Garrigan: What would Warren Buffett do?

Sunday, April 18, 2010 at 11:45pm

Imagine telling your intended at the altar that you need two weeks to figure out if you can do better. If not, you’ll be back to settle for him. If so, you hope you can still be friends.

That’s the school board — one hell of an ungracious, cold-footed partner.

And that’s pretty much the posture it took last week, when it deferred for two weeks deciding whether Nashville’s highly regarded LEAD Academy charter school should be commissioned to help the district overhaul the failing, 635-student Cameron Middle School.

After a several-months-long process and district agreement with state officials — who are looking carefully over the shoulders of districts with chronically underperforming schools — to retread Cameron, elected officials and community members recently recommended LEAD over two other organizations for the significant task. But the nine-member
school board behaved almost as if it were hearing its proposal for the first time.

For seven years now, the Metro schools monopoly has failed the students at Cameron Middle School, which is serving a large immigrant population. And when education officials approached some of the most respected and innovative institutions to help them fix it, they all declined.

Instead, with the encouragement of state officials, the city invited proposals for helping reform the school — and they attracted three. Not exactly a torrent, but that’s because it’s an incredibly difficult job few are equipped, or inclined, to take on. One of those willing organizations is LEAD, which operates a north Nashville school with extended hours and an intensely focused staff serving some of the city’s poorest kids.

This homegrown charter school has three years of demonstrated results — not just in test scores, but in parent participation, teacher satisfaction, attendance, safety, etc. — and has the support of Cameron teachers, parents and alumni association members.

In fact, the only people who seem to be against it are on the school board. To hear some of its members last Tuesday night — all but two of whom have never even darkened the door at LEAD — you’d never know how the school has dramatically changed the lives of more than 200 children, whose previous academic trajectories were pointing nowhere but down.

They criticized the school as not being innovative enough (it uses methods that have been shared by some of most inventive educators in the country), not serving up impressive enough test scores (they’re better than Cameron’s), even for being one of only three entities willing to take the Cameron challenge (huh?), as if that’s a legitimate mark against it.

School board member Mark North, one of the two most anti-charter voices on the board, repeated it again in an interview with The City Paper. “We went out looking for partners, and we didn’t get a lot of takers.”

“I’m not so opposed that I won’t consider an outside party, but I want to be sure I have the confidence that the outside party is going to have significantly better results,” he said.

Where North and others are misguided is in assuming that anything short of turning the status quo on its head eventually will deliver different results. It won’t.

And it’s not like the school board is being asked to peel off a dozen schools from its complete control. We’re talking about doing something dramatically different with just one of 139 Metro schools (0.7 of the district) in the name of making sure more kids aren’t left behind.

Asked whether he’s ever visited LEAD to see how the school operates, North said, “No, I have not been to LEAD.”

Get back to us when you have.

In the meantime, consider the words of school board chairman David Fox, on how Nashville’s education officials should channel the most successful investor of
all time.

“As I’ve been looking at the plan for several weeks now, and looking at the constellation of people involved, I’ve been thinking of a comment that Warren Buffet says,” Fox said at the board’s meeting last week.

“I think the real trick in being an effective — in this case, school board member — is not to try to be a genius myself, but to go about associating with geniuses who are already doing a good job, and just stay out of their way."

Garrigan is a Nashville writer and former editor of the Nashville Scene.

Filed under: City Voices
Tagged: Liz Garrigan

11 Comments on this post:

By: Loner on 4/19/10 at 6:14

Good morning, Nashville!

Liz is hopped up mad, again. Apparently, the board's decision to think over the proposal for two more weeks is tantamount to leaving a bride at the altar. Sorrry, Liz, I don't see it that way, your analogy seems strained.

The article is rather long-winded, IMO and could have been more concise; it was short on facts, but long on personal opinion.

Is this the NCP chat room de jour?

By: govskeptic on 4/19/10 at 7:34

Judges hate the death penalty, law enforcement hates the
2nd and other amendments, and schools boards hate the
Charter School concept but love to build new schools. It's
the America Way.

By: martindkennedy on 4/19/10 at 7:40

Garrigan has a strong sense of urgency, something all good parents and citizens should have when it comes to educating children. It is not that those who voted to defer are bad people. They're not. Voting to defer in order to think some more might strike some that the board is taking their job very seriously, but it can strike others that they lack a sense of urgency, that they were not prepared for the recent meeting.
Let's all hope that those involved put the welfare of children and families first. If they do then two weeks from now the vote to defer will be forgotten.

By: vechester on 4/19/10 at 7:56

If the only tool you have is a hammer then everything looks like a nail. That's the position of the school board; everything looks like a public school. The school board believes they are in the business of building schools, when really they should be in the business of ensuring all children are educated at a minimal level and ideally at the maximum. It is living proof that a government entity will perform at the lowest possible level.

Maybe someday we will stop dumbing down our children and allow parents to choose where they children can be educated, even the parents of the inner-city where they desperately want to get their children a good education. Give parents a choice!

By: global_citizen on 4/19/10 at 9:26

Well, Mr. North may have never visited LEAD Academy, but I have. And let me tell you, if we could have every school in Nashville performing like LEAD, we'd have a graduation rate close to 100%.

Given the population the school works with, the motivation and discipline shown by those students is impressive and stands in very stark contrast to what one sees in other Nashville public schools.

I don't know what motivates some of the school board members to take the views they do, but I'm certain the well-being of MNPS students isn't always at the very top of the priorities. Which is sad, because that should be the ONLY motivation.

By: dogmrb on 4/19/10 at 9:53

The School Board has built new schools in the last 10 years because the Metro Government underfunded capital improvements for 40 years to try to keep teachers/support staff working with kids. So they finally had to build schools since the old ones were beyond operational. You might find an interesting event correlation if you subtract 40 from 2010 too ;-) Some very prominant and impressive private schools began a building or capital expansion strategic planning programs about that time. Seems there must be some insider posturing in this vote and the one on the budget. The School Board is always like the blind men trying to figure out the elephant by touching different parts and assuming that's the whole picture.

Liz and David Fox are close friends so this must be Fox's take on the votes. I find their(Liz and David) position very credible.

By: bk on 4/19/10 at 11:18

I went to the TN Department of Education's homepage and checked out the report cards for both Cameron and LEAD-- The schools actually match up pretty closely in all categories. Failure rates are even, LEAD has more students who test in the middle as proficient, and Cameron actually has a higher percentage of students who test as advanced. I think that much of the perception of LEAD's success has to do with the image it's administration cultivates, as opposed to the raw data. If you look at the numbers, it's hard to see what LEAD can really do differently--greeting the students at the door is nice public relations, but numbers don't lie.

By: Karl_Warden on 4/19/10 at 5:15

Y'all should read what bk posted carefully. That includes the ever irate Ms. Garrigan. LEAD talks the talk, but has yet to walk the walk. Just because it is a charter school does not mean it is better than a public school. In fact, were you to actually look at performance figures for charter schools vs. public schools in Nashville, you might see that charter schools have not lived up to their promise, with the exception of KIPP. KIPP, by the way, has a longer school day and a longer school year.

Want to really fix public schools? Great. All you have to do is fix poverty, get parents involved in their kids education, and so forth.

Maybe the School Board can have all that done by next year. They clearly don't need any help from anyone else with those issues. Just carp at them enough and I am sure they will find a way.

Hey, maybe you could make sure that all individual Nashville Public Schools have no more than a 38% poverty level when the current poverty level in Nashville Public Schools is 75.6% overall.

By: govskeptic on 4/19/10 at 5:26

Status quo is always enhanced by the blame someone
else and society as pointed out in the last couple post.
It's time to get radical on education spending and results
expected. We've had 40 plus yrs of this slide.

By: girliegirl on 4/20/10 at 8:40

Hmmmm....not to state the obvious, but are they "Legal" Immigrants or "Illegal Immigrants" in this district? Why? Well, LEGAL folks PAY into the system, and thus bolster the support mechanism and infrastructure and .....teacher salaries (yep, those pesky little things add up) .... Sometimes, the information that is withheld from the public is the most crucial to the story. (hey, I'm just sayin')

By: yogiman on 4/20/10 at 9:00

girilegirl, there may be some legal immigrants but only illegal aliens in our nation's schools. Our 'government seems to think we should take care of the world, legals and illegals, too. Just think, if they can educate all of them, they can get a lot of new votes through that education they are 'giving' them.

When I was child, the first day of every year, we went to our homeroom at school to find out what subjects we would study that year. We then went to the bookstore (privately owned) to BUY our books.

As time passed, our 'government' decided all children should study the same subjects. That is when the federal government took over the educational system of our nation. They decided what the children should study and furnished the books. Their object now is to keep these children as stupid as they can so they will do what the government tells them to do.