“Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.”
I am going to take a little time away from my ark building – it’s like the rain in Nashville will never end – to fill you in on education news this week. Fair warning, if you are in possession of a tin hat, you may want to keep it close at hand – you may need it a couple of times throughout today’s piece. Just giving you a warning.
Let’s start our journey on the state level. The state of Tennessee has just gotten themselves a brand new governor, Bill Lee, who has bequeathed us a brand new state education commissioner, Penny Schwinn. Ms. Schwinn seems to specialize in testing and turnaround schools. Mr. Lee has a lot of friends who really like vouchers. A lot of voters in Tennessee don’t like vouchers. That creates a bit of a conundrum. Slip on your tin hat and I’ll give you one possible strategy to get everything to align.
Schwinn is from Texas. Texas politicians have been desperately trying to pass legislation enacting a voucher system for over 20 years. They have not been very successful. This week, an article in Texas Monthly by Mimi Schwartz gives some insight into a possible strategy.
Over the last few years, something strange has been happening in Texas classrooms. Accomplished teachers who knew their kids were reading on grade level by virtually all other measures were seeing those same kids fail the STAAR, the infamous State of Texas Assessments of Academic Readiness test.
The effect on students was predictable: kids who were diligently doing their homework and making good grades in class were suddenly told they were failing in the eyes of the state, which wasn’t so great for their motivation. Parents were desperate to find out why their once high-performing kids were suddenly seen as stumbling. Teachers felt like failures, too, but had no idea what they were doing wrong, after years of striving to adopt practices proven in successful schools across the country. What’s more, the test results were quickly weaponized by critics of Texas public schools, many of whom advocate state-funded vouchers that would allow parents to send their kids to religious and other private schools.
Hmmmm… I’ve always said, he who controls the cut scores controls the narrative. I’ve also always been highly suspicious of the number of kids supposedly not reading at grade level. Keep in mind that “grade level” is a constructed number. Here’s some fun, ask people what reading on grade level means. You will not get a clear answer. I Googled it and here are the top answers:
From Read Charlotte: “When a child is reading “on grade level” it means that he has mastered the skills that he needs to read and understand words and sentences in books at the expected level of difficulty.”
From English Language and Usage: It means that you can read at the same level as an average person in your grade. So for example, if you are in 7th grade, you can read as well as the average 7th-grader.
Well, that clarifies things, right? Keep hitting those Google links and you’ll see articles questioning the value of “grade level” and descriptions of “leveled systems,” but you’ll never see an actual chart or concrete definition that defines reading on grade level. It’s like an educational boogeyman: good for scaring people but looks different to everyone.
Texas employs the STAAR test as its standardized test. In her article, Schwartz goes on to describe the challenges to Texas’s STAAR test. Even if you aren’t a conspiracy nut, this is a must read because it gives possible insight into the direction Schwinn may take in the selection of Tennessee’s next testing vendor and our state policy. The article also does a great job illuminating the power the tests have over our educational system.
Testing proponents often defend testing by pointing out the thousands of kids who would possibly slip through the cracks without testing. Equally concerning to me are the thousands misdiagnosed due to the usage of a dishonest test. Schwartz closes with a statement that addresses that very scenario and should raise concerns for everyone:
As usual with education conflicts, while adult officials argue, it’s the schoolchildren who suffer most. But they’re not the only ones. Ratliff, the former state board of education member, estimates that 25 to 30 percent of Texas school kids are misidentified as reading below grade level—1.25 million or so children. “Think about its effect on the economic engine of Texas,” he said. “The concentric circles of damage ranges from mental and psychological damage to schoolchildren to falling real estate values to our ability to recruit businesses. I’ve tried to get my arms around the damage and I can’t.”
Added Chambers: “Every reading and literacy expert who has studied our concerns can’t be wrong on this. This is not anti-testing, this is not anti-accountability. We just want the truth.”
Last week, News Channel 5’s Phil Williams released a story on the salary structure of MNPS that included the names and salaries of those employees making over $75k a year. To say that many of Nashville’s professional educators were concerned with the numbers in this list is an understatement. Luckily, MNPS’s Barry Potts seems to be on the case, so complaints are in capable hands.
One name that jumped out at me is MNEA president Erick Huth. Per the list, despite not being in the classroom, Huth is employed as a teacher making $98k a year. That’s pretty good cheese, but legal as long as the guidelines to Tennessee Code Title 49. Education § 49-5-418 are followed:
(a) An LEA may grant release-time to a professional employee to hold office as a representative of a local professional employees’ organization as defined in § 49-5-602 . Release-time may be granted if the local board approves the request or if release-time is agreed to as part of a memorandum of understanding under the Professional Educators Collaborative Conferencing Act of 2011, compiled in part 6 of this chapter. Release-time may be granted for a portion of the year or for an entire year. If the release is granted for an entire year, the release-time shall be granted from a date certain to a date certain.
(b) If an LEA grants release-time, the professional employees’ organization shall:
(1) Reimburse the LEA the full per diem salary of the professional employees’ organization representative for each day of service the employee is released from duty, or the LEA shall deduct the day from the employee’s accumulated personal leave, if the release is granted for less than the entire school year; or
(2) Reimburse the LEA the full cost of the employee’s salary and benefits, if the release is granted for an entire school year.
(c) If release-time is granted to a professional employee for more than ninety (90) days, the LEA shall maintain the employee’s position without advancement on the salary scale.
(d) An LEA may allow a teacher representative of a professional employees’ organization whose presence has been requested by another teacher participating in a grievance procedural meeting or a disciplinary or employment rights meeting to attend the meeting. The teacher representative’s attendance shall be considered as engaging in school duties.
(e) This section does not apply if an agreement is made between a professional employees’ organization and the LEA granting release-time of less than one (1) full day per week to perform organizational duties.
(f) This section does not apply to an LEA, in which a collective bargaining agreement between the LEA and its professional employees is in effect on July 1, 2013, until the collective bargaining agreement’s scheduled expiration.
I’m assuming that reimbursement is taking place though I’m not sure how to verify that. I’m also a little unsure of how you guarantee proper representation when your defender collects a paycheck from the organization that you may need protection from, but ok.
Currently, Teresa Wagner and Amanda Kail are running to be President of MNEA next year. Whoever is elected would provide substantial savings – a minimum of $40k – if elected, as their salaries are much lower and neither has a doctorate. Huth is running for Vice-President. If elected, he’ll have to head back to the classroom. That means some school will inherit his nearly $100k salary. That’s a lot of money to pay for a teacher who hasn’t been in the classroom for at least 3 years. The other option is that MNEA dues pay for two representatives to be out of the classroom, an option that comes with potentially better outcomes but a higher cost.
WHAT HAPPENED TO THAT CONTRACT EXTENSION VOTE?
Yesterday’s release of next week’s school board meeting agenda has left some folks scratching their heads. At the last meeting, Dr. Gentry had given notice of intent to bring a motion in regard to Dr. Joseph’s contract extension. Now suddenly that discussion has been moved to March 26th. This move has evoked a resounding “Why?”
Lawyers are told never ask a question of a witness that you don’t know the answer to. In politics, that translates to don’t ever bring a motion that you don’t know the vote. The long and the short of this is that Gentry realized what most of us already know, she doesn’t have the votes to extend the contract and therefore she moved it in the hope something changes. March 26, unfortunately, lands right in the middle of budget season, so how prudent is this move? I would argue that from February 1 until it’s complete, the board and MNPS leadership should be singularly focused on the budget. The last thing needed at this time is a protracted and contentious battle over a school director’s contract.
It is my opinion, the window has closed on the opportunity to have a discussion about an extension of a contract for Dr. Joseph. Despite many opportunities, he’s failed to heed Dr. Narcisse’s advice and quiet the noise. As a result, the level of dissatisfaction has risen to a point beyond redemption. What’s required now is some adults to step forward and strategize on an extraction that does the least amount of damage.
I don’t believe there is a path forward that results in no damage, but the negative impact can be mitigated if district leaders listen to stakeholders and design a strategy that addresses their concerns. Former board member Mary Pierce believes that such a strategy must involve the simultaneous departure of several board members. While I don’t completely disagree, I think her post goes a little far and reeks of ax-grinding at a time when humility is called for by all. If there ever was a time for servant leadership, that time is now. The focus must be on healing, not retribution.
The choice of interim director is essential. In my eyes, it needs to be a woman, with deep relationships throughout the district, who has had success at as many levels as possible, who has a calming presence. This is a discussion that needs to involve more emotional elements than it does intellectual. Whoever takes over needs to have the ability to calm the waters and instill a sense of the ship heading in the right direction so that the right permanent person can be recruited.
Over the next 6 months, a more hands-on approach needs to be taken by the board as well. In light of Dallas Dance’s conviction, the BPS crafted policy that prevented travel by top administrators without approval from the board. In order to ensure that controls are in place here, and to reassure taxpayers, similar steps should be taken in MNPS. To help the board and new interim director, I wouldn’t oppose an advisory council being formed from the ranks of veteran administrators, principals, teachers, and support staff to advise the board and the interim on policy impact. For too long, policy has been created in the boardroom with little consideration to its impact on the classroom.
One other recommendation I would make is to not bring back any former administrators – save one and I’ll explain in a minute – until a permanent selection is in place. First of all, coming back for the majority of those folks would signify a significant pay cut, and secondly, MNPS can not give any kind of sign that they are moving backward. That doesn’t mean I don’t believe that we haven’t squandered considerable talent, we have. Unfortunately, we’ll have to continue paying that price for a bit longer.
Back to the administrator that I would bring back. It’s Shannon Black. And I don’t even know if she would be interested in coming back, but nobody has a more well-earned reputation for being a bigger champion for teachers than she does and nothing is more important right now than reassuring teachers. Over the next couple of months, teachers will be deciding where to ply their trade next year, and without some reassuring… MNPS could really be behind the proverbial eight ball. Ignoring this pressing need could be extremely detrimental. Especially if WCS Director of Schools Mike Looney convinces legislators to raise teacher pay through the BEP. Something that I hear is likely to happen.
Maybe all of this is just wishful thinking. Maybe I’m just an eternal optimist. But I truly hope that somebody is out there looking out for the teachers, students, and families of MNPS. We owe it to them to find a path that creates the least amount of disruption and shows respect for all stakeholders.
At the very least, adults need to come together and reign in the man-child Will Pinkston, who continues to distract from the serious responsibilities of the board through his antics. Enough has eventually got to be enough. I don’t know Brian Manookian, but he’s got my vote for tweet of the year.
So… remember how ineffective that Reading Recovery thing was? Remember how it didn’t really work? Somebody apparently forgot to tell Rutherford County that because they are currently recruiting 19 of our former Reading Recovery teachers. This is a big loss because training these teachers came at a great expense to MNPS and now we are losing them. Rutherford County believes in Reading Recovery so much that they are providing these teachers an opportunity to make $6k over what they are making in MNPS, dependent on education and experience. A recent article in the Gulf Coast Foundation forum also paints a picture of success for Reading Recovery:
A theme I kept hearing was the joy and enthusiasm that students brought to their lessons every day, and the excitement and confidence they brought back to their classrooms. There is no stigma attached to leaving class each day to work with their Reading Recovery teacher. Rather, that’s the highlight of their day—and their classmates wish they could go too! For a student who doesn’t see reading modeled at home or can’t get help with homework for any number of reasons, the attention, encouragement, and expectations of their dedicated literacy teachers opens up a new world and future for them. The students learn that they can read because they learn to read. And they soon recognize that their ability to read means they can learn anything.
MNPS seems determined to not meet a single deadline when it comes to grading. Upcoming report cards will be issued on March 26 instead of March 19. This change is reportedly to honor requests from teachers to give them additional time to complete grade entry following spring break. For the life of me, I can’t understand why this correction couldn’t have been recognized and made when the Christmas correction was made.
The results of the MNPS School Options random selection has been postponed until Monday, February 25, 2019. Families may call (615) 259-4636 or e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org for more information.
Jeffrey Young reports on a new book that asks the question is teaching an Art or a Science? Young interviews the author Josh Eyler and that interview alone is a fascinating read. I particularly appreciate the final question, what was your biggest surprise in compiling the data for the book?
Much of what surprised me most makes up a lot of the final chapter, which is on failure. As teachers, we don’t get trained to think of failure as a positive thing in any way, even though as researchers we know that failure is a part of the learning process. No one walks into a lab right away and comes up with the Nobel Prize-winning discovery. It’s an iterative cycle.
We have these educational systems that are set up to move in exactly the opposite way. We give students really high-stakes assignments and assessments with very few opportunities to do them.
There’s a lot of research where people are now harnessing the power of failure as an opportunity for learning within courses. That was really surprising—how much work people were doing with it and the results that they’re getting. It reframed even my orientation to, “What can I do in my courses to de-stigmatize failure for students to give them more opportunities just to try things out and take intellectual risks in order to move their knowledge forward?” I think that’s amazingly important for higher education.
Word on the street continues to buzz about some potentially big education bills coming via the Governor’s Office. There is talk of a bill that would create a direct path to a state charter authorizer. Currently, potential charter operators have to apply to an LEA before making an appeal to the state. The rumored bill would take the middle man out. I also hear that legislators are not pleased with a certain lobbyist either, and in response to some of his antics, a bill doing away with payroll deduction for association dues is going to be introduced with a high likelihood of passing.
New state representative Bob Freeman writes a very eloquent defense of local government authority. This guy really is exceeding expectations. He writes:
Nashville’s exploding growth is creating challenges that will take all of us working together to solve, just like it will take all of us working together to educate children in Dickson and to improve internet access in places like Riceville.
Rather than grabbing power from local governments, we should be empowering communities to address their own sets of challenges without the state government always forcing its political will.
That’s a wrap. Check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page. It’s a good news station that highlights the positives in MNPS. If you need to get a hold of me, the email is email@example.com. Keep sending me your stuff and I’ll share as much as possible. Don’t forget to answer this week’s poll questions.
If you think what I write has value, please consider supporting the work through Patreon. I’ll be honest with you, January and February are slow bartending months so I could use any support you can throw my way. To those of you who pledged money, thank you, thank you, thank you.