“I urge you: don’t cut short these thought-trains of yours. Follow them through to their end. Your thoughts and your feelings. Follow them through and you will grow with them.”
― Slow Man
“Dad always said that he had enough trouble sorting the fiction out of so-called facts, without reading fiction. He always said that science was already too muddled without trying to make it jibe with religion. He said those things, but he also said that science itself could be a religion, that a broad mind was always in danger of becoming narrow.”
― The Killer Inside Me
Well…here we are. A brand new year is upon us. 2019 recedes in the rearview mirror while 2020 comes hurtling towards us.
It’s funny, new years always begin the same – filled with hope and promise. Come December the reflections are always similar – triumphs mixed with regrets. The trick is to have the former outnumber the latter. And that is what I wish for you this first week in January.
Over the holidays I’ve been a little slack with my writings and I apologize. I actually started this piece yesterday after thinking about it for a month. There is nothing like writing 2000 words and realizing you weren’t quite saying what you wanted, so I walked away for a day and I’ll try again this morning.
On January 14th the 112th General Assembly of Legislators will open in Nashville. Each General Assembly meets 90 session days over a two-year period. Generally, legislative sessions last from mid-January through late April or May of each year.
If last year is any indication, there will be plenty of legislation filled in regard to education. Rep Bo Mitchell has already garnered bipartisan support for a bill that will repeal the voucher legislation that was passed last year.
Word is that Representative Freeman will bring legislation again that will attempt to address inequities in the state’s BEP funding program. For too long Nashville schools have been punished for the cities success.
Per usual, there will likely be bills that limit payroll deductions for professional organizations – otherwise known as unions. Republicans have spent the last couple of decades trying to eradicate the teacher unions with considerable success, no reason to stop now.
Personally, I don’t care if you join PET or TEA, or one of any of the other labor organizations established throughout the state, but I do believe you should band with one. I also believe our labor organizations need to find a way to compromise and work together with each other. We can continue arguing who did what to whom in the last decade or we can bond together to protect teachers in the next, the decision is ours.
I continually hear rumors of a substantial pay increase for teachers. Unfortunately, I also hear a lot about increased accountability measures tied to that raise. As beleaguered as the TNDOE is, I can’t envision them having the capacity to administer too much-increased accountability, but when it comes to state departments of education, over-reach seems to be their middle name.
It’s hard to predict exactly what legislation will emerge, and well as what legislation will attain passage. One thing I am certain about is that there will be a lot of conversation about “good vs bad schools”. Which is something that really needs to stop?
There is no such thing as a “bad school”. Take a second and glue your head back together, and then let me explain. This is important because nothing has hamstrung the conversation around education policy like the attempted qualification of schools.
Schools in themselves are physical constructs and as such have no qualitative designations. They are merely building made up of offices, classrooms, and gymnasiums. Sure, some are in a state of disrepair and in desperate need of an upgrade, but that doesn’t make them bad schools. Just schools that have capital needs that require attention by their respective community.
Once open, each school is filled with teachers and students. Zoning dictates which demographics attend which school and individuals who have the means make choices on whether they will support a local school or not. The demographic makeup of a school shapes its outcomes.
If a building is filled predominately with kids drawn from families below the poverty line it’s going to have inherent obstacles to overcome. At this juncture, it should be well recognized that exposure to high levels of trauma outside a school influences outcomes inside a school. That doesn’t translate to “bad” or “good” but rather, “unique’.
The rule of thumb to date has been focusing on mitigating the effect of trauma once children enter the building. This is important work but fails to take into account that not every child in that school is negatively impacted by what they are exposed to outside of school, and as a result, we minimize those children not impacted by trauma’s needs. Parents of those children then feel that their child’s needs are not being met and therefore search for a new school.
As kids outside the poverty level leave a school, the percentage of impoverished kids grows – simple math. That growth only serves to rightly increase focus on those high needs kids, until invariably a school becomes a predominately high needs school – not a “bad” or “good” school, a high needs school. The cost of educating a school with predominately high needs students is a whole lot higher than funding one with mixed demographics.
Dr. Joseph used to point out regularly that his former district – Prince George County Schools – invested 15K a kid while Nashville spends decidedly less. This is partially due to fewer middle-class children attending PGCS than MNPS. The higher the needs of your student population, the higher the cost of producing high student outcomes. That’s simple math as well.
I think it’s worth noting here that determining what MNPS spends per student can be a little difficult, as pointed out by this years Nashville Chamber of Commerce Report Card,
A definitive per pupil expenditure number is hard to identify. For MNPS, the average per pupil expenditure is somewhere between $11,000 -$14,000, varying by source. The National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) estimates that MNPS spent $11,206
per student in 2017 while the 2018 Tennessee state report card shows that the per pupil expenditure for Nashville was $13,376. As a point of comparison, private schools in Nashville (parochial and independent) average about $16,000 for high school. Schools with strong academic reputations like the University School of Nashville and Ensworth cost between $25,000- $30,000 for high school. Families who are able and willing to spend these amounts certainly expect a return on their investment.
Expense isn’t the only place a school suffers from the lack of a diverse population. Every school sets out to hire the best teachers possible. I can’t name a single principal that seeks to staff a school by only hiring mediocre teachers. The issue becomes retaining those teachers.
What happens though, is that a school with a high population of impoverished kids translates to an elevated level of behavior challenges related to heightened exposure to trauma outside the building. As a result, experienced teachers with more options search out schools where they can focus on teaching as opposed to having to wear multiple hats, leaving resource-challenged schools with a majority of newer inexperienced teachers, or worse, a reliance on a digital platform. A situation that negatively impacts student outcomes.
I know that’s a bit of an oversimplification and its just one example of the challenges our schools face. Another is through the over-reliance on standardized testing. We take results from an endeavor that everybody recognizes as saying more about socio-economic status than learning and use it to allegedly increase student outcomes. Ultimately though, its a false portrait that is painted.
It continues to baffle me that we accept that athletes who have access to hi-quality coaching, proper nutrition, and a stable environment will outperform athletes devoid of any of the aforementioned, yet we continue to argue that children should have the ability to overcome any deficiencies they are faced with. That’s insane.
If an athlete is faced with a deficiency that is hampering their performance, steps are immediately taken to address that deficiency. Whether it’s through additional training, diet, or coaching steps are immediately taken. With kids’ education, seemly reasonable people just offer the postulate that if we increase expectations the child will rise to those expectations. No need to address deficiencies, just expect more.
Tom Brady is recognized as one of the greatest athletes ever not just because of his physical gifts but also due to the high level of coaching, nutritional advice, and stability that has been availed to him throughout his career. It’s ludicrous to not recognize the role that outside school factors play in impacting school results. Results that are then used to label schools as being “good” or “bad”.
Furthermore, we address the marginalization of certain demographic groups as if that marginalization transpired once they walked into a school. That marginalization began before those students ever attempted to enter the building. It’s a marginalization that has to be addressed in society instead of just attempting to mitigate it in schools.
An increased focus on housing, health, and wage policies would do more for increasing student outcomes that any amount of training on trauma infused teaching or the science of reading. That’s not to downplay the importance of specialized training, it’s just to point out that we don’t treat the flu by just focusing on a cough. We have to get to the root of the issue and not solely focus on the symptoms.
That’s why the phrase, every child deserves a “good school” should be considered a misnomer. We need to start with the idea that all schools are good, we just need to make them all better. If we want to truly impact what takes place inside a school, we need to apply equal focus to what happens outside the school. Education does not take place in a bubble.
Tennessee currently has a surplus of nearly a billion dollars in federal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families funds. That’s money that could be used to address social issues that impact student outcomes before they ever enter a building. It could be used for child care, work training, food assistance, all elements that have the potential to negatively impact student outcomes.
As this legislative session begins, we need to remember that improving educational outcomes isn’t just about crafting sound educational policy, it is about crafting a society that allows everyone to be the best they can be. If every child deserves a “good” school, don’t they have the right to expect the same from their government?
A SECRET PLOT?
Former school board member Will Pinkston continues to peddle his conspiracy theory that MNPS interim-director of schools Dr. Adrienne Battle is engaging in a plot to increase the number of charter schools in Nashville. It’s a theory put forth primarily through innuendo and supposition.
Recently evidence of substantiation of this supposed plot has been offered by whispers involving advisors to Dr. Battle, particularly Drew Kim.
If you are not familiar with Kim, he served as Policy Chief for Governor Phil Bredesen and also advised Governor Haslam. In those roles, he influenced education policy through projects such as Race to the Top/First to the Top, Complete College TN, the Memphis Teacher Effectiveness Initiative (TEI), the development and launching of LIFT Education, and college access programs such as KnoxAchieves, Educate & Grow, and the Tennessee Promise. Drew served as an advisor to Randy Boyd, Special Advisor to the Governor for Higher Education in 2013, and has continued to support the strategic development of Tennessee Promise and Drive to 55. He has a consultancy firm called P3 Consulting.
Back in 2014, then MNPS Superintendent Jesse Register was developing a plan to make East Nashville an all choice zone while increasing the number of charter schools in the area. He was doing so sans community input, worse yet, was that he told community activists that there was no plan, unfortunately for him, an open records request produced evidence to the contrary. Kim was a party involved in the revealed plan.
Exposure of the plan and the dishonesty involved with it heavily contributed to the departure of Register and serves as a black eye for Kim.
If this was a made for TV movie it would be the end of the story, but life doesn’t work that way. Life doesn’t come with a clear delineation between good guys and bad guys. Sometimes people have varying experiences that make their counsel valuable in some areas while in other areas not so much.
Over the years it seems we’ve slipped into this endless applying of an unwritten purity test to determine which team you fall on. But the dividing into teams, nor the application a nonsensical purity test is required. We can agree on with people on certain subjects while disagreeing with them on others. As F Scott Fitzgerald once said, “The ability to hold two competing thoughts in one’s mind and still be able to function is the mark of a superior mind.”
From what I understand Kim is helping to advise the Battle administration on post-secondary transitions. His involvement in Tennessee Promise gives him some knowledge that could benefit the administration as it develops programs that help ease the transition for students. It’s nothing nefarious or underhand. Nor does it involve charter schools.
The mark of a good leader is to surround yourself with people of opposing views and varied experiences and take the best ideas from them. Listening does not equal endorsing. More power to Dr. Battle for consulting as many chefs as possible in creating a new menu. It seems to me there was a highly successful president who employed a similar strategy, but what do I know.
While the privatization forces certainly exist, not everyone is a soldier in a mythical war. The majority of people in the conversation are just people trying to make schools a little better. Some through ideas that align with our own, some through ideas that we diametrically oppose. The trick is an increased focus on policy over personalities.
As a side note, I wonder if when Pinkston is out stirring up trouble he’s mentioning that both he and Kim signed on as Democrats supporting Bill Haslam?
With the change in the calendar, some MNPS employees are reporting problems with accessing their insurance benefits, including but not limited to prescriptions. The problem lies with CIGNA and its failure to reprocess all employees. They are working hard to rectify it and promise everybody will be processed by Monday. Going forth MNPS employees will have no problem accessing their benefits.
Dr. Sam Bommarito has a new blog up calling for a reading evolution. Yep, that’s what I said, evolution. Seems the good doctor has seen the pendulum swing back and forth between phonics and whole word for too many years and now feels a different approach might be in order,
“Instead of doing another “throw it all out and replace it” round, why not try tweaking what we have? There are many possibilities for that and I would for sure recommend using some of the good points being made by SoR folks to help in that process. But use them in the context of everyone talking to everyone and everyone looking at how we can tweak current practices rather than throwing out everything we are currently doing and starting over. I strongly feel using that approach will eventually guarantee another swing of the pendulum.”
He makes some salient points.
Speaking of salient points, former superintendent Tom Dunn writes about Lies, Lies, and More Lies. As a superintendent, Dunn witnessed first hand the endless parade of mandates that have been hoisted on the shoulders of schools and he’s ready to say enough,
“I felt perpetually conflicted about being forced to implement mandates that were, frankly, bad for kids. The irony is how often the very politicians who denounce bullying use their power to beat adults into submission with their ill-conceived laws. In education, they do this through threats of financial penalty against districts that dare disobey them, by threatening the professional licensure of educators who don’t do as they are told, and/or through character assassination of those who dare question them”
He has a whole lot more to say and it’s all worth reading.
I know Christmas has passed and with it the giving season, but if you are looking for a gift for yourself and you haven’t bought Dr. Joseph’s new book, order now and you can get 20% off. Just enter the code “Purpose” when you check out and you’ll receive your discount.
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Don’t forget to answer this week’s poll questions.
Your first paragraphs detail the “root” well. But, I am disappointed you join the choir of the School Board with a “the problems are societal – so there is nothing _we_ can do”
There are so many things that our school leadership can do, today, to directly oppose the isolation of concentrated poverty in zoned schools of last resort.
1) Elevate all middle schools to the same status, giving all 8th graders an equal chance at the score-segregated slots at Hume Fogg and MLK. This is how the magnet system worked from 1981 to 1999. The middle auto-pathways have jammed our escape ramps, caused thousands of “you lose again” letters to be sent home to tired families, and have accomplished nothing for our children’s academic success. They only foster ractial segregation. Period. One zero-cost stroke of the pen could eliminate them, and put this district on the course to being a K-8 district in the mind of many taxpayers, where today it is K-4 at best.
2) Drop the score screens into magnet schools altogether. Valor Charter has shown that choice-paperwork alone is sufficient to produce an observed group of high scoring students.
3) If the score screens must stay, then at least allocate slots in the school on a geographic basis, so that all areas of the city participate in these schools, and so that poverty isolation is reduced as affluent familes fan out across the city in search of higher-chance slots to magnet schools.
4) It is beyond immoral that our integrated high schools lack twice the count of AP/IB/Campbridge courses as our score-segregated magnet high schools. Nashville has changed radically since 1981. It is our integrated high schools that today need magnetization – not glitzy locations downtown by best-in-class museums. This costs some money, but it is a moral imperative.
5) The next 15 things from the last 5 strategic plans in the bonfire.
Oh well, I assume our Board will continue to just shrug as families leave, as revenues shrink… and that next month they will approve a few more Charter school expansions. So, we have to really looking at giving ALL parents in affluent Nashville a Valor-esque autonomous educational experience. What _else_ can we do to protect our kids from the inaction of our School Board, and the fury of state leadership?
I’m not sure where I said we can’t do anything but I certainly don’t agree with your just make it and they’ll succeed approach. In fact, the more I dig into the numbers provided by the chamber report card the more I suspect your motivations lie preserving your enclave and less in improving outcomes for all students.
Great article. Thanks for the mention.