Dr. Register calls for civility, formal cooperation in the education community

Director of Schools Dr. Jesse Register delivered these remarks to the Metro Council Education Committee on Thursday, July 10, 2014:

Chairman Glover, members of the Council Education Committee, and other Council members, after Steve talked to me about this session, I asked for a moment at the start of the meeting to say a few words to you about our school system in general and specifically about today’s briefing on Public Charter Schools. Your decision to meet as the Education Committee of the Metro Council on this important topic is both farsighted and commendable. Thank you for taking the time to be here today.

I know I am taking advantage of my long-standing relationship with Chairman Glover with this request to address you, but without his involvement six years ago, I might not be standing here today as your superintendent, as Steve was the first person from Nashville to ask me to apply for this job. I appreciate this opportunity to say a few words, not as your director of schools necessarily, but as an educator, someone who cares deeply about public education and particularly about our school system and our children.

First I want to commend the Council and Mayor Dean for the significant investments in funding public education in Nashville you have made during my tenure here. We could not do what we do without your help and support. Thank you.

Let me start this off by saying what I hope all of you already know—we have a really good school system in this city with a strong foundation, great leaders and committed wonderful teachers. We have pockets of notable excellence and, of course, we still have a few areas of weakness. We are absolutely on the right path, but that path is not always easy.

As my official time as the leader of this community’s education system begins to wind down, and as I consider my experience as a lifelong educator and longtime superintendent, I want to tell you that your school system has the potential to be great…not just good or adequate, or OK, but truly great. The possibilities are endless, our goals are absolutely attainable, and the future is bright.

As all of you know, we have over the last few years experienced transformational change in the way we approach the education of our children in this community and across the nation. These changes have greatly increased the amount and the intensity of education-related discourse in our neighborhoods and across the city, as well as in the media.

The on-going, and frankly sometimes passionate, discussion about this important topic is good. Passion around the education of our children should be encouraged and celebrated. But over the last year or so there has been a steady and ever increasing tendency toward miscommunication and gamesmanship in our dialog and a push for polarization in our ongoing discussions about the future of public education in this city. These actions have created distrust and hard feelings where understanding and common purpose once ruled the day.

In the very near past when we disagreed, we did so respectfully. Not so today. It has at times become mean and personal. We have lost civility in our dialogue on education reform in general and, regrettably, particularly as it concerns our public charter schools. This loss of civility has caused good people and quality institutions that have the same basic goals—the quality education of future generations of Nashvillians–to take sides and develop an unhealthy “us” versus “them” mentality.

I think that most in the room will agree with me….enough is enough! This is not some sort of game where it’s OK to judge “winning or losing” by which press release or pithy statement gets printed in the newspaper or gets highlighted on the nightly news, or gets the most play on social media. This is not about a campaign to discredit one person or another because they may disagree with you; it should be about, and only be about, what’s best for our school system and developing and maintaining great schools for our children.

When we take a step back and really think about it, the biggest losers in this kind of scorched earth campaign-style approach to our discussion about schools of choice are our children. I believe this type of behavior needs to stop and it needs to stop now. If you agree with me, I ask for your help.

I am asking all of you tonight, individually as important opinion leaders in our community, and as members of the Council, to join me in finding the most effective way to immediately transition our dialog to a place where this community, and our school system, can find stability and reinstate a collaborative and transparent environment where innovation and true partnership can flourish. A place where all ideas are discussed respectfully. A place where the best ideas rise to the top and are implemented. And a place where bad or outdated ideas are simply left behind.

I plan to ask my partners over the coming days and weeks – Mayor Dean, Vice Mayor Neighbors and this Council, our state legislative delegation led by Speaker Harwell, Governor Haslam’s administration, community partners like the Public Education Foundation, Nashville’s Agenda, the Chamber of Commerce, SCORE, The United Way, the Charter community, and of course, our School Board, to join this effort.

It’s my desire that over the next few weeks and months we can address and eliminate the hard feelings that have developed and reinstate a constructive climate of trust and true collaboration. Why do I think this is so vitally important? Because our future, I believe, depends on it.

The next mayor of this city and the next superintendent of your school system will have an exciting opportunity presented to them as they transition into their new roles. These opportunities include the opportunity to take public education in Nashville to new heights of excellence. But I respectfully submit to you that if we aren’t thinking about how we reset the conversation on public education in this city, right now—tonight, starting right here in his chamber, this very instant–the new mayor and the new superintendent are going to find themselves in a precarious place and will be less able to take our system to the next level. This meeting today is the perfect context for this topic.

It is absolutely critical that the District embrace the important role that our education colleagues in the charter school sector play in the future of education in Nashville. I know that this District’s charters are by and large very successful. It is evident that we are seeing outstanding educational gains from public charter schools as well as from other schools of choice and many of our zoned schools.

While I am so very proud of all of these schools, I acknowledge there is a real and pressing need to literally reset the conversation about charters and other schools of choice. Specifically, I want to immediately jump start the process of determining best practices associated with what makes charters and other high performing schools work for our parents and children, and to facilitate the implementation of some of those ideas across our system. I hope the charter community will agree to assist me with this important work.

To that end, and as a first step, I am asking the Charter Center to work with me to convene a monthly meeting with charter school leaders, Dr. Coverstone, and other members of my senior staff, and any willing members of the Board of Education. There is so much common ground that exists among these individuals and institutions and we simply need to work harder to find and exploit this for the benefit of our children. We should be about this work starting tomorrow morning.

In the end, the question that we seem to have missed in the ongoing and overheated debate about charter schools is really very simple: How we can utilize our district assets—all district assets–especially our high performing schools that are built around some level of choice and excellence to ensure that our children, ALL OF OUR CHILDREN, regardless of where they reside, or where they go to school, can achieve to their highest potential.

To that end, I will be reaching out to my partners in the Nashville educational community (generally as we did with our recent attrition study) to have them assist the District in conducting in-depth research that will assist us in analyzing our financial practices to make sure that we are giving adequate weight to educational quality, results, and “return on our investment” in our District funding models. This research, when completed, will advance and build upon the limited initial work of the fiscal impact study that is currently underway, such that when both studies are complete we, and our constituents, partners, and funders, will have a more robust and complete, comprehensive and unbiased understanding of what it takes to lead our schools to the results we desire and that our children richly deserve.

In conclusion, I want to reset the conversation about the future of public education in Nashville. We must learn and build on our best practices from all high-performing schools to improve practices in every school. Most importantly, I want to renew a sincere spirit of civility, cooperation, and optimism when we agree, and lead a respectful, meaningful and constructive dialogue when we don’t. Over the next year, I am committed to doing everything I can, professionally and personally, to position Metro Schools to move toward being a world-class school system for this community. On this you have my word. Thank you Mr. Chairman for indulging me this courtesy, and thank you all for all you do every single day for this great city.

School-based budgeting gives power to the principals

“Knowledge about the needs of students is greatest closest to the student… School leaders require the ability to make decisions based on their knowledge, expertise and professional discretion.”

In a world of principal autonomy and school-based decision making, what is left for the central organization of a modern school district? Where does it fit in, and what role does it have to play?

Here in Nashville, the role of central office is changing dramatically. The top-down management structure is disappearing. In its place is a knowledge and support organization designed to provide central services, study and share innovative practices, develop leaders and keep schools accountable. In fact, this change is already reflected in the district budget and in a pilot program working in 15 schools right now for school-based budgeting.

What is school-based budgeting, and what does that look like?

At these 15 schools, principals have direct control over $6,300 per student (on average), meaning they can spend that money as they see fit. That number is expected to increase over time. The rest of the money goes to central services like transportation, food services, human capital, textbooks, building services and more.

SEE the school’s individual budgets.

The idea is to bring powerful decision-making power right into the schools, where the most knowledge about individual students lives. Next year, this program is expected to expand to 50-60 schools and could go district-wide by 2015-16.

During that time the whole concept could go even further, putting 100% of per-pupil funding on school level budgets. That would greatly expand the level of flexibility and discretion given to each principal and ensure funding is distributed equitably based on individual student need. In that scenario, school leaders would “buy” central services from the district, and there would be certain non-negotiable services like the Board of Education.

This is a culture change, moving central office to a system of specialized support for schools and giving more decision-making power to principals.

Board Chair Cheryl Mayes invites Commissioner Kevin Huffman to discuss HB702

Board Chair Cheryl Mayes has called a special School Board meeting to discuss House Bill 702 that would overhaul the State’s charter schools appeals process and the proposed amendment to restrict this legislation to five counties. A motion will be made to suspend the rules so appropriate actions may be taken by the Board.

Department of Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has been invited.

Watch the meeting live-blog on Monday, April 1, at 3:30 p.m.

Dear Commissioner Huffman:

On behalf of the Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education, I am writing to invite you to join members of the school board, the Metro Council and the Davidson County legislative delegation for a specially called meeting on Monday, April 1, at 3:30 p.m. to discuss House Bill 702, which would overhaul the state’s charter schools appeals process. This meeting will be held in the Board Room at Metro Nashville Public Schools, 2601 Bransford Avenue.

After working in good faith for weeks to reach a consensus with House Speaker Beth Harwell and representatives from the Tennessee Charter Schools Association and the Tennessee School Boards Association, we were surprised to hear of your last minute objections to the fiscal reassurances we requested. We believe the legislation, as amended in the House Budget Subcommittee, poses significant fiscal risks for Metro Nashville Public Schools and Davidson County taxpayers. Moreover, the bill appears to be constitutionally suspect due to the fact that it is drawn narrowly to focus only on the school districts in Nashville and Memphis.

In the spirit of collaboration, we would like to meet for an open and unvarnished conversation in hope of resolving our differences over this legislation and moving forward for the benefit of Nashville’s students and families. Please let me know if you are able to join us for a discussion about House Bill 702 and its impact on our $720 million operating budget, which accounts for 42 percent of the total Metro government budget.

Earlier this week, Governor Haslam noted that he is seeking fiscal assurances from the federal government in order to prevent Medicaid expansion from bankrupting Tennessee’s budget. MNPS is simply asking for the same kind of assurances to keep the proposed state charter appeals process from destabilizing our local budget. We know you agree that a stable, predictable appeals process is in everyone’s best interest – including prospective charter operators as well as existing charter schools and traditional schools that could be affected by this measure.

Thank you for your consideration. We hope to see you Monday afternoon.

Sincerely,

Cheryl D. Mayes, Chair
Metropolitan Nashville Board of Public Education 

Avoiding a fiscal cliff in Tennessee public schools

As we open more charter schools, our ability to maintain zoned schools for neighborhood children will be challenged. In the 2013-14 school year, about $40 million of the district’s budget will flow to charter schools. That is a $15 million increase from this year, without a comparable reduction in expenses. With more charter schools applying to open and current charter schools increasing their enrollment, the fiscal impact will continue to increase.

In a column in today’s copy of “The Tennessean,” Dr. Register outlines why we should all be concerned about how the legislation for a statewide charter authorizer could affect the district’s budget and Davidson County taxpayers.

It is unfortunate that politics and political-style bickering has had such a prominent place in this debate. In the end this should only be about how we best serve students – in traditional and charter schools – and how we can sustain those services.

There are radicals in this state who have given up on public education. They have ignored our tradition of civility and collaboration and replaced it with Washington-style hardball politics. They are quick to criticize and slow to collaborate. The misused data and nasty commentaries dominating this discussion are not helping a single child, and they are not building on the traditions that have made Nashville great.

We must work together, set aside our differences for the greater good, roll up our sleeves and solve our problems. We are doing that in Nashville’s schools — both traditional and charter — and it’s working.

Read the full column:

In Nashville, for every student enrolled, charter schools will receive about $9,100 next year. Approximately two-thirds of that is from Davidson County taxpayers and one-third is state tax funding.

As in many Tennessee districts, Metro Schools’ expenses are mostly fixed. When a student enrolls in a charter school, we cannot reduce expenses by $9,100. The children continuing in our classrooms still need teachers, principals, librarians, bus drivers and cafeteria staff. They still need special education and English Learner services. We still heat, cool, clean and maintain their schools.

It is very difficult to cut our infrastructure because our student enrollment continues to grow. In fact, the district and charter schools are collaborating to match facilities and students. The district will provide five charter schools access to our facilities this fall. A new charter school in southeast Davidson County could relieve crowded schools in that area.

As we open more charter schools, our ability to maintain zoned schools for neighborhood children will be challenged. In the 2013-14 school year, about $40 million of the district’s budget will flow to charter schools. That is a $15 million increase from this year, without a comparable reduction in expenses. With more charter schools applying to open and current charter schools increasing their enrollment, the fiscal impact will continue to increase.

The number of charter schools we have authorized has put Metro Schools in the top 10 percent of districts nationally, and we want high-performing charter schools. As we authorize more, our expectation is for every charter school to outperform our district average, but exceeding the district average is getting harder. We continue to make very good progress in our zoned schools across the district.

There are radicals in this state who have given up on public education. They have ignored our tradition of civility and collaboration and replaced it with Washington-style hardball politics. They are quick to criticize and slow to collaborate. The misused data and nasty commentaries dominating this discussion are not helping a single child, and they are not building on the traditions that have made Nashville great.

We must work together, set aside our differences for the greater good, roll up our sleeves and solve our problems. We are doing that in Nashville’s schools — both traditional and charter — and it’s working.

Originally printed in in “The Tennessean.”

Watch Dr. Register, Board Chair Cheryl Mayes and Board Vice Chair Anna Shepherd talk about the budget in detail on OpenLine from NewsChannel5+.

Nashville’s conversation on ACT scores is misleading

With all the recent conversation about ACT scores, you would think the facts would be well established, but we keep reading ACT stories that report the same mistakes. Here are the facts.

Even though the average score in Tennessee and in Nashville remain well below what they should be — and what they will be — strong growth is happening. In Nashville, we saw big gains in the ACT this year, bigger gains than Tennessee saw as a whole. In fact, we were one of the top ten districts in the state for growth and earned 5’s—the top score—for value added. On top of that, Metro students averaged an ACT score almost a full point higher than projections.

That is huge news.

Why? These projections were made four years ago when these students were about to enter high school. That means our high school instruction has improved a great deal over the last four years.

  • Projected Mean Score: 17.49
  • Actual Mean Score: 18.43

But it’s still not good enough. We want every student to score a 21 or better on the ACT.

Let’s compare Tennessee’s average ACT score to that of Massachusetts:

  • MA – 24.1 (the highest in the nation)
  • TN – 19.7 (fourth from the bottom in the nation)

Looks pretty dim. But now let’s compare where those scores are coming from in those same two states:

  • MA – A quarter of students tested: Those headed to college who choose to take the ACT (and pay for it, study for it, etc).
  • TN – All students tested on the ACT: Everyone. Like Tennessee, the other states at the bottom of the rankings have universal testing of high schools students.

Are those playing fields level for comparison? No.

There are those who would argue that shouldn’t matter, that scores are too low in Nashville and Tennessee no matter how you look at it.

They are correct.

Every student in Tennessee takes the ACT. It’s not only used to measure our collective achievement, but it also gets them into a college mindset and assesses whether or not they are prepared for college.

That last part is where we have to do better. We have to better prepare our students for college. Anything less is a disservice to students in our schools.

Let’s go over that part again because it’s important.

No one in Metro Schools believes an 18.4 district average is acceptable. No one in Tennessee believes the 19.7 statewide average is acceptable. Anyone who thinks we are resting on the laurels of incremental score growth is wrong.

When you’re talking district-wide transformation, test scores are always the last piece to move – especially ACT scores. That’s because ACT scores measure the accumulated wealth of years of education.

The recurring obsession with ACT numbers does two things: it unfairly compares states with different populations taking the ACT and gives short shrift to the growth in student achievement and the hard work to make that happen.

The real solution is building stronger high school students who turn into stronger graduates. That starts as soon as they enter kindergarten.

Good thing, then, that we now have a district-level executive guiding instruction for K-12 as one, continuous whole. A unified vision for instruction at every grade level means elementary students will be better prepared for middle school. Middle schoolers will come to high school achieving at higher levels. And eleventh graders will score higher on the ACT.

Good thing, then, that we are moving our top experts in instruction into schools, where they can adapt and guide instruction for individual clusters, schools, classrooms and even students.

The transformation of Nashville’s public schools is ongoing and ever evolving. But it’s driven by – and has always been driven by – the same goal: across the board improvement in academic achievement for all students, by any measure.

Is the ACT important? Of course. Colleges use ACT scores for admissions decisions. Educators rely on them to assess how they are doing and how they can better prepare students for graduation.

But is it the end all, be all of the education conversation? No.

What should be the end all, be all of the education conversation? Everything leading up to the ACT.

Board of Education opposes the bill for a statewide charter authorizer

In remarks during the Feb. 12 Board of Education meeting, members expressed their strong personal opposition to the amendment to House Bill 702, which would create a statewide charter authorizer.

Here are their remarks. (They will be posted as they become available.)

Will Pinkston:

  • We knew something like this might be coming, and I think it’s regrettable.
  • The same way I think it’s important for us to listen to the State, I also think it’s important for the State to listen to us.
  • Our work is their work, and vice versa. I’m tired of the whole thing and I’d like for us to just start working together.
  • However, if the legislature, in its zeal wants to go down this path, then I am personally ready to fight over this particular issue.
  • I’ve worked in and around state government for 20 years. And my view is: This is bad policy.
  • Regardless of what anyone thinks about the basic policy of what’s being proposed — to circumvent local school boards — there are other questions about the specific approach that’s being contemplated.
  • First, I wonder if this proposal is constitutionally suspect. As recently as November, a federal judge in Shelby County took a step toward essentially voiding a state law that lifted the prohibition on new special school districts because the law applied only to Memphis and Shelby County. How the legislature thinks it can do this, on the heels of that failed policy and federal court intervention, is a little surprising.
  • Second, I wonder what — if any — precedent there might be for the State to confiscate local taxpayer dollars without the school board or the Metro Council’s consent.
  • It’s one thing for the State to drop a new policy or regulation on local jurisdictions. It’s something entirely different to take local resources without local consent. If the State wants to get in the business of running schools, have at it. But take 100% of the responsibility for it, financial and otherwise.
  • So based on this fairly unprecedented step the legislature in its “wisdom” is taking, I think we need to step back and examine our options.
  • I’m not a fan of litigation, but this is one where I think our hand is being forced and this has the potential to have long-lasting negative repercussions.
  • So Madam Chair, Dr. Register, fellow board members: I’d like to get some legal analysis sooner rather than later.

Amy Frogge:

  • We’re hearing from people who have paid a lot of money to be involved in this discussion in Tennessee. I implore the legislature to listen to those who are impacted by this bill.
  • Davidson County has a great record for high performing charter schools. We exceed the national averages in performance of charters and approval of charters. We’re open to innovation and have shown good management of charters.
  • This bill would undermine our relationships with charter schools and cause “shotgun weddings” of charter schools in our district. We need collaboration for success.
  • The only grossly under performing charter school in our district is one the state authorized outside of our control.
  • This places an undue financial burden on our city. Charters are not at capacity here.
  • This bill is a reaction to a disagreement over the quality of one charter.

Opinion Piece: Banning all virtual schools isn’t the answer

What practical effects would come from revoking the Tennessee Virtual Schools Act? For one thing, it might actually decrease accountability for online education.

That’s the conclusion of Dr. Kecia Ray, head of Learning Technology in Metro Schools. She gave her thoughts about all the talk of banning virtual schools this week in The Tennessean.

Public virtual schools have the same accountability standards as brick-and-mortar schools. Under the current system, underperforming virtual schools are at risk of state takeover or even closure. Revoking the Tennessee Virtual Schools Act would actually allow schools to circumvent accountability by operating as virtual programs, not schools, with student achievement results sent to the student’s zoned school. This is not the transparency most desire.

Dr. Ray also gives a possible alternative to this drastic measure at the end of the piece.

To read her full opinion column, visit Tennessean.com.