An Educated Parent Voice is a Stronger Parent Voice.

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untitled 2Earlier this week, I commented on the education reform movement’s brilliant use of language. This week, another component of their modus operandi revealed  itself. Over the years, I’ve noticed that the education reform crowd seems to have incredibly thin skin. If they feel even slightly questioned, they are quick to jump on the defensive. One of their favorite tools to use for their defense is the newspaper editorial.

Last week, a lot of folks had questions about Nashville Rise’s true mission and exactly who was footing the bill for their operations. So of course, it was time for an editorial, and Nashville Rise co-founder Wendy Tucker did not disappoint. In this editorial, there are a few interesting nuggets.

First of all, Ms. Tucker reiterates that Nashville Rise is “a parent-led, grassroots coalition of district, charter, magnet, and private school parents from across Davidson County who have joined forces to advocate for high-quality education for every child” and who “generally tune out negativity and focus on our work. When the integrity of our parent volunteers is maligned, however, we feel compelled to respond.” See what she did there? Very subtly and delicately, she shifted the conversation from questioning Nashville Rise and its intentions to defending parents who were supposedly being maligned.

Before we go any further here, let’s get one thing perfectly clear. Nobody is questioning the integrity or the validity of any of the parents who are involved in Nashville Rise. I’ve always said the more voices in the conversation the better, and everybody is welcome to their own opinions as long as they can defend them with empirical evidence. Point being, if you are advocating for educational policy that impacts more than just your child, you need to be able to defend it and site the sources for your opinions. I don’t think that’s too much to ask.

Which leads us to a question I’ve asked a couple of Nashville Rise supporters this week. What exactly does “parent voice” mean? What does it look like? A clear answer did not emerge, but it seems to me that it should mean more than just allowing parents to speak. It needs to mean more than just hearing what they say, nodding of heads, and then proceeding as planned. In other words, parents need to be empowered to fully advocate, and if that is to happen, then they need to be educated in a cross the board and transparent manner. Any potential bias needs to be clear immediately. That doesn’t mean that any information is deemed instantly invalid, it just allows a parent a greater ability to assess its veracity.

Just becoming a parent does not mean that a full understanding of educational practices and an understanding of the public school system will be suddenly downloaded into your brain. There is so much to learn, and it’s vital that parents have resources to go to that give them as neutral an overview as possible. Sources that lay all the facts on the table and allows them to draw conclusions of their own – not my conclusions or charter advocates’ positions or private interest agendas. There is so much to understand about educational practices and policies that adding in the vetting of informational sources makes the job almost impossible. Our children’s teachers are a great starting point, and we need to empower them, but advocacy groups must hold themselves to a high level of transparency as well. In short, the money matters and its trail should be visible.

Choice advocates like to say nobody knows a child like their parents do. Well, I hate to break this to you, but nobody knows one side of their child like parents do. Children are multi-dimensional and will show different aspects of themselves to others depending on whose company they are in. In my children’s very short education career, I’ve already had teachers give me insight into sides and traits of my children I was unaware of. Just one more reason why we need to establish strong partnerships with our children’s teachers. They see them in situations that may never be visible to us as parents. We as parents are also not without bias when it comes to addressing our children’s strengths and weaknesses.

My five-year-old son Peter takes Jiu-Jitsu. He’s shown a natural affinity toward it and has advanced quite quickly through the program. Recently in class, they divided up the kids into two groups. The older, bigger kids into one group and the younger, smaller kids into another. Peter ended up in the younger, smaller group despite being, in my opinion, more compatible with the other group. I turned to my wife and said, “Why is he in that group? He needs to be in the other.” “Shhh,” she replied, “The teacher has a reason. Let’s see what it is.”

As the exercise commenced, it quickly became apparent that this was indeed the group Peter belonged in. I think he subtly took notice of what group he was in and therefore worked harder to prove himself. The teacher knew this because he worked with Peter on a regular basis and was able to evaluate in a less biased manner. By being in the group he was placed in, Peter was also able to push the other kids who needed the experience of going against someone with his skills. The drill unfolded in a manner that was beneficial to all students and not just my child. Seems my parent voice needed a little educating.

This brings us to the other interesting reveal in Ms. Tucker’s editorial:

“We are thrilled that Michael Bloomberg has recently given us a grant to support the work of Nashville Rise. He and Bloomberg Philanthropies have built a nationally respected reputation for supporting important work across the country, and we appreciate their commitment to Nashville parents. We are thankful to Mr. Bloomberg and to all the other philanthropists who support our work.”

Let’s get real clear again. Having a parent advocacy group financed by Michael Bloomberg is like having an AA group funded by Anheuser-Busch. They may provide a vehicle for getting sober, but just sober enough that you can begin using their product. How clear a picture of the dangers of alcohol do you think you would get, or do you think an underlying picture of moderation would be advanced? Do you think somehow the many charitable contributions Anheuser-Busch makes wouldn’t get introduced into the conversation?

The exact same premise holds true for Nashville Rise and their bigger group, Project Renaissance, and their funding sources. Bloomberg Philanthropies basically brags about buying school board elections on their website. To quote from said website, “Bloomberg supports pro-reform candidates regardless of their political party, and seeks opportunities to support those whose vote or engagement would make a real difference in state and local policy.” Hmmm… seems to me that their interest is more involved than just having parents speak up. It seems that they have very specific things they’d like those parents to say.

Take this information and couple it with Project Renaissance founder Karl Dean’s history as mayor of Nashville, and a very interesting picture starts to emerge. Dean and Tucker continually beat the drum that this is not about charter schools, yet it always comes back to charters. This week, Nashville is hosting a national charter convention. Who is the state sponsor of this conference? None other than Project Renaissance. Of course Ms. Tucker didn’t mention this in her editorial. My grandmother used to say, “If it walks like a duck, talks like a duck, looks like a duck,…odds are it’s a duck.” Yet Project Renaissance continually wants us to believe it’s a horse.

Karl Dean had his eight years as mayor of Nashville. He had ample opportunity to enact policies that would increase the successes of Nashville’s children. Where we are now is as much on him as anybody, good and bad.  But his time is done and for some reason he fails to heed the unwritten “one mayor at a time” rule by founding an organization that may directly counter the initiatives of the current mayor. The only explanation has to be that he is using Project Renaissance as a vehicle to push his own ambitions of running for a higher political office. He needs to be reminded  of a truism that he seems to have forgotten during his time in office, children and their education should not be used for the political needs of adults. Despite no longer being mayor, Karl Dean continues to try and influence parents about schools that his children have never, nor would ever set foot in at a time when Nashville residents have elected a new vision. Maybe he’s just trying to support the status quo.

Supporters of Nashville Rise have been trying to paint Project Renaissance and Nashville Rise as two separate organizations. To counter that argument, all you have to do is go to the Project Renaissance website. Read through all the platitudes, and then go down and hit the “Get Involved” button. Amazingly, you are transported to an application for Nashville Rise.

I encourage you to read through their whole website. You’ll see plenty of invites for advocacy and parent voice. You’ll also see they have a very specific plan and very specific goals. So what happens if a group of parents voice a difference of opinion? I’m sure that either they will be properly educated or politely shown the door. Parent voice will take on a different definition.

This is why current school board members Will Pinkston, Amy Frogge, and Jill Speering declined Nashville Rise’s invitation to participate in their recent forum. Their participation would only lend credibility to an organization that espouses fidelity to parent voice yet fails to practice the transparency required to strengthen that voice. If they were to have participated, they would have only given amplification to an organization that is more about a private agenda and less about making sure all parents’ voices are heard. If you don’t believe that Pinkston, Frogge, and Speering are listening to parents to begin with, then I urge you to pick up the phone and call them. You might be surprised.

Based on what I saw upon attending the forum, I’d say the 3 sitting schoolboard members made the right choice. There were parents in attendance but most attendees seemed to share a common focus.  Some sympathizers claim an attendance of 400. Moments  after the event started I did a quick head count and got a figure of 200. I doubt the number doubled by the end, so I’d say 250 is probably the most accurate number. The telling count though came when the moderator, Tennessean editor David Plaza,  announced the elected officials in the house. There was one running for office, one former office holder, one sitting school board member, and the spouse of a candidate. I would take that as an indication that Pinkston, Frogge, and Speering weren’t the only ones with doubts.

Villains do not show up at our doors twirling handle bar mustaches with tusseled up girls tossed over their shoulders preparing to tie them to the railroad track. They come in speaking a language that uses our fears and loves in order to further their own ambitions and agendas. They say things that will make us trust them and believe that their goals are our goals. In the age of social media and its constant bombardment of images, articles, and advertisments, communication has gotten a lot more sophisticated, and unfortunately, that means we must constantly stay vigilant. We also need to remember that those with different views are not automatically villains. It makes it imperative that we don’t allow those with outside agendas to manipulate us into becoming adversaries. Don’t let them tell you I’m trying to discount “parent voice”, in fact, it’s quite the opposite.

A recent article in the Atlantic Magazine asks if our education system is actually truly broken. After careful analysis what they found was that is has actually been making steady progress over the last 40 years. Teachers are better trained. Minority students are making greater gains. Curriculum is more focused. Yet this myth of massive decline has somehow become truth. Truth that leads, as the article points out to a greater tolerance of half-baked schemes. The way to guard against such schemes is to become better educated and separate the myth from fact. To quote “History may reveal broken promises around racial and economic justice. But it does not support the story of a broken education system.” We need to keep that in mind going forth and focus on repairing the broken promises so that we can strengthen the unbroken system.

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The Importance of Parent Voice

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FullSizeRender (1)The thing I admire most about the education reform movement is their brilliant co-opting of language. They use language to frame their manifesto in a manner that is extremely difficult to counter-argue. Take, for example, their heavy reliance on phrases like “Quality schools for all kids” and “We think all kids can learn.” How are you going to counter that? With “Some kids can’t learn” or “Sub-par schools for all”? I don’t think so. And so the reformers play into America’s irrational fear of teacher’s unions by attacking them while glorifying the people who make up the teaching profession. I know, I never said it made sense; just that it was well crafted.

Their biggest coup, though, may be in getting people to refer to them as reformers when they’ve shown little ability to reform anything. Look at their main vehicles. As the research continues to come in, a picture is beginning to emerge of charter schools being about as successful as traditional public schools, but a whole lot more disruptive. Cyber charters are performing so badly that even the National Alliance for Public Charter schools is attacking them. Teach For America, the organization that was intended to get a “high quality” teacher in front of every child, is morphing into a social organization and relying on cheap PR stunts since recruitment is down 35%. Achievement School Districts that were going to bring the bottom 5% of schools up to the top 25% percent are now being shown to be ineffective, and schools are being returned to local school district control. In fact, the only things you could say they have truly reformed are school board races. Used to be 10k and some knowledge about education could you elected. Those days are long gone and the money has become astronomical. All in all not exactly a great body of work for reformers, I’d say.

You’d think with this kind of success rate, you might want to look into another arena to lend your expertise. Unfortunately, there is just a little too much money involved in education these days. So it’s impossible for the reform movement to just admit they were wrong and walk away. They’ve got to double down. Of course, when they do, they rely on the same tricks as they used in the past. They create language that makes it virtually impossible to have an honest discussion.

So let me walk you through their typical game plan. Step one: you create an organization with a name that makes the general public trust you. You know, like A+ Schools, Great Public Schools Now, or Project Renaissance. If you need a little help with the brand name, you can always call Proof Branding. They’ve got experience at this kind of thing.

Once you’ve got your organization created, you need to adopt a platform. It helps here to be tired about all that arguing over charter schools vs. traditional schools. After all, you are above this kind of thing because you just care about kids. Your platform is about great schools for all and having quality teachers. Those two are going to allow you to attract parents, and that is the other big ingredient, parent voice. By being a champion for Parent Voice, you instantly have a Tizona to wield against those who would challenge you. Which is exactly what is happening in Nashville and why incumbent school board members withdrew from an upcoming candidate forum that is being sponsored by Nashville Rise, a sub-group of Project Renaissance, after not getting answers to their questions.

Once the school board members announced their pullout, it didn’t take but a minute for two editorials to appear decrying the slippery slope they were on and defending the role of Nashville Rise as a vehicle in increasing parental engagement. Notice something missing from these two editorials? Neither discusses where the money comes from. Neither talks about who is funding Nashville Rise and who is paying for slick ads to scare parents like this one:

 

Supporters of Nashville Rise argue that the money is unimportant and that by criticizing the organization, critics are trying to deny parent voice. That’s a tough one to argue with, isn’t it? Especially when they throw out the caveat that every parent is an expert when it comes to their child. But how many of those parents understand the financial benefits involved in operating a charter school? How many of those parents are aware of how hard it is to track the extent of outside money in school board races? Or what other causes those benevolent donors support.

What I am about to say is probably going to make a few folks mad, but if we are going to have that honest conversation, it needs to be said. To insinuate that every parent is an educational expert is ludicrous and a blatant attempt to play on parents’ egos. My wife, an educator, has a master’s degree in education. The principal at my kids’ school, a doctorate. The superintendent, a doctorate. Me? I read a lot of articles, talk to some teachers and other professional educators, and make some suppositions. Now I have a general idea of how my children are progressing and I have some things that I definitely want instilled in them, but do I suppose for one minute that I have the depth of knowledge as any of the aforementioned people?

One reformer passionately declared to me, “I believe that every parent is smart enough to know what the best educational practice is for their child.” Notice what was done there? I never said they weren’t smart enough. I’m smart enough to repair my own car but do I have the time to learn to master that skill? You see, parents are busy being masters at their own careers and navigating day-to-day life, raising their children. So when are they supposed to understand the depth of pedagogy, child development, not to mention school budgeting and administration? Truth is, I think deep down parents recognize that we don’t have adequate knowledge about these issues, and we need to trust the experts to guide the process.

Trust is never easy to give with our precious cargo. Especially when, in the past, educators haven’t always communicated in ways that made us feel like we still had some control. Trusting those we don’t know is very scary. Ask any mother or father who’s ever dropped off their child on the first day of kindergarten. It’s even hard to give when outside forces are bombarding us with messages of lazy teachers and failing schools, neither of which is accurate. When a parent doesn’t truly know the truth it is easy to accept a vision from, say, a former mayor or your local newspaper. It’s why a newspaper editor is asked to be the moderator. It gives the appearance that the program is endorsed by the local paper and we all want to believe what’s in our paper. But ask yourself, where do they send their kids? When have you seen them in your child’s school? How do they know what’s truly going on in my kid’s school if they are never in it? Truth is I’d feel better if the newspaper was giving the same level of scrutiny to the organization as they are to the candidates.

It’s this fear that these reform organizations play upon. They throw out stats, like the one in the video above that states only 1 in 5 children in Nashville receive a quality education, without quantification. They paint a picture that gives parents the impression that their voice is important as they lead them down a preordained path. A path that leads to the dismantling of our public schools and turns control of them over to private interests. They’ll tell you that they are leading you down a path that leads to your voice being heard more. Talk to the people that have experienced this change and they’ll tell you a different story. One where their voice was ignored in order to implement the agenda of those private interests. .

These outside interests play on parents’ fears by painting a picture of the school down the street to be a failure factory. Schools like my kids’ school, Tusculum Elementary School, are painted as being less than quality based on test scores that fail to paint a complete picture of the school. Charter proponents tell immigrant parents that the school is terrible, yet last year Tusculum moved 67 kids off of EL services. Double the number of last year. Does that sound like less then high performing to you?

It is extremely important that groups that court parents operate in a transparent manner. Parent voice is only effective when parents have a complete picture and are left to make up their own mind. Imagine if a drug company had a product that had shown limited success financed the founding of a support group for cancer patients? What if they had a product they believed was effective despite its limited results in a controlled environment? A product that they had only been able to get limited approval on from the FDA. Wouldn’t it be vital that members of that support group were fully aware of the company’s vested interest and the amount of financial investment in the support group? Or would we just let people absorb the biased information under the guise of “supporting cancer victims” until they started to die off? It is in this interest of full disclosure that pseudo-grassroots groups like Nashville Rise need to be honest with parents and the community about their true intentions and purpose. Where the money comes from matters.

Parent engagement is vitally important to the education debate. I don’t think it can be promoted enough, but we have to do it in a manner where we are giving parents a true picture. Local Nashville principal Dr. Sue Kessler has a recent blog post where she talks about not getting caught up in the distractions. I think that is extremely important, but equally important is pulling out the filters. Don’t allow people that seem to have a vested interest beyond educating your child sell you a false sense of goods. Remember, it’s got to be good for all kids and not just a few. Remember that education is a public commodity, and it has to benefit the community as well as the individual child.  As long as you are honest in your motivations it is perfectly acceptable to fight as passionately as you can for the system you believe in, just don’t be afraid to acknowledge counter points on occasion, nor get your feelings hurt when people point out the flaws in your argument.  And always remember that you can hate a person’s philosophy without hating them.

I cannot stress enough the importance of going to the source for knowledge. Do you want to know why certain things are happening in your kid’s class? Ask their teacher. Want to know what’s going on in the school? Ask the principal. The same holds true for the district. I’ve never met a professional educator who didn’t relish an additional chance to educate.

It’s funny when I look back on my kids’ admittedly short education careers. When I first dropped my daughter off for kindergarten, I was filled with fear and a desire to control every aspect. After working as a partner with her teacher, and asking the questions I felt important, that fear and need for control dissipated. There are still things I question, things I wish they did more of, and things I outright hate, but I’ve come to realize that my kids’ teachers and administrators are more interested in doing what’s best for my children and less interested in supporting the status quo.

The conversation about public education has changed dramatically over the last several years. The public is a whole lot less gullible than they once were, but we’ve still got a long way to go. It begins and ends with accountability and transparency. Nothing can demand that like a parent’s voice. However, we as parents owe it to our children to use that voice in the most effective manner. Don’t let people paint educators and schools as your adversaries. In those buildings, you will find your biggest allies. In your educational journey, you may run across people who are difficult or seem less than ideal, but they exist in the non-education world as well; they are outliers and not the norm. Don’t let anyone convince you differently. Get involved in your child’s school. Talk to parents who have had children in that school for years – they’ll help you understand the big picture and introduce you to those who wield the most influence. It won’t all be perfect, but there are lessons in that too. By demanding that people’s actions match their words, we can improve our schools for all children.

 

Unemployed

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unemployedLast Friday, after the morning meeting, my company’s CFO casually asked if I was going to be around that afternoon. With a sinking feeling in my stomach, I replied yes. He said he was going to come see me later that afternoon. When he showed up around 3 with the HR director, that sinking feeling turned into a knot. They informed me that the company was restructuring, and unfortunately, I wasn’t part of those plans. Just like that, 10 years of employment came to an end.

Unfortunately, the same thing is happening to teachers all across the country. Due to increased pressure brought on by amplified dependence on standardized testing, principals are deciding that they need to restructure, and therefore, those teachers who don’t fit into some nebulous restructuring plan have to go. I think the unofficial description is non-renewed and ineligible for rehire. Usually if a principal decides that they don’t want to renew you, you remain eligible to have another school’s principal in the district pick up your contract for the following year. Lately, though, something has changed. It seems a disturbing trend is taking root where if you are not renewed at your original school, you are placed on a list of ineligible for rehire at another school in the district. That can mean your career comes to an end unless you are willing to relocate. Teachers in both Denver and Chicago have felt the pain of this tend.

Last year, Knoxville saw enough of these non-renewal/ineligibles to cause teachers to take action and create their own report on the policy. This year it seems that it is Nashville’s turn. It is hard to get an actual count on the number of Nashville teachers affected because obviously the numbers aren’t published. But I can tell you from what I’m hearing the numbers are significant, and it affects primarily high-poverty schools and EL teachers. Positions that are most often impacted by negative test scores due to those scores being more a reflection of family income and parent’s schooling than actual student learning.  This policy not only destabilizes the individual schools but also creates a de facto screening process. Nobody is going to undertake an extremely difficult assignment if it potentially has a permanent negative impact on his or her career. The result is a constant churn while the high quality teachers go to the “good schools”.

In talking with Metro Nashville Public Schools Human Resources Department, in their eyes nothing has changed policy-wise. They did notice a disturbing trend last year that certain principals were turning over their staffs every year. In short, many principals were firing large portions of their teachers every year. The way it works is when a principal decides to non-renew a teacher, the principal has the choice of making them ineligible or eligible for rehire in the district. To make a teacher ineligible requires documentation of how they were failing in their job performance. Figuring that the documentation would be a barrier, and in order to stem some of the turnover, which everybody recognizes as not being beneficial, talent management, or as we call them, the HR folks, communicated to principals that if they were not renewing a teacher, then they had to make them ineligible for rehire. Some might argue that this communication would constitute a policy change and perhaps question whether this is with in the scope of HR’s powers. But unfortunately anybody who’s been around public schools for awhile understands how these unwritten policies seem to get enacted. Just for fun, sometime ask a teacher about the policy for failing a student and see how they react. But I digress. So, how did principals respond this year to the communication on renewing teachers?

Well, they informed teachers that they were going to non-renew them and, therefore, they had to make them ineligible for rehire in the district. There was one caveat – in some cases, teachers were told they could resign first.  Here’s where it get murky. A teacher’s resignation supposedly looks better for the teacher, but it still makes them ineligible for rehire in the district… or does it? Unfortunately again, there are no clear cut answers. Some teachers were told it still made them eligible for rehire elsewhere in the district. But others were informed they would still be ineligible. One thing that is clear – resigning does get principals out of that pesky documentation requirement. Everybody likes to hire and fire at whim, but nobody likes to document. So basically, HR’s attempt to stop principals from firing so many teachers didn’t really work, and in the process, potentially ruined many teachers’ entire careers in one fell swoop. Not exactly a win.

What really baffles me about this trend is that at a time when there are teacher shortages and fewer college students entering the teaching profession, why are we showing large groups of teachers the door? There are endless discussions on recruiting teachers, but painfully few on retaining them. We seem to think that the only way to get quality teachers in front of students is by firing the ones who don’t meet our narrow criteria. That criteria being mainly focused on raising test scores. Despite the fact that here in Tennessee testing is something we can’t even execute properly.

You may consider this anecdotal evidence but here’s what I know: in Nashville, there were many teachers who were deemed non-renewed and ineligible for rehire, but there are many, many job openings for teachers. For example, I’ve heard that we lost an experienced elementary EL teacher who was told they had low test scores (in a grade that is not even tested), a first year middle school teacher who is certified to teach English but was directed to teach remedial math and then given no PD opportunities, a special education teacher with many years of experience, and a lauded elementary school teacher who was told they “weren’t a good fit” despite living in the same community as the school – and this is just a sampling of teachers in this situation. But if you look at the job postings, there is clearly a need for teachers like those who were fired.  Hell, we are supposedly so desperate for teachers that one principal took a group of administrators and teachers to Puerto Rico to recruit, despite the fact that those teachers would have to become EL certified in Tennessee if hired by the district. These are examples I find disturbing and I think other parents should as well.

As a manager, I’ve always believed that whenever you had to let someone go, it was as much a failure for you as for them. Either you didn’t hire the right person, you didn’t adequately communicate the goals and objectives, you didn’t provide the proper training or materials, or you are not applying the proper measurement. I think we’ve failed teachers in several of these areas. I once heard a state legislator chide a union leader because he refused to acknowledge that there were bad teachers. The union official replied, “We have never provided teachers with all the tools to succeed, so how would I be able to judge if a teacher was truly bad or just under supported?” I think about those words often.

We are also fond of saying “one size doesn’t fit all” as it applies to students, yet we create an evaluation system that basically creates one kind of teacher. Different kids respond differently to different teachers, and just because a teacher is not getting results from one type of student does not mean they’re a bad teacher and should be replaced. Perhaps they just need to have leadership put them in a position where they can succeed. It is up to a leader to assess the talents and skills of his team and assign them roles accordingly. Perhaps that struggling 1st grade teacher would do better in 3rd grade. Perhaps they are not as strong with high level kids and could do better with lower level kids. Perhaps they need to work with a mentor or instructional coach. Perhaps they need additional professional development. Or perhaps the problem is with the principal’s leadership style. Or the over-emphasis on assessment and outcomes and high test scores. It is up to principals to find a strategy that allows for success and even more important that central office supports and assists principals in developing teachers instead of creating a culture of plug it in, see if it works, and if not discard it. It takes all kinds of teaching styles to reach students who possess a multitude of learning styles.

A prime example would be my own high school experience. I had an environmental science teacher who spoke English with a bad accent and was extremely strict and sarcastic. There are people who went to school with me who believed he was the worst teacher ever and should be run out of teaching. I personally responded to him well. He challenged me, he engaged me, and he taught me lessons that still resonate today. What a loss it would have been for me if he would have been run out of the profession. I’m almost positive that if we all look back on our academic experiences, we will find those teachers who struck a similar chord with us but not other classmates. Our lives are better for the contributions from those teachers, and I think how different my own life would be without their impact. Teaching is in so many ways a mixture of art and science. We try to treat teaching as something that anyone can do and something that you don’t have to do your whole life, but talk to any of the really great ones and they will tell you, it’s a calling and something that they can’t envision not doing.  We need teachers that come from a multitude of different backgrounds with a multitude of tools to reach students that come from a multitude of backgrounds with a multitude of challenges.

Once we displace these so-called “failing teachers,” where are their replacements going to come from? Last time I checked, there was no secret orchard of teachers that was available for us to go pluck new ones from. Teach for America and other alternative licensing programs are becoming less of a solution than they once were. TFA recruitment numbers are down 35% over the last 3 years as young people discover just how hard teaching can be and that its not exactly financially rewarding. Let’s not forget as well that there is no guarantee that the next teacher is going to be any more effective than the previous one. You can do all the screening you like. You can look at their past TVAAS scores and think you can predict their future ability, but there is never a guarantee because that teacher has never been in front of these students before, and remember, every child is different. At least with an existing teacher you have a minimum of one year of localized data that should give an indication of their strengths and weaknesses. I find it hard to believe that all displaced teachers are all weaknesses with no strengths. Is it also fair for one principal to say that just because a teacher did not succeed under them that they would not be successful under another principal?

Educator and blogger Peter Greene recently wrote a piece on old teachers and the possibility that they don’t suck. He based it on a recent study by the Learning Policy Institute that revealed the value of experience to teachers and their students. The LPI study offered some suggestions that could improve teacher performance, the very first one being increased stability in the profession. How does a constant churn coupled with a constant fear of being fired create increased stability? Do you think constant turnover creates an environment of innovation and collaboration? (Which by the way, environment of collaboration was another suggestion.)  If teachers are in constant fear for their professional lives will they take the time to really invest in a student? Quality teachers do more than just move the needle on what is measured. Which is why our definition of “high-quality” teachers is not always accurate.

For example, a kindergarten classmate of my son’s, well, actually his BFF, is a Burmese refugee child who speaks Karen. On a recent ride home from school, my son told me he was going to need some money because he had to take his friend to the dentist. By the time I got home and sent an email to ask their teacher about it, she had already found a dentist with access to a Karen translator and made an appointment to take the child that Saturday. Spend some time with her, and you’ll find that she was able to do this because she has made herself an integral part of her students’ community. You’d never know that unless you really looked because she doesn’t advertise it; she just serves. Her service never shows up on any official evaluation, but it certainly impacts the children in her class. I’m certain her official evaluation could be higher if she didn’t serve such a high-needs demographic, but would her students be better off? I think not. She is a high-quality teacher in ways that are not measured. When I evaluate her from a parents perspective, I don’t look at her students test scores or levels. I look at the impact she is having on my child’s life and their classmates lives and I find her performance exemplary on so many levels.

I’ve used this example before and had people shrug and say, “A lot of teachers do extra stuff for their students.” That response is infuriating. Every single one of those teachers should be celebrated for the impact that they are making. We shouldn’t take it for granted that it’s just part of the job. One that is expected but not recognized. So many kids would miss out on so many opportunities if it weren’t for these heroic teachers. A teacher’s evaluation needs to reflect all aspects of the job, not just the ones produced by a standardized test. We as adults need to educate ourselves on exactly what our teachers are doing and the services they are providing before we start offering evaluations.

To be fair, a teacher’s evaluation is 50% growth and achievement based on standardized tests (this is the TVAAS/VAM part of the evaluation). The other 50% is observations based on a nearly impossible rubric. One problem is that administrators are trained that the VAM measures must somehow match the observation measures. In other words, if a teacher has a low VAM score because of low test scores, the principal wouldn’t be justified in giving that teacher high scores on the observation rubric because they were told that wouldn’t make sense. It would be a disconnect in the system to have a “great” teacher with low test scores. Now that is complete BS, but that’s how it is. It is a grossly unfair and rigged evaluation system.

The incoming Superintendent of MNPS, Dr. Shawn Joseph, has a book he likes to recommend, Leadership and Self Destruction. A major focus of this book is to look at people’s actions and performance not just through the lens of how they serve you. It means stepping back and trying to understand where the other person is coming from. I’m hoping he applies the tenets of this book to the way we treat our teachers in MNPS. It’s my hope that we will force principals to actually provide leadership and coach teachers up, not out. It’s going to take a lot of effort because unfortunately, many principals are only looking at teacher performance through the lens of how it serves them and not how it serves the students. A teacher’s role should be to educate students, not make a principal look like a rock star.

I urge Dr. Joseph to take a hard look at the process used to make teachers ineligible for rehire in the district and to create policies that will ensure that firing is a last resort and not just another tool. Perhaps one solution is that if a teacher is going to be recommended as non-renewed AND ineligible for rehire, then an additional person from Central Office must sign off on the recommendation. And hopefully Dr. Joseph will reconsider opening up the files of all the teachers who were fired with no opportunity to be rehired this year and reviewing them – and maybe even overturning some of those decisions. Our teachers are too important to just sweep away.

I consider myself in some ways in a better position then teachers who have been displaced because I never considered my position at my last job a “calling”. I didn’t lay awake at night unable to sleep because of worry for the clients, like teachers do for their students. I didn’t reach into my own pocket to buy supplies for the office like teachers do for their classrooms. I liked my job a great deal and I studied and read a lot in order to do a better job but it wasn’t all consuming like teaching can be. This has been a hard transition for me but nothing like the one so many of our unfairly displaced teachers are facing. We need to fix that.

 

 

Coming to a Nashville Polling Place Near You

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untitledAt some point in the mid-1970s, the idea of the summer blockbuster was born and our movie watching habits changed dramatically. Previously, winter had been movie time. Summer was reserved for outdoor activities and family vacations. But then, studios discovered that you could create spectacles that would draw people in to escape the summer heat and engage in a little fantasy. As a 2010 Financial Times article states: “Most of these movies share a set of assumptions. It is reasonable to expect the spectator to bring a body and two senses: sight, hearing. It is unreasonable to expect him to bring a brain. The movies must be big on action, glamour, stars, spectacle, novelty (though not too much of that), but light on cognitive demands.”

I’d argue that this year’s Metro Nashville Public Schools board race meets the criteria for a summer blockbuster, and with Stand For Children involved, it even has its own Michael Bay. For those of you who don’t regularly attend movies, Bay is a director known for elevating the blockbuster format through the increased use of explosions, beautiful people, and minimal substance. In other words, with apologies to William Faulkner, sound and fury signify nothing. To this point, that is exactly what the MNPS school board race has been. You have social media dust ups, campaign managers from one campaign resigning just before the filing deadline to launch their own campaigns, and other candidates attacking a spouse’s work record like it was their opponent’s. All entertaining to watch, but largely lacking substance.

On August 4, 2016, Nashville voters will cast their vote for five open seats on the school board. As fate would have it, three of those seats belong to public education’s staunchest defenders, Amy Frogge, Will Pinkston, and Jill Speering. Another one is the open seat previously occupied by Elissa Kim, an executive with Teach For America. And the fifth seat belongs to current chair Sharon Gentry, and, in keeping with the summer blockbuster theme, she should by all accounts be ripe for a pick off by challenger and former teacher Janette Carter, except that Gentry led the search that produced Nashville’s first African-American Director of Schools.

Still, under Gentry’s leadership, board procedures have been atrocious. Rebuking a fellow board member through a letter read by another board member because she was absent (shades of Star Wars), important votes held when board members were absent, ethics complaints unaddressed, and the list goes on. But she did lead the search and got the board to unanimously approve the hiring of new director Dr. Joseph. A recent blog post  by former school board member Cheryl Mayes presented an interview of both Gentry and Carter, and it clearly illustrates the differences in depth between the two. But since it is blockbuster season, it is all about the optics. Have I mentioned that Gentry single-handedly swam in shark-infested waters and climbed Mount Everest to deliver Nashville’s first ever African-American Superintendent? Don’t worry, she won’t let us forget it. Never mind that Carter has actual experience as an educator or that she might be more qualified.

This is where Stand For Children enters the fray and assumes the role of the esteemed Michael Bay. See, there probably wouldn’t even be a summer blockbuster if SFC didn’t have an agenda and the means to launch it. Up until a week before the filing deadline, two of the aforementioned school board races had no second candidate. Luckily, SFC and their friends at Project Renaissance were able to scare up a couple people who were just fed up to the hilt with the dysfunction of this current board but hadn’t been able to get around to filing until days before the deadline. Neither really had an actual platform other than to be more amicable, but who needs substance when you are making a summer blockbuster? I particularly love District 3 candidate Jane Grimes Meneely who grudgingly acknowledges that she’ll probably be considered the charter candidate and then proceeds to have every known Nashville charter supporter like every Facebook post she makes.

Last week, Stand For Children announced their endorsements for the current school board race. Three former teachers are running – Jill Speering, Christiane Buggs, and the aforementioned Janette Carter, and guess what? Not one of them received an endorsement from SFC. Also, in their endorsement post, SFC lists all their perceived criticisms with the current board, and then proceeds to endorse retaining the leadership by endorsing current chair Sharon Gentry. Ask yourself, when the Titans don’t make the playoffs repeatedly, do they fire the whole team but still keep the coach? I love that all the challengers cite a need for a brand new board, yet are happy to be included in an endorsement photo with the current leadership. Everybody sure looks happy don’t they? I wonder if they told Dr. Gentry how dysfunctional her wards have been.

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Unless you are someone who closely follows education politics, you are probably not that familiar with Stand for Children. You probably looked at their website and nodded your head and said to yourself, “Yeah, I can agree with that.” After all, everybody wants to stand for children and organize the collective power of our community to create a political voice for children and make lasting changes in our education system, right? Well, sit right back and you’ll hear a tale…

Stand for Children was founded in the late 1990s, centered in Portland, Oregon, as a way to advocate for the welfare of children. It grew out of a 1996 march by more than 250,000 people in Washington, D.C. The aim of the march was to highlight child poverty at a time when Congress and the Clinton administration were preparing to “end welfare as we know it.” At that time, they advocated for things like smaller classes, after-school activities, free lunches for all kids – you know, the kind of things we can all support. Then things got confusing.

SFC threw their support behind Race to the Top and spent heavily in promoting the anti-union film Waiting for Superman. In Chicago, they found out there was a lot of Walton and Gates money in union busting. They pushed initiatives in Massachusetts that made teacher’s jobs considerably harder by making it easier for them to be displaced. In Denver, they got themselves in trouble when they initially gave the appearance of district endorsement and then proceeded to get involved in the school board race. In Indianapolis, they invested heavily in that school board race, some suspect as high as half a million dollars. I can’t really tell you the actual amount because SFC uses their IRS status to avoid telling you what they spend and where the money comes from.

This past year in Louisiana, Stand For Children once again got involved in a local school board race. I know, much like the summer blockbusters in theaters, this plot is becoming highly predictable. In Louisiana, though, they added a new twist. They created a fake TV ad that gave the appearance that their non-favored candidate had warrants out for their arrest which was untrue. Hmmm… it’s probably just a coincidence that this past weekend, Nashville’s District 9 and District 3 residents were the recipients of a push poll that gave the impression that Amy Frogge, a lawyer, represented clients who are actually represented by her husband, a well-respected defense attorney known to take on clients some may consider less than optimal. Clients, I should add, that according to the Constitution deserve representation like anyone else. Nevertheless, the information in the push poll was false. SFC-endorsed candidate and Frogge’s only opponent Thom Druffel disavowed the poll claiming they were spreading lies about him as well, but not once does he acknowledge Stand for Children’s record, nor does he disavow SFC’s endorsement or offer to give their cash back.No, he just acts offended that Mrs> Frogge’s supporters accuse him of being the dastardly villain. My grandmother always did say, if you hang out with dogs you are bound to catch some fleas.

If he needs instruction on how to stand up to Stand and their kind, he only needs to look north a few hours to Indianapolis. Gayle Cosby was a candidate there who struggled to raise money for her candidacy until some Ed Reformers got involved. She quickly found out that it was going to be the tale wagging the dog and has come to regret her initial embracing of Stand and their agenda. These days she refutes them and does her best to be a thorn in the side of Indianapolis’s Ed Reform crowd.

The reform crowd likes you to believe that everything happens in a bubble. They like to say those things are happening somewhere else, but we are only concerned with Nashville. Well, here’s a news flash for you – whether I walk into a Wal-Mart in Denver or Nashville, they are essentially the same. The Wal-Mart in Nashville isn’t suddenly selling high-end goods and telling me, “Yeah, those other Wal-Marts are different. Here in Nashville we carry Gucci and Coach products.” If they did, you’d meet those claims with skepticism. And you should have the same skepticism here with SFC’s involvement in our local school board race. If you want more reason to be skeptical, just take a look at this race four years ago.

It’s worth noting here that Stand For Children is not the only organization trying to influence local school board elections. The last several years have seen spending on school board races shoot through the roof. It’s no longer shocking to see candidates raising upwards of $100k for their campaigns. Here in Nashville, former Mayor Karl Dean and his cronies have formed an organization called Project Renaissance to influence local education policy. They have an arm called Nashville Rise that “with commitment and consistency, will inform, empower and engage parents across Davidson County.” Notice the word transparency missing from that sentence?

Like SFC, Project Renaissance uses language that gives the appearance that they are all about empowering parents and teachers, and have no political agenda. Let’s look a little deeper though. Look who they use as a branding company. Proof Branding, the very same company hired by Valor Academy and KIPP charter schools as well as the Tennessee Charter Center. How much money that could be going to kids is being diverted to a branding company? I would think the work should create the brand, not the other way around.

As Mayor, Dean showed little love for our public schools, and in fact went above and beyond the call of duty to recruit and subsidize the establishment of charter schools and Teach For America in Nashville. Truth is, Project Renaissance is stocked full with like-minded visionaries. So they may sound like an uplifting, agenda-free organization, but I can’t help but be reminded of the old parable about the venomous snake convincing a young boy to take him to the top of the mountain to see the sunset one last time.

The story goes something like this – A boy came upon a snake that was old and appeared harmless. He promised not to bite the boy if he would help him, and so the boy acquiesced despite some misgivings. After taking the snake up the mountain, the snake asked if the boy could now bring him home to die. The boy, figuring the snake had been harmless to this point, agreed. Once they got to the bottom of the mountain, the snake bit the boy in the chest. Horrified, the boy cried to the snake, “But why? You promised not to bite me, and we’d collaborated so well together.” The snake just smiled and replied, “But you knew what I was when you picked me up.”

All it takes is a little googling and a little reading to get a true impression of what these groups really represent. They may refer to themselves as grassroots organizations, but it’s been my experience that billionaires don’t donate to grassroots organizations. Make no mistake: the wealthy have helped fill the coffers of these organizations. If their agenda was working, then you could almost argue for the influx of large donations from the wealthy, but even they concede that their influence has not produced the desired results. Their results do not benefit all children. They help design a system that picks winners and losers based on race and economic status. Something that should not be acceptable to any of us.

Here in Nashville we are lucky to have the formation of a new, truly grassroots education group and PAC, TNRefinED, that has been organized in recognition of the big money forces aligned against public education. They recognize that financially they will never be able to compete against the Stand for Children and Project Renaissance’s of the world, but they will attempt to counter them in authenticity. TNRefinED is a true grassroots organization formed by parents, teachers, and community members that don’t like what they are seeing private entities do to their children’s schools and have chosen to fight back. Sounds like it’d make a great movie since everyone loves an underdog. It’d have to come out in the fall or winter though because TNRefinED doesn’t have lots of cash to throw around to make a splash or a bunch of beautiful young people to talk about saving that one child, it just has a bunch of over worked parents and underfunded teachers striving to make sure that all kids get a quality education. Or maybe it’s underfunded parents and overworked teachers, either way works.

Blockbuster movies are a fun distraction during the summer months, but they are just a shallow representation of the power of cinema and its ability to shape our lives. During the other nine months of the year, the movies of substance and depth are released quietly and often with out fanfare. These are the movies that tend to stay with us and make our lives better. The same holds true for Nashville’s school board race. Summer is the time for big accusations and large productions that will keep us amused, but come December, we will be hard pressed to recall them. What will continue to resonate is the high quality work the incumbent school board members have done away from the spotlight.

SFC and its ilk would like you to believe that all this board has been focused on is charter schools and nothing else, as if it’s an either/or proposition. They want you to forget how much Will Pinkston has championed our English Learner community. They want you to forget how hard Jill Speering pushed for an increased focus on literacy. They want you to forget how hard Amy Frogge fought to secure funding for Community Achieves and strives to protect our children from excessive testing. This is just a sampling of the issues they’ve pushed away from the spotlight in these past few months.

Frogge, Pinkston, and Speering have raised questions about the effectiveness of charter schools and the financial impact of their unchecked growth. They should because it’s their job to do so. But to give the impression that they’ve focused on one issue to the exclusion of all others is just another canard put forth by shadowy groups like SFC that have a proven history of being challenged by the truth. Groups that I challenge, to quote a former movie blockbuster, to show me the money. If you are truly about the child, then transparency shouldn’t be a challenge.

untitledWe all love the cinematic escape of a summer movie. We are willing to ignore the crappy dialog and improbable action scenes to escape for just a few hours. But eventually we need to return to reality and face our day to day challenges in a practical and effective manner. The truth of it is, none of these challengers have the depth of knowledge or conviction of the incumbents, Buggs, or Carter. This election could just as easily be titled the summer of the B-Movies. We’ve got a new director of schools now and when August 4th rolls around it is our responsibility to give him a cast will allow for the crafting of a masterpiece, let’s not drop the ball and succumb to big money outside interests. It’s time to increase the cognitive demands.