chalk talk

State Board of Education member Cato Johnson on how education is like health care

PHOTO: Daarel Burnette II
State Board of Education member Cato Johnson in his Methodist Healthcare office in Memphis
Cato Johnson has spent most of his adult life working in health care, but always has been interested in education. Appointed to the State Board of Education last July by Gov. Bill Haslam, Johnson now is helping to forge Tennessee’s education path, working with the state Department of Education on everything from standards to textbooks.
A Memphis native, Johnson is senior vice president of Methodist Healthcare, a church-affiliated nonprofit health care system based in Memphis with facilities across the Midsouth. Much of his policy work has been focused on health – as vice chairman of the state Health Planning and Advisory Board and chairman of the TennCare Medical Care Advisory Committee. He also has served as chairman and vice chairman of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission.
In an interview with Chalkbeat, Johnson, 67, discusses how his experience in health care and passion for education will help him better represent students in Memphis.

You’re a native Memphian. What schools did you go to? 

I graduated from Carver High School, then I went to the University of Memphis for undergrad and graduate school.

Other than as a student, what has been your experience with public schools in Memphis?
I was inducted into the Memphis City Schools Hall of Fame. I have served on numerous ad hoc committees for the school system when it was Memphis City Schools. I served on the THEC [Tennessee Higher Education Commission] for several years — I was the chair for one year the vice chair for two years — and I’ve served on the Shelby County Schools Foundation board. My background is in education, in both undergraduate and graduate school, but I never taught.
How does your work in health care translate to education?
One of the things that you realize in health policy and being involved is health care is, at the end of the day, the patient is the center of all you do. In education, it’s no different. The student has to be in the center of all discussions: How do we make sure that we have exceptional standards for our students? That our students will be ready for college or other programs? The second thing is the tremendous importance of the physician, who is going to deliver services to the patient. In education, it’s the teachers and instructors. How do we support them so they can do what they do best, and that’s teach our students at the highest level? We always debate a great deal about what’s best in health care, funding and protocols. But at the end of the day, the patient wants to see you’re doing the best you can do to help him get better. Same goes for education.
What’s surprised you since you started working with the State Board of Education?
Cato Johnson
Cato Johnson

I haven’t really been surprised, having been involved in THEC. I think what I have been the most pleased with is the tremendous dedication of the staff who work with the State Board of Education and the Department of Education – how well prepared everyone is, the research that’s done, the amount of work that’s done, and the scrutiny they give their work. The other thing I’ve been impressed with is the new executive director, Sara Heyburn, and the new commissioner, Candice McQueen. I think they’re going to do great things.

How does being a Memphian impact your work with the State Board of Education?
I think the great impact is when you look at the level of poverty in this community. When you look at the fact that we’re third from the bottom in terms of income, that 28 percent of our citizens live in poverty, that more than 80 percent of students qualify for free and reduced lunch. When you look at the fact that so many live in very, very dire circumstances, you realize the importance of education – that education is the path to success. It leads me to understand how seriously I take my role as a member of the State Board of Education. This is critically important – what education can do to move a community to another level.
Industries will not move into a city where they do not believe you have a strong school system, or an educated workforce.
What do you expect to be the biggest issues the State Board of Education tackles? 
Standards are extremely important. And I don’t have any doubt that we will continue the debate on choice. How does that work? Is it feasible to talk about this choice versus that choice? In Memphis, we’ll continue to have debates about the I-Zone [Innovation Zone] and the Achievement School District, but one of the things I’m most gratified by is that education is a tremendous priority of this governor, and if we’re going to have strong support for education, the governor must make it a priority.
EDITOR’S NOTE: Each month, Chalkbeat conducts a Q&A interview with a different leader, innovator, influential thinker or hero across Tennessee’s education community. We invite our readers to email Chalkbeat your suggestions for future subjects to [email protected]
Contact Grace Tatter at [email protected]
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newark notes

In Newark, a study about school changes rings true — and raises questions — for people who lived them

PHOTO: Naomi Nix
Park Elementary principal Sylvia Esteves.

A few years ago, Park Elementary School Principal Sylvia Esteves found herself fielding questions from angst-ridden parents and teachers.

Park was expecting an influx of new students because Newark’s new enrollment system allowed parents to choose a K-8 school for their child outside of their neighborhood. That enrollment overhaul was one of many reforms education leaders have made to Newark Public Schools since 2011 in an effort to expand school choice and raise student achievement.

“What’s it going to mean for overcrowding? Will our classes get so large that we won’t have the kind of success for our students that we want to have?” Esteves recalls educators and families asking.

Park’s enrollment did grow, by about 200 students, and class sizes swelled along with it, Esteves said. But for the last two years, the share of students passing state math and English tests has risen, too.

Esteves was one of several Newark principals, teachers, and parents who told Chalkbeat they are not surprised about the results of a recent study that found test scores dropped sharply in the years immediately following the changes but then bounced back. By 2016, it found Newark students were making greater gains on English tests than they were in 2011.

Funded by the Chan Zuckerberg Initiative and conducted by Harvard researchers, the study also found the reforms had no impact on student math scores.

And while many Newark families and school leaders agree with the study’s conclusion — that students are making more progress now — they had very different ideas about what may have caused the initial declines, and why English growth was more obvious than math.

Supported by $200 million in private philanthropy, former superintendent Cami Anderson and other New Jersey officials in 2011 sought to make significant changes to the education landscape in Newark, where one third of more than 50,000 students attend privately managed charter schools. Their headline-grabbing reforms included a new teachers union contract with merit-based bonuses; the universal enrollment system; closing some schools; expanding charter schools; hiring new principals; requiring some teachers to reapply for their jobs; and lengthening the day at some struggling schools.

Brad Haggerty, the district’s chief academic officer, said the initial drop in student performance coincided with the district’s introduction of a host of changes: new training materials, evaluations, and curricula aligned to the Common Core standards but not yet assessed by the state’s annual test. That was initially a lot for educators to handle at once, he said, but teacher have adjusted to the changes and new standards.

“Over time our teaching cadre, our faculty across the entire district got stronger,” said Haggerty, who arrived as a special assistant to the superintendent in 2011.

But some in Newark think the district’s changes have had longer-lasting negative consequences.

“We’ve had a lot of casualties. We lost great administrators, teachers,” said Bashir Akinyele, a Weequahic High School history teacher. “There have been some improvements but there were so many costs.”

Those costs included the loss of veteran teachers who were driven out by officials’ attempts to change teacher evaluations and make changes to schools’ personnel at the same time, according to Sheila Montague, a former school board candidate who spent two decades teaching in Newark Public Schools before losing her position during the changes.

“You started to see experienced, veteran teachers disappearing,” said Montague, who left the school system after being placed in the district’s pool of educators without a job in a school. “In many instances, there were substitute teachers in the room. Of course, the delivery of instruction wasn’t going to even be comparable.”

The district said it retains about 95 percent of its highly-rated teachers.

As for why the study found that Newark’s schools were seeing more success improving English skills than math, it’s a pattern that Esteves, the Park Elementary principal, says she saw firsthand.

While the share of students who passed the state English exam at Park rose 13 percentage points between the 2014-2015 and 2015-2016 school years, the share of students who were proficient in math only rose 3 percentage points in that time frame.

“[Math is] where we felt we were creeping up every year, but not having a really strong year,” she said. “I felt like there was something missing in what we were doing that could really propel the children forward.”

To improve Park students’ math skills, Esteves asked teachers to assign “math exemplars,” twice-a-month assignments that probed students’ understanding of concepts. Last year, Park’s passing rate on the state math test jumped 12 percentage points, to 48 percent.

While Newark students have made progress, families and school leaders said they want to the district to make even more gains.

Test scores in Newark “have improved, but they are still not where they are supposed to be,” said Demetrisha Barnes, whose niece attends KIPP Seek Academy. “Are they on grade level? No.”

Chalkbeat is expanding to Newark, and we’re looking for a reporter to lead our efforts there. Think it should be you? Apply here.  

Who Is In Charge

Indianapolis Public Schools board gives superintendent Ferebee raise, bonus

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
Lewis Ferebee

Indianapolis Public Schools Superintendent Lewis Ferebee is getting a $4,701 raise and a bonus of $28,000.

The board voted unanimously to approve both. The raise is a 2.24 percent salary increase. It is retroactive to July 1, 2017. Ferebee’s total pay this year, including the bonus, retirement contributions and a stipend for a car, will be $286,769. Even though the bonus was paid this year, it is based on his performance last school year.

The board approved a new contract Tuesday that includes a raise for teachers.

The bonus is 80 percent of the total — $35,000 — he could have received under his contract. It is based on goals agreed to by the superintendent and the board.

These are performance criteria used to determine the superintendent’s bonus are below: