change at the top

To steer local schools, Nashville taps a diverse Maryland district’s second in command

PHOTO: MNPS
Shawn Joseph

When Shawn Joseph becomes director of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools on July 1, he will inherit a school district that has struggled to keep pace with its increasingly diverse student population.

Joseph should have plenty of experience to draw on. He is currently second in command in Maryland’s Prince George’s County, which has undergone many of the same shifts affecting Nashville schools. The school district there saw middle-class and white families depart in droves over the last decade, leaving behind a population of almost exclusively poor black and Hispanic students.

Joseph verbally agreed Friday to a contract with the Nashville school board, which voted unanimously to make him the leader of the nation’s 42nd largest district. The agreement ends more than a year of uncertainty during which the school board’s first-round pick declined the position — and marks the first time that Nashville has chosen someone who is not white to run its schools. Joseph is black, as are nearly half of city students.

Nashville Mayor Megan Barry, whose administration worked with the school board in its second director search, called Joseph “an inspired choice.”

“His commitment to equity and access is critical to ensuring that every child has access to a world-class public school, regardless of their zip code,” Barry said.

Joseph, 41, will need to bring unity to a school board that has been divided over growth of the city’s charter school sector, as well as in sweeping changes on Tennessee’s education landscape under the state’s Race to the Top plan.

While charters have not played a major role in his Maryland district, Joseph has called them an “important asset.”

Throughout the interview process, he emphasized the spirit of collaboration he would bring to public education in Nashville. He also talked about the importance of having diverse district leadership in order to attract more diverse teachers. Nearly 75 percent of the district’s teachers are white, compared to only a third of its students.

In choosing Joseph, Nashville’s board has picked an education leader who has never been superintendent of a large urban district but has experience at multiple levels, having been a principal in diverse Montgomery County, Md.; teacher and superintendent in a small district in Delaware; and second-in-command of Prince George County, a district of 129,000 students, most of whom are black.

He agreed to a four-year contract that will pay him $285,000 annually, about $19,000 more than Register earned.

Joseph was one of six finalists announced for the district’s top job. The only Tennessean among those finalists, Shelby County Schools innovation chief Brad Leon of Memphis, did not make the short list.

Nashville is the first of Tennessee’s three largest districts to fill superintendent openings. Districts in Knoxville and Chattanooga are looking for new leaders as well.

weekend update

How the education world is reacting to racist violence in Charlottesville — and to Trump’s muted response

PHOTO: Andrew Dallos/Flickr
A rally against hate in Tarrytown, New York, responds to the violence in Charlottesville.

For educators across the country, this weekend’s eruption of racism and violence in Charlottesville, Virginia, offered yet another painful opportunity to communicate their values to families, colleagues, and community members.

Many decried the white supremacists who convened in the college town and clashed with protesters who had come to oppose their message. Some used social media to outline ideas about how to turn the distressing news into a teaching moment.

And others took issue with President Donald Trump’s statement criticizing violence “on many sides,” largely interpreted as an unwillingness to condemn white supremacists.

One leading education official, U.S. Education Secretary Betsy DeVos, followed Trump’s approach, criticizing what happened but not placing blame on anyone in particular:

DeVos’s two most recent predecessors were unequivocal, both about what unfolded in Charlottesville and whom to blame:

Leaders of the nation’s two largest teachers unions responded directly to Trump:

The American Federation of Teachers, Weingarten’s union, is supporting vigils across the country Sunday night organized by chapters of Indivisible, a coalition that emerged to resist the Trump administration. The union also promoted resources from Share My Lesson, its lesson-plan site, that deal with civil rights and related issues.

“As educators, we will continue to fulfill our responsibility to make sure our students feel safe and protected and valued for who they are,” Weingarten said in a statement with other AFT officials.

Local education officials took stands as well, often emotionally. Here’s what the superintendent in Memphis, which is engaged in the same debate about whether Confederate memorials should continue to stand that drew white supremacists to Charlottesville, said on Twitter:

Teachers in Hopson’s district return for the second week of classes on Monday. They’ve helped students process difficult moments before, such as a spate of police killings of black men in 2016; here’s advice they shared then and advice that teachers across the country offered up.

We want to hear from educators who are tackling this tough moment in their classrooms. Share your experiences and ideas here or in the form below. 

Betsy DeVos

‘Underperformer,’ ‘bully,’ and a ‘mermaid with legs’: NYMag story slams Betsy DeVos

PHOTO: New York Magazine
A drawing of DeVos commissioned by an 8-year-old starts the New York Magazine article.

A new article detailing Betsy DeVos’s first six months as U.S. education secretary concludes that she’s “a mermaid with legs: clumsy, conspicuous, and unable to move forward.”

That’s just one of several brutal critiques of DeVos’s leadership and effectiveness in the New York Magazine story, by Lisa Miller, who has previously covered efforts to overhaul high schools, New York City’s pre-kindergarten push, and the apocalypse. Here are some highlights:

  • Bipartisan befuddlement: The story summarizes the left’s well known opposition to DeVos’s school choice agenda. But her political allies also say she’s making unnecessary mistakes: “Most mystifying to those invested in her success is why DeVos hasn’t found herself some better help.”
  • A friend’s defense: DeVos is “muzzled” by the Trump administration, said her friend and frequent defender Kevin Chavous, a school choice activist.
  • The department reacts: “More often than not press statements are being written by career staff,” a spokesperson told Miller, rejecting claims that politics are trumping policy concerns.
  • D.C. colleagues speak: “When you talk to her, it’s a blank stare,” said Charles Doolittle, who quit the Department of Education in June. A current education department employee says: “It’s not clear that the secretary is making decisions or really capable of understanding the elements of a good decision.”
  • Kids critique: The magazine commissioned six portraits of DeVos drawn by grade-schoolers.
  • Special Olympics flip-flop: DeVos started out saying she was proud to partner with the athletics competition for people with disabilities — and quickly turned to defending a budget that cuts the program’s funding.
  • In conclusion: DeVos is an underperformer,” a “bully” and “ineffective,” Miller found based on her reporting.

Updated (July 31, 2017): A U.S. Education Department spokesperson responded to our request for comment, calling the New York Magazine story “nothing more than a hit piece.” Said Liz Hill: “The magazine clearly displayed its agenda by writing a story based on largely disputed claims and then leaving out of the article the many voices of those who are excited by the Secretary’s leadership and determination to improve education in America.”