Wednesday, August 4, 2010

Henry v. Yarbro on Education

Posted By on Wed, Aug 4, 2010 at 11:38 AM

Its The Final Countdown!
As the sun rises on the primary tomorrow, the race for Republican gubernatorial nominee is not the only contentious one. Right here in Nashville, in District 21 to be more specific, we have a Democratic primary battle between longtime incumbent Sen. Douglas Henry and upstart attorney Jeff Yarbro. Perhaps you've heard a little bit about this race?

Jeff has chosen education as his go-to issue, and Sen. Henry's camp has responded in kind. As education is certainly one of my top issues (as I'm sure it is to many Pith readers out there), I thought it would be worth taking a look at the candidates' positions and experience in educational matters in advance of actual voting (I'm in District 21 and have already cast my vote — don't ask!).

So, where do both candidates fall? Let's go to the videotape!

First, Jeff Yarbro.

So, what have we learned? Education is "not just another issue" for Jeff. His son is young, so we don't yet know whether he'll actually be attending public schools, though I've got to say, the fact that you don't send your kids to public school should in no way rule you out as being genuinely interested in improving the state of public education. Jeff has apparently worked with "parents, teachers and local businesses to bring innovative reforms to our local classrooms." No real specificity there.

Now what about Sen. Henry?

OK, not so education-focused. We only learn that he's a "leader on education reform for our kids." Not a lot of specificity there either (surprise!).

In fact, this vagueness on education is a consistent theme in the Henry campaign.

More recently the Henry folks posted a video of Betsy Walkup, former school board chair, talking up the senator. Most telling for me is that she doesn't mention education AT ALL. She talks about honesty, integrity and his "crystal clear" focus (clearly meant to combat the not-too-subtle Yarbro argument that the senator is just not up to being senator much anymore). Nothing about education. No programs, no accomplishments.

In fact, as far as I can tell, there's no real engagement with educational issues, on a policy level at all by the Henry campaign. Go to the website. Look for the "issues" section. Click on the education link and tell me what you find. No, wait, I'll tell you: three short paragraphs, and three issues (charters, funding the BEP, and dropout prevention) that the senator has ostensibly worked on. Nothing about the future. No policy positions or plans for improvement. In fact, the only other page on the site that addresses education (as far as I've found) is a list of endorsements from local educational bigwigs. Note, as you're reading, that no one is very specific. On the content side, here's the extent of it:

He has worked closely with Gov. Bredesen, playing a key role in obtaining the Race to the Top funds and supporting the governor’s efforts to raise teacher pay and expand access to Pre-K programs. Sen. Henry also sponsored and passed legislation to help curb the dropout rate by making it easier for young teenage mothers to stay in school.

As far as actual legislation goes, in the past two years, Henry has sponsored no education bills, and has co-sponsored six, only two of which (SB1075, mandating creation of guidelines for K-6 foreign language instruction, and SB3304, which allows schools to raise private donations for AP or IB programs) ultimately became law.

So, that's Sen. Henry.

What about his challenger, Jeff Yarbro?

Yarbro's education plan can be found here, with a letter of introduction here. Yarbro more or less echoes the latest educational themes, without a lot of novelty (which isn't necessarily a bad thing). Here are a few key tastes of what he thinks:

Government in general, and public schools in particular, are still designed like a 1950s corporation with rigid hierarchies, one-size-fits-all approaches, and a bureaucratic bias in favor of the status quo.

I think most folks pretty much agree that public schools are too rigidly centralized and/or bureaucratized, and the enthusiasm for charter schools (at least among politicians, wonks, and other educational "leaders") shows that a lot of people are into the idea of "flexibility" right now, Yarbro included.

On the charter schools issue, Jeff echoes Mayor Dean, Matt Candler, myself and thousands of others in saying that "charter schools are not a panacea" for the problems of education in Tennessee. Oh, and Jeff was ostensibly an "education advisor" on charter schools to Mayor Dean:

I’ve worked with Mayor Dean to support existing charter schools and to create a statewide Charter School Incubator for new ones.

Though by and large Yarbro's approach is a pretty safe (and thought-out) compendium of educational consensus and trend, at least as to what we should be trying, there are a few areas in which he crosses over more completely into latest-bandwagon status:

Convert a significant number of public schools to STEM Academies, focusing on Science, Technology, Engineering & Math, so that our future workforce is prepared to compete nationally and internationally.

Implement smaller learning communities in our comprehensive high schools and middle schools, so that students and teachers can form productive relationships in a smaller, safer environment.

Though a focus on so-called "STEM" education is definitely warranted in U.S. public education, the trendy school conversion stuff is not. ALL students need better (and more) STEM education; transforming a select few schools into "STEM Academies" is just a flashy way (in my opinion) of branding our commitment to STEM without doing as much as we could systemically to make sure our students have excellent math and science education.

The small learning community stuff is also pretty trendy. It's been around for a number of years and, as studies like this one point out, the evidence for the effectiveness of this kind of structure (MNPS' recent commitment to "The Academies" notwithstanding) is mixed. Done right, SLCs have a possibility of being extremely effective, by localizing students and teachers so that enduring relationships (student-student and student-teacher) can be built, (potentially) reducing class sizes, and increasing interesting opportunities and motivation for many students. However, they can also be a gimmick. Here's hoping that Yarbro (if he's elected) and MNPS know the difference.

On the other hand, there are some ideas that stand out more:

Initiate student loan forgiveness to attract educators capable of teaching hard-to-staff subjects and willing to teach in our poorest performing schools.

MNPS has already dabbled in so-called "combat pay" for teachers in hard-to-staff schools and subjects, the most recent round being a part of the controversial rezoning plan implemented this year. Most reports say that it hasn't really helped, though whether that's an issue with implementation (the combat pay was used more as a bonus than as a recruiting tool) or philosophy, it's tough to tell. Check out this report [pdf] from the Center for American Progress for a good overview of the effectiveness of such incentives (at 15). Most teachers will tell you that the quality of the principal, the culture and safety of the school, and the relationships among the staff are more important than a (relatively) small raise. Who knows — maybe full-on loan forgiveness is a better carrot.

Jeff also jumps on the TFA bandwagon, which actually has the potential of irritating a lot of teachers out there (unions and a lot of veterans don't much cotton to the "ivy league dilettantes" TFA-ers sometimes appear to be):

Enhance non-traditional avenues to choosing education as a career or a second career. We must support programs that bring new talent to our schools, like Teach for America, the New Teacher Project, and develop alternative pathways for those with subject matter expertise to choose teaching as a second career.

Before we hit the wrap-up, it's worth understanding something about both candidates: Being a state senator in the minority party (despite what Chip Forrester and the TNDP says, there's still a very good chance that the Dems will be in the minority come next year), taken together with the fact that 90% of education policy decisions are made at the local level, it's unclear that either candidate can really make much happen. "First to the Top" was a wide-ranging piece of legislation, mostly in terms of teacher evaluation, but I don't foresee anything that major happening again at the state level for a little while. It's not as if the legislature is going to mandate that all local school systems use SLCs or move to open classrooms. It shouldn't come as a surprise, but a lot of the promises being made during these campaigns can't really be carried out to any full extent. But boy do they sound good!

So where do we stand?

Jeff Yarbro talks a very good game. It seems pretty clear from his ads, his website, and the times that I've met and talked to him that he actually is very concerned about the state of education in Nashville and Tennessee, and wants to do something about it. He has articulated a very clear and detailed set of policies, which generally conform to what education research says we should be doing to improve our schools. There has been quite a lot of thought and time put into his policy positions. As to experience, well, that's another matter. Jeff's a bit slim on this one, and it's unclear, despite his claims, what his actual experience really is.

On the other hand, experience is pretty much all that Sen. Henry has. He doesn't talk much of a game on the issues, and despite his claims of being a leader in the legislature on education issues, it doesn't seem like a particular focus of his (the charter legislation notwithstanding). On the other hand, Henry has been excellent in protecting Pre-K, supporting the First to the Top legislation, and trying to fund the BEP. His votes have been there when they've counted.

What it comes down to is a question for the voter: Do you want to go with someone who probably won't be a particular leader on education, but will effectively support the reforms that do come down the pipe, or do you want to go with a newcomer who talks a great game, but who may not end up being effective? If Yarbro makes it into the legislature, he may write a lot of education bills, but there's no guarantee that any of them will make it out of committee. Henry has been in the legislature for over 50 years and has the relationships and the reputation. With a Republican majority looming, those kinds of embedded relationships might be that much more valuable. The trade-off is: Don't expect particularly great things from Henry on education.

One last thing: You know what I'd like to hear, that neither candidate has mentioned?

"As a state senator, I promise to review the state financing system for education, and fight to bring Tennessee in line with the rest of the nation in terms of education spending."

Haven't heard that from anybody yet.

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