Reflections

With last week’s news of Education Commissioner Candice McQueen leaving her post in January, Chalkbeat featured education leaders around the state offering reflections on her time in the role.

While most of those cited made every effort to say nice words, I was struck by the comments from Tennessee Education Association President Beth Brown:

“As candidates for the state’s next commissioner of education are considered, it is my hope that serious consideration is given to an individual’s experience in our own Tennessee public schools… Students and educators are struggling with two major issues that must be tackled by the next commissioner: high-stakes standardized tests and a lack of proper funding for all schools. Our schools need a leader who understands that the current test-and-punish system is not helping our students succeed. Governor Bill Haslam has made significant increases in state funding for public education, but there is still much work to be done to ensure every child has the resources needed for a well-rounded public education.”

Brown took care to highlight two critical issues: Testing and funding.

The next Commissioner of Education will inherit a testing mess:

If this year had been the first time our state had faced testing challenges, one might understand (and forgive) the excuse-making. However, this is now the fifth consecutive year of some sort of problem and the fourth year testing administration has been, to say the least, a challenge.

Brown also points to a need for further investment in schools. While there have been additional dollars spent on K-12 education, Tennessee still lags behind our neighbors and the nation:

Tennessee is near the bottom. The data shows we’re not improving. At least not faster than other states. I’ve written about how we’re not the fastest-improving in teacher pay, in spite of Bill Haslam’s promise to make it so:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

School spending doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it’s not like when Tennessee spends, other states stop. So, to catch up, we have to do more. Or, we have to decide that remaining 43rd or 44th in investment per student is where we should be.

So, who will inherit these challenges? Some suggest Shelby County Director of Schools Dorsey Hopson is a leading candidate. He endorsed Bill Lee and is playing a role in Lee’s education transition. Other possibilities include some current Tennessee superintendents.

This look back at the last time the role was vacant offers some ideas of who is out there for Lee to consider.

What are your thoughts? Who should be Tennessee’s next Commissioner of Education? What’s the biggest challenge they will face?

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


 

 

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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


 

When it Comes to Discipline, Money Matters

Over at the Law Professors Blog Network, Derek Black offers some insight on the importance of funding to obtaining better school discipline outcomes. Specifically, Black looks at Nashville and the positive impact a state grant had on reducing discipline referrals.

He starts by referencing some past analysis regarding funding, achievement gaps, and suspensions:

A month ago, I tried to show how school quality and school discipline are intertwined.  I talked about my prior research, put up a fancy color-coded map of school funding and achievement gaps from Bruce Baker and another fancy color-coded map of school suspensions by the ACLU and UCLA Civil Rights project.  A rough mashing together of these two maps showed that the funding and achievement gaps had substantial overlap with school suspensions.

Then, he turns to a pretty clear piece of evidence from Nashville:

The Tennessean reports that “[t]he increased support for students has helped almost every school see a reduction in office discipline referrals, helping keep kids in the classroom.”  The first school to implement the trauma informed practices saw “the most promising results, with a 97-percent reduction in discipline referrals.”  All but one of the other schools also saw impressive reductions:

  • Fall-Hamilton Elementary — 97 percent reduction in year one and a 53 percent reduction in year two over the previous year.
  • Eakin Elementary — 73 percent reduction.
  • Waverly Belmont Elementary — 29 percent reduction.
  • Napier Elementary — 15 percent reduction.
  • Hermitage Elementary — 60 percent reduction.
  • Inglewood Elementary — One percent reduction.
  • Tulip Grove Elementary — 52 percent reduction.
  • Meigs Magnet Middle Prep — 37 percent reduction.

So if someone asks what money buys, it buys district and school coordinators for the program, reduced suspensions, and more time in the classroom. 

The bottom line: Spending on quality programs has an impact. Money matters.

While Black notes the specific impact of the grant-funded program at select Nashville schools, it’s worth noting that Tennessee fails to adequately fund school counselors, school nurses, and trained interventionists (though a small RTI component was just added to the state’s funding formula). While education experts have noted the shortcomings, little has been done to actually make improving funding a priority. In fact, Tennessee has remained relatively stagnant in terms of funding in recent years.

Tennessee policymakers have been told what works and now have a very clear example of an intervention that gets results. So far, they’ve not been willing to act on this knowledge.

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

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Failing Public Schools

David Waters of the Memphis Commercial Appeal highlights just a few of the ways policymakers are failing our state’s public schools. Here’s a bit of what he says:

The governor and education commissioner held a public meeting in Knoxville last week to hear from teachers, parents and students ideas about how to improve (or even actually conduct) TNReady standardized testing.

The meeting was held from 3-4:30 p.m. on a Friday. Most Knoxville area public schools don’t dismiss until 3:15 or later.

Most public school teachers and other educators keep working in their buildings until 4 p.m. or later to work on mounds of paperwork required by non-educator education officials in Nashville and Washington.

Most public school parents are at work until 5 or 6 p.m. or later on weekdays.

Of course, the meeting wasn’t exactly public, either.

Waters also points out one of the deficiencies of our state’s school funding formula, the BEP:

The National Association of School Psychologists recommends a ratio of no more than 1,000 students per school psychologist, and no more than 500 to 700 students per psychologist when more comprehensive and preventive services are being provided (as in most public schools).

Funding from Tennessee’s Basic Education Program covers one psychologist for every 2,500.

As a result, most public school psychologists spend most of their time conducting paperwork-intensive special education assessments that are required by federal law.

Waters concludes:

But today’s public school system was built by (and for) federal and state officials who aren’t educators and who sent their own kids to private or affluent public schools.

They don’t know what they don’t know, so there’s no way they passed this test.

READ MORE>

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


 

Graphs!

I’ve written a lot about school funding and teacher pay in Tennessee. About how our state pays teachers at a discount rate and hasn’t really been improving that much.

Now, I’ve found a couple of helpful graphs to demonstrate that in spite of all the rhetoric you might hear from Governor Haslam and some legislators, Tennessee still has a long way to go in order to be making proper investments in our schools.

First, we’ll look at per pupil spending in inflation-adjusted (2016) dollars:

To translate, in 2010 (the year before Bill Haslam became Governor), Tennessee spent an average of $8877 per student in 2016 dollars. In 2016 (the most recent data cited), that total was $8810. So, we’re effectively spending slightly less per student now than in 2010. The graph indicates that Tennessee spending per student isn’t really growing, instead it is stagnating. Further evidence can be found in noting that in 2014, Tennessee ranked 43rd in the nation in spending per student. In 2015, that ranking dropped to 44th. 2016? Still 44th.

Here’s the graph that shows per pupil spending by state for 2016:

Tennessee is near the bottom. The data shows we’re not improving. At least not faster than other states. I’ve written about how we’re not the fastest-improving in teacher pay, in spite of Bill Haslam’s promise to make it so:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

School spending doesn’t happen in a vacuum — it’s not like when Tennessee spends, other states stop. So, to catch up, we have to do more. Or, we have to decide that remaining 43rd or 44th in investment per student is where we should be.

 

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


 

 

Mike’s Misnomer

State Representative Mike Sparks feels like Tennessee teachers are adequately paid. In fact, he’s so sure of this fact, he wants a website to demonstrate the generous pay teachers in our state receive.

Michelle Willard in the Murfreesboro Voice has more:

“It seems like there’s a misnomer out there that teachers are very low paid,” Sparks said at the State House Education and Planning Subcommittee

Sparks was promoting a bill to require teacher salaries to be posted online.

Here’s the thing: Districts already post pay scales online.

Also, the state sets minimum pay standards — and they are, in fact, pretty low. The current state pay scale indicates a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and no experience must earn a starting salary of at least $33,745. Put in 10 years and your minimum jumps up to $40,595. And, that’s it! If you have a bachelor’s degree and 10 or more years of experience, your district is not required to pay you anymore than just over $40,000.

Now, most districts offer pay that exceeds the state minimum. In some cases, though, it’s not by much. Further, the state’s BEP Review Committee (the group that studies and reports on the school funding formula) notes a pretty steady gap of around 40% between the highest and lowest paying districts in the state.

When that gap hit 45% percent back in the early 2000s, the Tennessee Supreme Court ruled that school funding in our state was unconstitutional because it was not substantially equal across districts.

Sparks is also apparently not concerned that Tennessee teachers earn about 30% less than comparably educated professionals. He would do well to take some time and understand the deeper issues in our state’s funding formula — namely, that it’s not exactly adequate and that it continues to foster inequality across districts.

Instead of seeking solutions, Sparks wants to let Tennesseans in on the secret of just how much teachers are paid. Those of us actually paying attention already know – it’s not nearly enough and it’s not getting better.

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


 

Listen to the Money Talk

Does basing teacher evaluation on student test scores get results that impact student outcomes?

No.

That’s the conclusion from a years-long study funded by the Gates Foundation that included Memphis/Shelby County Schools.

Education Week reports:

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.

Under its intensive partnerships for effective teaching program, the Gates Foundation gave grants to three large school districts—Memphis, Tenn. (which merged with Shelby County during the course of the initiative); Pittsburgh; and Hillsborough County, Fla.—and to one charter school consortium in California starting in the 2009-10 school year. The foundation poured $212 million into these partnerships over about six years, and the districts put up matching funds. The total cost of the initiative was $575 million.

The school sites agreed to design new teacher-evaluation systems that incorporated classroom-observation rubrics and a measure of growth in student achievement. They also agreed to offer individualized professional development based on teachers’ evaluation results, and to revamp recruitment, hiring, and placement. Schools also implemented new career pathways for effective teachers and awarded teachers with bonuses for good performance.

During the course of this failed experiment, Tennessee as a state also implemented the TEAM evaluation system and encouraged districts to offer merit pay schemes to teachers. Additionally, the state used a turnaround strategy for “low-performing” schools known as the Achievement School District. Data released after five years of that project indicates it has made essentially no impact on student outcomes.

Also, for the past four years, Tennessee has been attempting to administer TNReady — to no avail.

Tennessee policymakers are spending millions on education experiments that have yielded no results.

Here’s one thing that hasn’t changed: In 2010, Tennessee was ranked 45th in investment in education per student. In 2017, we’d improved — all the way up to 43rd.

Instead of directing funds to experiments that end up not doing much of anything, perhaps we should be investing our dollars in our schools and teachers. Then, we should also try the one thing we haven’t: Dramatically increasing our per pupil investment in schools.

Tennessee should be funding excellent teacher pay instead of trying to get and keep teachers at discount rates.

Tennessee should be investing in school buildings, to ensure all students have a safe, excellent environment in which to learn.

If Tennessee really wants to turn the tide, we ought to invest like it — ask teachers what they need to be successful and put our money there. For too long, education reform has been something “done to” teachers instead of done with them.

Here’s what we don’t need: Another round of expensive experiments that will leave our students and schools right where we started – behind.

We can do better — we know the answer. Does Tennessee have the political will to make lasting change for our schools through sustained investment in the people that make them work?

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

Keep the education news coming!


 

Frogge on the MNPS Budget

Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge yesterday outlined some concerns she has as the school system’s proposed budget faces tough choices ahead:

MNPS will receive a $5 million increase this year, rather than the $45 million increase requested by the board. Mayor Briley is doing his best with limited funding, as this article explains, but there just isn’t enough money to go around.

For the first time in my school board career, I voted against a budget proposal. After weeks of receiving conflicting and inaccurate information from the administration, I lost trust in the budget process. The administration still will not answer many of my questions, which is unacceptable.

So where will the cuts come from?

They will not come from the charter sector. Under state law, charters must be paid, so the $5 million increase must first go toward the $14 million increase in charter school costs this year. While other schools may suffer, charter schools will remain fully funded.

Cuts are not likely to be made at the top levels of administration. While cutting paper from classrooms and proposing to cut seven social workers from schools, Dr. Joseph pushed for a pay raise for himself and his top administrators. In the wake of the budget shortfall, he chose to keep his personal chauffeur. Dr. Joseph also pushed to pay friends brought to Nashville extra, unexplained stipends and high salaries off the pay scale.

Under the current budget proposal, Dr. Joseph will earn $346,000 next year. This amount includes his salary plus vacation days and deferred compensation, but doesn’t include his benefits or any consulting fees that he may earn per his contract. (The administration will not disclose how much MNPS employees are earning in consulting fees, even though I have repeatedly requested this information.) Dr. Joseph has added top level administrators and will pay four of his five Chiefs $190,000 each next year. (The fifth earns approximately $170,000.) To provide context for these salaries, Dr. Register earned $266,000 per year and paid his top administrators $155,000 each. Jay Steele, who earned $155,000, was alone performing the same job that now is fulfilled by two Chiefs, each earning $190,000.

Cuts are also not likely to come from consultants. The year before Dr. Joseph and his team arrived, the district paid outside consultants approximately $5 million dollars. Next year, it appears the district will pay consultants somewhere in the range of $14 million to $30 million. Again, I can’t get a straight answer from this administration on proposed consultant costs, so this is my best guess. What’s clear is that consultant costs have increased substantially under this administration, which begs the question: Why must we pay outsiders so much to guide the district’s work while also increasing salaries for those already paid to lead the district? Do our current leaders not have the necessary expertise? When they were brought to Nashville, they were certainly billed as experts deserving of higher salaries.

Some of the cuts will surely come from Dr. Joseph’s firing of nearly 100 Reading Recovery teachers. Although Dr. Joseph promised a plan to “repurpose” these teachers, it’s become clear that there is no such plan, and in fact, schools don’t have any money in their budgets to re-hire these teachers. There are also limited positions available for these teachers. So ultimately, it’s most likely that our very best and most highly trained literacy teachers will leave. Many are already retiring or headed to other districts. Despite an ongoing teacher shortage, this doesn’t seem to bother Dr. Joseph and his team, who were actually caught celebrating the firing of these literacy experts after our board meeting.

Finally, the $27.2 million increase requested for employee compensation, including pay raises and step increases, seems impossible now.

This budget season has been a disaster- unlike anything I’ve ever seen. I hope the Metro Council is prepared to ask the hard questions.

 

A few comments:

First, the reason Mayor Briley is having a tough budget season is because the two previous mayors (with approval from Metro Council) spent heavily from reserve funds to balance budgets. Now, that savings account is depleted and absent new revenue, there’s just not any extra money. Yes, Metro Council needs to ask tough questions of the school budget, but they should also be asking questions about how Nashville got here.

Second, as Frogge notes, it seems likely that two things will happen: Some teachers will lose their jobs and there will be no raises. Both are incredibly problematic. Nashville is experiencing a teacher shortage that has resulted in a shift toward what I’ve called “virtual equality.” Nashville teachers are already underpaid, and not giving raises would only exacerbate this problem.

Third, one reason the MNPS budget is facing problems is a “surprising” drop in students. Somehow, this drop was both unanticipated and created a budget emergency this year.

By way of her post, Frogge points out some possible alternatives. It’s up to the School Board to make a proposal to the Metro Council based on these new numbers. The revisions Dr. Joseph proposes to the MNPS Board will say a lot about his priorities. Metro Council can’t revise the school system’s budget, they can only vote it up or down. However, a budget document that doesn’t address the concerns Frogge raises should be rejected and sent back to MNPS for improvement.

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

Keep the education news coming!

 

Outlier

Statisticians define an outlier as an observation point that is distant from other observations in a statistical analysis. Often, this occurs by chance. Additional modeling or deeper analysis (including more data, for example, or a longer range of data) can often correct for this. Outliers that are not the result of measurement error are often excluded from analysis about a data set.

Today, the 2017 results from the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) were released. This release made me think of a particular outlier.

Back in 2013, Tennessee demonstrated what some heralded as an incredible achievement on the NAEP. In fact, a press release from Governor Haslam at the time noted:

Gov. Bill Haslam today announced that Tennessee had the largest academic growth on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP) of any state, making Tennessee the fastest improving state in the nation. (emphasis added)

Those words — “fastest improving state in the nation” — have been uttered by Haslam and many political leaders in our state for years now. Often, this 2013 “success” is used as justification for “keeping our foot on the gas” and continuing an aggressive agenda of test-based accountability and teacher evaluation based on methods lacking validity.

Here’s what I wrote back in 2013 when these results were released:

Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth.  But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy.  Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap  – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.

Two years later, when the 2015 results were released, I noted:

This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.

Fast forward to today. The leveling off I suggested was likely back in 2013 has happened. In fact, take a look at this chart put out by the Tennessee Department of Education:

First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”

Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.

All of this to say: You can’t say you’re the fastest-improving state on NAEP based on one testing cycle. You also shouldn’t make long-term policy decisions based on seemingly fabulous results in one testing cycle. Since 2013, Tennessee has doubled down on reforms with what now appears to be little positive result. Instead, as Rep. Jeremy Faison said recently, our policies are “driving teachers crazy.”

Oh, and that new TNReady test has so far not been very ready.

But what about the good policy coming from this? You know, like Governor Haslam’s plan to make Tennessee the “fastest-improving state in teacher pay?”

About that:

Average teacher salaries in the United States improved by about 4% from the Haslam Promise until this year. Average teacher salaries in Tennessee improved by just under 2% over the same time period. So, since Bill Haslam promised teachers we’d be the fastest improving in teacher pay, we’ve actually been improving at a rate that’s half the national average. No, we’re not the slowest improving state in teacher pay, but we’re also not even improving at the average rate.

Surely, though, all this focus on education since the NAEP buzz has meant meaningful investment in schools, right? Well, no:

Tennessee earns a grade of F when it comes to funding effort compared to funding ability. The researchers looked at Gross State Product and Personal Income data in order to determine a state’s funding ability then looked at dollars spent per $1000 (in either GSP or Personal Income) to determine effort. Tennessee spends $29 on schools for every $1000 generated in Gross State Product. When it comes to Personal Income, Tennessee spends just $33 per $1000 of average personal income. That’s a rank of 42 in both.

Then, the report looks at wage competitiveness — how much teachers earn relative to similarly-educated professionals. I’ve written about this before, and Tennessee typically doesn’t do well in this regard.

Maybe we’ve taken a minute to get serious about investing in programs targeting struggling students? Also, no:

One possible solution would be to embed funding for school-level RTI2 specialists in the state’s funding formula for schools, the BEP. In fact, Rep. Joe Pitts offered legislation that would do just that last year. His plan would have added funding for three RTI2 specialists at each school for a total projected cost of $167 million. Commissioner McQueen was quick to shoot that idea down and came back this year with the funding proposal of $13 million, or one specialist per district. That’s only $154 million short of adopting a plan that would actually meet the needs of a program many suggest is an important way to improve educational outcomes for Tennessee students.

Maybe we are closing achievement gaps? Again, no.

Back in 2013, Tennessee students eligible for free/reduced lunch had an average NAEP reading score of 256 and scored 20 points below the non-eligible students. Now, that average score is 252 (four points worse) and 19 points below. For 4th grade, there’s a similar story, with free/reduced lunch eligible students scoring 25 points below their non-eligible peers this year. Four years ago, it was 26 points.

We’re not moving the needle. Our most vulnerable students continue to be left behind. Meanwhile, we hear nice words from top policymakers and see little actual result in terms of tangible improved investment in schools or any meaningful upgrade in teacher pay. Our testing system has yet to be proven.

Maybe now Tennessee policymakers will stop repeating the “fastest-improving” line and start doing the actual work of investing in and supporting our schools.

In any case, the next time you hear someone spout off that tired “fastest-improving” line, just yell back: OUTLIER!

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


 

Volunteer Strike?

Nashville teacher Amanda Kail offers thoughts on the current national climate with teacher strikes or other actions in West Virginia, Kentucky, Oklahoma, and Arizona. She takes a moment to explain (from a teacher’s perspective) why this is happening and if it might happen in Tennessee.

Here are her posts:

If you are not a teacher, here are some things you might not know about why so many teachers are striking right now:

1. Most public employees, including teachers, have had their salaries frozen since 2008. In Nashville, step increases that are meant to keep up with inflation and encourage teachers to stick with the job were reintroduced only last year, and only then because MNEA stood up and fought for it. Even so, with the reintroduction of step raises (such as they are- in Nashville it takes a teacher with a MA 10 years to earn $50,000), teacher salaries are now barely above what they were 10 years ago, while cost of living and health care (because our legislature refused to expand medicaid) has sky-rocketed. In Oklahoma, many teachers were seeing the cost of their health insurance exceed their paycheck. This is why you are seeing teachers demand significant raises, not because we are greedy or want gold-plated glue sticks.

2. In states without strong teacher unions, state funding for public education has been continually slashed. In Oklahoma, many districts have been forced to go to a 4 day school week. Here in Nashville, a city with a booming economy that outpaces national averages, parents and teachers find themselves having to fight not only for school employee raises and basic supplies, but for funding school lunch programs and filters to remove lead from school drinking fountains. How can this be? Tennessee ranks 43rd in the nation for per pupil funding, and our state legislature which is so generous with its offers of guns and “In God We Trust” signs, only gives us about 60% of the money we are allocated in the state budget. So 60% of already drastically underfunded = hungry kids drinking leaded water in the “It City”. And guess who mostly makes up the difference for public school kids, who provides not only school supplies, but clothing, food, medical care, transportation, and even emergency housing? Teachers. Out of our own pockets. With our low and stagnant wages. This is why you are seeing teachers who have never attended a political rally before suddenly fighting so fiercely. We ARE doing it for the kids.

3. When teachers say we want “respect”, we don’t mean more cheap tchotchkes that say “we  teachers”, or more politicians to say, “thank you for all you do for our kids blah blah blah”. We mean that we want evaluation systems that are fair. That we want our professionalism to not be measured by tests that are deeply flawed and poorly planned (TN’s state tests have had major problems 3 years in a row, including one year that the test had to be abandoned mid-session). That we want leaders who have proven themselves in the classroom first, not hatched out of some neoliberal think-tank dedicated to robbing public schools for the DeVosses of the world. That we want to have the time to design lessons, grade, and teach without interruption by more unfunded mandates. It means that teachers who choose to work with low income students, students with disabilities, and immigrants should have the time, resources, and even more importantly, the trust that we know what we are doing, so we can fill in the foundational skills our students need in order to grow so that they can function on grade level, or beyond! It means giving us class sizes and case loads that are manageable. It means that our districts should consult us as experts in the field on curriculum design and proper assessment before throwing away millions on more pre-packed crap that will end up collecting dust in the closet somewhere. It means valuing veteran teachers with teaching degrees from respected universities enough to pay competitive wages and offer paths to leadership. Seriously, you can keep the tchotchkes.

4. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again. Trust teachers. We are fighting not only for our own babies, but yours. We stand up for EVERY kid in our community, and we see first hand what happens when communities refuse to do the same. If we say there is a problem, we mean it. Support your local teacher union. Advocate for your neighborhood school. Question why the schools that serve mostly poor kids often look so neglected. Demand that the political candidate of your choice fight to support public schools. Vote like every kid in your state is depending on you. Teachers should not have to put our whole careers on the line to show how badly things have gotten, but we will. So listen. And join us.

On whether there may be strikes in Tennessee:

I have had several people ask me about the possibility of Nashville teachers going on strike. Here is what I will say: Sometimes a walk-out doesn’t look like a picket line. It looks like the 100 or so vacancies our district can’t fill. It looks like increasing numbers of teachers leaving in their first and second years. It looks like veteran teachers deciding to leave the career they loved because they can’t take anymore of the insanity and nonsense wrought by testing. It looks like unstaffed after-school programs because most teachers have to work second and third jobs. It looks like less and less experienced teachers in the classroom, because no one else will put up with it.

Every time a teacher leaves, the students of that teacher lose ground. I’ve seen classrooms become revolving doors of inexperienced and overwhelmed teachers, giving way to subs or overloading other classrooms. Our kids deserve better.

Here is the thing. Teachers really can’t go on like this, and we are having less and less to lose. I think it is HIGH time that the city of Nashville, not just Dr. Joseph and the BOE put school employee raises as a number one priority. The 2% “raise” we are currently being offered barely covers inflation. It still takes teachers with an MA 10 years to reach $50,000, at the same time the administrators at Bransford make more than our city’s mayor. Something has got to give.

 

 

Teachers, what are your thoughts?

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