“How about less snark and more solutions, TC? You’ve got a big platform now. Be about something instead of always fighting the man.” – Private Twitter Message
That second quote was sent to me yesterday, I presume after the sender read my tweets from the press conference held by MNPS addressing the increase in state-designated priority schools. Believe it or not, the comment is indicative of a continually ongoing internal dialogue for me. I fully recognize my tendency to become snarky when faced with confrontation and do try to mitigate it. I blame it on the addict in me.
I’ve often expressed that I never laughed harder than I did during those 21 days I spent in rehab. Surrounded by like-minded people who shared a common gallows humor, there were no sacred cows. But what might not have been recognized from the outside is that while we were treating everything as if it were a cosmic joke, we worked with a single-minded purpose to heal. Without the snark, the task in front of us would have seemed unassailable and impossible. Humor, dark humor, made it manageable.
We are in a similar predicament now with MNPS. Much like with my addiction, when it comes to the state of our schools, some people, unfortunately, are still in denial. They believe that a little more self-control, a little more prayer, a little more love will miraculously cause the body to heal. As with my efforts to control my drinking, without first admitting there is a problem, things have little prospect for healing. Like the big book says, the first step is admitting you have a problem. And Houston, we have a problem.
I purposely waited a day until after the press conference to write this post. It was important to me that I took time to think things through, to let my thoughts come together in as concise and unemotional manner as possible. While I freely admit that the current situation pisses me off, I also understand that it’s equally important to step back and consider things in as a dispassionate manner as possible. So having done that, here are my observations, along with the video from yesterday’s event. In case you want to check my observations.
First, to give credit where credit is due, Dr. Joseph, for the first time in his tenure as Director of Schools, stepped to the podium and semi-owned the situation. I give him props for that and maybe we’ll see more of it. I say semi-took responsibility because when directly asked by Channel 2 reporter Jessica Jaglois how much responsibility he felt he bore, he punted. “I take… Look, we take full responsibility as a school system for the fact that we have got to do better by our children.” He tried to say I… but defaulted to “we.” Still, that is an improvement.
Joseph then proceeded to become belligerent with Jaglois over her questioning. Over my lifetime, I’ve tried to focus on patterns of behavior over individual instances. When it comes to being questioned by women, there seems to be a clear pattern of behavior that emerges with Dr. Joseph. Whether it’s MNPS School Board members Amy Frogge or Jill Speering, TV Reporters Jessica Jaglois or Lindsay Bransom, a similar picture emerges. He doesn’t like back talk from the womenfolk.
Back in May, Joseph found himself in hot water for playing a snippet of the rap song, “Blow My Whistle” at a principal’s meeting. He prefaced that snippet by stating that during difficult budget talks with the school board, he sometimes play songs in his head; “Blow the Whistle” was offered as an example. The thing is there is only one man on the school board and I doubt Joseph is playing “Blow the Whistle” in his head while Will Pinkston is speaking. In that light, coupled with the accumulating evidence, it becomes clear that a questioning female voice is not music to the doctor’s ear.
While reflecting on yesterday’s press conference, I decided that the whole thing could be summed up by two exchanges. First, during his initial remarks, Dr. Joseph spoke of being at the barber shop over the weekend where he, by happenstance, ended up next to a Pearl Cohn parent. A parent whose child is now attending Yale. The crowd applauded for this laudatory tale that was offered as evidence of the good work being done at Pearl Cohn High School.
The second part comes later in the program as School Board Chair Sharon Gentry stepped to the podium and told how she tried to Google “Pearl Cohn” and “Yale” and couldn’t find the story. She told the audience what came up instead was the many negative stories associated with Pearl Cohn. She admonished everyone in attendance that “we had to get better at telling our stories.”
Here’s the rub. The student is question played football for Pearl Cohn but actually graduated from MLK. That, in a nutshell, sums up the last two years under Dr. Joseph. He tells a narrative that is close to the truth, but not rooted in it, and the school board recounts it without ever verifying its veracity.
Need another example? Look no further than the story on sexual harassment offenses committed by former JFK MS principal Sam Braden. Joseph peddled the story to the board members as just another incident of a news reporter trying to scare up controversy. There was nothing to see and nothing to discuss here. Board members didn’t push and to this day there has been no substantial discussion on HR practices in regard to sexual harassment on the board floor. Yesterday, Metro legal officially admitted that many of the instances actually did happen. In other words, there was cause for a discussion. This is just one more instance of the creating a narrative not based in fact that Dr. Joseph tends to regularly engage in, unencumbered by the school board.
At the press conference, the director, along with the head of priority schools – excuse me, innovation schools – Dr. Lisa Koons, did get around to unveiling a semblance of a plan to address the increase in priority schools. Like everything else, it, too, was devoid of details. In summation, the plan is based on 4 pillars:
- Refining supports to school leaders
- Strengthening instructional coaching
- Developing student and family supports
- Growing teacher talent
My immediate question would be why are we not doing this already for every school? The district has been hemorrhaging teachers for at least 3 years, but we still don’t have a plan in place for every school, let alone priority schools. Yet one pillar of this plan is teacher recruitment and retention. Developing student and family support is another pillar, yet after two years there are only three clusters with parent advisory committees up and running – Stratford, Hillsboro, and Overton – in the whole district. Those are up and running solely due to parental and individual school leadership making it happen because the district is still studying what approach will work best. So again, proposing a tactic for priority schools that is needed for all schools.
Strengthening instructional coaching… somebody needs to talk to the literacy coaches and see how they feel about the training they’ve received this year. It won’t be a glowing review.
In other words, everything that is being talked about in the plan for priority schools needs to be done for the entire system. It is also stuff that should have been started last year, or earlier. None of this is innovation, which is fine because I believe there is a lot of merit in executing the basic at a high level, but let’s call it what it is and execute. Not throw up a whole bunch of smoke and mirrors and label it innovation.
Coupled with the lack of a plan is the feeling that there seems to be a concentrated effort to dampen down the conversation. In the press conference, Dr. Joseph called out critics, saying, “We need to stop bickering over trivial issues, and we need to unite to support our children.” An op-ed published in the Tennessean this weekend, that feels like a Pinkston production, was signed by the Mayor, the Vice-Mayor, the school board chair, and the director of schools, and echoes those sentiments: “But we will only succeed if we find a way to bicker less and instead work together to equitably address historic challenges of underfunding of our public schools.”
I’m curious which subject these city leaders deign as “bickering.” Is it the sexual harassment charges? The lead in the water? The questionable spending? The out of whack salaries? The lack of real academic direction or even a real plan? What exactly is considered “bickering” and what would fall into the category of fighting for the best educational opportunities for our kids?
The truth is that Nashville’s city leaders have been standing in the way of kids getting the educational opportunities they deserve for the last 2 years and it’s time to get out of the way. It’s time to listen to what teachers, administrators, and parents have been saying in increased numbers over the last year: we need leadership. The pleas have been both emphatic and ignored.
Where is the city leader, other than board members Bush, Speering, and Frogge, with the courage to stand up and say, “I got questions”? Where is the city leader that is calling upon Dr. Joseph and saying, “Um… my constituents tell me this ain’t working? We need to fix it now”? There is none to be found, and as a result, the system suffers.
There is no opposition leadership. Instead, families and educators are told to get in step and stop questioning. I don’t believe that is going to be a succesful strategy. Based on conversations and comments on social media, dissatisfaction is only growing. Eventually, it will reach its tipping point, but until then, what will be the damage done?
I don’t want to underscore the amazing things that, despite the district’s dysfunction, are happening in individual schools and classrooms. Many school leaders have the skills to mitigate the failings of the district in order to create exceptional learning environments.
Those efforts should be applauded and celebrated, but it needs to be recognized that individual schools performing well is not the same thing as the system performing well. Not all schools and school leaders are created equal. City leaders need to fight as hard for MNPS as a school system as parents and teachers are fighting for individual schools. Leaders and advocates owe it to teachers and administrators to engage so that they can focus on the business of schooling.
While some may dismiss my commentary as mere “snark,” I don’t see it that way. I see it as advocating for the people who can’t advocate for themselves because their focus needs to be elsewhere. If the “man” is preventing our schools, our teachers, our administrators, and our students from truly soaring, I will be continually fighting him. I’ll know when it’s time to quit fighting the “man” when teachers, administrators, and families indicate that things are truly improving. That is not the current case.
I’ll flip the script and challenge those who accuse me of snark to take a stand. Instead of always finding the path of least resistance or taking up only the fights you know you can win, draw a line and take a stand for those who need you. Take a risk of being seen as a troublemaker, a malcontent, and unreasonable. Let people know that you are not only promising to fight but that you are already fully engaged. You do that and I’ll lose the snark.
In light of yesterday’s press conference, I find myself reflecting back on recent history. In 2014, when the priority schools list doubled from 6 to 15, there was a lot of hand-wringing and criticism directed at then Director of Schools Jesse Register. One quote made at that time by board member Will Pinkston is equally applicable today and bears repeating:
“Why didn’t we see this coming?” he asked, noting the absence of a turnaround plan. “Why should we be convinced that the organizational capacity now exists to do what we should have been doing already?”
ELEPHANT IN THE ROOM
Lurking in the background during all of this conversation is Dr. Joseph’s contract. It expires on June 30, 2020. That is the end of next year’s school year. The renewal clause says that if the board intends to not renew his contract they must inform him of their intention no later than January 1, 2020. Those are the official dates.
I believe that the conversation about his contract will begin right after MAP scores are released in November. Here’s my reasoning: Nobody wants to go into the final year of their contract without a clear cut indication of renewal. Dr. Joseph will want a contract in place by the end of this school year. The budget season is going to be rough this year, and so, that’ll leave little room for negotiations on the director’s contract. That means he’ll probably want to get his contract done and have at least some kind of agreement in place by the middle of February.
Now you can’t push for a new contract without also asking for more money, right? So the doctor needs some good news in order to make that argument. MAP scores were an effective tool for such an argument last year and there is no reason to believe they won’t be this year. I think it’s also a priority for Joseph to quiet things down a bit so that potential good news has some ground to grow in. Hence the calls for us to stop the bickering and work for the kids.
I further believe that this pending contract negotiation was a big reason for the push to have Sharon Gentry assume leadership of the board. If Frogge would have become chair it’s extremely doubtful that the subject of the contract would be brought up, and if it was, the terms would most likely be considerably less favorable to Dr. Joseph. Dr. Gentry was a very willing partner to Joseph last go around and there is no reason to assume that she’ll be any different this time.
Time will tell if I’m correct, but I would keep an eye on things.
Lost in all the talk of Priority Schools is the fact that the district did see a raise in Reward Schools. While my beloved Tusculum ES barely missed the cut, I do want to congratulate those that made it.
The MNPS schools on the 2018 Reward Schools List are:
- Andrew Jackson Elementary
- Cameron College Preparatory
- Charlotte Park Elementary
- Crieve Hall Elementary
- Dan Mills Elementary
- Eakin Elementary
- Glendale Elementary
- Gower Elementary
- Head Middle
- Hume – Fogg High
- Intrepid College Preparatory Charter School
- KIPP Academy Nashville
- Lockeland Elementary
- Martin Luther King Jr School
- Meigs Middle
- Neely’s Bend Elementary
- Purpose Prep
- Rocketship United
- Shwab Elementary
- Smithson Craighead Academy
- Valor Flagship Academy
- Valor Voyager Academy
Over at the TNEd Report, Andy Spears has a solid piece on what money means when it comes to school discipline policies. I urge you to read it.
Please welcome Jessica Padgett, as the new Community Achieves site manager to HG Hill Middle! They are so excited to be a Community Achieves school this year and glad to have Jessica on their team to coordinate partnerships and programs! Good things ahead.
Antioch Middle School kicked off College Awareness Week yesterday! Gotta love seeing everyone in their college gear! They have a week full of college activities, including college trivia today during lunch!
Thank you once again for your participation in our weekly poll. Some very interesting answers this week.
The first question asked what you thought of the opinion piece written by Briley, Shulman, Gentry, and Joseph. Out of 130 responses, 72 of you indicated that it sounded like 4 people completely out of touch. The number 2 answer, with 35 responses, said that you wished they’d listen to the public as much as they listen to each other. Absolutely none of you indicated that you thought it was a needed message or that you felt better after having read it.
This one generated a few write-in responses as well and here they are:
|only doing PR is an instant credibility fail||1|
|This really frightens me. Leaders?||1|
|What is that ?||1|
|Talk is cheap. Visit schools, sit in classrooms, talk to kids.||1|
|4 happy people in an echo chamber.||1|
|I’m glad that some people can come together!!||1|
|INVESTIGATE-Gentry & Joseph- will take him down||1|
|Didn’t know about it til now|
The district has held the position that they are not employing the use of scripted curriculum. However, in talking to teachers I continually hear a different story. In this light, I decided to ask for your feedback. Out of 136 responses, 52 of you indicated that any claims of not utilizing scripted curriculum should be considered bovine feces. 53 of you answered that it may not be scripted, but it is awful controlled. Only 1 of you indicated that you appreciate the guidance, though some of the write-in answers told a different story. Here they are:
|I know for a fact they are.||1|
|any teacher not using scripted curriculum is swimming against the current||1|
|From the inside: Huh?||1|
|Scripted or structured – either way it implies teachers cannot design instruction||1|
|What curriculum? That’s half of the problem! No reading or math curriculum.||1|
|And breaking copyright laws…kids with binders of the material!||1|
|2 high quality units challenge Ts thinking and practices doesn’t = scripted||1|
|I thought that’s why all that love it love it… why deny it’s scripted now?||1|
|Yep! It’s scripted. We now have Hamburger Helper curriculum!||1|
|The curriculum is not scripted. It’s is following the state’s unit starters.||1|
|Honestly, it’s needed. We need help.||1|
|Scripts in Middle Grades||1|
|The district must not know the definition of scripted.||1|
|IFL is scripted. More concerning is the idea of identical lesson plans and pacing||1|
|How about empowering & supporting teachers… scripted doesn’t work|
The last question asked if you thought Nashville had an affordable housing crisis. Out of 148 responses, 89 of you asked who can afford to live in this city anymore. On the other end of the spectrum, 8 of you said it was a challenge but not a crisis. Here are the write-in answers to that one:
|Devastating crisis. Wake up.||1|
|Yes, to a detriment of the city’s sense of community.||1|
|Barely making it in the “it” city||1|
|The rich get richer and the poor get pushed out||1|
|All of Middle TN, not just Nashville.||1|
|Maybe is we all made $130k like Maritza||1|
|An unaddressed crisis pushing out a lot of us (me included).||1|
|By design!!! Future Vegas… failing schools drive families out, party peeps in||1|
|My home is nearly paid for. I must be part of the problem.|
And that is a wrap. As always, you can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Make sure you check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page. if you think what I write has value, please support me through Patreon. Peace out.