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.
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
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
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
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
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