The Finalists

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The MNPS School Board has been presented with a slate of four finalists for the Director of Schools position. The Board may select from among the four presented or choose another candidate not listed. Currently, it seems the plan is to pursue further study of the four named finalists.

The Tennessean writes of the candidates:

• John Covington, consultant with the Broad Center. Covington is a former educator who has 29 years of experience in public education. He has worked in Pueblo, Colo.; Kansas City, Mo.; and served as the chancellor of the Education Achievement Authority of Michigan. The authority is somewhat similar to Tennessee’s Achievement School District.

Read Covington’s Application

• Angela Huff, chief of staff for the Cobb County School District. Huff, a Nashville native, oversees 110,000 students and a staff of more than 11,000 in the Atlanta school district. She has 31 years working in education as an assistant superintendent and principal in Cobb County, and she has also served as a teacher in Gwinnett County Public Schools.

Read Huff’s Application

• Mike Looney, Williamson County director of schools. Looney looks after a student population of 36,000, with almost 5,000 staff, in the neighboring Nashville district. He has 21 years experience as an educator, and under his leadership in Williamson, the district has been named one of the best in the state.

Read Looney’s Application

• Barry Shepherd, a retired Cabarrus County (N.C.) Schools superintendent. As superintendent of the Concord, N.C. district, Shepherd oversaw a student population of 31,000, with a staff of 4,000. He started his 30-year career in education as a music teacher and speaks some Spanish.

Read Shepherd’s Application

Today’s unveiling of candidates follows two weeks of controversy over who would be the interim Director of Schools.

And, this morning, Board Member Will Pinkston offered his thoughts on the priorities the next Director should emphasize.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

A Board Member’s Thoughts on the Next Director of MNPS

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MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston shares his thoughts on the next Director of MNPS
As a member of the Nashville School Board, a question I hear frequently right now is: “What are you looking for in the next director of Metro Nashville Public Schools?” Collectively, the board has outlined desired characteristics for the future leader of America’s 42nd-largest school system, including generic descriptors such as “has a clear vision of what is required to provide exemplary education services and implement effective change.” For my part, I’m looking for a leader who can tackle specific priorities that I believe represent some of the most meaningful opportunities to move MNPS to the next level. Below are 12 detailed priorities (in no particular order):
  1. Early childhood education. Expansion of pre-kindergarten is one of the only areas where the school board is in near-unanimous agreement. However, we’ve got a long way to go in defining the scope and costs of universal pre-K — with “universal” meaning every student and family that wants a seat, gets one. National research shows that pre-K is, dollar for dollar, one of the best investments we can make. We need to accelerate pre-K expansion locally, even if Governor Bill Haslam and House Speaker Beth Harwell refuse to commit state resources to help.
  2. English learners. In Tennessee, 4.5 percent of public school students are English learners. In Nashville, more than 15 percent of our students are English learners. We are the most diverse school system in the state and one of the most diverse in America. If we can deliver the highest-quality educational services to our youngest New Americans, then I believe all boats will rise in our school system. At the school board’s direction, management has developed an “English Learner Innovation Plan” that outlines $16 million in new investments in areas such as language-intensive after-school programs, new technology to enable self-guided instruction, and more extensive teacher professional development. Another $23 million is proposed to reduce class sizes in schools with high percentages of English learners. In terms of the budget, this plan will require a multi-year phase-in. We need to get started now.
  3. Early-grade reading intervention. This priority goes hand-in-hand with English learner initiatives, and addresses much broader challenges and opportunities in our school system. The Campaign for Grade-Level Reading, supported by philanthropies including the local Dollar General Literacy Foundation, says reading proficiency by third grade is the most important predictor of high-school graduation and career success. Unfortunately, only 37 percent of MNPS third-graders meet this standard. Ensuring that every student can read at grade level by the end of third grade is the most important thing we can do. We must aggressively expand reading intervention, and do it with a sense of urgency.
  4. Testing time. We know that students, teachers and parents are exasperated by over-testing. HBO comedian John Oliver recently captured the national obsession with testing in a brilliant 18-minute segment that has drawn more than 4.5 million views on YouTube. Alberto Carvalho, head of Miami-Dade public schools, is engineering “the most aggressive decommissioning of testing in the state of Florida, if not the country.” The next director of MNPS will immediately capture the hearts and minds of this community if he or she will commit to reducing testing time. My suggestion: Begin with Achieve’s “Student Assessment Inventory for School Districts,” a tool that school system leaders can use to take stock of their assessments and assessment practices.
  5. Turnaround strategies. Almost a year ago, MNPS more than doubled its number of low-performing schools on the state of Tennessee’s “priority” list, which identifies the bottom 5 percent of schools in the state based on standardized test scores. Our school system went from having six schools on the list in 2012 to, as of last year, 14 schools. Put differently: The number of students in exceedingly low-performing schools rose from 2,260 to 6,272, according to enrollment data in the state’s Report Card. Following criticism from the board, the last director scrambled to cobble together turnaround plans for each of the 14 priority schools. The next director needs to pressure-test those plans, determine if they’re sound and being implemented with fidelity, and build turnaround expertise in the Central Office and in the field. Nashville should have no schools on the state priority list.
  6. Funding adequacy. According to the Council of the Great City Schools, MNPS is ranked 54th out of 67 urban school systems in America in per-pupil funding. This is due, in large part, to inadequate state funding and refusals by the governor and legislature to commit new funding for public education. The legislature’s Basic Education Program (BEP) Review Committee estimates the BEP is under-funded by nearly $500 million, while education funding experts believe the actual number is likely in excess of $1 billion. Even using the review committee’s conservative estimate, MNPS would receive about $30 million more from the state, or an additional $350 per-pupil on top of current per-pupil state and local funding of $9,000. Tennessee’s system of funding public education was born in a courtroom in the 1980s. In keeping with our state’s modern history, a growing number of school systems now have filed lawsuits or are actively exploring litigation to challenge state funding inadequacy. MNPS may choose to join these efforts. The next director should vigorously advocate for more state funding, even if it means joining other school systems in court.
  7. Community engagement. Many of MNPS’s wounds are self-inflicted — especially when it comes to community engagement, or the lack thereof. During my time on the school board, poor communication has turned basic operational decisions, such as school rezonings and school sitings, into full-scale conflagrations with parents, students, citizens and taxpayers. A performance audit commissioned by the Metro Council, our funding authority, noted that the school system’s failings warranted the creation of a board committee specifically focused on “community and stakeholder relations.” This committee is up and running, but some board members have resisted setting minimum standards for community engagement. Notwithstanding board dysfunction, I believe the problem can be solved by a director who surrounds himself or herself with effective communicators who think and act strategically. Let’s fix this failing and eliminate these unnecessary distractions to the school system’s core mission of educating kids.
  8. Constituent services. Nashville’s nine elected school board members represent sprawling geographic districts in a county that covers 504 square miles. According to the latest U.S. Census estimates, our community’s population now exceeds 668,000 — which means each board member on average serves more than 74,000 parents, students, citizens and taxpayers. School board districts are larger than state House legislative districts. Yet board members have been deprived of the basic tools and supports needed to effectively respond to the constituents who elected us. Part of this is our own fault. As a group, we haven’t prioritized constituent services. At the same time, management has done little to develop the infrastructure needed to help board members deal with constituent concerns on a timely basis. Rebooting our approach to constituent services, along with creating new a community engagement strategy, will go a long way toward restoring public confidence in our school system.
  9. Teacher recruitment and retention. Despite repeated requests by board members, MNPS has not articulated a meaningful plan to recruit and retain the best teachers. Meanwhile, the National Council on Teacher Quality reports that two of the top four teacher-prep programs in America — Lipscomb University and Vanderbilt University — are located within a stone’s throw of our school system’s Central Office. We should be hiring as many new teachers as possible from those two institutions and, as a major purchaser of teaching talent, we need to insist that other institutions step up their game. We also need a top-to-bottom review of our teacher compensation system to understand how we stack up against competing and similarly situated U.S. school systems, such as Atlanta, Austin, Charlotte, Denver and Louisville. For teachers currently employed by MNPS, we need to be talking every day about how to provide the best professional development to help them help our kids. I want the next director to adopt the mantra of Alvin Wilbanks, the long-serving director of Georgia’s Gwinnett County schools: “There are two types of people who work for our system. Those who teach and those who support those who teach.” Amen.
  10. Leadership development. Think of MNPS as a system of 86,000 students. Further, think of MNPS as a system of 6,000 educators. Then, think of MNPS also as a system of 140 principals. Making sure there’s a top-notch leader in every school building is perhaps our biggest lever of change.
  11. Unabated charter growth. This is the defining issue for the Nashville School Board. Some board members, pandering to special interests intent on dismantling public education, want to continue unchecked growth of publicly financed privately run schools. Other board members believe it’s time to recommit to public education and protect finite resources to help students and teachers in existing schools. To put it in perspective: In 2010, the entire state of Tennessee had just 20 charter schools. This fall, in Nashville alone, 27 charters will operate at an annual cost of $75 million. Even if the school board approves no new charter applications, more than 6,500 additional charter seats — costing another $59 million a year — will come into existence by fall 2019 under current agreements. A comprehensive audit of MNPS found that when new charter schools open, they siphon funds from traditional schools while costs such as staffing, maintenance and technology can’t be easily adjusted. The audit validated a 2014 report commissioned by the school board that found “new charter schools will, with nearly 100 percent certainty, have a negative fiscal impact.” To be sure, some charter schools are doing good work (as are some MNPS schools). But simple math tells us that we cannot sustain unabated growth of new schools of any type without systematically starving existing schools. Balancing new investments across multiple sectors and priorities is a matter of fairness and responsibility.
  12. Leadership style. The previous MNPS director’s leadership style was to pit people against each other — board members, staff members, parent leaders, community leaders. I hope the next director will not lead by divide, but rather find a way to unite people and erase the culture of fear that pervades the school system. I also hope this person will demonstrate courage and intestinal fortitude when it comes to dealing with radical state policies. When the governor and legislature set out to punish the capital city’s school system, the director of schools should be the first person on the front line fighting for public education — not pandering out of political expediency.
Other priorities are important, too. Wraparound services like health screenings for low-income students and families. Exceptional education. Alignment between academic standards and instructional materials. Expansion of the MNPS free meals program. Technology in the classroom. Energy efficiency to drive cost-savings in a system with 14 million square feet of buildings. The list goes go on and on. But these are enough, for now. Looking ahead, let me propose the following compact: If our next director of MNPS will dream big, show some spine, commit to these priorities and others, and — here’s the really important part — back it all up with action, then he or she will have my full support. I promise.
Will Pinkston, a former reporter for The Tennessean and The Wall Street Journal, served as a top aide to former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen and represents South Nashville on the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education. Pinkston is a graduate of Metro Nashville Public Schools and he is an MNPS parent.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Leader of Failed KY Voucher Campaign Heads to TN

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The Black Alliance for Educational Options (BAEO), a pro-voucher group, has selected Mendell Grinter as its Tennessee State Director.

Grinter will work to revive interest in a statewide school voucher program that has met defeat in three consecutive legislative sessions.

The release announcing Grinter’s selection mentions:

Grinter previously served as the Kentucky State Director for BAEO where he led the creation of BAEO’s first Pastors Coalition. Under his leadership the Coalition led rallies, press conferences, community meetings, and received over 30 media placements.

Yes, the coalition led rallies, held press conferences, and even got in the news. What they didn’t do was generate any significant interest in passing vouchers in Kentucky. That’s right: Grinter led a coalition that didn’t move the needle on vouchers in Kentucky – voucher legislation, even with an interesting twist, failed to pass in Kentucky.

Of course, Kentucky also has no charter schools, so the landscape for advocates of education privatization is bleak there. What Kentucky does have is 20+ years of steady educational progress. And, with no vouchers or charters, Kentucky continues to outperform Tennessee on the NAEP.

Make no mistake, voucher legislation will be a big focus in 2016. And Mendell Grinter’s track record should be of some comfort to those who support public schools and oppose failed voucher schemes.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

Strong Motion

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Williamson Strong, a group of Williamson County parents focused on supporting excellent schools, has filed a federal lawsuit against the Tennessee Registry of Election Finance for the fine the Registry levied against the group after finding it was operating as an unregistered political action committee (PAC).

In filing the suit, members of Williamson Strong said:

“The Registry’s primary conclusion, that any two people who spend even one penny to present political opinions can be deemed a political campaign committee, has very serious implications for everyone in the State of Tennessee. This decision is completely contrary to both the First Amendment of the United States Constitution and the Tennessee Constitution.”

The complaint further alleges that the Registry’s actions will have a chilling effect on parents in Tennessee who come together to express opinions about public schools. It notes that the Registry’s assertion that individuals with a union affiliation are subject to additional scrutiny places such individuals and others who affiliate with those individuals in a disadvantaged class.

That is: If you express political opinions in a group that includes union members, your political speech may be subject to penalties not applied to groups that do not include union members.

In fact, the Registry’s actions create just that impression: That parent groups will not be construed as true “volunteer groups” or “loose associations” if even one member happens to also be a union member.

As the complaint alleges, this special scrutiny violates the First Amendment’s protection of free association.

It will be interesting to see how this plays out in the long term and how the Registry handles future complaints regarding unregistered PACs while the lawsuit is in progress.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

 

Who is Running MNPS?

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Seems like a simple question. And, until last night, it had a simple answer. Dr. Jesse Register’s last day was to be June 30th. The interim role would then be handed to the district’s #2, Jay Steele, currently the Chief Academic Officer.  Steele would run the district for one to three months until a permanent Director of Schools was hired and in place.

But, it’s not that simple. Steele was appointed to the interim role on a 5-4 vote. That vote drew criticism from, among others, TN Ed Report’s own Zack Barnes.

Steven Hale over at the Nashville Scene has a good run down of what happened.

And now, the Board has appointed Chris Henson as interim director.

The appointment came in an emergency meeting called by Board Chair Sharon Gentry to address issues raised with the vote for Steele, including the open meetings complaint.

At last night’s meeting, Gentry admitted that she was at fault, at least in part, because after the motion to appoint Steele, she proceeded with the vote without calling for discussion.

Gentry also voted against appointing Steele – this would seem to be an indication that no decisions were made in secret, since the person who chose to move forward without discussion was on the losing side of the vote. Perhaps Gentry suspected she had the votes in favor of another candidate and called for the vote on Steele quickly in order to move on to her preferred interim director choice.

Gentry last night also suggested that one remedy for an open meetings violation was a new meeting and vote with a thorough discussion. Of course, as of last night, there was only a complaint, no guidance from the Comptroller regarding any violation.

And, as referenced in the Scene story and noted by J.R. Lind, the meeting was a procedural mess:

The emergency meeting appears to have been a procedural mess, as our J.R. Lind explains on Twitter. For instance, although the board members voted to reconsider their initial appointment of Steele, they never voted to rescind it.)

This marks the second consecutive meeting in which a major decision was mishandled by poor procedural leadership from Gentry.

Back to the original question: Who is running MNPS? As of today, it’s Chris Henson. As for the Board, that’s an open question.

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

MNPS, Annenberg, and Magnets

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Last night, the MNPS School Board approved a set of standards to govern charter schools and agreed to also apply them to traditional district schools (though most already do apply).

Andrea Zelinski has the story:

Breathe easy. No one is changing rules for magnet schools, at least when it comes to selective enrollment.

The Metro Nashville Public School board approved nearly three dozen new requirements for regulating charter and traditional schools Tuesday night, like requiring regular reports on student mobility, posting school budgets and publishing details for any contracts over $10,000.

But the rules include banning schools from excluding or discouraging certain students from enrolling, such as is done at academic magnet schools like Martin Luther King Jr. Magnet School and Hume Fogg Magnet High School or the Nashville School of the Arts — all district crown jewels with entrance requirements. The board ultimately exempted academic magnets and performing art schools from the new enrollment standard.

There’s more detail in the piece, including Zelinski’s play-by-play of the meeting.

More on the Annenberg Standards:

Annenberg May Apply to Magnets

Does TN Need Annenberg?

MNPS and Annenberg

A Call for Accountability

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

Quickly Inflated

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Jon Alfuth has a piece over at Bluff City Ed that answers the question: Did this year’s method of calculating quick scores on TCAP result in grade inflation? The short answer is yes.

The post is complete with math and graphs that explain the two different methods for calculating quick scores and the possible grade inflation that resulted this year when the TN Department of Education switched to the cubed root method.

Here’s an excerpt that explains the point difference that would be expected based on the different methods for calculation:

The cube root method yielded on average a quick score, the score that goes for a grade, of 4.46 points higher. In other words, a student scoring basic with a raw score of 30 or higher would, on average, receive an extra 4.46% on their final quick score grade, which goes on their report card. A student who scored a 70 last year could expect to receive a 74 under the new quick score calculation.

The additional points do drop as one goes up the raw score scale, however. For the average basic student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 30 and 47, they would receive an extra 5.41 extra points under the new method.

The average proficient student grades 3-8 with a raw score between 48 and 60 would get 4.32 extra points under the new method.

The average advanced student grades 3-8 with a raw score of between 61 and 67 would receive an extra 1.97 extra points under the new method.

The difference varies much more widely for below basic students, but the difference can be as much as 25 points in some cases.

In short, final grades in subjects required to factor in TCAP scores were higher this year than they have been in the past. In some cases, these “extra points” would have moved a student up a full letter grade.

Commissioner McQueen has indicated that this method will be used going forward as the state transitions to the TNReady test, starting next year. Of course, that test is entirely different from TCAP, so comparisons between the two are of limited value — at least until there are multiple years of TNReady data to use for comparative analysis.

More on Quick Scores:

A Call for Testing Transparency

That Was Quick

Quick and Confusing

 

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

 

We Need Long Term Planning for Charters

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The Tennessean has an op-ed by Harry Allen, an executive with Avenue Bank and board president of Purpose Preparatory charter school. He calls for a long-term plan for the future of our district in regards to charters. I think we sometimes get lost in the details about being pro/anti charter and forget to plan for the long term.

Charter schools are here to stay in Nashville. Thousands of students are served in charter schools throughout Nashville, and if you think that all of them are magically going to disappear, you need to rethink that notion.

Mr. Allen starts out with a great opening sentence:

The most successful organizations adapt to the changing environment around them in order to overcome challenges and remain effective.

Mr. Allen goes on to discuss findings of a study that was recently released in partnership with the Tennessee Charter School Association.

The study’s key findings include:

Charter schools in 2013-14 academically outperformed district-managed schools and are funded at similar levels, which means charters yielded a higher return on investment for taxpayers and families.

Though MNPS today is a choice-based system, the MNPS infrastructure — buildings, services and associated cost structure — reflects the past for which it was designed, one with limited parental choice.

It recommends an updated system that accounts for a future that includes a mix of district- and charter-managed public schools.

The majority of district financial expenses are variable in the long term and should be adjusted to reflect anticipated shifts in enrollment.

(Yes, commenters, how dare the Tennessee Charter School Association commission a study about charter schools. I know, it’s crazy that an organization would research a topic that they work in. While I am on the topic of studies, let’s not accept with open arms the Comptroller study on the ASD while saying the Comptroller study on MNPS was conducted by biased individuals. Hint: the same people did both studies. They are both flawed or both acceptable.)

Anyways, Mr. Allen goes on to quote Dr. Register as his conclusion.

“It is clear that shifts in student enrollment will require adjustments to our budgets that can only be made over multiple years,” he (Register) recently said. “Planning for these adjustments requires a long-term and collaborative approach that is responsive to parent demand and student enrollment decisions. We should take the time and make the effort to formulate the long-range impact.”

Dr. Register is spot-on — it’s imperative that MNPS adjust to the changing times. All organizations, whether for-profit or nonprofits, must occasionally adjust their planning to remain competitive. In this case, our city’s future depends on it.

Check out the oped, and let’s do some meaningful work in this area. We can spend hours every week in a doomsday scenario, or we can spend hours every week trying to come to a solution that will help lead our district into a prosperous future.

I would rather help lead our district into a prosperous future.

Wouldn’t you?


 

Why Fix the BEP?

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I’ve written recently about the growing state revenue collections and the corresponding request (in the form of a lawsuit) from school districts that the BEP (state school funding formula) be adequately funded – to the tune of some $500 million in new money.

But, some might ask: Why even fix the BEP? It’s a complex formula and besides, don’t our schools already have enough money?

The short answer is no. No, Tennessee schools do not have enough money.

I have gone so far as to suggest the BEP is broken and to explain the reasons for its current inadequacy.

Now, more evidence suggesting the need to fix the BEP. Essentially, it’s this: Since 2008, Tennessee’s “effort” in terms of percentage of state revenue devoted to school funding has fallen. I’ll show you a hand graph on that from the Education Law Center:

Source: "Is School Funding Fair?" by the Education Law Center

While an number of states began making improvements after 2011, Tennessee was not among them. Recent investments may have returned Tennessee to pre-recession funding levels, but not by much.

And then, there’s a recent report from Rutgers that suggests that when it comes to school funding, Tennessee gets an “F.”

From the Commercial Appeal:

The annual report card out of Rutgers University that grades states on how they fund public education shows Tennessee at the “bottom of the barrel” in fairness. Besides being one of 16 states earning an F for percentage of state resources allocated to K-12 education, family incomes of children attending its public schools on average are half that of children in private schools or being home-schooled.

“That’s a warning signal,” says David Sciarra, executive director of the Education Law Center.

“It becomes difficult to get the kind of forward-thinking reform in legislation if you have more affluent families not invested in this system,” he said.

The study looks at “fairness” in funding, including whether states allow more resources for districts with high numbers of students in poverty. Tennessee earned a B in the category, but Sciarra says even that is misleading.

“Because spending is so low, it really does not amount to much,” he said.

So, why fix the BEP? Because school funding in Tennessee is both inequitable and inadequate. Of course, making the needed investments would normally be a heavy lift, but with recent rosy revenue news, fixing the BEP (and improving the future for our students and entire state) requires only a little hard work and some political will.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

500 Here, 500 There

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So, the state keeps taking in more revenue — a lot more than it planned — and it’s starting to add up to real money, some $500 million and the year’s not over yet.

Andrea Zelinski has the story:

Nearing the end of state government’s fiscal year, Tennessee has collected nearly one half billion dollars more than expected, according to state officials.

Revenues totaled $974 million for May, when $50.5 million more than expected pouring into state coffers. Overall, the state has collected $495 million more than anticipated in the first 10 months of the budget year, with $452 million overcollected for the general fund, according to the Department of Finance and Administration.

What’s interesting about this story is that the total amount of over-collection represents almost exactly the dollar amount needed to satisfy school systems suing the state for inadequate K-12 funding.

$500 million appears to be the magic number:

Achieving a level of adequate funding as contemplated in the lawsuit would cost an estimated $500 million. Should the motion be granted, all 141 school systems in the state would effectively become a party to the suit — an unprecedented show of strength in what has historically been small school systems suing over equity. This suit differs from the previous “small schools” suits in that it focuses on the inadequacy of the funding formula rather than on any inequities that may exist.

So, we have $500 million in revenue over anticipated collections on the one hand and school systems suing to restore adequacy to the BEP to the tune of $500 million on the other.

Seems like someone (legislators, Governor Haslam, anyone…) ought to be able to work with these numbers and find a positive solution.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport