Wednesday, April 5, 2017

I'm Moving

Thank you, from the bottom of my heart, for following my posts on this blog. I have recently decided to partner with another teacher on a different blog, and my future posts will be on there. Please take some time and check it out! The new web address is

Sunday, April 2, 2017

The Gutting of America's Public Schools

The following article was co-written by Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow Debbie Hickerson. She is a fifth grade teacher at Cason Lane Academy in Murfreesboro, TN.

Keep your eye on what is being proposed at the federal government for our public school system. Have no illusions. The school voucher system will gut public school funding across the country. A voucher does not provide enough money for full tuition. Those who want to use vouchers to put their children in private school will need to supplement the tuition cost out of pocket. This means those in poverty and the working poor will not be able to access private schools. That leaves those in the public school system who cannot afford private school. Public schools will lose a majority of their funding to the vouchers, leaving underfunded public schools with a high proportion of children in poverty. Statistically, high poverty schools don’t do well on standardized tests. Universally low test scores, because of the vouchers, will feed into the false narrative that public schools are failing the students that they serve. This is not equitable education for all. Don't we want ALL of our children in America to have a good education?

To those of you not in the education field, you may not understand that having a school voucher system doesn't just mean you can choose any school you want your kid to go to. It also means the public education program will be dismantled. Let me explain.

House Resolution 610, introduced by Rep. Steve King of Iowa (yes, the same person who tweeted something so racist that people cancelled their vacations to Iowa), will effectively start the school voucher system to be used by children ages 5-17 and starts the defunding process of public schools. It will eliminate the Elementary and Secondary Education Act (ESEA) of 1965, which is the nation's educational law that provides equal opportunity in education. The ESEA established what are known as title programs and, because these are so important to maintaining free and equitable public education, Congress has reauthorized ESEA every five years since 1965. Under President George W. Bush, ESEA became known as No Child Left Behind; under President Barack Obama, it was rebranded the Every Student Succeeds Act (ESSA) and passed Congress with rare bipartisan support.

ESSA is a comprehensive law that covers programs for struggling learners, advanced and gifted kids in AP classes, ESL classes, classes for minorities, rural education, education for the homeless, school safety (Gun-Free schools), monitoring and compliance, and federal accountability programs. Yes, there are all of these programs happening in our education system, in addition to academics, and they will disappear if this bill becomes law. Some things ESSA does for children with disabilities include ensuring access to the general education curriculum, and accommodations on assessments. It also requires local education agencies (i.e. the school systems) to provide evidence-based interventions in schools with consistently under-performing subgroups.

House Resolution 610 also abolishes the Nutritional Act of 2012 (No Hungry Kids Act) which provides nutritional standards in school breakfast and lunch. It dangerously has no wording whatsoever protecting kids with special needs, no mention of the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) nor the Free Appropriate Public Education (FAPE) act.

Please call your representative and ask him/her to vote NO on House Resolution 610. If you don’t know who your house representative is, go to and type in your zip code. Please call all local offices and the D.C. office. E-mails are okay, too, but phone calls are much more effective and really will not take much of your time at all.

Tuesday, March 21, 2017

5 Reasons Why You Should Support Tuition Equality

Being a college basketball fanatic, this is by far my favorite time of year. It’s amazing watching these teams--each one composed of players from around the country, or even from around the world--come together as one unit and work together for a common purpose. The fans of each of the sixteen remaining NCAA tournament teams come from different backgrounds and have a plethora of life outlooks, yet they solidify as one unified group, proudly wearing their respective team’s colors showing their support.

While the United States continues to transform into an increasingly divided nation, Americans are becoming more proud to wear the colors red or blue. Like sports, most things in life transcend identifying with one color or the other. One of these issues that needlessly divides Americans is immigration. It’s easy to forget that we are a nation that is founded by immigrants; sadly, in this country’s relatively short history, there has always been an “evil” immigrant group who was forced to wear the opposing team’s jersey through no fault of their own--whether it was the Native Americans, the Irish Catholics, the Jews, the Japanese, the Hispanics, or the Muslims.

Being a public school teacher, it’s my job to teach the students in front of me, regardless of their race, sexual orientation, or immigration status. The bottom line is that I teach people. I teach people with hopes and dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. I teach people who have no earthly idea what they want to be when they grow up.

Rep. Mark White of Memphis and Sen. Todd Gardenhire of Chattanooga have co-sponsored a bill that absolutely needs to pass. HB0863/SB1014, which is up for a vote in the Senate on Wednesday, March 22nd, exempts an individual from paying out-of-state tuition if that individual: attended school in this state for two years prior to graduation from high school, graduated from high school or a home school program or obtained a GED, and is registered at a state institution of higher education. Here are my top five reasons why everyone needs to support this bill.
  1. It’s the right thing to do. This bill will allow my immigrant students to follow their dreams and pursue a college degree. The Bible is very clear about helping immigrants. One of my favorite scriptures regarding immigrants is from Leviticus 19:33-34: “When a stranger sojourns with you in your land, you shall not do him wrong. You shall treat the stranger who sojourns with you as the native among you, and you shall love him as yourself, for you were strangers in the land of Egypt: I am the Lord your God.”
  2. This is a bi-partisan bill. Staunchly conservative Texas was the first state to pass a tuition equality bill. In total, 27 states have passed a bill similar to the one that is proposed in Tennessee. Both blue states and red states support it. Why? That leads me to number 3.
  3. It’s good for our economy. Workers with a college degree make $1.3 million more in their lifetimes. More productivity means the state can collect more in taxes. Demand for educated workers is rising while supply is lagging behind.
  4. It’s great for our universities. An increase in admissions will provide income to universities that isn’t already there. Allowing undocumented immigrants access to in-state tuition will most certainly increase university graduation rates.
  5. Governor Haslam supports it and will sign it if it passes the legislature. In 2013, the governor launched Drive to 55, a campaign to increase the number of college graduates to 55% by 2025. Tuition Opportunity supports the governor's goal of reducing barriers to higher education and creating a more educated workforce.
Update: This bill passed the Senate Education Committee and has moved on to the Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee. In the House, this bill is up for a vote on Tuesday, March 28th in the Education Administration & Planning Committee.

Wednesday, March 15, 2017

Room for the Human Element

This piece was originally posted on and is from a colleague of mine from the Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellows, which is a teacher fellowship organization dedicated to amplifying teacher voice. Kim Pringle is a recipient of the ETS Recognition of Excellence award for Principles of Learning and Teaching and has recently been appointed as an assistant principal at Snow Hill Elementary School in Chattanooga. Before becoming an assistant principal, she worked as a music teacher, a Teacher on Special Assignment (TOSA), and a RTI Coordinator.

The great struggle of educational change is not lack of initiative, or innovation, or standards, or motivation. It is a diversity of resources and cultures. What works in one environment is doomed to fail in another. There is no one-size–fits-all anything when it comes to the very human act of educating the children of a community.

There are many different types of schools. Some are productive and innovative and some crush the spirit of innovation before it can grow and flourish. Some are tech-centered and engineering-minded, while others are pitifully technology poor. Some embrace best practices and collaboration, while others are seemingly stuck in the past with doors and minds closed to one another.

If I could communicate one thing to educational policy-makers, it would be to find room for the human element. So often it seems that educational policy only focuses on data and test scores. I believe this human element is the thing which teachers see so intimately and bemoan as the un-testable variables. It comes in the form of heartbreaking stories: Mom and dad were fighting last night...again...The electricity was turned off three days ago. I hate cold showers...My baby sister screamed all night. Will she ever stop?...We've been living out of a tent, but we lost our campsite today...I wanted to come to school, but mom didn't wake up...My dad died last week, but no one will talk about it...My shoes don't fit, but I don't want to tell my mom, because we don't have any money...And the day-to-day speedbumps in the road of the educator: We're a sub short today, so we had to divide Mr. Allen's class...You're getting 5 extra kids...Fire drill today at 9:30 am!...Cookie-dough sale kick-off celebration in the gym at 2:30 pm...Pep-rally on Friday!...We're experiencing problems with the WiFi again.

We want the best for our kids. We move mountains for them—of fundraiser cookie dough and wrapping paper and coupon books. And we do all of this to get the funds we need to have the right technology in their hands or to have books for them to read. But it isn't equal. Not all communities have the same luxury of time and disposable income to make those sorts of things happen. Title I funds are supposed to reduce the inequity but still fall short. In addition, many schools who do not qualify for Title I funds struggle to provide for their students when the population does not quite reach the poverty threshold for Title I, yet cannot afford to self-fund.

Critics of public education often depict educators as inadequate for the job or unmotivated to teach students properly. I would argue that we are very motivated for our students. Motivation isn't the issue. It likely comes down to resources and culture. Have we enabled the resources needed for change? Have we dealt with the human needs and cultural needs creating barriers to academic gains?

So, though I appreciate the information that assessment data provides, I plead—look beyond the statistics and into the numbers and see the children they represent. Look beyond the school and see the community it serves. Educating our children is a beautiful, human act. Let's keep the humanity in the process.

Wednesday, March 8, 2017

My Oath

While pondering what to write about this week, I Googled the phrase “first do no harm” because I had a vague sense that it pertained to an oath of some sort, but I couldn’t remember what it was called. When Google reminded me that it is from the Hippocratic Oath, my curiosity took over and I looked up the history of the term.

Interesting fact: the phrase “first do no harm” is no longer officially part of the modern Hippocratic Oath, though the intent of that phrase is ever-present. Another fun fact: people love things that come in sets of ten. For example, there’s the Ten Commandments, the Bill of Rights to the U.S. Constitution, the modern Hippocratic Oath, and the teachers’ Bill of Rights that has been proposed in the Tennessee Legislature (SB0014/HB1074) and needs to become law as hastily as possible. As education professionals, we should take a similar oath when we receive our apprentice licenses, which enables us to become full-time teachers. As far as I can tell, such an oath does not exist; therefore, I have created my own, written in the same style as the modernized Hippocratic Oath.
  1. I swear to fulfill, to the best of my ability and judgment, this oath.
  2. I will honor the gains of those educators in whose steps I walk and will gladly share my knowledge with those who are to follow. 
  3. I will always work for the intellectual betterment of my students, avoiding, as much as possible, the twin traps of over testing and teaching to the test. 
  4. I will remember that education is both an art and a science, and that warmth, sympathy, and understanding may outweigh the bubble sheet and the homework assignment. 
  5. I will not be ashamed to consult my colleagues when the skills of another are needed to help a student. 
  6. I will respect the privacy of my students. Most especially must I tread with care in matters of life and death, and I will do everything lawfully within my power to protect a student’s life. 
  7. I will remember that I do not teach a data point on which I will later be judged, but a human being, whose desire to learn and become a productive member of society are of utmost importance in the classroom. 
  8. I will encourage my students to think critically whenever I can, and I will always look to incorporate ways for students to act creatively. 
  9. I will remember that I remain a member of society, with special obligations to the foundations of future societies. 
  10. If I maintain this oath, may I always act so as to preserve the finest traditions of my calling and may I long experience the joy of educating those who seek my help.
I believe in my heart that educators are well-intentioned. Sometimes lawmakers and other bureaucrats get in the way of us doing what is best for our students. For example, a person only needs to follow the money trail for a brief moment to discover the foundation of the accountability movement that is so pervasive in every public school in the country. One company or another profits from every standardized test that students take. It’s a billion dollar a year industry that is quite adept at generating a need for its products.

Sometimes, however, teachers get stuck, or groomed, in the mantra of “this is always how we’ve done things” and end up creating work that is detrimental to students’ success. For example, it is common practice for elementary school teachers to assign homework--despite the overwhelming evidence that it is not beneficial to enhancing students’ performance. Earlier this school year an elementary school in Vermont banned all homework and they have already declared the experiment a success--after only one semester! Especially with recess constantly being put in time-out during the school day, it’s more crucial than ever that these young learners have time after school to play, and be curious, and investigate things. After all, the entire concept for this article began when I did that very thing myself. Perhaps if educators took an oath, like the one that I wrote above, it would have a positive impact on how we operate our classrooms. In any case, it couldn’t do any harm.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Why ACT Should Replace TNReady

The testing landscape for Tennessee’s students will hopefully change for the better in the near future. There are five bills pending in our state legislature concerning standardized testing: HB 262, HB 263/SB 204, HB 1018/SB 632, HB 1043/SB 2, and HB 1251. It’s becoming increasingly clear that the frustrated voices of teachers, students, and parents are being heard. It’s a problem when my students will spend more time this year taking a standardized test in English 3 than I did taking the GRE exam to get into graduate school (225 minutes) or than Betsy DeVos did in her confirmation hearings to become the U.S. Secretary of Education (169 minutes).

Four of these bills intend to replace TNReady with the ACT or SAT exam, either by force or by choice, depending on the wording of the particular bill. The fifth bill, introduced by Rep. Butt and Sen. Bowling, does not specify a testing platform but instead limits the amount of hours that a student is allowed to spend taking a standardized test depending on that student’s grade level. While the number of hours per grade level are completely arbitrary, it is well-intentioned.

Despite the Tennessee Department of Education significantly reducing the length of TNReady, it’s not anywhere close to good enough. My English 3 students will spend 230 minutes taking all four subparts of TNReady--and that’s a reduction of 120 minutes from the testing time on last year’s test. I support the idea of allowing--not forcing--school districts to replace TNReady with ACT.

The entire ACT exam takes 175 minutes, which includes four subjects. The English and Reading subsections are a combined 80 minutes. These testing times are much more reasonable. Replacing TNReady with ACT will lead to a significant decrease in testing time at the end of the school year, which means I get to spend more class time providing authentic learning opportunities for my students.

Additionally, high school students have the option to take the ACT test several times a year. High school students currently get to take the test twice for free. Unlike TNReady, students have the opportunity to retake the test and get better.

Also unlike TNReady, the ACT has existed for almost 60 years and is both valid and reliable. We will not know for many years if TNReady truly measures what it says is measures, and if it can do so on a consistent basis. Teachers and school districts are being evaluated based on how well students perform on a newly created state test. It’s a completely unfair and illegitimate practice.

Unlike TNReady, a plethora of ACT test questions is readily available. No additional professional development will be required because teachers already know what is on the test. That, in turn, will increase student proficiency on the ACT, which will lead to more students getting college scholarship money and will make myself, my school, and my district all look like we are doing an amazing job of preparing our students for college. Finally, many other states are already using the ACT Aspire suite of assessments for their statewide assessment. Alabama, Alaska, Arkansas, Kentucky, Louisiana, North Carolina, North Dakota, Oklahoma, South Carolina, Wisconsin, and Wyoming all use multiple ACT assessments in their states. It’s time for Tennessee do the right thing for our students and follow suit.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Teachers' Bill of Rights

Please excuse me for a brief moment while I jump up and down in moderated excitement. There is a bill pending in the state legislature so lathered with common sense that it became easily recognizable from many of the other bills that will be discussed this session (i.e. voucher bill, bathroom bill, marriage bill, run over protesters with your car bill, etc.).

Senator Mark Green of Clarksville and Representative Jay D. Reedy of Erin have co-introduced a bill that is appropriately nicknamed “The Teachers’ Bill of Rights.” If SB0014/HB1074 passes, it will send a clear message to all educators that the legislature has our collective backs. The much-needed byproduct of this bill is that it should help increase enrollment in teacher prep programs at our state universities. Tennessee is at the beginnings of what will become a severe teacher shortage unless drastic measures are taken immediately. Governor Haslam’s proposal to increase education funding will certainly help as will this Teachers’ Bill of Rights.

Here is the full text of the bill: “This bill creates a list of rights and protections for educators. Under this bill, every ‘educator,’ meaning any teacher, principal, supervisor or other individual required by law to hold a valid license of qualification for employment in the public schools of this state, has the right to: (1) Act upon the educator's own conscience, so long as the educator does not attempt to proselytize students, disrupt the educational process, or act as a potential threat to student safety; (2) Report any errant, offensive, or abusive content or behavior of students to school officials or appropriate agencies; (3) Provide a safe classroom and school; (4) Defend themselves and their students from physical violence or harm; (5) Share information regarding a student's education experience, health, or safety with the student's parent or legal guardian, unless prohibited by the federal Family Educational Rights and Privacy Act (FERPA); and (6) Review all materials brought into the educator's classroom or utilized with their students. This bill specifies that an educator must not be expected to waive this particular right.

This bill further provides that an educator is not: (1) Required to spend the educator's personal money to appropriately equip a classroom; (2) Evaluated by professionals, under the teacher evaluation advisory committee, without the same subject matter expertise as the educator; (3) Evaluated based on the performance of students whom the educator has never taught; or (4) Relocated to a different school based solely on test scores from state mandated assessments.”

In my view, the most impactful elements of the Teachers’ Bill of Rights are the last four items. Teachers have been saying for decades that we shouldn’t be expected to purchase our own school supplies. No other profession does that. Additionally, it makes much-needed changes to the evaluation system. It is difficult, if not impossible, to argue against the notion that we should be evaluated by other educators with the same expertise. While good teaching is good teaching, there are content-specific strategies that only experts in that subject would truly be able to appreciate fully. Both the Coffee County Education Association and the Tennessee Education Association support this bill.

As this bill moves forward and hopefully becomes law, I briefly want to address a few concerns I have with it as it is currently written. The language in the bill is vague in parts, and needs clarity. For example, what, exactly, does it mean to provide “a safe classroom and school”? This can be misconstrued in many unintended ways. Will this open the door for teachers to carry weapons into their classrooms? If so, then it will create a dangerous and deadly precedent. Also, who will pick up the slack when teachers need classroom supplies and will no longer be expected to buy the supplies themselves? If this responsibility falls on local governments, it could result in unintended tax increases. The state has a surplus of money, and it should be forthcoming in funding classroom supplies. Further, I wonder what enforcement mechanisms will be in place when--not if--these laws are broken. These issues need to be worked out before this bill becomes law. In the meantime, I commend Sen. Green and Rep. Reedy for standing up for teachers and introducing common sense legislation that will actually improve the teaching profession. Please take the time to call them or tweet them your support for this bill!

Thursday, February 16, 2017

To Spouses: Thank You!

I’ve been a public school teacher since 2003, but I’ve known that I was going to be a teacher since 1992, when I was in the seventh grade. When I was in middle school, I had no idea what or where I would end up teaching, and I certainly had not heard of Manchester--the beautiful town that I am proud to call home.

It’s funny how life works out sometimes. I have ended up teaching high school English about an hour from where I grew up, and it’s fair to say that the notion of teaching public school crept into my soul 25 years ago, while sitting in a 7th grade math classroom in the heart of the projects near downtown Nashville, and consumed it.

I’ll be the first to admit that the all-consuming nature of following my passion of educating young people frequently creeps into the safe space where family life should exist. In honor of Valentine’s Day, I would like to thank my wife and my kids for being so incredibly understanding. My wife didn’t come from a family of teachers and, when she married me, I don’t think she knew at the time what she was getting herself into. For that matter, neither did I. Never would I have predicted all of the ups and downs and persistent changes that have happened in public education over the past decade or so. Never would I have predicted being able to sit across the table from the state’s Commissioner of Education, Dr. Candice McQueen, and discuss education policy with her--thanks to the Hope Street Group Tennessee teacher fellowship. Never would I have imagined being invited to a White House ceremony honoring some of America’s most distinguished teachers.

For the non-teachers out there--and especially to the teachers’ spouses--I want to explain something that is most difficult, even for an English teacher that typically employs vernacular with relative dexterity.

Teaching is difficult because it’s a never-ending job. I can literally never turn it off. I’m always looking for new and better ways of doing things (hence, the gradeless classroom that I operate). When I sit on the couch and watch a TV show, or when I’m listening to music in the car, in the back of my mind I’m always wondering how any of it can be effectively utilized in my classroom. Everything that I see and experience is fair game.

Teaching is difficult because Darwin’s evolutionary theory of “survival of the fittest” has never been truer than in public education today. I must adapt to and master changes to my standards, how students are tested, and how I am evaluated. This would be much easier if I had the same group of students year after year, but that’s mostly an impossibility. Accomplishing this feat with a brand new group of people that I literally just met and adapting to their interests and their needs requires an utmost attention to detail. Teachers must efficiently adapt to their environments, or quickly find themselves both ineffective and irrelevant. I must also help my colleagues fight off predators who wish to steal public education’s most valuable resource--money. This fight is frustratingly unending but entirely worth it because I love my students, and they need someone in their corner fighting for them.

When I come home exhausted in the afternoons, please understand that the source of the exhaustion (at least for me) is occasionally physical, but mostly mental. I literally make hundreds of crucial and not-so-crucial decisions every single day. Then, once I'm home, there’s the mental journey to prepare for the next day and do it all over again. Please forgive me when I sit in line at the fast food restaurant and take five minutes to decide what I want to eat. Sometimes, I'm just over making any more decisions.

Spouses, I want you to know that teachers need and deeply appreciate your support. We need you there to listen when we've had a frustrating day; we need your help around the house while we're evaluating papers and busy saving the world; sometimes, we need you help setting up our classrooms at the beginning of the year. No one else can support us like you can and, even though we don't always say it, from the bottom of our hearts, we thank you. I'm extremely lucky to have a wife who understands all this, and I especially want to thank you for being my rock.

Monday, February 6, 2017

Vouching Delusion

Last week, Governor Haslam gave his annual State of the State Address and, for a fleeting moment, it appeared that he was truly supporting public education. I certainly give him credit for saying all the right things and checking every box. Gov. Haslam supported fully-funding the Basic Education Program (BEP) Formula and giving public school teachers another raise--two things that all teachers staunchly support. He also unveiled a new initiative--the Reconnect Act--that will afford adults the same opportunity as high school students to attend a community college for free and earn a degree. All of these proposals, if successfully implemented, will be profoundly wonderful things for public education and business in this state.

Much like the Powerful Wizard of Oz, who turned out to not have any special powers at all, I skeptically wondered what was lurking behind that curtain. I didn’t have to wait long; the very next day, Rep. Bill Dunn (R-Knoxville) announced his plan to re-introduce nearly identical voucher legislation to what he sponsored last year, which Governor Haslam said he would sign if it passed through the Legislature. It’s dizzying trying to understand how a governor can simultaneously support Tennessee becoming “the fastest improving state in teacher pay” in the country and school voucher legislation that unscrupulously robs money from public schools and puts that money into the hands of businesses in the form of charter and private schools.

Last year’s voucher bill had unusually strong momentum, but it was stopped in its tracks by classroom teachers across the state, like myself. I called and e-mailed all of the members of the state house and senate education committees. A very small number--maybe three or four--actually called me back and wanted to learn more about why I oppose vouchers. While I’m proud to have played a role in defeating last year’s voucher bill, I resent having to play this political game every single year. A coalition lead by the Tennessee Education Association (TEA), the Tennessee School Board Association (TSBA), and the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents (TOSS) made it clear that Tennessee’s educators are unified in their view that vouchers will destroy our surging education system.

It’s noteworthy that Rep. Dunn doesn’t refer to them as vouchers in House Bill 336; he calls them “opportunity scholarships.” In so doing, he is putting a wolf in sheep’s clothing. Don’t be fooled. According to an EdNext 2016 survey, the 37% of the general public supports vouchers, whereas almost 50% support opportunity scholarships. Both of these percentages have dropped 15% in the last ten years. Public support for this program continues to wane because people have had the opportunity to see for themselves the harmful effects of voucher legislation that has passed in many states around the country.

This begs the question: Why are Rep. Dunn and Gov. Haslam advocating a voucher bill that the general public doesn’t support and that educators obviously oppose? I argue it’s the same reason why so many Republican U.S. Senators (including Tennessee’s two senators) stubbornly support Betsy DeVos for Education Secretary, despite a bipartisan union of concerned citizens flooding their phone lines and writing hundreds of thousands of letters in opposition. That reason is money. The DeVos family has donated $8.3 million to Republican U.S. Senators’ campaigns over the last two years. Likewise, powerful pro-voucher and pro-charter lobbying groups (like Devos’ group American Federation for Children) are extremely active on the state level and work hard to get legislation introduced and passed.

If Dunn and Haslam truly want to help Tennessee’s children, they would work with TDOE to destroy the silos of information, self-contained within each district, of what works for students and what doesn’t. If they wanted to help children succeed, they would eliminate the ridiculous A-F grading system that measures how well schools prepare their students for TNReady. This grading system has failed in Texas and needs to be rescinded in Tennessee before it is implemented. There’s already plenty of information out there on how well schools perform. Simplifying that into a single “grade” in nonsensical. If they wanted to help children succeed, then stick to Gov. Haslam’s original proposal of giving teachers raises and fully-funding the BEP, and then get out of the way and let us concentrate on what we do best--educating future generations.

Sunday, February 5, 2017


Hope Street Group Tennessee Teacher Fellow Amanda Arnold penned this letter to President Donald Trump. The letter was originally published on and, later, on and on this blog. Mrs. Arnold is an assistant principal at Dobyns-Bennett High School in Kingsport, TN.
Dear Mr.  President:
As you begin this journey, please take to heart that education is critical to the success and future of this great nation. “Making America Great Again” is a goal rooted in the future, and that future lies within the students of this nation. Education is one of the most versatile and powerful tools that government possesses. History has relentlessly proven that nations can be built and destroyed by how a government educates its people. Appropriate and effective education empowers the people, but education without clearly defined purposes, ethics, and goals can destroy the same people. Please act upon a vision of education that recognizes the following:
  1. Education can break the cycle of poverty.
  2. Impoverished communities need equal access to quality education, resources, and opportunities.  
  3. Students deserve safe, clean, and well maintained schools. Many of our impoverished communities have schools in a state of crisis.  
  4. Educational policy should be a problem-solving model based on demonstrated needs and research based results.  
  5. Every student is capable of growth, but all students do not academically grow at the same pace.
  6. All students do not reach proficiency at the same rate. Some students need more than four years to achieve high school proficiency. Some students need more challenges within that four years. Schools should not be punished for meeting a student’s needs.
  7. College and career readiness has two parts. Students need career and technical training. Educational policy has abandoned training and educating students for blue collar jobs. Our country needs blue and white collar jobs.
  8. College is not appropriate for every student, but every student who has a desire and the academic ability to pursue that route should have equitable preparedness and the opportunity to do so.
  9. Equitable does not mean equal education. Different students have different needs.  Different school districts have different needs. Want to make them great? Meet their demonstrated needs.
  10. Parents want success for students. No parent wants to see his or her student struggle or fail. Strengthen the parents to empower the students.  
  11. Hold educators accountable, but give educators the proper support, resources, guidelines, and tools to meet the needs of the students.  

Education must prepare a  diverse group of talented, well-educated students. The nation needs electricians, business professionals, mechanics, blue and white collar workers. Diversity in talent and developing the skills to meet the needs of those talents can make students successful contributors to society. Successful contributors make a successful society.

Making any country great begins with expectations: the expectation that every student can be successful, the expectation that poverty does not have to be a cycle, the expectation that the right tools in the right hands can change lives. Greatness does not manifest itself the same in every person; it is unique—just like our students. If you want to make America great, make educational opportunity great.

Sunday, January 22, 2017

We Shall Overcome

Two major events dominated the news cycle last week: the presidential inauguration and the women’s march the following day. Before the march, I overheard white female teachers, whom I highly respect, discussing in person and on social media, the pointlessness of the march. After all, why march for women’s rights, which is something that women already have? Why should people go out of their way to demonstrate that they’re sore losers? If people are going to march for something, why not make it for a cause that is worthwhile?
To those who believe that women have equal rights to men, that the women’s march was just a bunch of sore losers showing off, and that the march wasn’t for a just cause, to you I say, I wish you had been there. I wish you could have felt the positive vibes emanating from the largest protest in this country’s history. Millions of people took to the streets because they wanted to stand next to their brothers and sisters in order to take a stand for human rights and against sexism, racism, and xenophobia. Each person who attended one of the marches had a specific purpose for being there, but everyone who marched had that common goal. People across the world have seen a rise of destructive populist political leaders. It was time for the people’s voice to be heard in a way that Thoreau, Gandhi, and King would have been proud. The nonviolent resistance has begun.
President Trump’s inauguration speech, like his campaign, was littered with stretched truths and bold inaccuracies. However, one thing he said that will hold true through the duration of his administration is that the power lies with the people. As he delivered his speech and attempted to appear as a man of and for the people, representatives of corporate America (like the CEOs of Exxon and Hardee’s) stood directly behind him. The people are not blind.
We, the people, were paying attention when, within hours of becoming President, funding for the National Endowment of the Arts (like PBS and NPR) had been cut, as well as a discount on FHA home mortgage rates that was enacted under President Obama. We’re listening to Trump staffers when they say that his proposed budget will include eliminating funding for Violence Against Women Grants, the Office of Energy Efficiency, the Paris Climate Change Agreement, and the Minority Business Development Agency. We noticed when immediately deleted pages on LGBT rights, civil rights, climate change, and health care from its “issues” section after Donald Trump took the oath of office.
This brings me to why I decided to march. In the words of Martin Luther King, Jr., I believe in my core that an injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, and I recognize that the next four years are going to be a fight. The time to look away has ended. I intend to set an example for the the students I see every single day in my classroom and for my two young daughters at home. If you watched the Betsy DeVos confirmation hearing, then you can understand why I marched for them. I also marched for my wife, my mom, my step-mom, my sister, and all of the women in this country who, despite having the right to vote, have never been treated as equals. I carried their baggage on my shoulders, too. I feel the agony of 19-year-old Nina Donovan of Franklin, TN when she mentioned in her now viral poem “Nasty Woman” that, “even when women go into high-paying careers, their wages are still cut with blades sharpened with testosterone. Tell me why the work of a black woman and an hispanic woman are only worth 63% and 54% of a white man’s paycheck? This is not just a feminist myth. This is inequality. So we are not here to be debunked. We are here to be respected.”

By itself, the women’s march is not enough to earn that respect, but it’s definitely an excellent first step. It got everyone’s attention and dominated the news cycle and social media. Some of the best lessons that I can teach are the ones I give by my own example; this must include staying informed and paying attention to what’s going on, and then following up with more non-violent resistance. If last week’s marchers can channel this momentum into committing to doing the same thing, then we, the people, will begin reclaiming power from the wealthy oligarchs and plutocrats who were recently chosen to run this country.

Friday, January 20, 2017

The Responsibility of Citizenship

Living in a rural county in a red state, I have many friends who openly support our president-elect, and I can honestly say that each of them is a very good person. Many of them feel an emboldened sense of entitlement after Mr. Trump pulled off the biggest upset in this country’s history (with a little help from his friends). The following is my personal viewpoint on this week’s impending life-changing inauguration.

In a few short hours, @realDonaldTrump will be sworn in as the 45th President of the United States. He will place his thin-skinned, nepotistic Twitter fingers on a holy book that he hasn’t read and take an oath that he won’t keep to protect a Constitution that he clearly doesn’t understand. But he won, however unfairly, and he now has a job to do. Nothing will be the same four years from now. The environment, civil rights, Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid, health insurance, public education, 74 consecutive months of job growth, and women’s health are among the many things that I expect to decline during this presidency.

I could be wrong. It’s happened before, and I would love nothing more than to be wrong about this. I don’t cheer for Mr. Trump to fail because, in so doing, I would be cheering for the suffering of the real underdogs in this scenario--my brothers and sisters across this country and around the world who are electing right-wing populist candidates in hopes that they will finally be represented by someone who truly understands their plight of living paycheck-to-paycheck and even then not really getting by. I get it. As a public school teacher supporting a family of four, I’m right there with you.

As a public school teacher, I’m also unwilling to accept any more finger-pointing about why things can’t get done. You see, an essential part of my growth-mindset as a teacher is that I attempt to maintain an open mind about which learning strategies will work in the classroom. I’m willing to try almost anything if it will help my students learn more efficiently than they did before. If you show me a teacher who is unwilling to try new things, then I’ll show you a teacher who probably needs to find something else to do. My open mind helps me be willing to allow the Republicans to remind Americans how they govern. I enter my classroom every morning with a  smile on my face and determined to do an excellent job because, in theory, I only have 200 days to work miracles (and if you don’t think that learning is a miraculous endeavor, then you haven’t studied the psychology behind it). Teachers fight against a constantly changing, pro-privatization landscape--where lobbyists ensure that the cards are stacked against us--and where we stare in the face of increasingly high expectations to reach every child and motivate them to learn, whether they want to learn something that day or not. Yet, public school teachers across this state yield superb results year after year. We are driven to teach the students who are in front of us and we understand that making excuses is an exercise in futility.

Likewise, the Republican Party fought hard to inherit a dysfunctional political system--part of which is their own obstructionist fault. They are now in charge of correcting what isn’t working. Doing so would require them to shore up division within their own party in a political era where “party leaders” are largely a relic of the past. As a concerned father of two beautiful daughters, and as a father in loco parentis of over 100 children every year, I will be intently watching their every move. Undoubtedly, the time will come when I will need to shift from father and educator to activist, and I hope that every citizen is willing to do the same. America loves a good underdog story, and there are no greater underdogs than our children.

Regardless of political affiliation, we all share the the desire to leave this world a better place for our kids than it was for us. We all want America to be great, and we must be willing to act and have our voices heard. In the words of President Obama in his farewell address: “All of this depends on our participation; on each of us accepting the responsibility of citizenship, regardless of which way the pendulum of power happens to be swinging. Our Constitution is a remarkable, beautiful gift. But it’s really just a piece of parchment. It has no power on its own. We, the people, give it power. We, the people, give it meaning — with our participation, and with the choices that we make and the alliances that we forge.”

Sunday, January 8, 2017

Vouchers "Wrong Answer" for TN Schools

This column, which originally appeared in Tennessee Education Report, is from State Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, who is the Democratic Leader in the TN House of Representatives.

Every one of us learns something new every day.  Whether it is in a classroom, something we read or hear through media, or just a new fact we get from a friend or family member, we are constantly learning new things about our communities, our state and country, and our world.

Being educated doesn’t mean you will always know the answers; it means you have the tools to go and find the answers.  As a young man growing up, there is no way that my friends and I could have imagined the technological advances that we see today.  But my teachers in tiny Ripley, Tennessee worked hard to make sure that we went out into the world prepared to learn throughout our lives, and I know our state is full of dedicated teachers who are continuing in this tradition.

HB 1049, the Tennessee Choice and Opportunity Scholarship Act, is the latest version of the voucher program that we have discussed in the General Assembly.  On Monday, February 8th, members of the Tennessee House of Representatives will vote on whether or not to take money from our already underfunded public schools.  A state that is ranked 47th nationally in school funding cannot take more money from its students.  We must listen to the people of our state and vote no.

Consider this: the Tennessee School Board Association has 141 member boards.  I asked their representative in a committee meeting how many of their school boards are against vouchers.  His answer: 141.  Not one school board in our state is for this program, but the proponents of the bill would have you believe that there is a ground swell for vouchers; there is not.  School board members have some of the closest relationships with their constituents, and they are positively not for vouchers.

Vouchers are not only the wrong answer for Tennessee; they aren’t addressing the true question of why schools and districts are having problems.  Kids who struggle in school are almost always having a deficiency in some areas of their life: they may be hungry, their home life may not be stable, and they may struggle with the hurdle of a learning disability, or simply may need glasses to see the board.  Vouchers do not address these issues.  Changing the location where a child goes during the school day does not change the environment to which they return every night.  We have large-scale issues that must be addressed to improve our schools.  A child that is hungry, tired and not prepared for the school day cannot be a success, no matter where their classroom is.

Voucher programs leave kids behind.  We as a government, and as a society, are tasked with making sure each and every child receives a quality education.  And kids are left behind in two ways: the first is that a child that doesn’t receive a voucher is left to what voucher proponents label a failing school.  Second, the school district loses that portion of the Basic Education Program (BEP) funding that is delineated for each student.  If we are removing money from our schools—to the tune of $130 million under this voucher bill—how will our public schools ever survive?  To take money from our schools is akin to tying a milestone around someone’s neck, tossing them into a lake, and then ask them why they are drowning.

Public schools are the backbone of our society. They are what drive our communities.  Good public school systems attract businesses and homebuyers.  One of the first questions a prospective homeowner will ask—even if they aren’t parents—is the quality of the local schools.  Any fall Tennessee evening you will find thousands of our neighbors at the local high school, cheering on their kids: the future of our state.   Schools make our communities.
I do understand—and agree—that many of our schools and our students are struggling to achieve their goals.  I know that not every school is the best it can be, and that to get all our students scoring were we want them to will be a Sisyphean effort, one that every student, teacher, administrator, parent and officeholder will have to work together to achieve.  This is hard work, but not impossible work.  As I heard a Metro Nashville Public School parent say during a committee meeting on vouchers, his kids didn’t need a voucher: they need a new school building, instead of the portable classrooms they learn in today.

The answer for successful Tennessee schools is this: we have to fully fund our public schools, support our students, teachers and administrators, and realize that we have no greater responsibility as a society than to make sure our children are healthy and educated.  
Our future literally depends on it.