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When Everybody Loses

IMG_5783Around my house, you will often hear the refrain, “Daddy, you said you were going to do that. It’s important that you do what you say you will. You always say that.” You see, we’ve instilled in the kids from an early age that accountability is a two-way street and that everybody has to practice what they preach and when we say everybody, we mean everybody. We believe that if you don’t hold yourself accountable, you certainly can’t expect it from others. For example, the kids like to wrestle on the bed before bath time. On occasion, I’ll be too tired and beg off with a promise to wrestle an extra 20 minutes the next night. Next night comes, and I’m too tired again and attempt to beg off. That’s when the kids call me out and it’s up to me to keep the promise I made. It’s not always what I want to do, but in the long run it reinforces an important tenet.

The Tennessee Department of Education got a bit of a lesson on that this year. Politicians and State officials preach accountability like it was John 3:16, but when it’s time for the rubber to meet the road they continually refuse to apply the Gospel to themselves. Case in point: the annual standardized tests that are used to measure the performance of schools, teachers, and students. The last two years have seen repeated missteps, post-equating, and questionable cut scores, culminating this year in the whole system crashing . It was clear to any impartial observer that the state was acting under a flawed process that needed to be addressed.

Some would argue that the issues with the test a couple years ago had a hand in forcing out then Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman. When his successor, Candice McQueen, arrived, there was great hope that she would learn from past mistakes, and we would see an improved process. Unfortunately, that hasn’t been the case. Questions on how scores were calculated arose and once again people were questioning the value of the tests and competency of the TNDOE. Parent and teacher voices increased in demanding a review of the process and a cutting down on both the number and emphasis of the tests.

Once again the TDOE turned a deaf ear and miscalculated that they could just proceed unencumbered by offering lip service to stakeholders and doubling down the path they were on.  Their response to the criticism was to create committees and task forces. Parents, teachers, standards, textbooks, testing – they all got their own task force or committee. Problem was that none of these task forces/committees were populated with people who didn’t already support the policies of the TDOE. Take the parent group, for example: applicants had to be referred by their principals, and activist parents across the state quickly secured these referrals only to have every single activist parent denied a seat at the table. Instead, the state went with 15 parents from across the state who, while certainly qualified, shared a greater affinity for state policy than some of their counterparts. Furthermore, name me one policy that any of these task forces have had an impact on. They seem to exist for DOE purposes only.

I always like to use the analogy of a highway when discussing failures. In analyzing how we get to a FUBAR situation, there are invariably exit ramps that we could have taken to avoid the disaster. But for some reason we chose not to and just flew by each and every one of them, resulting in an avoidable catastrophe. Tennessee’s TNReady fiasco is no different. There were warning signs back in October that there would be technical issues. When the system crashed in February, when paper tests were late for Part I, when parents, teachers, administrators, and legislators all began openly questioning our readiness – after all these warnings, we could have put on our turn signal and exited. But again and again, we chose to just turn up the radio and hit the gas. Because of those choices, we now find ourselves in what is akin to a 50-car pile up as the state finally decided to cancel all remaining testing for grades 3-8 across the state.

In some ways, the canceling of the statewide tests feels like a win. There is a great feeling of “I told you so,” which is very tempting to bask in. Especially when you’ve worked as hard and been ignored as much as parent groups have been. We need to resist that temptation though, because let’s be perfectly clear, this is not a win for anybody. Quite the contrary, this is a huge loss for everyone, though not in the way the DOE thinks it is. And once again, those being asked to absorb the loss are the very ones we demand the most of: students and teachers.

My good friend Chris Moth counsels me to not swear in a blog for general consumption. That’s good counsel, but sometimes the actions in question are so egregious that the strongest language is the only way to drive the point home. And that definitely applies here. I can’t put it anymore clearer here than to flat out say, “TNDOE, you fucked up. Big time.” Children only get to be in 4th grade one time, same for 6th grade, and all the others, and you have stolen that year from them. They have missed opportunities that could have enriched their lives only to spend the year being jerked around and manipulated so you could have your precious test data.

Supporters of standardized testing like to down play the effects of testing on instruction. Fine, then riddle me this, why has instruction in science all but gone away in grades three to four? Why has the science test been canceled this year? After all it’s a provided by a different test vendor. Because the focus on reading and math overshadows the need for science. I’ve said it before and I’ll keep repeating it – when you have a system that focuses on accountability, all the focus is on the things you are holding people accountable for. Science and social studies counts less, and so therefore they get less focus. Art and music are not counted at all, so they have almost gone away completely in some schools. I’m not saying they need to be tested, mind you, but the approach for many schools is that if it’s not on the test, then we don’t have time for it, especially in our high needs schools. If you don’t think that’s a disservice to our students, then I’m not sure what your definition of disservice is.

The reality is that schools and teachers have spent another year prepping kids for a test that they are not taking. Children missed field trips, special events like Dr. Seuss read-a-long days were either re-scheduled or postponed, and many other more joyful and necessary parts of education were stripped away while testing and test preparation took precedent over all else. How much instructional time, learning time, recess time, and special event time were sacrificed in order to prop up a process that we knew all along was flawed? Anybody that was involved in this fiasco who claims that this is all for the kids needs to take a good hard look in the mirror.

Furthermore, let’s look at the stress and sacrifice we’ve demanded from our teachers in order to facilitate this canard. We forget that, despite Teach for America’s best efforts to drive them out, many of our teachers have families. Time with their families has been sacrificed in order to meet the demands of our testing policies. How many times did my own kids and I head out on the weekend for an afternoon of activities while my wife headed to school to make the necessary preparations to make her students TNReady? Now we tell her, and the other teachers who were there at school with her, that it was all for naught and we appreciate the time stolen from your children, and we’ll mention it next teacher appreciation day, but it wasn’t necessary this year. And don’t think for one minute that the time spent by teachers who don’t have children is any less valuable. Time was stolen and teachers would be fired for such incompetence, but I’ve yet to hear of anybody at the TNDOE suffering that fate.

This fiasco speaks to our credibility as well. Politicians, administrators, teachers, parents, we’ve all made statements to children this year that now prove less then credible. We are constantly discussing the importance of kids’ “buy in” to the test. How do we expect buy in when we don’t hold ourselves accountable? Every teacher in every classroom is going to face that very dilemma at a heightened level next year, and students will be watching closely. Heck, the TNDOE even turned the Tennessee Teacher of the Year into a liar by creating a PR video that claimed everybody was TNReady when clearly we were not. Again, it is time to pull out that mirror.

The TNDOE has begun damage control, but as we crawl from the wreckage it becomes imperative that changes are made. The TNDOE needs to tear down their echo chamber. They need to conduct panels with people who don’t just reflect their views. As an activist, I often get accused of just wanting to raise hell. Nothing could be further from the truth. I have a deep and ingrained love for our schools and their mission. My greatest desire is that a multitude of voices are heard and out of that, we arrive at truly best practices. Only by having open conversations can we truly improve the system.

Unfortunately, based on the TDOE response to Dr. Looney’s cancellation of all tests for Williamson County Schools, I don’t have a lot of optimism. My father always told me, “Don’t start a fight till you have your own house in order.” Dr. McQueen can blame Measurement Inc all she wants for this fiasco but if she thinks her house in order, we’ve got real problems. A fight with Williamson County will most likely further illuminate the need for legislators to hold hearings on exactly what went wrong. Does Dr. McQueen really want to explain in front of them why she’s trying to hold WCS accountable when she doesn’t even know who is going to score those tests or when. It’s my opinion that energy could be better focused on getting her own house right. And I don’t mean starting another task force.

Too often, leaders fall into the trap of thinking they are leaders simply because they’ve been appointed to that position. Truth is, you only get to be a leader if people decide they are going to follow you. Dr. McQueen is facing her Waterloo right now with this crisis. Will she rise to the challenge and make the necessary changes that will restore people’s faith in the system? Will she begin to broaden her counsel and give dissenting opinions a seat at the table? Will she come to the realization that the test should serve the needs of students and not students serving the needs of the test? Only time will tell but again, I am not filled with optimism. After all, she herself said she is disappointed that we won’t be able to take this test,  not about the actual loss of meaningful instructional time nor the wasting of student’s time and energy that could have been better focused.

I don’t know what the solution should be. Take a year or more moratorium from all statewide testing? Re-evaluate what we will use these tests for in the future, now that we have more freedom under the new ESSA? Reduce the amount of tests we give? What is the purpose of education? Why do we test? What is the proper amount of testing, and how can we all collaborate on what is best for our students? Perhaps this post isn’t the place to answer that question, but you know me, I want you thinking.

At this point, I’m not calling for anybody’s head, but I tell you what – if the Tennessee Department of Education doesn’t start listening to all stakeholders, not just the ones they align with, and implementing real change, that point will be moot. Because the public will demand that their legislators demand a house cleaning. Because after all, “Daddy, you said you were going to do that. You have to do what you said. It’s important”

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Nashville’s English Learners Instructional Blueprint

12799033_10208855338489692_1493551812931781969_nI moved to Nashville in August of 1989 from northeast Pennsylvania. As the child of an Air Force father and a resident of the Northeast, I was used to being surrounded by people from many nationalities. The Nashville of 1989 was a bit of culture shock for me. There were a few Mexican restaurants and maybe a Thai place, but otherwise, the ethnic food landscape was pretty barren. The reason being that Nashville’s immigrant population was very minimal at that time.

I remember trying to find pierogis and having to drive across town in the middle of the night because someone had spotted Mrs. T’s in the frozen section. Then there was the time I took some friends to the Italian restaurant in town and they wanted beans with their lasagna. In deference to my wife, Nashville was the home of Vanderbilt University, so children who grew up in its vicinity were exposed to children from around the world, but there were not the thriving communities of families from South America, Asia, and the Middle East who now call Nashville home.

Nashville today is represented by cultures from all over the world. While the majority of the population still identifies as being white, that number has shrunk from 79.5% in 1970 to 60.5% in 2016. The foreign-born population tripled between 1990 and 2000, from 12,600 to 39,500. Nashville is home to the largest community of Kurdish people in the country. We’ve had as many as 60,000 Bhutanese refugees settle in the area. Refugees from Burma, Syria, Iraq, Nepal, and countless other countries now call Nashville home. It’s a little amazing that a city whose major claim to fame is country music has become this eclectic burg.

Obviously, this has been both a gift and a challenge to Nashville schools. Take my own children, for example. When they started the school year, back in August, a fair amount of their classmates did not speak English. So while we were thrilled that my son, who was starting kindergarten, was making friends with children from Thailand and Burma, there was also concern that he would get the instruction he needed in order not to fall behind. The same held true for my first grade daughter. Luckily, their school has some exceptional teachers, and both have thrived while having the unique opportunity to be exposed to various cultures in an authentic manner.

That doesn’t mean that I am under the illusion that my children are receiving an equitable educational experience to those in less diverse schools. Tusculum Elementary School, where my children attend, at is made up of a large percentage of immigrant and refugee children whose parents are still navigating the corridors of society, let alone trying to figure out how to support their children’s educational needs. That is not a criticism or excuse; it’s a reality. That means due to state and federal testing mandates, every possible minute must be devoted to improving math and reading skills, lest we be labeled a “failing school”. That translates into some things being sacrificed.  Things like after school clubs, field trips, special performances, and some extracurricular activities are not as readily available as they would be in other schools.

Tusculum Elementary School was recently identified by the state of Tennessee as being a school in the bottom 10% for achievement. That’s a shame because I personally believe that list paints an inaccurate picture of what is happening at TES. I’m not alone in this thinking, as the newly passed Every Student Succeeds Act recognizes the need for deeper classification of EEL students and includes provisions to create more accurate evaluations. For example, Tusculum currently has 18 T1 (Transitional 1) students and 12 T2 (Transitional 2) students, K-4 students who have tested proficient overall (5.0) and in literacy (5.0). This means in 2015 (T1) and 2014 (T2) they tested proficient and no longer receive daily EL services. That’s a big achievement, but by and large, it goes unrecognized. This is not a unique problem to TES either and one hopefully ESSA will help address.

It is a challenge to get the general population to recognize the breadth and depth of our demographics. We tend to think the words “English learner” and “Spanish” are interchangeable. We tend to think that “refugee” and “immigrant” mean the same thing. We forget that a parent’s educational level is crucial, and that different points of origin mean different levels of education and different perceptions on the value of education. In order to better educate our children, we need to better educate ourselves. It all translates into a multi-tiered endeavor that requires multiple strategies without a whole lot of precedent.

Adding to the challenge is the uniqueness of Nashville’s EL population. It’s not like we can just go copy what New York, Boston, Los Angeles, or even Charlotte-Mecklenburg is doing. They are all similar, yet extremely different, than what we face in Nashville. New York, Boston, and Los Angeles all have immigrant populations, but not the refugee numbers. Charlotte-Mecklenburg, which has the refugee numbers but not quite the breadth, is the closest to Nashville, but has benefited from the implementation of dual language immersion in its schools. Unfortunately for Nashville, that is not presently an option. In other words, we need to do a little inventing of the wheel here for what best suits us.

Last year, Metro Nashville Public Schools EL director Kevin Stacy and Chief Academic Officer Jay Steele, spurred on by School Board member Will Pinkston, recognized the scope of the issues and started to strategize on how Nashville could best tackle them. Luckily, they realized that this was a challenge that you could not import an answer for, nor could you have outside experts come in and have them implement a plan. This was something that would have to come from the local experts. The ones who were actually out in the schools doing the work. Thus, the EL Council was formed. (Now, I’m sure there was more to the formation than that, but my writing is already too long. So in the interest of brevity, this is how I’m telling it.)

The EL Council is made up of educators from across the district at all levels. They have met monthly for the past year and formulated a strategy to bring a better educational experience to all our children. Somehow, God knows how, but I’ve managed to wrangle an invitation to participate in these meetings and have come away impressed. Kevin Stacy has brought as many voices as possible, sometimes 40 to 50 people at a time, into the conversation, and given them free reign in terms of input. These educators don’t always agree, and sometimes they say things he doesn’t want to hear, but together they’ve created an impressive plan and a budget that could serve as a blueprint for the future.

We could sit here and pick apart elements of the plan all day, but in my opinion that would do a disservice to those front liners who crafted it. Early on in the process, the School Board chair put a mandate on implementing solutions with a proven track record. The problem with that is, as noted earlier, we are in unchartered waters. However, our educators have made some impressive in roads.

It is a federal requirement that all schools make yearly increases (called Annual Measurable Achievement Objectives) in the percentage of students who are learning English. We have made progress this year by exceeding the language growth and language proficiency goals set by the State. Also, we made our achievement goals for Algebra I, English II, grades 3-8 math and graduation rate. The state goal for growth or progress in English was 39.7%; MNPS achieved 48.3%. The becoming proficient in English goal was 4.7%; our district achieved 9.4%. In my opinion these numbers serve as evidence of qualifications to create a plan.

As with other elements of the proposed budget, there has been criticism that this is just more top down management. That is not an accurate charge, and in some ways, it is insulting. This was not something brought down from central office and sold to educators. Educators from across the district sacrificed their time, which, in reality, is a commodity more valuable than money, and collaborated on a plan that could meet the most needs in the most fiscally prudent manner possible. This plan represents practicing educators voicing what they believe is needed.

There are also some who question why there was not more representation on the EL council of charter school teachers. I’d answer, EL instruction is not what they do best. No charter school has the number of EL students present in our south Nashville schools. Charter Schools certainly have been included in the plan. STEM Prep was awarded one of the three new “Newcomer Academies“. People need to recognize that collaboration doesn’t meant that you are always the teacher. Sometimes being the learner is just as important. I’m sure that they will play an important role in the implementation of the plan but for true collaboration to work, they need to be willing to take guidance  from those that have been working with EL students on the largest scale for the longest time.

The plan calls for a blend of more teachers, better professional development, and more technology. It calls for increased ease of access to Registration and Initial Assessment of language proficiency. This will assist families new to the US when transportation may be a hardship and provide equity and access of our NELB families in the registration and assessment process. This ease of access could lead to the identification of more children who qualify for ENCORE, MNPS’s gifted program as well. The lack of minority students identified as “gifted” is well documented, this could perhaps provide a means to begin to combat that.

Another important component is a pay increase for 56 parent outreach translators.This past year we have lost 11 translators due to Nashville’s competing job market and other agencies paying higher salaries than MNPS. This increase would raise them from a pay grade 6 to a pay grade 7 which is approximately a 10% increase of their salaries. Considering that last year parent outreach translators did translations on 9,164 documents and did 120,988 interpretations, I think this is pretty vital.

This is a ambitious plan but is it a perfect plan? Unlikely. Is it transparently and thoughtfully constructed? Definitely. Will it work? I think so. It’s my personal belief that MNPS is at the beginning of a process that will not only benefit the students of Nashville, but will also serve as a potential blueprint for districts across the country. The English Learner population is only going to grow. More and more districts are going to find themselves in need of a strategy, and Nashville is doing the heavy lifting to make one available. We owe it to our dedicated and hard-working educators to give them the support they need to make this a reality. Instead of carping on all the reasons it may not work, we need to focus on ensuring that it has the support needed  to succeed.

In closing, I’d like to give a big thank you for those three men, Pinkston, Steele, and Stacy, for having the foresight to get the ball rolling. I’d like to thank all of the EL Council participants for their dedication to making the plan a reality and allowing me to observe the depth of knowledge and commitment present in our district. I’d also like to hopefully thank Mayor Berry for recognizing the need and the expediency of this plan and approving the financing. All school budget issues come with an underpinning of politics, and we need to keep those at bay and recognize where the work has come from. It is work like this that makes me forever grateful that in 1989, I made the choice to come to Nashville and that this is where I will raise my family.

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Burning Down the House

burning_down_the_house_by_onyxcarmine-d8i910zLast month, professional educator and blogger Gary Rubenstein wrote a piece about Teach for America’s 25th anniversary. In this piece, he described a panel where Kevin Huffman, the former Commissioner of Education in Tennessee, was asked about his shortcomings in Tennessee and what he thought led to his downfall. Huffman responded that it was hard to be the one who burns down all the bridges and then have to be the one to rally everyone to rebuild them. Initially, I dismissed that sentiment as just Huffman spinning words like always to generate sympathy, but for some reason, I kept turning his words over in my head.

That phrase arose again last week when I was talking with a fellow education advocate, and he was telling me the story about a friend of his who was constantly attacking the State Department of Education. But then that same friend had turned to my friend and asked him to put in a good word at the DOE to hire him. My fellow advocate’s response was, “You don’t really expect them to hire the guy trying to burn the system down only to rebuild it, do you?” Bam! Suddenly, I felt like I’d been hit by a ton of bricks. That was the point my mind had been circling around after Gary’s post.

The last several years have been very contentious ones in the educational world. Rightfully so, I would argue, because the stakes couldn’t be higher and the positions couldn’t be more polar. The lines have been clearly drawn and teams have been chosen. When I initially got involved with education advocacy, I believed that everyone had the best intentions at heart when it came to the education of our children, but this is a belief I no longer hold. That statement in itself should give some clarity as to the level of acrimony involved in educational policy discussions.

To compound things, so-called education reform has gotten more profitable for the private sector while public educators are continually asked to do more with less. Obscene amounts of private money pours in, yet there has been little increase in wages for those doing the actual work – like teachers, counselors, and nurses. Take, for example, Chris Barbic, who, until recently, was the head of the state’s Achievement School District and is now a member of Chiefs for Change. He worked with the poorest of the poor in Memphis while pulling in over $200K a year and returning home every night to his affluent Nashville neighborhood. Forgive me, but I find that offensive.

We should give Chris a break though. He’s not the only one. Rhee, Huffman, White, Perry – none of these folks are hurting for cash.  They’ve all made a ton of money preaching no-excuses discipline policies, charter schools, and the value of testing while teachers struggle on a salary that makes it almost impossible to support a family. We see so-called experts with little or no classroom experience get more money and more influence, while those actually doing the work see their financial rewards and influence recede. It makes it hard to temper emotions.

I myself have been known to throw a few bombs. To be honest, though, some of it is intentional. A number of years ago, I had a conversation with fellow blogger Crazy Crawfish, who explained how he saw his role in the conversation. His was the boot needed to kick open the door and call attention to issues so that smarter minds could come in and address the issue. I’ve since used that model as a guidepost. I may not be the one to have the answer, but if I can get those who do to the table, then I’ve played my part.

However, I have to remind myself that the goal shouldn’t be to burn the system down. With all our educational system’s imperfections, it is an enticing idea to scrap the whole thing and start over. It’s extremely tempting to want to play Jesus and throw the merchants out of the temple. However, I don’t know about you, but I don’t want my role to end with the destruction of anything. If I’m going to invest this heavily in anything, I want to make sure that I get to be a part of any rebuild or remodeling.

Here in Nashville, we are about to embark on the campaign for 5 school board seats. This is going to be an election that promises to be quite contentious and expensive. I’ll be honest, I believe some of the candidates have been manipulated into running or are running for all the wrong reasons. In their defense, we are a democracy and they have that prerogative. Though I challenge them to say they are putting kids first and not just working to dismantle the current system. In spite of my opinions on their intentions, they are still eligible participants.

Jackson Miller is a candidate running for school board, and I think on some level, he’s running for all the right reasons, but that doesn’t mean we aren’t polar opposites on the issues. Jackson and I run 5 miles together every Tuesday. We obviously discuss the issues, and he often makes me half insane with his positions. To be fair, I probably have a similar effect on him. The thing that has happened, though, is that Jackson has transformed from an annoying presence on social media to a real person. One who I certainly don’t endorse for school board, but one who I can talk to and find common ground to work with on challenges facing our schools. That, to me, is more important than chasing him out of educational politics, and hopefully his impending loss won’t do that either.

There is a administrator at a local charter school that I’ve had a similar experience with. We were at a forum together recently and while she was speaking I was tweeting critical comments. After she finished speaking she sat down and a few minutes later turned to me and said, “Please stop making comments about me. I respect you and those are hurtful.” At first I was defensive, but on reflection, I realized she was right. Whether I agreed with her or disagreed with her didn’t change the fact that she was a real person, with real feelings and my words had hurt her. That’s not what I had set out to do, but I’d fallen into the trap of objectifying someone based on my interpretation of their beliefs. I don’t have that right.

Years ago, I sold beer at Bridgestone Arena. After a couple months one of the younger sellers came to me and said, “Why do I only make $40 a night while you are walking out with over a $100 every night?” “Easy,” I explained, “You never talk to them. So in their mind you are just the beer man. I talk to them while I’m serving them. It’s easy to stiff the beer man. It’s a lot harder to stiff TC, the beer man who’s taking this job to pay for college, loves the Predators, music, and working these games.” The same holds true here. We need to work hard to ensure that we do not become caricatures of ourselves and that we never lose sight that we are all more then our political positions and that everyone of us has people who love us. We need to continually strive to be worthy of that love.

There is so much in education policy right now that I disagree with. There is so much that I find morally offensive. But I need to temper that indignation because I don’t want to be just the guy who carries the matchbook, and I surmise most of us don’t want that role either. We want to make sure that we retain our seat at the table moving forward, and sometimes that means talking to people we don’t agree with. It’s very important that we keep in mind what Nietzsche said, “Be careful when you fight the monsters, lest you become one.”

Please don’t mistake this as some call for civility or some kind of kumbaya moment. Because I firmly believe that if you say something stupid you deserve all the rebuke you’re going to get, and I’ve been on both sides of that. Maybe what I’m calling for is a little thicker skin. Instead of getting your feelings hurt and refusing to talk with anyone outside of your echo chamber, put your adult clothes on, self-evaluate, and if necessary, try to be more informed. If you still stand by your position, then stand up for it and be willing to take the shots until you provide enough evidence to support your position. I always tell my kids that if your religion can’t stand up to slings and arrows, perhaps you need a new religion.

Look across Tennessee and you’ll see so many grass roots Parent/Teacher groups that have sprung up in the last couple of years. The Momma Bears, SPEAK, Tennessee BATs, Middle Tennessee CAPE, TREE, and Williamson Strong are just a few. They have all been organically formed in opposition to state and local educational policies, but if you look at the work they are doing, you’ll see that it’s become as much proactive as reactive. They are also doing their work with very little to no financial resources. Sorry to let the cat out of the bag, but unlike groups like Stand for Children, Project Renaissance, and Students First, that, despite their pretty words, are dedicated to the disruption of our educational system, there are no money men hiding behind the curtain financing the aforementioned grassroots groups. They are just teachers, parents, and community members donating their own time and money.

As we move forward, I’m always going to try and keep in mind that if you’re burning it to the ground, they are not going to invite you back to rebuild it. I hope others do too. It’s been well documented that certain people are interested in completely dismantling our current educational system. I’d encourage all of us to refocus our efforts into strengthening and renewing our system because, after all, it has served us well. For some, that might not be appealing, and they will continue to try to burn down the current system. Just know, that if you fall into that camp, they’ll be a bunch of us ready to take away your matchbook and your can of gasoline.

I’ve been very blessed to find a teacher, Mary Holden, that is willing to spend her precious free time editing my thoughts. After I finish a piece, I send it to her and she edits it. She also sends back her thoughts and suggests areas that could be strengthened. Invariably she challenges me thus, you outline a good case about what we should not be doing, but what do you think we should be doing?

I always bristle a little at that question, but it forces me to think deeper. Upon reflection though, perhaps once again it is a teacher giving us our best directive. We are all well versed in what we are opposed to, maybe it’s time to put some focus on what we are for. I can’t think of a better place to begin shaping that idea then by talking to a teacher and I challenge everyone to talk to a few this month. I promise you’ll find that there is more good then bad being done and together maybe we can tilt it even more in the direction of good.



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MNPS Takes The Literacy Challenge

baby_reading-1It’s been a rough couple months around here as of late. Between testing issues, trying to get a new school built, and a battle over vouchers, it seems like I’ve had nothing but negative things to write.  It’s about time to write something positive. Oddly enough, inspiration has arrived from the strangest of places: the release of the proposed budget for Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS).  In that budget, two areas stand out and are cause for great excitement, the literacy initiative and the English Learners proposals. I’ll talk about the English Learners programs in a future post, but right now I’d like to look at the literacy initiative.

Over the last several years, MNPS has been moving towards a student-based budgeting plan. Under student-based budgeting, principals are given greater latitude for allocating resources where they see the greatest need at their respective sites. The thought process being that nobody knows a school better than its CEO. In theory, it sounds plausible, but I think there is room for a little caution as we head down this road.

First and foremost, schools are not businesses and they are not independent entities. They are part of a system. The goal should be that all schools should be operating at a high level and serving multiple demographics. In our age of “accountability,” it is too tempting to try and get the maximum bang for the buck by favoring programs for specific demographics while neglecting others. For example, if a school has a high English Learner population, it would be completely understandable if a principal were to devote the majority of resources to those programs that will raise the performance of English learners while under-emphasizing advanced programs.

Unfortunately, the unintended consequence might be the curtailing of the amount of resources needed for students who do not fall into that demographic. Parents who feel that their children are being undeserved would leave for schools that provided more perceived opportunity for their children. This would have an effect on the population a school serves. It could tilt the balance of students in a school by increasing the number of high needs students while decreasing students who are gifted, for example. This disparity may grow even further as results for the majority are celebrated giving increased justification for ignoring the needs of the minority.

We potentially could have more schools that specialize in educating children in certain demographics and less schools capable of serving all children. If the sole purpose of schools was to teach reading, writing, and arithmetic, that might be acceptable, but some of us see schools as a cornerstone of democracy. In order to truly serve society in that capacity it is essential to have diverse schools. Schools that are capable of serving multiple demographics.

Secondly, not all principals are equipped to handle budgeting. The job of a principal is already a tough one without the added financial responsibilities. We are asking them to be experts in discipline, talent management, pedagogy, and now, resource allocation. That’s a tough nut to crack, and in a system made up of 157 schools, finding 157 individuals capable of executing all those tasks at a high level strikes me as being extremely difficult. Invariably, what ends up happening is that some schools get the highly competent leaders and some get the, well, not quite incompetent leaders. It’s not hard to figure out which go where.

My last caution is that in giving principals increased autonomy you are potentially giving them permission to create their own fiefdoms. Many principals will assemble teams made up of teachers with multiple philosophies and utilize them to create an environment of collaboration. Unfortunately others, as is born out in talking to teachers, will do the opposite. In empowering principals and establishing the narrative that “nobody knows their building like the principal” it is essential that the district retain its role of oversight and ensure that teachers and coaches always have an ear outside of the building. That seems like a no brainer, but as I continue to hear the term “decentralized” bandied about, I need to continue to throw out that caveat.

We do need to keep in mind as well, that just because this is a district initiative does not mean that it is a centralized program. Those teachers trained in Reading Recovery are housed at the individual schools and take direction from the schools leadership team. They do  not work out of central office nor report there. In fact, a key component of Reading Recovery is too have trained teachers share their knowledge with other teachers in the building so everyone improves in teaching reading. Reading Recovery is also not a mandate. A school can turn down central office’s overture, and some have, if they can demonstrate that they have a strong literacy initiative in place.

It excites me to see MNPS create two district-level initiatives to combat two of the district’s greatest challenges, Literacy and English Learners. Some school board members have argued that by doing so the district is operating counter to their school-based budget initiative and that principals should be allowed to choose which programs they wish to implement. I think both of these initiatives are challenges that face all MNPS schools and therefore, are best tackled on a district level. By making these district-wide initiatives rather than a possible school-based budget item that may or may not be made a priority by a site principal, the district is enforcing equity at all sites.

The district has the added benefit of having dedicated leadership in the well respected Dr. Tammy Lipsey as the Director of Literacy, and since literacy is her sole directive, the district has greater capacity to research and implement a comprehensive, far-reaching literacy program. At the center of the district proposal is the usage of a program called Reading RecoveryReading Recovery is a proven reading intervention program aimed at the lowest-performing first graders, including, but not exclusive to English learners. It consists of 1-on-1 interaction with highly-trained teachers that ensures that these children are getting meaningful reading instruction.  Research shows it to be a program tailor-made for MNPS schools.

One of the things I particularly like about Reading Recovery is its focus on creating verbal content for children and building vocabulary. There seems to be a growing realization that children don’t become lifetime readers solely by learning to decode. Even education reformers, with whom I don’t usually have much in common, have started to realize the importance of content. Reading Recovery focuses on that content, and kids learn more than just reading skills. This is a huge step forward in providing an equitable educational experience for all our children.

In making this a district-wide initiative in MNPS, we are ensuring that principals will not be researching, implementing, and tweaking ideas in a silo. Anybody who has ever worked in education will testify that implementation is probably the number one reason why a program fails. Those school board members  who argue that principals should be the ones to decide to implement individual programs are demanding that they do so without proper supports, a strategy that is destined to doom a program. But Reading Recovery, as proposed by the district, comes with training and a support staff, including a partnership with a local university with a highly-regarded educational department. By making this a district initiative, MNPS will ensure the program is being implemented well and sustained across all schools, rather than only at some sites with no oversight or guarantee that it is being done correctly.

Obviously a principal’s input will continue to be integral, but with district backing, they’ll have a support system in place. Teachers will have meaningful professional development, and modifications could be made with research-backed initiatives. By making this a district initiative, we are giving principals and teachers needed resources without diverting resources already dedicated to those schools.  Principals will still have multiple opportunities to implement ideas and programs at their sites that are needed while still having a district-wide Reading Recovery program firmly in place. This program does not diminish their ability to make site-based decisions. Some district-wide initiatives and programs are necessary for all schools to provide an equitable education for all students. I see it as a win-win situation.

In talking with elementary school principals, I was made aware of another reason for this to be a district initiative vs school budget item, cost. Reading Recovery is an expensive program and one that no individual school would be able to afford without outside assistance. Unfortunately, we have models for how that financial shortness is overcome. Wealthier schools have strong parent organizations which take on the responsibility of raising funds to tackle a schools resource shortage. Our neediest schools do not have this benefit. Therefore the program would never be purchased or a piecemeal approach might be taken that would leaden to weakened outcomes.

I’m excited that the district has taken a dynamic role in designing and implementing a literacy program with a proven track record. One that focuses on individual instruction, the importance of vocabulary, and the ongoing development of its instructors. By proposing the adoption of this initiative, the district is showing that they are not willing to sit back and wait on individual schools to develop programs to combat literacy challenges, but rather are stepping up and becoming leaders. In assuming this leadership role, the district is ensuring that all children will be given an opportunity to increase their proficiency as readers, not just the ones with the best principals.