Congratulations for MNPS are in Order

11796412_10207559130401199_6536072867039905966_nLast week, Metro Nashville Public Schools MNPS) were left at the altar by their choice for Director of Schools, but today’s news should help ease that sting. Test scores were released for the district this morning, and they show that when Mayoral candidate Bill Freeman says that the narrative of Nashville schools struggling is overblown, he is correct. The Tennessean may not be impressed, but todays results are among the best ever for MNPS.

These are results that should be pasted on the front page of the paper instead of stories about social media spats. Our public school system is one that we can be proud of. It is not one in need of a “reset” but rather one that needs a continued firm hand on the wheel as we continue to make an upward trajectory. Some will try to spin a false tale of our schools being in crisis and failing to meet the needs of our children, but the truth is that we are systematically attacking our challenges and our children are working hard; proving that when the time comes, they’ll be ready to lead and maintain Nashville’s status as an “it” city. They are doing things the Nashville Way.

Here are results for grades 3-8. They show math jumping from 44.6 percent proficient/advanced to 47.4. Science jumped to 49.1 percent. Reading did dip slightly, as it did for the whole state.

Taking a look at grades 9-12 End of Course (EOC) exam scores and this becomes even more impressive. In English I (9th grade), students scoring proficient/advanced increased to 63.7 percent and English II (10th Grade) increased to 56.3. English III (11th grade) soared to 29.8. These are incredible gains.

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Math is the same story, but with even greater gains.

Out of 11 categories, MNPS hit the mark in 10. That’s pretty damn impressive. Especially considering all the turmoil that we’ve seen this year.

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I think we can draw several conclusions from these results. First and foremost, we have an incredible group of teachers and administrators who work with and are dedicated to the children of Nashville. They don’t get nearly enough appreciation. We need to remember that every time we say or hear things like, “Our school system is in crises,” or “We are plagued with failing schools.” That just reinforces a false narrative that is not borne out by the data, and therefore disparages the hard work, dedication, and sacrifice of these professionals. We owe them a debt of gratitude and support, not unfounded criticism. Hat’s off to each and everyone of you.

Second of all, why was MNPS Chief Academic Officer Dr. Jay Steele not considered a finalist for Director of Schools again?? African American leaders are currently calling for the school board to reconsider an offer to Dr. Angela Huff for the position of director of schools, yet not a word about Dr. Steele. Like him or not, and there are plenty that don’t, you can not dispute these results. There will be an attempt to add these to Dr. Register’s legacy, but anybody who’s watched Dr. Register up close this last year knows that his hand was rather loose on the wheel this year. The majority of his time was spent battling crisis’s of his own making.

Dr. Steele joined MNPS in 2010 in the position of associate superintendent for high schools and since then, test scores have seen a steady increase. His results were strong enough to attract the attention of the White House and led to a visit by President Obama. This year, he became more involved in middle schools, and once again, the scores have gone up. We say we value data but then we chose to ignore it when it tells us a story we don’t like.

Dr. Huff by all accounts, is a wonderful talented woman, but she’s never been a director, nor has she ever been directly in charge of instruction for a district like Nashville’s. Yet, for some reason her potential is valued more then the body of work Dr. Steele has helped facilitate.  If we are not careful, he may be facilitating that growth for someone else. It’s no small feat that almost 19,000 more students are scoring advanced or proficient today than they were in 2010. Calling attention to these results should not be seen as a slight of Dr. Huff but rather an indictment of the search firm Hazard, Attea, and Young and the job they did – or failed to do.

I talked to a gentleman recently who told me about being at a conference with a group of our principals. His assessment was, “You all got a bunch of rock stars.” Yes, we do. Ask yourself though, who do you think recruited them, led them, and is supported by them? Yet we are willing to give credibility to a search firm that said Dr. Steele was not prepared to lead. Take the personality out of the equation and look at the results. They speak for themselves. This should not be seen as a slight of Dr. Huff but rather an indictment of the search firm Hazard, Attea, and Young and Associates and the job they did or failed to do.

Thirdly, I hope State Education Superintendent Candice McQueen takes notice of these numbers and lets the Achievement School District know that we don’t need their help. We have challenges and our schools definitely have room for improvement, but as these score continue to show, we know how to make those improvements and we are making them. Rumors continue to swirl that they have targeted two more Nashville schools. Those actions need to stop and Neeley’s Bend needs to be returned to MNPS. The ASD’s time would be better spent planning Chris Barbic’s retirement party.

Bill Freeman is absolutely right when he says Metro Schools need a cheerleader. It’s obviously not going to be the Tennessean. The work our children are doing is going to ensure a brighter future for all of us. The people guiding them are doing so in an exemplary manner. These results need to be celebrated for what they are: a testimony to the hard work and dedication of Nashville’s students, teachers, administrators, parents, and community members. Let’s all get together and show how proud we are of Metro Nashville Public Schools success.

Test scores are not a complete indication of a schools quality and lord knows, these results come with plenty of questions. However, they are what most people use for a measurement and they have been sanctioned by the state. To not celebrate them would rob us of a day to hug our children and say “job well done”. To not celebrate would deprive us of a day to slap a high five to teacher or administrator. That’s makes today a day of celebration.

 

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The Runaway Bride Hits Nashville

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flaming_bag_of_poop_answer_7_xlargeWhen I was a kid, we had a game we liked to play. You’d take a brown paper lunch bag, fill it with dog poop, place it on some unsuspecting person’s porch, light it on fire, ring the doorbell, and then run. The unsuspecting person would answer the door, see the flaming bag, and quickly move to stamp it out. You can guess the rest. Essentially, that’s the game Dr. Mike Looney played with Nashville last week.

Over the last several months, the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System (MNPS) has engaged in a search for a new director of schools. It’s been an extremely difficult search process and one fraught with a plethora of challenges. The slate of candidates brought forth by the search firm Hazard, Young, and Attea left many unimpressed. School board chair Sharon Gentry played personal politics by utilizing an ethics complaint to overturn a vote on an interim director while never actually addressing the ethics complaint and also ignoring two other ethics complaints. Through some kind of miracle, though, once the process moved on to actual interviews, a path forward started to emerge.

First of all, Dr. Angela Huff, the candidate from Cobb County, Georgia, proved to be much more impressive than she looked on paper. However, Dr. Looney, the current superintendent of Williamson County Schools, proceeded to demonstrate why the people of Williamson County love him. This is where the paper bag got lit up.

In these interviews and through personal interviews with individual board members and community members, Dr. Looney began to construct a grand vision of what MNPS could look like under his leadership. It was a vision that could unite all elements within a community that often found itself at odds. So much so that he was able to generate a vote of 8-1 from the school board to offer him the position. The lone holdout being Tyese Hunter.

Hunter supported Dr. Huff and had concerns that another finalist, Dr. Covington, had been disqualified, in her opinion, due to internet rumors. She also felt we weren’t holding Dr. Looney to the same level of scrutiny. It’s a position that I disagree with, as the evidence on Dr. Covington was pretty overwhelming, and the charge against Dr. Looney was one that had been proven false, but in hindsight, perhaps we should have paid it more heed. However, the reviews of Dr. Looney were so glowing, the feedback so positive, and the desire for optimism so strong, that people started to buy the hype.

That’s when the bag got stomped on. Looney elected to stay in Williamson County despite having signed a letter of intent to come to MNPS, and with that, debris started to fly. The fallout was instantaneous. In declining the MNPS job and selecting the Williamson County job, Looney cited reasons that ran directly counter to things he said to me just two days earlier over lunch. It’s extremely disheartening because this world is so devoid of people with true integrity, and I left that lunch feeling like I’d met one. Today, however, I am unsure. I look forward to hearing a more detailed explanation from Dr. Looney about his decision.

It’s important to understand that Dr. Looney was not pursued by MNPS. In fact, several school board members tried to dissuade him from applying. Once he became a finalist many thought this was all a ploy to get more money from Williamson County and neutralize his political enemies, a charge a vehemently denied . Watching him navigate the interview process, though, was a textbook case on how to win over votes. It was clear that he had done his homework, and he managed to turn that into talking points that appealed to each board member. It was impressive and it was successful.

It’s hard to reconcile that kind of calculation with a sudden change of heart due to an outpouring of emotion from Williamson County. After all, the ones begging him to stay were the ones who had always begged him to stay. Nobody really changed their mind because of this charade. His supporters just got a louder voice. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming year if those detractors don’t regain their volume.

In declining the job, Dr. Looney talked about it being a family decision and the need to do right by his family. This argument is indicative of a larger problem in public education. It’s a position that says my family and my child trump all else. If my child’s individual needs are being met, then all is good. Dr. Looney sold Nashville on the belief that he had a set of skills that could, in his words, move the needle for all our students. He talked of the potential of creating a public education system that could be a national model. One that showed how all types of schools – traditional, charter, and magnet – could interact together. In the end, though, it’s his family and his children’s needs that he chose to address, leaving the others to look for hope elsewhere.

Can he be faulted for that? That’s not my judgment to make. All I can do is compare it to my personal situation. Both of my children are in a high poverty school. The instruction is excellent, but the inequalities children in these schools face have been mind numbing. Often I consider pulling them out and putting them in a school that provides every opportunity. We have the means to do so. The problem is, that won’t end the inequality. True, my children would be in a better situation, but those other children would still be under served. My children would also suffer from the lack of exposure to children who are different from them. And that’s why I stay and advocate. Because my children won’t live in a world by themselves, and it’s important that they learn early on that all people are important, not just us.

The burning bag is going to spray everywhere for a while. It’s already hit the school board. The Tennessean didn’t even wait a day to jump in with an editorial blaming the school board for the rejection. Choosing instead to try and push the paper’s agenda instead of taking a moment to acknowledge the hard work of the board, whose members sacrificed personal time away from their families to make the process as transparent as possible to the general public. The newspaper chose to once again take a shot at the board’s initial vote to instill chief academic officer Jay Steele over current interim director Chris Henson, claiming that Gentry’s actions were justified. But I think there may be some rethinking of that position once test scores are released this week. Nowhere did the paper acknowledge that despite all the turmoil, the board had come together and made the right choice.

Instead they chose to chide the board by saying they need to “grow up” and leave behind their petty arguments. It’s insulting to label legitimate discourse as “petty.” I don’t understand why people fail to grasp the concept that democracy consists of people with disparate views coming together and finding a common solution. Nowhere is it written that we can’t disagree in getting to the solution. I helped to elect my school board representative to defend the right of public education for our communities children, not to make new friends.

We claim to want to teach children critical thinking skills, but chastise the board when they model those very skills. As observed by Dr. Looney, the topics of our board are focused around children and the delivery system of their education. He advised that Williamson County’s board could learn from this. The Tennessean editorial chose to ignore this observation and went further by making the declaration that our board wasn’t ready for a director like Dr. Looney, but he was a good fit for Williamson County.

The African-American community is pushing for an offer to be made to the runner-up candidate, Dr. Angela Huff. That would be a mistake. There was a reason she was not the first choice, and we need to remember history and not rush off to instantly hire someone. The last time we did that, we paid dearly for it and almost ended up with a state takeover of Nashville’s public schools. Their voices need to be heard and their concerns recognized, but the process needs to be restarted entirely. A new search firm needs to be hired. Dr. Huff should be encouraged to resubmit her application. If she truly is the best candidate, she will rise to the top again.

Dr. Looney’s decision to stay in Williamson County also robs the Nashville community of the ability to buy-in to a new director 100 percent. He very calculatingly created an air of excitement in MNPS. People who had given up on public education were suddenly ready to give MNPS a second look. But that won’t happen again. We’ll get a great director, but he or she is going to be greeted with a little skepticism, because after all, we got dressed up once already and watched the carriage drive away without us. We won’t be so trusting a second time.

During the courtship of Dr. Looney, a comment was made to me that the problem with Williamson County was their sense of entitlement to the things they wanted. This episode reinforced that. If Dr. Looney had left, Williamson County Schools would have been just fine. They have the demographics and the resources to always provide a world-class education system. A large urban district doesn’t have that luxury. Once again, this is an example of the rich getting richer. As a child of poverty, how does Dr. Looney rectify that with his life experiences? With MNPS Dr. Looney would have had a chance to really make a name for himself, change the trajectory of children’s lives, and demonstrate true transformational leadership on the national stage. I doubt he will ever have that opportunity again.

Time will tell where else the splatter goes. Ultimately, though, it’s the children of MNPS who will suffer. This will be a year spent in a holding pattern. Which is a shame because children don’t get another senior year in high school or another 4th grade year. They get one shot at that experience, and we as adults, by failing to keep that in mind, have made this coming year more difficult from the start. Fortunately, we are blessed to have some of the best teachers and administrators in the country to lean on. I have complete faith that they will guide our children through all the turmoil to a place of not just maintaining, but excelling. We need to make sure that we don’t take them for granted either. We need to do everything we can to support them.

I left my lunch with Dr. Looney last week extremely impressed. I thought to myself, here is a man so comfortable with himself that he is open to discuss anything. No subject is off limits because he knows his brand and he lives his brand. Well, this week that brand took a hit. It’ll be interesting to see this year how things play out and if Dr. Looney truly neutralized his detractors or if they are going use this drama as fuel to come back harder then ever.

The strange thing is, that even after all of this heartbreak, I still want to believe. I still want to have faith in the things he said. As cynical as I can be, I truly want to believe that all of this is about children and communities. We need people of integrity. We don’t need more heroes with clay feet. Time will tell whether this was a brilliant ploy or a dumpster fire. Hopefully Dr. Looney will do the children of Williamson County a better service than he’s done the children of Davidson County. Right now though we’ve got some heroes in Nashville that need our help. So lets rolls up our sleeves and bring on the new school year. We have some work to do.

A Good Week in Tennessee

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abcLast week was a good week. It was one of those classic “in with the new, out with the old” kind of weeks. In the space of three days, Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools identified the preferred candidate for the position of Director of Schools, and Chris Barbic resigned as head of the Tennessee Achievement School District. Either of those alone would bring a smile to my face, but together, I’m dancing a jig in the middle of Broadway.

The position of MNPS Director of Schools opened up a few months ago when then-current director Dr. Jesse Register announced his retirement. To say the search process has been tumultuous is an understatement. The search firm of Hazard, Young, and Attea (HYA) was hired to conduct the search. To say that they have underperformed is also an understatement, but apparently that’s par for the course with them.

After conducting a national search, the four candidates HYA presented as finalists were a director of school from a neighboring district, a candidate who grew up in Nashville and most recently worked in Atlanta, a recently retired director from North Carolina whose daughter played in a band here in Nashville, and a man who was a Broad consultant. Shockingly, HYA consults for the Broad Foundation as well. This list of finalists was not exactly indicative of the national search that many residents had hoped for.

On paper, the list looked pretty light. The Broad candidate was instantly thrown out due to a plethora of issues, including the fact that his references were never checked and when they were checked, the results weren’t positive. During the interview process, all three remaining candidates proved to be much more formidable than they initially appeared on paper.  However, one quickly separated himself from the others. Dr. Mike Looney, the current Director of Schools for Williamson County, demonstrated why many think he’s the best director in the state. The question was, would a board that has long been criticized as dysfunctional be able to capitalize on this opportunity?

It’s been a long standing narrative that the MNPS School Board is too dysfunctional to lead properly. But it’s a false narrative. The board is passionate, informed, and made up of individuals with deep beliefs that they are willing to fight for. It’s as prescribed in a democracy. That’s why reform advocates have long pushed for the dissolving of elected school boards in favor of mayoral control or appointed boards, elected boards tend to get messy sometimes. The MNPS Board has demonstrated repeatedly that the process is often inflammatory, but they are capable of coalescing when required. This time was no different; they ultimately voted 8-1 to make Dr. Looney the preferred candidate.

This is a huge move for Nashville. In Dr. Looney, they have a man with a proven track record. Under his leadership, schools in Williamson County have flourished. Student test scores have been among the highest in the state. Teachers feel more supported than in most districts and parents have been given seats at the table. It seems that despite its best efforts, HYA has presented an excellent fit for MNPS. I hate that our gain comes at the expense of my friends to the south but I can’t help but be pleased.

Looney is not the perfect candidate. There are people that are unsure of him and even some detractors. Some questioned whether he had the life experience to empathize with the diverse demographics of MNPS.  Truth is, Dr. Looney grew up impoverished and his life story as someone who used education to rise from poverty is exactly what the district needs. If community response to Dr. Looney possibly leaving Williamson County is any indication, then the MNPS school board is poised to make, dare I say it, a game-changing hire.

Nashville has long been a city at the forefront of the reform movement. Several elements have tried to get a toe-hold with mixed success and there have been many contentious battles.  A strong leader with the experience of Dr. Looney offers the opportunity to put those battles on the back burner. To take the best practices of the reform movement ingrain them in the existing system with the end result being a stronger public education system for all stakeholders. It’s a very exciting time for Nashville and one that could really set us on the path to being a model for the country of a progressive modern public school system.

On the other end of the spectrum, founding Achievement School District director Chris Barbic decided last week that this work was too hard and that he would be leaving his post in December. The ASD was charged three years ago with taking the bottom 5% of schools and turning them into the top 25% within five years. This goal has proven a bit elusive, and Barbic has even said that those challenges were just numbers he made up to inspire. On a related note, teacher and education blogger Peter Greene has an excellent article on why the bottom 5% is such a false narrative.

Interestingly enough, Barbic still retains his Teflon skin as many step up to heap praise on a man who led a failed mission paid for by real children. Candice McQueen, Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner remarked, “The work that you take on as a turnaround district around is deeply challenging, and Chris has led this effort with vigor and drive.” Her comments ignore the hundreds of other teachers and administrators who have been engaging in this work for years. Many a lot more successfully than Barbic. Rumor has it that one school in Nashville targeted by the ASD scored a five this year, yet Barbic’s minions are still looking to take it over.

Funny, there are also quotes from Paul Pastorek, former state superintendent of schools in Louisiana and Kevin Huffman, former Tennessee Education Commissioner. Both of them are comrades of Barbic’s in the Chiefs for Change, a national organization of superintendents founded by former Florida Governor Jeb Bush that seems to be the kiss of death for employment. Less than two months ago, Chiefs for Change announced three new members. Two of those new members have already resigned their superintendent positions.

I, however, am not going to miss Mr. Barbic. He liked to play loose with the numbers to suit his narrative. Math teacher and blogger Gary Rubenstein demonstrated in a recent post just how short the ASD and its fellow Achievement Districts were falling. Barbic countered via social media with some form of measurement that the ASD uses that differs from the standard method used. Shockingly, the way Barbic used math made everything magically add up to support for his assertions. Imagine that. Barbic also took the original goal of the ASD and changed it to that of basically a charter authorizer. All but 5 of the district’s 23 school takeovers are overseen by charter operators.

Barbic consistently changed the rules to suit his narrative. He would say gains were being made when reading scores were lower in ASD schools in 2014 then in 2012. He claimed he was pursuing schools for the benefit of the children yet took the higher performing Neely’s Bend over the lower performing Jere Baxter. Newspaper interviews quoted him as stating that after going door to door in the Neely’s Bend area parents were incredibly supportive, yet despite numerous open records requests, he was never able to produce documentation to support this assertion.

The one positive takeaway is that Barbic started to understand the role of poverty in educating kids. When he first arrived, he was a hard and fast “no excuses” kind of guy. In recent interviews, he’s begun to acknowledge the difficulties in overcoming poverty and that there are differences in types of poverty. He could have learned this a lot quicker, though, if he hadn’t been busy attacking opponents for a supposed belief gap.

Speculation is starting to circulate about who will replace Barbic in the ASD. Some fear that an even bigger reformer might appear. My question on that would be, where would such a creature come from? The heavy-hitting reformers have all but faded away. Barbic was supposed to be the next wave of super-star reformers, but like Rhee, Bennett, Huffman, and the rest, he learned that there are no easy solutions. In his own words, “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.” According to his resignation letter, he’s also learned a few other things.

Despite these admissions, some are still defending the need to have the Achievement School District. My counter argument has been and will continue to be, don’t label anything failing until it’s fully funded. The limited success that the ASD can claim came as a result of the additional resources brought in through Race to the Top funds. That money is gone and the state’s BEP is still not fully funded. That needs to be corrected. The Izone schools in Memphis have demonstrated that they are capable of improving schools without turning them over to the state or private entities. The recent push for Community Schools present an opportunity to address the individual challenges of schools while them even more a central focus of the community.

Chris Barbic may be hoping that his resignation will buy a temporary reprise for the ASD and that new director will function as a reset. That respite will be short lived if the new director continues to pursue a policy of taking over schools without community input. As long as they continue to work as a charter authorizer, putting charter operator’s needs before children’s needs, there will be a backlash. The ASD has already indicated that they want to take over two more Nashville schools, a middle school and an elementary school, to be designated in the fall. I hope Candice McQueen and whoever replaces Mr. Barbic are prepared for a fight.

But, last week was a good week and I plan to enjoy it. Today finds me extremely excited about the potential new direction of the Metropolitan Nashville School District. I am also extremely excited about the imminent departure of a state director that I felt did more to divide our schools and parents than to improve educational outcomes for our children. Months ago, I compared the reform movement to my children right before bedtime. Well, it seems like the kiddos are starting to settle in, and just like with my children, it can’t come too soon.

 

I’m Bored

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boredOne of the benefits of living in Nashville is that we are blessed to have a number of world-class educators who don’t just educate in the classroom but also share their talents with the community at large. Some, like Hunter’s Lane High School Principal Dr. Kessler, write books. Others, like Maplewood High School Assistant Principal Dr. Jackson, give TED Talks. Maplewood Principal Dr. Woodard writes a blog, and a recent post really struck a chord with me. In it, he talks about student boredom, which leads to dropping out. Obviously combatting drop outs rates is a priority, but I also think the subject of boredom is one that we don’t address nearly enough.

Boredom in teenagers is something that has been around as long as there have been teenagers. How many of us remember looking at our moms during the summer and declaring, “I’m bored,” and then getting the answer, “Well, find something to do, or I’ll find something for you”? The implied threat being that it wouldn’t be something you would enjoy. Kids today are still making that declaration, but the difference is we no longer challenge them to find something to do. Instead, we leap to fill the void, thus robbing them of ever confronting boredom and developing the skills to deal with it.

We hear over and over about making kids college and career ready and the need for more rigorous study, as if that will translate into being life ready. Children are told over and over that they are destined for greatness and that they will live a life filled with constant stimuli, but how many of us live lives that reflect that narrative? The truth is that life, for the most part, is filled with mundanity, interrupted by periods of greatness and tragedy. Invariably, when people’s lives don’t live up to the expectations set during childhood, stress, anxiety, substance abuse, and instability creep in.

Add to these unrealistic expectations the ready availability of technology and what you see is a future full of citizens that are completely incapable of handling even a moment of boredom. Whenever a child is forced to do nothing for even a minute it is common to see them reaching for their phones to get a jolt of stimuli. Where is the time to let ideas form and for creativity to develop? If you’ve ever been around a group of 10 to 12 year olds you can attest that at that age we start to see who they are going to be as adults. In some ways, that exciting but if the signs of being ill equipped for adulthood are already showing, it should be eye-opening.

The majority of us get up everyday, go to work at jobs that hopefully give us a modicum of satisfaction, raise our families, enjoy our friends, and try to find joy in the simple things in life. Personally, I think that’s worth celebrating. It doesn’t mean that we are settling; it just means we are accepting life on its terms and enjoying all that it has to offer. In order to appreciate our lives for what they are, we need to have a little practice navigating the periods of boredom. How are children to do such a thing if adults are constantly snapping to attention every time feelings of discomfort are voiced?

Bill Moyers once said, “Creativity is piercing the mundane to find the marvelous.” There is a lot of truth in those words, and we really need to ask ourselves if we are equipping our children with this creativity. If a school isn’t the “right fit,” we find a new school for our kids. If a teacher is perceived as not one of the “brightest and best,” we find a new teacher for our child. If a child voices boredom, we find a class or a camp to combat it. What happens to that child when they get out in the “real” world and are faced with similar challenges? How do we expect them to ever develop the skills to truly live life if we are demonstrating that life is a never-ending void to be filled?

Studies have shown that millennials are currently the most stressed generation, and I can’t help but believe it has to with the setting of unrealistic expectations and an overemphasis on the rigorous. Children are not given the opportunity to create paths out of boredom for themselves. There is so much emphasis placed on achievement as a child, and those unrealistic expectations carry over into adulthood. An expectation of greatness is instilled that doesn’t reflect the life that most of us will live. I’m not arguing against striving for greatness, but I am arguing for the recognition of the joy in day-to-day living and providing the tools to adjust to and thrive during periods of mundanity. Like in all things, a balance needs to be struck.

I am a runner. I run four to five times a week, five to six miles a day. Many days, that run is extremely boring. I often run the same route at the same speed. It would be very easy to just chalk it up as boring and pack it up. However, if I did that, I would never reap the health benefits, nor would I experience the sense of satisfaction that comes with the completion of running five miles. Play it out further, and I wouldn’t be able to compete in the races that give me a shot at glory.  It’s only by embracing the boredom and learning to creatively harness it that I am able to experience the joy that comes with the daily run.

So it is with children and education. It is essential that we don’t just come up with ways to stave off boredom for children, but that we guide them on how to live in those moments.  We need to help them learn to use those times to employ creativity to break on through to the next high point. Children need to have time to breathe and apply the fruits of rigorous lesson plans. It’s one of the reason’s why the teaching of art, music, and literature are so important.

What is the purpose of reading at an advanced level if you don’t have time to contemplate the words being written? Art and music give us appreciation of the depth that life has to offer and a chance to reflect on who we are as people. Professional event planners identify three distinct stages of an event: the planning, the execution, and the reflection. The most neglected phase is often reflection; I think it’s safe to say that applies to life as a whole.

We have to be wary that we are creating a society where not only does the news cycle have to be filled 24/7, but so do our very lives. I can’t help but shudder to think of a world that is so focused on rigorous demands that it fails to recognize the honor in doing quality work, raising a family, and being a good citizen. We used to call those blue collar values, and the foundation of this country was built on them. It’s important to have high expectations, but it’s also important to be good stewards. Schools, teachers, and parents have long served as guides on that journey and that needs to be recognized along with achievement.

I’m very grateful that Nashville’s career educators are willing to offer their insight inside and outside of the classroom and I encourage everyone to take advantage of their unique gifts. They are testimony to the idea that being a teacher is more than a job, it’s a calling. I urge everyone to partake in these opportunities to expand our horizons. As John Dewey said, “Education is not preparation for life. Education is life.”

What do you hope to accomplish?

That was the question that was posed to me on Twitter recently by someone who had just read my latest missive on how dysfunctional the Metro Nashville Public School Board has become. It’s a fair question and one that I frequently ask myself. Since 1983, when “A Nation At Risk” was first published, private interests, under the banner of “reform,” have been trying to transform our public school system from one that serves all students to one that divides and sends one group of children down one track and others down another. Using tools like increased reliance on standardized testing, charter schools, decreased funding, and emphasis on alternative teacher licensing, these “reformers” have worked hard to show us that our schools are in a crisis and that only a switch to private management can save them.

Unfortunately, by co-opting language and making the argument dependent on only that which can be measured, the privatization forces have been very successful. For example, here in Nashville, we’ve all seen the headlines for LEAD Academies and how the whole senior class graduated and is now heading to college.  These accolades are accepted at face value. The founder of LEAD Public Schools, Jeremy Kane, who is also currently running for mayor of Nashville, is lauded for his education acumen, but nobody mentions that the size of the LEAD’s graduating class is tiny compared to the numbers that graduate from our traditional schools. Nobody mentions either that the graduating class was three times as large in 10th grade, but what happened to those other kids when it was graduation time? We also never question whether they are simply churning out children who will excel at passing tests or whether they are producing good stewards who will have the ability to solve the variety of challenges the next generation will face.

The truth is public schools are just as much about society as they are about the individual child. We used to know that. Brown v. Board of Education reiterated it. Our schools were created to serve all children and provide equal opportunities for learning to each child. That ruling recognized that our children were the future of our society, and just like barriers were coming down in society, schools were the vehicle to make sure they stayed down. Some people didn’t accept that and have been developing new ways to keep us separate since then. To me that is unacceptable.

New Orleans was really the genesis of the latest thrust of privatization. Hurricane Katrina provided the perfect excuse to make sweeping changes to the school system at an accelerated pace. Teachers were fired and replaced with young Teach for America corps members. Schools were converted wholesale to charter schools, each with an independent school board. Lost was the voice of the citizen at the local level. Despite what reformers in New Orleans try to tell you, the sweeping changes did not bring improvement; in fact, they brought quite the opposite. But to the reformer, the tragedy of Katrina did prove a way to get the public out of public education.

Tennessee and Michigan followed close on the heels of Louisiana, both creating Achievement School Districts designed to appear as a means to improve low performing schools. But in reality, they are means to further separate the public from public education. Again, neither of these entities have proven to be successful at anything other than growing the number of charter schools and spending taxpayer money. Who are you going to complain to, though, as neither answers to a publicly elected board? I believe that the purpose of these districts was never about results.

Much in the way one builds speculative restaurants, not to turn a profit but to entice others to invest in the chain, these districts were created to get others to buy into the concept. See, when you build a spec restaurant, your profit doesn’t come from the number of burgers you sell, but rather the number of franchises you sell. Despite not showing gains in educating children in these achievement school districts, the privatization forces are looking good with potential franchises in the works in Texas, Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Nevada. Business is booming, I’d say.

Our public schools are not under attack on only one front though. As evidenced by actions in Douglas County, Colorado, privatizers have mastered a whole new plan of attack. One that involves subverting the school board, hiring a sympathetic director of schools, and beginning the break up. It’s easy to close a school and turn it over to a charter operator if you are the superintendent backed by a majority of the school board. If you live in Nashville or just south in Williamson County and none of this sounds familiar, then you are just not paying attention. We can not just stand by and do nothing while a cornerstone of our democracy is converted to a private enterprise that only answers to shareholders and not community members.

Which brings me back full circle to the dysfunction of the Metro Nashville Public School Board. After recently appointing the current second-in-command, Dr. Jay Steele, to the position of interim director of schools, board chair Dr. Sharon Gentry used a ethics complaint to call an emergency meeting to rescind that appointment and appoint her selection. She did this despite one board member, Anna Shepherd, notifying her that she would be unable to attend due to pre-scheduled surgery and requesting a delay of the vote for one week. At the emergency meeting, two board members, Amy Frogge and Jill Speering, also made impassioned pleas to delay the meeting one week. Dr. Gentry and other board members denied this request and proceeded with the vote that turned out as predicted with Gentry’s choice in place as interim director. Now instead of one ethics complaint there are three. This is a huge deal.

It was argued after the emergency meeting that even with Ms. Shepherd’s vote, nothing would have changed with the outcome. How is that known? Because by denying her voting privileges, and by proxy that of her district and all the people she represents, the right to argue the merits of her choice was also denied. How is it known that she wouldn’t have brought some new evidence forward that would have swayed another board member to change his or her vote? Maybe she would have raised a concern that others hadn’t considered, and they would have changed their votes. We don’t know, because other board members failed to show her professional courtesy by allowing a delay to take place and allowing her district’s voice to be heard. Was it just callousness or a hidden agenda? It’s impossible to know, but the door has been opened to speculation. As mayoral candidate Bill Freeman said in a recent letter, “the events of June 30 and the slate of candidates announced today demonstrate that the board has more work to do in an effort to ensure that indeed a clean and fair search process is conducted.” Unless corrected these actions will forever remain suspect.

Now we are on to the next stage of the selection process for a new director of schools with the four names having been announced as finalists. We might be expected to consider these two stages as separate enterprises but we would be remiss in doing so. It is all part of one process that is now mired in speculation and distrust. I would argue that the fight against Dr. Steele was waged because his appointment gave the board leverage to reject the presented pool of candidates and demand that the search committee do a better job. But with Dr. Gentry’s selection for interim in place, Chris Henson, the argument can now be made that he is a financial guy (he’s currently the district’s CFO) and that we need to get someone more permanent in place now. In fact if you watch the video of the revealing of the finalists, she attempts to get board members to agree to hiring one of the four before the names have even been released.

You can not corrupt a portion of a process without corrupting the whole process. In looking over the list of candidates, I can’t believe that anyone truly believes these are the best candidates available in the whole country. The selection firm has said that two other candidates withdrew their names because of the taint of controversy surrounding this appointment. This further proves my point: the corruption of a portion of the process corrupts the whole process. Would the taint of controversy be there if Dr. Gentry and her allies hadn’t tried to manipulate the process by calling an emergency meeting based on a single ethics complaint that never had the opportunity to be vetted? What about if Dr. Gentry had done her prescribed job and appointed an ethics committee and that committee held an emergency meeting to vet the complaint before what appeared to be a legitimate vote was rescinded? What if HYA, the search firm now in question, focused on their job and overcoming the challenges presented and less on shaping the search to their agenda?

We will never know what those two applicant’s resumes looked like because the process has been corrupted. People have said we need to move past Jay Steele and look at what our options are. I disagree. Dr. Steele serves as a known entity therefore providing a comparable to the selected finalists. I’ll be honest, I’m not convinced that he does not hold his own with this group. His body of work surpasses at least half this group and is comparable to the others without the taint of corruption. However, this isn’t about Jay Steele.

It’s about a series of actions that are either incompetent or corrupt.  On the heels of reversing a vote by the board, ignoring the pleas of a fellow board member to be allowed to participate in the process and putting in place a interim director that is no threat to become permanent, Dr. Gentry is now defending a list of finalists that include a man who’s references apparently went unchecked by HYA. Anyone who looks at the history of Hazard, Young, and Attea, shouldn’t be surprised but like MNEA, should demand a refund. During the unveiling of candidates Attea spent about 25 minutes lecturing the board on how to conduct an interview and in particular board member Pinkston on the board’s ability to fire HYA. I strongly suggest we consider his advice. So back to what I hope to accomplish.

Board member Anna Shepherd has repeatedly stated that we have to get this right. If we don’t we run the risk of trying to fix something that is entrenched, always a difficult task. I hope to see us hire a director of schools who will be a great leader and steward to our school system for many years. One who was hired through a transparent and equitable hiring process. One that is put in place not because of either someone’s machinations or because they were the best of a sub-par lot. Nashville really is a unique place. We are blessed with a diverse population unequaled in the country. The last few years have seen unparallelled growth and the future is only getting brighter. We are recognized universally as an “it” city. Well, “it” cities don’t fall prey and they certainly do not settle.

Politics over Children

3

 

If this were an episode of “How I Met Your Mother,” it would open with a shot of the kids on the couch and the voice of the father saying, “Today I’m going to tell you the story of how I lost complete faith in your school board.” That, unfortunately, is where I am at right now. I’ve been engaged in these so-called education reform battles for a number of years now, and every time I think I’ve seen it as bad as it can get, I get proven wrong.
Currently, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is involved in a search for a new Director of Schools. June 30th was the last day of employment for outgoing director Dr. Jesse Register. The original timeline called for a new director to be in place by 7/1/15. However, since leadership failed to lay out a proper timeline, that deadline had to be postponed. This postponement necessitated the appointment of an interim director. Luckily, the district is blessed with two talented individuals who are fully capable of filling the position, Chris Henson and Dr. Jay Steele.
Chris Henson is the district’s well-respected Chief Financial Officer and has previously filled the position of interim director. Dr. Steele is the Chief Academic Officer, who, in this role, has helped create the career academies in our high schools, which led to recognition from no less than President Obama. School Board Chair Sharon Gentry voiced support for Henson, but when nominations were made on June 23rd, board member Jill Speering also nominated Dr. Steele. Dr. Gentry did not allow discussion, so a vote followed the nomination, and Steele was approved by a vote of 5-4. The howling immediately followed.
The next day an MNPS teacher, who, as evidenced by his tweets, watched the meeting on public access TV with sound problems, filed an ethics complaint stating there had been a violation of the state’s Sunshine Law. Nashville Scene journalist Andrea Zelinski, who regularly cover’s the education beat, also raised the specter of impropriety. The evidence seemed flimsy at best, but to a school board chair who was openly seething over being countered, it was enough. Despite the comptroller’s office not having a chance to review and respond to the ethics complaint, nor any formal vetting, Dr. Gentry called an emergency special meeting for June 30th.
At the emergency meeting this past Tuesday, things got really interesting really fast. First, Gentry is quoted as saying, “There has been an open meeting violation claim filed with relation to that so we gotta address it.” I challenge you to review the embedded video from the special meeting and share with me where she addresses the so-called ethics complaint. She doesn’t. Because the meeting is all about reversing the decision to hire Dr. Steele and replacing him with her desired candidate. If these ethics complaints were so serious that they warranted a special meeting, shouldn’t they have been the primary focus of the meeting? And after a violation was confirmed, there would have been a discussion on how to make things right?
The other omission from the meeting is that board member Dr. Jo Ann Brannon never really addresses the alleged ethics violation. There’s a vague rambling statement she makes about “taking the gamesmanship out” of the vote and a weird tale about how this relates to a previous board she was on, but never any explanation or denial of the ethics violation. So are we to assume that the allegations are true, or did someone convince her just to go ahead and change her opinion? We’ll never know because as of late, Dr. Brannon hasn’t been really accountable to her constituents. Last month, she declined to show up for a meeting on a potential zoning change for the Overton cluster of schools, which she represents, and had also bowed out of previous Overton cluster meetings.
The point is, none of this was about an ethics violation or about selecting an interim director of schools. It was all about executing a personal agenda one that includes hiring a director of schools that will facilitate the expansion of charter schools. Dr. Gentry runs the school board like it’s a vehicle for her personal whims. Proposals that align with those whims pass on, those that don’t get regulated to the back shelf. Recently when two independent studies showed that expansion of charter schools would have a negative financial impact on the district she conspired behind the scenes to produce a study that would appear to counter those findings. To secure this study she divided the cost up into two contracts that fell below the required threshold needed to secure board approval.
I first ran up against Dr. Gentry when I worked with an organization to bring Diane Ravitch to town last year. We’d secured a historic Baptist church in Nashville that had been very active in the Civil Rights movement. The church has an entire wall of pictures featuring Rep. John Lewis and Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., depicting their role in the fight for civil rights. It would have been a perfect opportunity to educate people on both civil rights history and current education issues.
Problem was, this was Dr. Gentry’s church and she wasn’t having it. She used her personal relationships to get the pastor to cancel use of the venue a week ahead of the event. I still remember my discussion with the pastor, where he told me that he’d been falsely informed that “Dr. Ravitch doesn’t believe all kids can learn.”
As the special meeting began, Dr. Gentry acknowledged that she’d erred by not opening up the floor for discussion at the meeting when Dr. Steele was voted in as interim director, and therefore, she helped create this fiasco. However, that doesn’t go far enough. You see, Dr. Gentry doesn’t just run board meetings based on her personal agenda, she runs them in an inept manner as well. Often absent, seldom adhering to parliamentary procedure, and rarely prepared, Dr. Gentry frequently appears to not know what she is doing. This has led to the whole search process for a new director becoming one series of blunders after another, all leading to the mess we are in now. That falls at the feet of leadership. As I discussed recent events with a local charter administrator before the special meeting, there was little we agreed upon other than the fact that board leadership was not good.
This special meeting also illuminated another elephant in the room: the integrity of the search firm, Hazard, Young and Attea, hired to secure high quality applicants for the director position. In May, they claimed that they didn’t have enough “heavy hitters” applying. Despite this, they claimed that Dr. Steele is not qualified to make the final cut. Then, when he’s made interim director, they cry foul that the board is hamstringing the process, despite their admission that they’ve never experienced an internal applicant as a candidate. Some questions started to arise in my mind about whether the search firm is attempting to shape the process to their benefit and whether they are even capable of conducting this search successfully.
At the special meeting, Dr. Gentry read a letter from Bill Attea, one of the search firm’s partners, where he attempted to lay out the challenges of this search. In doing so, he gave the impression that these were unique challenges to MNPS. But I would beg to differ.
First off, he pointed to lack of confidentiality. Once applicants turned in their paperwork, their names would become public record. Sunshine Laws are state laws and not just Nashville laws. A firm conducting a search for Memphis, Chattanooga, Cleveland, or any other district in the state would encounter the same challenge.
Secondly, he pointed to the dissension of the school board as a challenge. Really? Nashville is the only city where charter school discussions are taking place at a volatile level in school board meetings? They are not happening in Chicago? What about Celina? Hoboken, NJ? How about the Douglas County School Board, which has been one hot mess after another. The point is, school board politics are messy and whoever is hired as director better have some experience navigating those waters. To act as if this is a unique challenge is disingenuous at best.
What I’m also curious about is that it was earlier reported that once a finalist list was selected, only then would names be turned over to the board. Yet according to board member Mary Pierce’s newsletter sent out today, she states that on May 31, “Bill Attea, partner of our executive search firm, Hazard, Young and Attea, makes phone calls to individual board members to let them know that internal candidate and Chief Academic Officer, Jay Steele, would not be included on the recommended slate of candidates to be presented to our board.” Why? Why is Jay’s privacy not as valuable as other candidates’ privacy? Were other names of non-finalists revealed? Dr. Steele certainly does not need me to defend him; his record speaks for itself. But I have to question whether or not he was ever given a fair opportunity, and if not, by whose direction?
Pierce goes further in her newsletter, stating that at the special meeting, “Just before sitting down at the board table, I was made aware of rumors that a surprise motion would be made to nominate Dr. Jay Steele for interim and that he had told some staff members that he had the votes. With no discussion, this rumor proved true, but accounts of the surprise vote don’t align, and many questioned whether or not this appointment had been pre-arranged.” If Ms. Pierce had heard a “rumor” and it suddenly appeared true, then why was there no mention of it before this? Why did she not let Dr. Gentry know at the time of the nominations that discussion was required and utilize that time period to alert people of what she’d heard? Why did Ms. Pierce not raise this rumor for discussion at the special meeting about an ethics violation connected to this rumor? Because this was never about ethics in the first place.
Nothing made that clearer than the exclusion of board member Anna Shepherd from last night’s vote. Ms. Shepherd had a pre-scheduled surgery on Tuesday and couldn’t be in attendance at the meeting. She notified Dr. Gentry and begged that the meeting be moved. Dr. Gentry failed to respond because according to her metro legal had instructed board members to stay off personal email. During the special meeting, several board members appealed to the board that the meeting be moved to the following Tuesday so that Ms. Shepherd could be in attendance. Dr. Gentry refused, and the majority of the board agreed with her. Ms. Shepherd, who has been the one board member repeatedly demanding focus on the search for a new director, may not have changed the outcome, but Dr. Gentry was so focused on following her agenda that she refused to accommodate a fellow board member who had a legitimate reason for missing the meeting.
The special meeting went as scripted. Dr. Brannon called for a re-vote, and then flip-flopped her original vote with no explanation. This time, however, there was discussion before the vote. In fact, there was plenty of discussion about why Dr. Steele was a fine candidate for interim director. But there was zero discussion about why he wasn’t a good candidate. To the public, there was no discernible reason why Dr. Steele should be removed as interim. Nevertheless, that’s exactly what happened. Dr. Steele’s appointment was rescinded, and Mr. Henson was put in place. Dr. Gentry delivered another lecture calling on all board members to now focus on the search committee’s soon-to-be-released recommendations for a new director. But is that even possible with all the hidden agendas floating around? What’s to say the finalist’s names won’t have to be rescinded and then resubmitted? Every other action has had to be done at least twice.
The bottom line is, this has become a mess. Due to a lack of leadership, I, along with many others, have no confidence that when the list of candidates is released, we will be truly presented with the best candidates who applied for the job. Due to a mixture of incompetence and personal agendas, the integrity of this search has been compromised. I have no doubt whatsoever that Chris Henson is capable of leading this district for another year, and hopefully he is prepared for the task, because that’s what’s going to be required.
Dr. Gentry is fond on sermonizing to the board the importance of putting children first and leaving adult politics on the sideline. If these sermons at the end of board meetings truly have meaning, then the current board leadership will recuse themselves from their positions and allow for competent leaders to take the reins. Who that would be I have no idea, but any other board member would be an improvement. It’s way past time to up the professionalism level and put this school board in competent hands. If leadership can’t do it for the community, then please do it for the kids.

Both Andy Spears and Steven Hale do a good job of adding to the coverage of this train wreck.