CAN WE TAME THE UMBRAGE?

“Challenge a person’s beliefs, and you challenge his dignity, standing, and power. And when those beliefs are based on nothing but faith, they are chronically fragile. No one gets upset about the belief that rocks fall down as opposed to up, because all sane people can see it with their own eyes. Not so for the belief that babies are born with original sin or that God exists in three persons or that Ali is the second-most divinely inspired man after Muhammad. When people organize their lives around these beliefs, and then learn of other people who seem to be doing just fine without them–or worse, who credibly rebut them–they are in danger of looking like fools. Since one cannot defend a belief based on faith by persuading skeptics it is true, the faithful are apt to react to unbelief with rage, and may try to eliminate that affront to everything that makes their lives meaningful.”
Steven Pinker, The Better Angels of Our Nature: Why Violence Has Declined

“Not allowing people to go through their pain, and protecting them from it, may turn out to be a kind of over-protection, which in turn implies a certain lack of respect for the integrity and the intrinsic nature and the future development of the individual.”
Abraham Maslow, Toward a Psychology of Being

 

Conversations about education policy can become very emotionally charged very quickly. People on all sides of any given the issues feel like they are doing god’s work and as a result, tend to cast aspersions on those who hold different views. Invariably, what happens is that we tend to lose sight of the policy merits or deficiencies and instead try to chase our opponents out of the conversation via personal attacks.

Literacy policy is among the most hotly debated issue both in schools and on social media. The so-called “reading wars” have been going on for decades and they show no sign of abatement anytime soon, despite both sides declaring the issue settled.

Also transpiring for decades is a coordinated attack on public schools. For at least the last 50 years there has been a consistent attempt to paint public school as failing endeavors in an effort to put more power in the hands of private entities. The increased emphasis on standardized test scores has provided the perfect vehicle for that attack. Literacy is just one more front in that battle.

There are some things that you have to know about test scores and literacy rates in order to fully understand current events. As long as we’ve been measuring literacy rates, there has been a “Reading Crisis.”, yet the quality of life in America continues to grow. This is partially due to reading being made up of a number of complex actions and we’ve never identified or universally defined what reading on grade-level actually means. Which allows for an ever-shifting metric that paints most kids as failing.

If we ever did get to a place where the majority of kids were reading on “grade level”, you can have faith that we’d raise the bar. You can go to sleep tonight secure in the knowledge that there will never be mass standardized tests administrated that show a majority of kids reading on grade level. Not going to happen.

I get a headache just thinking about the hue and cry that would emit if the state of Tennessee announced next July that 60% of the kids in the state were reading on grade level. Those tests would be dismissed, and standards would be dramatically raised.

Remember, there’s lots of money in failure, there is not so much in success. Ain’t nobody ponying up an extra million for new curriculum when 60% of kids are succeeding. But oh…if 60% are failing…checkbooks are getting broken out.

Which brings me to another foundational point, the conversation around education is almost always fueled by money. There are a lot of people – just not classroom teachers – making a lot of money off of education policy. Plenty has been written about the greed of the textbook industry over the last 50 years, but Race To The Top added consultants, software companies, professional development companies, and more testing companies to the mix. Most of those bloggers and education writers that you read, they’re making some money as well.

Diane Ravitch – for whom I have a great deal of reverence for – is not running a nunnery. Fighting the privateers is a moral obligation but it’s also a revenue stream. On the flip side, Citizen Stewart – whom I have no reverence for – is not running a nunnery. Championing education reform may be a moral obligation for him, but it’s also a revenue stream. And the same holds true for all the other pundits, on both sides of the issues.

Frankly, I don’t take exception to any of that. A brother – or sister – has to eat. But in discussing issues, the public can’t be blind to the influence that money has on the conversation. For some, money is a by-product of doing the right thing, for others, doing the right thing is a by-product of the money. That’s true on both sides of the issue and it’s left to the public to try and discern who is who.

To deny the influence of money on the issues is disingenuous at best. And those who would do so, deserve greater scrutiny. Just because it’s all about the kids doesn’t mean it’s all about the kids.

One last caveat, it’s also important to remember that the depth of the conversation held in the public arena is not at the same depth as that held in academic halls. There is a reason that educators acquire degrees and there is a depth of knowledge that goes with those degrees. Reading a lot of articles, and talking to a lot of people does not necessarily raise one’s input to that level.

In talking with an educator that holds a doctorate this week I was reminded of this caveat. In discussing the “Science of Reading” she raised several issues and elements that were not even in my vocabulary. By the same token, I would like to believe that I added some non-academic elements to her thinking. The conversation served to me as a reminder that none of us have all the answers and absolutism is never healthy.

With all of that out of the way, let’s talk about what happened at the Literacy Association of Tennessee’s annual meeting this week in Murfreesboro, TN. Dr. Richard Allington, emeritus professor at the University of Tennessee, was a featured speaker. I’ve never heard of Dr. Allington but apparently, he takes exception to Tennessee’s recently enacted Dyslexia Laws.

Thanks to professional educator Zack Barnes we have audio of Allington’s address to attendees. There is plenty in Allington’s speech for advocates to take exception with, but what’s caused the most ire comes around the 4-minute mark when Allington talks about the Say Dyslexia bill.  Allington said he would have told then-Governor Bill Haslam to “Just veto it and shoot whoever made the bill.”

I don’t think that anybody would argue for the appropriateness of this comment. Especially in today’s climate when it seems we hear of a mass shooting on an all too often occasion. This comment expectedly created a social media firestorm. While I don’t downplay the impropriety of the comment, I do question the manner in which criticism was framed.

Advocates quickly decried that they had received a death threat and as a result, they were emotionally shaken. Fellow advocates rallied around each other with a “stay strong” message. Somehow an improper message in opposition to policy beliefs and become a direct threat to the personal safety of advocates. Personal safety that I don’t believe was ever imperiled.

I strongly believe that in making arguments in the public arena we have to choose our words very carefully. We have to always be very cognizant of the potential impact our words can have. That’s on both sides.

What if somebody, based on the public reaction to Allington’s careless and offensive words, were to physically attack him or a member of his family? After all, if somebody threatens your life are you not justified in preemptive retaliation? Would dyslexia advocates share any responsibility?

Another question I would raise is, how has the focus on Allington’s perceived threat benefited kids’ ability to learn to read? All the focus has been on how advocates feel victimized, but I fail to see how that victimhood leads to increased educational outcomes for kids.

As Barnes lays out in his blog post, Allington said a lot that dyslexia advocates might want to push back on. Not the least of which is, around 12:30, when says that you should read a certain dyslexia advocate, “If you are interested in hitting a dyslexia advocate over the head, you should read” her book.

It’s been my experience that when one runs out of policy counter-arguments, they resort to personal attacks. It’s also been my experience that the closer to the mark you get to a subject, the more emotional the attacks become. While I certainly don’t agree with all of the arguments put forth by dyslexia advocates, I think it’s pretty clear based on Allington’s response that they are touching some nerves. That’s a good thing, but care should be given that the focus of the conversation always remains on policy, not personalities.

On a side note, one that some may disagree with, I’ve become weary of the perpetually offended. People say a lot of stupid shit, myself included, but we don’t have to rend our garments over every stupid thing said. We don’t need to take personal affront every time somebody disagrees with us. The constant need to publically shame people for voicing something that we disagree with while trying to reduce those same people to two-dimensional characters is just not a healthy place to live. It’s a trend that in my humble opinion has gone too far.

I’m not offering these thoughts just as a response to Allington’s remarks but rather in a larger context. Last year, we watched as school board member Jill Speering’s private text messages were taken out of context and used to paint her as a racist. In fact, a fellow board member drew a link between her and the Klu Klux Klan with little pushback or thought to potential danger those accusations might place her in. I would argue that her political foes description put her more at personal risk than Allington’s threats from the stage did for dyslexia advocates, yet little objection was raised.

Four years ago we had a school board candidate’s personal history brought into public purview through a lens that was extremely detrimental to his personal life. It was done in a manner that had potentially very negative consequences for him and his family, yet no one raised concerns. In fact, there was a general feeling of justification in exposing him to public scorn even if much what was being brought forth was without context. That shouldn’t be all right.

In about 2 months next years school board race will kick off for 5 seats. I expect it’ll be a very heated race, more reminiscent of the 2016 race as opposed to last year’s race. It’s my prayer that we’ve learned something from that 2016 race and that in arguing candidates and policy, we’ll remember at the heart of both are real people.

It’s all right to disagree. It’s all right to disagree passionately. It’s not all right to make it personal.

CHARTER GROWTH

MNPS’s school board faced an interesting dilemma at yesterday’s meeting. Earlier in the year, the board had denied Rocketship’s expansion application. Per their right, Rocketship appealed the decision to the state board and the MNPS board’s decision was overturned. Now it was up MNPS to decide whether Rocketship would come under the authority of the district or whether they would force the state to oversee Rocketship’s expansion.

After much discussion, in which Rocketship voiced a desire to be placed under the district’s authority, the MNPS board voted 5-2 to deny their charter.   Board members Bush and Pupo-Walker voted against the motion to deny, citing a want to accept the school so it is under local control/oversight. Peter-Players, Frogge, Buggs, Elrod, and Speering voted to approve the denial.

That means that Rocketship will open, but the state will be the overseer. A decision that I applaud. If the state wants to play chicken with charter applications, let’s play chicken. As stated by Board vice-chair Amy Frogge, “At some point, the state is going to have to be accountable for the poor test results, for the fraud, for all the things that we are seeing in regard to charter schools. The state has to be held accountable.”

The board’s decision places funding for Rocketship directly in the hands of the state with no increased financial impact for MNPS. They will lose the state funding for any students that elect to attend Rocketship, but not any other money that may have been allocated due to MNPS’s student-based funding model. The state will also be responsible for ensuring that educational outcomes are acceptable.

Board member Fran Bush rightly raised some concerns with the vote. She expressed disappointment for those parents that choose to attend the charter school since they can no longer go to a board member to express concerns about what is going on with their kids. This is a huge area of concern, but unfortunately, the state has continued to turn a deaf ear to the concerns of school districts’ concerns over the proliferation of charter schools. Maybe being responsible for one will open their ears.

QUICK HITS

As of late, I’ve received several calls expressing appreciation for Sean Braisted and Michael Cass’s early work with the MNPS communication department and I concur. Things finally seem to be on the right track with the district’s communication efforts.

Talk of teacher raises on the state level is beginning to really heat up with word leaking of a state budget that includes the largest increase of teacher pay ever proposed. Unfortunately, I’m also hearing that the TNDOE will be ramping up accountability factors as well. Among things I’m hearing in addition to the A-F ratings for schools, is an annually generated and published priority school list. Hopefully, nobody is forgetting the beginning of this decade when collective bargaining rights were sold out for the lure of big money via Race To The Top.

When it comes to teacher raises, an interesting proposal that I’ve heard of late is one that leaves starting pay where it’s at but raises the pay scale for those teachers in the middle tiers of experience. I welcome this idea and it would serve as an incentive for teachers to stay in the profession. There are already plenty of recruiting incentives in play.

Next week is the annual revealing of the Nashville Chamber of Commerce’s Education Report. Today local Attorney and public education Jaimie Hollin has an editorial in the Tennessean calling on the Chamber to put their money where their mouth is.

The kinds of policies that the Chamber has been vocal about, like tax increment financing deals for downtown development and corporate relocations, are precisely the reason why the city is in a budget crunch right now. It’s why we are struggling to give teachers a raise.

So I sent an email to Chamber president Ralph Schulz challenging him and his membership to do what I did: adopt a teacher and buy everything on their list. The Chamber reportedly pays Schulz nearly $500,000 per year, so maybe he could even pick up a second teacher’s list. What I got in return was silence, much like the Chamber’s support for public schools.

Now, maybe my email went into his spam folder or he deleted it by accident. If so, could someone pass this along to him?

Let’s see if anybody is listening.

Somebody who seems to be listening is Dr. Battle. This week nearly 50 MNPS teachers came together Monday evening for the first meeting of Interim Director of Schools Adrienne Battle’s Teachers Cabinet. They discussed discipline challenges and potential solutions. Dr. Battle plans to gather the Cabinet at least once a quarter. The other part of the equation is action, so let’s see if that follows.

Vouchers are slated to start next year and while Shelby and Davidson County have both threatened lawsuits, MNPS is taking a position that favors the repeal of legislation. Per the Nashville Post,

“Metro Schools, along with Shelby County and non-governmental entities, continues to explore legal options that would invalidate this targeted attack on schools in Shelby and Davidson Counties,” MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted said. “We do not yet have a timeline for legal action and would need approval from the School Board before moving forward as a district. We would prefer that instead of requiring litigation, the legislature would revisit and repeal this law that was passed under questionable circumstances.”

State Representative Bo Mitchell has legislation proposed that will do just that. An effort that has garnered bipartisan support.

That’s a wrap. 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. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do.

You can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated.

Coming Friday, you’ll get the opportunity to grade district leadership. So get those red pens ready.

 

 

 

 

 

4 thoughts

  1. I think you are precisely on the bullseye around standards proficiency – and I hope all your readers read these two paragraphs 20 times:
    ========================================================================
    I get a headache just thinking about the hue and cry that would emit if the state of Tennessee announced next July that 60% of the kids in the state were reading on grade level. Those tests would be dismissed, and standards would be dramatically raised.

    Remember, there’s lots of money in failure, there is not so much in success. Ain’t nobody ponying up an extra million for new curriculum when 60% of kids are succeeding. But oh…if 60% are failing…checkbooks are getting broken out.
    ========================================================================

    I wish our standards were not merely the landing point in a political tug of war between social-justice advocates and the Chamber of Commerce – but I’m exactly convinced that our standards are little more than that – and certain that the tug of war only pauses when about 50% of the kids fail the standards (which is also the case in the normalized ACT bell curve, fitted with each administration to place 50% below a 20. At least, the ACT people are honest with what they are doing, compared to standards-whiners)

    I strongly believe we need standards comparable between schools, districts, states, ideally planet-wide.

    But, firing teachers when some kids are “below” – that is just insanity. Long before we do that, we should ask whether the teacher showed up to teach, whether the kids showed up behaving and listening, and whether the kids had 3 squares.

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