My daughter attends elementary school in the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Public schools in Davidson County tend to get a bad rap, and that’s a shame because there are some wonderful things happening here.
Recently, MNPS hired a new Director of Schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph. To say that the expectations are high for him would be an understatement. Also, the process of hiring a new director was not an easy one. My friend TC Weber wrote a thorough analysis of that process here, as did the Tennessee Education Report here and The Tennessean here. Still, I feel hopeful about what Dr. Joseph will do here.
Back in April, I, along with other parents and teachers, spoke at that month’s school board meeting (during the public comment portion of the meeting) about what I would like to see in a new Director of Schools. Here were my remarks then:
“Good evening, members of the School Board:
My name is Mary Holden, and I am a teacher and MNPS parent of a 2nd grader. I want to talk with you tonight about what is needed in our next director of schools.
First of all, we need someone with solid experience teaching children and leading schools. I believe it is important for our director of schools to have truly walked the walk when it comes to being a leader in public education. In other words, an applicant from the Broad Academy or someone who was a business leader but not an actual teacher, principal, and/or superintendent shouldn’t make it past the first cut.
Second, we need someone who 100% supports our public schools and views them in a positive light. Someone who understands the role that our public schools play in our communities and who will work tirelessly to build up these schools rather than parcel them out to competing charter schools who would instead work to divide communities and destroy our public schools. I want someone who knows the difference and will work to strengthen the public schools we have while trying to stop the expansion of charter schools. We need someone who understands the concept of community schools and will continue the work of building partnerships with local businesses and organizations who can provide resources and services for our neediest families through community schools. Someone who will ensure that our neediest schools receive equitable resources and the support personnel they need.
Third, we need an advocate to lead the fight against harmful state policies. For example, we need someone who understands the need to have fully funded schools and will fight for that at the state level. Also, someone who recognizes that we need to de-emphasize the role that standardized tests currently play. Someone who knows that we shouldn’t be evaluating teachers or students based on their test scores, especially when the test itself is a joke. We need a champion of a parent’s right to refuse these tests for their children, someone who understands the harm being done and the time that is taken away from learning by these tests.
Fourth, we need someone who is a strong supporter of our wonderful MNPS teachers and the hard work they do every day. They need to know that our director of schools has their back and has walked in their shoes. We need someone who seeks out feedback from teachers, parents, and students – and not business owners or others who don’t know anything about actually having children in public schools.
Finally, we need someone who understands and fights for the best interests of our children, especially as it relates to the role of play in learning; the importance of a well-rounded education that includes history and civics, science, art, music, PLAY, and of course, English and math; and the appropriate balance of technology in the classroom where I believe less is better.
Thank you for your time. I have confidence that you will make an excellent choice on behalf of our children and teachers.”
Dr. Joseph was hired in May, and his first day in the district was July 1. He wasted no time in getting down to business. One thing I am very impressed with so far is his desire to listen and learn from the community in which he now lives and works. He is currently hosting a series of evening gatherings, one at each high school and its cluster of schools, for the purpose of the community to get to know him and share their concerns and questions with him. I attended one recently and was pleased to see the turnout and hear what Dr. Joseph said in response to questions he received. I hope he continues to seek input from those he serves and works with in MNPS.
At this month’s school board meeting, I spoke again to welcome Dr. Joseph. Here were my remarks:
“Good evening, members of the school board and Dr. Joseph.
My name is Mary Holden, and I am an MNPS parent and former teacher. Dr. Joseph, I want to welcome you to MNPS. I’m glad you’re here and happy to see the direction you’re taking so far, which seems to be that of someone who listens and learns from those around you.
Recently, I spoke to the school board about what I would like to see in a new director of schools. One thing I mentioned was that we need a champion for our schools. Many great things are happening here. However, the inequity that exists in our neediest schools is unacceptable. They need extra resources, funding, and support in order to make them equitable. I support the community schools model. What we don’t need is more charter schools. I have heard you talk about equity, and I am pleased to hear that this seems to be a priority.
Another thing I mentioned was the need to truly listen and respect the teachers in this district. When I worked in MNPS, I noticed the culture of fear right away. It’s a real thing. Teachers feel intimidated to speak up for fear of retaliation. I hope you are able to dismantle that culture of fear quickly, and I believe your approach so far has been effective.
There is an important issue I want to speak about. Over the last year, the human resources department apparently enacted a policy wherein any teacher who is going to be non-renewed will also automatically be made ineligible for rehire. This means if a principal feels a teacher is not a good fit, instead of simply non-renewing that teacher and letting them go back into the pool of eligible teachers, that teacher is basically fired and not allowed to apply ever again in this district.
I know of an experienced kindergarten EL teacher fired under this policy for low test scores – in kindergarten! A first year middle school English teacher told to teach math instead and then fired under this policy for low test scores. Teachers who speak out and ask questions and suddenly that principal doesn’t like them, so they’re fired under this policy. The careers of these dedicated teachers are now over and done with in MNPS. This policy is harmful to teachers and students. I have three requests for you: 1) that you get rid of this current “policy”; 2) consider a new written policy where more than one person must sign off on teachers who are specifically recommended to be ineligible for rehire, and 3) please consider reviewing the files of those teachers from this year whose careers are, for the moment, effectively ruined. We have lost good teachers because of this, and yet there are tons of open positions. It’s not right, but you can make it better.
Another concern I have is your 47-member transition team. I understand the need for a transition team. But 47 is an awfully high number, especially when I don’t see teachers and parents well represented. There are charter folks, TFA, business people, and complete outsiders, but not a lot of actual MNPS stakeholders. It’s disappointing.
Overall, I am excited for your work to begin here in MNPS, and I sincerely wish you the best. Thank you.”
I will try to keep my sense of optimism as Dr. Joseph now begins the real work in MNPS. I hope he recognizes the great things that are happening here and becomes a transformational and inspirational leader. Hopefully he’ll read the copy of Reign of Error by Diane Ravitch that I gave to him if he hasn’t already read that book.
Welcome to MNPS and Nashville, Dr. Joseph!