Seek First to Understand

On Monday, RePublic’s CEO published a blog post geared towards shedding light on the harassment charter schools receive at the hands of anti reform politicians. One particular elected official, Amy Frogge, is now attempting to change the discussion by making largely falsified or unattributed claims about the quality of the student experience at RePublic. This is a deliberate attempt to detract attention from the actual question at hand: Did our leaders choice to teach the novel City of Thieves to 7th graders merit a demand for the closure of one of the state’s highest performing and most successful educational institutions?

As we have all learned in past and current election cycles, falsehoods, if repeated loudly and often, can nestle themselves into the public's consciousness. This week, we’ve seen this challenge firsthand with an aggressive attempt to discredit and minimize the monumental work being done by our teachers, scholars, and their families. It is an attempt to elevate the stories of a few families who have made the decision that our school doesn’t align with their vision for their child’s education – an opinion to which they are wholly entitled. My own parents made a similar decision when I was in the 7th grade to remove me from a school that was not a good fit. They were fortunate enough to be able to afford other great choices.

What bothers me most right now is not someone questioning the age appropriateness of a book or whether or not we may/may not have violated a copyright law. It is the unapologetic effort to cast into the shadows the voices of the parents of more than 1,300 RePublic scholars who made the deliberate choice and conscious decision to enroll their child at one of our schools because they (a) fundamentally believe that their children have a right to the quality of education we are providing, and (b) actually love and take pride in this institution. We’ve received a wave of messages from families in the past twenty-four hours who have affirmed their commitment to our schools.

Every day in this city, more than 15,000 parents send their children to one of the 55+ private schools of their choosing. Some of these schools are affiliated with evangelical churches, others are independent. Some are same-sex, others are not. Some have intensive top athletic programs, others excel in the arts. My point is, these parents have choices. You would never find an elected official, or even another parent for that matter, passing judgment or proclaiming that the private school someone else has chosen for his or her child was wrong.

In Amy’s recent posts on social media, she references a slew of unsubstantiated anecdotes about Nashville Prep that collectively paint a picture of alleged negligence and mistreatment of students. The language and allegations in both the post and follow up comments show a disregard for fact, truth, and detail. Therefore, I feel called to set the record straight. Please know that I have no interest in debunking individual claims point-by-point, which is something MNPS’ Office of Innovation has already done over the course of the past few years.  I also have no personal vendetta against Amy Frogge. I have never even really met her and would love nothing more than to sit beside her to better understand where she is coming from.

Simply put, the school Amy describes doesn’t exist. Last year, RePublic’s average parent satisfaction score was 4.49 out of 5.0. Our highest score, 4.63/5.0, was for parent satisfaction with our school’s academic standards and expectations. 

Is everyone calling for the closure of our school saying that these parents are wrong?

Amy's post includes a range of reasonable misunderstandings of our program (that could be cleared up in a short phone call, email or visit) and patently untrue statements.  As someone who has spent decades working to improve the wellbeing of young people in this city, I can assure you that I would not be involved with the Dickensian institution portrayed. None of the dedicated and loving educators I know at RePublic would work at that institution either.  

The claims I read yet again over the past two days create the illusion that Nashville Prep parents have submitted these complaints in spades since the school opened. In reality, the anecdotes shared seem drawn from only two formal complaints that families have filed on behalf of their scholars. These complaints were presented to Nashville Prep’s governing Board of Directors per the school’s grievance policy and procedure, which is outlined explicitly in RePublic’s Student and Family Handbook, a document all families receive and sign at the start of each school year. Each complaint was investigated immediately, and handled in full compliance with school policy and district guidance. Both complaints were addressed expediently with approval and sign-off from Nashville Prep's Board of Directors, and no further action taken or requested by MNPS' Office of Innovation.

Time and time again, we have invited our critics into our schools, both in the pursuit of providing much needed context, and in enhancing our program to best meet the needs of the children we serve. I personally invited Amy to visit Nashville Prep with me one time but the invitation was declined.

Our social positions often prevent us from showing grace towards others who have different views, and inhibit us from objectively examining evidence related to strongly held beliefs. Others, such as Vox and Jonathan Haidt, have examined this phenomenon in great detail. Vox summarizes a study from Yale law professor Dan Kahan: 

“[W]hy isn’t good evidence more effective in resolving political debates? For instance, why doesn’t the mounting proof that climate change is a real threat persuade more skeptics?

The leading theory, Kahan and his coauthors wrote, is the Science Comprehension Thesis, which says the problem is that the public doesn’t know enough about science to judge the debate. It’s a version of the More Information Hypothesis: a smarter, better educated citizenry wouldn’t have all these problems reading the science and accepting its clear conclusion on climate change.

But Kahan and his team had an alternative hypothesis…Perhaps there are some kinds of debates where people don’t want to find the right answer so much as they want to win the argument. Perhaps humans reason for purposes other than finding the truth — purposes like increasing their standing in their community, or ensuring they don’t piss off the leaders of their tribe. If this hypothesis proved true, then a smarter, better-educated citizenry wouldn’t put an end to these disagreements. It would just mean the participants are better equipped to argue for their own side.”

This phenomenon is clearly at work in the education debates in Nashville - as data, impartial investigations, and research aren't changing minds at the extremes of this conversation. Most of us in the middle are left unequipped to wade through a flood of inflammatory rhetoric in the pursuit of objective truth.

In his book The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People, Stephen Covey’s 5th Habit states that effective people "seek first to understand, then to be understood."

I’ve watched hundreds of people who have never stepped foot in one of our schools make statements on social media the past couple of days condemning our school, its leaders, our parents and their children.  

My request to you is this: come visit our school. But first a warning: it is not perfect. No institution or person is. But please come see us, and come through the doors with a spirit of grace and openness that will allow you to see and understand what these young people are experiencing—and what more than 1,000 happy parents and guardians are appreciating. In doing so, you may just be inspired to help replicate some of its success rather than calling out to close all of its doors.