In May 2016, I quit my job as a high school teacher. I’d been teaching for a long time, and it wasn’t an easy decision. In fact, I miss teaching quite a bit.
I am still very involved in public education advocacy, especially here in Nashville, Tennessee.
One thing I care deeply about is our local school district, Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). The school board hired a new Director of Schools last year, and I was very optimistic, even welcoming him to the district at a board meeting. Over this year, though, I’ve seen some things happen based on decisions he’s made that have made me very nervous and concerned. Actually, I feel angry. And as my concerns built up, I decided it was time to use my teacher voice to speak up.
Here’s the 3-minute speech I gave at the school board meeting this week, along with some ranting, er, I mean, notes:
Good evening. My name is Mary Holden, and I am an MNPS parent and a former teacher with 18 years of experience in public education. Tonight we have heard about some of the wonderful things happening in our schools with our teachers and students, but all my concerns lie at the top.
The school board meeting started at 5:00PM. There was a performance by White’s Creek High School’s World Percussion Ensemble that was incredible! It certainly got me pumped up. Then there were awards for students and teachers and local business partners, acclaim given to some of our schools’ programs, and presentations from community groups who support our schools. These were important things to hear about because public school successes are something you don’t always see in the news. So I wanted to make it clear at the start of my speech that the concerns I was about to express specifically have to do with decisions made at the top, meaning by Dr. Joseph and the executives who surround him.
Basically, the way I see it, MNPS is, as my friend TC Weber recently wrote, in the weeds. And it’s about time we pull them out.
When Dr. Joseph arrived last year, I felt excited about the possibilities for him to build on our successes and be a champion for our schools. Instead, the culture of fear is worse. Teachers have never been more scared to speak up. The demands placed on them far outweigh their pay. Their autonomy has been stripped away. There’s a teacher shortage and retention is a problem. None of this is acceptable.
There’s a teacher shortage here in Nashville, along with many places all over the country. But here, it seems like our own Human Resources department and the bosses at the executive level just can’t figure out two things: how to hire new teachers and how to prevent them from leaving. Again, TC wrote an excellent post addressing the district’s shocking ignorance about why teachers are leaving. Here’s a hint to those flying blind over in HR: it’s called R-E-S-P-E-C-T. And autonomy. And better pay. And teachers ain’t getting any of that.
Dr. Joseph, you talk about leading outside of the box, but instead you’ve put yourself in a very expensive bubble, keeping you isolated from not only what’s going on, but also from the bad and sometimes unethical decisions your executives have made.
So you’re leading from within the bubble instead of outside the box.
When Dr. Joseph arrived, one of the first things he did was have all the district leaders go through expensive, er, I mean, extensive training with The Arbinger Institute. They had to read this book, Leadership and Self-Deception: Getting Out of the Box.
Here’s a review of that book: “The ‘disease’ of self-deception (acting in ways contrary to what one knows is right) underlies all leadership problems in today’s organizations, according to the premise of this work. However well intentioned they may be, leaders who deceive themselves always end up undermining their own performance.This straightforward book explains how leaders can discover their own self-deceptions and learn how to escape destructive patterns. The authors demonstrate that breaking out of these patterns leads to improved teamwork, commitment, trust, communication, motivation, and leadership.”
Unfortunately, from what I’ve seen and heard, I don’t think Dr. Joseph heeded his own advice. He hired a large number of outsiders for the top positions and even created new positions that didn’t exist before to create his own protective layer of executives which keep him isolated from what’s going on. I call it a bubble. Former Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register also had such a bubble around himself and always seemed disconnected from what was really happening in schools. [And for the record, I called him out on it as well. I even sent him this post on data when I worked in MNPS. I don’t think it went over too well though.]
When I’ve spoken with Dr. Joseph one-on-one, he does seems genuine. But when he’s speaking in front of a group, I get the opposite feeling. It has seemed to me, from the first time I heard him speak publicly, that he seems somewhat disingenuous. Or blissfully unaware of the havoc being created by his hirees. Not sure which it is. But either way, it’s not true leadership, in my opinion. It’s the opposite of what was written about in that book. [And Dr. Joseph, if you’re reading this, I would like to you know I sincerely want you to succeed. But I also think that means some things need to change. We are about the same age. We have both spent many years in education. While I only studied how to be an administrator, you actually became one. But I have talked with several district superintendents about what it means to be an effective leader, and I don’t see it happening here right now. The culture of fear is worse. But I actually am rooting for you. Because your success here truly means success for everyone in MNPS. I’d love to talk with you more about it sometime.]
You’ve said you brought in the best people for these executive positions, but many lack the qualifications needed for their jobs. Instead of being forward thinking, they are backward thinking, only focused on standardized test scores and data. The only thing those scores show us are poverty levels. So while we should be working to combat poverty and make our schools equitable, instead we are wasting our time and precious resources focusing on meaningless test scores. We need to de-emphasize the role that testing plays and stop the false narrative that our schools are failing. This means getting rid of all the extra testing and data collection requirements that have been imposed and instead, trust our teachers and let them teach.
I’m going to again direct you to TC Weber’s blog Dad Gone Wild for specific information about the bevy of unqualified people Dr. Joseph has brought in, mostly from Prince George’s County in Maryland, which is where Dr. Joseph most recently worked. TC’s done a lot of deep diving when it comes to checking out who is behind the decision-making at MNPS these days. But let me highlight a few: we’ve got someone in charge of professional development who has never been a teacher. We’ve got a new executive position that was created and given to the wife of the second-in-command. We’ve got highly-paid executives who weren’t properly credentialed by the State when they got their jobs. Or who are involved in a lawsuit. Or who get paid more than more experienced administrators who were already working here. Or who are in charge of curriculum and instruction but don’t seem to understand what those words mean. Or who have questionable records of leading schools. Or who tried to enact charter school legislation in another state. And on and on and on.
Perhaps the biggest concern is the complete disregard and disrespect for the excellence, knowledge, and skills that already exist here in Nashville.
You’ve been operating from the false assumption that we are in crisis mode and that we don’t have the capacity to fix it on our own. And that’s been driving the bad policy decisions – like purchasing canned curriculum and scripted lesson plans, outsourcing home visits to a company based in Maryland, and expensive, unnecessary out-of-state trainings, to name a few. Just as the new school year began, there was a new grading policy, a new homework policy, and a new literacy plan all forced on teachers from the top down with no input.
This is the opposite of what should be happening.
This part really makes me the angriest. Dr. Joseph and his team came here with the belief that MNPS is broken. And when that is your paradigm, of course all your decisions are going to based in tearing down the “broken” system and remaking it into something you think is better.
Only we are not broken.
We do have great disparities in Nashville. Over 70% of our students come from high-poverty levels. But we aren’t broken as a school system. There are good people doing good things here. There are great teachers working way too hard for our neediest students without the resources they need. There is learning happening in classrooms throughout the district every day. There are schools and programs that have gotten national acclaim. But when the new people got here, they ignored all that. They fired people left and right and drove others out before really gaining an understanding of the culture that existed here before.
I’m not saying it was all good. I’m saying that they assumed it was all terrible and made their decisions based on that assumption. All this was based on test scores, of course. We had the Executive Director of Curriculum and Instruction tell all the district principals that she was ready to roll up her sleeves, slather on some Vaseline, and fight because she was so angry…. about poverty and inequity, you may ask? NO. About test scores. And now she’s on a mission to raise those scores, at any cost, it seems. She’s purchased scripted lessons and pre-packaged curriculum units that teachers are forced to teach, which basically renders teachers mute. She’s set up trainings on literacy that aren’t needed because teachers already know the material. She is not giving ANY credit to our teachers because it seems she thinks THEY are to blame for low test scores. A friend who teaches high school English told me the literacy coach at her school told English teachers not to bother teaching a whole novel and instead focus only on excerpts… because that’s what’s tested. As a former English teacher, this makes me fuming mad. Mad enough to where I’m willing to roll up my own sleeves…
All this emphasis on test scores and data, data, data makes me crazy. Because that seems to be the only thing that our leaders are focused on, all our resources are being devoted to raising scores. In the process, our curriculum is being narrowed and teachers are losing even more of their autonomy. Then teachers are directed to assess students frequently with outside assessments and benchmarks and keep track of the data. All of this is what drives teachers away.
And that’s why I called our district leaders backward thinking. They seem unable to see the big picture and the proper role that standardized testing and data should play (here’s a hint: it’s a very small role). And because of it, we get things like the district’s new homework policy forced on us right after the school year began. Now my 4th grade daughter MUST have 40 minutes of homework every night because the district said so and not because my daughter’s teacher thinks it may or may not be necessary. And we get canned curriculum in place of teacher autonomy and computer programs in place of real relationships and real teaching.
It almost seems like district leaders don’t really care about teachers. At some schools, they’ve already plopped students down in front of computers because they can’t hire teachers to fill those spots. Is that the end goal here? That since they can’t find teachers, ahh, well, who needs them? Hey, it’s not unheard of. But that shouldn’t be what we sink to.
This is not right for our students. They are ultimately the ones being shortchanged here.
Relationships matter. In fact, they are the MOST important thing in life.
School board members, I beg you, stop being silent followers. Your silence makes you complicit in these issues. You don’t need to be in lockstep agreement all the time. If you’re frustrated about these things, I expect you to do something about it.
A few years ago, current MNPS board member Amy Frogge wrote that experienced teachers should be the ones driving education reform. I couldn’t agree more, and I am proud that Amy serves as a board member. I count her as a friend and greatly respect her, as well as some others on the board.
Lately – and by lately I mean since Dr. Joseph was hired – the school board has gone from being vocal in the media and on social media about issues that they agreed or disagreed on to being completely silent. And when they do speak out, it’s a little too Stepford Wives-like. Here are the opening sentences from the board’s statement in August 2016: “As the Metropolitan Board of Education, we speak as a unified body. As the Board Chair and on behalf of the Board, I would like to say that we support Dr. Joseph and his leadership team, and we stand behind the hiring decisions he has made.”
Well, dang. Pretty cut and dry then, right? We, the public, voted for you all, then you say this, and we’re all supposed to sit down and say, “Okay, then, do as you please”? I don’t think so. Not if you have a child in an MNPS school. Not if you know teachers who teach in MNPS. Not if you used to work for MNPS. And not if you care about MNPS.
[SIDE NOTE: Dear board members, I do not believe for one second that you all believe that statement from last August. I keep hearing that Dr. Joseph is doing what he said he would do, so there’s nothing to critique. But here’s the thing: If I’m the boss, and you hired me, and I say I’m going to hold community meetings and put together a report about what I learned from those meetings, and then I do exactly what I said I was going to do, are you going to give me an “A+” on my evaluation? But in reality, what have I actually done besides hold some meetings and make some pie charts? And I didn’t even do those things, by the way! I hired a consulting group to come in and do it. Hmm. In other words, there have been A LOT of meetings and plans made and due dates and reports and strategic plans and pie charts and graphs and surveys. Nothing against meetings and those other things. They are important. But it seems like when it comes specifically to the director of school’s evaluation (which, by the way, should have already happened, right? Wait, when is it going to occur?), there’s a lot of talk and not a lot of substance. And what’s even more problematic is that SERIOUS ACTIONS have been taken that are disastrous and maybe even unethical and they’ve been done by the Chiefs and they aren’t getting noticed by you because they weren’t enacted by Dr. Joseph directly. Remember that bubble I mentioned before? Do you really believe that he has hired the most capable people to make these very important decisions? I think not. But he is YOUR employee. I expect you to be supporting him overall, BUT ALSO critiquing, questioning, and criticizing when needed. AND IT’S NEEDED NOW. It is your PUBLIC SILENCE I am most upset about. I do NOT understand your compulsion to speak as one. You’re not the Borg, for f*$k’s sake. And you can disagree respectfully, by the way. You don’t need to be at war with each other or with the director. But you were voted into office for a reason. Please don’t forget that.]
I am an experienced educator. I care deeply about this district. And I see something wrong happening at the very top of MNPS. And I am speaking out.
You want to know where to focus the district’s resources? Change your paradigm to one of building on success rather than destruction. Build meaningful relationships. Genuinely listen to teachers, parents, and students. Trust, respect, and empower teachers. Get rid of the bubble around yourself. Bring in local, qualified leaders to take the top spots. Change the focus from being test-driven and data-driven to being people-driven. We need less top-down, more bottom-up leadership.
We need to be building up our schools, our children, and making their educational experiences equitable, not tearing down all the people who make them strong. We need to follow the transformational community schools model as a proven model of success.
I really, really tried to end my speech on a positive note with the suggestions of what could be done.
Really, I did.
Also, being a forward-thinking superintendent isn’t unheard of. Here’s a great example on one in New York.
I hope this all didn’t sound like one long rant. But it might have. I am pretty frustrated.
What is comes down to is this (and here’s a TL;DR for this whole speech/rant): I disagree with the leadership and the direction our district leaders are heading in MNPS. I worry the internal decisions being made will have serious repercussions on the district that will negatively impact our teachers and students. And these decisions aren’t really being publicized, but they are having a huge impact, so I believe the public needs to be aware of what’s happening.
So now you’re aware. Get involved. Speak up. Hold our leaders accountable. Fight for equity. Fight for quality public education. Be champions for our public schools.