Test scores determine Metro Schools’ NCLB grade — and who will lead

Monday, June 15, 2009 at 12:00am

Next month, Nashville will learn whether its public schools have failed, again, to meet certain academic benchmarks required by federal No Child Left Behind laws.

If the district passes these benchmarks, it will be cause for celebration.

If the district fails, Metro Nashville Public Schools will enter the NCLB status of “Restructuring II,” and the Tennessee Department of Education will have unprecedented options for changing the governance structure of the school system.

Among the options, according to state and federal laws, the DOE:

• Would have the authority to remove Director of Schools Jesse Register from office;

• Could remove individual school board members from their seats;

• Could appoint DOE Commissioner Tim Webb as head of Metro Nashville Public Schools.

One option the state won’t immediately have, however, is appointment of Mayor Karl Dean as a trustee in charge of the district.

Last fall, Webb acknowledged that the DOE was investigating whether such a move would be possible, and since then many in Nashville have assumed Dean could take over schools as early as this summer.

However, that won’t be the case, according to the DOE.

Federal laws do allow some states to appoint trustees — such as a mayor — in charge of public school systems that reach the level of Restructuring II under NCLB. But the state’s DOE spokesperson Rachel Woods said the department has since determined that Tennessee law would not, without a legislative change, allow for a trusteeship. And a change to state law likely couldn’t happen until the end of next year’s legislative cycle.

Mayoral leadership remains

Dean says he’s nonetheless actively preparing to take charge of schools in the event that the responsibility is given to him. He says he prefers the term “mayoral leadership” to mayoral control, as other mayors with school district control run systems through citizen participation and mayor-hired leaders.

As to whether he will advocate for such a change to take place, the mayor said he would watch the progress of standardized test scores.

“Would I be willing to step up and do what’s necessary? Sure I would. It would be a challenge that I would embrace. Am I out there campaigning for it? No, because this is controlled by what happens on these test scores, and what our achievement standards are,” Dean told The City Paper.

“If the schools do better, which I think would be great, then I’m going to say, ‘Congratulations. Good job. Let’s keep working on reforms.’ If they don’t, then I’m prepared to do what I can.”

Dean and the DOE continue to be in regular contact, and the mayor said he and the department share the same understanding of the law. But he said he intends to continue preparing for school district leadership, in the event that a legislative change is brought about.

“If the status quo is not working, you need to change it,” Dean said. “I have no control what happens to the test scores. Whatever happens, happens. I just need to be ready. If it turns out that we have made progress, then great. But we still have a long ways to go, and I’m going to be a champion for the issues I’ve been talking about for the last two years now.”

Dean said he has great admiration for urban education reforms made in large cities across America, both in cities with mayoral control and those without. He said he still has “clear ideas” about reforms needed for Nashville, and will continue to work on those issues.

As examples, he cited teacher recruitment and retention, increasing school choice, decreasing the size of large comprehensive high schools, and reforming existing schools.

“There’s an opportunity there to have real clear lines of accountability,” Dean said. “I think probably there’s an ability there to accelerate some of the changes that need to be done to increase our progress.”

Chamber’s score gazing

Dean isn’t the only one watching for NCLB results. Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce leaders say the announcement this summer could play a part in determining that organization’s legislative stance as well.

Leaders of the Chamber believe MNPS would benefit from a clear line of accountability.

Nashville’s Board of Education does set district policy and hires and evaluates the director of schools, but the elected members of the board can’t levy taxes. Revenue for the system has to be approved by both the mayor’s office and Metro Council. Some believe this dilutes accountability for schools among too many government bodies.

Accountability could be shored up by giving Dean the same authority over schools that he has for most other Metro departments. Or it could be streamlined by giving the school board the authority to levy its own taxes.

The Chamber’s board hasn’t taken a position on either option, but that may change.

Chamber Chief Education Officer Marc Hill said decisions about whether to take school district accountability questions to the legislature have yet to be made. The Chamber is watching to see the NCLB results reported this summer.

“The No Child Left Behind Results this summer …will really determine the course of the conversation around governance,” Hill said. “At that point, [we] think the community discussion will intensify.”

Though Nashville’s leaders are watching for the results, there’s apparently been little talk among legislators this session about the issue of mayoral governance. Rep. Janis Sontany (D-Nashville) said she hasn’t heard much about the issue lately. The controversial charter school bill has been the major public education battle fought this year, she said.

“I would hope that we would give our new director a chance to get his feet wet and get started,” Sontany said. “I don’t think that he’s been on board long enough to have any measurable track record yet.”

NCLB future uncertain

As to whether MNPS is likely to advance to Restructuring II, The City Paper has heard mixed predictions. Publicly reported indicator data analyzed throughout the school year by the DOE and MNPS has not been conclusive either way.

Regardless of what happens this summer, a major challenge for MNPS — as well as every other public school district in the state — looms near.

Tennessee academic standards will be ratcheted up starting this fall through implementation of the Tennessee Diploma Project, and public officials from multiple agencies have cautioned that short-term results will likely be troubled as districts work to catch up with the changes.

Erick Huth, president of local teachers’ union the Metro Nashville Education Association, believes it’s likely that MNPS will reach Restructuring II status. Though MNPS administrators attempted to “paint an overly rosy picture” of the district’s prospects through NCLB indicator data collected over the course of the school year, Huth said major progress takes time.

“I don’t expect, given where we’ve been, that it’s realistic to get off the list,” he said. “There’s just no way that you can turn a district around in such a short period of time.”

Reaching Restructuring II would give the state the authority to remove individual school board members, if those individuals are found to not be cooperating with state efforts. The DOE would need approval from the Tennessee Board of Education to remove a school board member, and appeals of a removal would be directed to the Davidson County Chancery Court, according to the DOE’s Woods.

Metro Council would choose interim school board replacements to serve until elections.

The DOE could also, if the district reaches Restructuring II, remove Schools Director Jesse Register from office if he were hampering state reform efforts. Another DOE option would be to appoint Commissioner Webb in charge of the system.

Woods said the state would consider all these possibilities as options until test scores are known, but she said the DOE won’t formally consider these options unless MNPS reaches Restructuring II.

Public comments from officials including accountability chief Connie Smith suggest that Register is working collaboratively with the DOE, and that school board members have been supportive of Register.

Regardless of whether governance changes are forced on the district, the DOE could still increase its activity in areas it already controls, Woods said.

“Basically, we already have the ability to require any change except the governance change,” Woods said. If the district were to advance to Restructuring II, Woods said, and the state did not opt for governance changes, the state could still, “have new requirements that did not exist in the past, whether it’s having more consultants and management actually working inside the district, us taking control of the district, us requiring new programs, new allocations of funds in the district — you’re clearly going to see some state-mandated changes very shortly after that [might be] announced.”