“Letter of Concern” for Education, Sept. 2013

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"A labyrinth of disconnected and poorly conceived reforms" is how Williamson County School Superintendent Mike Looney describes the current situation being played out in education right now in Tennessee.

Education Update: Why I signed the letter of concern

In recent days, I have received many calls and notes of gratitude regarding my decision to join a large number of school superintendents from across the state to express concern about the implementation of some education reform initiatives in Tennessee. I also have had others ask for more information about my concerns. The intent of this letter is to give context, background, and clarity to the families I am privileged to serve as to why I decided to sign the letter of concern.

First, like my peers, I commend and support Governor Haslam’s focus on education and believe he is a true friend of education. I truly appreciate the Governor’s willingness to engage in sincere conversation about the concerns of superintendents across the state. Petitioning the government for redress is one of the founding principles of our Constitution, and I am thankful as Americans we have this right.

It would be simple to dismiss our concerns as an attempt to preserve the status quo or to deflect criticism of the Tennessee Department of Education’s leadership as bureaucratic protectionism. Nothing could be further from the truth. I am absolutely committed to the improvement process and want to help the Governor attain his education related goals. Moreover, I am convinced my peers feel the same.

However, a significant number of superintendents are weary of Education Commissioner Huffman’s inability or unwillingness to secure the support and input from those of us charged with picking up the pieces of the reform train wreckage that is being created. We are the ones who work day in and day out with teachers and administrators to implement reform. Superintendents must support and motivate the teachers who do the work.

On more than a few occasions, I have found myself trying to explain a policy change which in my view is not best for students, teachers, or the district I have been hired to serve. Worse, many of these changes were implemented with little or no input, independent of unique circumstances in which school districts operate, causing an erosion of local control of community schools.

Our state secured and has spent $500,000,000 in Race to the Top grant funds in the last three years. At the same time, Tennessee has realized small incremental improvements in student results. One might argue that the dizzying rate of education reforms in Tennessee is the result of the huge influx of federal dollars rather than a careful, measured understanding of the needs of students. Others believe these pockets of improvement are a result of implementing The Tennessee Diploma project, which preceded Race to the Top initiatives. In reality, as most any researcher would concede, it is difficult to know which reforms have been beneficial because we have manipulated too many variables.

Perhaps most discouraging is the fact that 50% of the $500,000,000 was kept by the Tennessee Department of Education. I wonder for what purpose and to whose benefit? The district I serve received less than $400,000 which did not come close to covering the cost and burden of implementing these reforms.

I can only dream of what would have been possible if some of these funds could have been used to enhance the arts, to incorporate foreign language in elementary schools, to provide money for gifted education services, or to meet the unique needs of districts across the state.

Instead, we got a labyrinth of disconnected and poorly conceived reforms.

Based on the number and pace of reforms, their strategy seems to be to throw as many darts as possible at the problem in hopes that something, anything, will hit the bull’s eye and stick. Meanwhile, many teachers and administrators have encouraged a more deliberate, reflective, and inclusive approach, which I believe will yield long term sustainable results. In short, Tennessee students, educators, and families are not well served by rapid-fire reform efforts that ignore the importance of collaboration and thoughtful implementation.

Some 20 months ago, when I first began to express concern about these issues, I was quickly told by a senior administrator in the Tennessee Department of Education to get on board. More specifically, I was told to “get under the tent.” I have tried, but there is no room in the tent. I would rather stay with my colleagues out in the field, even in the storm, for this is where the reform occurs.

Teachers are diligent, motivated, and capable.

I see teachers giving their hearts and souls to their work. I see teachers working at night, on weekends, and over holidays. They work tirelessly to challenge their students at all levels of the ability continuum regardless of race, income levels or whether they circled the correct code on a standardized test answer sheet. Teachers are heroes. For these reasons and more, I signed my name with pride.

In closing, my concerns have nothing to do with the Governor or the need for education reform. In fact, throughout my career, I have prided myself in leading reform efforts. When I was a young Marine, I learned an important lesson which might be applicable in this situation. You can’t win a battle without your troops!

Mike Looney
Superintendent of Williamson County Schools

Susan Swindell Day is the editor in chief of Nashville Parent and the mom of four amazing kids.

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