Jay Steele Talks to TNEdReport

A few weeks ago, the writers behind TNEdReport met in a conference room to interview Dr. Jay Steele, the Chief Academic Officer for MNPS. We had a great conversation full of charter schools, budgeting, and the question we all want an answer to: Is Jay Steele being groomed to be the next Director of Schools?

Note: The interview is longer than we usually post, but it is full of information on the future of MNPS, so we have tried to leave almost everything in. We have, however, edited the transcript for length and clarity.  Finally, two other folks appear in the transcript occasionally: Meredith Libbey, Special Assistant to the Director of Schools (and part of the MNPS Communications team) and Joe Bass, a communications specialist and web guru, who is also part of the MNPS Communications team.

Q: When you look at Metro schools, you see a really high proportion of free and reduced price lunch students, and when you look at the rest of the demographics in Nashville, we have a large population of private school students. What jumps to my mind is that there are a lot of middle class families that are thinking about Metro and who would like to put their kids in Metro; in fact you see a fair proportion of them put their kids in elementary school. But then, on the front end–even before elementary school–and then definitely once you get into middle school and high school, you see those numbers start to drop out. They fade out and they go to private school, or they go to Sumner County, or they go to Williamson County, whatever.  It’s not a massive tidal wave, but it’s demonstrable…

Steele: It’s real.

Q: It’s a real thing. One of MNPS’ slogans is, “We want to be the first choice for every family.” Understandably, a lot of our efforts are going to be focused on taking care of kids in poverty, and the kids near poverty, and making sure that they get an excellent education. Part of doing that is getting people back invested in the schools, because research has shown that if you have a socioeconomically isolated school where you have massive numbers of kids in poverty, just throwing resources at it is not a complete solution.

Steele: I do agree — there is a big perception, that is a real perception, and that has shown up in some of the research that outside parties have done, even at Vanderbilt University: why parents exit the system and where those drop-offs are.  And I recently shared that in a middle school presentation; School Board Member Amy Frogge asked Dr. Register and I to speak to West End/Hillsboro cluster middle schools.  And so it is a real — it is a real perception problem.  And one of the things that came out of that research, that Vanderbilt study, was that a lot of parents who are making decisions about middle school or high school have never been in those schools.  So, it’s really on hearsay; it’s really on — um — maybe some data that does show some low achievement in certain schools, and so that is a focus that we’re working on.

So, my transition happened in February; so, I’ve only been responsible for high schools up until February 1st. Now I’m responsible [in] K-12 specifically for Middle and High.  So we are working on a complete marketing outreach plan that is being developed for middle school.  We have one in the high school levels: the Academies of Nashville. The whole branding process and the “I Can” statements from our students, the bus wraps; I mean, we’ve done it all — commercials, everything at the high school level, to get the word out about what’s happening in these schools.

But the middle schools, we’re just starting that process now.  So, we do have a strategic action plan for middle schools; I brought it with me [showing binders].  There’s several in here; I don’t want you to think it’s a hundred pages.  It’s about 25 pages for middle school.  That was developed through a SWOT analysis with principals, parents, and students, and district central office people.  We worked on that since February, and it was released to principals in July, all the principals.  And around that plan, we’re looking at how we’re completely restructuring the middle schools, to mirror what’s happening in the high schools.  On a different — not really using themes, but using teams and teaming, using student leadership; also looking at high academics.

Now, you made a reference to the parents, that we’ve got to bring up those low-achieving students, the students in poverty, we’ve got to offer them the opportunity, but we cannot forget the students who are high performing, and the students who don’t come from poverty.  And so every middle school has to offer an enriched curriculum or an accelerated; that’s what a lot of the parents who are leaving the system want.  They want the rigor; they want to make sure it’s a safe environment; they want to make sure it’s a rigorous environment. So, that’s one of the things that we’re working with the middle schools on, is offering high school credit courses in every single middle school, offering them the opportunity for virtual courses — if they need to accelerate, they can do it no matter what school they’re in, what part of town they live in, if they have access; and we can give them access through laptops — check-outing of laptops from the library.  So, our virtual school has expanded those opportunities.  And, looking at every middle school offering high school credit courses.

So, the whole strategic plan is focused on personalized learning.  No matter what part of the county you’re in, what school you’re in, that is the opportunity for that school to personalize the experience for that child.  And that is through project-based learning, virtual education, accelerated courses; or, it could be for interventions for those kids who need it.

One of the big changes we did in middle schools this year was — in the past, middle schools required every student take an intervention period, whether you needed it or not. Well, that sent the wrong message to parents. So, we did away with that this year.  Interventions should be fluid and based on the mastery of a standard.  So, and if I’ve mastered that standard, I need enrichment, I don’t need intervention for my child, or for me personally.  But, I might get to a standard that I couldn’t master, and I need intervention for a two or three week period.  So the interventions now are fluid in the middle schools, based on a child’s need, not based on adults prescribing that every student needs that.

Another thing in middle school that we’re really hoping will attract students and parents back into the system is, every child engaged, whether it’s in athletics, clubs, or Music Makes Us, or fine arts.  That’s been a big push this year in the middle schools, is to bring back all of the traditional music programs such as band and choir, and in some cases orchestra, but also infuse the, uh — we call that the “legacy” programs, not “traditional,” sorry — and the, um, — I forget what we called it — the non-traditional programs such as mariachi, world percussion, hip-hop, rock, country/bluegrass.  Those — and bring in real artists from the community — we’re able to employ those people for two periods to really come in and teach that specialty.  That is really taking off at several of our middle schools.

So, we’re really trying to personalize that experience, bring the enrichment in through the arts and the clubs, but the goal is that every middle school student belongs.  So, if you’re looking at that K-12 continuum, and we do see that dropoff at elementary going into, transitioning into middle.  It is fearful for a parent to send their baby in the fifth grade, to a middle school that might be around a 13 year old eighth grader, so that’s why we’ve divided the middle schools into teams.  So there might be a — two fifth grade teams, depending on the size of that school.  They are sheltered in a different part of the building, and they do not mix with the older students except on the bus coming and going to school, and they carry those elementary practices, such as the responsive classroom, morning meetings, all of that with them — and they start that transition into sixth, into seventh, and by the eighth grade, they’re transitioning into a high school schedule.

Q. Kind of like the idea with 9th grade academies…

Steele: Absolutely, and that’s one of the things — we’re moving that 9th grade approach down to the 8th grade. So, starting in January our middle school students will take a High School 101 course and it will be taught through Blackboard, online, for every kid during their advisor/advisee time — what’s a GPA? What are the high school academies?  What’s International Baccalaureate?  What’s AP mean?  What’s the importance of a GPA?  So that’ll roll out to every eighth grader in the district starting in January, to help them make better choices.

Q. You touched on perception, and you talked about how Metro is putting together these marketing and outreach plans.  A lot of what you’ve described are internal changes — middle school structure, offerings, more extracurriculars, personalized learning, and that kind of stuff.  What is the companion — I guess for lack of a better term — the marketing piece of that?  For example: love ‘em or hate ‘em, charter schools are great at marketing themselves.  They get branding companies to work with them. If there’s a lack of perception that our schools are where we should be — that middle class parents should be putting their kids in these schools — how does MNPS address that?

Steele:  I’m glad you asked that question because that’s one of my fortes, one of the things I’m very passionate about: outreach and marketing.  And for some reason in public education some community members feel that we’re wasting taxpayer money when we develop marketing plans. We have to compete. It’s a mindset change of principals and public school districts. You are competing with charters. You are competing with private schools and virtual schools and home school. And with school choice, you are competing with each other. You want your school, as a principal, you want your school to be branded the best school in the district and very attractive for parents to put their kids in. So I firmly believe in that.

Now, I don’t firmly believe in just throwing money at something that’s bad. I mean there has to be something to market. There has to be a change. That’s why those action plans that I told you about, the whole strategic plan of high school, the strategic plan of middle school, the district strategic plan.  Those are all pieces in there that are completely transforming the experience kids are having in those schools. We do have to market to get that word out. We do work with a branding company a branding firm called DK Brand Strategy. The Nashville Chamber helped us find her. And we are working with her in the high schools now for three years. She’s working with the middle schools now. She’s working with Music Makes Us. Because there are great things that are happening in this district that we have to get the word out.

We’ve created “brand promises” that are internal promises at the high school and middle school level that drive our decision making. And those brand promises really solidify to the staff and the leadership of the middle school or the high school tiers that our decisions have to be focused on this brand. We have to deliver this product that we’re promising. And we use kids to form those brand promises in their language. That then drives how we market what’s happening in those schools. For example, part of the brand promise at the high school is I belong to an innovative community where I’m engaged … so what does that actually mean? What’s innovation? What’s a community mean? So it’s that family atmosphere in a kid’s language, what does that mean? I belong to a team of people who are all in a sport or in a club or part of the academy or on a team in middle school.  So it’s about belonging. But it is getting the message out. Because if we let other people define who we are, they will do that.

Unfortunately, that’s what’s been happening with negative perception. People are defining what they don’t know. So as part of those outreach plans–the First Choice festival is a part of that–tours of the schools, inviting parents in on those Tuesday tours.  We’ve done VIP tours in every high school over the past two years where elected officials–local, state, and national–,ministers in the community, business leaders have come in. We’ve done Realtor tours. Because we know that as families move to this district, sometimes realtors steer them away from certain neighborhoods.  I’m a prime example. I was steered to Green Hills. I said I want to live downtown. They said, this is downtown. Green Hills is downtown. I said, no, this is not downtown. I was never shown East Nashville. So, I live in East Nashville now, that’s the community I want to live in. So, there’s a perception problem that we have to address and I think the branding is key and the marketing or outreach is key.

Q: Say you’ve got a parent who’s happy in their middle school and whose child is zoned to, for example, Stratford High School. The parent looks at the average ACT score at Stratford and says, “There’s no way, I can’t put my kid there.” How do you address that? How do you stop those parents from leaving or allay that fear? I mean, let’s say I’m a parent, and I go meet with Michael Steele and I say look, we live over here and I want to put my kid in the school just a few miles down the road, but I see the ACT scores at Stratford and don’t think I can put my child there. What’s the answer to that?

Steele: They need to go see it. I completely agree and understand that perception or that fear. I encourage those parents to go in Stratford. Vanderbilt University Center for Science Outreach — PhD professors are teaching kids in the STEM courses in the academy of science and engineering. If parents would go and sit in one of those classes and see, this is the fourth year that’s happening. Those kids are now seniors. The shifts are starting to happen there. But they are not going to happen until more families come in and take that. It is taking a chance, I understand that. But, the level of instruction from Vanderbilt professors along side Stratford teachers, you are not going to find that anywhere else. It’s only offered in two high schools in the district.

If you drill down in the data, if you look just at the overall average ACT scores it doesn’t paint the picture that is happening. If you get your kid in the right program, lets say you are in the Vanderbilt program. Their average ACT rate is much higher. Now it’s not going to reflect in the school overall ACT rate. I think in any school, if a child wants the higher level courses, advanced placement, international baccalaureate, or the new one: Cambridge advanced international certificate of education. You are going to find those in every single school and you are going to be able to get that high level college prep education. But it is a leap of faith for some groups of parents, especially in the East Nashville area. If they continue as a cohort through those schools, they will change that school. They will change the outcomes of achievement in those schools.

I firmly believe that kids rise to the level of expectation. At Stratford and other schools, at the high school level, we have raised those expectations to a very high level and they are continuing to rise. I know when I first came here, I met with the team at Stratford. My first month on the job and I was shocked at what I saw. But, after getting the right people in place and addressing the expectation then that’s when I see the change happening. The change in culture in a place like Stratford has been phenomenal. It has been night and day from what it was four years ago. The achievement is rising.

Is it rising fast enough? No. I mean, I wont be happy until every kid is at that 100% and we know that is a long stretch in an urban district. But, the expectation is there now, and kids are rising to that level of expectation in all of our high schools. If you look, and I will use the high schools, because I have been working with them the most in the last four years. It will be four years December 1st that I have been here. Last night at the board meeting, the performance data was shared on all the schools with three year trends. All of the High School either maintained their status or rose. There’s only one high school that’s in the red, which is the bottom. And they were one and half points away from moving up to the next level and that was Pearl Cohn. I have a new principal at Pearl Cohn in her second year who will turn that school. She is one of the best I have ever seen in the country. But I am proud that the high schools are on the trajectory. That’s why Dr. Register, I think, has placed me in this position, I need to replicate that now with the middle school principals. And the whole branding and restricting plan for middle schools is the first step in that. It will get there. It can’t happen fast enough for parents.

Meredith Libbey: Do you want to talk about East at all?

Steele: East [Magnet High School] is about to announce a 100% graduation rate. The only high school in the district to hit that above MLK and Hume Fogg. It was part of the data last night that shared, but nobody picked it up yet.  Lockeland Elementary — one of the highest performing — that was in the paper today, in the Tennessean. I read it this morning.

Q: Since you bring up Lockeland, let’s talk about Lockeland as sort of a microcosm for some things that are happening in the district. My question was going to be, “What did the district learn from Great Hearts” but…

Steele: I wasn’t involved in that.

Q: It wasn’t going to be, “Tell me about charter schools.” The question was more along the lines of: one of the things I took from the Great Hearts mess was that there was a group of parents and families in the Green Hills area that wanted another school like Julia Green or Percy Priest or Lockeland. That same demand is in East Nashville. It’s certainly in Green Hills. How does the district manage that?

Libbey: I’m going to jump in and say that’s not a Chief Academic Officer discussion.

Q: What’s that?

Libbey: That’s really a Board level and Director level. I mean, because this is way past the academic program. It’s into zoning and there is a whole lot of other issues there. So, a great question but I don’t know if it’s a question for him.

Q: Charters are going to be $62.2 million next year under the budget. How is that affecting the planning going forward for Metro?

Steele: Well, here’s my only piece of the budgeting. I don’t deal with that piece of the budget. I can speak of budget autonomy, and how we are moving to that. But I can’t speak of funding going to charter schools. That’s at a board level and Dr. Register level. But the whole budget autonomy piece: I do believe in school based budgeting and next year all high school and middle schools, and a few of the elementaries that are led by lead principals, elevated principal status, will have school based budgeting autonomy. We are starting that training at the next principal meeting in November. They will be completely in charge of their budgets this spring for next year. Completely support that. There is a three year plan that will phase all schools in to that. But middle and high schools I am completely comfortable with them going 100% school based budgeting next year.  Student based budgeting, which I also firmly believe in and want to get to, is going to follow that. Within three years, it will be school based and student based budgeting. That’s a little more, it’s going to take some time to develop that. Putting weights on kids in poverty, maybe putting higher weights on EL students. I am from Florida and we had that in Florida. That’s how we did our budgets there. I didn’t know any other way to do budgeting. I am very pleased the district is moving towards that. I firmly believe in school based autonomy, school based budgeting, and student based budgeting.

Q: Some charter advocates will say that we have persistently low performing schools and that Metro has had years, that it has known about this problem over two different superintendents for sure. The question is, why should someone choose a Metro school? For example, say we have a persistently low performing school — one example someone gave to me the other day was the principal turnover in the past five years at Bailey Middle School. Why would I choose that school if there is a charter option available? Why should I give  you a chance? That problem may get fixed by the time my child gets out of middle school, but…

Steele: Sure. I understand that. I am actually a charter school principal. So I understand both sides. I spent five years as a charter school principal in Florida. And I worked in traditionally zoned schools and charters schools and both post secondary and secondary. That is an issue. And you saw pieces of it last night in the school board discussion. We are not on level playing fields, I will say that. That is controversial for some people to even say that. As a charter school principal, I was allowed to take students. I was also allowed to dismiss students.

But I do know that as those things happen in a zoned school, I get who comes to me. I don’t have the option of, you misbehaved, you’re are being dismissed from this school. Or, you have missed so many days, you are not coming back to this school. So the playing field is not level there. But that is no excuse. That is why this is important to me.

Closing the achievement gap, no excuses, that is the philosophy that we are using. There are no excuses for that achievement gap. There are no excuses for those kids who are in the schools that are remaining in the red for three years in trend data. Charter or traditional or magnet school. That doesn’t matter. What we haven’t done a good enough job is, as leadership of zoned schools, is pulling that trigger. That’s bad — that’s a bad analogy. Making changes in leadership based on data when it needs to happen.

Now if you look at the high schools, I have had no problem doing that. I am very pleased. It took me three years to get to this fourth year where I am comfortable in every single principal in the high schools. I trust them. They are top notch. They are doing incredible jobs. But I can honestly say there might be some, we haven’t traditionally used that data. It hasn’t been available to us, really, until now. This is our first three year trend data. We will be using that data to make decision about leadership in the buildings. I can assure everyone in the district that we will do that. Brenda Steele, the elementary associate and I, at eight o’clock this morning sat down and had that conversation. We’ve scheduled a meeting in November for all of the executive lead principals to come together with that data and start making those notifications. I do firmly believe that every principal has strengths. They might be in the wrong position. They might be in the wrong school. So we have to identify those strengths and get those people lined up for where their strengths are going to be highlighted or used the most. It might not be in the school they are in. It might not be as a principal. It might be as an assistant principal or another kind of leader. But I’m not scared to make those decisions. I think parents in the community expect that. Dr. Register and the school board, obviously last night, they expect it. And we will be making some of those tough decisions based on that data.

Q: How do you get someone to stay at a school that is really hard to turn around? Bailey Middle School is what comes to mind because someone mentioned it to me the other day. If it’s going to take two or three or four years to get that school fixed, you might have a principal think, “I don’t want to be here; it’s tougher than I thought.” How do you get a principal to stay?

Steele: I do also believe that it takes a minimum of three years to turn a school. If you haven’t turned it in three years… I’ll use the principal at Pearl Cohn as an example. Sonya Stuart is a phenomenal lady. Incredible instructional leader. She told me when I hired her, “If I can’t turn it around in three years, Jay, fire me.” She said, “I’ll resign.” And um, that was her language. I trust her.

Number one, you gotta put the leader in there that you trust that has the skills. I think in some of the instances in some of the low performing schools, there are some incentives. Monetary incentives. But it’s not all about money. It’s also about school autonomy with your resources and your budget. Your staffing. Number one for me as a principal would be staffing. I don’t want to be given a staff. So one of the major things we did this year, that I have been doing in high school for four years, but elementary and middle have not been doing it, is letting the principal choose their own assistant principal. That’s big. So this year, we said every, we are not telling anybody who to hire. Principals choose their own assistant principal and their leadership team. But they will be held accountable for it, if it works, great. If not, you are held accountable for it. So the expectations are different now.

Human capital has been working very hard on getting the highest quality teachers and getting a large candidate pool for the principal’s to choose from. So people are not required to take displaced teachers. Sometimes, displaced teachers gets a negative image, sometimes. They are not all bad teachers that are being transferred. Or some people want to transfer. There might have been a program closing. So principal choosing their own staff. Choosing their own leadership team. Having autonomy in the building. That’s an incentive, I think, that could keep people at those schools. Along with the monetary. I firmly believe that if you are going into a low performing school, it is going to consume your life for the next three years to turn that school around. We have to reward those people.

Q: Are you being groomed to be the next superintendent?

[several people speaking at once]

Libbey: He is not.

Q: That’s fine.

Libbey: We hear that conversation out in the community.

Q: That’s why we’re asking.

Bass: The Board hires the superintendent.

Libbey: The Board hires the superintendent and we also heard that if there is ever a sense among the board that there is an inside pick, that person can walk ….. They want to make the choice.

Steele: Meredith is exactly right. The Board makes the choice. I am not focusing on that. My job right now is huge. I’ve got an incredible team around me. They are brilliant people who are working hard. I trust them. I listen to them. It’s a give and take everyday. Pushing back, challenging. So, that to me is my focus right now. I shared with someone yesterday: I do want, it would be incredible to be the leader of this district, the highest performing urban district in the next five years. But, I want to be on the team. Whether it’s Chief Academic Officer or Associate Superintendent or the Director of schools. Being part of this incredible transformation is what I want to be. I don’t want to be anywhere else then the middle of this. The Board determines who leads that. But no, Dr. Register is not grooming me. There’s too much to do to even think about that right now. But I do hear that. That’s unfortunate, that makes me a target for people. That’s not anywhere close to what we are talking about.

Q: Are you looking at what high achieving charter schools are doing to see what you can do inside zoned schools?

Steele: Absolutely. I’ll give you an example of that. STEM Prep — Dr. Kristin McGraner — I think she is phenomenal and I have been in her school twice now. I took a group of middle school and high school principals from the STEM cluster – at Stratford and Litton — in to STEM Prep last spring to see the practices in that school. Kristin and I work very close. I brought her into the principal meeting. She met with all the principals of the middle and high school level. She presented her data, mastery tacking forms, and her philosophy on that. That was in the late spring, early summer. Many of the schools now have adopted that model and I am encouraging them to take their faculty leaders in to see what’s happening at STEM Prep.

I’ve been invited to come into one more — I won’t name it, I haven’t scheduled it yet — but I will be going in in early November to see that other school. I firmly believe we can learn from each other. Actually, Kristin from STEM prep as reached out to me about her plans to open a high school. Can we work together and help her? I have met with Todd Dickson, from Valor Collegiate, and his model of his school matches closely with the academy model at the high school level. So we’ve been working together. I just met with Justin Testerman Friday morning.

I think we can learn from each other, if the conversation is cordial and open to learning from each other. The personal attacks on Twitter and all that stuff needs to stop. It doesn’t need to become personal. It is about the achievement of every kid whether they are in charter or in a zoned or magnet or non-traditional school. Again it goes back to personalized learning. That is the lever of change that we believe will transform this district.

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


 

Charter Schools May Hurt Credit Ratings

According to Moody’s, the credit rating agency, charters are hurting urban school systems and threatening to create a negative credit pressure.  The Washington Post and Bloomberg covered the release of the report.  The press release from Moody’s listed an example of towns in Michigan facing credit trouble.

For example in Michigan, the statutory framework emphasizes educational choice, and there are multiple charter authorizers to help promote charter school growth. In Michigan, Detroit Public Schools (B2 negative), Clintondale Community Schools (Ba3 negative), Mount Clemens Community School District (Ba3 negative) and Ypsilanti School District (Ba3) have all experienced significant fiscal strain related to charter enrollment growth, which has also been a contributing factor to their speculative grade status.

The Washington Post picked up on three factors that are causing these problems.

 1. Demographics and financial shifts.

And some urban districts face a downward spiral driven by population declines. It begins with people leaving the city or district. Then revenue declines, leading to program and service cuts. The cuts lead parents to seek out alternatives, and charters capture more students. As enrollment shifts to charters, public districts lose more revenue, and that can lead to more cuts. Rinse, repeat.

2. Districts can’t adapt quickly.

And then there’s the very nature of the problem. Charter schools don’t suck up enrollment from just one school. They pull from schools across a district, meaning each takes a slight hit while none loses enough students to justify substantial restructuring. “There is no critical mass of empty classrooms or schools,” the Moody’s report authors write. In Philadelphia, cost-cutting began in fiscal 2011, but it wasn’t until this year that a significant number of schools were closed.

3. State policy supports charters.

State policy can dictate not only who can authorize a new charter school, but the pace at which they grow.In Ohio, for example, students in charter schools account for more than 20 percent of total enrollment in five districts, even though state policy limits the pace of charter-school growth. But the impact varies by district. A Columbus district fares well thanks to stable demographics, while districts in Cleveland and Toledo are struggling in the face of population declines.

The credit rating will be something to keep an eye on as Nashville and Memphis open more charters each year. It is also something I believe our state legislators should look at before they take up a revised state charter authorizer bill next year.

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


 

Memphis Makeover, Blogging Commissioner, and Drinks for Schools

Just a few quick hits today from education news around Tennessee.

While we tend to be Nashville-centric in many of our posts – either coverage of MNPS or state policy happenings in Nashville, Bluff City Ed offers an interesting look into the transformation of public schools in Memphis.

Now, back in Nashville, it seems the Commissioner of Education will now also be a blogger. Maybe this is how he intends to improve communication with all those Superintendents who aren’t happy with his leadership style.

Finally, over in Sumner County, Fox 17 has an interesting take on what turned out to be a fairly reasonable solution to a sticky tax problem.

MNPS Talks Testing, Charters

Andrea Zelinski has the story in Tweets

You might remember that not long ago, Board members asked for a work session to learn more about how much time, money is spent on standardized testing.

Looks like they didn’t get much in the way of answers.  Though Paul Changas did indicate that as more regular assessment occurs, there is less need for standardized tests.

I’d suspect Frogge and Speering (who brought the issue up) will want more than that, so this issue may continue to get some attention.

A Plea for Caution from Russia

A Plea for Caution From Russia

What Putin Has to Say to Tennesseans About Education

By VLADIMIR V. PUTIN

Published: September 12, 2013 

MOSCOW — Recent events surrounding education policy in Tennessee have prompted me to speak directly to the people of Tennessee and their political leaders. It is important to do so at a time of insufficient communication between our societies.

0912OPEDmunday-popup

Oliver Munday

Relations between us have passed through different stages. We stood against each other during the cold war. But we were also allies once, and defeated the Nazis together. The universal international organization — the United Nations — was then established to prevent such devastation from ever happening again.

The potential rebalancing of the education policy debate — towards more thoughftulness, critique, and effective collaboration — despite strong opposition from many education organizations and major political and education leaders, will result in more innocent victims.

Russia must ask: What about the children?

Any effort to depart from your current reform path, and embrace countervailing viewpoints, would undermine effective, unilateral efforts to resolve the pressing teacher evaluation, pay, and licensure issues, as well as the Charter schools-Traditional schools conflict.  Departing from the current reform path could also destabilize Metro Nashville Public Schools and Memphis City Schools. It could throw the entire emerging system out of balance.

Tennessee, and these school systems, are not witnessing a battle for public education, but the equivalent of an armed conflict between defenders of the status quo and those worried more about the children, rather than adults.  There are few champions of education reform in Tennessee. But there are more than enough defenders of the status quo and extremists of all stripes. The Tennessee Department of Education should consider formally designating certain groups, fighting with the defenders of the status quo, as education terrorists.

From the outset, Russia has advocated peaceful dialogue — that is, a positive and collaborative tone — enabling those truly dedicated to public education in Tennessee to develop a plan for their own future.  We do not advocate protecting any particular set of policies, but rather the law itself, as passed by the Tennessee legislature and the Tennessee Board of Education.  Russia believes that preserving law and order in today’s complex and turbulent world is one of the few ways to keep education policy from sliding into chaos. The law is still the law, and we must follow it whether we like it or not, even if it sometimes means issuing harsh sanctions.

No one doubts that spurious character attacks, politically-motivated statements, articles, op-eds, blog posts, and tweets, and selective use of research and anecdote have been used during education debates in Tennessee. But there is every reason to believe these were used not by the those truly dedicated to the cause of education, but by opposition forces, to provoke intervention by their powerful patrons.

It is alarming that debate in policy discussions is becoming increasingly commonplace in Tennessee. Is it in Tennessee’s long-term interest? I doubt it. Millions around your country increasingly see Tennessee, not as a state making innovative, cage-busting strides towards high-quality seats under the slogan “you’re either with us or against us,” but rather as a model of collaborative debate and democratic critique and discussion.

But discussion and debate have proved ineffective and pointless. Memphis is reeling, and no one can say what will happen after state oversight withdraws. Metro Nashville Public Schools is divided into tribes and clans, and the civil war continues, with dozens Tweeting at each other, incessantly, each day.

No matter how targeted the discussions or how sophisticated the debate, casualties are inevitable, particularly of students left without high-quality seats, whom the debates are meant to protect.

We must stop using the language of deliberation and collaboration, and return to the path of urgent, rigorous, and innovative educational reform.

A new opportunity to avoid thoughtful debate has emerged in the past few days. Tennessee, Metro Nashville Public Schools, and all members of the educational community must take advantage of both sides’ willingness to destroy any possibility of collaboration on the issues of charters.  Judging by the statements of many in the state, both sides see ramping up the rhetoric as a good alternative to considered and thoughtful debate and policy solutions.

I welcome the any Tennessean’s interest in continuing the dialogue with Russia on education policy. We must work together to keep this hope alive, and enforce the law, as written.  We must keep moving forward.

If we can avoid any slowdown of progress and any deliberative, community- and state-wide discussions, this will improve the education atmosphere in Tennessee and strengthen the respect of others within the United States, and around the world.

My working and personal relationship with education and political leaders in Tennessee is marked by growing trust. I appreciate this. I have carefully studied their public (and private) statements over the last several years. And I would rather disagree with a recent case made on Tennessee’s deliberative and collaborative spirit, stating that Tennessee’s efforts at honest and thoughtful discussion, and true collaboration is “what makes Tennessee different. It’s what makes Tennessee exceptional.” It is extremely dangerous to encourage people to be thoughtful and deliberative, whatever the motivation. There are big school systems and small school systems, rich and poor, those with long education reform traditions and those still finding their way to true education reform. Their policies differ, too, though Russia is happy to help in fixing this. We are all different, unfortunately, but when we ask for the Lord’s blessings, we must not forget that God wants every child to have a high-quality seat, and does not care how we get there, so long as we do it quickly.

Vladimir V. Putin is the president of Russia.

A Positive Education Agenda

The use of this image is in no way sarcastic.  Well, maybe a little.The last few years of education debate and policymaking in Tennessee have seen a lot of negativity.  You can name the fights off the top of your head: teachers’ unions and collective bargaining, vouchers, teacher evaluations, Great Hearts, charters vs. traditional public schools, K12, Inc., teacher pay, etc.  There are more.

I, for one, have been preaching, to everyone I can think to, that people on all “sides” of the debate have a lot more in common than we/you/they think.

I truly believe this.

What we need, then, is some common ground. Not faux common ground, couched as a talking point and then used to attack (“How can you not agree with X?”), but real, actual common ground.

Looking back at the pieces from my school board campaign last year, I came to re-read my “issues” section from my campaign website.  I put a lot of thought and research into it at the time, and I think it still reads true.  So, if you haven’t had a chance, here’s what I think the (beginnings of) a positive education agenda look like.  It’s incomplete, for sure.  But it’s a start.  I’d love to hear what you think.  P.S. I’ve cut out the “I’m going to be a great school board member” intro and skipped right to the issues.

************************************

Community-Supported Schools

No student should get a worse education because of their wealth or zip code.  As research has shown, however, a student’s home life, socioeconomic status, and the health of their community have a strong correlation with that student’s ultimate academic success.  Research has shown the increasing importance of communities and community support to schools.  Professors Ellen Goldring, Lora Cohen-Vogel, Claire Smrekar, and Cynthia Taylor discussed this very issue in “Schooling Closer to Home: Desegregation Policy and Neighborhood Contexts,” a study specifically of Nashville schools and communities.  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 112, No. 3 (May 2006), pp. 335-362).  Cohen-Vogel, Goldring, and Smrekar also wrote an article entitled “The Influence of Local Conditions on Social Service Partnerships, Parent Involvement, and Community Engagement in Neighborhood Schools.”  (American Journal of Education, Vol. 117, No. 1 (November 2010), pp. 51-78).  Both of these articles shed light on this crucial issue, and support the idea of the importance of communities and community context in building strong schools and supporting student learning.

To a large extent, wealth and zip code determine student outcomes, but it doesn’t have to be this way.  We can and must do everything in our power to support the educators and staff in our most at-risk schools, and provide them the support they need to overcome the achievement gaps our at-risk students suffer.  Ultimately, this can only ever be an incomplete solution.  Our schools need to become the centers of their communities again, and I will work to connect our parents, churches, neighborhood associations, community groups, and local residents to our schools.  To achieve this goal, we need a board member involved with and connected to the community and community leaders so that we can tailor the resources and strategies needed in each school to fit the community those schools serve.

High Standards, Less Testing

High standards are excellent — there is no question that all children can learn, and that we do a disservice to them by lowering standards, or assuming they cannot think critically or master difficult concepts.  Unfortunately, one of the most unintended, but very real consequences of the standards movement was the massive increase in testing of our students.  These days, students spend up to several weeks out of their school year taking mandated tests.  As well, because these tests are “high-stakes,” often determining funding and local control over schools and school districts, together with a  focus of laws such as No Child Left Behind on reading and math skills, there has been a movement away from rich curriculum including science, art, music, physical education, and more.  (See, for example, Richard Rothstein, “The Corruption of School Accountability,” (School Administrator, Vol. 65 No. 6 (June 2008) pp. 14-15).  Good schools and good teachers constantly assess student progress, little by little, not just with a massive test at the end of every quarter or every year (if that even ends up being necessary).  Good assessment shows where students are learning, and where teachers need to spend more time.  Good assessment happens mostly in the background, and is supplemented by longer traditional tests like chapter tests and end-of-course tests.

As a school board member, I will push our district towards the latter concept of assessment, making use of technology such as Kickboard, so that, as a policy matter, we do not put massive, unwanted pressure on our schools, educators, students, and parents, with all the negative consequences that come with high-stakes testing, while still preserving the inherent good of standards-based learning and assessment.  We can accomplish this by committing, as a district, to moving towards a collaborative model of teaching, where teachers are highly trained to use assessment and data in the classroom, and have mentors, master teachers, and coaches to help them, both in the use of that data, and in responding to the needs of their students.

High-Quality Teachers

Teachers are the backbone of our public schools.  As discussed above, though non-school factors play a major role in predicting student success, schools all over Nashville and Tennessee have shown that committed schools, with the right people and resources, can overcome a child’s background Though it is not within the province of a school board member to recruit teachers to our system, we can put in place research-based policies that will lead to higher quality teachers who stay in our system.  When asked, teachers overwhelmingly identify school leadership and school culture as reasons they do or do not stay at their school.  For example, Tennessee’s own teacher survey, TELL Tennessee, shows the following results:

Teaching_Conditions_TELL_Tennessee

These results are typical — teachers want a strong school culture with a good principal, as well as support for good instruction.  These are policy choices as to where we spend our dollars, and the latter option, “instructional practices and support” is a crucial issue addressed above with respect to assessment and support.  As a school board member, I will support the district in finding school leaders who are quality instructional leaders, but who also reach out to and build connections with their teachers and the community around them.

Teacher turnover is also a problem, especially in an urban district like Nashville.  Paying teachers commensurate with our surrounding cities is a first step, and rewarding our excellent teachers must also be a priority.  However, Nashville has a gaping hole when it comes to developing its newest teachers, so that we support and retain them.  As I know personally, the first year of teaching is especially hard.  Many teachers leave the profession during or after their first year.  Again, it does not have to be this way.  Nashville needs to make a multi-year induction, evaluation, and support program a cornerstone of our practice.  The article, “What are the Effects of Induction and Mentoring on Beginning Teacher Turnover,” by Tom Smith and Richard Ingersoll, among others, shows that such programs can have an outstanding impact on developing and supporting excellent teachers, and retaining them in the district.  (American Educational Research Journal, Vol. 41 No. 3 (September 2004) pp. 681-714).  In fact, this is something beginning teachers are not being provided, though they want it (I certainly would have appreciated it during my first year teaching).

Mentoring_TELL_TennesseeAs you can see, though many teachers have a “formally assigned mentor,” a large majority of them do not have formal time to meet with that mentor during school hours, nor do they have time to observe other teachers, or have a reduced workload in order to learn how to be a good teacher.  During my time at the Mayor’s office, working on the ASSET program, I pushed for such an induction and mentoring policy, and I will continue to do so on the Board.

I believe deeply that we must support our teachers; we cannot fire our way to success.  The labor pool does not exist to replace a massive amount of teachers in our system, and the resources we would expend would be wasted.  There will always be some number of teachers who should not be teaching; I absolutely support removing such teachers.  However, the vast majority of our teachers want to be good teachers.  The vast majority are good people, committed to Nashville’s children.  I will put in place policies on the Board to support those teachers, and give them the tools they need to be better.

Education Reform Groups Gear up for 2014 Tennessee Elections

Andrea Zelinski tells the tale of big spending education reform groups and their impact on the 2012 elections.  She then notes the spending and involvement in state and local campaigns does not appear likely to stop.

She notes that Students First will likely be a big player in legislative races, after having spent more than $200,000 in 2012.

Democrats for Education Reform and Stand for Children (which recently hired long-time lobbyist Betty Anderson as Executive Director) were mentioned as potential new players in the 2014 cycle.

What’s unknown, so far, is whether any group or groups will band together to counter the efforts of those pushing the current agenda of charters, vouchers, and teacher merit pay.

Lamar Alexander, Rand Paul, and Charter Schools

Yesterday, Sen. Lamar Alexander and Sen. Rand Paul stopped by Nashville’s KIPP Academy to talk about education issues and to allow Alexander a chance to be photographed next to Tea Party favorite Paul.

The topic of discussion was school choice and the two legislators were joined by Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and House Speaker Beth Harwell.

First, let me say that KIPP Academy and a number of other Charter Schools do very fine work.  Charter Schools can offer an alternative that helps kids and the good ones are a welcome addition to the mix of options offered in urban school systems.

That said, the event seemed odd in that it was Paul who was talking about the lessons Kentucky could learn from Tennessee’s education experience.  Kentucky has no Charter Schools, no voucher schemes, and not much in terms of what current “reformers” deem necessary to “improve” schools.

Here’s what Kentucky does have:

— Higher scores on the NAEP (National Assessment of Educational Progress) than Tennessee in seven out of eight categories.

— A higher ACT composite average than Tennessee

— A larger percentage of its population with 4-year college degrees than Tennessee

— A lower unemployment rate than Tennessee

In short, Kentucky’s schools are getting results and continue moving in the right direction.

So, it seems Lamar Alexander might want to ask one of the many Democratic governors Kentucky has had over the years about the importance of a long-term commitment to meaningful reform.

Kentucky’s Education Reform Act, passed in 1990, changed the way schools were funded.  It set up a new system of testing.  It provided early career support for teachers.  Funding for all schools was increased.  One feature many at yesterday’s event touted about Charter Schools (autonomy, school-based decisions) was written into the Act — Kentucky schools have Site-Based Decision-Making Councils.  These bodies (parents, teachers, administrators) make decisions about school governance and budgeting.

Kentucky spends about $1500 more per student than Tennessee and has sustained this investment (for the most part) in good and bad economic times.

Governor Steve Beshear has been committed to high quality early education.

The results are clear: Kentucky’s been committed to meaningful, sustained investment in schools and teachers and it is paying off and continues to pay off.

Tennessee has tried just about everything but sustained investment, with the 2014 legislative session sure to bring up further discussion of vouchers and other schemes – none of which will likely come with more dollars for the classroom or more support for teachers.

And on just about every indicator, Kentucky beats Tennessee when it comes to school-based outcomes.

It’s time Lamar Alexander and Tennessee’s policymakers look north, and learn the lesson that long-term, sustained support for schools is the only way to move students and the state forward.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Look at Charter Attrition Rates

After WSMV and The City Paper ran stories on charter schools losing “struggling students” to zoned schools in time for TCAP exams, outrage has ensued among parents and charter advocates. While some parents are upset that charter students are being sent back into the school system weeks before the TCAP exam, some charter advocates believe MNPS mislead the news station because “their own scores must not be that hot this year,” “data was skewed & manipulated,” and that MNPS does not care about individual students.

After I read the WSMV article, I emailed MNPS to ask for the same information they gave the WSMV reporter. I received seven documents from the communications office including attrition rates for MNPS and some individual school reports of attrition 9 weeks before the TCAP. Though, after my first communication with the schools, I was told that MNPS and the principal from KIPP Academy met and the school system sent me an updated attrition document that was changed after their meeting. The numbers were a little different, but the top attrition schools were still the same.

UpdatedAttrition

The first chart shows charter schools leading the way in attrition. As others have noted, if you have a smaller set of students, your percentage is higher than larger schools if a few students leave.

But, as you can see from the chart, there are a lot of people leaving all schools, zoned schools included. For Smithson Head Middle, out of an 11th day enrollment of 324, 89 students left while they have taken on 8 students throughout the year. The number of 81 for attrition equates to a -25% attrition rate. They now only enroll 243 students.

For Boys Prep, they had a smaller 11th day enrollment of 100 students. The school lost 39 students, or 39% of their student body this year. They took on 16 students for an attrition of 23 students and a -23% attrition rate. They now only enroll 77 children.

When looking at KIPP Academy, a well known charter, nationally, for it’s high standards and performance, they had an 11th day enrollment of 337. We see that 64 left while 13 came to the school during that time.

KippWDWhile looking at the school specifically, you can see that 20 students left KIPP Academy nine weeks leading up to TCAP. All but one of those 20 students that left had been suspended multiple times. Eight of those 20 are considered “special needs disability” students.

 

LeadWD

 

 

LEAD Academy lost 20 students in the nine weeks leading up to TCAP. Fourteen of those students had been suspended during the year.

 

 

 

 

Drexel1Drexel2

 

 

 

Drexel had 33 students leave within the nine week period, which means that over half of the exits took place within a 9 week period.

 

 

 

 

While more charter schools are on the way, we should be looking at attrition both in charter and in zoned schools. We need to keep more kids from changing schools. As many zoned schools see a large number of students leave their schools, I believe charter schools and zoned schools are different for one main reason: Charter students are not randomly chosen. While families zoned for schools aren’t technically randomly selected for their schools, it’s the best way to describe it. For charters, you have to go out of your way to attend the schools. Parents have to agree to longer schools day, to read to their kids, or other agreements along those lines. For zoned schools, it’s the exact opposite. The parents do nothing and the kids are sent to the school they are zoned to. So while many people are leaving zoned schools, it looks strange to see that parents would go out of their way to enroll their children in a new program to only move to a different school at a later time.

Antioch2

I wanted to show the numbers from my high school for two reasons. One, because there are many people coming and going from zoned schools, as I said earlier. Two, to show people that I attended a school with a graduation rate of 66.9% and a dropout rate of 19.6% the year I graduated. I hear continued arguments that those families who may come from nicer areas of Nashville should not have a point of view on this topic because they go to nicer schools. First, all families should be able to voice their opinions without getting attacked for where they live. I went to a school where over half of the students are considered “Economically Disadvantaged” and hallways were lined with gangs. Does that mean my opinion matters more than those who went to (fill in the school that you always site as being better than others)? No, they don’t.

When more people, both with children in the school system and not, care about our education system, it will get better. That is everyone’s goal here. We want the education of Nashville’s children to be better, some just want to get there a different way. The goal is still the same. But when people start attacking others based on where they live or where they went to school, you are undermining your whole argument. You want to give all students a chance to learn and succeed, but you won’t give all parents a right to express their ideas.

Let’s continue to talk about issues that are facing our education system. Let’s continue to meet and talk with people whose idea’s are different. Let’s continue to exchange ideas between us. Let’s continue to improve our children’s education. But let’s not continue the harsh tones and attacks that we all are doing. The only way to fix our education system is working together.

While I have written a post that may seem “anti charter,” (hint: it’s not) it doesn’t not mean I won’t work with charter schools to see what they are doing better than zoned schools. We can all question what zoned schools are doing or what charter schools are doing. The only thing we can do to help our education system is to be involved.

Here are a few organizations you can check out to get involved in your local education system.

State Collaborative on Reforming Education

TEA Teachers – Tennessee Education Association

Professional Educators of Tennessee

Tennessee Charter Schools Association


 

TNEdReport Interviews Rep. Joe Pitts

We had the distinct pleasure of interviewing Rep. Joe Pitts for the Tennessee Education Report. He is a member of the House Education Committee and the House Education Subcommittee. He is a vocal voice in both committees. We thank him for taking the time to answer our questions.

Let’s start with Vouchers:

What impact will vouchers have on local school districts in terms of budget and tax burden?

A:  Vouchers will have an immediate impact on local government’s budgets and the potential impact on local property tax is significant.  The voucher will further dilute public education funding currently going to the local school district which has an extensive infrastructure – buildings, supervisory staff, transportation, etc. that supports ALL students residing in their jurisdiction.  It is a delicate balance of funds that can be turned upside down if a sudden shift in funding policy, like vouchers, is made.

Do you believe that even if a limited voucher plan passes, the ultimate goal is statewide vouchers with broad qualifications? 

A:  If the past is prologue to the future, then one only need to look at the Charter school authorization passed many years ago by the General Assembly.  The original concept was to address at-risk students in schools within specific geographic boundaries, and we even had a limit on the number of charter schools within those communities. Now, despite evidence to the contrary, Charter schools are available statewide for every student regardless of academic need.  While Charter schools certainly have their place, given the right circumstances, it should be a tool at the LEA’s disposal.

An amendment recently passed to make private schools provide school lunches to those who come to the school via vouchers. Does that help your concern about students choosing free lunch or a private school?

A:  Requiring a school participating in the voucher program to offer a school lunch program makes a flawed proposal less objectionable but still not one I can support.  We don’t need a voucher program for at-risk students in failing schools.  Currently if a student is in a failing school, the parents can raise their hand and request their student go to another, non-failing school, in the same district without sacrificing basic human needs like breakfast and lunch, and transportation, and special needs students get access to the services they need.

Why do you think the GOP is focused on vouchers/charters instead of fully-funding BEP 2.0?

A:  Take a look around the country.  Vouchers seem to be the “cause de jour.”  It appears our education system is the last bastion of public funded services that haven’t been co-opted by the for-profit sector; sadly, not anymore.

Finally, do you think there will be transition problems when taking a child out of a public school and placing them in a private school? Do you think the child may fall behind from the start?

A:  When the child moves from one public school to another public school, or in this case, a private school, it will present some challenges.  Children are resilient though, but I am concerned about the moving back and forth between and among systems since not all private school curriculum lines up with the public school system.

Let’s more on to charters.

Do you believe the recent charter authorizer bill is taking away local control from local education boards?

A:  Yes.  Sadly, as amended, the bill would establish a non-elected group of people appointed by both Speakers and the Governor, to decide how and how much local tax money could be obligated for a state authorized charter school. That’s like the state deciding how big your police force should be and sending you the bill. This is just plain wrong.

Are you supportive of charter schools that get local approval or would you rather limit how many charter schools can open in the state?

A:  I do believe charter schools are a good option for LEA’s who need to try something different for students with specific academic needs.  Being a member of a local school board is a difficult task.  You are required and responsible for the academic achievement of all students in your district but have no say in the funding allocated by any of the funding entities.  I am not a fan of establishing limits on schools if the LEA has control of the authorization.

General Education Questions

If you were the commissioner of education, what would be the first thing you would do to improve public education in Tennessee?

A:  Three things simultaneously:  I would implore the Governor to make it our policy that no new changes would be sought or implemented for two years or until we can sort out the changes enacted in the last two years.

Next I would meet with the school directors and school boards, individually, of every district with a failing school and let them know we are going to become partners.  Instead of a shotgun marriage, it would be a partnership based on putting our resources where are mouths are and helping the failing schools first and immediately.  Students struggling in schools are very often victims of their home environment.  I would deploy an intervention team consisting of master level social workers, health professionals and academic coaches to these schools immediately to provide intensive work and support.

Lastly, I would work with the Charter schools to create a bold new platform for turning around these schools in our districts not meeting expectations.  We need to look beyond the numbers and think about year round charter schools, extended hours, or other non-traditional means to address the needs of the students and their families.  A charter school that mirrors a traditional public school hardly seems worth the effort.

I am convinced that the overwhelming majority of our LEA’s are performing at a high level, given the meager resources we allocate to them, and are open to our help, be it public or private, to give our students the best education experience possible.

Certain reform groups like Democrats for Education Reform and StudentsFirst have very specific policy agendas for reforming education. Some of the typical policies associated with these groups include vouchers, charter schools, pay-for-performance, and ending seniority rules.

What’s the counter-argument?  What are the marquee policies Democrats embrace?  If there aren’t a set of marquee proposals everyone is on board with, why not?  What’s being done to get the Democrats on a united front, to have a set of counter proposals instead of just playing defense?

A:  The reform movement initiatives, added to the self-inflicted policy crush imposed on LEA’s over the past three years, is contributing nothing to the public discourse about improving student performance.  If you think about it, we made significant changes to public policy in education in 2010 as a part of our First to the Top agenda proposed by Gov Bredesen – a Democrat, followed by nightmarish changes to the teachers’ environment in 2011 by eliminating collective bargaining, tenure, and removing TEA from their seat at the table, all in the name of “reform.”

On top of all that we approved virtual schools, unlimited charter schools, put undue pressure on teachers and principals by adopting an assessment tool that is unnecessarily bureaucratic, adopted the Common Core, and are preparing to implement a new assessment called PARRC.  Now, we are attacking our teacher preparation programs by looking at putting artificial thresholds on ACT and SAT scores for students who wish to go through their respective College of Education.  I’ve said it before; we are giving our education system whiplash with these rapid-fire changes and creating massive confusion.  Who can blame more seasoned teachers from deciding to retire instead of continuing in a system that does not appreciate their significant achievement and experience in the classroom and will subject them to the latest reform experiment?

Perhaps the corporate robber barons of the reform movement need to be asked to leave the room and let the education professionals do their jobs.  I have complete faith in our school districts across our state if we can offer our help instead of the cram down policies that have little to no basis in fact or success.

 

Andy, John, and I want to thank Rep. Pitts for his time. Please follow us on twitter @TNEdReport and like us on Facebook.