WAR! WHAT IS IT GOOD FOR?

“The Lord gave you a mind so that you can make honest use of it. I’m saying you must be sure that the doubts and questions are your own, not, so to speak, the mustache and walking stick that happen to be the fashion of any particular moment.”
Marilynne Robinson, Gilead

“He that hath truth on his side is a fool as well as a coward if he is afraid to own it because fo other mens’s opinions.”
Daniel Defoe

The end of the year oft brings reflections on the previous months’ events. This year will complete six years of this blog and over time I’ve seen several patterns emerge. When I started this blog I was excited about the breadth of subjects I would be writing about and how I would contribute to a greater understanding of multiple subjects. But as I reflect back today, I’m not sure that any of that has actually transpired.

What I’ve learned over my writing tenure is that education policy discussions are one big hamster wheel, where we run around repeating the same conversations over and over. Policy decisions seem guided by a pendulum that continually swings back and forth to extremes, with scant attention paid to historical context.

I offer current events as evidence of what I’m talking about.

This weekend’s Tennessean trumpeted a new education advocacy group founded in order to increase the quality of Nashville’s public school system, NashvilleNOW. What a wonderful announcement, except that the majority of these players are well known, as is their agenda. Neither of which is friendly to public education.

NashvilleNOW is led by the Scarletts, Joe and his daughter Tara. Joe has been meddling in school politics for over a decade. Back in 2015, the Scarlett Foundation announced the creation of a brand new advocacy group, Project Renaissance. If you look at those involved with Project Renaissance, you’ll see quite an overlap between them and the newest incarnation NashvilleNOW.

What makes me even more dubious about the new organization is that Joe Scarlett enjoyed unfettered access to the previous director of Schools Shawn Joseph. Joseph often turned to Scarlett for insight and introduced him at more than one principal meeting as a mentor. Which begs the question, if the motivation behind the creation of this new organization is so altruistic, why not create it when the possibility of partnering with the director existed. Why not take advantage of an existing relationship in order to benefit Nashville’s school kids.

It’s awful hard to call attention to issues with the school when you had a front seat for three years and proposed nothing. Even as Joseph became lost in the wilderness, Scarlett waited until now to launch an advisory group.

Surely Scarlett could see the struggles that his buddy faced during his tenure. Bringing all of these charitable folks together might have helped Joseph save his job. Yet, he lifted nary a finger during Joseph’s time and waited until now – 9 months before a school board election – to create a new advocacy group under the guise of supporting existing schools.

I find it amusing that Tara Scarlett asserts that the group will not get involved in school board elections, won’t create a political action committee or offer a voice in who should be hired as Nashville’s next superintendent. They said the same thing with the last group and while Project Renaissance didn’t directly contribute to candidates, they sure helped like-minded donor’s money find a way into candidates with similar vision’s bank accounts. Though in the end, it wasn’t enough and Scarlett’s vision was rejected by Nashville voters.

Let’s face it rich people didn’t get to be rich people by losing arguments, and the Scarlett Foundation has lost on numerous occasions to Amy Frogge and Jill Speering, both of who are up for re-election this summer. You don’t think that Joe and his daughter relish an opportunity to rectify those losses? All you need to do is look at the first of the three goals espoused by NashvilleNOW:

  • That the city should have a functional school board that is fully focused on all students and is in sync with its superintendent and the mayor;
  • Create support for a system of high-quality public schools that eliminates the need for students to travel across town or transfer to a different county; and
  • Help grow what works by celebrating and replicating the city’s best schools and best practices.

Hmmm…I’m assuming the best way to make that one reality is too make sure the right people get elected. It also begs the question of how do you define “in sync”? If “in sync” means that all support the proliferation of charter schools, that’s not a goal historically supported by Nashville voters.

Furthermore, the mayor is not an expert on education, the superintendent supposedly is, so whom should supersede who in the event of a disagreement? And is not the board’s duty to carry out the vision of its constituents, much like the metro council, and since the voters of South Nashville have different visions than voters of East Nashville, who compromises to whom? A lot of sticky wickets in that first goal.

If you’ve ever spent any time on school issues, and you know anything about NashvilleNOW’s founders, the second two bullet points are pretty clear despite the attempt to couch the language.

“I believe that every child has access to high-quality education, regardless of what type of the school,” Scarlett said. “It could be a traditional school, magnet school or it could be a charter school, it doesn’t matter. What matters is that every single child in our city is getting a high-quality education.”

Those are beautiful words, but unfortunately, they don’t equate to reality. The type of school does matter and the reality is that Nashville can not properly resource two separate school systems. Ironically it was the chamber of commerce that first pointed this out when they supported the merger of Nashville Schools and Davidson County Schools back in the 1960s. A fact they are all too willing to ignore in the present.

Much has made of the monetary cost in funding two separate systems, but that’s only the beginning of the resource drain. It’s no secret that there is a growing shortage in MNPS of people that want to teach children. The job has become increasingly unattractive, and its a challenge for both charter schools and traditional schools to fully staff their buildings. Which translates to them recruiting against each other out of the same pool.

I’m increasing hearing of charter schools – who don’t have the same restrictions as traditional schools – recruiting teachers employed by the districts. Just this morning I heard of two teachers leaving one of our priority schools to go to a charter school. The negative impact of a school losing 2 teachers mid-year can not be understated. Yet we continue to argue the merits of opening more charter schools.

Last week we saw the Nashville School Board once again reject a charter school application, despite the state giving them the right to open. So while that school will not be the financial obligation of MNPS, they will compete with the district for other resources.

Why are we still having the is conversation? Voters have continually shown that they don’t support a proliferation of charter schools and in fact, would like to see greater investment in MNPS. Candidates who run for school board never do so under the clear banner of support for increasing the number of charter schools, instead choosing to mimic the language used by Scarlett in announcing the forming of NashvilleNOW. It’s only once elected do they unfurl their reform banner and even then their intentions are never conveyed verbally, only through their actions do we become aware of those intentions.

I have tried for years to walk away from the charter debate. In my eyes it’s a settled deal, there are some good charter schools and some bad, but the model is not financially scalable and as such, we need to pursue other strategies when it comes to underperforming schools. Yet here we are once again, squared off and fighting over an issue that a small cadre of supporters refuses to let die. And who ultimately suffers because of this lack of ability to move on? Students and their families.

If you are on social media at all as of late, I’m sure that you are well aware of the latest flare-up of the Reading Wars. I know, you probably thought this was settled years ago, but apparently not. The reading wars, in case you are not aware, is the ongoing battle over the best method of teaching kids to read – whole word or phonics – and has been waged since Eve first wrote a letter of apology to Adam in the Garden of Eden and he had trouble reading it.

Last year literacy advocate Emily Hanford wrote a piece focusing on the Science of Reading that reignited the debate. Much of the increased attention is fueled by Dyslexia Advocates, an increasingly powerful political entity. To be fair dyslexic students do benefit from more direct phonetic instruction and every effort should be made to ensure that they receive the instruction that most facilitates their learning. It needs to be recognized that all kids have different needs and we need to ensure that they are all best served.

Recently, the internet blew up over respected reading specialist Richard Allington’s disparaging comments made at the Literacy Association of Tennessee Conference in Murfreesboro last week. While the comments were completely unacceptable, I believe that the response to the comments reveals more than those taking umbrage intended. I think the push back is indicative of a perception of teachers held by many in the phonetics crowd.

If you read the literature around the “science of reading” it is littered with references to teachers teaching literacy wrong. Not that their practice needs augmenting but rather that they are just flat out wrong. This accusation comes in spite of years of experience successfully teaching kids to read.

The latest is an “I have seen the light” piece written by teacher Bethany Hill. In it, she tells of successfully teaching kids to read for years until attending 3 days of PD on the science of reading when she suddenly had an epiphany, she’s been teaching kids to read wrong and needed to mend her wicked ways. It’s an inspirational piece but one that leads me to ask, what was transpiring in her classroom pre-epiphany?

The literature around the science of reading makes liberal use of standardized test scores and paints a picture of teachers standing in front of classrooms where the majority of students are failing, yet not taking any corrective actions of their own. Instead, they continually stick to what they were taught during their college years, due to ignorance or stubbornness, never amending and never changing.

Apparently, these educators, many who hold advanced degrees, are incapable of searching out and reading research and blog posts that are readily available to advocates. Apparently, the majority of them are content to continually fail while never looking to modify their practice. They never interact with successful teachers, nor are they willing to incorporate successful strategies in their practice without intervention. They just stick to their continually failing practices.

In other words, the literature and by extension, advocates themselves, paint a false picture of what teaching looks like in practice. Perhaps I’m blessed to be exposed to only really good teachers, but the ones I know are constantly researching, constantly collaborating, and constantly evolving their practice. It’s like they are…what’s the word I’m looking for…life long learners. The idea that teachers would sit ideally by and take no action while kids repeatedly fell short is…well…I don’t want to speak for anyone…but to me…offensive.

Poll any group of teachers and you will find that the vast majority of them were called to the profession to make a difference and as Allington has pointed out in the past, they do, “We know teachers have to be paying attention to kids and take their cues from what the kid is doing and provide him with instruction that, if he’s off track and not attending to some aspect of the print environment, they direct his attention there.” For some reason, the phonetics folks have a different view of teacher practice.

What about those test results you say? Yea, well at some point if the measurements don’t pass the eye test you have to examine the test mechanism. It’s like this, if I repeatedly showed up to a construction site with a ruler that measured 11 inches as being a foot, would you dismiss my houses or get me a new ruler? There has been enough evidence collected that shows standardized tests are a better indicator of socio-economic status rather than actual learning, but we are still using them to evaluate teachers and students.

It is clear to me, both by their words and actions, that there are advocates who do not believe that teachers are worthy of their faith. They believe that the way they are doing the job is wrong, and they look to dictate practice instead of augmenting the tools available to teachers. To me, that’s very problematic and I can’t think of another professional practice where that would be considered acceptable.

A couple months ago I was speaking with a science of reading advocate and brought up issues of teacher attrition and the possible unintended consequences of their message. Their reply was, “When then we’ll recruit more teachers and ensure that they are properly trained.” Good luck with that.

The single most impactful element in student educational outcomes is the quality of the teacher and right now we need more. A failure to recognize that fact is a failure to recognize the results of countless pieces of data and only serves to hamper student outcomes.

There is no doubt a need for improvement when it comes to public education, but if we insist on continually fighting over the same issues we’ll never make any real progress. James Baumann, the Chancellor’s Chair for Excellence in Literacy Education at MU recognized that fact almost a decade ago.

Baumann is less hung up on the label for a method — whole language, balanced literacy, the like — and more concerned with how the notion of the “wars” keeps researchers and educators from focusing on what students need to be successful: districts that take the time to invest in quality instruction, administrators who care about supporting their staffs, and most of all, teachers who can spark that “Aha!” moment that turns a bunch of sounds and symbols into a story.

If we want the story to have a good ending, we have to stop treating it like a war story.

POLL RESULTS

This weekend we offered the opportunity to give mid-year grades to district leadership, with some interesting results.

When it came to interim-Director of Schools Adrienne Battle, 47% of you gave her a “B”, while 25% of you awarded a “C”. Not bad marks after 6 months on the job, but still shows room for improvement. Here are the write-in votes,

What has she done 1
A minus 1
Incomplete
Apparently, the goodwill carries over to interim-Chief Academic Officer David Williams, as 34% of you gave him a “C” and 26% a “B”. Here are those write-ins,
B but Ela is still a hot mess 1
B minus 1
U – Unsatisfactory 1
Who?

The goodwill ends there though. When it comes to HR director Tony Majors 59% of you gave him a non-passing mark. It seems there is a desire to see a whole lot more out of the HR department. Here are those write-ins.

bullies have no place in MNPS 1
Waste of a being 1
He checked two months ago 1
CEO? Stop the biz world jargon. Schools are not businesses. What does he do? 1
If he stays in HR we are in trouble. 1
W – withdrawn 1
Total failure. HR is a total mess and it’s his dept.

The last administrator getting a grade today is Chief of Staff Hank Clay. I will say that for the first time in recent memory, the director of schools is utilizing a Chief of Staff in the manner one should be used – to garner public support and advise the director. Clay gets a “C” from 30% of you with the rest of you scattering grades all over the spectrum. Here are the write-ins,

Who? 4
I don’t even know what he does. 1
What does he do, again? 1
I haven’t seen Hanks impact or figured yet 1
Nothing to grade that I know of 1
How did that man get that job? Such a waste. 1
No opinion and no idea what he does 1
What does he even do? 1
HR is still a shit show. 1
who? 1
Who? Waste of money. What has he done?

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.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

 



Categories: Education

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