If You Care About Education Then Karl Dean’s Run for Governor Should Be On Your Radar

The 2018 race for governor of Tennessee has been a thing for nearly two years. During this time, there has been no shortage of suitors whispering sweet nothings in the ears of potential voters – both Democrat and Republican. Currently, Tennessee sits solidly in the red, but if history is any indication, our next governor is certain to make our red eyes blue.

We’ve heard rumblings from Democrats former mayor Karl F. Dean and state representative Craig Fitzhugh. And just yesterday, real estate magnate and former Nashville mayoral candidate Bill Freeman backed out and rallied behind Fitzhugh (already interesting). Additionally, we’ve heard from a long list of Republican hopefuls currently enjoying their day in the red sun. But Sunday, The Tennessean broke the news of the race’s first candidate, Mayor Dean.

It’s All Connected

Karl F. Dean, a northern transplant and man of means, spent many years as the city’s top lawyer before making a run for mayor in 2007. Dean brilliantly ran on the slogan “It’s all connected” winning over the hearts and minds of those of us concerned about education, safety, and economic development. The two-term mayor made good on his promises and our little city looks almost entirely different in 2017 than it did 10 years ago when the good mayor took the reigns.

Photo: Nashville Downtown Partnership

Nashville is a beautiful city. As a native Nashvillian, the city’s aesthetics have always been a source of pride. Interestingly, despite all the growth, the city is even more beautiful. From the walking bridge that beautifully welcomes visitors into the city, to the un-Nashville-like bus station, to the blocks-long convention hub, the Music City Center—all can be attributed to Karl F. Dean. All things we didn’t know we needed.

Education Matters

More than buildings, Dean’s impact can be seen in less obvious (socially acceptable) ways as found in our education landscape (you didn’t think education wasn’t going to be discussed, did you?). The then-mayor had a thing about charter schools and quickly assessed the city’s collective disdain for the money-sucking, anti-union craze forced upon us by the state’s Republican delegation (note: the mood hasn’t changed much).

Photo: New Hampshire Business Review

Taking matters into his own hands, the mayor forced the anti-charter town into the world of ed reform— and we went in kicking and screaming. Intent on doing it his way, Dean brazenly created a charter school incubator, a pipeline designed to groom the perfect application for submission to the unfriendly school board. Even though these applicants were backed by the mayor there was little guarantee they would be approved.

Working at Metro Schools during Mayor Dean’s tenure, each application from his incubator was submitted to my office. I watched charter hopefuls submit thoroughly vetted, perfectly coiffed applications clearly churned out by a highly skilled team of application whisperers. While I’ve never been anti-charter, I was miffed at the audacious operation. Fast forward a few years and I can help but respect the vision. Though still not wild about how it was executed, I get it.

Further, as Dean staffer Courtney Wheeler tweeted at me, the gubernatorial hopeful is not an education one-trick pony. She reminded me of the increase in teacher pay under his leadership and Limitless Libraries, a ground-breaking partnership between the city’s libraries and school libraries, giving students access to the “world” (literally) from the comfort of their own school. And there are more things we didn’t know we needed.

The creation of Nashville After Zone Alliance (NAZA) is an excellent example of campaign promises made good. Using his background as law director, Dean understood better than most the connection between schools and criminal justice. So after discovering a swath of kids of a certain age without supervision and positive engagement, Dean created NAZA to catch them during a particularly critical time in their development. Before NAZA, students between the ages of 10 and 14 were left to their own devices often leaving them vulnerable to undesirable influences and behaviors. 

Oh, but we can’t leave out the not-so-gentle introduction to alternative teacher prep programs Teach for America and The New Teacher Project. Adding more furor to the teacher’s union and public education purists alike. Yet, these projects are now an integral part of how we do business which is a testament to the man’s vision. Or power.

Sour Grapes Never Die

While this is not intended to be a pro-Dean piece and I’m still munching on a few sour grapes from his time as mayor, it would be inauthentic for me to ignore his influence on our collective expectations for high quality schools. Some of the schools created out of the incubator are not only in existence but thriving. He made those of us eternally loyal to traditional public schools to take notice – even while we were kicking and screaming.

Speaking of screaming… After the candidacy was made official, my Twitter and Facebook was on fire; lit by the same anti-charter crowd that experienced great success during last year’s school board race. Meanwhile, those warmer to the prospect tended to be those friendly to ed reform. So, while he may be a moderate in terms of business, the same cannot be said about his stance on education. But there’s plenty of time to make peace or wage war. 

Only 21 Months To Go

Breaking from tradition, I voted for Republican governor Bill Haslam twice because of his platform on education. If I had to put my money on a Democrat with a different eye for education, Dean would be the guy. In the meantime, I’ll wait for the campaign’s education platform with the expectations planted by the guy who could be our next governor. Don’t sleep on this race. 

Why is Tennessee’s Education Commish Blasting the Achievement School District?

Earlier this week we received reports of Commissioner Candice McQueen’s unhappiness with the Achievement School District, calling its results ’embarrassing’ and basically, a waste of money.

Admittedly, anyone would be hard pressed to debate results coming out of the embattled state agency of last resort for perennially failing schools. A 15% success rate is nothing to write home about. Especially since the ASD is responsible for turning around schools almost completely filled with students of color and in poverty. The Commish’s comment were not out of line, but I think the blame has more than one owner.

The ASD is an accountability measure carved out of promises made in the effort to obtain Race To The Top funds. It takes in the bottom 5% of schools in the state and loads up the schools with extra resources and the freedom to innovate. Sadly, the magic happened in only 20 of 126 ASD schools. So, I get McQueen’s exasperation, but…

Was this just bad policy from the start? Did the remaining schools warehoused in the ASD not receive the same extra supports as those achieving expected successes?  

Looking for answers to these questions, I reached out to the commissioner’s media director. I suspect there was fallout from McQueen’s comments because I was sent the packaged response below:

The comments made in the education committee yesterday were regarding our ESSA plans for school turnaround, as ESSA allows for districts new to the Priority school list to engage in turnaround efforts before the state’s most rigorous intervention – the ASD – is an option. So, we are analyzing how districts have used state funds for turnaround efforts to date, what accountability has been in place and to what results, and the “urgency” with which we have moved to serve current priority schools. ESSA requires intervention to be based on evidence-based practices, and that is why we studied what has worked in Tennessee to see how we can replicate those schools’ success.
As the state determines the supports needed to improve schools in need of turnaround, we are specifically studying what we know has worked from our past turnaround efforts that have received School Improvement Grant (SIG) funds. To date, we have had 20 schools out of 126 Priority schools come out of the bottom 5% of schools. We have specifically done case studies on 10 of these schools – eight of which have received SIG funds with monitoring from the state, and the two schools that have exited the Priority list from earning a one-year success rate, which demonstrates remarkable growth in achievement. From these case studies, we have learned that a combination of school leadership, effective teaching with a focus on depth of instruction around standards, and services focused on non-academic supports has led to strong outcomes in these schools. On the flip side, of the over 100 schools that have not moved out of the bottom 5%, some of these schools have received significantly more state funding since SIG’s inception, but little progress has been realized. In fact, some schools have been identified for improvement since as early as 2002 under NCLB and have received various funds over the time period with district-led intervention with little to no progress.
What we can’t do as a state is support – in terms of funding and time – district interventions that don’t work. We have to learn from what is working because we know we have much more work to do and many more students that have need. As we have stated, publicly and in our ESSA plan, the ASD is a critical part of the state’s school improvement work, and we will continue to strategically use it to intervene in our lowest-performing schools. Yesterday’s comments were made ultimately to highlight we all need to do a better job of supporting all of our students. For decades, and for a variety of reasons, we have failed to ensure that every child in Tennessee has an equal chance to receive a high-quality education from their public school. We want to learn as a state how can we best intervene to change this, particularly given the limited amount of funding we have to do so and the urgency to help so many students for whom nothing yet has changed this trajectory.

Still so many questions. 

Tennessee Ranks High in Outrageous Number of Children with Incarcerated Parent(s)

I know too many children with at least one incarcerated parent. And, unfortunately, Nashville schools are teeming with children living in situations with one or both parents in jail or prison. While MNPS has yet to capture the data identifying the number of children affected, I am told the issue is on the district’s radar. Until then, organizations like Free Hearts is determined to do something about it.

Walking the Walk

Free Hearts executive director Dawn Harrington 

Free Hearts provides education, support, and advocacy to incarcerated moms and children of incarcerated parents. According to Free Hearts executive director Dawn Harrington, Tennessee is one of the leaders in the nation with an inflated number of children with incarcerated parents.


Tennessee’s prison system is doing a great job of meeting and exceeding bed fulfillment projections, doing so at the expense of whole families and communities, particularly those of color. For this reason, Free Hearts is leading a unique effort to stop the bleeding by lobbying state legislators to change sentencing guidelines for primary caretakers.

Primary Caretaker Bill

House Composite Images 2009  106th Session
Rep. Brenda Gilmore

Representative Brenda Gilmore (D) recently sponsored the Primary Caretaker Legislation (HB 825) requiring courts to sentence non-violent offenders who are primary caretakers of children under the age of 18 to case-by-case assessed community rehabilitation as an alternative to incarceration. Co-sponsoring the family-oriented legislation (SB 919) is Republican Rep. Steve Dickerson.


The subtext of this legislation is the importance of family structure in the life of a child. The impact of sudden displacement and loss of support are tough issues to overcome for children. Further, the bill shines a light on sentencing/incarceration disparities from federal to local.

According to Metro Social Services, approximately 10 million children in the United States have experience with one or both parents in jail. Furthermore, black children are 7.5 times more likely than white children to be saddled with this reality. Locally, Nashville/Davidson County has the second largest jail population in the state and has a majority-minority student population exceeding 75% poverty. These two data points are in no way mutually exclusive.

Please take in the information below as provided by Free Hearts:


Ready to Help?

We know children need their parents, even moms and dads who make grand mistakes. We also know thoughtful reform and community service is a win-win as opposed to the exorbitant costs (both financial and social/emotional) of incarceration. This legislation is as much about community impact as it is about the trajectory of children’s lives. So we are looking for a few good people to help spread the word and reach out to legislators on behalf of these children and this community.

It is my belief that children should be exempt from partisanship politics. We need to fight for all children at all costs, and entering the battlefield for moms and dads, even low-level offending parents, must be part of the battle plan.

Please help our children by working with the good people at Free Hearts to push this legislation into law by emailing dawn@kidsofincarceratedmoms.com or call/email our legislators directly.

Click here to find your legislator by inputting your address.

State House directory

State Senate directory

Taken from Metro Social Services’ report: The Challenges of Children with Incarcerated Parents

Marley Dias, the Epitome of #BlackGirlMagic

I simply cannot stop reading about this 12 year old wunderkind! Marley Dias is abiding by her own rules and, clearly, rule one is age is just a number. Way before the ripe old age of 12, Marley crashed the scene by expressing her thoughts about the number of children’s books focused solely on “white boys and dogs.” But if that wasn’t spectacular enough, she did something most adults don’t and leaped into action. I love this chick.

Marley decided to collect 1,000 books with black females as the main character. This book drive quickly turned national and yielded 8,000 books for schools. Did I say how much I love this chick? Enjoy the video to learn more!

Licensure Issues As Teachers Move From State to State

This article published by Matt Barnum with The 74 spotlights an important issue I’m familiar with only through personal contacts. I’ve watched friends jump hurdles and even quit teaching because of certain states’ unfriendliness to other state’s teaching license. (I could bring up the Nashville to Atlanta pipeline again, but I won’t. Check out the post, though)

So it begs the question, is it helpful or harmful for states to make it nearly impossible to license the already licensed?

The National Council on Teacher Quality, a D.C.-based nonprofit, found that as of 2015, the vast majority of states had fairly strict requirements for certifying teachers from other states: They are usually required to take a licensure test, meet some other requirement (such as a review of college or graduate school transcripts or syllabi), or both.

Welcome to Tennessee, Where a Diploma Isn’t Really a Diploma For Too Many

UPDATE: Immediately after this post was first published, I was directed to an article by Chalkbeat’s Grace Tatter published “22 hours ago” offering evidence that clearly refutes the numbers originally reported by the State Department of Education relating to Tennessee’s diploma drama. Even as the number of students who didn’t meet the necessary requirements is not as large as we thought (just a few minutes ago), I maintain one student is too many. So, the percentage of students affected doesn’t change the message of this post. And give us a break, SDOE!


So you know how our students graduate from high school believing when they walk across the stage for that hard-earned diploma they are ready for the next level? Yeah, not so much.

Thanks to a state-sponsored audit, we now know that a large portion of Tennessee graduates really didn’t graduate. Not at least with the necessary course requirements.

The data reported last week by NPR’s Blake Farmer looks at 2015 high school graduates in Tennessee, but I can’t help but wonder how many more cohorts of ill-prepared students were sent out into a black hole of postsecondary prospects.

The report responsible for fueling Farmer’s article was released by the Tennessee Department of Education titled Seamless Pathways – Bridging Tennessee’s Gap Between High School and Postsecondary. It’s clear the fault does not lie with students. The report suggests a faulty checks and balances system within our schools, which would be digestible if it didn’t heavily impact our students’ futures.


And sure, you might argue that missing a couple foreign language courses doesn’t mean our kids are graduating stupid. But the truth is, when our kids don’t get all the courses the state decided they need, there are very real consequences. The reason the department of education decided to look into this was because they noticed that so many of our graduates were struggling in college.

Giving Credit Where Credit Is Due (ha ha)

Even though thousands of our students have been stiffed, I’m offering up credit to Governor Bill Haslam and Commissioner Dr. Candice McQueen for making real progress re-building the historically poor-performing state education framework. Discovering this massive failure in our schools that could prove fatal to our children’s postsecondary prospects and deciding to publicly address the problem gives me hope.

However, until corrected, we’ve got a serious problem. We have former students hanging in the balance between high school and career with no safety net. Because we failed them. Currently, our schools are inadequately resourced to properly prepare students post-high school. So, we are failing them.  

For me, the only thing scarier than discovering a devastating flaw in your system is uncovering a disconnect in awareness amongst those working the system. In this case, teachers and guidance counselors are working independently, unaware of what the other is doing, and students are falling through the cracks.

So, the picture becomes more clear. Guidance counselors are busy moonlighting as testing administrators and performing a gazillion other duties leaving little time for college preparation. Teachers, noticing the constant stream of students in and out of the guidance counselor’s office, believe the college stuff is handled. Of course, it’s more complicated than this, but it does illustrate the big, gaping holes to which our students are falling victim.

Let’s be clear, I’m not pointing fingers. But we cannot allow one more student to graduate unprepared. Just as we are trying to ramp up our graduation rate, let’s be sure to do it the right way.

You know how I like to say STAY VIGILANT? Well, here’s yet another reason to listen to your girl!

(By the way, my weekly rants about staying vigilant are not just for the reader. Believe me, I’m on a steady diet of practicing what I preach. Thanks to Betsy DeVos, a vessel representing both my hopes and fears, I eat and sleep all things accountability.)


“Your Role Is Not To Do His job” From National Urban Schools Leader To Nashville School Board 

Metropolitan Nashville Board of Education’s commitment to governance policy

Michael Casserly, Executive Director of The Council of the Great City Schools paid a Valentines Day visit to the Nashville School Board to establish an effective evaluation process by which to assess their one and only employee, director of schools Dr. Shawn Joseph.

Jason Gonzales of The Tennessean, smartly captured Casserly’s most searing advice “If you start saying who he should hire or which programs he should adopt … the board forfeits the role to hold him accountable.” While this not the story of the day, I will never miss an opportunity to introduce to some and reinforce to others the school board’s governing framework. But, again, board responsibility is not the story du jour.

Straight A’s

According to The Tennessean, the battle-tested director received glowing accolades accompanied by a string of perfect grades. I’m silly happy for the director of schools after a rocky start with what appeared to be a collusion between certain media types and internal saboteurs. Now, eight months into his tenure, board members are singing his praises for making good on promises.  School board member Mary Pierce posted on Facebook, “He clearly laid out his plan, and then executed it.”

With that said, I’m grateful to the school board for standing by their man by allowing him the space required to build and roll out a plan. I am also pleased to see a united front. Unfortunately, I’ve been around long enough to witness blissful honeymoons fade into bloody battles overnight. Yes, overnight. So, I’m cautiously optimistic — just shy of being a negative ninny.

From the Fire

Effective Valentines Day, the honeymoon ends and the hard part begins. Henceforth, Dr. Joseph will be evaluated by student achievement and, let’s not forget, charter schools applications are due April 1. These things matter. Big time. Student achievement and charter schools have proved fatal to the tenures of Nashville’s last two directors of schools. Just saying.

You might be thinking “she is expecting them to fail!” Au contraire, my sista. I’d love nothing more than to see this board stick it out for the long haul, but again, I’ve seen too much. The battlefield is too enticing. I can’t help but think of the W.B. Yeat’s poem The Second Coming (of which I learned through Chinua Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart) where he morosely acknowledges “things fall apart, the center cannot hold.” I guess I am a negative ninny.

Into the Frying Pan

Expect to see lots of chatter about charter applicants and watch for darts thrown by community members seeking a seat on the board in 2018 (these darts actually launched in 2016). Despite these distractions, always be mindful that part of the school board’s job is to allow the director to do his. Also, unless Dr. Joseph commits some fatal sin, remember the honeymoon through the tough times. Remember the straight A’s. Remember the extensive outreach to families, teachers and community.

If we are prepared, we don’t have to succumb to the inevitable.

Note to 2018 School Board Candidates

The school board has three (3) responsibilities:

  1. Pass the budget
  2. Govern through policy
  3. Hire, evaluate, and fire their one and only employee

You’re welcome.