“Perhaps the most indispensable thing we can do as
human beings, every day of our lives, is remind ourselves and others
of our complexity, fragility, finiteness, and uniqueness.”
Yesterday I came across a lengthy piece by writer and educator Peter Greene on public education agitator Christopher Rufo. In case you are unfamiliar with the name, he is a member of a think tank and many credit him as being the source of the growing controversy around Critical Race Theory. Rufo gave a speech at Hillsdale College back in April, and parts of it have been widely distributed by those who use CRT to attack public schools.
I’m pretty confident that Governor Lee is well-versed in Rufalo’s writings. To quote Greene,
Rufo’s strength is building a narrative and precisely and deliberately building the language to sell that narrative. He calls himself a journalist and talks about “breaking stories,” and while he appears to have no actual background in journalism, he does build a large, cohesive narrative.
I’d like to claim that I read Greene’s piece in its entirety, but unfortunately, that wouldn’t be true. It’s not because I consider Greene a poor writer, he assuredly is not. Or that I consider him misinformed, he is anything but. I’d go as far as to say that we could all benefit from reading his blog Curmudgucation every day.
So why didn’t iI finish this piece?
It’s because I’ve grown weary of our obsession with crafting straw men in order to blame someone besides ourselves for the slow death of public education. Sure Rufo, and his ilk contribute in a significant manner to the ongoing dismantling of the public system, but if we really want to hold culprits accountable we need just look in the mirror.
A look at metro Nashville Public Schools provides evidence of wence I speak. Despite one of the most rigorous fights against the efforts of privatization, the district has been experiencing a significant decline in enrollment numbers over the last decade. At the same time, despite the school board continually disapproving of new charters, charter enrollment has continued to grow.
We like to worship at the altar of data when it’s convenient, but now that the data is telling a story that should make us all very uncomfortable, will we ignore it?
The trend of declining enrollment started way before Rufo started writing, and I’ll bet if I asked 100 people who’ve made the decision to enroll in a charter school, seek out a private option, or home school, less than 10 would be able to tell me who he is, let alone quote is writings.
If I was to take a survey of those who have chosen options other than MNPS, I’m willing to bet that the common thread would be a deep dissatisfaction with their experiences with the city’s public school system Would all of those criticisms be legitimate, maybe not to public school advocates and district administrators, but to the folks who’ve made the decision to leave, most certainly.
Ultimately the decision of whether a complaint is legitimate or not lies with the one deciding to participate or not. And right now there are too many of the latter and not enough of the former.
Here’s the thing, you only have “public education” if it includes the public. That means everyone, not just the people with legitimate complaints who expresses them in an acceptable manner. Not just those who pay proper homage to district officials. Not just those that have no other options. Everybody.
I’ve worked in public service for 40 years of my life, and I know just how demanding dealing with the public can be. But it’s been a necessity, unless, of course, I was looking to run a niche establishment, Unfortunately, financially that never seemed to work out.
If I wanted to pay my bills, I couldn’t act as if the public owed me their patronage. Yet, I’ve witnessed such behavior on a regular basis from district administrators who seem to think I have no other options but to send them my children, and pay them a six-figure salary for the privilege of their service. I may be wrong, but in today’s world, where options for everything abound, I don’t believe that will be a sustainable approach. As a result, MNPS is increasingly becoming at risk to become a niche organization.
Last night’s district meeting at Oliver Middle School serves to bear out my argument. Full disclaimer, OMS is the school my children attend, and as such, I’m loathed to write about it, but I think their issues are symptomatic of a longer issue and therefore can’t be ignored.
Oliver is an example of the strong community schools that public education supporters advocate for. It draws from adjourning diverse neighborhoods where both teachers and students reside. As a result, parental support and pride have been deeply embedded for years, Expectations run high, and the stellar arts programs are a product of those expectations.
Like many of MNPS’s schools, 2021/2022 has been a difficult year. Especially for middle schools. Discipline incidents are up, concern over supposed “learning loss” is high, and teachers are experiencing a higher rate of burnout than in previous years. Oliver has not been immune to any of this.
Over the course of the year, the school has lost upwards of 31 teachers. A concerning number in the best of years, but in a year where turmoil is the new norm, it’s panic-inducing.
Complicating things even more, the school has also seen accusations of sexual impropriety brought against a beloved teacher, and the discovery of a loaded handgun brought to school. Both situations were handled questionably. Again, concerning in the best of years, but in a year where turmoil is the new norm, it’s panic-inducing.
In a close-knit community like Oliver, it shouldn’t be surprising to anyone that departing teachers and parents that remain at Oliver talk. When tales of a lack of discipline become the common thread, along with a lack of administrative support, the formerly expressed sentiment once again rises to the top.
Full disclosure, Over the last 3 years, my interactions with Principal Hawaii Wilson have always been open and productive. She certainly hasn’t always answered in a manner that I desired, but she has always answered and been fair with me. I will always owe her a debt of gratitude for the way she has treated my family.
Though many would argue otherwise, I’m not convinced that she is the source of the school’s issues, but rather that the fault lies with district policy and the people supposedly proffering support. An example of officials trying to do things to, or for people, instead of with.
Many in the community seemed to initially be willing to give her the benefit of the doubt, but when communication channels were repeatedly closed by the district, that support began to evaporate. They formed their own meetings in order to try and support a school they were deeply vested in. A move initially criticized by the school board rep, though she did attend and contribute to the second.
Parents were led to believe that last night’s meeting would be an opportunity to get answers and reassurances to their questions and concerns. Instead, the meeting was hijacked by district officials and turned into a typical welcome back to school night. Parents and community members would be provided an opportunity to ask their questions, but only after the district served its agenda.
Imagine approaching the counter at Subway to complain about your sandwich, only to be told that they would address your complaint after they told you about their new hiring initiative and briefed you on new product offerings. You’d be pissed. So it shouldn’t be surprising that many of Oliver’s parents reacted in a similar manner to the district’s efforts.
Standing in the back watching events unfold with a long-time community supporter, he turned to me and said, “You know this ain’t going to be good for anybody.”
All I could do was agree.
Earlier in the week, the MNPS school board denied three new charter school applications. Here they were 2 days later facilitating a walking billboard for charter school enrollment.
There ain’t a parent in the world who is going send their child to a school where they don’t feel valued and their children feel safe, There ain’t a parent in the world who is going to blindly send their child to a school that best serves their needs. Presented with an opportunity to reassure, MNPS officials chose to attempt to reestablish control. It didn’t go well.
As parent and organizer, Christie Mayo said in a Facebook post,
Dr. Battle, MNPS administrators, and Rachael Anne Elrod for Metro Nashville School Board,Last night’s meeting did not go well for you. It was a huge missed opportunity for you to show your willingness to hear parents’ concerns, find solutions and fix problems at Oliver Middle. And on top of that, you failed to offer a successful virtual meeting option – which you promised would happen and had weeks to prepare for.It was clear you wanted to separate parents so everyone in attendance would not be able to hear the very limited number of questions you intended to allow. This was not the meeting Ms. Elrod or MNPS officials told us we would have. If you had just come to the meeting willing to admit there are issues and given parents the opportunity to ask questions, this could have been a productive and successful meeting – and I feel certain we would have felt better about the upcoming school year and regained (some) trust and confidence in the leadership. But that’s not what happened.We do not want to hear any more lies, we do not want to hear what your “documentation” shows about the lockdown, or what the non-existent exit interviews say (because you failed to do them according to your own policy). You sent the message to parents that you don’t want to make things better at Oliver and your attempt to deflect by wanting us to “look over here, there’s nothing to see” failed.I keep hearing Ms. Elrod and MNPS say they have a problem finding teachers all across the district, but yet, over half of Oliver’s teachers leave in one school year and you don’t think there could be a problem worth investigating?? Get your head out of the sand – it’s mind boggling and quite frankly arrogant that you spend more time trying to cover-up and push lies (they left due to promotions?) than you do trying to determine why it happened and how to fix it. Do the math… you would rather let 31 qualified, amazing teachers leave (I believe that’s the number we’re up to now) than address the leadership defects of 2 people – one of which didn’t even bother to show up to last night’s meeting.You could have come out of this meeting being the hero by giving parents confidence in your ability to address and fix problems, but you chose not to.
One thing my decades of public service have taught me is that sometimes you just have to listen to people. Don’t try to handle them, offer empathy, or convince them. Just listen to them. It’s the hardest thing to do, yet the most effective. People want to believe, by nature they want to trust in their public institutions, but they want to know that those institutions value them.
It’s SEL 101, but while we spend millions on instructing students in SEL practice, district officials continually fail to practice the most basic of tenets, To our own demise.
Vocal parents at last night’s meeting were treated like they were a threat. They weren’t. A passionate person is unlikely to disengage. The real threat comes from the silent majority who are just watching events unfold and looking for confirmation that the school is the best choice for their child. I bet few were reassured after last night.
How many families will leave the public system because of what they witnessed? You may never know because they don’t owe you an obligation to inform you. They just leave.
Here’s another lesson I’ve learned the hard way. There is a misconception that when two entities disagree, those impacted will weigh the arguments and reach a decision based on who put forth the best argument. That doesn’t happen. More often than not a decision is reached that you are both a pain in the ass, and a solution that doesn’t include either of you is sought.
MNPS had an opportunity last night to demonstrate that they value though who choose to entrust them with their children. They chose to forsake that opportunity in an effort to demonstrate who’s in control. Unfortunately, as a result, they may be delivered a lesson about who is really in control, and that will be a lesson devoid of benefit for any of us.
We can not afford to focus on outside threats while allowing the system to erode from the inside. Mayo spells this out in a separate post,
f you had only come to the table and said, “you know, there are some things that we should’ve handled differently but here’s how we plan to make this next school year different…” it would have been so much better. But you NEVER did that. Being defensive, deceptive and prideful does nothing to solve problems. Why can’t you just listen to parents concerns and answer our questionsI appreciate the 3 Metro Council members, the 4 School Board Members (who had absolutely no obligation to attend with the exception of Rachael Anne Elrod for Metro Nashville School Board) and D2 school board candidate Todd Pembroke for School Board MNPS District 2 attending.Ultimately, we only want success for our students at Oliver Middle and we can’t do that without your leadership and help. You need to take a hard look at the issues and leadership when you have so much chaos in a school.
When you are funded by the public it behooves you to serve the public. District leadership positions come with a six-figure salary. Most double the average of a teacher. I’m not sure any of them earned that last night.
We got to do better. Not every criticism is an attack. Not every concern is unwarranted. Sometimes you have to be willing to listen.
TEST RESULT CELEBRATIONS
While the release of Tennessee’s state standardized results has been mostly met with a muted response, there still have been efforts to paint them as indicative of widespread success. In looking at these, it’s important to remember a few things.
Tutoring, summer school and curriculum have all been touted as sources for the rebound in scores. Teachers, begrudgingly have been given some credit, but only as a vehicle for delivery of the aforementioned. What’s being left out is that the degree of implementation for these programs varies greatly across the state. It is way too early, to credit any of them for producing meaningful impact. In the future they will need to be funded without federal aid, that’ll be a challenge.
Participation rates differ between this year and last as well. MNPS had participation last year of just over 85%, while this year it’s over 95%. That’s a considerable difference when you are talking about a district with over 70K students. A difference that can significantly raise or lower results.
The numbers this year, are pretty similar to those produced pre-pandemic. In other words, we’ve spent millions of dollars to produce the same results as in the past.
MNPS released scores for students 3-8 this week. Parents were provided classification and a score, but little context. What you might not know is that a 6th grader who scored 339 on his math assessment would be considered “approaching expectations”. But if that same student had gotten just one more question right, they’d have scored a 441 and been classified as “meeting expectations”. So how many kids fall within 3 points on either side of the cutoff scores?
I would think that would be an important consideration.
Lastly, remember nobody is scoring in the 60 percentile for “meeting expectations”. It’s kind of like baseball where hitters consistently hit in the 20 and 30-percentiles, yet you never hear anyone put forth the argument that MLB players can’t hit.
My argument isn’t to downplay the efforts of teachers and students, but rather to point out that instead of investing millions with the friends of Schwinn society, we couple have increased investment in the true difference makers, teachers. Quite possibly raising scores even higher, but we’ll never know because we consistently put programs over people.
LOOK AT THE MONEY
Early voting starts today in Tennessee. That includes the race for 4 MNPS school board seats. A brief perusal of financial disclosures proves quite interesting.
In District 4, Berthena Nabaa-McKinny, a former school board member, has raised $12700 this period for a total of $27010. A very respectful number. Notable supporters include CM’s Jeff Syracuse and Emily Evans, as well as MNEA.
In District 2, Challenger Todd Pembroke has raised $5660, while incumbent Rachel Elrod has raised $7325. Apparently, the Plumbers and Pipefitters Union has a great affection for her, as they’ve contributed through various members roughly $3750. It seems that the presumptive next chair of the MNPSschool Board could generate a little more support, but what do I know seeing as she beat me in the last school board race. Independent candidate Eddie Arnold raised $210.
District 6 is intriguing. Incumbent Fran Bush has raised $260, while her opponent, former school board chair Cheryl Mayes has raised $5495, $2K coming from MNEA. Safe to say, money ain’t playing a big role in this race.
District 8 is where the money lives. Democrat Erin Block brought in $29446. Nearly more than all the other races combined. Her challenger Amy Pate, raised $10253. Not a shabby number for a political novice.
In the positive news department, MNPS students will continue to receive meals in the upcoming school year. Per The Tennessean,
Metro Schools announced Thursday that they will use $7.5 million in federal coronavirus relief funds for each of the next two school years to continue providing free lunch for all students across the district.
Nice to see Nashville Scene owner Bill freemanweigh in on the comments expressed by Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn, and seemingly endorsed by Governor Lee.
Further, the governor still declines to criticize Arnn. He is talking out of both sides of his mouth — trying to walk his political fine line while also trying to assure us that he cares about Tennesseans. He recently said he “fully supports our public schools … and the teachers as well,” then in the same breath defended Arnn. “It wasn’t about Tennessee teachers or Tennessee schools as much as it was about activism in education and this country,” said Lee. Even when directly asked if this was the type of group he wanted teaching Tennessee children, Lee only said that his “comments about teachers and about the future of public education have been very clear.”
Freeman closes by pointing out that the Governor’s actions are speaking so loudly that he can’t hear a word he’s saying. I concur.
I opened with Peter Greene, so I’ll close with him as well. After five great years, his Board of Directors – as he affectionately refers to his children – has aged out of Dolly Parton’s Imagination Library. He takes the time to offer up praise for the legendary singer’s efforts. It is praise that is worthy of echoing,
I have been plugging this program for years (my first post was in 2014, back before the Board of Directors was even a sparkle in our eyes). Parton has engineered putting a book a month into the hands of families all across the country–we’re talking (currently) 184 million books in millions of households meeting no requirement other than they have a child between the ages of born and five. It costs the family nothing.
This is one piece in which I read every word. You should too.
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TC I got the email of Nashville news and saw the Oliver issue. There are real problems in most schools across the country that now are exposed and inflamed due to the pandemic so there is that. Then there is the reality of Nashville and I compare it where I once lived and worked, Seattle. Two states so inherently different that you would not think they are the same and yes in this case they are exactly the same it is just the shiny keys held up as distractions are not. Seattle it is Social Justice and all that it entails and in Nashville it is testing testing testing. Both are truly dysfunctional and the revolving door of Staff be it on the ground or in the higher ups it takes a toll on the schools and more importantly the kids.
That said, not a day goes by where I don’t struggle to recover from Nashville. I realize that it has affected me here where I live and how I approach each day in the schools and I wait for the other shoe to drop. I was in a large chunk of the schools, some more than others and I can say that I never once experienced any consistency in any of them over the 3 years I was there. Oliver is such an example. I walked out, literally walked out mid day at Oliver in 2019 and never went back there. It was that bad. I can say in my 30 plus years I have never experienced a happy day in Nashville school. I met a FEW and by FEW maybe 3 kids that treated me with respect. That has to say something. Something is very wrong there and I have nothing to offer other than believing it is the culture and attitude towards learning, towards education and the overwhelming disregard for authority as it seems to be some type of credit to show how much you can push and push until they explode. It is as if no one, adults included, seem to have any mirror to show them how they appear. I can recall Admin after Admin that were utterly unkind, if not utterly oblivious to how they appeared. I have seen that here where I work once, and I walked out of that school to never come back. In Seattle I saw that numerous times. Again irony, same coin different side. So that is politics right there and how it truly does damage and it explains the problems and why few have solutions.
It may not be comforting but I can point to the Seattle version of Oliver, Aki Kurose and I can find the bookend to every single school in Nashville to one in Seattle. I am not sure that helps but it is what it is. And look to San Francisco and the issue over the acclaimed Lowell. That lottery is over and with it 3 board members in one of the most liberal enclaves lost their positions. For the record where in the 2000s did I live and work? San Francisco. Different time and my experience there was akin to Oakland and Berkeley where I also lived and worked and lasted days… DAYS. I found working at Macy’s saner.
We have a problem it is about race, it is about poverty and it is about shame, decades of it.