It’s a crazy world we are living in today. We all seem so divided. Part of the problem seems to be that we are inundated with so much information that instead of processing it, we just default to partisan categories. Anti-immigrant/pro-immigrant, racist/not racist, feminist/anti-feminist, pro-business/anti-business – all information gets shuffled into its tendentious category and all nuance is swept away. Positions become hardened as time goes on until eventually we filter all communication through these lenses. We find it hard to believe that someone may be pro-business and pro-immigration at the same time. Or pro-business and pro-environment. We also believe these positions are ever fixed without the possibility of ever evolving. We do this in education circles as well.
It’s actually local education issues that have me ruminating on this phenomenon more than the national landscape. Last year here in Nashville, we had two monumental events. Nashville hired a brand new superintendent, Dr. Shawn Joseph, who started work on July 1, and we had what we thought was a pivotal school board election. I say pivotal because the election was quickly framed as being the defenders of public education vs. the privateers. People quickly fell into one camp or the other with defenders making the argument that nothing worse could befall our school district than to be taken over by private interests, while the privateers made the argument that the status quo had to go. Much to my chagrin, I must admit that I quickly grabbed a uniform and joined a team. And for that, I owe an apology to Jane Grimes-Meneely, Miranda Christy, Jackson Miller, and Thom Druffel.
Now I’m not saying that I would have voted for them nor campaigned for them. I still have a lot of disagreements with them on issues and take exception to a lot of strategies they employed during the election. What I am saying is that I quickly grabbed onto a dogma and stopped listening. Charter schools are bad, and they supported charter schools; therefore, they are bad. I’ve since learned the hard way that the world is a much more complex and nuanced place than that, and while we are busy building the wall at the front door, the wolf can slip in the back door.
My argument with charter schools has always been their lack of transparency, their only serving select children, their lack of accountability to an elected school board, their overemphasis on test scores, and the well documented abuses of power by administrators. I believe that all schools should be held to the same level of accountability. I don’t support neighborhood schools just because they bear the name; I support them because they adhere to the principles of accountability, transparency, service to all children and families, and a belief in equity. So what happens when the public school district stops adhering to those principles? What happens when the public school district starts behaving in a manner that is just as potentially detrimental as any threat posed by private entities? Because I believe that’s where we now find ourselves in Nashville.
Prior to Dr. Joseph’s arrival in Nashville, the board of Metro Nashville Public Schools took a lot of heat from outside interests, who portrayed them as dysfunctional. Part of the criticism from the outside stemmed from board members’ public squabbles and disagreements, despite the board having adopting policy governance as a governing style in 2oo3. Policy goverance is often, and some who argue wrongly, interpreted as a division of responsibility were the board is focused on the ends and the director on the means. Unfortunately people forget that ultimately an elected board is responsible for all of it, so it’s important that they are knowledgable on the means as well as the ends. Nashville may have adopted the policy in 2003 but the level of adherence through the years has fluctuated, with directors pushing for greater adherence and board members pushing back.
In 2008, as school board chair, David Fox pushed for closer adherence to policy governance. “It’s just very important that this board be a policy board, and not an operations board,” Fox said at the time. Interestingly enough, one of the people pushing back against this move was then and now current president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, Erick Huth. He believed elected board members should do a better job of actively monitoring the administration. Huth believed some of the problems attributed to former Director of Schools Pedro Garcia could have been alleviated by a more active board. I can’t say I disagree with him.
Nashville is accustomed to more of a traditional governance style and expect a high degree of “customer service” from elected school board officials. Community members are used to having access to board members and having board members advocate for them when necessary. Board members recognize this and have often fought hard for the right to speak out on constituents issues. Current board member Will Pinkston responded thus when reprimanded in 2014 by then Board Chair Cheryl Mays for not following the policy governance model,
“Our commitment to the voters, parents, students and taxpayers of Davidson County supersedes the antiquated board policy you’re referencing. The voters of my district did not put me on the board to kowtow to an imperial superintendent, and I imagine your voters feel the same way. I’ve publicly recognized the Central Office when things are going well, and will continue to do so. Likewise, when I believe things aren’t going so well, I will continue to make my views known. Let’s continue this conversation, as a group, at Tuesday’s Governance Committee meeting when we review GP-9.”
For whatever reason, when Dr. Joseph arrived, the policy wasn’t quite as antiquated and it was deemed neccesary for the board to adopt close adherence and he was granted complete autonomy to implement what he thought was necessary. Joseph added a clause in his contract that spelled out the relationship. He’s quoted in the Nashville Scene as saying, “I have specific work that I’m charged to do as director, and they have specific work that they’re charged to do as members of the board of education, and together we have to work as a team to fundamentally transform the educational experience for children.” There is no “I” in team but there is a “m”, “e”.
The picture painted for Joseph on entry by various board members was one of a district in shambles. A picture that does a disservice to both Joseph and to the people who had been diligently working to improve our district over the years. Again, history was ignored, because if you want to look at a district in shambles, all you had to do was revisit MNPS back in 2009.
In 2009, as a result of Pedro Garcia’s disastrous tenure, MNPS was under the direct supervision of the state. Our academic performance was so low that the state came in to oversee a complete overhaul. At that time, it was necessary. There were no Career Academies. No expansion of pre-K. No meeting and surpassing of state standards for English Language learners annually. In other words, the landscape then was a completely different picture than it is today. In 2009, we were in shambles. But in 2016, we were in need of alignment.
Like it or not, previous Director of Schools Jesse Register helped rebuild MNPS out of the shambles. Today we are no longer under state corrective action. While far from perfect, we are in a much better situation than we were in 2009. Apparently though that is not the image presented to Dr. Joseph. Despite the system’s improvements, we have clearly separated into two ideological camps: those who support charter schools and those who oppose. And few on either side are willing to listen to voices on the other.
I myself have been guilty of talking past charter supporters. Interesting enough, while I’m not an overly religious person, it’s been my experience that whenever I say I would never do something, the Lord puts me in a situation that helps me understand why I just might. This school year has been such an experience. The lack of transparency and the failure of the district to provide equitable resources has led me consider alternatives. At this point, I can say I understand why parents consider charter schools.
I love my kids’ school Tusculum ES. I love my kids’ teachers. I love my kids’ school’s administration. I don’t love the school’s facilities. The fact that we take these children, the majority of them English Language learners and impoverished, and send them to a grossly inadequate facility should be unacceptable to everyone. However, for three years, every time I raised the issue, I got a shrug and a “Hey! A new school is coming.” The new school is scheduled to open in August, but do we really believe that makes everything else copacetic?
Nineteen out of twenty-three of those portables currently at Tusculum Elementary School are moving down the street to McMurray Middle School as it starts renovation in a few months. Once again with no covered walkways. That means kids who have been in portables for third and fourth grade will get that pleasure again as they enter middle school. School board members respond by saying they don’t know what else they can do and then move on to fight against the renewal of the charter for LEAD Academy.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m philosophically opposed to LEAD Academy, but they are an established school supported by families who have invested in them. Their results are comparable to the district. So imagine for a moment what would happen if, for some reason, LEAD Academy had to close its doors. How are you going to look those parents in the eye and tell them their school is no longer available and their kids will continue their education in one of these fine portables? You can’t, unless you put district needs before kids’ needs. If you are going to shutter one school it is essential that you have a superior option imediately available and because our overemphasis on the charter school wars, we don’t.
We criticize charter schools for their lack of transparency. Well, in our public schools here in Nashville, transparency has been nearly non-existent since Dr. Joseph arrived. Currently, changes are being made behind the scenes to academic coaching programs, gifted student services, the academic focus at individual schools i.e converting them to STEAM Magnets, and even the alignment of the management of district schools. How many parents are aware of these changes and the potential impact on their child’s education? One of the provision in adopting policy governance in 2003 was a monthly meeting with district parents. That is the forgotten provision this year.
Up until this year, there was a Director’s Parent Advisory Committee that met quarterly. At these meetings, parents were briefed on upcoming policy changes and given an opportunity to ask hard questions. These weren’t always enjoyable affairs for Register and Henson when they were in charge, but they never failed to show up and empower parents. Joseph has failed to conduct a single one of these meetings. Why?
I wonder if it’s just a coincidence that in the 2015-2016 school year, one of our core values was transparency, but in 2016-2017, that is no longer the case.
Recently, the MNPS School Board conducted its first director of schools review in over two years. (How that’s considered even remotely acceptable is beyond me. Current board chair Anna Shepherd deserves compliments, while former chair Sharon Gentry deserves rebuke for failure to follow board policy.) The result of this review was a perfect score for Dr. Joseph. A perfect score despite a snow day fiasco and the district paying the head of priority schools $155K a year despite him being unable to perform his duties because he didn’t get properly licensed. Neither one of those issues was brought up during Joseph’s public review.
When I asked Shepherd about this, she told me that the hard questions were being asked behind closed doors. “You and your wife don’t fight in front of the kids, do you? You recognize the importance of a unified front,” she said. “Actually,” I responded, “we do. We feel that it is important to model disagreement in a positive light. We want our kids to understand that people sometimes disagree and that healthy discourse is important. It doesn’t mean we don’t love them or each other.”
I believe while Shepherd may be asking the hard questions behind closed doors, the board used this evaluation as a means to deliver a message to the public and MNPS staff. The message being that the board is not going to publicly hold the director accountable for mistakes and missteps or challenge him where he may be wrong. In doing this, the board also implicitly sent the message to the public and staff that the director is infallible and therefore has carte blanche to act as he pleases.
To understand the potential here for disaster we only need to go back to 2008 when board member David Fox made the observation that he believed the previous MNPS administration(Dr. Pedro Garcia) presented a picture of district performance that was overly rosy, and that school board members did an inadequate job of “seeking reality.” He wasn’t alone in this observation. Then board members, including Karen Johnson and Ed Kindall indicated similar beliefs. If you don’t know history then you are doomed to repeat it.
The danger in evaluating a director in a less then transparent manner is that failed policy only becomes visible in the rearview mirror, when it is too late. Parents, teachers, and administrators tend to recognize things much earlier and often leave the district because of it. Once they decide to leave the district due to bad policy, they won’t be returning for many years, if ever.
When parents leave, demographics shift. That will force the district to craft new policy dictated by the demographics served and will potentially result in more families leaving. Since the families that leave are invariably the ones that have the means to make choices, eventually you are left with a district that is only serving families who have no other choices. At this point, I beg the question, what is the difference between a district that gives full, unfettered control to a director of schools and one that is overrun by a proliferation of charter schools? To me the outcome is identical, a school system that gives little power to stakeholders and places all the power in the hands of a non-elected entity. Once you go down this route, reversal is extremely difficult, if not impossible.
That is how ideology blinds us and hurts us. Instead of making decisions based on the merits of individual arguments, we make them based on an alignment with ideology. How many board members voted for Dr. Joseph because he wasn’t a charter person? How many failed to question his actions because they were afraid of it opening the door for charter proponents? How many would publicly protest if his actions this year were committed by the head of a charter school?
Board members have offered up the defense that they can’t get involved in individual programs. That the director must be allowed to pick his own programs and own people. The problem with that argument is that it is inconsistent with the actions of the last four years. Board members have publicly fought for individual agendas and individual programs they believe in. In this light it gives the appearance that those arguments were more about ideology than what’s best for kids.
If we really want to stop charter school proliferation shouldn’t we follow the leads of Dr. Mike Looney and former Maplewood principal and current director of pupil services for Maury County Ron Woodard, both who say you don’t have to worry about charter schools if you make your school the most attractive option. The only ideology they subscribe to is to make better schools and the same should be true for all of us.. Yet we still fight the same arguments over and over and MNPS becomes less and less responsive to stakeholders.
If the system is unresponsive to stakeholder desires and needs, what does it matter if its controlled by private or non-private entities? If we loathe the traits in others we shouldn’t accept them in ourselves. I believe Nashville sits today, poised on a precipice that will change the fundamental nature of our public education system. We are incorporating the worst traits of the reform movement and by doing so run the risk of becoming much like the district where current leadership comes from, Prince George County School District, where middle class parents don’t send their children. Montgomery County where we also recruited leadership, suffers from similar challenges.
It’s long been recognized that the key to successful classroom management is the student/teacher relationship. A teacher can incorporate all the rigor in the world but if a relationship of trust isn’t built it won’t make any difference. Why would that not hold true for district/stakeholder leadership as well? Somebody needs to finally recognize that if we want to truly become the fastest rising urban school district in America we are going to need exceptionally strong relationships that lead to buy in by everybody.
What I am saying is nothing new. Back in 2005, veteran educator Brent Hurst was forced to resign from MNPS after e-mails surfaced in which he disparaged school administrators, including director Dr. Pedro Garcia and chief instructional officer Sandy Johnson. Before he left, he sat down with the Nashville Scene and offered the following insight:
Let’s go back to that day when we were all a family of professional educators, and it wasn’t one person who had all the answers. Because that is not possible. If we can get that back, I think things are going to start clicking. Things are going to perk up. People are going to feel good about going to schools every day and working, and that’s going to translate to the kids, and when you translate it to the kids you translate it to the parents.
And let’s not run people out of the school system. Because there are a lot of people that are getting really frustrated—and I’m talking good people that are getting frustrated and are beginning to feel that they just can’t take it anymore. And that’s a terrible feeling.
Twelve years later and we are still listening to the same song. By now we should know the words by heart, but are we ever going to grasp their meaning? Are we ever going to put aside ideology and just do what’s best for kids? Or will people be reading our quotes in 15 years and wondering why we couldn’t see the forest for the trees?