Monday, May 11, 2015

Nashville Schools Under Attack While Journalists Sleep

Over at Dad Gone Wild, blogger norinrad10 has been chronicling the various messes in the Nashville, Tennessee school scene. The latest news is not good-- one more example of a city in which entrenched media are part of the business community that is cheerfully working to dismantle public education.

Tennessee's Grand Experiments

Tennessee has long been out in front of the reformster wave, marking such dubious achievements as being the first state put a former TFA temp guy in charge of the state education system. Kevin Huffman did also mark some time as an education lawyer, but that and the two years of TFA temping were enough to rank him as one of Jeb Bush's Chiefs for Change. Huffman was a loyal Common Core warrior and was right at the front of the line to hand the feds the keys to Tennessee education in exchange for a NCLB waiver. Huffman never met a reformster idea he didn't like (evaluation to root out bad teachers, performance based pay, charters) and his commitment was strong-- when Nashville failed to approve a Huffman-approved charter expansion, Huffman took $3.4 million away from the school system

Huffman also recruited Chris Barbic from Houston to come run the Achievement School District. The ASD was an attempt to see if New Orleans style public-to-private education conversion could be implemented without the fortuitous advent of a hurricane. Could human beings deliver that kind of destruction without the assistance of nature and create a network of business investment opportunities private charter schools?

Hurricane ASD landed initially on Memphis, with a business plan that is a little bit genius--"The Achievement School District was created to catapult the bottom 5% of schools in Tennessee straight to the top 25% in the state." There will always be a bottom 5%. In fact, given even a tiny modicum of success, ASD will eventually get its hands on almost 100% of the schools as they all cycle through that bottom slot. More recently, ASD has worked on expanding into Nashville, and that is raising its own new set of issues.

Huffman, however, has moved on, gracefully jumping ship before he could be pushed off the plank. Late in 2014, his general incompetence and gracelessness had finally turned him into a large enough political liability to end his happy time as Tennessee Educhieftain.

Can't We Just Start Over?

Lots of folks in power had loved Huffman and thought he had the right ideas. But the whole Common Core discussion had exploded in a welter of hard-right anti-gummint much dislike, and Huffman's attempt to make every Tennessee teacher just a little poorer had not exactly won a lot of backing from that community, either.

So here comes the Nashville Public Education Foundation, a coalition of civic-minded folks that would really like to make a mark on public education as long as they don't have to A) actually talk to or deal with people who work in public education or B) work through any of those democratically-elected institutions. We've seen this kind of foundation before (I ran across it most recently in York, PA, when local businessmen decided that they really wanted to dismantle public schools without actually having to run for office or convince the general public to go along.)

Watch their scrolling bank of happy quotes and you'll see supportive words from Teach for America, the Chamber of Commerce, the mayor, a former governor, a parent, a CEO, the school director, the country music association foundation, and -- wait? what! really??-- Ben Folds.

The Foundation has had its fingers all over Nashville education, and that foundation has decided that what the city needs is to RESET.  What the heck is that?

The mission of Project RESET (Reimagining Education Starts with Everyone at the Table) is to elevate the conversation on education as we approach a vital time in Nashville’s history. Led by the Nashville Public Education Foundation, with the support of Nashville’s Agenda and media assistance from The Tennessean, Project RESET will set the table for a larger, communitywide conversation about improving Nashville’s public schools.

The event, lauded by charter operators around Nashville, is coming up at the end of the month. How much fun will that be?

Dogs and Rocks

You know the old Will Rogers quote: "Diplomacy is the art of saying 'nice doggie' while you look for a rock." Remember this any time somebody is acting diplomatically toward you. Don't listen to what they say; watch to see if they're looking for a rock.

The rock in this case is the Parthenon Consulting Group.

Look at their website. Look at this 2009 power point presentation about educational investment. Look at this paper about investing in KSA and UAE. Check out how this publisher lists them with other examples of Strategic Consulting Firms like Bain, McKinsey and Boston Consulting Group.

Look at what Parthenon had to suggest in Knoxville. Their suggestions there included cutting 300 people, which would create a big pile of money if teachers were paid as well as Parthenon consultants in Memphis (4 consultants per month = $350K).

What is blindingly clear is that when it comes to education, Parthenon is only interested in one topic-- how to make money at it.

If your landlord says he's called an outfit to come work on the problems in your building, and what you see pull up in front is a Demolition Specialists truck, you are the doggie. If you are a public school system and the Parthenon Group shows up to "help" you, you are the doggie. The Parthenon Group does not specialize in helping schools systems do a better job of educating students. The Parthenon Groups helps school systems turn into pieces that can be more easily replaced with profitable charter schools. (The Momma Bears have a great post about what Broad-style slash-and-burn looks like.)

Is anybody paying attention?

Well, no.

Scroll back up to the RESET quote, the one where The Tennessean is credited with providing "media assistance." You can peruse that site for glowing PR puff pieces in support of NPEF, with a big fat RESET logo on each one. Just yesterday they ran a super-duper article about how great it is that Nashville has Pre-K's doing academic instruction with four-year-olds. A ten-second google would have turned up ample evidence that such instruction is a terrible idea, but as we've recently seen  in New Jersey, sometimes it's just more fun to promote what you're supposed to promote instead of doing actual journalism.

And that brings us back around to the post that originally sparked my interest.

I personally called Tennessean reporter Jason Gonzales to discuss his article and asked him point blank if The Tennessean had a sponsorship role in Project RESET. He emphatically answered no, they are just producing a series of articles on the Nashville education system. Articles that all bear the Project RESET logo and have been a mixture of negative and calls to put aside petty politics. You know, politics that call for an equitable system for all kids.... When I asked Jason if he thought that information surrounding the group conducting the study was relevant he answered with an equally emphatically no. The data from the study is important, he said, but not the conductors.

I don't know a thing about Jason Gonzales, but I feel perfectly comfortable calling him dead wrong. When the city zoo hires a consultant who specializes in selling rare animal pelts, that information is relevant. When a local business hires a consultant who specializes in closing businesses and selling off parts, that information is relevant.

And when the unelected body that has put itself in charge of revamping local education hires a consultant who specializes in closing public schools and turning them into profit-making private enterprises, that information is relevant.

Why all this now? Nashville gets a new mayor and a new school chief very shortly; think of it as big welcome pep rally for them. Nashville schools are definitely the doggie. Let's hope somebody steps up to protect it before the rock falls.


  1. Thank you so much for writing this. As a teacher whose school was taken over by the ASD (with predictably disastrous results), I am working to keep this disruptive process from happening to more children.

  2. Thank you, thank you, thank you for shining a light on both this issue and on TC's Dad Gone Wild blog!! This whole "reset" movement is frustrating, and I hope at their "idea festival" on May 30 that people can see right through them. We'll be there, too, trying to get people to see the truth.

  3. I'm a Nashville teacher and you have hit the nail on the head. I am disgusted with our newspaper, The Tennessean. It definitely seems to be in bed with the privatizers. There have been so many "puff pieces" on "reform." The Nashville Education Public Education Foundation is a bunch of rich folks that send their kids to pricy private schools. These folks haven't stuck their big toe in a real public school- unless it's for some kind of dog-and-pony-show tour. Some of these folks are not just rich- but super rich. Guess they're going to get even richer once they privatize public ed.

  4. Please note that the author's link to Parthenon LLC's website is an error. We are an investment firm and have nothing to do with the topic of this blog.

    1. Quite correct. I have corrected the linkage.

  5. Thank you. Note also: the Keel Hunt "journalism" connection. A columnist at The Tennessean, he is the founder of his own PR firm, TSG. His daughter Shannon Hunt (formerly on the Bredesen staff) is the new director of NEPF. When Amy Frogge from the school board mentioned Parthenon's issues, Keel Hunt attacked her on Twitter. There's no doubt what the Parthenon Group is. In 2013, they participated in this conference: Private Equity Investing in For-Profit Education Companies. The newspaper isn't just NOT doing its job, it's being lobbied by a columnist who has clear conflicts of interests. Turnover at the paper has been great. It's not the fault of the journalists. Very few of them left. Full disclosure: I'm a former library person and researcher at the paper (till Dec. 2008).

  6. Great information... As an ill-informed citizen (on education issues) I am totally bewildered how to educate myself on this contentious and expansive issue. I am a part of Nashville's Agenda, mostly because of my leadership in the Nashville Neighborhood Alliance so I intend on participating in the RESET initiative. But if all this is about the privatization of more of our schools I will be an upset member. So please keep the information coming.

    1. Keep reading here, John. And get to know Amy Frogge.

    2. John, I had a friend do an autopsy on The Parthenon Group powerpoints & website when they invaded Knoxville & took $1.3 for nearly the same "advice" they gave to Memphis City Schools. (e.g. increase class sizes, cut libraries, fire support personnel, reduce salaries, etc. That is, eliminate all the things that WORK to meaningfully educate real children.

      She translated their business jargon into common English for those of us in the education world.
      PG in nutshell:

      "This is a glass half empty/glass half full kind of scenario.

      "Glass half full: Parthenon Group seems to be made up of "investment advisors" and PR flacks.
      They are all about creating the next Wall Street bubble around education by spreading hype and BS.
      Their last hot tip was Corinthian (which just went
      belly up after defrauding everyone they came into contact with, including Wall Street).
      Parthenon is so massively incompetent that they may not have much impact on the schools.

      Glass half empty: They will be paid for wasting months and delivering BS, and paid very well."

    3. John,
      from Harper's Magazine Notebook (August 2007)
      "The Big Enchilada"
      by Jonathan Kozol

      "Some years ago, a friend who works on Wall Street handed me a stock-market prospectus in which a group of analysts at an investment-banking firm known as Montgomery Securities~described the financial benefits to be derived from privatizing our public schools. "The education industry", according to these analysts, "represents, in our opinion, the final frontier of a number of sectors once under public control" that "have either voluntarily opened" or, they note in pointed terms, have "been forced" to open up to private enterprise. Indeed, they write, "the education industry represents the largest market opportunity" since health-care services were privatized during the 1970s. Referring to private education companies as "EMOs" ("Education Management Organizations"), they note that college education also offers some "attractive investment returns" for corporations, but then come back to what they see as the much greater profits to be gained by moving into public elementary and secondary schools. "The larger developing opportunity is in the K-12 EMO market, led by private elementary school providers", which, they emphasize, "are well positioned to exploit potential political reforms such as school vouchers". From the point of view of private profit, one of these analysts enthusiastically observes, "the K-12 market is the Big Enchilada".

    4. Diane Ravitch's presentation University of Arizona, Dec 14, 2014
      "Why Corporate Reform Isn't Working"

  7. To anyone who wants to stay updated on this issue--because the Tennessean is full of biased reporting--please follow and Amy Frogge on Facebook (