Testing Madness in Tennessee

testing

I WANT TO TALK ABOUT TESTING.

Specifically, standardized testing, the overemphasis placed on the results of said tests, the addition of value-added measures where test scores are used to evaluate teachers and somehow measure student growth (based on a student’s predicted growth)(what?!), those same results being included in up to 25% of students’ grades, and starting this year, schools will be given an A-F grade based on their test results.

As if that weren’t enough, here in Tennessee, land of VAM, we’ve had enough missteps to piss off nearly everyone about testing. Which is a good thing – because now, maybe we can do something to end this out-of-control testing madness.

Missteps, you say? Yes. Let me attempt to sum up: First we had a different test (TCAP). Then we were brought a newer, better (says who?) test (TNReady). Then we tried to give the test (on computers), but it didn’t work (literally)(we broke the online system). So we didn’t have the test. And then students did take the test (using trusty pencil and paper) – but only in high school (yeah, that went over really well with my students). Then we waited and waited for results. This year, grades 3-11 finally took the test! But not on computer because it wasn’t ready. So back to pencil and paper. So we waited for results. And waited. And waited. And then we got some results, but not all. And the state tried to formulate TVAAS scores with the new data, but when you compare it to the TCAP data, it simply isn’t comparable (because they are two different tests) and therefore shouldn’t be used. But the state did it anyway and told us – I mean, they mailed out expensive flyers to many people across the state assuring us of it! – that we could trust these oh-so-meaningful scores. And then, last week, they said oops! we made a mistake! And now?? We still don’t have all the results. And who knows if they are accurate anyway. It’s a really, really bad joke.

Only the joke is on us.

TN ready flyer
Really fancy flyer that (our tax?) money was wasted on

WE CAN’T TRUST THE SCORES.

WE CAN’T TRUST THE TN DEPARTMENT OF EDUCATION.

We need to throw out the test and the scores.

We need to throw it ALL out.

Listen, I’m writing this from memory. But I can’t even remember all the stupid things that have happened regarding standardized testing over the last four years I’ve lived in Tennessee. Luckily, you can read all about it over at Tennessee Education Report, Dad Gone Wild, and Momma Bears. I’m not being lazy, I promise; I have #TNTestingFatigue. I’m ready to #TrashTNReady because instead of TNReady, we got #TNnotReady. I’m over it.

Seriously, people, I am pissed off. This issue is a huge part of why I quit teaching in the first place. We place WAY TOO MUCH emphasis on these standardized tests. Time is wasted. Money is wasted. And it keeps happening. We need things to change – and that means at the top. Things need to change at the legislative level – with the TN House and Senate.

had enough

I’VE HAD ENOUGH. AND I’M NOT THE ONLY ONE.

So I’m part of this statewide coalition of groups that advocate for public education. In Nashville, our group is called Mid-TN CAPE (Coalition Advocating for Public Education). And we put together this resolution to send to the TN House Education Committees and State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. Please sign the resolution here share it widely.

In less than one day, we collected over 1000 signatures of support! That is true grassroots organizing.

Here’s the resolution:

TN Ready Resolution

Whereas TN Ready testing in 2017 resulted in large numbers of scoring errors rendering all results suspect,

Whereas TN Ready testing failed in 2016, causing confusion and disappointment among students, teachers, families and administrators, and resulting in no data for the academic year for most students and teachers.

Whereas the State of Tennessee made the decision to change testing instruments from TCAP to TN Ready, a defensible shift that nonetheless complicates judgments about student achievement and growth and teacher accountability in the short term,

Whereas TVAAS is an unstable measure of student growth especially when fewer than three complete years of data is available,

and

Whereas the American Statistical Association (April 8, 2014) and the American Educational Research Association (November 11, 2015) have issued cautions regarding the scientific and technical limitations of the use of value-added assessment for purposes of accountability

Therefore, be it resolved, that we the undersigned call on the TN State Legislature and TN Department of Education to suspend use of testing data for consequential decision-making until after the 2019-2020 school year.

We further call for a three year collaborative study —involving the TN legislature, the TN Department of Education, teachers and their professional organizations, school boards and district administrators, and parents of public school students — to determine the most productive and constructive path forward to ensure real and reasonable accountability for educational outcomes in the service of the best possible education for Tennessee’s children.

And soon after the recent scoring debacle was announced, we held press conferences across the state demanding changes. Knoxville. Nashville. Memphis.

Screen Shot 2017-10-23 at 8.00.47 PMHopefully the State House is taking notice. They are holding their Education Committees Joint Meeting on October 24-25 and TNReady is on the agenda. In fact, I’ll be speaking out against it at that meeting.

I’ll update this blog post after that meeting with some notes and my speech.

** FINALLY! AN UPDATE! HEY, IT’S ONLY 3 MONTHS LATER! **

It’s about time I updated this post with my speech from that meeting back in October! To be honest, that meeting felt like a set-up. And I was depressed about it for a while, so I didn’t feel like updating this post. I didn’t get to make my speech, nor did others who feel the same way as I do and had waited patiently all day to speak, thinking we were on some actual list of speakers. What happened was that SCORE, a group with a lot of power with the TNDOE and certain members of the State Legislature, had stacked the deck with teachers (all were current or former SCORE Teacher Fellows) who spoke about their undying love for TNReady and of their inability to teach effectively without their detailed TNReady Score Reports. For real? I found myself asking after each of these teachers spoke. They can’t teach without their Score Reports, which teachers hadn’t even received yet?! It didn’t make sense. But then I realized it did make sense because SCORE doesn’t want their precious TNReady or its effects on teacher evaluation to go away at all. And they had the power that day. My only hope is that our legislators saw right through their BS.

Anyway, here is the speech that I would have given that day if I’d had the chance. Hey, I only spent the entire day at Legislative Plaza, listening to ridiculous testimony from the head of Questar, the test vendor, and our State Education Commissioner, and waiting patiently to set the record straight…

Good afternoon. My name is Mary Holden. I am parent of a 4th grader here in Nashville public schools, and I also taught high school English in California and Tennessee for 15 years. I’m here to talk about why TNReady isn’t doing what you may think it’s doing.

We place too much emphasis on standardized testing in Tennessee. Test results count toward evaluating teacher performance, figuring into student grades, judging our schools, and even influencing the real estate markets. This is ridiculous. It isn’t what testing is for. By placing so much emphasis – and legislation that backs it up – on the test, we have changed what we focus on in classrooms. In other words, teachers must focus on the test because their job depends on it. This results in a narrowing of the curriculum – as an English teacher, I was told not to teach poetry or whole novels because they weren’t on the test – and this shortchanges our children. They are the ones who lose because of our testing madness. Public education should not be about preparing students for a test. But that is what our state laws have made happen.

Then there is the debacle that is TNReady. First we switch tests. Then the test gets canceled. Then it’s back on. Now we can’t get the data back. Then the data we get is flawed and incorrect. But we do get expensive flyers mailed home assuring us that we can trust the results. Are you kidding me?! Even my high school students knew it was all a joke.

Pro-testing advocates like to say that these tests inform teachers’ instruction. But that is not true at all. Teachers are naturally assessing students every day, in both informal and formal ways, and in diagnostic, formative, and summative ways. Teachers know their students. That’s what they do. Assessment is a natural part of teaching. But these standardized tests? They don’t give any valuable or new information to teachers at all. Not to mention that results have never been received in any kind of timely manner. And this year, the state tells us that there were mistakes made in scoring the tests? We aren’t buying it.

You want to help? Let’s take a well-needed break from this testing mania. Let’s start with a 3-year moratorium on state testing. Then let’s remove all punitive restrictions on this test – that means we get rid of TVAAS, which is unreliable, inaccurate, and highly impersonal to our children – who aren’t statistics (and Houston ISD just removed it from teacher evaluations); remove results from student grades; and stop grading schools based on test scores.

Let’s be forward-thinking and look at other ways to evaluate school success that are research-based and developed in conjunction with teachers, professors of education, and other education professionals. TEA knows plenty of educators who would like to be involved in shaping future education policy in Tennessee. Our students are more than a score.

The good news now is that it does seem like many legislators are waking up to the testing madness in our state. And now that the Legislation Session is officially underway, maybe there is some hope we’ll see some legislation that helps our schools.

IF I RAN THE WORLD

If it were up to me, I’d get rid of standardized testing completely. After all, it has its roots in racism (see here, here, and here for some background). If we truly did want to have a general overview of what students are learning – a snapshot, so to speak – let’s go to grade span testing, where students take a standardized test in grades 3, 8, and 11. These tests wouldn’t have any punitive or evaluative measures behind them; they would simply be a snapshot of statewide data. But the moment you attach any more meaning than that to these tests, their original purpose is gone. And then, the test becomes the focus. The test drives all decisions. That is wrong.

You think students care about these tests? No way. Don’t believe me? Ask them and see for yourself. In 2014, a then-16-year-old student from Ohio asked What’s the Point? Students know these tests are total bullshit.

You can’t use these tests to measure school success. Or to measure equity. In fact, that is what some pro-testing advocates believe – that we need annual tests to show us the inequities. But hello! We already know where the inequities are (since there is a strong correlation between test scores and poverty levels – see also here, here, and here)! So here’s a novel idea —– let’s actually fix the inequities!!! Let’s take a long, hard look at how to eradicate poverty and reduce the effects of trauma on our kids.

And to do that doesn’t require annual testing. It does, however, require a true commitment to improving public education. Which means a real commitment to fully funding our schools (come on, Tennessee!), supporting the transformational community schools model, looking at ways to integrate our schools, and finally, really investing in our teachers – not only with respectable salaries, but also with autonomy and overall respect for the profession.

I know we can do it.

We have to do it. We can’t give up on public education.

Public education is a cornerstone of our democracy. And as I recently heard TN State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a candidate for TN Governor, say, “Education is not a quick fix. It’s the only fix.” (And yes, I’m #TeamFitz all the way!)

Indeed. Public education is the foundation for everything we do. So let’s make it a priority.

#TeacherVoice

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.

MNPS success

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.

HUH?

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.

But.

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.

This is the way forward.

Thank you.

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.

Let teachers teach_Cody

 

Back to School Once More

Two weeks ago, my daughter started 4th grade. I was overly emotional about it, even tearing up when I met the teacher during the parent night the week before school began. Then again, it doesn’t take much to make me teary.

But still. I felt a mix of emotions about back to school time this year – from being proud of my daughter for all she’s learned so far from her wonderful teachers and for her excitement about being a 4th grader, to sadness because she’s growing up so fast (4th grade! Where did my little baby go?!), to nostalgia about my own positive experiences as a student way back when, to really feeling overcome with emotion about my not being a teacher anymore.

There are a lot of things I miss about teaching, and the whole process of school itself – the routines of it, the way a school year feels – excitement, anxiety, teenage hormones (I taught high school), the ups and downs, traditions, getting to know students, students learning, students figuring out what their next steps are after high school graduation, teenagers making baby steps into adulthood before your very eyes, assemblies, Open Houses, football games and other sporting events, spirit competitions, Homecoming, just the feeling of walking through the hallway during a passing period, faculty meetings, and on and on and on – in many, many ways, I really just miss it all.

So, whenever I enter a school, I feel it. That mix of sadness and joy when I am sitting in a school seeing it all just happen. Sigh.

Of course there are things I do not miss at all. But that’s a different post.

first day of school

But I’ll say this for certain: the start of a new school year is always filled with promise and joy. It’s a brand new start, the chance to make great first impressions, to create a sense of community in each classroom where learning can happen and students feel safe and supported and teachers feel empowered and excited. It happens each year, every time a new school year begins.

I’d like to say that all teachers experience such positive experiences with the start of a new year, but that isn’t always the case. And one of the reasons why is a simple one to identify, but a difficult one to solve: leadership.

The importance of a good principal cannot be overstated. Having a strong, committed, intelligent, empowering principal at the helm of a school can make or break a teacher’s career. Because working for someone who really knows what they are doing and who truly respects and empowers teachers makes teaching easier in many ways.

WHAT’S NEEDED? TEACHER AUTONOMY.

If you read anything at all about education, then you’ve heard about how great things seem to be in Finland. But as this article points out, what does stand out about Finland’s education system in general is how they treat their teachers. When some teachers from the U.S. visited Finland, here were some of their takeaways:

Nelson said the Finnish belief is: “‘You are the expert in the field, we do not need to test your kids to see how good you really are.’ … We don’t have that in the States. It really undermines teachers’ self-esteem.”

And teachers in Finland have the autonomy to decide what and how to teach in their own classrooms.

“American teachers hesitate to say, ‘oh, this looks good, let me try it,'” Vlasnik said. “That was one of my main takeaways: There’s no secret to education, there’s no secret formula that they’re doing right and we’re doing wrong, they’re just trying new things and being innovative and giving teachers more power.”

She said Finnish educational leaders believe “teachers know good instruction, we just need to let them do it.”

This is not a novel idea. Trusting teachers to do their job – BECAUSE THEY ARE TRAINED PROFESSIONALS – should be commonplace practice in every school district. But it’s not.

An article from last year in The Atlantic discussed what happened when some Finnish teachers taught here in the U.S. Guess what they noticed? The lack of autonomy. And that’s a very bad thing: “According to a National Center for Education Statistics (NCES) report, teacher autonomy is positively associated with teachers’ job satisfaction and retention. And while most U.S. public-school teachers report a moderate amount of control in the classroom, many say they have little autonomy.”

Let me repeat that in a different way: We have a teacher shortage. Want to retain teachers and attract new ones? Then trust them to do their jobs. Ask them what they need, and then give them the support they need. (Oh, and paying them more would help, too!)

Steven Singer, a middle school teacher and fellow blogger, wrote about not being a “hero teacher,” and instead discusses the hard work that teachers do every day, as well as what they want and need. Now imagine what public education would be like if we actually started listening to teachers!

And a Senator from Louisiana shared his own revelations about teaching when he began substituting in schools on his off time from the senate. His big takeaway: teaching is hard work! (Duh! said teachers everywhere.) And people who make policies about education ought to know something about how it’s done. (Yessssss! said same teachers.)

joy of learning
The opposite of the joy of learning

A POSITIVE EXAMPLE

It doesn’t have to be this way. Here’s an example.

When teachers return to school before a new year begins, they usually have anywhere from 1-4 days of professional development / meetings / planning / setting up classroom time. Ideally, most of this time would be spent planning and preparing for the school year, but frequently, this time is usurped by endless meetings and often mind-numbing professional development. Ask almost any teacher if they have enough prep time before the school year begins, and you’ll hear the same responses: No! We need time to plan! Let us plan!

My friend Chip, who teaches high school math at Mar Vista High School in Imperial Beach, California (where I taught with him for 10 years), recently emailed this to his principal for the way the opening of school was handled this year:

I can’t lie… I’ve done 18 of these weeks at MVH.  In the beginning I would dread having enough time in my classroom just to get ready… “why so many meetings?”

Then came the age of data… meetings were inundated in interpreting graphs about students I might have more of or less than the teacher sitting next to me.  “why so many meetings?”

Since I’ve never emailed a principal after these days… I just wanted to thank you for taking the focus off of content, off of data, off of outcomes.

These three days have been about what’s important… the students (seeing their faces on the slide hit me), the teachers (treating ourselves right with yoga and bike rides), the community (what binds us all).

I learned something this week.  Not about my content, not about data… about my awesome colleagues and their stories.  Mmmm… what you miss when you don’t ask the important questions!

Thanks for keeping it real and our eyes on the prize.

I can only hope this year will be better.

– Mr. Case

Here’s what the principal, Rich Carreon, wrote in response:

I have read this email 4-5 times already. I always appreciate the positive and constructive feedback. I don’t think you know how much sleep I lose over wanting to support and provide opportunities for each student. Thank you for the ongoing dialogue. This motivates me.

Respectfully,

Rich

There are several responses I had to reading this interaction (which Chip and Rich allowed to me share):

  1. I miss working there! I have some great memories of my time at this school.
  2. Chip is happy. And when Chip is happy, his students will be happy. And they’ll learn even more math than if Chip weren’t happy. (This applies to every teacher – when they are happy, that translates to their students. It’s called the joy of learning.)
  3. Rich is an inspirational leader. There needs to be more principals like him. In fact, I think there probably are a lot of principals like this, but in some places (like here in Nashville, for example) there are too many restrictions on principals. The fact that teachers and principals are judged by students’ test scores, for example – restrictions or laws like this don’t allow principals to be as supportive and empowering as they could be. And it really bothers me.
  4. The act of thanking someone and telling them why you appreciate something they did is so very powerful. We should all do this more often.

This all happened because there was a principal who clearly understands what teachers need to feel supported and then actually provided that. He was empowered by another great leader, Dr. Karen Janney, the superintendent of the district, who clearly understands what teachers need AND what principals need in order to ensure that teachers are feeling supported.

Karen was my teacher at San Diego State University when I was earning my administrative services credential, and she used to be my boss when she was an assistant superintendent. But she has also long been a dear friend. When I talked with her recently about this email exchange (which Rich had shared with her), she was excited because, as she told me, “We are doing all the things we talked about doing!” Meaning when she was teaching classes on leadership and talking about what’s really important – like focusing on building community, empowering teachers, and caring about the well being of everyone involved from the students and parents to the teachers to the district office personnel – now, as superintendent, she’s able to put those practices into action. And it’s clearly having a positive reaction.

THIS IS HOW YOU DO IT

This is the way school should be done.

This is how you get teachers to stay. (Well, one way, at least. Paying them more would help too! Have I mentioned that?)

This is how you get students to have the best environment for learning.

This is how you have joyful schools.

(Of course, schools should also be fully funded and free from standardized testing requirements that aren’t helpful as well. But those are factors over which districts do not have direct control.)

The way I see it, the reason not all districts or schools are like this is because of a lack of leadership. We are seeing that happen here in Nashville in Metro Nashville Public Schools. And let’s not forget, there is a national teacher shortage as well due to years of education reform tactics that have turned away many prospective teachers.

I wish more districts would recognize what teachers have been saying for years – stop focusing on the data and the test scores and all the punitive measures that have been in place since the dawn of the accountability movement, and instead, focus on what matters: People. Relationships. Community. Developing the joy of learning. And trust our teachers to teach the subjects for which they are trained to teach.

This article out of Oklahoma gave me some hope:

The “best practices” of recent years have it backward, emphasizing academics before laying a socio-emotional foundation. The New York Times’ David Brooks and Paul Tough summarize the cognitive research on how children learn from people who love them. James Heckman, the Nobel Laureate who attended Harding High School, shows that test scores don’t correlate with lifetime outcomes. Summarizing the science, Heckman says, “we boil all this down, … it’s almost like this Beatles song, you know, all it takes is love.” To students, it’s about “somebody love(s) you.”

Maybe the tide is turning slowly. But when I watch the news each day, it definitely doesn’t feel that way. I worry that too many teachers are leaving, and in doing so, schools are suffering. And when schools suffer, children and their education will suffer.

But it doesn’t have to be this way.

And teachers, as you begin a new school year, I hope it is one filled with as many joyful moments as possible. Thank you for all you do.

HAVE A GREAT SCHOOL YEAR!

Thank you teachers

I just can’t. 

You know how sometimes you just get so frustrated with something that you can’t really get all your thoughts together to explain why you feel the way you feel? I have felt that way about our current political situation since about November 8. And when Betsy DeVos was announced as the candidate for Secretary of Education, well, I was beyond frustrated. Exasperated. Irked. Embittered. Discouraged. Unable to speak clearly about it without wanting to scream.

Head in Hands
For when you just can’t. #facepalm

And so, I need to vent. When it comes to Betsy DeVos, this is how I feel.

bear

I’M FRUSTRATED. 

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GRRRRRR… I

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CAN’T

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FULLY

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EXPRESS

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HOW

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F**KING

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ANNOYED

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AND

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ENRAGED

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I FEEL

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ABOUT

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BETSY DEVOS

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BEING

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THE SECRETARY

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OF EDUCATION.

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We must never stop pushing back against her agenda to privatize and destroy our public schools.

And that’s all I have to say about that.

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January 27, 2017 – Public education advocates protest the nomination of DeVos in Nashville.


What do we value? Or, about that 3% raise…

What do we value? Or, about that 3% raise…

On a recent Tuesday in May, the Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Board had a budget meeting where they approved, among other things, a 3% raise for teachers.

The teacher’s association, Metro Nashville Educators Association (MNEA) had been fighting for a full 3% after Nashville Mayor Megan Barry and the City Council came back with lower numbers than expected and it looked for a while that teachers were only going to get a 2% raise. Teachers rallied and spoke out, and at the budget meeting, several teachers were planning to speak during the public comment portion of the meeting to encourage the Board to fund the original 3% proposal. And then, right before the meeting started, Director of Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph announced that teachers were going to get their 3%! Yay! Commence the cheering and the patting of backs!

Right?

But wait.

It’s not so simple. It never is.

Some teachers who spoke quickly amended their original speeches to say Thank you for the 3%! We appreciate it! And some even added But even 3% is not enough. At least it’s a start.

But I still wasn’t happy about the 3%.

This group of teachers, parents, and community members are some who came out to support raising teacher pay

There is a 2-minute limit on a person speaking during public comment. So my original speech had to be cut down quite a bit. But here is my original, longer speech to the Board and Dr. Joseph:

Good evening! My name is Mary Holden, and I am a MNPS parent and a former teacher. Thank you all for coming out to support our teachers. They are our most treasured resource, and we need to treat them accordingly.

But I am not here to argue for to thank you for a 3% raise. 3% is next to nothing. I’m here to argue for a much bigger increase.

One way to determine what a society values is to look at how and what we spend money on.

Our school board believed it was important to attract the best Director of Schools here to Nashville, so they set a salary of $285,000, a 7% increase from the previous Director’s salary. So teachers deserve at least the same: a 7% increase. But wait. The new Director believed it was important to bring in the “best” people to lead the district in our executive positions, and to do so meant they needed to be paid more. So all our executives were given an initial salary that was 25% more than what those previous positions were paid. Were questions raised by the board about this salary increase? No, because this is what was valued by our Director of Schools – that the people in these positions are the “best” and therefore deserve to be paid more money.

Well you know who is the “best,” in my opinion? Our teachers!

So I ask you all, who do we really value? Our executives – who do work hard, I’m sure, OR our teachers? You know, the people who we, as parents, send our precious children to every single day. The people who work their butts off to create engaging lessons, spend extra time with students making sure they learned a new concept, spend hours assessing student work and looking at data, spend money from their own pockets for supplies, and spend countless hours making themselves into better teachers through planning and professional development. THEY are the best. They are the people I value. And I know you all feel the same way. And so, we need to treat them like we value them. They are more than worthy of a sizable increase in their pitiful salaries. I know this from experience.

When I first moved to Nashville, I had been teaching in California for 12 years. I left California making $85,000, and when I got hired in MNPS, I was making $55,000. That’s a decrease of $30,000. Now, I know it costs less to live here than it does in San Diego; however, the price of housing here in Nashville has risen – the cost of living here has increased, and teacher salaries have NOT risen along with it. In fact, one thing I found troubling the year I taught in MNPS was the number of teachers I met who had to work a second job! Here were teachers, working so incredibly hard for their students, who could not live on their teacher salaries and had to seek additional employment in their free time. Free time, ha! We stress out our teachers to the point where they have no time for themselves. And it does not need to be this way. Not if we truly value them and the work they do.

I’m here to say that if we truly value our teachers – which we should – then that needs to show in their pay. They deserve a 25% increase. In fact, I suggest we help pay for that increase by giving our executives a salary cut. The bottom line is this: yes, it’s great that teachers are getting a 3% raise. Any raise is a good thing, generally speaking. But if you are asking me to celebrate that 3%, I say no way. 3% is nowhere near good enough. And if we value teachers, and we want them to be able to live a decent life and be able to buy a home in the city in which they teach, we need to put our money where our mouth is. Otherwise, they’re going to keep on quitting. Our teachers deserve much more than you are giving them.

Teachers, the only reason you are getting this raise is because of you and MNEA’s organizing efforts! iIf you haven’t already done so, join MNEA and fight for what you are worth!

Thank you.

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Salaries in south San Diego
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Salaries in Nashville

A few things to note:

In Nashville, the Director of Schools is the 3rd-highest paid position in all of Metro Nashville. This was true in 2014, when Dr. Jesse Register held the position with a salary of $266,033.92. And it remained true in 2016, when Dr. Joseph took the helm with a 7% increase in his salary of $285,000.00. And in addition to that $285k, there are other perks (or problems?) as well. To put this in perspective, the Director of Schools makes over $100,000 more annually than the Mayor of Nashville makes.

I don’t know if this is a good thing or a bad thing. Thoughts?

There have been several newspaper and television news stories about the salaries I mentioned in my speech.

In one such story, MNPS had this to say about its executive-level salaries: “We hope this line of inquiry contributes to the citywide conversation about what we as a city want to invest in for our public schools. Our belief is that talent must be one of the top investments.”

This begs the question: does MNPS feel the same way about its biggest talent pool, TEACHERS?

Another television news story discussed how as Director of Schools, Dr. Joseph has “full rein” on spending. Then-Board-president Anna Shepherd was interviewed for this story as well. From the story:

Joseph recently told school board members that “we don’t have a dollar to waste.”

While he prepares to cut other parts of the schools budget, some teachers privately question whether the money he’s spent on salaries and take-home cars might mean less money for programs that affect children.

Shepherd has no such questions.

“I think that Dr. Joseph needs to do whatever he needs to do to make sure that we are successful. And in his infinite wisdom, if that’s what he thinks he needs, he has full rein to do that.”

Again, where we spend our money clearly shows what – or, in this case, who – we value.

Nashville isn’t the only place where teachers aren’t paid well and don’t seem to matter. Andy Spears writes about Arizona here. There is a growing teacher shortage there (here too!) and the state has responded by lowering the standards for entering the teaching profession in addition to having one of the lowest teacher pay scales in the nation. Spears writes:

“So, now in addition to low pay, teachers in Arizona are being told that just about anyone could do their jobs. Lowering the standards for entry into the teaching profession sends a clear message: Teaching doesn’t matter. It’s a message students and parents alike are sure to see. If anyone can be a teacher, teaching has little value. Taxpayers are being told that cheap teachers are more important than good teaching. So, why pay more for talent when you can just lower the standards?”

Teachers across the nation are demoralized. They are quitting in record numbers (this is true in other parts of the world as well). So maybe it’s time we start to value them and the work they do? Seems too obvious to be true, but it is.

There are many ways we can show that we value our teachers. One way to show that we value our teachers is to pay them well. I remember when I was a younger teacher, someone wrote a book suggesting that we needed to pay our teachers more money – The $100,000 Teacher came out in 2003. These days, however, I don’t hear this kind of talk happening anymore. There are small raises that happen every few years to keep up with the cost of living, but is there talk about actually paying teachers a decent salary? No. I guess we don’t value teachers and their expertise anymore. And we are paying the price.

Here in Nashville, the Director of Schools seems to value his friends, the new, very-well-paid execs, because he raised their salaries from a meager $147k to $185k when they got those positions. Think about that for a second. That is a 25% increase for the people he hired into those positions. The people who were previously in those positions probably weren’t complaining about their pay (you know, because $147k is still pretty damn good!), but for some reason, Dr. Joseph felt that wasn’t enough. So he found the money in the budget to pay them more.

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This begs the question: Does he truly value our teachers? Where is the fight to get them their due? To make Nashville the city with the highest teacher pay in the state of Tennessee, so that teachers might be able to afford a home (ha!) and live the American Dream? To attract and retain talented teachers?

I just don’t see it. Do you?

An important lesson from Diane Ravitch: “Don’t Like Betsy DeVos? Blame the Democrats”

Diane Ravitch remains a hero of mine. She is the nation’s foremost expert on the history of public education and one of its biggest champions. She is the voice for many teachers across the country who are frustrated with what is happening in public education. 

In her post below, she shares an article she wrote for New Republic magazine. In it, she lays out exactly why we are in this problematic situation with public education in the US. From Bush the first to Clinton to Bush the second and Obama – and now with Trump and DeVos – we have been on an increasingly frustrating and devastating trek for some time now. Ravitch shows why Democrats aided heavily in getting us to this point. 

And boy, does she nail it. As a Democrat and former teacher who started teaching in 1998, the last days of Clinton and just before No Child Left Behind became the law of the land, I experienced firsthand what Ravitch describes. It all happened over my career as a teacher. In fact, it’s one of the main reasons I quit. I couldn’t take the frustration I felt any longer. 

Ravitch doesn’t just teach us a history lesson though. She also lays out what we could – and should – do now to finally reverse this course and set things straight. 

She writes:

The agenda isn’t complicated. Fight privatization of all kinds. Insist on an evidence-based debate about charter schools and vouchers. Abandon the obsession with testing. Fight for equitable funding, with public money flowing to the neediest schools. Acknowledge the importance of well-educated, professional teachers in every classroom. Follow the example of Virginia Governor Terry McAuliffe, who vetoed a bill to expand charters in March. Or Montana Governor Steve Bullock, who insists that charters employ certified teachers, allow them to unionize, and fall under the control of local school districts. Democrats should take their cue from Bullock when he declares, “I continue to firmly believe that our public education system is the great equalizer.”

There is already an education agenda that is good for children, good for educators, good for the nation, and good for the Democratic Party. It’s called good public schools for everyone. All Democrats have to do is to rediscover it.

So… here’s hoping. With Trump self-destructing and such strong opposition to DeVos, I’m (somewhat)(cautiously) hopeful Democrats will change course and return to our roots. Time will tell. 

Diane Ravitch's blog

I wrote this article for The New Republic.

https://newrepublic.com/article/142364/dont-like-betsy-devos-blame-democrats

It explains how Democrats set the stage for DeVos’ anything-goes approach to school choice by their advocacy of charter schools. Charters are the gateway to vouchers. We have seen many groups like Democrats for Education Reform try to draw a sharp distinction between charters and vouchers. It doesn’t work. Once you begin defaming public schools and demanding choice, you abandon the central argument for public schools: they belong to the public.

The political side to this issue is that the Democratic Party sold out a significant part of its base–teachers, teachers unions, and minorities–by joining the same side as ALEC, the Walton family, and rightwing conservatives who never approved of public schools.

Their pursuit of Wall Street money in exchange for supporting charters helped to disintegrate their base. To build a viable coalition for the future, the Party must walk away…

View original post 20 more words

Backpack Full of Cash: See this film!

backpack movie

On Sunday, April 23, 2017, I attended a screening of Backpack Full of Cash as part of the Nashville Film Festival. It was sold out.

nashville film festival

Last year, at the Network for Public Education National Conference in Raleigh, North Carolina, I was fortunate to attend a screening of a rough cut of this film and meet the filmmakers. Matt Damon narrates the film, and we had Nancy Carlsson-Paige (his mom!), introduce the film to us. It was pretty cool to say the least.

Over at the blog Busted Pencils, Tim Slekar has an interview with the filmmakers discussing why they felt compelled to make this film. In the film, filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow focus on the 2013-2014 school year in three cities where corporate reformers have a strong foothold: Philadelphia, New Orleans, and Nashville, as well as other cities. They clearly show the negative effect that school choice, through charter school expansion in some places and the introduction of vouchers in others, has had on the public school system. It’s both heartbreaking and maddening to watch, and I found myself wanting to scream at the screen in frustration about what was happening to public schools in these cities.

Nashville is featured in the film, so I watched it with perhaps even more interest than I would have otherwise, and several people I know are in it – school board member Amy Frogge, and teachers Michele Sheriff and Jennifer Eilender. It’s both exciting and sad to see Nashville up there on the screen. Exciting because Cool! I live there! This is the district where my daughter attends school and where I taught for a year! Yay! And sad because of what is happening here with charter schools and how their continued expansion harms our public schools.

Nashville teacher Michele Sheriff, Filmmakers Sarah Mondale and Vera Aronow, and Nashville School Board Member Amy Frogge at the film’s Nashville debut


This film raises the question of school choice, what it is, and how it should be done – or not done. Linda Darling-Hammond recently wrote in The Nation about this topic as well:

Clearly, the issues surrounding school choice are more complex than the typical pro-charter/anti-charter battle lines might suggest. The central question for a public-education system in a democratic society is not whether school options should exist, but whether high-quality schools are available to all children. The fact that choice doesn’t guarantee quality should be clear each time we flick through 500 cable-TV channels without finding a single good viewing option. In public education, this kind of choice is not an acceptable outcome.

The key question, therefore, is whether we can create a system in which all schools are worth choosing and all children are chosen by good schools. How might DeVos’s agenda affect these goals?

One facet of the charter fight is whether or not charters are doing any good. Darling-Hammond writes about a recent study: “Despite the rush to trade district-run public schools for privately managed options, the research has found mixed results for both voucher programs and charter schools, with some charters doing better and others doing worse than public schools. For example, a large-scale study of student data from 16 states by Stanford’s Center for Research on Education Outcomes found that only 17 percent of charters produced academic gains that were better than those at traditional public schools, while 37 percent performed worse than their public-school counterparts. Most showed no difference.”

So…. let me look more closely at that data… Hmm…

Seems like… maybe…  charters aren’t worth it. Maybe… we should just be investing all those backpacks full of cash into our existing schools? Hmm?

Sometimes the best solutions are the most obvious ones: LET’S SUPPORT OUR PUBLIC SCHOOLS. Sounds simple. But why isn’t it done?

Her closing thoughts: “At the end of the day, the public welfare is best served when investments in schools enable all young people to become responsible citizens prepared to participate effectively in the political, social, and economic life of their democracy.”

Seems like a good plan to me. We’ve got established public schools all over the country that need our attention, our funding, and most importantly, our support.

***

Amy Frogge, who has long been a champion of public schools, writes here, in a Facebook post, why she loves public schools:

Like many parents, I initially worried about enrolling my children in our zoned public schools, because I heard negative gossip about local schools when we first moved to our neighborhood. But our experiences in local public schools have been overwhelmingly positive. This year, my daughter is a 7th grader at H.G. Hill Middle School, and my son is a 4th grader at Gower Elementary School. They have attended our zoned neighborhood schools since pre-k (my son) and kindergarten (my daughter). Our local schools are Title 1 schools (Gower recently came off the Title 1 list) serving widely diverse populations.

If you have not considered Nashville’s zoned public schools, you really should. These are just a FEW of my children’s experiences in our schools:

My children have taken many educational field trips over the years. My son has traveled to Chattanooga to visit the Challenger Space Center and the Creative Discovery Museum. My daughter has visited the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta, Discovery Park of America in Union City, TN, and Wonderworks in Pigeon Forge, TN. This year, she is heading to Six Flags for a second time with her middle school band. (Last year, she played at Six Flags over Atlanta, and this year, she’ll play at Six Flags over St. Louis.) As part of this year’s band trip, she’ll also tour The Gateway Arch and Museum of Westward expansion.

Here in Nashville, my children have taken field trips to the Adventure Science Center and planetarium, Traveler’s Rest (to learn about history), the Nashville Zoo, Cheekwood Botanical Gardens, the Country Music Hall of Fame, the Frist Center for the Visual Arts, and the Schermerhorn Symphony Hall (where they learned about instruments from a symphony member and a Nashville sessions player). They have sung with their elementary school choir at the State Capitol, Nashville City Hall, and the County Music Hall of Fame. They have both studied songwriting in a special segment which brings professional songrwriters to their school to set their songs to music. This year, my children both participated in the Project Based Learning Expo at Trevecca Nazarene University, where my son presented a project on the book “I am Malala” and my daughter presented a project on Samurai.

My children have both performed in a 1950s-60s music revue and in numerous choir and theatrical performances. My son played “The Prince” in “Cinderella” last year at Gower and this year will play “Scar” in “The Lion King.” His drama teacher suggested him for a NECAT children’s show, so he also went to a studio this fall to film a television production.

In elementary school, my children helped hatch baby chicks in the classroom in spring. The teacher who hatches chicks also operates an animal camp each summer at her nearby farm, where children learn about both farm animals and exotics- and also just spend time playing in the creek! My children have also attended other summer camps through the school, including Camp Invention, where they built their own pinball machines and more.

My daughter now plays in three bands at her middle school: the 7th-8th grade band, the Honor Band, and a rock band. She recently participated in a band competition at MTSU and was thrilled when her middle school band won awards. My daughter has learned to play three different instruments and also has been invited to sing solos with her rock band (for which she also plays the piano). She has played soccer, played basketball, and currently runs track at H.G. Hill Middle, where she also serves as a Student Ambassador and gives tours of the school to prospective families.

My children have both participated in numerous clubs at their schools, including robotics/coding (my son can now code games on his own), cartooning club, gardening club, and the Good News Club. In Encore, my daughter built rollercoasters to learn about physics, and my son has extracted DNA from strawberries. My son was excited to learn today that he will soon study special effects makeup in his drama class, and he will also soon participate in the school’s “Wax Museum”: In 4th grade, every student dresses up as an historical figure and shares that person’s story with those who come to tour the “museum.”

My children have experienced ALL of this because of public education in Nashville. They are learning SO much- not only academically, but also about their community and the larger world from their friends who come from many different countries and speak many languages. I believe the education my children have received in our often underappreciated zoned schools rivals any they would receive from private schools in Nashville or the more coveted public schools in more affluent areas of Middle Tennessee. My children are both doing well academically, and they are getting all they need to be happy, well-rounded, and confident.

Public schools rock!

Please support our public schools! Our public school teachers, leaders and staff work hard to serve our children well.

I couldn’t have said it better myself.

***

Even though Backpack Full of Cash focuses on the 2013-2014 school year, the filmmakers have added an epilogue to the film which clearly connects what happened during that school year to our present situation. With the election of Trump and the appointment of DeVos as Secretary of Education, the issues raised in this prescient film are more important than ever.

So, here’s my advice: SEE THIS FILM! If you care about public education and you want to know what we public school advocates are fighting for, SEE THIS FILM!

Dewey quote

Go Big Orange! Or, why I feel hopeful about our future teachers.

In The South, college football is a big deal. A VERY big deal. It’s not really my thing, but I quickly saw how big a deal it was when I moved here. People here don’t mess around when it comes to their teams. Go Big Orange! Roll Tide! War Eagle! etc. People have their loyalties, and boy, are they fierce about them! Though it seems a little crazy, it also seems fun, and I’ve added attend an SEC football game to my bucket list. One of the big teams in Tennessee is characterized by the big orange T that you see everywhere here. And that would be the University of Tennessee at Knoxville (UTK).

gobigorangeKnoxville is about a 3 hour drive east of Nashville, and I hadn’t been there until recently. A friend and fellow public education advocate, Lauren Hopson, asked me if I wanted to join her on a panel for a classroom of students in a teacher education program at UTK. The topic was “teacher leaders.” The students were all in their final year of a program that included their teacher education classes, one year of working as an intern teacher (AKA student teacher), and completion of their Master’s degree. Come late summer, they will all hopefully have teaching jobs for the upcoming school year. So I said yes, because I thought it would be fun for me and maybe (hopefully) interesting for them to hear an out-of-state perspective.

There were four of us on the panel. Amber Rountree is an elementary school librarian-turned-school board member in Knox County. Dave Gorman is a middle school science teacher in Knox County. And Lauren Hopson is an elementary school teacher and current Knox County Education Association president. And then there was me, a former high school teacher who taught mostly in California but spent three years teaching in Tennessee before I quit almost a year ago. We all had different perspectives, and yet we had many things in common.

Though the four of us came from different backgrounds and taught at different levels – elementary through high school – we were all experienced educators. And we were all spurred into activism for different reasons. Amber was a librarian who saw the library budget being slashed and wasn’t happy about it. When she was asked to administer a standardized test to kindergartners (the SAT-10 test is optional for districts in Tennessee to choose to administer to grades K-2), it was the final straw, and she knew she had to speak up. Only not many others were really speaking up at the time. But she didn’t stop. In fact, she ran for school board. And won. Now, a few years later, with the help of teachers-turned-activists like my fellow panel members, Knox County has a majority of school board members who are also teachers and actually know about public education. It’s pretty awesome.

Lauren had been an elementary school teacher, watching as the pressure to perform on standardized tests increased for both students and their teachers, and she was also frustrated by the teacher evaluation system and all of the unreasonable demands being placed on teachers. She had had enough. So she went to a school board meeting and spoke up. That video of her speaking at the school board went viral. But she didn’t stop. In fact, she became president of the local teachers union association (Ssh! Union is a dirty word for many around here!). She’s been making strides for teachers in Knox County ever since.

And now, pardon me, it is time for a quick rant.

In Tennessee, the birthplace of value-added measures (VAM), the teacher evaluation system is messed up, to say the least. Teachers are evaluated on a rubric where they can earn a score of 1 to 5 in 19 (!!) different areas. Naturally, teachers want a high score and feedback that is helpful. I knew that if I got a 3 in any one area on the rubric, I wouldn’t feel very good about it. As an experienced teacher, I was striving for a 5 or a 4. But the way administrators are trained in observing teachers and giving scores on the rubric is askew. For example, administrators are told that a 3 is not bad at all. They even call it a “rock solid 3,” as if that’s supposed to make teachers feel better about scoring what really amounts to a C. Give me a break. Administrators are told to deliberately score teachers low, in the 3 range, because a 4 or 5 should be hard to get. Well that seems to have been interpreted as do not give fives. In addition to the ridiculous rubric, teachers are also evaluated on their test scores. In fact, up to 50% of their evaluation is supposed to be based on student test scores. It’s RIDICULOUS. Since there is a strong correlation between test scores and students’ economic backgrounds, it’s a given that if you work with the neediest students, your evaluation score will go down. It’s just a fact. It doesn’t matter if you are the best teacher on the planet, if you can’t move scores significantly higher, your evaluation score will go down. And the only way to move students score is significantly higher, other than cheating, is to focus on the test and only the test all of the time. And nobody wants to do that. The whole system is VERY frustrating. End rant.

The third member of the panel, Dave Gorman, can attest to this frustration. He had been a middle school science teacher for many years, when suddenly his overall score was a 1. That means he had the lowest score possible for a teacher. This wasn’t because he wasn’t a good teacher. It wasn’t because he wasn’t preparing his students. There are a variety of factors involved with his students’ low science scores, but it didn’t matter to the state. All that mattered was when his students’ numbers were put in to the magical mystery VAM formula, he was deemed a 1. It’s so sad that teachers are characterized this way, reduced down to a number. It’s dehumanizing. Dave was assigned to work with an instructional coach. The coach worked with him, had great things to say about him, and the year went by. His students took the test, and again, the scores were low. He was still a 1. He continued working with a coach. Again, same thing happened. Then, one year, after doing nothing different from what he had done in the past, he was suddenly deemed a 5. Ta-da! Now, all along, Dave had been a solid science teacher. But the formula the state uses for teacher evaluations is so incredibly screwed up that he went from being a 1 to a 5 in just one year. Just like that, he had gone from being the worst to the best. He knew it made no sense, but it didn’t matter to the state. The end result was that Dave is still teaching science, but his morale was shaken. It cost him a great amount of stress and humiliation. And ultimately, that lead to him getting involved as well.

My story was different, but similar. I had been teaching for many years, mostly in California, before moving to Tennessee and teaching under its very punitive and restrictive laws about public education. I thought I could just close my classroom door and focus on my students and ignore all the BS outside, but after three years, I just couldn’t do it. I hated all the focus on the standardized test and test scores, and I couldn’t really hide that from my students. So I had to quit. I also felt I could not speak up freely without feeling very vulnerable, and I didn’t like that feeling. I could do more as a parent than I could as a teacher, so I made the tough decision to quit a career I loved, and now, it has been nearly a year since I left the classroom.

The four of us each shared our stories briefly, and we tried to keep the focus on what it means to be a teacher leader. We certainly were not trying to scare off the students who are just entering the teaching profession, and I think, or at least I hope, that we didn’t. But we wanted to keep it real. New teachers cannot go into this profession with blinders on. It is just not enough to be able to close your door and block out everything. You’ve got to be aware of all the issues in public education and realize how they are going to impact you in the classroom. And at some point in your career, you’ve got to think about what you can do about those policies with which you disagree. Because you will disagree with policies. Especially when they are harmful to the work you are trying to do with your students.

One thing we focused on was how to be a teacher leader at your school, in regards to curriculum and instruction, school leadership positions, or professional development. We had all been in leadership roles in some way, so I think the advice we shared was helpful to brand new teachers. For example, we all reiterated the idea of finding a mentor or experienced teacher you can go to for advice, help, and support. We talked about how the three most important people in any school are the librarian, the head secretary, and the custodian, and that it is important to forge positive relationships with these people so that you can find out how things work at that school. We talked about how working with an excellent principal can make all the difference in the world, compared to working with the principal who clearly should not be a principal. I had the great fortune of working for a phenomenal principal who made it her mission not only to lead the school, but also to empower teachers to become leaders. And that made a huge difference in my career.

However, most of our conversation focused on how to be an advocate and an activist for public education. We all shared our experiences of what spurred us into activism. Were we frustrated with unreasonable demands being placed on us? Were we tired of the tests and the data and the pressure to perform? Were we angry about budgets being slashed and resources being cut? Were we distraught because there was no support for teachers? Or were we just depressed and stressed when it came to the perception of public schools, teachers, and the notion that we are all failures? Whatever it was, all four of us found our way into the role of activist. We all shared our common realization that we weren’t the only ones feeling that way. We talked about how it was a relief to see and hear from other teachers who were feeling the same way and how we developed a network so we could get involved and speak up for what was needed. We encouraged these new teachers-to-be, in their own way and on their own time, to build up a network of people they can rely on, get advice from, and work with in support of public education. Because we are going to need them in this fight.

Hopefully, it was a relief for them to hear that there are so many teachers out there who feel the same way about public education. That there are groups like the BATs, TREE, Momma Bears, CAPE, and SPEAK that are already active in advocating for students and teachers. I shared resources with them like the Network for Public Education and Diane Ravitch.

Hopefully they see they are not alone.

***

Later, I thought about other advice I would give a new teacher. I would say that it’s important to know why you became a teacher and to keep that at the forefront of your mind. Because things are going to get hard. Some days are going to be rough. You might cry, you might want to scream. Maybe both at the same time. Teaching is already a challenging job, but it used to be that the rewards outweighed the challenges. Nowadays, it’s even harder. So you’ve got to find a way to keep focused on what’s important, and that’s your students, your health, and knowing that you are making a difference in those lives you see every day.

But it’s hard to lose that focus. So do your best to keep it.

Another piece of advice I would give is do your best not to get caught up in unnecessary drama. Honestly, that advice applies to any job. But in teaching, it can be really easy to sit down and have a bitch session with colleagues, and then that becomes the norm, where all you are doing day after day is complaining about things you don’t have any control over. And that is a quick road to burn out. Of course it’s important to be able to vent, but if this becomes a daily habit, it will lead to frustration. Instead, try to channel that frustration into action. If you’re frustrated because there is something you need for your classroom, but you can’t find a way to get it, talk to other teachers and ask questions. Find out how you might be able to get what you need in a different, new, or creative way. If you’re frustrated because the budget was slashed and you lost resources, find out why that decision was made and who you can talk to about it. Maybe you can reach out to a school board member. Or if it’s a state budget that was cut, you can reach out to a state legislator about it.

Your voice as a teacher is a powerful one. Use it in a way that won’t get you in trouble, but that will inspire others to help you. It can take a while to figure out how to do that, but never forget how valuable your voice is. You’ve just got to find a way to use it.

***

There were two things I was impressed by on this day. One was the enthusiasm these future teachers displayed. I hope they never lose it. And second was that their professor, Dr. Amy Broemmel, invited us to speak on this topic in the first place. It’s extremely important for teachers to be aware of what they are getting into nowadays when they become teachers. Dr. Broemmel seems to recognize that some degree of activism and advocacy for public education is necessary for teachers. In other words, gone are the days when you could just close your door and ignore everything else. You’ve got to focus on your students, honing your craft as a teacher, and your well-being, but you can’t ignore all of the policies that are being enacted to destroy your job. Because if you do, soon you may not even have a job. You’ll be replaced with a computer or some kind of AI robot. And we can’t let that happen.

I have read several news stories about fewer people going into the teaching profession than ever before, so I was pleasantly surprised to see this class of students who were so close to being teachers. By the end of the class, I felt hopeful for them. That they could make a difference.

At the end of the class, I was reminded of the words Diane Ravitch shared at the very first NPE conference in Austin three years ago. She discussed, in talking about supporters of public education, why we will win.

Now more than ever, it’s important for teachers to band together to fight against privatization and laws that are destructive and harmful to our children and the teaching profession. We all need to be advocates.

Hopefully, on this day at UTK, we inspired a few future teachers to do the same. It was an honor to speak with them. I wish them the best in their career. Go, Big Orange!

My Day On The Hill

On Tuesday, March 14, I had the pleasure of spending some time at Legislative Plaza, where laws are made for the state of Tennessee.

I didn’t just show up on any random day (although I definitely could do that); this was a day on the Hill, as they call it, for teachers who are TEA (Tennessee Education Association) members on Spring Break to come, observe committee meetings, and meet with legislators. TEA calls it “Civication,” and they offer travel reimbursement for teachers to come to Nashville on the Tuesday of their Spring Break, when Tennessee school districts have their various breaks in March and April. It’s a great opportunity for teachers to learn more about how state lawmakers do what they do. Though I’m not a teacher anymore, I still wanted to join them, and I’m glad I did.

 

Sitting in on a meeting of the Education Administration & Planning Subcommittee
The big issue for the day was vouchers.

Republican legislators in this state have been trying – unsuccessfully – to pass voucher legislation for the past several years. They just won’t give up. Or rather, their donors won’t let them give up. Anyhow, during last year’s legislative session, they did manage to pass limited voucher legislation that only pertained to students with IEPs. As that law went into effect, it didn’t seem to be successful at all, with fewer than 40 families statewide opting to take this voucher.

In this year’s session, there are several bills in process that pertain to vouchers. Here is a list of some of them, courtesy of Andy Spears over at Tennessee Education Report:

SB161/HB126 – Senator Brian Kelsey/Rep. Harry Brooks

This bill would create a pilot voucher program in Shelby County. Voucher advocates have been pushing some version of a statewide voucher program for the past four years. So far, they haven’t been successful. Now, they are trying to limit the plan to Shelby County to start in hopes they can garner additional votes.

SB380/HB336 — Sen. Todd Gardenhire/Rep. Bill Dunn

This is the voucher bill that has failed the past four years. It would allow students from districts with at least one “priority school” to apply for a voucher.

SB573/HB715 — Sen. Dolores Gresham/Rep. Debra Moody

This bill would expand eligibility to the failing IEA voucher program. Despite claims of widespread demand for this program, so far, only 39 students have taken these vouchers.

SB987/HB1109 — Sen. Kelsey/Rep. John DeBerry

This bill would also change (expand) eligibility for the IEA vouchers. It would allow students who had not previously attended public schools to obtain this voucher.

SB395/HB460 – Gresham/Rep. Roger Kane

This is an Education Savings Account (ESA) bill with no eligibility restrictions. This bill would allow the parents of any student to convert their BEP funding into a debit card or have the money wired into a checking account to use for approved education expenses.

There are many things that bother me about voucher legislation. But here are the two biggies:

  1. Vouchers haven’t worked anywhere they’ve been implemented. The evidence is clear. See also herehere, and here.
  2. Look who opposes vouchers: Teachers! You know, those people who actually do the work of educating our children! They know a thing or two about what is needed in public education, and we should be listening to them! (I should know…. I was a teacher, in case you didn’t know!)

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Do you see what I see? Tons of dead white men staring back at me!
But seriously, if the people we trust to educate our children believe vouchers would be harmful to our schools AND if there is plenty of evidence showing that vouchers aren’t successful, then why???? Why do they keep getting proposed?

I just wish that politicians, regardless of party affiliation, could see the view from where I stand. Because they would see a pretty clear picture: On one side, supporting vouchers, you have legislators (usually a lot of older white men, by the way, who clearly are not public school parents!), donors, and lobbyists. And on the other side, opposing vouchers and, more importantly, calling for support of our public schools, you have the majority of the general public – including teachers and public school parents, whose voice matters most in this area. I mean, it’s crystal clear – or it should be! – which side legislators should be listening to, but sadly, many of them aren’t listening.

From The Tennessean:

The union’s poll said that, of the 6,510 respondents, 59.5 percent rejected private school vouchers while 29 percent approved.

“I’ve rarely seen such a strong negative opinion. It is clear Tennesseans do not like or want school vouchers,” said Jim Wrye, TEA’s lobbyist, in the news release.

***

img_9693While on the Hill today, I got to speak in person with my State Senator, Steve Dickerson. I found him to be in an increasingly rare variety of politician: a reasonable one. And by reasonable, I mean he seemed to be open minded on some issues, while being strong in his feelings on other typical partisan issues, but still very much interested in current research, data, public input, and polling on the issues. Though he is a Republican, my impression is that he is someone who weighs the evidence carefully before making a decision in most cases, and he seemed to understand and appreciate the importance of truth and facts. While he and I do not agree on every issue, I had an enjoyable conversation with Senator Dickerson.

We discussed my history as a teacher and why I quit, vouchers, the overemphasis on standardized testing, how much time is spent in the classroom on tests and test prep, and even a little bit about accountability. We both agreed we didn’t have nearly enough time at that moment to really delve deep into these issues, but he seemed genuinely interested in what I had to say and encouraged me to stop by anytime and stay in touch. I will do so. In fact, one big takeaway from my meeting with him was that we all need to be doing this – contacting and/or meeting with our elected officials to let them know the true stories of how their legislation affects real life. Public input matters, especially at the state and local levels.

Thank you, Senator Dickerson, for giving me a little hope in politics these days. I know we won’t always agree, but I do believe you want to hear from your constituents and that our input won’t fall on deaf ears. And for that, I am grateful.

***

For me, the results of the national election have brought about some very scary times. But one silver lining is that people seem to be more engaged than ever in the political process. So now is the time to speak up and support public education because it is clear that this new administration is determined to destroy it. Just check out their proposed budget.

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Nashville teacher Amanda Kail knows the truth!
Public education is one of the things that makes us great, and our public schools need support. They aren’t failing. They’ve been put on life support in many cases, and instead of helping, Republicans (and some neoliberal Democrats as well) seem hell bent on tearing them down. But that is not the answer. We need to double down on our support. We need to look at expanding resources – like support staff, wraparound services, and Community Schools – for our neediest schools. We need to move beyond the education reform of the Bush (No Child Left Behind) and Obama (Race To The Top) eras and get back to trusting our teachers and schools.

We need people to speak up in support of public schools and against vouchers. Contact your legislators at the federal and state levels when there is proposed voucher legislation. The Network for Public Education, the BATs, and the Alliance to Reclaim Our Schools make it easy to get involved. In Tennessee, Tennesseans Reclaiming Educational Excellence (TREE) make it easy to contact your elected officials. In Nashville, choose to work with grassroots groups like the Middle Tennessee Coalition Advocating for Public Education (Mid-TN CAPE) and attend one of their events.

Get involved. Don’t give up hope. Our schools and teachers need our support. Our children are depending on us now more than ever.

DAD GONE WILD LAUNCHES FIRST EVER POLL

My friend TC Weber writes a helluva blog here in Nashville.

He put together a poll about local issues within Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS), and I encourage you all to read it, and if you’re local, take the poll and maybe leave a comment. (And oh, those comments……. wow….)

I’m working on a post about my own reaction to what’s been happening within MNPS since the arrival of our new Director of Schools, so stay tuned…

Dad Gone Wild

img_2011I was sitting around this week reflecting on all the wonderful people that share info about Metro Nashville Schools with me and how blessed I am to have so many readers. It suddenly dawned on me, I should do a poll.

I think it is extremely important to always self evaluate and to evaluate the information you are receiving. It doesn’t mean that I’ll necessarily change what I write, but I do want to give credit where it is due and if my opinions are in the minority I need to acknowledge that.

In that light, every Friday I’ll ask three questions and we’ll see what kind of responses I get. Please no dead people voting and if you can, only vote only once and share with as many people as possible.

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