New York

Imagining accountability in the "no excuses society"

Tucked in at the end of Elizabeth Green’s Sun story about Obama’s education orientation, Obama advisor Jonathan Schnur argues that dividing education policy into two camps — those who side with the “Broader, Bolder” platform and those who prefer the Education Equality Project’s — “presents a ‘false choice.’” Philissa hinted at the same point in her post about “total schools.” The more I read posts accusing “Broader, Bolder” supporters of making excuses or “Education Equality” supporters of scapegoating schools and teachers, the more I tend to agree.

As an educator, it makes no sense to sit around and wait for society to level the playing field so that all your kids come into school healthy, prepared to learn, and fully supported at home. You see that you have kids who didn’t benefit from good prenatal care, nutrition, early childhood education, or clean air, and who face physical and developmental challenges as a result – but what are you going to do about it? You throw yourself into your teaching, and, if you’re lucky, your school comes together to tackle the other issues to the extent possible. You can work some wonders this way, but you know, deep down, that while it’s not an excuse, you could do more if the background issues were addressed.

As a policymaker evaluating schools, it makes no sense to ignore context. Set a high bar for everyone, of course – but recognize that it will take a lot more resources for some schools to achieve that than for others. If you don’t provide those resources – I’m talking small classes, rigorous, proven curriculum, recruitment, development, and retention of the best teachers, and it’s all going to take money – then you’re just setting up schools to fail.

And as a society, it makes no sense to put the whole burden on schools. I will know that our nation really wants to leave no child behind when I see a complete package of funded legislation that takes on health care (physical and mental), housing, environmental justice, early childhood education, and a host of other issues that affect the development and opportunities of our kids. “Our schools are failing,” is nothing but an excuse when the rest is left unaddressed.

To me, it looks like common sense: no excuses schools in a no excuses society.

But, as David Hoff at NCLB: Act II wrote in June, “The central question is whether policymakers should expect more from schools without those additional supports.”

How could two-way accountability actually work? If a school fails, but other services aren’t in place, schools are underfunded, and so forth, should the school still be held accountable? How could parents and educators in that school hold the government accountable for doing its part?

Are lawsuits, like the one filed in Chicago this week, the answer? As we know from the Campaign for Fiscal Equity lawsuit’s decade in the courts, the law lumbers along while children grow up, go to school, and graduate (or not). And it’s hard to imagine the technical grounds for a lawsuit challenging the failure of our society to tackle poverty.

What about holding individual elected officials accountable? Voters can demand with their ballots that our politicians focus not just on what happens in schools, but on all the government services that can strengthen families and expand opportunities for kids. Another slow-moving, blunt instrument; few voters choose solely on a single issue.

Let’s move beyond the “false choice” and explore what two-way accountability could look like in practice. Anyone?

School safety

Hiring more security officers in Memphis after school shootings could have unintended consequences

PHOTO: Jahi Chikwendiu/The Washington Post/Getty Images

Tennessee’s largest district, Shelby County Schools, is slated to add more school resource officers under the proposed budget for next school year.

Superintendent Dorsey Hopson earmarked $2 million to hire 30 school resource officers in addition to the 98 already in some of its 150-plus schools. The school board is scheduled to vote on the budget Tuesday.

But an increase in law enforcement officers could have unintended consequences.

A new state law that bans local governments from refusing to cooperate with federal immigration officials could put school resource officers in an awkward position.

Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen recently reminded school personnel they are not obligated to release student information regarding immigration status. School resource officers employed by police or sheriff’s departments, however, do not answer to school districts. Shelby County Schools is still reviewing the law, but school board members have previously gone on the record emphasizing their commitment to protecting undocumented students.

“Right now we are just trying to get a better understanding of the law and the impact that it may have,” said Natalia Powers, a district spokeswoman.

Also, incidents of excessive force and racial bias toward black students have cropped up in recent years. Two white Memphis officers were fired in 2013 after hitting a black student and wrestling her to the ground because she was “yelling and cussing” on school grounds. And mothers of four elementary school students recently filed a lawsuit against a Murfreesboro officer who arrested them at school in 2016 for failing to break up a fight that occurred off-campus.

Just how common those incidents are in Memphis is unclear. In response to Chalkbeat’s query for the number and type of complaints in the last two school years, Shelby County Schools said it “does not have any documents responsive to this request.”

Currently, 38 school resource officers are sheriff’s deputies, and the rest are security officers hired by Shelby County Schools. The officers respond and work to prevent criminal activity in all high schools and middle schools, Hopson said. The 30 additional officers would augment staffing at some schools and for the first time, branch out to some elementary schools. Hopson said those decisions will be based on crime rates in surrounding neighborhoods and school incidents.

Hopson’s initial recommendation for more school resource officers was in response to the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, that killed 17 people and sparked a wave of student activism on school safety, including in Memphis.

Gov. Bill Haslam’s recent $30 million budget boost would allow school districts across Tennessee to hire more law enforcement officers or improve building security. Measures to arm some teachers with guns or outlaw certain types of guns have fallen flat.


For more on the role and history of school resource officers in Tennessee, read our five things to know.


Sheriff’s deputies and district security officers meet weekly, said Capt. Dallas Lavergne of the Shelby County Sheriff’s Office. When the Memphis Police Department pulled their officers out of school buildings following the merger of city and county school systems, the county Sheriff’s Office replaced them with deputies.

All deputy recruits go through school resource officer training, and those who are assigned to schools get additional annual training. In a 2013 review of police academies across the nation, Tennessee was cited as the only state that had specific training for officers deployed to schools.

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 cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

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