The Runaway Bride Hits Nashville

8

flaming_bag_of_poop_answer_7_xlargeWhen I was a kid, we had a game we liked to play. You’d take a brown paper lunch bag, fill it with dog poop, place it on some unsuspecting person’s porch, light it on fire, ring the doorbell, and then run. The unsuspecting person would answer the door, see the flaming bag, and quickly move to stamp it out. You can guess the rest. Essentially, that’s the game Dr. Mike Looney played with Nashville last week.

Over the last several months, the Metropolitan Nashville Public School System (MNPS) has engaged in a search for a new director of schools. It’s been an extremely difficult search process and one fraught with a plethora of challenges. The slate of candidates brought forth by the search firm Hazard, Young, and Attea left many unimpressed. School board chair Sharon Gentry played personal politics by utilizing an ethics complaint to overturn a vote on an interim director while never actually addressing the ethics complaint and also ignoring two other ethics complaints. Through some kind of miracle, though, once the process moved on to actual interviews, a path forward started to emerge.

First of all, Dr. Angela Huff, the candidate from Cobb County, Georgia, proved to be much more impressive than she looked on paper. However, Dr. Looney, the current superintendent of Williamson County Schools, proceeded to demonstrate why the people of Williamson County love him. This is where the paper bag got lit up.

In these interviews and through personal interviews with individual board members and community members, Dr. Looney began to construct a grand vision of what MNPS could look like under his leadership. It was a vision that could unite all elements within a community that often found itself at odds. So much so that he was able to generate a vote of 8-1 from the school board to offer him the position. The lone holdout being Tyese Hunter.

Hunter supported Dr. Huff and had concerns that another finalist, Dr. Covington, had been disqualified, in her opinion, due to internet rumors. She also felt we weren’t holding Dr. Looney to the same level of scrutiny. It’s a position that I disagree with, as the evidence on Dr. Covington was pretty overwhelming, and the charge against Dr. Looney was one that had been proven false, but in hindsight, perhaps we should have paid it more heed. However, the reviews of Dr. Looney were so glowing, the feedback so positive, and the desire for optimism so strong, that people started to buy the hype.

That’s when the bag got stomped on. Looney elected to stay in Williamson County despite having signed a letter of intent to come to MNPS, and with that, debris started to fly. The fallout was instantaneous. In declining the MNPS job and selecting the Williamson County job, Looney cited reasons that ran directly counter to things he said to me just two days earlier over lunch. It’s extremely disheartening because this world is so devoid of people with true integrity, and I left that lunch feeling like I’d met one. Today, however, I am unsure. I look forward to hearing a more detailed explanation from Dr. Looney about his decision.

It’s important to understand that Dr. Looney was not pursued by MNPS. In fact, several school board members tried to dissuade him from applying. Once he became a finalist many thought this was all a ploy to get more money from Williamson County and neutralize his political enemies, a charge a vehemently denied . Watching him navigate the interview process, though, was a textbook case on how to win over votes. It was clear that he had done his homework, and he managed to turn that into talking points that appealed to each board member. It was impressive and it was successful.

It’s hard to reconcile that kind of calculation with a sudden change of heart due to an outpouring of emotion from Williamson County. After all, the ones begging him to stay were the ones who had always begged him to stay. Nobody really changed their mind because of this charade. His supporters just got a louder voice. It’ll be interesting to see in the coming year if those detractors don’t regain their volume.

In declining the job, Dr. Looney talked about it being a family decision and the need to do right by his family. This argument is indicative of a larger problem in public education. It’s a position that says my family and my child trump all else. If my child’s individual needs are being met, then all is good. Dr. Looney sold Nashville on the belief that he had a set of skills that could, in his words, move the needle for all our students. He talked of the potential of creating a public education system that could be a national model. One that showed how all types of schools – traditional, charter, and magnet – could interact together. In the end, though, it’s his family and his children’s needs that he chose to address, leaving the others to look for hope elsewhere.

Can he be faulted for that? That’s not my judgment to make. All I can do is compare it to my personal situation. Both of my children are in a high poverty school. The instruction is excellent, but the inequalities children in these schools face have been mind numbing. Often I consider pulling them out and putting them in a school that provides every opportunity. We have the means to do so. The problem is, that won’t end the inequality. True, my children would be in a better situation, but those other children would still be under served. My children would also suffer from the lack of exposure to children who are different from them. And that’s why I stay and advocate. Because my children won’t live in a world by themselves, and it’s important that they learn early on that all people are important, not just us.

The burning bag is going to spray everywhere for a while. It’s already hit the school board. The Tennessean didn’t even wait a day to jump in with an editorial blaming the school board for the rejection. Choosing instead to try and push the paper’s agenda instead of taking a moment to acknowledge the hard work of the board, whose members sacrificed personal time away from their families to make the process as transparent as possible to the general public. The newspaper chose to once again take a shot at the board’s initial vote to instill chief academic officer Jay Steele over current interim director Chris Henson, claiming that Gentry’s actions were justified. But I think there may be some rethinking of that position once test scores are released this week. Nowhere did the paper acknowledge that despite all the turmoil, the board had come together and made the right choice.

Instead they chose to chide the board by saying they need to “grow up” and leave behind their petty arguments. It’s insulting to label legitimate discourse as “petty.” I don’t understand why people fail to grasp the concept that democracy consists of people with disparate views coming together and finding a common solution. Nowhere is it written that we can’t disagree in getting to the solution. I helped to elect my school board representative to defend the right of public education for our communities children, not to make new friends.

We claim to want to teach children critical thinking skills, but chastise the board when they model those very skills. As observed by Dr. Looney, the topics of our board are focused around children and the delivery system of their education. He advised that Williamson County’s board could learn from this. The Tennessean editorial chose to ignore this observation and went further by making the declaration that our board wasn’t ready for a director like Dr. Looney, but he was a good fit for Williamson County.

The African-American community is pushing for an offer to be made to the runner-up candidate, Dr. Angela Huff. That would be a mistake. There was a reason she was not the first choice, and we need to remember history and not rush off to instantly hire someone. The last time we did that, we paid dearly for it and almost ended up with a state takeover of Nashville’s public schools. Their voices need to be heard and their concerns recognized, but the process needs to be restarted entirely. A new search firm needs to be hired. Dr. Huff should be encouraged to resubmit her application. If she truly is the best candidate, she will rise to the top again.

Dr. Looney’s decision to stay in Williamson County also robs the Nashville community of the ability to buy-in to a new director 100 percent. He very calculatingly created an air of excitement in MNPS. People who had given up on public education were suddenly ready to give MNPS a second look. But that won’t happen again. We’ll get a great director, but he or she is going to be greeted with a little skepticism, because after all, we got dressed up once already and watched the carriage drive away without us. We won’t be so trusting a second time.

During the courtship of Dr. Looney, a comment was made to me that the problem with Williamson County was their sense of entitlement to the things they wanted. This episode reinforced that. If Dr. Looney had left, Williamson County Schools would have been just fine. They have the demographics and the resources to always provide a world-class education system. A large urban district doesn’t have that luxury. Once again, this is an example of the rich getting richer. As a child of poverty, how does Dr. Looney rectify that with his life experiences? With MNPS Dr. Looney would have had a chance to really make a name for himself, change the trajectory of children’s lives, and demonstrate true transformational leadership on the national stage. I doubt he will ever have that opportunity again.

Time will tell where else the splatter goes. Ultimately, though, it’s the children of MNPS who will suffer. This will be a year spent in a holding pattern. Which is a shame because children don’t get another senior year in high school or another 4th grade year. They get one shot at that experience, and we as adults, by failing to keep that in mind, have made this coming year more difficult from the start. Fortunately, we are blessed to have some of the best teachers and administrators in the country to lean on. I have complete faith that they will guide our children through all the turmoil to a place of not just maintaining, but excelling. We need to make sure that we don’t take them for granted either. We need to do everything we can to support them.

I left my lunch with Dr. Looney last week extremely impressed. I thought to myself, here is a man so comfortable with himself that he is open to discuss anything. No subject is off limits because he knows his brand and he lives his brand. Well, this week that brand took a hit. It’ll be interesting to see this year how things play out and if Dr. Looney truly neutralized his detractors or if they are going use this drama as fuel to come back harder then ever.

The strange thing is, that even after all of this heartbreak, I still want to believe. I still want to have faith in the things he said. As cynical as I can be, I truly want to believe that all of this is about children and communities. We need people of integrity. We don’t need more heroes with clay feet. Time will tell whether this was a brilliant ploy or a dumpster fire. Hopefully Dr. Looney will do the children of Williamson County a better service than he’s done the children of Davidson County. Right now though we’ve got some heroes in Nashville that need our help. So lets rolls up our sleeves and bring on the new school year. We have some work to do.

Advertisements

Well, That’s Clear As Mud

5

Clear-as-MudLast week, I wrote about what has become an annual event in Tennessee: the botching of the release of TCAP results. Last year, they came out late, which prevented many schools from being able to include them, as is required by state law, in students’ report cards. This year, they released the quick scores on time but failed to mention that the method of calculation had changed. Last year, we learned the term post equating. This year, we are learning about cube root formulas. Unfortunately, both are adding up to more questions than answers.

I want to clarify something right from the beginning here. I am not a statistician nor do I play one on TV. I am just a parent, who, while my children are currently not subject to these tests, is looking for an equitable and accurate way to gauge our students’, teachers’, and schools’ performance. Personally, I believe that it shouldn’t be a system that fails to report timely results on a regular basis, nor one that needs outside counsel to interpret how scores are determined, but that’s just me. Apparently, though, this is a view quite a few parents and teachers share as well because Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen felt enough pressure that she issued some communication on the confusion caused by the release of “quick scores.”

In a posting on Classroom Chronicles, a TNDOE blog, disseminated through social media, McQueen mainly spends time thanking teachers for all their hard work and efforts. She also addresses the change in the method of calculating quick scores. She chalks it up to it being a decision made by the previous regime and then not communicated effectively after the decision was made. Fair enough. But… there is this line: “I became aware of the issue after quick scores were released and have been working to communicate about the issue since that time.”

Wouldn’t it stand to reason that there would have been some inter-department communication in regards to the scores before they were released? Would there not have been some kind of evaluation and a general discussion about the level of scores and how they reflected on ongoing processes? Would this not have lead to someone making sure Ms. McQueen completely understood the methodology of the scores and what their results meant? I guess my real question is this: Wouldn’t somebody have raised the same questions that teachers across the state are asking? And I’m not talking one or two teachers – I’m talking the vast majority. Apparently not and that’s a little disconcerting.

In her post, Ms. McQueen links to another TNDOE blog, Educator Update. Here’s where things get real interesting. Under “Quick Score Clarification” is this passage:

Quick Scores Not Tied to Proficiency

It’s important to note that while quick scores are the first indicator parents and students receive about TCAP results, quick scores are not tied to TCAP performance levels (i.e., a quick score of 85 is not equivalent to the cut score for proficient). Quick scores are not the percent correct or a percentile rank. Quick scores are only used for one purpose; they are created to be factored into a student’s grade, as required by law. Quick scores are designed on a 100-point scale to match district-grading systems. Please see the TCAP Scoring Flow chart, and you’ll notice that quick scores inform no other part of the scoring process. Quick scores are not intended to be a parent or teacher’s primary window into student performance.

So walk me through this. Quick Scores are not intended to be a true representation of a student’s performance. However, they are factored into a student’s report card, which I assume is supposed to be an accurate representation. That absolutely baffles me. In my non-education related life, if you add something inaccurate into a report, then it tends to make the whole report inaccurate, but it seems that doesn’t hold true here. Then there is this passage:

Based on feedback from superintendents, principals, and teachers, the department has provided additional information for districts regarding quick score methodology options. Because there is no standard grading scale for grades 3-8, districts can utilize the information we provide to make decisions about which methodology option is best for them. Most districts are using the current methodology, including the cube root calculation method for grades 3-8, due to timing of these options and grade releases. Some districts are using the same quick score methodology as we did for grades 3-8 last year. All districts have received the raw student scores. Data for all calculations have been made available to each district for their use.

So if I’m reading this right, all districts are not even using the same methodology in applying these scores to kids’ grades. How is that not completely distorting the picture? But we are not done yet.

Regardless of the method used to calculate quick scores, the bar for student proficiency has not changed. However, we are providing more information than in previous years to ensure local leadership and educators have the information they need to best understand and use their scores. It’s important to remember that quick scores have no impact on district, school, or teacher accountability and changing the methodology to calculate quick scores will in no way impact the number of your students that are proficient on TCAP. Quick scores are developed for the sole purpose of inserting a grade on a report card, as required by state law.

Again, my interpretation of this passage is this: Hey, those scores don’t mean a thing. They are just giving you a number to plug into the grades so they can comply with the law. Later in the summer, when that pesky law requirement thing is out of the way, we’ll let you know what it all really means. Until then, stay calm and input those grades. Is that not a problem? The piece closes thusly:

In summary, we apologize for the communication failure on the quick score methodology shift that occurred in the fall. We will be creating protocols and processes that avoid this in the future. We want to continue to celebrate our progress as a state and our educators’ role in this success. You have made progress every year on the state tests since 2010. You are raising expectations and getting results. We look forward to working with you as we serve our students.

In other words, the state is saying these meaningless scores show what a great job you are doing. Well, at least until the summer, when they give you a true evaluation. Maybe I’m the only one who finds this whole process alarming, but based on the teacher responses I’ve heard, I don’t think so.

I haven’t even touched on questions of why the methodology for K-8 was changed. Since we aren’t going to a new test until next year, why did the TNDOE make the decision to make the change? Is it going to change again next year? Nobody feels the necessity to explain why the change was made, just that it was made and then poorly communicated.

With so much riding on these test scores – student grades, teacher evaluations, the way we determine whether or not a school is “failing” and might need to be closed – we desperately need to examine why so much emphasis is placed on what is clearly a confusing and meaningless system. Imagine if you are a student who has heeded the mandate to “rock ” the test only to find out that your score doesn’t mean what you thought it did. What a shame for our students and teachers. Our obsession with test scores has got to stop.

That’s the one thing that this whole fiasco reiterates, we need a new process with new timelines and new guidelines. If we are just generating numbers to meet a mandate, and the numbers aren’t accurate or easily interpreted, perhaps the law needs to be changed. In one Facebook posting I read, an explanation of cube rooting was given, but it took several paragraphs and plenty of reflection to get even a minimal amount of understanding. Does the process really have to be this complex?

Regardless, we need a system that all stakeholders can easily understand. One that we don’t have to depend on people with doctorates in math and statistics to explain. One that the explanation of why we apply it can be easily communicated to everyone. One that doesn’t leave parents so baffled that they afraid to question it. I have a saying that if the apology takes as long as the offense, then you’ve committed a second offense. It’s safe to say that rule easily applies here.

In response to this years debacle, a dozen parent and educator groups across the state have banded together to demand action by creating a petition calling upon the state to address our testing issues. Improving the process is essential and I urge everyone to sign the petition. Candice McQueen just finished a listening tour of the state’s school districts and has shown a willingness to listen. It’s important that she receive a little extra feedback. Transparency and trust in the system is imperative, and right now, we have neither.

A Pleasant Surprise from a Politician

4

2166450_300As I travel along on this journey of educating myself on and advocating for education policy, I come into contact with quite a few politicians. The ones who I would count as friends of public education are usually pretty rare. In Tennessee, we are fortunate to have Representatives Craig Fitzhugh, Bo Mitchell, Joe Pitts, Mike Stewart, and a handful of others. We used to have Gloria Johnson, but she was a little too liberal. (Psst… we miss her). For the most part, what you get from politicians is the same old, same old platitudes and promises like “A quality school for every child no matter what the zip code” and “I promise every child a quality teacher.” But every once in a while, you get surprised.

Nashville is currently in the midst of a mayoral battle. The crop running have all established education as a priority. All, save one, have decried the sordid state of affairs that is Nashville public education. David Fox, for example, has said we need more charter schools. Megan Berry argues for the middle ground but doesn’t exactly embrace the work done at our public schools. Then you have former LEAD Public Schools founder Jeremy Kane, who says education is important but is a little vague on what that looks like. Bill Freeman has offered praise of our public schools, and in looking at his policy piece on education, I am guardedly optimistic. The rest of the field tries to strike a balance between calls for improvement and too many details. Yesterday, though, Freeman put a flag in the ground.

With his press release announcing his support of community schools, Freeman signals that he is willing to rise above the same old, same old conversation on education in Nashville and embrace a progressive version of education reform, one that would not financially drain the Nashville school district as some other proposed efforts potentially would. In his statement, he recognizes the issue of poverty, not as an excuse, but as a reality, and outlines a method to combat it. He points out that community schools are already being implemented across the country and producing quality results. Community schools are a means for the community to come together and address their education challenges without handing their schools over to outsiders.

Furthermore, this support of community schools demonstrates a willingness to not accept the status quo and prescribe more charter schools, as is the policy of the current mayor, but instead to do the research and find ways that empower the community. Freeman is a businessman and not a politician, and in some areas this might be a deterrent. However, with the concept of community schools, he could prove to be a valued asset, since the model calls for the involvement of local businesses. His relations with the business community could very well prove to be the impetus needed to get local business to fully embrace our local school system, not just financially but through increased personal interaction as well.

If you are not familiar with Community Schools, let’s see if we can’t get you up to speed. The Community Schools initiative produces a partnership between a community and a school. They integrate academics, health, and social services in order to provide opportunities for whole families. Schools remain open every day for longer hours for everyone, not just students, so that they truly become centers of the community. Businesses, parents and community members work together to find solutions to each schools unique challenges. This idea is huge because it addresses in a real-world manner many of the barriers that keep our children from truly excelling. It also puts us at the forefront of a reform movement that is being embraced nationwide. In Tennessee we take pride in our ability to lead.

In 2013, Cincinnati started the movement towards embracing the idea of Community Schools. In Ohio, they are referred to as “community learning centers” because “community schools” is the legal name for charter schools in Ohio. The success is already starting to be seen in the reduction of grade retention and dropout rates and increased attendance. One example is Oyler School, a tough school in a tough neighborhood that has seen real progress by making the conversion and engaging the community. Achievement tests have shown mixed results, but they are getting to a point where kids’ needs are finally being met so they can focus on achievement. It’s classic Maslow’s Hierarchy.

In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is aiming to have 200 community schools in place by 2017. In part, this means committing the resources to existing schools that have already embraced the transition. Providing resources does not mean throwing money at the program; it means committing to the concept, selling it to the community, and allowing them to take full ownership. It also means selling the idea to local businesses to get them involved in the communities where they do business.

Philadelphia has begun to explore the idea of community schools to tackle some of the problems they face in their high-poverty schools. Utilizing “high expectations with high support” as a mantra, community school advocates are working to bring the concept to even more schools. It only makes sense that if we can remove barriers, success will come more readily. If you don’t believe that, I’ll make arrangements to come over to your house the night before you have a big presentation at work and every time you start to drift off to sleep, I’ll slam two metal garbage lids together. I guarantee that your presentation the next day will suffer. Many of our children are rarely afforded that luxury due to the effects of poverty. Community schools can help alleviate those barriers created by poverty and empower the student to focus on learning.

Here in Nashville we’ve already begun the process of creating Community Schools. Community Achieves currently has a presence in 14 schools and in the coming school year will see that number grow to 20. I have to admit, their success is a big source of pride for me because it has grown out of the incredible work done at my neighborhood school, Glencliff High School. Our community is fully vested in Glencliff and their success resonates through out the whole community. Recently the alumni group, made up of primarily graduates from the 60’s and 70’s, opened an alumni room on site so that they could be even more involved in school activities. They also made a financial commitment to furnish uniforms for the boys and girls basketball teams. There is no reason to believe that this success can not be replicated city wide.

Some might argue that the academic success of community schools has been limited. I would acknowledge that, but argue that research is just beginning and the results have been very promising. A recent study by Child Trends, a nonpartisan nonprofit research center, reached the following conclusion: “Well-implemented ISS programs meet policymakers’ and funders’ desire for approaches that are research-based, data-driven, cost-effective, and powered by local communities.”

The key phrase there is “powered by local communities.” I personally can not see a downside to any policy that increases community interaction. We should welcome reform that allows communities to take responsibility for their own solutions and not force them to accept proposed solutions by outside agents. This is especially true in our communities of color and  low-income. Our wealthier whiter communities would never accept solutions that did not center around their input. As Jitu Brown, the national director of Journey for Justice Alliance, a coalition of community, youth, and parent-led grassroots organizations in 21 cities, recently stated, “We want what our friends in other communities have. They don’t have contract schools, they don’t have charter schools in middle class White communities. They have world-class neighborhood schools.”

That, to me, is the essence of why I embrace the concept of community schools. It puts the onus to face a community’s education challenges squarely where they should be, in the hands of the community. There is no call for a white-hatted savior to ride in and dictate to a community what they need to solve their school dilemmas. The concept doesn’t call for the taking of public property and turning it over to private entities. A community school serves to unite communities, not divide them.

The foundation of democracy is based on the tenet that there is nothing we cannot do as a collective where we all have a voice. Don’t tell that to my Republican friends – they’ll argue that it’s based on the individual. It’s not important how you perceive it. The bottom line is empowering people and communities to solve their own problems. Bill Freeman seems to grasp that concept. So often politicians tell us how they are going to solve our problems. Seldom does one promise to give us the tools to solve our own. That, I must say, is a pleasant surprise and one makes Bill Freeman a very appealing candidate.

Here We Go Again

10

learnHere we go again. In Tennessee, like many states in the Union, we test our students using standardized tests every April. In May and June, the results come out and the questioning begins. The last couple of years have seen the questioning get louder and louder. Last year, it was over a delay in test results. This year, teachers are taking to social media, questioning the quick scores because they seem abnormally high. Are they, though?

Well, if you are like most parents, you probably don’t know what a quick score is. I certainly didn’t. So I went to the Tennessee Department of Education website for a definition. I didn’t find a definition, but I did find this:

Q47: Should I use my district’s/school’s quick scores for accountability determinations?

Due to post equating and psychometric reviews on assessment data, quick scores might look different from final accountability results. Districts may aggregate their numbers for their own data analysis; however, these are merely estimates. There is always the potential for changes in scoring. In all cases, we do not keep a record of students for whom scores change. Quick scores are embargoed which means they are not meant for public dissemination.

So that sounds pretty serious, but no more clear than it was before I checked. One thing was clear – that in order to interpret the quick scores you needed to know the cut scores. You got it, back to the web site.  That’s where I found this: The index cut scores are an estimate of the number of items the student would be expected to answer correctly to achieve basic, proficient, and advanced designation if there had been 100 such items for each category.

Okay, that’s not much clearer, but it’s clear that I needed the cut scores in order to assess the value of the quick scores. Clearly, this isn’t like Ms. Johnson’s 5th grade class where there were 50 questions and each one you got right earned you two points, and if you got between 80 and 90 points you got a “B,” 90 to 100 an “A,” and so on. Under the state scenario a student receives a score, say an 87, and what ever number the cut score is set at determines whether the student is proficient or advanced. If the cut score is set at 88, the child would be considered basic. If the cut score is 86, they are proficient. Sounds fairly simple, but there are questions about how cut scores are derived at.

But let’s put aside any suspicions and ask, where are the cut scores? Well, they aren’t available yet because arriving at them means some additional calculations need to occur. Well of course they do, didn’t we have a similar issue last year? Instead of releasing the cut scores, on Friday, Education Commissioner McQueen released this cryptic letter explaining why they weren’t available:

Directors,

I want to thank you for your work in finalizing student demographic and teacher claiming information to close this year’s TCAP cycle. I know many of you have received your quick scores for student grading and are anxious to understand more about your district’s overall performance. Though the department made the decision in 2014 to stop associating TCAP performance levels with quick score results, we do want to provide information as accurately, transparently, and quickly as possible.

To that end, the division of data and research will provide a detailed communication regarding quick score use and interpretation in our May 27 Director Update, followed by a release of preliminary data regarding quick score relationships to raw scores and cut scores to determine proficient (versus non-proficient) on June 1. For now, I caution you to avoid communicating any results regarding proficiency rates based on the 2015 quick scores using performance level relationships that were last calculated and communicated in 2013.

Quick scores are generated for use in student grading only. As such, there will not necessarily be a consistent relationship between quick scores and performance levels for achievement from year to year. Performance levels are determined first by raw score to scale score conversions and then through cut-scores defined by the standards setting process. Over the next couple of months, we will engage our TOSS working group for accountability in further conversation about how we address quick scores during the transition to TNReady. In the meantime, please look for the memo in the May 27 Director Update and the follow-up information on June 1. As a reminder, we will also include this timeline in today’s Director Update.

Best,

Candice

(I like the way she signs her memos “Candice.” After all, she’s just one of us, right?)

I’m not going to try and decipher exactly what all that means. It is obviously way more complicated than I can handle, so I’ll leave that to smarter minds than mine. However, I do have a couple thoughts on our student testing system that I’d like to share. Some things that I do understand and I don’t believe can be said enough.

Critics often say that we should run our school system like a business. Well, you can pick up any number of business books, and they will stress the value of having an evaluation system that stake holders all buy-in to. Without that buy-in, there is no value. If people don’t believe in the fidelity of the system, it becomes too easy to attribute outside factors to the results. In other words, they start to feel that data is being manipulated to augment an agenda that they are not privy to and not included in. I’m not saying results are being manipulated or not being manipulated when it comes to our student evaluation system, but I am saying that there seems be a growing belief that they are, and without some kind of change, that perception will only grow. I’ve always maintained that perception is nine-tenths of reality.

Candice is the one person who has the ability to reclaim that belief in the system. Imagine if she were to announce, that based on her listening tour, she is calling for a complete review of our testing process and its timelines. She recognizes that in its current configuration, the testing process is not meeting the needs of parents, administrators, teachers, or students. Timelines could be adjusted to ensure that when scores are delivered, all components are delivered and no one will have to speculate what they mean. Definitions and processes could be clarified so that all could understand the results without relying on “experts.” Because as it stands, nobody can give you a clear picture of what it all means, yet we spend an inordinate amount of time focusing on the test. (The below chart was created by a parent.)

calender

That’s a lot of focus on something that nobody can give a clear concise explanation of. What if parents were given copies of the test their children just took and were permitted to review these tests with them? What if teachers were permitted to see tests and judge the strength of the test questions? What if teachers were given Unless the process was truly flawed, greater transparency could only increase confidence in the way we test our children. Perhaps if we spent as much time defending stakeholder’s proprietary rights as we did testing companies, some faith would be restored.

Which leads me to my second thought and one that cannot be understated. We need to make sure that the public has a full understanding of exactly what a bell curve is and that it serves as a base for our measurement system. In a new posting, Jersey Jazzman, an education researcher and blogger, does an exceptional job of explaining how it all works. A bell curve is applied to the test results, and that means that some students will fall to the exceptional end of the scale and some students will fall to the other side, but the majority will fall in the middle. Let me spell that out further. While we are demanding that students do exceptional work, we are utilizing a measurement system that guarantees the majority of them will do average work. Because if too many of them do exceptional work, we’ll just make the test harder so that the majority fall back in the middle.

Let’s take it a step further. Since the evidence is pretty strong that standardized tests are a better measurement of socio-economic status than actual learning, who do you think will fall to the lower end of the curve? That’s right, our low income children and our children of color. Reformers will latch on to these scores to create strategies like charter schools, extended school days, and no-excuse discipline policies.  They will apply these strategies predominately to our low income children and children of color.

I recently brought a magician to a high-poverty elementary school to entertain the children. A teacher came up to thank me and made the comment that they don’t often get opportunities like this one due to the testing scrutiny they are subject to. Kids in poverty get more focus on what is measurable while wealthier kids enjoy a more well-rounded education. When was the last time you heard a call for longer school days in a wealthy district? What about the need for a no-excuse discipline policy? A test that just reinforces socio-economic status will just serve to create two separate and unequal education systems.

At a listening session for the upcoming Project RESET in Nashville a roomful of education professionals offered very insightful assessments of our educational system when the owner of a local charter school spoke up and proclaimed that we can talk about engagement, parental involvement, and diversity all we want, but we need to focus on achievement because 13 percent of students are not proficient in reading and to her that was unacceptable. To me, it sounds like she has a lack of understanding of how the system is designed, and that based on that design, the system is working. Because if that 13% ever became proficient, we would just adjust the test to make sure that either they or some other students fell back into that non-proficient status. Starting to feel like it’s a rigged system? It should.

At a luncheon the week before, in front of hundreds of civic leaders, Nashville Public Education Foundation, a main sponsor of Project RESET, president Shannon Hunt proclaimed that all students have the identical potential to achieve. Apparently, she hasn’t looked too closely at our measurement system because under that system, only a few have the chance to achieve at a high level, lest we, again, adjust the test. Many in the room will use those words to justify further privatizing a system that is already under attack, and again it will be our poor children and children of color who will be affected.

In Tennessee, we have the Achievement School District, which has the mission of taking the bottom 5% of schools up to the top 25% while ignoring the fact that there will always be a bottom 5%. The use of a bell curve goes one step further and insures there will always be below average schools and teachers. Or, as the reform movement likes to label them, failing schools and failing teachers. How many parents and community members are aware of this, and how many take the results at face value? Since NPEF is sponsoring Project RESET to reset the educational conversation in Nashville, this discussion of test scores and failing schools might be the area to start the reset. Perhaps we could have an honest conversation about what standardized test tell us.

Students are not alone in being held to a higher standard in a system that only allows a high output for a few students. Countless articles have been written about the need to have a great teacher in front of every class, yet each of those teachers will only be allowed to produce average outcomes. Because again, if all those teachers produced great outcomes, we’d have to redo the test to make sure those outcomes were average. I can hear the critics shaking their heads now. You’re oversimplifying it, they’ll say. They’ll point out that’s why there is an observational portion and a growth element added to the teacher evaluation system. And what happens when that observational portion produces results different than the test? We say the observations are biased and we re-address the scores.

It’ll be interesting to see how it all plays out this summer. I don’t know if Tennessee needs high test scores to fortify the narrative that reform is working or low test scores to reinforce the need for the move to Common Core. I suspect I’ll know by the end of the summer. I do know that at some point the state will have to address the growing lack of faith in our evaluation system. At some point we will have to stop demanding that children produce at a high level in a system that guarantees the majority will produce at an average level. We will have to face facts that our evaluation system aids in the creation of inequalities and fails to give us a true picture of student outcomes. That is perhaps Candice’s biggest challenge.

Watch Yer Back

13

iStock_000018501506_LargeETHICS12_4129884969341364387As a person who often says bad things about people with money, I’m always a little wary of the reaction my writing may have on others. Being married to a teacher and considering that the majority of the stuff I write is about education, I’m doubly careful. Education is a subject where passions run especially high. Still, I often leave the house without my filters on, so it’s not uncommon that someone gets offended by something I express. Sometimes, those people deserve to be offended. But down in Williamson County, Tennessee, concern is growing that something is not right and I feel compelled to comment because it could eventuall affect us all.

Williamson County is the adjacent southern county to Nashville’s Davidson County. It’s a wealthier county with a conservative bent. If you are in the Northeast, think Bucks County, but with Civil War money instead of Revolutionary War money. As expected, the schools are excellent and the school superintendent exceptional. But that doesn’t mean that in today’s hyper-sensitive culture they are immune from the wackiness that is going on.

This will probably get me in hot water, but it’s all too crazy not to talk about. Things started getting interesting during the last school board race, which may or not have been influenced by the Koch Brothers, but did see a large influx of cash nonetheless. The challengers defeated the incumbents and quickly got to work on the important issues like passing resolutions on Common Core, carrying guns on campus, limiting speaker participation at meetings, and increasing rigor. Oh, I almost forgot, the person initially chosen to be chair of the school board had to resign for his role in marketing a bottle opener modeled after a woman’s posterior. I think it’s safe to say the ground was more than fertile for the growing of insanity.

 

On June 26, 2014, or thereabouts, a group called Williamson Strong sprung up. They were a parent group who valued the public education system they had and wanted to preserve it. They figured the best way to do so was to advocate for people to vote and, hopefully, vote for people who supported the policies favored by Williamson Strong. They were not a PAC or even a non-profit. In fact, they didn’t even have a treasurer. They were just a parent group wanting to support the school system that was supporting their children. This led to a costly mistake because they didn’t register as an official group.

 

Where or what they were supposed to do officially is a bit of mystery to me. I’ve talked to a number of different people and all had different recommendations. Some say they should have registered as a non-profit. Others say as a 501c4, or is it a 501C3, or maybe it’s a PAC. Truth is, nobody is sure, and the rules are quite vague. Laws are written to protect the election process from skilled operators, not concerned parents. As such, it creates a lot of room for error with very serious consequences.

It didn’t take long to ruffle some feathers in the land of the red. A conservative blog wrote a piece trying to immediately discredit WS, though they’d only been in existence for a month. I’m always a big fan of the hit pieces that use phrases like “believed to be.” Apparently, you are also not supposed to be able to design a slick website either, unless you have union backing or a 12-year-old in the house. Interestingly enough, this hit piece advised readers to “hold on to their wallet,” yet nowhere on the WS site is there a place to donate money. But don’t think things slow down there – apparently Victoria Jackson had one more Saturday Night Live skit in her, as she was willing to offer her opinion on what was going on. I’ll let you read about it and make your own jokes.

 

If it was Jackson who wore the mask of comedy, it was newly-elected board member Susan Curlee who donned the mask of tragedy. She filed an open records request that included all correspondence between Superintendent Looney and the private citizens who made up the leadership of Williamson Strong. Curlee claimed they were unfairly targeting her as an agent working for privatization, even though Americans for Prosperity had put out an informational flier with a high resolution picture of her and she was on record supporting vouchers. She also accused members of Williamson Strong of harassing her family. In an effort to clear the air and clarify their objectives, WS published an open letter to Ms. Curlee. Apparently, it wasn’t enough because in December 2014, Curlees filed ethics charges. The verdict came down this week.

 

The Registry of Election Finance voted to fine Williamson Strong a total of 5K for failure to register as a PAC and failure to file campaign expenditures. That’s right – an organization that doesn’t have a treasurer nor a fundraising mechanism was fined for not declaring themselves a PAC. Either they are the worst PAC ever or there is something a little skewered here.

 

Now just like I’m not a teacher, I’m also not a lawyer. But as it’s been explained to me, in order to be considered a PAC, you have expend money to support a candidate. If I don’t have a treasurer or a fundraising mechanism, how am I going to extend monies to a candidate? That’s the part that is completely baffling and troubling to me and other parent activists in the state.

If you extend this ruling out, then any time you have two people get together and offer free cookies to educate the public about a certain candidate, you could be considered a PAC. A couple riding in a car with a bumper sticker for a candidate on their car could be considered a PAC. There is supposedly a threshold of $250 that can be spent, but that was ignored in this case. So what’s to lead an activist to think it won’t be ignored in the future?

 

It is often pointed out that the most significant indicator of student success is parental involvement. Democracy itself is based on the principle of the citizen activist. This ruling has the potential to limit people from engaging in either role. This negative engagement between the newly elected board members and Williamson Strong may be coming from a place of personalities, but it setting a precedent that has the potential to limit parental involvement by making parents reticent to get involved if the result of failing to navigate a complex set of rules means potential financial punishment. Some may find this as it should be, however citizens are not attorneys and should not be expected to engage one in order to participate in the governing process.

The threshold on the average citizen should be higher than that on an elected official, who by their pursuit of elected office should be expected to be more versed in the regulatory aspects of the process. I would also argue that an elected official should seek to help constituents navigate the system, not seek to punish them for expressing views that run counter to their own. It’s almost the American way to be misinformed and to hurl accusations at politicians based on the opinions borne from this misinformation. Just ask George Bush and Barack Obama. It’s not the way it should be, but it’s up to elected officials to counter these arguments through their words and deeds, not litigation. In short, they should be inviting citizens to participate, not raising the bar to curtail it.

 

This past week, I’ve spent a fair amount of time talking to people in Williamson County about these events. What emerges is a convoluted picture that seems to have as much to do with past politics as it does with the current issues. Much of it also seems to be tied to personalities as much as policies. That should not be a surprise to anyone who has been involved with politics. It would take King Solomon to weed through all that has transpired and assign accountability. That’s a task well above my pay grade and not really the point I’m looking to make.

What is important here is to recognize and possibly prevent the use of personal issues to circumvent the democratic process. Parents should absolutely have the right to band together and champion issues they deem important. They should have the right to educate the public without fear of retribution. I obviously don’t endorse slander, but politicians should understand that reaping the benefits of certain entities also means suffering the disadvantages. To argue that there are not outside forces seeking to influence our democratic society through their financial injection, on both sides of the aisle, is either naïve or willfully ignorant.

Parents should not have to go through a cryptic bureaucracy to get involved in policy making that directly affects their children, unless they are actively raising money and financially supporting candidates at a reasonable threshold. Purchasing a domain name, making a records request, and holding a meeting should not qualify as meeting that threshold. Education policy conversations are ones that need to be held by all, not just those who aren’t afraid of the financial risk or are capable of deciphering complex regulatory language. Our representatives need to be leaders of all their constituents and not just the ones who share their views. Ms. Curlee and her supporters may feel like they’ve won a victory this week. Maybe they have in the short term, but at what cost in the long run?

UPDATED on 5/19: So I couldn’t resist, I had to add an up date. If you look above you’ll see where I mentioned an elected official carrying a gun on campus. I should correct my self, it was not a school board member but county commissioner Barbara Sturgeon. What struck me most about this whole incident was the lack of any kind of remorse for carrying a gun on campus. Her tone was immediately defensive and there was never a statement of “Hey my bad, should have left it at home.”

Superintendent Mike Looney took exception to someone carrying a fire arm on campus and sent her a letter notifying her that she would not be permitted on campus with out his written permission. When the superintendent suspended her privileges she immediately filed suit. She and her attorney apparently felt that this was about politics and not that she CARRIED A GUN ON CAMPUS.  The suspension was lifted but the lawsuit continues. Today the Williamson County School Board asked for an additional 30k because this lawsuit could cost upwards of 60K. Think about what our poorer districts could do with 60K. You can’t make these things up.

UPDATE 2 on 5/19: Yes you can’t just make stuff up. WilliamsonStrong put out an update today on what was heard by the commision in their case. It’d all be good for a chuckle if it wasn’t so damned serious. Here’s my favorite part though, it comes from Ms. Curlee’s testimony, “Talking points from other locations around the country, especially with regard to other candidates, seem to be consistent. So things like privatization, outside big money coming from out of state, supposed to be nonpartisan, these are just stepping stones for other things, um, they all claim to be grassroots but then again there seems to be a template that’s being replicated.”

Once again people assume they are the only ones with access to the internet. All you have to do is a Google search and you’ll discover that these ARE the things that are transpiring across the country. Read my blog posts and you’ll see it. Trust me, I get no union funding. So if there is a template it’s one established by others. I encourage you to read the rest so you can get an idea of what we as parents potentially face.

 

TN ASD: Brand on the Run

6

091111_WEB_b_Barbic_t618I figure the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD) and its superintendent, Chris Barbic, are feeling pretty good these days. The legislative session is over in Tennessee, and they’ve managed to beat back the forces of darkness that wanted to abolish, or at least limit, them. (Disclaimer: I consider myself a proud member of those aforementioned forces). In fact, they won the right to go out and recruit extra students. Now, it’s summer time, and people’s attention starts turning to more enjoyable subjects, leaving the ASD ample opportunity to plot their fall shenanigans. But not so fast, my friends.

The newly-won ability of the ASD to enroll students in out-of-zone neighborhoods is a big deal. It allows for the ASD gang to go out and find some kids who will help raise those test scores in ASD-managed schools. Barbic likes to downplay this and say that we’re only talking about maybe 400 students. That doesn’t sound like much, but if you’re familiar with how small the sample size for the annual achievement tests are, you began to understand what a big deal this actually is. Studies have shown that standardized tests do more to measure socio-economic status than student achievement.  Just a handful of the “right” students (i.e., impoverished minority students with highly involved parents) can make results look a whole lot different and give the appearance that the ASD is doing something our public schools can’t.

The other win for the ASD in the recent legislative session is the ability to charge its charter operators an authorizer fee of up to 3 percent for each school’s per-pupil funding from the state. So much for that tag line of “100% going to the student.” Furthermore, this creates the incentive for the ASD to authorize more charters rather than administer schools themselves. Can’t take 3% out of your own wallet now, can you? This becomes especially important because the Race to the Top money, which helped fund the founding of the ASD, is going away, but those large administrative salaries are here to stay.

Fresh from these wins, the ASD is ready to get cracking on expansion. Funny thing, though, is that half of these charter applications are for Nashville. I guess when you start to wear your welcome out in one neighborhood, you have to pick up and move elsewhere. Unfortunately for the ASD, I don’t believe they will find Nashville anymore welcoming than Memphis. But that will not deter Barbic because he’s discovered a new benefit of coming to Nashville. Nashville’s demographics’ more closely resemble Houston’s than Memphis’. Apparently Barbic believes that these are demographics’ that make gains a little easier.

In a recent interview with Chalkbeat, Barbic made this interesting comment: “I think a second lesson is around the depth of the poverty in Memphis and the obstacle that creates in educating our students. Obviously, when we looked at the info on our kids before bringing a school into the ASD, we knew most of the kids we serve are living in poverty and that poverty plays a factor at school. I’ve been doing this for over 20 years and every single school I’ve worked with has been in a community dealing with poverty. But the poverty in Houston, where I worked before coming to Tennessee, compared to the poverty in Memphis, is different. In Houston, it was more of an immigrant poverty. In Memphis, it’s more generational poverty. I think that the depth of the generational poverty and what our kids bring into school every day makes it even harder than we initially expected. We underestimated that.”

This is, frankly, quite shocking coming from a man who subscribes to the “citing poverty is just an excuse” and “all kids can learn” schools of thought. To my admittedly untrained ear, what he seems to be saying is that poverty does matter and some kids are more prepared to learn than other kids. That also seems to run counter to his theory of a “Belief Gap.” Sounds like he believes that children who live in “immigrant poverty” are much more capable of learning than children living in “generational poverty,” as he puts it. Nashville has less generational poverty and more immigrant poverty, so he should be able to test that theory out. Personally, I find it a little reprehensible. Poverty is poverty and needs to be addressed, but at least he’s finally recognizing the role it plays.

The ASD’s attack on Nashville started in earnest last year, and the effects their intrusion has on all schools needs to be recognized, not just the ones that they take over. Take, for example, Inglewood Elementary School in Nashville. Due to test scores, they were on the priority list and subject to potential takeover. But they had a strong principal in place, an extremely talented and committed teaching staff, and increasing parental involvement. In short, they had a plan and were working on it as a community. They were successful in fighting off the ASD but at what cost?

This is what that success looks like. The principal has, because of the uncertainty with the future, transferred to another school. The teachers, again, because of the uncertainty, have explored other options. Parents who were fully committed to sending their children to school there have been scared off by the uncertainty. What you have left now is a school that has been willfully gutted of its resources and is primed to be taken over and turned over. Even though the school fought off the ASD, they’ve been robbed every bit as much as if someone had shown up and held them at gun point. The ASD will tout their supposed successes but nobody will discuss the cost or the lives affected so that they could rack up their data points. It’s my opinion that every politician who failed to rein in the ASD in this past legislative session should have to talk to the administrators, teachers, and parents of that school to see the damage done. That means you as well, Commissioner McQueen.

Fall will be here soon enough and the cold weather will bring new attacks by the ASD, but Nashville will be prepared. We will collect the stories, gather the data, and educate communities about why the intrusion of the ASD is an unwelcome one. While they spend the summer hatching their plots, we will work just as hard to defend our schools and our communities.

One of the best ideas I’ve heard is that we ought to spend the summer emulating the “Occupy” protests and take up residence for the summer in front of Mr. Barbic’s house. He lives in a neighborhood unaffected by either “immigration” or “generational” poverty, so I don’t believe that intrusion would be any more welcome than his into our community schools. Maybe if he learned what it feels like to have your world possessed by unwelcome guests, he’d be a little slower to do the same. Perhaps, if there is enough interest.

I am not making the claim that all is perfect with our schools. Being an urban school district with high poverty and an incredibly diverse population brings a never ending source of challenges. The thing I am claiming is that the best-suited people to meet those challenges are the ones who live in the community. If the state wants to assist in improving their schools, I’ve got a way they can do that: fully fund the BEP. As Mr. Barbic says, “This is hard work, and I think we need to honor the folks who have raised their hands and said, ‘You know what? I want to go into schools and work with some of the most vulnerable kids in the state.’ We need to give the teachers and leaders in the building the space and time to be successful.” Amen, brother, amen.

 

BALTIMORE: A HARBINGER OF THE FUTURE

6

11112This week I watched the events of Baltimore unfold on my television, and I read the comments on social media. I can honestly say none of it surprised me. Even when Jeanne Allen jumped in with her tweet claiming charter schools could save society, I wasn’t shocked. I’m still waiting for Teach for America to identify and capitalize on their “champion of the uprising.” And let’s be honest, it is an uprising. The people of Baltimore are not reacting to an individual act, but a national epidemic.

 

You can only disfranchise and separate people for so long before they get angry. People will only express themselves peacefully if they feel they are being heard and their needs addressed. If the perception is different, eventually that frustration is going to erupt in violence. That’s not a matter of a wrong way or a right way to behave; that’s just a fact of life. Unfortunately, we are creating a society that is so fractured that we can not begin to understand the experiences of our own fellow citizens, which causes us to put our value judgments on their behavior instead of being able empathize and find a solution.

 

Allen is not the first charter proponent to argue that type of school doesn’t matter, that we should be focusing on “good schools” not “type.” Choice proponents have repeatedly argued that not all schools are a good “fit” for all kids and that we should all get to choose the right school for our child. That all sounds good, but what that translates to is a stratified system only focusing on the measurable and eventually leading to a segregated society. One that because of a lack of shared experiences, results in people putting their needs in front of society’s needs.

 

We see the violence erupt in Baltimore, and it seems like a foreign country because we have no concept of what other people’s day-to-day lives look like. We see a grocery store burn, and we never take into account that the owner, due to patrons living in a food desert, may have been price gouging the community for years. We just assume that community members can go to another store with better prices if the grocer was over charging them. For some, that’s not an option. A friend who lived in a food desert once told me their local fast food place never offered specials. They didn’t have to. Their patrons didn’t have the ability to shop anywhere else.

 

In his recent book Our Kids: The American Dream in Crisis, Robert Putnam uses individual stories of children he went to school with in the 1950s and compares them to stories from the kids of today. He doesn’t paint the 1950s as an idyllic time, but instead shows how all kids went to school side-by-side and developed an understanding of the challenges each faced. That doesn’t hold true today. Between choice and charter schools we’ve created a system where like kids go to school with like kids. Students can graduate knowing how to read and write above grade level but not know a single child who lives in poverty or a single wealthy child. The diversity that is offered, because we give lip service to its importance, comes attached with phrases like, “controlled diversity” and “managed demographics.” The true meaning of those phrases is segregation, and it’s a potentially devastating problem.

 

One of the reasons my family made a home in the neighborhood where we live is because of its diversity. I wanted my children to grow up in an environment where they are exposed to all kinds of people with all kinds of lifestyles. They don’t have to like everybody, but they need to make their judgments based on experience and knowledge, not supposition. I wanted my children exposed to “unmanaged demographics.”

 

They attend a school that is 70% English Learners (EL) and 90% of its students live in poverty. It’s also a damn good school, though test scores don’t necessarily reflect that quality. My wife and I believe that this well-rounded education is essential to who my children will be as adults. However, the proliferation of charter schools in my neighborhood has begun to peel off high performing students from public schools. This leads to a higher population of English Learners in public schools, and an increased focus on programs that address their needs, potentially resulting in fewer programs for non-EL students.

 

We put so much emphasis on annual standardized tests that if the school doesn’t double down on addressing the needs of its increasing EL population, it risks being labeled a failure. Currently an edict has been issued in our school zone that all new teachers must be EL-certified in order to be hired. On paper that sounds good, but what about that 5-star teacher who moves from a rural district and wants to teach at a local school but may not be EL-certified? What gets sacrificed with the increased focus on English Learners, and does it force non-EL parents to make hard decisions about where to send their children? The push for “choice” could have the affect of robbing many parents of their “choice”.

 

This same scenario plays out with special education students. The result, whether intentional or not, is a more segregated school. A former head of TFA Nashville, Shandi Dowell, once told me that children of color are not in the classroom to be social experiences for white children. When she said it, I bought into it, but now I’m calling bullshit. How is that adult white person ever going to be able to watch the news, like the scene unfolding in Baltimore, and even begin to understand the root of the anger if they’ve never had that cultural experience? How can a person of color make their needs understood if they’ve never interacted with a white population? If we can’t empathize with each other, how can we even begin to address our societal issues? Our public schools have always given us a reasonably safe place for children to start conducting these experiments, but adults are now actively stealing those avenues away from us in the name of “choice.”

 

One of the most telling statistics from the recent CREDO study on the performance of urban charters was the disparity in the results for black, Hispanic, and white children. In math, black children gained the equivalent of 36 additional days of learning and Hispanics gained 22, while white children lost 36 days. In reading, it was blacks 26 days and Hispanics 6, but white children lost 14 days. To my untrained eyes, that is very disturbing because it would indicate to me that something very race-specific is transpiring; this is further evidence of the segregation of children in our schools. Unless different children from different races, and economic classes, truly have different abilities to learn and I don’t subscribe to that for one second. If charter schools were truly beneficial, they’d be beneficial to all, not just certain sub-groups. They would take all kids not just the ones who’s parents are involved enough to get them enrolled.

A recent study out of Stanford illustrates the benefits of students attending a diverse school that incorporates social emotional learning. Per the study “By attending to these needs as well as academic content, schools can foster trust, safety, and community among students and adults in the school; change students’ beliefs about education and themselves as learners; reduce the threat of stereotypes and biases about students’ potential and ability; and enable students to cultivate skills that render education meaningful and relevant.” Think about the ramifications of that and how students who graduated from such a school will be very well prepared to search for solutions to the issues that we as a country face.

 

It has long been my position that schools are vital in the shaping of tomorrow’s citizens. The immeasurable is every bit as important as the measurable. While turning out a literate society is certainly important, what is the good if people don’t know how to apply those skills? Charter and choice proponents apparently don’t share this view. They are focused on schools that generate high test scores or are compatible with individual kids to the point of being willing to close schools that don’t generate the desired stats or that do more to make adults look good than to prepare children for the future. They appear willing to create separate educational systems that further divide us in order to justify numbers that show no correlation with future success, meanwhile giving us less and less common ground in which to find solutions to our social challenges.

 

As long as we continue to implement policies that allow us to separate individual members of our society from each other, scenes like this week’s will continue to play out more and more. Until we address the growing inequality in our country, we will continue to see further uprisings. Investing in our public education system is a good place to start. We need to recognize that education is not just about passing tests, but learning to be good citizens. Education is as much about the collective as it is the individual. We need to stop believing when people tell us that the type of school doesn’t matter and start believing in our public educational system. Or else, we will see more and more disenfranchised people, more and more inequality, and a continued rising anger. Teachers and schools cannot solve every problem but they can give us the foundation to find our own solutions.

 

The TN ASD: In search of a friend

1

Need-To-Make-MoneyA number of months ago I poised the tongue-in-cheek  question, “Who actually likes the Tennessee Achievement School District”? Little did I know how much truth was in that question. It is certainly not the people of Memphis or Nashville, who have loudly rejected the ASD take overs of their schools. You can’t count the three charter operators, Frayser Community Schools, Green Dot, and KIPP, who recently changed their planned level of participation in the ASD. The Tennessee Comptroller’s office can’t be too enamored, as their audit revealed multiple instances of financial mismanagement. Apparently there are not too many friends at the State House either, as 22 bills were introduced this session to either limit or do away with the ASD.  Now, the latest tree has fallen: YES Prep decided to pull out of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

This is a huge deal because YES Prep is a charter organization that Tennessee Achievement School District head Chris Barbic helped found in 1998. They’ve been very successful in Houston and agreed to open two schools in Memphis in August. You can’t help but think their relationship with Barbic helped facilitate this move. However, now that they’ve gotten a little bit more of the lay of the land, they are having second thoughts about the move. Chris Barbic might have thought that the Memphis parent protests were no big deal, but apparently, along with a changing financial picture, made YES Prep a bit uneasy, as they’ve decided to pack up and move back to Texas. This is akin to a son telling his father he doesn’t want to go into the family business. It’s got to sting.

Part of the hang-up was over a proposed turnaround strategy called a phase-in plan. With a phase-in plan, a charter takes over one grade at a time per year until eventually they take over the whole school. This is strategy that charter operators might find beneficial, but I doubt those outside the grade being taken over feel the same way. These students, the ones not being “taken over”, are left in limbo as the district knows that the school will soon be the charter’s responsibility, and therefore there is not a lot of incentive to invest in the school and its remaining students. Memphis was not a fan of the phase-in strategies. Parents and administrators had grown weary of students attending a school where some students were granted more resources than others due to the charter status. In response to parental concern’s, Memphis created a policy that would force YES Prep to send students in the non-targeted grades to other campuses. This caused further resistance from a community that was already wary.

In discussing these models, we must never lose sight of the fact that these “low-performing schools” are also largely high poverty schools. This disruption can create challenges that parents are ill prepared for. Imagine if you were told that not only is your child’s school being taken over by the state, but since your child is in a non-targeted grade, he’ll be attending another campus that might not be very convenient for you and furthermore, may create a financial burden. Charter schools like to compare themselves to rescue boats for the Titanic. Well, this is an example of them deciding who gets the rescue boat and who gets the anchor.

YES Prep’s Memphis director Bill Durbin stated, “For the last year, we’ve had a team on the ground doing all that due diligence to be prepared to run schools this fall. In doing all that due diligence we obviously came to the realization that a bunch of factors have changed in the past few years that don’t lead us to believe we can deliver on the promise that we made when we were approved two years ago”. Chris Barbic’s response: “Not everyone is cut out for this work.”

Meanwhile, families in a Memphis neighborhood are left scratching their head and wondering where their children will be attending school next year. This is a serious problem. One that could have been avoided, but is indicative of an issue with the whole charter movement. Charter schools are accountable to their board of directors, but not the community or anyone else.

Reformers like to lament how hard it is to close a failing school, but in my eyes not being able to whimsically close a school is a good thing. Schools are meant to be more than just places for students to learn to read and add. They are meant to be cornerstones of communities that reflect the values of those communities and serve as a source of stability. Take for example Glencliff High School here in Nashville. Glencliff High School will most likely still be here, barring catastrophe, when my children are ready to attend. I know alumni and current students from Glencliff. They make up my community and we have a shared social currency. Glencliff as a public school helps preserve this social currency. It is a source of stability in a neighborhood that has seen many fluctuations. But the charter movement does not offer the same steadying influence.

Charter schools are not government entities; they are private. Therefore they are governed by private interests. If the job gets too difficult, they can close. If the profit margin gets too small, they can close. If they don’t like the model that the local school district proposes, they can close. There is nothing that guarantees that the school that’s educating your oldest child will be the one educating your youngest, or even that the one responsible for your oldest child’s education will be the one responsible next year.

Most parents would find this problematic, but not Chris Barbic. He’s more concerned about growth. In his eyes the ASD needs to have the ability to go out and recruit more kids. Apparently he doesn’t see how this would create more instability. When he pulls kids out of their local district, that means less money for the local district. Less money means more potentially failing schools, which translates into more schools to be potentially handed over to charter operators. Schools that may or may not be open on that first day of school in August. Barbic is so committed to this vision that he’s willing to support attaching a bill to allow expanded enrollment for the ASD to a completely unrelated bill, a bill with universal support that would give cover to the ASD, which does not enjoy universal support. With shenanigan’s like this, you can’t help but wonder how much of this is all about the money, especially now that the Race To The Top money has dried up.

The Achievement School District was created out of the Race To The Top application. Its creators saw it as a means for the State, who had more resources available, to provide assistance to schools, that had challenges local districts weren’t equipped to handle. Charter schools were intended to be just one tool in a box that the State had access to. Someone, though, took it upon themselves to turn the ASD into a de facto charter authorizer. Since it’s inception, when the ASD took over the three campuses of Frayser, every takeover has been a charter conversion.

An interesting fact about the Frayser schools – they’re losing their leader Ash Solar. Barbic’s comments on his leaving are “I think it’s one thing to come and do the one- to two-year sprint as fast as you can,” he said. “But if we’re going to sustain this work, we’ve got to make sure we are finding people that can sustain an effort over time.” Guess Solar is not cut out for this work either. Even though he was a member of the Broad Residency Class of 2009-2011. You start to wonder who Chris thinks is qualified to do this work. If you looked at test scores you might even begin to question if the ASD is qualified to do this work.

From the beginning the ASD proposed to grow the bottom 5% to the top 25%. After three years, they’ve fallen considerably short of that goal and to reach it, would have to produce double digit gains each of the remaining years. Interesting enough, the I-Zone schools, which have been referred to as the local district’s achievement district, have proven more successful in producing gains with a whole lot less disruption to the community. Change is hard and rarely comfortable, but discomfort just for discomfort sake is not reform. Results have to be evident and to this point, the ASD has just not shown results that warrant the disruption they’ve caused.

I don’t know how many more signs are needed to show that this Achievement School District thing in Tennessee is fraying at the edges. Individually, any one of the series of failures that have beset the ASD this year would be cause for pause, but when taken together, it’s a damning indictment. To be honest, it seems to me that the ASD and it’s cohorts show more in common with war profiteers than educators.

At the very least the state of Tennessee Legislators need to put the brakes on any expansion of the Achievement School District. Let Mr. Barbic prove that he can still recruit quality charter operators. Because right now the quality ones are either leaving or scaling back their plans. We need to demand that Mr. Barbic prove that he can make academic gains with the students he’s charged with before granting him access to others. The ASD needs to prove that they are good stewards of tax payer money.

The Achievement School District may be prove to be a useful tool in the future, but with it’s current leadership, and mission statement, that is highly questionable. If it continues to be plagued with defections, scale backs, lack luster growth, community anger, and financial mismanagement, other solutions will need to be considered. There can be no success without stakeholder buy-in and right now, it is unclear who, if anybody, likes the ASD. Legislators owe it to Tennessee tax payers to hold the ASD to the same level of accountability required of students, teachers, administrators and schools. Anything less is just not acceptable.

 

 

 

 

 

Let’s talk Education Facts

2

“…It’s a fairly rudimentary exercise to be frank with you…Revenue follows the student to charter schools. Fixed costs do not follow the student proportionately. So therefore, the more revenue loss you get, the fixed cost base stays the same. There’s erosion. So it’s a pretty simple model…” –Independent Auditor discussing the Metro Nashville Public Schools audit

Those were the words used by the independent auditor hired by Metro Nashville to look at Metro Nashville School Districts operation. It would be an understatement to say that this was not what those commissioning the study thought they would hear.  School Board member Will Pinkton had been saying for over a year that we were getting to a point were the approval of more charter schools was financially unsustainable. The charter crowd dismissed these evidence based claims as politics and bias. In fact the hidden agenda of calling for the audit was to discredit Pinkston and fellow board members who had been raising this flag for months.

Nashville Mayor Karl Dean has long been a friend to charter operators, helping recruit many to Nashville during his time in office. He’s on record as saying that he believes we could handle the financial impact and wanted to see more charter schools, this audit was a way to counter any opposition to increased charter growth.

Council Person Emily Evans spearheaded the effort for the audit from the Metro Council side, which some perceived as a witch hunt. Evans took great umbrage to this, proclaiming that “[The Audit Committee] They have been doing this for years,” she says. “They are staunchly independent and operate with great integrity and commitment to this city.” I hope she remembers these words now that things didn’t turn out quite as planned. Her expectations were that the audit would show a mismanaged central office and an ability to absorb more costs if the district streamlined.

What turned out was a report that every school board member across the country should read. If you haven’t watched the video above, I strongly encourage you to do so. Delivered by an independent voice, is evidence of what fiscally responsible folks have been saying for years. The growth of the charter sector is unsustainable. The auditor himself called it a rudimentary exercise, unfortunately one that we’ve had to dedicate a lot of time and energy to over the past number of years.

Charter operators have, and will continue to, make the argument that cost shouldn’t be the sole determining factor in charter school expansion. They like to say the child is the most important thing. I would tend to agree, but I don’t see the benefit of dismantling an existing system and creating another one, especially when the new one shows no signs of being scalable or any better than the existing system. That’s like going out and buying a new car when you already own a comparable one that just needs new tires. That would be fiscally irresponsible. Yet that’s what is continually called for by the reform crowd.

Despite claims to the contrary, there is no evidence that shows a consistent differential between the performance of charter schools and traditional schools. Only an ardent zealot would argue differently. Yet the argument continues. Previously, the debate was confined  to education circles but as the charter industry got bigger and greedier, the argument has spilled out to auditors and accountants. People who are not swayed by ideology but rather raw numbers. When that starts to happen, people start to pay attention.

Tennessee, and specifically, Memphis are deeply affected by the Achievement School District. The ASD was started as a vehicle for the state to take over low performing schools and transform them. However, as of late, it’s become nothing but an independent charter authorizer with very limited results. All but five of the 23 schools in Memphis and Nashville taken over by the Achievement School District are run by private charter operators. The money that would be designated for the children attending a district school now gets directed to the ASD, which obviously leaves the district with less money to execute their mission. Lack of funds leads to lower performance, which leads to more schools getting taken over. It’s a brilliant plan and one they’ve been executing flawlessly until this year, where families have begun to be able to get legislators to really start looking at finances and impact.

Speaking of finances, Tennessee currently has a voucher bill pending. This voucher bill would give students enrolled in schools ranked in the bottom 5% money to go to a school of choice. Many others have written  more eloquently then I have on the detrimental effect this plan would have on the state. The interesting part to me is that we already have an entity that was supposedly created to address the needs of those kids in the bottom 5%: the ASD. I guess the money is not fleeing the public school system fast enough with just charters so we need to kick up the pace and add vouchers as well. This is a game plan for privatization and it’s being executed.

Currently the Achievement School District can only take students who are zoned for the schools that they take over. Have no fear though, the ASD is not one to let roadblocks get in the way of more money. There is currently legislation pending that would allow the ASD to recruit kids zoned for other non-ASD schools in the bottom 5%. You know, the ones that are eligible for vouchers. Now I’m not making any accusations, but that sure would be convenient. Of course, that would take even more money out of a system that already isn’t fully funded, meaning potentially more schools eligible for take over in the future – which, in turn means more students eligible for the ASD and vouchers since there will always be a bottom 5%.

We all know money matters. In order for schools to be successful, they have to have the financial resources necessary. Tennessee has put a tremendous amount of time, money, and effort into improving its public education system and the results have come. The last NAEP results showed Tennessee to be one of the fastest rising states in the Union for educational outcomes. The president himself has visited on numerous occasions to tout our educational progress. In a recent email to constituents, Rep David Alexander(R-D29), who is Vice-Chair of the Committee for Finance, Ways and Means wrote this:  “We already have Achievements School Districts, Magnets Schools and Charter Schools in our State. There have been many changes in our Tennessee Education Department over the last four years, and we moved the needle farther that any state in history as far as increased test scores of our Public School students. And now, for some reason, there are people who want to figure a way to get students out of that public school system.” Based on this,  the question that bears asking is, why?

Why would we spend all this time and money improving a system that has shown measurable improvement only to hamstring it by stealing resources? It makes you wonder if all this really is about the child. Look at the last couple school board races here in Nashville. A 100 thousand dollars is no longer considered an astounding amount of money to raise for a school board race. In fact, I’d argue it’s almost a necessity. That kind of money being donated for an unsalaried and frankly, thankless position further begs the question of why? What do private operators hope to accomplish by investing that kind of money in an unpaid position? I think the answer is becoming more and more apparent, especially as we continue to follow the money.

Please don’t think for a moment this is limited to the local and state level either. In April 2014, the House approved the Success and Opportunity through Quality Charter Schools Act (H.R. 10) by a vote of 360-45. A provision of that Act upped the money for charter schools from 250 million dollars to 300 million dollars. How do you justify giving that much money to an experiment that at best has proven to be a wash academically, and if you considered the peripheral effects, a detriment to our to our public schools that serve the majority of students. Imagine if that money were spent to fully fund our public schools instead. Perhaps we could level the funding gap between rich districts and poor districts.

It’s been said many times that public education is a cornerstone of our democratic values and I hold to that. Public education has never been perfect, but then again, neither has democracy. Our history has shown us the many problems – women’s suffrage, civil rights or environmental issues, etc. – that have arisen as a result of our democracy allowing some to exploit all of us. But we have never abandoned our democratic principles; instead we have always come together and worked on solving our issues; united in reaching a solution and strengthening our democracy, two goals united and not exclusive.

Imagine if during the civil rights era we would have just given up on local governments and allowed the corporations to set up bodies that would dictate to us what equality would look like. Imagine if we had turned environmental regulation over to corporate interests? We might have seen some short term goals met, but we would have lost a key element of what makes our society so unique and in the long run it would not have been beneficial.

The same holds true for public education. There are problems and room for improvement, but none of them can be fixed by turning our schools over to private entities. Only by coming together and working through solutions as people with a vested interest can we find solutions. The fact, is we can’t fiscally afford to privatize our system nor can we morally afford it.

Our schools shape our children’s future. Those who say the delivery method doesn’t matter are being disingenuous at best. It absolutely matters. If we don’t protect children’s constitutional rights now, how will they defend them as adults?  It is time to reaffirm that our schools belong to us, and we want them back from the corporate reformers who care more about the bottom-line than about our children.

 

 

 

Taking Care of our Teachers

2

thA7T8YKC9Last week, my wife’s dear friend and her husband welcomed their first child into the world. It was not an easy pregnancy, and so the arrival of a healthy baby brought as much relief as joy.  This new arrival made me reflect back when my daughter Avery was first born. I remember the difficult search for a pediatrician. We were so unsure about what qualities to look for and who would be the best fit. Even after making our selection, we were still filled with trepidation.

Avery arrived and was a very healthy baby. The pediatrician came and saw her at the hospital, and then later that week we went to the office. I remember my wife coming home and telling me that she really felt good about our selection because he asked as much about her as he did Avery. The doctor explained that if the mother wasn’t doing well then it would be awfully difficult for her to provide adequate care to the child.

That theory was such a simple idea, but it was so revelatory to me. It just made such complete sense. The mother was going to be introducing this child to the world, providing nourishment, guidance and security – of course it was important that she was feeling nourished and supported herself. I think this is a concept that is undisputable, yet for some reason doesn’t carry over when considering the next group of people that are responsible for our children’s growth; their teachers.

Reformers like to say they are all about the child and that they only support policies for children and not teachers; somehow the implication being that teacher’s concerns are just adults protecting their self interests over children’s needs. But if the teacher responsible for the child is getting paid so little that they have to take a second job, are they truly able to give everything to meet the child’s needs? If an teacher is so under the gun to produce high test scores or lose their livelihood, aren’t the test results naturally going to come before students needs? A child is not a singular entity independent of outside forces but is in fact part of a larger system with a multitude of influences.

If you were ask teachers how they would address these influences, you would find their answers to be child-centric in addition to being fair to their own occupation as teachers. In other words, teachers want to be treated fairly and respectfully, but more than anything they want to be free to teach their students and meet their students needs. They are also the best suited to address those needs because they are front and center everyday. I always say that trying to create education policy without talking to teachers is like trying to run a fine dining place without talking to waiters. It can be done, but not effectively.

When raising my children, nobody has a better view of their needs than I do and I don’t only take into account things that will have a direct impact on them. Instead, I try to take in the whole picture and how it’s all connected. For example, I try to run on a regular basis. I don’t do that because I enjoy running, but because I know that if I’m not healthy, I will not be able to fully engage with my children thus hindering their development. Not to mention that if I drop dead of a heart attack it would be severely detrimental to them. So taking care of myself means I will be better equipped to take care of my children.

My wife and I should probably go on a date night more than once a year. I know that means we’d be diverting funds away from directly supporting our children, but if we are not connecting and taking the time to strengthen our relationship and work on our own personal development, we are potentially having a negative impact on our children. Thus hindering their full development. So taking care of the relationship between my wife and I means we will be better equipped to take care of our children.

Or try this alternate approach: go  to your spouse and tell them from now on, all decisions on your children will be handled by your mother. After all, she’s their grandma. She loves them, has their best interests at heart, and she’s an expert at raising children, and never mind that it’s been years since she was around children daily, your input won’t be needed. Yeah, try that and let me know how that works out for you. Because this wouldn’t work out best for your children at all. You are the experts when it comes to your children and by proxy, teachers are the experts when it comes to their schooling; not legislators and not private interests.

I’m not saying anything revolutionary here, yet we fail to apply these principles to how we deal with the people we all agree are essential to the development of our children. We create standards without ever having a single classroom teacher be involved in the initial development. We promise teachers raises and then play shell games. We say collaboration is essential and then fail to provide adequate planning time. We hear all about education issues on television, yet teachers are rarely asked to comment. We say we respect teachers, but the mainstream media continues to vilify them.

There are those, with whom I agree, that believe all of these things are intentional. That reformers seek to quantify and rank everything, creating a system where a truly gifted teacher is not a requirement or even desired. What’s needed are essentially, as Rev. Richard Sindall so eloquently states, trainers. People who can follow directions, not question the prescribed directions, and in effect, provide big business with their future employees rather then focus on what children really need. Why else would we continue to de-emphasize quality training and continue to fund an organization that is basically a temp agency?

Despite recent studies that show Teach For America as being no more effective and in some cases detrimental to child learning, we continue to fund them with corporate and state donations. Reformers look at these results and default to the old straw men arguments about teacher’s unions and only protecting adult interests. Funny though, TFA brings in a bajillion dollars a year, so obviously propping them up is protecting some adults interests. In fact, I’d say that an organization that has over $400 million in net assets has quite a few adult interests at heart. Imagine if those funds went to teachers who actually want to make teaching a career instead of a stepping stone to something else.

In addition to turning to temp agencies to staff positions that we all agree are vital to our children, we have also created an evaluation system that has repeatedly been shown as ineffective. The teacher’s who are assigned a high value-added score are the one’s who deliver high test scores, and this is how reformers define a quality teacher. This is despite evidence that shows no real correlation between high test scores and success in life. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not downplaying the importance of reading and mathematics to future success, but they are not a be-all or an end-all.

Last night as I was trying to watch TV, my wife brought up what I thought was a brilliant plan – to utilize the art and music to hook middle school English Learners she works with into lessons, and as a result of this, increase their reading and writing scores. Reformers argue for focusing almost exclusively on measurable skills. While the arts are not producers of measurable results, they certainly can be highly effective at engaging students. An engaged student is more receptive to learning. Imagine that, we flipped the horse and the cart, therefor providing a more robust education.

This is evidence of why we need to push back against the concept of the status quo and realize that there are dedicated teachers everyday searching for new ways to reach children. Somehow there is this misconception that if we took away high stakes testing and the threat of accountability, teachers wouldn’t push children to learn as much and children would fall behind. I have never seen evidence of this. Therefore instead of perpetrating this myth, we need to reject it and find new ways to support our teachers. Talking to them would be a good place to start.

My family has got an interesting dynamic. My kids tend to be a little more smart-mouthed than they should be because we encourage them to question. They tend to take a few more risks because we’ve empowered them to practice setting their own boundaries at an early age. Both my wife and I work, so dinner is rarely before seven o’clock and the kids seldom get to bed before 9. There is a lot of “expert” parental advice that we don’t actually follow.

When it comes to my children, I’ve been known to be inconsistent with my messages at times, and on occasion, have resorted to bribery. The thing is, knock on wood, my kids are healthy, happy, and intellectually curious. I think our kids are on the right path. In my mind, it’s because my wife and I know our children. We continually reflect and evaluate, both them and ourselves. We monitor their progress and adjust where necessary. Sometimes we get it real right and other times we get it wrong, but we learn from it all.

As brilliant as I may think I am, I’m not doing anything different than what my children’s teachers do on a daily basis, when we allow them to, that is. As a father, I demand the right to do as such and what baffles me is, why would I not extend this courtesy to the very people that I have entrusted my children to for the majority of the day? Why would I not empower them in their role as a member of the team charged with bringing my child to maturity? Think for one minute, would you scrutinize your spouse in the same manner we scrutinize our teachers? Would you deny your spouse resources like we deny our teachers? Would you not consult with your spouse on their observations and insights before making pronouncements?

We need to step back and realize that providing for the people who care for our children is not putting adult interests first, but in fact, is protecting the interests of our children. There’s a saying that goes, “That if momma ain’t happy, ain’t nobody happy” that never fails to elicit chuckles. The best humor is always rooted in truth. We need to make sure our teachers are happy and feel supported, so they can focus on ensuring that our children live better lives. That’s a child centric-policy. Teacher appreciation week is May 4th through May 8th this year. Instead of offering coffee mugs and trinkets, why don’t we ask what they would appreciate.