Let’s agree on a few facts about public education in Nashville.
First: House Speaker Beth Harwell and Mayor Karl Dean are right. Students and families deserve more choice in education, and high-quality charter schools — publicly funded entities operated by nonprofit organizations — add value to the city’s portfolio of schools.
Second: Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) is headed in the right direction. Despite critics’ claims to the contrary, Director Jesse Register and his team have engineered a solid turnaround that’s producing year-over-year gains in student achievement. Now, the Nashville School Board and management are working together to instill a greater sense of urgency around continued improvement in the nation’s 42nd-largest school system.
Finally: Let’s agree that the nonstop bickering over charter schools versus traditional schools has taken a toll on this community. Over the course of the past year, the bellicose rhetoric over a single non-existent charter school — Great Hearts Academy — has cost Nashville millions of dollars in state fines, triggered punitive legislation in the Tennessee General Assembly and, most troubling, consumed the public conversation and crowded out dialogue about other reform initiatives. Along the way, Tennessee’s capital city has become one of the most toxic education-reform environments in America.
As a member of the Nashville School Board and the board’s delegate to the MNPS charter review process, I believe now is the time to reboot the conversation. Yes, charters are part of the solution. But there’s a lot more to education reform.
Someone on the Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce’s Education Committee recently challenged me to help make way for more charter schools by “rightsizing” the school system’s operations — a business term typically associated with layoffs and facility closures. In a school system that’s expected to grow by 15 percent over the next decade, I don’t foresee workforce reductions. But like any big organization, MNPS needs to improve efficiencies. And we will.
Now, I’d like to challenge the charter movement to help rightsize the education conversation in Nashville. The reality is: If we truly care about improving public education, then placing all our bets on charters is misguided. Typically, charters set out to reform the system 100 kids at a time. Meanwhile, MNPS has 81,000 students and 6,000 teachers — the vast majority of whom are in existing schools that need and deserve our support. The public debate over charters has been healthy, to a point. But now it’s distracting from a broader set of efforts.
How can we reboot the conversation and get back on track? For starters, let’s recommit to the reform fundamentals that propelled Tennessee to the front of the pack, nationally. This work is far from over and requires the total focus of MNPS, the state’s second-largest school system. Priorities include:
Implementing game-changing standards. Under the leadership of former Governor Phil Bredesen and current Governor Bill Haslam — and state Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman and his team — Tennessee has moved farther and faster than any other state in the country to raise the bar in the classroom. For the first time, students in MNPS and other school systems are being held to the same high expectations as their peers in higher-performing states. New academic standards are fueling deeper learning in Mathematics, English Language Arts and Literacy, and demanding more critical thinking, problem solving and collaboration from our students. This is a sea change in public education that charter advocates rarely acknowledge. MNPS needs to concentrate on implementing these new standards with fidelity, which will be no small feat. Handled properly, this work will drive meaningful gains for all students — not just those in charter schools.
Cultivating great teachers and leaders. Nationally, experts agree the quality of the teacher in the classroom is the single most important factor in improving student achievement. Under Register’s leadership and at the school board’s insistence, MNPS now is rethinking its approach to human capital at all points across the spectrum — from recruitment to retention to retirement. We need to do a better job communicating our needs to suppliers of teaching talent, including Middle Tennessee State University and Tennessee State University. We need to invest in more-effective tools and professional development for teachers who are using student data to improve classroom instruction. And let’s not forget: Leadership matters. If we think of MNPS as a massive ship carrying tens of thousands of kids, it may seem hard to steer on some days. But if we also think of MNPS as a schooner of 144 principals, it seems more nimble and capable of making course corrections. Looking ahead: We need to make sure every school has a great leader with more autonomy at the building level.
Closing achievement gaps, with urgency. Our city has more potential than any community in America to improve public education for socially and economically disadvantaged students. With the 1998 settlement of a decades-old federal lawsuit, MNPS moved past what The New York Times called Nashville’s “legacy of segregation.” Fifteen years later, we’ve still got lots of work to do to fulfill the promise of a quality education for all students. Nashville’s immigration renaissance has created unique opportunities. Our system has eight percent of the public school students in Tennessee, and 28 percent of the state’s English Language Learners. Put differently: We are the most diverse school system in the state, and one of the most diverse in the United States. In November, Register and his team devised a plan to narrow achievement gaps with innovative personalized learning strategies in 49 schools reaching 27,000 students. The U.S. Department of Education rated the plan in the top 11 percent, nationally, but there wasn’t enough federal money to fund it. Let’s not wait on Washington — let’s start implementing it now, and ask for the state and Metro’s help.
These are just a few of the big-picture strategies that unfortunately are being drowned out by the heated debate over charter schools. It’s time to move these ideas, and others, to the forefront and rightsize the conversation. Not convinced? Don’t take my word for it. Ask Bill Gates, whose foundation has invested hundreds of millions of dollars studying effective reform. Gates sees it like this: “In general, the places that demonstrated the strongest results tended to do many proven reforms well, all at once … establish college-ready standards aligned with a rigorous curriculum, with the instructional tools to support it, effective teachers to teach it, and data systems to track the progress.” Sounds sensible to me.
Now, to be clear: I remain an advocate for high-quality charter schools. Done well, I know that charters can be labs of innovation and help light the way for improvement in traditional schools. I know this because I served on the founding board of what is considered to be the highest-performing charter school in Tennessee — Nashville Prep, a middle school at Tennessee State University.
What lessons can we learn from high-quality charters like Nashville Prep? In that school’s case, the recipe for success is simple: Extended school days from 7:30 a.m. to 5 p.m., and double the typical instruction in literacy and math. Nashville Prep puts a premium on developing great teachers and leaders, and building a college-going culture that inspires students from the minute they walk in the door.
I would submit that if we like this approach, the answer is not turning our backs on existing schools and instead creating 20 more Nashville Preps. That would be inefficient and costly. Instead, the solution may be to take that proven model and export it to underperforming schools. That’s a conversation worth having and that the school board began in January. Unfortunately, we can’t seem to advance the dialogue because some charter advocates remain fixated on forcing as many new schools into existence as possible. There’s little interest in collaborating. And that’s the problem, in a nutshell.
So where do we go from here?
Let’s change the conversation. Let’s start by acknowledging that charter schools, while valuable, are not silver bullets for improving public education. Let’s focus on strategies that will deliver the most improvement, the fastest, to the most students and schools. In the national conversation, they call this “scalable” reform.
Finally, let’s stop talking and start listening. On Saturday, April 20, at 2 p.m., I’m organizing a roundtable discussion in my district at Conexion Americas’ new community center in South Nashville, Casa Azafran at 2195 Nolensville Road, along with some of my fellow board members. Anyone who cares about public education — including charter advocates — can join us and think about the future.
Three years ago, Tennessee celebrated a big win in the national Race to the Top competition. The victory was notable because, unlike what happens in the Beltway, Tennessee’s education-reform strategy unfolded in a bipartisan collaborative fashion. As then-Governor Bredesen noted: The $500 million from Washington was nice, but more important was the fact that we raised expectations for public education — in our community and across our state.
Let’s re-capitalize on that moment. Let’s put the bickering over charter schools aside and get back to the collaboration that put Tennessee and Nashville on the map. Who’s in?
Will Pinkston is a member of the Metro Nashville Board of Public Education and can be found on Twitter at @willpinkston.