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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After A Week of Angry Blogging, Time for Cooler Heads to Prevail – Zack Barnes

A few of us have spent the week responding to an article in The Tennessean that generously offers up space and ink to empty accusations and other witch hunt-like activities intended to eradicate charter schools from the Nashville landscape. Maybe not the most effective use of our time, but the kids, you know?

Below, the very cool (and super smart) Zack Barnes of TN Ed Report curates a roundup of voices on the subject.

I wanted to highlight three good blog posts about charter schools that came out this weekend from those for and against charter schools.

This weekend the Tennessean posted an article about how two charter schools acquired bonds from the Nashville government to help fund the cost of renovating or building new schools. Seeing how MNPS does not give money for charter facilities, charter schools have to find ways to fund remodels, expansions, etc. As the Tennessean previously reported, the city of Nashville is spending millions for renovations and land for new buildings for traditional MNPS schools.

  • $46 million for the renovation of Hillsboro High School, the second part of an $86 million makeover
  • $10.2 million for land acquisition for Hillwood High School’s relocation to Bellevue
  • $9 million for land acquisition for a new school of the arts

Charter schools don’t have the luxury of the Mayor funding new buildings for them, and many traditional schools have to wait years and years to get renovated or a new school. Two charter schools used perfectly legal measures to gain bonds from the city of Nashville, and that made some anti-charter elected officials upset because they didn’t know it took place.

This was just another attack on charter schools that blogger Vesia Hawkins calls the “Summertime Strategy.”

The grand plan to dismantle charter schools is becoming more clear, particularly with the partnership with certain reporters, asinine accusations resulting from “intense scrutiny” of lease agreements (somehow there’s time for this), and let’s not forget the targeted personal attacks on certain charter school leaders—so far, only on those of color. See my recent post about Shaka Mitchell (who, as of last week, is no longer with Rocketship), Ravi Gupta, and John Little.

I mean, Rocketship attacks have been on repeat for a year now, so no surprises there, but Purpose Prep? Purpose Prep, the elementary school that intentionally seeks out students from the North Nashville area and operates with the expectation that every child will be eligible for Martin Luther King, Jr. magnet high school and, ultimately, the college of their choice. Purpose Prep, a school in its third year of existence with a student population comprised of 98% students of color, 74% economically disadvantaged and nearly every child is reading at or above grade level. So, what’s the problem here? (Shout out to Lagra Newman and her team!)

TC Weber, who is no fan of charter schools, wants to know how this latest attack solves the problem of families flocking to charters:

My position on charter schools is well documented. I believe wholeheartedly in the power of public education as a cornerstone of our democracy. But, I am baffled by people who can recognize the futility of the drug wars and its basis in attacks on the suppliers who fail to see the paralles playing out in the fight for public education. Repeatedly attacking suppliers while ignoring why there is demand is a strategy that has demonstrably failed to achieve success in the drug war and offers a preview of what to expect if we employ the same strategy in the fight against charter school proliferation. If we don’t address demand, parents will continue to search out alternatives regardless of how had we try and paint that alternative.

Earlier in the year, several hundred Antioch HS students staged a walkout over conditions in their school. An action that was never oppenly addressed by the school board.

Last week I recieved documentation that shows over 60 teachers have left Antioch HS this year and that the Principal non-renewed 10 more. I’m told that they have roughly 115 teachers total. After the student walkout Dr. Joseph held a restorative justice circle with the teachers. They told him that if he didn’t do something about the principal he was going to lose a lot of teachers. Joseph’s reported response was that the principals was not going anywhere and the teachers could either get on the bus or get run over by the bus. Antioch HS is not the only school in the district facing huge teacher turnover – Sylvan Park, Warner, Overton, Joelton, to name a few. I ask you, which story, charter school building finance or high teacher turnover,  do you think has greater impact on student outcomes?  Which story has the ability to affect charter growth? If I’m a parent in a school with that kind of teacher turnover and my only choice is enrolling in a school that appears more stable but uses dubious means to fund its capital investments, where do you think I’m going?

We need to be asking why parents are heading to charter schools and make changes so that parents don’t want to leave their zoned school. Teacher and blogger Josh Rogen addresses this very issue in his latest blog post. Josh does a great job graphing numbers to show a clear picture of why some families decide to leave a traditional school. He breaks down the achievement of schools based on the percentage of students of color in the school.

The answer is clear. If you are a Black, Hispanic, or Native American parent, and your zoned option is predominantly Black, Hispanic, or Native American, your best option is to send your child to a charter school if you value their overall growth, excellence, and the culture of the building they are being educated in.

In fact, if you are sending your child to a school with 80%+ Black, Hispanic, or Native American, you can basically throw a dart at any charter school in Nashville and be confident that you are doing much better than your zoned option. (That bottom one is Smithson Craighead, which is getting shut down. Closing bad schools…an interesting idea.)

On the other hand, middle-class white people are not touched by charter schools, and so they don’t support them. I will say that it is awfully easy to hate charter schools when you have a good zoned option. It’s a lot harder to oppose them when your child is locked into a failing school because of their zip code. A little empathy might change the conversation.

Josh hits on something about middle class people who are not touched by charter schools. I recently ran across a comment that TC Weber wrote that said,

It’s really easy to fight for public education when your kids are not the ones sitting in the seats at our poorest schools. I’d love to look around and see all these education warrior’s children’s sitting in seats next to my kids and perhaps then we could get equity.

I also saw a comment someone made that said it was a “disgusting insult to the teachers, students, and parents in the system” when someone was disparaging MNPS. If that is what some people think, the same should be true for charter school. There are students, teachers, and families that have decided to work and/or send their kids to a charter school. The conversation has now turned into one where one cannot speak ill of MNPS and one cannot speak good things about charter schools. We need to have these conversations about both of them in a more collaborative way.

Instead of spending time attacking charter schools, we should be working to improve our district so that families don’t feel the need to leave their zoned school. 374 parents sent a letter to the school board about these attacks, but the board never responded to those concerns. The silence shows that the board doesn’t want a dialogue with charter school parents. If we want to improve our district, we must communicate with all parents.

So let’s come together and figure out why parents are leaving for charters. I don’t know if it’s already been done, but each parent should fill out a short exit interview when they withdraw their student for a charter. Let’s start focus groups with these parents. Let’s do more to find the concerns, fix the concerns, and see what happens. We already know what some concerns are: literacy rates, ACT scores, and behavior.

Let’s spend more time listening and collaborating instead of attacking. As a teacher, I want success for all students. All students includes students who attend private, home, magnet, charter, or traditional public school.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport and @zbarnes

Nashville (and Memphis) School Choice Advocates Make Appeal to School Board – Vote No Moratorium on Charters

The pro-school choice community in Nashville and even Memphis has spoken! We understand that charter schools are providing a need and without them as viable options we are hijacking opportunities from families in vulnerable circumstances.

Check out these voices for choice in Nashville:

Thank you, Memphis!

But we are listening. And we are praying. And we are standing tall with our fellow Tennessee families in Nashville.

Maya M. Bugg, CEO Tennessee Charter School Center

It is exaggerated to call this growth “unabated” when MNPS has been nationally recognized for their careful and considerate management of charter school approval and has only approved an average of approximately two new public charter schools per year since 2014.

We are fortunate in Tennessee to have strong charter school accountability policies, many great schools and an active support base of education partners that even the local NAACP leadership has agreed is a leading positive example.


Zack Barnes, Nashville Education Blogger


Miranda Christy, Nashville Attorney and former School Board candidate

  • Over 10,000 students currently exercise a choice to attend a charter school, which as of 2015 comprised six of the district’s 14 highest performing schools.
  • Our board is voluntarily proposing to eliminate the possibility of additional choices for families and take the option for future charter schools out of its toolbox despite our city’s rapid growth in both population and diversity and a persistent increase in achievement gaps.
  • All families have a right not only to receive adequate public notice of this discussion under the law, but also to have the opportunity for their voices to be heard and to grapple with the purpose and implications of this type of action by the board, e.g., its fundamental legality, whether it will practically achieve its purported purpose, or most importantly: how this action will improve the quality of the education currently available to 87,000 MNPS students.

Shouldn’t Parents Get a Say Before School Board Blocks Charter Schools?

According to the school board agenda for this week’s meeting, they are voting on a moratorium of any future charter schools in Nashville.

Never mind the political agendas at work behind this resolution. The bigger problem is that the agenda from last week gave no notice to the public about the appearance of the resolution. And the text of the resolution itself didn’t appear until a few hours ago.

Nashville education blogger Zack Barnes rightfully points out the lack of public transparency here and questions the motives of the resolution’s author (ahem, Will Pinkston, I may have mentioned him before). While Miranda Christy proclaims in the Tennessean that the resolution lacked adequate public notice.

And who is this “public” that deserves notice anyway? Parents and families, that’s who. The ones who need more and better public school options for their kids. The kind of public schools that can sometimes be provided by high-quality charter school operators.

What’s Really Going On

Obviously I agree with Zack and Miranda, the public needs a chance to be part of the democratic process. But I also know how the sausage is made.

See, I used to work at the district, and I’ve been party to publishing these school board agendas myself. Typically, there are two reasons an agenda item would show up this late. Usually it’s innocent—there’s just a bureaucratic maze that can take time to navigate, getting all the right signatures and sign-offs. Or sometimes, also innocently, an item of urgency springs up and is time-sensitive; requiring immediate board approval.

But another, more rare but insidious reason for a resolution to pop up without notice is simply to avoid pushback and scrutiny.

My sausage-maker’s experience tells me that’s what’s going on here.

But whatever the reason, parents must be part of the discussion. And that means taking adequate time and the proper steps to ensure they are.

A resolution to halt charter schools, some of which could provide needed public options to Black and Brown families in MNPS, is a big deal. Parents deserve to be at the table.

Yes, You Should Be Afraid to Run for Nashville School Board. But You Should Do It Anyway!

Don’t get me wrong, I am good friends with most of the school board members. I do believe most of them are good people who really do love the babies.

Maybe it’s too early for board members whose terms are up in 2018 to decide whether they will run again. But it’s a great time for prospects to scavenge the landscape.

And yes, I mean scavenge, because the 2016 board race back in August didn’t actually end until this week. And it left a path of scorched earth and burned spirits.

Should I Be Scared?

I strongly encourage you to think about running for school board. (I might even start a sign-up sheet right here on the blog!) But…heed my warning.

To recap: A group of “concerned citizens” (Zack Barnes says it best here) filed illegal campaigning charges against Stand for Children, its Nashville director Daniel O’Donnell, and school board candidates Miranda Christy, Thom Druffel, Jackson Miller and Jane Meneely. After four months, the post-election nightmare finally ended, but not without sending a strong cautionary message (See Miranda’s story) to anyone who hopes to bring new ideas and a focus on children to the Nashville school board.

And hey, this could be you!

I know, I’m a terrible saleslady—what with telling the brutal truth and all. But here’s the thing: nearly 90,000 children need adults with the capability to make decisions that positively affect the trajectories of their lives. We need some bold community members to come stick up for the children—not the adults or the institutions or the entrenched system.

So, if this is you, be afraid. Be very afraid.

And do it anyway.

I’m Not the Only One Who’s “GotYourBack”, Dr. Joseph

Admittedly, I was little worried. After Monday’s Volume and Light post calling attention to Diane Ravitch’s “ill-advised” (taking a line from her hymnal) blog about Nashville’s director of schools, Dr. Shawn Joseph, the future began to look bleak for the illogically defamed director.

At first, I was relieved to see some others take the time to join me in expressing their outrage and/or support.

Then This Happened!

In a move befitting a true leader, newly elected school board chair Anna Shepherd requested the community’s continued support of the director.  According to the Tennessean’s Jason Gonzales, Chairwoman Shepherd laid down the law at Tuesday night’s board meeting.

I’ll be sleeping pretty soundly tonight.  Sweet dreams.

Ignore the Righteous Haters, Dr. Joseph, Because I’ve Got Your Back

“Autocratic, power-hungry, tone-deaf bureaucrat.”

These are the venom-laced words written by Diane Ravitch, reverend of edu-righteousness, in an October 8th blog post about Nashville’s director of schools. Ravitch, a “born-again” anti-reformer, has decided to use her lofty pulpit to raise up the Nashville naysayers on the 100-day-old contract for director of schools Dr. Shawn Joseph.

Taking her cues from a local public school parent (for more on that, local blogger Zack Barnes discusses that relationship), Ravitch titled the fire and brimstone post using words like “neuter” and “havoc” to describe the mild-mannered, parent-engaging, professionally-developing leader. Further, she makes fiery presumptions of “wasteful spending” and “ill-advised hires.” But, wait… that’s not all!

By the hem of her entitlement, Ravitch calls for OUR school board to amend or terminate the good doctor’s contract. I’m sorry, what?

Diane, You’re WRONG

First, I recall there being a unanimous vote on the Dr. Joseph’s contract (watch the celebratory announcement)—even after his request to amend to reflect his expectations of school board behavior. Interestingly, eight of those nine contract-voting board members are still serving. What has changed since May?

Second, wasteful spending has traditionally been judged by outcomes. So, give it a minute, please.

Third, “ill-advised hires” is pretty much a load of crap. I’m not going to pretend to ignore what she really means here. As I mentioned in an earlier post, Dr. Joseph recently hired Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) chief of staff Jana Carlisle, who, upon recognizing Nashville’s issues with charters, “removed all charter references from her public profile.” Welcome, Jana!

Fourth, good leaders travel with familiar talent. Our former schools chief, Dr. Garcia, certainly brought with him Californians to Nashville. Dr. Register hired from his former district in Chattanooga. What makes Dr. Joseph’s hires any different?

Lastly, why in fresh hell are we having this conversation so early in the director’s tenure? The blasting of a performance too premature to assess raises all kinds of red flags. One can’t help but create conspiracy theories, as MNPS parent Kelley Dement commented: “I knew the Shady Bunch would try something when he wouldn’t dance to their music. Hang in there, Dr. Joseph.”

Singing His Praises

One thing I’ve observed is that parents love Dr. Joseph.

Former MNPS teacher Pam Rowe noted that he has reached out to parents more than any other director in the last 20 years. Case in point, tomorrow the director is starting a second series of meetings on various topics for the sole purpose of obtaining parent input.

Another thing, a portion of that “wasteful spending” is providing professional development to staff district-wide, not just the teachers. As someone who spent a decade working for the district, this screams ALL EMPLOYEES MATTER. I gotta tell ya, that has not always been the case.

Let’s be clear, this is not to say the man can do no wrong. But I refuse to allow a few disgruntled choir members to malign the new director because their long-held solos were reassigned.


I’ve said it before and I’m happy to repeat it: I’ve got Dr. Joseph’s back. Join me in denouncing these premature and inane attacks on the director of schools by using @MNPSDirector #GotYourBack.