A Hard Lesson 

Dave Shearon launches a long-shot candidacy for schools director

Dave Shearon launches a long-shot candidacy for schools director

Dave Shearon was a thoughtful, well-respected member of the Metro school board who would have coasted to an easy second-term election next summer. So why did he abruptly resign his post last month so that he could apply for the director of schools position—a job that he probably has no chance of getting?

“I am a long shot,” Shearon concedes of his bid for the directorship, which board members plan to settle by May. “But if I had remained on the school board, looked at the finalists, and none of them had the focus on the kinds of things I’m talking about, I would have been sick.”

Elected in 1998 to represent the District 2 Antioch area, Shearon was part of a new breed of board members who brought a different and more researched perspective to board issues. In his brief stint, Shearon helped espouse a methodical, data-driven educational philosophy that, while irking a few administrators and teachers, has nevertheless gained respect among most of his colleagues on the board, as well as the mayor’s office and Metro Council. A cornerstone of that philosophy was the board’s recently implemented lesson-study policy, which Shearon pushed during this school year.

Based on the book, The Teaching Gap, by James Stigler, Metro’s lesson-study initiative allows teachers five extra half-days to collaborate on lesson plans. Teachers meet in small groups, go over what they’re teaching, and discuss ways to improve it. They sit in on each other’s lessons and provide feedback.

Shearon says that the lesson-study initiative “empowers” teachers to improve their performance, much like any other professional. “You can’t make teachers better from the top,” he says. “You have to have teachers make themselves better.”

But others are more skeptical. “Dave drove the lesson-study initiative for better or for worse,” says board member Chris Norris. “Whether or not it was worth the commitment of the whole system, the jury is still out.”

Former board member Murray Philip is more critical, saying that the initiative is reflective of Shearon’s flawed educational philosophy. “It costs close to $5 million, and it takes away time from instruction,” Philip says. “David tends to read half of every New Age outcome book without ever asking, ‘Hey, has this ever been done specifically in a school district the size of Nashville?’”

Keep in mind, however, that Philip is critical of almost everyone. Shearon, for the most part, has earned the respect of his colleagues. “He was very professional,” says board member Patricia Crotwell. “He was always well-informed, well-prepared, and articulate about his opinion.”

As a board member, Shearon wasn’t afraid to challenge education orthodoxy or school administrators. For example, he fought to hold the school system accountable not only for low-achieving students but for high-achieving ones as well. For all that, Shearon was emerging as a leader on the school board at the time of his resignation. Whether he’ll be able to parlay that stature to a director’s post is unlikely, however. To be blunt, he simply doesn’t have the résumé to be Metro’s next director of schools.

Shearon lacks an academic background in education. He seems to shrug that off, effectively noting that “if formal knowledge in education is so important, why aren’t more things getting done?” But while other school districts are looking at former business executives and army generals as antidotes to the typical education bureaucrats, Shearon lacks the kind of leadership history that even many of the new, nontraditional directors possess.

While Shearon’s varied work experience has included everything from law to computer sales, he’s never managed a school district—or for that matter, a major business with a sizable number of employees. That’s a gaping yaw in a job application for a position that presides over a $400-million-plus annual operating budget.

“I have thought that we’d look for a candidate who has managed a large organization or who has effectively run a school system,” Norris says. “He doesn’t have those, and I said that to him at the time.”

But give Shearon an “A” for effort. As a board member, he was an important voice. Hopefully, he’ll continue to be heard, even if he doesn’t regain that platform.

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