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.

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


 

Teacher Prep Programs Will Get New Evaluation System

The U.S. Department of Education has put forth a new plan to evaluate teacher prep programs. The new plan is about making sure teacher prep programs are producing quality teachers, not just a lot of new teachers.

The biggest part of this new plan is allow more public information about the teacher prep programs. In Tennessee, this is already happening. Recently, the state of Tennessee released information on the state’s teacher prep programs.

From the DOE’s press release:

The proposal would require states to report annually on the performance of teacher preparation programs – including alternative certification programs – based on a combination of:

  • Employment outcomes: New teacher placement and three-year retention rates in high-need schools and in all schools.
  • New teacher and employer feedback: Surveys on the effectiveness of preparation.
  • Student learning outcomes: Impact of new teachers as measured by student growth, teacher evaluation, or both.
  • Assurance of specialized accreditation or evidence that a program produces high-quality candidates.

I think providing teacher and employer feedback for teacher preparation programs is great for a few reasons. If a teacher gets out of a program and finds that it was lacking, there should be a way to let others know the program is lacking. The same goes for school districts. If they are receiving top-notch teachers from a school, let others know!

It also means that universities could gain or lose applicants to their universities based on their ranking. Especially for those teachers who want to go back to graduate school to further their education. The rankings from individual school could sway students to go else ware.

From the executive summary of the 2014 Report Card on the Effectiveness of Teaching Training Programs:
Screen Shot 2014-12-13 at 10.49.28 AM

Out of the five programs that are consistently outperforming other programs, only two of those come from traditional teacher training programs. I think it’s time for higher education programs to step up their game to produce only the best teachers.

Charter Zone Not Planned Years Ago

Andy Spears posted an article titled, East Nashville Charter Planned Years Ago? The blog post was based on and cited an op-ed by Dr. Kristen Buras, a Georgia State professor.

I am here to tell you that is not true, in my opinion.

For starters, I don’t know how much someone outside of Tennessee (Buras) can tell about what’s happening in our school system. People in Nashville are still trying to find out about this plan because it’s came about so quickly. For someone outside Nashville to know this has been planned for years, but not anyone in Nashville, is something else altogether. What really happened is that very soon after the priority list was released, Dr. Register held a meeting with a variety of high level staffers. This happened relatively shortly before a school board meeting. Dr. Register decided to tell the public as much as he knew about the plan. One thing was clear: It was not a clear plan.

Dr. Buras’ article made it seem like you can only have community meetings before you have a plan. To have a community meeting, one must have a plan in the first place. What will you present to the community if not a loose idea of a plan? After a fluid plan was announced, Dr. Register announced meeting with all the priority list schools, which he is currently in the midst of doing.

Another way you can tell this hasn’t been planned? Dr. Register stumbled out of the starting blocks. The announcement was messy, it wasn’t clear, and there were a lot of misconceptions. But that means this was a plan that was formed at a fast pace so that it could be quickly disseminated to the public.

Additionally, we are Nashville. We are not Chicago. We are not New Orleans. We are not New York. Comparing what is happening in other cities is like comparing apples to oranges. We are a very specific district with very specific needs. We have a school board that does not approve all charter schools, closes down charter schools, and has a good discussion while doing that.

Of course we should take what happened in other cities and make sure it doesn’t happened here, but that’s totally different argument. I may not agree with what all charter schools are doing in Nashville, but I am totally confident in our elected officials and our central office staff to make sure that we don’t get run over with charters.

Finally, this is what we should actually be discussing: We are failing students. You may not agree with that statement, but I wholeheartedly agree. I see it everyday when I teach in North Nashville. I think we are failing students at the elementary level. If we cannot teach kids how to read in elementary school, they will be behind for the rest of their life. I understand all the dynamics that a child comes with when they reach elementary school. Parents don’t care, no books in the household, SES, etc. But that shouldn’t stop a child from learning to read. There are research proven ways to teach kids to the read, and we are not doing that.

Something needs to change.

What change should that be?

I don’t know, but it looks like MNPS is trying to find out.

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


 

The Need For Science (Training) In Education

I was recently reading a great article by Paula and Keith Stanovich (2003), Using Research and Reason in Education: How Teachers Can Use Scientifically Based Research to Make Curricular & Instructional Decisions (link-PDF). I would suggest all teachers read this piece. It’s important for all teachers to know how to use (and evaluate) scientifically based research in their classrooms. I want to share a few quotes from this article that really stick out to me.

What truly marks an open-minded person is the willingness to follow where evidence leads. The open-minded person is willing to defer to impartial investigations rather than to his own predilections…Scientific method is attunement to the world, not to ourselves

I struggle a lot with this concept when it comes to education. I have my own beliefs about what works in education. It’s hard to put those beliefs aside and look at the evidence that is being presented to you. Sometimes your beliefs are wrong and you need to admit that you are wrong. In some cases, you may see evidence that you don’t agree with and you may believe that the researchers did not ask the question the right way. But if there is a convergence of evidence in that area, that’s a different story. In this field, you need to be open to follow where the evidence leads.

Educational practice has suffered greatly because its dominant model for resolving or adjudicating disputes has been more political (with its corresponding factions and interest groups) than scientific. The field’s failure to ground practice in the attitudes and values of science has made educators susceptible to the “authority syndrome” as well as fads and gimmicks that ignore evidence-based practice.

Does this ring a bell to anyone? I hear about fads and gimmicks in our school systems that claim to solve any problem a student has. Is there any research behind it? Nope. Is it still in our school systems? Yep. Are we spending tax-payer money on it? Yep. That’s a huge problem. I have also seen first hand school boards getting rid of programs because it’s politically damaging, but scientifically sound.

The scientific criteria for evaluating knowledge claims are not complicated and could easily be included in initial teacher preparation programs, but they usually are not (which deprives teachers from an opportunity to become more efficient and autonomous in their work right at the beginning of their careers).

Teachers are not getting the knowledge in initial teaching preparations, or even in their master’s or doctoral programs. We could improve the education system by giving this knowledege to the teachers in undergraduate training. Why don’t we? Because there is a huge push back. The research community gets push back from the teaching community, even if the researchers are teachers themselves. I have seen it first hand at my university.

Being able to access mechanisms that evaluate claims about teaching methods and to recognize scientific research and its findings is especially important for teachers because they are often confronted with the view that “anything goes” in the field of education—that there is no such thing as best practice in education, that there are no ways to verify what works best, that teachers should base their practice on intuition, or that the latest fad must be the best way to teach, please a principal, or address local school reform. The “anything goes” mentality actually represents a threat to teachers’ professional autonomy. It provides a fertile environment for gurus to sell untested educational “remedies” that are not supported by an established research base.

This sums it up perfectly.

My goal is to be an educational researcher with an open mind, not afraid of what the evidence tells me. I am not afraid because I want to improve our education system. I want to make sure that all students are reading on grade level or, if they are not,  get students on evidence-based interventions to improve their reading achievement. But being opened minded comes with blows to your ego. Sometimes you are wrong. Sometimes you have to be open to the ideas of charters, vouchers, value added, bonuses, and tenure charge just so you are able to confirm or deny it based on the evidence.

That’s what I am trying to do as a researcher. I hope you will join me.

 

Craig Fitzhugh Welcomes Back Tennessee’s Teachers

Last week Governor Bill Haslam released a video welcoming teachers back to the classroom. This week, House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh makes his own video welcoming Tennessee’s teachers. I think teachers will really appreciate Fitzhugh’s message. Watch below.

Hi, I’m House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh.

Last week, Governor Haslam sent a message to teachers welcoming them back to another year of school. I too would like to extend a welcome back and a thank you for your service to our children and our state.

In his message, Governor Haslam said he “could imagine how challenging it is to teach in an environment with a variety of factors beyond your control.”

Quite frankly, I could not agree more.

That is why I have been so deeply disappointed in this Governor and his Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman. I’m disappointed in their continued refusal to fix an evaluation system that is driving quality teachers out of the profession. I’m disappointed in their push to cut teacher salaries, while asking them to contribute more to a less secure retirement plan. I’m disappointed in their work with the State Board of Education to revamp the process for licensing teachers—all without consulting the elected leaders in the General Assembly.

Like my wife, my sister-in-law, my niece & my daughter, I know most of you became teachers to make a difference in the lives of the children you encounter. Unfortunately, outside so-called “reform” groups have used their mounds of out-of-state cash to lobby the General Assembly and make your job more difficult. These groups are more concerned with standardized testing & fundraising for their PACs than they are about the future of our children.

As teachers, you are responsible for molding Tennessee’s most precious resources. Unlike Commissioner Huffman who taught for two years and moved on to the lucrative world of education reform, many of you have foregone more lucrative careers because of your passion and dedication to our students.  That is why teachers must always be at the center of our education reform efforts—because you are on the front lines. You know what works, and you know what doesn’t.

Thank you again for another year invested in our education system. Times are tough, believe me I understand that. But always know that you have a friend in our caucus on whom you can call anytime. Thank you.

 

 


 

A Look at Charter Attrition Rates

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

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

UpdatedAttrition

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

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

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

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

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

 

LeadWD

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

Drexel1Drexel2

 

 

 

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

 

 

 

 

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

Antioch2

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

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

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

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

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

State Collaborative on Reforming Education

TEA Teachers – Tennessee Education Association

Professional Educators of Tennessee

Tennessee Charter Schools Association


 

TNEdReport Interviews Rep. Joe Pitts

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

Let’s start with Vouchers:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Let’s more on to charters.

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

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

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

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

General Education Questions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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


 

 

 

Rep. Pitts fires back at out of state speaker

Today, the California based Parent Revolution sent Ryan Donohue to Nashville, TN to speak in favor of a parent trigger bill. For an out of state interest, Mr. Donohue makes some broad statements about our public schools here in Tennessee. Please watch what Representative Joe Pitts had to say about that.