Network Outage

To some principals, rise of superintendents signals decline of networks

Officially, principals are still awaiting word from the city about the future of “networks,” the Bloomberg-era support teams designed to help principals do everything from train teachers to manage budgets.

But to many, the writing is on the wall: Networks as they know them are finished.

Perhaps the clearest sign of this, according to several principals and network officials, is the resurgence of superintendents, the education department field commanders who were sidelined by the previous administration in an attempt to give principals greater autonomy. Under Chancellor Carmen Fariña, the superintendents have been rehired and retrained, and are now meeting individually with principals, weighing in on instructional matters, and hosting training sessions — activities that until now had been under the purview of networks.

Meanwhile, some school and network leaders say they have heard that networks could soon lose their role assisting schools with budget and operational issues, leaving them as little more than coaches, or “professional developers,” in school parlance. While Fariña is not slated to announce her new system for supporting schools until next month, she appeared to confirm some of the speculation about the networks’ diminishing authority in an interview Monday.

“I think the people in networks who are professional developers will be professional developers. We’re never going to lose that,” she told Chalkbeat. But she added that superintendents, whose main reason for visiting schools in recent years has been to rate principals, will now play a much greater part in guiding them.

“I think having the person who evaluates you be the person who supports you is very important, and that’s really what the superintendents will be doing,” she said.

The network system’s many critics, including some principals who find them ineffective, welcome the changes. But some who cherish their self-selected networks, which offer assistance to principals but can’t command or sanction them, dread the return to a superintendent-led system.

“A lot of us are nervous,” said one principal, who like other school and network leaders would only speak anonymously about possible policy changes. “The signs point to networks may no longer exist — certainly not in this form.”

After several reorganizations, the Bloomberg administration eventually settled on a system of nearly 60 support networks, which principals could choose from and that took over many of the duties once overseen by superintendents. The superintendents technically remained principals’ bosses, but their role was reduced mainly to conducting formal evaluations and their staffs shrank from dozens to a handful.

Under Fariña, herself a former superintendent, that position is regaining its clout.

After forcing them to reapply for their jobs this summer (more than a third were replaced), Fariña began to hold hour-long, one-on-one meetings with each of the more than 40 superintendents to explain their revamped roles. They were given new responsibilities — interact with parents, promote arts education, ensure that quality teaching happens in schools — and told to act as “the eyes and ears of the chancellor.”

“To me, the superintendents are huge,” Fariña said Monday. “Having people in the field that I can trust, that have my same belief system, that are going to be in schools all the time, is important.”

A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.
PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A summer teachers workshop organized by the school-support network, N403.

The superintendents have started to hire new staffers, including instructional experts to help evaluate the 60 or so schools that some superintendents oversee. They have also started to host district-wide meetings, which all but disappeared under the network system. While the meetings vary by superintendent, some principals have complained about ones held during the school day, where some say they have sat through talks by curriculum vendors and, in one case, Miss New York.

“I can’t speak enough to the lack of quality or purpose” at those meetings, one principal said.

Principals who value their networks worry that the rise of superintendents may signal the decline of networks.

To those principals, the network system empowered them to choose the type of support they wanted from experts who, unlike superintendents, would not also evaluate them. They also enabled school leaders in the same network to interact with like-minded colleagues outside their geographic districts. One principal in a high-needs Brooklyn district said she not only gets advice from her counterparts who lead successful schools in better-off districts, but also receives donated books and furniture from them.

“I’ve gotten an immense amount of support from other principals in my network,” the school leader said.

Predictably, some network officials are upset by the changes.

Some say that principals are now receiving dueling messages from networks and superintendents about how to run their schools, but that the school leaders feel compelled to defer to the will of their bosses, the superintendents. They also say that network staffers are starting to consider new jobs.

“There are a number of people on network teams who are being recruited to central jobs,” one network leader said, referring to positions within the city education department. “There are other people who are actively looking.”

Of course, the network system’s many critics — including some state officials and union leaders — have called for an overhaul since before Fariña was appointed.

They argue that some networks are spread too thin trying to assist schools in multiple boroughs, while others let struggling schools limp along without extra help. Others say the system leaves principals without clear supervisors and parents without officials they can appeal to.

Genevieve Stanislaus, principal of Life Sciences Secondary School in the Upper East Side, said the network system is “too scattered,” adding it can keep principals in the same neighborhood who are in different networks from collaborating. During her 34 years working in the school system, the most help she ever received was from her one-time superintendent, she said.

“He knew every one of his 41 schools, and his deputy visited even more often,” she said. “They were always there to support you and assist you.”

Election Forum

Tennesseans are about to get their first good look at candidates for governor on education

PHOTO: TN.gov
Former Tennessee Gov. Phil Bredesen speaks as his successor, Gov. Bill Haslam, listens during a 2017 forum hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Tennesseans will elect their next governor in November.

For almost 16 years, two Tennessee governors from two different political parties have worked off mostly the same playbook when it comes to K-12 education.

This year, voters will choose a new governor who will determine if that playbook stays intact — or takes a different direction from the administrations of Bill Haslam, a Republican leaving office next January, and Phil Bredesen, the Democrat who preceded him.

Voters will get to hear from all but one of the major candidates Tuesday evening during the first gubernatorial forum televised statewide. Organizers say the spotlight on education is fitting since, based on one poll, it’s considered one of the top three issues facing Tennessee’s next governor. Both K-12 and higher education are on the table.

Candidates participating are:

  • Mae Beavers, a Republican from Mt. Juliet and former Tennessee state senator;
  • Randy Boyd, a Republican from Knoxville and former commissioner of Economic and Community Development and a Republican from Knoxville;
  • Karl Dean, a Democrat and former mayor of Nashville;
  • Rep. Craig Fitzhugh, a Democrat from Ripley and minority leader in the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Rep. Beth Harwell, a Republican from Nashville and speaker of the Tennessee House of Representatives;
  • Bill Lee, a Republican businessman from Williamson County

The seventh major candidate, U.S. Rep. Diane Black, a Republican from Gallatin, is in the midst of a congressional session in Washington, D.C.

The next governor will help decide whether Tennessee will stay the course under its massive overhaul of K-12 education initiated under Bredesen’s watch. The work was jump-started by the state’s $500 million federal Race to the Top award, for which Tennessee agreed to adopt the Common Core academic standards for math and English; incorporate students’ scores from standardized tests in annual teacher evaluations; and establish a state-run turnaround district to intervene in low-performing schools at an unprecedented level.

Tennessee has since enjoyed steady student growth and watched its national rankings rise, but the transition hasn’t been pain-free. Pushback on its heavy-handed turnaround district led leaders to widen school improvement strategies. They also ordered new academic standards due to political backlash over the Common Core (though the revised standards are still basically grounded in Common Core).

A major issue now is whether the next governor and legislature will retain Tennessee’s across-the-board system of accountability for students, teachers, schools and districts. Snafus and outright failures with TNReady, the new standardized test that serves as the lynchpin, have prompted some calls to make the assessment just a diagnostic tool or scrap it altogether. Haslam and his leadership team have stood firm.

“We as Tennesseans made the right call — the tough call — on the policies we’ve pursued,” Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told Chalkbeat recently. “Nearly every other state has compromised in some way on some of these core foundational components of policy work, and we have not.”

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, an advocacy group that works closely with Tennessee’s Department of Education, is a co-host of Tuesday’s forum. Known as SCORE, the group has sought to shape the election-year conversation with priorities that include teacher quality, improving literacy, and developing school leaders — all outgrowths of learnings during Tennessee’s Race to the Top era.

SCORE President David Mansouri said the goal is to maintain the momentum of historic gains in student achievement from the last decade. “The next administration’s education policy decisions will be crucial in determining whether Tennessee students continue to progress faster than students in other states and whether they graduate ready for postsecondary success,” he said Monday.

The one-hour forum will delve into a range of issues. College and career readiness, education equity, and school funding will be among the topics broached before each candidate is allowed a one-minute closing statement, according to David Plazas, a Tennessean editor who will help moderate the discussion.

“It will be really exciting,” Plazas promised. “We’re hoping the candidates are prepared to talk substantively on the issues and to avoid slogans.”

The event begins at 7 p.m. CT at Nashville’s Belmont University. Along with SCORE, it’s being co-hosted by USA TODAY NETWORK and Nashville’s NewsChannel 5. You can livestream the event here and learn more about attending or watching here.

Tennessee’s primary election is set for Aug. 2, with the general election on Nov. 6.

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