Thursday, January 31, 2013

Cornerstone Situation Continues to Devolve

In the 2010-11 school year, Cornerstone opened a private, religious kindergarten intended to serve the Binghampton neighborhood.  Originally located near Binghampton, Cornerstone failed to secure a neighborhood location, and at the last minute, was able to use borrowed space at Christ Methodist for the 2011-12 school year for its kindergarteners and first graders.  Now in its third location in three years, Cornerstone finds it embroiled in controversy.  I've written about it here, here, here, here, and here.

The absolute last thing that the Achievement School District and Cornerstone's East Memphis backers could have wanted is what is actually happening:  allegations of mistreatment of students, community protests and meetings, and now, the involvement of state legislators and former Mayor W.W. Herenton.

I don't believe that most of the allegations against Cornerstone teachers and administrators rise to the level of child abuse.  Confiscating shoes for playing with the laces, or tying them at inappropriate times - excessive but not abusive.  Strict policies on bathroom breaks for K-3 students - again, perhaps excessive, but not abusive.  Nonsense, but not abuse.  Grabbing children by their arms to change their direction or get their attention - well, it will depend, but that gets closer to "abuse".  It will depend on the language in the statute, but it is unlikely that the Department of Children's Services will find that outright abuse has occurred.  If it does, that will be an entirely different problem.

I don't believe that child abuse is the central issue of this discussion about Cornerstone's place in Binghampton.  The central issues of this discussion are how Cornerstone came to take over the Lester School, and Cornerstone's approach to the children and the community that it serves.  Cornerstone administrators believe that they are uniquely situated to serve God by educating the children of Binghampton.  They will tell you that those who are criticizing the charter school are wrongly focused on issues that are not related to the education of the children - issues like the school colors and the name of the school.

The truth is that in trying to solve the problem of the "soft bigotry of low expectations," the pendulum has swung too far in favor of "no excuses," constant test prep, and bootcamp discipline.  Add in a stable of inexperienced teachers, a proud but poverty-stricken part of town, and state-level decisions made without community input.  Should anyone be surprised that there is some tension in the neighborhood?

What they're missing is that part of the education of children is how we treat them. For those children that succeed and go on to college from humble beginnings - like those in Binghampton - eventually, they will understand that their own experience was very different from the kids in the "better" parts of town.  That silent hallways and silent lunches don't fly in East Memphis.  That in other parts of town, classroom management and school discipline just don't look the same.  These children from Binghampton, these kindergarteners through third graders, somehow, because of their geography and socioeconomic status, are treated more harshly than they should be.  And more harshly than East Memphis parents would allow their children to be treated.

Cornerstone will tell you that they are doing everything they can to work with parents, and to understand where there are problems.  We are now seeing some backlash to the backlash - parents of Cornerstone students professing that their children are benefitting from Cornerstone, and are doing better academically than they did before. These parents now feel that their voices are being drowned out by the complaining parents and community members who (they claim) weren't concerned about the failing school in years past.

But even with all of Cornerstone's efforts, they've overlooked critical outreach opportunities.  In this supportive-of-Cornerstone story on, we learn that parents, just Monday, formed a PTA.  This means that the ASD does not have a policy requiring a parent organization at every ASD school, and that Cornerstone did not see fit that one should be formed.  Communication has been on Cornerstone's terms, only as it has seen fit.  It has taken this unfortunate situation to galvanize parents to form this organization themselves, well into the second semester of this school year.  They seem to be supportive of the Cornerstone administration, and hey, they're entitled to their understandings of what is happening inside the walls at the former Lester School.  But let's acknowledge that this newly-formed parent group is evidence of the ASD's and Cornerstone's failure to invite parents to engage in an official capacity.  One-on-one meetings?  Yes.  Grade-level meetings?  Yes.  PTA?  No.  There should have been a PTA at every ASD school from Day 1.

That's the first step - having an official parents' organization sanctioned by the school, and welcomed into the school.  The second step should be a much more public board for Cornerstone - the Board really should meet in public (since they are spending public money and performing a government function), but at the very least they should provide a way for concerned parents, or even just involved parents, to interact with the Board.  There is always somewhat of a disconnect between administrations of schools and the families they serve.  It is a benefit to parents to have public officials to whom they can raise issues of perceived unfairness or problems at the school or to pass along kudos for work well done.  There should be a way for parents to go over the principal's head to the governing body of decision-makers - parents must be given the opportunity to be heard by officials other than those directly involved in the situation.

This is the issue that underlies most of the unhappiness in Binghampton over Cornerstone's school takeover.  Parents don't feel heard by the people who should be listening in the school administration, and the community feels that it has no recourse for what appear to be the school administration's arbitrary decisions that affect not just the school, but the community writ large.  The Shelby County School Board couldn't help them.  The Cornerstone Board does not have announced, public meetings.  The ASD also does not have public meetings, and in any event, they outsourced this particular school to a charter school.  The Cornerstone Board selected the principal and the Executive Director.  The Cornerstone Board is the only entity that can explain the policies and practices undertaken by the Cornerstone adminstrators, and that the Board has not taken any action to affirmatively engage with parents or the community in what should be public Board meetings is unfortunate.  Complaining to the principal is one thing, complaining to the decision makers is something else entirely.

I have two takeaways from this debacle.  One is that Cornerstone supporters are correct that a few isolated incidents should not brand all of the educators at Cornerstone as inexperienced taskmasters that can't tell the difference between a whiny child trying to get out of class and a bathroom emergency.  I would also offer that Cornerstone's hypothetical success, which we won't actually be able to confirm or deny until next summer's release of this year's TCAP scores, should not be viewed without taking into account the full picture of how Cornerstone treats ALL of its student body and the community from which these young children emerge.  If sacrifices have to be made on the altar of raising test scores, we should understand as a community exactly what those sacrifices are and whether we are actually willing to make them. 

The second has to do with Dr. Herenton.  Dr. Herenton has decided that retirement does not suit.  Dr. Herenton's applications to open nine charter schools were denied last year.  On appeal, the state approved all nine, and among the schools he will operate as part of the W.E.B. DuBois Consortium is a school for students incarcerated by Juvenile Court.  But Dr. Herenton has not rested on his charter school laurels, or on what must be an intense schedule to open so many schools in time for the 2013-14 school year.  At this week's School Board Business Meeting, General Counsel (now Interim MCS Superintendent) Dorsey Hopson announced that Dr. Herenton submitted a letter with petitions from the parents at two MCS schools requesting that the schools be taken over by Dr. Herenton's charter management organization.  More on this later, but I have to wonder if the ASD schools are subject to the current parent trigger law in Tennessee.  All it requires is the signatures of 60% of the parents, and approval from the school district.  Can a charter even takeover a charter?  Not that the ASD would approve it, but there's not exactly an exception to the rule written into the ASD's enabling legislation.  It can't be a good sign for Cornerstone that Dr. Herenton has taken an interest in the former Lester School campus.

Monday, January 21, 2013

What's In a Name?

Back in October 2011, at the very first meeting of the "unified" Shelby County School Board, Commissioner Patrice Robinson started off the festivities with a motion to add an item to the agenda, namely that the name of the Shelby County Board of Education be changed to "Unified Shelby County School Board".  The item got added to the agenda, but the proposal died.

Gosh, so much has happened since then.

Michael Kelley now tells us that the clock is ticking if the Board intends to change its name in advance of next school year.  Apparently, such a change involves things like state legislation, and logos on buildings, cars, and stationery, along with myriad other considerations that only the respective legal and PR teams care anything about.  The subject came up at this past Friday's Transition Advisory Council meeting.

The TAC is made up of various "stakeholders", and chaired by School Board Vice-Chair Teresa Jones.  Also on the TAC:  School Board Commissioners Snowden Carruthers and Freda Williams, Transition Planning Commissioners Daniel Kiel and (Mayor) Mark Luttrell, Sammy Jobe & Keith Williams (heads of the SCEA and MEA, respectively), Parents Sharon Farley and Veronica Collins, and Terence Patterson, Education Program Officer for the Hyde Family Foundations.  The TAC started meeting last October.

Of all the things to be worried about.  And of all the things to be worried about RIGHT NOW.

Just switching all of the MCS logos over to SCS logos - on vehicles, on school id's, on school letterheads - will be a significant expense.  With a district double-the-size, there are just many more things with the MCS logo than with the SCS logo.  I haven't seen this cost as a line item anywhere, but we haven't exactly had a proposed budget yet, either.  This is a cost directly related to the merger, and must be taken into account somewhere.  It probably doesn't need to be done for Day 1, but it probably should be completed by the end of the school year 2013-14.

Converting all of the current logos to some new logo will be even more expensive.  As a matter of financial stewardship, it seems excessive to go through this sort of large scale branding change.  It would be even more excessive to go through this branding process more than once - a likely possibility given the uncertainty around the potential municipal school districts.  Nothing like naming something "unified" right before it gets broken up into pieces.

There's sure to be a political argument about whether "Memphis" should be reflected in the name, whether the new iteration of Shelby County Schools should be reflected in its name, whether it's important to reflect that this is a "unified" school district.  No one has convinced me that this is anything other than a political discussion, with little actual impact on anyone or anything except the Commissioners having the discussion.  Calling the unified district "unified" next year will not make it more difficult for the municipalities to leave the district, it won't make them look bad while they do it, and it won't really reinforce any sense of "unity".

Particularly while this entire region is in such a period of flux, and the future unified-then-to-be-dissected district is so financially strapped, why incur the cost?  And why incur this cost by This version of the School Board when the eventual School Board is likely to be constructed differently, and may have different views on what to call this district, and may very well have a very different district to name?

Maybe it's worth the mental exercise of the discussion, but let's not stake any of our political reputations on how this comes out.  Someone in the district should be working up the costs associated with this - for just converting MCS to SCS, and for converting MCS AND SCS to something else, and for MCS AND SCS again - so that a real discussion can occur.  But even that work-up has a financial cost to it - requiring teams of people to meet (PR, legal, and finance).  This should be a short discussion, Commissioners.

Let it stay Shelby County Schools.  At least for now.  And possibly, hold off on converting the MCS logoed-items to anything else, and just leave them as MCS until things settle down 'round here.  Maybe I'm just a pessimist and this latest round of mediation will take.  I almost typed that with a straight face.  Speaking of straight faces . . .

Commissioner David Reaves unwittingly contributes some humor to the article.  "It might be best to stay with the status quo, said Commissioner David Reaves. 'Really it's a prioritization of what we have to do, day one,' he said. 'We would have to vote to send it to the legislature to create a bill. That's an enormous amount of time. So the question is, if we don't do that this (legislative) term, and we have to go ahead and re-brand with an SCS brand, at least for the first year: What is the cost going to be, versus going ahead and doing it now?'"

You know, because it's SO difficult for Shelby County to get anything passed in the state legislature because it will take SO long.  Just for some people, Commissioner Reaves, just for some people.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Gordon Elementary Got Its Pardon

Back in early December, I wrote about Dr. Cash's proposal to close Gordon Elementary School.  This is part of the MCS response to the TPC's recommendation to close at least 20 schools.  Since Gordon is not in the bottom 5% of schools statewide, it seemed strange that The Boston Consulting Group knew about Gordon's closure back in June 2012, and its planned conversion to an ASD school.

In early December, I speculated that BCG had not come up with this particular idea on their own, and that either someone at MCS or someone at the ASD had to have told them about these plans in order for BCG to include Gordon on their list.  BCG is nothing if not thorough.

At the Special Call Meeting back in December, parents and teachers at Gordon were irate about their inclusion on a closure list, and the plan to give over the school to its co-occupant, Gestalt Community Schools, which operates the Gordon Science and Arts Academy as part of the ASD.  GSAA currently is only made up of 6th graders, but is expected to expand to 7th grade next year and 8th grade the following year.  Thank goodness for Bill Dries at The Daily News, who has closely followed the GSAA and Gordon goings on.

I'm especially grateful for his reporting since if you miss a School Board meeting, and then wait almost a month for the School Board to post its approved minutes, then you might miss critical information - critical information like Dr. Cash's withdrawal of Gordon from the closure list.

Curiouser and curiouser.

Mr. Dries asked the ASD about it and got this:  "'Gordon is not on our list,' said Achievement School District spokesman [and possible internet commenter] Jeremy Jones. 'MCS is fully in the driver’s seat when it comes to decisions about Gordon.'"  In another article on the same day came this gem:  "Memphis City Schools superintendent Kriner Cash acknowledged that neither Gestalt Community Schools nor leaders of the Achievement School District are interested in taking over the entire school."

Well, I guess we know what my bias is.  When there are shenanigans anywhere close to the ASD, I assume that the ASD is involved.  But perhaps this little piece of work - volunteering an elementary school not in the bottom 5% to be closed so that an ASD middle school can use the building - was cooked up exclusively by Dr. Cash and MCS?

So the closure list is reduced by 1, likely to the great relief of the MCS administrators that have to plan the required community meetings (hearings) for each school.

Hard to say exactly what is going on here.  Perhaps the close working relationship between the ASD and MCS is not quite as close as we've been led to believe, and we'll continue to see this kind of public inconsistency in "party line" flare up from time to time.  Or perhaps the working relationship is so close, that Dr. Cash has agreed to take the fall.  Either way, it sure looks like Gordon should not have been on the list from the outset.

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Harwell Shenanigans Confirmed in Tennessee House

Last night, I posted on the possibility of shenanigans in how Tennessee Speaker of the House Beth Harwell managed the most recent set of committee appointments for the current legislative session.

I questioned whether it was possible that House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh (District 82 - Ripley) was removed from his Education Committee seat because of his strident opposition to vouchers.

I don't make it a practice to try to break news, but this had me just fired up enough to reach out to Representative Fitzhugh to see if he was willing to comment on this to a little ole blogger that nobody's ever heard of.  I received a quick response.

A senior staff member to Rep. Fitzhugh has confirmed that Fitzhugh was removed from the House Education Committee, despite numerous requests to remain on.  The staffer confirms that the new composition of the Committee will place minimum barriers to a statewide voucher plan.

Nothing like stacking the deck.  With a supermajority, there is little question that voucher legislation is going to pass.  It will probably be unconstitutional, just like in Louisiana, but that is of little concern to our esteemed state legislature - home of legislators gnawing their names into their desks and relitigating the Scopes trial.  But this kind of maneuvering - perfectly legal, of course - shows that the supermajority is simply not interested in brooking any honest discussion of these very important issues.  It's not enough to vote in favor of vouchers - they don't even want to hear the debate over it.

Jan. 17, 3:15 p.m. update:  Who is on the Education Committee?  KnoxNews posted a few days ago:  "Rep. John DeBerry, D-Memphis. StudentsFirst spent more than $100,000 to help him defeat a Democratic primary opponent -- the most the group spent on any campaign. DeBerry was appointed last week to the committee that will first act on the legislation StudentsFirst is pushing by House Speaker Beth Harwell, whose PAC received $5,000 from StudentsFirst. Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey's PAC also got $5,000 from StudentsFirst." 

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

TN State Rep. Fitzhugh Forced Off Education Committee?

Diane Ravitch posted a story today on Mississippi State Representative Linda Whittington.  Democratic Representative Whittington represents District 34, and is based out of Schlater, Mississippi, in the northwestern quadrant of the state, south of Clarksdale.

Representative Whittington states:  "As a member of the Mississppi House of Representatives, I agree and am doing what I can to stop the charters from coming into our state. So much so that the Speaker of the House removed me from the House Education Committee where I had served since 2007. No sitting member had ever been removed without consenting to the move. The Speaker acknowledged that I was removed because of my votes against charter schools."

No biggie.  The charter school agenda rolls forward.

If you read down into the comments, you'll find a comment that states that something similar happened to Tennessee State Representative Craig Fitzhugh.  Rep. Fitzhugh, based out of Ripley and representing District 82, had some redistricting issues - he lost Dyer County and gained Haywood County.  In this session, he's the Democratic Leader.

Here's an opinion piece from Rep. Fitzhugh from the December 12, 2012 Tennessean.  In relevant part, Rep. Fitzhugh states
"Let’s focus on education. The term education reform has been thrown around so often that no one really knows what it means. This year, it seems that reform will focus on a new school voucher program or — to use a more accurate description — sending your tax dollars to fund private schools.
Here are the facts. Tennessee has made tremendous strides in education over the last four years and Gov. Haslam deserves credit for continuing the Bredesen reforms from Race to the Top. These changes have barely had time to show progress, so now is not the time to talk about a radical change in education policy. In Louisiana, a voucher program similar to the one being considered in Tennessee was recently ruled unconstitutional, but not before costing taxpayers more than $25 million a year. We are constitutionally required to fund public education. If we start ripping tens of millions of dollars from public schools with an unconstitutional voucher program, we will most certainly do away with all the progress made under both governors."

Sounds like a guy I could support.  And while he previously served on the Education Committee (according to his March 19, 2012 press release about his re-election campaign), it does appear (according to his official House website) that he has not been reappointed to the Education Committee.  Odd.

I've looked, and haven't seen any reporting on this.  Lots of big work for the Education Committees in both houses this year - have the shenanigans already started?

10:13 1/17/12 Update:  Shenanigans Confirmed!

Kudos to SCS Board Commissioner Reginald Porter, Jr.

Kudos to Shelby County School Board Commissioner Reginald Porter, Jr. for leading the committee that came up with the School Board's legislative agenda, and for ushering through its approval by the full School Board.

Commissioner Porter was appointed by the Shelby County Commission to the board in 2011 to one of the seven new seats on the "unified" school board.  With the support of Stand for Children, Commissioner Porter won election to the seat in August 2012.  He ran against Jonathan Lewis, who apparently declined to engage with any of the many groups who submit questionnaires to the candidates for endorsement and rating purposes.  To me, Commissioner Porter appears to be a hard worker and generally manages to stay out of the fray.

Here's the School Board's 2013 legislative agenda.  Kudos to Commissioner Porter for not being afraid of the fray.  Commissioner Mike Wissman saw fit to recuse himself, but everyone else present voted in favor of the legislative agenda.

Astonishingly, they agree with me on everything.  Or maybe I agree with them.  Chicken/egg - hard to say which came first.

So what do they have to say on the pressing matters of the day that are likely to be considered by our esteemed state legislature?
  • the state should provide clarification on how schools leave the ASD and return to local control
  • charter school authorization should stay with the local education agency
  • where the current version of the parent trigger law is exercised (it hasn't ever been, here in Tennessee), the local education agency should retain final say on whether the school is converted to a charter school
  • the state should not require that charter schools be permitted to use school facilities at no cost*
  • charter school teachers and staff should be covered by the state's health plan, instead of by the local education agency
  • request that the state better coordinate the required payments by school districts to charter schools, with the funding that school districts receive so that payments to charter schools do not create cash flow problems for the district (payments due to the charter schools before funding has been received by the school districts)
  • permit school districts to charge administrative fees to charter schools to fund the district's work in managing reporting obligations and other work related to charter schools
  • keep superintendents appointed, not elected
  • oppose laws that would permit guns in school parking lots
  • expand PreK funding, and not reduce current levels of PreK funding
  • strengthen accountability for virtual charter schools
  • oppose statewide voucher program
  • keep school district exclusion from worker's compensation program
You might notice the asterisk on the fourth item above - some of the municipal school district supporters believe this item is about them.  It may or may not have an impact on them, but it really is about the charter school agenda to obtain free, public space.  If only they didn't have to pay for their own space, they could do so much more for the children! - they say.  More to come on several of these items ...

Shelby County joins Nashville and the Franklin Special School District in opposing a state charter school authorizer and a statewide charter program.  Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools is staying on top of these two issues as the legislature seems poised to approve both.  Show your support - they're also on Facebook!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Cornerstone "Audit" Results Continue to Trickle Out

Jane Roberts has another article out tonight on Cornerstone's unfortunate controversies over its treatment of students and its relationships with parents and the community.  It's a barn-burner with some balanced reporting about national "flare ups" where charter management organizations have trouble getting along with the communities that they want to serve, as well as the lack of accountability to its constituents that charters enjoy by holding non-public board meetings.  Ms. Roberts also more fully explained how the problems at Cornerstone publicly emerged, first at the school board meeting, followed with the Chris Barbic meeting at the Lester Community Center.  Not bad, Ms. Roberts, not bad.

I have written previously (here, here, here, and here) about the travails of Cornerstone and its political activism.  What a month.

I remain hopeful that a full investigation of all of the allegations will take place, though it does not appear to be part of Cornerstone's "audit" by a local accounting firm.  The audit report has not been made public, though some results were disclosed to the Commercial Appeal last week.

Instead of making the report publicly available on its website, as would be expected by a government organization engaging in transparent behavior, Cornerstone has adopted a public relations plan that involves letting the information trickle out, a little bit at a time.  That might reduce the impact of any single story, but it will continue to keep them in the news.  They'll learn.  They might consult the ASD's public relations staff on how to handle this, and get some advice.

So here's today's little trickle of information, and it's a doozy!  It's pretty well buried, but it's there!  Those children who alleged that their shoes were taken away as punishment?  They were totally telling the truth!  "An internal audit of school practices released last week found no instances of child abuse at the school, but teachers interviewed by the auditor said they had taken children's shoes away to keep them from playing with them in class."  Does Cornerstone have a policy that this is good classroom management?  What about the part where the students had to walk around in their socks for the rest of the day?  No biggie.  These teachers have it locked down and under control.  Perhaps this is among the "best practices" that ASD Supt. Chris Barbic promised that Cornerstone would bring to the ASD table.

Child abuse because of shoe confiscation?  No.  There are much worse allegations being made against the teachers and adminstration of Cornerstone - allegations that Cornerstone is apparently leaving to Child Services to investigate.  But this kind of behavior by these alt-certified teachers is exactly the kind of behavior that would not fly in middle class schools, or even in real public schools.  I pity the poor teacher at Snowden who confiscates the shoes of a spirited, gifted child.  One of the fundamental questions that these charter management administrators must face is whether or not they would tolerate their own children treated in similar fashion.  And whether it's the poverty or what that causes them to cling to their closely held belief that these children must be treated differently and strictly, this particular - and apparently, accepted, sanctioned, or suggested - behavior by the teachers is deplorable.

Saturday, January 12, 2013

MAP Test, Used by ASD, Sparking Protest in Seattle

Back in October, we learned about an expensive test that the ASD will administer to its students three times per year.  It's called the Measuring Academic Progress, and based on the results from the first adminstration, the ASD was feeling some disappointment with their students' academic progress.

This is on top of the actual standardized test that counts, the TCAP.  But when it comes to the educational reform complex, no expensive test is too expensive.  Turns out this is also on top of whatever other standardized tests that the ASD's charter management organizations may also choose to administer.  What's a little more lost instructional time among friends?

In Seattle, the MAP test is used for "high stakes" purposes - to measure teaching effectiveness, to be used for student placement - things for which the test was not designed.

Teachers at Seattle's Garfield High School voted with four recusals not to administer the district-required test.  According to the Seattle Times, though only 9th grade teachers administer the test, the rest of the faculty supports them.  Now comes word that the teachers at Seattle's Ballard High School also voted not to administer the MAP test - in solidarity with their colleagues at Garfield.

The Washington Post reports that "[t]he boycotts are part of a growing grass-roots revolt against the excessive use of standardized tests to evaluate students, teachers, schools, districts and states. The high-stakes testing era began a decade under No Child Left Behind, and critics say that the exams are being inappropriately used and don’t measure a big part of what students learn.  Parents have started to opt out of having their children take the exams; school boards have approved resolutions calling for an end to test-based accountability systems; thousands of people have signed a national resolution protesting high-stakes tests; superintendents have spoken out, and so have teachers. It has been building momentum in the last year, since Robert Scott, then the commissioner of education in Texas, said publicly that the mentality that standardized testing is the 'end-all, be-all' is a 'perversion' of what a quality education should be."

If you are so moved, please take a look at (and sign) the petition supporting the Seattle teachers who refuse to administer the test. As with any petition, beware of education petitions as you might inadvertently sign yourself up for Michelle Rhee's StudentsFirst organization.

Here's the statement from the Garfield High School teachers (my ASD teacher readers may find it particularly instructive):

We, the Garfield teachers, respectfully decline to give the MAP test to any of our students. We have had different levels of experiences with MAP in our varied careers, have read about it, and discussed it with our colleagues. After this thorough review, we have all come to the conclusion that we cannot in good conscience subject our students to this test again. This letter is an objection to the MAP test specifically and particularly to its negative impact on our students. Here are our reasons:

*Seattle Public School staff has notified us that the test is not a valid test at the high school level. For these students, the margin of error is greater than the expected gain. We object to spending time, money, and staffing on an assessment even SPS agrees is not valid.

*We are not allowed to see the contents of the test, but an analysis of the alignment between the Common Core and MAP shows little overlap. We object to our students being tested on content we are not expected to teach.

*Ninth graders and students receiving extra support (ELL, SPED, and students in math support) are targets of the MAP test. These students are in desperate need of MORE instructional time. Instead, the MAP test subtracts many hours of class time from students’ schedules each year. If we were to participate this year, we would take 805 students out of class during 112 class periods. The amount of lost instructional time is astounding. On average students would EACH lose 320 minutes of instructional time. This is over 5 hours of CORE class time (language arts and math) that students are losing. We object to participating in stealing instructional time from the neediest students.

*In an appeal of the Board’s 2010 decision to renew the MAP contract, a parent group raised concerns about the negative impact of this test “on non-English speakers, Special Education students, and minority and low income children.” These concerns were never addressed nor were the claims refuted. Imagine a native Somali student with limited English skills, sitting in front of a computer taking an evaluative reading test that will no doubt be confusing and overwhelming to the student. The test is supposed to determine the student’s reading level, but without taking into account the student’s language challenge or the student’s limited time in the United States, which makes it almost impossible to understand the context of some passages. For these students and our students with IEPs, the test does actual harm. The students feel stupid yet are being forced to take a test that has NO benefit to them or their educational goals. We object to a test that may violate the rights of groups of students for whom schooling already constitutes an uphill battle.

*In addition to students losing class time to take the test, our computer labs are clogged for weeks with test taking and cannot be used for other educational purposes. For example, students who have a research project no longer have access to the computers they need to further their exploration into their research topic. This especially hurts students without computers at home. We object to our educational resources being monopolized by a test we cannot support.

*We see that our students do not take the test seriously as they know that it will not directly impact their class grade or graduation status. They approach it less and less seriously the more times they take it. Therefore, we see achievement scores go down after instruction. We object to spending scarce resources on a test that is peripheral to our students’ education.

*The MAP test was originally introduced by then superintendent Maria Goodloe-Johnson while she was a board member of the Northwest Evaluation Association, the company that sells the MAP. When Dr. Goodloe-Johnson was fired, the MAP somehow survived the housecleaning. We object to having to give a test whose existence in our district is the result of scandal.

*Even the NWEA itself, the parent company to MAP, has advised districts to carefully restrict the use of the test and its results. NWEA also cautions to ensure 100% random selection of students enrolled in any course if the test is used for evaluation and to take into consideration statistical error in designing evaluation policies. NWEA says that problems become “particularly profound at the high school level.” None of these or other criteria urged by NWEA has been met. We object to being evaluated by a test whose author suggests extreme caution in its use and warns against valid legal action if the test is used in personnel decisions.

*The Seattle Education Association passed a resolution condemning the MAP test that reads, “Whereas testing is not the primary purpose of education…Whereas the MAP was brought into Seattle Schools under suspicious circumstances and conflicts of interest…Whereas the SEA has always had the position of calling for funding to go to classroom and student needs first…Be it Resolved that…the MAP test should be scrapped and/or phased out and the resources saved be returned to the classroom.” We object to having to give it after such an opinion from our collective voice has been registered.

We are not troublemakers nor do we want to impede the high functioning of our school. We are professionals who care deeply about our students and cannot continue to participate in a practice that harms our school and our students. We want to be able to identify student growth and determine if our practice supports student learning. We wish to be evaluated in a way so that we can continue to improve our practice, and we wish for our colleagues who are struggling to be identified and either be supported or removed. The MAP test is not the way to do any of these things. We feel strongly that we must decline to give the MAP test even one more time."

Thursday, January 10, 2013

Memphis Connection to Rhee's Cheating Scandal

Washington, D.C. and its District of Columbia Public Schools are embroiled in a cheating scandal, a legacy of Chancellor Michelle Rhee's time at the head of DCPS.

The cheating allegation is that after the DC standardized tests became "high stakes" - so that the students' achievement as translated by how they score on the standardized tests is used to measure "teacher effectiveness" - some schools saw a large increase in "erasures" on the test.  There will always be some erasures - some from right to wrong answers, and some from the wrong answer to the right answer.  Statistical analyses by the testing company CTB/McGraw-Hill showed a huge increase in wrong-to-right erasures at particular schools.  As reported by the Washington Post, "At least five Noyes [Elementary School] classrooms had wrong-to-right erasure rates of more than 10 per child, while the D.C. average was fewer than two. University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill testing expert Gregory Cizek, who worked on the investigation of similar erasures in Atlanta, said only test tampering could produce so many changes from wrong answers to right ones."

The original report on the cheating scandal in USA Today noted that there were statistically problematic wrong-to-right erasures at 41 DCPS schools.  Here's the New York Times' write-up on Ms. Rhee's changing approach to the allegations.

Of the 41 schools, Noyes Elementary School is important because it became a Blue Ribbon School on the basis of its significant improvement in test scores.  The principal was promoted to the central administration, and the school was held out as a success story for Ms. Rhee's controversial policies.  We now know that it was also important because the principal who inherited the school and its success is one of the whistle-blowers in the cheating scandal.  Turns out that after test security at Noyes was increased, the scores drastically decreased.  The complaint in her federal case was unsealed this week. The federal agencies decided not to join the case, and generally found that the claims were unfounded.  The current chancellor, Kaya Henderson, acknowledges that "isolated instances" of cheating were found, but denies that there were widespread problems.

So what's the Memphis connection?  In the complaint, head to paragraphs 83, 84, and 85, where you'll read about the two DCPS administrators that the principal contacted after walking into a room where three Noyes teachers and administrators were holding the bubble-in sheets and erasers.  One of them is Josh Edelman, the current Senior Program Officer for Empowering Effective Teachers at the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.  At the time, he was the Deputy Chief, Office of School Innovation for DCPS, reporting to Ms. Rhee.  You can often see him at the school board meetings, and he's a regular visitor to the MCS central offices.  His role, as I understand it, is to monitor MCS's administration of the Gates Foundation grant money.

The principal claims that neither Josh Edelman nor Hilary Dilarek (the DCPS "Director of Principal Human Capital") escalated her report.  Both now claim, as part of the DC and federal investigations into the matter, to have no record of these conversations.

Here's some more WaPo coverage of the cheating scandal.  Here's a link to this week's Frontline documentary.  January 11, 2013 update:  here's a link to a compilation of the actual test results that indicate fraud.

Wednesday, January 9, 2013

Cornerstone "Audit" Did Not Investigate Students' Claims of Mistreatment

Cornerstone is concerned.  According to the Commercial Appeal, the current mood in Binghampton is "They don't care if another charter comes in; they just want Cornerstone out."  Tonight's article recounts the controversy surrounding Cornerstone's takeover of Lester School and their in-school policies since the takeover.  It also describes the actions that Cornerstone is taking to remediate the problems that have been alleged by students, parents, and community members.

Ms. Roberts continues to misreport the beginnings of the controversy:  "Anger first boiled over in a meeting Dec. 19 at the Lester Community Center."  As I've previously written, I became aware of the discontent (along with the School Board and large audience) at the December 18 School Board business meeting, when speaker after speaker spoke against Cornerstone's activities at Lester School.  Ms. Roberts' colleague, Michael Kelley, could have filled her in once she arrived at the School Board meeting, but he was likely busy writing about the resolution against David Pickler.  Based on the appearance of a number of individuals wearing matching shirts, as well as the entirety of the middle school basketball team with Coach Anfernee Hardaway, there must have been some coordination or meeting before that.  I, for one, would be interested to know when the "community" began organizing - but we know it was definitely before December 18.

Anyway, Cornerstone's Executive Director Drew Sippel states that Cornerstone has developed a three-pronged approach to address the allegations raised by students and parents.  Let's remember that the only students that Cornerstone is teaching are PreK through third grade kids.  First, Cornerstone "called more than 100 parents during the holiday break, sent letters to each family and scheduled grade-level meetings with parents, starting last week, to talk over their concerns." 

The second prong is that Cornerstone "self-reported to the Department of Children's Services".  Cornerstone, just like any public school, is obligated to report any allegations of child abuse of which it becomes aware.  This article, for the first time I've seen, mentions allegations of arm-twisting - on top of the bathroom-denying and shoe-confiscating allegations.  Arm-twisting would definitely include a teacher touching a student, which could possibly qualify as child abuse.  So Cornerstone definitely did the right thing in reporting these allegations, as it is required to do by law.

But this third prong is the most interesting (and suspect) prong.  Cornerstone has apparently decided not to investigate the actual allegations as part of its three-pronged approach.  The third prong consists of an "audit" conducted by Brundige Payne & Company, a local CPA firm.  I think of CPAs as accountants, but we know that they do all kinds of things, including conducting the voting for the Oscars.  So of course it makes sense that accountants would also be qualified as general management consultants to investigate the "internal procedures" of Cornerstone Prep.  Why not?

So instead of interviewing the students who are making the allegations, or the parents of these students, or the teachers who are alleged to have mistreated the students, instead, the "audit" interviewed "five or six" teachers over several hours last week.  The audit found that "No teacher reported seeing another teacher inappropriately handle a student; 100 percent said they scheduled five daily bathroom breaks and that children were allowed to go to the restroom whenever they needed. Each teacher also identified the proper process for responding to children who ask to use the bathroom outside the scheduled times."

I am underwhelmed that five, perhaps six likely newly-minted teachers at Cornerstone Prep are able to correctly identify the procedures in place.  That is the bare minimum of their obligation to the children they teach.  Whether or not these teachers choose to correctly apply them is, currently, in the face of student and parent complaints, an open question - an open question not in any way addressed by the "audit".  For instance, elementary teachers know to have a plan for the day.  At Cornerstone, this apparently by policy includes five bathroom breaks.  A relevant question would be "how often is a scheduled bathroom break delayed or skipped?"  This question, very relevant to the allegations being leveled against Cornerstone, was not asked as part of the "audit". 

I'm surprised, also, that the "audit" process did not seem interested in the teachers against whom the allegations are being leveled.  That "most" or "some" teachers at Cornerstone know the policies or follow the policies is not directly relevant to whether the teachers against whom these claims are made either knew or followed those same policies.  As I said, underwhelming.

We can only hope that Executive Director Drew Sippel was wrong when he described the approach as three-pronged.  There should, of course, be a fouth prong.  The fourth prong should include a full investigation of each claim by each student who has made one.  The allegations have been pretty public so far, but families (parents and students) must be given the opportunity to make their claims in a confidential setting so that teachers and administrators who may be the subject of the claims may not inappropriately retaliate in advance of the investigation.  Individual phone calls are a good step.  Grade-level meetings in rooms with other parents and possibly the teachers in question are not conducive to finding out all of the claims - if that is your goal.

Perhaps the ASD is conducting its own state level investigation of the activities at Cornerstone - perhaps even directing Cornerstone not to conduct its own investigation.  But as of this writing, it is unclear whether any such full investigation is taking place.  If it is, Executive Director Drew Sippel isn't talking about it.

The article mentions that "at least one of the principals" of the CPA firm is a member of Christ United Methodist Church.  Given the ongoing support of the church, and the several members in leadership positions at Cornerstone, that mention would imply some kind of conflict of interest.  Memphis is a small town for such a big city.  It might be hard to find a prominent accounting firm that doesn't have a member of Christ Methodist.  Now that the principal's church membership has been disclosed (though not his or her name), as long as that principal did not participate in the "audit" or does not have some direct relationship with the principals of Cornerstone (very possible in a 5,000+ member church), I don't see a conflict.  It's likely a difficult thing for both Christ Methodist and the Binghampton Development Corporation to be taking so much heat because of the allegations against Cornerstone.  But I don't see a "there" there on this particular issue.

Another tangent - I am glad to read that former Lester School Principal and current School Board Commissioner Sara Lewis has taken an interest in the goings on at Cornerstone Prep.  She really commits to her issues, so she will be a good advocate for the community and will follow up as needed.  I think she hits it right on the head when she says that Cornerstone lacks some "cultural competency".  Based on the allegations, I would say that that characterization would be the best case scenario of what has been alleged at Cornerstone Prep.

Tuesday, January 8, 2013

Principals Can't Tell Who the Good Teachers Are

As you probably know, Memphis is one of the sites where the Gates Foundation's Measures of Effective Teaching Project (MET) is researching some central questions about how we can figure out who effective teachers are.  This puts Memphis in what should be the awkward position of making policy decisions based on as-yet-incomplete research.

Well, it's probably a good thing, then, that the Gates Foundation has finally finished the last stage of its research.  Here's the executive summary.  You know, since districts and states across the country have made huge, mainly controversial changes on the basis of what the Gates Foundation was pretty sure the research was going to say.

The Huffington Post has a story about the research results.  (You can compare the HuffPo report to  the glowing review of the research in the Commercial Appeal.)  HuffPo summarizes the results as "teacher observation less reliable than test scores" in measuring effective teaching.  The Gates Foundation research has now found that effective teaching can be measured - through some combination of teacher observation, test scores, and student surveys.  The basic methodology is that teachers had a baseline year to establish their effectiveness (2009-10) - the Foundation calls this "produc[ing] estimates of teaching effectivness for each teacher."  The report states:  "we adjusted those [original] measures [of teaching effectiveness] for the backgrounds and prior achievement of the students in each class.  But, without random assignment, we had no way to know if the adjustments we made were sufficient to discern the markers of effective teaching from the unmeasured aspects of students' backgrounds."  So the next year, academic year 2010-11, "we then randomly assigned a classroom of students to each participating teacher."

By "background", the Foundation is obliquely referring to students' socioeconomic backgrounds.  The researchers at RAND (the ostensibly independent corporation that Gates Foundation hired to conduct the research) hoped to answer two questions:  "First, did students actually learn more when randomly assigned to the teachers who seemed more effective when we evaluated them the prior year?  And second, did the magnitude of the difference in student outcomes following random assignment correspond with expectations?"  The short answer, according to the RAND researchers, is yes and yes.

Interesting.  Should we be surprised that the Gates Foundation research finds what the Gates Foundation thought it would find?  Or that it cost $50 million to find it out?

A couple of things jump out at me.  The first has to do with the role of teacher observations and the principals who conduct them.  Traditionally, teachers were judged only on the basis of their principal's once-every-several-years announced-in-advance observation.  Teachers generally performed very well in these observed lessons.  Where students did not make "adequate yearly progress" but teachers were uniformly rated as effective and highly effective, critics found a disconnect.  The solution has been to require that student standardized test results be included in teachers' overall assessment.  So - no surprise that the researchers have found that principals actually do not adequately assess their own teachers in the classroom observations.  Districts have tried a number of methods to "norm" their evaluators - they have to take a class before they can be evaluators, they have to grade a video of a teacher within an accepted range of how the researchers have "objectively" graded the video, etc.  But despite all of that "norming", principals' observations are viewed as unreliable.

Now the summary doesn't just come out and say that - instead, the summary states that "adding a second observer increases reliability significantly more than having the same observer score an additional lesson."  The researchers go on to qualify this statement in three ways.  First, they acknowledge that it may be too expensive to have enough observers if they have to observe full-length lesson, and so portions of lessons could be observed. 

The second and third qualifying statements both have to do with principals, and embedded in the second is what underlies the Foundation's concern:  "although school administrators rate their own teachers somewhat higher than do outside observers, how they rank their teachers' practice is very similar and teachers' own administrators actually discern bigger differences in teaching practice, which increases reliability."  Essentially, principals do not objectively recognize effective teaching, but they can recognize how teachers within a school stack up against each other.  Talk about a back-handed compliment.  So even if principals don't actually know if they have a good teacher, if they observe all of the teachers at their school, then they can tell you who is better than who.  So the principals' observations still have some value.

But then there's the third qualifying statement - the crux of the Foundation's concern:  "adding observations by observers from outside a teacher's school to those carried out by a teacher's own administrator can provide an ongoing check against in-school bias."  There's the there.  Principals can't be trusted to adequately judge their own teachers.  If you don't believe the Gates Foundation, just ask Tennessee's Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, who says that Tennessee's teachers observation scores are consistently inflated. 

I have mixed feelings about principal evaluations to start with - I'm not really all that opposed to administrators from outside the school doing the observations.  I've known enough bad principals - who unfairly reward their favorites and unfairly criticize their less favorites that I've viewed that as a bigger problem than generalized inflation.  I guess I assumed that principals could objectively observe teachers, but chose not to.  May be time to re-think that.  But I do think that principals do understand teachers' fears about the new evaluation systems that so heavily weight student achievement, and the principals do, after all, walk a fine line between supervision and maintaining working relationships with their subordinate teachers.  Therefore, some inflation - just for good employee relations - should not be all that surprising.  Principals don't always get a lot of training in how to handle walking that fine line, and they are human.  And we know that principals are not selected because they are the best teachers, though they are now required to be instructional leaders whatever their teaching success.  Still thinking about this one - but suspicious of a "measurement" that encourages the devaluation of the observations of the one person that most likely understands the teacher, the students, and the realities of teaching and learning in a particular school - and in some neighborhoods, the dangers of just getting to school.  Teachers - how do you look at your principals in this particular role?

The second thing that jumps out at me is the methodology.  So the idea is that a teacher has her principal-assigned class the first year, and the RAND randomly-assigned class the second year to see if the teacher can meet or exceed the expectations based on their baseline year.  But these aren't just any students who are assigned - these are students that attend the same school.  Teachers are not assigned new schools, just new kids.  Why is this important?  Because - at least in Memphis - we use "neighborhood schools".  Generally, schools serve kids that live near the school.  So the students are generally going to be more similar to each other than dissimilar.  At least in Memphis, our neighborhoods are still fairly racially segregated, and definitely defined by socioeconomic status. 

So let's tease that out.  If you're a good 4th grade teacher at Richland Elementary, you'd probably be a good 3rd grade teacher there, too.  And you would likely do well with a different set of 4th graders at the same school.  But let's acknowledge that a 4th grade teacher at Richland Elementary could be hard-pressed to be an equally as great 4th grade teacher at Coro Lake Elementary.  The Gates Foundation acknowledges that "as a practical matter," they could not "randomly assign students or teachers to a different school site."  I think what students the teacher teaches matters as much as how well the teacher teaches - and while value added measures get closer to this issue than traditional did-the-student-meet-this-benchmark testing - none of the testing addresses how what is happening in students' lives outside of the classroom impacts what is possible inside of the classroom.

Underlying this all is my fundamental disagreement that a student's achievement should be measured based on that student's performance on any particular standardized test.  We know, from the dozens of studies on the SAT and the ACT, that the single best predictor of a student's performance is that student's socioeconomic background.  I'm just not convinced that standardized tests measure how well a teacher taught something, or even how well a student learned something.  And they definitely do not measure a number of other things that are hugely important, including creative and critical thinking.  Don't get me wrong - student achievement is hugely important on its own - I'm just not sold that the testing products being sold to our school districts are the correct tool to measure it.

Still more to read in this executive summary - working to get the full report.  I'm very interested in what the Gates Foundation calls its ambiguous results on "peer effects" (the demographics and average prior achievement of each student's classmates), as well as the "trade-offs" of the different models for how we can weight the various measures of teacher effectiveness - for example, test scores as 50% versus 33% versus less.  Let me know what you think about it.

Monday, January 7, 2013

Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools

The more I see, the more I like it.

On Saturday, I wrote about a new group called Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools.  They're based in Nashville, and seem to have formed around two issues that we'll be hearing a lot about in the very near future:  school vouchers and a state charter school authorizer.  They are against both.  Here's the blog.

The group got a great write-up in today's Tennessean here.  The state charter authorizer is a personal issue in Nashville after the state's recent decision to withhold funding from the district as punishment for not approving a preferred charter management organization.

They'd love for you to "like" their facebook page here.

Memphis folks should get involved on these issues as well - here's the email address:

Good work parents -  a bunch of facebook likes and a very favorable newspaper article all in a couple of days!

Sunday, January 6, 2013

Bipartisanship in Education Rheeform? Not so much.

Michelle Rhee was controversial enough in Washington, D.C. that the mayor that appointed her Chancellor of the school district lost his election because of her.  She resigned in the days following the election.  She's been busy since then getting her start-up education advocacy organization, Students First, off the ground.

It turns out that she's about as well-connected as you can get in Tennessee.  Her ex-husband is the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Kevin Huffman.  They met during their stints as Teach for America corps members.  She moved to Nashville in 2011, where their children attend school, and splits her time between Nashville and Sacremento, California, where her current husband (another controversial figure and former professional athlete) is mayor.

Since she left D.C., Rhee has been attempting to burnish her bipartisan credentials.  The reforms that Rhee champions are inherently very conservative - privatizing, pro-charter, anti-union, etc. - but she knows that the overall arc of progress for her reforms will suffer if linked too closely to either political party.  She therefore sought out both conservative and liberal backers and employees to work on behalf of Students First.

The Huffington Post reports that several left-leaning staffers are departing the organization, with policy reasons being cited.  Professor Diane Ravitch picked up on the story, and was surprised to get a response from one of the subjects of the story.

The staffer, Hari Sevugan, writes:  "In this post you ask, 'What part of [Rhee’s] agenda is bipartisan?' There are many Democrats, including this one, who work toward reform because public schools are not currently serving every child – too often children of color and from poverty – as they should. These children are being denied a fundamental civil right. It is a core Democratic value to ensure that their civil rights are enforced. It is a core Democratic value to ensure poverty or socio-economic status is not a barrier to opportunity. It is a core Democratic value to ensure teachers are respected for the work they do."

It's a nice deflection that, of course, does not answer the question about Rhee and bipartisanship.  He's right about the core Democratic values, values that I generally subscribe to.  But he's wrong about whether Rhee's proposals and political leanings align with those values.  And it's unfair to suggest that people who don't support Michelle Rhee are advocating against children's interests.  I would agree with Rhee's criticism of traditional public education, where she complains that School Boards have picked winners and losers among children, and that the children suffer.  I would argue, however, that all Rhee is doing is picking slightly different winners and losers, and that many of the same children that lose out in traditional public education continue to lose out under the reforms, and often with worse results - personally and academically.

That Democrats who favor education reforms are now realizing that Michelle Rhee and Students First favor a different brand of education reform is a welcome relief to some of us.  Party alignments have gone wonky on education reform issues, but maybe we are finally seeing a reset where we can call union busting "union busting" and recognize privatization and outsourcing for what they are.

This will be particularly important in Tennessee as the legislature comes back in to session with a Republican super-majority.  Let's remember which side we're on.

Thinking More About Jones' Resolution for Pickler's Resignation

I've written on this subject twice - first, when I thought the resolution should have been publicly available, and second, when I'd had a chance to read it and form some thoughts.  I now find myself in the unusual position of writing on the subject - again - when there hasn't been any public progress on the story, but needing to clarify a few things.  A few suggestions have been made to me (in bold, below) about what is important and what is not, and it seems appropriate to tease those out.

The resolution acknowledges that Commissioner David Pickler has disclaimed any financial benefit related to the TSBA trust for which he may have otherwise been eligible.  Here's the resolution and accompanying documents.  In fact, a close reading shows that in the eighth paragraph of the resolution, Commissioner Pickler acknowledged being the "broker of record" but "disclaimed any financial interest or benefit from this arrangement."  We should take Commissioner Pickler's statement at face value.  His statement about not personally gaining any financial benefit, is different from the question about whether the company that bears his name, or any of his employees (whether in W-2 or 1099 status) directly financially benefitted from the trust being housed by Pickler Wealth Advisors.  There is also a distinction between a direct financial benefit like fees related to an account, and an indirect benefit such as those related to financial advisor's position with a particular mutual fund company (more money in more accounts can result in a preferred status).  So we still need to know what exactly Commissioner Pickler means when he says that he has not gained any financial benefit related to the $12 million investment.

The important part is that Commissioner David Pickler did not disclose his business relationship with the TSBA trust immediately prior to the June 26, 2012 vote.  The way that this argument goes is that even if Commissioner Pickler has gained no benefit, financial or otherwise, from holding the TSBA trust account, he had an affirmative obligation to disclose the business relationship prior to the vote.  I happen to strongly agree with this argument.  I suspect that we'll continue to hear the argument that Commissioner Pickler made the appropriate disclosure to the old iteration of the Shelby County School Board (as made by Commissioner Mike Wissman at the December meeting where the resolution was presented).  It will be important to understand when the disclosure was made, if, in fact, it was made.  But I would also argue that whenever a vote related to a TSBA trust that either is or could be managed by Pickler Wealth Advisors, Commissioner Pickler should make the disclosure in advance of every vote.  He should also take the extra step of recusing himself from the vote itself.  Business relationships, when they are engaged in by elected officials, cannot remain confidential (or undisclosed) when the elected office can benefit or in any way affect - positively or negatively - the business relationship.  Even if Commissioner Pickler disclosed this relationship to the old Board prior to the constitution of the current Board, or to a Committee in the near past, Commissioner Pickler should have made the disclosure again when the possibility of another trust with school money that could be managed by his firm arose.  He should make the disclosure every time, and recuse himself from the vote.  We'll have to wait for the Ethics Committee to make its findings about when Commissioner Pickler's previous disclosures were made, and whether the current Board would have had any reason to know of the business relationship in light of any previous disclosures.  Here in Memphis and Shelby County, we are used to opaque, undisclosed business relationships - but we shouldn't be.

The business relationship between Commissioner Pickler's firm's employee, Teresa Bailey, and the TSBA trust should be disclosed.  Commissioner Pickler does not appear to be running a law firm.  In a law firm, if Commissioner Pickler was "conflicted out" of a case, everyone in his firm would be "conflicted out" and the firm would be unable to work on the case.  Clearly, the rules must be different for financial advisors.  All of that said, Commissioner Pickler is an attorney and an elected public official.  Even if he makes no money and receives no benefit from his firm's management of the TSBA trust, Commissioner Pickler should have disclosed that his firm's employee would have a business relationship related to the $12 million investment.  Now that he has not made the disclosure - at least immediately prior to the June 26 vote by the full Board - in order to straighten this out, he should disclose all accounts with public school money that are under Ms. Bailey's purview, along with any fees or other financial arrangements that may have been made.  If Ms. Bailey receives any compensation, salary or commission, related to any TSBA trust accounts - directly from the funds, or indirectly through the firm - this compensation should be disclosed.  Though it should go without being said, if Commissioner Pickler receives any compensation, commission or otherwise, related to these trust accounts, this should also be disclosed.

Tangentially, I'll comment on one of the side stories of the Shelby County School Board's consideration of this matter.  Shortly after the resolution was mentioned at the December meeting, Commissioner Chris Caldwell stated that he "would not do this to his worst enemy."  My read on Commissioner Caldwell is that he views himself as above the petty political in-fighting and a voice of reason in these petty squabbles.  I've complained before about his problem-solving skills.  He must view Commissioner Jones' resolution as either ill-timed, or perhaps not the appropriate vehicle to address the allegations.  I might (depending on my mood) argue about a resolution asking for an immediate resignation, versus something like a resolution requesting an investigation.  Perhaps Commissioner Caldwell found distasteful the "splash" that occurred when the bomb of a resolution landed.  However, I'm sure that Commissioner Caldwell would agree that if any generic school board commissioner became aware of another commissioner's alleged undisclosed conflict of interest related to any amount of money, much less $12 million, that generic school board commissioner would have an affirmative obligation to address the allegations.  The failure to affirmatively address the allegation would be an ethical violation in and of itself.  Commissioner Caldwell might quibble with the method, but I don't think he should dispute the necessity of Commissioner Jones having raised the issue once it came to his attention.

And so we sit, waiting for word from the hastily composed Ethics Committee.  Perhaps they will meet this month . . .

Cornerstone Shocked at Backlash in Binghampton

Cornerstone Prep's worst week ever was the week before Christmas. 

There was the unfortunate group protest in front of the Shelby County School Board by parents and concerned community members.  This was followed, the next night, by a disastrous meeting at the Lester Community Center that ASD Supt. Chris Barbic acknowledged "was the worst meeting we've had."  The initial unhappiness at the School Board was not covered in the media - likely because of the other events at that particular meeting.  But the Lester Community Center meeting resulted in two articles in the Commercial Appeal:  here and here.

The titles themselves show that the times they may be a-changin' in terms of how Memphis community members feel about the coming ASD tide:  "Memphis parents lash out against Achievement School District leaders" and "State-appointed charter school getting heat in Binghamton".

Cornerstone has been feeling the heat.  Both locally and nationally - Diane Ravitch and EduShyster, among other national bloggers, have been following Cornerstone's controversy.

Since then, I've seen a couple of references to Cornerstone, though its name was not explicitly mentioned.  In this article about a young Memphis chess star, Zack McMillin explained that "the state's move to turn over Lester to an evangelical Christian charter school organization pushed Bulington's program to Frederick Douglass Elementary School, and Emmanuel and his fifth-grade sister, Shimera, were among the many promising chess players who put in for school transfers to follow him."  In another article on the same day, Mr. McMillin notes other departures from Lester to Douglass:  "Several kids followed Bulington from Lester specifically to continue their pursuit of the chess. Others from Lester's English as a Second Language program, many of them African immigrants, also left Lester when the state handed the school over to an evangelical Christian charter schools organization."

Cornerstone is facing criticism from at least two fronts:  one is the rising criticism of the ASD and its methods of selecting schools and then "turning" them "around", the other is Cornerstone's methods and policies within the school and its interactions with the state.

For me, the question is why the ASD chose Lester School last year, when its focus was on Frayser's feeder patterns, and why it selected Cornerstone, a private religious school with only two years of teaching students (less when it was selected) that had never administered a TCAP and had only ever admitted kindergarteners and first graders.  This year, the question is why the ASD selected Lester Middle, a school not on its published list of possible takeover schools, and then announced it several days after the big press conference.  All of that smacks of sneakiness - though the ASD is correct that this is all within the powers delegated to it by the state legislature when it enabled the Race to the Top application and accepted the First to the Top designation.  The ASD is doing what it was designed to do.

In terms of Cornerstone, my question is whether the supporters of Cornerstone would stand for their own children to be treated in the highly regimented way that students at Cornerstone are treated.  Parents and children who are experiencing it describe it as "bootcamp."  I do not agree that children living in poverty and attending underperforming schools must be treated more roughly (or even more strictly) than children in the suburbs in order to get them to learn.  I also question whether the supporters of Cornerstone fully understand the behind-the-scenes lobbying that is taking place in order for Cornerstone to be in the position it has attained.  Supporters of Cornerstone clearly do not understand that by signing on with the ASD, they have aligned themselves with a politically controversial plan and method.  My sense is that they find themselves shocked that the Binghampton community has not welcomed them with open arms, and stunned that their motivations and methods are being questioned.  Changing the name of a well-loved school has turned out to be viewed as insulting. That there is a cross in the logo of Cornerstone has not instilled confidence in Cornerstone's proclamations that it is not trying to provide religious education. 

I think that most (if not all) supporters of Cornerstone are good people who are interested in trying to do the right thing by the children attending the former Lester School.  But the fact is that successful programs at Lester have had to be relocated to other schools because Cornerstone either won't support them, or because not enough children in the non-Cornerstone grades participate (because there are no longer enough of them).  There is also a distinction between supporters of Cornerstone and the leaders of Cornerstone - leaders who really should know better.  These leaders, Drew Sippel & Tom Marino among others, have done the reading and have picked a side in a highly contentious and highly political discussion.  That Cornerstone is getting some push back should be no surprise to them, given the heavy-handed way that Cornerstone has moved into Lester, and especially given the heavy-handed approach they have adopted toward classroom management and community relations.

All of that said, Commercial Appeal writer Mr. McMillin walks a fine line when he calls Cornerstone an "evangelical Christan charter school organization."  Methodists are not exactly evangelicals (usually) - at least not in comparison to other main line denominations, and are certainly not comparable in evangelical-ness (evangelical-icity?) to the number of non-denominational churches that exist in Memphis.  "Evangelical" means something other than just being Christian.  While Cornerstone was founded by proud Christians who wanted a private, religious school for underprivileged kids, under the law, Cornerstone is no longer permitted to provide any religious instruction because it is now a secular, public school.  If Cornerstone is operating in an evangelical way - limiting employment to Christians or making Christianity a condition of employment, encouraging Bible study (even before or after school), or proselytizing in any way to its captive audience of public school students - then those are serious allegations and must be addressed in short order by the ASD.  For the record, I would argue that any officially sanctioned prayer at staff meetings would be crossing the line in a publicly funded, secular institution, whether they occur off-site or on-site.  I am not aware of any such allegations.  But that's the implication when a charter school that is not permitted engage in religious activity at a public school is referred to as an "evangelical Christian charter school organization."  Then there's the overtly religious language that remains on the Cornerstone website does not serve Cornerstone in its efforts to quell concerns that it is taking an evangelical approach to educating its public school students.  (They'll scrub it eventually, but at the link, newly-minted Principal Lisa Settle is quoted as saying:  "I do not take this job of being principal of Cornerstone Preparatory School lightly. Moreover, it’s not just a job, this was truly orchestrated by God and I am where He wants me to be. I am doing what He wants me to do and I am humbled by the opportunity.  Why am I doing this? I am doing this because I must. I am an educator and I am a leader. I am doing this because my prayer is and always has been 'Use me Lord …'")

For the sake of all of the students attending school within the walls of the former Lester School, I hope - as much as the next person - that they are receiving an education that will position them for success in life.  Given the staggering amount of public resources being devoted to Cornerstone (and other ASD schools), along with the significant private philanthropic support that the charters raise on their own, on top of the normal state and local public funding per student, we have every right to expect great things - and no less than adequately educated students.  My preference would be that Cornerstone had remained a tuition-based private religious school where parents understood what they were signing up for (because they had to sign up) - an arena where its leaders and supporters are considerably more comfortable, but here's hoping they sort out their community relations problem, their classroom management issues, and begin to understand what obligations they have to the public when they accept public money.  But let's not pretend that it's a fair comparison to what traditional public schools are required to do with the limited resources reluctantly bestowed by the state and the County Commission, or that Cornerstone is the underdog.

Saturday, January 5, 2013

Strong Community Schools - New Blog

Thank goodness for the great Diane Ravitch.  I don't know how she knows more about what is happening in Tennessee than those of us who live here, but I'm so glad that she sometimes does.

Prof. Ravitch posted about a new blog specifically on Tennessee public school issues - in support of true public education and in opposition to privatization efforts.

The blog is called Standing Together for Strong Community Schools, and I encourage you to check it out. 

Looks like they just started in December, and I couldn't put my finger on why, but it feels a little Nashville-y to me.

I'm suspicious of groups that refer to themselves as "grassroots" given the amount of money pouring in from corporate America into other groups advertised as grassroots, but these guys might be the real deal.  Looks like I agree with them so far . . .

January 7, 2013:  my readers are such an engaged bunch - a commenter posted a link to this article about the parents behind Standing Together 4 Strong Community Schools.  Great article, important work!