STATE SANCTIONED INSANITY

“I became a journalist because I did not want to rely on newspapers for information.”
Christopher Hitchens

“Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities.”
Voltaire, Questions sur les Miracles à M. Claparede, Professeur de Théologie à Genève, par un Proposant: Ou Extrait de Diverses Lettres de M. de Voltaire

 

Six years ago my daughter started at Tusculum ES. The next year my son followed her. We were actually zoned for Whitsett ES, but at the time my wife was teaching at McMurray MS so we had the option to attend any school in the Overton cluster.

We discussed Granberry ES, Crieve Hall ES, and Shayne ES. All very good schools, but I really didn’t want to play the choice game. Tusculum however, was down the street from McMurray and attending it would make pre and after school care easier. As a result,  that’s where we enrolled her and later, my son.

At that time, Tusculum had around 26 portables and was on the cusp of being taken over by the state’s Achievement School District. Cue the inspirational music and fast forward 6 years, Tusculum students are now housed in a bright new shiny building and have recently found themselves celebrated by the state of Tennessee as a Rewards School.

I bet you’re expecting an inspirational tale worthy of Waiting For Superman or Lean on Me? Well, don’t hold your breath.

Sure there was a lot of hard work. Getting the school built was a fight. There were issues with lead in the drinking water. Programs that were producing results were taken away. But as difficult as these challenges were, I don’t believe that they are any more difficult than those faced by every other school in the city, just different.

Tusculum is considered a high needs school. Of the nearly 800 students, 67% are considered economically disadvantaged and 66% are English learners. Both of which contribute to an extremely transient population. That makes for a lot of challenges when it comes to improving student outcomes.

The Tennessee Depart of Education would like you to believe that Tusculum has become better at educating students over the past several years, and I surmise they have in the manner that the longer you do something, the better you get at it. The reality is that Tusculum ES was a good school when we first walked through the doors 6 years ago, and it’s a good school as we enter our son’s last of attendance.

A large part of that is due to the consistency and quality of leadership. Leadership that attracts and, for the most part, retains quality teachers. A leadership team that treats families like partners and not clients.

Even if I wanted to it would be impossible to compare 6 years ago when the ASD was circling to now? The state standardized test has been through three different vendors since then. I’ve never seen a single question off of any version of TNReady. So I have nothing to draw on to infer that the test is a consistent one or a worthy one, other than the TNDOE’s testimony.

It’s like me selling you a car and not letting you test drive, research, or comparative shop. You just have to trust me that it’s a good car, because, well…the sign on my office door says Superintendent of Automotive and I’m telling you it’s a good car.

Yesterday I spent about 90 minutes studying test results while my wife was next door getting her hair cut. I even went as far as to place a couple phone calls to “experts” in order to make sure I was reading things right. Taking a break, I walked next door to check on her.

“Spent the last hour and a half studying TNready results”, I proudly told her.

Without missing a beat, she replied, “Yea? What are you going to do now? Go fix people’s home lives?”

I looked at her for a moment and then realized she was right. This was a ridiculous exercise and by buying into it I was only serving to validate it. To believe that we’ve designed a measurement tool that factors out all the variables that impact learning, and only measures what is delivered through direct instruction is ludicrous.

We accept the fact that diet, sleep, training, and mental outlook all affect athletic performance, yet we readily dismiss that the same holds true in relation to academic performance. If Marcus Mariotta stayed up all night arguing with his wife, eating cheeseburgers, and never practiced – we wouldn’t expect him to perform well on the football field. Yet every year we do exactly that with kids all across the state and then 2 months later act like the results are a clear and complete indictment of what’s going on in the classroom.

Right about now, testing advocates are nodding their heads and saying, “Sure there are problems with testing, but what’s your solution. We got to have something, so what do you have that’s better?”

Devoid of a solution that is a clear cut improvement they are more than willing to default back to the canard that standardized testing is offering any kind of meaningful measurement of learning. That we can rate students, teachers, and schools based on the results from this one clouded in mystery exam. I once had a then education advocate, and now a current school board member, tell me that they would prefer a bad test to no test. It took weeks to pick up all the pieces of my brain after that explosion.

It’s like me telling you, I know you need someplace to play but the only space I have is smack dab in the middle of traffic. Would you respond that since you have to play and the only space I have is in traffic, you’ll just have to play in traffic? Or would you respond that playing in traffic just wasn’t an option and that we’d have to commit to finding another space, regardless of the difficulty?

Most people realize the problems of basing policy on inferior testing practices, but we continue right on doing the same thing. But I’m not even sure that we actually even use results to support policy. Want to have some fun? Ask any district administrator above the level of executive principal what they attribute results to and then watch them struggle to clearly articulate an answer.

They’ll always tell you that they are going to deep dive into those results and use them to influence policy next year. But then next year brings new results and new promises.

When it comes to good results we may celebrate them, but do we actually try and replicate the practices that led to success.

For example, the latest results show that 8 out of 12 of the MNPS’s newly designated Reward Schools fall in the Southwest Quadrant. To me, that would be indicative of the SW quad doing something that the other quads are not doing, and perhaps should be doing. I’d be talking to the leadership in that quad and trying to figure out what’s scalable. But that’s not what we are doing.

Nope, instead, we are dictating at the district level to those Executive and school principals what they should be doing. We are creating a $140k a year position for a person – who’s only had success to date in the area running off quality leaders – to take their Doctorate dissertation – a doctorate half paid for by the district – on the inquiry cycle and making sure that everyone in the district is adhering to it.

Did all 8 of the new Reward Schools demonstrate fidelity to the inquiry cycle last year? If not, then why this year? Shouldn’t the plan be to keep doing what’s working and figure how much of that should be transferred to other schools? Is there evidence locally that fidelity in the inquiry cycle leads to better outcomes or is leadership just…speculating? Aren’t key components of the inquiry cycle looking at data and creating a strategy based on that data?  If we are not going to use results to dictate policy than what is the point of doing the testing. And that’s the last factor in the equation.

If I asked you to participate to the best of your ability in an endeavor that was clouded in mystery and whose outcomes seemed to lead to no discernable actions, how serious would you take my charge? Kids aren’t dumb they can see the problems with the test, they can see the continual missteps, and they can see that there are no actions connected to results. As a result, I don’t think they take it as seriously as we adults need them to, thus further skewing the value of those results.

The bottom line is that I was convinced that Tusculum was a good school when it was teetering on the brink of a state takeover. I believe that it’s a school today when it’s recognized as a Reward School. I don’t need a state designation in order to celebrate the hard work and dedication of its teachers, I see that every time I’m in the building. I have no doubt that the effort and dedication I witness at Tusculum is also being replicated by teachers all across the district, by those in both rewards and non-reward schools.

Teaching is hard enough a job without creating even greater pressure through reliance on an inferior measuring tool. Look across the country and you’ll see a shortage of people willing to go into the profession. It stands to reason that if we listened and made adjustments to our so-called accountability model, we might find a few more people willing to become teachers.

The reality remains that what happens outside a school building impacts learning as much as what happens in schools. We continually try to find ways to put the burden of mitigating social factors on the backs of schools.

Ten years ago charter schools were supposed to demonstrate that when freed from constraints schools could overcome poverty. Now that we have evidence showing that they are no better than traditional schools and in some cases worse, we are pulling our eggs out of that basket and placing them in the voucher basket. I suspect that once again we’ll find evidence that societal problems need to be addressed by society and that schools are not healing centers for all of society’s ills. But will we adjust or merely find another model so that we don’t have to admit that we know what is required but refuse to do it?

You can react however you chose over these newly released TNReady results. My self, I chose to congratulate the educators I know, ask at Tusculum when they want me to come read, advocate with city and state leaders for better funding, and keep my eyes and ears open for any other ways I can help make our schools better.

I’m glad to see that the state has caught up to what I’ve known all along. Tusculum Elementary School is a damn fine school populated by some damn fine educators teaching some damn fine kids.  Now carry on.

QUICK HITS

Some of you may have seen the news last week that former MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph got himself a new gig. He’s been appointed Visiting Associate Professor of Educational Leadership and Policy Studies at Fordham University – say that 3x fast. Sounds impressive, no? It’s not quite as impressive as it sounds though. It is a non-tenured track position that is often temporary. While we are happy for Dr. Joseph, let’s keep it all in perspective.

Interesting note on the upcoming election for school board leadership. The leading candidates for chair and vice-chair are Christiane Buggs and Gini Pupo-Walker respectively. Curiously neither has a  relationship with mayoral front runner John Cooper. Buggs for her part has regularly posted on Instagram her version of comedians in cars which consists of her filming herself while driving and commenting on how bad things will be if Cooper gets elected. Pupo-Walker has only had limited conversations with the future mayor. In the past, she was close former Mayor Megan Barry and was close with current mayor David Briley.

On the flip side, board members Anna Shepherd, Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, and Fran Bush have all reached out to Mr. Cooper in order to strengthen ties. I guess that’s only important if you believe that the mayor and the school board leadership should have a strong relationship.

File this one away in the annals of the inexplicable. On the eve of early voting, in a runoff race for a council seat where her husband is the underdog, board member Rachael Elrod chose to make a rare Facebook post congratulating Dr. Joseph on the mixed results of TN Ready. The post could serve as a reminder to voters of her support for an unpopular leader who was paid a year’s salary to leave before his initial contract expired due to the many distractions he created and the mediocre results he produced. That should make things easier for voters.

Even better, Elrod’s post’s language reeks of that of semi-retired board member Will Pinkston. Keep in mind Pinkston has remained a staunch ally of Joseph and reminds folks at every opportunity about MNPS being a chronically underfunded school district.

Anybody notice the lack of correlation between this year’s MAP results and TNReady results? Shhhh…don’t tell anyone.

The Sumner County Commissioners are planning to vote tonight to set a tax rate that will allow for the district to fund a pay increase of $4K for every teacher. I like the idea of giving everyone a set number as opposed to a percentage. MNPS teachers this year got a 3% raise with a promised 1.5% to follow in January. If you 51K that translates to $2295 whereas if you make 100k it translates to $4500 and if you make 120k, $5400. Not very inspirational.

Word on the street is that MNPS is seeing a lot of attrition at the ELL Coach position. To such a level that it’s starting to bring down the average years of service to under 3. That should be concerning to all. MNPS’s ELL Department has always been a shining star in MNPS, we don’t need to see that dimmed.

Everybody still at MNPS Human Resources still sticking to that 94 openings figure? Or is that just referring to Math teachers?

Think the voucher fight is over? Think again. Memphis Rep Joe Towns is currently crafting legislation to repeal the state’s new education savings account law and said he notified House Speaker nominee Cameron Sexton of his intentions. Sexton, who voted against the bill three times, has questioned the wisdom of starting early, as well. He is considered willing to look at a repeal, saying it is up to lawmakers to bring the legislation. Towns is no rookie, so this bears watching.

Was that a picture of Nashville’s Blue Print to Early Child Education I saw on the side of a milk carton this weekend?

POLL RESULTS

Let’s see what the weekend beget.

The first questions asked for your opinion on the recently released TN Ready results. 46% of you found them interesting but essentially useless. 10% found them concerning and 10% thought they were worth celebrating. Only 4 out of 136 responses felt they showed that Dr. Joseph knew what he was doing. Um..can somebody please show this poll to Mrs. Ellrod. Thanks.

Here are the write-ins,

We need a real ELA curriculum! 1
As always: obscene amt. of time and $ spent on a useless (and damaging) “tool.” 1
Invest money in schools that need it, not bransford. Dr Witty is now wasted $ 1
I saw the test and it was trash. These scores mean nothing. Good or bad. 1
What is the district doing for our priority schools? 1
A lot of spin on mediocre results! 1
Let’s for once celebrate teachers hard work. 1
Joseph did NOTHING but create chaos. 1
Students are learning more than it shows 1
How does Jill Petty still have a job? 1
I work at Granbery, same situation you describe. You shared truth! 1
I question the assessment. MNPS isn’t the only district to see inflated growth. 1
When we get a data expert that doesn’t apply spin 1
no meaningful baseline; not nationally normed; diconnect 1
SJ was doing SG too 1
More test PR to scream “failing” is coming soon. 1
Results take to long. No benefit to students in need of remediation. 1
Mixed 1
Just want my kids’ scores 1
The test is useless…

Question 2 asked for whom you intended to vote for in the upcoming mayoral election. Let’s hope that more than just Dad Gone Wild readers show up to vote, otherwise Mayor Briley is going to get shellacked. 86% of you indicated that you were voting Cooper while only 8 people – people, not percent – said, Briley. Ouch. Here are the write-ins.

Over it 1
None 1
If I could vote-John Cooper 1
None of the above 1
Can I write in Clemmons? 1
No one-don’t trust either 1
Still undecided but I’ll be holding my nose 1
I’m only voting for council at large 1
Director Joseph he just got interesting 1
shawn joseph

The last question asked for your grade on Tennesse Superintendent Penny Schwinn. Most of you, 48%, awarded her an incomplete. The next most popular response, 17%, was a “C”. Nowhere to go from here but up. Here are the write-ins.

Who? 1
Their PR celebrated math scores? Thought literacy was the push? 1
*Shrug* 1
Not sure

That’s a wrap. Make sure you check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we try to accentuate the positive. If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com.

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3 thoughts

  1. Regarding Joseph and his nontenured track job. I don’t think he wants a tenure track job. His job is to get another director position. A visiting professor job gives you some time to hang around teaching without the extra pressure of tenure. If you are on the tenure track life, there are a lot more things you have to do (you have to hit yearly quotas of research, service, teaching, etc). So it’s smart for him to take a non tenure track job. Also, applications for TT jobs were due between October and December, when he still had a job with MNPS. Plus, he makes a lot more as director than as a professor.

    1. Word has long been that he does not want another director job. Keep in mind as well that he was unable to fulfill his initial contract on both of his director jobs. He’ll probably get another shot due to a depleted talent pool but he’s going to be a hard sell. Especially with the addition of “Unchained” nonsense.

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