Well, That’s Clear As Mud

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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.

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A Pleasant Surprise from a Politician

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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

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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.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Reset

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Nashville business leaders have decided that the education conversation, for whatever reason, is in need of a RESET. To begin this “reset,” the Nashville Public Education Foundation has commissioned a group out of Boston, the Parthenon Group, to do a study of Nashville’s education system. In NPEF’s words, in order to have a real conversation it’s important that we are all looking at the same data. They’ve also lined up a slew of respected voices, from Vice-Chancellors at respected universities to local school board members and respected business leaders, to help facilitate the conversation. All of it sounds very noble, but with the main event just three weeks away, something funny has happened. People have started to take a look at the players.

One of the most baffling traits of the reform movement is how they apparently think they are the only ones with access to the internet. They often try to sell stuff like it’s completely original only to have it debunked by a basic Google search. That’s what happening here. A simple search reveals some disturbing information about the group that is doing the study that will produce the data that we all will be looking at when they release their Benchmark Study this month. Data that will come through their lens.

The Parthenon Group is a worldwide organization out of Boston that consults in a variety of fields, education being one of them. A perfunctory look at their website reveals an education team lacking education experience. Almost all have an MBA and what little education experience there is comes from time spent with… wait for it… Teach for America. Okay, that’s a little troubling, but not necessarily a deal breaker. Let’s take a look at the things they’ve been involved in.

Again, just perusing their website reveals a propensity to look at avenues for their clients to make money off public education systems. In fact they seem to be quite thrilled with being able to find shortcomings in the current system. I will give them credit – they are not just trying to exploit public education here in the United States, but worldwide, including Dubai and India as well. One of the U.S. success stories touted on their site is their work with the New York City school system and the attempts to improve dropout rates. There is even a Time magazine article trumpeting this success.

Readers of Diane Ravitch are probably a little more familiar with this story. You see, this was part of the Gates Foundation’s foray into education reform. They paid the Parthenon Group to conduct a study that revealed a cause of increased dropout rates was kids attending large high schools, and they concluded that if those large schools were broken into smaller schools then dropout rates would decrease. An estimated two billion dollars was dedicated to this directive, and guess what? It failed, in their opinion. Did the perpetrators stick around and help solve the new issues they created? Nope, they just scampered off to their next data-revealed crisis: teachers and the Common Core standards.

Let’s make no mistake about the goals of the Parthenon Group: to make money for its investors. Here’s a PowerPoint Parthenon_20Perspectives_Investing_20in_20Education presentation they gave to potential investors back in 2009. It lays out clear as day how the education sector is ripe for some money making. Are we to believe that these dyed-in-the-wool capitalists have suddenly had a change of heart? Suddenly they are all about the kids and not the Benjamins? Color me skeptical.

To see more local evidence of the Parthenon Group’s work, we don’t even have to get on the internet. We just need to talk to the folks in Knoxville. That’s Rob Taylor of Knoxville talking about the Parthenon Group in the video above. In Knoxville, the school board commissioned the Parthenon Group to study their system and share their recommendations for improvement. Those recommendations included increasing class size and eliminating around 300 positions that included guidance counselors, psychologists, and librarians. It also produced the stunning comment that not all students are the same; some are more profitable than others. Knoxville paid over a million dollars for this brilliant advice.

In case you don’t want to look to the eastern part of the state, we can also look to the west in Memphis. Where a school district already $142 million in the red paid roughly $350k a month for the Parthenon Group’s expertise. The recommendation in Memphis? Merit pay for teachers with no added compensation for higher levels of education. A plan that has been proven ineffective countless times and that Memphis rejected as well. Starting to notice a pattern? Momma Bears, a Tennessee parent group, certainly did. So did another parent group Tennessee Parents.

The Parthenon Group’s missteps are not relegated to just K-12 education though. Some of you may be familiar with the Corinthian Colleges scandal. The Santa Ana company, one of the world’s largest for-profit college businesses, allegedly targeted low-income Californians through “aggressive marketing campaigns” that inaccurately represented job placement rates and school programs. Who touts Corinthian Colleges as one of their success stories and strongly recommended them to their investors? Why, none other than the Parthenon Group. Still not noticing a pattern? The pattern seems to be one of presenting ill conceived plans to clients.

Let’s be clear here, I’m not saying the Parthenon Group is the wrong group for providing data to RESET a conversation (well, I guess I am), but at the very least there is enough here that surely warrants a little digging by the local paper. But nope, they are not interested. When Nashville School Board member Amy Frogge brought these concerns to their attention, The Tennessean responded by writing a piece that focused on her not having read the Parthenon Group’s report – a report that is not yet complete and can only be read by scheduling an appointment and going down to their offices and watching a PowerPoint presentation. Numerous other Tennessean staff members negatively engaged her on social media attempting to deflect any criticism of the Parthenon Group by making her appear incompetent for not having read the report.

I personally called Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales to discuss his article and asked him point blank if The Tennessean had a sponsorship role in Project RESET. He emphatically answered no, they are just producing a series of articles on the Nashville education system. Articles that all bear the Project RESET logo and have been a mixture of negative and calls to put aside petty politics. You know, politics that call for an equitable system for all kids. Today there was a positive article on Pre-K but it focused almost exclusively on Casa Azafran, and keep in mind Casa Azafran is a sponsor. Let me be clear, I am not questioning their work; by all accounts it’s exceptional. I just think there should be more transparency from The Tennessean. When I asked Jason if he thought that information surrounding the group conducting the study was relevant he answered with an equally emphatically no. The data from the study is important, he said, but not the conductors. Is this what investigative journalism has been reduced to?

I disagree with the position of the reporter, Jason Gonzales, and by proxy, The Tennessean. To RESET a conversation there has to be a level of trust between all parties and that requires transparency. In order for it to be a truly productive conversation, all parties need to feel there is no hidden agenda. That’s why you research the people with whom you are entering a discussion. What’s revealed shouldn’t necessarily prevent the discussion from taking place, but it certainly allows for the recognition of clues should an agenda start to be revealed. I don’t think asking our local news organization to do due diligence on the company that is providing the groundwork for the conversation is unreasonable. I am just a citizen, not a journalist, and was able to uncover the information presented here. Imagine what could be revealed by the trained eye of an investigative journalist. I understand the financial challenges news organizations face, but I can’t help but believe the readers want more information and less PR when it comes to the news.

Most citizens of Nashville trust The Tennessean. They believe the majority of things written there. They believe that the agenda set is a reflection of their own agenda, not one being driven by outside interests. They look for our local news media to connect the dots, not just write an article imbedded with random links and expect us to figure it all out.

Many moons ago, while pursuing a communications degree at Penn State, I got to cover the press conference for the search for the first journalist in space. The event was attended by the likes of Walter Cronkite, Geraldo Rivera, and such. I was fortunate to be allowed a question and asked, “The role of a journalist is to cover the news, not make it. By sending a journalist into space, are we not, in effect, subverting that role?”

Later in the day, the then Head of the Science and Technology Department came up to me and complimented me on the question. He said that he and his wife had spent the lunch hour discussing it and were unable to reach a conclusion. Tragic events with the Space program prevented the journalist- in-space initiative from proceeding, but I think the question I posed then is now more relevant than ever. I think it’s an internal discussion The Tennessean probably needs to have.

As far as the Project RESET event itself, I think as many Nashvillians as possible should attend. But they should do their research first. Then they should listen and evaluate who is saying what and is there agenda truly what’s best for Nashville. We do owe it to our children and our communities to pursue every avenue to improve a system that does remarkable work but is always in need of more solutions. I am not sure, based on the evidence readily available, made Nashville Public Education Foundation think the Parthenon Group was the right group to perform a study for this conversation and hopefully they’ll learn from it. The conversation on education is always saturated with calls for a system that holds people accountable.  In that sense we need to make sure that it’s a system that doesn’t just hold schools, teachers, and students accountable, but also politicians, consultants, and foundations. The Tennessean needs to play take an active part in that process and not just produce PR pieces for the influential.

TN ASD: Brand on the Run

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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.

 

RESET?

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reset-button-bell-01Like many of you, I spend a great deal of time thinking about education. Once I started blogging, I was always thinking about things to write about and what I wanted to say. After 50-some posts, I still don’t have a system for deciding what I want to write about. Sometimes I think it’s going to be one thing, and then I sit at the keyboard and it turns to something else.

This post was going to be about the Tennessee Achievement School District and their intent to further invade Nashville. How that’s what happens when you get kicked out of one community and you have to go find another to annoy. Then I was going to write about Charter School Week which, coincidentally, is the same week as Teacher Appreciation Week. But there was one thing that just kept sticking in my head, and so this time, I’m going to go local and tell you about a new extravaganza coming to Nashville.

The name of this event is RESET (Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table). How long do you think they had to fiddle with words before they got a sentence to fit the acronym? A major driver of this initiative is the Chamber of Commerce. Apparently, the business community is frustrated because too much of the conversation is being focused on the good of the child and the community when it should be focused on finding cheap labor that is adequately prepared for the uses of business.

They’ve got a fancy website, with a fancy survey, that is going to produce a fancy report. I took the survey and noticed the hallway that it walked me down. I am pretty confident that the report will show how we all want good schools, with good teachers, and our kids to be college and career ready. We may differ a little on the definition, but that’s going to be our starting point to work together, and anybody who is not willing to compromise, well…. that’s just putting adult needs first. This may or may not be true, but I do have some concerns about this new project.

My first problem is with the large amount of reform-type folks who are rallying around this “reset.” You’ve got the head of KIPP Nashville and the head of Valor Collegiate Academy, two local charters, all touting the glories of collaboration. I’m pretty familiar with how collaboration with the charter crowd works. You allow us to do what we want, adopt our policies, and don’t ask too many questions, and we are all good. I don’t think I’ve ever heard a charter school operator say, “Oh, we observed such-and-such in a public school and then thought, what a great idea. So we adopted it.” So their enthusiasm dampens mine.

Case in point: Randy Dowell of KIPP Nashville is quoted as saying, “I look forward to the day when Nashville takes on the larger issue of how to share lessons from great schools and apply them broadly so we can put more of Nashville’s students on the path to opportunity-filled lives. Every child and every parent – no matter where they live or what their resources are – deserves that. I’m hopeful that Project RESET will help bring that sort of focus to the discussion.” He is saying this at the same time he’s working with the state Achievement School District to take over one of our MNPS schools. If the state takes over a school and turns it over to KIPP, that school is no longer responsible to the community. It’s responsible to the state and the community of its creation. So which conversation are we resetting?

My next concern is the strong backing by the business community. These are the people who are always talking about how schools are failing to produce enough qualified workers to fuel a growing economy. Yet somehow the economy keeps growing and new businesses keep opening. About the only thing that remains stagnant is wages. Which you would think, based on the law of supply and demand, would be exploding. If there is a dearth of qualified workers, then companies must be willing to pay top dollar to retain them, right? Yeah, not so much it turns out. Wages continue to remain stagnant. Perhaps we can reset the conversation about a living wage as well.

The big thing, though, is the title of this project. According to the dictionary, reset means to set again. In other words, starting all over. Usually when I reset something it’s because it’s reached a stage where everything is so wrong that I have to start over. A couple weeks ago, my iPhone got so out of whack that I had to reset it back to factory settings. Am I to believe that MNPS is in the same position as my iPhone and the conversation needs to be completely reset?

We seem to be doing well enough that the President of the United States decided to come tout our high schools. Our pre-K expansion is worthy of a $33 million federal grant. Our graduation rates have risen 20 percentage points in 10 years, twice as fast as the state’s. We have, perhaps, due to being a refugee destination, the most diverse student population in the country. This presents several unique challenges and opportunities, certainly not a reset.

Things aren’t all sunshine and rainbows. We do have a majority of students failing to earn a score of 21 on the ACT (even though we force every junior in the state to take this college admissions exam), if that kind of thing is important to you. We do have schools that are in need of resources and more stability. If you take a close look at our lower achieving schools, you’ll see that they all share a high turnover rate in leadership roles. That needs to be addressed. But while we have kids and schools that are underperforming (based on test scores), we also have teachers, administrators, and students who are performing heroic feats every day. So forgive me if I don’t embrace a reset.

Here’s what I would embrace: an actual evidence-based conversation. One that is transparent on both sides. For example, LEAD Public Schools has been touting their upcoming graduation class having 100% college acceptance. A laudatory feat. However, how big was this class in 10th grade, and what happened to those who are no longer in this class? How are these kids going to pay for college, and are they potentially taking on debt that could have a future negative impact? What is LEAD’s actual spending per child compared to our community public schools?

In order to find answers to these questions, I have to file an open records request, and then I have to pay for copies of these records. When I get them, they are as opaque as if they’d been scratched on a napkin.  Looking at their budget, I can see they spend $12,401,257 on personnel, but what personnel? How much is spent on administration? Teachers? Teacher’s aides? School nurse? I don’t know, so once again I’m forced to file another open records request for a supposed public school. The same holds true if I try to obtain the actual number of students they serve. LEAD Public Schools touts themselves as a system of public schools, but they are clearly not-look at their funding, their selectivity of students, and their lack of transparency. Will that be part of the RESET.

Maybe I’m being a little jaded and guarded, but I’ve seen how this all plays out before. While we engage in conversation, the reform crowd continues dismantling public education. This upcoming extravaganza on May 30 is painted as a local event and not focused on national educational reform, but is that true? As leading reform advocate Neerav Kingsland points out, the reform movement has become more local. There was a time when all reform initiatives were led nationally by recognized leaders. Unfortunately for them, people caught on to the rhetoric and rejected it. So now reformers attack the system under guise of it being a local issue, when clearly it’s a coordinated national effort.

Jersey Jazzman, an education blogger from New Jersey, points out the rise of the “reasonable reformer.” He references EduShyster’s (Jennifer Berkshire, another education blogger) recent conversation with Peter Cunningham, creator of Education Post. Education Post was created so that we could supposedly have a better conversation about education. Sound familiar? Problem is that a better conversation seems to be putting aside opposition to policy that has been proven to be wrong and in some cases detrimental (i.e., unchecked charter growth, over testing, merit pay, etc.) It’s like trying to have a better conversation about democracy while abandoning the principle of one vote for each citizen.

In the reform world, what has happened with the decimation of public education in New Orleans and Washington, DC has been deemed a success. Denver is well on its way to the same end, so for the reformers, it’s time to expand. The problem is how to convert districts and get rid of public education fast enough without a natural disaster. Is RESET a potential method to speed that along? After all, Nashville has 13 new charter applications this year, to add to the 27 charters in Nashville we will already have. I don’t know, but I can’t say it’s not since we seem to be speeding along. I do know that a lot of money is being spent on Project RESET. Money that could really make a difference in our less fortunate schools. LEAD Public Schools has received a total of $1.3 million this year. I promise you my child’s school doesn’t receive even 5% of that. Can we reset that conversation?

I’m signed up to attend the big event at the end of the month, and I’ll let you know what it brings. I plan to listen but be vigilant. We’ll dialogue and see what the business community thinks a reset looks like. But don’t think for a moment if this turns out to be another one of those reform movement bait and switches that I won’t be ready. I fully expect to be painted as one of those negative types who are fueled by self-interest.

My wife is a teacher, so they’ll say I want to preserve the status quo to protect her job. Sure, that’s it, I’m afraid that my wife, with an undergraduate degree from Vanderbilt and a Master’s degree from Tennessee State, won’t be able to get another $40k-a-year job. That argument is insulting, yet even during Teacher Appreciation Week it’s repeated ad nauseam. Come to think of it, that might be a good place for a reset.

Despite it all – the frustration, the fear, and the disagreements – I still love our public schools, and I still believe in our system. I still believe that community public schools are a cornerstone of our democracy and need to be preserved, not closed, torn down, or replaced by temporary housing. One of the comments in the article about the upcoming Project RESET event compared public policy to a marriage. When your marriage doesn’t work, you don’t just dump it and start over with a new one. You begin with the parts that are working and try to replicate them in the parts that aren’t. In other words, you don’t reset – you reclaim.

 

BALTIMORE: A HARBINGER OF THE FUTURE

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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.

 

What standards could and should mean.

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a1Coaching Little League baseball for 4-to-6-year-olds has been the hardest thing I’ve ever done. I confess that during the first month of games, I harbored a constant desire to get in my car and go home. The kids were all incredibly sweet, but on my team they were all closer to 4 than 6, and I’m not sure how many of them were even pre-disposed to play baseball. In the beginning, they would wear their gloves on their head, pick blades of grass, play in the dirt, wrestle with each other – anything but play baseball. One even told me, as he lay in the outfield, “I don’t even like baseball!” I wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that.

To compound matters, the league we were in didn’t make allowances for 4-year-olds. The expectations were that teams, no matter what their experience level, would play the game of baseball by the rules of baseball. Three strikes and you were out. Players tuck in their shirts Bases are regulation distances away from each other, and players are expected to make the throws and catches to put runners out. It all seemed a little insane to me, and the first games were a demonstration of this insanity. We lost our first four games by an average score of 16 to 0. It was a little disheartening, and I was beginning to question whether this was even an appropriate activity for a 4-to-6-year-old.

Then something crazy happened. The kids got better. We scored our first run. Then we had a game that ended in a score of 2 to 2, easily one of the most exciting things I’ve ever been involved in. As thrilling as any Yankees/Red Sox game. This past weekend, we won our first game. It has been amazing to watch these children develop. It’s something that hasn’t just happened for one or two children either. The whole team is progressing, each child at his or her own pace. Some making greater growth than others, but all showing growth.

Through this process, I’ve gotten a little insight into how standards can and should function. I admit that I’ve always been a little skeptical of how expectations can affect educational outcomes, perhaps because they’ve always been presented to me as a zero sum game. The Common Core State Standards were developed so that all children could be measured by a common stick across the country. To my eyes as a parent, these were meant to dictate at what level a child should be performing, with little accounting for any kind of outside variables. The results from the testing of these standards would allow us to rank children, teachers, and schools.

For example, teachers are to have high expectations of a child, and if that child does not meet those standards, then they, their teachers, and their whole school are labeled failures. There is no room for taking into consideration any kind of individual or unique challenges. Everybody is expected to reach proficiency at the same pace. Furthermore, just expecting a child to succeed is supposed to be enough and what is presently preventing mastery is not symptomatic of poverty or development, but merely low expectations.

What my Little League team has demonstrated is something different. There is an expectation that everyone will attempt to perform to a certain standard, but if a child should fall short, we attempt to coach and correct in a manner that recognizes the challenges of each child. The child who is just turned 4 is not expected to show the same ability as a child who is nearly 6. Some of the children are obviously more athletically inclined than others, but that doesn’t mean all aren’t capable of growth. That growth is what is important, and it does not look the same in all children. As coaches, we try to celebrate that growth in whatever form it takes and no matter how miniscule it may appear.

An educator friend of mine explained standards to me this way. When you go to a doctor, he has a list of guidelines that you should adhere to in order to be considered healthy. The doctor, however, doesn’t just recite those and send you on your way with a proclamation of healthy or unhealthy. He takes those guidelines and compares them with your lifestyle, family history, past medical history, and any other factors he can glean from you. Sometimes you may not be exactly healthy, but you are getting as close as you possibly can to adhering to those guidelines and so he recognizes that and offers praise. That’s what teachers do with children, expectations, and standards. They treat the child as a doctor would a patient and get them as close to those standards as possible. Sometimes that means a 100 percent and sometimes it might be a little less.

We have a kid on the team who can’t hold on to the bat. Every time he swings, he lets go and the bat gets flung. It’s a dangerous action and one that needs correction. The umpire has warned that if he continues to do this, he’ll be considered out. Yesterday, he struck out three times, but managed to hold on to the bat each time. We celebrated that accomplishment each time as if he’d gotten a hit. Overall, he failed to meet the expectation of getting a hit, but what he accomplished made the attainment of the expectation a possibility in the future. In my eyes, that’s trending towards healthy.

I’ve also seen firsthand the role outside variables play on a kid’s performance. Two weeks ago, we had a game that started on a Tuesday night at 6:45. The kids had already had a full day, and the last thing they were focused on was baseball. The game itself was an unmitigated disaster, but should in no way be considered reflective of these kids’ abilities. The kids were tired and that need took precedent over applying themselves to baseball. Despite what education reformers might argue, tired kids, whether mentally or physically, do not make focused learners. I’ve learned the same holds true for hungry kids and kids who have to go potty. Meet those pressing needs and suddenly, you’ve got better ball players on your hands. Crazy, I know, but I suspect the same holds true for students.

Yesterday, my own son’s mother was participating in a half marathon. So we were up at 5:00 a.m. to see her off and then cheer her on for the next two hours. When my son’s baseball game time arrived at noon, to say he was spent was an understatement. He’d had enough, and baseball was the last thing on his mind. It took a little cajoling, but he played. It was not his best game, but afterwards we celebrated his efforts. I praised him for the plays he made. In my eyes, though, the most important thing I did was recognize his challenges and praise him for overcoming those to take the field. I didn’t offer him excuses, but recognized the difficulties and his ability to face them.

It is my observation that in the never-ending argument about the role of poverty in education, it’s always presented as an either/or argument. Either the student overcomes the challenges, or the challenges are used as excuses. Either the teacher and the school overcome the challenges, or else they dismiss the challenges as excuses. I wonder how often we acknowledge the fact that just showing up to get in the game is worthy of a celebration on its own for a kid who has many difficulties at home. Instead, the expectation is that the child will show up and hit the mark every day, completely ignoring what might have happened outside the classroom, or else the term failure be evoked.

The majority of the kids on my Little League team will not master the skills to play baseball at the expected level this year.  I believe they will continue to progress towards that standard though. More importantly, I think they will develop an appreciation for the complexities of the game of baseball. They will learn that you can fail at a task a multitude of times before mastering it. That’s not called being a failure, but rather, being a student. Hopefully, they will learn the joy that comes with growth when a task that once seemed impossible becomes rote. I hope that they will begin to understand that not everybody is capable of performing at the same level, but we are all capable of doing our best. And sometimes our best may not be good enough, and that’s all right, too, as long as we truly worked as hard as we could.

Funny thing is, I realize these hopes are no different than what I hope my children are receiving from their school. Currently kids are being tested ad nauseam, but are the results accurately measuring the child as a student? Are they showing to what degree the child embraces the beauty of learning? Are they instilling the realization that sometimes you may fall short, but if you are in the game there is always the potential to get a hit? Are they opening the child’s mind to all the beauty and mystery that the world has to offer, or are they closing their minds to anything that is not measurable? These are the standards and expectations that I want my children held to, and I seem to get the best measure of those by talking to my children’s teachers. I think the biggest lesson I’ve learned through my son’s baseball experience is that standards are important, but only if applied as an expectation and not a value judgment.

Standards should be set and applied by  parents, teachers, administrators and even communities and just like I don’t require a standardized test to evaluate my players skill level, I think the aforementioned can tell you how close their children are to reaching the standards without relying on a singular high stakes test as well.  Some may argue that the kids on my team are stuck on a failing baseball team. Maybe, if you just measure by wins and losses. But should Little League baseball, or for that matter, life itself, only be measured by wins and losses?

 

The TN ASD: In search of a friend

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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

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“…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.