Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Orange Mound for Sale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 12, 2013

Good Press for Corporate Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Commissioner Chism's Charter School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Some Pretty Badass Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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