Archives for category: Tennessee

The research is clear: schools in rural and semi-rural districts work best when they have the support of the entire community.

Cheatham County, Tennessee, doesn’t need competing schools–one that picks its students, the other legally required to accept all students.

Stick together. Act as a community. Don’t divide your community.

When your board meets on August 18, tell them you support public education. Tell them you want your school to be governed by an elected board, not an unaccountable corporation.

Tell them you support your community public school. Your school needs parental involvement and community support. It needs collaboration, not competition. Don’t let the elites push you around for their benefit. Schools are not a hobby or a plaything. They belong to the community. Don’t let them take it away. It is yours.

In their rush to privatize public education in Tennessee, the Governor and the legislature enacted legislation in 2011 authorizing the Tennesee Virtual Academy, an online charter school run by K12 Inc.

K12 is a for-profit corporation started by Michael and Lloyd Milken. It is traded on the New York Stock Exchange. It earns millions for its owners but has received bad reviews in the New York Times and the Washington Post. The National Education Policy Center wrote a devastating critique of its academic results, as did CREDO in a report about Pennsylvania. In that state, virtual charter schools do worse than either public schools or brick-and-mortar charter schools.

Nonetheless, Tennessee wanted to be in the vanguard of the privatization movement. K12 partnered with Union County public schools, which collect 4% of K12’s proceeds. K12 pockets the other 96%, which is drawn from public schools across the state. The K12 virtual school is one of the lowest performing schools in the state, but Commissioner Kevin Huffman lacks the grit to shut it down. Despite its poor results, enrollment continues to grow. The company uses public dollars for recruiting, marketing, and advertising, and parents are persuaded by the sales pitch and the free computer to try homeschooling. Unfortunately, students often lack the motivation to stick with the program, and many drop out and return to their local public school, minus the state tuition grant.

Instead of shutting the school down, after three years of poor results, Commissioner Huffman announced that he would not permit the next entering class of 626 students to enroll. If the TVA were a public school, it would have its doors nailed shut. But Huffman decided to give TVA more time and to ignore its dismal results.

In a pattern that is typical for virtual charter schools, the students at the TVA have low test scores and high attrition. When the students return to their public schools, they have low proficiency. Meanwhile, their home district loses money, and K12’s bottom line grows.

Meanwhile a Washington-based organization that advocates for school choice blasted Huffman. The Center for Educational Reform said:

“The Center for Education Reform strongly condemns the recent directive by the Tennessee Education Commissioner to un-enroll 626 students from the Tennessee Virtual Academy (TNVA), denying them their school choice rights.

“It’s an outrage that these 626 legally enrolled students are now being forcefully turned away, just two weeks before the start of the school year,” said Kara Kerwin, president of The Center for Education Reform. “This represents an unreasonable attempt by Commissioner Huffman to virtually block the schoolhouse door.”

To CER, school choice is far more important than school quality. No matter how low the test scores or the graduation rate, no matter how high the attrition rate, CER will fight for students’ right to choose low-quality schools. How this is supposed to improve U.S. education is a mystery.

Except for a small number of students with compelling reasons to stay home instead of going to school, virtual charter schools are a waste of public funds.


Poor Tennessee! It is locked in the embrace of fake reformers who promise miracles, and a far-right legislature that wants to believe them. Worse, having won a Race to the Top grant, it has to produce miracles, even if they are fabricated out of whole cloth.

One of the alleged miracles-to-be is the Achievement School District, led by Chris Barbic of TFA and YES Prep. Barbic came to Tennessee to take charge of the lowest-performing schools and promised to raise them up to the top 25% in the state in only five years.

Now come the lies. Gary Rubinstein here unravels the manipulation of data to show how unimpressive the gains are as contrasted to the miracle claims.

Gary writes, after analyzing the numbers:

“Suddenly, it’s not so good anymore. The ASD grew by 1.1% more than the state in that period while the ASD actually went down by .7% more than the state went down. At this rate of losing .35% of ground each year to the state, the ASD will never get out of the bottom 5% in reading, and for math where there is a 30% difference between the ASD and the Tennessee average, if they creep up at .5% a year it will take 60 years for them to get to the 50% mark, let alone the top 25%.”

As Gary shows, there were no miracles, other than the miraculous tales told by the reformers to their true believers.

The clock is ticking. Three years to go until the bottom 5% is in the top 25% of all schools in Tennessee. Anyone want to place bets?

Carol Burris, principal of south side High School in Rockville Center, New York, writes here about the multiple flaws of test-based teacher evaluations.

At an Ed Trust celebration, Duncan told the crowd, “But we can’t let the perfect become the enemy of the good. We can’t let the utopian become the enemy of the excellent. And we can’t let rhetorical purity become the enemy of rigorous practice.” I do not have any idea what the third admonishment means, but I doubt Arne needs to fear that his rhetoric is pure.

So it came as no surprise that when he spoke of Tennessee’s teacher evaluation plan, Mr. Duncan praised the state for “not letting the perfect become the enemy of the good”. The teachers of Tennessee, however, are not seeing the new system as “the good”—they are, for the second time, suing the state because the system is, in their eyes, arbitrary and flawed. And it is.

When it comes to the new teacher evaluation systems, it is not a dispute between perfect and good. We are now forbidding the good to be the enemy of the lousy. The use of students’ scores is becoming more and more indefensible. In New York State, teachers despise APPR, and it is equally unpopular among principals who, for the most part, see it as a headache that does nothing to improve teacher performance. Teacher and principal scores, by district, were supposed to be released in the winter. It is the end of July and they have not appeared. That is not a surprise. If they were released, it would be an embarrassment, especially for districts that actually tried to engage in the Las Vegas pursuit of predicting student growth from pre-tests to post-tests. The New York State Education Department is stalling, and Governor Cuomo is letting it happen.

There was one state, Massachusetts, that created a plan that was more sensible than most. It did not use numbers, but rather was rubric based. It was phased in over time and applied to everyone, including central administrators. But now that the time has come to phase in the test scores, the trouble begins.

In his July 17 memo to Superintendents and Charter School leaders, Commissioner Mitchell Chester states he is pleased that the Bay State has not chosen “an algorithmic approach,” only to later explain in detail the algorithm by which teachers should be evaluated by test scores. To go further down the path of the lousy, he explains how the state will generate growth scores from PARCC exams for participating schools, and then attempt to show “growth” from the prior year student MCAS scores. Please say it isn’t so. That is not a growth measure. That is comparing students with similar scores on one test with each other the following year on an entirely different test. New York did the same thing last year. Can you do it? Of course you can—there is very little that you cannot do with numbers. It is easy to create a formula that is intimidating enough that eyes will glaze over. But that does not make it valid, reliable, fair or useful. It will be one more silly system that will result in a lawsuit, no doubt.

Chiefs for Change, including State Superintendents Huffman and Skandera, took the NEA and AFT to task for having the guts to back away from the test-based teacher evaluation systems they once supported. They accused them of ‘evading accountability’ like horse thieves running from the posse. They wanted union leaders to sit compliantly with hands folded, in the face of mounting evidence that the test-score evaluation systems are not working. These Chiefs for ‘change at any cost’, do not understand. True accountability means having the courage to speak the truth when facts come to light, even when it contradicts what you once supported. To keep one’s mouth shut as the lousy marches forward is wrong.

The Koch brothers arranged a panel discussion about vouchers and why they are beyond wonderful. It wasn’t a debate. All four members of the panel supported vouchers. No one was there to say that voucher schools have never outperformed public schools, that voucher schools promote segregation, and that voucher schools divert money from public schools. The controversial Steve Perry from Connecticut, a state which has no vouchers, strongly endorsed them.

Fortunately, a few brave souls joined the audience and asked questions. One of them was a parent who went right to the heart of the matter. He was not intimidated by the stacked panel.

“Some were there to offer a counter view. T.C. Weber, a Metro Nashville school parent, questioned the “end game” of diverting funding from public schools.

“Are you looking to destroy the public system that we already have and build a new one based on your ideas?”

T.C. Weber is a hero of public education. I am delighted to add him to our honor roll for his courage and his commitment to democratic institutions.

A group funded by the notorious conservative Koch brothers will host a school choice forum in Nashville on July 22.

Here are their panelists:

“Moderating the talk will be Shaka Mitchell, who works for Rocketship Education, a California-based charter school organization with an East Nashville location set to open this summer. A second Rocketship school in Nashville has been approved to open in 2015.

“Panelists are Jonathan Butcher, education director of the Goldwater Institute; Stephanie Linn, state programs and government relations director of the Friedman Foundation for Educational Choice; Justin Owen, president and CEO of the Beacon Center of Tennessee; and Steve Perry, principal of Capital Preparatory Magnet School, a Connecticut-based charter school.

“In a statement announcing the forum, the organization applauds Tennessee’s 2010 move to an outcomes-based funding formula for public universities that’s supposed to reward institutions that meet benchmarks. The group says Tennessee’s K-12 public schools, however, have some of the “most high-profile problems in its urban school districts.”

“It alludes to last year’s failed push for school vouchers that would allow public funds to be used for private schooling.”

You can be sure that the panel will not mention Rocketship’s plummeting scores, nor the fact that neither vouchers nor charters outperform public schools. And the word will be mum on recent charter scandals in Connecticut, Ohio, and Michigan.

I don’t know about you, but I am sick of the test score obsession. I think our schools need to have a prolonged testing moratorium so we can figure out what education should be about and how to reduce our dependence on testing.

But since that has not happened yet, we are compelled to look at the rise and fall of test scores. .

When Tennessee’s scores went up on NAEP last year, Arne Duncan speedily pointed to Tennesssee as a shining star of Race to the Top, and the state even got a shout out from the President in his State of the Union.

Now the state scores are in, and there won’t be any boasting. If there is, it is simply spin.

Gary Rubinstein reports that Tennessee’s state scores were flat. they were up a wee bit in math, grades 3-8, and down a bit in reading, same grades. The biggest drops were in third grade, the kids most exposed to reform magic, where the reformers should be showing big gains.

Don’t expect to hear anything about Tennessee’s state scores from Arne Duncan or the President.

I posted about a week ago about efforts by members of Teach for America to open a charter school in rural Cheatham County in Tennessee.

The Cheatham County school board voted to deny the application for the Cumberland Academy Charter School, 5-0, with one member absent.

Nashville Prep boasts some of the highest test scores in Tennessee.


Its singular goal is college preparation.


Fortunately, we can see what the school considers good instruction by looking at a video that is posted on its website.


It is called “6 Minutes with Ms. McDonalds’ 5th Grade Social Studies Class.”


Watch it and decide for yourself. Are these students being prepared to be successful in college? Will they be the thinkers, scientists, inventors, and innovators of the 21st century?


You be the judge.

Tracy O’Neill is a mom and education activist in rural Cheatham County, Tennessee. This pleasant community is now riven by a controversy, as TFA corps members seek approval to open a charter school to compete with the public schools. Aside from the financial cost to the community, the charter school will divide community support for the local schools. Tracy is running for a seat on the local school board, to be in a position to support the public schools against this effort to undermine them and set neighbor against neighbor.

Tuesday, June 10, 2014 – Tracy A. O’Neill – Ashland City, TN

Cheatham County, Tennessee is a small rural community just outside of Nashville. As far as the eye can see are rolling hills and green fields. Driving down the main roads through the small towns that make up the corners of our beautiful county you find Community theaters, baseball diamonds, soccer games, and Friday night lights that fill the weeks throughout the year. One of the many benefits of living in a small country town is that we know our neighbors; we know the kids, and we are involved in our public schools.

Like many communities across the country, and the state of Tennessee, Cheatham Co has been struggling with poor leadership on our local school board and in our administration. Over the last few years, we have had a revolving door of teachers come and go for one reason or another. Due to poor decisions at the top, our lovely quiet community has become a target area for the infamous poachers of public education: Teach for America.

A few years ago, a new Director of Schools- who was bought out after one year – brought Teach for America corps members ( TFA ) to fill the “hard to fill teaching positions,” yet core subjects in the High Schools, like math, were left unfilled for months at a time. I find it ironic, and disgraceful that the Cheatham county Board of Education continues to push highly qualified, experienced educators out the door, yet continue to offer two-year contracts to unlicensed TFA recruits that have only five weeks training. What I want to know is the rationale behind this decision?

Apparently, the “solution” is being offered by two TFA Corps members who, in April, submitted an application for a Charter School to open in little ole’ Cheatham County. On June 10, 2014, a newly comprised committee appointed by the school board hosted a public meeting to ask questions of the applicants and their board members. Ironically, but not really surprisingly, 3 of the 6 members sitting at the table for the new Cumberland Academy are from Teach for America. (Jimmy Hopper, Johnny Gersten and Brian Gilmore are all TFA alums). Hopper has been teaching in our High School for the past two years on a transitional license and Gersten, also transitional, taught at the Middle School for a short period a year or so ago. Most Cheatham County parents don’t know about Teach for America. They believed Hopper and Gersten were two of the many dedicated teachers in our school system. Now, we learn Hopper and Gersten have been teaching here with a goal to open Cumberland Academy, which will be, according to the Charter Board, the first model for rural charters across the entire country

Neither Gersten, nor Hopper, were licensed teachers in Tennessee. In fact, the lead guy, Jimmy Hopper, worked in DC Politics for one of the major parties before coming to the Cheatham County classroom and these two young men are slated to be the operators of this new school. Neither of them have a professional administrator’s license, yet Hopper will assume the role similar to an Executive Director, and Gersten….Well HE’S the “Director of CULTURE,” whatever the heck THAT dubious job description means.

Cheatham County has an ever-shrinking tax base and limited financial resources. This school is targeting students from the Ashland City and East Cheatham Elementary schools. Our county is wide and separated by the Cumberland River. The likelihood of students traveling to Ashland City from Pegram, Kingston Springs or Pleasant View to attend this school is slim. Therefore, logic would dictate that those students will be pulled from ONE middle school.

The Charter school will begin with 90 5th graders and add a higher grade each year. Now, that doesn’t sound like much. However, when you consider our average total class sizes range from 130-150 students, it’s HUGE! That’s over 50% of ONE class! Add another grade each year and they will decimate student enrollment at our middle school and severely limit our budget. We may have to lay off more teachers…we may have to combine classes…we may have to eliminate classes. Our local leaders may have to look to raise property taxes on struggling homeowners and landowners to make up for the loss. Parents and citizens need to understand what it means to allow a Charter School operation in a local community, especially one classified as rural, because contrary to self serving propaganda, this is NOT about school choice. It’s about MONEY.

In the neighboring City of Nashville, all available new revenue for Metro-Nashville Public Schools is going to charter schools, which currently serve only 5% of their students. The average annual growth in cash outlays for charter schools has exceeded 50% since 2008, versus only 4% for the rest of the district. Memphis is $157 million in debt, but must continue to pony up charter school funds. In 2003, the charter school budget was $1.9 million. Now it’s $82.9 million and even that’s up from $57.8 million last year. That’s over a $20 million increase in ONE YEAR! EIGHTY MILLION in just 10 years!

The Charter committee said they will target Cheatham County’s low income families, and homeschoolers, and are preparing a mass mail out with those families they have identified as prospects. The proposed operation site is in a local shopping center in between the Tractor Supply and the Food Lion grocery store. Where is the play ground for the kids? The parking lot? They have no plans to have a kitchen or onsite cafeteria services, but will find a contractor to give the kids some kind of food.

When asked by the committee why they haven’t provided a commitment letter for annual funding, Board member and venture capitalist Landon Gibbs replied, “none of these people want us to use their names.” Well, I find that to be a bit disconcerting. Who’s hiding what here?

The Charter Board members touted their recruitment to the committee stating they have had approximately 50 supportive parents at their public meetings. Cheatham County Chamber of Commerce Executive Director Ann Thomson followed up with, “How many of those 50 parents are (in your designated) low income target area?” The “I don’t know” response was stifling. Board of Education Instruction Supervisor, Stacey Brinkley asked the Charter Board their procedure for hiring highly qualified teachers. Brain Gilmore advised the board that they plan to use many avenues but intend to focus on TFA Alum to fill their classrooms.

Cheatham County’s Chief Academic Officer, Dr. Tara Watson asked the members why a “public charter?” With the name dropping of the Walton Foundation and all the infinite resources they seem to have available, “Why not open a private school?” she asked. TFA’s Gersten replied, “Our funders are very excited about The Cumberland Academy… They are not excited about funding another private school.” My question is, why not? If they truly believe they are innovators of education, then they need to put their money where their mouth is and fund this “public” school without our tax dollars. There is no law prohibiting a privately funded school from being open to the public. Colleges and Universities do it all the time.

As much information as I’ve written, I haven’t even begun to scratch the surface of this proposal. I believe this Charter school will cost us far more than it will contribute. Charter schools, whether labeled “public” or “private” are entities managed by private corporations that operate outside the purview of the law and outside the spirit in which they were originally designed and Cheatham County simply can’t afford another liability.

The Cheatham County School Board will be voting on the application to open The Cumberland Academy, June 24th, 2014. The meeting begins at 6:00 pm at the Annex Building in Ashland City. A public forum will be opened before they take up the application. Considering TFA people intend to use Cumberland Academy as their testing ground for a national model for rural charters, I strongly encourage every person possible to be at this meeting, because a TFA rural Charter just might be coming to your back yard next.

Space is VERY limited, so plan to arrive early if you want a seat.

Tracy A. O’Neill
Ashland City, TN
Cheatham County


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