A tremendous amount of attention — and money — has been focused on the upcoming school board elections in August. And most of the coverage, including in this publication, has focused on the campaigns, the candidates and the horse-race nature of it all.
But before voters head into the booth, we wanted to examine some of the most important issues those candidates will face if elected to the board. Nashville is an interesting position because of the sheer amount of changes happening within education, from charter schools to student testing to teacher evaluations and many more. We brought in five people (no candidates) with a stake in public education to talk about some of the issues the city faces: David Fox is a former chair of the school board; Jeremy Kane is the founder and CEO of LEAD Public Schools, a charter operator in Nashville; Beth Baker is a distinguished math teacher at H.G. Hill Middle School; Ron Woodard, with a newly minted doctorate, is the principal of Maplewood High School; and Mary Catherine Bradshaw is a teacher at MLK Magnet High School who is currently attempting to launch a charter school.
City Paper editor Steve Cavendish and reporter Joey Garrison sat down with the group on Tuesday. The following is an edited transcript of their discussion.
CP: The school board is a hot topic. There is more talk about it this year than in the past, and all the money going into these races seems to emphasize that. Why do you think this is happening right now?
FOX: I think there’s a growing expectation, maybe a sense of optimism, that this is a great time to engage, because the potential for accomplishing something important is here. I think in some years past, there’s been some real frustration about how effectively could you be supportive. Would it really translate into any results or not? And now I think there’s people who support the traditional school reform that Dr. Register [Metro Nashville Public Schools director Jesse Register] is leading as well as those in the charter crowd who see an opportunity to attract and build more effective charter schools that deliver very impressive results. And so I think it’s a sense of optimism that’s pulling people in now that wasn’t there five or six years ago.
CP: Does everyone share that optimism, and what do you think, Mary Catherine? There is skepticism out there about whether we are going on the right path when it comes to charter schools — do you have any thoughts on that?
BRADSHAW: I think one reason why all the conversation and perhaps the money involvement is occurring now is because the law has changed and there’s an opportunity for creating something new, because the structure — the infrastructure — is changing. I mean, there’s no discussion about charters — whether we ought to have them or ought not to have them. We have them. And so I think it’s a great opportunity for people who have ideas and who think out of the box to come in and say, “All right, so the old system didn’t give us any wiggle room, or didn’t give us wiggle room that we saw — here’s this other system.” There’s just a lot of interest, I think, when you change an infrastructure, sort of like building a new bridge; people start thinking, “Well, maybe I’ll go this way.”
KANE: I’m with David; I think it’s a sense of optimism. I think I’m one that doesn’t see the bad side of the politics; not as the politics there, or there are groups that have their agendas and their items and they want to push it, but I think — and correct me if I’m wrong — there’s not a school board race where someone’s unopposed, and I think that’s a powerful statement that more than one person is standing up to run for this elected office.
Now, you can say there are politics involved, there is money with one or two candidates within each district race, but I think that’s a good statement; it’s a good statement that it is not all charter candidates who are running unopposed, or all traditional public schools, or traditional reform or — it’s a mix. Will every candidate win? No, but I don’t see politics as a bad word. I think where politics can get bad, and I defer to David on the board and Ron at the school level or Mary Catherine into the classroom level — when politics from the school board gets into the classroom level, I think that’s where the conversation kind of maybe goes too far. But the conversation in the voting booth? The conversation about the future of our schools? Because if you look back, and I think one of the problems that we are facing in this election is people think this is new. I mean, we had [Fox’s] contested election and there was a group of citizens that, you know, supported candidates; we’ve had the unions supporting candidates in the past; we’ve had now other groups and other candidates — I think it’s a powerful statement that we have state legislative races where people are running unopposed, and yet nine [school board] races in Nashville have a contested election.
BAKER: My perspective on why everyone seems to really be talking about it is it doesn’t matter what news channel, whether it’s local or national, even global at this point — education is one of the top stories. And I think teachers, parents, community members really are saying, “Oh, wow. A school board is impacting my life somehow. Maybe I should pay more attention instead of just hitting a button on a voting booth. I know from my perspective, seeing all the money being put into these races makes me really question deeper the candidates and what they stand for. I think quite a few people are really taking note in that and just making it a question: “Why is this person getting money and this person isn’t?” But again, the interest is there, because you can’t turn on a TV, you can’t open a newspaper without hearing the word education, and this is a big vote for Metro and for education.
CP: Ron, as a principal of a zoned school, what are your thoughts when you hear people say, “Oh, the autonomy of a charter school and the flexibility gives it the ability to succeed over a zoned school.”
WOODARD: I respect the charter movement. I believe the charter movement provides parents with options; however, I want to go on record as saying I am a strong advocate of the public schools. I am a product of the public schools, and I believe that public schools provide students with amazing opportunities each and every day. It happens every day, and we’ve got great stories that come out of the public schools every day. However, I think the charter schools have become a good option for some parents as well, so I’m kind of right down the middle. I vote right down the middle of the line on that one. Jeremy and I have had our share of conversations about that, but I’m voting right down the middle.
CP: Let’s talk a little bit about data. What should we be measuring to figure out school achievement and whether kids are performing at the right levels and whether they’re making progress?
BAKER: I’m a math teacher, so every time I hear the word data, I go, “All right, there’s the math.” But at the same time, it does make me cringe a little bit, because people use data in various ways, and I may use data very different from someone else; I think that is a hot word in education. To really measure kids, I think you have to talk to them, and really talk to them, more so than give them a test and ask them to bubble in the answers. I say, if you can tell me at the end of the day something I taught you today, and you can tell me that tomorrow, I know I’ve made an impact. But data is important; it’s a fact of life, especially in today’s world. Education is being driven in a roundabout way, much like the corporate world, and the corporate world is run on numbers. But education is one of those where it’s very fluid; I don’t think it’s all about the numbers; I don’t think it’s all about standardized scores. Are they important? Absolutely. But is it the end-all? I don’t think so.
FOX: One thing I’d like to say is, I think people who are involved in the governance of the program have to have some metric to determine if children are being educated to as high a level as possible, and I think almost everyone involved understands the current metrics are very limited in their usefulness. They indicate something, but most of us with our own children have a very holistic expectation. It’s not just being proficient in math that we care about as parents; there are many things, you know: character, getting along with others, being a good team member, having leadership skills, and then going off academic pieces.
KANE: Yeah, I was going to talk about the internal versus external use of data, and I think internally, we’re very much, you know, what gets measured is where your accountability lies, and with our teachers, we track the data and how we see students improving it, and what we’re looking at. I think internally, we are constantly improving in education. I think we are so much better than we were five years ago, 10 years ago, in terms of what we measure. I don’t think we get enough credit in public education for pushing the data and the measurement. Now, have we gone too far potentially with No Child Left Behind and all of the measurements? We can talk about whether those are good or bad measurements. For example, this is front-page news this morning — we, the state, are going to measure teachers and give them evaluations, and then we see the value-added scores. We see a discrepancy. Now is the state going to move away from it? I mean, on the school board, you all said, “We’re going to measure Dr. Garcia on the following measures,” and then there were times he potentially didn’t measure up to it, and we said, “Well, that measure wasn’t exactly right. We’re going to change it,” or you know, “We’re not going to give Ron credit with Maplewood scores, because it wasn’t exactly the right way, or LEAD [Academy].” We say charter schools have to perform at a certain level, and then we do, and they go, “Well, we’re going to shift the goal line.” We were just talking earlier — you’re running how many students at Maplewood?
WOODARD: Almost a thousand.
KANE: I can’t even conceive of that. And so, what are those processes and operational pieces of it? That’s what I think is important in terms of how we start talking about data, is not only measuring the right things, but having the confidence, having the courage to stick with those measures, even if it’s not working.
CP: So along those lines, let’s talk specifics here for just one second. What’s something that we’re measuring now that we weren’t measuring five years ago?
KANE: I mean, just the simple — I would say attendance. If you remember when you (points to Fox) were on the school board, we didn’t know if kids were in class or not. I mean, that seems so simplistic, but that’s the easiest and smallest all the way up to — I mean, now we’re measuring, of course, graduation …
KANE: ACT, college readiness, internally …
FOX: Value-added. The state distinguished itself by having a value-added program.
CP: David, for the layperson, talk about what value-added means.
FOX: It’s a measure that illustrates how children are doing year over year, so that you can do some comparisons and you can look … You know, if you have a high socioeconomic school and you have a lower school with kind of a lower socioeconomic, you want to understand how effective the school is being with its students; you don’t want to have just a raw level — you want the raw level, but Tennessee did some pioneering work in this — Bill Sanders, more than 20 years ago — and compiled this huge database that was the envy of the country. We just didn’t use it locally, and that was one thing Dr. Register has been very involved in, and the state Department of Education has been very involved in, and again, it comes back to the issue of metrics. It isn’t a perfect metric, and there are plenty of critics of value-added, but I think it’s useful. I think it does convey something that’s worth knowing, and so in the last five years — and Mary Catherine, y’all in the system would see it more than I would …
BRADSHAW: [nods head]
FOX: It’s my understanding that it’s much more front and center and a useful tool than it was five years ago.
BRADSHAW: And I think, as far as data is concerned, there’s a lot of conversation and a great need to close the achievement gap, but the dilemma with closing the achievement gap with only data is you can — if you close it by moving the bottom toward the top, but the top keeps moving up, you haven’t closed the gap. You really look at pure value-added when you look at the improvement of each child individually, and I think in general, we need to focus more on how individual students have improved, how individual schools have improved, and continue to focus on closing the achievement gap, but you can — you know, we need to raise the bar at the top, not the bottom, consistently across the board, because if you don’t raise it at the top, you’re not really raising it for anyone.
CP: Jeremy cited the state Department of Education’s one-year report on the teacher evaluations, and of course, I think like 35 percent of that is value-added; 50 percent of that is classroom evaluations — essentially, the Department of Education said there’s a disproportionate number of 4s and 5s [teachers are graded on a 1 to 5 scale], top-level scores being graded by evaluators from those in-class observations, disproportionate to the much lower number at the value-added level for the category. Ron, I assume you conducted many of those?
CP: What’s your take was on that? If there was maybe too much of — they called it either an inability or unwillingness to hand out low in-class observations. That’s what the state said.
WOODARD: I can comment on my thoughts on the evaluations, just I haven’t seen that report. But I will say the new evaluation system puts a stern focus on teaching and learning. I think it has caused principals to have to really focus on instruction in schools, and also helps our assistant principals focus on their instruction leadership as well.
CP: And what about to the teachers, Mary Catherine and Beth? Essentially, they said 76 percent of all teachers received a 4 or higher on the in-class evaluation portion.
BAKER: I think there’s a lot of ways to look at it. For me, the first one is teachers see the rubric that they’re being evaluated on, and on the announced visits, teachers should and can do their very best to get the very best score. The TVAs, the value-added, comes from students taking their test; it’s a one-time test. How do you know that child didn’t have something big happen in their life the moment they sat down before they took that test, and for two hours, they couldn’t focus on it because something tragic had happened at home? So I think there’s a very different thing, but what I’m getting at really is — are we using the evaluation system to catch teachers doing well, or was it to see and find teachers not doing well? In my classroom, my motto is “I want to catch you doing good.” I don’t like discipline issues. My theory is I’m going to catch you doing a good thing. I’m going to congratulate you on doing a great thing. I don’t want to point out every wrong thing you do. So which way was it being used? You know, I personally like the evaluation, the classroom, the rubric, because in the four years that I have taught — honestly, this is the first year that I really prepared questions to ask my students every day. I mean, it had been off-the-cuff talking to kids, listening to feedback, but really thinking about questioning, and I think it drives instruction to be better, which should at some point show better test scores, but again, the test scores that are used for value-added, it’s a one-time test, and how do you know something didn’t happen?
BRADSHAW: I think I would say the assessment — the TVAs, the in-course assessments and those kinds of things — they’re one-shot, just like she said. The teacher evaluations are a portfolio approach with different pieces, and I go back to the International Baccalaureate assessments [Bradshaw formerly headed the IB program at Hillsboro High School], where there are multiple ways for students to show what they know, and so if the state is looking at teacher evaluations that are a portfolio approach, but they’re looking at student assessments that are a one-shot deal, there’s a disconnect there. I don’t think we need to blame children or teachers when there are two different systems that aren’t really giving authentic information. And another piece of what has happened in this last year is the Advanced Placement and IB classes that were end-of-course tests; those students were told in the spring they don’t have to take the end-of-course test, so they took the AP or the IB, but there’s no data to really say, from anywhere in the state, from a large pool, significant pool, of AP students, say, in AP U.S. History. My AP U.S. History students took the AP test; they didn’t take the other course tests, so we don’t know.
CP: So they’re not even factored in there?
BRADSHAW: They’re not even factored in, and there’s a huge difference in the kind of test that AP is versus the end-of-course test, because there are essays, there’s multiple choice, there are document-based questions, all those kinds of things, so I would say we need data, but we need data that has parallel assessment pieces for teachers and for students. A portfolio system is best; some of it needs to be internal assessments, some of it needs to be external assessments.
KANE: I would just caution about — it’s year one, you know, in this evaluation system. I think you can look at it in a negative way, like we talked about earlier, the politics. You can say, “Well, all the principals are just giving their teachers 4s and 5s,” and we can look at it in a negative light. We can look at it in a positive light, and I think where we are is the state didn’t release videos on what a 4 or a 5 or a 3 was until very late in the year, and I’m not even sure if they’ve been released yet, we’ve been looking for them. So this takes a while to build a common language. We talked about the data is we’re in a process, and it’s going to take 10 years, and I know we don’t like to think in 10 years of time, because that’s more than a generation of kids, but it’s going to take a while for Ron and I to both say, “This is exactly what a 4 is, or this is what a great teacher measures.” I think we’re seeing a discrepancy in why we need to move faster, but I think I would caution us to look on the positive side, to keep pushing Dr. Register and the staff and the school board to say — this year it was what, you said 75 percent difference?
KANE: If next year it’s still 75 percent, we haven’t made progress. If it’s 50 percent, 40 percent, and we’re pushing that, and the school districts and the state are using, getting more training — I heard the state recommend doing retraining with principals, and this is not an easy training, so I would just caution us to look at the positives, continue to push the — you know, push on the gas. But again, look at the positives versus the negatives on it, because I think that will move us to abandon any data, and we’ll have a new teacher evaluation system two years from now — let’s stick with what works, refine it, really improve it.
BAKER: I would love to just kind of touch on talking about the positive. I’ve been to several trainings this year, and one of them really is talking about building on your strengths, and I wish people would really look at education and look for a positive instead of immediately jumping to find negative, and say, “What is working?” instead of “What is not working?” Because there are a lot of things that are working and a lot of dedicated teachers, principals, assistant principals, everybody in Central Office, I think, is working towards trying to make a positive place instead of let’s just harp on the negative.
CP: The term “achievement gap” has been mentioned a couple of times, and Mary Catherine, you’re obviously an expert in the IB, AP field — how is it possible to close that achievement gap? We have schools, we have academic magnets that have, you know, 30 AP courses offered, and even at schools like Hillsboro, maybe it’s like 20 or so, and as compared to a school like Pearl Cohn, where you have four or five offered.
BRADSHAW: Well, I think we want to focus on equality of opportunity in each school, first of all, and if schools exist and they have AP and/or IB programs, then we need to make sure that we are preparing the students prior to taking those courses and they have enough confidence to sign up to take them. Then we need to look at the evaluations, and it’s not just about who scores 3, 4 or 5, it’s about how many people take those AP courses and then finish by taking the assessment. Everyone doesn’t have to make a 3, 4 or 5 [and gain college credit] to say it’s a viable program, but too often, I hear, “Oh, well, that program’s not successful at that school because they didn’t have any 3s, 4s or 5s — nobody passed.” Well, the fact of the matter is a 1 may be a great score for a child who’s never had an AP class, never even thought about an AP class, until someone encouraged them to get in there. I wish I had more 4s and 5s — everybody that seems competitive likes 4s and 5s — but the success and the level of confidence that I saw some students have just by saying, “I’m in an AP class. I’m taking an AP class,” you can’t measure that in the data unless you’re willing to say it matters how many or what percentage of your children in your school sign up for AP classes. ... Just because you make a 1 on the AP test doesn’t mean you should have flunked the AP class.
CP: Yeah, but right now, like Ron — I mean, the AP courses at Maplewood for example, are determined by that demand, right?
WOODARD: Correct. It depends upon the course requests. If students request the classes, we’d be able to — it’s that simple. There’s not a lot of red tape, you know; if kids request the course, we’d be able to set up something.
KANE: I think something that’s important, and we talked about the achievement gap — I think the next frontier is the opportunity gap, and what you’re hearing, I mean, it’s fascinating to me at MLK, you have kids that are in Honors that are not, you know, it’s not an automatic assumption that all kids will take an AP class, and so you have an opportunity gap even within MLK; you have an opportunity gap at Ron’s schools, at my schools across the district — we’re talking about Hillsboro, we’re talking about the IB program, we’re talking about every single school in Nashville. We’re focused on achieving our best test scores, but I think the opportunity gap, that’s where I just, you know, my blood gets boiling when we talk about the opportunity gap. If students want it …
KANE: And should have it, they need it. That has to be the core of the principle, and again, with the school board, I mean, you talk about — that should be their mission, again, to close, and we should not have an opportunity gap. I think the other piece of that is, again, an opportunity gap is not just if enough kids want AP Algebra or AP Calculus or Biology or History, it’s about what’s being done in fifth grade to prepare all students to be able to have an opportunity to be exposed to college-level work. I think it’s really important what you’re — the point you’re making is that the exposure to that high-level, high-rigor test and class material is critical, whether those students are going to be college-ready or career-ready — if that is our goal, there can exist no opportunity gap. We need to close the achievement gap faster, but the opportunity gap has to be closed immediately. It’s going to take years — it could take a generation, but that opportunity gap is real.
CP: But didn’t we create a Metro system that inherently has opportunity, by creating these academic magnet schools like MLK and Hume Fogg? We have only a few with the IB program. When there are two schools every year that are like a Newsweek Top 100 in the country, a lot of people want to know why we aren’t building more of them.
FOX: When I was on the school board, you know, the school board itself was very ambivalent about the academic magnet schools, and there were some that had publicly critical remarks about them — this is going back several years ago. And my view is that, you know, we need to listen to the market a little bit; if there’s tons of children trying to get into a certain school and there’s not enough capacity, let’s do another school — fine, let’s keep on doing it. I think responding to what people want is not a bad thing.
CP: The superintendent that you voted to hire has a different stance on that, I think, when it comes down to academic magnets. Register is very much against expanding that system.
FOX: Well, I think the school board is especially in favor of trying to meet that demand within the zoned high schools, which I think is a smart thing to do, but I don’t think it should be an either/or situation; I think the expectation with Ron, and Ron of his students, is not really dissimilar from what goes on at an academic high school; I think they’re pretty much a very similar challenge with the same expectations. And so I think, you know, Dr. Register has to listen to the will of his board, and also, you have the potential evolution of charter schools that serve more diverse student bodies. You know, historically, our charter schools have been pretty homogenous, focused on at-risk children, and we’re at a precipice right now — not a precipice, we’re at a kind of a critical point today — will we see the evolution of charter schools that serve broad socioeconomic and ethnic populations? And perhaps in that format, some of this pent-up demand on the part of the parents might be met. I’m hopeful that that’s the case.
CP: Is that the only way to keep those Green Hills, Belle Meade, upper- to middle-class students in Metro? Is the Great Hearts concept the way to do it?
FOX: Well, again, I think an interesting question is how interested is the school board in having more market share in Nashville. Is it a problem that the percentage of middle-class students who attend is relatively low? Is that acceptable? You know, again, most organizations I’m familiar with see more people using a service as a positive thing, and so I think there’s a little work that’s left to be done in terms of the school board crystallizing really what it wants to accomplish when it comes to serving middle-class/upper-middle-class children. I think the last four or five years has been a lot of progress in understanding just how inadequate the school system, historically, has been serving at-risk kids, and so — and we’re seeing much more of an “all hands on deck” attitude being brought to bear within the school system and through charter operators like Jeremy and prospective charter operators like Mary Catherine. So I just think that’s going to have to be clarified. I think the board is still a little bit ambivalent about what it wants to accomplish with middle-class/upper-middle-class students, and I think there seems to be a multiple-prong approach. I think Dr. Register, you know, the principals like Mr. Woodard and others, are doing everything possible to ramp up the quality of service to all students, but just because that’s happening in these X number high schools, in my view doesn’t mean we need to stop the supply of schools. I think there’s talent that exists throughout the country and throughout our city that’s not entirely housed at Bransford Avenue [MNPS’ Central Office], and so I think we need — I hope the school board is welcoming other talented people in other organizations who can come in and help expand the quality and quality of services we have here.
CP: What’s your take on all of this, Jeremy? In terms of a charter like Great Hearts. I mean, your school has targeted at-risk youth and economically disadvantaged, and you’re also with ASD [the state’s Achievement School District]; you’re tapped into low-performing schools. So what is your take on what’s happening?
KANE: I would really caution the debate and I’ve tried to, you know, just to quietly, I guess now publicly, sort of share some advice that I think we fail as a city — I think the school board fails, I think we all fail — if we confuse Great Hearts with a school and really focus on that is a group that has come together, that is a group that is operating schools, that has chosen Nashville for whatever reasons, to try to open a public charter school. We should talk and debate the merits of that charter application, but we shouldn’t forget this other group of parents — and the last I heard, over a thousand parents have signed a petition, have come to a meeting, have looked at it. That is 100 percent positive with that political debate, that is what the school board has to do, and that is a group of some of these parents that are pushing or want to support this Great Hearts charter.
CP: Principal Woodard, hop in here for a second, because it’s interesting — if Great Hearts comes into Nashville in the way they have proposed to do, it would in essence pull — it could pull kids out of your zone that might help you or might help your school’s performance.
WOODARD: Again, I don’t see charters as a threat to public schools; I view that as an option for parents. Parents have the right to choose; it’s an option. If they choose to solicit that option, you know, that’s their right. However, it makes me want to step my game up. It’s fair market competition. What is it that they’re offering over here that we don’t offer at Maplewood High School? So I look it as a competitor, you know? The personal take to my job is that I’m providing a service for the customer, the customer is the taxpayer, and so I want to be sure that I provide a great service, and so that means ensuring the best quality education for students at Maplewood High School.
FOX: I think that’s one of the most encouraging contrasts now versus several years ago. Several years ago, I was struck by how everyone was focused on the institution, and various people were protective of institutions. Now what you hear in Mr. Woodard’s comments all were, “What works best for the kid?” And that’s where the conversation is today in Nashville.
BAKER: That should be the bottom line with every question, in every state across the board with education: What’s best for the child?
FOX: Don’t you sense there has been some improvement in that attitude of some number of years?
BAKER: A little bit.
CP: So, Beth, you’re in a zoned school. When you hear that we need more charters because of XYZ reason, what goes through your head as a public school teacher?
BAKER: “What’s wrong with my school?” H.G. Hill, for the past several years, has made AYP [the No Child Left Behind “Adequate Yearly Progress” mark] — that’s something we have worked very, very hard to do; our scores show that. Last year, I think we were one of two or three that were not the magnet schools to make it on our TCAP scores. We offer a lot of things at H.G. Hill. Do we offer what every single parent wants? No. Does LEAD Academy offer something that’s different from us? I’m sure they do. And again, it’s what’s best for the child. If the parent doesn’t think H.G. Hill is best for their student, I can’t change their mind; I can give them my sales pitch that, you know, we’re a great school, we do everything we can to make it best for your child, but it really comes down to what is best for that one student.
CP: While we have two teachers here, it’s probably worthwhile to ask what your thoughts are on Teach for America. Recently Metro schools and Dr. Register, the school board, voted to essentially double our renewal intake of those teachers. Is that a good thing, a bad thing?
BAKER: I am not Teach for America, but I was with a program called Transition to Teaching through UT Martin. I worked in the nonprofit world, I worked in the corporate world, and realized I wanted to make a difference with kids, and have not looked back. Since I joined the education world, it is the happiest I’ve been. It’s the hardest I’ve worked, but it’s where I’m supposed to be. I hope that Teach for America participants, my co-workers — I have new teachers that we’ve just been told about that have been hired from them — have the same passion that I do.
CP: So over at H.G. Hill, you do have some new Teach for America teachers?
BAKER: They are brand-new this year. Starting this school year, I think we’ve got two or three with us. Teach for America — if you walk into a classroom, you’re going to work harder than you have in any profession, in my personal opinion, than you think. Not all Teach for America people are going to make it; some do, some don’t, but that’s the same with whether you’ve come out of college ready to be an educator.
CP: Back on the Teach for America thing — Jeremy, you must obviously see some things coming out of it, because I think you were hiring a bunch of Teach for America folks [for LEAD], are you not?
KANE: Yeah, I mean, we’re a little bit under 50 percent Teach for America core alums. I think with Teach for America, again, I go back to — we can spend more time focused on what’s different than what’s the same, and I think both of you have talked about the passion for teaching. If you give two years and you’re passionate and a good teacher, isn’t that better for our kids today to have those two years? And look at the data — Teach for America is the highest-scoring institution of licensure, that if you compare them to a Lipscomb, Vandy, University of Memphis, UT, in the state — when you look at the licensure and the test scores, if you think that matters, Teach for America is the top of the state. That’s important data.
WOODARD: Let me chime in there. I like TFA, OK? I like what they do, I like the services they provide, but I do not like the turnover, particularly in high minority populations. High minority populations need stability. It creates a huge teacher quality issue every two years. That is an issue. In schools that serve high minority populations, that is a nightmare. If you have a great teacher who is there for two years, two years she’s gone. Second one, new one in; two years, they’re gone. Two years, they’re gone. A nightmare. That is a serious teacher-quality issue, and again, I hope that they look at that.
CP: Is that a management issue, is that a
system issue? …
WOODARD: I’m not really sure. You know, not all TFAs leave after two years, but I’m saying that’s about average, I mean, two years, and they leave. You know, I’d like to see three or more years, you know?
CP: What’s been your experience at Maplewood? How many TFA teachers have you had come through?
WOODARD: Maybe three. I lost two this year.
CP: After two years?
WOODARD: After two years.
CP: We brought you guys in here to talk because there’s a school board election coming up, and people are going to vote for someone for their school board seat, depending on the district they’re in, for a variety of different reasons. I want you to tell us what you think people should consider when they’re looking for leadership at the school board level. What should people be asking candidates in their district before they vote for them in the election?
WOODARD: First and foremost, questions about commitment, questions about their agendas, questions about how they will utilize funding, questions about their vision. Questions about where they see Nashville as a whole, where are we going in this city with education, and where do they want to see Nashville go. They need to be out here trying to get the understanding of what’s happening at the grassroots level, I’ll tell you that; making decisions up here, and they’re thinking that that works down here at, you know, this level. You know, that can be problematic; taxpayers want to know, “What is your vision and where are we going? And if I vote for you, if I give you my vote, how are you going to make change for me and make this work for me?”
KANE: That’s a good answer. I’m reminded that Judge Richard Dinkins is on our board, and he’s seen some battles over the years, and he always talks, and it’s funny how true it is with our parents — so he would always say, and I think it’s important, and what I would ask the voters to kind of look at is, “Tell me what’s in your heart, not just in your head,” and I think that’s really important. What Ron was talking about is don’t be afraid to share your vision, even if you think people might disagree with it. If you think public charter schools have a role in this city, talk about it; we need to know that. If you have a vision for how the board should manage school directors or our superintendent, for example, be bold and have a courageous vision, have that confidence to share it. People might attack you, but I think that conversation is important, so I think really revealing not only what is in your head, with how you see this working intellectually, but also what’s in your heart. That’s a conversation I think we’re ready for in Nashville.
CP: David, you were on the board. What is a question that got asked of you? What would you ask somebody else?
FOX: The most important decision — one of the most important decisions — a school board member makes is hiring a director of schools, and Dr. Register will be retiring in the term of those who are elected right now probably, and so the group elected is going to have that responsibility. So I’d want to know, what are they thinking? What are they looking for? What do you think it takes? Describe the superintendent who is successful in Nashville. I’d want to have them talk through that. And one thing, when we were on the school board, when we were looking for a superintendent, we asked various people, “Why are there no excellent urban school systems yet?” And just left it at that, and hear people talk. Some people would say, “Oh, the funding. There’s just not enough funding,” and other people have other explanations. That helped me see how people thought. And then just one unrelated issue is I would want to understand the school board member’s expectations for all kids, to make sure they believe and expect all kids, regardless of their circumstance, can attain very high levels, and, you know, that was the culture change that Dr. Register has been riding hurdle. When he came in, there wasn’t comprehensive high expectations for all kids, and I think that has been, in my conversations with him when I was board chair, he would oftentimes come back to, “We still have an area where I’m finding people whose expectations are not what they need to be,” and so when I talk to schools — and I’ve talked to numerous prospective and now existing school board candidates — that’s one thing I’ve always asked of them, to get a sense for what are their expectations for all kids. For me, the right answer is, “We expect all kids can achieve at high levels, and it’s our job to play the hand we’re dealt and make it happen.”
BRADSHAW: I would agree with the expectations for students. I would ask the people running for the board what their vision is for all of the students in the system, as diverse as it is, and I would also probably like to hear more conversation than I’ve heard about what their philosophical notion of the function of K through 12 education is, because some people say it’s to produce good citizens who can think and problem-solve; others say it’s to prepare students to go to college; others say it’s to prepare a workforce; others say it’s something else, it’s for socialization, and you know, you learn kindergarten through 12th grade how to get along and how to work with each other and how to understand people’s differences. I would like to know how much autonomy are those school board members willing to allow philosophically as they’re thinking about hiring a new superintendent down the road? How much latitude will they give the principals in the buildings? I mean, why should I have to have someone at Bransford Avenue approve a field trip? Why can’t my building principal do that? Why isn’t there more autonomy? I would like a school board member to have a clear sense of their philosophical outlook centered on kids.
BAKER: I was taking notes since everyone was talking. I think for me, it’s bottom line — I would tell a voter, “Listen to the candidates, and honestly listen to who has the best interest of the students and the teachers in mind.” It’s as simple as that. It doesn’t matter who’s got the most money in their campaigns; it doesn’t matter who’s been in the political arena before, who hasn’t — it’s who has the best interest of students and teachers in mind.
BRADSHAW: I would agree with Beth on that. I think, as a teacher, I feel like in the course of the discussion about education reform, teachers have to be part of the discussion. And have to be invited to the table in a more proactive way than they have been in Nashville in the last several years.