KC BOE Candidate Q & A - SPEAK

District 2 School Board candidate answers to questions from SPEAK: Students Parents and Educators Across Knox County

Jennifer Owen

Grant Standefer

1. What minimum qualifications do you think the KCS superintendent should have?

I believe a successful academic leader must have appropriate experiences and qualifications that exceed those of the people he/she manages. As the instructional leader for the community, the Director of Schools must be fully qualified to lead at all levels.

Based on these core beliefs, my experiences working under management that lacked those basic qualifications, and research into the qualifications expected by other strong school districts, I support the following minimum qualifications for the Knox County Director of Schools:

  • A record of engaging the education community as well as the community at large, to work TOGETHER to create attainable, realistic, & honest goals for the district
  • A record of assembling & maintaining effective collaborative teams
  • At least 5 yrs of full-time experience as a leader at the district level
  • Experience coaching and mentoring teachers
  • Demonstrated, in-depth, successful school leadership experience
  • At least 5 yrs of full-time, high-quality experience as a principal in a public K-12 school
  • At least 5 yrs of full-time, high-quality experience teaching in a public K-12 school
  • A Master’s degree in an education specialty (An earned PhD from a fully accredited university is preferred.)
  • A professional license which equals or exceeds the requirements of a professional TN teaching license
  • A record of clear and open communication at all levels
  • A record of successfully mentoring others
  • A record of open communication with district/community members
  • A record of creating, cultivating, & maintaining positive relationships
  • Experience working in an urban public school district
  • Strong analytical skills to make decisions that with correct analysis, fairness & sensitivity
  • Skills to enhance, rather than impede the flow of information
  • A demonstrated commitment to a child-centered philosophy
  • Ability to develop, administer, & transparently communicate a comprehensive budget which meets federal, state, & local guidelines.
  • Demonstrated success in obtaining & maintaining funds for projects to enhance instruction
  • Experience analyzing & integrating relevant technology into instructional plans & budgets
  • Success in improving & maintaining morale among a diverse staff
  • Experience recruiting, supporting, & retaining quality employees
  • Ability to correctly define the word, “rigor,” & explain why it is not an appropriate word to ever use regarding the education of children
The candidate should have at least and Ed.S degree. Since this person will be managing a $450 million budget, and 8,000 employees, along with 57,000 students, an MBA would be desirable as well. Classroom experience is certainly a plus.
2. What do you see as the role of the school board? Should the board establish the priorities and direction of the schools while the superintendent implements that direction, or should the superintendent establish the direction and priorities for the schools with the board defending and supporting his priorities?
School boards should be responsible for setting policy and the board-appointed Director of Schools should be in charge of the day-to-day administration of the schools, as laid out in TCA 49-2-301. The school board should govern the school system; the superintendent should administer it.

[note: TCA is Tennessee Code Annotated, which contains the laws that have been adopted in Tennessee.]

 The board is responsible for establishing policy and direction, but this must be done in cooperation with the resources and expertise that the administration offers to the Board of Education.
3. Which do you consider a more effective utilization of education funds, providing and maintaining personal computers to students or reducing class sizes by hiring more teachers?
“Effective” depends on the end goal, as well as knowledge of how these things are already working together. I have seen closets full of computers that are just stacked up and never used, because there are either so many other things on the plates of the staff that they never have time to use them OR because they are not working properly and the staff hasn’t even had time to put in a request for help.

Are they effective when they aren’t usable? No.

Might they be, if staff were able to use them appropriately? Maybe.

Would they be as effective at educating children as lower class sizes? No.

This really shouldn’t have to be an either/or question. We should be able to do both, without breaking the bank, IF we were consistently making decisions based on fiduciary responsibility.(The recent contract buy out amount could have paid for over 1200 Chromebooks or salaries for several teachers.)

 Appropriate class size based upon research is critical. One to one technology, properly utilized, is critical to the future of our students in the world in which we live. Both are important.
4. Research shows that small class size has a strong positive relationship to student performance. The Haslam administration has proposed increasing class sizes in public schools while class sizes in Knox County schools are getting larger. What is your position on class sizes for students in Knox County?
Class size should be as low as possible and based on actual classroom teacher to student ratios, rather than figuring in other staff who have little contact with students, or who pull out students individually. Those who have the responsibility to coach teachers should not be used to give the appearance of lower teacher/student ratios. It is much more important to decrease class size than to add to the already top-heavy administration or to pay for studies that only duplicate what others are already studying.  Referring to my answer to the previous question, our decisions should follow the best research on class size, but cost effectiveness must also be considered. Since Knox County schools are underfunded, financial realities come into play.
5. During the past five years, experienced teachers have been leaving the district at a rapid rate. At last count, 62% of teachers had 10 or fewer years experience. Only 8% have been teaching 20 or more years. What ideas do you have to keep qualified and experienced teachers in Knox County Schools?
It is very disheartening to see your colleagues treated badly, day after day. It is worse to see them treated badly for trying to use valid and appropriate methods in their classrooms, while the administration belittles them and lowers their evaluation scores when they question practices that very obviously harm children. We have far too many people who are more worried about pleasing the next level supervisor than they are worried about ensuring they do the right things for our students. Great, experienced educators know that there are other school districts where this is not the case. They know that there are many districts, very close to Knox County, were experience is valued and where speaking up for students is a quality that is respected by the administration.

Giving teachers a cookie on an appreciation day is an empty gesture that does nothing to truly value them. Words of appreciation are also empty, when not backed up with actions that prove our teachers are truly valued. (I once had a principal who told me that she really valued music education, while she cut one of the music positions from the school.) Words and gestures need to match. “Listening sessions” could be chances to actually hear from people, rather than empty PR plans. Our school board meetings could be opportunities to listen and respond to concerns, rather than opportunities to tear people down. A list could really be endless.

Of course, competitive pay is a way to attract teachers to the area and to keep some from leaving for higher paying districts. However, whenever you speak with teachers, this is not at the top of their list. Items at the top of their lists overwhelmingly have more to do with unrealistic work loads, unprofessional treatment from upper administration, and/or the inability to be able to serve students in ways that they know they should.

These problems can’t be solved through policy, but will require a great deal of work over the coming years, to change the damaging culture that has grown in Knox County Schools.

 Teachers need to be heard, and the Teacher Advisory Committee should continue to function. Members of the BOE should visit schools regularly and listen to teachers and principals. Teachers also need to receive pay raises.
6. What role do you believe charter schools, vouchers, and education management companies should play in public education? Are these types of management arrangements cost effective?
Those entities play a role in private education. The voucher experiment has gone on for over 10 years in various places in the US and students have been repeatedly shown to do no better than those remaining in their public schools. Draining money from public schools makes no sense, if one wants to make those schools better. The current bills in the House and Senate have no real accountability measures built in, no transportation plans, and have nothing in place to care for the students who remain in those struggling schools.  Knox County has a charter school and Knox County students attend that school. I want the Emerald Academy to succeed. We do not have education management companies in Knox County and I will not be recruiting them. I understand that vouchers take money away from our schools. I also understand some of the concerns of those who are pro-voucher. That decision, however, is neither mine nor the Knox County BOE’s decision to make. That decision will be made at the state level. If state legislators should decide in favor of vouchers, the role of the Knox County BOE will be to manage the financial impact of that decision to the best of our ability.
7. Recent research shows that more than 33% of US elementary and secondary students experience some test anxiety, up from 10-25% in past decades. How much time do you consider reasonable to be spent on standardized testing, including test prep, each school year? Do you believe that using standardized tests to evaluate teachers is a reliable measure of teacher effectiveness?
Test prep should be minimal and should certainly not impact student instruction beyond a few days prior to the test. If a test requires that students learn how to take it, the test is measuring whether they learned THAT skill – not the skills the test claims to measure. A one-time, high-stakes test has no place in measuring effectiveness – especially when teachers are teaching content that isn’t tested. Value added measures were designed to measure cattle and corn. Only those who equate students to commodities would measure their teachers this way.  The amount of testing that is done should be examined closely. We, of course, have state mandated testing over which we have no say. How much testing is done beyond that must be considered in light of the welfare of students and their academic progress. The use of standardized test scores in teacher evaluations can only be reliable if it is one of several components utilized. It should only be one factor in the overall evaluation process.
8. Individual Education Plans (IEP’s) require schools to include students with disabilities in general education, provide needed supports and make accommodations to the curriculum when they are in inclusive classes. Charter schools and voucher programs do not protect the legal rights of children with disabilities guaranteed by the Individuals with Disabilities Education Act (IDEA) What is your positions on inclusion, accommodations and necessary supports for special education students in a) our public schools and b) private and charter schools?
There should be no difference in the requirements to provide necessary supports and accommodations, based on whether it is a public or private school. Laws requiring those supports were put in place to guarantee appropriate educational opportunities are provided to all public school students. Using public dollars to support ANY system that ignores or circumvents those requirements is unacceptable.  My wife and I have been heavily involved in disability ministry for over a decade and are committed to students affected by disability and their families. Appropriate accommodations and inclusion are critically important for all children affected by disability.

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