Wagging The Dog


“Which do you think is more patient, an idea or a hope?”
Max Porter, Lanny

The Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce released its 30th Annual Education Report on Tuesday. That’s thirty years, of the chamber releasing a report offering its opinions and recommendations for Metro Nashville Public School System (MNPS). Every year the recommendations fall on a few more deaf ears, and they become less relevant to the city’s education conversation.

The Chamber’s report is delivered at a special event held at the Downtown Nashville Library. It’s full of pomp and circumstance, attended by all the important people – just ask them.

Mayor Cooper showed up, along with several Metro Government officials. MNPS Superintendent Dr. Adrienne Battle breezes in. Members of the city’s school board work the room. The central office staff are provided with one more excuse to not enter an actual working school building. The event’s 10 a.m. start time, conflicts with the hours of operation for Nashville Schools, ensuring that there are a minimal number of teachers in attendance.

I’ve been attending this annual function for about a decade now. Every year, I swear I’m not going to let it get under my skin. I promise I’m nothing to say anything that makes people uncomfortable. I promise myself that I won’t provide evidence that I am the ass many consider me. No farting in church this year. But, every year I prove myself a liar. I fail to remember just how offensive and distasteful I find this event.

There is so much talk that transpires. Talk about sacrifice and hard work. You hear it at the coffee and donut bar. You hear it from the stage. You hear it in the halls outside the auditorium. All of it is done by people who are doing little of the actual sacrifice and hard work. Because those people are at that very minute in front of students in one of the city’s classrooms.

Think of it this way, you know how whenever a sports team wins a championship they invite the team to the White House to meet the president? What if instead of the players attending, the team sent only the sponsors and support staff – the ticket sales guys, the nutritionists, and the GM? What if they scheduled the White House visit to coincide with a game? The phones would blow up at sports talk radio nation. But, that’s what we do every year with the Chamber of Commerce Education Committee Report.

We grade, we celebrate, and we recommend, while we don’t include the people who provide those assembled with fodder to do so. I’ll go one step forward, without the thousands of teachers and administrators diligently serving the city’s kids, three-quarters of the people gathered in this conclave would be earning significantly less money, and most would be pursuing other interests. Let that sink in for a minute. In politics, they call this “wagging the dog.”

This year’s event was the first held since the Chamber found itself at odds with city and school officials over their support of a legislative effort to give county mayors the power to take over school boards with too many underperforming schools. Last August, Metro Council voted 23-1 to pass a resolution, chastising the chamber’s “efforts to subvert democracy and eliminate the people’s voice in determining who serves on the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education”

I think it’s safe to say, that adventure left a mark. leaving the Chamber with little desire to poke MNPS again. They need to make sure this year’s report was a little more benign than in previous years.

For its 2022 report, the chamber chose to focus on work-based learning and how to increase participation opportunities for interested students. MNPS began its program during the 2021-2022 school year and expanded it to all MNPS high schools in the 2022-2023 school year. Over that time period, they hired and trained new staff, ramped up the program, and opened a support hub for continued expansion. oh and they spent several million dollars to do so.

Work-based learning programs provide students with an opportunity to earn academic credits while working paid jobs. It’s an initiative rooted in vocational training programs established in 1917. The goal is to expose students to many career opportunities while giving them hands-on experience. Job shadowing, internships, cooperative education, service-based learning, and more are incorporated in an effort to better prepare students for future careers.

The chamber’s education report, created by a volunteer committee chaired by Madeline Adams of the Japan-American Society of Tennesse and Carrie Maxwell of EY, consulted with a wide variety of experts to craft a list of observations and recommendations. Those recommendations include adding transportation options, expanding eligibility, and creating ways to include undocumented students.

Nice recommendations, but it is worth noting, there ain’t a teacher on the committee. The parents on the committee all have cool jobs like Metro Council Member or Juvenile Court Judge, or they work for cool people like Pinnacle Financial Partners. Yea…a real cross-section.

During the 2021 – 2022 school year, 131 students participated in MNPS’s work-based learning program, as did 15 business partners; students worked over 5,000 hours and received upwards of $70,000 in wages in year 1. The graduation rate of those students who participated in year 1 was 97 percent.

You read that right, this whole party on the patio was about 131 kids doing 125 weeks of work, collectively, and earning about $14 an hour. Screams inspiration doesn’t it?

Meh…maybe for the business community, who are always on the prowl for cheap labor. I know, that’s a cheap shot, but in this case…

Personally, I tell my kids, don’t be in such a rush to get to work and start earning money. You got a whole lifetime of that ahead of you, and trust me, there won’t be any time in the future when you’ll be wishing you got started sooner.

I started working when I was 13, and every year I wish I would have waited a little longer. Travel, explore hobbies, learn an instrument, spend time with friends, sleep in late, or read a book…in the future, you’ll have considerably fewer opportunities than you do now to pursue any of these interests, or others.

I get it, there are kids that come from impoverished homes, and waiting to go to work isn’t an option. That’s a bigger problem though, and a partial failure of society. Empowering a 15-year-old kid to become the primary breadwinner of a household might be a necessary sin, but it is not one to celebrate.

Per the Chamber’s report, certain student populations are excluded from work-based learning based on eligibility requirements. Three of the requirements stood out to committee members:

  • Students must maintain a “C” average,
  • Students must maintain an average attendance rate of 90%
  • Students must maintain positive behavior including, but not limited to, no 300-400-level offenses and no more than two 200-level offenses during the current school year.

To address these concerns, committee members encourage the district to work with employers to understand the minimum requirements and assurances needed for students to participate. Some employers may be willing to accept students who do not meet all of MNPS’s current eligibility requirements. The Committee further encourages, MNPS and the Metro government to develop ways to provide work-based learning experiences for students who may require more support or flexibility than their peers.

To participate in the work-based training program, students must provide their own transportation. Thus creating a barrier for some. Public transportation is time-consuming, and ride-share programs are often unreliable. Participation by more businesses that offer hybrid or remote work could serve to mitigate some of the transportation challenges.

Funding for work-based learning comes from one of two sources. Either it comes directly from employers or the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act (WIOA). WIOA is a federal grant program that requires students to have a Social Security Number, and thus, illegal immigrant students are ineligible to receive payment.

MNPS, like many Tennessee school districts, serves a large contingent of immigrant and refugee students, both those considered documented and those who are undocumented. The Supreme Court ruled in Plyler v. Doe (1982) that all children residing in the United States, regardless of their citizenship or immigration status, have a guaranteed right to free public K-12 education.

The committee noted other districts, in an effort to meet this challenge, have offered travel vouchers or scholarships to students without documentation. While acknowledging the additional fundraising and planning that this would require, they believe all options must be considered to include every student who seeks a work-based learning experience.

While the primary focus remains on MNPS, the chamber’s education committee report repeatedly states that this can not be solely a school district initiative. The burden of successful implementation rests with the entire community. Those attending yesterday’s event were encouraged to listen and ask themselves, “What can we do?”

Included in the 2022 Nashville Chamber Education Report is data showing demographics, enrollment, attendance, and performance numbers over the last eight years. Those numbers are the ones that reveal MNPS as a shrinking district with a shifting demographic makeup. White and Black students make up a smaller percentage, while the share of Hispanic students has grown. The high school and middle school populations may be on the rise, but middle and elementary school numbers continue to decline.

This year I lasted about 40 minutes at the ball and managed to alienate only about a dozen people before I split. Just long enough to ruin the rest of my day, as the feelings of disgust lingered long after my departure.

Here’s my recommendation for the Chamber if they want to become relevant. Replace half the education committee with actual educators, and make a teacher co-chair. Additionally, schedule the event at a time when the room can be filled with educators, who are actually making sacrifices and doing the heavy lifting, not just talking about it.

And most importantly, stop talking and listen.

Remember the words of Abraham Lincoln, “Better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and to remove all doubt – It’s better to keep your mouth shut and appear stupid.”

The Unfolding of An Interesting Conundrum

One of the first bills filled this year, as Tennessee’s General Assembly begins its annual session, is one that would abolish the law establishing class sizes for k-12 classrooms. The bill carries a little extra weight because its sponsor is the Chairman of the State Senates Education Committee, Senator John Lundberg (R-Bristol).

I’m sure you can imagine the fireworks this one has kicked off. Many interpret Lunberg’s bill as a move to increase class size, something he adamantly denies.

Among those critics is Jill Weitz, director of communications for UnifiEd, a local education advocacy organization. She tells The Times Free Press that the bill is misguided, “I would assume that this is an attempt to address the teacher retention issue that we have,” Weitz said in a phone call. “And while that is something that is absolutely essential, we do not feel that this is the correct way to go about addressing that issue.”

After several conversations with Lundberg, I don’t believe that is a correct assumption. In my opinion, he is sincere when he says this is an idea born out of conversations with educators, and a belief in local control. Living in Tennessee, where you have a conservative governor who seldom practices conservative principles, it is easy to forget, local control is a core conservative principle. Lundberg is a conservative.

But what about third-grade retention, you might ask? Here comes the conundrum, for both sides.

The way I see it, you either support local control, or you don’t. You don’t get to pick and choose at whim. And Senator Lundy, and I talked extensively about the dichotomy of supporting local control in one instance and taking it in another. His arguments are thoughtful – one is about ensuring consistent outcomes for all Tennessee students, while one is about allowing the locals to serve students as they see best – though I remain respectfully unconvinced.

In one instance, supporters believe that given the opportunity, locals will do what’s best, while critics believe the opposite. On the next subject, the roles are flip-flopped. It doesn’t really work that way, you either believe and trust that decisions are best made at the local level or you don’t.

Here’s where it gets even more interesting. In discussing the proposed legislation with an educator friend, their response was, “Oh no, we can’t have that pass!. We are already having enough issues trying to get the district to adhere to the law. They are constantly in violation of class size laws.”

So we can’t lift an ineffective law because people are already ignoring it? That’s a head-scratcher.

I’ve come to the conclusion that there are three different levels of control in education – federal, state, and local – because we like to treat school governance in a manner similar to a schoolyard brawl. Hear me out.

Two kids initially square off, and one beats the other. Instead of accepting defeat, the loser trucks off to enlist the aid of their older and bigger brother. That brother comes back and attempts to right the loss.

When he gets his butt kicked, he just goes with the younger brother and enlists the aid of the eldest brother, who brings their considerable heft to the fight. When the dust clears, all the combatants stand around, regardless of who wins, and say, “We could have just settled this between us.”

For the record, Lundberg is a supporter of smaller class sizes and recognizes the benefits they bring. He’s not looking to mimic college lecture halls. His bill, if made law, would require the TDOE to still produce recommended class sizes. Basically, the same thing they are doing now.

It’s going to be interesting how this all unfolds and spills over into other areas. Ultimately, decisions will have to be made on whether principals guide us, or self-interest.

Quick Hits

If you are an MNPS family, look for a school marketing plan to be directed your way in the near future. MNPS is attempting to stem enrollment declines by giving individual schools 1, 5, or 10K, to promote their school to the local community. They use the money on stipends for family engagement efforts, fliers, media buys, or assorted other tools. Whatever puts more butts in the seat, and less in the city’s charter schools. But wait a minute you say…aren’t the majority of charter schools, MNPS schools? Didn’t the district approve and previously promote those schools? So in essence isn’t MNPS actually spending money to compete against…itself? Schematics my friend, just put me down for a coffee mug and a t-shirt – size extra-large.

In case you were wondering, charter school expansion remains very much alive and kicking in Tennessee. Education may not be a priority for the Governor during his second term, but it is certainly on the to-do list for Tennessee House Leader Cameron Sexton (R- Crossville). In a recent speech, he introduced a new element, Charter Boarding Schools.

Per the Tennessee Lookout, he proposed the idea during a recent speech. He supported the idea by telling the gathered crowd“We know that there are kids in certain parts of our state who are in high-crime areas, and we’re okay with funding them when they go to prison, we’re okay with funding them with DCS (Department of Children’s Services) to DHS (Department of Human Services).”

So…let me…get this straight…all right I better not.

One last thing about charter schools. Public or I should say, traditional school advocates, are going to have to at some point change their messaging. Charter schools have been around long enough to produce a litany of mixed results, but a generation of graduates. Those graduates now making educational decisions for their own children. They. like most of us, will apply the weight of our experiences in making those decisions. Regaling them with tales of charter school malfeasance is likely to prove ineffective in convincing them of the value of a public school. They are more likely to shrug and say, “yea, I went through a charter school and I’m okay”, while they enroll their children in a charter option. Just saying.

Congratulations to Mercedes Schneider on hitting the 10-year mark with her blog. If you don’t read her, you should.

I’m going to leave you with this one. You may have heard about the case in Memphis involving 5 police officers beating Tyre Nichols, a young black motorist, to death. All the officers involved are Black, so the race aspect is not as prevalent as in other cases, but, we are presented with yet another example of police overstepping their bounds and behaving in an abhorrent manner.

The video of the incident is to be released this evening, delayed by an effort to allow people who work in government buildings ample opportunity to get home. The expectation is that the video will spark riots and endanger those that had nothing to do with the tragic events. I question the expectation of violence.

Yes, too many people have lost their lives due to the actions of police officers who fail to live up to the standards of the profession. But for every one of these criminals with a badge, there are tens of thousands of officers who serve with distinction. We must not allow the actions of a few bad actors to negate those honorable officers’ service. Just as their exemplary service does not negate, or excuse, the actions of those who fail to live up to standards.

Police work is difficult work. It requires putting your own life at risk. None of that excuses allowing a low-level traffic stop to turn into a senseless beating.

Memphis officials have already taken action to hold those responsible accountable. The five officers will now answer to the very justice system that they once vowed to serve. It is right to be angered. It is right to mourn. It is right to demand change. It is not right to give in to the same impulses that led to these officers to commit the horrific actions they allegedly committed.

Stay golden Memphis. Don’t tragedy on top of tragedy.

– – –

A new year doesn’t equate to greater financial stability. Putting this blog together requires a great deal of time and resources, If you think it’s valuable, your support would be appreciated.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve already lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

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If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated. Not begging, just saying, Christmas is right around the corner.


Categories: Education

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