Getting serious about education

Very little about the way adults are debating education right now could serve as a model for children about how to resolve conflicts. Educators in our public schools are doing heroic work, but the reality is that we have to do better. 

You can't be serious about improving schools without confronting poverty. Where families live determines where their children are zoned to go to school. And the sad reality is that in schools with concentrated poverty, students are far less likely to succeed. 

Untitled.jpgThe graph here shows how many 3rd graders are proficient readers in a school compared to the percentage of Untitled.jpgstudents who qualify for free or reduced lunch. As poverty rates go up, achievement goes down. Too often, the zip code in which a child lives dictates the opportunities they will have.

This isn't because children living in poverty aren't capable. Some schools have beaten the odds and proven that students in predominantly poor schools can achieve real academic success. The data also show that economically disadvantaged students do a lot better when they're not in economically segregated schools. Economically disadvantaged children are about five times more likely to read at grade level in an economically diverse school than in one where virtually every student is growing up in poverty.

Because all of our children can succeed, it's morally wrong for us to have a system where they don't. I'm running for state senate because we have to do better. No one has all the answers, but let's talk about how we get started.

School Choice: We should not support policies that lead to greater economic segregation in our schools. That's why I'm opposed to private school vouchers. That's what is problematic about opening charter schools without diversity or transportation plans. One of the primary reasons I've opposed the statewide charter authorizer is because our city needs to be able to make smart, strategic decisions about when and where to open new schools without state interference. School choice, charter schools, magnet schools, and lotteries are here to stay; but we have to ensure that the implementation of school choice does not lead to a small group of students poised to succeed with the remainder left behind.   

Poverty can't be an excuse for denying opportunities to children: It's unrealistic and unhelpful to suggest that we have to cure poverty before we improve the education of our children. There are schools that are proving that academic success is possible even in schools with significant poverty levels. Schools like Margaret Allen and Stem Prep - where between 80-95% of students qualify for free and reduced lunch - are some of our top-performing public schools. Some of the schools beating the odds are charter schools; and some are traditional schools. Regardless of the name or form, we have to learn from and replicate these successes.

_MG_7232.jpgFocus on Early Childhood Education: Mountains of research demonstrates that students who fail to read proficiently by 3rd grade are far more likely to face continuing difficulties in school, to drop out, and to have fewer opportunities as adults. Unfortunately, a large number of students start kindergarden with language, cognitive, and social-emotional deficits that put them behind from the outset. While not all pre-K programs show sustained gains, high-quality pre-K programs that are aligned with our elementary school curriculum have the potential to improve outcomes significantly. Under President Obama's Pre-K for All initiative, Tennessee would receive $64.3 million in federal funds to be matched with $6.4 million in state funds to provide additional pre-K classrooms. It is a failure of leadership for the Governor and legislature to refuse to invest in early childhood education.

Thinking beyond the classroom: It doesn't take a team of experts to realize that many students living in concentrated poverty face challenges outside the classroom. That's why I was involved in bringing Communities in Schools (CIS) to MNPS and support the district's Community Achieves project. Piloted in East Nashville elementary schools, CIS partners with non-profits, social service agencies, local businesses, and volunteers to assess student needs and provide assistance outside the classroom regardless of whether it's counseling, food, school supplies, academic assistance, or parental engagement. Given the extent of poverty in our public schools, we cannot force our teachers to go it alone. Instead, we have to find ways to engage parents and support students outside the classroom so they're ready to learn when they're inside.

Supporting Teachers: We simply must do a better job of supporting teachers. In rolling out the new teacher evaluation system, we've focused too much on punitive measures like tying licensure to evaluations. Most teachers want to be evaluated and want to improve their craft, but that is only going to happen where we're primarily focused on the training, mentoring, and support of professionals. This isn't Lake Wobegone where all teachers are above average, and we obviously have to focus on recruiting, retaining, and promoting our strongest instructional leaders. But we also have to recognize that not every outcome in education is neatly quantified on a spreadsheet. We cannot allow drilling and test preparation to replace genuine instruction. Most of us who have been successful owe a debt to a teacher that saw potential in us, triggered our curiosity, or pushed us not only to be better students but better people as well. Promoting those critical moments of influence is not a reform easily "taken to scale," but it's what does happen - and must continue to happen - in our classrooms.

School Funding: Tennessee's per-pupil investment in education is 45th in the nation, and even the funding we have is poorly distributed. We need to fully fund the Basic Education Program (BEP) - Tennessee's funding formula for public schools and ensure that it provides adequate resources for at-risk students and English Language Learners. We also have to make education funding a priority. In October 2013, Governor Haslam said that in Tennessee, "[w]e want to be the fastest improving state in teacher salaries.” But when revenue shortfalls materialized, promised teacher pay increases were put on the chopping block. If we are going to make education a priority, it has to be a priority all of the time. 

Improving the poiltics of education: I'm sorry this is so long. I'm also sorry that it only scratches the surface concerning the work that needs to be done. Delving into the challenges of public education in Tennessee, however, can't be done in 140 characters or less. For students to have the opportunities they deserve, we're going to need to end the armed camp mentality surrounding education, to abandon the overly simplistic pro-charter vs. anti-charter rhetoric, and to get serious about improving our schools. We have to stop chasing the latest education fads, relying on sheer ideology, and vilifying those that disagree with us. This is serious business that we have to get right. Please reply and share with me your thoughts on what's needed to support our teachers and help our children reach their full potential.

Together, we can do better.

Jeff

P.S. With Early Voting beginning a week from today, our campaign is on the move. Last week, we won the Davidson County Democratic Women's straw poll. Yesterday, we had a successful financial disclosure. And in the last two days, our team has knocked on over 1,500 doors from Sylvan Park to Inglewood and Antioch to Madison. Come knock doors with us this Saturday, July 12 from 9 a.m. - 12 p.m. and second shift from 1 p.m. - 4 p.m. We will meet at former Councilwoman Anna Page's home located at 222 Wheeler Ave. Or join us around the district this weekend.