“The world of [comic book] collecting is not a pretty place. For a bunch of guys who like good-over-evil stories, you sure meet a lot of morally bankrupt assholes.”
― Wimbledon Green: The Greatest Comic Collector in the World
True confession time, I don’t watch school board meetings with the fidelity that I once did. Probably for the same reason, I don’t watch hamsters on their wheels as much anymore – the fascination has faded and the repetition is mind-numbing.
School board meetings, like hamster wheels, give the illusion of progress, but in reality, it’s just an endless cycle and ultimately a road to nowhere.
I realize that comes off as a little cynical. and for that reason, it necessitates a brief pause while I consider whether I want to mitigate that statement or not.
Upon reflection of the last 10 years of watching MNPS’s school board, I’m going to let it stand. Though with some caveats.
I don’t believe it has to be that way, and I believe that throughout the last decade there have been those MNPS board members who’ve tried to bring depth and meaning to board meetings, but ultimately they fell short and were beaten against the rocks until they left the board.
I also believe that in other parts of the state, where districts aren’t under a constant threat from outside forces and thus true partnerships can be formed, meetings have been quite impactful. Unfortunately, that doesn’t hold true with Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Here tone continually trumps over substance, and certain subjects receive due diligence, while other equally problematic moves sneak in the back door virtually unnoticed. Work in progress is touted as if it has already been brought to fruition and there is seldom any effort to go deeper than the surface. Items that warrant deeper vetting are often slipped on the consent agenda, contributing to a culture of distrust.
The chasm between the board room and the classroom is ever-widening, even as the administration touts an initiative of every child known.
This past MNPS school board meeting offers ample evidence of what I’m referring to. It starts with Dr. Paul Changas, MNPS’s data guru, talking about the new parent portal. It’s a subject that has been discussed for at least 5 years and has progressed little beyond what was first proposed.
Sure, there is a little more data provided but no more real information. nor directions on how information should be utilized by parents. Some of the data is inaccurate because teachers haven’t graded all the submitted work of students. The data available in the portal, comes in fits and starts, often with a large data dump a week before progress reports are due, which gives little time to address any low performance.
But lest you think I’m being critical of teachers here, let’s be clear, the only reason there is any data of note in the portal is because of the extra work of teachers.
The district’s two platforms, Schoology and Infinite Campus, do not seamlessly interact with each other. In order for parents to receive any desired information, teachers need to manually transfer it from Schoology to Infinite Campus.. Work that requires additional time in a world where teacher time is a precious commodity.
This is no big reveal. Changus and his team have known this for at least 3 years, yet they keep trying to jam that square peg in a round hole. It’s 2021, not 2001, surely there is a system out there that truly meets the needs of both parents, teachers, and the district -and surely we can find a way to pay for it.
Over the years, I’ve worked for a lot of start-up bars and restaurants. All of which employed one of two approaches. Either the owner opens the place with the full vision realized, or they open with the dream half met and try to convince patrons of all the grandiose offerings that are coming in the future – there will e a waterfall here, we’ll have live music on Fridays and Saturdays, or just wait until the outdoor patio is built.
Bet you can guess which ones succeed and which ones are gone before they can add all the promised amenities.
As part of his presentation, Changus touts the number of schools, thirty-seven, that have achieved over 60% participation in the parent portal. This boast is not dissimilar from the local mobster touting the number of local businesses that have signed up for their business insurance program.
Behind the scenes, MNPS Chief of Academics Mason Bellamy has been using every carrot and stick at his disposal in order to pressure principals into getting parents to sign up. He’s used, pizza, work from home days, and threats over the last three months and has only secured 37 schools with 60% or greater participation. That might say something about both your strategy and your product.
But to get that lesson, you’d have to listen instead of trying to tell people what they think and value. Something that seems beyond the reach of Bellamy and company.
Changus tours the depth of surveys, and focus groups conducted, as evidence of the portal being representative of what parents want. If that was true, wouldn’t you have more than 37 schools hitting the 60% threshold? Asking for a friend.
After Changus’s presentation, the meeting quickly moves into familiar territory, charter schools. Three charter schools were requesting the ability to add 5th grade to their elementary school. After an hour-long debate, a consensus was reached. Per the Tennessean,
Metro Nashville school board members eventually voted to allow three charter schools — Rocketship Nashville Northeast, Purpose Prep Academy and Smithson Craighead Academy — to add fifth grade to their current K-4 elementary schools in alignment with the district’s own initiative to move fifth grade from middle schools back to the elementary level.
During that debate, several board members voiced an opinion that charter schools were not MNPS schools. OK…but just three weeks ago, again per the Tennessean,
After a heated debate, the school board voted 5-4 to accept Nashville Classical Charter School II into the district’s portfolio after the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission overturned the board’s decision to deny the school’s second campus.
Look, at some point, you have to either break up and move on or recommit to the relationship. Right now, both the charter community and MNPS are trying to remain friends with benefits, a role that is ultimately unfulfilling for everyone.
Here’s the irony though, the board was willing to spend an hour debating the future of schools that many believe are not MNPS schools, but only took 10 minutes to give away a school that everyone recognizes as an MNPS School.
To explain,I have to back up for a minute.
Right before the conversation on charter schools, the consent agenda was up for consideration. The consent agenda is designed to offer a way to quickly pass contracts, or actions, that warrant no further conversation. The move to the practice of including the consent agenda was adopted 7 or 8 years ago. Prior to that adoption, the board used to consider every contract individually, a time-consuming process.
Inexplicably included on last week’s consent agenda was a proposed contract with Education Direction LLC for turn-around school services.
For the provision of independent school turnaround services at Jere Baxter Middle School as part of the State of Tennessee’s School Turnaround Pilot Program. The desired outcome of these services is for Jere Baxter Middle School to meet the Priority School exit criteria established by the state’s federal approved Every Student Succeeds Acts (ESSA) plan by the end of the pilot program period
For their services, Education Directions LLC would be paid up to $125,000 per year over the life of the contract term and then $500,000 upon Jere Baxter Middle School exiting the Priority status.
Education Direction LLC was identified through an RFP process conducted by the state as dictated by new legislation. One that described the services as such,
This RFQ is based upon T.C.A. § 49-6-3601, et. seq., “School Turnaround Pilot Program Act,” which requires the Tennessee Department of Education (“Department”) to develop and implement a four-year School Turnaround Pilot Program for schools identified as in need of intervention. Performance for schools included in the pilot will be compared to Non-pilot Schools to gauge performance and/or outperformance of pilot. The desired outcome should result in 100% of the five (5) selected intervention schools meeting the Priority School exit criteria established by the state’s federal approved Every Student Succeeds Act (“ESSA”) plan no later than the end of the pilot with the support of qualified vendors.
Getting concerned yet? You should be. But there is more.
So in order for a school to exit priority status and secure the half-million-dollar bonus for the turn-around specialist, a school must meet only one of the following 4 criteria,
a. Exceed 15th percentile for most recent year’s success rate
b. Exceed 10th percentile for two most recent year’s success rate
c. Earn TVAAS 4 or 5 in all accountability content areas for two consecutive years
d. If identified for graduating less than 67 percent of its students, the school can exit by graduating at least 67 percent of its students in both of the two most recent years.
Feels like a low bar to me, but what do I know.
Mind you, that half-million-dollars is for the vendor, NOT the teachers, the building leadership, or for that matter anyone else. I don’t know about you, but if I got a half-million on the table, I’m not leaving a whole to chance nor am I giving a whole lot of credence to other voices, unless of course, they are saying what I want to hear.
What about if the vendor doesn’t like the principal? Can they replace him?
Removal of a principal will be at the sole discretion of the district; however, the vendor is able to make recommendations to the district that would support rapid turnaround efforts.
What about if the district doesn’t like the vendor and doesn’t want to run the school under their leadership?
The School Turnaround Pilot Program is required by law and any timeframe changes would require legislative action and a change to T.C.A. § 49-6-3601, et. seq.
That seems pretty clear. So what emerges, is not so much a partnership but rather a takeover. A take over that belongs in the director’s report as opposed to the consent agenda. Luckily board member Abigail Tylor was aware enough to pull this item from the consent agenda.
Tylor initiated the discussion by asking for an explanation of the contract and how it came to be in front of the board. Dr. Battle asked MNPS’s Chief Strategy Officer Keri Randolph to address Tylor’s questions.
Why Randolph and not Chief of Innovation Sharon Griffin is the question. After all, Jere Baxter is an innovation school, and Griffen is familiar with the TNDOE, with who the alleged partnership is, as she previously served as head of the state’s Achievement School District. Furthermore, Griffin had played an integral role in the steps that MNPS has recently taken to improve student outcomes – hiring of a new principal and a consolidation with Gra-Mar to provide more resources.
Seems that she would be the logical choice.
But alas, the choice was Randolph, who always seems to be the go-to person in initiatives supplied by the state – tutoring, navigator program, summer school. To the point, that one could question who she actually receives a paycheck from. But that’s another matter for another day.
Randolph could have used the opportunity to explain not only the contract but the law it was attached to, she chose to do neither. Instead, she painted the contract as a partnership, conveying none of the control that MNPS was giving up in approving the contract.
Dr. Battle stepped in several times during the ensuing conversation, and while it became clear that board members were not adequately briefed in the details around the contract and the new legislation which mandated the contract approval, she never offered further clarification either.
Neither of the two can be accused of lying, but neither can they claim complete honesty and transparency. Not a good look.
As a result, the contract was approved and in a brushstroke, control of Jere Baxter was turned over to a turn-around specialist and by de facto, the Tennessee Department of Education.
If you don’t believe me, read the legislation. It’s pretty clear. The state has taken over Jere Baxter every bit as efficiently as if it had assigned it to the Achievement School District. And for some reason, Dr. Battle and her team decided that this wasn’t important enough to warrant inclusion in a Director’s Report, nor to freely brief the board.
I guess fighting mask mandates, beating principals up over the parent portal, and claiming every student known, take priority over keeping all schools in the MNPS fold.
Raise your hand if you believe that this pilot program won’t be further expanded and eventually utilized to take over more schools, maybe even a district. After all, it’s not without precedent. Adam-14, a school district in Colorado has been managed by a turn-around specialist for the last 2 years.
It is worth noting that Education Directions LLC is part of the Cicero Group. A consultancy that is among the largest in the world and about 5 years ago hired a lobbyists to push for the legislation that provided Education Directions with their new opportunity. Mission accomplished.
While I don’t hold board members culpable for this latest fiasco, I do think that at some point they need to make sure that the MNPS Director of Schools understands the chain of command. She serves at the board’s behest, not the other way around.
It is incumbent in Dr. Battle that she keep board members informed to a level in which they are capable of fully doing their job. Perhaps she would be recognized that if the board conducted its required annual performance review, something that Dr.Battle has yet to be subject to despite nearly two years of service. That is on the board.
To put it bluntly, the director and her staff have to stop treating the board as something to be managed, and instead recognize that their role is to manage her. Until that happens, it is just going to be more of the same, possibly until the state has full control of MNPS.
Rumor has it that the TNDOE has finally posted teacher TVAAS scores. They went online over the Thanksgiving weekend. Teachers have the opportunity to reject their scores as provided by state legislators this past session. Just don’t ask the TNDOE how to do it as they haven’t established a process yet. Raise your hand if you are surprised. Yea, I didn’t think so.
Both the state and the local Tennessee school districts involved in the school funding lawsuit have requested a delay until after this next legislative session. So, count the Governors’ current BEP task force assembly as successful. According to the Tennessean,
“The Parties have a shared interest in resolving this lawsuit without judicial intervention and have agreed to a process which will allow Plaintiffs and Intervening Plaintiffs to provide input during Governor Lee’s review of the BEP,” according to the joint motion filed by the Tennessee Attorney General’s Office on Nov. 19.
An interest that was never revealed in the past. But at least now we can count on another couple of years of lawyers getting paid. Always nice to have a steady gig.
The motion goes on to suggest the possibility that the governor “may propose legislative changes to the BEP during the 2022 legislative session.”
The Governor has already alluded to a new formula that is student-centric. I’m getting a feeling that it will also include performance incentives. Not sure exactly what they’ll look like, but keep that on your radar.
Here’s one that slipped under the radar. According to the TN Hollar, Governor Bill Lee has just appointed Jordan Mollenhour of Knoxville to the State Board of Education, the governing and policy-making body for Tennessee’s Pre-K-12 public education system – which through a partnership with the TN Department of Education maintains oversight in K-12 implementation and academic standards.
According to the Hollar, Mollenhour has a bit of history selling gun ammo over the internet. And why not? In fact, there is a distinct possibility that he sold ammo to the Aurora shooter. But of course, clearly, he’s the perfect appointment to the Tennessee Board of Education for Bill Lee.
Professional Educator of Tennessee’s Executive Director JC Bowman has an opinion piece up online at the online Newspaper Mainstreet Nashville that you ought to read. In it he reminds us that,
We must pay close attention to the upcoming education funding debate in Tennessee leading up to the upcoming legislative session. We must spend funding more efficiently and modernize the system. We must also remind ourselves that the quality of public education improves the personal growth and social development of children and makes a community a more attractive place to live. Tennessee’s economy and future are dependent on educating our children effectively. If we harm our schools irreparably, we hurt our future.
Tru words, spoken clearly.
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