In Defense of Standardized Testing

A recent op-ed in the Boston Globe discusses how standardized testing is not the enemy. The two professors who wrote the piece made some really great points that I wanted to share with everyone, especially teachers. I am going to break down each section of the op-ed, but please read through the whole article.

The testing effect

The act of testing students will allow them to retain more information.

The testing effect is the idea that trying to remember something leads to greater learning than just re-reading information. In one famous experiment, participants tried to learn information from a textbook either by repeatedly re-reading, or repeatedly writing out everything they could remember after reading the information only once. The strategy of writing from memory led to 60 percent correct recall of the material one week later, compared to only 40 percent in the repeated reading condition.

But despite its effectiveness as a learning strategy, the testing effect had to be rebranded to the less scary/more fun-sounding “quizzing” and we have had to come up with more and more subtle ways to produce the effect without students realizing that they are being tested — somewhat akin to hiding broccoli in brownies.

 

Testing anxiety

Testing anxiety is talked about a lot when discussing standardized testing. Having more tests, which would be lower stakes, may make students less anxious about taking these tests. Additionally, the professors noted that informing the students that the anxiety they feel will be helpful on the test will ease the student’s concern.

Researchers have found one promising method in which students are told that the anxiety they feel before a test is actually helpful – not harmful – to their test performance.

Could teachers and parents be the problem with test anxiety? I hope someone will research this soon.

Finally – and this is something that ought to be examined empirically – the negative views of testing repeated by teachers and parents may be feeding into kids’ anxiety and test-aversion. Just like public speaking, tests are an aspect of education that kids tend not to like even though it’s good for them. Our job as parents is to realize that the benefits of testing outweigh the inconvenience of dealing with kids’ complaints.

Teaching to the test

This section talks about how many teachers feel they are preparing for a test that is made by outside forces that do not have any classroom experience.

 This may be based on the myth that “teachers in the trenches” are being told what to teach by some “experts” who’ve probably never set foot in a “real” classroom. What these defiant teachers fail to realize – or simply choose to ignore – is that these experts are groups of carefully selected individuals that always include well-seasoned “real classroom teachers”, who guide the decision-making on what material should be assessed by the tests.

Standardized tests are biased

I hear this one a lot from teachers. If you think a test that is carefully crafted by teachers and researchers is biased, your own teacher assessments are much more biased.

Standardized tests are not the great equalizer that will eliminate discrimination. But it is highly unlikely an individual teacher alone could create a more fair, unbiased test than many experts with access to a lot of resources, a huge amount of diverse data, and the ability to refine tests based on those data.

The lack of prompt feedback

The lack of prompt feedback is always on teacher’s minds. It usually takes a long time to get feedback from these assessments, and we need to find a better way to receive prompt feedback on these assessments. With the rise in computer assessments, I hope we will be able to get feedback very quickly in the coming years.

In the absence of direct measures of learning, we resort to measures of performance. And the great thing is: measuring this learning actually causes it to grow. So let’s reclaim the word testing, so that the first word that comes to mind when we see it is “effect”.

I am so glad that I stumbled across this op-ed. I hope you will read the rest of the op-ed.


 

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

We Need Long Term Planning for Charters

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

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

Mr. Allen starts out with a great opening sentence:

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

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

The study’s key findings include:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wouldn’t you?


 

Can We Retire the Bad Teacher Narrative Already?

This article was submitted by Becca Leech, a Tennessee teacher with more than 20 years of experience. Read more about her here.

There’s an old story that goes something like this: American schools are in trouble. Our students lag so horribly behind the rest of the world academically that soon we won’t be able to keep pace. And why? Because our schools are full of bad teachers: lazy, mean, stupid teachers who don’t care about students and just want a cushy job where they have summers off. Unions protect these bad teachers so that schools can’t fire them and replace them with better ones, so our schools have become permeated with useless teachers who ruin the whole system and hold our students down.

I’ve taught special education in public schools since 1993, from inner-city Nashville to suburban Murfreesboro to rural McMinnville and, while every school has a few ineffective teachers, most of the teachers I have worked with have been smart, dedicated, and hard-working. These teachers continue to work every day to improve our schools, despite the demoralizing wounds of repeated volleys of the “bad teacher” narrative, so easily lobbed at us by the media, parents, students, and administrators. Last week, I even read it repeated by (of all people) a fellow special educator, in (of all places) this blog that I believed to be pro education – the Tennessee Education Report. Here is what Zack Barnes wrote:

“I am a special education teacher at a North Nashville middle school. Our fifth graders come into fifth grade already behind. It’s our job to catch them up during the middle school years before we send them off to high school. That shows me that we have dropped the ball along the way to middle school. We have come to a point where it’s okay that students come in to middle school behind. That shouldn’t be okay.

There are bad teachers and they should not be in the classroom. There isn’t more I can say about this. Every career field has bad workers, and the teaching profession is no different.”

This from a teacher who has been hired for the sole purpose of helping students with disabilities. When he accepted his position, was he unaware that students are only referred for our special education services when they have academic delays that cannot be addressed by the general curriculum? Was he unaware that student achievement, like all other human characteristics, spans a broad spectrum?

Our job as special education teachers is to accept the students referred to us – all of them, as they are – to assess their strengths and weaknesses, and to develop and implement appropriate educational plans to help them all learn. It’s not our job, and is counterproductive for our schools, to look for someone to blame for student delays. We don’t blame the persistence of illness in our communities on the bad doctors (although we know that some exist), so how do we find it so easy to blame all academic delays on bad teachers?

 

The Origins of the Narrative

Most of us were once students, and teachers were the face of the educational system to us. We experienced schools and teachers through immature eyes and often developed misperceptions of the roles and motivations of the teachers who taught us. Students who didn’t have good school experiences often caricaturized teachers as mean task-masters who didn’t like kids and just wanted to make them work hard or get them into trouble. Although it was often the structural problems with our educational system that we found frustrating or unfair as students – problems that were at least equally frustrating for our teachers – it was the teachers we saw as the cause. It’s easy for those who want to undermine public education for political or personal gain to play on these unconscious prejudices and transfer the problems with our educational structure directly into the laps of teachers as individuals.

 

In recent years, there has been a growing effort underway to undermine public education for just such purposes, and it is taking the form of a direct attack on teachers. The documentary Waiting for Superman brought the “bad teacher” narrative into our public consciousness. Politicians and news commentators have repeated the story as fact, ignoring all evidence offered against it. I have only recently begun to hear a backlash – teachers, parents, and students stepping forward to question the truth and usefulness of the tale.

 

How the “Bad Teacher” Narrative is Harming Education

The narrative of the bad teacher diminishes respect for the profession of teaching and gives ammunition to those working to decrease job security and protections for teachers. With less respect and job security, our schools have even more difficulty attracting and retaining qualified teachers. We have recently seen an increase in the number of experienced teachers leaving the profession and a decrease in applicants to new teacher education programs. In fact, many of these teachers and would-be teachers cite the lack of respect and poor job security as reasons for staying away from the classroom. When schools don’t have a pool of strong applicants to fill teaching vacancies, they must resort to hiring unqualified or less qualified candidates. This situation creates a self-fulfilling prophecy where students are more likely to fall behind, and critics find even more examples of “bad teachers” to further blame and diminish teaching.

 

Our Responsibility as a Community

It is true that there are some ineffective teachers among us and some teacher training programs that are not adequately preparing teachers for the classroom, but blame, judgement, and punitive accountability measures are not the answers. Most of the ineffective teachers I have taught with were either new teachers who needed more on-the-job guidance and mentoring from experienced teachers, or were teachers who had once been dedicated to their craft, but were now exhausted and weakened by the difficult environments they taught in and felt powerless to change.

 

There is no time in our school schedules to provide the support, mentoring, and quality training to help teachers in these situations to improve. Our school systems must find ways to make more non-teaching time in our school day for teachers to collaborate and support one another. Opportunities for teacher creativity, growth, and leadership will also raise teacher quality and improve working conditions.

 

To make real change, we must recognize that the problems with education are much broader than simply problems of teacher quality. We have to address poverty and inequality as the greatest challenges to education. We have to reorganize our funding structures to provide environments that attract and retain teachers. Most importantly, though, our communities must recognize teachers as the experts who can provide solutions for our schools – not the problems to be solved. If we are to improve the overall quality of education, we, as individuals and as a community, have a responsibility to support and defend the profession of teaching.

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

We welcome submissions from educators — if you have a story idea, send it to andy@spearsstrategy.com

 

 

 

My First Year Teaching

I made it!

I completed my first year of teaching. It was an eye opening experience that has helped mold my views in education in a variety of areas.

I am a special education teacher at a North Nashville middle school. Our fifth graders come into fifth grade already behind. It’s our job to catch them up during the middle school years before we send them off to high school. That shows me that we have dropped the ball along the way to middle school. We have come to a point where it’s okay that students come in to middle school behind. That shouldn’t be okay.

There are bad teachers and they should not be in the classroom. There isn’t more I can say about this. Every career field has bad workers, and the teaching profession is no different.

The TEAM evaluation made me a better teacher. The rubric was really helpful in my growth as a teacher. The feedback I received from my principal and assistant principal really helped. I knew what my principal expected from me and I met those expectations. I was glad that I was being held accountable.

(Don’t get me started on teacher prep programs.)

In regards to TCAP testing, I did not see the scary testing chamber where we take the fun out of education and force the students to bubble in answer sheets for days at the time. We hit the standards that needed to be hit during the year, and we cycled back through a review when we got closer to TCAP. We still taught new concepts, read new books, started new projects, and had fun. Schools decide their climate, and my climate was not like any of the scary stories that I read online. Assessments are an important tool in the education of our students. They are needed to make sure that I am doing what I am supposed to as a teacher. I am glad that the accountability is there.

 

I did a lot this school year:

I’ve broken up fights.

I’ve had to stop students from harming themselves.

I had to use our school’s resources to get a student clothing so he didn’t have to wear the same clothes every day.

I have given a legislative update to teachers.

One of our students was shot in the head while standing in the doorway to his home.

Student’s parents have been murdered.

I have seen a mother cry tears of joy that her son was receiving a quality education.

I have seen parents beam with pride about how well their student is doing in life.

A parent has yelled at me.

I’ve read all the Common Core State Standards for 7th grade.

I have taken to twitter to get someone to donate books to my class.

I have been sick. A lot.

I have given a tour to a school board member.

I have written an op-ed in the Tennessean about our school board.

I have gotten pushback from school board members about my op-ed.

After my op-ed, people inside my school told me to watch what I say in public about my school board.

I have been mad, frustrated, sad, happy, joyful, excited, and angry.

I have seen a student do better by getting more special education services.

I have seen a student grow by reducing the amount of special education services.

I have read a loud many different types of texts.

I’ve made others cry when describing students at my school.

I’ve become frustrated when teachers tell me it’s okay that students are behind because everyone else in behind.

I got students to read and enjoy books.

I’ve heard a teacher say that you can only teach a student for so long before you need to give up and help the other kids.

I have seen teachers work mornings, nights, and weekends so that our students could succeed. One teacher would teach during the day, tutor after school multiple days, tutor on Saturday, and teach Sunday school the next day.

 

No matter where our students grow up, they can all learn and succeed in our education system. I have seen students come into our school that are so behind. We have failed that child along the way. Someone dropped the ball and that makes me really sad. But we need to accept blame for dropping the ball.

 

Everyone wants to blame someone else for a child being behind:

“They came from charter.”

“They are special ed.”

“They come from a bad part of town.”

Before that student left for a charter, they were most likely in a zoned school first. All students can learn, including students with disabilities. No matter where you come from, you are able to learn at the hands of great teachers.

We want to blame everyone but ourselves. I’ve made mistakes this year, but I know that I will come back next year and fix those mistakes. I will admit that there are problems that still need to be fixed in my teaching method, in my personality, and in the school system as a whole. Sugarcoating issues in life doesn’t make it better. I would rather be honest about education than to sugarcoat and lie about the state of our education system.

My Time at the State Capitol

I spent Tuesday and Wednesday in the halls of Legislative Plaza at the State Capitol. I also visited the capitol a few weeks ago with members of the Tennessee Reading Association’s Advocacy Committee. Unlike some, I highly enjoy my time on the hill. Here are a few of my takeaways.

There were a lot more people in the education committees then there were in 2012 when I last worked on the hill. As many already know, more and more people are concerned about education in Tennessee. That means there are more advocates and stakeholders when it comes to education. While many people crammed into education committee rooms, other committees sat almost empty. This really shows you how important education is in Tennessee. A lot of time, energy, and lobbying are taking place in the education world.

I spoke to numerous people about Dr. Candice McQueen, the newly appointed Commissioner of Education. Everyone I spoke with only had praise for Dr. McQueen. With Commissioner McQueen at the helm of the department, I believe these next four years will be systematically different than the last four years. Commissioner McQueen was already highly revered in the education world before she became Commissioner, and I believe she will leave the Department of Education in an even higher regard. From the looks of social media, Commissioner McQueen is traveling around the state at every chance she gets. I like that.

With the Tennessee Reading Association, we visited with the education committee chairs. Each chair, Representative John Fogerty, Representative Harry Brooks, and Senator Dolores Gresham, were very receptive on our message of staying on course to retain high standards. While we were advocating for Common Core, we understood that the standards would most likely change names. I think everyone agrees that Common Core will go away, but with a high quality Tennessee State Standards left in Common Core’s place. Too much money has been spent on teacher training to just get rid of the standards all together.

Legislators are already reviewing comments that stakeholders are making through the Tennessee Education Standards Review. https://apps.tn.gov/tcas/ I hope that everyone will go online and take part in this review process. They need to hear from teachers!

If you don’t know who your legislators are, go to this site to find out. http://www.capitol.tn.gov/legislators/ It’s important that you know who represents you at the state capitol. When contacting your member, tell your legislator that you are a constituent and a teacher.

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


 

Interview with Beacon Center’s Justin Owen

Below is an interview with Justin Owen, President and CEO of Beacon Center of Tennessee. The Beacon Center is helping push voucher legislation in Tennessee.

 

Some of our readers may not know much about the Beacon Center of Tennessee. Can you tell us about your organization?

Most people refer to the Beacon Center as a “free market think tank,” but what that really means is that we come up with ideas to empower Tennessee to reclaim control of their lives, and we put those ideas into action so that those Tennesseans can freely pursue their version of the American Dream.

During the past legislative session, your organization helped push a measure to create a voucher program in Tennessee. Are you bringing about the same legislation this year? Can you tell us about it?

Beacon supported legislation last year that would provide a voucher, or opportunity scholarship, to low-income children zoned for districts containing failing schools. We believe that parents, not ZIP codes, should decide what school their child attends. We owe it to Tennessee families to ensure that each child in our state gets the best education, tailored to his or her unique needs, and we will support similar legislation to do just that in 2015.

Many of our readers are public school teachers. Why should teachers be in favor of sending money away from public schools to private schools?

Teachers consistently point to the need for higher per-pupil funding and smaller class sizes. Opportunity scholarships will give them both. As a recent Beacon study [http://www.beacontn.org/wp-content/uploads/fiscal-impacts_web.pdf] shows, only a portion of the amount we already spend would follow a child via a scholarship. The rest would remain with that public school to be reinvested in those children. Some districts – like Memphis and Nashville – would not only cover the fixed costs, but save an additional $1,300 to $1,500 for every child that leaves. And while there will be no mass exodus of children from the system (as most families will continue to choose the public school option for their children), those who do leave with a scholarship will reduce classroom sizes, allowing teacher to increase their focus on those who choose to stay in the school.

Is using a voucher system been proven effective?

Yes, studies show that both children who use vouchers and those who choose to remain in their public school benefit. Nine of 10 random assignment studies show gains among opportunity scholarship students. And of 23 studies conducted on vouchers’ impact of public school students, 22 found positive gains in their performance as well. Not one single study has ever found a negative impact on voucher students or those who remain in public schools. Thus, these programs represent a rising tide that lifts all boats.

Besides vouchers, what other education initiations does the Beacon Center promote?

Beacon sees opportunity scholarships as another tool in the education toolbox, and part of a broader movement to empower parents with more choice in education. Our focus is on advancing the various options parents have at their fingertips.

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


 

 

Interview with ASD’s Chris Barbic

Below is an interview with Achievement School District’s Superintendent Chris Barbic. Please note that this interview took place before the announcement of Neely’s Bend as the school that the ASD will take over.

 

In your view, how is the Achievement School District doing overall?

 

We are basically in our third year of having schools in the system. Our first year is really just the planning year. There are a lot of ways to answer that question. The short answer is we are certainly seeing schools that are making really strong gains.

If you look at our schools last year, that finished their second year, that’s our oldest cohort of schools we have. If you look at those six schools, there is a group that averages about 6 point gains composite. If you just look at the charter schools, the three charter schools, they average about 11 point gains, which is that double digit gains that we like to talk about and we like to see. Three of our charter schools who are in the second year, last year, were level five growth. Two of the three made if off the priority list in just two years time.

I know there are lots of people that want to be quick to judge on how we are doing, I think what’s important for people to remember is that of the 17 schools that we have last year, two-thirds were in their very first year. I think it’s a little quick to judge on the entire body of work because the vast majority of schools last year were in their first year.

So when you look at our second year schools, you are seeing lots of promising signs, especially our charter schools, are doing well. On the flip side, there is certainly room to improve. We are trying to come at this with the appropriate level of humility. The schools that we are going into, there were lots of teachers, principals, and dedicated folks who cared a lot about the kids.

Unfortunately, that didn’t translate into the progress and gains that we wanted to see. We understand that this is not easy work. We really try and highlight that this isn’t about a one principal or a group of teachers, what we are really trying to highlight is that this is about how you build a new type of system.

When I took this job, the charge was to build a school district from scratch. The first thing anybody would do would be to look around and find who was doing this well. We wanted to model ourselves off a large or medium urban school district. If you look around the country, to see who the districts are that we want to build ourselves after, there wasn’t one example we could point to. There wasn’t one urban district in the country that was getting it done with all kids. I think when you can’t point to one example, that says to me it’s a systemic problem.There is a problem with how the system is set up.

We tried to take advantage of the opportunity to build a new type of school system. Trying to reform an existing school district that was structured and set up almost a hundred years ago, it’s trying to make a model T work better. It’s an outdated system. What we are trying to put forth is how do we build a car for the 21st century? How to build a car for 2015?

How do you build a district that is more aligned with things that we know work in schools around finding great educators and giving them economies and putting resources down in the building level and not a top down bureaucracy that mandates excellence, but an organization that bottom ups and tries to release excellence. That’s the organization that we are trying to build and why we have chosen to partner with high performing charter organizations to do the work.

 

 

What do you think about all the parental feedback that you received from the meetings at Madison and Neely’s Bend?

 

Unfortunately, we did not hear enough of it. I think the purpose of those meetings was to hear from parents. I think instead what happened was we heard from a few parents. A lot of the people in the meeting were folks that either weren’t from the school community at all or were elected officials that unfortunately chose to put information out there that was, at best, misleading. It wasn’t really until after the meeting was over that we got to really sit down and talk to parents.

Fortunately for us, beside the parent meeting, one of the things we have done in the community is that we had a team of folks out knocking on doors and block walking. The weekend leading up to the parent meeting, they knocked on all the fourth graders doors in the elementary schools that cede into Neely’s Bend and Madison. That’s really the group of kids that are going to be impacted the most by this decision.  LEAD will only be serving fifth grade next year.

What we found was interesting. A lot of the parents, especially the ones that were the most engaging in their kid’s education, already decided that they were not going to send their kids to Madison or Neely’s Bend. They were already looking at other options to send their kids outside the neighborhood because of the reputation of the schools.

Another group of parents that were a little less engaged and more open to the idea of what LEAD was proposing to do. But, had there not been this conversation about the dramatic change that could potentially happen at one of the schools, they were much more inclined not to send their kids to those schools either.

The reason I bring this up is because we think there should be a great neighborhood option that kids and families can access that is right in their own backyard. They shouldn’t have to choose options outside of their community for them to go to a good school. If you look at most of the schools in the low-income parts of Nashville and Memphis, where we do most of our work, the fact is there aren’t enough good neighborhood options. If you look at kids in the priority list, two in ten of those kids can’t read. That’s just not an acceptable number on anyone’s measure. We can all debate data, but no one can agree that’s acceptable.

I think there are a good number of parents who don’t understand and are skeptical about it. That’s understandable. This is new. This is a change. There are just as many parents, if not more, that are open and excited for a great school in their neighborhood. That’s all we are trying to do. To deliver a great school to kids in either Neely’s Bend or Madison because we believe that’s what they deserve.

 

How does the ASD on the whole is dealing with literacy?

 

If you look at our data, in our first year we saw growth in math and science. Our proficiency scores in reading dipped the first year. Last year we saw that trend reversed. We actually grew faster than the state average in reading and math last year if you look across all of our schools. That’s an important measure for us, most of our kids are behind grade level, and our kids need to catch up. If our kids aren’t growing faster than the state average, we are never going to close the gap. That’s an important number to look at. Last year, our kids grew faster than the state average and both middle, elementary, and high school.

I think it gets to how we set up our organization. If you would ask someone in the district how they handle reading, they would tell you that we use XYZ program and the central office pushes that out to the schools to implement that program. Maybe there is some flexibility for teachers and schools to build things on their own, but it’s probably more that they don’t feel like they are getting supports form the central office and they are left to figure things out on their own.

I think the way we approach that is that we believe that teachers and principals who are in schools closest to kids need to make the decisions that matter most in what academic programs should look like. We all have to teach the same standards. The standards are the standards. How we teach those standards should be up to the people that are closest to the kids. That’s the principals and teachers.

Our whole philosophy is that we are not going to tell you which literacy program to use. We are not going to tell you how to teach literacy. What we are going to do is having a rigorous application process for you to get a charter with us. We are going to go through your academic program and we are going to look at your track record and results.

Once you have been approved to open your school, we are going to let you make the decisions around curriculum that you think will be best for your kids. We are going to agree on some benchmarks for progress. We are then going to hold you accountable for results. We just believe that folks sitting in a central office are not the ones in the best positions to make decisions bout what’s best for kids. The people who are in the best position are folks in the classroom.

I think too many times that we see these big top down bureaucracy that lots of decisions get made by people in the central office. Sometimes they get rolled out well. Sometimes they don’t. We don’t lean on people in the schools to make the decisions that matter most. I think that’s where these big top down traditional districts get it flat out wrong. It’s why we have tried to approach this in a different way.

 

Do you think the decorum of the education debate is gone?

 

We stopped listening to each other. I have been painted all sorts of ways in Twitter and Facebook. At the end of day, I taught for six years. I taught sixth grade in an elementary school. The whole reason why I got out of the classroom to start a middle school was because I was tired of watching my elementary school kids go off to local middle schools and have a terrible experience.

I was listening to one horror story after another when my kids would come back to visit my classroom. It broke my heart. I can complain about the middle school, the system, or everything that’s not working, or I could try and do something about it. I chose to start a charter school that served kids in that neighborhood. It grew into a network of schools and thirteen years later I am taking a job and moving to Tennessee.

I say all that because it’s not like anybody on either side of the debate woke up with horns growing out of their heads. Most of the people that are engaged in this debate and conversation genuinely care about kids and genuinely want to see schools get better. I think that when you see some of the misinformation that was spread at the meeting in the Nashville, like when the union passed out flyers. The ironic things about the flyers are that they said “Facts” and it had statements after it and there wasn’t one fact following the statements on that flyer.

When I see that, I tend not to give the people the benefit of the doubt that they are doing this for kids. I think most people are. I think where people get hung up and where we start to fight is while we agree on the what. We want better schools. We disagree on the how.

I think that’s okay because the debate is going to make us all better. We lose a lot when we stop listening to either other. You go to Twitter and each side puts something up that will benefit their side of the argument. Everyone yells in their little echo chambers. I think the other thing, which is unfortunate, is that we don’t come after this with the appropriate level of humility and recognizing that maybe not all of our answers are right. Maybe, there is actually some merit to what the other side has to say.

I think until we are able to listen and agree that no one has a monopoly on good ideas, we are going to continue to lob on to each other. I don’t think that’s helpful. I tried to really reach out and talk to people on both sides of this thing. Sometimes I get fired up and passionate and that is what it is. That happened at the meeting last week. But I think we all have to do a better job of listening to each other. Giving each other the benefit of the doubt that we are coming at this with the same end goals and that is better schools. We have to keep talking about the how.

 

Where people chanting at the meeting you were leading?

 

Jill (Speering) tried to get a chant started. What was unfortunate was that there were parents trying to speak. It wasn’t even a parent in favor of the ASD being there. When you got school board members leading chants and shouting down parents who are trying to talk, it’s not helpful. None of us are evil people. We are all trying to do good work.

I just think a little more decorum or a little more humility and willingness to listen to the other side would benefit all of us. I don’t know where things got off track. Maybe that started to happened before I even go here. It sure would be refreshing to try and get things back on track so we can have productive conversations about kids.

 

Is there anything that is being overlooked in the current education debate?

 

I do think, unfortunately, that we don’t talk nearly enough about kids. We also don’t talk about what works and what hasn’t. I don’t think we talk enough about our willingness to be innovative. Innovation can be reckless. We can’t run social experiments on children. That’s not what we are trying to do. But there is a place for innovation.

If you time warp someone who was alive 100 years ago. Walked him through a normal day. Take him to the grocery store. They look different than they did 20 years ago, you can check yourself out now. Take him to an airport, or a bus stop, or any place that he would be used to a 100 year ago would look completely different.

Except, if you took him into a school and it would look pretty much the same. There would be a hallway with classrooms, and the classroom will either be in rows or tables. We have whiteboard instead of chalkboards. By in large, they would probably feel most familiar walking through the halls of a school. That’s crazy.

To think of all the technology and changes and advances that we have made as a society in the last 50 years. For that innovation to completely steer clear of most of what’s been happening education today, there’s a problem with that.  There is not enough conversation about kids. There is not a conversation about what works and what doesn’t and how we innovate as a profession.

 

Will the ASD have a bigger presence in Nashville?

 

I think that you can’t ignore the fact that the number of priority schools in the city grew from 6 to 15. You can’t ignore the fact the number of kids attending priority schools in Nashville doubled within the last two years from 3,000 to 6,000. That’s a fact.

If we can find partners like LEAD that are willing to do turnarounds in priority schools in Nashville and have a track record and the quality team we believe LEAD has, then yeah, we will expand and we will grow. We will only do it when we feel like we can partner with high performing organizations that will do good work. Assuming we can do that, then we plan to grow our presence here.

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