Board of Education Questionnaire: District 6, Tamara Shepherd

Candidates in their own words

Metro Pulse sent the following questionnaire to all 13 candidates for the four contested and one uncontested Knox County Schools Board of Education seats. Candidates' responses have not been edited in any way, except to correct minor typographical errors for stylistic clarity.

TAMARA SHEPHERD, candidate for KCS Board of Education in the Sixth District

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Why are you running for the Board of Education? If you're an incumbent, why do you want to continue to serve for another four years, and is there anything you hope to do differently this term if reelected? If you're a freshly minted candidate, how long have you been interested in serving on the Board, and what do you think you can bring to the position?

My interest in Knox County Schools, in public education, and in youth generally is longstanding. I have volunteered for three Powell-area school PTAs, the Knox County Council PTA, and Project GRAD through Maynard Elementary. I also served as Education Chair for the Knoxville-Knox County League of Women Voters, was a founding moderator of the Knoxville News-Sentinel's School Matters blog, and worked as an education reporter for the Knoxville-Knox County Focus.

In other volunteerism for youth, I served on the Knox County Citizen Panel for Community Grants and volunteered as a leader in both the Girl Scout and Cub Scout programs for 13 years. I am a 2003 graduate of CAC's Community Leadership Program. I believe I know issues pertaining to public education and youth well.

Due to my long civic involvement, I am acquainted with our county mayor, our city mayor, and each of our county commissioners. I am also acquainted with all of our school board members, in some instances since before they began serving on the Board of Education (BOE). I believe these pre-existing relationships with our elected officials will enable me to better work with them across our areas of responsibility.

Although I first considered running for the BOE ten years ago (and picked up but did not return a qualifying petition), I am compelled to run now primarily because a series of rapid reforms locally, statewide, and nationwide has been detrimental to public education. I believe that many of these changes bode ominously for tomorrow's youth and that I am someone experienced enough to counter them with better, more holistic policies.

Please elaborate on any experience or qualifications you have that you think would serve you well as a member of the Board.

As indicated above, my interest in and volunteerism for public education and youth spans the last 15 years, which affords me a wealth of practical knowledge about both our school system and its youth.

Further, for 20 years prior to that I was by training and vocation an accountant (B.S. in Management) in banking and private industry. My work also entailed developing policies and procedures. Since providing budgetary oversight and creating policy are the fundamental duties of the BOE, my training and vocational background is well-suited to fulfilling such duties.

Finally, because my own two grown children have recently completed their K-12 education in Knox County Schools, I am familiar with our school system's practices and its offerings at all grade levels. With the graduation of the younger of the two this spring, I will gain the ability to devote myself full-time to service on the BOE.

What is your opinion of the current leadership of the state Department of Education under Governor Bill Haslam and Commissioner Kevin Huffman? If positive, how will you work with the many teachers and parents who are frustrated with the direction of the department? If negative, how will you try to maintain a good working relationship with the department?

My opinion of Governor Haslam's and Commissioner Huffman's leadership for public education is negative. Although a number of questionable reforms in recent years were, in fact, driven by President Obama's Race to the Top grant competition, Governor Haslam has promoted legislative changes beyond those and Commissioner Huffman has promoted policy changes even beyond the governor's proposals.

Governor Haslam has promoted worrisome private school voucher and state-wide charter school authorizer legislation, for example, and Commissioner Huffman has promoted concerning SAT-10 testing and teacher licensure policies, all of these reforms beyond the promises Tennessee extended in its Race to the Top grant app. Meanwhile, the governor has not promoted any legislation to correct deep flaws in our teacher evaluation model-- although among the scant three states to have adopted such a model, Florida did. Neither has the commissioner scaled back the rate at which he is implementing the model--although many other states implemented their models more slowly.

Given my belief that it is now necessary to litigate Tennessee's errant teacher evaluation model and likely its dictatorial state-level charter school authorizer, too, I rather doubt that a "good" working relationship is possible in the coming months, although I would make every effort to maintain a "civil" working relationship, for the sake of our school system's continuing operations.

What is your opinion of the job being done by the current Knox County Schools Superintendent, Jim McIntyre? If negative, how will you try to maintain a good working relationship with him? Would you vote to buy his contract out before it ends, despite the substantial cost to the district, if you felt you had the support of enough Board members to do so?

My opinion of Superintendent McIntyre's leadership for public education is also negative. He has used Knox County Schools as a conduit for the experimentation and profit of others whose interests are not the school system's students and teachers. He has farmed out the district's strategic plan to the Chamber of Commerce, its employee compensation plan to Battelle for Kids, and its resource allocation plan to the Parthenon Group. It is not clear why these plans were not produced internally by system staff and it is doubtful that the system can afford to repeatedly pay such costs going forward. He has also opened four new schools in locations not the property of the school system, namely the L&N STEM Academy, the Paul Kelley Academy, the Adult Education Program, and soon a new career-technical center. It is not advisable for the system to begin leasing forevermore an increasing number of properties it will never pay off, nor ever own.

Finally, he has squandered the good will he might have enjoyed from his "human capital," in the chilling vernacular of entrepreneurs. He has advocated for rather than against our broken teacher evaluation model in Washington DC, resisted routine and open collaborative conferencing meetings, and bullied his way to an extended contract even as his employees were turning out by the hundreds to publicly denounce his leadership.

As to the high cost of buying out his contract, the time is fast approaching when that cost must be compared against the high cost of retaining his services. Such a comparison will necessarily weigh the termination cost stipulated in his contract against the costs of an increasing number of edu-business consultants, perennial lease payments on facilities, and a mounting pile of lawsuits from the people he presumes to supervise.

What is your opinion of the performance of the current Board members, both those running for reelection and those who will remain in office until at least 2016? If negative, how will you try to maintain a good working relationship with them, especially if you've publicly criticized your potential colleagues in the past? If you're an incumbent, how will you try to maintain a good working relationship with any potential new colleagues who have been vocally critical of you?

I am not without sympathy for our current BOE members, as they have in recent years been required to rapidly implement multiple state and national reforms of little previous study and of questionable long term effect. However, in spite of the fact that these reforms came in the form of mandates, I believe our current BOE members still had a responsibility to adequately research their potential effect, or even their resulting effect, and that still hasn't happened. Looking forward, it will be necessary for BOE members to better study and anticipate the potential effect of any further reforms and to focus their energy on "reforming" some of these ill-advised policies already in place, not on "reforming" one another.

Putting your thoughts about the administration aside, what is your opinion of the Knox County Schools—the district itself? Do you think the schools are generally moving in the right direction? If not, in what direction do you think they should be moving? How would you work to make that happen on the Board?

As a parent of two grown children recently graduated and soon to graduate from Knox County Schools, I think highly of our teachers and administrators at the school level. While there's always room for improvement, I find the relevance, the rigor, and the sheer breadth of both course offerings and extracurricular opportunities to be impressive. I do regret that so many students remain housed in inadequate school facilities, but I am committed to tackling those needs in a strict priority order, so that the district may address its most pressing needs as soon as possible.

What is your opinion of the Tripod survey administered to students, intended to gauge their perceptions of their teachers' performance? If favorable, do you think it's a good idea for all students, including those in grades K-2? If negative, are you specifically opposed to the Tripod methodology (and cost), or the idea of surveying students about teachers' performance in general? The Memphis school district, among others in the country, has tied these surveys into a teacher's overall evaluation—is this something you'd ever consider, whether with Tripod or a different but similar survey?

I do not think the survey should be administered to students of any age, nor should its data be shared, nor should its results be incorporated into our teacher evaluation model. The very concept of children evaluating their elders fosters disrespect for the latter. Younger children may misunderstand questions posed by the survey and older children may fail to take the survey seriously, to the effect of invalidating survey results. Parents can and often do take exception to such surveys' questions and to the manner in which states subsequently share their data. Like the time spent on assessment, the time spent administering such surveys is also time in which instruction might have been delivered, instead.

While I am not aware of how much Knox County Schools has paid to The Tripod Project, the Memphis Momma Bears report that the former Memphis City Schools district paid Tripod $185,000 in 2010, $475,000 in 2011, $867,700 in 2012, and $945,000 in 2013. I am also aware that among eight New England states to have originally contracted with Tripod competitor InBloom, seven states have now severed their contracts and in the eighth state 12 parent-plaintiffs have filed suit against the company over privacy concerns. I am concerned for both of these developments.

Although state law currently requires teacher evaluations be tied to test scores, there is not a mandate for Knox County to use the current TEAM model. Do you think KCS should look into other evaluation models? If not, why? If so, are there specific models you favor?

My concerns for Tennessee's teacher evaluation model are many. I have a concern for the fact that the TEAM model (or any other model allowed by the State Board of Education) illogically links the evaluation of a teacher lacking individual TVAAS data to the individual TVAAS data generated by another teacher's students, whether or not the former teacher can conceivably impact that data relating to the latter. I also have a concern for the fact that the TEAM model (or any other model allowed by the SBE) presumes to evaluate all teachers by the same rubric, even teachers working with special education students or English language learners. I also have a concern for the fact that the TEAM model (or any other model allowed by the SBE) relies on this volatile and esoteric growth measure, TVAAS.

Finally, I have a concern that no growth measure can possibly adjust for the myriad obstacles to student performance that will always remain unknown. Any attempt to translate such obstacles into data and to then incorporate them into a mathematical formula cannot be done because it is not possible to know what all those obstacles are in the first place. It therefore appears that much of our evaluation of teacher effectiveness must rely on measures that are qualitative, rather than quantitative, in nature.

What is your opinion on charter schools? If negative, does this mean you would never vote to approve any charter application that came before the Board, no matter what? If you do support charter schools in any form, would you support an otherwise well-thought-out charter proposed by a for-profit operation, should the Legislature allow such schools to open in Tennessee (which it is currently considering doing)?

I would not vote to support a charter school managed by either a non-profit or a for-profit organization and I have expressed growing concern for the charter school movement for nearly 15 years. Predictably, the charter school movement nationally is now led by private foundations and private investors intent on privatizing our public schools through incremental change. Results of the effort have been to segregate students, to lessen transparency, and to drain resources and staff from traditional schools, even as districts' neediest students have been left behind in those same schools.

Neither have most charter schools produced superior academic results among their students, setting aside for the moment the dubious assertion that standardized test results should constitute the sole measure of academic success. What's most concerning about the growth of the charter school movement (and of the reform movement generally) is that it has done nothing to reduce the high concentrations of poverty in some schools that are in fact the primary reason they come to be identified as "failing schools."

The question of whether a BOE candidate would approve any sort of charter school application is recently moot, of course. The legislature has now approved a state-level authorizer of charter schools, stripping school systems of local control and imposing on them its most alarming unfunded mandate yet. I therefore agree with Metro Nashville Public Schools BOE member Will Pinkston, who last month told media he believes it is necessary to litigate this new state-level authorizer of charter schools.

Would you support KCS funding going to employ Teach for America teachers at regular public schools in the district? Would you vote to authorize a charter school that planned to employ mostly TFA teachers?

No and no. Five to seven weeks of pedagogical training is inadequate preparation for a classroom teacher, in a regular public school or in a charter school either one. TFA recruits themselves quickly come to realize this and most leave the profession in just two years. Many have publicly denounced the program afterward, too.

Do you have children in the school system in Knox County? Have you ever? If your children are school-age and attend (or recently graduated from) non-KCS schools, please explain why.

As indicated previously, I am parent to a 17-year-old senior at a Knox County public high school and a 22-year-old graduate of a Knox County public high school. My 22-year-old is also a graduate of a Tennessee public university and is now a first-year teacher in Knox County Schools.

As a member of the KCS Board of Education, you will be expected to sit through multiple long, tedious meetings filled with interminable PowerPoint presentations each month. Are you sure you can pay attention that long? Seriously, are you really sure about that?

Yes, I can and I have for many years. It's what I do.