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Time for TNDOE to Trade in for a Better Model

image1A number of years ago, I bought a Toyota 4Runner from a friend. Man, I loved that car. To this day I miss it. I’d had it for about 6 months when I realized that it had some issues. I spent some money and fixed a few things. But it wasn’t enough. Finally one day, the transmission dropped on it. I remember standing in the garage and the mechanic telling me that he could fix it, but it would cost a lot and I’d probably have more problems very shortly. It was getting to the point that it was going to be more expensive to fix the issues than what the car was actually worth. Reluctantly, I scrapped the car and went looking for and acquired a new one.

The Tennessee Department of Education has faced a similar dilemma for the last few years. Every spring, without fail, there is some issue with the tests and they have to send them to the garage to be fixed. I think it’s safe to say that this year the equivalent of the transmission falling out happen. Parents, teachers, and even legislators have been telling the TNDOE that things are getting to the point that it’s getting cost prohibitive to fix and that we really need to start exploring a new policy. But unfortunately, the message doesn’t seem to be getting to the TNDOE. They just keep reaching for the checkbook, making a temporary fix, and then praying nothing else goes wrong.

This month saw the scrapping of Part II of TNReady for grades 3-8 statewide because Measurement, Inc. couldn’t deliver materials on time again. This time, not only did the TNDOE cancel the testing, but they also severed the contract with Measurement, Inc. The problem with this action was that was now there was nobody to score the tests that had already been taken. Saner heads in Williamson County tried to exercise some common sense, realizing the results were going to be useless, and cancelled testing for high school students in addition to grades 3-8. That was met by the Department of Education bringing the hammer down. Those tests, by God, were going to be given come hell or high water. Under the threat of losing 3 million dollars in funding, Williamson County moved forward with testing. Makes you wonder about the wisdom of the policy when the state has to evoke threats in order to get compliance.

So every student that could possibly be rounded up was tested while educators shed a little more credibility, a commodity of which precious little remains. You see, kids, despite what the folks at the Department of Education may think, are not stupid. They read the paper, they watch the news, they listen to adults, they observe and interpret. What they’ve interpreted is that this testing thing is a fiasco. They know there are boxes of tests sitting in a warehouse waiting to be scored. They know that even if they are scored, it’ll be late fall before scores arrive, too late to make any real impact. They also probably realize that instead of being honest with them about this whole testing process, we just keep making it up as we go along.

I keep waiting for an adult to show up, diagnose the problems with our testing process, and propose some honest real life solutions. Though, to be fair, teachers have plenty of ideas about what to do. Unfortunately, it seems like no one cares to listen. Too much at stake with the DATA. Instead, the TNDOE just keeps reaching for the checkbook. This week they wrote an 18.5 million dollar check, under the guise of an “emergency,” to testing conglomerate Pearson to grade the tests. Let me say that again, and trust me it won’t sound any saner – they wrote a check for 18.5 MILLION DOLLARS to Pearson to grade tests that were not taken by all students and whose results won’t be available until halfway through the next school year.

By the time those test results come in, teachers will have designed and implemented lesson plans. Are we supposed to believe that teachers will get those results in December, look at them, and say, “Oh wow, I’ve been teaching my kids like they were advanced, and they were only proficient back in April. I better scrap my lesson plans and start over.” Yea, that’s not going to happen. Do we think that teachers and administrators haven’t found other types of data to give them information to serve their students? Are we thinking parents are going to sit around for the next 6 months thinking, “I can’t wait until these test results come in so I can know if Johnny is proficient or not proficient”? No. Because it’s useless data, and it needs to be treated as such.

Tennessee lawmakers say the state cannot afford to fully fund the BEP. It cannot afford to fund a health plan that would serve all citizens. Yet it’s perfectly capable of writing an 18.5 million dollar check to grade tests where the results are absolutely useless. The best part? There is not a single one of those state representatives who preach the gospel of the prudent use of the taxpayer dollars that have publicly taken exception to this 18.5 million dollar emergency expense. Rep. Glen Casada (R-Franklin) thinks it’s more prudent to call a special session of the legislature to potentially sue the federal government over transgender people using school bathrooms than to hold hearings on why our testing policies have failed our kids so much. It’s more important to protect our children against a supposed transgender threat than it is to ensure that our education policies are properly serving our children. We continue to give lip service that its all about the kids despite our actions sending a counter message.

Where are the Democrat representatives in all of this? At this point, only Reps. Bo Mitchell and Craig Fitzhugh have shown the courage to step up and attempt to hold the TNDOE accountable. Mitchell rightfully questioned what the Department of Education considers an emergency and pointed out that Pearson has had just as many issues as Measurement, Inc. I know it’s campaign season, and hearings would take away from summer door knocking. But we preach accountability all the time, so isn’t it time we demonstrated what that looks like?

Hearings are essential right now because its virtually impossible to get honest answers from the TNDOE. They’ve hunkered down into a bunker mentality, only releasing  information as they see fit. For example, I’ve had an open records request in for all communication between  Nakia Townes, assistant commissioner for data and research, and Measurement Inc for two months now. Every two weeks I request when I can expect a response and this is an example of the reply I get, “My team is working on this, and I apologize for the delay. We’re working to get this to you as soon as we can, but we’re sorting through very large volumes of information. As I mentioned in my last email, we are working through requests in the order they were received.” Without hearings, I’m skeptical that this request will ever get filled.

I am further baffled that the TNDOE was allowed to write the 18.5 million dollar check to Pearson under the guise of this being an emergency situation. Do they even comprehend what constitutes an emergency? According to Wikipedia, an emergency is a situation that poses an immediate risk to health, life, property, or the environment. Pray tell, which of these areas do half-taken tests now rotting in a warehouse cover? The Momma Bears wrote a brilliant parody of this assertion that illuminates the insanity. As they eloquently point out:

The REAL Emergency is the mismanagement of tax dollars and our children’s time in the classroom. What we need is an emergency hearing to understand why grading these tests and working with Pearson is necessary!  We need an emergency overhaul of the TDOE!

Scrapping a car and getting a new one can be a beneficial experience. It forces you to think about upgrades and improvements the industry has made over the last several years. You are forced to talk to experts and do a little research. There is an opportunity to re-asses you needs and really think about if the old car was adequate or not.  You know, could you get better mileage? Are there models that research shows have less problems? Do you need more capacity then you did when you first bought your old car?

These are the kinds of behaviors that the TNDOE should be engaging in. Hawii recently removed standardized testing as a part of teacher evaluations.  New Hampshire is looking at some new ways of testing. Indiana is doing something crazy, they are listening to what people are saying and using the flexibility afforded by the recently passed ESSA act to reevaluate what testing should look like. The point is we don’t have to just rush out and find a new vender. We don’t have to heavily invest in a model that could be obsolete in 5 years. We could take the time to listen to parents and teachers and produce policy that all stakeholders could buy in to instead of having it dictated to them by the department of education. We could truly make it about the kids and what is best for them.

I was sad when I got rid of that 4Runner. At that time it just seemed like the perfect car for me. However, once I got rid of it, and invested in a new ride, some amazing things transpired. I was able to get to places on time because my car wasn’t constantly breaking down. I had more time to focus on other things because I wasn’t hanging around a garage waiting for the car to get fixed. I had more money because I wasn’t having to continuously write checks for repairs. I’m pretty confident that if the Tennessee Department of Education abandons their current testing policies and develops new ones, they’ll experience similar results. But as my AA friends like to say, the first step is admitting you have a problem. Time to take that first step.

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Welcome to Nashville Dr. Joseph

image1.PNGIt’s been a long and arduous trip, but Nashville finally has a new Director of Schools. The Metro Nashville Public School Board offered the gig to Dr. Shawn Joseph, currently the deputy superintendent from Prince George’s County Public Schools in Maryland, and he accepted it. With that acceptance, Nashville released a collective sigh of relief. The search for a position of this magnitude is never an easy one, and this one has had more then its fair share of twists and turns.

First, there was a battle over who was going to be the interim director while the search was conducted, and that involved an ethics complaint, that, to my knowledge, has never been addressed. Then, the initial search ended with an offer to Williamson County Schools Director Dr. Mike Looney, who promptly turned it down and decided to stay in Williamson County despite having a signed letter of intent. This led to the questioning of the initial search firm and the competency of their work. The search was restarted, a new firm hired with the bill footed by a private entity, the Nashville Public Education Foundation, and community involvement was sought. A slate of finalists was unveiled sans any women candidates and again questions arose. In the end, though, there was one clear choice and the board voted 9-0 to offer the job to Dr. Joseph.

Quite the whirlwind. But we now have closed one chapter and before we open the next, I think this is as good a time as any to reflect on what it all means. I’ve always liked those winner/loser articles, so this is going to be my attempt at such an endeavor. Before I begin, let me just give the caveat that these are just my opinions from the cheap seats, and they are not intended to be gospel. Your take make be a little different, but then again, maybe not.

Let’s start with the students, parents, teachers, and the general Nashville population. This is a big win for them. After a year in limbo, we will now have somebody firmly at the helm. Chris Henson did an admirable job but his strengths lie in finance, not running a large school district. We need to say thank you to him for his going above and beyond the call of duty, but it was time to get a highly qualified educator in the chair. By all accounts, Dr. Joseph is a high quality educator with a proven record of delivering results. He may lack a little in experience but that will be augmented by a couple of very accomplished former superintendents whose experience he will be able to draw on, Dr. Jerry Weast and Dr. Elizabeth Morgan. Dr. Joseph has suggested that Dr. Morgan will head up his transitional team. Dr. Joseph has touted the power of the book Leadership and Self-Deception. So it is now resting by my reading chair.

The hiring of Dr. Joseph represents a big win for Nashville’s newly-elected mayor, Megan Barry. The city looked to her to be a calming hand on a calamitous process and she played it perfect. Her involvement in the process struck the proper balance between intervention and letting the board do its job. Getting this done in her first year helps set the tone for the rest of her term. Kudos to the mayor on a big win.

Also taking a place in the winners circle is the MNPS School Board. There were voices in the community that questioned whether or not they were capable of getting this done. Right up to the end, those voices were attempting to detract when support would have been more appropriate. Thankfully, the board tuned out those voices and went on about their business. Despite the perception of being a divided entity, they agreed, within 30 minutes of deliberation, to offer Dr. Joseph the position with a vote of 9-0. A tip of the hat to the board and I don’t envy the task of the challengers in this years school board elections. A win like this hardly makes an argument for change.

In my opinion, the hiring of Dr. Joseph also represents a big win for a few individual board members. Dr. Sharon Gentry, whose leadership has often been questioned, led the board across the finish line and delivered a historic hire. In the words of vice-chair Anna Shepherd, “This is a historical moment that we have a director of schools who looks like the majority of children in our district.” This is big and should give Dr. Gentry a huge boost in her re-election campaign. Hopefully it is an indicator of the way business will be conducted in the future and not just an outlier.

Board members Jill Speering, Amy Frogge, and Joann Brannon also deserve recognition for the courage they showed in speaking up about the lack of female candidates for the director position. This being an election year for Speering and Frogge, it would have been easier for them to just remain quiet when questions about the selection process arose. Instead, they demonstrated that they clearly valued children and teachers over election results. They spoke out despite criticisms and calls to not risk the outcome of the search process. They refused to adhere to these calls because they were committed, above all else, to ensuring that Nashville got the best director of schools possible. Dr. Joseph himself was supportive of their efforts, saying, “I commend them for putting it on the table.” So do we. That’s what leadership looks like.

The Nashville Public Education Foundation and Shannon Hunt get to put this in the win column as well. They’ve received accolades from the mayor and all candidates during their interviews. I’m sure we will see more from them going forward. Despite the success of this search, in the future it would be nice to see more transparency. For example, in this case, who was on the list of candidates recruited, what was the actual cost of the search, what did those costs entail, who had influence on selecting the finalists – those are things that the public should know and unfortunately, in this case, they don’t know. Maybe in the future they will release a more detailed review of the search. I hope at some point the board asks for it. Above all else I hope that NPEF will use their new found clout to ensure that all our schools are given the support they need and not to act as a non-elected wing of the school board that pushes the agenda of special interests.

The jury is still out on what the hiring of Dr. Joseph means for our English Language Learner students. It is not a criticism to say that Dr. Joseph lacks experience with urban schools and Nashville’s ELL population is a very unique blend of immigrant and refugee children. Too often the general public translates ELL into Spanish students and while Spanish speaking students make up a large segment of our ELL population there are so many other languages and dialects represented. Over the last couple years the ELL department under the guidance of Kevin Stacy has been a shining star and a source of pride for the district. This year saw the unveiling a very impressive and ambitious plan. I pray that Dr. Joseph recognizes the fine work Stacy and his department are doing and continues to support them. Our children have made too much progress and the work is too important to let it fall to the side.

Which leads me to the only loser in these events: those who believe in a transparent democratic process. I fully understand the difficulty of this undertaking in full daylight, but there is a reason that we have sunshine laws and why they are essential to building trust in governance.  The one thing that MNPS presently suffers from more than anything else is a lack of trust. Administrators don’t trust teachers. Teachers don’t trust administrators. Nobody trusts central office. The public doesn’t trust the whole system. You can deny this all you want, but the fact remains, the culture of MNPS is one of distrust, and that needs to change immediately.

You will be hard pressed to find someone more enamored with Nashville’s public schools then myself, but this lack of trust is truly hamstringing the district. For two long people have been allowed to put their personal agendas ahead of what’s good for students and the system. It’s gotten to the point that teachers are constantly in fear for their jobs and afraid that if they question a policy or if they pause for a moment from the pursuit of the standards to address a child’s inquisitiveness they will be non-renewed and declared ineligible for rehire. How is it possible to instill a love of learning when there is only fear and no joy in Muddville?  To be fair to principals, they are hard pressed to find a model of leadership that instills trust in those above them in the hierarchy. This needs to change immediately. We will never be in the top echelon of school districts if we continue to ferment this distrust.

The recently concluded search was a missed opportunity to clear away some of that mistrust. A process that should have been completely transparent and above board failed to pass the smell test.  What was the real reason Carol Johnson wasn’t made a finalist? Did H. Allen Smith really get a fair interview when what can only be categorized as a hit piece ran two days before his interview? How about one of the 6 semi-finalist not having a degree higher then a BA? How did he end up as a finalist to run one of the largest school districts in America and what role did past personal relations play? Leon, as executive director for Teach for America, was responsible for TFA, a personal favorite of former Nashville Karl Dean, coming to Nashville. Then let’s not forget my personal favorite incident, the semi-finalist who withdrew and expressed his intentions through tweets that were read to the board by the head of the search committee. These actions seem to lend credence to witnesses’ assertions that Board Chair Gentry admitted to board member Frogge in a side conversation that candidates had not been vetted.

I don’t want to get into a finger pointing exercise here because those who’s actions made the selection process less then transparent are well aware of the choices they made. They may be comfortable with those choices, but there is a new sheriff in town and hopefully he brings with him a new way of doing business. Dr. Joseph has already proven savvy enough to insist that an addendum, number 6, be added to the contract establishing ground rules on the way the board communicates with MNPS and the director himself. There won’t be a repeat, for example, of the open warfare that erupted between board member Will Pinkston and the former director Jesse Register. Pinkston’s actions may have been justified but they didn’t help build trust in a system that is seriously lacking in that department.  It’s way past time for leaders to model behaviors that inspire trust.

Dr. Joseph arrives here officially on July 1, but is already working to learn his new district. There will be a great deal of focus on how he will manage Nashville schools. I hope he remembers what he said during his interview about collaboration.  Without trust, none of that collaboration will be possible. Though if, during his tenure here, Dr. Joseph does nothing but restore trust to the system, then he will be head and shoulders above the district leaders of the past 15 years. Trust can only be restored through transparency and collaboration. Collaboration must also include people we may disagree with. We don’t need to chase people out of the game; what we need to do is find a way to work together to get the best outcomes for all stakeholders. It is my hope that sooner rather then later, Dr. Joseph sits down with teachers and truly listens to what they have to say. They have been ignored for too long. Principals and parents need to feel validated as well.

In closing, welcome to Nashville, Dr. Joseph. I think you are going to like it here. You’ll be hard pressed to find a more committed, passionate, and welcoming people anywhere in the country. We’ll challenge you, but never forget you are one of us now, and we always have each others back. This is going to be a great run.

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Challenging a Manufactured Perception

image3Way back in the days of yore, I was a communications major at Penn State University. I didn’t have much interest in production work, but communication theory really appealed to me. Agenda setting and subtle ways that narratives were established really piqued my interest. While I never did get that communications degree, I have spent much of my adult life studying the basis of communications theory.

For example, think about how you always see a picture of George W. Bush looking goofy accompanying an article about him or how Hillary Clinton always appears abrasive when a picture is run next to a story about her. These images along with the story eventually weave into a common narrative, or in some cases, a myth. Joseph Campbell wrote extensively about the power of myth in our culture. Campbell is a little extensive for my purposes here, but I certainly encourage everyone to read his work. The bottom line is that our opinions are very subtly shaped by what we read and the pictures we see, and therefore, we should be vigilant about what stories are being told and how they enter our collective conscience.

Over the past year, the city of Nashville has been engaged in a search for a new superintendent of schools for the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The initial search ended badly and required a second attempt. This led to a lot of egg on a lot of faces. The Tennessean, Nashville’s hometown paper, has used this as further fodder to cover the MNPS school board under the lens of being dysfunctional. The newspaper has chosen to highlight the disparity and ignore the challenges. During the rare moments when they offer compliments, it’s because someone else has been included in the process or it comes with the caveat of “don’t screw this up.” This week, Opinion Engagement Editor David Plaza released another one of these critical opinion pieces.

The coverage by The Tennessean tends to reinforce two large myths. The first myth is that the board is incapable of coming to any kind of consensus opinion and the second being that the “process” (picture me giving air quotes here) trumps the results. The “process” seems to have become the most important element of the director search. In other words, that unless the “process” is strictly adhered to without any deviation by the board, we are doomed to never getting a quality candidate for director of schools. I’d argue that the board has demonstrated the ability to form a consensus and that finding a quality candidate should be the primary focus, even if it means deviating slightly from the “process”.

After the first search, which resulted in an offer being made to Dr. Mike Looney and him subsequently declining at the last minute, blame fell on the school board’s shoulders for not being to execute the process of hiring someone for the job. Subsequently, much was made of the board members’ individual differences. It’s true this board is made up of some very disparate individuals. But it should be. Nashville is a large metropolitan area. The wants and needs of my neighbors in South Nashville are very different compared to what is needed by residents in East Nashville, which is different from West Nashville. If the board was to strictly adhere to policy governance alone, the odds are somebody’s voice would be getting ignored.

In looking at the events that led up to Dr. Looney getting the offer from the board, I don’t see how the results could be tied to their disparate views. In fact, they came together and voted 8-1 to offer him the job. He came out of a pool with at least two high quality candidates that were selected by the hired recruitment firm. Obviously some people were able to compromise in order to come together for the greater good – and rather quickly as well. There are no stories of the board being locked in a room battling out the choices with neither side willing to give in. In fact, it was the opposite. They entered a room together and within minutes were able to come to a consensus. Unfortunately, things did not go as they planned.

Now, it’s not their fault that Dr. Looney decided to remain with Williamson County. One look at his school board there and you can pretty much rule out the fear of working with a dysfunctional school board. Lately, Dr. Looney, for whatever reason, has decided to share some perceived improprieties, but were these really deal breakers? I don’t think so. The truth is, the board created a process, followed the blueprint, arrived at the best candidate, and made an offer. By the way, Dr. Looney was named Tennessee Superintendent of the Year this summer, so I would count that as evidence of him being a high quality candidate. It’s not like they were settling. Had he chosen to accept the position it would have been a good hire.

Why Dr. Looney changed his mind will forever be between him and his God, and that is certainly his prerogative. The bottom line is he exercised his free choice after the board had arrived at a collective decision. If I offer to sell you a car and you choose to remain with the one you are already driving, how is that indicative of a shortcoming of mine? Could the process have been a little less messy? Sure. Would it have arrived at a different out come? Doubtful. We are just such a process and blame- centric society that we can’t accept that the reason for failure could be anything but failure to adhere to the process. Well, guess what? Sometimes shit just happens. (I promise I’ll clean up my language going forward.)

That brings us to the second myth that gets under my skin: whereas the process is so absolute and pure, (which is a blog post for another day) that as long as it is adhered to, nothing bad can happen. I could not disagree more. The process should be an outline. It should be fluid. If there is a portion of the process that seems to be underserving, we should be able to evaluate and adjust without the perception that the whole process is being undermined. If the process can’t withstand the slightest challenge, is it really the best process? The process should never take precedence over the results. I actually believe that continually challenging the process and the candidates will result in a stronger candidate. The outcome will be someone we know can survive challenges and somebody we know really wants to be here.

It’s in this light that I wonder why David Plazas felt it necessary to attack Ms. Frogge for proposing a candidate that seemed to fill a void underserved by the “process”. This second time around, a new search firm, Jim Huge and Associates, conducted a search and put forth a list of six male candidates for the Nashville superintendent position. The glaring omission was that there were no women included in the finalist list. But there was mention, from outside parties, of a woman who was at least as qualified, if not more qualified, as the finalists put forth by the search firm. And she was interested in the position. So I ask, why was Plazas’ headline, “School board member Amy Frogge nearly torpedoed the process on May 5” instead of “Frogge refuses to leave any stone unturned in search for new director”? Are we committed to finding the best person for the job or to validating the created process? A process that itself is untested. We have no idea if this process will produce the best candidate or not. So why the rigid adherence? Why is raising questions – which is evidence of critical thinking, a quality we praise our students for – looked upon so negatively by other board members and members of the press?

Another key point to keep in mind, is that if you go back and review previous school board meetings you will see that Ms. Frogge only agreed to the process based on the tenet that only the board will choose the finalists. That’s clearly not what happened. In fact not only did the board not select the finalists, the search firm did possibly with the help of Nashville Public Education Fundation. Truth is,  counter to the way the process was drawn up, the board never even saw the list of candidates. Which gives us this conundrum where Mr. Plaza is taking Ms. Frogge to task for undermining the process when the process has already been undermined by other parties. It’s a bit of a head scratcher. An argument could be made that Ms. Frogge was adhering to the “process”.

Ezra Howard, a fellow blogger, teacher and wise soul from Memphis, pointed out to me this weekend that no matter what, the selected candidate still has to prove themselves going forward. I think we all need to remind ourselves of that. No matter how closely the process is adhered to, there is still no guarantee of success. That’s always a hard one for us to wrap our head around. There’s a saying in sports that winning cures everything. That probably holds true here as well. If the pick becomes successful, the narrative will sing the accolades of the “process”. If not, then school board members will be damned because their inability to adhere to the “process” doomed things. The reality is, it’s all a crap shoot and the more information gathered, the more likely a successful candidate will be chosen.

Invariably a new director of schools will be hired, and a call will go out for everybody to get behind the new director and help him succeed. I don’t understand why the same hand is not extended to the board. Why are we constantly being barraged with the narrative of them being dysfunctional? Why don’t we have faith that they are coming at things with the best intentions instead of assuming the opposite? I suspect it has to do with the desire to make school boards appear incompetent at every turn. After all, it’s hard to dismantle a public school system when there are competent hands at the wheel. It will always be my assertion that public schools are the front lines of a democracy and having them controlled by an elected board is essential to protecting that role in our society.

I do think that the MNPS board could protect each other a little more. To her credit, board member Jill Speering posted on her Facebook page superintendent candidate Shawn Joseph’s comments about Amy Frogge’s comments. “I commend them for putting it on the table,” Dr. Joseph says in an interview with Amanda Haggard. If he has no problem with, why should other board members and the Tennessean? All of these board members are very good at getting quotes in the paper as they relate to their agendas. What if they used that skill to defend each other’s right to speak instead of allowing their silence to reinforce the narrative of dysfunction?

The truth is, the school board here in Nashville has done a worthy job of conducting this search. They’ve come together, laid out a process, and followed the process while allowing room for dissent when parties felt it necessary. They’ve reached a consensus pick the first time around, and I’m confident that at the end of this week we’ll have another consensus pick. Has it been problem free? No. Is there a chance it will fail again? Absolutely. But if it does, I’m confident we’ll pick right up again and take another swing at it. The important thing is not getting the job done painlessly, but rather, in getting it done right. It’d be nice if others would recognize that and reinforce that narrative instead of outsiders and journalists being intent on tearing apart the board for doing their job – even if their job means that they will often disagree as they work toward what is best for our large urban school district.

One of the points that these journalists or outsiders miss in criticizing the school board for disagreeing so often is this: it is their job to raise questions and have serious discussions that include all sides of an issue. The board members were each elected in their own right, and they all are on the board to serve our community as a whole. There is nothing in their job description that says they need to agree all the time, but they do need to work toward consensus on what is best for our children – that is their job. And they have done so.

Questioning the process of how they are going to hire the next director of schools – which is one of their most important job duties – should be something that is expected, especially after the first go round with Dr. Looney. All parts of the process should be questioned, investigated, and asked again to the satisfaction of the whole board. Questions like Who is this search firm? What is their experience? What pool of people are they drawing from? How were they selected? Who was on the original list of applicants? Why were applicants taken out of consideration? How were these candidates selected? Why did the director of the search firm cry when announcing this list of 6 candidates – does that speak to the level of inexperience of the firm? I honestly can’t believe people are taking our board members to task for asking questions – especially a JOURNALIST like Plazas. Truth is, I would be more bothered if no one were asking questions at all. A free press is another pillar of our democratic society and it’s a role we can’t leave unfilled.

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Tennessee’s Accountability Problem

blogNot long after my first child was born, I came to the realization that children were expensive and that I was going to need to find a means to make a little extra income. Luckily, I had worked as a bartender for many years and had a friend who owned a bartending service. Thus, I entered the world of special event bartending to make a few extra bucks.

This past weekend, I worked an event where a number of problems arose in the beginning that threatened to derail the evening. We were able to keep things on track though because the event coordinator and I came together and discussed the problem, proposed a solution, and executed the planned solution. Not once in our conversation did the assignment of blame come up. It was only after the evening was successfully completed that we take a look back at who was at fault. The review was done not to point a finger, per se, but to identify weak points and how they could be addressed going forward in order to prevent the repeat of such errors.

Compare my past weekend with the last several months in Tennessee education-wise and it’s night and day. At the end of last school year, Tennessee made the decision to move to a new state-wide standardized test, TNReady, with a new company and testing platform . One that would be administrated entirely online and would give supposedly more meaningful data than the previous TCAP tests that had been given. Unfortunately, those plans did not work out and the system crashed in February when Part 1 of the test was given. That should have been when the Tennessee Department of Education took the lead, got everybody together, and based on their input, began mapping out a path forward. Unfortunately, that is not what happened.

What happened instead was that people immediately began pointing the finger at everybody else and a hastily concocted plan was thrown together, switching to paper and pencils was going to solve all problems, and we kept moving forward.  Not surprisingly, as happens with most hastily concocted plans, Plan B fell apart as well  and the finger pointing resumed. The same thing happened for Plans C and D, until eventually the TDOE was forced to cancel all tests statewide for grades 3-8. But don’t think that just because the tests stopped that the finger pointing stopped. Oh no. It just increased.

The last few days have seen a volley back and forth between the state and Measurement Inc., the now-fired testing company, over exactly whose fault this fiasco is. What neither side seems to get is that right now, students, teachers, and parents care less about whose fault it is and more about what the plan is to get things right. Last I checked though, there doesn’t seem to be a plan. Not only that, but now the state is trying to make sure it doesn’t lose control over individual districts who realize that this is a fiasco and just stopped all testing – high schools included.

The Superintendent for Williamson County Schools did just that. He saw the futility of testing this year and when the state cancelled testing for grades 3-8, he went a step further and cancelled state testing for all grades. Which is just common sense. Unfortunately the TDOE didn’t see it as such and forced WCS into giving the test under threat of losing $3 million in BEP money. That to me makes absolutely no sense.

If you wreck a car, you send it to the mechanic to get fixed; you don’t just keep driving until another part fails. Unfortunately, the state is still focused on accountability and can’t see that the car is wrecked. They think that it’s imperative that students remain accountable for their learning despite the TDOE not knowing who is going to score these tests or when they will be scored. Do they really believe that there is meaningful data here to be mined, and that students will treat these tests as anything more than a joke at this point? What they are doing is acting like a petulant parent who ignores their own flaws in order to hold their children to an unnecessary standard, while completely missing the opportunity to teach a bigger lesson.

It’s kind of like this scenario: I’m working a wedding and the ingredients to the bride’s signature drink didn’t make it to the reception. And instead of either the wedding planner or me going to get the ingredients, we stood in the middle of the reception arguing about whose fault it is while the guests waited for service. And if a guest decided, screw this, I’m going across the street for a drink while you guys figure it out, the event planner would try to force them to remain until we got to the bottom of it. That’s a scenario that wouldn’t work at a wedding reception. And it’s not working for the TNReady fiasco in Tennessee either.

I’m not sure what it’s going to take for Commissioner McQueen to realize that she’s got a real train wreck on her hands, but she really needs to get her head around that fact. I have yet to hear a heartfelt apology to students or teachers, or any acknowledgement of the TDOE’s role in this train wreck. I’m assuming that this being an election year, and with a new poll showing that education is a top priority for voters, some on-the-ball state legislator is going to call for hearings about this testing fiasco. (At least I hope they will.) If all that comes out of those hearings is who’s at fault and there’s no clear plan going forward, then the problems are only going to mount.

At the root of all of this is what we place priority on. We focus on accountability and make outcomes secondary. That’s why we have all the focus on testing. Not because we really care about how children are learning, but because we want to make sure that schools and teachers are being held accountable. Don’t believe me? Ask yourself, when do the test results come in? Under the best of circumstances, it will be July. But really, it’s probably going to be well into the fall before we see those results.

Well, here’s another news flash. Teachers do their planning for the upcoming year before test results come in.  So those scores will have virtually no impact on next year’s planning. Whereas if we really cared about the outcome, then teachers would get the scores back in time to incorporate them in to their lesson plans. They won’t be able to see areas where children struggled and plan strategically to combat those areas. They won’t be able to see what level their coming in are at make sure their lesson plans are appropriate.  The bottom line is that these scores are not used at all when it comes to planning curriculum and instruction. How could they be?

The three counter arguments I regularly hear from defenders of the test are a) that teachers can use test results from their incoming students to adjust lesson plans, b) that the scores give parents insight into their children’s progress, and c) the results are useful in long term planning. In the case of adjusting lesson plans based on test results, by the time test scores arrive teachers have already begun accumulating “data” on students either through talking with fellow teachers or interacting with the students themselves. This type of “real data” is far more valuable to teachers anyway. Things also get a little fast and furious once school starts again. Teachers begin moving forward and tests scores may reinforce some deductions, but there is just no capacity for wholesale alteration of plans. As for parents’ use, I can only speculate. But If you don’t have any idea how your child is doing by observing and interacting with them and talking to their teachers, then you are doing this parenting thing a little differently than me.

It’s the long term argument that I really find fascinating though. Apparently these test scores are supposed to give us insight into trends so that we can alter instructional plans to affect students in future classes. But wait a minute, I thought we were in a crisis mode and kids couldn’t wait while we tried to figure out the best way to proceed. That’s why we can’t cancel testing and take time to get the policy right. We need more data on kids right now, so that we can get them the help they need now not down the road. At least that’s what we are told when the reform movement defends charter schools, Teach for America, and achievement school districts.

It’s that talking out of both sides of  their mouth that is done oh so well. Look at Tennessee’s Achievement School District – they like to credit themselves for being responsible for an increased intensity on the educating of our most challenged children, yet we’re 5 years in and they have not proven to be at all effective. And yet they have done nothing to alter their mission. The truth is that standardized tests, like Achievement Districts, deliver none of the promise offered up by their supporters. Anybody who has ever paid attention to education policy also knows that tests can’t offer any long term planning benefits because by the time we get to that mythical place in the future, we’ll be using a whole different measurement.

It is way past time to begin having honest conversations with ourselves about the role testing should play in our education policies, and I’m beginning to think that will only be possible by having legislative hearings. Without state senators forcing participants to provide honest answers about how this year got so bad and how our testing policies align with our educational goals, I don’t believe we will be able to get past the finger pointing stage. Case in point: I have had an open records request filed for the last 6 weeks with TDOE for all conversations between Assistant Commissioner Nakia Towns and Measurement Inc. from last year until April 2 of this year. It still has not been filled, nor can they tell me when it will be. I’m willing to bet if state senators were to ask for that information during a hearing, it would become a lot more readily available. It’s in that light that I encourage everyone to write to their representative and see if we can’t have an honest conversation about education in Tennessee.

That conversation should include, but not be limited to, what should happen next year? We don’t have enough time, in my opinion, to hire another testing company and develop a new state-wide test before this coming school year. So should we have a moratorium on state-wide testing while we work it out properly? And transparently? And what will become of this year’s scores, assuming someone is hired to grade these tests that the TDOE is forcing students to take? Should any school, teacher, or student be judged by these scores? I don’t think so.

Once we do resume state-wide testing, how often should it be given? What should the scores be used for? Perhaps we need to have a discussion about what accountability should mean moving forward? I believe the only way we will ever get any sort of meaningful data from standardized tests is if we remove ALL accountability from them to begin with – that is, if we remove all the high stakes from these tests. If they aren’t tied to teacher evaluations, school accountability, student grades, etc., and instead are only used to get a snapshot of student achievement, then maybe we can look at that data and see how we are doing. But now? I think we are doing it wrong and it’s imperative that we fix it.

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Sometimes it takes an outside voice


Tennessee’s Achievement School District (ASD) is one of the most high profile ‘turnaround’ experiments in the country. Launched with the amazing goal to ‘catapult’ schools with test scores in the bottom 5% of the state into schools with test scores in the top 25% of the state in a five year time period, this district […]

via The Underachievement School District 2015 Edition Part II — Gary Rubinstein’s Blog