A QUESTION OF FOCUS

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When writing these pieces, I often feel like a curmudgeon shouting “Get off my yard” to the kids. I don’t think of myself as a negative person by nature, but I am driven by an overarching desire to have honest conversations. And sometimes that entails shining a light in unlit places. When it comes to public education issues, most of those involved have the best of intentions, but due to the complexity of those issues we are often neglectful of unintended consequences. There is a tendency, in my opinion, to focus on short term effects, and frankly often on the wrong stuff.

BLUE RIBBONS AND PEP RALLIES

This week, Metro Nashville Public Schools, along with the Nashville’s Agenda Steering Committee and the Nashville Public Education Foundation (NPEF), announced the winners of this year’s Blue Ribbon Teacher Awards. According to the press release:

“Winners are determined following a rigorous selection process that included a review of evidence of outstanding teaching practices by a team of experts. Applications of semi-finalists are then reviewed by a specially-convened community selection panel. This year, the focus was on recognizing teachers doing outstanding work in one of three areas – literacy instruction, support of English Language Learners and teacher leadership.”

The list is an impressive one, and I’m thrilled to see one of my kids’ teachers on it. She’s a fantastic teacher and very deserving and worthy of recognition along with her peers. But you know who’s not on this list? My son’s teacher who has helped a kid fall in love with learning despite his resistance. The teacher, who on top of providing excellent instruction daily, takes time to ensure that the impoverished families of her students get the medicines that their kids need. The teacher who stays up to midnight every night for months in order to help her kids complete a project based learning assignment. The physical education teacher who takes time out of her day to schedule a parent meeting to find a solution to discipline issues a young male student is facing when she could just as easily pass that responsibility off to others. The teacher who continually inspires a young female student to think deeper and unlock her inert creativity. In my book, every one of those teachers, and more, deserves a Blue Ribbon.

We continually try to paint education as a competitive endeavor. The big problem with that view is that when you introduce competition into the equation, you create, whether intentionally or not, winners and losers. You play the contributions of those who receive awards and downplay the contributions of those who aren’t recognized. That’s the unintended consequence.

I know many of the people on the Blue Ribbon list, and I would bet money that most would quickly give credit to the other teachers in the building where they work. I’m not afraid to say that all recognize teaching as a team sport. It’s easier to show great growth when your students are getting RTI instruction from an exceptional teacher. If you have an art teacher who is inspiring on creativity and increasing kids’ engagement, it becomes easier to impact a child’s life.

Policymakers have tried for years to isolate the factors that determine a great teacher. The truth is great teaching is something you can recognize, but it can’t be quantified. I know that sounds like a contradiction, but think about it for a minute. We recognize that all students have different needs and approaches to learning; therefore, why is it hard to grasp that different teachers have different ways of teaching? Great teaching incorporates a little magic as well.

I’ve expressed in the past that the teacher who had the biggest impact on my life wouldn’t have won a single Blue Ribbon Award for teaching. I’m not even sure that they would have won a Red Ribbon Award. Consider, though, if he had adapted his style in order to fit the criteria required to be considered an award-winning teacher? How different would my life be? My definition of a Blue Ribbon Teacher is one who reaches ANY child, because to that child, that’s all that matters. In that light, I’d like to second the thought of one of my favorite tweets:

Motion to make teaching your heart out every single day ENOUGH. Like just that, just the good teaching. No need to become an administrator, or write a book, or run a TPT store, or start a viral hashtag or any of that. JUST TEACH REALLY WELL FOR A LIFETIME, that’s it.

MNPS is hemorrhaging teachers. Shouldn’t the focus be on honoring all teachers rather than signaling out a select few and thereby potentially sending a message to those not honored that they are not doing enough? There aren’t enough rock stars in the world to move the needle, but there are more than enough tireless, dedicated, quality people willing to do the heavy lifting that it takes to educate a child. We owe them all our thanks.

The root of this sense of competition has come in the door left open by the increased focus on standardized testing. The same people who want to quantify teacher effectiveness have been comfortable ranking our schools for years. It doesn’t matter that evidence has shown over and over that test results are more an indication of socio-economic status than achievement.

MNPS, like many other school districts, has adopted a slogan indicating a desire to be the fastest-improving district in the country. Nothing quantifies that goal rooted in adult desires like standardized testing.

What? You don’t think “fastest improving” is an adult construct? And you still labor under the illusion that the mantra is created for the good of the kids? Go talk to a kid. Ask them what they are looking for out of school. I can almost guarantee if you ask 100 of them, you won’t find 10 who voice a desire to learn faster than kids in other districts. You’ll probably find safety, validation, depth of knowledge, caring, and knowing more about stuff cited much more frequently.

In the name of accountability, more and more emphasis has been placed on standardized test results. The results determine a teacher’s career trajectory. They determine the funding of a school. The results impact the value of real estate in a school district. Nobody wants to buy a house in a district where the school is ranked in the bottom 10%. It’s not surprising that because of these ramifications, schools place more emphasis on the tests and their results.

This increased focus has led to “pep rallies” to inspire student performance. Younger students write letters to older kids encouraging them to do well on the test. The test becomes the celebrant instead of the act of learning. As one educator said to me, “Having a pep rally for TNReady is like having a pep rally for a colonoscopy. No one is cheering for the damn colonoscopy. We’re cheering for the cure from what was holding us back.” It was bad enough when this was happening annually on a state level, but now I see indications that this mindset is slipping down to the local level.

Last year, MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph introduced MAP testing to the district. It’s long been my contention that the reasoning behind this move was that MAP testing was prevalent where he and his team came from in Maryland. They understand how to tailor curriculum in order to show growth through MAP testing. TNReady is a foreign entity to them. So a decision was made to increase the focus on MAP testing in order to counter any negative TNReady results. You can dismiss that theory if you want, but there is no disputing that the district has placed an increased focus on MAP testing results. We moved MAP testing to come before TNReady testing this year because last year’s results might have shown the effects of testing fatigue. I know…

This morning while scrolling through my social media feed, I came across a post extolling students to “stay calm and crush the MAP test.” Yikes! This is a bit problematic on a number of fronts. MAP is given 3 times throughout the year. That means a whole lot of staying calm. Are we going to coach kids up for MAP and then turn around 6 weeks later and coach them up for TNReady? Can we focus on learning and a little less on accountability?

I actually like MAP testing. I’ve spent a lot of time researching it this past month. There are some very beneficial things that can come from MAP results if they are used as intended. MAP is intended as a formative assessment, a teaching tool. It is not intended as an accountability tool. It is not intended as a means to rank schools. Just like a colonoscopy, it’s meant to illuminate an area of need. So let’s leave the pep rallies, both for MAP and TNReady, where they belong, at sporting events, and focus on helping kids develop a love of learning.

QUICK HITS

Next Tuesday is a board meeting, and for teachers and other MNPS employees, it’s a very important one. The long awaited results of recently concluded collaborative conferencing sessions and an MOU with SEIU are to be revealed. If you look at the pre-printed agenda, you can read both. There are are some very good things in the agreement with teachers: Exception pay is raised from $25 per hour to $45 per hour. Planning time for elementary school teachers is set at 60 minutes, with middle school and high school being accorded 50 minutes. The district will pay 75% of a teacher’s insurance package. The grievance process is spelled out more clearly. I think it’s a testimony to all the hard work that went into it.

There is one area of concern, though, and that’s a pay raise. The document states:

The compensation committee will discuss the feasibility of a 5% across-the-board salary increase for teachers for each of the followings school years: 2018-2019 and 2019-2020. It is recommended that experience steps and degreed lanes in the salary scheduled should be maintained to encourage teacher retention.

That is very nice and potentially generous, but it ain’t a guaranteed raise. You might ask who comprises the compensation committee. Take a look:

The Board and the Association agree to establish and maintain a joint Compensation Committee composed of three (3) members appointed by the Administration, four (4) by the Association, and one (1) member of the Board of Education. The committee shall be chaired jointly by a member appointed by the Administration and one by the Association. The committee shall address all compensation issues including but not limited to a long- term salary goal and the structure of the teacher salary schedule. The Compensation Committee shall convene no later than September 15 of each year and report to MNEA and the Board by November 1. For the 2017-18 school year, the committee shall convene as soon as practical.

This year’s budget is getting more and more interesting. MNEA is encouraging people to attend Tuesday’s 5 pm board meeting where the MOU will be discussed. If you are going, please wear red as a sign of support for teachers.

The grade-changing scandal in Prince George’s County Public Schools continues to grow. Previously the focus was on high schools, but now parents of students in middle school and elementary school are expressing concerns. It’s important to note that these are not only recent allegations, but that they stretch back to when current MNPS leadership was employed with PGCPS.

Memphis has its own grade-changing scandal that they are attempting to rectify. One proposed solution is for Shelby County Schools to switch to a standards-based grading system. The standards would be based on the ones set by the state. I’m not sure how I feel about this idea. On one hand, I’m loathe to give the state, and the test, any more power over student learning. On the other hand, I’m not sure how much this policy would do that. More research ahead.

This week produced a nice round of PR focusing on the Tennessee’s RTI2 legislation. If you listen to the state, it’s a booming success. Teachers are not quite as convinced. As always, with apologies to Paul Harvey, Andy Spears gives you the rest of the story.

Spears also dispels the narrative of Tennessee being among the fastest improving states in the union:

That’s interesting when you look at the 2011 rankings and see that in overall education climate, Tennessee received a grade of 77. Compare that to the 2018 rankings, and we’re at a 70.8. We’ve gone from a solid C and closing in on a B to a C- nearing a D. Back in 2011, Tennessee was ranked 23rd in the nation in education climate. Today, we’re ranked 37th.

Another example of why it’s important to look at long term results is Rocketship Nashville. Coming on the heels of one Rocketship school closing is news that the IRS has filed a tax lien on the school. I don’t share this story to add fuel to the charter school debate, but rather, as a cautionary tale about just paying attention to short term results. Rocketship founders had previously touted the great gains the school was making, but unfortunately those results have not held up this year.

Rocketship claims the lien is a result of misfiled paperwork, and it very well could be. My point is that we are so quick to celebrate short term results, we neglect to consider the long term implications. Running a school is hard, hard work. There will be years of great success and years where there are challenges. What makes it difficult is that there are students and families involved. Hopefully Rocketship rights its trajectory soon, for the sake of the families who have chosen to invest in its success. Equally important is that we all start to widen our lens when it comes to judging a school.

District 8 has a contender for the soon-to-be vacated school board seat currently held by Mary Pierce, who has chosen not to run for re-election. Gini Pupo-Walker announced her intentions to run this week. Pupo-Walker is a Nashville schools graduate, former Metro Nashville Public Schools educator, and she works at Conexion Americas as senior director of education programs and policy. Her two children were Metro Schools students.

Edward Arnold announced his intention to run for the District 2 seat currently held by JoAnn Brannon. Indications are that Brannon does not intend to run for re-election. Arnold is a retired State of Tennessee employee who worked in computer technical support. He also was an adjunct faculty member at Nashville State Technical Institute. He also served as an adult literacy instructor in Metro Nashville Public Schools.

Calling all elementary and middle school students! Join Major League Baseball for a FREE event tomorrow at Cane Ridge HS. The half-day camp will give kids interested in baseball or softball a chance to focus on their skills while having fun! Register:

Belinda Furman is a Kentucky teacher. Read her thoughts on growing readers:

Allowing students to read for at least 20 minutes in class each day was always part of my reader’s workshop. The workshop model has four basic parts: the opening used to introduce the learning target, a mini-lesson of direct instruction, work time and share out. Using a reader’s workshop allowed me to explicitly model the reading strategies during my 10 to 15 minute mini-lesson and think aloud about the texts we were reading

The best part of reader’s workshop was always our “Share Square.” The Share Square was a time that all students would sit around the perimeter of the carpet to talk to their classmates about the books they had been reading and share their thinking about the texts. This was an opportunity for students to hear how their classmates understood the texts they were reading, make connections between texts and discover new books they might like to read themselves.

If only…

Former Gaslight Anthem singer Brian Fallon has a new record out today and it’s damn good.

Just finished a book by Belgian author Paul Colize, called Back Up. One of the most original works of fiction that I’ve read in a long time. It’s a fascinating mixture of conspiracy theory and cultural history centered around London and Western Europe in the early 60’s. Lots of Rock and Roll!

So, it would seem that the bookkeeper is the latest casualty over at Antioch HS. This comes on the heels of the wrestling coach leaving. How long can MNPS turn a blind eye?

POLL QUESTIONS

Time for some questions.

First question is about the district restructuring into quadrants. The year has progressed enough that we should be able to offer an evaluation. So what do you think?

Question two is going require you to do a little required close reading. Read the proposed MOU for teachers and let me know your thoughts. If you are not a teacher, but work for the district, read the SEIU MOU and tell me your thoughts. Both are at the very bottom of the agenda, so you’ll have to scroll through some things.

Last question. After a week of revelations, what’s your take on Nashville’s mayor? To quote The Clash, should she stay or should she go? I’m asking you.

That’s it for now. If you need to contact me, you can do so at Norinrad10@yahoo.com. I try to promote as many of the things sent to me as possible, but I do apologize if I fall short. I have started using Patreon. If you think what I do has monetary value, you can go there and make a donation/pledge. Trust me, I know I ain’t going to get rich, but at the end of the day I’m just a Dad trying to get by. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page as well. The Facebook page is where you can see a lot of great things happening in MNPS.

 

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2 comments on “A QUESTION OF FOCUS

  1. Lisa M says:

    Don’t be fooled by MAP testing. The parents here in MD are refusing the same as they are refusing PARCC. The kids quickly learn how to game the test to make it end so that they can get up and move. The kids (as they get older) soon learn that they are being asked the same questions over and over, but only in a different way. They are totally bored to death with MAP.

  2. Son Gendler says:

    Brings back unpleasant memories…

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