“If I am right, Thy grace impart
Still in the right to stay;
If I am wrong, O, teach my heart
To find that better way!”
As I wrote on Wednesday, this week saw the release of the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee’s Education Report Card. The release of the report card sparked some conversation and several people voiced disagreements with my post on Wednesday.
They pointed out that I chose to focus on just a few items from a very large report, something I did in a vain attempt to practice some brevity. I would also offer that I was attempting to further limit criticism as well. For example, let’s look at what the Chamber chose to praise:
- The district was commended for its pioneering efforts in SEL work. The district has been recognized as a national leader for its work in several schools.
- The chamber highlighted Nashville public schools’ willingness to partner with outside community groups to better schools.
- The committee also recognized the district’s initiatives to pay for advanced academics tests such as Advanced Placement and industry certifications.
- The chamber group also commended the district for the creation of a scorecard that is more transparent and accessible in how it tracks district and school performance.
- And Nashville public schools leadership was praised for using tests that benchmark student learning against the rest of the nation.
Item number two is basically a willingness to play nice with others. Really? That’s where the bar lies? Cooperating with local businesses that are trying to help you scores an “A”? Meanwhile by his own admission, Dr. Joseph has put no extra effort into furthering parental engagement. Recently talks began to revive the Parent Advisory Committee but that it still in the very formative stages and we won’t see any fruition from those efforts until next year at the earliest. So while yes, there are some community groups as a whole doing good work, MNPS has not done more to increase parental involvement. In my eyes that is a critical fail.
Line item 5 talks about a scorecard that makes the districts KPI’s more transparent and accessible. I have yet to see such a tool. In looking at the beautiful booklet produced by the RC committee I see a description, but I don’t see a link to the tool or where to access it. There is no indication as to whether its something I find on the web site or an item that comes home with my child. Nor do I see any mention that the district has reduced the number of key performance indicators to 3.
- Literacy rates
- Suspension of black students
- chronic absenteeism
If the RC Committee is going to praise a tool, shouldn’t they at least tell me how to get it? Shouldn’t part of the evaluation on transparency and accessible include parents being able to locate said tool?
Number 4 refers to MAP testing. Riddle me this, if I showed up to your home remodeling site with a screwdriver when it was clear that a hammer was needed, would you praise me, “Awesome TC! You brought a tool! It’s not the right tool but you brought one so you get an “A”!”
It sounds ridiculous, doesn’t it? You shouldn’t earn praise just for bringing a tool, but rather for bringing the right tool. Furthermore, how can you hold any conversation about MAP testing without pointing out that 13% of the students took the test without accommodations that they should have by rights been granted, and then those students turned around and took the test 3 months later with their rights restored? Kinda a big deal. no?
Back to the parent portion of the program. All you parents who have been educated on MAP testing raise your hand. Can you tell me what a RIT score is? Can you tell me how weeks of instruction come into play? How about why we test in November? Using shouldn’t be enough and making people familiar with the testing shouldn’t be just for extra credit.
Don’t get me started on the paying of fees for advanced academic testing. That initiative was one of the few positive stories of last year. The policy resulted in a dramatic increase in the number of kids who were able to participate in advanced academics, whom in past would not have been able to participate. Yet, despite this success, the funding found itself on the cutting room floor at the close of last years budget season. It was only through Metro Council’s increased funding, that it was able to continue this year. I question at what cost though. How many kids who would have participated in advanced academics chose not to, due to the uncertainty around funding for tests?
The last item on the list is certainly deserving. From the SEL convention to Mathew Portel’s groundbreaking work at Fall-Hamilton, and on through to the individual classroom, MNPS is doing exemplary work in the area of SEL. As such, they deserve all the recognition they gather.
The question now becomes, “Ok fine TC, it is easy to criticize, but what would you have on the commendation list?”
At the top of my list would be teachers. Somebody needs to recognize that it is an absolute miracle that they show up every day and continue to give 100% despite the never-ending list of challenges thrown in their way. Whenever I start talking to teachers I flash on that commercial of OJ Simpson running through the airport while dodging obstacles. That’s exactly what we do to our teachers daily, and yet somehow they manage to perform like champs every day.
Second on the list would be the students. We expose them to lead in their drinking water, house them in portables and crumbling schools, ignore their IUPs, subject them to canned curriculum, and fail to ensure that they will have a teacher in every class they attend, yet they find ways to achieve and grow every day. Walk through any MNPS school and you’ll see children learning and growing in amazing ways. Look at their work on the walls and you can’t help but be inspired and get a sense that the future is good hands. They certainly deserve accolades for overcoming the failings of adults
I would commend the Disney in Schools program. Through this program, students have gotten an opportunity to experience the arts in a way they haven’t for years. Tusculum ES hadn’t had a stage production in 5 years and Disney allowed them the opportunity to rectify that shortcoming. If you haven’t attended a school’s Disney production, I strongly urge you to do so.
Last on my list, but not in my heart, would be all the service workers you see, but overlook, who make our schools run. The bus drivers that handle extremely dangerous situations every day. The crossing guards that stand for hours in weather that isn’t fit for man nor beast. The cafeteria workers that not only serve nutritional meals but also guide our students through daily interactions. The custodians who keep the buildings clean and the security officers who keep them safe. The para-pros that assist our neediest students while being paid a salary that would be considered a pittance even by third world standards. The bookkeepers, the receptionists, the clerks, all who keep the schools running but never seem to make it into any lists of appreciations. I cite you all, and more, and thank you. You are the ones that need to be mentioned in any grading of our schools.
These are the things that would I commend in connection with MNPS. These are the areas where the little miracles happen daily. The next question becomes, “Why not focus on these areas and not focus on Dr. Joseph and his shortcomings?” It’s because leadership matters and without quality leadership, we can’t soar like we are capable of.
WHY LEADERSHIP MATTERS
Back before he was forced to resign, I used to meet on a regular basis with Joseph associate Mo Carrasco, We would have long talks about leadership. He would continually try to explain to me how he was trying to rectify the existing culture through principals. To be fair, he had some very good ideas, but despite the quality of those ideas they were still attempting to lead from the middle and that will never be successful.
You would be shocked at how many people think that since they have been given a title, a position, and a salary, they are leaders. As such, they maintain that they get to dictate to underlings what to do and that is the primary purpose of their job. They call the shots. People can either get in line or begone. What’s the line Dr. Joseph is fond of? You can get on the bus or you can get run over the boss.
That is not the way it works in today’s world if it ever worked like that. Today’s leader needs to be more of a facilitator. You only get to be a leader if the people you are charged with leading decide to follow you. If they don’t, you may have the title, the position, and the salary, but you are not a leader. What I have discovered over the years is that once people choose not to follow you, they become really adept at making you believe they are following you while continually subtly undermining you. That undermining means that you as a leader may not outwardly clearly fail but rather you and the organization will become rooted in mediocrity. As blogger Lucy Tallon writes in her blog,
Gone are the days of hierarchical structures where strict rules and measures are imposed upon employees to be the most productive through command and control. Today organisations have a culture of design and provoke experimenting where employees are empowered to be their own leaders. Organisations are ‘organisms’ constantly evolving and changing.
A true leader is one who communicates the vision and supplies the resources for the team to succeed. He creates a culture that leads to growth and success. As the facilitator of the culture, he creates an environment where individual initiatives fail or succeed; where talent flourishes or it is stifled. Under poor leadership, talented individuals can still produce quality work but it won’t be scalable and as they continue to bump against the ceiling created by the leadership they will eventually become disillusioned and either scale back initiative or leave. There is a prevailing theory that has at its premise people don’t leave jobs, they leave managers. I tend to agree.
Let’s go to the sports world for some examples. Look at the NBA’s New York Knicks, under the leadership of owner James Dolan they’ve had 20 years of failure despite employing some extremely talented executives and players. Heck, they even brought in a man who has 9 championship rings to be GM. He failed because you can’t change the culture from the middle. Look close at Dolan, and you’ll see he and Dr. Joseph share many of the same traits and as a result have produced many of the same outcomes.
Now let’s look at the NFL’s Cleveland Brown’s. Hue Jackson took over as head coach the same year Joseph took over MNPS. The Browns were an organization with a dysfunctional culture and a history of losing. None of that was his fault, but it was the reality and it was his job to change that culture and produce wins. During his tenure, there were little positive things happening here and there in different areas of the Browns organizations, and there were some near wins, but no real success.
The Browns had talented receivers and parts of the defense were good. In other words, there were some small-scale feel-good areas that allowed Jackson examples to offer up as signs of positive growth. Still, the bottom line remained, the team wasn’t winning games. Sure they got close a couple of times and some players racked up good individual stats, but the wins weren’t coming. The only KPI that matters in the NFL.
Seven weeks ago the Brown’s fired Jackon and hired Gregg Williams. Since then the team has gone 4-2 and is on the cusp of its first winning season in a decade.
Williams has won over his players, who feel his attention to detail and demand for accountability has brought out the best in them. He’s also endeared himself to a segment of battle-scarred Cleveland fans, who would hate to see Williams leave and prosper elsewhere after his successful substitute stint.
Williams was dealt the same hand as Jackson but has created a culture where players are excited to play for him and willing to put in the extra work in order to succeed, something Jackson was incapable of doing. That’s why leadership is so important. Williams created a culture that inspired engagement and success for all, while Jackson’s looked for compliance and success for the coach.
This is what I wished the report card committee would have gone covered more in more depth. Sure they made some recommendations, some of which have merit and may produce positive results. But how much chance do these succeed in an environment that doesn’t nurture them?
- The Nashville public schools board should enact, except in the worst cases, a policy that ends out-of-school suspensions, expulsions, or arrests in pre-k through 4th grade.
- The district should create a program that identifies and develops principal mentors that can help emphasize and help establish a less punitive school culture, as well as foster community resources to enhance SEL efforts and academic achievement.
- The district should require every school to identify one peer-elected teacher to lead SEL efforts. The teacher would support and train other teachers, as well as provide teacher feedback and communicate directly with administrators.
- The district, along with community partners, should conduct a needs assessment of the district’s four clusters of schools that align resources for students and families.
- The Mayor’s Office should create a team of school district, Metro government, and business and nonprofit representatives to consider the impact of the city’s growth on the city’s youngest Nashvillians. The committee would specifically focus on gentrification, displacement and how services to address the issues serve families with children.
Look at them closely and you’ll see that the only chance that these recommendations have at success is if the director creates a culture that gets buy-in and empowers people to develop initiatives based on these recommendations. Otherwise, they are not dissimilar for a football team’s receivers to get faster or their linebackers to get stronger. Sure, they’ll make everybody a little better but will they alone produce the big wins we should be after?
It should also be noted that two of the recommendations call for more studies in a district that has been over-studied since 2011. There is more than enough data to guide us. One of the recommendations should have been no more polls, no more focus groups, no more surveys until you use previously collected data to produce results.
There is an article out in today’s Tennessean that talks about the decline in enrollment at MNPS over the last two years. So far it is a small dip, but one we should not ignore. The writer, Jason Gonzales, attributes the decline to gentrification. I’m sure that is a contributing factor, but if it was the main driver, wouldn’t charter school enrolments be dropping as well? They are not.
Back in my restaurant days, when people stopped coming, they didn’t tell you that your servers were rude, your bathrooms were dirty, and your food was overcooked, they just stopped coming. When you saw them in the street 6 months later, they offered no further clarifications, just that they’d tried to stop in soon, but they never did. The same holds true for schools. Families will vote with their feet and there is no guarantee that they will give advanced warning before doing so. They will just go, with no explanation.
If those families with options choose to leave, what will remain is a district that serves only those with no options. That’s when things will become really costly. We may end up funding schools at 16k per student, but it will be out of necessity and not out of desire. That would prove devastating to the Metro Nashville’s Public Education system.
I’d like to close with Dr. Joseph’s Christmas cheer video
If you watch the video you will see images included of the former mayor of Nashville, who was forced to resign, and the previous school board. There is none of the current Mayor or the current school board. This is indicative of the culture taking root in MNPS. We do things quickly, with no attention to detail and just to say that they’ve been done. If you need further evidence, just look to our inability to adhere to a report card schedule, the changing of grading policy for middle schools, or the newly enacted discipline policy for elementary school, just to name a few.
My point is, we can continue to scramble around looking for the isolated feel-good stories – always available because of the dedicated people doing the work – or we can take the needed steps in order to ensure that we start winning games on the main stage. Not to belabor a point, but MNPS will not progress without a change in leadership. The decision now, is do we want to be the New York Knicks or do we want to be the 2018 Cleveland Browns? That’s on us.
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