During the day, Metro Schools' headquarters on Bransford Avenue bustles with traffic as hundreds of district employees file into work, from bean counters to executive principals, secretaries to chief officers in three-piece suits.
If David Moran had his way, there'd be a lot fewer of them.
Maybe he'd have the Central Office whittle down its staff, and fill the facility with students instead of adults. Or he'd just have the district sell the former school building, and plug the extra money into the system's 153 other schools. Either way, his reasoning would be the same: Nashville's public school system has too much central bureaucracy.
That criticism stoked recommendations Moran gave to Nashville's director of schools over the past two school years. Working then for the U.K.-based Tribal Group, the British consultant led a team contracted by MNPS to develop turnaround plans for the district's worst schools. Part of his job was to assess what role the Central Office would play.
The group's presence here was criticized from the start. People inside and outside the school system questioned why MNPS was paying $6.3 million over five years for a foreign company to tell the district what it already knows — that dozens of schools aren't improving fast enough, morale is low and school leaders feel like their hands are tied.
But Moran and his team released reports that went further. They recommended district-level staff reductions. They encouraged the Central Office to loosen its grip and cede more control to principals. They also found an ongoing "culture of fear" inside MNPS that stifled innovation and stymied improvement.
Critics of the complex school system took these frank early reports as a good sign. Here, they hoped, was proof the district recognized it had to reform a top-down management style they said was both inflexible and resistant to progress.
And then the district's five-year relationship with the firm began to unravel.
Months later, Moran was gone. The reports were buried. The contract was canceled two years in. And the MNPS staffer who was perhaps the reports' harshest inside critic was appointed to one of the top jobs in the district.
Today, as more than half of MNPS' 80,000 students struggle to reach grade-level proficiency in basic subjects like math and reading, the need to improve Nashville public schools is just as urgent. To critics, the city schools' breakup with Tribal leaves a chilling effect — a warning to anyone who dares speak truth to the establishment.
MNPS leaders insist that is not the case. They say the district got what it wanted from the firm: an improvement plan focused on school-level functions. Continuing the relationship would only have wasted millions of taxpayers' dollars. The system has adopted most of the group's recommendations, they say — and there's nothing more to see here.
But curiosity remains about Tribal reports that were never made available to the press, the public, or even city lawmakers who asked to see them. The story of the breakdown between the two sides — not just the personal and philosophical conflicts, but Tribal's stinging criticisms of Nashville public schools, some revealed here for the first time — shows how difficult the task of genuine public school reform will be.
For if MNPS officials pride themselves on implementing initiatives "with fidelity" — pinpointing action that needs to be taken, and sticking to the plan — the school system's dealings with Tribal are the opposite of high fidelity.
Tribal Group was among some 20 organizations who submitted bids in 2011 when Metro sought proposals to turn around its failing schools. At the time, much of its track record of school reviews was overseas, including schools in Australia, England and regions of the Middle East. But MNPS officials were swayed, in part, because Tribal didn't try to impose a set program or discipline. Instead, it proceeded school by school, determining which ones had aspects that were working and why.
Under an arrangement called the Inspirational Schools Partnership, Tribal ultimately focused on the district's worst 34 schools. Through a series of self- and internal reviews beginning in 2011, the group surveyed some 2,000 teachers, students, parents and principals. It also observed more than 2,200 lessons and held hundreds of stakeholder interviews.
Initially, Tribal focused on individual high-priority schools, for which it developed reports and specific turnaround strategies. What it found in early studies was that teachers' expectations of student achievement were too low. Teachers were not catering to students' varying ability levels, the group found, and the ways classrooms were currently organized were not conductive to learning. By focusing on worksheets instead of encouraging interaction, classes were producing sluggish, apathetic students who quickly lost interest.
So the group recommended ways to fix that — for instance, introducing more physical movement and grouping students together in the classroom.
But problems ran deeper than classroom strategy. All but two learning facilities under Tribal's eye were Title I schools in some of the city's poorest neighborhoods. More than half their population was made up of low-income students facing a wide achievement gap from their middle-class or upper-income peers.
The reports Tribal delivered gave a "holistic" approach to improving the troubled schools, according to former MNPS school board member Alan Coverstone, who now oversees the district's network of charter and magnet schools. He worked closely with Tribal on developing the district's Office of Innovation, created to oversee a cluster of 10 low-performing schools including Napier Elementary School, Apollo Middle School and Glencliff High School.
The studies "brought teacher voices into school improvement in a way that I hadn't seen before," says Coverstone, who praises the group for its fresh look into ways to stimulate progress.
On top of tackling those challenges, though, the schools in the Tribal network were constantly in flux. Of the nearly three-dozen schools Tribal Group studied, 16 had new principals the first year. By year two, seven of the 34 high-priority schools had new principals, and four of those were the second new principals in as many years.
What Tribal researchers heard from school administrators was that the centralized MNPS management was more an impediment to progress than an accelerant. Principals complained of "too many initiatives coming from the District" and said they "do not feel confident to abandon things that are not working well," according to a December 2011 Tribal Group report.
Based on these findings, Tribal recommended that MNPS grant more control to principals, giving them greater command and hence a larger stake in their schools' success. Principals "need to be left alone to focus on the improvement journey for their own particular schools," the report stated.
The district took the recommendations in stride, then asked Tribal to go deeper into the Central Office's role at the behest of Director of Schools Jesse Register. Of Tribal Group's four findings a year later, two pointed to the culture of the district office suffocating schools. The Central Office is too bureaucratic and doesn't effectively support continuous improvement, it found, while principals lack autonomy and there's no clearly defined accountability.
"An inside-out theory of action can introduce an element of tension into a system such as MNPS which has been characterized as possessing an outside-in culture," said the report, obtained by the Scene. "This tension will be manifested if principals and teachers find that their solutions to school-based problems do not comply with district guidelines and mandates, for example."
The report also found student outcomes are too low across the district and aren't improving fast enough, and the quality of teaching and learning is inconsistent in the county's most troubled schools. Under Register's leadership, Tribal concluded, the Central Office could change this culture — but it would need to restructure and reorganize the district's main hub to do so.
In December 2012, Register initially stood by at the Martin Professional Development Center as Moran told a roomful of the city's biggest movers and shakers — school board members, Metro Council members and educators — in a press conference that the Central Office is "bureaucratic and has a negative culture." He said only one of three teachers, students and parents rated the student or staff culture as being acceptable, and four out of five said they wanted greater autonomy.
With much fanfare, Register said he would restructure the Central Office, attack its bureaucracy and give principals more power, along with mentors to help them share ideas and solve problems. Register went on to tout Moran's work in the schools, the changes to come throughout the district, and the three years remaining on the city's five-year ongoing contract with Tribal.
Little did anybody know that four months later, the partnership would come to an end.
"It was clear to me when I walked out of there that Dr. Register was doing what he needed to do to convince you guys, the media, that the reform movement was alive and well," says Metro Council member Emily Evans, a fervent critic of the district's management.
She began asking the school district for copies of Tribal Group's full district-level report, but never got it. Instead, the district loaned her hundreds of hard-copy pages of typed school-by-school reports, which she had to scan in to share with constituents. What never arrived, however, was the report scrutinizing the Central Office.
Evans wasn't the only one who asked to see it. Other council members asked for copies, but they largely came up empty aside from files of PowerPoint slides from the press conference.
"Our goal is making sure every penny possible is getting to the schools and there's no waste in the central office," says Anthony Davis, an East Nashville council member who tried unsuccessfully to obtain copies of the overarching reports.
The Central Office refused to hand over copies to reporters, too. Beginning a year ago, The City Paper's Open Records Act requests for district-level reports produced by Tribal were met with a handful of presentation slides or only those reports that were not critical of the Central Office. The Scene finally obtained Tribal's reports in August.
Using the under-wraps reports as a guide, Register restructured his office in January, but not as Tribal Group had recommended or hoped. He began hiring "lead" principals to mentor other peer principals — but only a fraction as many as Moran suggested. He restructured the Central Office — but without reducing staff size. And instead of searching nationally for people to lead the five departments he condensed from 12, he promoted all candidates from within.
Among those promoted was Jay Steele, an upwardly mobile high-school administrator who challenged many of the ideas Tribal recommended. He is now the district's Chief Academic Officer.
"That was the nail in the coffin for people who hoped we'll break away from this circa 1975 bureaucracy and start thinking creatively about empowering our teachers and empowering our parents," Evans says. "We re-centralized our Central Office by moving some offices around, putting someone in charge of academics who hadn't been chosen in a national search.
"It was just window dressing."
Although Moran had called for the restructuring, he didn't want it like this.
"This is very naive of me," says Moran, reached by phone from Britain. "I wanted Jesse to follow exactly what I outlined. It didn't go as hard and as fast and as challenging as I thought it needed to."
To Moran, the reorganization should have included more like 30 "network lead" principals to mentor their peers, instead of the 12 the district has now. The size of the district's Central Office should have been cut and those savings plugged back into the district. And Register should have conducted a national search for candidates to head up each of his five top departments, he says, instead of promoting from within.
"People don't like to tell you the truth if it's bad news," Moran says. "I don't think the people surrounding Jesse necessarily always give him the hard truth."
One of those people, he says, is Steele, who thrived under the district's top-down management. The two would clash over Tribal's findings and recommendations, and onlookers saw Register as torn between the two.
"You had strong egos," says Alan Coverstone, who nonetheless describes conversations over changing education at MNPS as constructive and dynamic. "You had people with a lot of strong experience behind them. ... We all pushed back against each other."
In an interview with the Scene, Register echoes those sentiments.
"You get David Moran and Jay Steele in an argument in there, and about 90 percent of that is personality," Register says. But he believes the conflict was healthy, for exactly the reasons Moran mentions: "If everybody agrees with everything I say, then I'm in trouble, because I don't have all the answers, nor does anybody else in our organization."
Moran, who described his relationship with Register as "fantastic," says he often had to be the one to start difficult conversations with the schools director. But his rub with Steele was philosophical, Moran says, not personal.
"There weren't personality conflicts," Moran says. "What there was was a difference in philosophy. I'm not saying that he's wrong and I'm right — obviously, I think I'm right, I think he's wrong.
"He comes from a different philosophy on education. I believe to improve a system, you have to trust the system leaders, and the system leaders should be the principals. The principals should be trusted and given autonomy to make the decisions they need to make at their unique school. The role at the Central Office is to hold them to account and to monitor, to challenge, to intervene and to support.
"Jay's philosophy is the Central Office determines what happens in each of the schools, and that each of the principals are given limited autonomy. He sits on the dependency end, I sit more at the autonomous end."
Not surprisingly, Steele, contacted by the Scene, sees the situation differently.
"There's just a different way of doing things in the United States," explains Steele, who says he's satisfied with Register's restructuring and reforms. "You don't have to tear apart a district office to get reform.
"There are capable people in this district that work hard, that know what to do if given the chance to have a voice at the table, and the principals are who I am referring to. They know what to do if they're empowered to do that. I don't think the answers lie from outside. I think they lie from inside, so long as people are empowered to make the changes that need to be made."
If there was a choice to be made between Moran and Steele, Register chose the latter, viewed as a contender to succeed him as superintendent. Register describes Steele as "an important person who was around the table when we make the decisions, and I thought he was right in a lot of respects." Yet while the MNPS schools director ultimately sided with Steele, he insists that Moran and Tribal were not forced out on the losing end of a power play.
"When David Moran left, I know there were some people that said we pushed them out," Register says. "That's not the case. ... Jay Steele did not push David Moran out, nor did anybody else."
Regardless, by March, two months after Register's restructuring, Moran was gone. He was back in London, where he took a job as acting director running a system of 34 charter schools there for E-ACT. It was time he stopped consulting for a for-profit company, Moran says, and started running a system of schools himself.
"I don't want to be advising Jesse," he says. "I want to be Jesse." Other factors were at play, too, he adds, like the "frustrating" distraction of the ongoing charter school debate that has bitterly divided factions.
"I think [Register] was a little bit annoyed that I all of a sudden up and left," Moran says. "And I can understand that — but in one respect, you don't want to sound like a broken record, do you?"
Register says he saw it coming. The year before, he watched as David Crossley, the Tribal Group strategic director working on MNPS, left. Losing Moran as head of implementation meant there was little left he wanted to hold onto, he explains, even after years of talking about MNPS' ongoing relationship with Tribal Group. So when Mayor Karl Dean put the question to him at a budget hearing less than two months later, Register said he wouldn't renew Tribal's contract, which was paid for with federal Race to the Top and Title I funds. He called it a budget decision — although the topic hadn't been brought up before the school board during budget talks in the months before, and came before the mayor lopped almost $20 million from Register's budget proposal.
Register told the Scene he's not sure whether he would have kept the contract going if Moran had stayed, saying the departure "definitely was a factor in us deciding not to do another year."
"I'm not sorry at all that we contracted with them. I think they brought great value to us. They taught us a lot in a hurry. The changes that we've made in the organization have been informed by that, and we got our money's worth, but I didn't need to continue to pay."
There is disagreement even on that point, however. Less than six months before the relationship between MNPS and Tribal Group fell apart, an interim review of the contractor's work found widespread concern that the reforms Moran's group was working toward wouldn't continue long-term without the firm's help.
The findings came from Dennis Shirley and Peter Piazza at the Lynch School of Education at Boston College, who interviewed 19 "influential figures" leading and implementing the Inspirational Schools Partnership. These included MNPS Central Office personnel, school principals, higher education faculty and ISP staff.
The findings called the "Central Office and its personnel" the major obstacle to increasing capacity. In addition, principals viewed Tribal Group as playing an important role in "protecting them from pressures placed on them by the district and freeing up innovation."
It is "an open question" whether the group would be able to shift the culture of MNPS, according to the report.
"There was a consistent undercurrent of concern that Tribal might be unable to dislodge a strong tradition of top-down, centralized management and control in MNPS," the report states. "While the role of Tribal in encouraging change and increasing capacity was appreciated as a philosophy, there was concern and in some cases, outspoken skepticism, that Tribal really would be able to dislodge deeply entrenched habits of management that prevent inside-out school improvement."
District leaders argue they don't need Tribal to change the culture at MNPS, because it's already happening.
"The challenge is that you can only change culture from individual to individual, school to school, cluster to cluster, then the district as a whole," Alan Coverstone says. "The more people who push for it, the better. ... Changing the culture is shared. It's the hardest battle you face."
And while the district didn't follow Tribal's recommendations to the letter, it has taken up changes. At the moment, there are 12 "network lead principals" who mentor their peer principals and share ideas, with a plan to reach 30 by 2015. There are six "executive lead" principals who manage and keep middle and elementary school principals accountable. MNPS has revamped the effort it puts into to hiring and tracking quality teachers. The district is now considering ways to go about "school-based budgeting," and district officials say the new restructuring is putting more decision-making power in the hands of school-level leaders.
Having shifted from advising decision makers to making decisions, Moran says he has a better understanding of where Register is coming from, and how easy it is to take the central authoritarian approach to command and control.
"It's much easier. And actually, sometimes, I've wanted to do that," he says. But Moran's taken some of his own advice in his new role. He's trimmed his version of the Central Office from seven divisions down to two, and reduced the number of employees working from that hub from 70 to 55 workers. He plans to cut them down to 40 by January.
Tribal Group's work ultimately cost the district $3.5 million in federal funds. Although Register suggests Metro School's time with the firm is now over, the school board should evaluate whether "that investment yielded value," says MNPS school board member Will Pinkston.
An education communication consultant himself who focuses on business outside the state to avoid conflicts of interest in his home city, Pinkston says he's not concerned with how the Tribal Group relationship unfolded. It's normal, if not expected, that clients will pick and chose among the recommendations they want to take, he says. And one thing's for certain: Every engagement comes to an end, whether it's when the original agreement dictates or not.
"I wouldn't necessarily say that I would take the Tribal recommendations as a blueprint for what has to happen," says Mayor Karl Dean, who tells the Scene he had no preference whether the district kept working with the group. "But am I satisfied with the pace with which we're seeing increased student achievement? That's the real issue, and no. And that's not necessarily a criticism of anybody. I mean, we started at a point that was further behind, but the pace has to pick up."
Still, school districts will continue to be buyers. Some education insiders worry that other contractors who will get paid to give MNPS advice — whether it's a legal opinion or a reform recommendation — may take away the lesson to tell the director of schools what he wants to hear, not what he needs to hear.
But with Register's eight-year term as director of schools coming to a close in 2015, the bigger question to some is what prospective replacements will take away from MNPS' reluctant culture shift.
"MNPS is treating it as just another cycle of reform," Emily Evans says. "And the structure of the system — which is top-down, centrally planned — isn't going to change. And they're not going to let it change, and they block whatever pathways emerge to let it change.
"If you've seen this bureaucracy below the schools-director level who aren't interested in real, meaningful change in our school buildings, how likely are you to tackle that project?" she continues. "I don't know that answer, but that's what I worry about."
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