Monday, November 26, 2012

Dr. Cash Recommends Only 6 School Closures

Michael Kelley writes that Superintendent Kriner Cash proposes to close 6 schools in advance of next school year.  Dr. Cash probably would have considered whether or not to close any schools at the end of this academic year, but his analysis was at least partly in response to TPC Recommendation #113, which recommends that at least 20 MCS schools in the northwest and southwest regions be closed.  Dr. Cash's proposal also should be viewed against the Achievement School District's plan to close 10 MCS schools and reopen them as part of the ASD with new staff.

School closings are uncomfortable.  Where schools are severely under-enrolled because of population shifts, or where schools have become too expensive to maintain (usually because of poor decision making on deferred maintenance issues) - it makes sense to go through the wrenching school closing process.  There are costs to the district related to keeping severely under-enrolled schools open, and costs to the students that attend them.  Under-enrollment is an expensive problem because not only does any open school have fixed costs to remain open (a principal, a custodian, utility bills, etc.), but students attending the under-enrolled school often do not benefit from the same investment in services and academic opportunities offered at more populous schools.  Memphis City Schools has been going through the process of figuring out how to manage its wide range of property holdings for the last few years. I can attest that attending a roach-infested school has its drawbacks.  This recommendation from Dr. Cash should be viewed to at least some extent as a continuation of that work.  So there are (some) good reasons to close schools.

There are also bad reasons to close schools.  Saving money by increasing class sizes (at other schools) is one of them.  Poor academic performance is another - turn around models usually just don't work in a sustainable way.

In doing the TPC's work, The Boston Consulting Group was at least clear about its process, though considerably less clear about its "list".  The consultants stated that their intention was to replicate the district process - taking into account enrollment, the FCI (facilities condition index - high numbers are bad), and academic performance.  BCG started with enrollment - setting the threshold at 80% to be considered under-enrolled - then also required any of all of:  a declining enrollment trend over 5 years, below average academic performance, poor FCI, and receiving school availability.  From page 109: "There are 89 schools with under 80% utilization of which 70 are in Memphis and 19 are in Shelby County."

The availability of a nearby school to receive students from the closing school is a critical factor, and the sole reason why none of the 19 under-enrolled SCS schools is being considered for possible closure.

After all of their analysis, BCG must have come up with a list of schools (or pairs of schools, one closing, one receiving) that should, in its view, be considered for closure.  The TPC and BCG were very clear that it was not the TPC's role to recommend particular schools for closure - that it should be the Board's prerogative to use to the TPC's work in order to come up with the list.  However, it seems to me that there must have been an actual, physical list on the TPC side of things.  In the minutes from the April 26 meeting of the TPC's Administrative Organization Committee, Dr. Cash asked for the list and BCG consultant Reggie Gilyard agreed to provide a list of 40 schools.  It is unclear whether that list was ever provided but, in any event, it was not made public at that time.  (Anyone up for a FOIA request?)  [Dec. 20 update:  the document was eventually released as part of a School Board agenda - I discussed it here, and republished the document here.]

In the text leading up to Recommendation #113, BCG listed other cities where significant school closures have taken place, with a little background about each.  BCG failed to mention, however, its very controversial work in Philadelphia, where they recommended closing between 29 and 57 schools over the next 5 years.  They started work in Philadelphia after they were up to their elbows in Memphis, but some of the work was concurrent.  Perhaps we should be grateful they let us off easy with only 21?

So that's how BCG did the TPC's work, which brings us to how Dr. Cash has done his.  In my initial post on this topic, I flagged Dr. Cash's recommendation to close Gordon Elementary, a school operating at over 90% capacity.  Based on BCG's analysis, Gordon Elementary would not have been on their list because it is in their sweet spot of 85-90% target enrollment.  Gordon Elementary would likely also not have been considered as a receiving school in order to prevent it from becoming oversubscribed.  Dr. Cash will need to give a strong explanation as to why Gordon Elementary has made such an exclusive list - enrollment is clearly not his driving consideration.  Closing such a school would bring up the enrollment of nearby schools who receive the students, so I wonder if the nearby schools are the beneficiary of some protection for some reason. 

In contrast, Humes Middle is at 16.9% capacity.  It is serving less than one fifth of the students it was designed to serve.  In the April 26 minutes from the Administrative Organization Committee, also referenced above, Dr. Cash explained that some middle schools were only serving 7th and 8th grades, and that elementary schools were still in the process of realigning from K-6 to K-5, with the district adding 6th grade to the middle schools.  But 16.9%?!

My next question is why three of the schools on this list are well over 50% enrollment when there are so many schools that are under-enrolled by half.  I remain concerned about any school closings, and the 20 school recommendation just seemed egregious.  Six, not so much - especially given the large population shifts out of the western portions of Memphis and out to the eastern portions of Memphis.  And while I'm relieved at Dr. Cash's decision to propose substantially fewer closures than the TPC, his closures are still in addition to the ASD's 10 closures.  And the question of who to close is just as important as whether to close.  I assumed that the first consideration would be current enrollment levels.  Since that is clearly not the case, I'm very interested in Dr. Cash's explanation for how he ended up with these six.

More red flags:
  • Norris Elementary, with enrollment at 56.2% is also on the ASD's list of 14 possible takeover schools.  We're still waiting on the ASD's list of ten schools it will close and reopen - to be released in mid-December.  It seems likely that Norris Elementary School will not be in operation next year, but it remains possible that a school will be operating there next year.  Very odd, however, that even though the ASD's list has been public for weeks and they've already started their public meetings, that the district would still include a possible ASD school on a closure list.  Odd.
  • Also on the ASD possible list is Caldwell-Guthrie Elementary School, which is listed a receiving school (one of two, the other being Carnes Elementary) for Gordon Elementary School students.  Gordon Elementary is the school with very high enrollment.  Is the district considering substantially increasing enrollment at a school that could be taken in by the ASD, thereby losing more money in ADA funding than it would otherwise?  Odd.
  • And this gem:  "Students at Humes . . . would be enrolled at Gestalt Community, a charter school that will be part of the new state-operated Achievement School District."  My understanding of the ASD process is that no decisions have yet been made about which schools will be selected for takeover, or which schools will be assigned to which pre-selected charter organizations.  In any event, Humes is not on the ASD's list.  Is the district forcing a school onto the ASD's list?  Has there already been an ASD decision on what area Gestalt Community will serve, in order that it will definitely serve Humes' students?  Does this mean that the ASD will be taking over more than its planned 10 schools?  Or it will just be gaining more than 10 schools' worth of kids?  Odd.  Very odd.
  • Bill Dries' article on this says that Gordon Elementary has an ASD school within the school.  A prior article explains that Gestalt Community has added sixth grade this year within the Gordon Elementary building, and will add 7th and 8th grades in future years.  We'll need some clarification about Dr. Cash's intentions.  Will he just close Gordon Elementary and leave the building to Gestalt Community to operate Gordon School of Arts and Sciences (Middle School)?  Or does he plan to shutter the building?  Would the state allow him to shutter the building even while there's an ASD school in it?  I did not follow Gestalt's Gordon School development, but it seems to not be following the ASD's turnaround model, and instead appears to be operating as a new charter school.  Odd.
Here's a map.  On the lower half of the page, I've listed Dr. Cash's proposed school closures, and the ASD's.  Using the TPC's map showing the geography of school enrollment, I've tried to overlay the newly proposed school closings (marked with circles).  The map did not identify schools by name, and does not have any landmarks on it.  I'm pretty confident that I've circled the correct schools given their placement on the map and their enrollment information.  I could not figure out exactly which mapped schools are the ASD possible schools without any road-level detail, so I just marked general areas with a slash mark.  I'm pretty confident that Norris Elementary - circled with a slash mark (looks like a "Q") is correctly marked.

Looking at the map with the overlays, it's clear just how much of Memphis is under assault with school closures for next year.  I understand that the ASD doesn't consider the schools on their list to be school closures, but when teachers are let go and students have to re-enroll, that's not exactly continuous operation.  It's a good thing that it's only 16 schools and not 31, but 16 is still a lot. 

That's 16 schools' worth of MCS teachers who will be looking for new jobs for 2013-14.  These 16 schools are neighborhood schools, many with strong neighborhood ties and traditions that will be severed as the district and the state "realign" schools in Memphis.  It seems safe to assume that these schools are in predominantly African-American neighborhoods.  The impact of significant changes to these anchors in the community - whether by closure or by takeover - cannot be overestimated in terms of the neighborhood or in terms of the children.  It is therefore all the more important that any closures be done for the right reasons, as the result of a transparent process.  I don't agree with the ASD's reasons, and I just haven't yet heard Dr. Cash's.  Thursday night's meeting will be interesting.  Closing just 3 schools last year was gut-wrenching.

I have some ambivalence about the district closures, but I do advocate for a clear process with clear results, with a transparent application.  We're not there yet.  As I said, Thursday's meeting will be interesting.  Hope to see you there.

Dr. Cash Meets His Deadline to List Schools to be Closed

After School Board Commissioner Tomeka Hart put him on the spot last week, MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash agreed to release the list of schools he would recommend for closure today - in advance of Thursday's meeting on the TPC's Recommendation #113 to close at least 20 schools.

Dr. Cash is recommending that six schools be closed, five elementary and one middle:  Coro Lake, White's Chapel, Orleans, Norris and Gordon elementary schools, and Humes Middle School. 

The first thing that immediately raises a red flag for me is that the list includes Gordon Elementary, a school operating at over 90% capacity.  The TPC's recommendations were based on under-enrollment, but Dr. Cash must be using a different threshold.  Odd.

There is already some confusion between some state legislators and the mayor's office - with the state legislators claiming that Dr. Cash has assembled the list on his own without input from Memphis officials, and a summary of Housing and Community Development Director Robert Lipscomb's direct involvement with Dr. Cash on this issue.  Strange.

This is an important issue that will have objections from all corners - it's important that those objecting keep their credibility and get on the same page, at least where the facts are concerned.

Commercial Appeal reporter Michael Kelley did a good job getting this story up quickly. 

Anybody who is interested in attending the Thursday meeting on this issue should double check the time - the plan had been to begin the meeting earlier than usual, but the article lists the start time as the usual start time (5:30 p.m.).

Waiting, Waiting

Two big things are expected to happen this week, and neither has happened yet.

MCS Superintendent Kriner Cash stated at last week's School Board Work Session that the list of under-enrolled schools that could be closed would be released today, in advance of Thursday's meeting on the sole issue of the TPC Recommendation #113 to close at least 20 schools.

In federal litigation news, participants in last week's failed mediation talks have stated that they expect Judge Mays' decision to be issued early this week.

Nothing yet - as of 4:40 p.m.

The list of schools will be easy enough to post, but it will take some time for our intrepid reporters to read the decision and parse through it in order to tell us what it says.  We don't need a repeat of the health care confusion this summer - be sure to flip to the end, y'all.

Friday, November 23, 2012

Merger Mediation Meltdown (whomp, whomp)

Zack McMillin has the breaking news that the merger mediation talks have failed.  Not too much surprise there - wouldn't we all have been much more surprised if the parties had been able to reach a brokered peace?  On the scale of an Egyptian miracle calling a cease fire between Israel and Gaza?  Maybe we needed one of the Clintons.

Here's hoping that the Commercial Appeal can get its formatting problems fixed, so that the twitter feed doesn't continue to interfere with the text of the article.

My earlier prediction seems to be on track, with a decision expected early next week.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Between 16 and 31 MCS Schools to Close Next Year

The title feels a little inflammatory, but that's where we are in Memphis.

The Achievement School District is closing 10 schools.  They won't really say that's what they're doing, and they would argue that the school buildings will be in use to educate children.  But the ASD's "takeover" of 10 schools means that the staffs of 10 schools will be applying for new jobs for the 2013-14 school year.

The TPC recommended that the Shelby County School Board close 21 schools.  That would bring us to 31, and that is, admittedly, unlikely.

But Superintendent Kriner Cash has been clear that he thinks he will propose about a third of that number to be closed.  That puts us in the 6-8 range.

So while 31 closed Memphis schools would be an unlikely outlier, this community is looking at between 16 and 18 schools worth of staff looking for jobs.  That's a huge number of schools to close, and an unfortunate number of solidly middle class folks getting nervous.

At last night's School Board meeting, the group set a meeting for next Thursday to begin discussion about which schools to close.  Board Commissioner Tomeka Hart was a particularly strong voice in favor of disclosing the "possibles" list in advance of the meeting.  This was a very good step toward transparency in what has been a very murky process so far.  Dr. Cash is correct that issuing the list too early could cause more problems than it would solve, but Commissioner Hart was more correct when she argued that people need to know in advance of the meeting whether they need to show up.

Dr. Cash agreed to release the list on Monday.  The meeting will be on Thursday, Nov. 29 at 4 p.m.

The Board struggled, and went 'round and 'round on where to have the meeting.  Vice-chair Teresa Jones did her best to herd the cats.  The Board is correctly anticipating some resistance to the school closings, but decided that it was more trouble than it was worth to try to move the tv equipment to another larger location.  Space in the Board's TLA meeting room is somewhat limited.

I agree with Commissioner David Pickler when he says that the school district is not an employment service.  And if we were only talking about 6-8 schools - underenrolled schools where the students don't actually get all of the services they should because the school is too small and too expensive - that would be one thing.  But throw in the ASD, and there are just many more red flags raised due to the sheer number of schools being closed.

I hope for a robust discussion next Thursday.

Merger Mediation Madness

Strange times in Memphis.

Don't we have to speculate that Judge Mays' decision was nearly complete?  That between his work and that of his law clerks, many hours had already been expended on writing the decision to decide the September trial?

Late last week came word that the parties to the federal litigation would enter into mediation talks this week.  Talks are continuing today, after ending Monday evening.

But what does it all mean?

Several of the more important players have no role in the mediation - Tennessee Senate Majority Leader Mark Norris and the former head of the Memphis City School Board Martavius Jones come to mind.  Not that they're not plugged in to what's happening, but they're not parties to the litigation or the mediation.

There are reasons to settle, regardless of which side you're on.  The legal fees just keep increasing.  The legal sniping just keeps getting uglier.  The whole process has been incredibly divisive, and we haven't even gotten to the trial where the County Commission alleges "resegregation."

But I would prefer to see a clear, precedent-setting decision on the constitutionality of Senator Norris' laws.  I don't think you should negotiate the constitutionality of a law.  And the state legislature has been getting lazy, and getting away with not following their own processes.  It's a political thicket that judges are loathe to enter, but I would encourage Judge Mays to make a ruling.

I suspect that the political consequences for all sides in settling will be too steep, and that settlement will not occur.  But I'm not willing to put money on any of the possible outcomes - just too unpredictable in this environment.

Stay tuned . . .

Memphis On Another List It Shouldn't Be (Because Huffman Says So)

Last week, Jane Roberts told us that "Memphis is the ninth-fastest growing charter school market in the nation."  And that's based on last year's enrollment, prior to the ASD's recruitment of 3 charter schools in Memphis this year + the 3 that the School Board approved last year + the 2 that won their appeals that had enough time to open for this school year, and definitely prior to next year's huge charter expansion - which will include the 12 charter schools that won their appeals to the state, but did not have enough time to open for this 2012-13 school year, as well as any charter schools that are approved this year (school board's consideration to happen by the end of the year on applications that were due on Oct. 1, 2012), plus the several that the ASD is ushering in for 2013-14.

So, yes, charter school enrollment is increasing, or as the charter school operators would say, their "market share" is increasing.  You know, because public education is a market in which entrepreneurs compete for engaged families.

What these charter schools are not competing for:  "reward school" status, bestowed by Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman on the 169 schools (in 70 Tennessee school districts) who are in the the top 5 percent of schools in the state for annual growth OR the top 5 percent for academic achievement.  Not a single charter school made that list.  Want to know who did make the list?  20 MCS schools and 4 SCS schools.  While Memphis City Schools is often roundly and soundly criticized for the 63 MCS schools in the bottom 5% - the most (by far) of any district in the state.  But with 20 schools in the top 5% - again, the most (by far) of any district in the state - MCS is clearly doing important work that the charter schools have just not been able to replicate.

Chief among my objections to the continued expansion of charter schools is their collective inability to perform any better than traditional public schools.  There are charter schools that have great success and do honorable work by getting higher student achievement than traditional public schools.  However, they are in the minority and provide cover to the great majority of charter schools that underperform compared to their public school counterparts, or are only able to equal the student achievement in traditional public schools.

Charter school proponents will tell you that they do not get their full per-student funding allotment.  They'll suggest that they actually have to "do more" than traditional public schools "on less" than full funding.  What they decline to fully disclose is what they actually spend per pupil, taking into account the full amount of private funding and in-kind gifts (in the form of goods and services, including volunteer tutors) donated to the schools by private donors - that, of course, are tax deductions for the donors by virtue of the charter schools' non-profit status.

Anyway, a couple of months ago, Jane Roberts wrote an article detailing a Stanford University CREDO study on local charter school performance.  Ms. Roberts summarized that of the charter schools in Memphis, less than half of them (ten of twenty-three studied) outperform traditional neighborhood public schools.  Five charter schools perform as well as traditional public schools.  And traditional neighborhood public schools outperform 8 charter schools.

Charter school proponents will want to tell you that the important takeaway from the CREDO Memphis research is that just over 65% of Memphis charter schools perform as well as or better than traditional public schools (that's the 10 + 5 of 23).  But just as important is the 57% of charter schools that, at best, only perform as well as traditional public schools, and the 35% that cannot manage to perform as well as Memphis public schools - Memphis public schools which are famously under-performing (that's the 5+8 out of 23, and the 8 of 23, respectively).

So isn't the question how to "brand" those 5 charter schools that perform as well as traditional public schools?  Both sides claim them - the charter proponents say, "yes, we can do just as well as traditional public schools" and charter opponents say, "but they can only perform as well as traditional public schools."  I think the line has to do with how public money is shifted to private vendors.  Sometimes government should "outsource" particular tasks to the private sector, where the work can be done more efficiently.  But the function of public education, I believe, is uniquely a government function.  And particularly where charter schools cannot do the task they promised, and certainly cannot do it more cheaply, they have less utility - and, certainly, a weakened argument for their continued governmental support.

Now that Memphis is on the list, Commissioner Huffman is working to make sure that it stays there.  There were the dozen or so charter school applications that the Shelby County School Board rejected that were later approved by Commissioner Huffman.  Then there are the 10 new ASD schools coming for next year.  But Commissioner Huffman does not allow local school boards to vet charter schools they same way that he does.  Commissioner Huffman and his ASD head Chris Barbic crow that they bring the most talented charter schools from around the country to Tennessee.  They recruit them to come here.  There are charter schools that would be thrilled to come to Tennessee that Commissioner Huffman and Supt. Barbic choose not to bring here, for whatever reason.  But local school boards do not have the same ability to pick and choose the best.  Shelby County found out last year that despite significant finanical implications, the state will grant any and all appeals.  Nashville found out this year that the state will reduce funding (to the tune of $3.4 million in one month) when they didn't approve a charter that the state wanted.

The state will only pick the best, but will punish local authorizers that don't take just anyone.  And let's be honest, the charters that are failing are usually failing because they were started by "just anyone" - people with no education background, no pedagogical insight, and no desire to educate children that don't come from families willing to navigate and then jump through application hoops. 

More on the state's solution to this little quandary at a later date - but it involves a "state authorizer" that would remove all local control from charter school application processes and decisions.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Treadwell Elementary PTA Is Not Playing OR Treadwell Elementary PTA Circulates Petition

The objections to the ASD's targeting of Memphis schools continue.

A #furiousparent commenter let me know that the Treadwell Elementary PTA has initiated a petition, and they've already got more than 150 signatures.

Apparently at last night's unpublicized meeting at Treadwell Elementary, Achievement School District Superintendent had some difficulty setting an open and inclusive tone.  #furiousparent writes that Mr. Barbic started off the meeting by saying that he already knew about Treadwell's well-respected dual language program, and that he didn't want 15 people at the microphone to tell him how great it is.

Parents and teachers, don't be afraid of having to repeat yourselves in situations where it's unclear if you are being heard or not.

Here's the link to the petition, if you're interested in signing the petition.  Looks like the signees are mostly Treadwell parents and teachers.

Is BCG Back in Memphis?

A friend of mine who attended the School Board meeting last night swears up and down that she saw one of the Boston Consulting Group's consultants at the School Board meeting last night.

At the September School Board meeting, the Board briefly discussed whether to issue an RFP in order to hire a management consultant.  As I recall, no decision was made.  At that meeting, Dr. Tim Setterlund stated that even though a management consultant would cost millions of dollars (at least five million dollars), he was certain that the funds could be raised from local philanthropists.

No RFP was issued.  But BCG is here?  How?  Are they working for the district?  In what capacity?  And who's bankrolling it?  And with no public discussion?

Caldwell Suggests that MCS Assist the ASD in Its PR Campaign

Shelby County School Board Commissioner Chris Caldwell (District 1 - initially appointed by the County Commission, elected in August, defeated Dr. Freda Williams and Dr. Noel Hutchinson) sat through the same ASD meeting I did on Monday night.

His takeaway was quite different from mine.

Let's back up.  I had some difficulty listening to the Special Call School Board meeting last night because my radio kept cutting out.  But the point of last night's Board meeting was to get through a number of the TPC recommendations.  Some of the recommendations are related to the district's relationship with the ASD - specifically, that the district should cooperate with the ASD and the operators that it brings in.

Several School Board Commissioners had questions about the ASD.  They're clearly getting some pushback on the ASD in their communities.  As they should.

Superintendent Kriner Cash knows that he has to pick his battles, and he has decided that the ASD will not be his battle.  He described the ASD as giving "help" that the district needs with respect to these bottom 5% schools.  Dr. Rod Richmond, one of Dr. Cash's top deputies, assured the Board that the two teams (district and ASD) are working very well together.  The district statements about the ASD were really artfully done.

And I get it.  The state has made its decision.  Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has the full support of Governor Haslam and the super-majority Republican legislature.  And we know that the state is willing to play hardball.  Really ugly hardball.  Withholding funding hardball.  Since MCS has so many of the bottom 5% schools, it just has no bargaining power.  And ASD Supt. Chris Barbic is right - Tennessee is #46 or #47 nationally, so our bottom 5% schools are among the worst-performing schools in the country.

All of that said, my objections to the ASD have to do with their methods and how they operate.  And based on what I've seen, they are operators.

Commissioner Chris Caldwell must have felt uncomfortable at the ASD meeting on Monday.  At last night's Board meeting, he appreciated Dr. Cash's comments and suggested that MCS district staff attend the ASD meetings to give the same explanation - that the ASD will be a help, etc.

I think that what Commissioner Caldwell misunderstood is that the communities targeted by the ASD do not object to increased resources being applied in favor of their neighborhood schools.  This is what they've been asking for, for years.  They clearly object to the turnaround model - where the entire staff of the school, regardless of their individual results, is displaced.  The communities are objecting to the disruption of their children's education, in communities where stability is difficult to find and schools are among the only places that consistently offer it.

Perhaps Commissioner Caldwell is not aware of the sizable PR budget that the ASD is able to utilize - sizable enough that in addition to all of the regular PR duties, a staff member is apparently tasked with monitoring the comments section of media websites.  If the ASD needs assistance, it can afford its own consultants.

However, under no circumstances should the very limited resources of the public school district be expended on helping the ASD "sell" its product.  If the ASD is having trouble communicating its vision, it should not be the responsibility of the district to help clarify.  The district is cooperating.  That is more than enough.  District staff is already stretched incredibly thin between doing their regular jobs and managing the merger.  The ASD can afford its PR plan, and is not in need of any additional resources from MCS.

If there is confusion, it is up to the ASD to clarify.  If there is unhappiness, it's up to the ASD to explain why they're going to do it anyway.  If there's anger, then it's up to the ASD to understand that when you force an unproven, disruptive product on people that don't want it, that's not real "school choice".

Please Commissioner Caldwell, let the ASD explain itself with its own people and using its own resources.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

ASD Pushing Down Attendance at Public Meetings?

Hmmm.  A commenter clued me in to an ASD meeting scheduled for tonight at 5:30 at Treadwell Elementary.  Treadwell Elem. is one of the 14 schools that may end taken over by the ASD.

I took a look at the ASD website, and sure enough, nothing is posted about any meetings after the Operator Night at University of Memphis that occurred on Tuesday night.

So I called Treadwell Elem., and they were able to confirm that the meeting is happening.

So why would the ASD not post such a meeting on their own website?  In the latest article that AchievementCommunications commented on, the ASD's taxpayer funded PR person explained that their methods of publicity included robocalls to parents, letters home to parents, and local media announcements.  Let's assume that the ASD has properly advertised the meeting to those families who will be directly affected by the ASD's takeover.  And let's assume that the paper, or all of the news channels, or whatever other media they notified chose not to publish any information about these public meetings.  Why is it not on the ASD website - right now - about three hours before the meeting?

I certainly wouldn't want to speak to their intentions, but we must acknowledge that not publicizing their own meeting to the general public has the affect of suppressing community turnout at the meeting.  Since it coincides with a Special Call School Board meeting also at 5:30, it likely means that no sitting School Board Commissioners will be able to attend.  At the meeting, I attended earlier this week, Commissioners Chris Caldwell and Kevin Woods both attended.  My guess is that they will not skip the School Board meeting to attend the ASD meeting - and they should not.  But why would the ASD schedule a meeting that they know that School Board commissioners will not attend?

Again, I certainly wouldn't want to guess about what the ASD's intentions may or may not be, but I do believe that everything that the ASD does is intentional.  And purposeful.


Wednesday, November 14, 2012

MEA and SCEA Working for ALL Teachers

In an earlier post, I drew attention to the agenda for tomorrow night's Special Call Shelby County School Board meeting.  I said that some committee was scheduled to be appointed.

Well, thank goodness Michael Kelley explained what the Committee is about.  Mr. Kelley writes that, "Also on the board's agenda for Thursday is its first step in the implementation of the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011, the state law that effectively stripped teachers of their ability to bargain collectively for wages and benefits.  Responding to a petition from the Memphis Education Association [union] and Shelby County Education Association [non-union] calling for collaborative conferencing, the board is expected to approve the appointment of a special question committee, composed of board and professional employees, to conduct a confidential poll of eligible employees.  The poll will determine whether a majority of employees want to engage in the process and, if so, what organization they want to be represented by at the talks."

I haven't read the statute yet, but I wonder if MEA and SCEA are in competition with each other to be designated as "the organization" that will engage in the collaborative conferencing.  My understanding is that first a certain threshold of teachers have to vote in favor of engaging in the process, then another certain threshold of teachers has to vote in favor of a particular organization.  So maybe both organizations can get a seat at "the table"?  Sounds like MEA and SCEA are merging and are not in competition with each other, based on comments below . . .

Of course, the district can choose to acknowledge what happens at "the table" or not.  It's not an actual negotiation.  We'll see how it goes.  But MEA and SCEA are engaging in the process that the state legislature has allowed them to engage in, and that's good news for teachers given the current environment.

I'll be interested to see what happens in any possible muni school districts.  Will several more education associations crop up?  Will the two big ones combine and end up in all Shelby County districts?  Both have their strengths and weaknesses, but they are the current options.

This article reminded me that SCEA and MEA are also busy in federal court.  The background is that the Norris-Todd statute set forward certain obligations for the TPC.  Among them is a requirement that the TPC not recommend that any current compensation (salary schedule) or benefits to which current teachers are currently entitled be diminished as part of the merger.  Well, that's not exactly what the statute says, but that's how the TPC interpreted it.  But that's a separate post on some other day.  The point is that for current teachers, their salary schedule and benefits cannot be diminished due to the merger.

So the question has come up about whether current teachers have similar protection from salary reductions in any municipal school districts that may arise - whether an English teacher at Collierville High School will make the same amount of money if CHS transitions out SCS into the Collierville School District.  I can't find any articles (right this second) (but will keep looking) that support this, but I know of one municipal mayor that has openly stated that teacher salaries in that municipality will likely be less than the current SCS salary schedule.  However, the general talking point has been that "of course, current salaries will be matched - we want the current teachers to stay in the same buildings that they currently teach in - it would not be in our interest to try to pay them less."  The back-up to that argument is that "well, even if salaries are slightly reduced, the teachers love teaching here so much that it won't matter and they'll still be grateful to work here."  I don't know if any public official has said this, but that's how conversations I've had have evolved, and is in many of the comments sections on the articles on this issue.

But the question is whether there is any statutory protection.  On the first day of the federal trial, during questioning of Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, attorneys referenced a deposition of another TN Dept. of Ed. employee, Stephen Smith.  In that deposition, Stephen Smith stated that for any possible municipal school districts, there was no legal obligation on the part of the municipal school district to match salary or compensation.  Commissioner Huffman tried to walk that statement back while he was on the stand, but the issue was not resolved.

SCEA and MEA were parties to the original litigation in federal court, but have played very little role in the courtroom proceedings.  But this new request - to file another complaint in the existing litigation - is notable.  It's unlikely that Judge Mays would rule on this as part of his municipal schools decision, but Judge Mays has also made up his own procedural rules (with the consent of the parties, of course) as this case has progressed.  So who knows.  But I think that SCEA and MEA are correct to try to litigate this issue on the front end, rather than the back end of setting up municipal school districts, just in case Judge Mays allows the districts to form.

Seems to me the height of unfairness to hold the larger, urban district with existing financial problems to a higher standard due to the merger - without also holding any potential municipal school districts to the same standard, when they are also only a result of the merger.  If the merger is a reason to protect teachers, then let's protect teachers.

UPDATE:  Jackson Baker writes about MEA President Keith Williams.  He seems surprisingly optimistic about the collaborative conferencing process, and unsurprisingly distrusts Stand for Children and Teach for America.  Mr. Williams suggests that there will be "unitary" teachers' organization once the merger occurs.

So I Went to an ASD Meeting

It was tense enough that I almost felt bad for the ASD folks.  Almost.  Let's just say that the meeting did not go as planned.

Here's the agenda.  Here are the FAQ's.

So let's look at the agenda first.  It's titled "School Matching Community Meeting."  At least their intention was clear - this was not about getting community input about whether the community wants the ASD or is receptive to it.  This was about figuring out which charter operators would take over which schools - not whether or not the schools should be taken over.

We know that the ASD thinks that folks just don't know any better, because if folks did understand, the ASD would be welcomed as the liberating heroes that they are.  ASD Chief Portfolio Officer (still can't over this ridiculous title) Malika Anderson's public comments have dripped with condescension, so it should be no surprise that the agenda itself patronizes the attendees of the meeting.

The agenda describes the purpose of the meeting as follows

Participants will:
  • Know and understand the "why, what, when and who" of the school matching process and how they can get involved
  • Have a chance to give feedback on the process
  • Personally thank each ASD official present for saving their children (just kidding - I made that one up)
The ASD thought that this meeting needed a lesson plan - because these involved parents who have given up an evening to attend need to be instructed about what the ASD has decided is best for their children.  When a government agency deals with the public, and publishes an agenda, the government agency lists the topics to be discussed.  It should not get into any expected or planned outcomes for the participants, as one does in a pedagogical setting.  Certainly casting it in "Participants Will" language makes it clear that the ASD's intention is to instruct, rather than to engage.

The meeting went off the rails with Item 1, "Food and Fellowship" with thirty minutes allotted starting at 5:30.  If I'd known that the meeting started at 6, I probably would have planned to be there at 6.  But the published start time was 5:30.  Turns out that the Food and Fellowship couldn't start at 5:30 because the food wasn't there.  After waiting a while for the food delivery, the ASD folks decided to get the meeting started.  They did their presentation, and then (since the pizza had arrived by then), suggested that the group split up to get food and begin Item 3, "Small Group Discussions".

That's when something special happened.  Dr. Noel Hutchinson interrupted, and suggested that really the larger group was not interested in breaking into small groups, and really would be most interested in staying in the sanctuary together and asking questions, and hearing the answers all at once instead of in small groups.  Dr. Hutchinson ran for the District 1 School Board seat against appointed incumbent Chris Caldwell (who won) and MCS School Board holdover Dr. Freda Williams.  The crowd vocally agreed and the ASD consented to staying put, and getting on with the feedback portion of the night.

This is important because this meant that the discussion that unfolded was very different than the one that the ASD planned.  The primary discussion in the break-out groups would have been
When you think of education in your school/community,
   i.  What's one thing we should KEEP doing?
  ii.  What's one thing we should STOP doing?
 iii.  What's one thing we should START doing?

Had the planned discussion taken place, a process of engagement may have been able to begin.  The discussion would not have been about the ASD, it would have been about what education would/could/should look like in the neighborhood schools that the ASD plans to take over.  Instead, the ASD sat through about an hour and a half of speaker after speaker expressing suspicion, anger, distrust, and general unhappiness that their neighborhood schools would be dissolved and re-started from scratch.  And that well-loved and successful teachers from the community would be let go.  The conversation was about whether the ASD was wanted by the neighborhood and by the parents.  It was tense, and I was just observing from the rear.

My feeling was that the ASD was not prepared for the "public comment" portion of the meeting.  People just stood up and stayed standing until they were eventually called on.  Eventually, a line formed down front, but it was organic and not at the suggestion of the ASD folks.  It was a very vocal crowd that encouraged each other.  I feel like a meeting where public input would be solicited would have had a better plan in place.

A number of substantive comments from the audience, and several explanations from the ASD were of note:
  • Dr. Hutchinson started the group off by asking if the ASD takeover of schools was already a done deal.  The answer was that of the 14 schools on the list, 10 would be "absorbed" by the ASD.  Even if none of the neighborhoods were interested in the ASD, 10 schools will still be going in.
  • Parents may opt their children out of attending the ASD.  MCS has provided transportation to alternate MCS schools in some cases, and the ASD has provided transportation in other cases.
  • At least one of the schools on the list has gone from a Level 1 school to a Level 5 (the highest) schools.  The ASD did not really explain how it selected which schools beyond stressing that all schools being considered are in the bottom 5%, and that it is interested in taking over schools within particular feeder patterns.
  • The schools won't be operated as traditional charter schools - they won't open their doors to all students.  [I found this statement misleading, since I know that parents in my neighborhood received solicitations over the summer from Cornerstone Prep (formerly Lester Elementary) to enroll at the Lester campus.]
  • Parents encouraged the ASD to just use the money they would use to takeover the schools, to give directly to the schools.  Parents suggested that if their schools had all of the resources that the ASD has, the schools would be much more successful.
  • In the Frayser schools, 30% of teachers at the schools that were taken over applied to work in the same buildings - meaning that 70% did not.  Of those who applied, the ASD extended offers to about 75% of those teachers.
  • A pastor expressed concern that in two of the schools, the principals have had minimal time to turn things around.
  • The Achievement Advisory Council, made up of volunteers from the affected communities, will make its recommendations to the ASD in December, but the ultimate decision rests with the ASD.  The ASD said that the Council is not a government committee and is not bound to the open meetings laws, and that the meetings and their deliberations will not be public.
I had to leave early, but the portion I saw was fascinating.  I give a lot of credit to the folks who turned up to express their views.  I have to give some credit to the ASD folks (Malika Anderson and Chris Barbic) who were in the hot seat.

I have to say that I cringed a little bit every time Ms. Anderson (Broad-trained, and Michelle Rhee employee at DCPS) talked about "our babies".  I know she wanted the crowd to feel some affinity to her, but it was not comfortable to watch her try to ingratiate herself.  The folks I was sitting near in the back of the crowd were particularly put off by what they saw as forced familiarity.

One has to wonder what the "operators" who were present thought about the very vocal pushback.  The ones I recognized left before I did.

MCS Truancy Down by 65%

Strong article from Michael Kelley on the huge decline in truancy in MCS.

Good work by the School Safety Department to reduce truancy since 2009-10 by 65%.  Mr. Kelley writes that by working with its partners in the Shelby County Juvenile Court, the District Attorney General's Office, the Department of Children's Services, and the Department of Human Services, MCS implemented "innovative efforts that reduced the number of truancy incidents districtwide from 11,111 in the 2009-2010 school year to 3,857 in 2011-2012."
Over 11,000 to less than 4,000.

Mr. Kelley gets at one of the strongest criticisms regarding how truants manage to stay truant - where are the parents in all of this?  The government agencies that wrap around the families of persistently truant students are serious:  "The Department of Human Services holds a hammer with its authority to withhold public benefits from parents who don't make an effort to keep their children in school."

That it ever got that bad in the first place is disturbing.  But the progress is substantial and significant.  We have to hope that these kinds of partnerships and relationships between district staff and other agencies can be continued in the merged district.

Big Day for TPC Recommendations Tomorrow

At the last school board meeting (Oct. 30 Business Meeting), a "Special Call" meeting was announced for tomorrow, November 15, 2012.  Here's the agenda.  There's a committee to be appointed.  But the big news is that there's going to be a big update (and hopefully, discussion) of the TPC recommendations.

Here is the useless, uninformative document that is attached to the TPC agenda item.  The agenda item itself states only that "It is recommended that the Shelby County Board of Education approve the recommendations from the Transition Steering Committee (TSC)."

We're clearly still having some transparency issues.  The document lists the recommendations and has a "progress tracker" next to each recommendation.  The progress tracker is color-coded.  There is no explanation of what the color code is - just the actual colors.  For example, it's unclear if "red" means that the TSC is recommending that the recommendation not be pursued, if there's been no progress, or if the Board decision has been made.

Several of the recommendations that have already been passed have the designation of "addressed," others have "yellow" or "green".

I am convinced that the TSC will, tomorrow, as part of its presentation, explain what all of this means.  The problem is that the agenda and the document still do not indicate to the public what will actually be discussed at the meeting tomorrow - whether they should show up, whether they should speak, or even whether they agree with the School Board or district staff on the particular issues that are most important to them.

There is plenty that is good in the TPC recommendations. There is also plenty that is controversial - items that would be properly classified as part of the privatized, corporatized education reform movement. Somehow, the TPC managed to adopt these recommendations without having the real discussion about where these "reforms" originate, what the unintended consequences may be, what the actual impacts have been, and whether these recommendations are the right route to take. The TPC's shortcut was to look at the current state information carefully assembled by BCG, and then jump to a discussion of BCG's recommendations. The TPC's review of BCG's recommendations seems to have consisted of "wow, that sounds like a really good idea!" instead of any sort of critical analysis. Some of the committees were divided in what they submitted to the full TPC, but the TPC unanimously adopted its plan.

The TPC lost its first critical fight for its plan when it became clear that the School Board would not take an up or down vote on the plan. The TPC's best shot at getting some of the more painful, locally controversial recommendations adopted (for instance, the recommendation to close 21 schools, or the outsourcing recommendations - both currently classified as "green" in the document for tomorrow's school board meeting) was to avoid consideration of the recommendations one by one. SCSB Commissioner Kenneth Whalum proposed early on that the recommendations be considered one by one. He withdrew the related resolution, but the writing was on the wall. By the time the district staff submitted its proposed process for how it would work through the recommendations, it had been decided that the School Board would consider the recommendations piece by piece.

I think that's the right way to go, but it's the harder way to go.  And so far, the Shelby County School Board is missing its mark in trying to unwrap these recommendations in an open, transparent process.


Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Failing Charter Schools in Memphis

In Memphis, we're having a lot of discussions about schools that are in the bottom 5% of the 1,700 schools in Tennessee.  The state, since it won the Race to the Top grant, has decided that they way to "fix" the problem of the bottom 5% schools is to select a few and either operate those schools from the state level or farm out those schools to charter operations.  So that's the Achievement School District plan.

Because charter schools are the answer to lifting schools out of the bottom 5%?

Well, except for the three failing charter schools that have landed in the bottom 5%.  It turns out that the Memphis Academy of Science and Engineering, Memphis Consortium of Business and Law, and Memphis School of Excellence have moved around some of the deck chairs on the Titanic.  Until this year, only children from low-performing schools or low-performing children were eligible to enroll in charter schools.  So after attracting students from a number of Title I MCS schools, these charter operators have succeeded in becoming failing schools themselves.

The Tennesse Charter Schools Association lists 29 charter schools in operation Memphis and Shelby County (Shelby County really only has 1) for the 2012-13 school year.  This article states that of the 41 charter schools in Tennessee, 25 of them were in Memphis during the 2011-12 school year.

Of the 25 charter schools operating in Memphis last year, 3 are failing - that means over 10% of charter schools in Memphis are failing - and are eligible for takeover by the state or other charter operators.  This should be shocking.

Now comes news of intellectual honesty from the head of the ASD.  Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman recruited fellow TFA-alum Chris Barbic from heading a charter school district in Houston (which he founded) to head up the newly-forming Achievement School District.

These three failing charters have come to Mr. Barbic's attention since they fall into the bottom 5%.  And he thinks something should be done about it!  Jane Roberts writes, "Because the schools are in the bottom 5 percent, 'the district needs to take a strong look at closing these schools,' Barbic said."  So it's not just traditional public schools in the bottom 5% that should be closed, the same rule should apply to charters in that group.

Mr. Barbic even has some advice - the Shelby County School Board should close the schools over next summer, but make the decision early enough that the kids can find their places in other schools (meeting optional school deadlines, charter/private schools admission deadlines, etc.).

We know that the state will grant any and all appeals of charter school application denials by local schools boards, but if a state government education official tells you that the state will not fight you if you try to close failing charter schools - do it!  This is a financial stewardship issue - that has to do with the unwise transfer of public funds to private entities that are not able to fulfill their obligation to the taxpayer.  This is also an issue of moral obligation to the children that these charters claimed they could serve better than traditional public schools.

Last night, Mr. Barbic told a room of parents that he could make the case that the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee are among the worst in the country.  Today, the paper reports his statement that the state government will not prevent the Shelby County School Board from taking direct action on these three failing charter schools.  Time for direct action, Shelby County School Board.

Monday, November 12, 2012

Memphis Parents Unhappy About the Coming ASD Wave

The Commercial Appeal has an article today that describes the ASD's chilly reception by parents and community leaders at its initial meetings last week regarding the ASD's takeover of 10 more schools next year.  14 possible schools have been named, and 10 will be selected.  Here are my comments on last week's announcement.  Jane Roberts covered both Thursday meetings, writing that "[t]he crowds last week were angry that decisions had been made about their schools, where in some cases, the children are making progress, or the programs they offer are rare."

Malika Anderson (the Chief Portfolio Officer- whatever the heck that is - for the ASD) minimized the impact of the parents' comments on the school selection process by stating that "the tone and anger was the same" as in meetings earlier in the week with the faculty and staff.  But it was her next comment that really got me:  "It is really important for people to hear that they don't get just one chance to ask us questions, that we are here to listen and allow them to vent and to process the change that is happening.  When they are ready to engage in productive problem-solving that is going to support the kids in these schools, we're going to be ready, ready to hold their hand."  (my emphasis added)

I can only think that Ms. Anderson intended to be conciliatory.  It can't be comfortable to sit at the front of the room where the assembled crowd is "hot" - unhappy with the decisions you are making, seeking answers to some hard questions, and hoping to change your mind.

But that kind of comment is not conciliatory.  First, the tone.  You use language like "when you are ready to talk about this" to a child.  Or to a soon-to-be ex-spouse.  Not to parents concerned about their schools invited to an event to talk about their children's education.  The tone is condescending.  Second, the implication.  The substance of the statement implies that parents are not already engaging in "productive problem-solving" and certainly not ready to "engage in productive problem-solving that is going to support the kids in these schools".  Apparently, the ASD's belief is that the efforts taken so far in these schools is simply not "productive problem-solving" and does not "support the kids in these schools."  We all know that we're talking about bottom 5% schools that are eligible for the ASD - but several of these schools are making important strides - strides that should make us hopeful about MCS's and the individual schools' ability to lift the schools out of the bottom 5% without the state's "assistance."

Third, the statement itself.  The ASD makes clear that it is not interested in using parent and community input to inform their decisions about which schools will be absorbed by the ASD, or about the state's adoption of the ASD as a policy.  Ms. Anderson states that "we are here to listen and allow them to vent and to process the change that is happening."  Translation:  "Oh, the change is happening.  Feel free to vent, and we know change is hard.  But the ASD is SO happening.  We'll patiently wait for you to come around to our way of thinking, but we won't really be using your comments to inform our decisions.  We know best."

These meetings occurred on Thursday night.  On Saturday, Diane Ravitch published complaints that the local media had not covered the meetings and the public reaction at the meetings.  I'm glad to see the article today, and actually, I'd rather see the article on a Monday than buried on Saturday. 

Tonight is the next "batch" of meetings.  Memphis is poor - especially the neighborhoods surrounding low-performing schools.  Many folks in these neighborhoods lack transportation.  So I see the logic in the ASD's decision to go to several locations in a variety of neighborhoods.  I see less logic in making all of these meetings at the same time - it leaves the ASD open to criticism that it is attempting to "divide and conquer" any dissent. 

Because the ASD is working on such a condensed timeline, they have not left themselves a lot of time for their "community engagement" tour - but this is of the ASD's own doing. 

But since this "engagement" is really about "listening" to "venting", and not really about collecting input to inform government decisions, maybe this is the right approach.

Please attend the next meetings:
5:30-7:30 p.m. Hamilton Community Center, 1363 E. Person
5:30-7:30 p.m. Salem Gilfield Baptist Church, 3176 Kimball Ave.
5:30-7:30 p.m. St. Paul Neighborhood Center, 2124 E. Holmes

5:30-8:30 p.m. Operator-Community Night, Fogelman Center, University of Memphis.
* The ASD will provide free transportation to and from Tuesday’s meeting. Riders will be picked up at 5 p.m. at: Frayser Achievement Elementary, Cypress Middle, Shannon Elementary, Corry Middle, Graves Elementary and Hanley Elementary.

Sunday, November 11, 2012

How Well Do We Value National Board Certified Teachers?

Recently-named Tennessee Teacher of the Year Allyson Chick is a National Board Certified Teacher ("NBCT").  School districts often mention how many NBCTs they have as a point of pride.  In order to become board-certified, candidates engage in an intensive, expensive process that may take as long as three years to complete. 

posted about Ms. Chick first so that I wouldn't clutter her "Kudos" with this discussion.  And really, the title is misleading - there's a local debate on this subject (referenced in the title) and a national debate on this subject.  The national debate would be better described as "Should We Value National Board Certified Teachers?"

As part of the TPC work, BCG compiled the "current state" of teacher selection, staffing, compensation, benefits, evaluation, tenure, dismissal, and promotion.  On Page 41 of this 84-page report, BCG summarizes how MCS and SCS compensate teachers for achieving the NBCT designation, along with several other non-classroom activities.  Turns out that there's a big difference between how the two districts compensate their NBCT's.

SCS has about 10 NBCT's, and pays them an additional $2,000/year.

MCS has about 170 NBCT's, and pays them based on their years of experience.  Teachers with five years or less are paid an additional $5,000/year.  Teachers with 6-10 years of experience receive an additional $6,000/year.  Teachers with more than ten years of experience are paid an additional $10,000/year.

So that's one way to figure out how well we value NBCT's - you know, with actual money. 

Since it costs $2,500 for the "Assessment Fee" after the $565 for an "Initial" fee and an "Application" fee, an SCS teacher would have to work for two years before they see that money reimbursed in their additional pay.  MCS teachers see more than a return on their investment in the first year that they are certified.  And, of course, there's a disparity between MCS and SCS - a disparity that means that a MCS NBCT with 4 years of experience gets more than double the increase as an SCS NBCT with ten years of experience.

Another way to figure out how well we value NBCT's is to compare the additional compensation that NBCT's receive with the additional compensation that teachers receive for other activities.  Like, say, coaching.

If you are an athletic coach in MCS, you receive between $179 and $3,563 per year.  However, if you are an SCS athletic coach, you receive between $470 and $4,100 per year.  Both districts base their ranges on the sport and the teacher's years of experience.

In summary, an SCS athletic coach for the highest paid sport with the most years of experience will make more than twice in additional compensation as a NBCT than an SCS NBCT with 11 years of experience.  In MCS, all NBCT's make more in additional compensation than any coach.

Consider that the "how well we value NBCT's" discussion is against the backdrop of increasing student achievement, and basing teacher evaluation on student achievement scores.  Ms. Chick is an NBCT and has received the highest teacher rating (a "5") in her evaluations.  Without getting into a whole thing about the evaluation system, in order to get a "5", Ms. Chick's students are making more than one year's progress in an academic year (well, at least as predicted by a proprietary, secret logarithm based on student performance on a standardized test).  We, as a community, are trying to make sure that every classroom in MCS and SCS has a highly effective teachers.  Based on the selectivity of the process and the rigorous assessments that must be passed by the candidates, my guess would be that NBCT's are among the most highly effective teachers in classrooms.

Which brings us to the second, national debate.  The national debate has to do with whether achieving NBCT status is so desirable that it should merit additional compensation - against the background of proposed new compensation structures based on student achievement.  That is, whether NBCT's increase student achievement, and at a higher rate than non-NBC teachers.  This article from March 2011 touches on the debate - mentioning a 2008 study that found that the certification process successfully identifies good teachers, while noting mixed evidence that the process itself actually improves a teacher's practice.  The article discusses a debate in Washington state about NBCT's, but comes out squarely on the side of the certification being a desired credential worth additional compensation.  The debate was about how to make sure that "challenging" schools had equitable numbers of NBCT's.

If you extrapolate out the proposed new compensation structures (and I'm really talking about the national movement on that front, though the TPC does have some local thoughts about teacher compensation, generally) - the idea would be that NBCT's would not receive additional compensation from completing the certification.  Instead, where NBCT's actually increase student achievement, they would be receiving increased compensation anyway.  But the NBCT status would not lead to a bump on its own.

This 2011 John's Hopkins study found that "[a]lthough the process of NBC is an expensive, demanding, and time-consuming process for the teachers who undertake it, it appears that the benefits for our school systems, and thus for our students and communities, outweigh the costs. Given that our results suggest that the percentage of NBCTs has a campus-wide effect on student achievement, future studies should investigate this pattern further."  Here's a summary of the opposing position - in an article cheekily titled "Defrocking the National Board" from 2000.

Here's where I come out:  I think the national board certification process is a useful exercise.  In fact, calling it a "useful exercise" is kind of disrespectful to my friends that just about killed themselves for more than one academic year in order to obtain the certification.  My friends are obviously biased, but I think the process has made them better professionals.  They can talk and critically think about their practice in the classroom in a more analytical way that can only benefit the students they teach.  In terms of student achievement, I don't believe that standardized tests measure much of anything other than how well a student knows (or can guess) (or can regurgitate while not "knowing") a particlar concept - not how well that concept was taught by the student's teacher, or even whether it was taught.  So I'm not convinced that the student achievement measures - and particularly, the value-added measures that are currently so in vogue - are really a fair measure of teacher achievement (at teaching) in the classroom.  All of that said, my belief is that going through the NBC process and successfully achieving certification is an appropriate and desirable result on its own, and worthy of additional compensation on a yearly, go-forward basis.

My sense is that SCS is too low, but that MCS may actually be too high on a sustainable, ongoing basis (though I'm happy to entertain the position that even MCS is not paying enough, if anyone would like to make the argument).  The district could consider just reimbursing (or paying outright) for the process, with lower additional compensation/year.  But because of the importance of a teacher's practice in the classroom, the academic education of students being the primary goal of the compulsory attendance rules for elementary and secondary school - under no circumstances should an athletic coach receive more additional compensation than a teacher with a National Board Certification.

So maybe the merged district would start with how much it values its most experienced football and basketball coaches at its schools with the most prominent programs.  Put a dollar value on that for additional compensation per year.  That should be your starting point for your least experienced National Board Certified Teachers.  You know, if better classroom practice and more highly qualified professionals are your goal.

For any NBCT/athletic coaches, THAT could be some serious coin . . .

Kudos to MCS Teacher Allyson Chick, Tennessee Teacher of the Year

In October, Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman announced that Allyson Chick is Tennessee's Teacher of the Year.  Commissioner Huffman considered three finalists, one each from West Tennessee, Middle Tennessee, and East Tennessee.  Ms. Chick's accomplishment reflects very well on Memphis City Schools, which has not had a teacher win the award for 29 years.

Ms. Chick is a third grade teacher at Richland Elementary School, and is apparently well-loved by her students.  She's won a $5,000 prize, and will be competing in the national teacher of the year contest.  She's a hard worker on behalf of her students and her colleagues.  A National Board-certified teacher, she works late and attends her students' birthday parties.

MCS gets so much terrible publicity related to its problems, but often does not get any recognitition for the things that it is doing well.  MCS has problems, but it is able to attract and retain high-performing, effective teachers who are willing to work their tails off for their students, and are successful in lifting student achievement.

Congratulations, Ms. Chick!  Kudos on your accomplishments, and thank you so much for your hard work!

Saturday, November 10, 2012

Diane Ravitch is Paying Attention to Memphis

Diane Ravitch has two posts today about the ASD's planned expansion in Memphis.

Someone at one of the ASD's community outreach meetings sent in a report, and Dr. Ravitch writes that Privatization Picks Up Steam in Memphis.

In Other Litigation . . . Whalum!

My post earlier today about Commissioner Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr.'s Twitter incident reminded me that we're still waiting to hear how his School Board race turned out.

The August 2011 decision from Judge Mays explained how the parties (which included the former Shelby County School Board and Memphis City School Board) agreed to merge the school boards.  It's hard to give a short version of this, but everybody keeps their seats until the date of the merger in July 2013.  In addition to the 7 SCS Commissioners and the 9 MCS Commissioners, the Shelby County Commission appointed 7 new folks.  For a total of 23!!!!  Those 7 new folks come from geographic districts which will comprise the new School Board districts of the merged school district.  So this past August, while the municipalities were moving forward with their referenda, the "unified" district had elections for the 7 recently-formed seats for terms that will extend beyond the merger date.  Also in the mix is the very real possibility that the County Commission will add more seats to the School Board at some point after the merger date.

Clarifying:  for the School Board election in August, the 7 appointees could run for the seats to which they were appointed, and their challengers could be other (former) SCS or MCS School Board Commissioners (who would otherwise "fall off" of the Board next summer) or non-incumbents.  School Board Chairman Billy Orgel ran unopposed.  School Board Commissioner Vanecia Kimbrow decided not to run.  The other appointees all ran for their seats with mixed results.

Appointed to the District 4 seat, Commissioner Kevin Woods had to have known that Commissioner Whalum would be interested.  Commissioner Whalum is the pastor of New Olivet Baptist Church, and my sense is that among those who support him, they strongly support him.

It turned out to be a very close election, with Commissioner Woods winning by 108 votes.  The margin was large enough not to require a recount (originally reported as 88 votes, but certified at 108 votes), but Commissioner Whalum sued for a re-vote.

Admittedly, the August 2012 election was a calamity for the Shelby County Election Commission.  Incorrect ballots, and what seemed to be general incompetence surrounding some of the redistricting is a huge cause for concern.  My initial perception was that the problems seemed to occur mainly in the county, and not so much in the city.  And Commissioner Whalum seemed to be hoping that these overall problems may portend some judicial support in his dispute.

However, at a recent court hearing, it turns out that there were problems with ballots in District 4.

Now here's the Stand for Children part.  Stand for Children, like many other organizations, put out a list of its electoral picks.  They picked Commissioner Woods for the District 4 seat.  Stand for Children is still a relatively new organization in Tennessee, and is seeking to establish its relevancy and its muscle.  Well, Stand for Children sure made a splash in the August 2012 elections.

It's reported that Stand for Children spent $153,000 on the School Board races, and at least $40,000 in District 4.  School Board races are generally funded on much less (approximately $10,000 on the high end), so this much of an infusion is notable in local school board races in this area.

I think there are reasons to be concerned about Stand for Children, not the least of which are its out-of-town donors seeking to influence local School Board elections.  At the national level, Stand's founder, Jonah Edelman was recorded using strong anti-teacher union language and eventually forced to apologize for his (sarcastic, gloating, and disrespectful) tone.  Locally, Stand is clearly very "reform" oriented.  Though I'm not convinced that Stand is really a grassroots organization of any kind, it appears that the organization does listen to its recruited members - at least locally. 

But I don't think Stand did anything illegal or improper under the current version of campaign finance regulations.  I don't agree with the current version of campaign finance regulations, but I think Stand abided by them.

I'm not a fan of Commissioner Whalum, but I'm not exactly thrilled by Commissioner Woods, either.  Commissioner Whalum's attendance at School board meetings is spotty, and his press conferences are numerous.  Commissioner Woods' children attend private school, and I find him to be inconsistent in his philosophy.

All of that said, Commissioner Whalum can be good for comic relief and this lawsuit gives him lots of opportunities for one-man press conferences.  It will not be good for Memphis if this election was decided by the Election Commission's errors.  And we do believe in the rule of law, after all.  And so we sit, hoping for a quick resolution by Chancery Judge Kenny Armstrong.

Taxpayer Money Funding ASD PR Machine

I wouldn't normally encourage anyone to spend any time in the comments sections of our esteemed local periodicals.  It's of course hilarious that some of Memphis' most talented attorneys are chomping at the bit to get in up to their eyeballs with these commenters, but we'll have to see how Judge Mays comes out on that open question.

But something interesting is happening in the comments section of the Commercial Appeal.  Here's the first article (Oct. 22) where I noticed commenters engaged with a commenter named "AchievementCommunications".  The Commercial Appeal keeps a "user profile" on commenters that lets readers see all of the comments that a particular commenter makes on any article they commented on.  So I took a look at "AchievementCommunications"'s user profile, and sure enough, it looks like they are the real deal and actually employed by the Achievement School District.  This ASD employee actually gives a surprising amount of personal identifying information.  For instance:

On March 5, 2012 at 9:16 a.m.:  "I personally worked with Chris in Houston and my 6th grade class had 35 students in it, and yet, was still expected to perform with my students."  Hmmm.

Looks like AchievementCommunications doesn't post much, and many of the posts contain the boilerplate charter language.  You know, the usual.

Here's an example from March 5, 2012 at 9:23 a.m.:  "At the Achievement Schools, we are going to build a world-class organization for teachers. In fact, one of our goals is to become an employer of choice in education and be validated as one of Tennessee's best places to work. We accomplished this with our work in Houston and hope to bring some of those same lessons here. At the Achievement Schools, our teachers will be working on big challenges and will be surrounded by great colleagues. They will have managers that invest in their developments and they will have a lot of fun serving our students. We are excited to recruit the top performers in Memphis and from around the country to focus on what we feel like is the most compelling job in education: creating a system of schools in Tennessee that perform in the top 25%."

But in the Oct. 22 article about the low MAP scores (linked above), AchievementCommunications made clear that his/her role is at least partly one of containment.  Commenters apparently objected to a government official being paid to monitor and respond to comments on a media website - like this one:  "I like your spin, Mr. State-Funded ASD PR Machine. Thrilled to know that our tax dollars (taken directly from MCS) are being spent so that a PR person can monitor and respond to posts on media sites. If you're working after your usual hours, they really should pay you overtime." 

After a second attack by the same commenter on another article, the ASD eventually responded here with this:  "[T]hese are interesting thoughts. Our approach is to be a part of the conversation happening online. We find this kind of conversation rich and important. It helps us learn and it helps us clarify misunderstandings and misconceptions. In fact, we are cost evangelists. Our support team is light and flexible and 100% of the money gets sent to our schools first. Our principals decide which services benefit their students most and then pay back into those services. Does that help clarify? If not, you can email me at [email address] I can help explain that model. We feel like keeping open and honest lines of communication with the community is incredibly important."


Let's not take our eyes off of the ball here.

What the ASD is posting is not as important as the fact that they ARE posting.  Everyone knows that the commenters hide behind their handles for a reason.  Best case, they are provocateurs (even better - with some inside knowledge).  Worst case, they are trolls.  I've only seen a few people post under their real names - Ken Hoover (Germantown schools guy) and Kenya Bradshaw (TN Executive Director of Stand for Children) come to mind.  So I guess I admire the ASD's honesty and willingness to own their comments.  Have to give them that.

But I have to agree with the commenter that wrote:  "I understand having a PR department. We don't want teachers and principals losing instruction time responding to media requests. I'm not even opposed to a true PR professional working with media to try to place positive stories. However, this is something else entirely. Every dollar that this individual is paid is a dollar not being expended on student achievement. And that is a conscious decision made by the ASD. And that is a big difference between the approaches of public education and the charter mindset. The charter mindset is as much about positive PR and directing public discussion in a "purposeful" way as it is about what actually happens in the classroom. And they are willing to spend the money to do it, and are allowed to do it because they do not have the same level of public oversight and scrutiny to which traditional public education (and their budgets) are subjected. Disgraceful."

So AchievementCommunications is not a trained PR or marketing lackey - by his or her own admission, s/he was a classroom teacher in Houston for at least some period of time.  So maybe the ASD is just making up their PR plan as they go along.

But this Houston transplant is not bad at propaganda.  Just from the excerpts I've posted, the talking points are clear.  They're also not bad at deflection.  They'll reply to part of a comment or part of a question, without getting to the meat of the disagreement.  But what they really want to do is take dissent offline.  They offer their email address along with the opportunity to fully flesh out the important discussions taking place.  For those commenters that take them up on it, it just might keep their complaints off of the comments section (where they can't egg on other troublemakers) and it definitely keeps the ASD's more detailed response from having to be publicly aired.

But maybe the ASD PR department doesn't like being called out by the commenters.  AchievementCommunications hasn't commented on an article since October 25.  And the heat is up since the ASD announced that it was taking over 10 more schools.  Those articles, with some very unfavorable comments, are still pending a response from AchievementCommunications.  But maybe the ASD has changed its policy on worktime internet usage and/or governmental supervision of online comments.

So that leaves the ASD with just its usual PR plan. 

What do you mean that you haven't friended the ASD on Facebook yet?

Kudos to Charlie McVean

Here's a beautiful article about Charlie McVean, a prominent local commodities trader (and fan of horse racing) who is working to make things better in Memphis.

He founded Peer Power, an organization which
1.  Hires smart local students
2.  At a good wage (up to $10.50/hour)
3.  To tutor their peers
4.  At their schools

Mr. McVean is expanding his program outside of Memphis, after seven successful years at various MCS schools.  Ms. Roberts writes, "Peer Power started at [Whitehaven High School] in 2007, two years after McVean funded the first chapter at East. That spring, WHS algebra scores jumped 16 percentage points to 84 percent, still a meteoric rise for principal Vincent Hunter."

Excellent work, Mr. McVean.  Thanks for caring about your alma mater, East High School, and the students that now attend it.  Good work, MCS, for taking on Peer Power when it was a fledgling local partner. 

Love to see a story like this.

Here's more information about the Peer Power Foundation.

Hazards of Twitter, Whalum Edition

Here's a link to a blog, started today about a teacher's exchange with Shelby County School Board Commissioner Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr. starting on Twitter, and ending over email.  Here's a lovely photo of Ms. Malone, a special ed teacher at Kirby High School and member of Stand for Children.

It started with this twitter exchange as recounted by teacher Tamera Malone:  Earlier this morning I asked you a question about a comment you made on twitter. Your comment was “ASD is set to ‘take over’ 10 more inner-city schools. Entire staffs will be fired. Anybody still think the merger is a good idea?” My question to you was “even if we didn’t merge…wouldn’t those schools still be set for ‘takeover’ by the state because they are in the bottom 5%?” Your response was “your point?” I stated to you that “I was simply asking a question that would hopefully help me better understand the point you are trying to make.” You then responded, “and I am asking you your point.” 

So, I have to say agree with Commissioner Whalum - well, the first part.  Specifically, the first two sentences.  He's right.  There are ten schools - not sure which ones from the published list of 14 - at which most, if not all, of the current staff will no longer be working.

But then he takes a wrong turn - as he is wont to do.  "Anybody still think the merger is a good idea?"


He conflates the two issues.  One is the ongoing takeover of schools by the state.  Another is the gnashing-of-teeth process that is and has been the merger.  But the ASD has nothing to do with the merger.  No Shelby County Schools are eligible for the ASD because none of them are in the bottom 5% of schools in the state.  In this county, the only schools eligible for the ASD are in Memphis City Schools.  And unfortunately for MCS, of the 83 schools in the bottom 5%, 69 are in Memphis.

I'm not happy about the ASD's approach, but these Memphis schools are just too attractive to them for them to stay away because of a little old merger.

Commissioner Whalum finds himself in the (what has to be uncomfortable) position of being aligned with Commissioner David Pickler and the rest of the crew aligned in violent opposition to the merger of the two systems.  He is probably as astonished as anyone to find himself in that camp.

We get it.  Commissioner Whalum is opposed to the merger.  But Commissioner Whalum is turning into a one-trick pony.  It's not all about the merger.  There are lots of things to worry about with this merger.  LOTS.  But the ASD continuing to take over schools in Memphis does not prove that he was right about the merger in 2010.  And to those of us closely following education in Memphis, it causes him to lose credibility.  Well, that.  And not attending a bunch of School Board meetings, and leaving early from the ones he does attend.  Though I have to commend him for sitting all the way through the September business meeting.

Nov. 11 Update:  Apparently, Ms. Malone is just the latest in along list of local, interested denizens being blocked by Commissioner Whalum.