First Person

Voices: Amendment 66 and V-8 engines

The vice-president of the Adams 12 Five Star School Board, Norm Jennings, argues that policymakers should learn from the failure of Amendment 66 that voters want to reform the school system, not the funding. And join EdNews for a panel discussion on the future of school finance in the wake of Amendment 66 Tuesday evening at 6 p.m. RSVP here. 

Image of school desk atop a dollar bill.Supporters of Amendment 66 had plenty of reasons for why they felt the Constitutional ballot question was so soundly defeated. Some of the reasons given were: voters were distracted by the floods (that occurred a month before ballots were delivered in the mail); distrust of government competence to run a large program (understandable); federal government shutdown (???); and voter aversion to increased taxes (which really means Pro 66 folks think 65 percent of the state’s voters are just plain stingy).

Not one supporter suggested that perhaps voters understand something they don’t –- the assumption that more funding will lead to better student outcomes is wrong.

Most voters probably don’t know about the colossal failure of unlimited funding in the Kansas City, Missouri School District (KCMSD). A federal lawsuit alleging segregation overseen by a federal judge gave the KCMSD a blank checkbook and ordered the state of Missouri to essentially fill in whatever amount they requested. The request came to a total of $2 billion (on top of normal funding) from 1985 to 1997. The judge finally put an end to the spending orgy when that money failed to produce a meaningful difference in the academic performance of students. Scores were flat and achievement gaps were unchanged. The adults benefitted as district employees were given raises and additional staff were hired, vendors sold lots of new curriculum, and contractors built new facilities. As far as the students were concerned, they could have lined up along the banks of the Missouri River and watched that money float by for all the good it did them.

KCMSD should have been a warning siren that massive spending on public education just doesn’t produce results. In fact, the only result massive additional spending produced was a more expensive version of crappy.

We’d be a whole lot better off if we paid attention to the parts of KCMSD that were ignored –- the system. I believe voters know this intuitively.

Too many people have “bad teacher” stories. Everyone knows one –- the wasted year or class that voters suffered through as students themselves; the children’s teacher that just frustrated parents because their child wasn’t learning; the teacher that appeared to be performing on-the-job early retirement; the complaints they hear from nieces and nephews, cousins, grandchildren, neighbors, etc. Fortunately these “bad teachers” aren’t the majority, but there are enough of them that they are a drag on the whole system.

Why did an organized $10 million spend in favor of Amendment 66 still lead to a two-to-one defeat? Because voters know that no amount of additional funding will remove bad teachers from classrooms. Voters understand that no amount of funding will eliminate job protectionism that keeps bad teachers in classrooms. Voters suspect that eliminating job protection for bad teachers would not pose a financial burden on districts. Voters also suspect that more money in the name of “attracting and retaining great teachers” will also end up in the pocket of bad teachers and the cycle will continue unbroken but more expensive.

I have an analogy that explains the paradox that more money doesn’t produce better academic results. Education is like a V-8 engine that has three fouled out spark plugs and adding more money is like putting higher-octane gas in the tank. The higher-octane gas will help the five working spark plugs produce more power and mask some of the problems. But higher-octane gas is no substitute for replacing the fouled out spark plugs.

If we want to improve education we need to focus our reform efforts on the system –- not the funding. We need to replace those spark plugs.

First Person

I’m a teacher in Memphis, and I know ‘grading floors’ aren’t a cheat — they’re a key motivator

PHOTO: Creative Commons / Shelly

Growing up, my father used to tell me not to come to him with a problem unless I had a solution.

That meant I learned quickly what kinds of solutions wouldn’t go over well — like ones involving my father and his money. His policy also meant that I had to weigh pros and cons, thinking about what I was able to do, what I wasn’t, and whom I needed help from in order to make things happen.

I sometimes wish decision-makers in Memphis had a father like mine. Because more often than not, it seems we are talking about the problems void of a solution or even possible solutions to vet.

Right now, the issue in Memphis and Shelby County Schools is the “grading floor,” or the policy of setting a lowest possible grade a teacher can assign a student. They have been temporarily banned after a controversy over high-school grade changing.

Grading floors aren’t new to teachers in Memphis, or to me, a fifth-grade teacher. I have taught and still teach students who are at least two grade levels behind. This was true when I taught fourth grade and when I taught sixth grade. Honestly, as the grade level increased, so did the gaps I saw.

More often than not, these students have been failed by a school, teacher, leader or system that did not adequately prepare them for the next grade. Meanwhile, in my classroom, I have a responsibility to teach grade-level material — adjusting it for individual students — and to grade their work accordingly.

That’s where “grading floors” come in. Without a grading floor, all of my current students would have grades below a 65 percent.

Can you imagine seeing the face of a fifth-grade boy who tried his hardest on your test, who answered all the questions you gave orally, who made connections to the text through auditory comprehension, only to receive a 0 on his paper?

I don’t have to imagine – I see similar reactions multiple times a day. Whether it’s a 65 percent or a 14 percent, it’s still an F, which signals to them “failure.” The difference between the two was summed up by Superintendent Hopson, who stated, “With a zero, it’s impossible to pass a course. It creates kids who don’t have hope, disciplinary issues; that creates a really bad scenario.”

I know that as years go by and a student’s proficiency gap increases, confidence decreases, too. With a lowered confidence comes a lower level of self-efficacy — the belief that they can do what they need to do to succeed. This, to me, is the argument for the grading floor.

In completing research for my master’s degree, I studied the correlation between reading comprehension scores and the use of a motivational curriculum. There was, as might have guessed, an increase in reading scores for students who received this additional curriculum.

So every day, I speak life into my students, who see Fs far too often in their daily lives. It is not my job as their teacher to eradicate their confidence, stifle their effort, and diminish their confidence by giving them “true” Fs.

“This is not an indication of your hard work, son. Yet, the reality is, we have to work harder,” I tell students. “We have to grind in order to make up what we’ve missed and I’m the best coach you have this year.”

In education, there are no absolutes, so I don’t propose implementing grading floors across the board. But I do understand their potential — not to make students appear more skilled than they are, or to make schools appear to be better than they are, but to keep students motivated enough to stay on track, even when it’s difficult.

If it is implemented, a grade floor must be coupled with data and other reports that provide parents, teachers, and other stakeholders with information that accurately highlights where a student is, both within the district and nationally. Parents shouldn’t see their child’s progress through rose-colored glasses, or be slapped by reality when options for their child are limited during and after high school.

But without hope, effort and attainment are impossible. If we can’t give hope to our kids, what are we here for?

I don’t have all the answers, but in the spirit of my father, don’t come with a problem unless you have a solution.

Marlena Little is a fifth-grade teacher in Memphis. A version of this piece first appeared on Memphis K-12, a blog for parents and students.

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at [email protected]

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede