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Step Up for Reading

stepup 5I’d like to share some observations I’ve made over the last several weeks, but before I do, I feel compelled to offer a disclaimer. These observations should in no way be interpreted as a criticism of my children’s teachers. Their skill and professionalism consistently impress me, and my children’s kindergarten teacher is living proof that a parent is not the only advocate for a child. I am more grateful for these hard working professionals then they will ever know. My observations are more about the culture we create and the potential adverse effects it can have on our children.

That said, last week one evening my first grade daughter proudly came to me and proclaimed, “Daddy I’m an L!” Apparently she’d been tested that day for the eleven hundredth time, and the results were that she was now reading at Level L. Previously, I’d been informed that she’d need to be at Level J by the end of first grade, so this was a pretty big deal. I slapped her five and gave her a big hug before I threw a wrench in the celebration.

“How does reading make you feel?” I asked her. She looked at me quizzically. “Does it make you feel happy? Excited? Inspired? Curious? What emotion does reading evoke inside you?” She continued to look at me confused and then responded, “You’re silly, Daddy. I’m an L!”

I don’t want to downplay the importance of her reading skills, but I had to tell her that her reading level wasn’t the most important thing to me. You see, I firmly believe that if you want to really get good at something, it’s necessary that you develop an emotional attachment to it. When was the last time you heard a professional football player say, “Well, it all started when I was a Level J at running in first grade”? Isn’t the narrative always “I just loved playing so much that I would go out and play all day until my parents called me into dinner, and then I’d dream about playing all night and do it again the next day.” Why should reading be different?

I went to a school of the arts with a guitar player who used to wake up in the morning and play guitar until he left for school. He’d come home from school and play until bedtime, breaking only for dinner. His story is not unique among accomplished musicians I know. The point is, they kept this kind of schedule not out of a desire to raise in level, but out of a true love for the activity and an understanding of what they could unlock by getting better. Why should literacy be different?

Part of the problem is that we’ve turned education into some kind of competitive endeavor. The last couple of years have seen the rise of the data wall in classrooms. These walls create an unofficial hierarchy in school rooms. Do you think my daughter is the only student in her class who knows what level she is on? I promise you, she has a good idea of the levels of all her classmates as well, and they of her. If you think this doesn’t have an effect on effort and performance, you are fooling yourself. This information shapes how kids feel about themselves and others.

Its funny we talk about children as if they are precious little creatures but the proof is they behave often like characters from Lord of the Flies. They will use any potential weakness to pick on a fellow child. My daughters 1st grade friends have discovered that being called “crybaby” has a debilitating effect on her, guess what she gets called everyday? Focusing on levels and not the intrinsic value of reading opens the door to creating future self esteem issues and becoming a self fulfilling prophecy.

Competition advocates have the crazy notion that children will take their level and strive to be on the same level as their peers, thus driving everybody upward. Ok, and  that might happen on occasion, but far too often its the opposite. As the renowned psychologist Robert Sternberg noted, “But in any case, I did poorly on the tests and so, in the first three years of school, I had teachers who thought I was stupid and when people think you’re stupid, they have low expectations for you.”

I read an article once that decried the turning of education into one big video game. Like Temple Run, we expect children to “clear” different levels until eventually they max out and that will equate to success. But what happens once they “max” out? It’s been my experience that the game is abandoned and is found to be of little use. It’s my fear that we are recreating this scenario with literacy. We will push children to move up levels but never instill in them the passion and comprehension needed to turn them into lifelong learners and eventually reading will become something you do just for necessity and not for the doors it can open.

The Nashville Chamber of Commerce recently released their education report card for 2015. They are concerned with the lack of progress in fourth grade. Apparently kids aren’t raising their progress levels enough to meet the Chambers metrics. Once again, though, the argument is misrepresented to suit an adult agenda. The evidence presented is that 60 percent of Metro Nashville Public School students are entering middle school unable to read above the most basic levels of proficiency, but this quote by the committee chair attempts to paint a different picture: “If you can’t read, it’s almost impossible to do anything in the other disciplines, even in STEM,” said Jewell Winn, report card committee co-chairman. “You have to have the comprehension skills to do the other disciplines. For me, it was the a-ha moment.”

I’m confused here. Are children unable to read or are they failing to read at a level above what is considered proficient? Those are two different things, that demand two different responses. If a child can not read at all by third grade then a drastic response may be called for, however we continue to push children to read at a younger age, while failing to note the possible negative side-effects. In that scenario, I consistently fail to grasp why it’s important for my 1st grader to be reading at a fourth grade level other than it gives me wonderful fodder at cocktail parties. Maybe it’s a desire to get them to a third grade level by the end of first grade, so we can feel better, check them off and move on. But does that truly serve the child?

It’s funny we wonder why students lose academic skills and motivation as they move from Kindergarten through 3rd grade, and we think the solution is more emphasis on early grade instruction. We demand that pre-K become even more high quality. But what does that mean? I’d be willing to bet that leads to more clearing of levels and then abandonment. As teacher and blogger Nancy Flanigan points out, “Substantial research shows that rewarding an intrinsically pleasant activity sends the message that the activity is not pleasant, and that nobody would do it without a bribe.”  We need to be very careful on the message we are sending to children and what we celebrate. The early years should be more about strengthening that internal pleasure, than just moving the assembly line along.

Recently we’ve been seeing more calls for children to engage in close reading or reading that is deep, thoughtful, purposeful. We are pushing this concept at a time when studies show that fewer and fewer adults are reading for pleasureWe want 5 and 6 year olds to now not just read a book, but to read it with purpose. But that’s all right because closed reading is going to improve kids performance on…wait for it…standardized tests.  Well, this is going to really muck up one of my 5 year old sons favorite night time reads, the 1977 Kiss Dynasty Tour Book. Again though, we are willing to ignore the potential negatives in order to push kids to a perceived higher level. Putting the adults needs for measuring and accountability above a child’s need for age appropriate development.

Who’s poised to especially suffer these consequences? Of course, our children of color and poverty. The argument I repeatedly hear from so-called education reformers is that children of color and kids in poverty don’t have time to slow down. Why? Are they going to master skills and get jobs within four years? Last I checked, everybody was going to be in school for 13 years, and I really wouldn’t have a problem if people took 14 years so long as they graduated.

Being a life long reader is a lot like running a marathon. When was the last time somebody told you that the best way to successfully complete a marathon was to run really really fast for the first three miles? One of the most important aspects of marathon running is to mentally accept that you are going to be at this for awhile. Reading is the same. We need to help prepare children for the realization that they will never run out of things to read and that all of it has value. You are not just trying to clear a level.

Furthermore, this focusing exclusively on clearing levels ratchets up the pressure on teachers. They are constantly driven to move children to perform at higher and higher levels. Levels that may or may not be appropriate. I would argue that just because a child can do it is not a reason for them to do it. Teachers are not given a chance to help children learn why literacy is important beyond the scope of performance evaluation because we are constantly driving them to push children higher. We must recognize that this push comes at a cost and right now that cost is taking shape in teacher job dissatisfaction and turnover, and a decrease in adults reading for pleasure.

Blogger Steven Singer makes the observation that in reading “we don’t care so much about how the astronaut puts on the spacesuit. We want to know why she put it on in the first place. We want to know where she’s going. We want to know what it’s like and if we’d want to do something like that ourselves.” We need to allow teachers the time and the means to fortify this desire in young children.  We need to encourage parents to celebrate how reading makes children feel and not just focus on their level. We as adults must not allow reading to fall to the level of being a chore. To paraphrase blogger Nancy Baily, all children deserve to receive a vibrant, rich literacy program.

Last night I couldn’t sleep so I ended up watching Step Up 14 or whatever number movie they are up to now. The premise of the story was that the male dancer was so focused on winning and competing that he lost sight of why he danced to begin with. The female star had to remind him that other things were more important to her than winning. Winning was just an added benefit, but it was the joy that dancing brought her that was most important to her. When the male dancer reconnected with his love of dancing, well, of course he won big and more than just the competition he was competing in.

Step Up is just a cheesy Hollywood movie but the message is anything but. It’s essential that we help children develop their passion and help them constantly reconnect to it. Develop the love and joy, and the rest will follow. Remember this is going to be a lifelong endeavor, not one we can just check off and move on from.


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Just Do The Gig

quote-Ian-McShane-what-you-do-is-you-just-do-226760There seems to be a little confusion about the role of an elected school board in Nashville these days. I think there is enough confusion to warrant a conversation. So let’s start by looking at the prescribed duties of the board. Notice this one: The Board shall appoint and evaluate the performance of a director of schools to administer the district. Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-2-203(14); Tenn.Code Ann. § 49-2-301. So, if that is the job of the board, then why do we have an un-elected “task force” out conducting a highly-publicized search for the next director of schools? Who decided this was necessary and who vetted the representatives appointed?

To give a little history, last year Nashville conducted a search for a director that turned into a fiasco largely due to the ineptitude of the board chair and the search firm hired to conduct the search. It was an unfortunate situation that left egg on a lot of people’s faces, but it also provided a teachable moment. One that it appears we’ve chosen to ignore, and instead, it seems we’ve decided to double down on going down the wrong path by empowering the Nashville Public Education Foundation to lead a task force to identify the next director of schools.

The Nashville Public Education Foundation is another in a long line of public foundations with lofty goals: We believe every child in Nashville should have access to a great public education that prepares them fully for college, work and life. We do that through raising and managing funds, making strategic investments and bringing the community together behind efforts to accelerate progress. They are also the people behind Project RESET. Take a look at their board. See any professional educators? I know that’s not important. It’s the intention right? All one has to do to be qualified is to be well intentioned? Teach for America, Chiefs of Change, Charter Operators…all well intentioned. But are they qualified?

I find it extremely interesting that at a time when Nashville is making real strides in improving the educational outcomes for its children, we are asking the head of an organization that calls for a reset to head up the search for a new director. At a time when MNPS is proposing an innovative plan for its large English Learner population, the leader of this task force thinks we need to reset. It made me scratch my head so much that I had to recheck the definition of reset.  According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, it means to move (something) back to an original place or position. So with test scores up, discipline and attendance problems down, our academies getting national attention, the person heading up our search believes we need to go back to an original place or position?

Every four years in this country, we elect a president. For many people, a major criterion of who they are going to elect is who that candidate might appoint to the Supreme Court. People choose to vote for that candidate based on the belief he or she will appoint a Justice who reflects their beliefs. I’d argue the same holds true here with the school board. I voted for my board representative based on the fact that he could be trusted to appoint a director who would lead the district in a direction that I believe in. I did not elect him to hand off the job to 17 people who I have no influence on or ability to hold accountable.

We argue often that charter schools are not public schools because they are not accountable to an elected board. They appoint boards and directors without being accountable to the communities they serve. How is charging a 17-person task force, based on criteria that the public had no input on and led by an individual they didn’t have input in choosing, to recommend a leader any different? If you’d argue that this comes from the mayor, who is duly elected, then I would argue that its a back room way to mayoral control and something this mayor campaigned against.

This task force gives off the appearance of creating a transparent process. I’d argue the opposite is true, though. One of the things that board director Sharon Gentry has lamented about is the state of Tennessee’s public records laws and how it makes the search so much more difficult. I’m not a lawyer, but I would argue that this task force won’t be subject to those laws. So I won’t be able to file a public records request and have clarity on how they arrived at their recommendation. Task force leadership has already said, “The group will need to do its homework, Hunt said during the meeting. And it also will need to have many small group conversations apart from its three planned meetings if the committee hopes to put together a profile of a new schools chief for the school board, she said.” The school board would not have that option. All their conversations would have to be out in open and a matter of public record.

Which leads me to another argument. I believe in democracy. That means every voice gets heard, not just the ones I’m simpatico with. How were the member organizations of this task force chosen? Where is, say, Stand for Children’s representation? Teach for America? Tennesseans for Student Success? To be clear, I disagree with these organizations 100% and could live the rest of my life without hearing their talking points, but their mission statements don’t sound that different from NPEF, and if this is a true democracy, they probably deserve a seat at the table. Maybe there are even more organizations out there who should be included as well. See, the thing is, if you start down the path of exclusion, eventually the roles will be reversed, and yours will be the voice excluded.

Looking over the list, I noticed some other glaring omissions. Where is the classroom teacher voice? Some will point to the inclusion of the teachers association, but is that truly sufficient? There is an administrator, and for that I’m grateful, but once again this is like trying to run a restaurant without talking to the waiters. How is this exclusion going to make teachers feel like theirs is the valued voice it should be? In my opinion, classroom teachers should make up at least a third of this task force.

Nashville is home to the largest Kurdish population in the United States. Where is their representation? The African-American community and Latino communities both have representation, so why not the Kurdish? Let’s expand it out further. One of the most pressing challenges of Metro Nashville Public Schools is the large number of refugee children coming to the district – where is their representation? Why is Catholic Charities not represented? The new director really should have some skills in realm of educating English Learners, who better to assess those skills then the people who serve our EL families daily?

I know, if we included everybody, then the task force would become unwieldy. Funny though, we’ve already come up with a solution for that. It’s called having an elected board. Members of the task force will undoubtedly say that they are open to input from the community and encourage people to give that input. The problem is, I didn’t vote for them to hear my concerns, and if they don’t listen, I have no recourse. With my school board, I can change my vote the next time they come up for election.

Now let’s play this movie forward a bit. Let’s say this task force somehow manages to take all these disparate voices and recommends a candidate for the director of school position. After all this publicity, the elected school board will be hard pressed not to approve and hire that person. The people on the task force will then become recognized as the people who recruited and hired the new director. Am I supposed to believe for one minute that they will not use this clout to further influence education policy? This quote from the Tennessean article leads me to believe differently: “On Friday, the group also will discuss a few points from the foundation’s Project RESET report, which looked at the educational hurdles facing Nashville and how to build strategies to better public schools.”

I thought this task force was empowered to identify a candidate for the director of schools, not to look at strategies for building “better public schools.” Again, that’s a job I elected my school board member for. And again, if I’m building strategies, shouldn’t I have a lot more classroom teachers sitting on the task force, or is this going to turn out to be more of the top down management that has proven ineffective over the years? Studies show repeatedly the importance of teachers in creating good schools, so why are we excluding them from the process?

Let’s look at who was included on the task force. Not to pick on anyone, and I’m sure he’s a wonderful man, but what on earth qualifies Bill Carpenter, Chairman and CEO of LifePoint Health, to be on the task force? I’m sure he’s a great guy with the best intentions, but then again, so am I. How about the leader of the task force, Shannon Hunt? Ah, she’s a member of a family of teachers and a public school parent. Hey, so am I! What about Rich Riebeling, Chief Operating Officer of Mayor Barry’s office? I once sat in a community meeting on development chaired by Mr. Riebeling, and he certainly wasn’t very interested in public input. At one point in that meeting, he actually became hostile toward the community members who did not support his plans. So I ask again, what makes these people qualified for this task force? How were they chosen?

We could go on and on and list the credentials of everyone on this task force, but that would distract from my point. My point is that there is an elected body that has been vetted by the voters of Davidson County to fulfill the duty of selecting a director of schools. I have no issue with the school board employing outside counsel, but to abdicate their duty in such a public manner is objectionable. We need them to do their job.

I’m not sure who’s idea it was to create this task force or exactly why. I’d argue that school policy is one of those areas where there are already enough chefs in the kitchen. It’s ironic that board chair Gentry is on record reiterating that this a responsibility that rests with the board. As she states in a Tennessean article, “We can’t confuse community engagement with taking direction from the community,” she said. “Our elected responsibility is to take that input and use it to make decisions given the information they have.”

In the interest of transparency, I feel I should disclose that I have a great personal relationship with many of these board members, and I truly hope I don’t offend them, but this is too important a charge to not demand that they do the job that we elected them for and will hold them accountable for. There have been troubles with the search process and it has been difficult, but that is democracy. I have faith that in the end they are capable of finding and empowering the right individual if we trust in them and allow them to carry out the duty they were elected for. So, to the school board, just do the damn gig.