“I’m about to fuck up, he thought clearly, and his next thought was, but I don’t have to. This was followed closely by a third thought, the last of this familiar sequence, which was, but I’m going to anyway.”
“I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was younger.
I wish that I knew what I know now
When I was stronger.” – Rod Stewart, Ooh La La
I long considered the potential ramifications before citing the above quote by author Richard Russo, but it just seemed so appropriate that I couldn’t resist. Once I decided to use it, I toyed with offering an apology and then remembered another one of my favorite quotes. This one by author P.G. Wodehouse:
“It is a good rule in life never to apologize. The right sort of people do not want apologies, and the wrong sort take a mean advantage of them.”
So that’s where we are at.
Last week, there was a lot of focus on the state of Tennessee’s recently released priority school list and it’s no secret that I was critical of the district’s response. Based on that criticism, I think a fair response would be, “All right, smart guy, what would be your response?”
So here is how I would have responded to last week’s release of priority schools. I understand that in some areas, it’s a little easier for me than it is for the current director of schools, but I firmly believe in the legitimacy of my responses.
I would have started off last week’s press conference with the following statement:
“Thank you for coming this morning. I would just like to say that with all respect to the TNDOE, the recently released priority list is bullshit due to the fact that it is based on a bullshit test. Sorry, I’m not saying that results are not without some value, but at best they are merely a snapshot of where kids are on that day and are a clearer indicator of socioeconomic status than of actual learning. We don’t believe in the priority school list because we consider ALL of our schools a priority. That said, we do recognize that we have some areas that need to address so that all schools can have greater outcomes, and I’ll share details of those plans.”
That statement would probably cause a bit of an uproar, but it would easily be the most honest thing that’s been said to citizens about our schools in a long time and it’s basically indisputable.
Take a look at a map showing the locations of the schools designated “priority schools” – I refuse to call them “innovation” schools because that’s just intentional obfuscation. Every one of them lies in areas populated by people with a lower economic status. Let’s be clear, I’m not saying that all kids can’t learn. I’m saying that it’s a lot easier to learn if your stomach’s not rumbling, your shoes are a size too small, or you are suffering from an illness resulting from a sub-par housing situation. Those assertions are indisputable.
To their credit, both MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph and School Board Chair Dr. Sharon Gentry alluded to those social challenges during last week’s press conference. But then they proceeded to allude to some kind of collaboration with the mayor and council members to work on those issues. Sorry, but that’s not their gig.
Too often, I imagine due to having the most daily contact with kids, educators are quick to rush in and try to create solutions to socio-economic challenges. Unfortunately, they are not the ones charged with facing the challenges, nor the best equipped. I don’t want the chair of the school board crafting affordable housing policy anymore than I want the mayor crafting literacy curriculum. In the words of Belichick, “Just do your job.”
Mayor Briley often talks about wanting to support Dr. Joseph and the schools. Awesome. You want to support him? Craft policies that address affordable housing, stagnant wage growth, and mass transit. The governor wants to be known as an “education governor”? Address health care issues and incarceration rates. Some may argue for the need of a “high-quality assessment aligned to our state’s academic expectation” in order to provide better results, but I guarantee you that if you improve health care and lower incarceration rates you’ll instantly see better student outcomes.
About those “high-quality assessments aligned with our state’s academic expectations,” shouldn’t you prove that you can administer them with fidelity before attaching high stakes to them? Look at the caveats that went into creating this year’s priority schools list. Due to state legislation passed in response to technical glitches involved with this year’s testing, inclusion on the priority list is based primarily on results from the two years prior to the recently completed school year. Except if your school did well, then this year’s results could count. For even more clarity, here’s TNEd Report’s take:
By the way, we now have the following set of apples, oranges, and bananas from which we are determining student growth:
2015 — TCAP
2016 — NO TNReady
2017 — pencil and paper TNReady
2018 — Hacker and Dump Truck TNReady
Not exactly confidence instilling. And I would work to instill confidence in stakeholders. I wouldn’t do that by telling stories about kids who are going to Harvard after playing football at a priority school and graduating from a magnet.
Telling stories about Harvard-bound seniors and merit scholars are wonderful. Those are stories that are grand and should be told. But equally important are the ones that involve kids that are now work in A/C repair, or are ministers, insurance sales people, or police officers. The ones that are using their quality education to raise their families, care for their aging parents, and because of the lessons they learned in their schools are proving to be better citizens.
Truth is, those are the lives most of us are going to live. Lives that may in outward appearance appear ordinary, but in reality, are inwardly filled with a million miracles. Those are the examples that I would cite to reassure stakeholders about the lessons the community’s children are learning and practicing daily. Examples that are never reflected in a standardized test administrated by the state. A test where results are not even returned until well after the beginning of the next school year. A return time that makes it impossible for them to drive instruction and only serves as a means to try to pick winners and losers.
My approach would be a lot more honest than the conversations that are currently taking place. Conversations where people wring their hands, decry the terrible fates we are forcing upon kids, chant slogans that are better left to t-shirts and Hallmark cards, raise money on the backs of these children, only in the end to do nothing of substance. Think I’m exaggerating? Check out the 2017 990 Tax Form from the Nashville Public Education Foundation and see the amount of money their director made last year and then tell me I’m wrong.
We could go on all day about the fallacies with the test, but let’s move on to what we could do for ALL school that would improve outcomes for ALL schools. The first, and maybe simplest thing, would be to expand the Community Achieves program. All schools that exited the priority list were Community Achieves Schools. There is plenty of data that readily supports their work. My only complaint with Community Achieves is that expansion has come at a glacial pace. Let’s pick things up a bit.
The next area of focus should be on personnel. Let’s start with the head honchos. Look at the schools that are on the underperforming list and you will find that the majority have had high turnover at the top over the last 5 years. There are some exceptions – Joelton Middle School, I’m looking at you. But in those schools, you’ll likely find a lot of turnover in those leadership positions directly below the principal, i.e. your AP’s and your Deans. It’s hard to produce quality results without stability at the top. Just ask the Cleveland Browns or Tennessee Vols. (Sorry, couldn’t resist.)
The district’s proposed priority school plan did get it right when it placed a focus on teachers. But I’d argue this is a district problem and not just a priority school problem. Though they refuse to acknowledge it, the district has been hemorrhaging teachers for the last 3 years. Reasons run from salary issues to a perceived lack of respect. When I ran for school board, I often talked about the need to not just focus on salary increases for teachers but to create robust compensation packages that address needs like child care and homeownership. Invest in teachers so they will invest in the district. This is an area that the Mayor, Metro Council, and business could be instrumental in. You want to impact literacy rates… take care of those who can do the most to impact student learning.
A lifestyle compensation package would go a long way towards counteracting the perceived lack of value that teachers feel, but if you want to take it even further, let teachers teach. If district leaders want the trust of teachers, they have to trust in them. Provide curriculum supports, but stop the implication of required scripted teaching. Realize that all teachers, like all students, are different. Some may like the heavily structured lesson plans and prefer to use them straight out of the box, while others will want to add their own imprint. Let teachers decide and then help them succeed by giving supports based on that choice. It can’t be said enough, show trust and you will receive trust. Without trust, there can be no success.
We need to stop reigniting the reading wars of the past. Phonics, like other tools, has its value but the over-reliance on one tool over all others sets us up for failure. Per a recent article in the Washington Post:
It is time to change the thinking from rigid “either-or choices” in literacy instruction to responsive “yes-ands” that engage children’s unique pathways to literacy.
We can have classrooms with explicit phonics instruction and engagement with literatures that sustain the cultures and identities of our students. We can teach reading and writing, and let one support the other.
We can plan for motivation, engagement, identity development and rigorous skill development in the same lesson. We can build classrooms that teach all students to read, but not if we miss opportunities to learn from current practices before running in the other direction.
I’m also not buying into this new TNTP argument that kids are not getting enough “rigorous” instruction. I’ve got two kids who have attended a cusp school for the last several years, and the rigor of their instruction has been quite satisfactory. What there has been is some sacrifice of social studies and science instruction in order to have more rigorous math and literacy instruction. That’s due to the narrowing of focus in response to the need to produce better test results, and this is problematic. What the most challenged schools need is not a narrowing of focus, but rather a broadening. Again that relates back to trusting teachers.
Finally, under personnel, we need to address our substitute teachers. This past Friday there were over 300 unfilled vacancies in the district due to teacher absences. That should be unacceptable. We are also utilizing long-term substitutes to fill permanent teaching vacancies. That should be unacceptable. I’m also hearing stories of PTO boards becoming substitute teachers to help offset the need. That’s not really a solution either.
The current priority school plan calls for a focus on absentee rates. That’s all fine and good, but are any of the aforementioned scenarios a marked difference from kids not being in schools? Again, when I ran for school board, I talked of a plan that would create substitute pools by quadrant, a pathway to making substitutes benefit eligible, and ways to include substitutes in district professional development offerings. I firmly believe these steps are essential.
We also need to look at our calendar. The largest single day of teacher absences has historically been the Friday of TSU’s homecoming weekend. In response, the district has moved back fall break to coincide with that event. Unfortunately, the prolonged time before a break puts undue stress on non-TSU alumni resulting in more personal days leading up to fall break.
The idea that the district sanctions the missing of work for college fraternity activities is just mind boggling to me. I had a great time in college. It was a very meaningful time in my life, but I’m not in college anymore. I’m a professional with professional responsibilities. I can not for the life of me understand how you can justify asking students to sacrifice a day of learning in order to participate in college-based rituals. Perhaps the argument can be made that these rituals are community-based and akin to religious ceremonies, but I find that a stretch. Our calendar needs to reflect the needs of kids and not the social needs of adults. Burning teachers out in order to allow a select number to participate in social rituals is not good policy.
I urge you to drive around the district and check out the facilities of the schools on the priority list. You’ll find that for the most part, they are housed in aging buildings supplemented by the use of portables. Environment makes a difference. Kids who have to go in and out of the building to portables have increased exposure to inclement weather, which leads to higher rates of illness, resulting in greater absenteeism. I can tell you from first hand experience, being in a quality facility has a direct impact on educational outcomes. Here’s another area where both local and state elected officials could actually impact outcomes if they were serious about the importance of education. As a school board candidate, I raised the need to create a single bond that would create the funding for all schools capital needs to be updated.
It should also be noted that we can not have a conversation about underperforming schools without acknowledging the role a choice system plays in their creation. I personally do not believe that a choice system and an equitable system can exist side by side, at least not without everybody having the same resources. The very act of choice creates inequity. You are choosing one option over another based on perceived value. As more people make a choice, one option grows in perceived value while one diminishes. Rail against it all you want, but it’s the natural process and eventually, you are left with schools that are rife with resources and those that are depleted.
Now if everybody starts with the same resources when making their choices – knowledge, transportation, flexibility, etc. – the choice options, perhaps, would remain more balanced. But since not all parents have the same understanding of the system, flexibility of schedule in order to transport kids, or even method of transportation, those with the most resources tend to congregate in the same schools. Leaving those with fewer resources in other schools. As time goes on, the disparities only grow because nobody wants to send their children to a school that is perceived to be under-resourced.
This is where the proposal to send more Title I money to those under-resourced schools is supposed to counteract the effects of choice. But unless you are using that money to buy families reliable transportation or to adjust work schedules so that parents can participate more, you are not really changing outcomes. Families will make choices based on the choices of others and who they wish to emulate. As a result, you will see families with resources congregate in select schools, while other schools are left to serve those with fewer resources.
Remember how I told you that standardized testing is better at identifying socio-economic status than actual learning? Well, what you are left with under a choice system results in a self-fulfilling prophecy. I’m not saying it’s wrong, but I fail to see how you can have your cake and eat it too.
That, in a nutshell, is my approach to addressing priority schools. I have a few more ideas and I’ll share them in the future. Under the current administration, I’m slow to lobby the city for more money. However, if we were making some of my aforementioned initiatives a priority, I believe it would be money well spent and it wouldn’t take long to see positive results. I know some of it is fairly idealistic, but isn’t that the goal of education, to unlock the power of dreams?
Blogger and Pennsylvania teacher Steven Singer has a post out on the distinction between being “data-driven” and “data-informed.” Needless to say, it’s a big distinction.
Over the past several years, I’ve had the opportunity to work with Robertson County resident and teacher Larry Proffit. I’ve always found him to be a true gentleman and a scholar. Larry is running for the office of state representative to the legislature. Today he received Diane Ravitch’s endorsement. Help a brother out if you can.
Wednesday at noon is the deadline to sign up to speak at next week’s board meeting. If you have something to say, now is the time to say it.
I would like to give a quick shout out to Mathematics Director Jessica Slayton. The word on the street is that she and her team are offering some excellent professional development opportunities in the realm of mathematics. Opportunities that should provide great outcomes for kids. Thanks for the great work!
Bands of America competitions draw some of the best bands in the country, and BOA Clarksville this past weekend was no exception. Bands like Castle, Franklin, and O’Fallen Township continually rank among the best. This weekend, Overton HS Band also competed. Late last night they received the overall breakdown of scores from preliminaries and have very exciting news! Out of 28 bands, they were ranked 13th! On top of that, they were only 1.1 points away from making finals! This is a huge success, especially since they were competing against groups that make BOA Grand National semi-finals and finals year after year. Additionally, a band director of one of the bands that made finals Saturday sent the following message:
“GREAT job today at BOA! Wow! Best Overton Band I’ve seen since I started teaching around here. Y’all should be super proud, they sound GREAT! (insert hand clap emoji) Please send your kids my congrats!”
So, even though they didn’t make finals this time, they should be extremely proud of their performance and continue striving for growth! Watch out for them next year BOA! Luckily band parent Terri Lampley Watson was there to document.
The response to this week’s poll questions was admittedly a little low, but here are the results.
The first question asked for your opinion on the district’s priority school plan. Tied at 37% apiece were the answers “they announced a plan” and “same old same old.” Only 3% of you thought it was a great plan. Here are the write-in answers:
|hokum and horseshit. Makes me sad.||1|
|Just a bunch of catchphrases & big words to cover for ineptitude||1|
|Dr. J continues to harm students of color||1|
|ALL KIDS DESERVE THIS MUCH CARE!||1|
|What plan? There is no plan with substance-better check with the home town folk||1|
|Not enough emphasis on retaining staff. Quality people are seeking real salaries|
Question 2 asked you to grade the district’s press conference in response to the release of the priority list. It doesn’t appear that you were too impressed. 52% of you gave it an F, and 25% gave it a D. Three of you felt it was worth a B. Here are the write-ins:
|Didn’t see it||1|
|F. Can’t make diamonds from feces.||1|
|What press conference?|
The last question asked where you place blame for the district’s failure to adhere to state law by reporting teacher discipline issues to the state. Overwhelmingly, 75% of you laid blame at the feet of the director and his office. None of you blame the former employee. Hmmm… here are the write-ins:
|Director and the corrupt HR Department||1|
|director and HR|
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.