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

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

Who is Running MNPS?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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

Charters: An Expensive Proposition

That’s the argument advanced by MNPS School Board member Will Pinkston in a recent column in the Tennessean.

Pinkston uses an array of figures to make his case. He essentially reiterates research that suggests that charters typically perform on par with public schools and then notes they carry significant costs to the district. So, he says, we can either have unabated charter growth OR well-funded district schools, not both. If we choose the path of charters, it will mean closing traditional public schools.

Here are some highlights:

The push to dismantle public education in Nashville is running amok. Consider that in 2010, the entire state of Tennessee had just 20 charter schools. Later this year, in Nashville alone, 27 charter schools will operate at an annual cost of $75 million.

Even if the Nashville School board approves no new charter applications, more than 5,000 additional charter seats — costing $45 million a year — will come into existence by fall 2019 under current agreements. Yet charter operators still are seeking to create another 13 schools that would drain another $75 million a year from the school system.

To put it in perspective: This spring, MNPS is proposing to grow its annual operating budget from $790 million to $813 million — a $23 million increase. Not coincidentally, the budget plan contemplates about $23 million in additional cash outlays for charter schools.

In other words: Every dime of new revenue growth is going to charters, leaving little or nothing for traditional schools. The math is dizzying and troubling.

Pinkston makes a powerful argument: Nashville has to make a choice. More charters eating the growth of the MNPS budget, or a recommitment to supporting and improving the traditional public schools.

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

Charter Schools Drive Up MNPS Costs

MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston highlights some key takeaways from a recent audit of Metro Schools. Among them, the concern that charter schools are a key driver of increased costs in the district.

In an email, Pinkston notes a key finding:

Briefly: The new audit acknowledges that unabated growth of charter schools does, in fact, have a fiscal impact on existing MNPS schools. The operative language in the audit relative to charter fiscal impact can be found on Page 3-16, which states: “The key question for determining fiscal impacts is whether enrollment reductions allow a district to achieve expenditure reductions commensurate with revenue reductions. Fixed costs are incurred regardless of whether students attend traditional or charter schools. The problem is that some fixed costs, such as building maintenance, computer network infrastructure, and health services do not vary based on enrollment. Therefore, teachers and their salaries are a key cost driver tied to student enrollment … However, it is not always possible to reduce teacher costs proportionate to losses in revenue. For these costs to be reduced significantly, the school would need to close altogether.”

In other words, in order to support the continued unabated growth of charter schools, MNPS will need to systematically close zoned schools. Conversations about closing zoned schools may need to occur, but cannot happen in a fiscally responsible manner as long as MNPS continues recommending unabated approval of charter schools with no offsetting reductions in the budget. All of this is further evidence that the Nashville School Board needs to consider a moratorium on new schools until all of this can be resolved.

The full report – The Operational and Performance Audit of MNPS can be found here. 

An earlier report by an outside group found a similar conclusion.

 

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

 

 

What Can Nashville Learn from New Orleans?

That was the theme of an event last night sponsored by Tennesseans Reclaiming Education Excellence (TREE) and Gideon’s Army for Children and held at the East Park Community Center.

The event featured parent activist Karran Harper Royal of New Orleans and Dr. Kristen Buras, a professor at Georgia State University who has studied the Recovery School District in New Orleans.

Between 60 and 70 people were in attendance for the event, including MNPS School Board members Will Pinkston, Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, and Anna Shepherd.

The event coincides with a discussion happening in East Nashville regarding MNPS Director of Schools Jesse Register’s proposal to create an “all choice” zone for schools there. Parent advocacy group East Nashville United has been critical of the plan and continues to ask for more information. For their part, MNPS says it wants to continue dialogue on the issue.

Royal spoke first and outlined the systematic takeover of schools in New Orleans by the Recovery School District. The Recovery School District is the nation’s first charter-only district. The takeover began with a state law that allowed for the takeover of low-performing schools, similar to a Tennessee law that allows the Achievement School District to takeover low-performing schools.

As schools were taken over, they were handed over to charter operators or reconstituted with charter management. Entire staffs were fired and replaced and students were moved to different locations.

Royal said some of the successes claimed by the RSD are deceptive because the district would close schools, move out the students, and bus in new students. Then, the RSD would claim they had improved the school when achievement numbers were released even though those numbers were not from the students who had been attending when the school was taken over.

Royal also claimed that the choice of a neighborhood school was foreclosed for many families, but that in two majority-white ZIP codes, families are still able to choose a school close to their home.

Buras used her time to expand on an op-ed she wrote earlier this year about the parallels between New Orleans and Nashville. She pointed to data suggesting that the RSD has done no better than the previous district in terms of overall student achievement. This point is especially important because the RSD has had 9 years to show results. Tennessee’s ASD has also shown disappointing results, though it is only now in its third year of operation.

Among the statistics presented by Buras:

  • In 2011-12, 100% of the 15 state-run RSD schools assigned a letter grade for student achievement received a D or F
  • 79% of the 42 charter RSD schools assigned a letter grade recieved a D or F
  • RSD schools open less than three years are not assigned a letter grade
  • Studies of student achievement data have shown no impact on overall student achievement and some even show a widening of the achievement gap

Buras also noted that the RSD was used as a tool to bust the teachers’ union. The district fired some 7500 teachers and new teachers in the RSD report to charter operators. The resulting turnover means nearly 40% of the city’s teachers have been teaching for 3 years or less.

Both Royal (who was at one time on the RSD Advisory Board) and Buras noted that the RSD started with the mission of improving existing schools in New Orleans. However, like the ASD in Tennessee, the RSD began gradually acquiring new schools before data was available to indicate success.

The presentations served as a warning to parents in Nashville that while reform and innovation can be exciting, it is also important to closely monitor school takeovers and choice options to ensure they meet the community’s needs.

It’s also worth noting that the experiment in New Orleans and the ASD’s experience in Memphis on a smaller scale both indicate that just offering more choice does not solve education problems or improve student achievement. Any plan or innovation must take into account community input and feedback. Additionally, while choice plans are often sold on the perceived benefits, it is important to be mindful of potential drawbacks, including disruption and instability in communities that badlyneed stability and support.

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

 

 

Pinkston on MNPS Teacher Firings

MNPS Board Member Will Pinkston had this to say about last night’s board action:

“I regret to report that, last night, the Nashville School Board moved to deprive four teachers of their careers and livelihoods without adequate process. Here are the facts: Director of Schools Jesse Register called for the teachers’ firings. Under state law, the school board had to vote on it to get the ball rolling. Dr. Register and his staff failed to provide the board with enough advance notice about these teachers and the details of their evaluations. Rather than deferring the process for two weeks in order to allow for additional fact-finding by the board, Dr. Register demanded that the process proceed immediately even though board members were given only two business days to review details of the teachers’ evaluations. Unfortunately, a slim five-member majority of the board agreed to go along with Dr. Register’s directive. You can watch the 45-minute conversation on the MNPS YouTube channel beginning at the 1h18m time mark. As someone who knows intimately the history and origin of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system, I can assure educators: This kind of railroading approach to teacher dismissal is not what state policymakers and members of the Tennessee General Assembly intended to happen. Dr. Register and his staff are doing a disservice to the teaching profession. Teachers across Nashville should speak up and demand change.”

 

Time to Fix the BEP?

The Metro Nashville School Board this week suggested that the state revise and improve its funding formula for schools, known as the BEP.

A resolution drafted by board member Amy Frogge and passed unanimously by the MNPS board indicates that the current formula does not allow districts to properly implement rigorous news standards and provide improved salaries for teachers.

If legislators and Governor Haslam want to take a look at improving the BEP, they need only take a look at the BEP 2.0 formula developed under Governor Phil Bredesen with significant input from then-state Senator Jamie Woodson, who now heads SCORE.

Of course, current Metro board member Will Pinkston was a key Bredesen staffer when the BEP 2.0 formula was developed, so he’s quite familiar with how it would improve the funding situation not just for MNPS but for most districts in the state.

Fully funding BEP 2.0 may take incremental steps and perhaps could be complete in two to three years with some focus and budget prioritization from the General Assembly and the Governor.

If the current formula is not re-examined and improved, it seems likely that districts large and small will continue to complain of mandates coming from the state without adequate funding for their implementation.

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

MNPS, Charter Schools, and “Quality Seats”

So the Tennessee Charter School Center has a new report out about the “quality” of seats in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Andrea Zelinski has a solid report on the report over at the Nashville Scene.

A couple of takeaways:

1) The Charter Center wants to open more charters than the recent MNPS resolution would seem to allow (not surprising, really).

2) Nearly 1/3 of all Charter seats are deemed “low quality” by the Center’s own report

3) The Center is advocating closing low quality charters — a step in the right direction

4) It seems reasonable that as other clusters become more crowded due to growth, the MNPS resolution should be expanded to include those clusters for future charters

5) In spite of constant battling between the Board and the Charter Center, there is some common ground:  Close low-performing charters (the center could help by taking the lead on recommending schools to be closed) and allow new charters in more clusters as growth dictates.

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