Like many of you, I spend a great deal of time thinking about education. Once I started blogging, I was always thinking about things to write about and what I wanted to say. After 50-some posts, I still don’t have a system for deciding what I want to write about. Sometimes I think it’s going to be one thing, and then I sit at the keyboard and it turns to something else.
This post was going to be about the Tennessee Achievement School District and their intent to further invade Nashville. How that’s what happens when you get kicked out of one community and you have to go find another to annoy. Then I was going to write about Charter School Week which, coincidentally, is the same week as Teacher Appreciation Week. But there was one thing that just kept sticking in my head, and so this time, I’m going to go local and tell you about a new extravaganza coming to Nashville.
The name of this event is RESET (Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table). How long do you think they had to fiddle with words before they got a sentence to fit the acronym? A major driver of this initiative is the Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the business community is frustrated because too much of the conversation is being focused on the good of the child and the community when it should be focused on finding cheap labor that is adequately prepared for the uses of business.
They’ve got a fancy website, with a fancy survey, that is going to produce a fancy report. I took the survey and noticed the hallway that it walked me down. I am pretty confident that the report will show how we all want good schools, with good teachers, and our kids to be college and career ready. We may differ a little on the definition, but that’s going to be our starting point to work together, and anybody who is not willing to compromise, well…. that’s just putting adult needs first. This may or may not be true, but I do have some concerns about this new project.
My first problem is with the large amount of reform-type folks who are rallying around this “reset.” You’ve got the head of KIPP Nashville and the head of Valor Collegiate Academy, two local charters, all touting the glories of collaboration. I’m pretty familiar with how collaboration with the charter crowd works. You allow us to do what we want, adopt our policies, and don’t ask too many questions, and we are all good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a charter school operator say, “Oh, we observed such-and-such in a public school and then thought, what a great idea. So we adopted it.” So their enthusiasm dampens mine.
Case in point: Randy Dowell of KIPP Nashville is quoted as saying, “I look forward to the day when Nashville takes on the larger issue of how to share lessons from great schools and apply them broadly so we can put more of Nashville’s students on the path to opportunity-filled lives. Every child and every parent – no matter where they live or what their resources are – deserves that. I’m hopeful that Project RESET will help bring that sort of focus to the discussion.” He is saying this at the same time he’s working with the state Achievement School District to take over one of our MNPS schools. If the state takes over a school and turns it over to KIPP, that school is no longer responsible to the community. It’s responsible to the state and the community of its creation. So which conversation are we resetting?
My next concern is the strong backing by the business community. These are the people who are always talking about how schools are failing to produce enough qualified workers to fuel a growing economy. Yet somehow the economy keeps growing and new businesses keep opening. About the only thing that remains stagnant is wages. Which you would think, based on the law of supply and demand, would be exploding. If there is a dearth of qualified workers, then companies must be willing to pay top dollar to retain them, right? Yeah, not so much it turns out. Wages continue to remain stagnant. Perhaps we can reset the conversation about a living wage as well.
The big thing, though, is the title of this project. According to the dictionary, reset means to set again. In other words, starting all over. Usually when I reset something it’s because it’s reached a stage where everything is so wrong that I have to start over. A couple weeks ago, my iPhone got so out of whack that I had to reset it back to factory settings. Am I to believe that MNPS is in the same position as my iPhone and the conversation needs to be completely reset?
We seem to be doing well enough that the President of the United States decided to come tout our high schools. Our pre-K expansion is worthy of a $33 million federal grant. Our graduation rates have risen 20 percentage points in 10 years, twice as fast as the state’s. We have, perhaps, due to being a refugee destination, the most diverse student population in the country. This presents several unique challenges and opportunities, certainly not a reset.
Things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. We do have a majority of students failing to earn a score of 21 on the ACT (even though we force every junior in the state to take this college admissions exam), if that kind of thing is important to you. We do have schools that are in need of resources and more stability. If you take a close look at our lower achieving schools, you’ll see that they all share a high turnover rate in leadership roles. That needs to be addressed. But while we have kids and schools that are underperforming (based on test scores), we also have teachers, administrators, and students who are performing heroic feats every day. So forgive me if I don’t embrace a reset.
Here’s what I would embrace: an actual evidence-based conversation. One that is transparent on both sides. For example, LEAD Public Schools has been touting their upcoming graduation class having 100% college acceptance. A laudatory feat. However, how big was this class in 10th grade, and what happened to those who are no longer in this class? How are these kids going to pay for college, and are they potentially taking on debt that could have a future negative impact? What is LEAD’s actual spending per child compared to our community public schools?
In order to find answers to these questions, I have to file an open records request, and then I have to pay for copies of these records. When I get them, they are as opaque as if they’d been scratched on a napkin. Looking at their budget, I can see they spend $12,401,257 on personnel, but what personnel? How much is spent on administration? Teachers? Teacher’s aides? School nurse? I don’t know, so once again I’m forced to file another open records request for a supposed public school. The same holds true if I try to obtain the actual number of students they serve. LEAD Public Schools touts themselves as a system of public schools, but they are clearly not-look at their funding, their selectivity of students, and their lack of transparency. Will that be part of the RESET.
Maybe I’m being a little jaded and guarded, but I’ve seen how this all plays out before. While we engage in conversation, the reform crowd continues dismantling public education. This upcoming extravaganza on May 30 is painted as a local event and not focused on national educational reform, but is that true? As leading reform advocate Neerav Kingsland points out, the reform movement has become more local. There was a time when all reform initiatives were led nationally by recognized leaders. Unfortunately for them, people caught on to the rhetoric and rejected it. So now reformers attack the system under guise of it being a local issue, when clearly it’s a coordinated national effort.
Jersey Jazzman, an education blogger from New Jersey, points out the rise of the “reasonable reformer.” He references EduShyster’s (Jennifer Berkshire, another education blogger) recent conversation with Peter Cunningham, creator of Education Post. Education Post was created so that we could supposedly have a better conversation about education. Sound familiar? Problem is that a better conversation seems to be putting aside opposition to policy that has been proven to be wrong and in some cases detrimental (i.e., unchecked charter growth, over testing, merit pay, etc.) It’s like trying to have a better conversation about democracy while abandoning the principle of one vote for each citizen.
In the reform world, what has happened with the decimation of public education in New Orleans and Washington, DC has been deemed a success. Denver is well on its way to the same end, so for the reformers, it’s time to expand. The problem is how to convert districts and get rid of public education fast enough without a natural disaster. Is RESET a potential method to speed that along? After all, Nashville has 13 new charter applications this year, to add to the 27 charters in Nashville we will already have. I don’t know, but I can’t say it’s not since we seem to be speeding along. I do know that a lot of money is being spent on Project RESET. Money that could really make a difference in our less fortunate schools. LEAD Public Schools has received a total of $1.3 million this year. I promise you my child’s school doesn’t receive even 5% of that. Can we reset that conversation?
I’m signed up to attend the big event at the end of the month, and I’ll let you know what it brings. I plan to listen but be vigilant. We’ll dialogue and see what the business community thinks a reset looks like. But don’t think for a moment if this turns out to be another one of those reform movement bait and switches that I won’t be ready. I fully expect to be painted as one of those negative types who are fueled by self-interest.
My wife is a teacher, so they’ll say I want to preserve the status quo to protect her job. Sure, that’s it, I’m afraid that my wife, with an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt and a Master’s degree from Tennessee State, won’t be able to get another $40k-a-year job. That argument is insulting, yet even during Teacher Appreciation Week it’s repeated ad nauseam. Come to think of it, that might be a good place for a reset.
Despite it all – the frustration, the fear, and the disagreements – I still love our public schools, and I still believe in our system. I still believe that community public schools are a cornerstone of our democracy and need to be preserved, not closed, torn down, or replaced by temporary housing. One of the comments in the article about the upcoming Project RESET event compared public policy to a marriage. When your marriage doesn’t work, you don’t just dump it and start over with a new one. You begin with the parts that are working and try to replicate them in the parts that aren’t. In other words, you don’t reset – you reclaim.