes live (I will send you the link by separate email tomorrow):
(1) Share the link on Facebook;
(2) Share the link on Twitter with the hashtag #WeBelieve2015; and
(3) Send a request from you (please do not forward this email) to your school teams, parents, colleagues and friends near and far requesting that they do the same.
 
Together, we are in this work because we absolutely believe our kids can reach their full potential when given access to a great education.  We believe success should be unleashed from the ground up in schools, not mandated from a top-down bureaucracy.  And personally, a large reason I am in this work is because I believe in YOU and your ability to bring about the changes our kids deserve.
 
Happy New Year!!!
Chris
 

Chris Barbic
Superintendent
Achievement School District

That’s the email on the subject that Mr. Barbic felt demanded his attention. Why he wouldn’t want an email that he wrote through official email shared is another question for another time, but imagine if a teacher or administrator used district email to send out a similar missive to enlist the aid of fellow staff members to support their views?

A common refrain from the ASD is that others spread rumors and half truths, yet rarely do they miss the opportunity to engage in such activity themselves. Take for example, the above accusation of  NEA bussing in teachers from out of state. Technically the teachers were from out of state and they were bussed in, but they were bussed from Opryland Hotel where they were attending a conference. They wished to show support for their fellow teachers, many who would potentially be unemployed next year, and the NEA helped facilitate it. Barbic makes it seem as if the union initiated the action.

Meanwhile, he conveniently chooses to ignore the ASD’s attempt to rig attendance at the parent meetings at the two middle schools that were being considered for takeover by only inviting parents of incoming fifth graders and holding the meetings simultaneously, thus dismissing the effect the move will have on the entire community, not to mention children already enrolled and parents of young children who have begun mapping out their children’s educational path. In spite of this, at the meeting a focus was made of how LEAD was a community school. Unfortunately I guess they meant a community inside a community. A hand-picked community.

I find it disturbing as well that right in the midst of a tumultuous transformation of a neighborhood, Barbic prioritizes creating hash tags and organizing a colorful campaign to give the appearance that this move has more supporters than detractors. Even better is the call for action from the top down evoking the mantra that success is unleashed from the bottom up. You just can’t make this stuff up. But don’t think Barbic is a lone wolf howling in the night. Take a look at this from Chris Reynolds, CEO of LEAD Public Schools:

From: Chris Reynolds [mailto:creynolds@leadpublicschools.org] 
Sent: Monday, December 22, 2014 2:58 PM
To: Chris Barbic; Elliot Smalley
Subject: Fwd: Tennessean Op-Ed
 
Guys, 
 
See below from Greg Bailey our communications director.  
 
We are considering a response to the frogge/speering op ed that would come from me, but I want to do this carefully as I do not want to get into a tit for tat – but we cannot sit idly by waiting for next years data to slam the door shut – we have to communicate now. 
 
 
I’ll call you later, heading into a meeting. 
 
CR

Apparently these people are tracking Op-Ed pieces as diligently as student performance data. Does that “not sitting idly by” refer to serving students or countering bad PR? I should’t be surprised, as many of the Achievement School District’s staffers come from Teach for America, and their response to negative publicity has been well documented. There is no reason not to follow the same playbook when you have the same players. Yet another page out of the TFA playbook is the utilization of public figures to assist in the selling of the product, and as fellow blogger Peter Greene points out, don’t think for a second that a charter school is not a product. This is where Colombo used to say let’s look at exhibit A, or in this case C. Here’s an email from LEAD Public Schools founder Jeremy Kane. Mr. Kane very much would like to be the mayor of Nashville.

From: Jeremy Kane <jeremydkane@gmail.com>
Subject: Re: ASD Info
Date: November 21, 2014 at 5:19:15 AM CST
To: Chris Reynolds <creynolds@leadpublicschools.org>
Cc: Tucker Dwayne <dtucker615@gmail.com>

Chris.

Thanks for the heads up. Congrats and good luck. 

Both of those communities are not as organized as the others LEAD operates in and you are going to have to work hard to make connections. 

I would start with the elected officials out there and then ask them who they see as community leaders. 

There is a group called Madison Now that is active and is trying to grow. They are worth reaching out to. 

Harold Love’s niece works at Neely’s Bend. She’s great and might be someone to reach out to early. 

Other than that I would just do what we’ve always done and take your time, be humble, listen far more than you talk, and be clear about your vision. 

Good luck,

JK

Jeremy Kane is not an elected official, yet. As part of his platform for his mayoral run, I believe Mr. Kane has a plank supporting public schools. If the above is a sampling of the support that our neighborhood schools can expect, I’d say there is a little cause for concern. LEAD in the latest round of Charter applications to MNPS proposes taking over 4 existing middle schools. That suggests a pattern to me and as Mayor would Mr. Kane again be offering his consulting services?  And let me point out again, what is the focus on? Education or Public Relations? Lest you are still unconvinced of the ASD’s priorities, let me share a piece of their internal guide to anticipated FAQ’s at parents meeting:

2014_matching_nashville anticipated questions_v1_11 25 14

Even a perfunctory read-through of this form will tell you this is not a “Lets be transparent” piece. In fact, it’s a very calculated attempt by the ASD to shape and communicate the narrative that they want the public to buy into. It is a narrative that even an uninformed reader can see is dishonest at best. Do they really expect us to believe that an organization that focuses so much on its critics and is populated by former TFA corps members, where money is always a central part of the equation, doesn’t know the exact figure of its donations? Come now, how stupid do you think we are? Are you detecting a pattern yet? Let me share one more exchange. This is from Barbic to Alan Coverstone, the head of the Office of Innovation for Metro Nashville Public Schools:

From: Chris Barbic 
Sent: Friday, December 12, 2014 12:18 PM
To: Alan Coverstone – MNPS; Elliot Smalley
Subject: Rationale for Neely’s Bend Decision
 
Alan-
Per our conversation last night, am sending this over for your staff meeting this afternoon . . .
 
Why Neely’s Bend?
·         Neely’s Bend has a lower 3-year success rate – we want to make sure we are serving the students in the school with the higher need
·         During our door-knocking efforts, we had a more positive and open response from Neely’s Bend parents
·         While the actual parent meeting was not as helpful as were hoping it would be, the individual conversations afterwards were helpful and many of the parents we spoke with were positive and excited about LEAD’s program
·         Over 40% of the parents who gave us feedback forms at the Neely’s Bend meeting responded positively
·         LEAD has developed a strong track record serving ELL students at both Cameron and their Southeast Campus. Neely’s Bend has a larger ELL population (14.4% vs. 6.7% at Madison) and we believe LEAD’s program better matches with the demographics at Neely’s Bend and will do a great job serving the growing ELL population.

My parents always taught that anything that started with dishonesty always kept dishonesty at its root. Barbic claims that over 40% of the parents who returned feedback forms at Neely’s Bend responded positively. Well since I have copies of those forms through the open records request, I can say unequivocally, that is not true. Even if you count the parents who didn’t write, “Go home ASD” or “Stay out of our Neighborhood” on their forms as positive, it still doesn’t add up to over 40%. Interestingly enough, the majority of what can be sort of described as positive remarks came from Hispanic parents. I say it’s interesting because I was at the Neely’s Bend meeting and there were inadequate translation services provided. Initially critics of the ASD were not translated until it was brought to the public’s attention. A suspicious person might wonder how much coaching these parents received on their forms. Barbic did tell me, that these were not the only responses they received. They received more through door-to-door meetings.

Let’s talk more about that “door knocking” piece. My initial request asked for all parent response forms. When all I received were the ones from the meeting, I asked where were the forms from the door-to-door visits. The response was, the ASD never did any door knocking. So I politely asked whether Mr. Barbic was misquoted in local press reports. The next response was that LEAD as an ASD entity did the door knocking. Again, I politely asked why then were those parent cards not included, since I did ask for all documents, and if LEAD was acting as an agent of the ASD, those parent cards should have been turned over as well. Well, apparently I misunderstood. I was told that because LEAD was acting as a separate public agent and since they were subject to the same public records rules as the ASD, I should petition them. Which I’ve done but haven’t heard a response in over a week. I sure hope someone is not furtively writing in a basement somewhere at ASD headquarters.

I’d like to share one last email with you. Below is an email sent by a 6th grader at Neely’s Bend. It’s one that was quickly dismissed by the ASD. Try as I might, I couldn’t find any direct response to this child but then again she wasn’t an elected official or media person. Just a child who likes their school. Keep in mind as well that Dr. Springer, the principal at Neely’s Bend, had only been at Neely’s Bend a short period of time and is now no longer with the school. Here’s what the 6th grader has to say:

Good Evening,

I am sorry I could not be here tonight, I really wanted to represent my school.  I love Neely’s Bend Middle Prep, it is a great school.  I feel that it is a school that future students should have the opportunity to experience.  We are the Beavers, and beavers work as a community.  Beavers help support the community in many different ways.  They build upon and improve the environment for their peers.  They work together as a team.  And they are dependent on each other.  Our teachers are a big a part of our family and lives.  They work with us, and we trust them.  I feel my voice should be heard.  This is our future.  I would like to see many other kids enjoy the fun learning and activities at this school.  The teachers here have high expectations of each of us.  They work their hardest to keep us interested in learning.  They are very supportive.  If it was not for these teachers I would not have overcome the obstacles that I have faced in the past.  They have encouraged me to keep doing my very best, especially when I am struggling.  They are patient when I am frustrated.  They are comforting to us when we are faced with difficulties in life.  Dr. Springer has helped us in many different ways.  We were unsure of her changes at first, but now are understanding the changes are in our best interest.  She also has high expectations of us, the same our teachers, and we respect her greatly.  This is going to be a great year, and hopefully we will have many more.  Go Beavers!

The truth is, our most challenged schools need additional resources and attention. However, it’s educational attention they need, not public relations attention. Mr. Barbic likes to say that 100% of the BEP funds follow the student. If this is true, then it begs the question, who’s paying for all this PR work and orchestration? Are we really paying Mr. Barbic over 200K a year to write Op-Ed pieces defending his personal vision of reform? Couldn’t the money spent on FAQ pieces be better directed towards instructional material for the children? Now that the Race to the Top money has been spent, it’s way past time for legislators to take a closer look at the Achievement School District and its mission. Especially in light of a recently proposed change in policy that would allow the ASD to start recruiting students.  We need to know exactly what we are funding, a school district or Public Relations firm and what’s the end game?