“Well that’s very kind of you, but voices ought not be measured by how pretty they are. Instead, they matter only if they convince you that they are telling the truth.”
Ever since their arrival from Prince George County Schools, MNPS Director Shawn Joesph and his team have attempted to paint themselves as social justice warriors. They have tried to create a narrative of Nashville as a place where inequities flourish and that they have been sent by a higher power to slay that dragon. Chief Instructional Officer Monique Felder has often told people that she was sent here “to right the sins of the past.”
At today’s principal’s meeting, Dr. Joseph continued that narrative as he addressed concerns about his new discipline policy by referring to teachers as gladiators who just want blood. That blood being kid’s suspended for no reason. This is nothing new, Joseph continually paints teachers as just willy-nilly heading through the halls plucking up black and brown kids and demanding that they are suspended. Per his own words, he once suspended a bunch of kids because that’s what teachers wanted, he has since learned his purpose.
He touts Cigna’s plan to train 90 people to provide mental health supports to stressed out teachers, and then remarks, “If you don’t feed teachers they eat children and some folks have been snacking.” At no point does he acknowledge the role his policies and leadership failings play into teacher stress. Instead, he continually portrays teachers as fearful, racist, and not living up to their potential. It is a narrative that, to say the least, is extremely insulting to the teachers that continually try to make lemonade out of his lemons.
I can only surmise that this reasoning his why his recent discipline policy is focused on stopping something – suspensions, expulsions, and arrests – as opposed to providing something – counselors, trauma-related services. It also lacks any focus on ensuring that 92% of kids who are not suspended, get the benefit of the full and undivided attention of a quality teacher. During school board discussions on the proposed policy, board member Amy Frogge suggested that every school have a dedicated trauma-counselor that could help navigate the outside forces that were influencing student behavior. The idea was rejected, as other board members argued that implicit bias played a much larger role in suspension rates and that is where the focus should lie.
I don’t argue that implicit bias exists. It’s well documented and certainly impacts student outcomes. There are teachers who are quick to employ harsh measures on black and brown students due to their biases. But I would also argue that if there is a deficiency in classroom management with these teachers, then there are probably deficiencies in other areas. I would also argue that this is a minority number of teachers and not representative of the profession. Dedicated supports should be applied as needed and to those who most need it. Whether it’s through additional trainings, mentoring, or restorative practices.
I would also caution against the downplaying of the role poverty plays in behavior issues. Unfortunately, our high poverty schools are populated primarily by children of color. Due to poverty, these are children that are exposed to high levels of trauma – drug abuse, sexual abuse, parental incarceration, physical abuse – at a much higher frequency. Without trained adults equipped to help them process that exposure, their behavior is often impacted in a negative manner.
Converse at a school made up of students from higher socio-economic backgrounds, children have less exposure to trauma. Many of those schools are made up of white students, which is one of the reasons that addressing income inequality on a state and national level is so important. Based on this diminished level of exposure to trauma, there are fewer instances where suspensions become a necessity. This is where poverty impacts the data and if you are not careful, you will get a perception of a greater discrepancy in suspension rates based on race.
There has been very little conversation about how the new discipline policy potentially impacts the teaching profession going forward. Instead, we like to try to consider each individual issue as its own brick, independent of all other bricks. Much like his decision on Reading Recovery, Joseph removes a brick without ever identifying the brick he’s going to put in its place.
The result is that in these high poverty schools there is a perception that there is little a teacher can do to address behavior issues. This perception impacts who is going to teach in these high poverty schools. I’d argue that it will be either young inexperienced teachers, or if you introduce merit pay, older teachers just trying to make some extra cash for a couple of years. As a result, we are not only failing to supply needed supports to our neediest students but as an unintended consequence, we are depriving them of the very teachers who could make a difference in their lives.
What of the teachers who do choose to teach in these high need schools? We judge them based on academic outcomes. I’ll ask you this question, both you and I are hired to sell insurance, you are allowed to focus on selling insurance all day while I am tasked with cleaning the office 2 hours every day, who is going to sell more insurance?
This past week I had a conversation with a fellow parent about how well her child is doing in 8th-grade math this year. This success can be directly traced back to a teacher that her child had 4 years ago that nobody liked; not the parent and not the child. What they have since discovered is that the manner in which the teacher taught the principles of math has allowed their daughter a greater understanding of the concepts she is now facing. But had that parent and the child had their way several years earlier, they probably would have not recommended this teacher.
The point of the story is that we have to stop focusing on just the immediate results and start thinking more about long-term results and the impact on the teaching profession. Dr. Joseph has made the rate of suspension for black students a key performance indicator(KPI). But how does that translate into getting more students the services they need? How does that directly correlate to academic outcomes? What are the other policy areas that are impacted by this focus? Those are all questions that need to be asked, and in my opinion aren’t getting nearly the attention they deserve. Nobody is arguing for suspending, expelling, or arresting kids, what we are arguing for is being deliberate in getting kids the services they need in a manner that keeps everybody safe and doesn’t take instructional time away from other students,
ABOUT THOSE OUTCOMES
I suspect that the reason that Dr. Joseph focuses more on social issues as opposed to academic outcomes is because those outcomes, quite frankly, are not very good. Now Dr. Joseph regularly produces internal data to try counter that evaluation, but luckily the state provides us with independent data.
This week the TNDOE released it’s report card on schools. A quick look at that data shows MNPS trending in the wrong direction. Look at these scores through the eyes of a parent new to the district, do they fill you with confidence? Look at these scores through the eyes of a parent that receives a recruitment flyer from a charter school, do they fill you with confidence that MNPS is the right choice? Look at these scores through the eyes of an Amazon employee moving to Middle Tennessee with the means to live anywhere in the surrounding areas, do these numbers inspire you to purchase a home in Davidson County?
Equity is extremely important. But equity without excellence should not be acceptable when it comes to our schools, neither should be sacrificed for the other. Over the last several years I’ve pointed out numerous ways that Dr. Joseph’s policies have actually increased inequities and harmed the very students he claimed to be championing. Now the state data is showing that his policies are also impacting excellence. Nobody should find that acceptable.
Yesterday ChalkbeatTN printed an article in which outgoing State Superintendent of Education Candice McQueen was quoted in regard to more schools in Nashville and Memphis being taken over by the state’s Achievement School District.
“Our recommendation will be: As we go into next school year, unless we see some dramatic changes in certain schools, we will move some schools into the Achievement School District,” McQueen told Chalkbeat this week.
Initially when I read this I took it as a sign of McQueen trying to assert a last burst of power by threatening to condemn kids to a failed educational experiment. However, as I read it today, I interpret it as a shot across the bow for MNPS and their plans concerning priority schools. McQueen has met extensively with the district over the last several months and as such, is well versed in the district’s priority school plan.
If she was confident in that plan, why would she even raise the specter of a state take over of schools? Why would she not instead praise the work being done and express confidence that the districts in question were headed in the right direction in regard to their neediest kids? It is my interpretation that she has seen the plans and feels that for whatever reason they are lacking. They are lacking to such a level that she feels compelled to warn that state takeover is still an option.
Asked why people in Memphis and Nashville should have any faith in the ASD given its abysmal track record, McQueen said any decision to move a school into the state’s district will be because of a lack of confidence that the local district has a good plan “to get students ready for college and career.”
I don’t know that it can get much clearer than that.
I’m going to close today with the an anecdote that Dr. Joseph chose to share today with principals at today’s meeting. According to Dr. Joseph his son said to him, “Since we came to Nashville, you make a whole lot less money,” His reply was, ” Yes son, but I make a difference.”
This is an anecdote that raises many questions for me. Was Joseph not making a difference in Prince George? Joseph makes roughly $327K a year in Nashville without factoring in payments to his retirement fund. The former district head in Prince George County made $280K. Joseph was the number 3 in the district. What was he doing to make such a dramatic difference in his income between PGCS and MNPS? Given his close relationship with Dallas Dance, I have to ask, how much work was he doing for Dance?
Leadership experts consider empathy as one of the 5 core traits of a leader. As it relates to leadership, empathy is described as follows,
Empathy is the capacity that allows a leader to understand the perspectives and feelings of others and foresee the impact of his actions and events on them. Effective communication depends on empathy. Without leader empathy, team morale is fragile. The leader lacking in empathy is driven by his own needs and blind to or indifferent to the needs of others. Empathy is not the same as compassion, or caring about others’ needs and experience. Manipulative and authoritarian leaders can be adept at intuiting other peoples’ vulnerabilities and exploiting them. Adding the capacity to care about—not just perceive—the experience of others creates a beloved leader.
In that light, I would ask, what would be the purpose of relating a story about money to a group of people who oversee people who’s chief complaint is earned income? How could that story about earning less money have a positive impact on culture? In my opinion, it’s a key indicator of just how wrong Dr. Joseph is for the position he holds and that he lacks the basic traits to effectively lead this districts schools.
Nashville needs an educational leader, not a social warrior. The right person knows the difference between the two and where the roles overlap. Unfortunately, the evidence continues to mount that Dr. Joseph is not that person. I would challenge board members who continually defend him to outline evidence to the contrary using data not created by Dr. Joseph himself.
In his speech to principals today, Dr. Joseph castigated those who would come to board meetings and criticize, “I’m aware of calls to come to board meetings and say what’s wrong. Sign up to come and tell what’s going right.” I would counter that by saying, when I take my car to the garage because of engine trouble, I don’t tell the mechanics how well the brakes are working. You can’t solve a problem until you recognize a problem.
I do agree with Dr. Joseph on one thing, “Our children deserve better.”