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kidsTennessee State Representative Bill Dunn from Knoxville loves kids. Just ask him. Because asking him is the only way you’d know it. His actions certainly don’t support that proclamation.

In case you didn’t know, Bill Dunn is the driving force in the State House behind legislation that would cut funding for pre-k, change requirements for teacher tenure, and create a state school voucher program.  Luckily, he hasn’t been very successful at getting most of his agenda passed, as vouchers have continued to fail in the House year after year and the importance of pre-K is becoming more and more universally recognized. Last year, his love of poor children so overwhelmed him that he was willing to modify his dream to only apply to poor children in Memphis. Fortunately, that failed as well. The creation of a voucher program is akin to the dispatching of life boats, some students will benefit but many more will suffer. Republicans decry government picking winners and losers, but that’s exactly what a voucher program does.

One would think that all this love of children would mean that Representative Dunn would be fully committed to making sure that our public schools are fully funded. But one would be wrong. Last year, Tennessee school districts began suing the state over recognized funding inadequacies. Dunn’s response was to bring forth a constitutional amendment barring courts from interfering in educational issues. It would have effectively killed any lawsuits from school districts. Of course it failed.

Based on his track record of passing legislation, if Dunn was a school, he’d be subject to takeover by the Achievement School District. (Though I will give him credit for passing the dyslexia bill last year, as one of 40 bipartisan sponsors of the bill. A much needed piece of legislation.) But Dunn is not easily deterred, so this year he’s doubling down. Buoyed by the election of Trump, who supports vouchers and charter schools, he’s bringing the voucher initiative back once again. And he’s got another bill poised to get rid of that pesky mandatory recess law that got passed last year. According to Dunn, “I think this might be something where the local schools need to decide how best do we burn off that energy that students may have.” Because that was working so well before.

When asked about that mandatory recess law, Lauren Hopson, the President of the Knox County Education Association, has gone on record stating that “There just aren’t enough hours in the day to do it.” and I agree with her. The mandates that the state puts on our schools are just too oppressive. Tennessee’s lawmakers have put an unreasonable burden on the teachers of the Tennessee. So to add a requirement that kids need to have a certain amount of time weekly spent on physical activity may have been a step too far, however well intentioned it was. It mandates something that ought to be happening anyway, but with all the other mandates, it’s hard – or nearly impossible – to get them all done. The problem is this – if we get rid of it, will schools then take away recess time to make more time for literacy and math? The demand for focus on literacy and math (because that’s what is tested), now coupled with the expectations of social studies and science, fail to take into account what actually encompasses a school day. So perhaps we shouldn’t repeal the recess bill but rather adjust our standards.

Let’s look at those standards. Tennessee was one of the first states to adopt the Common Core State Standards. It didn’t take long for criticism to mount and lead to the repeal and replacement of Common Core with the Tennessee State Standards. According to State Board of Education Executive Director Sara Heyburn, “We started with the current state standards. From there, we executed an unprecedented transparent, comprehensive review and replacement process.” There was rigorous review to ensure that the standards were appropriate and that they were stacked; in other words, each year built on the previous year’s work. Funny thing, though, is that the “new” state standards look pretty much like the Common Core. Hmm. My question, though, is, how much time was spent on studying how they realistically aligned with an actual school day and the increased accountability that we are expecting from our teachers?

I love to use running metaphors, so let’s apply one here. Say I’m 16 years old. Say a bunch of track coaches get together and based on comparisons of other high school runners, they decide that they are going to set the standard for running  a 100 yard dash at 10.5 seconds. Odds are that most kids will be able to hit that time, but not without significant sacrifice. For example, they will have to change their diet, and some favorite foods will have to be sacrificed. Training time will take away from family time and impact the ability to help around the house. Time with friends and music classes after school will also have to be sacrificed. If we run a cost/reward analysis, whether or not we hit the mark becomes irrelevant because the cost will far outweigh the reward. In my humble opinion, that’s what we have done with state education standards. We’ve set the bar so high that attainment comes at a detrimental cost.

The experts got together with some outside input and evaluated what kids were capable of learning, but nobody looked at how that fit in to an actual school day. How much time would be required for kids to acquire the required knowledge? How would that time affect lunch times? Would it impact recess? What kind of after school time would be required? Would there be time to feed kids in the morning and still be able to present the required instruction? And would this time frame be the same for every single student? As Hopson recently observed, “[Lawmakers] also didn’t understand that fifteen minutes to adults is not the same as fifteen minutes to children…. who have to get coats, go to the bathroom, get a drink of water, walk to the playground with the sense of urgency of a 7-year-old, and completely refocus when those breaks occur.”  Was this ever taken into account? Shouldn’t it be? And shouldn’t teachers be the ones to have that say?

Recently, I wrote about how teachers need more time, and that hasn’t changed. Talk to a teacher – I know that is a novel idea – and they will tell you their day is made up of never-ending compromises. Do you spend more time on the literacy standards or the math standards? Which bit of paperwork do you sacrifice in order to be more prepared for tomorrow? How much time can you afford to spend on social studies? Do you stick to the district pacing guide, or do you focus on mastery? Do you focus on teaching to the test or try to ensure students are getting the necessary depth of instruction? That’s a lot of questions, a lot of compromise, and a lot of moral issues to expect from anyone on a daily basis. But not only do we do it, we add to the challenges each year with new legislation.

Back to the recess issue. I don’t think you’ll find a single teacher who wouldn’t acknowledge the importance of physical activity. As a parent of a 6-year-old and a 7-year-old, I can certainly testify to the need for daily physical activity for children. I learned really quick to make sure that every day out of school contained at least an hour or so of physical activity for the kids in order to maintain my sanity. Without recess, my son would lose learning time every day because he would be unable to shed his excess energy, resulting in decreased concentration. As Angela Hanscom, a pediatric occupational therapist, points out, “Recess times have shortened due to increasing educational demands, and children rarely play outdoors. Let’s face it: Children are not nearly moving enough, and it is really starting to become a problem.” Yes, it is.

Further compounding the problem is poverty. A teacher at a school with a higher income demographic has a little bit of cushion because they know that the lessons taught in school are being reinforced at home. Schools with concentrations of kids from high poverty levels unfortunately don’t have that benefit. But it’s not because parents don’t care. Many of those children are being raised by families or single parents who work two jobs just to provide basic necessities. They leave early for work and come home late at night, often too exhausted to even interact with their children. The result is that teachers need every single moment in the school day, resulting in them making compromises that they don’t neccesarily agree with, like sacrificing play time for extra instructional time. But what are you going to do if your entire professional career depends on test results?

Poverty presents very real barriers to physical activity for children as well. Many of our impoverished children live in neighborhoods and apartment complexes that don’t have play facilities, or the environment is unsafe, requiring them to remain indoors when they get home. Financial restraints can make organized sports unavailable to them. It amazes me that we have elected officials in this state who would introduce legislation to curtail what food stamps can purchase at the same time we attempt to take away required periods of physical activity. And they do it all under the guise of caring for people.

It’s not like there isn’t evidence that shows the link between physical activity and learning. Recently, a school in Texas went to four recesses a day and discovered that it lead to increased academic performance. Initially, there was some nervousness from teachers. According to 1st grade teacher Donna McBride, “I was trying to wrap my head around my class going outside four times a day and still being able to teach those children all the things they needed to learn.” This experiment may sound far-fetched, but it has yielded some real results. “Some five months into the experiment, McBride’s fears have been alleviated. Her students are less fidgety and more focused, she said. They listen more attentively, follow directions and try to solve problems on their own instead of coming to the teacher to fix everything. There are fewer discipline issues.”

I hate to evoke Finland in educational discussions – it becomes almost like Godwin’s Law – but the truth is, Finland has long recognized the link between physical activity and academic performance. They key is “unstructured play,” which is described as kids being allowed to run, play, and make up their own games while teachers mostly stay on the sidelines to make sure everyone is safe. And that’s the very thing that Dunn’s bill is trying to restrict.

Here’s a little sense of irony for you. According to Wikipedia, Dunn first earned a Bachelor of Science degree in animal science during 1983 and later completed a Master of Science degree in Extension Education from the University of Tennessee during 1985. He worked as a federal employee for the U.S. Agricultural Extension Service as a 4-H agent in Grainger County, Tennessee, for approximately eight years. William L. Sanders, a then (in the 1980s/90s) Adjunct Professor of Agriculture at the University of Tennessee – Knoxville, developed the TVAAS. Both have been detrimental to Tennessee students and educators and I never realized there was such a correlation between agriculture and education.

So what’s the solution? I think it’s imperative that parents and teachers start to educate legislators. Let them know exactly what a school day looks like. Let them know exactly how their legislation is impacting teachers and their ability to educate kids. Teachers can’t just go behind closed doors and try to make things work on their own, like they have so often to date. They need to demand more time. Parents need to speak out as well. Together we can educate legislators, many of whom just don’t know anything about public education. The Tennessee Education Association (TEA) sets up weekly days at Legislative Plaza during spring breaks across the state that provide the perfect opportunity for teachers to come educate our legislators. I’d specifically drop Bill Dunn a line or pay him a visit. Between his repeated support of vouchers, despite opposition by educators, and now the recess bill, he’s potentially doing real damage to our kids. We owe it to them to educate him.

The Washington Post recently published an article titled, “Mom: What do I expect from my children’s elementary school? Certainly not this.” In it parent Laura Eberhart Goodman observes “The children that I get off of the bus are exhausted. They are frustrated. They are overworked. They are burned out. I feel as if I should make them a weak whiskey on the rocks, hand them their pipe and slippers and leave them alone for an hour to decompress.” This is the result of an over emphasis on standards and measurement and a heavy handed State Department of Education. Goodman goes on to document the damage we are doing to our kids with our unrealistic expectations. She sums things up succinctly in the following passage:

From a parental perspective, a good learning environment is one with positive energy. The teachers want to be there, and the children want to be there. No one is counting the minutes to the end of the day before it has even started.

From an educator’s perspective, an environment that is engaging, hands-on, with opportunities for meaningful learning, practice, discussions and creativity, makes kids happy. When kids are happy, they learn more, and without having to resort to bribery. It’s not rocket science.

When the learning environment becomes very serious and relies heavily on assessment and grades, learning targets and goals, it is not as enjoyable. It is “work,” and children don’t enjoy work. It’s not in their nature to enjoy work; children are created to learn through play.

Mr. Dunn this is something you would do if you truly loved kids.

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img_1471In public education circles, we spend a great deal of time talking about equity. As much talking as we do, though, we struggle with actually defining it, and we have a hard time grasping that what is equal isn’t always fair, and what is fair isn’t always equal. We’ve all seen the graphic that illustrates the difference between equality and equity:main-qimg-2eb6869c346ceff37ba0cf90e66ab659-c

Recently I stumbled across a story by blogger Lara David that struck a chord with me, and I’d like to share. She has all her students sit in a circle, and she instructs each of the students to throw left shoes into the center. She then randomly begins to hand out left shoes to students. The students quickly begin to complain because the shoes are either the wrong size or mismatched. “What?” she asks. “I equally distributed the shoes. Everyone has two shoes, so what’s the problem?” Obviously, the answer is that the shoes were not the needed shoes. In order to be equitable, all students would need to have received the shoes that fit and matched. The same challenge exists in public education.

In education, the shoes that we tend to throw into the middle of the circle are teachers and rigorous instruction. How often have we heard the mantra A quality teacher in every classroom? But what does that even mean? Education researchers have provided characteristics of a great teacher – a great teacher respects students; a great teacher is warm, accessible, enthusiastic and caring; a great teacher sets high expectations for all students; a great teacher collaborates with colleagues on an ongoing basis – but do we evaluate and label teachers based on those characteristics? Or do we use a convoluted, biased mystery system?

I’d argue that rigorous instruction is also often defined differently based on the demographics the school is serving. If you are in a more affluent school, rigorous instruction translates to students being challenged by a wealth of educational experiences that come through field trips, outside speakers, after school clubs, etc. Poorer schools are left to rigorously focus on doing well on standardized tests, so that they make sure they don’t get on the naughty list, which makes them eligible for state takeover and to be labeled a failing school. In doing so, we create two separate, unequal tracks for kids upon graduation. Those who have been exposed to a wealth of experiences will gravitate towards entrepreneurial and management tracks, while those focused on test results will be relegated to service and hourly positions. The inequity created in schools will follow these kids throughout their lives.

I’m not downplaying the importance of looking at both teacher quality and curriculum as it relates to inequities. But in reality, inequities run even deeper than that. My kids have attended a high needs school for a number of years now, and I reached a point where I can recognize the inequities, but I have a hard time communicating them to others who don’t have children in high needs schools. Every once in a while, though, something will happen to reveal to me in a communicable manner just how deep these inequities run and just how important it is to rectify them.

(Portables at Tusculum ES)

Last month, I had lunch with a man, we’ll call him Ron, who has had quite a bit of experience with schools that have portables. Ron had done some research on Tusculum Elementary School, where my children attend and my wife is a teacher, and we were getting together to discuss some of his thoughts. He started off by praising the things he’d seen both instructionally and discipline-wise. I nodded, and then he said, “But I did notice one thing.” I leaned forward thinking, “Here it comes.”

“I noticed that Tusculum has 23 portables, but no covered walkways. How is that possible?” he asked.

I was dumbstruck, and all I could do was sit back in my chair. How was it possible? How was it possible that for over two years, Tusculum ES had been utilizing these portables, and it was deemed acceptable for children to walk in inclement weather to the main building several times a day fully exposed to the elements? And that’s when it struck me: that’s how deep the inequities run.

(Refugee Camp)

In case you didn’t know, Tusculum ES is a school with, depending on what day it is, approximately 98% of students coming from families with incomes below the poverty level and 73% of students who are English language learners. Last count showed that only 136 kids out of 750+ kids speak English as their first language. I use a caveat on these numbers because as I’m sure you suspect, we have a great deal of mobility. Many of these children are refugees, and they came from refugee camps before coming to Nashville. So who are they to complain about a school that looks eerily familiar to them?

(Playground at Tusculum ES)

To be fair, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is in the process of building a brand new school for Tusculum ES, and it will be beautiful when it opens. But is that where our obligation to these students end? If this scenario were to play out in an affluent school, would parents accept their children being exposed to the elements daily while a new school was being built? Or would they raise enough hell and bring enough political pressure to get covered walkways built? Don’t even get me started on the playground situation. I suspect that those parents would tolerate it for about half a day before speaking up, and I don’t fault them for that. But that’s the kind of advocacy we need for all our children.

Let’s also consider the message that we are sending to these children at Tusculum. We are telling them that they aren’t even important enough for us to protect them from the adverse weather conditions. We are telling them they are worthy of substandard facilities. All we are doing is reinforcing the messages that have already been taught to them in their home countries. Thank God Tusculum ES and most of these high needs schools have administrators and teachers capable of countering that message. But we as a community have to do a better job.

We can’t even begin to talk about teacher quality and rigorous instruction until we get the environment right. Just look at Maslow’s Pyramid. I don’t care what level of instruction or curriculum you bring, there is no way a child who is cold, hungry, or sick is going to be able to take full advantage of it. Yet we’ll look at test scores, scratch our heads, and try to figure out why these kids aren’t scoring higher. We’ll talk about whole child education, the effects of poverty, rapid language acquistion, and diversity all day long, and then daily drive right by Tusculum and not think for one minute about those kids being exposed regularly to severe weather and the impact it’s having on their development. We might even remark to ourselves how great the new school is going to look, forgetting all about today.

I’m not exempting myself here, either. I’ve advocated for the school for three years now and never once demanded covered walkways. I, like everyone else, figured the obligation began and ended with building a new school, and that there wasn’t money to make any improvements on the current school. That’s how deep the inequities run – that even someone who loves these kids and the school as much I do is willing to accept them being continually exposed to the elements daily. I won’t mince words here – it’s shameful.

Arguing that the district doesn’t have the financial resources to address the situation doesn’t hold water here either. This year, MNPS has remodeled the board room and the executive offices. Just this week, new carpet is being laid throughout central office. Why are adults getting amenities before children? Remember this statement – We believe public education exists to ensure equitable access and opportunities for all students from early childhood through graduation. Are we living it? Because a value ain’t a value unless we are living it.

Defenders of the of the budget say they were only able to do this because Dr. Joseph charged the staff with finding a way to do the central office remodel in a cost efficient manner. Somehow, through the use of in-house resources, a creative way to complete these remodels was found. Well, okay, then why hasn’t a similar challenge been issued for much needed projects in our schools? One MNPS school, Fall-Hamilton ES, was able to get school partners to chip in and make some early year improvements. But mostly, we shrug and say That new school’s going to be awesome! and then presume to judge as if all things were equal. They clearly are not.

(McMurray Middle School)

This is not something that plagues just Tusculum either. Go over to McMurray Middle School, of which Tusculum is the feeder school, and you’ll see a similar situation. When Tusculum’s new school opens, McMurray will recieve the bulk of their portables. Here’s something to think about, 4th graders at Tusculum who have been in portables since third grade, will now go to a new school utilizing the same portables they’ve endured for the last two years. Talk about the ultimate bait and switch and a new definition of stability.

Why have we not built mobile covered walkways? These walkways could go with the portables from assignment to assignment. I fail to understand why this couldn’t be accomplished. The Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF) constantly reminds us about how much they care about the kids of Nashville. Are you telling me that if they decided to, they couldn’t find a private partner to execute this project? After all their mission satement is We believe every child in Nashville should have access to a great public education that prepares them fully for college, work and life. We do that through raising and managing funds, making strategic investments and bringing the community together behind efforts to accelerate progress. Time to put your money where your mouth is.

To me, it just comes down to will. These are the children who don’t have parents with political connections. These are the kids who are grateful for whatever we give them, therefore making it easier to give them less. These are the kids who, along with their families, are left to navigate our system largely unnoticed. I love that the state of Tennessee is trying to enact accountability measures before identifying needs. Per The Tennessean, “While the accountability section of the draft is strong, according to supporters of the plan, many others have felt the plan is short on specifics about how to address student subgroup needs, especially English learners.” Once again, the cart is placed before the horse, but at least they are promising to study how to meet those needs. I guess that is a start.

My 6-year-old son’s friend is a refugee child who attends Tusculum. He was out to lunch with us this week, and the kids were laughing and joking back and forth. As I watched them and looked specifically at my son’s friend, I started to get a vision of just how stacked against him the deck was. His pathway through adulthood is so much more perilous than my son’s is. We like to say kids can do anything and that poverty isn’t destiny, but how are we helping to that a reality? My feelings weren’t pity, just a deep facing of reality, and it saddens me. He is a bright, witty, energetic young man who has so much to offer. We need to be taking obstacles out of his way and not be placing more impediments in front of him. We can’t do that unless we really confront the inequities in our schools in an honest, rigorous manner.

As we head into the 3-day weekend celebrating the life of Martin Luther King Jr, I would like us to consider his words when he said, “Everything that we see is a shadow that is cast by that which we do not see.” It is imperative that we shine a light on all the inequities that are not normally recognized, whereever they may hide.



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Snow Daze

img_1440Last week, I was on the phone with a friend, and we were speculating on the incoming snow and the ability of the new leadership at Metro Nashville Public Schools to navigate the challenges of the upcoming bad weather. Let’s just say I was a little wary. Before I go any further, though, a little clarification is in order. Nashville is a Southern city, but Northern enough to receive what we call “snow storms” a few times a year. Now these “snow storms” usually result in just 1 to 2 inches of snow – not a lot by Michigan, New Jersey, or Prince George’s County standards – but let me refer back to my original statement, Nashville is a Southern city.

As a Southern city, we do not have access to the same resources as a Northern city, despite being just as large in most cases. As City Councilman Dave Rosenberg recently noted, Nashville has a huge network of roads (5,800 lane miles) spread throughout a huge city (4 times the size of Boston, 24 times the size of Manhattan). This is a lot of territory to cover with minimal snow removal equipment that only gets used a handful of times in a year. It should also be noted that nobody has snow tires on their cars, nor a whole lot of practice driving in snowy conditions. What this translates into is a city that gets shut down by a minimal amount of snow and the resulting ice.

What this also means is that when Northerners move here, they tend to translate their experiences with snow into what it should be like here. They assume the reaction to a dusting of snow would be the same as the reaction to a dusting where they are from, and thus, warrants the same response. Based on the arrogance and unwillingness to listen to the locals that new Director of Schools Dr. Joseph and his team have demonstrated, I predicted their response would be that of the typical Northern transplant. They didn’t disappoint with this first snow of the year.

Friday, January 6, would have been students’ second day back to school after winter break. At 6 AM that morning, when I woke up, there was already a covering of snow on the ground and more falling from the sky. I looked on the Facebook page for MNPS, expecting to see that schools were closed, but the message was that schools were open. At 6:30 AM, as snow was continually falling, it became clear that travel was becoming unsafe. At 6:45 AM, my wife, who teaches at the same school my kids attend, and I decided that she would be going, but they would not be. At 7 AM, it was more than clear that school should be called, yet there was no further communication from MNPS until 8:45 AM when they announced early dismissal.

At 10 AM, MNPS held a press conference hosted by Chief Operating Officer Chris Henson. In case you were wondering why it was Henson instead of the Director of Schools hosting the conference, well, me too. Apparently, when former COO Fred Carr left over the summer, Dr. Joseph combined the COO position with the CFO position and named Henson (formerly the CFO) the new COO. I guess it was because the CFO didn’t have enough to do, and by combining the two positions, money was freed up to import more friends from Prince George’s County. Or something like that. But I would argue that finance and transportation are two departments that require a great deal of focus. All Dr. Joseph had to do was talk to his friends in Prince George’s County for evidence of those challenges.

Back to the press conference, per coverage by The Tennessean: “As Henson addressed reporters Friday morning, Director of Schools Shawn Joseph arrived midway through the news conference and watched alongside other MNPS staff.” Yep, that’s right, the boss who gets paid nearly $300k a year, has a Chevy Tahoe with a driver, three months of his rent paid along with the security deposit and moving expenses, can’t make it on time to a press conference where one of his Chiefs throws himself on the sword for the district putting the safety of its children at risk. MNPS put out a message that your child’s safety comes first, yet the district’s number one man has better things to do rather than showing up to address why a decision that put children at risk was made. And he doesn’t even address the public himself, choosing instead to speak to camera’s after the press conference is concluded.

Let’s take it at face value that the decision to close schools does fall on the shoulders of the COO. Is a decision of this magnitude made without the Director of Schools signing off? Are we supposed to believe that Henson made the decision to close or not close schools by himself, without ever consulting with the Director of Schools? Furthermore, the Director felt no compulsion, when looking out the window and seeing snow on the ground, to call the COO and say, “Hey, you sure it’s safe out there?” This is a problem, and it demonstrates several disturbing elements, including, but not limited to, the chain of command. The idea that a superintendent would allow the COO to cancel or not cancel school without first getting a sign off is akin to allowing the Secretary of State to declare war without getting the sign off from either Congress or the President. It’s preposterous, and begs the question of how our leadership chart is structured. Unless maybe the COO was thrown under the bus on purpose.

Unfortunately for Dr. Joseph, a body of work is beginning to emerge. In his brief tenure as Director of Schools for MNPS, he has shown a tendency to allow others to take the podium to answer the hard questions for him. Back in the fall when there were questions about the qualifications of some of the people he had hired, it was School Board Chair Anna Shepherd answering the hard questions instead of the well-compensated Dr. Joseph. Now it’s COO Chris Henson taking the heat for a decision that should be the responsibility of the Director. After months of local News Channel 5 chasing after Dr. Joseph to answer some legitimate questions, he finally agreed to sit for an interview, only to walk out before the end of it. These actions are painting a picture of what kind of a leader Dr. Joseph is.  Sure, people are investigating and questioning his decisions – this is to be expected – but it’s his own hand that is constructing the portrait of him as a leader, and the more it is revealed, the more troubling it becomes.

Over the last several months, MNPS has spent a small fortune on hiring outside consultants to focus on leadership and changing culture. Perhaps Dr. Joseph or one of the school board members could show me which chapter they read or out-of-town workshop they attended where they learned that leadership doesn’t accept responsibility and instead shifts it onto the shoulders of teammates or offers up excuses? A quick perusal of the Arbinger Institute (one of those well-paid outside consultants) website yields a couple of blog posts that would seem to offer different advice. One notes that “Good leadership is dependent on how we view people, situations, challenges and victories.” The other notes that “Our work flows better when trusting relationships have been established in every direction of our work (and we mean every direction).” Both would suggest to me that it should be Dr. Joseph in the chair handling the hard questions, demonstrating to his people and the public that he can be trusted and that he plans to lead by example. If we are going to be spending money on out-of-town jaunts and consultants, shouldn’t we at least try to follow the advice given by them? I know I haven’t been in on any of these transformative sessions, but it seems kinda obvious to me.

Another tendency that’s becoming more and more apparent is that the Prince George’s County transplant is having a hard time accepting that he’s no longer in Prince George’s County. Neither Dr. Joseph, nor any of his people, has shown an inclination to learn the history of Nashville’s school district. They’ve refused to really sit and talk with long time local educators in an effort to find out why certain decisions were made or strategies were implemented. How can you ensure that you won’t make similar mistakes if you don’t know how the previous ones were made? Truth is, there is a blueprint for this latest snow storm fiasco if anybody cared enough to look at it.

The last three Directors of MNPS have all faced the weather cancellation challenge. Back in 2003, Dr. Garcia refused to listen to the locals and insisted on keeping schools open. A decision with disastrous results. Then in 2009, Dr. Register decided that “Students’ Safety First” was not just a t-shirt slogan and closed schools. He was heavily criticized, but held firm on student safety first. Like many of the actions Dr. Joseph has taken, it seems he is intent on following the blueprint written by Dr. Pedro Garcia.

Which, in speaking of Dr. Garcia, I would be remiss if I didn’t point out again that part of Garcia’s downfall was connected to the hiring and continued support of an employee who was clearly unqualified and incapable of doing the job he was hired for, Gene Hughes. Dr. Joseph has his own Gene Hughes in Maritza Gonzalez. Gonzalez was hired by Dr. Joseph as the Executive Officer of the newly created Department of Diversity and Equity at a salary of 155k a year. The Department of Diversity and Equity as part of its responsibilty oversees the instruction of our English Language Learners. Gonzalez has no classroom experience nor any other kind of experience involving direct instruction, and every time she presents anywhere in the district, or at Vanderbilt, it quickly becomes apparent how unqualified she is, as she presents in a manner that is simplistic and fails to show a grasp of the complexities involved in creating curriculum for our diverse community of English Language Learners – something MNPS already excels in. Yet we start the second half of the year and she still holds her position. I wonder if that’s somehow connected to her having recently married Joseph’s second-in-command, Chief of Schools Sito Narcisse. Here’s a fun fact: as a household, Gonzales and Narcisse draw a combined salary of $340K from the district.

Before I get sidetracked though – because trust me I could, and may in the future, discuss that subject a whole lot more in depth – let’s go back to that press conference that was held on Friday. At that conference, Henson made the following statement: “Hindsight is always 20/20, and if we knew that the weather conditions were going to worsen and not follow forecasts, we would have made a different decision.” Well, that’s not exactly accurate. I have a great deal of respect for Mr. Henson, but a simple perusal of tweets and forecasts from that morning tell a different story.img_1480


I get it. No one likes to be wrong. Especially if it puts children at risk. But when you are wrong, for God’s sake, own it. I’m not a highly paid outside consultant, though maybe I should be, but everything I’ve ever read about leadership says that moments like these are when you earn your stripes with people. More than if you got it right, they want to see you step up and lead. They are evaluating who you are as a person and whether you are trustworthy or not. They want to see what kind of character you have and if you are somebody worth putting their faith in. Unfortunately, once again Dr. Joseph fails to capitalize on the opportunity to earn real buy in so that he can start to shed the “new guy” benefit of the doubt and become the recognized leader of MNPS based on real accomplishments and not just the status of the position. Using the school board chair and the COO as shields and walking out on tough interviews does not paint a picture of trust and mutual respect.

There continues to be a reluctance by the school board and other community leaders to openly question Dr. Joseph’s actions for fear of angering him. I would argue that it’s not his anger they should fear, but rather that of principals, teachers, and parents. For some reason, it seems to be beyond the district leadership’s grasp that Dr. Joseph will be unable to enact his wide-sweeping reforms without buy-in from all stakeholders. That buy-in is not guaranteed; you have to earn it. This is where the school board is doing Dr. Joseph no favors. We talk ad nauseam about the importance of holding kids accountable, yet somehow that doesn’t translate to adults. By refusing to ever discuss any of Dr. Joseph’s shortcomings or question anything he’s done in public, the board has given him the feeling that he is beyond reproach, and therefore, nothing needs to change. I realize that they are doing everything they can to offer him support, and it may be beneficial in the short run, but we should have our eyes focused on long-term goals. Long-term success demands a leader who can build a strong team and who is willing to face his harshest critics head on.

It amazes me how little we as a society learn at times. We just came through a national election that has allowed, in my opinion, an unqualified candidate to ascend to the highest office in the country because we failed to listen to the people in the trenches. Same thing is now happening here in Nashville. The accolades fly from the mayor’s office, to city council folks, to other elites about what a transcending job Dr. Joseph is doing, but is anybody listening to what the people in the trenches are saying? Or are our leaders just assuming that they know best and if they just continue heaping on the praises, it’ll be accepted as fact?

(As a side note, since nobody seems to appreciate history in MNPS, somebody needs to remind those that are claiming that Dr. Joseph’s collection of experts are unprecedented that in 2011, in preparation for the implementation of the Common Core standards, former Executive Director of Instruction Kelly Henderson and her team brought in quality outside help every bit as impressive as the folks enlisted by Dr. Joseph. We were actually considered ahead of the curve in unpacking the standards. The difference between then and now was that the impact was in the classroom – where it should be – and not in the boardroom or newsroom.)

There is a reason snow days are built into the schedule. The day in question was a Friday and the second day back from winter break. Weather reports for two days prior called for snow. It seems to me that this would have been a perfect opportunity to burn a snow day. Call it early the night before so parents have a chance to make plans. We should also have a plan in place in case of a weather cancellation where we can get food to those families in need. I know for a fact that Dr. Tony Majors, former Chief Officer of Support Services, and Fred Carr, former COO, had previously developed such a plan. (Another side note, has anybody else noted the plethora of problems created this year by letting Fred Carr go in July? Just asking.) Dr. Register was perfectly willing to take the heat for actually living the statement your child’s safety comes first, and this administration should extend that policy.

At the end of the day Friday, everybody made it home from school safely and Dr. Joseph issued an apology. As a result, people have a tendency to be forgiving and chalk it up as a lesson learned. We should, though, listen to the words of my friend and fellow MNPS parent Chelle Baldwin: “Not sure how he [Joseph] defines ‘safely,’ but bus crashes, kids having to walk miles back home because buses couldn’t get down icy hills along with parents, and educators wrecking cars does not meet my definition of ‘safely arriving home.” This was not a lesson we should have needed to learn, as the two previous Directors faced similar challenges. Every lesson should not have to be relearned, and let’s be real, we escaped a catastrophe by sheer luck. What if, God forbid, a child or teacher was injured – would the cost of that lesson be appropriate? It’s nice that student absences will be considered excused, but word on the street is that all teachers who did not show up for work on Friday are being forced to burn a personal day. I certainly hope MNEA and PET are looking into that. No teacher should be punished for not risking personal injury.

On a final note, in his “apology,” Dr. Joseph continues on the same path that he has traveled for the last six months by stating, “Using a two-hour delay is something we will certainly do in the future if this same situation occurs.” Really? Has he talked to anybody about why the previous administrations did not utilize the two-hour delay? Has he studied the impact on our large English Learner population? How about our kids who live in poverty? Has he developed protocols to ensure that the delays won’t actually cause more problems? Or has he just erected some more mirrors and thrown smoke at them?

The apology I would have liked to hear would go something like this: “This is Shawn Joseph, and I would like to apologize for today’s fiasco. We got it wrong. My team and I thought that we were making the best decision possible, but in hindsight, we were wrong. This is my first experience with snow in Tennessee. Obviously, things work differently where I come from. Luckily, I am surrounded by many people with a lot of experience in dealing with the weather in Nashville. We will be talking with and listening to as many of them as possible to find the best strategies going forward because we owe it to parents, teachers, and administrators to get it right. When we say your child’s safety comes first, it’s not just something we say, it’s something we live.” Oh well, maybe next time. If not, there will be a whole lot more snow daze.


Posted in Uncategorized

Guarding Democracy

fullsizerenderA few weeks ago, the Tennessee Department of Education released an early Christmas present: last year’s TNReady scores. In case you are not familiar with TNReady, it is Tennessee’s version of an annual standardized test. I know, you are probably like me and thinking, “What the hell good are scores from last year in the middle of December?” Releasing them now is just an offshoot of the multiple problems that Tennessee had with standardized testing last year. It’s really no surprise that they are just releasing them now, just in time for some holiday hand wringing.

According to Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales, “Only 22.8 percent of all high school students are listed as on track or mastered reading in their grade level, and 12.2 percent are on track or mastered their grade level in math.” That means if I walk into a roomful of 100 students in Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), only 23 of them will be reading on grade level and only 12 will be able to do adequate math. Hmmmm…. What about in neighboring Williamson County where they are known for their superior schools? Take that same room of 100 and only 41 will be able to read or do math on a grade level. Anything starting to smell a little fishy?

Think about this. We are giving kids a test where only 41% are deemed on track or better in our very best schools under the very best circumstances. What? If I showed up at your place of employment and gave you a test that less than 41% of the staff could pass, would you not raise questions about the validity of the assessment? So why are we not questioning the validity of these tests? Why are we instead wringing our hands, rending our garments, and blindly accepting that our kids are underperforming?

What if I showed up in a classroom of 6th graders and said that I believe running a 100-yard dash in under 9 seconds is essential to your success as a human being? We all recognize that I would never get over 20% of the kids able to do that. It wouldn’t matter how much we practiced, how much we changed our diet, or bought new gear, the majority of the kids would fail. Yet if I raise that question about our literacy and math standards and the tests we use to assess them, people lean back, scowl, and say, “You don’t think all kids can learn. If all kids were held to high expectations, they would achieve.” Yeah, well you can expect things all you want, but if students are consistently falling way short, then I’d say you need to assess your assessments.

Invariably someone shows up and says, “You may be working hard, but you’re not working smart.” And they’ll proceed to lay out their brilliant strategies that always include longer hours and a narrower focus. After all, nobody ever got a 6-figure executive job by coming along and saying that the guy before them was doing it about right. Yet we continue to see similar results with the narrative of failing schools getting further and further ingrained into our day-to-day conversations. Periodically we see a large short-term gain and we rally around, slap each other on the back, and proclaim a success. But do those results hold upon deeper inspection? Not usually.

Last year, Neely’s Bend Middle  School was a school that was in the bottom 5% of performers in the state, and therefore was subject to takeover by the state. In an effort to stave off the takeover, the school and the community rallied together and buckled down to show enough growth to make the argument that the school shouldn’t be taken over. Though they succeeded in showing great growth, they failed to prevent the takeover. Everybody took great pride, and rightfully so, as those numbers had been produced through tremendous dedication and work.

Recently I asked several district administrators if they felt that in working for those numbers the children had received an equitable education to their peers in whiter, wealthier schools. Yeah, in case you hadn’t guessed, Neely’s Bend is made up of primarily black and brown children. Just like nearly all priority schools, but hey, there’s not a pattern there or anything, and poverty isn’t destiny and all… but I digress. As far as the question goes, none of the administrators were able to answer in the affirmative. This begs the question of who was the beneficiary of this undertaking? Was it children or was it adults? I’m not trying to take anything away from the hardwork of those administrators, teachers, or community members, but it’s essential that our actions always strive for equitable educational experiences and not just short-term test results.

Don’t think test scores overly influence our educational strategies? If you want affirmation, all you have to do is take a look at MNPS’s proposed vision statement: Metro Nashville Public Schools is the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student is prepared for success in college, career and life – and that every school is a great school. How do you make the claim to be the fastest-improving urban school system without emphasizing test scores? So the vision for our district is based on an assessment that appears to be pre-disposed to ensuring that less than 50% of students pass. Is that really for the benefit of children, or does it give adults talking points up at Legislative Plaza and at cocktail parties? What will be sacrificed in the classroom for children so that adults can verify that claim? Will this not further instill the perception of education as a competition instead of a continuous process? Why are we content to reducing our children’s experience in schools to test scores? It isn’t right.

These are questions I continually wrestle with. We never stop talking about rigor and being college and career ready, but to what end? Are we teaching kids that is all there is to life? Are we teaching kids that their worth is entirely measured by how hard you work and how you scored on the annual standardized test? As a kid, my parents had high expectations for me, but they also had a bigger expectation that I would do my best. As long as I did my best, if the results fell short, they were disappointed but there was a recognition that different people had different skills. We seem to have lost this understanding and instead have become enamored with the so-called growth mind set.

On the surface, I take no exception to the growth mindset. We as people should never be completely satisfied with what we’ve learned and should always strive to go deeper. I do believe, though, that the belief that all people can reach the same heights if they just keep working harder is disingenuous at best. That’s like saying everybody could be a starting quarterback in the NFL or everybody could be a world class concert pianist if they just practiced harder. We also need to recognize the amount of sacrifice it took for that NFL quarterback or concert pianist to reach their pinnacle. That sacrifice is not, nor should it be, something everybody is willing to make. In thinking about the “Growth Mindset,” it’s important that we keep in mind the words of creator Carol Dweck on the false growth mindset: “It’s also false in the sense that nobody has a growth mindset in everything all the time. Everyone is a mixture of fixed and growth mindsets.”

I believe that in order to inspire a true growth mindset, our assesments must not demand unrealistic expectations. It is essential that our assesments reflect true learning and not just the creation of data points that cater to adult needs. And maybe more importantly, that growth itself isn’t best measured on a standardized test, but rather daily, by our teachers who know and observe our children best. The further away from assessments designed by actual educators we get, the more we run the risk of painting an inaccurate picture of our educational system.

These unrealistic expectations play out not just in our poorer schools, but equally as much and maybe more so in our more privileged communities. I have friends who are parents in those schools, and they’ve talked of the demands placed on their children. Of 6th graders getting home at 4 pm only to have 2 hours of homework, followed by dinner, bath time, reading time, and then off to bed by nine. Where does that leave time for kids to be kids? Where does that leave time for families to interact? My father used to say to me, “Enjoy these times because once you become an adult, you’ll have responsibilities and won’t have as much time to enjoy life.” I’d argue that kids today, as early as age 8, have nearly as many responsibilities as adults. How is that healthy?

I’ve worked hard all my life, sold at an early age on the mythos of the working class, and at age 51 I find myself with a bit of a crisis of faith. I remember being in my late 20’s and managing a music venue. The father and brother of the woman I was living with took an annual trip to Vero Beach for the Dodgers Spring Training, and they invited me. Of course I couldn’t go. The job needed me, and I needed to constantly prove how hardworking I was. In hindsight, I wish somebody would have instilled in me the belief that you don’t always have to be producing, and that sometimes life is just about enjoying the experiences. This is the kind of thinking that we are instilling in children – to think more of the achievement than the experience. But both hold valuable lessons and need to be balanced with the other.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the toll these unreasonable expectations place on teachers and principals. It is not uncommon during the school year for me to head to bed around 11:30 pm and find my wife on her laptop, still working on lesson plans or grading papers. I inquire if I can help, and she responds, “Sure, do these TLA’s, then write this discipline plan, and these papers need grading.” I just shake my head and go to bed, knowing that this scene is playing out in countless other professional educator’s homes. How do these demands lead to a sustainable profession?  How does this enviorment get a quality teacher in front of every student? It doesn’t and we are already seeing cracks in the talent pool. These cracks will only grow as long as we foster unrealistic expectations. In my opinion, these unrealistic expectations divert teacher’s energies away from actual teaching and more into test prep.

In looking at the tests, it isn’t clear at all exactly what these tests are really testing. Is it a student’s knowledge of the state standards? Is it their ability to decipher the test? Is it their ability to use technology? Who knows what the results even mean. Grace Tatter of Chalkbeat Tennessee does as a good job as anyone explaining it, but the bottom line remains: If less than 50% of students can be proficient, you are setting the bar wrong, and you open yourself to the question of whose benefit is this for? Is it administrators and lawmakers trying to build a resume or is it kid’s who are trying to attain skills in order to build a better life? If it’s for the kids, then it is imperative that we create accurate assesments of what teachers teach and what students learn not some hypothetical pipedreams of  those who never enter our classrooms or interact with our kids.

Don’t think for a second that kids aren’t asking that question of who this is for. They can smell hustle a mile away. Talk to teachers, and they will tell you how hard it is to get kids to take the tests seriously. They’ll tell you of their frustrations at trying to get kids to understand the ramifications of these tests. But can you blame them? If I demanded you take a test that I couldn’t administer properly, and the odds were that you would fail it, would you take it seriously? Furthermore, as your teacher, would you take me seriously?

As Maury County Director of Student Services Ron Woodard pointed out in a recent blog, “The overemphasis on testing seems to create school and classroom environments where ‘test-prep’ is the priority. This ultimately thins the curriculum and narrows the focus of learning down to what will actually be assessed at the end of the year.” He goes on to give voice to the concerns of young teachers, who feel like this: “I need every single minute everyday. There never seems to be enough time to teach the standards that will be assessed and my overall evaluation will be impacted by these results.” Not to take fault with the young educator – after all, it is us who placed them in this precarious position – but who is benefiting from this setting of unreal expectations? And what are we asking to be sacrificed in pursuit of those so-called standards?

My children are still young and relatively new to the public school experience. I look at them, though, and silently pray that when they get to high school, it’ll be ingrained that learning is an ongoing process and doesn’t just happen in the classroom. I pray that they won’t be afraid to take a day to cut class. I know it’s heresy to utter such a thought, and I certainly won’t encourage it. After all, Dad’s approval would defeat the purpose, and if caught, I will mete out the appropriate discipline. But I hope that my wife and I as parents have instilled in them the knowledge that rigor, high test scores, and constant production are not the only things that one is measured by, and that sometimes it’s okay to just step out for a day and follow your heart. Sometimes just living life is the biggest learning experience and that all learning doesn’t have to go hand in hand with rigor.

In education circles, we talk ad nauseum about that word rigor. Unfortunately that means the majority of the focus is on the measurable results. I would argue that the imeasurable results are equally important, and that in our rigorous pusuit of academic standards we shouldn’t neglect all the other important work schools do. As Mike Bannen, a Kansas City teacher, writes in a recent article in the Kansas City Star, “But it is equally important to understand that the historical (and ongoing) struggles to provide equal education to women, minorities and the disabled demonstrate that public education has been about more than just providing access to the educational conditions needed to secure a good job; it is also about the democratic need to value human dignity in furtherance of democracy.” An important reminder that our schools are the source of the shape of our democracy. Neil Postman, former chairman of the Department of Culture and Communication at New York University, puts it even more succintly “Public education isn’t important because it serves the public, it is important because it creates the public.” That needs to on the wall at the entry to everyone of our schools.