While reading this piece on Nashville’s large and possibly unsustainable debt burden, I was reminded of the time I imagined what former Nashville Mayor Karl Dean might have said (and done) on a range of issues had he actually been a progressive.
Imaginary Karl Dean had this to say back in 2013:
Dean first suggested that Metro Nashville Schools stop its over-reliance on testing in spite of state mandates. He noted the practice of data walls as emblematic of the current emphasis on test-based measures of student success and suggested that the schools might try focusing on the whole child.
Turns out, the warning about testing perhaps foretold years of problems ranging from TCAP quick score issues to TNReady failure and lies. If only policy makers had been paying attention.
Imaginary Karl also offered this:
“It’s not the schools that are failing,” Dean said. “MNPS teachers work hard every single day to reach the children in their care. But too many of those students arrive hungry and without access to health care or basic shelter. It’s our community that has failed the families of these children.”
Dean noted that nearly 3 of every 4 MNPS students qualifies for free or reduced price lunch. He went further to note that 7500 Davidson County families with school age children earn incomes below the federal poverty line (Source: American Community Survey of the U.S. Census).
“We’re simply not supporting the ENTIRE community,” Dean said. “When so many families are working hard and can’t make ends meet, there’s a fundamental problem in the local economy. Rising income inequality is bad for Nashville. We must work to address it together now.”
Dean pledged to push for changes in state law to allow Nashville to adopt a living wage and also pledged to use his considerable clout with the General Assembly to advocate for a $10 an hour state minimum wage.
Fast forward to 2019 and we see a city that’s pricing out working class families. Meanwhile, the legislature overrides any attempt at improving wages or working conditions. The situation makes this suggestion seem even better now than it did back in 2013:
Dean said he would work with the staff at Music City Center to turn the nearly $600 million facility into a community center and transitional housing for the working poor. He noted that it would include free dental and vision clinics for children and an urgent care center for basic medical needs.
“This facility will set Nashville apart as a city that puts people first and will no longer fail its children and families.”
The basic point: We keep having the same conversations. Nothing actually happens. City and state leaders keep saying words, but failing to take action to move us forward.
Another recent story further brings this point home. Much has been made of the relatively low pay Nashville teachers receive. A proposal to provide some form of “low-cost” teacher housing is getting discussion — and pushback:
Mayor Briley is spearheading the proposal to turn the 11-acre property in South Nashville currently used to store and repair school buses into affordable housing for teachers. The city wants to trade it, meaning a developer could build on the land in exchange for other land where the district can build a new bus barn.
“A lot of us have families. A lot of us have advanced degrees. We don’t want public housing, we want a professional salary,” said Amanda Kail, who teaches at Margaret Allen Middle School. “If you have to public housing for teachers then there is something seriously wrong with our city.”
The underlying issue here is pay. It’s something I’ve written about quite a bit. Specifically, I wrote this in 2015 about Nashville’s then-emerging teacher pay crisis:
Long-term pay increases in MNPS don’t keep pace with those in other, similar districts. Taking Denver as an example, a teacher who received NO ProComp incentives and maintained only a bachelor’s degree would make at Step 13 very close to what an MNPS teacher with similar education makes at Step 20. In all other cities examined, the top step is higher (from $3000 to $15,000) than it is in MNPS.
Two years later, I added this:
Attracting and retaining teachers will become increasingly more difficult if MNPS doesn’t do more to address the inadequacy of it’s salaries. The system was not paying competitively relative to its peers two years ago, and Nashville’s rapid growth has come with a rising cost of living. Does Nashville value it’s teachers enough to pay them a comfortable salary? Or, will Nashville let cities like Louisville continue to best them in teacher compensation?
No, better pay alone won’t solve the teacher shortage being experienced in MNPS. But, failure to address the issue of teacher compensation will mean more virtual Ravens, Cobras, and Bears in the future.
This is a problem that could be clearly seen years ago and which still hasn’t been adequately addressed.
It’s now 2019. Still, nothing. No significant movement on a teacher pay crisis that was looming years ago. Decision makers had information available and did nothing.
While we’re on the topic of predicting the future, back in 2013, Governor Bill Haslam and then-Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman made a big deal of Tennessee being the “fastest-improving” in national test scores as measured by the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP). Here’s what I wrote then:
Yes, Tennessee should celebrate its growth. But policymakers should use caution when seeing the results from the last 2 years as a validation of any particular policy. Long-term trends indicate that big gains are usually followed by steady maintenance. And, even with the improvement, Tennessee has a long way to go to be competitive with our peers. Additionally, education leaders should be concerned about the troubling widening of the rich/poor achievement gap – an outcome at odds with stated policy goals and the fundamental principle of equal opportunity.
Then, in 2015, added:
This year’s scores, in which Tennessee remained steady relative to the 2013 scores suggest, if anything, that the 2013 jump was likely an outlier. Had the 2013 gains been followed by gains in 2015 and again in 2017, more could be suggested. And frankly, it is my hope that we see gains (especially in reading) in 2017. But, it’s problematic to suggest that any specific reform or set of reforms caused the one-time jump we saw in 2013. Saying we are the fastest improving state in the nation over the last 4 years when we only saw a jump in 2013 is like saying we started the first quarter of a football game way behind, scored a bunch in the second quarter, (so we’re not as far behind), and then scored the same number of points in the third quarter. The result is we’re still behind and still have a long way to go.
Turns out, those predictions were rather accurate:
First, notice that between 2009 and 2011, Tennessee saw drops in 4th and 8th grade reading and 8th grade math. That helps explain the “big gains” seen in 2013. Next, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading and 4th grade math, our 2017 scores are lower than the 2013 scores. There’s that leveling off I suggested was likely. Finally, note that in 4th and 8th grade reading, the 2017 scores are very close to the 2009 scores. So much for “fastest-improving.”
Tennessee is four points below the national average in both 4th and 8th grade math. When it comes to reading, we are 3 points behind the national average in 4th grade and 5 points behind in 8th grade.
So, here’s the deal: If you want to know not only what IS happening in Tennessee education policy, but also what WILL happen, read Tennessee Education Report.
What’s coming in 2019? Vouchers!
Also ahead: More platitudes about “access” and “equity.” Oh, and you can count on some words about the importance of testing and benchmarking and rigor and high standards.
What’s not going to happen? There will be no significant new investment in schools initiated by our Governor or legislature. Our state will not apply for an ESSA waiver to move away from excessive testing. There will be no large scale commitment to a living wage or health care access.
Instead, our state (and it’s largest, most vibrant city) will continue to fail many among us. Our policymakers will continue to spread the lie that we just can’t afford to do more.
Maybe one day, Imaginary Karl (or someone with his views) will lead Tennessee out of the wilderness and into a land where we honestly approach (and tackle) our many great challenges.
For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport
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