Nashville school board member and political operative apologizes for his part in Tennessee’s Race to the Top

PHOTO: State of Tennessee
Gov. Phil Bredesen poses with state legislative leaders on Jan. 26, 2010, for a ceremonial signing of the First to the Top Act. The law was passed as part of Tennessee's competitive application for the U.S. Department of Education's Race to the Top grant program under President Barack Obama.

As a key adviser to former Gov. Phil Bredesen, Will Pinkston was an insider in Tennessee’s aggressive campaign to overhaul public education policies and win a $500 million award under the federal Race to the Top competition in 2010.

Later as a school board member in Nashville, he had a front-row seat to how those changes played out and the money was used.

Will Pinkston

Now approaching the 10th anniversary of the signing of a federal stimulus package that funded Race to the Top grants, Pinkston is apologizing to students, parents, and teachers for his role in spawning what he calls “some of the most damaging education policies in modern American history.”

In a 16,000-word essay that he self-published on Monday, Pinkston depicts Tennessee’s Race to the Top journey as a well-intentioned bipartisan effort to improve schools that disintegrated into a full-board assault on public education by punishing teachers and their unions.

Pinkston’s essay is titled “Race to the Bottom: How Bad Actors Tried to Destroy Public Education.”

It’s one perspective — but one that’s likely to interest education observers in Tennessee and beyond. Here’s part of his introduction:

I see in retrospect the mistake that I made while working on Race to the Top. I feel equal parts guilty and sad about it. In my view, the problem isn’t that Race to the Top’s fundamentals were flawed. No one can argue with the need for rigorous K-12 academic standards and aligned tests, effective school turnaround strategies and a focus on great teachers and school leaders. But Race to the Top jumped the rails when a cast of radical reformers hijacked the agenda during political transitions. Bad actors began working overtime to dismantle public schools. Here in Tennessee, our largest school systems — in Memphis and Nashville — became part of ground zero in the country’s civil war over public education, joining embattled school systems in cities like Los Angeles, Milwaukee and New Orleans.

A communications and political consultant who last year worked on Bredesen’s unsuccessful U.S. Senate bid, Pinkston writes harshly about the administration of former Gov. Bill Haslam, a moderate Republican who in 2011 succeeded Pinkston’s Democratic term-limited boss, and the newly elected GOP-controlled legislature with which Haslam worked. Pinkston charges that they used the handoff on Race to the Top as a license to hurt the state teachers union and enact policies that undermine traditional public schools. Here’s another excerpt:

In April [of 2011], Haslam signed into law a bill making it harder for teachers to obtain and retain tenure. In June, he signed into law the repeal of teachers’ collective bargaining rights. That same month, he signed into law a bill doing away with caps and eligibility limits on publicly financed, privately run charter schools, which many people oppose because they drain resources from existing public schools. The new charter law also converted the [state-run] Achievement School District, created by the First to the Top Act to turn around persistently failing schools, into a statewide authorizer of charter schools. Changes in the ASD would have a negative fiscal impact on the state’s largest school systems in Memphis and Nashville, and rile parent-teacher organizations.

In just six months on the job, Haslam managed to alienate Tennessee’s teaching profession — or at least the state’s largest teachers’ union, the 52,000-member Tennessee Education Association. Along the way, he broke the grand bargain that had been struck during Race to the Top — that all the key players were in it together and would collaborate as a team.

Within two years, however, Tennessee was basking in the glow of outsized gains on the Nation’s Report Card. Pinkston offers his own explanation for the state’s rise in national academic rankings: New academic standards were part of the Race to the Top vision but had reached Tennessee classrooms months before state lawmakers approved the full reform package.

On November 7, 2013, the Haslam administration got a public reprieve of sorts. The U.S. Department of Education announced that Tennessee had become the fastest-improving state in the history the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), also known as the Nation’s Report Card. The results were impressive. Tennessee’s 4th-graders climbed from 46th to 37th in math, and 41st to 31st in reading. In terms of overall student growth,“we literally blew away the other states,” Haslam said during a celebratory news conference at West Wilson Middle School in Mt. Juliet, Tenn., outside of Nashville. The governor failed to acknowledge that Tennessee’s Race to the Top plan, which he initially refused to endorse, actually predicted steep gains on the Nation’s Report Card following implementation of more rigorous academic standards in the 2009-10 school year. The 2010 Race to the Top plan expressly noted: “On the NAEP, we know from experience that results are harder to shift, and that we will not likely see real gains until 2013 when students have had several years under the new standards.” Someone had a crystal ball.

Race to the Top was a U.S. Education Department program that told states they could win part of $4.35 billion in new funds as long as they committed to the department’s priorities — an enticing offer at a time when the economic recession was hobbling state budgets. Those priorities included shared academic standards, or expectations of what students learn and when they learn it; improving the lowest-performing schools; measuring students’ growth over time; and designing policies to reward and retain top teachers. Tennessee combined the student growth and teacher quality requirements to develop a teacher evaluation system that weighed student test scores.

Pinkston has been a polarizing personality since his election to Nashville’s school board in 2012, particularly because of his contempt for the charter movement and his zeal for preserving funding for traditional public schools. A former board member of a Nashville charter school, Pinkston said the experience left him disenchanted with the publicly funded, privately governed schools, and he began working aggressively to prevent the charter sector from expanding in the city where he graduated from public schools. He since has gotten into occasional combative exchanges with both charter supporters and leaders on social media. Pinkston describes his public persona this way:

Not long after I was elected, my former boss Gov. Bredesen suggested to a reporter that my biggest challenge on the school board might be managing my own temperament because I don’t “suffer fools gladly.” He was right. And in my estimation, the landscape was swarming with fools.

Fools who didn’t understand basic math when it came to the negative fiscal impact of unabated charter growth. Fools who didn’t comprehend that Tennessee only became the fastest-improving state in the history of the Nation’s Report Card by pursuing nearly a decade of systemic reforms and investments — not ripping apart the fabric of urban school systems. Fools who didn’t value what I considered to be our greatest democratic institution — public education.

A former journalist with The (Nashville) Tennessean and The Wall Street Journal, Pinkston said he wrote the essay over the course of four years to chronicle the history of Tennessee’s Race to the Top journey and to provide an insider’s perspective on the state’s education policy changes over the last decade.

“We’re talking about a multibillion-dollar federal program — and Tennessee was at the leading edge, or as it turned out, the bleeding edge,” he said.

The essay was published on a personal website, and Pinkston told Chalkbeat that he developed the project at his own expense.

Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum.

In the last year, Haslam has racked up national awards and attention for his education work in office — particularly the launch of several pioneering college scholarship programs that offer two years of tuition-free education to high school graduates and adults. But Pinkston said he’s “annoyed at how badly the Haslam administration and the legislature screwed up” with Tennessee’s Race to the Top.

“A lot of good people worked very hard, for years, to build a bipartisan collaborative reform framework that got trashed in a matter of months and, a decade later, will take years to sort out in the courts,” he said, referencing a lawsuit scheduled for trial this year over the adequacy of state funding for schools.

Haslam did not immediately respond on Monday when asked for comment about Pinkston’s essay. (As outgoing governor, he reflected on his education legacy during this 2018 Q&A with Chalkbeat.)

Pinkston’s term on Nashville’s school board ends in 2020.

making the rounds

Tennessee’s new education chief ‘very confident’ that online testing will be smooth in April

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee's new education commissioner Penny Schwinn (second from left) met with Douglass High School students and Shelby County Schools leaders Friday.

As Tennessee’s new education commissioner wrapped up her second week on the job by visiting four schools in Shelby County, Penny Schwinn said she feels “very confident” the state has learned from its mistakes in online testing.

During the more than three-hour ride to Memphis on Friday, Schwinn said she continued to pore over documents showing evidence that the corrections the state department staff have put in place will work.

“I feel very confident that our team has looked into that,” she told reporters in a press conference after meeting with students. “They’re working with the vendor to ensure that testing is as smooth as possible this year.” Currently the state is working with Questar, who administered TNReady online last year.

She also said the state’s request for proposals from testing vendors, which is already months behind, will be released in about two weeks.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
From left: John Bush, principal of Douglass High School; Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Education Commissioner; and Joris Ray, interim superintendent for Shelby County Schools.

“No later than that,” she said. “We hope and expect to have a vendor in place before the end of the fiscal year,” in late June.

The day Schwinn was hired, she said getting state testing right would be her first priority. Three years of major technical failures have severely damaged the trust educators and parents have in the state’s test, TNReady. It is the main measure of how schools and teachers are doing, but state lawmakers exempted districts from most testing consequences in 2018.

From Schwinn’s first day on the job: Tennessee’s new education chief wants to ‘listen and learn’ with school visits

Prior to talking with reporters, Schwinn said she heard “hard-hitting questions” from several students at Douglass High School in Memphis about what the state can do to improve education. Schwinn has said she will visit Tennessee schools throughout her tenure to ‘listen and learn’ by talking to students and educators.

Reporters were not allowed to attend the student discussion with Schwinn and some Shelby County Schools leaders.

Douglass High entered Shelby County Schools’ turnaround program, known as the iZone, in 2016 and saw high academic growth in its first year. But test scores fell this past year as the state wrestled with online malfunctions.

Timmy Becton Jr., a senior at Douglass High, said he hopes for fewer tests and more projects to demonstrate what a student has learned. Those kind of assessments, he said, can help a student connect what they are learning to their daily life.

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Tennessee’s new education commissioner met with students at Douglass High School and Shelby County Schools leaders.

“We figured it would be a different way to measure and see how much knowledge a student really has on a specific subject,” he told Chalkbeat after meeting with Schwinn during a student roundtable session. “It’s a good alternative to taking tests.”

He said he was “surprised and happy” to see Schwinn actively seek student perspectives.

“I really think that’s the most important part because students are the ones going to school every day,” Becton said. “So, if you want to find a good perspective on how to solve a problem, it’s really great to talk to the people who are actively involved in it and the people who are actually experiencing these problems directly.”

The state’s annual testing window runs from April 15 to May 3.

School discipline

Michigan schools have expelled fewer students, but that may not be cause for celebration

PHOTO: Getty Images

Michigan schools have expelled far fewer students since the state enacted laws aimed at cutting back on expulsions. But an advocate who’s pushed for an end to zero-tolerance policies pointed out persistent problems and told elected state education leaders this week that, “We shouldn’t start celebrating yet.”

This is why: Peri Stone-Palmquist, executive director of the Ypsilanti-based Student Advocacy Center, told State Board of Education members that in the 18 months since the new laws took effect in 2017, expulsions have dropped 12 percent. But she’s concerned that too many school leaders don’t understand the law or are ignoring its requirements. And she believes some schools are finding other ways of kicking kids out of school without expelling them.

Michigan did away with zero-tolerance policies that had earned it a reputation for having some of the toughest disciplinary rules in the nation. In their place, lawmakers instituted new rules, such as requiring schools to consider seven factors — including a student’s age, disciplinary record, disability and seriousness of the incident — in making expulsion decisions.

“We have had districts and charters tell advocates that they would not consider the seven factors at all,” Stone-Palmquist said. Others aren’t sharing with parents and students how those seven factors were used. And she said there’s a general “lack of understanding of lesser interventions and the persistent belief that lengthy removals remain necessary.”

That’s a problem, she and others say, because of the negative consequences of kicking students out of school. Studies have shown that students kicked out of school are often missing out on an education and are more likely to get into trouble. Advocates also worry that expulsion exacerbates what they describe as a “school-to-prison” pipeline.

She said advocates are noticing that more students are receiving long suspensions, an indication that some schools are suspending students rather than expelling them. Hiding students in suspension data won’t work much longer, though. Michigan now requires schools to collect such data, which soon will be public.

Stone-Palmquist also said that some schools aren’t even going through the expulsion process, but simply referring students with discipline issues to “understaffed virtual settings.”

“Once again, the students who need the most get the least, and no one has to report it as an expulsion.”

Stone-Palmquist gave an example of a ninth-grader involved in a verbal altercation who was expelled for a long time for persistent disobedience, “despite our team lining up extensive community resources for him and despite the district never trying positive interventions with him.”

In another case, a fifth-grader was expelled for 180 days for spitting at another student who had done the same to them first. Stone-Palmquist said the seven factors weren’t considered.

“We were told at the appeal hearing that the student’s behaviors were too dangerous to consider lesser interventions.”

She and Kristin Totten, an education lawyer for the ACLU of Michigan, provided board members with statistics that some members found alarming. Totten noted that an ACLU review of data collected by the federal government shows that for every 100 students in Michigan, 38 days are lost due to suspension. In Oakland County, 26 days are lost for every 100 students. In Macomb County, it’s 35 days and in Wayne County, it’s 55 days.

One child who’s experienced trauma for years was repeatedly suspended from multiple schools. The 11-year-old has been diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder and attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. This school year, she’s been suspended for 94 days.

“Never once were the seven factors mentioned to her mother,” Totten said.

Stone-Palmquist asked board members to consider recommendations, including developing a model student code of conduct that incorporates the new rules, partnering with the advocacy center to request an attorney general’s opinion on what districts are required to do, and expanding data collection.

Tom McMillin, a member of the state board, asked whether the state should consider financial penalties, such as withholding some state aid.

“I’m a fierce advocate for local control. But in areas where the incentives might not be there to do what’s right … I’m fine with the state stepping in,” McMillin said.

Board member Pamela Pugh said she appreciated the push for the board to “move with great speed.” She said the data and stories provided are “compelling, as well as convincing.”

Stone-Palmquist said that despite her concerns, there have been some successes.

“Districts that used to automatically expel 180 days for fights, for instance, have partnered with us to dramatically reduce those removals with great outcomes,” she said. “We know alternatives are possible and that they actually help get to the root of the problem, prevent future wrongdoing and repair the harm.”

The Detroit school district didn’t come up during the hearing. But on the same day Stone-Palmquist presented to the state board, Detroit Superintendent Nikolai Vitti gave a presentation to his local board of education about what’s happened in the months since the district embarked on an effort to improve school culture by revising the student code of conduct, hiring deans for each school, and providing training on alternative discipline methods.

The bottom line: Vitti said that schools are booting out dramatically fewer students and greatly increasing alternative methods of discipline. In-school suspensions are up, given the push against out-of-school suspensions.

But the changes have also raised concerns. Some school staff have said the new rules are tying their hands. Vitti said it will take time for the changes to take hold, and he outlined some areas that need to improve, including more training.