Focusing On What’s Important

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focusSome of you may know that I am a runner. I try to average upwards of 100 miles a month. Being out of work the last couple months has made that goal pretty reachable. My running has dual purposes: I do it for stress release as well as weight management. The crazy thing is that despite hitting my monthly goals, I haven’t seen a lot of weight loss as of late, nor have I seen tremendous improvement in my running. Sure I’ve shed a pound or two and I’m definitely healthier, but I haven’t seen that overall shedding of weight or uptick in speed that I envisioned. There is a reason for that.

You see, while I have increased my time spent running, I’ve done very little to address my diet. I still eat my ice cream every night and catch myself snacking throughout the day. What’s become clear is that I can’t just run and lose weight, nor can I expect to see increases in my speed or duration by just running more. I’ve got to address the other elements as well. Our public schools are no different, but unfortunately as public school advocates we address the issues like I address my running. We fight against charter schools and other moves to privatize the system but we don’t always focus enough on recognizing and fixing the shortcomings of our public schools, nor we do focus enough on celebrating their successes.

A lot has been made of the recent school board race here in Nashville. And rightly so; it was a huge win for people who believe more charter schools are not the answer. The problem is, that is not enough. The elephant in the room is that if people believed in our public schools, we wouldn’t have to convince them that charter schools and other privatization efforts aren’t the answer. In my opinion, getting folks to believe in our schools requires a two-pronged strategy. The first prong being the dispelling of the myth that our schools are a dismal failure, and the second being to honestly assess some of the shortcomings and then work to address them.

Parents and community members are constantly bombarded by a long list of numbers that are supposed to demonstrate how abysmal our schools are performing. Take, for example, this article from the Chattanooga Times Free Press stating that nearly a third of Hamilton County teachers rank among state’s least effective. In the article, they talk about how children at schools with high poverty rates are most likely to have one of these least-effective teachers. Pretty scary stuff, no?

Let’s look at this paragraph over on the edge of the article though. It’s an explanation of how teachers earn their ranking:

Each year teachers are given a score from 1 to 5 on their effectiveness in the classroom. Teachers receiving a 1 or 2 ranking are considered to be least effective. A teacher receiving a score of 3 is considered to be of average effectiveness, and those with a 4 or 5 are considered highly effective.

These scores are derived from a teacher’s school-level evaluation score, growth measure of their students over the academic year, and a self-selected achievement measure. For teachers who teach subjects in which students do not take standardized tests, their growth measure score is determined by the school’s overall growth score during that year.

Did you notice that last sentence? What some parents may not know is that if you teach a subject in which students do not take standardized tests, your growth score is measured by the school’s overall growth. For the next two years, student growth will only count for 10% of a teacher’s overall rating, but I’m assuming when these scores were calculated it was set at 35%, the percentage rate scores will return to in 2 years. Since standardized tests do little to measure actual learning and serve more as an indicator of economic status, doesn’t it stand to reason that high needs schools would have lower overall scores thus creating more “ineffective” teachers? TVAAS scores have also been shown to display bias based on subject and grade level. So is the article an accurate reflection of the depth of the problem? I would argue not.

All this article does is paint a picture of a bunch of lousy teachers hanging out in the teacher’s lounge smoking cigarettes and drinking coffee all day. It totally ignores the hours of dedicated work being applied instead, under the guise of accountability, it works to create a straw man to blame. There is certainly room for improvement but the hyperbole is unnecessary and will hinder any collaboration. This exposes one of the drawbacks of focusing solely on accountability and not solutions. There is such a desire to stake blame that nobody is willing to actually collaborate at this point.

Think about your workplace. Say I put out a memo that says we are having a meeting this afternoon on how to improve your department’s output because it’s failing due to your laziness and ineptitude. Are you showing up at that meeting looking to collaborate in an effort to improve the department’s output, or are you showing up prepared to defend yourself? Are you looking to shine a light on strategies to improve the department or somebody else to shift blame to? If you haven’t read Leadership and Self Deception yet, this is where I’ll put in a plug, as it does a better job of illustrating this challenge.

The point is that we have to be able to have honest conversations that search for solutions instead of affixing blame. That’s what the charter school conversation of the last several years has been all about. It’s been either “public schools suck and therefore we need more charter schools” or “charter schools suck and we need to keep them from expanding.” And in establishing that these schools “suck,” we focus on teachers or the status quo, looking to affix blame instead of finding solutions. So of course the conversation goes round and round until voters do like they’ve recently done in Nashville and say enough is enough. It’s time for a new conversation. One that will get to the root of why we are arguing over charter school proliferation.

There is going to be resistance to this shift. Frank Daniels, a columnist for The Tennessean who regularly carries water for the reform crowd, recently wrote a piece calling for the district to create a strategic plan for charter growth. Why? Voters just sent a message that they were just fine with the way expansion of charter schools was being handled and were ready to talk about something else. You won’t find parents at the local Target saying to each other, “I wish the district would have a clear plan for adding more charter schools.” They are too busy discussing what they like and don’t like about their kid’s school and how they can make it better. That goes for both traditional and charter school parents. The only people who want a strategic plan are charter operators.

My prayer is that the school board and the newly hired Director of Schools in Nashville continue to set precedent and take charge of the conversation. That they put the argument over charter schools on the bench where it belongs and instead take up the conversation of how we make all our schools better. They should focus on things like teacher recruitment and retention, physical upgrades to our schools, programs and support for increasing literacy, and making education an equitable experience for all students.

I pray that we start to celebrate the amazing things happening in our schools. How many people know that Overton High School is the only high school that is an official member of the Associated Press? Their paper, the Bobcat Beat, is published regularly in 5 other newspapers across the state and has readers in 21 other countries. How many people know that Maplewood High School, a high needs school, has both a competitive chess club and an operational Firestone auto repair shop? There is a reason that President Obama visited McGavock High School in 2014, Chelsea Clinton visited JT Moore Middle School in 2015, and Bill Clinton visited LEAD Academy in 2014. We need to constantly spread that narrative and not in a way that lauds a particular school, but in a manner that builds up the whole system.

Many lengthy articles have been written about the negative aspects of our schools, but you have to dig deeper than that to get to the truth. Here in Nashville, there is a constant drumbeat about the incompetence of MNPS and how so many children are falling through the cracks. Yet over the last four years, MNPS has managed to create a system of high school academies that educators from around the world come to observe, expanded our pre-k program, developed an English Language Learner program that continues to exceed state expectations, and grown our business partnerships. That’s a whole lotta good being done.

On the flip side, we need to address our schools’ shortcomings. Too many kids are in schools that need major renovations. Nashville started off the school year, like many schools across the country, with a shortfall of teachers, but why? Rocketship Nashville Northeast and several other schools are performing below expectations, but why? We need to start talking about these subjects in a way that doesn’t affix blame, but rather looks for system-wide solutions. It’s not okay if one school finds the solution but another doesn’t. You can’t find those solutions if you are too busy defending your existence.

Too often the conversations have looked like this:

Person A: We need to get more teachers.

Person B: If we had more charter schools, that wouldn’t be a problem.

A: How is that going to help? I don’t want more charters.

B: What! Why are you anti-charter schools?

A: Well, charter schools do kick out kids that don’t meet their “guidelines.”

B: That’s not true. That never happens. I knew you were anti-charter schools. You want to trap kids in a failing system and support the status quo.

A: No I don’t. But you just want to privatize the system.

And before you know it, once again the conversation is no longer about recruiting more teachers or whatever the real issue was, but about charter schools. We can not afford to continue to lose focus. Yet we do, over and over and over again.

I firmly believe that if we focus on celebrating the successes and collaboratively looking for the solutions to our shortfalls, the strategic plan will become crystal clear. We don’t need to add more charter schools until we’ve fully invested in the ones we have. It’s like my father used to say when an appliance would break, “let me get in there and fix it.” There was never a conversation about replacing it until every effort was made to repair it. Our philosophy for our schools should be no different. Like my running, the system will not improve by just focusing on a single element. We have to make changes in all areas and ignore the charter school operators’ attempts to set the agenda for the conversation. If we stay focused on the things that matter, then everything else will come into focus.

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2 comments on “Focusing On What’s Important

  1. Rebecca deCoca says:

    What absolute common sense.

  2. As a new resident, a licensed experienced educator I am not so sure there are “bad” schools, “bad” Teachers but as the adage goes, the fish stinks from the head. So take it for what it is worth. But as anyone with half a brain can apparently substitute teach in MNPS. I would love many parents, activists and others sign up and do so in their community school then cross Nashville and see the “other” side. Then from there you can have an idea of what is going on, what is being done right, wrong and everything in between. I do want to caution you that if you are a Substitute be prepared to be treated as a inconvenience by the district, given no professional courtesy or respect but expected to be everything a Teacher is; however, without adequate training, professional experience and more importantly compensation that reflects as such. It is disgraceful and may also be a large part of the problems in your schools – the sheer lack of communication, coordination and respect for those who work in the schools let alone attend them.

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