SOME POSITIVE RESULTS

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Happy Monday morning to all of you! Seems like the weekends go so fast. But then again that’s an observence that’s been made since we started marking calendars. Thanks to all of you who responded to this weekends poll. Per usual, we got some illuminating replies. Let’s dive into the results.

The first question asked was  “What is your favorite success story from MNPS this year?” “Project Lit” won by a very narrow margin over “Teachers collecting enough signatures to begin collaborative conferencing.” Both are great success stories. The collaborative conferencing win is a tricky one though, as it can turn on a dime into a negative story. Everybody needs to realize that at the root of CC, it is a union busting tool. I know some would take exception to that, but that’s the truth of it. The process is long and arduous, providing hope for a limted number of potential benefits and ample opportunity for teachers to become frustrated with the union. Hat’s off to all those that are working so hard to fight against those odds and attempting to wrestle a positive outcome out of a purposely difficult process.

The third most popular story was the the continueing reception of accolades by Community Achieves. Something tells me there are even more on the horizon. If you haven’t read our recent interview with Alison McArthur, I encourage you to do so. Under “other”, we recieved the following responses:

Students falling in love with reading 1
Absolutely nothing 1
MNPS project expo 1
Tusculum Elementary will be complete in 2017!!! 1
Glendale Spanish Immersion Elementary awarded National Blue ribbon school! 1
all of the above!

On the question of “what makes your school truly special”, the number one answer was “teachers” at 43%. “Culture” was the number 2 answer at 36%. Coincidently, this week is “Show Your Love For Teachers Kick Off Week”. I always have a little bit of an issue with this week. You can’t expect to disrespect teachers all year and then expect one week to make it all good. But I will bury my inner crumudgian, because teachers deserve all the accolades people are willing to offer. That said, NPEF has compiled an impressive list of participating merchents offering discounts to teachers to show their love.

Unfortunately all the answers weren’t positive. Some of these answers highlight the pressing need to work even harder on our schools. Positive can come from negetive if we acknowledge that there is work needs to be done.

The students 3
Nothing 1
dishonest principal 1
Weekends and snow days 1
All of the above working in cohesion

Lastly, I wanted to know who your go to education writer was. Results here surprised me, though on reflection, they shouldn’t have. The overwelming favorate was Chalkbeat TN’s Grace Tatter. It seems that in just a few years Ms. Tatter has really earned your love as she managed to get twice as many votes as the runner up, national education icon Diane Ravitch. I must say that I’m kinda happy that Zack Barnes finished third. I am not particularily a fan of Mr. Barnes’s, but the fact that people who are read me as well, makes me happy. We seem to get more and isolated as a society and it seems like at times that we are just writing missives to reaffirm each others foregone collusions instead of actually attempting to spark a deeper conversation. Searching for that deeper conversation is always the motive here at Dad Gone Wild, but particularily so behind my latest piece. The fact that DGW is cultivating an audience that is looking for a 360 view thrills me. As for write in votes, board member Amy Frogge and Tennesean columist Jason Gonzales both picked up a couple. As well as a writer who I was not familiar with, but after researching believe we all should read, Nikole Hannah-jones. Thank you to all who showed love to Dad Gone Wild. Your kindness is much appreciated.

That’s it for now. Testing is done and now it’s time for field days to start getting scheduled. Teacher’s let me add my voice to the chorus that says thank you. Look for a post soon on my testing experiences this year and one on my experience as a head coach for a 4-6 year old little league baseball team. Friday we will have some more questions. Till then…peace out.

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WHAT’S OUR PRIORITY?

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Over the past year, while officially out of work, I’ve taken several part time jobs. One of my jobs is working a couple hours a day a couple days a week with an after school program. The program is made up of a mixture of kids between the ages of 5 and 13 from various backgrounds. This experience has been extremely rewarding, reminding me of some things, changing my opinions on others, and teaching me new things.

The other day, I was sitting across the table from a Hispanic fourth grader, and I asked him if he was excited about moving on to his zoned school, McMurray Middle School. Now I must disclose here that McMurray holds a special place in the Weber household’s heart. My wife taught there for 8 years and worked with some amazing teachers and students. That said, the child looked at me and said, “I’m not going to McMurray.” I asked, “Where are you going?” He had to struggle to think for a moment, but then answered, “Valor Collegiate Academy.”

Talk about a moment of standing at a crossroads. Valor is a local charter school and anyone who has ever listened to me for more than five minutes is acutely aware of my feelings regarding the way they do business. I’ve voiced my disdain for them to everyone from their CEO, to our local school board members, to other local parents. Now I was sitting across from a wide-eyed Hispanic fourth grader who had just informed me of his intent to enter those halls. How would I respond? I responded in the only way that I could with a clear conscience. “I think you’ll enjoy it there, and it’ll be good,” I said with a smile.

How could I answer any different? This child had just spent the last two years at Tusculum Elementary School in a portable classroom, adjacent to a practically uninhabitable elementary school. Next year, McMurray is getting badly needed renovations and subsequently will be utilizing one of two strategies: A) they’ll get 31 portable classrooms, or B) they’ll house 5th and 6th graders in that aforementioned uninhabitable school. Meanwhile, Valor has a nice new building where the roof doesn’t leak, the rooms are warm/cool when kids enter, and technology is up to date.

Valor also practices what they like to call “managed diversity.” If I’m a parent who isn’t well versed in the manipulation of language often utilized by charter schools, that sounds a whole lot safer than my local school, where, whether I admit it or not, can be a little scary at times. Under managed diversity, you get all the benefits of diversity but without all the scariness . McMurray accepts all students and that means that a lot of kids show up suffering from trauma which leads to behavior issues. For a young family that has already faced countless challenges, quality facilities coupled with a feeling of security and academic rigor paint an attractive figure if not a realistic one.

Public schools are a microcosm of our society. They don’t get to pick the children they serve. That means that sometimes bullying and bad behavior in general will happen. I can tell you from experience that sometimes at your local public school, especially if it’s a high needs school, your children will get exposed to things at a much earlier age than you wanted. Public schools are wonderful, creative, chaotic, challenging places, where incredible work gets done. One thing they are not though, is perfect.

Unfortunately, some public school school supporters often try to portray them as gardens of virtue, thereby opening the door for charter schools to take advantage of parents’ fears. Instead of having an honest conversation about our public schools, we focus on what a wonderful place all public schools are and spend our time hammering the shortcomings of charter schools. The reality is that many of the shortcomings of charter schools exist in public schools as well. I think we do a huge disservice to our children by not having honest conversations that focus on solutions versus blame. Spewing insults of “profiteer” and “supporter of the status quo” back and forth do little to improve opportunities for children.

In a recent blog post, one of my favorite bloggers, Peter Greene, talks about charter school parents feeling under attack. He begins the piece by referencing rich, privileged people who are used to getting their way, in his own words “Part of it may be an illusion of privilege. When you are an rich old white guy who has always gotten his way, it can be shocking and destabilizing when people say “No” to you. If you are a money-soaked hedge-funder surrounded by compliant underlings, it may be upsetting when people who should know their place start getting uppity. When you live soaked in privilege, any denial of your God-given right to get your own way might well feel like an attack. But that doesn’t describe everyone who has thrown their support behind charters and choice.”

Now he does throw out the caveat that not every charter supporter is a rich, old white guy, but the picture has already been vividly painted of who the charter forces are. But there is no equally vivid counter picture of a parent who is just at wit’s end over the shortcomings of their zoned school and have chosen a charter school on a wing-and-a-prayer hope that it’ll be something better for their child. The meat of Greene’s piece is an intellectual argument of why charter school proponents and public education supporters are locked into a “cage match.” He concludes by declaring, “And so charter schools and their fans, even the well-meaning decently parental ones, must live with the feeling of being under attack, because the system is currently constructed so that charter schools must be a threat to the health and continued existence of public schools, and public school supporters can either fight back or lie down and die.” As much as I admire Peter, I’m going to have to counter some of his assertions

Let me preface my argument by recounting a conversation I recently had with a fellow public school parent. We were discussing an idea being bandied about in Nashville of moving 5th graders back to elementary school as a means to keep kids in the system longer. Now, most everybody I know thinks this is a good idea, but this parent lamented to me, “I think it’d be a good thing, but it just bothers me that once again we are basing a decision on what’s good for the system instead of what’s good for the child.” Sometimes the simplest statements will resonate with you the longest.

Looking at Greene’s piece through that lens, the message that emerges to poor parents is that if you want something better for your kids, then you have to be willing to take the slings and arrows. We need you poor parents to suck it up and endure to preserve a system that some of us will not send our kids to. We seldom mention that when parents opt to send their child to a private school or home school there is still a cost to the zoned school. Any seat that goes unoccupied means less funding for the zoned school and one less family that could help that school improve. The tax money may not flow to a private entity but it also doesn’t flow to the zoned school who desperately needs it. Yet we never talk about the parents who explore private school options or home schooling as being hoodwinked, gullible, or greedy. I have always taken a position that whatever a choice a parent makes it up to them as long as they recognize that it all has a cost and that applies equally to private school, home school, or charter.

I believe that Greene 100% supports an equitable educational experience for all children, but I believe this whole “us vs. them” mentality forces us to narrow our focus.By not having honest conversations about zoned schools we actually hinder the application of equity. We get so focused on protecting the system, be it traditional schools or charter schools, that we fail to recognize that the system is made up of living breathing people. Unfortunately that’s not unique in education policy. Look at testing policies and requirements, teacher training, and on and on for further evidence of that.

In Nashville, while they enjoy limited oversight by the district, charter schools are still part of the public school system. Yet when parents choose a charter school it’s like they are suddenly assigned an “other status” and no longer considered part of the public school system. Little time is spent figuring out why they chose a charter school and what steps could have been taken to mitigate those choices. We tend to reduce them and their decision to how it affects the system and fail to examine how it impacts the child. I think that is a grave mistake. If we are not going to treat charter school parents like they are a part of the public school system, lets’ just end the canard and allow them to split off, form their own district, and elect their own governing body. Then we would have a legitimate “us vs. them” scenario.

Greene and others might make the argument that it is the charter schools who have assigned themselves the “other” status by refusing to be regulated by the local district and to a certain extent that is true. But it’s also not 100% accurate. It is true that charter schools enjoy a great deal more autonomy than public schools, but to say there is NO regulation by the district does not paint an accurate picture either. Already this year MNPS has placed Smithson Craighead Academy on probation over financial and academic concerns and is holding Rocketship Academy accountable for their failures with English Learners. Meanwhile the district is still gathering data on bus driver complaints. Seems to me that there is plenty of work to go around.

Now don’t think for a second that I’m letting the charter industry off the hook. They have seen a market opportunity and done everything in their power to exploit it. Much like Donald Trump, they have seized upon people’s sense of dissatisfaction and used it to fuel their growth. The parallels are very similar. People in the Democratic party, like public school supporters, refused to acknowledge the deep seated sense of frustration held by the general public. A strategy was employed to downplay that frustration and to make intellectual arguments against Trump. People read those arguments, shrugged, and voted Trump, thinking, how much worse can it be for me? Because their experiences weren’t necessarily our experiences. There are parents all across the country that choose the charter school option simply because they feel like it can’t be worse, and when we refuse to acknowledge that perception and don’t spend as much energy supporting our zoned schools as we do attacking charter schools, we are fueling the growth of that perception.

Many of us who advocate for public schools are so removed from the day to day life in a high needs school that we don’t fully understand the frustration. However, I can speak from experience that when I see district administrators here in Nashville traveling to exotic locations while my child is in a school where the roof leaks every time there is heavy rain, I’m ready to quit the system and I can’t afford private schooling or home schooling, so what becomes the option? When I see students forced to stage a walk out because they can’t get their administration to listen to them, I’m ready for alternatives. When my locally elected school board fails to publicly acknowledge a letter signed by 350 school parents and one board member not only ignores the letter but also feels compelled to ridicule the parents who wrote it, and is not censured, I can only conclude that the cage match has precedent over  children’s needs.

The truth is we don’t address the shortcomings in our public schools fast enough or honestly enough. Think of it this way. I’m laying on the ground with a gaping wound, do I want to wait while Bill and Ravi argue about the best type of band aid to use, or do I want someone to jump in and stop the bleeding? I really like Bill and so I allow him to treat me first. If Bill is slowing the bleeding and effectively treating the wound, am I going to encourage Ravi to jump in or am I going to tell him to just allow Bill to give me treatment? But if Bill is not stopping the bleeding and he just keeps telling me how bad at first aid Ravi is, thus making me feel like he’s more concerned with disparaging Ravi than treating my wound, then I’m probably going to get frustrated and get Ravi to jump in, right? That’s the conundrum faced by parents everyday and if we were more fully supporting our zoned schools, charter schools wouldn’t be invited in to stop the bleeding.

Let’s look at my kids’ school, Tusculum Elementary School again. We’ve waited 5 years for a brand new school and now we are on the cusp of finally having the kids in an adequate facility. What’s the district’s next move? Why, it’s to put 5th and 6th graders from McMurray Middle School in the old Tusculum school building while their building gets renovated. A move that not only leaves a an unsafe relic standing, but also creates more disruption for kids who have spent the majority of their life in turmoil. What’s the message sent to these families? Is there a sense of priority communicated? I once had a charter school parent tell me, “I didn’t choose to send my child to a charter school. I was forced to send my child to a charter school. I can relate.

Recently, a bullying case in Prince George’s County Public Schools was settled with the parents of the child who was bullied being awarded $100K. This case is a perfect analogy of what I’m talking about. Mother, Tierra Holland, states my point succinctly in regards to how parents are treated: “They never apologized, not one time. If I had gotten an apology or something disciplinary to students, I wouldn’t have done this, but I needed some kind of justice.” How much clearer can it be said? I was willing to accept the faults if you would just acknowledge me.

Now apply this statement to parents of children in our struggling schools in Nashville. When they are presented with a charter school option, how much more open would that parent be to choosing a charter school than they would have been if the district were more responsive to their needs and concerns? Why does Valor have to do any marketing when the district, by continually under resourcing its neediest schools and students, produces the most authentic marketing material?

Look, I am no more supportive of charter schools than I’ve ever been, but I want to be able to look a parent in the eye and tell them from the heart that by choosing a charter school they are making a mistake. I want to be able to point to empirical evidence and say, “This is why your zoned school is better than the alternative.” Going back to my Trump analogy, parents should be allowed to choose the absolute best option for their children and not be forced into choosing the perceived lesser of two evils.

Again, I get the argument that charter schools are robbing zoned schools of vital resources. But it’s kind of like complaining that your car insurance rates keep going up while you continually leave your keys in the ignition. At some point, you have to acknowledge the role you play in the equation.

If we truly believe that our public school system is the best means to serve ALL children, then we need to prove it by making sure that each and every zoned school is fully funded and resourced. We need to get out of the cage and realize that things are a lot more nuanced than just two teams engaged in a death match. It’s way past time for an honest conversation, and trust me there is already enough dishonesty to go around for everybody.

A POSITIVELY POSITIVE POLL 4/28/17

The loud noise you hear is the sound of teachers and students rejoicing because standardized testing has come to an end in Nashville for this year. I proctored a couple of days, so I’ll share that experience in the near future. Right now my only observation is that testing makes sane people have insane conversations. That said, I’ve got some more questions.

There is so much negative news around us that this week I decided to focus on the positive. For my first question I wanted to get Nashville residents opinion on the biggest success story that they’ve heard out of MNPS this year. It’s been a year of turmoil but some really great things have happened as well. If you don’t see you favorite feel free to write one in. I’ll share them all on Monday. Let’s give credit where it’s due.

We talk all the time about schools shortcomings, but I want to hear what you think makes your school extra special. Again if you don’t see a response you like, feel free to write one in. Sometimes we need to just take a minute and really appreciate those people and things that make our schools rock.

Lastly, I was curious about just who you think is best source of information on educational issues. Who’s the best education writer? There are tons of people doing amazing work out there and I want to know who your go to person is.

Hope everybody has a great weekend. If you are in Nashville and you are running the Music City Marathon please be safe. This will be the first time in well over a decade that there won’t be a representative from the Weber family competing,  It’s a little weird.

 

ANALYZING THE RESULTS 4/24/17

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img_2011It’s time to look at the data from this week’s poll. I appreciate everyone who responded. Per usual, some of the results surprised me a bit. There were slightly more responses than usual this week which is always a good thing. Let’s look at the results.

On the issue of testing, it seems that despite the state’s best PR efforts you are still unconvinced. Well over 50% of respondents had a negative opinion of the testing, with only 9% saying they felt things were improving. There were several “other” responses. Here those are:

 

It is not tnready testing that kills teaching its the district mandated testing 1
Not adminustered with enough fidelity to give accurate results 1
Time spent in testing is too long. Two weeks? 2-3 parts per test=too much. 1
Too many problems sand too much emphasis 1
1st time for it (5th gr.) He thinks it’s fun, lol. 1
over the top.

One thing I am hearing is potential problems in the state mandate that the tests be taken consecutively over 4 days. If a child is absent, when will the make up be given and who will give it? Also since each district is being given leeway in how they will apply the results to a students report card, there is some concern about maintaining  consistency across districts not to mention the skepticism that the state will actually have the results back in time to be factored into student grades.

Also a little disturbing this year is the fact that over a 100 districts in Tennessee are piloting tests for second graders. Equally disturbing are Tennessee Education Director Candice McQueen’s comments that the test is designed not to be boring. “They’re interesting questions, questions that require thinking, which makes it much more engaging for students,” she said. Probably much more engaging then actual learning right? It’s like an infection. Soon it will spread to first grade and then to Kindergarten. The testing of our youngest students has the potential to do much more harm then good.

Every year it becomes a little more clear that the whole standardized testing concept is a little ludicrous. I’ve heard rumors this year that some of the questions are actually more age appropriate then in the past. I’ve always said that he who controls the cut scores controls the narrative, well I guess the same would hold true for he who makes the questions. One thing doing this weekly poll has taught me is that making questions that don’t just give you the answer you want is extremely difficult.  We really need to take a hard look at our testing policy and re-evaluate exactly what we are trying to accomplish.

On question two, regarding MNPS’s Middle School wide STEAM initiative, 51% of you thought it was just another gimmick that would be discarded in a number of years. On a positive note, 13% of respondents felt it was a fantastic idea. In all fairness, MNPS has not always been the best at following through with initiatives. Anybody remember the Middle Prep re-branding strategy? Again, under “other” there were some interesting responses.

I like the idea, but I’m skeptical that it will work out. 1
Still ONE size fits all? 1
I think one of his friends is a STEAM consultant 1
Good idea to focus on middle schools 1
It is a good idea, but how will it be implemented? 1
also agree with the liberal arts comment 1
Not appropriate for all students

The last question asked for a grade on Dr. Joseph’s performance to date. If I was him I would be a little concerned about the results as the grades given averaged out to a C minus. Clearly greater attention needs to be paid to winning hearts and minds.

One thing that I think needs to stop is the use of previous administrations actions to defend current policy. I’ve heard people try to mitigate the outlandish travel this year by pointing to a previous trip to China. Past bad policy does not defend current bad policy. We can’t go back and change past actions, we can commit to doing things right in the future. A good place to start would be by killing the Scholastic contract that’s up for a vote at today’s board meeting.

Remember a couple months ago when MNPS took a trip to Amelia Island for a Scholastic conference? Remember when MNPS claimed that Scholastic paid none of the expenses for the trip? Today on the consent agenda is a $140k contract that would pay scholastic for 300 books per classroom for each of the 5 schools that sent representatives on the trip. Still think Scholastic paid none of the expenses?

MNPS policy over the last several years has been very explicit in this area. The very appearance of impropriety makes it a violation of policy. That’s a policy that needs to be upheld. Hopefully some of the board members will question this contract and realize just how improper it looks and at least demand, since more books are never a bad thing,  that the contract be split up between publishers.

That’s it for this week.

FRIDAY POLL 04/21

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Since this is a blog devoted to educational issues I won’t point out that yesterday was 4/20, but since it’s testing season maybe I will. Here in Nashville it’s the midpoint of the testing window and I hope everyone has found a way to keep their sanity. I have to say I find it baffling that we assign such value to a test that is proctored almost completely by volunteers from the community that each school has to literally scrape together. But what do I know? I’ll be doing two days next week at Tusculum ES.

Which brings us to the first question of the weekend. Governor Haslam sent out a wonderful letter to students encouraging them to do their best despite the state’s inability to do their best the last 3 years. In my opinion there hasn’t been as much conversation about testing this year as in years past, but I wanted to get your opinion.

My second questions is in reference to Dr. Joseph’s recent budget announcement where he also proposed to make all Middle Schools STEAM centered.  Is this a good, bad, or indifferent idea? Tell me what you think.

I’ve been meaning to ask the third question for a while. A couple months ago the MNPS school board gave newly hired director a perfect score on his first evaluation. Now that he’s been here just about a year, I wanted to know what grade you would give him if you were doing the evaluation. I know the question might seem a bit redundant, but I wanted to drill down on it a bit, so please indulge me.

That’s what I got this week. I hope everybody has a fantastic weekend. See you on the other side.

 
 

REFLECTIONS ON GOOD FRIDAY POLL

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Hope y’all had a wonderful Easter holiday. I appreciate those of you who took the time to respond to the weekend’s questions. As always some of the answers surprised me. That’s a good thing.

Let’s start by looking at the question addressed towards public educators: “What are your plans for next year.” It seems that most educators are staying put next year, with that answer reaching a total just shy of 50%. The reasons differ, though. A little over a quarter answered that they were in a good position and planned to stay right where they currently are. That’s cause for optimism. Unfortunately, the flip-side is that the remainder who answered that they were staying put said it was because “the devil you know is worse then the devil you don’t”. It’s also not cause for optimism that nearly 40% answered that they were considering leaving the district in one way or another. That should be a little concerning I would think.

Recently when questioned about a percieved high level of teacher dissatisfaction. Dr Joseph responded, and I’m paraphrasing, that he anticipated the level of anxiety would go up even higher next year as the district identifies more specific key performance indicators(KPI). He went on to say that was inevitable due to the increased level of accountability, there was no way around it. I’m going on record here, that may be the dumbest comment I’ve recently heard from a person in a position of leadership. Sorry if that offends, but I find it offensive that a leader would think so little of the people he leads.

If Dr. Joseph, as a leader, has done his ground work – outlined the goals and fully communicated how we were going to reach them, been transparent about the reasoning and philosophy behind the goals, explained everybody’s role and how that role would impact the reaching of the goals, genuinely sought buy-in, included a transparent method of measurement – why would people be anxious? There is no reason why the troops shouldn’t be chomping at the bit to get started.  These are professional educators that by their very nature are looking to take kids further faster. If they are not fully engaged and excited for next year to get here, that’s on leadership.

Question 2 took a look at the practice of holding formal meetings with parents starting in 6th grade to communicate students’ college/career readiness. Over 50% of readers rejected that idea, with just 16% saying “maybe in an informal setting”. 15% of respondents thought it was a good idea. There were a couple interesting “other” comments. One being, “I’m seeing the forced drilling of college expectations create teen resentment.” That answer ties in with a theme from a book I’m currently  reading. The authors discuss the concept that achievement destroys creativity.  As quoted in the book Originals – How Non-Comformists Move the World, psychologists Todd Lubart and Robert Sternberg state, “Once people pass an intermediate level in the need to achieve, there is evidence that they actually become less creative.” Author Adam Grant sums it up by saying, “The more you value achievement, the more you come to dread failure. Instead of aiming for unique accomplishments, the intense desire to succeed leads us to strive for guaranteed success.” It’s a theme I plan to explore in upcoming blog posts.

The other answer that intrigued me was, “No. No one tells the truth anyway so why bother?” That’s a little troubling. In order for our democratic institutions to succeed there has to be trust. Once people lose that trust, the whole institution begins to crumble. We need to be sure to treat truthfulness with fidelity, but that’s not enough. We must be sensitive to the perception of dishonesty as well. That mere perception can do considerable damage to our society. That is a charge that is more important today then ever.

Lastly, I asked about Dad Gone Wild blog content. It seems that readers want predominately local news. I did take heart that 41% like the current mix. Going forward I will attempt continue to strike the desired balance. It seems like I’ve naturally gravitated more to local issues because nationally people like Peter Greene, Diane Ravitch, Steven Singer, Jeff Bryant, Jennifer Berkshire and others have  things so well covered. Grace Tatter and Andy Spears are doing a more then adequate job on the state level. It’s hard to keep up with those folks and I encourage you to read them all. There were a couple “other” comments warning me about negativity and I will keep them in mind but won’t allow the fear of a negative perception stop me from telling stories I think need telling.

This is a very eventful week education-wise in Tennessee. TNReady kicks off across the state today. This year the state swears they are prepared, but not everybody has faith. Once again we are spending inordinate amounts of money telling  people how cool the testing is. I’ve never understood the need to convince the general public that the current level of testing is necessary. Shouldn’t we be able to understand the value intrinsically?

On Wednesday, the voucher pilot bill is in the House Finance sub-committee here in Tennessee’s State Legislature. There’s no shortage of reason’s why it shouldn’t make it out, but TREE (Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence) has some especially good ones. I urge people to contact their reps or just come on down to the party at the State Capitol on Wednesday.

That’s it for now. As always, comments are welcome.

 

 

A GOOD FRIDAY POLL.

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It is hard to believe that it is already Easter weekend. The year just seems to fly by. I do have another set of questions to ask, so if you could take a couple minutes to help a brother out, I would appreciate it. I’m getting them out early because I’ll be spending the rest of the day with my kids. Trying to decide between fishing or the zoo, but that’s another conversation. Let’s get on with the questions.

Michael Petrilli of the Fordham institute recently wrote a piece about schools informing parents of student’s progress towards college readiness starting in the 6th grade. Peter Greene, Curmugucation, wrote a rebuttal. I’m interested in your opinion.

Spring always brings  a flood of teacher “I quit” letters. Which is contributing to a growing teacher shortage. So I thought I’d ask educators on a whole – teachers, principals, administrators – what are your current plans for next year? I know plans change but, I thought I’d ask.

Lastly, I thought I’d ask about DGW Blog content. I try to write about issues that have local, state, and national implications. This year it seems that local issues have taken a forefront, but I always try to show how those issues relate to national issues. I thought I’d ask what you thought the focus should be.

Thanks again for your time. Regardless of your religious affiliations, I hope everybody has a great springtime weekend and special people to share it with. I’ll see you on the other side.

MY KIND OF EDUCATION REFORM

A couple weeks a go, it was Spring Break in Middle Tennessee. Scrolling through my social media feed, I was suddenly inundated with pictures of friends taking their children to Chicago to see Hamilton, to New York to visit the Museum of Natural History, a week at the beach. I must admit most of my friends are of the middle class persuasion though we as a family cling to that classification precariously. Still my own kids went to see their aunt in Chattanooga where they visited the Adventure Science Museum and toured Lookout Mountain. Meanwhile, kids from poorer families spent large chunks of time in their homes whiling away time, waiting for parents who couldn’t afford to take time off from work to get home.

I’m not trying to cast stones at anyone. Parents who continue to invest in the educational experiences, often at great sacrifice, of their children should be commended. And yes, I count going to Walt Disney World as an educational experience. One of the traps that we fall into is thinking that education only falls into a formal category, whereas learning is as natural as breathing to children, and therefore every experience forces their brains to grow and expand. Think of it in computer terms. The larger a database a machine has, the greater likelihood you’ll get a relevant answer when you query a search. Same holds true for kids. The more experiences they have as a kid, the more likely they’ll be able to take advantage of an opportunity in the future. Why is this a hard concept for policymakers to grasp?

Parents intrinsically know this. Why do you think wealthier parents invest so heavily in extracurricular activities despite the high cost? Do you think they harbor illusions of Johnny being a star pitcher in the majors? Or little Jennie becoming a concert pianist at the Met? Well, some do; those are the ones we all snicker at. The rest of us realize the important life lessons that are taught through these extracurricular activities. Lessons like grit, teamwork, leadership, self-confidence all are grown through participation in extracurricular activities. No less an authority than Tony Wagner, co-director of the Change Leadership Group at Harvard’s Graduate School of Education has gone on record saying, “Kids who have a significant involvement in an extracurricular activity have a capacity for focus, self-discipline, and time management that I see lacking in kids who just went through school focused on their GPA.”

Despite reams of data that illustrate the benefits of extracurricular activities and their input on children’s lives into adulthood, the last four years have shown a dramatic decline in participation from children in poverty, while participation by their wealthier peers has grown. School budget cuts and rising costs have served to cut the rate of participation by disadvantaged youth to 56%, while participation by upper and middle-class children rests at 75%. You are fooling yourself if you don’t think that makes a difference later in life. 

While extracurricular activities certainly affect kids later in life, the other part of the equation to look at is social networks and access to mentors. Remember the old saying, “It’s not what you know, it’s who you know”? There is some truth to that statement. Obviously, succeeding in life requires a certain skill set, but the opportunity to demonstrate those skills hinges on your social network. Don’t believe me? Try getting a job without using any of your social contacts. Go ahead, throw your resume out into the pool of similar resumes, and see what kind of results you get. I know the answer because mine’s been floating out there for nearly a year.

People in lower income households have smaller social networks. These smaller networks lead to reduced opportunity for upward mobility. Look at it this way. If my child decides that he wants to be a lawyer, I can hook him up with friends who can sit down and explain the intricacies of what a lawyer does. I can later use those friends to help secure an internship that will give him an advantage against other kids pursuing that career. When it comes to college, I have the resources for us to tour several campuses. I understand how the system works or know people who navigate it for a living, and I can call on their help. Once my child graduates, I can again call upon my social network to help secure him an interview and increase the likelihood of job placement. A child from a poorer home has fewer of those advantages. That’s where the importance of mentoring and developing of social networking comes into play.

It’s undeniable the importance that extracurricular activities and a wide social network play in the opportunity for upward mobility, yet we fail to invest adequately in either while doubling down on the narrative of increased academic rigor. Riddle me this: if a kid is reading at an advanced level but has failed to develop leadership, or even team building skills, and doesn’t have a network that can open doors for them, how do they benefit from their advanced reading level? Is there some kind of giant radar that I am unaware of that will suddenly recognize them, pluck them out, and reward them for all that rigor? Who are the real beneficiaries of those high test scores?

I would argue that once again, it’s adults who get to hold up test results like winning lottery tickets. Lottery tickets that allow adults to double down on policies that fill them with a feeling of superiority and allow them to create a captive market.  A very profitable captive market. But do we ever really look at what happens to these kids after they leave high school? Do we ever look at where these children end up employed?

The National Center for College Education conducted a study on the level of education that students attained based on their socio-economic status. While the results between middle and lower income students achieving an advanced degree wasn’t too different, 29% to 14%, the number of high income students was over 4 times as high, 60%, as that of low income students. That’s a little disturbing. While a single reason couldn’t be pinpointed, inability to navigate the system, inability to manage time, trying to balance work and class all came in to play as reasons for not attaining advanced degrees. Still think it’s all about rigor? Chew on this for a moment. A poor student with test results in the upper 5% of test scores is as likely as a wealthy child with just mediocre scores to attain an advanced degree. If that is not a red flag, then I don’t know what one is.

What happens to those upper 5% kids, as well as their less high achieving peers, who fail to get that advanced degree? Invariably they become underemployed. Which results in bad outcomes for both the individual and society. Clive Belfield, professor and researcher at Queens College in NYC,  uses the term “opportunity youth” to describe kids between the ages of 16-24 that are not in school or employed. He puts their number at 6.7 million and breaks down the classification such,

“Some opportunity youth are ‘chronic’: they have never been in school or work after the age of 16. Others are ‘under-attached’: despite some schooling and some work experience beyond 16, these youth have not progressed through college or secured a stable attachment to the labor market. We estimate a chronic opportunity youth population of 3.4 million and an under-attached opportunity youth population of 3.3 million. Both groups are failing to build an economic foundation for adult independence.”
According to Barfield, “After each opportunity youth reaches 25, he or she will subsequently impose a future lifetime taxpayer burden of $170,740 and a social burden of $529,030.” Furthermore, “Considered over the full lifetime of a cohort of 6.7 million opportunity youth who are aged 16-24, the aggregate taxpayer burden amounts to $1.56 trillion in present value terms. The aggregate social burden is $4.75 trillion” You have to remember that an under employed individual is more likely to require government assistance and more likely to be involved in the criminal system and have health problems.
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.We like to talk a whole lot about getting kids career and college ready, but have we lost sight of a deeper obligation? An obligation to get them ready for life. While nothing but living can truly prepare us for life, shouldn’t we try to give children a bigger tool box, maybe one not so specific, before we send them out into the world? After all, if all you have is a hammer, then every problem looks like a nail. A well-rounded education provides a multitude of paths to success for a student. A rich variety of experiences needs to be a part of that education. An education that is a balance between the development of soft skills and academics. The kind of education wealthy kids have been getting for a long time.

Every town  has an organization like the Nashville Public Education Foundation. Organizations that say they support every child having a great public education. Increased extracurricular activity opportunities and increased mentoring opportunities would seem to be perfect initiatives for them and a way to alleviate the pressure from traditional schools. It’d be nice if they took up the challenge.

I came across an article the other day talking about college wrestling and how Penn State was changing the face of that sport. In the past, the championships were staid affairs where matches were won by a score of 1-0 or 2-1. Participants would do everything they could to hold on to an advantage and not run the risk of giving up points. But now, Penn State’s coaches have changed all of that. They encourage their wrestlers to have fun and wrestle freely. They are not scared of giving up a few points because they know they are going to score a lot more. The results have been impressive; this year they had 5 individual champions and won the national championship for the 5th time in 6 years. They are obviously on to something.

What if we took the same approach with education? What if we stopped teaching for test results and started teaching for ever-widening experiences? What if we embodied Dewey’s axiom that education isn’t preparation for life but life itself? What if we taught kids that education was not just in the classroom, but rather before school and after school as well? My 6-year-old son can do Jiu Jitsu drills for 2 hours straight without complaint, but will often complain about having to go to school. Why is that?

Metro Nashville Public Schools are pushing the concept of STEAM with Project Based Learning as a primary element. PBL is a powerful tool and its impact was readily apparent at Metro Nashville Public Schools’ recent project fair. Kids were given a reason to get excited about education. Two problems though. One, show me a PBL project, and I’ll show you a teacher dipping into their bank account. Second, how do you execute a project and make sure you hit all the standards? One or the other is going to have to give a little. I nominate the standards or at least a modification.

Every aspect of life is not measurable and sometimes we are called upon to use skills we never knew we had. We try to quantify how ready people are prepared for life based on a period of time that is in all likelihood less then 15% of their entirety. No one will even know how successful their lives were until they reach the second part of  the “college and heaven” goal voiced at a religous school recently visited by President Trump and Secretary Betsy DeVos. It’s like me with my sobriety, I could be sober for 25 years but if I have a drink the day before I die, I die a drunk.

Also like with my sobriety, we do know the practices that will increase the odds of a successful life.  For me it’s stay out of bars, don’t get too stressed, keep a good social network, etc. For kids it’s, read a lot, let the process of learning become ingrained, learn the value of work, keep a good social network, etc. Some of those lessons are learned in the classroom, some not, but we owe it to all kids to make opportunities available for them to learn all of those lessons independent of their parents fiscal or social standing.

Over the last several years writing this blog, I’ve met some of the most creative, passionate, dedicated teachers imaginable. What if instead of just focusing on test results, they were allowed to bring those skills to the classroom in a truly meaningful fashion? What if they were able to teach kids to have fun and learn freely? What if we made a variety of extracurricular and networking opportunities readily available to all kids? What if we were to allow teachers to really prepare kids for life and all the different kinds of challenges they’ll face? Now that would be education reform that I could get behind.

 

WEEKEND POLL SUMMATION 4/10/2017

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My apologies for taking so long to write this summation up. I went to the MNPS State of Schools this morning and it’s taken this long to glue my head back together from its repeated explosions. I’m not going to go to in depth on things, obviously I have several issues, but I do want to touch on one thing. This is something Maplewood teacher Jarred Amato would never say, but I’m going to say it. If the district is going to reap PR rewards off of his tireless and selfless work, then it’s time they start footing part of the bill. Up until now the majority of the resources for ProjectLit have come out of Amato’s pocket and that should not be ignored. My biggest criticism of Director of Schools Shawn Joseph is that he often presents the hard work of others as being representative of his own. I can name half a dozen other iniatives over the past 6 months that have served the same purpose. That more than anything else needs to stop. By not acknowledging that Amato’s work is, by in large, a by product of his own initiative and sacrifice Joseph shortchanges the amazing work being done. A high quality leader gives credit, and support, to his troops. He doesn’t use their success stories to fuel his own narative.

I’m stepping down from the pulpit now to review this weekends poll results. The first question was on how teachers deal with the ever increasing amount of stress they are faced with daily. If responses  are to be believed, I need to invest in a vineyard. It was heartening to see that running slightly ahead of fermented and aged grapes, was the answer “I find strength in my work and the children’s lives I touch.” This question was asked a little tongue in cheek, but the subject of teacher stress is a very serious, and not a bit funny, subject. We really need, as a collective, to find a way to make the profession a whole lot less stressful. I don’t buy for one minute the argument that the current level of stress felt is “just part of the gig.”

Question 2 on what principals need to do to improve brought the most write-in votes we’ve ever recieved. Here’s all of them:

Appreciating and respecting their faculty. 
Saying “no” to district 
ALL OF THE ABOVE 
Situational Leadership 
Setting high standards for student behavior. 
Community involvement 
collaboration – they have to share decision making with their faculty 
Compassion for kids and staff combined with high expectations 
Protecting what little autonomy that remains 
Being smarter 
Personnel skills 
Hire qualified principals in the first place? 
Not micro managing, not creating drama 
Standing up against bad policy

Some great ideas in there and I appreciate you taking the time to write them out. Overall the number one answer was to become better communicators. That included both talking and listening.

On the last question, in regard to the new MNPS ES report cards, 44% found them useless. I have to admit that I took secret pleasure in the fact that the number 2 answer was, “I don’t look at it that closely, so I don’t have an opinion.” There was one “other” response that resonated with me as well, “Standards based grading is less useful. Reduces courses to “badges” to earn.” I am going to have to think on that one for a bit, but on the surface, I have to agree. I do think it is absolutely ridiculous that an ES report card comes home with no place for comments by teachers. And don’t tell me about those “canned responses” that are available. My children are on track with every standard so every column has a “2” in it. BUt what does that mean? What is their day like? Are the inquisitive or reluctant? Serious or playful? Do they interact well with the other kids or are they spending alot of time alone? Those are the things that I need to know more then are they on pace to master the standards.  My children’s teachers run neck and neck with mom and dad in the love department in the eyes of my children. That alone makes it imprtant for me to know their thoughts.

That does it for the poll results. Look for a piece focusing on the importance of extracuricular activies and social networks later this evening. I promise that I’ll have a podcast out in next couple of days focusing on Rahm Emanuel, vouchers in Memphis, the State of MNPS speech, and lots more. Friday we’ll have more poll questions.  Somebody asked me this weekend why I started doing the polls. Purely and simply, I believe your opinions are only good if you are constantly vetting them. I am so grateful for the many educators, locally and nationally, that take the time to help me vet my thoughts. Asking poll questions is just one more method to learn more and after all isn’t learning at the root of it all? Have a great week.