OpEd: 'Rightsizing' Nashville's education reform debate

Thursday, April 4, 2013 at 2:20pm
Will Pinkston, Special to The City Paper

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.



30 Comments on this post:

By: localboy on 4/4/13 at 3:12

"The reality is: If we truly care about improving public education, then placing all our bets on charters is misguided" Actually, sir, didn't we get to the current situation charter-less?
"The public debate over charters has been healthy, to a point. But now it’s distracting from a broader set of efforts." Sorry, there's been planning and meetings and hearings and planning and meetings forever by various boards on these issues without the 'distraction' of charters, and yet...here we are yet again.

By: Rasputin72 on 4/4/13 at 3:29

Charter school are unnecessary unless one thinks that all men are created equal.

By: pswindle on 4/4/13 at 5:09

Charter schools cost too much money for the results. Most of them fail after three years. Metro has made good progress. Metro can meet the children's needs. We have children with different needs and interest.

By: aleciahf on 4/4/13 at 6:53

Thanks for this constructive article and invitation to participate in real dialogue on April 20. There is research out there about what kinds of things are working - I agree, let's continue our focus on doing what works based in research, not profit or ego. One of my recent favorite books on the topic is Paul Tough's How Children Succeed. http://newbooksinbrief.com/2012/09/17/20-a-summary-of-how-children-succeed-grit-curiosity-and-the-hidden-power-of-character-by-paul-tough/
I am ready to be a part of the solution.

By: Balo on 4/4/13 at 7:29

Any one who is IN based on this bloviated article by a political mouth piece is like signing up to ride the Hindenburg. The last parent leaving Davidson County with their children please turn off the lights and shut the door.

By: yogiman on 4/4/13 at 7:52

When the union took over the teachers and the government took over the parents, the education of the children started downhill and has almost reached the bottom.

When I was a child, teachers taught because of their love of children. And the children had a mother and father at home. If you "earned" you a$$ being shipped, the teacher whipped it. And you didn't want your parents to find out about it because you got a worse whipping at home for belittling your parents.

But the government has taken over now and the school system (education) isn't the same.

By: nashville_bound on 4/4/13 at 8:12

Charter schools are here to stay, and MNPS better get onboard or it will lose their seat at the table.

This article is the typical screed of a bloated bureaucrat ... more money, more money, more money...

By: ancienthighway on 4/4/13 at 10:40

MNPS is onboard with charters. Look at what they've approved already. You might be confused MNPS's stance against state charter approval. A system is in place now, and it works.

Bloated bureaucrat? How can you improve schools without money? Or even keep status quo if state approved charter schools start bleeding the public school budget. Students transferring from public to charter will be a tiny minority of the school's population. There won't be enough change to consolidate classes based on the student loss. And there won't be the money that transferred to the charter school.

U.S. schools over all are not doing so well when compared to other nations. The two biggest spenders on education are Finland and South Korea. Nokia and Samsung. And a host of other companies technologically ahead of U.S. counterparts, it there is any.

Teachers don't get motivated and passionate for their craft when they know the administration and government don't stand behind them. Instead, government wants each to carry their own pink slip to just have the date filled in.

By: Rasputin72 on 4/5/13 at 3:30

It amazes me that there "people" who think something is wrong with public education in Davidson county.

It seems to be working to perfection in Williamson county and working just fine in Sumner,WilsonCheatham and Rutherford counties.

I wonder what is the difference?

By: Ask01 on 4/5/13 at 4:37

Anytime someone in a position such as Mr. Pinkston produces a fluff piece article such as this, I usually just skip the offending missive entirely. Often, the articles are nothing more than shameless self promotion and/or aggrandizment, pure propaganda to advance one odious agenda or another.

I wasn't disappointed in my expectations, although my judgement is suspect as I did read the article.

Money is needed to improve school facilities, and reward educators who excel, although Nashville leadership would rather spend money on corporate welfare, funding all manner of facilities to advance that welfare, and providing dubious benefits for questionable political figures.

Money is not the immediate answer, nor are charter schools. Until the attitudes of students and parents are addressed, this is pointless. I liken the situation to buying a barely functioning car and investing in a paint job instead of fixing the motor.

Now, if the charter schools will focus on teaching trades and skills to those students unable or unwilling to participate in traditional schools so they can at least be productive when they reach the end of their entitlement to public education, I could support that concept.

Under this plan, those capable of learning could do so in peace and those who will only enter an instituition of higher learning to clean toilets or as a cadaver can find their own niche.

By: govskeptic on 4/5/13 at 5:56

Now that Charters are inevitable Mr. Pinkston has seen the light and wants to
give guidance that our School Boards and Education Establishments have
ignored for years. The problem comes when it's suggested we do nothing
about getting rid of the unqualified and or incompetent teachers or employees
currently a drag on the improvements and budgets. This board would suggest
that we keep the same budget for less students (since some will move to the
charters) and add the cost of the charters as a totally new cost to the budget.

Bragging about the improvements made thus far aren't that exciting since we
are coming off a base that was in the sub-basement of nationwide averages.

These and other changes are a must, we can only hope and support items
that will improve the experience of teachers and students to do better.

By: Loner on 4/5/13 at 7:20

Good morning, Nashville.

Wow...what a long-winded, smarmy, pontificating rant....filled with popular buzzwords, self-aggrandizing cheer-leading, personal bias and unwarranted optimism.

A little Googling reveals that the author of this Op-Ed is a huge fan of Charter Schools from way back Will Pinkston is a Charter School zealot....like all Charter School advocates, Mr. Pinkston never saw a labor union that he could not loathe.

Pinkston's enthusiasm for charters seems a little too zealous....a little too rosy....what's in it financially for this guy, his friends, associates and family? Follow the money.

By: Jughead on 4/5/13 at 7:28


By: Jughead on 4/5/13 at 7:29

If you follow the smell of rancid liberism, it leads to Loner.

By: Loner on 4/5/13 at 7:49

Federally ordered integration of the segregated Southern public schools, in the 60's, resulted in white flight from the public schools, to Christian and Parochial schools; many tried home-schooling. These race-based, faith-based factors have had a deleterious effect on the public schools, especially in urban settings.

White flight to the suburbs has had its negative effect. Urban infrastructure and institutions are crumbling.....America's cities are now struggling to stay solvent.

The Iraq and Afghanistan wars will cost the US taxpayers 4 to 6 trillion dollars before the debt is paid off....imagine if that money had been spent on refurbishing America's public schools.

Sadly, selfish special interests dictate governmental policy; as a result, our priorities are not based on what is truly needed. Campaign finance reform is the essential prerequisite of any meaningful reform....the US Supreme Court has ruled that campaign "donations" are free speech; these bribes are therefore protected by the US Constitution....so, don't expect any relief anytime soon....it's going to get a lot worse.

By: Jughead on 4/5/13 at 7:57

Nobody wants to live in the ghetto except you, Lonetard. Where there are blacks, there will be ghettos. No getting around it no matter how much PC nonsense you blow out of your bungie.

By: ChrisMoth on 4/5/13 at 8:10

Will: Thanks for taking on the job of School Board. I don't think a more thankless position exists in government.

I hope to make April 20.... It is absolutely time to return to improving ALL our schools.

One question that Nashville may not yet have heard a clear answer from you on: If Great Hearts (which you supported) was so great for Nashville, why wouldn't it also be great :) to replicate more Meigs-Hume-Fogg/GreatHearts like environments across the city? After all, in their presentations, Great Hearts even said that "Hume-Fogg is a "quality" school"

I suspect that many of the 1,000 petition signers for Great Hearts were driven by frustration that the Board has erected a shining beacon of "quality" (in the "high average score through economic segregation" definition), and then restricted access to 1 in 6 eligible applicants.

Why out-source to Arizona that which we know how to do already, in an instant?

Yes, Alan Coverstone has articulately answered this question... But, is all the Board "on board" with his explanation?

Chris Moth, 2020 Overhill Dr

By: CoyoteCrawford on 4/5/13 at 8:11

Private schools require extra funds to pay for the typical corporate bureaucracy like CEO salary and dividends. Good ol' Metro Nashville schools manage it more cost effectively and efficiently. Public schools are a critical part of the local communities.

By: Loner on 4/5/13 at 8:21

Jughead, or you really Will Pinkston, the author of this rant, posting incognito?

By: budlight on 4/5/13 at 8:57

I just took an employment test with US Census which had basic reading comprehension, adding, subtraction, division, and multiplication, plus map reading. NO Calculators were allowed. The people who passed the test were told to stay and interview. If your name was not called, you could sign up to re-take the test. The group consisted of those from 19 to 70 years of age. Everyone who left the room (did not pas) was under 30. It was EASY folks and they could not pass it. They are not being taught basic skills in school anymore. If they could not pass it on the first go around, then they definitely won't pass it ever. Basic math; basic reading comprehension skills; following directions; reading a simply drawn street map.

Shame on the American education system for dumbing down our students. I say we do whatever it takes to take back our basic education system and our country.

By: Loner on 4/5/13 at 9:08

Why out-source to Arizona that which we know how to do already, in an instant?

Follow the money and you will know why....it's a sweetheart deal cloaked in noble intentions...the well-publicized "good reasons"....the undisclosed real reasons.

Let's not be fooled again....on some items, the "rightsize" is none at all.

Do not be fooled by euphemisms....taxpayer support for private elementary and secondary education is corporate welfare....government-enabled union-busting....and crony capitalism.

Not only that, faith-based schools can and do masquerade as Charter Schools.

The track record on charter schools is sketchy.....the right number might be zero.

By: brrrrk on 4/5/13 at 9:26

THE biggest problem that I see in education these days is the idea that the education of our children can be treated as an assembly line. If there's anything that I've learned over the years of teaching (privately and not publicly), each person learns differently and are stimulated to learn through different approaches. Teaching to a standardized test will never be a substitute for a good teacher.

By: Loner on 4/5/13 at 9:28

Mr. Pinkston's pep-talk ended with this nugget:

"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?"

That's my question too...who is in on this scheme?

"Collaboration" is close to collusion...cronyism, insider deals etc. and Nashville has had plenty of that....it's a statewide tradition. Mr. Pinkston tells us all to "get back to collaboration"; back to the good old days and the good old ways of doing business in the Volunteer State. Sadly, collusion-type corruption has put Nashville and TN on the map more than once.

Mr. Pinkston calls for an end to the "bickering" over charter schools....this is much more than mere "bickering"....why does Will Pinkston want to minimize the significance of this debate and marginalize those who oppose taxpayer funding for private charter schools? What's in it for Willie?

By: KENW on 4/5/13 at 9:35

ChrisMoth is right--

"I suspect that many of the 1,000 petition signers for Great Hearts were driven by frustration that the Board has erected a shining beacon of "quality" (in the "high average score through economic segregation" definition), and then restricted access to 1 in 6 eligible applicants."

It seems as if the overwhelming focus is to bring the underperforming up, not help the average or good to achieve "great". Build more Hume Fogg's and I suspect the clamor over charter schools will subside.

Once again everyone, repeat after me, NONE of the charter schools are for profit. So all the argument over follow the money, in it for the profit motive, etc. are, to use Will's word, "misguided".

And Will, while I appreciate your desire to just move on, I can't help but wonder if by "collaborating" you mean "just give up and do it my way". The whole Great Hearts issue was about parents and students wanting the school and the representative in that area, Amy Frogge, not collaborating and voting against them. We're done just giving up and doing it your way.

By: Loner on 4/5/13 at 9:51

Ken sez: "Once again everyone, repeat after me, NONE of the charter schools are for profit. So all the argument over follow the money, in it for the profit motive, etc. are, to use Will's word, "misguided".

Is that right? The contractors who build and furnish these schools are also not-for-profit firms? Realtors involved with land acquisition for new schools are also not-for-profit? All of the "stuff" that it takes to build, equip, staff and maintain these schools are also not-for-profit?

I'm sure that well-paid accountants make sure that the bottom line of the Charter School is in the red...but that's after all the bills have been paid.

Following the money is always better than faith-based trust.

By: Specter47 on 4/5/13 at 10:05

Nice try at remaining diplomatic, Will. You've made some good points in your op-ed.

One of the points you made was that of expectations that MNPS has raised for our students. You know, we can raise the bar of expectations as high (or low) as we want, but until that bar is at the same level at home, students will not have the motivation to achieve. Slogans like "MNPS Achieve" sounds nice, and overused terms like, "best practices" appear to be indicators of pending success, but the truth is that nothing is really changing...and that's because the entitlement mentality of the adults at home passes on to their offspring like DNA.

There are many good things about Charter Schools, but one of the best is that they have created awareness that there is a problem in the traditional schools. As a result, they have created competition. Competition improves the competitors in athletics, business, and yes...schools.

I wish the 144 principals on the "schooners" a lot of luck. You're being nice when you give Register and his minions kudos, probably because you feel that you have to. He is an incompetent who has other incompetents working for him, carrying his shield into battle when they have nothing but a personal agenda to fulfill. Many of those principals suck up to Register with a "Yes, Master" attitude, and they become favorites. The others who are independent-minded are soon found out and moved out of the way. Many, many good, decent, and successful administrators have been reassigned, moved to different school districts, or retired early.

Pinkston claims that Register and his ilk created a PLAN in November, implementing Personal Learning strategies for certain groups of students. Nothing new...it's been tried and dumped before. Oh, but I forget that this is Jesse Register's plan. Just another Register strategy to approve and then fail.

Charter schools are a great concept and an option that should be available to ALL students, not just those who fall in PC categories. Take race and economic conditions out of Charter School considerations and let's see what happens. We surely cannot do any worse. We actually might see blatant success.

Public schools need all the help they can get. Charters are not the "silver bullet", as Pinkston put it. But the comment by Rasputin2 is worthy of reference here: what is the difference between the school system in Metro and the surrounding counties? Open your eyes and your mind, be honest with yourself, and you'll find the answer.

By: ancienthighway on 4/5/13 at 11:18

What KENW says is true. Charter schools are not-for-profit entities. That doesn't mean there is no money involved though. There's plenty of money, especially at the higher levels, but then not so much where the rubber hits the road.

Yes, the focus is on the under performing, because that group is the one that needs help the most. If parents of those not under performing are dissatisfied, they have the same options my parents did: private school, boarding school, parochial school, move to another school district. If you want to count charter schools as separate from private schools, they have an additional option. But no matter what the school type, there will still be under performing students that need to be brought up to what ever current standards are in effect.

Schools can have remedial classes and advanced classes. Advanced classes are not limited to "the few" basic on student population or wealth, just as remedial classes aren't. I've run across many dumb rich kids in my life.

By: ohplease on 4/5/13 at 11:23

As a public school grandparent, I will speak up for the good that is happening in many Metro schools. A look at the Great Schools rankings shows quite a few high scores, including 10s, among which I didn't see any charters. As for why the surrounding counties are doing better, we do need to be honest and recognize the much greater poverty level and greater diversity within Metro. You can say that poor children are just as capable as affluent ones, but is that true? When those children worry about food and neighborhood violence and have parents with lower educational levels, are they really beginning on a level playing field? As for children in non-English speaking families, it's beyond reason to say that they start at the same place. We have great challenges, and the negativity and hateful name-calling in so many of these comments makes me think those challenges are insurmountable. I have to remind myself that the commenters are not the majority and that most of Nashville would read Mr. Pinkston's article and see the sense in it.

By: jcbradford on 4/5/13 at 5:52

Even if there were no charter schools, MNPS would still need to “right size.” The fact is, MNPS’s claims that it is already over capacity and understaffed are simply untrue. While a few schools are over capacity, such as some in the Overton cluster, most have many empty seats.

There are 8573 empty seats in MPNS this school year. The clusters with the most empty seats are Stratford (2032 empty seats), White’s Creek (1844 empty seats) and Maplewood (1657 empty seats). Because these three clusters also contain a high percentage of at risk students, they are also home to several charter schools. The assumption is that many of the vacancies at these schools can be accounted for by the migration of students to charter schools. That is, it is likely that the loss of students to charter schools is concentrated in a few clusters, which contradicts MNPS assertion that the vacancies are evenly spread out across the system and they cannot reduce expenses because there is not a critical mass of students missing from any one school.

And rather than dealing with an epidemic of overcrowded classes, no school in MNPS has a pupil/teacher ratio larger than what is mandated by the state. In fact, the average pupil/teacher ratio in MNPS is a very comfortable 14.33 to 1. The bottom line is that, even without losing 4400 students to charter schools, MNPS already has more teachers than can be justified by the most lenient measure.

Yes, it is time to right size by laying off teachers and closing dramatically underutilized facilities. Metro Schools' assertion that it cannot cut expenses to deal with the loss of students to charter schools is absurd. Every organization must adjust its expenses when its revenue declines if it hopes to survive.

I realize that MNPS must deal with certain fixed costs and that there is not a strict correlation between revenue and expenses. Even so, I find it hard to believe, as surely must any reasonable person, that MNPS can realize no cost savings by serving 4400 fewer students. Has even one teacher been laid off? Well, they are not saying, and no one is asking. It is time we asked.

By: jonw on 4/6/13 at 11:22

" Our system has eight percent of the public school students in Tennessee, and 28 percent of the state’s English Language Learners. "

Could this be a factor, & how many are illegals?