“There is nothing to writing. All you do is sit down at a typewriter and bleed.”
I’ve always said being an advocate for public education requires the ability to play multi-level chess. Sometimes things happen independently on one level, sometimes issues transpire on multiple-levels. If you focus on only one level you do so at the possibility of your own detriment. Such is the place where I now find myself, slow to come to the realization that there is a whole lot more in play here than just what’s happening at Metro Nashville Public Schools.
Over the last year, I’ve focused primarily upon just MNPS with a perfunctory glance at the state and National level. First of all, Tennessee already had a blogger better at state issues than I in Andy Spears. Secondly, after the 2016 school board election, I was of the opinion that charter schools and the choice crowd were the least of our problems and that I needed to focus more on district issues. Unfortunately, after spending the last couple of years flying under the radar, the School Choice Forces are done licking their wounds and amassing for some bigs moves in the near future. Putting me in the position of having to play a little catch-up.
Before we get too far into this I want to make sure that I clarify; I’m not painting all choice advocates as nefarious villains. I’ve come to count many of them as friends, but I do think that there is a great deal of danger in some their ideology. I’ve yet to hear how equity and choice can compliment each other.
No matter how much you talk about equity, there will always be those who have no choice. Those that are abandoned to the traditional system. A system whose limited resources are continually threatened under the guise of creating a system that is more responsive to parents. That constant depletion of resources brings a higher cost to educate those left behind. By ignoring those larger issues, we run the risk of creating a Nashville school system that is even more underfunded than it is currently. I have recently reminded myself to continue to look at other cities and look at how Nashville could be potentially negatively impacted by what’s transpiring in those communities.
I think some things happening here are the result of Dr. Joseph’s policies but some things are rooted in outside influences. I see things happening in other cities that we have to be careful don’t take root here while distracted by local politics. Look at New Orleans, which does not have a single public school remaining. It is a system completely made up of charter school yet 40% of their schools are ranked “D” or “F” by state standards. Denver which is a leader in the “portfolio” strategy now has more charter and innovation schools than traditional schools. And about that “innovation school” theory, check out how it’s played out in Indianapolis where “innovation schools” were utilized to weaken the teacher’s union. Per Dountonia Batts, the former leader of the IPS Community Coalition, a grassroots group that’s skeptical of innovation schools, recently quoted in Chalkbeat,
“I don’t think people really understood the impact that innovation schools were going to have on public education,” Batts said. “It’s heartbreaking because the power that the union traditionally stood for has for all intents and purposes been deflated.”
The bottom line is that there is a lot at play when it comes to education policy, and not all agendas are focused on what’s best for kids, nor locally derived.
Often you’ll hear cries for evidence-based conversations. That may sound good if you say it fast, but it seldom holds up. Blogger and educator Peter Greene explains the fallacies in a recent blog post. In his piece, he points out why despite being better “than intuition-based or wild-guess-based or some-guy-from-the-textbook-company-told-us-to-do-this based conversations”, the evidence-based conversation still requires caveats.
In response to the question of should we abandon evidence-based discussions, he replies,
Nope. Having evidence for a practice is smart, and it’s mostly what teachers do. I don’t think I’ve ever met a teacher who said, “Well, this didn’t work for anybody last year, so I’m going to do it again this year.” No, teachers watch to see how something works, and then, like any scientist, accept, reject or modify their hypothesis/practice. This, I’d argue, is how so many classroom teachers ended up modifying the baloney that was handed to them under Common Core.
So with all that in mind, let’s venture forth.
VOUCHER, VOUCHER, VOUCHER, WHO’S GOT THE VOUCHER
The Tennessee State Legislator session has begun and once again vouchers are sucking the air out of the room. Supporters are filled with anticipatory glee, while detractors are bracing for the fight. My take is that everybody needs to slow their roll a little this year.
Yes, Governor Lee has voiced support for vouchers and yes he’s got a lot of supporters who are also rabid voucher supporters. But let’s look at a few things. Mainly who Governor Lee has made his Commissioner of Education, Peggy Schwinn.
In looking through Schwinn’s bio there is a lot to be concerned about, but what there is not, is anything painting her as a voucher advocate. Anti-voucher proponents tend to want to paint all charter school supporters as voucher supporters as well, but that’s not really an accurate portrayal. Many charter supporters are not sold on vouchers as an effective reform tool.
There is evidence in Schwinn’s bio of her employing an aggressive strategy in relation to priority schools. In Delaware her tactics made Blackbeard look like a kitten. In Tennessee, she has a ready-made vehicle, with a charismatic and competent leader, in the Achievement School District. I’m betting she is just chomping at the bit to take that little sportster for a ride.
During Schwinn’s tenure in Texas she saw first hand the ugly battle over voucher legislation. It’s a fight that hasn’t gone very well in Texas and has voucher lobbyists describing the present state of affairs thusly,
“I’m not willing to say, ‘Hey, this issue is dead.’ But leadership seems to be saying that, at least for this particular session,” said Monty Exter, lobbyist for the Association of Texas Professional Educators, one of the biggest opponents of those programs.
I can’t really see the new commissioner wanting to jump from one losing fight into another potential losing fight. I see her wanting to apply her strengths out of the gate in an effort to amass some victories. I can see her advising Lee of a strategy that focuses on priority schools and testing, to areas in need of wins in Tennessee.
By all accounts, Bill Lee is described as an astute businessman who hires people based on their skill set and then listens to them. It doesn’t seem likely that he would go to Texas, pull her out, take the heat for the decision, and then embroil her in a battle that will leave her bruised from the beginning. Much better to play to her perceived strengths, win a few, increase your credibility, and then the voucher fight gets a little easier next year. But hey, if screaming voucher in a crowded theater can distract for a bit…so be it.
On a side note, and with no disrespect intended, if Schwinn and ASD head Griffin were to team up with newish state rep Gloria Johnson, you’d have the making for one hell of a frontcourt. Just observing and saying.
SCHOOL BOARD MEETING
This past week’s school board meeting saw some important policy discussions. The first was in reaction to a proposed policy addressing lead in school drinking water. The proposed policy would set lead levels at 15ppm and 20ppm before increased testing and taking water supply offline would happen. MNPS currently has a standard set at 5ppm.
In watching some of the discussion around this threshold, if you didn’t know better, you would come away with a perception that MNPS adopted these guidelines all on their own with no outside prompting. Not true. MNPS fought those standards until Mayor Briley intervened. Therefore to suggest that the board could adopt less stringent guidelines in order to be aligned with state guidelines and just depend on MNPS to continually adhere to the lower standards is a potential miscalculation. It is imparative that the policy matches the current standards.
Luckily Ms. Pupo-Walker raised the issue, along with Ms. Frogge and the policy was sent back for a re-write and to be run through the governance committee again. Props to both Pupo-Walker and Frogge for doing what is truly best for kids. If you see them give them a thank you!
Moving from the water policy, a resolution to have the board endorse a recent change in the districts discipline policy was then brought forth in the form of a non-binding memorandum. The policy calls for an end to suspending, expelling or arresting students in K-4. This memorandum would just endorse the policy enacted by Dr. Joseph earlier in the school year.
While I agree with the spirit of the resolution, I continue to argue that the focus shouldn’t be on artificially lowering suspension rates, but rather by lowering those rates through decreasing incidents because students have gotten the services they require. Our current philosophy is similar to saying we are going to lower juvenile arrest rates by no longer arresting kids. What does that actually do to lower crime rates?
While board member Will Pinkston may argue that this is merely an “aspirational resolution that was not mutually exclusive of anything else”, in reality, it is a whole lot more. It is widely recognized that district is hemorrhaging teachers. The discipline policy is a major contributor to that exodus. During the discussion, board Vice-Chair Buggs made reference to her time as a teacher when she would occasionally feel exasperated and feel like she didn’t know what to do. Let’s be clear, that’s not what is being talked about here.
We are talking about teachers who have radically change their instructional practice due to disruptive children. We are talking about fellow classmates having to sacrifice valuable instructional time as a result of a chronically disruptive peer. We are talking about teachers leaving MNPS because they are fearful or don’t feel they can be effective. Since there is a direct correlation between poverty and trauma-induced behavior, its those very schools that need them the most who are suffering from heightened teacher attrition. Quite simply we are creating a policy that overall hurts kids.
Any policy that puts barriers between kids and a high-quality instructor ultimately hurts kids. Any policy that puts barriers between kids and high quality instructional time ultimately hurts kids. Any policy that limits educational experiences for kids ultimately hurts kids. Our current discipline policy checks all three boxes and therefore ultimately hurts kids.
Families are also starting to leave. Either they fear for their child’s safety or their child is starting to take on the bad behaviors they are continually exposed to. As more families leave the district, the higher per-pupil cost will rise and the more we will become a chronically underfunded district which in turn will lead to even more exits.
In her defense of the resolution, Buggs made a statement that gave me cause for pause.
“I have a 10-month-old and he smacks me every day. But I just don’t expect him to be suspended for that when he’s three years old”
Huh? Do you expect it at 5 years old? 8 years old? 12 years old? When do you expect your child to stop smacking people? And should it be the expectation of every child that attends school with your child that they may get smacked? That doesn’t sound very equitable.
I remember back when my son was 2 and a half and in day care. He was a biter and he was biting everybody in the daycare. We were brought in and worked with the center to quickly find a solution. It was pretty well understood that if he didn’t stop biting, alternative accommodations were going to have to be made. That staff loved my son nearly as much as we did, but they loved the other kids equally so. Nobody should have to attend school with the potential of being exposed to physical violence. That should pretty much be a non-negotiator.
I would argue that by not holding kids accountable and coupling that accountability with getting them the required services, we are setting them up for future failure. What happens when a child commits a crime at age 20 with no sense of accountability and they end up in the penitentiary? After all, they thought it would end the way it always does, with a little restorative practice.
We have to shift the focus from reducing suspensions to reducing incidents. The focus has to be on getting students what they need regardless of where it is received. If we lower suspensions as a result of lowering incidents than we have done something to celebrate.
Last week I mentioned how the District had suspended the use of DonorsChoose by teachers. This week Lindsey Bransom at Channel 4 News did a follow-up report with school board member Fran Bush. As DonorsChoose has made over $87K worth of supplies available to teachers in 150 classrooms since July 1st, Bush was very concerned about teachers losing this resource. In looking at the money involved, and the growth of crowdsourcing in general, I can’t help but wonder if this isn’t another case of following the money. If people are increasingly giving to DonorsChoose who is losing money in response? Bush has vowed to take corrective action, so let keep an eye on things and hope this one is a quick fix.
At Tuesday’s board meeting there was a presentation by the EL department. While it was a very positive report. I couldn’t help but notice that most of the data came under the watch of former executive director Kevin Stacy. Understandably current data couldn’t be presented without opening the whole failure to grant accommodations on MAPP testing conundrum, but I would have liked to get more of a feel of exactly what’s happening this year.
The most disturbing portion of the presentation came when board member Pupo-Walker asked for confirmation that translators were off work the day of parent-teacher conferences. The Executive Director of Equity and spouse of district number 2 guy Sito Narcisse, Maritza Gonzales, confirmed that was indeed the case. Even more concerning to me was the lack of concern shown for this failing by Gonzales. Upon further questioning from Pupo-Walker, she kinda shrugged and said that’s the way the schedule read while offering no plan for correction.
Here’s another policy move with unintended consequence for you. The district has undertaken a fierce focus on attendance this year. I think most people recognize it’s importance, though for some it is a challenge both culturally and financially. The district has become increasingly zealous in its pursuit of higher attendance rates. Unfortunately, I’m hearing reports that as an unintended consequence more kids are coming to school sick and therefore infecting classmates. One more reason why implementation is so important.
Here’s an interesting piece of trivia for you. Both Deja Vu, a show bar, and MNPS has offered furloughed government employees an opportunity to supplement their income during the government shut down. Stripping or substitute teaching, which would you choose? Unofficially it seems that Deja Vu has gotten several responses, while the district has received none.
That does it for the week. I know I promised to discuss the teacher compensation presentation at the last board meeting and why now is the time for MNPS teachers to really push for a raise, but I’m going to do that Monday when I can devote more space to it.
Did anyone else notice how smooth this week’s board meeting ran san’s, Dr. Gentry? Buggs could have left a few of the verbal digs out – we touched on that at the retreat but we can revisit it when you are in attendance – but all in all, she conducted one of the higher quality meetings of the year. Well done Ms. Buggs.
Also kudos to Will Pinkston who made it through his first whole meeting in a long time. He did have to spur things along a couple times but he managed to sit through a presentation and some boring policy talk in order to make it through to the other side. So I raise a toast to him.
Stumbled across an advertisement for the Global Day of Play this morning. Started in 2015, Global School Play Day is one day set aside for students to do nothing but play all day. On their website, GSPD organizers urge teachers to follow three simple guidelines:
- No Screens: Students are encouraged to bring toys, but electronic toys or any devices with screens should be avoided.
- No Structure: Adults should not attempt to organize or structure student play in any way.
- Stay Out of the Way: Adults should let students manage their own play and should not interfere except in situations where someone could get hurt or fired.
Man, I love the idea. I wish someone would do it here in Nashville. Unfortunately, that’s probably the week of MAPP testing. Or Fastbridge. Or WIDA. Or TNREADY. Or ACT. Or…well you get the picture.
That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page. It’s a good news station with lots of a teacher of year announcements. If you need to get a hold of me, the email is firstname.lastname@example.org. Keep sending me your stuff and I’ll share as much as possible. Don’t forget to answer this week’s poll questions.
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