“Asked about the board’s level of talent, Bredesen says the school board is no more a collection of education experts than the Metro Council is a chamber full of scholars on Metro Government. That may or may not be a healthy state of affairs; it all depends upon whom you ask.” Liz Garrigan quoting Mayor Phil Bredesen, Nashville Scene May 20th, 1997
“I think it’s fair to say that, as of today, we have had no conversation on changing standards, curriculum, or anything else,” he says. “I’m not alarmed by that because it’s still early in the process. But if it continues like this, it will not be successful.” Harry McMackin, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association speaking on Common Knowledge Curriculum, Nashville Scene, SEP 13, 2001
I think sometimes it’s important to take a moment, or two, and collect your thoughts before commenting on events. Taking a moment to breathe, and reflect, allows one to develop a perspective that is divorced from the emotional baggage of the moment. Some things that seem crystal clear at first, can be viewed differently after review and conversation.
So while the Tennessean and Fox News raced off to offer their perspective, I pulled back a bit. I dug into the subject and looked at the history of MNPS and the school board. As a PSA, let me offer that the Nashville Scene has a tremendous archive in case you want to familiarize yourself with the history of the district. At this time, I’d like to share some of the conclusions that I’ve come to, based on my research and conversations.
First and foremost, I’m just amazed at our collective lack of historical knowledge. There ain’t one thing happening today, that’s new. We’ve been down every single one of these roads over the past 25 years, yet we wander around making proclamations like we are bridesmaids on pedal taverns just in town to have a good time.
If you are a board member and you uncomfortable with confrontation, that’s on you for not doing your homework. Being a board member is a contact sport. Always has been, always will be. It’s not a job for the meek.
There has never been a time in this city where the school board has not been confrontational and viewed as dysfunctional. There is a good reason for that, it’s an extremely important job that produces extremely important outcomes with no clear path of how to produce results and lots of ways not to. It is also a governing body that hasn’t always acted in the best interests of stakeholders. So if anyone who thought that they were going to get on this board and just attend choral recitals and spread cheer, you were being naive at best.
Working in our schools is hard, hard, work. Teacher’s fight tooth and nail every day for their students. They have to because sometimes nobody else will. Why would somebody think that as a board member you wouldn’t have to fight just as hard and be just as tough? Education ain’t a job for the thin-skinned, the consequences are too important to worry about bruised egos.
You want to see toughness on display? Watch how new board member Fran Bush verbally punches fellow board member Will Pinkston in the mouth when he continually refuses to extend professional courtesy to Amy Frogge while pushing a memorandum on placing a portion the Hope Garden property on the surplus property list (around 1:49). His actions were clearly intended as a vehicle to punish Frogge for her missing a retreat and a meeting. I suspect, it was also due to her not following his lead in supporting the director at all costs as well. It was petty, it was vindictive, it was all the things that Pinkston has shown himself to be. The difference was that this time Frogge didn’t just have Speering by her side, she had newly elected Fran Bush and Bush wasn’t having any of it.
In a tone that dripped with honey, Bush laid into Pinkston, letting him know that retreats were not mandatory, that family came first, and if you are going to talk professional courtesy and respect…you need to walk it. Her delivery had me rubbing my jaw, and I was sitting on the other side of the video screen.
Pinkston’s only retort was, “Is there a use for this property that I am unaware of?”
We weren’t discussing uses of the property Will, we were talking respect of fellow board members. A subject you seem to know little about, but Bush seems willing to help you understand it.
Pinkston’s memorandum failed and Hope Gardens was excluded from the list. That’s got to put a dent in the narrative that he’s been telling associates about him being the one running the district. First Bredesen, now this, this losing thing is starting to become a habit.
I suspect that Pinkston has now placed a target on Bush’s back. Hopefully Bush is aware of Pinkston’s propensity to use surrogates to do his dirty work. He probably won’t come at her directly and I wouldn’t be shocked if he used another board member to exact his revenge.
Now to the second part of the story. There seems to be a narrative being spread about. In this narrative board member Amy Frogge disrespected the teachers giving the presentation on Common Knowledge Language Arts by referring to it as a “dog and pony show”. First of all, Frogge repeatedly stated that she wasn’t intending to be disrespectful to the teachers and secondly, Frogge has been nothing but a champion for teachers over the last 6 years and I’m pretty sure teachers are aware of that.
Christiane Buggs comments to the teachers after they spoke was to say that they looked angry and that some looked they were going to cry. I take some exception to that comment. Over the past several years I’ve interacted with quite a few of our elementary school teachers and let me tell you, they are pretty damn tough. The extra hours that those presenting put into the PowerPoint that was shown is but a drop in the bucket of the extra hours that they put in daily. To do what they do, year after year after year requires the developing of a pretty thick skin. So to insinuate that they are so fragile that an offhand remark by a board member is going to put them in a state of fury or despair, I would argue is kinda insulting.
It’s like a man feeling like he has to the rush of the aid of a woman who is incapable of defending her honor. Pretty sure every one of those teachers was capable of expressing their displeasure and defending themselves if required. The rending of the garments is more about the defenders need to feel good, then it is about protecting anyone.
I’m sure that some of the presenters took exception to Frogge’s remark, but I liken it to when I’m discussing things with my good friend Jason Egly whom I often disagree with. In the course of our discussion not infrequently do we say things to each other that makes the other go, “Whoa, what the hell was that.” But then we give ground and like adults talk it through and as evidenced by watching the board meeting, that is exactly what happened at the board meeting. The difference is that we have established trust between us, in MNPS there is no trust.
If the taking offense is truly in defense of teachers, why are they so quick to rend their garments over some remarks directed at 10 teachers at a board meeting, yet bat nary an eye when 6k teachers across the district are treated with disrespect every day. Let me say that again, across the district, day in and day out, teachers feel disrespected. The fact that you don’t know that is a testimony to their strength and to people not listening, but those days are winding down. As demonstrated by the teachers at Tuesday’s board meeting, teachers are starting to speak out. This week it was 15, let’s see how many there are next month, and the month after if things don’t change.
When you choose to invest in programs over people, you disrespect teachers. When you hold teacher councils and ask for their recommendations on discipline policy, then turn around and enact policy that ignores their recommendations…you disrespect them. When you continually refuse to answer emails and ignore phone calls that cry out for help…you disrespect them. When you ignore the advanced degrees they’ve earned and instead force them to use canned curriculum…you disrespect them. When you talk about them as a bloodthirsty crowd and talk about your income in front of their principals…you disrespect them.
(Recording of speech at recent principals meeting)
These things and more happen on a daily basis and yet not a single tear get’s shed. Not a single shout of outrage comes from the boardThat’s the bigger story to me. Until we stop worrying about respecting teachers in the board room and stop disrespecting them in the classroom, things are never going to get better.
Dr. Joseph continues to suffer under the illusion that teachers know he supports them despite the mounting evidence that counters that belief. He praises the gains made by the schools citing data that, despite his claims, is fudged, faked, or made up.
That’s not a criticism of the work teachers are doing, but rather an indictment against how district leadership missappropriates their hard work. There are great stories and exemplary working taking place, but it is only due to the self-sacrifice and hard work that teachers are doing. That’s what I shed tears over, the miracles that could be happening if only we had leadership that knew how to lead. The miracles that would happen if leadership knew how to foster trust.
On a national level, we seem to have become a nation addicted to taking offense. Taking offense is a choice. We can either choose to take offense or we can work on solving the problem. Myself, I’m over being in a constant state of offense. I want to focus on solutions. But without a change in leadership, that can’t happen. If that offends you…well…you’ve made your choice.
A BRIEF HISTORY OF CKLA
Looking at the CKLA presentation, there were a number of things missing from that presentation. The first is a historical context. Yep, we’ve played with Core Knowledge creator E.L Hirsch before. Hop with me into the way back machine.
Back in 1997, then-Mayor Phil Bredesen didn’t care too much for the school board. The relationship was so bad that the Nashville Scene felt compelled to write,
Given the ongoing antagonism between the mayor and the school board, it would be advisable for them to begin to settle their differences. After all, the fractious nature of the relationship between the mayor and the nine members of the school board may not just be a result of what’s going on—or not going on—in Metro schools. It may be a cause of the problem as well.
I know you are shocked. You thought that this board was the most dysfunctional of all time. Sorry to break your bubble. But I digress, When it came to education policy, Bredesen figured he knew better than those sitting on the board and insisted that the curriculum Core Knowledge being implemented. Then-Superintendent of Schools Dr. Benjamin was not keen on the idea and some believe his refusal to implement the curriculum was part of the reason he resigned. Interim Superintendent Bill Wise implemented Core Knowledge in exchange for Bredesen increasing the district’s funding in order to include an art and music teacher in every building.
Fast forward to 2001 and the glitter had faded. Social studies scores had increased but everything else was tanking. Bill Wise was retiring and new director of schools Pedro Garcia was not enamored with Core Knowledge.
The reason for such turbulence is that Garcia and Johnson want to develop entirely new standards that are both “clear and rigorous.” More importantly, they say that they want the new standards “to ensure student success in the 21st century.” While Johnson would not comment specifically on Metro’s curriculum as it now stands, she did say that most districts often fail to make it clear what they expect students to learn and when they expect them to learn it. She also said that most districts don’t prepare their students to work in a marketplace where critical thinking skills are required in nearly all jobs.
It would have been nice, as part of this week’s presentation, to hear how Dr. Felder and her team plan to correct issues that occurred in the past. The Nashville Scene illustrates some of those issues,
Besides, few teachers agree on how they are supposed to teach core, according to Harry McMackin, president of the Metro Nashville Education Association, the local teachers’ union. That alone might be reason to reevaluate the program. “Teachers have differing philosophies. The major concept of core curriculum is to expose kids to basic historical facts and a core set of principles from the full-range of western civilization. Yet this exposure is not in-depth because they could never have the time to do in-depth work,” he says. “That leads to confusion—do we teach to in-depth understanding and mastery or do we teach to mastery? Teachers have differing ideas on this.”
As near I can tell, those problems still exist.
Much of Tuesday’s presentation centered around the proposed Florida State study. What wasn’t made clear was exactly what kids would be included in the study? In looking at the PowerPoint presentation it appeared as if the control group was going to morph into a second treatment group. Well according to Chief Investigator Dr. Sonia Cabell,
We randomly selected approximately 30 children per school from whom we had voluntary parental consent across all kindergarten classrooms. In some schools, the total number was fewer. Across all 24 schools, we have 651 children participating, 333 in the treatment schools and 318 in control schools. We will follow these children as they move to first and second grades. From these 24 schools we will not add additional students from next year’s kindergarten classes.
In other words, just the first cohort is part of the study. All of those grades getting Core Knowledge in the upcoming years, are part of the implementation and not study of CKLA. It appears that Dr. Joseph and his team are using the cover of the study to implement a new curriculum in 24 schools. Those schools will utilize the Core Knowledge curriculum even though only the first group will be in the study. To me that reeks of dishonesty.
It also concerns me that all of these schools are in the NE and NW quadrant. In other words, starting next year, and going forward, kids on the north side will be taught with a different curriculum than kids on the south side. And I don’t need to tell you the demographics of those two areas. How does the principle of equity apply here? How will the difference in curriculum impact teacher retention and recruitment? Those questions, along with an explanation of how results will be different this go around, remain unanswered.
There was also little comment around how this FSU study would align with the states new, fraught with problems, portfolio evaluation system. News flash! it doesn’t. Remember earlier when we talked about disrespecting teachers? Yea…ignoring potential damage to their professional reputation would fall into that category.
One last side note. The last time Core Knowledge was utilized in the district, teachers wrote the curriculum based on Hirsch’s direction. It was a huge undertaking. I have to wonder how much our own work is being brought back and eventually sold to us? That’s another question that needs answering.
Congratulations to Joya Burrell, a senior at Nashville Big Picture High School, who was accepted into the National Society of High School Scholars. She participated in the induction ceremony held Dec. 1 in Atlanta as part of the 2018 Scholars Day. Burrell was the only MNPS student to receive this academic achievement. way to go!
Congratulations to MNPS Chief Operating Officer Chris Henson who was selected as the recipient of the Bill Wise Award from the Council of the Great City Schools. The award is presented to someone who exemplifies professionalism, commitment, integrity, and leadership.
You might have heard that longtime Director Renata Soto is stepping down from her position at Conexion. As a result of her leaving there has been some speculation on what that means for school board member Gini Pupo-Walker. Walker should be considered a leading candidate to replace Soto, but how would that impact her role on the school board? Bears watching.
Memphis has themselves a new interim superintendent in a long time Memphis educator Joris Ray. It seems that more and more urban school districts are looking inward to find leaders. An emphasis has been placed upon people who have come up through this system and know both the culture, history and the players. Seems kind of wise to me.
Rumors are swirling that middle school and high school principals will be getting a Christmas present upon their return from break. They will be included in the district’s recently declared elementary school policy of not suspending, expelling, or arresting students without community superintendent permission.. Needless to say, principals are equating this with a lump of coal and therefore have grave concerns. Let’s see if rumors are true.
I’d like to close with a blog post by Wayne Gersen over at Network Schools. In his post, he points out that teaching isn’t the same job he took 30 years ago.
Teaching is much harder now than ever, and yet we continue to celebrate billionaires who fund charter schools and lionize tyrants like Michelle Rhee who promise to sweep “dead wood” out of schools…. and we then wonder why it is increasingly difficult to find college graduates who want to enter teaching.
I urge you to read the whole piece, it’s short, and then do more than shed tears.
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