This is Not the Time to Sleep On Federal and State Education Policy Talk

Recently, I sat through a daylong bootcamp sponsored by the Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition to take in additional information about the new federal education law: The Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA). After the third person inquired into my reason for being there, I began to wonder ‘Why in the hell am I sitting through hours of policy talk?’

Because it matters.

Sure, the federal law seems as far away from the classroom as the distance from Nashville to D. C., but it’s in how a state responds to the law that should make parents say, “wait, what?”

Why It Matters

When you live in a southern state and are aware of the history and vestiges, thereof, and happen to be a person of color, it’s difficult to trust the system to work on your behalf.

Yet, by all accounts, Tennessee has crafted a solid plan to satisfy ESSA requirements and meet the needs of all of children. State leaders asked for feedback from a wide range of people and got it. They even made adjustments based on that feedback before turning the plan into the feds in April. This plan has a direct impact on our kids. It affects teaching in the classroom, how students are tested, how states will track the quality of each school and report that back to parents, and what they’ll do if kids aren’t getting what they need. Note: just because some people say it’s a good plan, doesn’t mean you should hand over the education of your children to something that may or may not be true — for you.

So, for several months I’ve pored through portions of the plan and sat through several meetings on ESSA with education commissioner Candice McQueen speaking passionately about meeting the needs of all children. I believe her passion, but it just doesn’t align to the “all means all” commitment.

You See, There’s This Subgroup… 

You may remember the hoopla around subgroups during the advent of No Child Left Behind. Also known as nickelby, NCLB forced school districts to pinpoint achievement across demographic groups for each child. For instance, a black female low-socioeconomic special education student would be listed across four subgroups – Black, Female, Low-Socioeconomic, and Students with Disabilities.

Today, under ESSA that same student would be combined with Hispanic and Native American students in a grande group (the state calls it a super subgroup) known as BHN, Black, Hispanic, and Native American. During the bootcamp, we had the pleasure of hearing from TNDOE executive director of accountability Mary Batiwalla, who works hard to distill findings in an effort to make it palatable for the masses. Though, the explanation supporting the creation of the grande group was not satisfying. Batiwalla explained that without the grande group, 43,000 students would be left unaccounted for, but offered little information about the composition of this group when asked. Look, I’m no statistician, but where there’s a will, there’s a way. I believe if the will outranked the need for neat calculations, there would be no BHN.

And I’m Not Alone

The bootcampers were also privileged to hear from Liz King, director of education policy for The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights. King explained the role her coalition plays to ensure historically underserved groups are provided the basic civil right of an excellent education. Most poignantly, King expressed concerned about combining the three groups into one group as each have very different experiences. I think I may have said “amen” out loud, but one can never be sure about these things.

What I am sure about is the need to stay woke. It’s more than just a cool saying. You must ensure your child is counted and we must see to it that BHN gets the proper consideration. Because, after all, what gets measured gets handled.

So, I will stay up-to-date on Tennessee’s plan for ESSA, it’s “all means all” promise, and a couple of additional issues that I will write about in the coming weeks.

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Can’t Let Summer Start Without Sharing a Little Love to All Who Teach

“Wow, that 180 days flew by!” – said no one ever.

180 days. The school year only appears to be an abbreviated year, amirite? In all my years, I have never heard a teacher, principal, custodian, school secretary, or parent wish for more time at the end of the school year.

Quite simply, it’s grueling, physically and emotionally. It doesn’t matter if you are a classroom teacher or teach in the hallway or school office, the body and heart requires a few weeks of not thinking about lessons and uniforms and supplies and if little Remy has food at home.

So…

For those who have instructed, counseled, organized, praised, admonished, yelled, cried, hugged and loved…

For those who have dipped into personal coffers to ensure students are fed, clothed, and equipped for learning…

For the target of attacks from students, parents, community and White House leadership…

For the workday that ends when exhaustion says it ends…

For those who believed in the babies despite overwhelming circumstances…

For the teachers, certified and otherwise, who leave it all on the field the entire 180 days…

Thank you for your boundless energy, care, and love.

Enjoy your summer, refuel, and return stronger.

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Teacher Residency Program Committed to Quality, Diversity, and Nashville’s Future

After bellyaching about the disproportionate ratio of teachers of color to students of color, nationally and locally, a friend recommended a visit to the local teacher residency program working to be part of the solution. According to its website, the Nashville Teacher Residency program:

“recruits and trains recent, non-education major college graduates to become high-performing middle and high school math and English teachers serving low-income students in Nashville’s district and charter schools.”

In other words, they help recent college grads, and working professionals from other industries become teachers. Our schools need people with different backgrounds, different areas of expertise, and different perspectives. And the Nashville Teacher Residency provides it, at least for some schools.

So I reached out, and got an invitation to come and see what they’re all about.

The Program

On a late afternoon in May, just as the school/work day transitioned, I stepped into one of Nashville’s oldest school buildings. What used to be Cameron High School is now home to two LEAD Schools: LEAD Academy High and Cameron Middle.

Two friendly faces greeted me to the historic space: The residency’s director, Randall Lahann—a teacher-prep veteran hailing from a Boston residency program—and managing director, Holly Tilden. The residency program is in good company as the high school recently celebrated its 3rd consecutive year of 100 percent college acceptance for its graduating class. Meanwhile Cameron, a traditional Metro School converted into a charter school, is a 2015 Tennessee Reward School, recognizing superior academic progress.

After finding an open classroom, Lahann and Tilden gave me a rundown of the program’s inaugural year before excusing themselves to begin part two of their day. The director and managing director literally do it all (well almost). Besides running the place, they also meet with local bloggers (ahem), handle all the HR stuff for recruiting and selecting new residents and even teach the residents.

At the present, the dynamic duo is successfully leading the first group of soon-to-be teachers to completion, which, noticeably, is powered by an authentic commitment to quality and diversity.

Seeing is Believing

I heard the words “commitment to diversity” and read them on the Nashville Teacher Residency website, but the proof is ever in the pudding. After my brief (but information-packed) meeting with the residency’s multi-faceted leaders, I walked across the hall into a classroom of young adults, some at their desks, others stocking up on snacks, all preparing for the evening ahead.

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Saniha, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency 
As I meandered through the desks, the commitment to diversity was confirmed. Yes, 70 percent of the residency’s first cohort is comprised of residents of color with an astounding 100% cohort retention rate. Impressive. Resident retention is important here because the program does something different by offering classroom experience on the front end.

Instead of theorizing teaching techniques and offering scenarios that might misrepresent urban district’s realities, inexperienced hopefuls are submerged, feet first, in an effort to thwart the typical travails of a first-year (and, many cases, one-time) teacher.

Surprisingly, this eight week trial by fire did little to deter the inaugural class which entered the residency in July 2016 and is now headed for teacherdom. For ten months, two days a week and three hours an evening, residents are instructed in math and English as well as community and culture. Classes are led by Lahann, Tilden, and KIPP Nashville High School mentor teacher Kate Stasik and special guests are invited to speak on community and culture.

The program also requires residents to work with a mentor teacher inside a real classroom setting. Yes, the residency program is intense, yet, many of the residents have full-time jobs while fulfilling the program’s requirements and a fraction are themselves parents.

But, I saw no regrets.

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Ciana Calhoun, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency

 

 

For instance, twenty-six year old MTSU graduate and entrepreneur Ciana Calhoun commented on the intensity and authenticity of the program saying “I’m tired, but they have prepared me for real classroom experiences.” Resident Eric DeVaughn, a musician and former W. O. Smith drum teacher, also expressed excitement about entering the classroom next fall at Lead High School.

Life Happens Fast

Sometimes a dose of real life is required before one’s career path becomes clear. The Nashville Teacher Residency provides second chances to recent college graduates with a clearer understanding of their passion. Additionally, partner schools invest in residents by providing a $25,000 stipend and a place to work and study. For residents with children, a $5,000 loan is available. Sounds good to be true? Soon-to-be teacher Ciana thought so, too, “I thought it was a hoax!”

The Real Deal

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Eric DeVaughn, resident, Nashville Teacher Residency
Currently, eight partner schools invest in the residency program and soon hundreds of students will benefit from a full-time Ciana and Eric who are fully equipped to deliver top-notch instruction without losing time to acclimation and re-training. The program succeeds through its commitment to diversity, solid retention rate, intense program of study, classroom experiences that represent urban school district realities, and commitment to its residents.

 

Why Alternative Licensure Programs?

Ever the company girl, there was a time I was completely skeptical of outsourcing. I get it now! Residency and other alternative licensure programs like Nashville Teacher Residency, Relay and Teach for America, provide an integral service to school districts with deficits in minority representation and teachers prepared with tools not typically offered in traditional programs.

Like other urban districts, Nashville suffers from a deficit of teachers of color in proportion to its students of color. I know Metro Schools has committed to increase these numbers and I hope they take advantage of programs like the Nashville Teacher Residency that can help ramp up diversity and quality.

Oh yeah, a huge congratulations to Nashville’s Teacher Residency’s first cohort who completed their residency as of this writing!  Onward!

 

For LEAD Public Schools’ Class of 2017 Getting Into College Is Just the Beginning of the Story

Senior Signing Day 2017 is in the books and LEAD Public Schools knows how to throw a party for its students! LEAD’s communications director Jon Zlock launched the festivities with a pep rally of a lifetime. Each LEAD school performed a chant pumping up all within earshot before things slowed to serious.

From the schools’ CEO Chris Reynolds to Governor Bill Haslam, the message to graduates and future classes was clear: it’s great to get in college, but graduating is gold. Additionally, the students even received a mini-sermon from Belmont University’s president, Dr. Bob Fisher:

“Your purpose in life is not about you. Your purpose in life is about what you can do for others.”

If that wasn’t powerful enough, Marcus Whitney, successful businessman and civic leader, offered some heavy truths in his keynote speech by celebrating discomfort as a means to a soul-satisfying end, emphasizing the power of high expectations, and promoting a ‘no excuses’ way of navigating life.

Let me tell you what doesn’t work. Doing something to someone else because it was done to you.

After Whitney told us a thing or two, the atmosphere already electric, seemed to explode with the introduction of the main event – all 42 seniors announcing the college or university where they will obtain their degrees in either 2019 or 2021. Yes, each senior revealed their school of choice by saying “In 2021 (or 2019), I will be graduating from (school name)!” Inspiring, electric, hopeful, amazing.

Enjoy a few minutes of the senior announcements here.

So, class of 2017, congratulations today for the degrees that will be conferred tomorrow, you’re good for it. Finally, I’d like to echo the beautiful sentiment offered by Mr. Whitney:

“Look for the light. It is always there and you, 42, are the light.”

This Nashville Teacher Tells It Like It Is and Reveals A Truth Most Not Eager To Tackle – Publicly

But if the foundations are not set for success, aren’t we merely perpetuating a system of disadvantage and creating a larger opportunity gap from the beginning? – Bianca Larkin

This quote is from a middle school teacher in Nashville. In this Edutalk in Tennessee blog post, Ms. Larkin does something publicly few of us are willing to do in private and that’s spotlight irrefutable deficiencies in Nashville’s elementary schools.

I must admit, I cannot leave an elementary school without crying. The babies, man. Most teachers leave it all on the field for our youngest children and for this reason I keep my mouth zipped about dismal achievement outcomes in too many of our schools. I guess you could say I’m guilty of “perpetuating a system of disadvantage and creating a larger opportunity gap.”

So, I’m sending out mad props to this middle school teacher for having the courage to not only speak her truth but challenge our culture of low expectations for certain students and comfort with anything less than excellence. Thank you.

Check out Ms. Larkin’s full post.

 

Nashville Charter Schools Discussion Sends Dark Message, Fuels Fear and Acrimony

The charter school conversation in Nashville continues to erode. There are a plethora of issues that plague a district our size, yet increased attention is dedicated to blasting charter schools.

Last evening, the Board of Education discussed the viability and future of the seven year old district-charter school compact. Once hailed as a national model of collaboration and symbol of good intentions, dissolving the compact would make a pretty strong statement to current and prospective parents as well as current and prospective charter school leadership. I suspect this is the goal.

Ironically (or perhaps not so much), this little discussion takes place almost one month to the day 374 charter schools parents signed a letter to the editor demanding respect from the school district and the school board. I am just cynical enough to believe the dissolution talk is a warning shot to these parents and their “meddling” charter school leaders.  Note: it has been recommended that charter schools prohibit the act of “meddling”, among other things. 

So if the environment is not already hostile enough, hold on to your hats!

Speaking of hostile…

Daily, I get messages from someone expressing their frustration at the tone of the charter school discussion or the disproportionate amount of energy directed to charters and therefore, away from the majority of district schools. Because of the hostility-laden landscape, almost every message begins or ends with “please keep this confidential.” It’s sad that parents and other community advocates live in fear of speaking out about a basic civil right. When did we become this?

Last night I received a letter requesting amplification on my blog, but only on condition of anonymity. The content of the letter tells a sad story about how we do education, but the conditions by which the author must share his/her truth is a tragic narrative about who we are.


I was lucky to sit beside two wonderfully well-behaved children whose mother spoke at tonight’s MNPS board meeting. They sat quiet and wide-eyed as she told board members about the difficulty she and other Arabic speaking families have obtaining special education services in some schools because of language barriers – though not at Nashville Classical Charter School, where her son now attends.
Eight mothers – the majority of whom were non-white – attended tonight’s board meeting to tell the board how grateful they are for the public charter school their child attends. Four of them mentioned the board’s lack of response to a letter several hundred parents signed and sent to the board over a month ago.
Sadly, the powerful stories and voices of these women collectively seeking answers from their elected officials about attacks on the schools they love by elected officials were acknowledged neither by the board chair nor by any members of the media covering the meeting.
We can be sure, however, that if each of those mothers had come to share their problems with – instead of their praises for – their public charter school, all of us would have “Breaking News” notifications on our phones and it would be all over local news and social media like fleas on a dog.
This is in no way a dismissal of other injustices shared at tonight’s meeting – what we pay our teachers is shameful, for example. There is more than enough unfairness and never enough money to go around. But failing to address attacks on existing public schools that are producing great outcomes for some of the most vulnerable of our population, when asked by constituents, in writing and also in person, is grossly unfair. How unfortunate for our growing city that leadership is in even shorter supply than taxpayer dollars.
In her State of Metro address two weeks ago, Mayor Barry said, “In Nashville, we build bridges, not walls.” I generally agree. But with respect to MNPS, which comprises 50% of the city budget, it’s just not true. Walls have been erected, complete with catapults, used to assault our own. Worse still: when hundreds collectively wave a white flag and ask for peace, their request is ignored and the attacks only intensify.
Over the last few months, it’s become popular to show up at protests – surrounded by people with similar beliefs – to express disdain and march in solidarity. Try being female, non-white, and a non-native English speaker, standing alone in a roomful of strangers, and finding the courage to tell an unpopular truth –  but your truth – about the thing that matters most – your children. That takes just about the bravest woman I’ve ever seen. And when she finished, the glowing faces and enthusiastic hugs said that’s who her children saw, too.

 

Tennessee Graduation Rate Exceeds National Average… For Some

A GradNation report released last week offers a report card on graduation rates across the country. GradNation’s goal is to “increase the on-time graduation rate to 90% by the class of 2020″ and provides data and best practice opportunities to help states reach this goal.

Graduation rate is one those things we’ve come to depend on when assessing the health of a school. This would be fine if there were no instances of attempting to the game system by hiding students in alternative schools or employing “creative” tactics during testing.

The authors of this report acknowledge the skepticism, but make the point that while there is some truth to the skepticisms, for the most part, graduation rates are still a good way to see one slice of how students are doing.

According to the report, Tennessee has a graduation rate of 87.9% which is above the national average of 83.2%. This would be promising if we hadn’t just discovered hundreds of students graduating without the proper number of credits. While this little tidbit of information doesn’t alter the graduation rate, it does influence its credibility.

Still, with improved standards courtesy of the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA), Tennessee is poised to realize a 90% graduation rate by 2020. Or is it?

The subgroup breakdown tells a different story (doesn’t it always?).

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The gaps between white and black students, white and Hispanic students, low socioeconomic and non, and students with disabilities and students without disabilities are astounding. How is it possible to celebrate a state graduation rate that beats the national average while only 80% of its black students and 70% of students with disabilities are so disturbingly below the mark? No celebrating here, but hope lies ahead.

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One of the components of Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds is aptly titled All Means All created specifically to address inequities. The state department of education is to be commended for acknowledging the importance of closing achievement gaps by making it a priority. Because what gets measured gets done, right?

Thankfully, we’ve learned hard lessons from No Child Left Behind where subgroups were measured to death, so today states are doing everything possible to neutralize the effects of the well-meaning but off-putting education policy. And by most accounts, Tennessee is at the head of the class thanks to Race to the Top reforms and a solid ESSA plan.

Tennessee’s graduation rate is headed in the right direction and possibly moving on a faster clip than most states. Most significantly, there is a real possibility that the finish line will include all students. Fingers crossed.

See Tennessee’s GradNation report here.