Forgive me if some of today’s post comes out a little rough around the edges, but I woke up with a serious case of the grumps this morning. Spent a lot of time this weekend talking about schools with educators, and I can’t escape that feeling I get when I am on a trip and I make a wrong turn. There’s a period of time where I’m pretty sure I’m going the wrong way, but I haven’t made the decision yet to alter direction. That feeling of knowing that I need to change direction, but not sure where I should turn around or if there is an alternate route to get back on course is what I’m feeling today.
Educating children should be a undertaking filled with wonderment and a sense of joy. Sure, there should also be some sweat and occasional disappointment, but you shouldn’t have to put on a suit of armor just to get through the day. Yet more and more, that’s becoming the prerequisite attire for today’s educators, and, indirectly, the children they are responsible for.
Wonderment and joy is sacrificed in pursuit of the almighty test results, despite ample evidence outlining the flaws in the over reliance on data. Teachers are no longer allowed to create their own lesson plans because those plans aren’t proven to impact test scores. We celebrate teachers who sacrifice personal and family time and come in to work for gratis because without that extra work, test scores may only rise a little bit and we need HUGE gains. The fact that these demands take a verifiable toll on our educators’ lives is just passed off as an inconvenience as we further ingrain in stone the meme that intense personal sacrifice is just one of the requirements of the job.
All you need to do is look at MNPS’s vision statement – which is actually a mission statement, but that is argument for another day. It reads, Metro Nashville Public Schools will be the fastest-improving urban school system in America, ensuring that every student becomes a life-long learner prepared for success in college, career and life. The two parts of the statement are at cross purposes. Furthermore, if you declare that we are in a competition, then obviously we have to have a scoring method. How else will we declare the winner? Testing becomes that de facto scoring system.
A mission statement is defined as a a formal summary of the aims and values of a company, organization, or individual. So in their own words, MNPS has declared that winning the race is paramount to creating good schools. The message is that MNPS educators need to focus on creating schools that produce measurable results that demonstrate we are moving faster than other districts. It’s an added bonus if we get some lifelong learners, just as long as we do it fast.
Are we creating schools where children and adults love to walk through the doors? Are we creating schools where there is a boundless wonderment and new discoveries are being made daily? Are we creating schools where students know the value of reading, not just for purpose, but for its intrinsic value? I know it sounds hokey, but shouldn’t education inspire a little hokiness? My marriage to my wife is infused with hokiness and nothing in life brings me more pleasure.
In racing to be the fastest-improving school district, I have to ask, who are we benefiting and how? We give lip service to the value of critical thinking and literacy. What promotes critical thinking more than having kids read aloud during class? It kills two birds with one stone, but reading aloud is not encouraged. Reading aloud in class takes time and we are in a hurry, so it gets sacrificed for a districtwide literacy program that comes complete with a pacing guide filled with tasks to ensure you comply. We have a race to win, though I’m not quite sure where the finish line is located.
A district administrator, in a fit of honesty, confessed to me last week that when you act out of just a sense of urgency, you miss things. That’s very much the case with MNPS. The school board, Dr. Joseph, and his leadership team raced to fix a crisis that didn’t exist, while failing to conduct an inventory of existing resources. They did so at the expense of our educators. There has never been a validation of the quality of any work done in the district by anyone prior to Joseph’s arrival by Joseph or his leadership team. In their eyes, I don’t think even the dog catchers in Nashville could adequately catch dogs.
The hubris that comes with pronouncing MNPS, upon arrival, as a district in crisis is extremely offensive in light of events of Dr. Joseph and his team’s district of origin. On Friday, an audit was released in regards to changing grades in Prince George’s County Public Schools. The audit, performed by D.C. consulting firm Alvarez and Marsal, found PGCPS “does not consistently monitor adherence to grading policies and procedures,” that “grades are regularly submitted and changed after quarterly cut-off dates,” and “a significant number of 2016 and 2017 graduates had unlawful absences in excess of 10 days.” That’s a little sobering.
What is PGCPS Superintendent Kevin Maxwell’s response? “We don’t see a problem with instruction in most cases,” Maxwell told reporters. “Again, we have kids who go to some of the finest colleges and institutions across the country. This is about checking boxes, sloppy record keeping, not teaching and learning.” Hmmmm… remember that quote about being in a hurry and missing things?
That defense isn’t carrying much weight with Maryland Governor Larry Hogan. “I think that’s complete nonsense. This was a very thorough and complete investigation and so far, we’re extremely upset and outraged with the results.” I tend to agree. Especially in light of other findings by the auditors. While reviewing student records, investigators found “handwritten marking on transcripts where schools are performing math to determine the grade change required for a student to pass a class.”
Curious about what County Supervisor, current Maryland gubernatorial candidate, and recent attendee at an MNPS principal meeting, Rushern Baker III had to say about the situation? “As we suspected, the audit did not reveal any corruption or top down mandates from Dr. Maxwell’s office or other PGCPS leadership to change or fix grades. No other school district in the State of Maryland has had a comprehensive audit of its graduation records like Prince George’s County,” Baker said in a statement. Well, at least we now have a clue into where Dr. Joseph learned how to take ownership of a situation. First and foremost, you defend your vested interests, and then shift the focus on to someone else.
Couple these recent findings with the 2016 loss of Head Start money by Prince George’s County Public Schools, the high rate of PCGPS district employees out on administrative leave last year, and recent articles in the New York Times and Baltimore Sun about Joseph’s transition team member, and personal friend, former Baltimore Schools Superintendent Dallas Dance, and you start to really get a picture of the things missed when you are in a hurry.
Perusing social media this weekend, I came across a friend’s post: “I believe we are suffering from trickle down morality.” He was referring to the country, but his statement could have been about MNPS. We seem to keep further away from student needs and more invested in adult needs. Whether it be the reconfiguring of schools, the changing of the dates for the school choice festival, or even just the manner in which the daily business of running schools is conducted, there seems to be a transitioning of focus taking place.
The leadership team of Dr. Joseph, Dr. Felder, and Dr. Narcisse heap unreasonable demands with little concern to classroom impact or historical context on our new Community Superintendents. Those Supes turn around and do the same to their Executive Principals, who then put the hammer down on principals who are left with no recourse but to pass it on to teachers. All in the name of winning some hypothetical race created to further the reputation and polish the resumes of ambitious politicians and district leaders.
The impact on our schools has been the creation of a culture, in the words of veteran educators, more toxic than at any time in the recent history of MNPS. Teachers and Principals find themselves constantly at odds with each other in response to curriculum that seems designed to put them at cross purposes. Principals are chafing under increased demands and pressure from Executive Principals that ultimately prevents them from directing their focusing where it should be, on their schools and classrooms. Meanwhile, Executive Principals and Community Superintendents are being ground down by unrealistic demands on their time and lack of clear direction.
Do you really believe that all of this is going unnoticed by students? Do you think they don’t see their overtired and over stressed teachers? Do you think for one minute that they don’t take notice of their perpetually distracted principals? School becomes a drudgery and not what it should be, a laboratory to develop life and academic skills rooted in the joy of learning. Currently there is no joy in Mudville.
I will continually argue that modeling is the best form of instruction. What are we currently modeling for our kids? What is it that we are demonstrating as important? We are investing millions in converting schools to STEAM programming when we don’t even have stability with the district’s STEAM Director position. We are introducing curriculum sans buy-in or trust from teachers. I don’t know how to break this, but you can hire all the consultants and purchase all the rigorous programs you like, but without people who feel fully vested and inspired to implement that guidance and those programs, you are just pissing money away and burning through resources.
I want to share an anecdote from this weekend. It’s about JT Moore Middle Principal Gary Hughes, but I’m willing to bet that there are similar stories out there about virtually all of our principals. I bartended the recent Hillsboro HS PTO fundraiser, which afforded me the opportunity to overhear several different conversations.
One of those conversations was between some parents who were talking about their time at JT Moore and how integral to their children’s development Hughes had been. One of them testified that Hughes had practically raised her boys alongside her and that “Gary had taught my son how to properly shake hands. I love that man.” That’s the kind of stuff that gets lost in the shuffle when you are in a rush and focusing on the wrong things. But that’s also the kind of stuff that changes lives, and last time I checked, schools were supposed to be in the life-changing business.
It is way past time for MNPS to slow down and do some inventory. We need to take time to identify what is working and what is not working. There needs to be an evaluation of whether or not we have the right people in the right positions. We argue that we have to rush to show improvement on test scores, yet show no such compulsion toward capital improvement projects. Last year, Tusculum Elementary School, with 23 portables, had the highest rate of absenteeism in the district. This year, the first in a brand new school, that rate is significantly lower. It needs to be recognized that not all critical dialogue is noise and that, at some point, you need to listen to the chorus.
In case you didn’t recognize that aforementioned quote I snuck in a few paragraphs back, it’s from Casey at the Bat. A poem we used to read when I was in school. It probably won’t be on the test, but some of the words do feel appropriate:
Oh, somewhere in this favored land the sun is shining bright;
the band is playing somewhere, and somewhere hearts are light,
and somewhere men are laughing, and somewhere children shout;
but there is no joy in Mudville — mighty Casey has struck out.
Let’s look at the weekend’s poll responses.
The first question asked for your opinion on this year’s parent teacher conferences. Despite my perception of them being better this year, 54% of you rated them about the same as every year. 16% of you thought they were great. Here are the write-in votes:
|I saw deeper respectful engagement of parents this yr. Numbers up.||1|
|There weren’t enough translators to go around so most of my conferences were ????||1|
|Fine arts teacher. I saw 0 parents. Planning day!!||1|
|When does MNPS plan to actually partner with parents?||1|
|Managed to do home visits for all of my students- so worth it!||1|
|Student-led conferences empower students!|
The second question asked your opinion on the reconstructed Parent Advisory Committee. 34% of you had no idea what I was talking about, while 31% of you felt the new structure better served the district instead of parents. Interestingly enough, nobody answered “My principal asked me to participate and I’m excited.” I would think that DGW readers would be among the most active in schools and at least one would receive an invite. Obviously the district needs to do a little bit more work here. On a side note, the Overton Cluster PAC meets at 6:30 tonight at Granbery ES. Here are the write-in votes:
|Too many layers in new plan. No real access to adm||1|
|It is rigged, appointed not elected||1|
|A way to make parents thing that Bransford cares what they think||1|
|Smoke & Mirrors||1|
|If MNPS takes lead it won’t work. Has to be parent planned and led.||1|
|District chiefs will still do what they want|
Last question was about the number of fights taking place in schools. Personally, I’ve heard a number of disturbing stories and am starting to have concerns. 38% of you echoed what I’m hearing and indicated that the number of incidents is up. 19% indicated that it was only a slight increase and 17% said things were about the same. I wouldn’t call those confidence-boosting responses, and I continue to maintain that, at some point, we are going to have to have an honest conversation about restorative practices. Here are the write-ins:
|Up. Restorative practices not implemented correctly||1|
|We need a better procedure for discipline issues.|
That’s it for this week. You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. Be sure and check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page.