Elite group aids Tenn. schools in trouble
Ohanian Comment: Certainly, it is a good idea to tap into the experience and knowledge of retired educators. But I find this project worrisome because it seems focused on Blame the Victim, pretending that rummaging for data will solve the problems of deep poverty. They might well do better to marshal their resources to get the lead out and provide living wages to struggling families.
I admit to being very offended by the subtitle to this article: Retirees are like a SWAT team of education law. First of all, SWAT stands for Special Weapons And Tactics. Here's what Wikipedia says they are used for by police departments: They are trained to perform dangerous operations which can include serving high-risk arrest warrants, performing hostage rescue and armed intervention, preventing terrorist attacks, and engaging heavily armed criminals.
Such military metaphor is used throughout the article. It is an inappropriate way to talk about our schools, the children in them, and their families.
But it looks like the Tennessee Department of Education is responsible for such links. They've named their team STAT (System Targeted Assistance Team).
By Jaime Sarrio
If the state Department of Education had an army, these would be the troops ΓΆ€” 98 retired educators, dispatched to troubled schools and districts, charged with turning test scores around.
But they do not always receive a warm welcome.
Many in the trenches, teachers and principals fighting poverty and students who often change schools, don't take kindly to outsiders pointing out problems. But with No Child Left Behind putting the pressure on states, districts and schools to improve, these education special agents are likely to become more common in Tennessee classrooms.
"It's so hard to put outsiders in a situation, but if a situation has failed there's got to be some outside help," said Connie Smith, executive director of innovation, improvement and accountability for the state Department of Education.
"I knew it was going to be highly sensitive because they're going into someone's house. And they've got to be top-notch people."
Tennessee has dubbed these agents "exemplary educators," and STAT (System Targeted Assistance Team) members.
Exemplary educators are assigned to "high priority" schools that fail to meet state testing standards for two years or more.
STAT members work in districts placed in "corrective action" ΓΆ€” those who have failed to meet state standards for four years or more.
About 50 Middle Tennessee schools have exemplary educators. Davidson and Robertson are the only corrective-action districts with STAT members.
Pat Ashcraft works in Metro Nashville Public Schools. The former district administrator said one of her primary tasks is to examine how the school system spends its money and allocates resources.
Ashcraft is also looking at bureaucracy and how easy ΓΆ€” or challenging ΓΆ€” it is to get things accomplished.
"They could be taken over and anyone could be dismissed," she said, referring to NCLB impact on school systems that don't meet standards. "We're one of the first states that are dealing with this. It's been a ride for public education for everyone the past few years."
All of the education specialists are retired and work through a West Virginia-based company called Edvantia, which landed an estimated $21 million, five-year contract with the state.
They are considered independent contractors and paid $300 a day for 100 to 200 days of work. Travel and lodging expenses are also included.
Edvantia does not provide the program to other states.
The agents go into schools or districts, interview staff, and analyze data to figure out why the system is struggling and offer suggestions, said Steven Moats, Edvantia's program director in Tennessee.
"Sometimes you need an outside eye because you get so close it's not easy to see the problems," he said.
"Some people are resistant. But these are agents of the state and they're empowered to do that and they're not very well liked by some for that reason."
Parent Antonia Britt thinks districts should be thankful.
"I think any resources provided to schools is a major plus for the district," said Britt, whose daughter is a senior at Maplewood High in Nashville. "I don't see anything negative about it."
Tests follow interviews
To be an exemplary educator, teachers submit an application through Edvantia. Applicants go through a one-hour interview with existing exemplary educators, followed by a two-hour written test that examines their philosophy for working in schools.
The educators chosen are trained and matched with a school whose need fits their area of expertise.
Members of the System Targeted Assistance Team ΓΆ€” in it's first year ΓΆ€” weren't required to undergo the same selection process, although the team is technically staffed through Edvantia, said Moats.
Members of the assistance team were selected by Connie Smith, the education department official. Edvantia doesn't track the day-to-day actions of these employees. Instead, they report directly to the state because of the serious status of the districts, Smith said.
Smith said so far the program has been successful. "All high-priority schools since the year 2000 have had an EE and from that group 74 percent have moved off the list."
Desire to change needed
Getting school officials to cooperate is essential to making sure state agents like these are successful, said Tom Smith, assistant professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt's Peabody College.
"The teachers and the leadership have to want to change," he said. "If not, it's an uphill battle and you're not going to get a lot of traction."
Smith said as the sanctions in No Child Left Behind move forward, more schools will fail to meet standards and the need for professional development will increase. Having a consultant who is a representative, not employee, of the state could be a positive factor in getting school support, Smith said.
Monae Fletcher, principal at Dalewood Middle, said she likes having these agents in the building to get a different point of view.
But the biggest challenge?
"Having a former administrator in your building who's not completely aware of the special needs of the community," she said.
Principal Julie Williams knows what it's like to be on both sides.
Before she took over at Maplewood High she had been an exemplary educator. Before that, she was a school principal and longtime educator.
She said the relationship between special agent and current principal depends mostly on attitude.
"It does take a lot of finesse," said Williams, who came out of retirement to work at Maplewood. "But a good bit of it depends on the people at the receiving end."
Retirees' work limited
Because Tennessee law limits the amount of time retirees can work, contracting employees through Edvantia let the state to use the agents more.
About 1,400 retired teachers work part-time in Tennessee, while 70 have been approved to return full time, according to the Tennessee Consolidated Retirement System.
In Tennessee, educators who retire and claim benefits are allowed to return to work at a government agency for 120 days per year. They are eligible to collect only 60 percent of their last-recorded salary.
Some of Edvantia's agents stay several years at a school, but the joke is their goal is to work themselves out of a job.
Fred Carr, a former superintendent, is working in Robertson County, where he says the reception has been warm.
He said his approach is collaborative: He doesn't want to tell the district what to do, but to provide a fresh perspective.
"It's a tightrope," he said. "Change needs to be brought about more quickly than the natural flow of events would let it. So that's where things are difficult."
Still, the agents' power is limited. Even if a school or district follows their advice, it is still responsible for the consequences. And even though the agents are contracted by the state, they don't have the power to tell districts what to do. Those orders must come from the state.
"We really should follow the advice, but ultimately, we're the only ones who are accountable," said Marsha Warden, chairwoman of the Metro Board of Education. "And that is the delicate and difficult situation we find ourselves in."
INDEX OF NCLB OUTRAGES