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 - 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:,,,,,,

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.