Nashville Mom Shares Story of Inconsistency of Reading Standards from State to Local

We are in the throes of the fight of our lives to move our children toward a chance at having even a slice of the American Dream.

In Nashville, TWENTY-FIVE PERCENT of all students in grades 3-8 are reading proficient. That’s eight points below the state average of less than THIRTY-FOUR PERCENT. 

A demographic look into Nashville’s number reveal a staggering EIGHTY-TWO POINT FIVE PERCENT OF black and brown students are NOT reading proficient. Not even proficient. 

For two weeks, I’ve been on a desperate search to find answers. From Reading the state’s guide on teaching literacy to soliciting answers on Facebook. 

Before we received the news about Nashville’s scores and still operating on the state’s average of less than 34 percent, I asked on Volume and Light’s Facebook page “am I the only one freaking out about this?” and this Nashville mom of four responded:

Maybe there is no reaction because the parents are not really aware. In my experience, I had a child that was making very good grades, “reading” above grade level, and showed no signs of deficiency. It was not until they were tested for entrance into another school that I found out they were two grades behind in their comprehension skills, which is an essential part of reading. Even when I spoke to my child’s current teacher, I was told they were on the path to surpass the grade level standard. So when you consider their grades, their abilities even in your presence and the reassurance of a teacher that the child is on track, you have no reason to believe that your child falls into the 66% of students who are not succeeding thus creating an extreme gap in accountability and problem solving. You shouldn’t blame a child for not learning something they are not being taught. You shouldn’t blame the parent for not recognizing a problem that is not being presented. I don’t even know if it is a teacher problem if they are just following the guidelines which they are being given. 34% is cause for alarm. Based on my experience, I believe the foundation needs to be re-evaluated. Any improvements made to the building will be for naught if the foundation is still weak.

His First Five Minutes As A Teacher Tells Metro Schools Everything It Needs To Know About Protecting Its Young

Well into the school year Metro Schools found itself searching high and low for teachers. Though the new school year scramble is not unusual for an urban district, for years MNPS has been charged with hiring too late, missing out on the highly sought after newbies. While missed opportunities is an easy fix (better planning), there are other systemic human resource deficiencies that must be identified, addressed, and remedied.

In his recent blog Does MNPS Have A Teacher Attrition Problem?, high school AP History teacher Josh Rogen does what he does best by taking the reader on a journey through data in an effort to arrive at the truth. In this case, it seems the data takes him to a conclusion in opposition to his “pre-research” suspicions. The first half of the blog takes the reader through the numbers of teachers of all experience levels leaving Metro Schools. On par with the nation, the largest group of teachers leaving their posts is first-year teachers. And according to Rogen, there is a good reason for it in Nashville.

That entire first year, my principal saw me teach maybe two times. The vice principal, maybe two times. My literacy coach never entered the room. I had no explicit mentor…

The remainder of Rogen’s post is a generous account of his first five minutes as a teacher and the lessons that remain with him today. What I appreciate about Rogen’s blog is the invaluable consultation he offers for free to MNPS when they are notorious for lavishing tax dollars on over-priced consultants who provide lean advice and questionable outcomes.  But I digress.  He provides an important lens into the heart of the teacher attrition issue that is rooted in a culture of poor or absent in-school supports for new teachers, particularly in schools with a high concentration of poverty and where the teacher’s race stands out from the student population.

 Let’s also be real that race and class played a huge role in my experience. I was an upper-class, privately schooled white kid who was teaching in a very different environment. The teaching movies lied to me! J Were I a teacher of color, I think my experience might have been different, which really underscores just another reason that principals should be trying to hire teachers of color. But most of my friends within the district experienced something quite similar, including teachers of color.

From my perspective, teaching is not one of those gigs where a “go get ’em, Tiger!” will do. Think about it — new teachers are generally very young, experiencing new cultures and working with adults as an adult for the first time, and then suddenly solely responsible for dozens of little minds for 6 hours a day. We owe them titanium supports.

Check out Rogen’s blog Teach Run Eat Repeat follow him on Twitter @RogenJH.

Commissioner McQueen Celebrates Innovation and Calls Out Culture Issues While On Capitol Hill

Note: I wrote this before the news that less than 6% of Tennessee’s 3rd-8th graders are meeting the state’s reading standards. Currently, I am in a RESIST state of mind, but the commissioner’s testimony on Capitol Hill is still worth sharing.


Maybe I need a life or maybe you should stop judging me, but I thoroughly enjoyed Commissioner Candice McQueen’s testimony to a group of senators on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C. Dr. McQueen was invited to speak about Tennessee’s exemplary Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) plan submitted in April and approved in August.

At the start of her testimony (at 29:28), Commissioner McQueen rightly and not so timidly points out that Tennessee’s strategic plan Tennessee Succeeds was ESSA plan before ESSA was even a thing. And with that, the Tennessee commish’s “just sayin’” moment set the tone for the remaining ninety-five minutes.  

After burning up a minute of high-fiving the Tennessee’s innovation and public engagement efforts, McQueen gradually arrives at the part of the plan that some find controversial. Some, meaning me and a few others who are minorities or work for civil rights. “Here we go”, I think as the hair on my arms stand at attention and the pride of watching my commish testify before the United States Senate takes a backseat. But not for very long.

I dunno, maybe it was the sheer number of seconds she spends explaining the bane of my existence – BHN – the combination of Black, Hispanic, and Native American students into one super subgroup. I’ve blogged and tweeted endlessly about my thoughts about the state’s statistical creation of combining these three very different groups of students. I’m neither a statistician nor education professional, so my conclusions are mostly anecdotal but solid as a rock. Because as I’ve stated too many times “You don’t need a degree in education to know these groups are different, with unique challenges requiring customized attention and remedy.” (Yes, I just quoted myself)

Still, I appreciate Dr. McQueen’s effort to allay concerns (or end the discussion once and for all) about this issue using as much time as a five-minute testimony on innovation will allow. The gradual transition from celebration to ‘oh, by the way, we did this subgroup thing and here’s why you should like it ” was so crafty I almost forgot my grandiose opposition to the super subgroup. She says the department is committed to equity for every student and illustrates her point using the demographics in a small school in rural Tennessee.

“An example is Camden Junior High in Benton County. There are 31 total students across three individual racial/ethnic groups, so it can be held accountable for all 31 students under the combined group. But it only has 19 Black/African-American students, 11 Hispanic students, and one Native American student – none of which are high enough counts to be included in our accountability system. Because of the combined racial/ethnic group, Camden Junior High is now held accountable for the performance of these students.”

Further, “…we will also publicly report the performance of every individual racial/ethnic student group, provided it meets an n-count of 10. This will equip educators, parents, community members, and advocates to hold each school accountable for how they serve every child. We believe all of these approaches will help to shine a spotlight on all students’ performance and drive a conversation about the needs of individual students, which is our goal, and we are doing more than ever to ensure that ALL students, particularly historically underserved students, are making progress.”

We will have to wait and see.

I’m convinced there is not much, if anything, one can throw at the former Lipscomb University dean and not be met with a swift, perfectly-delivered uncrafted response. The woman knows her stuff. I’m not here to be the good doctor’s cheerleader, because, you know, the kids… I will, however, shout her praises for acknowledging Tennessee’s decades-old problem of disproportionately suspending black males in response to a question about accountability (1:06).

She could have easily swept that tidbit of Tennessee’s unsavory history and culture under the rug, but she put it out there – for America to see. She put it out there in a room full of rich white men and women who are so far removed from public schools they speak of them as if they are little third-world countries. She put it out there against a backdrop of heightened racial tension. When we know better, we do better.

Senator Petty Warren

Finally, I’ve just got to put this in the universe. Senator Elizabeth Warren, the resident smart-aleck brazenly repping Massachusetts was given her time at the mic. She never fails to ask spite-dipped questions accompanied by body language that would not go over well in the hood. After she and the senator from Tennessee had a brief but heated back and forth, she asked those questions. She knew the answers making the targets look like a punchline. But what ticked me off was the not-so-gently lady’s reference to “Ms. McQueen” and one second later addresses the very-male “Dr.” Steiner.

Senator Warren, that’s Dr. McQueen, sis.
Hearing on ESSA innovations in Tennessee, Louisiana, and New Mexico.

Celebrating Tennessee’s Top Teacher Cicely Woodard, Metro Nashville Public Schools

YAAAAAASSSSSSSS!

Cicely Woodard, a middle school math teacher at West End Middle School and Metro Schools 2017-18 teacher of the year has been crowned Tennessee’s Teacher of the Year! See TN Education Commissioner Candice McQueen’s announcement at last night’s ceremony.

In addition to being an amazing educator, Ms. Woodard is also a leader among leaders eager to share her talents with other educators across the state. We are so proud to have a Metro Schools educator as the state’s top teacher! (I’m beaming and I don’t even know her!)

I want to thank Ms. Woodard for putting in the hard work and serving as a source of inspiration for her students and their families. Ms. Woodard is now the standard-bearer for excellence across the state, making her one of the best in the country.

Education in Nashville needed a win and Cicely Woodard’s win is something everyone can celebrate.

Congratulations!

“The classroom presents a unique chance for young people and caring adults to build positive relationships with each other. It’s the place where teachers and students motivate each other to be their best selves. In the classroom we have a chance to help students to fall in love with learning and to understand the power of education.” – Cicely Woodard

To My Beloved School District: It’s Time We Have a ‘Come to Jesus’

Here’s what’s not going to happen: we are not about to be that school district. You know that district that shirks its responsibility for weaknesses by conjuring up ridiculous excuses, assigning blame, and withholding responses?

So far, the district has masterfully tap-danced around issues of water quality, dismal test scores, and sexual assaults. It’s time to stop dancing. These are mammoth issues that must be addressed proactively and earnestly.

Water is Life

I am dedicating this post to the two-year-old water quality issue. For as long as I’ve been in and around Metro Schools, I’ve never known the district to drag its feet on a matter that could harm the health of students. According to reports from NewsChannel 5 investigative reporter Phil Williams, many schools have had and still have dangerous amounts of lead in the water. This after the school district celebrated the fact they lead the state in testing for lead in the water.

Williams has expended an unbelievable amount of time on this issue and if I was still working at MNPS I’d be miffed at his unrelenting meddling. Still, his most recent report, Some MNPS Students Still Drinking Lead Contaminated Water, is revealing in that it exposes a school district with misplaced priorities. Even though the district tested fountains in every school, there are still schools with unsafe levels of lead in the water. Parents were not informed and, worse, our babies are still drinking the water.

So much time is spent on charging charter schools with taking money from traditional public schools, efforts to curb marketing to families, disputing building agreements, downplaying stellar testing results, attacking school leaders, and, yes, having fake parents. Meanwhile, a sort of environmental racism and classism is taking place in schools with the most poverty and children and color.

Y’all gotta stop playing with our kids, man.

Shout out to Phil Williams and blogger Thomas Weber for sticking with this story. Also, mad love to another MNPS parent who was so outraged she created a Facebook page Get the Lead Out dedicated to informing families about water quality issues in our schools.

Where I’ve been willing to give the district a pass, Weber always been very clear about the current administration’s handling of certain issues, water quality leading the list. I don’t regret giving the administration time to get acclimated to their new digs. but that grace period has long since passed.

Check out Weber’s most recent post No, The Water At MNPS Is Not Safe.

MNPS took the commendable action of having the water tested in its oldest buildings 2 years ago. Predictably, results came back that showed high levels of lead in several of our older schools. Schools that are made up of children from immigrant and impoverished homes. Schools like my children’s school.

Instead of taking these numbers, acknowledging the problems, and rectifying them, the district chose to issue a press release that disclosed none of the results and served as a congratulatory letter for merely testing the water. When they were challenged on the results and the lack of action, they issued another statement that claimed “The drinking water in the district’s oldest buildings meet all federal and state lead drinking water standards.” Sounds great, huh?

Tennessee’s Smallest Urban District Needs Speedy Turnaround for Distressed Schools

According to an article in the Times Free Press, Hamilton County Public Schools is in peril and what happens to children anywhere in Tennessee matters to all Tennesseans. Recently released state test scores show the district produced the lowest possible score in all areas but one. It doesn’t matter if you are not a fan of the type of assessment, standardized testing as a whole, or the robust reliance on high-stakes tests — results are results. We have them and must respond swiftly.

The district’s low performance certainly warrants the attention this article offers, but it misses a critical point that must be addressed. Though the writer points out disparities in performance among schools, he failed to spotlight the characteristics of the higher performing and lower performing schools.

Based on the 2015-2016 State Report Card, the student population at schools performing at the lower end is comprised of 90% or more students of color and high poverty. Meanwhile, the higher performing schools listed in the article are majority white students and minimal poverty. This narrative plays over and over again in school systems across the nation as schools with large vulnerable populations tend to have high concentrations of ineffective and/or the least experienced teachers, minimal parent engagement, a revolving door for principals, and little belief in the kids with the greatest needs.

We must be honest about the disparities among schools and groups of students. To bury or ignore this information is dishonest reporting and parents deserve better.

Incidentally, I have high hopes for the embattled district with its new superintendent Bryan Johnson who, by all accounts, was a strong leader in Clarksville/Montgomery County. Expecting a change in trajectory for our Chattanooga babies.

Read the Times Free Press article in its entirety.

 

As Summer Fades, Education Stories in Tennessee Heat Up and Urban Districts Are on the Hot Seat

And all at once summer collapsed into fall. – Oscar Wilde

I seriously cannot keep up with all the stuff going on in edu-world today – like Wednesday today, not the universal today. I’ve scrolled through a number of articles that forced a pause only to be preempted by the next pause-worthy story. It seems a perfect storm of good-to-great and bad-to-worse is converging upon us as the school year settles in and long-awaited test scores make an appearance. Let’s dig in, shall we?

A bit of good news…

Nashville’s crack edu-watcher and writer Zack Barnes recently went on a data bender and tweeted out the amazing growth outcomes for many of our schools – traditional and charter. The most fascinating chart shows a list of schools achieving the greatest growth (level 5) for the 2016-2017 school year.

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Great for these schools!

Note to ponder: every level 5 performing school on this list is a magnet or charter except for the dual-enrollment Middle College.

Follow @zbarnes for more chart love!


Not so good news…

Did you see the story “Regular Public School Teachers Miss More School Than Charter School Teachers?” 

A study performed by the conservative Thomas B. Fordham Institute found that on average traditional public school teachers miss 10 more of school than charter school teachers. The EdWeek article explores two possible reasons for this gap in teachers showing up to work — collective bargaining and school culture.

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Teachers in traditional public schools are protected by unions that negotiate sick leave while the majority of charters are not unionized. For instance, Tennessee’s teachers are greatly protected by the Tennessee Education Association (MNEA in Nashville) while not one of Tennessee’s charter schools has union influence. Could that be the reason our traditional public school teachers miss 25.3% of school while charter teachers miss 7.6%?

Of the 6,900 charter schools nationally, about 1 in 10 have teachers’ unions. According to the report, 18 percent of teachers in unionized charter schools are chronically absent. It’s about half that in charter schools without unions.

Culture is the other possible explanation. Charter schools pride themselves on creating a culture of exceedingly high expectations for students, parents, and faculty.

Teachers who work in charters “agree to go there as an at-will employee in most cases,” said Miller, who once served as a president of his local teachers’ union in Palo Alto, Calif. “This means you’re buying into a school culture and a way of doing business. That doesn’t include the elaborate leave policies you can often find in a collective bargaining agreement.”

But the million dollar question is “does teacher chronic absenteeism affect student achievement?” The article briefly touches on a study by Raegan Miller, a Georgetown University researcher quoted in the article, that concludes math students fall behind and are less engaged when their teacher is chronically absent. I’m no researcher, but I’m going to go out on a limb here and suggest the “less engaged” part of his conclusion is pretty important.

For the past two years, Tennessee (and Nashville, specifically) has been plotting and planning to triage the chronic absenteeism problem within our schools — for students. Maybe they are following the examples set before them? Don’t misunderstand me, parents need to be sure their child is in her seat, but if we have a problem with teachers showing up, then let’s make it, too, a prominently acknowledged and measured indicator for student success.


Downright ugly…

But most students in three of the state’s four largest districts — in Memphis, Nashville and Chattanooga — aren’t growing academically as they should, and neither are those in most of their “priority schools” in the state’s bottom 5 percent.

Tragically, the districts with the greatest number of vulnerable students are not growing. Hamilton County has gotten unwanted attention after scoring ones across-the-board except in one area. There is no shortage of articles about Memphis and their academic struggles, but Nashville has avoided the spotlight – until now.

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An overall score of one is a sure-fire way to regain exposure – whether you want it or not.

Admittedly, I’ve been generous to the district that educated my entire family and helped me provide a nice life for us. Additionally, working hard every day are Metro School staffers I care for deeply making it more difficult for me to call foul when foul clearly needs to be screamed.

But where I’ve failed to acknowledge weaknesses in our district, fellow blogger Thomas Weber of Dad Gone Wild (norinad10) has been on the case- for years. While we tend to see things differently, I understand the importance of respecting different points of view

You never know, there might come a time when the two points of view converge.

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