Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Poor Government Practice

As the citizenry of Shelby County, we have a right to be timely notified of government meetings and pending government actions.  In Tennessee, the so-called "sunshine laws" require that public notice of meetings be given 48 hours in advance of meetings.

It is unclear whether the Shelby County School Board 3.0 gave 48 hours notice of tonight's meeting, which will begin at 5:30.  And who knows whether they are actually required to publish their actual agenda before the meeting.  But somebody knows something.

Jason Miles, an Action News 5 reporter, knows something and tweets:

#SCS board member wants to take the "interim" out of Supt. Dorsey Hopson's title. I'll preview 2night's meeting on @actionnews5 at 5:00
Here's the link to the agenda.  I challenge you to understand what on earth "Item 1" listed as "Superintendent" means.  If you open the link, it's basically the top of a form with the word "superintendent" on it.  What does it all mean?
It means that without some insight from intrepid reporter Jason Miles, the public has no way of understanding what this meeting is really about, what proposal might be considered, and whether or not a vote will take place.  You see, this is what the Board calls a "Special Call" meeting - where the regular rules are suspended, and where a vote can take place without any public input (or public knowledge prior to the meeting of what the meeting is about) whatsoever.
The Board commissioners understand that we are no longer in an emergency, or operating under the fog of merger madness.  There is just no need for any substantive matters to be undertaken at a meeting of this kind - certainly not without fully advising the public of any proposals that may be considered, or seeking public input on those proposals.
I call Shenanigans.  The reality is that the Board has not been treating Interim Supt. Dorsey Hopson as an interim superintendent.  They've already deemed him worth only $5,000 less than former (academically-credentialed, career educator) Supt. Kriner Cash.  They seem not to mind being scolded by him in public.  But abandon a national search with all of its input-seeking meetings from the community and various high-powered stakeholders with privatizing interests?  They might give all that up?  Odd.
They've already got him committed for the school year.  And yes, they should be ramping up their national search in short order - unlike last year when they waited until the last possible second to start the search after the start of the new calendar year, against the advice of their high-priced headhunters and well, everyone else.  It took them much longer, earlier this year, to abandon their national search.  It seems awfully early in this version of the national search to end it.
But to present him as The Superintendent with no public discussion, as a fait accompli?
SCS Board Chair Billy Orgel and his Board colleagues, should take the initiative to engage in government best practices, just as they expect their administators, teachers, and other employees to.  When they schedule meetings, they should make sure that people have plenty of notice about meeting dates and times.  Can't we agree that publishing a meeting scheduled to take place just after a long holiday weekend should take place sometime before the last business day before the holiday?  The School Board should also make sure that proposals and recommendations are publicly disclosed prior to the meeting, and certainly in advance of any Special Call meetings and meetings where votes may occur.  As it currently stands, not only do we not really know what the meeting is about, but we don't know if we should show up, what the issues are so that we can comment on them, or if there will be a vote.
Maybe this is how the SCS Board v. 1.0 or how the SCS Board v. 2.0 did business, but it's not how the current School Board should do business going forward.  Let the sun shine in, and let the public be engaged with its elected officials and with its school system.  We should expect better, and they should know better.

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Did I Hear That Right?

In the final Work Session of the Shelby County School Board 2.0, I can't have been the only person dismayed by the comedy of errors that unfolded.  This mixture of inherited, appointed, and elected individuals just can't quite seem to keep it together.

Blunder after blunder.

There was Commissioner Mary Anne Gibson carefully explaining the root cause of the transportation problems to the man now in charge of transportation, Hitesh Haria.  It was kind of her to take the time to clarify just why parents were so upset.  Except for her fundamental misunderstanding of how budget cuts work, and how they impacted who was eligible for bus service.  You see, according to Commissioner Gibson, the expansion of the hilariously-titled Parent Responsibility Zone (handily-acronymed as "PRZ", since it's not a "thing" until it has an "acronym") has resulted in an increase of what she actually called "new riders".  There are just so many new families using bus service now, that Central Office should understand that these folks are frustrated because of their difficulties navigating transportation services.

Except for the fact that the changes to the transportation system were specifically designed to save money.  The way that the changes saved money, partly, was that the number of eligible riders was reduced.  Commissioner Gibson correctly understood that the PRZ had been expanded, but failed to understand what that did - that by increasing the number of parents now responsible for their children's transportation, there was a reduced number of riders.  There are definitely new riders, but it's not due to an expansion of bus service - any new riders would just be new to local schools or new to a neighborhood far enough way from school that bus service is provided.  Commissioner Gibson had it right that parents were frustrated, but her explanation belied some very fundamental misunderstandings about the impact of some of her votes for budget cuts in transportation services.

Commissioner Kevin Woods had a real doozy, too.  He started off okay - after all, he brands himself as a fiscal conservative, actively looking for any trace of waste, fraud, or abuse.  In the discussion about the delayed paychecks to about 130 teachers, what Commissioner Woods wanted to do, we can only assume, was ask about the level of attention paid to the possibility of accidentally paying people who shouldn't be paid.  And his question did actually lead to the newsworthy acknowledgment that Central Office accidentally paid a dead person.  Computers!  Data entry!  [Insert cuss word here!]

But Commissioner Woods couldn't have been more disrespectful in how he asked his question.  My description just above is quite generous, as it turns out.  What Commissioner Woods actually asked was how the school district was trying to prevent giving anyone an "extended vacation".  I'm not sure there could be a more awful way to characterize the current financial status of those employees that the district has been forced to lay off.  It's not just the terminations - that Commissioner Woods voted for - it's the hurry-up-and-wait approach that the School Board took to its critical staffing decisions.  Take, for example, a Central Office person who had been working long enough to be eligible for retirement but who was not selected for the positions to which they applied.  Not only were they not eligible for the much-touted severance packages because they were eligible for retirement (this, for the record, is called "being forced into retirement"), but because of the timing of the district's selection process and the timing of the state retirement office, such an employee would wait for at least two months for any income after their last paycheck.  Such an individual would not be eligible for unemployment either, because their employment ended with the school year and they had filed retirement paperwork.  They just had to wait.

The School Board did not exactly take care to make sure that their terminated employees, employees who had devoted their careers to Memphis City and Shelby County Schools, were treated as well as they should have been.  Add to this shabby treatment, Commissioner Woods' classification of any errant payroll payment to such an employee as contributing to that employee's "extended vacation". 

This is the same Commissioner Woods whose seat is now in question, and who must stand for election again since Chancellor Armstrong threw out the August 2012 election results for the District Four race.  Commissioner Woods will again face former MCS Commissioner Kenneth T. Whalum, Jr.  After Commissioner Woods' low blow to the district's laid-off employees, Commissioner Whalum had no comment.  Because he wasn't there.  Because while he still collects his School Board paycheck, Commissioner Whalum is currently (still) refusing to perform a critical function of elected officials by not attending the public meetings of the body on which he serves.  Good luck, District 4!

Unfortunately, the mis-steps were not limited to our inherited, elected (?), and appointed public officials.  New cabinet member and Chief Innovation Officer Brad Leon, proudly thirty days on the job, still is not quite sure how Innovation Zone schools have been selected.  The Innovation Zone is, of course, his primary area of responsibility.  Thankfully, Dr. Rod Richmond was there to fill in the School Board (again) about the process for selecting Innovation Zone schools.

Other high points:  the ongoing inability of Commissioners to correctly identify whether a staffer's first name is actually that staffer's first name or last name, a refusal to compare an initial charter school application to a revised charter school application in order to understand what deficiencies were addressed, and an apparent lack of memory of the Board's recent reauthorization of a charter school in the bottom 5% of the state (wait, there are charter schools that perform WORSE than traditional public schools?  yes.  yes, there are. and, um, you voted for them.)

An actual real-life gold star should go to outgoing Commissioner Sara Lewis who has apparently been running a free, volunteer taxi service for carless parents who are told to report to the Gray's Creek facility for certain student services.  Commissioner Lewis noted that no public transportation is available to the office building, and that some parents just cannot easily get out there.  Hopefully, a solution will be forthcoming.

Shelby County School Board 2.0 will end this week after its last business meeting.  Shelby County School Board 3.0 will be back down to 7 members - well, six anyway - for the September meetings.  The old SCS and MCS board members are not the only ones who have been doing some posturing in the two years since Judge Mays brokered the 23-member School Board deal.  Often, the County Commission's 2011 appointees tried to cast themselves as the voices of reason, above the fray of the bickering of the entrenched legacy school boards.  Less than all of them are correct.  My take is that we're about to find out if they actually have picked up enough skills to govern:  to ask the tough questions, to take the tough stands, to stand up to the public, or the superintendent, or to the state as needed.  Too often, the folks who are keeping their seats have been happy to deflect, to distract, to roll their eyes, to step out of the room for important votes.  Once there are only seven (six) Commissioners left, it will be much more difficult to avoid more individualized public scrutiny. 

I, for one, am hopeful that the robust discussions and full airing of important issues to which we've become accustomed will continue.

Friday, August 16, 2013

State Board to Revoke Licenses of Effective Teachers

Tomorrow, the State Board of Ed will consider changes to the state's teacher licensing process.  This comes on the heels of their unfortunate decision to lower the already-low floor of this state's teacher salaries.

So what is this about?  The state wants us to believe that this is about increasing the qualifications of teachers entering the profession, but it still provides the same license to people who have graduated with an education degree as those with five weeks of training after a bachelor's degree in a field unrelated to what they will be teaching.  The PRAXIS scores required in Tennessee are already higher than those in Arkansas and Mississippi which, at least in our corner of the state, means that our teachers are often better-qualified - according to the almighty test - than those in surrounding districts.  Of course, the PRAXIS is not required for the teachers that helicopter in from Teach for America and some other "alternative pipelines", so while teachers from the education schools still have to meet minimum requirements, there is no such threshold for favored "stakeholders".

If we want to "raise the threshold" by "increasing the minimum score", we know how to do that - believe me, the state education department is particularly good at that particular trick.  But Commissioner Huffman is not willing to submit a proposal that raises the threshold for all teacher candidates, only the teacher candidates without lobbyists.

The real debate in this latest round of the Haslam administration's efforts to put teachers in their place is over whether a teacher's license should be linked to their students' performance.

Let's start with how other state-licensed professions govern themselves.  Turns out whether we're talking about doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, or nail technicians, the license issued by the state has to do with whether the candidate has met Tennessee's academic and practical requirements, and maintenance of the license has to do with obtaining continuing education credits.  Revocation of the license has to do only with disciplinary issues, not generally with everyday performance.  Doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and nail techs don't have to show acceptable levels of performance, no one checks in on them, they mainly have to hope that none of their customers complains to their respective Boards.  Based on my quick review, most of the common reasons for discipline have to do with substance abuse or criminal convictions.

Certainly, I think that our children deserve better than the general public deserves from their doctors, lawyers, pharmacists, and nail techs.  Our responsibility to them, vis a vis their education, should be much greater.  But let's be honest about how we treat the most well-respected professions - we give them a high level of autonomy in how they provide their services, we generally allow the professions to govern themselves, and once they meet the entry requirements, as long as they get their continuing ed credits, we pretty much leave them alone.  That's how we treat professionals.

So let's just dispense with casting this proposal as elevating the classroom education profession to the level of "real" professions.

This is about a very particular kind of micro-management by the state's Department of Education, and it actually does not have anything to do with teachers, or really even the kids.  It has to do with principals and school districts.  The Haslam administration does not actually believe that principals and school districts will hire the "right" people.  As much as Commissioner Huffman and the TNTPers tout the concept of "mutual consent", they don't actually believe in it.

Cast in the most favorable light, here's the scenario that the state wants to prevent:  a teacher realizes that their overall evaluation score will come in at a "2" or below, and resigns before they are terminated.  They then seek another job in another district and manage to get hired, because their license is valid anywhere in Tennessee, where they continue to teach at an under-performing level.  ADDITION:  the proposal requires that teachers achieve a 2 in two of the last three years in both evaluation and the value-added measure, prior to the year where the license is up for renewal.

Look, no one's arguing that ineffective teachers should manage to effectively stumble their way to their more and more Datsun-like retirement benefits on the backs of under-educated children. 

But beyond arguing that Tennessee school districts don't have the ability to correctly evaluate job candidates that apply for jobs - that they could be tricked, Tricked I tell you, by a smooth-talking classroom teacher - or that they don't have the ability to ask the teacher about his or her performance and/or challenges, or verify it by talking to the teacher's former principal or district officials, Commissioner Huffman must believe that principals and school districts are protecting their own ability to continue to employ ineffective teachers.  In order to protect them from their bad decisions, Commissioner Huffman's proposal is to prevent these incompetent?  untrustworthy?  bumpkin?  bribed?  related?  principals and school districts from being able to continue to employ teachers by preventing those teachers from even being eligible to teach.

So why am I so concerned about these teachers?  Let's review the teacher evaluation system.  Test scores (well, TVAAS) make up 35% of a teacher's overall score, with another 15% made up of another test metric (chosen from several options) - this was true in both legacy districts (MCS using its own system, SCS using the state system), and is true in the merged district.  Back when BCG was comparing these things for the Transition Planning Commission, the average MCS overall score was 2.7, and the average SCS overall score was 2.9.  Review BCG's analysis here. 

So the average overall score in both legacy districts was in the 2.0 to 2.9 range.  Below 3.  Not the same as a median, but notable, primarily because of the outsize number of Level 1 teachers (more than any other Level) in each legacy.

So let's quickly review teacher evaluation.  Let me just repeat to you what I have heard at least a dozen district-level administrators explain:  a Level 3 teacher is a rock solid teacher, who is doing exactly what they need to do to get one year of growth from their classroom.  In order to obtain a Level 4 or 5, the teacher must be getting more than one year's worth of growth.  This is most important for students who are not proficient in a subject, who must make more than one year's worth of growth to have any hope of ever catching up to where they are supposed to be.

So why would any teacher worth their salt (or our taxpayer dollars) possibly obtain less than a Level 2?  Well, they might, for instance, be one of the 60% (SIXTY PERCENT) of teachers in this state who don't teach a tested grade or subject.  If a non-tested teacher teaches at a school that is under-performing, then they get the school's under-performing score.  Let's say a teacher only gets a Level 4 for their evaluation (remembering that Level 3 is rock-solid, meeting expectations, doing what they are supposed to do), and their school is a Level 1 school - that teacher ends up below the required Level 3 to maintain their license.  Here's a more accurate scenario lifted from Andy Spears over at Tennessee Education Report:  "Math Teacher has overall performance evaluation scores of a 3 in all three of the years before his license is up for renewal.  However, his value-added scores are a 1-2-1.  So, he’s license is not renewed, he goes under review and could potentially lose his license.
     Band Teacher has performance evaluation scores of 2-2-1 in the three years leading up to renewal.  Band Teacher has no value-added data. Band teacher is automatically renewed under the streamlined licensure scheme.
     So, Math Teacher, whose overall scores were higher than Band Teacher’s, is in danger of dismissal.  Band Teacher is renewed.  Math Teacher (and other teachers similarly situated) complain and/or sue."

Let's say that teacher is only a rock-solid teacher who is exactly meeting pedagogical evaluation expectations and gets a rock-solid Level 3 - they better be teaching at a Level 2 school or better.  Why would they ever teach at a school doing worse than that if they had any choice in the matter?  You know, if they want to maintain their license?

Under this rubric, a Level 1 teacher terminated for ineffectiveness may not lose their license, but a Level 4 or Level 5 teacher per the evaluation could lose their license and their ability to teach in the state of Tennessee because of the school at which they teach.

This is the part where the Haslam administration will explain to you that they are trying to minimize the number of teachers who teach in untested subjects and grades by promoting the standardized testing of students in kindergarten, first, and second grades.  The test promoted by the state is the SAT-10.  How do you test students who can't read?  Why, you read the test to them.  Because you don't have enough teachers to individually read the tests to each student, you seek volunteers - volunteers who you hope won't let the inflection of their voice suggest answers.  After all, it worked for the ASD's schools, right?  When they had to recruit volunteers, in some instances from some of their philanthropic-funding organizations to "proctor" the exams to students who couldn't yet read?  Totally reliable - testing children who don't yet know how to fill in bubbles with recruited volunteer proctors with no education training.  Should be fine.

It is, of course, in the Haslam administration's interest to reduce the number of teachers whose scores rely on kids not currently in their classrooms.  A similar scheme in Florida - where teachers at K-2 schools were evaluated based on the scores of the 3-5 schools that their kids fed into - was invalidated when the state legislature passed a law that teachers could not be evaluated based on the scores of students that they didn't teach.

Why else should we be concerned about these teachers with low scores?  The Gates folks want us to believe that a great teacher will be great anywhere.  What the research shows is that for teachers who stay in the same school, "teachers who were ranked the highest on average produced the highest student achievement the following year".  This makes sense within a school - where kids are more or less from the same kind of neighborhoods year-over-year.  The researchers did not attempt to move teachers to different schools.  We know, intuitively, that's that a different question entirely.

It will take at least another post, maybe a book, to explain why I just don't buy that student test scores are an accurate measure of teacher effectiveness.  My conclusion is that student test scores are fundamentally unreliable indicators both of how well a teacher taught the material, or of how well a student learned the material - there are just too many other variables.  Those variables keep a teacher's overall evaluation scores, likewise, too variable.  Read here about a teacher's whose scores have fluctuated from a Level 5 to a Level 1and back.  While the state reassuringly tells us that the test scores are a snapshot, one measure of student achievement, I'm yelling plaintively "the test scores are only a snapshot, only one measure of student achievement!"

I'm also convinced that there are shenanigans in the teacher evaluation process, but that's also another post I haven't had time to write.  While the state is concerned about principals inaccurately judging their teachers too high, I'm concerned about principals using the evaluations to undermine teachers they don't like.  Ask many of the excessed teachers Level 3, 4, and 5 teachers of Shelby County whether they were fairly treated by their principals during that process, or whether less-good teachers were kept because the principals liked them better.  By trying to convince us that teaching can be accurately measured by purely objective methods ("objective methods" administered by humans observing other humans and making judgments about those humans), and trying to take subjectivity out of the equation, the state has created a situation where principals are incentivized to manipulate the objective measures to take their sometimes-very-valid, sometimes-much-less-valid subjective concerns into consideration.

These proposed changes are yet another solution without a problem.  I don't believe that there's a historical problem with poor teachers manipulating their way past hapless hiring officials and principals, hopscotching their ineffectiveness across the state by lying about their abilities. A teacher's performance is easily verified by previous employers.  Linking student performance to licensure will reduce the number of effective teachers eligible to teach (Level 3 and Level 4 teachers in untested subjects at Level 1 schools, for instance), particularly in under-performing schools, where the new policy will also contribute to the instability of more constant turnover, as teachers are incentivized to get out of those under-performing schools just as quickly as they can.

Another solution without a problem creating more problems.  Hard to say whether Commissioner Huffman likes the solutions to those problems - increasing non-traditional teacher pipelines - even more than this disingenuous solution which will absolutely have the effect of reducing the number of traditionally-trained effective, rock-solid, experienced teachers in hard-to-staff classrooms.

If you'd like to know more about the Tennessee Board of Ed, here's the link.  Our representative from Memphis (the 9th Congressional district, anyway) is Teresa Sloyan, the Executive Director of the Hyde Family Foundations. 

If you'd like to email them your views, you can just cut and paste this list:

frolston@ecu.org, medwards@knoxvillechamber.com, lroberts@trh.com, cpearre@comcast.netjarogersod@bellsouth.net, ayers.janet@gmail.com, wrightmelvindds@bellsouth.netteresa.sloyan@gmail.com, richard.rhoda@tn.gov

The Third District representative does not have an email address listed, and there is no information about the student member of the Board.

[Author's note:  I've updated this article as of the evening of August 16 to better reflect the details of Commissioner Huffman's proposal.  I appreciate your patience.]

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Orange Mound for Sale?

Orange Mound is one of the most important neighborhoods in Memphis.  Orange Mound was the first neighborhood in Memphis built with the intention of having black residents.  This is in contrast to other black neighborhoods that turned into black neighborhoods due to white flight.  A number of prominent Memphians have their roots in Orange Mound, and Melrose High School continues to have a very active alumni group.  Orange Mound has seen violence and blight, and its schools have struggled.  However, in the face of all of that, The Mound remains, in many ways, a cohesive neighborhood proud of its heritage and engaged in its present.  As a Memphian, I've been pleased to see that the neighborhood has seen some resurgence in recent years.

Orange Mound is a neighborhood that is the focus of a great deal of education reform attention.

Last summer, Stand for Children plopped down a significant portion of its anonymously-donated $154,000 school board election money in Orange Mound.  The goal, depending on how you look at it, was to elect Kevin Woods or to keep Dr. Kenneth Whalum from being elected.  A couple of articles about those election expenditures:  here and here.  It's not looking good for Commissioner Whalum in his lawsuit regarding the election results.  But here's what he said shortly after the election:  "If our children are for sale, I need to know exactly how many votes they are worth," he said in a press conference Monday outside the former election commission offices Downtown, according to the Commercial Appeal in an August 6, 2012 article.

Let's just mention that Commissioner Woods is the same Kevin Woods that the County Commission is trying to protect by re-drawing the lines of the districts, so that the school board district lines would not exactly match up with the County Commission district lines.  If they don't make an exception for him, then Commissioner Woods would be in the same geographic district as Chairman Billy Orgel, and they would eventually have to run against each other if they both wanted to stay on the school board.

The Achievement Advisory Council, a group appointed by the Achievement School District, considered last fall which of the city's schools should be given to which charter operators.  The AAC actually recommended that two Orange Mound schools (Hanley and Cherokee Elementary Schools) be given to Aspire charter schools, a California charter looking to expand nationally.  The ASD declined to go that far and gave Aspire only one school, Hanley Elementary. 

The state closed Hanley Elementary at the end of the school year, but you wouldn't know it if you drove past it.  Trying to avoid the mistakes made by Cornerstone prep, Aspire won't be changing the school colors or the school name, hired a few Hanley teachers, and has been ingratiating itself (to the extent that it can) in the neighborhood.  According to the Commercial Appeal, it paid for a trip to California for community members to visit a school, it hosted a "game night", and planned to provide massages and pampering for parents at coming recruitment events.  So the state gave away the school, and now, as part of its "recruitment process", Aspire hopes that its "investments" in the "community" will yield enrolled students.  Investments like trips to California and massages.

And look at all the money Aspire has to "invest", according to the Commercial Appeal:  "It applied for and received $800,000 in innovation funds this year to cover startup costs."  In addition to: 
"[its] budget is based on receiving $7,797 in state and local funds per student. It will also get up to $300 per child for capital improvements, plus $1,500 for every special education child. It will also receive $300 for every child who qualifies for free or reduced lunches. It estimates 90 percent fit that bill, according to its application to the ASD.  It also anticipates up to $28 million from philanthropists as it builds out its network. In five years, Aspire intends to take over 10 low-performing schools here. Initially, it will serve K-5 students. By 2018, it expects they will be K-8 schools, with approximately 564 students in each."

So what does it cost to buy your way into Orange Mound?  Maybe not as much as you expect to get out of it.  Fair trade?

It will be interesting to see what else Aspire has up its sleeve in terms of its expenditures of philanthropic and California tax dollars, all in the name of gaining more Tennessee tax dollars.  Looks like there's cleared area off to the side of the parking lot.  Can't be a playground - Hanley already has a pretty new one in its courtyard, and Orange Mound is not exactly under-parked.  Wonder if Aspire has another "investment" in mind . . .

Friday, July 12, 2013

Good Press for Corporate Reform

"Pipelines".  Sometimes pipelines have to do getting natural resources from the Yukon down to refineries off the coast of Texas.  In Tennessee, the discussion now often has to do with teachers.  Reformers proclaim that education schools are not producing enough teachers to fill open spots in the teaching profession, and that even if there are enough grads, there are not enough education school grads that become effective teachers.  To remedy this "problem," other "pipelines" for teachers must be developed.  Here in Memphis, we have a couple:  Teach for America and Memphis Teacher Residency come to mind.  We know that these "pipelines" often expand past their stated purposes and actually push out grads of traditionally credentialed, degreed rising teachers graduating from the nation's education schools.

No surprise, then, that the next step would be to replace credentialed, experienced, degreed administrators with "alumni" of similar "residencies."  Here's the article from Bill Dries.  Mr. Dries writes, "Education Pioneers has agreements with the state-run Achievement School District, the Tennessee Department of Education and charter school companies KIPP, Gestalt Community Schools, Promise Academy and LEAD Public Schools, among others."  ASD Supt. Chris Barbic is very excited about it.

So what's the program?  How does the residency work?  Mr. Dries explains, "[t]he program recruits students pursuing their master’s degrees still in school and those in the business sector just out of graduate school for roles that [Education Pioneers Southern Region Executive Director John Troy] described as 'the managers, the leaders, the data analysts that work outside the classroom to support the important work that teachers do each and every day.' There is a specific program just for data analysts and a different program for those closer to the classroom functions. 'They can work in everything related to financing, developing budgets, doing policy analysis, writing the curriculum that teachers might use inside the classroom, the people doing the analysis to dig into student achievement data, teacher effectiveness data,' he added."

Did you catch all that?  Education Pioneers is recruiting MBA's and MBA candidates to work in education.  Education Pioneers wants us to know that they have a highly competitive process, and that once these MBA's graduate and are selected for a "fellowship", they attend ten whole weeks of training (this is the residency part) after which they are qualified to be data analysts or even to write curriculum.  I suppose, the logic goes, that if it only takes 5 weeks to be an effective teacher for TFA recruits, ten WHOLE weeks of training will make these MBA's even more qualified to take on "leadership" roles both in schools and in central offices.  According to Mr. Dries, they've got nine fellows training right now in Memphis - they began back in June - with more to come in the fall.

Nothing should surprise us anymore.  While I might agree that data analysts don't need an education background, it is worth mentioning that districts, for the most part, simply do not have the luxury of having data analysts on staff.  Analyzing data (student achievement, teacher effectiveness, etc.) gets done by people that have other things on their plates - people like assistant superintendents.  Teachers have to learn it on the fly, though local education schools are now better incorporating the use of data in teacher training.  There just aren't a lot of these jobs available in traditional districts.  But there are a lot of these jobs available in charter schools.  My point is simply that data analysts are a luxury that traditional public schools just can't afford without help, from Gates, just for example.  I could maybe be convinced that this is a job that districts should fight harder to be able to afford given the over-reliance on test data - it would be difficult, but I'm not completely inflexible.

However, writing curriculum?  Really?  In MCS and SCS, curriculum often is worked on by committees of teachers, donating their time over the summer.  These committees are a lot of work, and are usually viewed as an honor to work on - at least partly because they recognize the great classroom work of the teachers selected.  For Education Pioneers, this really is new ground.  These MBA's declined to go to an education school as part of the undergraduate experience.  Then, when they graduated, they usually go to work for the best businesses and consultants they can.  Then, they apply to the best business schools they think they have a shot at.  Now, in their second year of business school, they're recruited by Education Pioneers, to join the education industry - never forget that for many, it is an industry.  You see, they have to be recruited because they just haven't considered getting into the education industry before.  On their website, Education Pioneers explains that you, too can invest in the very expensive process to "attract, develop, and retain" future executive-level education leaders, at a rate of $5,000 per fellow.

After all of that attracting and recruiting, 70% of their fellows work full time in education.  If we called it a graduation rate, it wouldn't reflect all that well.  But these fellows, according to Education Pioneers, who have not taught, not yet been involved in education from a providing-it standpoint, after ten weeks, are qualified to write curriculum.  Astonishing.  Guess it's no surprise at the list of local "partners" who have bought into the hype.

As you can tell, I didn't actually think that Bill Dries' article was all that favorable to Education Pioneers.  Well, through the wonders of the internet, and perhaps an indiscreet Facebook status update, I'm aware of at least one person who disagrees with me.  Go back to the article.  Scroll all the way down to the comments.  Where it says, "Press to see more comments"?  Keep pressing.  Eventually, you'll see a comment from someone named Eugine Chung.  Ms. Chung writes:  "If you are still wondering where I work.. (which is totally understandable). Great article which our External Relations team thinks it's the best they've seen."  On the Education Pioneers website, you can read Ms. Chung's bio here.

I cringe on behalf of Mr. Dries.  The subject of an article "thinks it's the best they've seen."  Mr. Dries correctly described Education Pioneers' intention, along with the state's intention.  I could always stand to have our local journalists look at the various forms of corporate education reform with a more critical eye.  Since I'm not a journalist, I don't know all the rules, but you probably are supposed to report on what people tell you about whatever it is.  I can't fault him for that.  But the effect is that Mr. Dries has written an article that the External Relations team (because like many in the education industry, Education Pioneers can afford an External Relations team to try to place articles) loves, according to inside source Eugine Chung.  How unfortunate.

If I could make a suggestion about the follow-up article.  I'm interested in knowing the very talented, newly-minted MBA's that have come to Memphis for their fellowships.  How many stay?  What are they paid?  What are their job titles?  What is the value of the contract between these local "partners" and Education Pioneers?  How much does it cost to put on the ten whole weeks of training?  Who pays for that?  Where do they live?  How much does that cost?  Who pays for that?  Let's watch this one unfold together.

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Commissioner Chism's Charter School

Two weeks ago, I posted about a suspicious charter school board of directors.  At the time, it was unclear how several Shelby County Commissioners came to be on the Board, with at least one of them (a school district employee, no less) disclaiming all knowledge of why his name appeared on the list.

Just to refresh your memory, this is the STEAM Academy Charter School which claims to be part of something (as yet unregistered with the state) called the George Washington Carver Consortium.  STEAM applied to open a new charter school in the fall of 2014, and the school board rejected the application.  The contact person associated with the charter school application is Thessalonia Brown.

I speculated that there must have been a mistake in filling out the application or that the entire application was a prank.  Though I considered it, I rejected the idea that any of the County Commissioners had anything to do with it - that the only way these guys would be on this list together was if they had been drugged.

I begged someone in the media to take on the task of unwinding what I was sure was a case of stolen identity, forged signatures, and perhaps a dark political conspiracy.

Lesson learned.  Turns out (with great thanks to the Commercial Appeal's Michael Kelley) that it was just a run of the mill conflict of interest crossed with a healthy dose of signing-people-up-for-something-they-don't-know-about.  Here's the article, with the relevant paragraphs here:

     "Burgess said after the meeting he had no idea how his name wound up on the document and had never agreed to serve on a charter school board. Bunker said he had requested that his name be removed from the list, and Chism said he was removing both Bunker and Burgess from the list of board members.
     Chism, who organized the board, rejected the notion that his service on it created a conflict of interest as a member of the school district’s funding body because his term on the commission will end before plans call for the charter school to open."

Now that there are some more facts, there are, of course, only more questions. 

Let's start with the fact that County Commissioner Sidney Chism put his colleagues' names on a list without their permission.  Maybe he thought they would be honored to serve with him on a charter school board.  Maybe he thought no one would see the application, and he could sort out the board at a later date.  Maybe he was banking on the prestige of the board he "assembled" to lend credence to the application.  None of these are good options.  At best, Commissioner Chism has received what we would hope would be an unnecessary lesson in how one might go about assembling a board for a non-profit - with consent of the individual directors as the first step.

Next, we have to wonder why Commissioner Chism was not listed as the contact person for the application.  At the very least, Commissioner Chism's relationship to this hypothetical charter school must be clarified.  Is Commissioner Chism merely the appointed chairman of the board who is now charged with appointing the other board members?  Or is Commissioner Chism trying to open a charter school?  Did Thessalonia Brown bring him into the mix, or did he bring her into the mix?  With charter schools, I'm always interested in the qualifications (academic and personal) of the people proposing to start a new school.  Maybe Commissioner Chism has been sitting in the back of school board meetings anxiously taking notes on school governance.  Maybe not.

And then there's the conflict of interest.  Commissioner Chism sits on the body that funds public schools in Shelby County.  The school board requests funding from the body on which Commissioner Chism now sits.  The process over the years, and this year, has been contentious.  Commissioner Chism claims that because his term would end before the school opens, there is simply no conflict of interest.

Commissioner Chism's elective term ends on August 31, 2014, according to the County Commission website.  The school year for most schools in Shelby County (public and private) will start prior to August 31, 2014.  In the summer of 2014, the County Commission will consider the budget for the 2014-15 school year, the first school year that his charter school would exist.

Not only is Commissioner Chism's application to open a charter school considered by a body that is actively seeking funding from his government entity right now, but Commissioner Chism would next summer sit on a body considering funding for a school district that would fund his charter school.  Even if we assume that Commissioner Chism's charter school would not open until after Labor Day, leaving some time between leaving his seat on the County Commission and the first day of school, and that Commissioner Chism is correct that the school would receive no public funding prior to his departure from his Commission seat, he would still be sitting on the body that funds the body that funds his charter school.

This is a much more direct conflict of interest that the old conflict of interest that currently has Commissioner Chism sidelined in the current budget votes.  The old conflict of interest, raised by County Commissioner Terry Roland, has to do with Commissioner Chism's ownership of a day care provider that is in partnership with the school district.  Behind the paywall, County Chief Administrative Officer Harvey Kennedy explained that the day care does not receive county money, and that the money for the wrap-around services goes directly to the medical or other service providers, and not through the facility.  The eminent Jackson Baker weighs in here.  But Commissioner Roland has rustled up some form of an investigation into this conflict of interest, and Commissioner Chism is playing it safe by not voting on the budget while the process plays itself out.

I'm inclined to agree that CAO Kennedy is right that Commissioner Chism has not been voting in favor of funding that directly benefits his business.  So it's not a direct conflict of interest.  The conflict is that his business has a relationship with the school district, even if not financial.  The school district seeks funding from the body on which Commissioner Chism sits.  Can both the School Board and Commissioner Chism function free from influence where there is this relationship?  Can either exert influence on the other due to this relationship?  Does it matter if that influence is intentional or not?

The legal eagles (and the ethics commission) will figure that out, but it seems likely that this is not exactly corruption, or even a punishable offense, and probably not even a Conflict of Interest in the strictest sense.  But let's not condescend merely to meet the minimum requirements of ethical behavior.  I continue to argue that our public officials just shouldn't get that close to the line, and that we should maintain high expectations for the people we elect to represent us.  Better to avoid the appearance of impropriety.

What's good for the goose is good for the gander, no?  I'm not experiencing physical pain, but I rarely agree with Commissioner Roland.  And I want this county budget to pass.  The School Board has already done damage to the quality of the educational services that the consolidated district will be able to provide next year, and it is strictly due to financial constraints.  Further cuts would be devastating.  Jackson Baker explains that there are no spare votes, no wiggle room.  And we've watched the dysfunction play out this week as the County Commission has been unable to fund a schools budget that it has already approved.  As much as I'd love Commissioner Chism's vote, I agree with his decision to recuse.

It is unclear why he would further complicate his various relationships with the school district with a charter school application. 

Monday, July 1, 2013

Some Pretty Badass Teachers

Teachers are getting mad, and they're not going to take it anymore.

Within the last two weeks, teachers around the country have been joining together, first on Twitter, then on Facebook, and now in life (and at the National Education Association).  They are assembling against the culture of constant for-profit standardized testing, and the long list of education reforms that have failed to serve the students as touted.  Since they've finally realized that there's nothing civil in how they've been treated over the course of the last generation, they've coalesced around the cheeky, not-suitable-for-the-classroom moniker, the Badass Teachers Association. 

From Facebook:  "A note on the name: There have been many discussions about the name of the group. There are some who feel it is offensive or unprofessional to use the word “badass” and are uncomfortable with its use. We disagree. As Dr. Naison says: 'We've had enough. We are not your doormats. We are not your punching bags. We are some of the hardest working, most idealistic people in this country and we are not going to take it anymore. We are going to stand up for ourselves, and stand up for our students even if no organization really supports us. We are Badass. We are legion. And we will force the nation to hear our voice!'"

Grassroots movements take some time to form - especially when they form organically.  Some self-proclaimed grassroots organizations (say, Studentsfirst, or Stand for Children) require the funding of the Waltons and the Gates and the Broads to fund their priorities.  This actual badass grassroots movement is now 20,000 teachers strong - in about two weeks.

They're tired of being the fallguy for everything that's gone wrong in education.  They will no longer accept the blame for the societal issues that are driving much of the under-performance in our schools.  And they are standing up for themselves, and for the students that they serve.  They're pretty much badasses.

How do we know that this is an actual grassroots movement?  That it's not some ploy by the Big Bad Unions?

Well, the national convention of the National Education Association is occurring right now in Atlanta.  The NEA is the largest union and professional association in the United States.  The NEA is often held up as the monster hiding in the closet that keeps those terrible, career teachers paid and not closing the achievement gap.  You know the propaganda, right?

The Badass Teachers are making life a bit difficult at the NEA conference.  While the "BATs" (as they like to be known) don't have a Common Core litmus test to join them, they are very suspicious of the implementation of the Common Core.  They've adopted a stance that questions the lack of teacher involvement in the development of the standards as well as the impact on students who will be subject to new standardized tests.  Apparently, last night's remarks by the head of the NEA, which amounted to unequivocal support of the Common Core, went over like a brick with the BATs.  They're making some noise, and they just may be causing some more extended discussion - or even a split.  (Full disclosure:  I'm also concerned about the implementation, but I don't have an issue with the development of national standards.  That post is for another day.)

Here's their blog, and their facebook group (which is a closed group, so I can't see their wall . . .).  They're great fun to follow on Twitter at @BadassTeachersA, and we now have a Tennessee branch as well:  @TennesseeBats.

Are you a badass?  Don't you want to be a badass?

Thursday, June 27, 2013

Movement Against Huffman

Earlier this week, I drew attention to a petition to remove Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman from his position.  I didn't mention it before, but be careful on change.org - only sign the petition you intended to sign.  A number of people have found that they signed seemingly-innocuous petitions in favor of changes in public education, only to find that they are now counted as members in Michelle Rhee's astro-turf organization, with no way to get off of her "list".

Now, a few days later, there's also a Facebook page where Tennesseans are airing their grievances on Commissioner Huffman's experimental policies.

UPDATE:  There are TWO facebook pages mobilizing against Commissioner Huffman:


And they are showing up as a sponsored ad and sponsored page in my facebook feed.  Interesting - someone's putting some money into this thing.

Is this thing gathering a head of steam?  Even if it did, is Governor Haslam engaged enough to care?

Let's at least make him notice.

Challenge. (Lay-Offs Part II)

There are a number of hard-working laid-off educators and support staff to whom I want to offer my unqualified support.  I don't want the career educators in Lament. (Lay-Offs Part I) to get mixed up with the folks I'm talking about in this post. 

This process has been a real challenge to those in charge at the unified district for all of the obvious reasons.  But I hope that the powers that be have taken the opportunity to clean house in a meaningful way.  There are a number of people, on both sides of the house, that can appropriately be shown the door.  The real challenge is to know the difference between the people we should miss and the people we should not.

I encourage us to pay very close attention to has been selected to stay in administration, both at the school and Central Office level.  We haven't seen the list yet, and we can hope that we will actually get to see a list or a staff directory to let us know who has stayed and where.

If this fiscal climate requires that people be shown the door, it matters who stays.  Old political loyalties should not be taken into account, nor should ongoing alignments with School Board members.  How a person got their job in the first place should be.  I'm not sorry to see the back of anyone who got their job because of who they were sleeping with.  I'm not sorry to see the back of anyone who can't speak cogently about their work without dedicated staff (who actually do the work, and cover their boss's inability to do so) whispering in their ear.  I'm not sorry to see the back of low-performers who got their jobs because they are related to high-performers.  I'm not sorry to see the back of anyone who landed at Central Office because they were being disciplined, or had to be moved because of accusations of poor conduct at their old school.  These are people that probably should be shown the door anyway, and the merger is an opportunity.  These kinds of staffers are ammunition for reformers, and we shouldn't have needed the merger to usher them out. 

I'm looking for meritorious appointments of people who have earned their positions, and who deserve more money than we can afford to pay them.  I'm suspicious of leap-froggers who have such a learning curve that those that report to them have to train them in their job functions.  People have long memories around here, and they remember who got passed over when, and why.  Let's make sure we've limited the "why's" to meritorious and job performance reasons this time around.

Lay-offs have been a terrible by-product of this merger.  Even a couple of ill-considered appointments by the new brass disrespects those who are not asked to stay.  We've seen it happen before at transitions to new superintendents.  It took years for SCS to recover from the damage to morale wrought by a (not-the-most) recent superintendent's appointments.

We know it's a challenge, but it's important that this be done in a way that makes sense.  I'm aware of at least some decisions that make a lot of sense, but there's still time to fix any mistakes that have been made.  I know I'm not the only one looking forward to the new org charts and/or staff directories to see who has been invited to stay on in the unified district.

Lament. (Lay-Offs Part I)

I'm heartsick for you.  I've been laid off before, and I know well those feelings of loss and uncertainty.  There are many of you who put your heart and soul into the work of educating our children, and many of us are grateful.  Grateful for your years of service in the face of a revolving door of short-time superintendents, unpredictable and sometimes foul-mouthed supervisors, constantly changing standards of performance shaped by the wind of whatever trendy un-tested education reform has come into vogue, unexpected promotions for questionable colleagues, a County Commission that undervalues the worth of educating our children or how much it costs to do so, and school boards up to their eyeballs in politics.

In the name of your commitment to our children, you've lost sleep, worked more hours at more difficult tasks than we paid you for, given up family time, comforted criers, maybe shed a few tears yourself, tried to decipher how to do your job better, assisted children with problems that we could not have imagined at that age, and often taken some level of abuse from our children, our elected (and appointed) state and local officials, parents, your bosses, and often self-proclaimed state and local "stakeholders" who have decided that they simply know better than you do.

I'm a supporter of the merger, and I remain a supporter of the merger.

There are a lot of folks who can directly blame the merger for their job loss, and are correct to do so.  Either s/he, or their counterpart on the other side of the building, was going to be notified that their service was no longer needed.  When both of those people were more than qualified, wonderfully talented, and so committed to their jobs that they worked in favor of the merger of their departments knowing that their job, and those that report to them, might not survive that merger - it's just heartbreaking.  We knew that day would come, but it doesn't make it less hard.  Thank you for your service.  It is valued.

But there's another batch of folks who have been made casualties not of the merger, but of unwillingness to acknowledge what it takes to educate children, what it takes to provide the educational services to which all of our children should be entitled, and who has been pulling the purse strings.  We just didn't have the votes, in the end, for the financial support to keep your job - and for a lot of jobs both in the classroom and the office.  I didn't see that coming. 

I thought that there might be some political games, some grandstanding, some cheap shots.  But I thought that when it came down to it, our politicos would act in good faith and fully fund the cost of public education in Shelby County.  Instead, they've used the merger to punish those with whom they disagree, hoping to lay the blame for the loss of your job at the feet of others.  They haven't convinced me that it's about fiscal responsibility, or about what tax burden we can bear - it's been about what political cost they can extract. 

And so you suffer.  And I know that your sense of loss is not just for yourself, but also reflects your concerns about whether the services that your position or your department provided to our children will continue with the remaining staff, and how the kids will respond, personally and academically, to reduced or discontinued services.  I share your concerns.  This level of funding will bear out a dimunition of educational services, and under Norris-Todd, I thought I understood that it simply couldn't happen.  Even after the Transition Planning Commission recommended increased class sizes and reduced educational services, I still thought that our elected officials would stand in opposition to actually forcing a reduction in educational services for our children.  It's no comfort to me that I'm not the only one who was wrong.  For this batch of folks, I am particularly heartbroken.  Your service is valued, and I wish our local elected officials valued it the same way, searching for a path for you to continue in your service of our children.

I'm praying for you and your families, hoping that you land on your feet, and sending you strength to keep your head high in honor of the work that you did and what you accomplished for our children.  Thank you for your work and for your sacrifice.

Here's Part II.

Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Charter School Bedfellows

Is it possible that County Commissioners Wyatt Bunker and Sidney Chism are much closer than they lead their constituencies to believe?  We know that signing on with some ed reform policies can make for strange political bedfellows, but is it possible that Commissioners Chism and Bunker want to form a charter school together?  Could it possibly be?

Gratefully, I report that the radio broadcast was clearer than usual, though I would ask the school board to remember to use their microphones.  In any event, while the School Board considered whether to accept the recommendations of staff to deny the four remaining charter school applications, Commissioner David Reaves asked an unusual question.  Most of the time the actual charter school applications are kept pretty close to the vest - we, the public, don't get to see most of the information on the applications, just the staff's summary of some of the weaknesses.  This time, Commissioner Reaves asked whether one of the charter applicant's Board of Directors could be publicly disclosed.

The charter school applicant is something called the George Washington Carver Consortium (apparently still available to be registered as a business name with the Tennessee Department of State), applying to open a school called "STEAM Academy Charter School".  The school would serve K-5, and lists Thessalonia Brown as a contact person.  After the question, there was some delay during which another question was answered as staff searched for the list of board members for the Consortium.

On the list of board members were several sitting County Commissioners - I caught Sidney Chism, Wyatt Bunker, and Melvin Burgess, along with a Ricky Wilkins and several others whose names I didn't recognize or now remember.  In response to School Board Commissioner Reaves, Superintendent Dopson said that he also thought this list was strange.  Supt. Dopson explained that he asked County Commissioner (and schools auditor) Burgess about his inclusion on the list.  County Commissioner Burgess denied knowledge of being on the Consortium board, basically saying that he had not been asked.

Bizzare, no?

So what's going on here?  Well, there's an outside chance that Commissioner Burgess is misremembering things, and these guys - including Commissioners Bunker and Chism - have, by mutual consent, climbed into a charter school bed together.  It seems much more likely to me that these guys have been roofied.  That is the only way I can conceive of these guys ending up in said charter school bed.

Maybe this is an honest mistake by Thessalonia Brown.  Maybe she thought the form was asking for her dream team charter school board, or she somehow misunderstood how to fill in the blanks.

Just possibly, despite all of the web of conflicts of interest, members of the elected body that funds our public schools have formed an entity that would also benefit from that funding.  (My money is on "it's not this one")  (SPOILER ALERT:  womp, womp.  it's this one, kind of.)

Or maybe, though I find two Thessalonia Browns in Memphis on Facebook, there is no Thessalonia Brown.  In this scenario, she's a shadow, using a nomme de guerre to enter a fake charter school application.  But for what purpose?  To get a fake charter school approved?  To bring these County Commissioners to the school funding table?  Simply to find a way to get these notoriously oppositional Commissioners on the same list against their will?

Obviously, I prefer some version of the latter scenario.  There is so little that is funny in what is happening at School Board meetings, that almost any levity is appreciated at this point.

On a serious note, if this is a prank, then it is one that abuses the process.  The district's charter school office had to treat this like a real application, expending resources on the application and completing the rubric that evaluated the application.  Staff had to write a report on it, and present it to the School Board.  The School Board had to vote on it.  If this is a prank, this prankster should be billed for the needless expenditure of scant resources.

Someone in the press will run this down for us, right?

Monday, June 24, 2013

Petitioning Against Huffman

It was bound to happen.  Governor Haslam's Department of Ed appointee, Commissioner Kevin Huffman has had a couple of years to show his stripes, and show them, he has. 

Parents and teachers, along with others in the state who care strongly about truly Public Education, are starting to reach their limit of experimental policies, corporate mandates, and outright disrespect.

A Tennessean has started a petition to the Governor for Huffman's removal.  You don't have to make your name public on the petition website, though it will be on the petition presented to the governor and both houses of the legislature.  We can hope that retaliation would be difficult and inefficient, but regardless, I encourage you to take a stand with others across the state and respectfully request Huffman's termination.

I suppose it's true that we haven't seen the rubric by which Commissioner Huffman is evaluated, hard to know if his livelihood is tied to student achievement, or who would perform his in-person observations.  But we're seeing the effects of his hastily-enacted policies in the morale of our educators, in the revolving door of new teachers and the resulting instability for our poorest children, and in the highly-prized, high value contracts he has awarded to profiteers.

Sign the petition here.

Saturday, June 22, 2013

Ed Reform Translation Service

Do you ever have trouble following the thread of the conversation when you talk to these ed-reformer types?  Once they learn the patois of that industry, it's hard to understand what they're really saying.  It's all "data-driven", "no excuses", "you're supporting the status quo", "we have to break up the government monopoloy".  It goes on and on.  What are They Saying?

Thankfully, Chicago blogger Karen Fraid is not afraid to try to sort it all out for us.  My perception is that the reform agenda in Chicago is comparable to the reform agenda in Memphis and Tennessee. 

Take a look at "Volume I" and "Volume II" of her Reform-to-English dictionary.  The Washington Post picked up the posts, and published the first volume.  UPDATE:  Volume III is out!

Here are some of my favorites:

Accountability (noun): The act of holding children responsible for choosing to be born into the wrong families or in the wrong geographic locations.  Alternately, the act of penalizing teachers who do not advise at-risk students to quit school quickly and avoid wasting everyone’s time and money.
High-Stakes Test (noun): An assessment in which the margin of error is often greater than the desired gains; nevertheless, such assessments have the power to close schools, fire teachers, cause children to repeat a grade, defund districts or schools, cause states and municipalities to lose funding, fire administrators, shame communities, stifle economic growth, increase dropout rates, disenfranchise parents and children, increase race-based segregation, increase crime rates, raise taxes, burden local governments, increase poverty, pit neighbors against each other, determine which students can attend well-funded schools or institutes of higher learning…[Editor’s note:  Actually, this term is pretty much right-on. -K.F.]

Incentivize (verb): To make people offers they literally can’t refuse.
21st Century Skills (plural noun): These are what students gain when an educator is replaced with an iPad.  How else will kids ever get enough screen time if we don’t provide it in schools?

School Choice (noun): This is when politicians choose to close a public school and instead choose to pay their campaign donors to operate a charter school.  School choice also refers to subsidizing upper-income families and religious institutions with tax dollars, often redirected from “failing schools.”  School choice also refers to the choice made by charter and private schools to discriminate against students with disabilities, students in extreme poverty and high-risk students by choosing policies guaranteed to skim only the students that they choose.  School choice is also used as a tool to stem the tide of white flight, without having to convince white folks to spend time with those unlike themselves.

Boy, she's good.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

Huffman Will Reduce Teacher Pay. Tomorrow.

Tennessee Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman says that he values teachers and the work that they do.  Commissioner Huffman wants to "re-structure" compensation systems so that the "best" teachers make the "most" money.  We "of course" want to "attract" and "retain" the best teachers.

According to the Commercial Appeal, the Tennessee Board of Education is poised to, TOMORROW, adopt the recommendation of Commissioner Huffman to reduce teacher salaries across the board.  The Memphis Daily News also covers the story (no paywall).  Here's a link to the old salary schedule - from the choices on the right, select 2012-13 for the most recent salary listings.  Here's a link to the salary schedule that will go into effect on July 1, if the state Board of Ed approves it tomorrow.  Under the proposal, the top step, which maxes out in Year 11 and an "advanced degree," is $40,310.  The current schedule differentiates among the advanced degrees, and maxes out at Year 20 and a doctorate with $54,105.

Thankfully, the Commercial Appeal has done the math (or asked other people to do the math) for us:  "The Tennessee Education Association estimated that over a 30-year career (the minimum required for full retirement benefits in Tennessee), the aggregate missed earnings is $69,025 for teachers with master’s degrees, $145,960 for those with master’s plus 30 years, $200,705 for those with education specialist degrees and $319,855 for those with doctorates."  The article also explains that "Clay, Hancock and Pickett counties pay at the minimum; 20 districts pay within 2 percent of the minimum and about half pay within 10 percent."  By my math, that means that more than 30 of the 135 districts in the state pay more than ten percent above the pay schedule - Memphis and Shelby County were both in that group of comparatively high compensation districts.

Commissioner Huffman will be the first to tell you that this change to the salary schedule does not require that local school boards adopt this minimum level of compensation.  It only sets the floor, and it cannot affect anyone who is already employed by the system.  My guess is also that Huffman would tell us that he encourages local school systems to exceed the minimum standards in order to "attract" and "retain" the "best" teachers.  He could encourage them to do that by not lowering the minimum levels of compensation, but he would rather just verbally and philosophically (and hypothetically) encourage them to do something in the future

But we all know what happens when the floor is lowered, right?  We're seeing it right now as plans for the merger progress and are implemented.  On the Transition Planning Commission's recommendation, many aspects of educational services, from class size limits to assistant principals, are being adjusted to the state's minimum requirements.  And the community is accepting and supportive of these reductions, no?

The basics of this is that the current talking points of the reform movement say that when teachers get their master's degrees or other advanced degrees, that the degrees do not lead to increased student achievement, and that years of experience in the classroom also do not lead to increased student achievement.  Therefore, teacher pay should not reward getting older and going to school.  In this discussion, we also usually hear from someone in the "private sector" who says "I don't get a raise every year" and "I don't get paid unless I do my job".  This is easily refuted by even simple television sitcoms like The Office, and of course, the unfortunate statistics regarding US productivity and consumer spending and debt levels.  But whatever.  Experienced, highly educated teachers just simply are not worth their weight in gold according to Governor Haslam's Education Department.

But let's say that what I call "talking points", you call "facts".  Perhaps my "evidence" regarding fictional television shows isn't "compelling".  Commissioner Huffman is still being sneaky.

Also according the Commercial Appeal's Richard Locker, "the governor two years ago proposed a bill to eliminate the state minimum salary schedule and leave pay fully up to local school boards. [Then] Haslam pulled the bill after lawmakers, including leaders of the Republican majority, opposed the idea.  Huffman submitted the new plan as a rule change to the appointed State Board of Education in April as the legislature was adjourning for the year. The Board approved it on the first of two required readings on April 19. The second and final vote is set for Friday."  It is worth noting that even with a Republican Super-Majority, this proposal was not a legislative priority of the Education Department.  Either that, or the Commissioner couldn't get anyone to carry the bill. 

There are at least a couple of levels of sneakiness here.  Not only is there the avoidance of the (Republican super-majority) legislature that would likely (okay, possibly) decline to adopt such a dramatic reduction in teacher pay, but there's the fundamental change in philosophy behind the unfortunate salary schedule being pushed through merely as a "rule change" by an unelected state board.  Commissioner Huffman, along with those who tell him that he's right, often believe that elected officials just won't make the hard education policy decisions because they might lose the next election.  That's not really a view that supports a democratic system of government, but that is the approach being taken here:  couldn't do it in the legislature, so let's still make it happen even though it couldn't happen in the legislature because Tennesseans don't want it. 

This is also a state board that apparently is not considering whether to adopt minutes from the last meeting, so there's no draft of the minutes to review in order for the public to understand who was present, and who voted which way.  Following the minimum rules of Tennessee transparency, and providing the public with as little information as possible . . .

If you'd like to know more about the Tennessee Board of Ed, here's the link.  Our representative from Memphis (the 9th Congressional district, anyway) is Teresa Sloyan, the Executive Director of the Hyde Family Foundations. 

If you'd like to email them your views, you can just cut and paste this list:

frolston@ecu.org, medwards@knoxvillechamber.com, lroberts@trh.com, cpearre@comcast.netjarogersod@bellsouth.net, ayers.janet@gmail.com, wrightmelvindds@bellsouth.netteresa.sloyan@gmail.com, richard.rhoda@tn.gov

The Third District representative does not have an email address listed, and there is no information about the student member of the Board.

Please take a moment to send a note to these appointees to let them know that you support teachers, and that you oppose the reduction in pay for Tennessee's teachers.

If you can't get past the Commercial Appeal paywall, try these links to the story in other publications:
Chattanooga Times Free Press
The Leaf Chronicle

Here's the TEA's notice about the salary reduction.

Monday, June 17, 2013

Pickler Makes the Washington Post

Former Chairman of the (1.0 version of the) Shelby County School Board, current District Five School Board Commissioner, and newly-installed President of the National School Board Association David Pickler wrote a piece for the Washington Post last month.  In an article called "What's Wrong with School 'Choice'?  Here's what", Commissioner Pickler takes a strong stand against school vouchers.

Do we remember the competing voucher bills in the Tennessee legislature?  Back when our very own Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown) kept trying to expand the governor's proposed voucher program to folks with higher incomes?  Back when he became Exhibit A of the supermajority's inability to parlay their elective success into actual governance?  Back then, we learned that Republicans, even when they can't agree on how such a program should look (or just how much money should be transferred to religious schools), support vouchers.

That the various voucher programs keep getting declared unconstitutional, as they have in Louisiana and in a new iteration in New Hampshire, is irrelevant.  But Republicans generally have adopted vouchers as a legislative priority, and a fair number of Democrats also support voucher programs.  They have a number of euphemisms for the concept:  "school choice", "opportunity scholarships", "subsidizing religious schools with low endowments who need a quick way to increase enrollment."

Dems have been dealing with internal disagreements over education reform issues for quite some time - after all, Michelle Rhee claims to be a Democrat, and we've seen a rise in astro-turf-not-quite-grass-roots groups like Democrats for Education Reform trying to take root on college campuses.  Maybe some internal disagreements on education reform issues exist among Republicans as well.  I can't speak for Commissioner Pickler (and hey, he might not want me to), but my best guess is that he is a Republican.  Interesting.

Commissioner Pickler's Washington Post piece is good stuff.  Though it was published after the heat of the state legislature's debacle, and focused more on the national debate than the vagaries of the proposals in Tennessee, the piece is chock full of actual argument instead of fluffy talking points.

Some of the lines that "resonated" with me (that's consultant-speak for "stuff I liked"):
  • "Imagine a state outsourcing the education of its disadvantaged children to dozens of private entities, asking for only minimal updates on the students’ learning and their financial management of taxpayers’ dollars."
  • "This ill-devised [Louisiana] law—which was designed as a template for other states—was driven primarily by outside forces that want to make big profits on the backs of our nation’s most vulnerable children."
  • "The Louisiana voucher law gives up most accountability for school finances or student achievement when it hands over the taxpayers’ check. The schools that take fewer than 40 voucher students are not even required to show any data for their students’ learning. These schools are not required to hire certified teachers or teach the skills students need for higher education and the workplace in the 21st century."
Good job, Commissioner Pickler.

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

Ding, Dong, the TCAP is Over

But that witch just won't die.

Now that the infernal test has been put to rest for the year, gosh, it's hard to know where to start.  Lots to process, of course:  another fully-salaried, shorter legislative session is complete; the School Board seems delirious as they wander in the wilderness; the County Commission has come up with what it's willing to fund and it's unrelated to what it costs to, I don't know, actually educate children; and the fatigue is visible on the faces of district staff who may or may not have jobs at the end of next month.

And I'm pretty sure that the Special Master actually used his words and spoke at the Board meeting last night.

And the Grizz won.

More coming soon.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Mayor Wharton Changing Tune on MPD in Schools

Mayor Wharton seems to have come full circle on how he feels about the Memphis Police Department's involvement in Memphis schools.  Back in 2010, he couldn't abide anyone besides MPD officers in schools.  Since the surrender of the charter, he's had trouble concealing his glee about no longer having a "maintenance of effort" for the Memphis schools, and finding new ways to spend the $68 million annually that had gone to the schools.  This has included ending the presence of MPD officers (School Resource Officers, or "SRO's") in Memphis schools.  As of the end of January 2012, it had been made clear to the TPC that school security in the merged district would not include the MPD.  Now, here we are two-thirds of the way through the first quarter of 2013, and we find that Mayor Wharton is again an advocate for the MPD's presence in Memphis schools.

Back in November, in one of my earliest posts, I wrote that Memphis has a responsibility to continue to provide police services in Memphis schools - just as all of the municipalities that have police departments plan to do.  At the time, I incorrectly assumed that this was a Police Director Toney Armstrong decision.  Mayor Wharton is now making clear that this decision - whichever way it goes - is all "his administration's".  Mayor Wharton seems to have come to a renewed understanding of the benefits for the city and its police enforcement efforts that stem from a police presence in schools:  here he comments to Channel 3, and here, he explains his position to the Memphis Daily News.  This is very late in the planning process, and we can hope that Mayor Wharton will expedite his decision making process so that everyone else can get underway with necessary planning.  It may also be that Mayor Wharton has missed his window entirely, and that because other government entities have had to make do without his administration's input, they have already made their plans.

As I explained in the November post, neither district is able to fully reimburse either the MPD or the Sheriff for the services that our provided in our community's schools.  Most of the safety and security services, therefore, are paid for as part of the MPD and SCSO budgets - unlike both school systems, who fully fund both of their in-house security teams and make lump-sum payments to MPD ($1 million/year) and SCSO ($200,000/year).  Back in November, I was surprised that without any input from the School Board, the County Commission selected the most expensive way to provide safety and security services to schools, and decided to hire additional sheriff's deputies at a cost of $2 million per year (actually, a low-ball effort since Mayor Luttrell acknowledges that the actual cost is likely more than double that amount at about $5 million).  But maybe it's easier to give more funding to the Sheriff than it is to give more funding to schools.

My view is that as long as most of the municipalities in Shelby County are stepping up to the plate with in-school services, Memphis should not be the only one to walk away from schools within the city limits - especially where that means some other law enforcement agency has to shoulder that burden, possibly at a higher cost.  All of that said, it may well be that specially-trained in-district security staff at significant cost savings may be a strong option.

So here's a perfect project for our new Special Master - an issue that is vital to the smooth operation of all of our schools on Day 1, involves multiple parties, where pretty clearly no one is talking to anyone else about how to resolve it, has to do with multiple funding streams, and presents a good opportunity to gain efficiencies for the taxpayer if only Someone would limit the need for negotiation and just tell the parties how it will be done.