We’ve all witnessed the scene on television: the hero is backed into a corner by a pack of angry dogs growling at his heels, ready to tear him to shreds. His fate seems sealed until suddenly he reaches into a pocket and pulls out a bloody red piece of meat. He waves the meat overhead, getting the animal’s attention, and then hurls it across the room. The dogs quickly turn from him, race to the meat, and tear into it, whilst our hero scampers to safety, unscathed. That, in a nutshell, is what we just witnessed this past week as MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph and Shelby County Schools Director Dorsey Hopson tossed out a piece of red meat by sending a letter to the TNDOE calling for a halt to TNReady testing.
In their letter, the two stated the following:
“After years of repeated implementation failures and missteps by multiple vendors, we believe educator and public trust in TNReady has fallen to irretrievably low levels. We are challenged to explain to teachers, parents, and students why they must accept the results of a test that has not been effectively deployed.”
That is a fair enough statement. Lord knows that for years I have been critical of TNReady and the state’s inability to correctly implement the standardized testing process. It’s almost become a spring ritual for me to write about the inadequacies. I wrote about issues in 2015, 2016, and again in 2016, 2017, and… you get it. The point is that I am clearly not a fan of standardized testing and have not been afraid to speak out about it for the past 5 years. I am so anti-standardized testing that it truly offends me when the issue is used purely as a distraction with little concern given toward making meaningful change.
Sending a letter at this juncture is nothing but a publicity move. Trust me, Candice and Bill ain’t having coffee somewhere when Bill looks at Candice and says, “You read about this letter in the paper from Dorsey and Shawn? I think they might be on to something.”
And Candice replies, “I was thinking the same thing. Bill and Karl called me and said they are ready to stop the madness if elected.”
Not happening. In fact, probably just the opposite, and if any of the aforementioned are prone to four-letter words, they are probably filling the air with them.
I hear the chorus now, “Come on, TC! This is big! These guys are making a stand! They believe in what they are saying.”
Ok, then riddle me these questions:
- Why was the letter sent to coincide with the first day of school, thus taking away focus from the most optimistic day of the year? Why didn’t they pen this opus back in May when state legislators actually dealt with the issue? This year is as close to a pause as you can get and still follow federal policy.
- Why are there no meaningful alternatives offered? Surely these two thought leaders have some ideas of what should be utilized sans TNReady.
- Where is the official response to TNReady Scores from MNPS? Scores have been out for nearly a month, yet the only commentary comes from the Tennessean and it’s a bit buried in their article on Middle Tennessee results. Dr. Joseph has nary a word for students and their families. If the test are so invalid, why was that message not conveyed to parents, students, and teachers before it went on the big screen? I suspect that if the results were better, the problems with the test would lessen.
- When did the school board sign off on this letter? Knox County Schools voted to send a letter to the DOE yesterday, but it was the school board who commissioned the director to do so. Why was Nashville’s School Board not given the same courtesy?
- Why was the letter released to Chalkbeat prior to McQueen receiving it? Again, if you are looking to make meaningful change, why not show courtesy to those who facilitate that action?
- The letter talks of the forming of an educator cabinet while failing to acknowledge one already exists. Why not just say that you don’t like the makeup of the newly named committee? Maybe if you spent more time collaborating and less time writing letters that land with the press before hitting the commissioner’s desk, the make up of the committee would be a little different. Just saying, you catch more flies…
- Why no mention of the fact that suspending of testing for any amount of time would be in direct violation of federal policy and make the state vulnerable to financial penalties? Damn, that ESSA thing!
- How come the letter coincides with a week’s worth of TV reports on alleged sexual misconduct by district employees? Hmmm… doesn’t that deserve a letter?
- If we are so concerned about teachers and families, why does the letter just address TNReady and not the portfolio process, which is in crisis mode right now? If there was a real concern for teachers, the letter would have asked that access to the platform to check errors be available past tomorrow. Right now I’m sure a few on the ELT team are saying, “Platform? Huh? What’s he talking about? Is he talking trains?” If you are confused right now, ask a first grade, kindergarten, or fine arts teacher. I’m sure they’d be willing to elucidate.
All this leads to the best unkept secret of the week, the author of said letter. In talking to people across the district over the last couple of days, I can safely say not one person believes that anybody other than board member Will Pinkston wrote that letter. His fingerprints are all over it, with lots of hyperbole and little depth.
Of course, the superintendent letter generated a response letter. Members of the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition released a letter asking that testing not be halted. In their words:
“We urge all of our education leaders and policymakers to press forward, tackling our testing challenges head-on, and rebuilding trust by staying the course and getting it right for every student in Tennessee,”
The statement was signed by 13 education advocates, including the leaders of the NAACP state conference, the National Civil Rights Museum in Memphis, the Knoxville Area Urban League, and Conexión Américas, which advocates for Latino families in Nashville.
Let’s step back again and take a look at the author of the original letter for a minute. In this instance, you have a board member who takes it upon himself to set the district on a course of action without consulting any other elected leaders. One who’s been so busy working on a United States Senatorial run by Phil Bredesen that he’s been barely present at board meetings for the last 6 months, yet he feels comfortable using the Directors of Schools for two counties to drive his own personal agenda. How is that all right?
Imagine if board members Mary Pierce or Jill Speering tried a similar action. Special meetings would be held in a heartbeat. We might even be talking expulsion from Davidson County. In Pierce’s case, they’d probably drop Bransford Avenue on top of her.
How is it that Pinkston is allowed to continually act with impunity? Why does no one call attention to his lack of adherence to board policy? Pinkston treats board policy as mere suggestions. Deadlines for director evaluations are missed, he speaks to whomever and in whatever manner with impunity, he meddles in district operations on a whim while chastising others for getting “in the weeds,” and directs his ire at those he empowered in the past. No matter how egregious his actions are, no one ever demands accountability from him. If they do, they are met with an avalanche of scorn and public humiliation. He does as he pleases and people just shrug and say, “That’s Will. I don’t want him coming after me. What are you going to do?”
Currently, he chastises others for their public criticisms of Joseph. He tells people behind the scenes that his friends and public supporters have lost their mind – further evidence that loyalty is a four letter word to Pinkston. Yet, back when Dr. Register was the director of schools, Pinkston went after him with a zealousness that was often uncomfortable to witness. Utilizing every one of the skills honed as the pit bull for Bredesen’s gubernatorial cabinet to make Registers life miserable. Again, there always seems to be one set of rules for Pinkston and one set of rules for everybody else. I always say that it’s not that he’s smarter than everybody, but rather his lack of a moral compass allows him to go places that others won’t go which makes him formidable.
Example being that in last election cycle he had his, as he likes to refer to them, minions pulled the divorce records of an opponent’s staff member. That’s right, not the opponent, but the supporter’s divorce file. Yet his rather rich personal file remains untouched. Did you know that…. never mind… as Nietzsche says… “Whoever fights monsters should see to it that in the process he does not become a monster. And if you gaze long enough into an abyss, the abyss will gaze back into you.”
In the past, I might have argued that teachers and students benefited from his ruthlessness. Though I would point to the plethora of issues that have sprung from the roots of Race To the Top, including excessive testing and unchecked charter school growth, in which Pinkston often claims a role in having shaped. Now, though, he is using his considerable prowess to cover up bad policy that ends up hurting kids and teachers. Instead of focusing his attention on improving MNPS, he’s focused on preserving his perceived legacy by propping up a man that he was instrumental in selecting. Keeping that man in place has become more important than doing the right thing.
Every piece of red meat that he tosses out draws attention away from real issues that need solving. In deflecting attention away from policy deficits, an environment is being created where parents who have alternative options will take those options. This is not a new phenomenon; we saw it during Pedro Garcia’s reign as well. When families with means leave, those with lesser means are left behind. Unfortunately educating those with higher needs comes at a higher cost which leads to increased underfunding. We will be left with a system that has fewer families, but a higher cost, and that will take decades to recover from, if ever.
After this summer, I think it’s become clear that the Human Resources Department in MNPS is incompetent. However, after the last week of stories on Channel 5 involving sexual misconduct, I don’t think incompetent is a strong enough word. Last night’s story reveals a department whose inability to properly function is exposing teachers and students to grave risk.
You have not one, not two, but three independent entities telling stories of the HR executive director not just mishandling sexual misconduct investigations, but attempting to influence them to the benefit of the perpetrators.
“Ms. Pertiller came to the man in charge of this investigation and told him that he better ‘get this right’ in terms of outcome or Dr. Joseph would fire him,” Blackburn said.
The lawsuit says that – even though Joseph knew there were allegations against his friend – Pertiller told the HR employee he would not be allowed to interview the director of schools about what he knew.
In the end, the investigation still concluded Carrasco was guilty, and he resigned.
But the lawsuit says that wasn’t the end of it.
“The outcome was contrary to Mr. Carrasco, and all sorts of retaliation ensued for this employee afterwards,”
Those comments are made in reference to the investigation into allegations against former MNPS administrator Mo Carrasco earlier in the year.
Several lawsuits have either been filed or are pending due to the mishandling of investigations. Yet the only response from Shawn Joseph and MNPS has been to announce that an independent investigation would be taking place. Of course a few details are left out of that announcement. Details like who’s going to do the investigation and who’s going to pay for it. Minor details. Excuse me, Dr. Joseph did say sexual harassment is bad and not to do it. Actions speak louder than words though.
Up in Columbus, Ohio, head football coach Urban Meyer is on administrative leave while the university looks into how he handled charges of spousal abuse against one of his coaches. Here in Nashville, everybody is showing up and going to work. Don’t think people aren’t watching how things unfold and drawing conclusions about priorities. Why does a university hold its football coach to a higher standard than MNPS holds its leaders?
You’d think that somebody on the school board would read these reports and demand that action be taken. Not all of the pending lawsuits will end in favor of the accusers, but either way, through legal fees or judgements, Nashville is going to get a bill, and a school system that cries poor will have to divert some more money away from students. You’d think somebody would get proactive instead of waiting to react. Nah… everything is good… nothing to see here… move along… did you see that piece about standardized testing? Yeah… student rights!
But what about the right for students and teachers to attend schools where they are not subject to sexual harassment? Is that not important? What’s the message that is being sent through the handling of these cases? If I’m a teacher in a school where my principal is a known confidant of Dr. Joseph and I’m being sexually harassed, who am I going to turn to? Especially after witnessing on multiple occasions what happens to those who bring accusations against someone with favored status? Why would I not just grin, try to bear it, and transfer out at the end of the year? Is that the standard we wish to set? Is that exceeding expectations?
Apparently, that’s some MNPS board members interpretation. Because they have shown absolutely no compulsion to offer any direction to Dr. Joseph or even ask for more information, and instead have appeared content while a fellow board member hijacks the conversation for their own agenda. It is nothing short of shameful.
Some of you right now are probably thinking, “Damn, TC, you are going to piss Pinkston off.”
I don’t think so. I really don’t think he cares what I say. Why should he? As long as nobody will step in and actually check his actions, nothing I say is going to make a difference. The Bredesen campaign obviously has no problems with his behavior. It’s remarkable how much a similarity he bears to the current occupant of the White House. He acts with impunity, people get mad and wring their hands, but in the end he’s allowed to continue his behavior unabated. Thanks to Zac Barnes and his recently revised Tip Sheet, we now know just how much Bredesen values Pinkston. $120k for 6 months of work is some good cheese.
Meanwhile, really good behavior is being thwarted because we don’t have a comprehensive literacy plan, we don’t have enough teachers, we don’t have a deep enough sub pool, we don’t have enough literacy coaches, we don’t have enough crossing guards, we don’t have enough bus drivers… these are the things we should be writing letters about instead of picking fights with no chance of victory against those who should be allies.
Right now, there is jockeying behind the scenes for the position of school board chair, but I would ask, “Does it matter?” There was one person steering the conversation on Dr. Register and there is now one steering the discussion on Dr. Joseph. In neither case is that person the board chair. So whomever gets the position is going to hold it in name only unless they demonstrate the ability to make Will Pinkston adhere to board policy. Without that taking place, everything else is moot, and the board will continue to be dysfunctional.
Over the last couple of years, the board has taken a position of if you don’t say anything negative publicly, the public won’t think anything is wrong and things will just move along. Funny, Antioch HS and JFK Middle School both fall in District 6 and have been grossly neglected by MNPS. Ask former school board member Tyese Hunter how ignoring those problems worked out for her. I promise, board members may not be paying attention, but families are, and they’ve shown the ability to tune out the noise and use their vote to make their displeasure known. The message sent was clear: ignore them at your own peril. The rest of us will hopefully keep our eyes on the prize and work to make MNPS worthy of our love.
By the way… did you hear that in the nineties… I used to like to drink whiskey… chase girls… and make really bad decisions? Join us tomorrow when we celebrate a welcome announcement by the mayor on lead in school water and we see what else we can find lurking under the rocks.