Shawn Joseph, Metro Director of Schools

NASHVILLE, TN — Nashville public schools are failing. For years, Metro students have scored lower on statewide tests than students in five surrounding counties. Closing the achievement gap is Director of Schools Shawn Joseph’s top priority.

After a year on the job, Joseph says he knows how to do that. All it takes is time and money.  He is short on both.

The Tribune interviewed Joseph last week in his office on Bransford Avenue to talk about education and how he plans to succeed when previous directors have not. The first part of his plan is to put resources in all 168 district schools in order to raise literacy scores.

The following is condensed from a longer conversation:

Tribune: Did you have any teachers who influenced you? Joseph: I did. When I went to Lincoln University I had a number of professors there who pushed us to think hard and forced us to think about quality. 

Dr. Manuel Babatunde was a sociology professor. He was the first person I knew who actually had two PhDs….a voracious reader avid learner. He always communicated that you can serve better if you know something.

Tribune: What do you think about technology in the classroom? Joseph: I think there is place for technology in education. It can allow children, particularly children who are extremely curious and who love learning to run at their own pace. But I also think there is magic in having a teacher challenging your thinking, pushing you to think about things in different ways.

Technology can’t really help you be creative, an effective communicator and effective collaborator. But it can help with critical thinking. 

Tribune: Are teachers becoming obsolete in a world dominated by technology? Joseph: Leadership is the art of inspiring and motivating people to tackle tough problems. That’s the role of a teacher in the classroom.

I don’t think technology is a bad thing in itself. It just needs to be complemented with a skillful teacher.

Tribune: What do you think of the charter school movement? Joseph: I think there are some really good charter schools out there. I think great charter schools, like great public schools, are really trying to help kids maximize their potential.

Tribune: What if every dollar that goes into charter schools come out of a public school’s budget? Joseph: I think public schools in America are woefully underfunded. I think public schools in Tennessee are underfunded, so the dollars that we have, we have to maximize them. We must ask the question: are we getting quality?

I don’t there is any magic to it. I don’t think charter schools in general do anything dramatically different than a good public school.

The intent of charter schools is to be more agile, more innovative, take greater risks and at a smaller level to be a laboratory for people to learn from. If things are working well, then you can figure out how to scale it up.

Most of Tennessee attends traditional neighborhood schools and we have to make sure there are dollars available to make sure those schools are strong. If we do that we should be getting results.

Tribune: How are you going to get the resources? Joseph: One of our challenges is that on average we are underfunded. When you look at Tennessee versus the rest of the country, we are not at the top of the list as the most resourced schools in the country.

When you look at some of the private schools in the area people send their kids to schools where they are paying $25,000, $30,000, $40,000 a year. In Tennessee we fund public schools at about $9000 per student. 

I suspect you would get dramatically better outcomes if we invested those type of dollars in our public school,. So that is our challenge. We must help the public want to invest that type of money. Let’s have $14,000 per child, or at least get to $12,000.

Tribune: Will presidents education plan make it harder to prioritize the resources and get them where they are most needed? Joseph: Right now we are beholding to our enrollment for the federal and state dollars that we have. My problem with the President’s budget is that it provides fewer dollars regardless of how many children there are in your district. 

Taking away the federal funds or stretching them to fewer students, will increase the amount of money we would have to spend on special education services. That will bankrupt the school district because we still have to provide those children with what they need. We’re just going to have to pay for it in local dollars,

One of the things we are continually thinking about is how do we maximize the taxpayers dollar and how do we ensure that children have high quality program options in all of the schools that exist. To achieve that goal we need to look at how efficient we are being.

Tribune: Would that mean closing down some schools? And if you had fewer neighborhood schools people would have to go further? Joseph: It could mean that but that’s the community conversation that you must have: is it worth driving a little further if you have this type of program or that kind of program?

Your options should not be limited based upon your zip code and its something all urban districts must look at and we are looking at that.

We may not be able to have the wide array of options but we have to make they are good. Even if they are few, they must be strong. As we get more resources we can get more programs.

You have to do fewer things better when you have limited resources. And if we did that that we would be changing the narrative of urban school districts.

We have these special satellite schools and academies, and our test scores have not gone up.

Tribune: Is that the wrong approach? Joseph: I think you’ve got to ask the question about test scores at all 168 schools. Are we instructing in literacy well and are were training staff to do that well?

We’ve been looking at scale. What are the things that don’t’ take a huge investment but with focus and with expertise we can build capacity over time?

To get higher scores we think literacy is one of the gateway skills. If we get it right, we hope we will in other subject areas as well.