Building a Table

Teachers in Shelby County are seeking to build a negotiating table with the school district, according to a story from Chalkbeat:

The district’s two organizations, which represent teachers and other licensed educators, say their priorities are restoring automatic pay increases and higher pay for educators with advanced degrees, and giving more flexibility to teachers in the classroom.

Despite evidence that pay schemes based on TVAAS aren’t impacting student achievement, district superintendent Dorsey Hopson continues to push merit pay schemes:

Hopson has tried for several years to switch teacher pay to a merit system based on evaluation scores that include student test scores. That would mean only teachers with high evaluation scores would be eligible for raises.

A report based on a Gates Foundation-funded experiment in a number of districts across the country, including Memphis/Shelby County, found:

The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation’s multi-million-dollar, multi-year effort aimed at making teachers more effective largely fell short of its goal to increase student achievement—including among low-income and minority students, a new study found.

Should teachers win the right to negotiate, this issue will surely be a hot-button and the evidence directly from Memphis should certainly weigh-in to the discussions.

If the groups representing teachers successfully win the first phase, a final vote will be taken in November to determine which organization teachers want to represent them. Then, seats at the negotiating table will be divided among the two groups according to the percentage of votes received.

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


 

MNPS and A Few Good Men

Nashville resident David Jones takes a moment to compare the MNPS School Board to the movie “A Few Good Men.” In short, he’s arguing that some on the board “can’t handle the truth.” He raises concerns that have been brought up by board member Amy Frogge but have yet to result in a change of course.

Here’s his letter:

There’s a melancholy scene in “A Few Good Men” in which two officers are found guilty of conduct unbecoming a United States Marine and are dishonorably discharged. Exasperated, Pfc. Louden Downey asks, “What did we do wrong? We did nothing wrong!” A somber Lance Corporal Harold Dawson explains, “Yeah we did. We were supposed to fight for people who couldn’t fight for themselves.”

Nashville schools currently find themselves at a crossroads. Though sitting in a city so vibrant and prosperous, MNPS has been clouded with controversy and disappointment. While many were hopeful when Dr. Shawn Joseph took over as director in 2016, that hope soon eroded and was replaced by fear due to the actions (and inaction) of the director.

Over the past two and a half years, teachers, parents, and students have watched as Dr. Joseph not only has turned a blind eye to the indiscretions of his coworkers, but has been complicit in covering up their crimes as well. When Dr. Sam Braden, principal of JFK Middle School, was accused of multiple charges of sexual harassment, it was Shawn Joseph who promised he would work to make those files confidential in the future. When Arnett Bodenhamer, a former teacher and coach at Overton High School, attacked a student, it was Shawn Joseph who overruled the suggested firing and allowed Bodenhamer to continue teaching in MNPS. When an allegation of sexual harassment was made against Mo Carrasco, executive director of priority schools, it was Shawn Joseph who ignored MNPS rules and bypassed human resources, instead going straight to Carrasco. And to top it off, Shawn Joseph has failed to report at least 20 instances of misconduct to the state, which is required by state law.

Shawn Joseph’s refusal to do what is right has created a culture of fear in Nashville schools. Teachers are now scared about what might happen if a colleague sexually harasses them. Teachers have even expressed that they might not report harassment because not only will their complaint not be taken seriously, but they might face retribution from Shawn Joseph if they file a complaint against one of his friends.

Yet in a time when teachers are fearful, employees are being harassed, and leadership is absent, our board members do nothing, pretending the problem will get better while it only gets worse. Like Harold Dawson explained, our community looks to the board to fight for the people who can’t fight for themselves. If our board truly puts children first, they should be demanding accountability, protection, and responsibility.

Instead, we’re given excuses. At a time when our schools desperately need leaders, at a time when teachers are scared their harassment claims won’t be taken seriously, at a time when a large portion of our students fail to read at their current grade level, at a time when priority schools have doubled and funding has all but disappeared, we’re left with enablers—enablers who give Shawn Joseph free rein to waste money, protect the powerful, and exploit the most vulnerable.

It’s time to put an end to this charade. We deserve better. We demand better. It’s time the Board of Education starts fighting for the people who can’t fight for themselves. It’s time the board votes to remove Shawn Joseph as director and puts us back on a path to success.

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


 

A Tennessee Teacher on Karl Dean

Educator and education blogger Mike Stein talks about why he’s supporting Karl Dean for Governor and explains why he believes Dean is the best choice to lead our state. Here’s some of what he says:

He is the best choice to continue the upward trajectory of our public education system. This is exemplified by the Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children & Public Education endorsing him. Additionally, at a recent town hall, Dean said: “When I look at this state, the number one thing that we gotta get right is education. We need to increase teacher pay. We’re losing too many teachers to the private sector. We’re paying below the national average.” On the debacle otherwise known as TNReady, he went on to say: “I don’t believe that testing should be punitive toward teachers at all. We lost teachers’ voices in this whole process. We need to get back to listening to our teachers. There’s way too much testing going on in schools today, and not enough learning.” When it comes to public education, he gets it. He’s also staunchly against school vouchers (sometimes referred to as education savings accounts) because he understands that taking money from public schools and using it to help the wealthy send their children to private schools is completely nonsensical and counterproductive. When polled, 64% of Tennesseans oppose vouchers, and Karl Dean is on the correct side of this issue.

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


 

TEA Backs Dean

The state’s oldest and largest organization of teachers is backing Karl Dean in this year’s Governor’s race. Here’s the press release:

The Tennessee Education Association Fund for Children & Public Education, the association’s political action committee, has endorsed former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean in the Tennessee Gubernatorial race.

“Karl Dean has a record of increasing education funding as mayor of Nashville and has made improving K-12 funding a centerpiece of his campaign for governor,” said TEA President Beth Brown. “Increasing the state’s per-student investment is a top priority for TEA and one of the reasons Dean has earned our endorsement.”

The decision to make an endorsement in the gubernatorial race was voted on by the TEA-FCPE board. The Fund’s board is composed of educators from across the state who have been elected to the TEA-FCPE board by TEA members.

“Dean is the only gubernatorial candidate who opposes private school vouchers – a hardline issue for TEA. Vouchers take critical funding away from public schools and have severely undermined public education in states that have implemented voucher programs,” Brown said. “TEA has commissioned numerous polls across the state, in both Republican and Democratic primaries, and found Tennesseans overwhelmingly oppose the use of taxpayer dollars for private school tuition more than two-to-one.”

Dean has also indicated increased teacher compensation, improved teacher supports and expanding early childhood education are critically important education issues in his platform. Research shows quality pre-k programs set students up for success, and access to them is important in closing achievement gaps among Tennessee students. Dean wants to ensure every student in the state has a chance to succeed in their neighborhood school.

Brown concluded, “Dean earned the support of Tennessee’s teachers because he has demonstrated a willingness to listen to educators and has made the commitment to ensure every student in the state has a chance to succeed in their neighborhood school. We believe he will make the best interests of Tennessee students a top priority, and would listen to the experts in the classroom in shaping education policy.”

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


 

A Basic Human Right

A free public education should be viewed as a basic human right, according to a Texas pastor visiting cities across Tennessee to urge clergy to support public schools.

The Chattanooga Times Free Press has this story:

Pastors for Texas Children gained national attention after it began to lobby against efforts to use taxpayer money to send students to charter and private schools.

The group, an independent ministry and outreach group that comprises nearly 2,000 pastors and church leaders from across Texas, gained even more attention when it was criticized by Texas politicians with strong ties to the Koch brothers, according to The Washington Post.

A Call to Action

Johnson, described on the Pastors for Texas Children website as an advocate, said religious leaders need to reaffirm and reestablish that a free, public education is a basic human right.

“We have a debate today about whether or not children today deserve an equal education,” he said. “We all know the ills of public education and some [people’s] attempts to privatize it. It’s time for the church to get back together with the schools.”

Tennessee’s Constitution says the General Assembly shall provide for a system of free public schools.

In spite of this promise, legislators in recent years have repeatedly attempted to pass legislation that would divert public money to private schools. Currently, gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee is making vouchers a key element of his education agenda.

Pastors for Tennessee Children Launching

Johnson is traveling across the state, encouraging pastors to join the new arm of the coalition, Pastors for Tennessee Children.

Jeanette Omarkhail, president of the Hamilton County Education Association, first met Johnson at a conference in Minnesota and said his message was one she wanted to bring to Hamilton County.

“Educators need you. They need your support, your encouragement. The students need you,” Omarkhail told the religious leaders gathered in the church’s meeting hall Tuesday. “At those school boards, the school board members need to see you. Those leaders have been saying up at the dais, ‘We need more people of faith involved in our schools, but they’re not here.’ We can go there.”

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


 

Vouchers Gone Wrong

While significant evidence suggests that even with proper implementation, vouchers don’t improve student performance (and sometimes, make it worse), a cautionary tale out of Florida raises even greater concerns. What if a voucher program goes horribly, terribly wrong?

This question seems especially relevant given gubernatorial candidate Bill Lee’s backing of vouchers.

Here’s what the Orlanda Sentinel had to say about a range of problems in that state’s voucher program:

In its “Schools Without Rules” series, Sentinel reporters found voucher (or “scholarship”) schools faking safety reports, hiring felons, hiring high-school dropouts as teachers and operating in second-rate strip malls. They discovered curricula full of falsehoods and subpar lesson plans.

If you confront defenders of this system, be they legislators or school operators, many start mumbling about the virtue of “choice”— as if funding a hot mess of a school is a swell thing, as long parents choose that mess.

Horse hockey. I choose accountability. And transparency. And standards.

I’ve written before about the mess made of schools (and of children’s lives) when voucher schemes go awry:

South Florida Prep received significant funds from the Florida Department of Education under the McKay program. Here’s how that school was run:

Two hundred students were crammed into ever-changing school locations, including a dingy strip-mall space above a liquor store and down the hall from an Asian massage parlor. Eventually, fire marshals and sheriffs condemned the “campus” as unfit for habitation, pushing the student body into transience in church foyers and public parks.

“We had no materials,” says Nicolas Norris, who taught music despite the lack of a single instrument. “There were no teacher edition books. There was no curriculum.”

That’s just one example, of course. The Sentinel series exposes significant problems across a variety of schools. Among the problems were schools closing with little notice, evictions, and teachers without credentials.

Those supporting a voucher-backing candidate for Governor should be very aware of what that policy could mean for Tennessee’s families.

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


 

 

Changing School Culture

Bethany Bowman of Professional Educators of Tennessee offers this insight from school leader Ryan Jackson:

Perhaps the foremost expert on changing school culture in Tennessee is Dr. Ryan Jackson. People from across the country have taken notice of the amazing turn around he has done at Mt. Pleasant PreK-12 School in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee. Ryan Jackson is beginning his 3rd year at Mt. Pleasant School in Maury County, and the culture shift that he has instigated is nothing short of amazing. We wanted a deeper probe of what he was doing, so his methods could be replicated.

In 2016, when Ryan Jackson first came to Mt. Pleasant School, it had a negative stigma attached to it. He immediately realized that the school lacked an identity. Being a firm believer in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs, he realized he needed to create a sense of belonging. The first thing he did was create ‘The Mount.’ More specifically, #TheMount which was strategic for a couple of reasons. Jackson relays, “One, it side-stepped the stigma. This was new. Some people thought it was like putting lipstick on a pig. But it did create a psychological shift. ‘We are The Mount’, not the old Mt. Pleasant and everything you thought about Mt. Pleasant before July 2016 has just changed including how we identify ourselves.” He continued, “It was more than just a rally cry; it was the beginning of this new identity and getting people to see Mt. Pleasant differently so we could one by one, person by person, student by student, teacher by teacher, community member by community member get them to come on board and feel like they belong.” It was not an overnight process but through repetition, constant branding, constant messaging, it was successful.

We have learned, as educators, that if you don’t tell your own story, someone else will tell it for you. Ryan Jackson made social media an integral part of the culture shift. He stated, “Social media is a high yield strategy that costs absolutely nothing financially, just a time investment. It gives everyone, but specifically the immediate community, the windows of insight into what’s going on at the school. It gives them a proud thing to hang their hat on that they didn’t have in the past. I wanted them to see the fact that we had seven different CTE programs. We had multiple forms of art being represented. I wanted the community to see some of the cool project-based learning experiences that we had for kids…things that they would not know if they weren’t here on a day to day basis. I wanted the community members to have access into the school day via the social media platform. By doing so, we are getting the attention of more than just the community, but also the state and the nation as well.”

Jackson sees the social media posts as sort of a mini-commercial for his school. The community now sees them as a positive influence and thinks, “Wow, things really are changing [at Mt. Pleasant].” He reiterates, “Not only that, social media gives you the opportunity to highlight teachers, students and programs while reinforcing the belonging. When people have emotional connections to something, they will share it with others. You are literally evangelizing your message, your school.”

The rebranding, done primarily via social media, has also led to grants/partnerships from the community. Jackson attributes the Theater Renovation Grant for $67,000 that they got from Lowe’s to social media branding. These organizations vet the recipients of their grants, and when they google Mt. Pleasant High School, they start to see everything that they’ve done. Jackson reminds us, “No school is perfect, but you want to make sure that daily you are putting in enough credit that when something bad does happen, your credit is so high that there isn’t a negative impact.” They also got a $500,000 grant from Parker Hannifin Corporation with which they built an Innovation Lab. “Any school that is not leveraging social media power is missing an incredible opportunity,” Jackson emphasized.

Jackson admits that grants have assisted in the cultural turn-around by being financial affirmations. “Organizations see their money going to a school as investment which they believe they will see a return on. Those grants help to foster a shift from momentum to inertia. And now we are a school that cannot be stopped.”

Working with educators, we know there are a few who are resistant to change. When asking Jackson how he dealt with those who did not buy into his vision, he stated, “In any organization, there is always going to be the ‘toxic 2%.’ Annually, you’ve got to get rid of the toxic 2% because if you don’t, it can be like cancer and it will spread. Teachers/staff must grow or go. You will have that core group of people who will buy into your vision immediately.”

Ryan describes himself as a strength-finder leader. “We focus on our strengths and talents while managing our weaknesses. We devoted the first year entirely to changing the culture. We didn’t start on changing the curriculum until year two. We lifted people up, building capacity, building, supporting the teacher leaders. Then they took their network and influence to bring over the early majority. We showed wins in grants, school discipline, attendance etc. When you see your school logo on T-shirts at Walmart and RiteAid, the late majority is starting to look at it like ‘Wow, I want to be a part of this thing.’ Now we have buy-in from the early and late majority.”

Changing the school culture has not just changed the school, but it has transformed the community. Mt. Pleasant is a community of about 5200 people. Mt. Pleasant School is sort of a mini school system. Jackson explains, “[The school] has been a catalyst for everything. We have been positioned as the lighthouse for rural development and that starts with education. People are only going to move back to Main Street, America if they think their children have a great shot at an excellent education.”

Jackson continues, “We understood that fundamentally and made sure the city had something they were proud to hang their hat on in terms of their schools. Once we gave them a taste that this could turn out to be something incredible, we saw parental involvement go up. We started to see the community come out for football games and other events. Every 30 days we are showcasing something new and different such as the ‘Tiny House’ project we are working on or a mid-town barbeque festival with the community. Now we have the cooperation with the city government to raise $155,000 to build a Splash Pad for the community. It’s a multitude of things such as building an authentic partnership with city government and its schools so we can do things together that will improve the quality of life. It’s showcasing the programs in such a way that you can get parents and business owners excited about their local schools.”

Not only that, when you create a high-profile buzz with the rest of the country looking at you, it becomes infectious. Jackson proudly brags, “When the folks in Mt. Pleasant, Tennessee hear that people from Palm Beach County, Florida, the 11th largest school district in the nation, are coming to visit to see what we are doing, they can’t argue with success. That is the attitude you have to adopt. The city is starting to feel like a winner again and it is long overdue.” He reiterates, “After you feel like you belong, then you will start feeling efficacious and capable. Then and only then can you transfer to self-actualization, just being your best. Mt. Pleasant’s new business owners are feeling capable. Now let’s give this thing a go because we all feel like we belong.”

When Ryan Jackson was asked what advice he would give to struggling administrators, he said, “First and foremost, be a leader, not a figure-head. You have to be present. People want to see their shepherd – ten toes down leadership. You are in the halls, in the classrooms. You’re engaging the students with fist-bumps, high-fives, ‘how you doing?’ You need to have mini conversations with kids and identify their passions. Get to know your staff on a personal level. For far too long leadership programs have emphasized that being a good manager is where you draw a firm line. I think things have just changed. [As administrators], we have to be smart, we have to be savvy and we have to be professional, but most importantly, we have to be present.”

With all that being said, part of partaking in a cultural shift is to change things. Jackson declares, “Sometimes, you’ve got to disrupt the norm. Be comfortable in being a stimulus for change. Great leaders are comfortable with dissent. You have got to understand that not everybody is going to see things as they should right away. But it is our job as a leader to influence them. Leadership is the art of influencing and you cannot influence people from behind a computer screen. If you are sending emails that are fear-based, that may last for a little bit, but everything is built on relationships. You have to establish those kinds of ground level relationships first.”

Jackson concludes, “It is your job as an administrator to become your biggest evangelist. Share your story. Highlight your success. Don’t be afraid to share some of your struggles or setbacks, because we are all human and fallible. We are looking to learn from our networks. So, you share within your networks- ideas, struggles and celebrations- in an effort to get better together.”

His biggest piece of advice is to “get out of the office, get in the hallways, in the classrooms, in the community. Be present at games and events. Get to know your students on a first name basis. Kids get excited when they know you know who they are and what they are passionate about. That stuff is life-changing; it’s psychological solutions. You can’t put a dollar amount on that.” No school in Tennessee has changed its culture more than ‘The Mount’. This school culture is an example of a strategy that other schools and districts can duplicate.

 

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


 

Amy Frogge Speaks Out

MNPS Board Member Amy Frogge speaks out about the behavior of Director of Schools Shawn Joseph:

Take a moment and watch this interaction between Director of Schools Shawn Joseph and a female reporter. It’s important to note that this reporter was actually invited to the MNPS press conference, where she asked a perfectly reasonable (and pretty predictable) question: What would you tell the parents of children in priority schools?

Joseph is quick to put this female reporter in her place with a rude and unprofessional response. Rather than answering her question, he turns the tables on her, trying to bully her. After the press conference, Joseph’s fraternity brothers followed this reporter into the parking lot to harass her, telling her that her questioning of Joseph was not appropriate.

Joseph’s frat brothers had been asked to stack the press conference to show support for Joseph, lending a rather tone-deaf atmosphere to the event. Although the press conference was held to address the fact that the number of “failing” schools has more than doubled under Joseph’s watch, Joseph began the conference by saying, “Can I get an amen?!” The conference, which should have been quite serious, was strangely filled with cheers for Joseph himself. (Joseph, through fliers distributed with his photo on them, often requests that his frat brothers show up to board meetings and other events to cheer him on or to go after anyone who questions him.)

Certainly, people have bad days, and I would perhaps just disregard Joseph’s testy interaction with this reporter under another circumstance. But I have seen this sort of behavior repeatedly from our Director. While he can be very nice toward those to do not question him, he changes his demeanor toward those who raise questions about problems in the district. (It took me a long to time to see the problem, since I was very supportive of Joseph for the first year and a half of his tenure.) He particularly does not tolerate questions from females (no matter how professional or polite) and uses bullying tactics to avoid answering them. This sets a poor tone for the district, as it is his job to answer questions.

Joseph has tried to put my in my place (by threatening lawsuits, by telling me what I can and cannot say on the board floor and by inviting his frat brothers to meetings to call me out). He has tried to put Jill Speering in her place by cutting Reading Recovery (her favorite program that she championed for decades), thereby suddenly firing 87 Reading Recovery teachers, many of whom were Jill’s friends, with no plan in place to repurpose them. And Joseph is already starting to go after Fran Bush, the newest board member to question him. Joseph loves to use race as a weapon to protect himself, quickly labeling anyone who disagrees with him a “racist,” but I think he will find this tactic increasingly difficult to utilize as more begin to speak up.

This is the behavior of a bully, plain and simple. Joseph has banned employees from speaking to board members. And just yesterday, he actually banned employees from writing anything negative on social media about the district or its leadership. These are crazy times.

Since I have begun speaking up against problematic practices in the district, I have received hundreds of thank-yous from MNPS employees and parents, including flowers and gifts. Not a day goes by that I do not receive a call or message from a grateful employee. The usual message is: “We are hanging on by a thread. Please, please keep it up!” I have suggested that others must start using their own voices to address problems, but employees- and amazingly even parents- respond, “Oh, no- we know how vindictive he is!” Teachers, bus drivers, and other staff members know they will lose their jobs for voicing problems (they’ve seen what Joseph did with Reading Recovery as vengeance against Jill), and parents actually fear that Joseph will take funding from their schools or try to punish their children in some way if they speak up. Something is seriously wrong when we have arrived at this place.

Jill, Fran, and I am more than happy to keep standing up and to serve as a voice for the voiceless. I have stood up to bullies before; I have no fear and absolutely nothing to lose. I always outlast them. But for things to truly change, Jill, Fran and I cannot continue to be the only voices speaking for the community. We are doing all we can, but we need help. Please consider speaking up, even if you must remain anonymous and ask someone else to serve as your voice.

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