Tuesday, September 3, 2013

Poor Government Practice

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

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

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

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

Saturday, August 24, 2013

Did I Hear That Right?

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

Blunder after blunder.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, August 16, 2013

State Board to Revoke Licenses of Effective Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 15, 2013

Is Orange Mound for Sale?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Friday, July 12, 2013

Good Press for Corporate Reform

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, July 9, 2013

Commissioner Chism's Charter School

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, July 1, 2013

Some Pretty Badass Teachers

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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