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The TN ASD: In search of a friend

Need-To-Make-MoneyA number of months ago I poised the tongue-in-cheek  question, “Who actually likes the Tennessee Achievement School District”? Little did I know how much truth was in that question. It is certainly not the people of Memphis or Nashville, who have loudly rejected the ASD take overs of their schools. You can’t count the three charter operators, Frayser Community Schools, Green Dot, and KIPP, who recently changed their planned level of participation in the ASD. The Tennessee Comptroller’s office can’t be too enamored, as their audit revealed multiple instances of financial mismanagement. Apparently there are not too many friends at the State House either, as 22 bills were introduced this session to either limit or do away with the ASD.  Now, the latest tree has fallen: YES Prep decided to pull out of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

This is a huge deal because YES Prep is a charter organization that Tennessee Achievement School District head Chris Barbic helped found in 1998. They’ve been very successful in Houston and agreed to open two schools in Memphis in August. You can’t help but think their relationship with Barbic helped facilitate this move. However, now that they’ve gotten a little bit more of the lay of the land, they are having second thoughts about the move. Chris Barbic might have thought that the Memphis parent protests were no big deal, but apparently, along with a changing financial picture, made YES Prep a bit uneasy, as they’ve decided to pack up and move back to Texas. This is akin to a son telling his father he doesn’t want to go into the family business. It’s got to sting.

Part of the hang-up was over a proposed turnaround strategy called a phase-in plan. With a phase-in plan, a charter takes over one grade at a time per year until eventually they take over the whole school. This is strategy that charter operators might find beneficial, but I doubt those outside the grade being taken over feel the same way. These students, the ones not being “taken over”, are left in limbo as the district knows that the school will soon be the charter’s responsibility, and therefore there is not a lot of incentive to invest in the school and its remaining students. Memphis was not a fan of the phase-in strategies. Parents and administrators had grown weary of students attending a school where some students were granted more resources than others due to the charter status. In response to parental concern’s, Memphis created a policy that would force YES Prep to send students in the non-targeted grades to other campuses. This caused further resistance from a community that was already wary.

In discussing these models, we must never lose sight of the fact that these “low-performing schools” are also largely high poverty schools. This disruption can create challenges that parents are ill prepared for. Imagine if you were told that not only is your child’s school being taken over by the state, but since your child is in a non-targeted grade, he’ll be attending another campus that might not be very convenient for you and furthermore, may create a financial burden. Charter schools like to compare themselves to rescue boats for the Titanic. Well, this is an example of them deciding who gets the rescue boat and who gets the anchor.

YES Prep’s Memphis director Bill Durbin stated, “For the last year, we’ve had a team on the ground doing all that due diligence to be prepared to run schools this fall. In doing all that due diligence we obviously came to the realization that a bunch of factors have changed in the past few years that don’t lead us to believe we can deliver on the promise that we made when we were approved two years ago”. Chris Barbic’s response: “Not everyone is cut out for this work.”

Meanwhile, families in a Memphis neighborhood are left scratching their head and wondering where their children will be attending school next year. This is a serious problem. One that could have been avoided, but is indicative of an issue with the whole charter movement. Charter schools are accountable to their board of directors, but not the community or anyone else.

Reformers like to lament how hard it is to close a failing school, but in my eyes not being able to whimsically close a school is a good thing. Schools are meant to be more than just places for students to learn to read and add. They are meant to be cornerstones of communities that reflect the values of those communities and serve as a source of stability. Take for example Glencliff High School here in Nashville. Glencliff High School will most likely still be here, barring catastrophe, when my children are ready to attend. I know alumni and current students from Glencliff. They make up my community and we have a shared social currency. Glencliff as a public school helps preserve this social currency. It is a source of stability in a neighborhood that has seen many fluctuations. But the charter movement does not offer the same steadying influence.

Charter schools are not government entities; they are private. Therefore they are governed by private interests. If the job gets too difficult, they can close. If the profit margin gets too small, they can close. If they don’t like the model that the local school district proposes, they can close. There is nothing that guarantees that the school that’s educating your oldest child will be the one educating your youngest, or even that the one responsible for your oldest child’s education will be the one responsible next year.

Most parents would find this problematic, but not Chris Barbic. He’s more concerned about growth. In his eyes the ASD needs to have the ability to go out and recruit more kids. Apparently he doesn’t see how this would create more instability. When he pulls kids out of their local district, that means less money for the local district. Less money means more potentially failing schools, which translates into more schools to be potentially handed over to charter operators. Schools that may or may not be open on that first day of school in August. Barbic is so committed to this vision that he’s willing to support attaching a bill to allow expanded enrollment for the ASD to a completely unrelated bill, a bill with universal support that would give cover to the ASD, which does not enjoy universal support. With shenanigan’s like this, you can’t help but wonder how much of this is all about the money, especially now that the Race To The Top money has dried up.

The Achievement School District was created out of the Race To The Top application. Its creators saw it as a means for the State, who had more resources available, to provide assistance to schools, that had challenges local districts weren’t equipped to handle. Charter schools were intended to be just one tool in a box that the State had access to. Someone, though, took it upon themselves to turn the ASD into a de facto charter authorizer. Since it’s inception, when the ASD took over the three campuses of Frayser, every takeover has been a charter conversion.

An interesting fact about the Frayser schools – they’re losing their leader Ash Solar. Barbic’s comments on his leaving are “I think it’s one thing to come and do the one- to two-year sprint as fast as you can,” he said. “But if we’re going to sustain this work, we’ve got to make sure we are finding people that can sustain an effort over time.” Guess Solar is not cut out for this work either. Even though he was a member of the Broad Residency Class of 2009-2011. You start to wonder who Chris thinks is qualified to do this work. If you looked at test scores you might even begin to question if the ASD is qualified to do this work.

From the beginning the ASD proposed to grow the bottom 5% to the top 25%. After three years, they’ve fallen considerably short of that goal and to reach it, would have to produce double digit gains each of the remaining years. Interesting enough, the I-Zone schools, which have been referred to as the local district’s achievement district, have proven more successful in producing gains with a whole lot less disruption to the community. Change is hard and rarely comfortable, but discomfort just for discomfort sake is not reform. Results have to be evident and to this point, the ASD has just not shown results that warrant the disruption they’ve caused.

I don’t know how many more signs are needed to show that this Achievement School District thing in Tennessee is fraying at the edges. Individually, any one of the series of failures that have beset the ASD this year would be cause for pause, but when taken together, it’s a damning indictment. To be honest, it seems to me that the ASD and it’s cohorts show more in common with war profiteers than educators.

At the very least the state of Tennessee Legislators need to put the brakes on any expansion of the Achievement School District. Let Mr. Barbic prove that he can still recruit quality charter operators. Because right now the quality ones are either leaving or scaling back their plans. We need to demand that Mr. Barbic prove that he can make academic gains with the students he’s charged with before granting him access to others. The ASD needs to prove that they are good stewards of tax payer money.

The Achievement School District may be prove to be a useful tool in the future, but with it’s current leadership, and mission statement, that is highly questionable. If it continues to be plagued with defections, scale backs, lack luster growth, community anger, and financial mismanagement, other solutions will need to be considered. There can be no success without stakeholder buy-in and right now, it is unclear who, if anybody, likes the ASD. Legislators owe it to Tennessee tax payers to hold the ASD to the same level of accountability required of students, teachers, administrators and schools. Anything less is just not acceptable.






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Childhood is for Children

20120330_baseball_33I wrote this post last year as Peter and I embarked on his first year of organized baseball. We have now started year two of our foray into organized ball. If any thing, its been a re-enforcement of last years observations. With minimal mastery has come even greater expectation. In that light, I’d like to share this again.

A rite of passage for every parent, and especially fathers, is when their child embarks on his or her first foray into organized sports. We all pretend that we just want them to have fun and learn the lessons that organized sports has to offer, but in the backs of our heads are lodged dreams of athletic abilities that will set them apart from other children and reaffirm visions of how special they are and by proxy, we are. Unfortunately, reality is often a whole lot different.

My four-and-a half-year old son, (I’ve learned that half year is extremely important), recently began his baseball career. He’s playing in a 4-6 year old coach pitch league. It’s provided me with an opportunity to begin my coaching career as well. I’m not sure which is off to a worse start.

Peter is an athletic child, you may remember me writing about his skateboard prowess at age 3, but surprisingly he’s not an overly focused child unless it has to do with super heroes, Star Wars, or Wrestle Wrestle E. It possibly has something to do with him being four-and-a-half. He enjoys practicing hitting, until, well he doesn’t. Throwing is all right as long as you explain why he’s throwing the ball and its importance in relationship to Luke Skywalker or Captain America. It helps if you can convince him that it’s an activity they enjoy. His favorite part is running the base paths, but he hasn’t quite grasped the concept that you have to be able to do the other two in order to do the latter. What I’ve discovered is that he’s pretty typical of other 4 – 6 year olds.

His first baseball practice was a couple weeks ago, and as I laced up my shoes I had visions of the drills and training that I would expose these children to. I was going to turn them into ball players. We’d be hitting and fielding for an hour twice a week, and by April we’d be a lean mean competitive machine ready for our first game. Of course we’d win that one and before you knew it, we’d be hoisting the trophy after the little league world series. I know, it’s supposed to be all about fun, but doesn’t winning make everything more fun and isn’t it important to have high expectations?

Three practices in and now I’m not sure if we’ll even win a single game. One child announced, as he lay on the field, that he doesn’t even like baseball. Another is much more interested in the individual blades of grass that make up the outfield than in catching a ball for the fifth time. Then there’s the child who got hit in the head shortly before practice, so he’s a little scared of it all right now. I could continue with the list, but I think you are getting the picture.

What I’d forgotten is what it is often forgotten when dealing with kids and education policy – they are kids. You can have all of the data, standards, best practices, best intentions, etc. , but at the end of the day they are real live, living, breathing, independent thinking children. Everyday they bring their own agenda to the table independent of whatever we were planning. Each has his or her own interests and the degree of those vary from day to day. By my observations, sometimes from hour to hour.

This is something I need to constantly remind myself. I have expectations that these children will begin to master the rudimentary skills needed to play the game but it’s more important that they learn to love the game. It’s not dis-similar from children learning to read. It would be wonderful if every child learned to read in kindergarten, but it’s more important that they begin to fall in love with reading. Every child develops at a different pace. If a 5-year-old can’t read by the end of kindergarten, it doesn’t mean they are a failure. It means they are still learning.

In that sense children are not any different than we are as adults. How many times have we bristled when others have tried to dictate our performance based on some piece of data? We love data as long as it’s not ours being used by others to predicate our behavior. When was the last time any of us said this to a co-worker?: “The boss told me that based on some data he had that I was capable of doing 10% more work a day. I’m going to buckle down and get that 10%.” My bet would be probably never. Yet that’s what we do to our kids and then wonder why they don’t embrace the learning process.

We test them endlessly, and then we use that data to create expectations that we foist on them or else we label them failures. They are expected to enter the doors of school everyday, 100% ready to learn, and focus on what we tell them is important. If, for some reason this doesn’t happen, well, then the schools are failing. We never for one second take into account that they are kids, and that sometimes rigor  just isn’t appealing. They’d rather work on the graffiti they’ve been adding to their notebook instead of doing a little close reading of an informational text. They’d rather try to figure out if Suzy Johnson likes them than describe how they arrived at the answer of a math problem. In other words they’d like to focus on things that clearly relate to them right now and not things that will supposedly make them career and college ready.

In some schools, geared towards some kids, we flat out say that it is inexcusable to have interests outside those that are prescribed. We need to apply extra discipline to bring these kids around to what’s important. Their future is at stake, by God, and they need to embrace the lessons or run the risk of being labeled failures for life.

The last decade has seen a marked growth by no-excuse charter schools serving minority children who claim their policies are in the best interest of the child, but are they really? Isn’t the adult and the institution being measured at the same time as the child. It’s easier to attract investors if you can show measurable results and without a doubt, there is a lot of money in privatizing schools.

Try as I might, I can’t remember my schooling years as being as competitive as the environment our children now face. We took tests and there was an emphasis on doing well on those tests, but I don’t remember touting the results to demonstrate my superiority. My parents certainly insisted on me going to college but which one wasn’t the most important thing, and there was always an encouragement to develop as many interests as possible. It was ingrained very early that the process of learning was every bit as important as the result. Because education was a process not a competition.

At one of my son’s early practices, we were doing a catching and throwing drill. I would throw the ball to the child and they’d catch it and throw it back to me. The kids seemed much more interested in throwing the ball over my head than throwing it back to me, and I would try to correct them but with limited success. Their interest was beginning to wane.

To counter this waning interest, I came up with a game that if they caught the ball, they got a chance to try and throw it over the 20 foot fence behind me. If they didn’t catch the ball, they had to throw it back to me. Things got a lot more focused, and the kids started to have fun. The next practice came and half of them asked if we could play that game again. It had hooked their interest and provided a tangible result that they could grasp as opposed to a vague future promise.

At our last practice, I started a throwing drill that, after a couple rotations through, was beginning to wear thin. Again, I was faced with a dilemma of trying to keep them focused on the drill or give in to them being kids. I chose the latter and asked them if they wanted to run the bases. A loud positive chorus erupted, and we spent the last 20 minutes of practice running the base paths and cheering each other on. I know those last 20 minutes won’t help us win more games, but it may make a child a little more inclined to come back to practice and perhaps the next time be more prepared to practice the prescribed skills. It may not, but I do know that if they don’t come back to practice, they will never develop those skills.

We need to remember as adults that every minute doesn’t need to be dedicated to preparing a child to potentially win – or pass a high stakes test. Sometimes we need to do things that will instill a love of playing the game and not just a love of victory. Games, like life, have an allotted amount of time. Once it’s over, it’s over, and the thrill of victory is fleeting and what’s left is the feeling created by playing. The feeling of playing should be every bit as joyous as winning. If not, then we are left endlessly chasing the wins and losing that precious time between victories. As adults, it’s our responsibility to instill in children that living life is every bit as important as pursuing success. That it’s all right to take time to try and throw a ball over the fence for no other reason than to see if you can.

We used to be told as children, don’t try to grow up too fast. Now, we try to apply pressure to children to focus and perform at a level that most adults would rebel against. Most educators I know recognize this and attempt to remind us, as parents, of it. But when we allow legislators to create policy that uses children to rank adults, buildings, and institutions, it’s hard to allow children to be children.

These days, along with legislators, we’ve got hedge fund managers, charter operators, TFA Corp members with little to no classroom experience, and other education “experts”  trying to steer us in the wrong direction. Parents and experienced teachers know better – we know children need time and space to be children, to learn at their own pace, and to experience all the highs and lows that come with learning something new.

We are heading down a path that soon will be irreversible. We are allowing our children’s lives to be data mined and privatized, stealing a time meant for the laying of the foundation of the life of a future parent, producer, and/or citizen.  As parents, we need to empower each other to speak out and stop the misappropriation of childhood. After all, we all only get one shot at it and childhood should be dedicated to those living it, not the adults trying to hijack it to suit their agenda.


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Let’s talk Education Facts

“…It’s a fairly rudimentary exercise to be frank with you…Revenue follows the student to charter schools. Fixed costs do not follow the student proportionately. So therefore, the more revenue loss you get, the fixed cost base stays the same. There’s erosion. So it’s a pretty simple model…” –Independent Auditor discussing the Metro Nashville Public Schools audit

Those were the words used by the independent auditor hired by Metro Nashville to look at Metro Nashville School Districts operation. It would be an understatement to say that this was not what those commissioning the study thought they would hear.  School Board member Will Pinkton had been saying for over a year that we were getting to a point were the approval of more charter schools was financially unsustainable. The charter crowd dismissed these evidence based claims as politics and bias. In fact the hidden agenda of calling for the audit was to discredit Pinkston and fellow board members who had been raising this flag for months.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has long been a friend to charter operators, helping recruit many to Nashville during his time in office. He’s on record as saying that he believes we could handle the financial impact and wanted to see more charter schools, this audit was a way to counter any opposition to increased charter growth.

Council Person Emily Evans spearheaded the effort for the audit from the Metro Council side, which some perceived as a witch hunt. Evans took great umbrage to this, proclaiming that “[The Audit Committee] They have been doing this for years,” she says. “They are staunchly independent and operate with great integrity and commitment to this city.” I hope she remembers these words now that things didn’t turn out quite as planned. Her expectations were that the audit would show a mismanaged central office and an ability to absorb more costs if the district streamlined.

What turned out was a report that every school board member across the country should read. If you haven’t watched the video above, I strongly encourage you to do so. Delivered by an independent voice, is evidence of what fiscally responsible folks have been saying for years. The growth of the charter sector is unsustainable. The auditor himself called it a rudimentary exercise, unfortunately one that we’ve had to dedicate a lot of time and energy to over the past number of years.

Charter operators have, and will continue to, make the argument that cost shouldn’t be the sole determining factor in charter school expansion. They like to say the child is the most important thing. I would tend to agree, but I don’t see the benefit of dismantling an existing system and creating another one, especially when the new one shows no signs of being scalable or any better than the existing system. That’s like going out and buying a new car when you already own a comparable one that just needs new tires. That would be fiscally irresponsible. Yet that’s what is continually called for by the reform crowd.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that shows a consistent differential between the performance of charter schools and traditional schools. Only an ardent zealot would argue differently. Yet the argument continues. Previously, the debate was confined  to education circles but as the charter industry got bigger and greedier, the argument has spilled out to auditors and accountants. People who are not swayed by ideology but rather raw numbers. When that starts to happen, people start to pay attention.

Tennessee, and specifically, Memphis are deeply affected by the Achievement School District. The ASD was started as a vehicle for the state to take over low performing schools and transform them. However, as of late, it’s become nothing but an independent charter authorizer with very limited results. All but five of the 23 schools in Memphis and Nashville taken over by the Achievement School District are run by private charter operators. The money that would be designated for the children attending a district school now gets directed to the ASD, which obviously leaves the district with less money to execute their mission. Lack of funds leads to lower performance, which leads to more schools getting taken over. It’s a brilliant plan and one they’ve been executing flawlessly until this year, where families have begun to be able to get legislators to really start looking at finances and impact.

Speaking of finances, Tennessee currently has a voucher bill pending. This voucher bill would give students enrolled in schools ranked in the bottom 5% money to go to a school of choice. Many others have written  more eloquently then I have on the detrimental effect this plan would have on the state. The interesting part to me is that we already have an entity that was supposedly created to address the needs of those kids in the bottom 5%: the ASD. I guess the money is not fleeing the public school system fast enough with just charters so we need to kick up the pace and add vouchers as well. This is a game plan for privatization and it’s being executed.

Currently the Achievement School District can only take students who are zoned for the schools that they take over. Have no fear though, the ASD is not one to let roadblocks get in the way of more money. There is currently legislation pending that would allow the ASD to recruit kids zoned for other non-ASD schools in the bottom 5%. You know, the ones that are eligible for vouchers. Now I’m not making any accusations, but that sure would be convenient. Of course, that would take even more money out of a system that already isn’t fully funded, meaning potentially more schools eligible for take over in the future – which, in turn means more students eligible for the ASD and vouchers since there will always be a bottom 5%.

We all know money matters. In order for schools to be successful, they have to have the financial resources necessary. Tennessee has put a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort into improving its public education system and the results have come. The last NAEP results showed Tennessee to be one of the fastest rising states in the Union for educational outcomes. The president himself has visited on numerous occasions to tout our educational progress. In a recent email to constituents, Rep David Alexander(R-D29), who is Vice-Chair of the Committee for Finance, Ways and Means wrote this:  “We already have Achievements School Districts, Magnets Schools and Charter Schools in our State. There have been many changes in our Tennessee Education Department over the last four years, and we moved the needle farther that any state in history as far as increased test scores of our Public School students. And now, for some reason, there are people who want to figure a way to get students out of that public school system.” Based on this,  the question that bears asking is, why?

Why would we spend all this time and money improving a system that has shown measurable improvement only to hamstring it by stealing resources? It makes you wonder if all this really is about the child. Look at the last couple school board races here in Nashville. A 100 thousand dollars is no longer considered an astounding amount of money to raise for a school board race. In fact, I’d argue it’s almost a necessity. That kind of money being donated for an unsalaried and frankly, thankless position further begs the question of why? What do private operators hope to accomplish by investing that kind of money in an unpaid position? I think the answer is becoming more and more apparent, especially as we continue to follow the money.

Please don’t think for a moment this is limited to the local and state level either. In April 2014, the House approved the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) by a vote of 360-45. A provision of that Act upped the money for charter schools from 250 million dollars to 300 million dollars. How do you justify giving that much money to an experiment that at best has proven to be a wash academically, and if you considered the peripheral effects, a detriment to our to our public schools that serve the majority of students. Imagine if that money were spent to fully fund our public schools instead. Perhaps we could level the funding gap between rich districts and poor districts.

It’s been said many times that public education is a cornerstone of our democratic values and I hold to that. Public education has never been perfect, but then again, neither has democracy. Our history has shown us the many problems – women’s suffrage, civil rights or environmental issues, etc. – that have arisen as a result of our democracy allowing some to exploit all of us. But we have never abandoned our democratic principles; instead we have always come together and worked on solving our issues; united in reaching a solution and strengthening our democracy, two goals united and not exclusive.

Imagine if during the civil rights era we would have just given up on local governments and allowed the corporations to set up bodies that would dictate to us what equality would look like. Imagine if we had turned environmental regulation over to corporate interests? We might have seen some short term goals met, but we would have lost a key element of what makes our society so unique and in the long run it would not have been beneficial.

The same holds true for public education. There are problems and room for improvement, but none of them can be fixed by turning our schools over to private entities. Only by coming together and working through solutions as people with a vested interest can we find solutions. The fact, is we can’t fiscally afford to privatize our system nor can we morally afford it.

Our schools shape our children’s future. Those who say the delivery method doesn’t matter are being disingenuous at best. It absolutely matters. If we don’t protect children’s constitutional rights now, how will they defend them as adults?  It is time to reaffirm that our schools belong to us, and we want them back from the corporate reformers who care more about the bottom-line than about our children.




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Taking Care of our Teachers

thA7T8YKC9Last week, my wife’s dear friend and her husband welcomed their first child into the world. It was not an easy pregnancy, and so the arrival of a healthy baby brought as much relief as joy.  This new arrival made me reflect back when my daughter Avery was first born. I remember the difficult search for a pediatrician. We were so unsure about what qualities to look for and who would be the best fit. Even after making our selection, we were still filled with trepidation.

Avery arrived and was a very healthy baby. The pediatrician came and saw her at the hospital, and then later that week we went to the office. I remember my wife coming home and telling me that she really felt good about our selection because he asked as much about her as he did Avery. The doctor explained that if the mother wasn’t doing well then it would be awfully difficult for her to provide adequate care to the child.

That theory was such a simple idea, but it was so revelatory to me. It just made such complete sense. The mother was going to be introducing this child to the world, providing nourishment, guidance and security – of course it was important that she was feeling nourished and supported herself. I think this is a concept that is undisputable, yet for some reason doesn’t carry over when considering the next group of people that are responsible for our children’s growth; their teachers.

Reformers like to say they are all about the child and that they only support policies for children and not teachers; somehow the implication being that teacher’s concerns are just adults protecting their self interests over children’s needs. But if the teacher responsible for the child is getting paid so little that they have to take a second job, are they truly able to give everything to meet the child’s needs? If an teacher is so under the gun to produce high test scores or lose their livelihood, aren’t the test results naturally going to come before students needs? A child is not a singular entity independent of outside forces but is in fact part of a larger system with a multitude of influences.

If you were ask teachers how they would address these influences, you would find their answers to be child-centric in addition to being fair to their own occupation as teachers. In other words, teachers want to be treated fairly and respectfully, but more than anything they want to be free to teach their students and meet their students needs. They are also the best suited to address those needs because they are front and center everyday. I always say that trying to create education policy without talking to teachers is like trying to run a fine dining place without talking to waiters. It can be done, but not effectively.

When raising my children, nobody has a better view of their needs than I do and I don’t only take into account things that will have a direct impact on them. Instead, I try to take in the whole picture and how it’s all connected. For example, I try to run on a regular basis. I don’t do that because I enjoy running, but because I know that if I’m not healthy, I will not be able to fully engage with my children thus hindering their development. Not to mention that if I drop dead of a heart attack it would be severely detrimental to them. So taking care of myself means I will be better equipped to take care of my children.

My wife and I should probably go on a date night more than once a year. I know that means we’d be diverting funds away from directly supporting our children, but if we are not connecting and taking the time to strengthen our relationship and work on our own personal development, we are potentially having a negative impact on our children. Thus hindering their full development. So taking care of the relationship between my wife and I means we will be better equipped to take care of our children.

Or try this alternate approach: go  to your spouse and tell them from now on, all decisions on your children will be handled by your mother. After all, she’s their grandma. She loves them, has their best interests at heart, and she’s an expert at raising children, and never mind that it’s been years since she was around children daily, your input won’t be needed. Yeah, try that and let me know how that works out for you. Because this wouldn’t work out best for your children at all. You are the experts when it comes to your children and by proxy, teachers are the experts when it comes to their schooling; not legislators and not private interests.

I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, yet we fail to apply these principles to how we deal with the people we all agree are essential to the development of our children. We create standards without ever having a single classroom teacher be involved in the initial development. We promise teachers raises and then play shell games. We say collaboration is essential and then fail to provide adequate planning time. We hear all about education issues on television, yet teachers are rarely asked to comment. We say we respect teachers, but the mainstream media continues to vilify them.

There are those, with whom I agree, that believe all of these things are intentional. That reformers seek to quantify and rank everything, creating a system where a truly gifted teacher is not a requirement or even desired. What’s needed are essentially, as Rev. Richard Sindall so eloquently states, trainers. People who can follow directions, not question the prescribed directions, and in effect, provide big business with their future employees rather then focus on what children really need. Why else would we continue to de-emphasize quality training and continue to fund an organization that is basically a temp agency?

Despite recent studies that show Teach For America as being no more effective and in some cases detrimental to child learning, we continue to fund them with corporate and state donations. Reformers look at these results and default to the old straw men arguments about teacher’s unions and only protecting adult interests. Funny though, TFA brings in a bajillion dollars a year, so obviously propping them up is protecting some adults interests. In fact, I’d say that an organization that has over $400 million in net assets has quite a few adult interests at heart. Imagine if those funds went to teachers who actually want to make teaching a career instead of a stepping stone to something else.

In addition to turning to temp agencies to staff positions that we all agree are vital to our children, we have also created an evaluation system that has repeatedly been shown as ineffective. The teacher’s who are assigned a high value-added score are the one’s who deliver high test scores, and this is how reformers define a quality teacher. This is despite evidence that shows no real correlation between high test scores and success in life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying the importance of reading and mathematics to future success, but they are not a be-all or an end-all.

Last night as I was trying to watch TV, my wife brought up what I thought was a brilliant plan – to utilize the art and music to hook middle school English Learners she works with into lessons, and as a result of this, increase their reading and writing scores. Reformers argue for focusing almost exclusively on measurable skills. While the arts are not producers of measurable results, they certainly can be highly effective at engaging students. An engaged student is more receptive to learning. Imagine that, we flipped the horse and the cart, therefor providing a more robust education.

This is evidence of why we need to push back against the concept of the status quo and realize that there are dedicated teachers everyday searching for new ways to reach children. Somehow there is this misconception that if we took away high stakes testing and the threat of accountability, teachers wouldn’t push children to learn as much and children would fall behind. I have never seen evidence of this. Therefore instead of perpetrating this myth, we need to reject it and find new ways to support our teachers. Talking to them would be a good place to start.

My family has got an interesting dynamic. My kids tend to be a little more smart-mouthed than they should be because we encourage them to question. They tend to take a few more risks because we’ve empowered them to practice setting their own boundaries at an early age. Both my wife and I work, so dinner is rarely before seven o’clock and the kids seldom get to bed before 9. There is a lot of “expert” parental advice that we don’t actually follow.

When it comes to my children, I’ve been known to be inconsistent with my messages at times, and on occasion, have resorted to bribery. The thing is, knock on wood, my kids are healthy, happy, and intellectually curious. I think our kids are on the right path. In my mind, it’s because my wife and I know our children. We continually reflect and evaluate, both them and ourselves. We monitor their progress and adjust where necessary. Sometimes we get it real right and other times we get it wrong, but we learn from it all.

As brilliant as I may think I am, I’m not doing anything different than what my children’s teachers do on a daily basis, when we allow them to, that is. As a father, I demand the right to do as such and what baffles me is, why would I not extend this courtesy to the very people that I have entrusted my children to for the majority of the day? Why would I not empower them in their role as a member of the team charged with bringing my child to maturity? Think for one minute, would you scrutinize your spouse in the same manner we scrutinize our teachers? Would you deny your spouse resources like we deny our teachers? Would you not consult with your spouse on their observations and insights before making pronouncements?

We need to step back and realize that providing for the people who care for our children is not putting adult interests first, but in fact, is protecting the interests of our children. There’s a saying that goes, “That if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” that never fails to elicit chuckles. The best humor is always rooted in truth. We need to make sure our teachers are happy and feel supported, so they can focus on ensuring that our children live better lives. That’s a child centric-policy. Teacher appreciation week is May 4th through May 8th this year. Instead of offering coffee mugs and trinkets, why don’t we ask what they would appreciate.



Posted in Uncategorized

Bedtime for Reform

keep-calm-and-please-go-to-sleepI love my children dearly but I am no fan of bedtime. Things at your house may be a little different, but at my house, it’s like standing behind a jet plane. The kids are going a million miles a minute. Questions are flying. Toys are sprawled everywhere. The noise is deafening. I’m alternately crying, begging, and yes, yelling, “Brush your teeth,” “Put your pajama’s on,” and “Get over here and listen to this book.”

All the while the kids are working off a different agenda. They realize that the day is coming to an end, and they’re not ready to let it go. It’s been a good day, and they want to milk it for everything they can. So they are fighting and talking and trying to create enough energy to delay the inevitable. Finally, though, the kids are settled into bed and the day comes to an end, and preparations begin for tomorrow. It was always a forgone conclusion that they would end up asleep at some point and the day would finally come to an end and that their protestations were pointless.

In my mind, that’s where we are with the reform movement in education right now. The day is coming to an end, and like my children, reformsters are kicking and screaming and making as much noise as they can to try and delay the inevitable. We have reached a point, that the reform movement was once engaged in battle against the status quo has become the status quo. As Nietzsche said, “Battle not with monsters lest ye become a monster; and if you gaze into the abyss the abyss gazes into you.”  I certainly don’t consider myself and other like-minded individuals monsters, but man have we been demonized by the reform movement, and now the abyss is gazing right back at them.

The reform movement has been in action long enough that we have a body of evidence to examine. It’s a body of evidence spanning some twenty-plus years, and it looks a whole lot like the status quo. Teach For America has been around since 1991, but as Gary Rubenstein points out, it has become this big blob with no real sense of direction or ability to evolve. A recent in-depth study on charters illustrates, that they have more in common with traditional schools than they’d like to admit. A look at voucher data debunks their value pretty, quickly and don’t get me started on achievement districts as blogger Crazy Crawfish points out, they are their own monstrosity.

When confronted with all this evidence, you would think reformers would start looking forward for new solutions and cast off the ones that have been proven ineffective. That would be the wrong assumption. In fact, it’s just the opposite: they double down in defense of the status quo. They accuse education experts of not believing in children of color.  They beg for more time. They create focus groups to study things we already know. They pretty much do everything that they’ve accused public education advocates of doing for years. Hello, kettle? This is pot, and guess what, you are black.

Meanwhile, there is a growing wave of public school advocates who are looking at ways to actually lead us down the paths of innovation. They are studying community schools. Others are looking at successful models from Columbia and Finland. There is a growing focus on education for the whole child instead of an overwhelming focus on the measurable (i.e. reading and math). These are all areas that research has shown to have the potential to be truly reformative. These are the subjects that should be making headlines.

Yet, the reformers still try to engage in muddying up the waters to buy more time for their agenda. Sometimes to the point that they ask you to ignore common sense. Charter operators continue to argue against the depletion of resources, even though its obvious that if I have one pile of money, each time I divide it, each portion is going to get smaller. Apparently not in the reform world. There, everybody continues to get all the resources they need and the portions remain the same – even if this isn’t realistic when it comes to actual  school budgeting, they’ll continue to make the argument.

These are the kind of ludicrous conversations that continue to eat up our time and focus. How many studies to we have to present or debunk in order to show the unsustainable practices of charter schools before it sinks in that they are not the panacea they’re made out to be? How many times must we slap the hands of a Achievement District for jockeying numbers before they accept the truth that it’s just not working? How many times and in how many ways must it be shown that charter schools do not perform better than public schools? None of these are isolated events. They are repeated over and over and over and still the reformers fight to maintain the status quo processes. Just like my kids asking for five more minutes – please.

I’ll be honest. I’m a little bit weary of these conversations. There are few things I enjoy more than a good philosophical discussion, but when the other party continues to ignore empirical evidence, it just becomes tiresome and makes it hard to take them serious. I long to move on to something a bit more meaningful. Truth is, I long for the day when I no longer feel compelled to write this blog because we are actually employing research backed best practices.

Reformers tend to further mimic my children in their desire to constantly be doing  something, seldom pausing to consider overall implications. It makes me think about what fellow blogger Rob Miller recently wrote, “The tendency to take action often leads to action without reason or research, which has the potential to cause more problems than it fixes.” Miller makes a compelling argument about slowing things down transferring our focus from the individual and onto the whole.

Instead of focusing on bad teachers, perhaps we should focus on all teachers. Instead of focusing on “low performing schools” we focus on all schools. And instead of trying to just quickly solve the problem, let’s examine what is causing the problem and adjust from there. There’s validity to the old saying of lets sleep on it and attack it with fresh minds in the morning.

The reform movement is afraid of rest though, they like to keep things in perpetual motion. They often declare a state of emergency and that “we can’t afford to waste a single second.” But are we really being effective if we are just in motion for motions sake? We have to resist the urge to get caught up in the noise and cling to failed practices just to give the illusion that we are “doing something.” Let’s not just do something. Let’s do something effective.

I have to guard myself against getting too caught up in my children’s energy level and their desire to prolong their bed time, because when I do, the process just gets lengthier. Conversations about whether Spiderman could beat up Hulk, much like conversations about charter schools vs public schools, do nothing but prolong the inevitable. Giving in to their demands for extra snacks, longer stories or another glass of water just means they’ll be getting to sleep a little later, but they are still going to sleep. The same holds true in reference to TFA, more time for achievement school districts or vouchers. All the protestations and whining isn’t going to change the fact that the day is coming to an end.

Its time for education reformers to truly grasp the title and close out this day and help make tomorrow better. Across the country, the voices of parents, teachers, and community member are being heard. They are ready for tomorrow to come, a bright sunrise on a new day with less testing, restored funding to arts, music, and PE, fewer charter schools, and happier kids with restored time to build character rooted in the innocence and simple pleasure of a joyous childhood. It’s past time to stop protecting the status quo and let the day come to a close. As Adlai E. Stevenson once said “Change is inevitable. Change for the better is a full-time job.”