“Assail me not with noble policy, for I care not at all for platitude. And surrender such tedious detail to greater minds than mine and nimbler tongues, singular in their purpose and resolve
and presuming to speak for everyman.”
I never cease to be amazed by our ability to guzzle snake oil, realize that it tastes like crap, and then go back to the same salesman and buy another bottle, just with a different label. Make no mistake, that’s what is transpiring with the latest push toward adoption of the “Science of Reading”.
Before I get into this I need to clarify a bit and to do so I need to give a little explanation. Over the last decade, I’ve come to admire the ability of education disruptors to twist language for their benefit. They take perfectly fine words like “rigor” and “grit” and distort them until they are unrecognizable.
They give their organizations name like “Stand For Children” and “Democrats For Education Reform” that evoke feelings that give cover to their true intents. Who wouldn’t stand with children? And if I’m a Democrat who cares about education, DFER sounds like a natural home for me. The reality is that these organizations and their brethren exist solely to disrupt public education to the benefit of private entities.
Over the years they’ve also been very adept at changing the words as necessity arises. Don’t like vouchers? They agree they are bad that’s why they are now supporting educational saving accounts. Now that’s much more attractive, despite having the same intent.
Like I said, their language usage is quite admirable. If only it wasn’t so damaging. And after a decade of education disruptors having their hand on the wheel, it’s pretty clear that they’ve steered us into a ditch. Their policy skills aren’t equal to their communication skills.
Back in 2010 a bunch of folks who had spent very little, if any, time in the classroom got together and cooked up a little plan called Common Core. See, in their eyes, the problem with America’s underachieving school system was not a reflection of growing poverty rates nor due to a lack of investment, it was teachers and what they were teaching.
Teachers just weren’t expecting enough. The curriculum they were using wasn’t rigorous enough and we needed to nationally create a curriculum that would counter the poor teaching that was going on in the classroom. Of course, this would require the creation of all new textbooks, the hiring of outside vendors to train teachers, vendors to supply ongoing professional development for teachers, and of course increased testing – how were you going to observe the beauty of the new initiative if you weren’t constantly measuring it?
But a funny thing happened on the way to the promised land. The public started to recognize their rhetoric for what it was and began to push back. They pointed out that were no classroom teachers involved in the actual creating of Common Core Standards. In response, disruptors quickly rewrote history by adding a few teachers to the mix and then paid some willing classroom teachers to spread the gospel of the new curriculum. All for naught, as a decade later there has been little change in student outcomes.
But at least for a decade, we didn’t have to discuss, or worse yet, have to take any substantial action on addressing poverty-related issues. Nope, every time a new study showed up showing the negative impacts poverty had on students, the Common Core flag was broken out and a song was sung with verses on the power of “grit” and “rigor”. For nearly a decade it worked, but like all good distractions, it wore out its usefulness and people became wise to the game.
As the veil started to fall away and the public started talking about things like wage inequality, hunger, and the impacts of trauma, it was clear that a new distraction had to be created. These are big issues and addressing them would require a substantial shift in public policy. A shift that would require an honest evaluation of our belief system as a nation.
Time for another distraction. And since we’d already been arguing over literacy instruction for over a century, it was the perfect vehicle. It also provided another opportunity to scapegoat teachers and further discredit their labor union.
The scapegoating of teachers is a practice that never grows old. Individually, most of us like and respect our child’s teacher, but put them together collectively and that’s where things go south.
Look at any disruptors view of the public school system and I’m sure you’ll find a disdain for the teachers union. What’s that common phrase…focus on student issues instead of adult issues. Conveniently lost in the narrative is that the teachers union is made up of those beloved teachers who instruct our children and therefore teacher issues are student issues. It’s impossible to separate the two.
Into the breach walks the “Science of Reading”. As a vehicle for distraction, this one hits all the checkboxes. It involves literacy, something we all profess a passion for. It involves teachers failing kids because they don’t know the right way to teach. It reestablishes parents and policymakers as the true experts on learning. And best of all there is the word, “Science”.
Nobody of any intellectual heft disagrees with science right? Few of us actually understand science, but hey…it’s science. It’s like the phrase, “all kids can learn”. Even show an inkling of disagreement and you reveal yourself to have bad intentions or character.
A little disclaimer here. Unfortunately the co-opting of “Science of Reading” for policy discussion purposes obscures that the science of reading is a very legitimate field of study. One in which researchers are doing incredible work. Work that if utilized properly could improve practice through augmentation and refinement. My criticism of the “Science of Reading” in regard to the implementation of public policy is in no way meant to be disparaging of the quality work that is being done in the field of reading. it is solely directed at those who co-opt the research to drive their own agenda.
Over the past year, there has been an increased effort to put the tenets of Science of Reading into legislation. Here in Tennessee, we’ve seen evidence of the disruptors initiative through the appointment of Lisa Coons to the TNDOE in the position of Chief of Standards and Materials. She received this appointment less than a month after having her contract as head of MNPS priority schools non-renewed due to her inability to develop a meaningful plan of action.
I suspect this is due to Coons being a large proponent of The New Teacher Project(TNTP) and TNTP embracing the Science of Reading. TNTP is considered a partner with TNDOE on the crafting of legislation. TNTP was a vocal proponent for Common Core, as were several of the TNDOE’s partners. You may call it conspiracy theory, I call in recognizing the players and the playbook.
Yesterday at a meeting of the state’s Dyslexia Advisory Council Coons and the TNDOE laid out some of the details for their proposed literacy framework. And given her and State Superintendent Penny Schwinn’s history, the revelations shouldn’t have surprised anyone.
In unveiling the framework, Coons stated the following and more,
“The state EXPECTS schools to follow the Science of Reading.”
“Children learn to read with roots firmly grounded in the science of reading.”
“Cues must be absent.”
A handout made their intentions crystal clear. Coons went on to say that “all” teachers would be trained in the Science of Reading, not just those who requested it. I challenge you to look at those 5 bullet points illustrated in the picture and count the number of ways that private entities will not only grow their bottom line but widen their base of influence.
It’s no coincidence that parent involvement is the listed fifth. Listed after the materials have been created and adopted, teachers all retrained, and the tests implemented.
What you thought testing was going to decrease? Hell to the no. You can’t prove somethings effective if you don’t measure it every 10 minutes. I suspect that testing will be increased and tests themselves will be modified in order to more closely align with the Science of Reading tenets.
I’m always wary when a policy is sold as a response to a crisis. First of all, while reading scores are certainly lower than expected has any public and transparent recalibration of testing taken place? Instead, we are just led to believe that the testing companies are peddling a worthwhile product sans any real proof. Perhaps a deeper look at the measurement tool is called for.
Secondly, how many teachers do you know who would continue to do the same thing over and over, if two-thirds of their children were failing to grasp the lesson? Do you really believe that the majority of them would fail to find solutions without the aid of well-meaning advocates?
“What’d you do today Mable?”
“Sat around and watched my kids continue to fail to learn to read again.”
“You want to get on this new thing called the internet and see if we can find some things that might work for them.”
“Naw, I’m just going to show up and watch them fail again. I don’t really like those kids anyway.”
If you believe that conversation takes place with any regularity, then you probably think this one does as well.
“What’s the matter Bobby?”
“I’m hungry and my parents were up all drunk and fighting about money.”
“Well good news Bobby, you’ve got phonics class today and that’ll help you learn to read so that in 10 years you’ll be able to buy yourself a hamburger.”
“Thank you for reminding Mrs. Johnson. Now that you mentioned phonics and readings importance my hunger has seemed to go away, I’m no longer exhausted and I can focus on my lessons. If it weren’t for phonics, I’d be doomed.”
I don’t believe either one happens with any regularity.
If early reports are true, xpect the TNDOE to be especially aggressive in pushing legislation through. There are educators who felt that incorporating classwork in the Science of Reading before the accreditation of new teachers into licensing requirements would be a prudent move. I don’t disagree and if that is what the legislation called for, I’d offer support. But that’s not what Coons is selling, her product is complete retraining for all teachers. That a non-sequitur for me.
It is absolutely mind-boggling to me that on one hand, the TNDOE is offering information to the committee responsible for reviewing the state funding formula indicating that the state is at least $500 million behind where we should be in terms of current funding while the other hand is proposing a major investment in an unproven curriculum.
Imagine for one second if we invested in proven strategies instead of pursuing strategies that do little but fund private entities. Currently, the state offers no help with local districts’ capital needs. Across the state many school buildings are in a state of disrepair, a condition that negatively impacts student learning, The TNDOE is proposing to spend 15 million on new literacy materials, what if they put that money into decaying buildings?
A recent study showed that Nashville ranks 9th out of 50 major urban school districts in the number of children who are economically disadvantaged. Imagine if steps were taken to make sure that all kids got fed in the morning and at lunch. We wouldn’t need to pass legislation protecting students against lunch shaming nor ask the public for help with retiring cafeteria debt.
And yes great things are being done in schools by students from economically disadvantaged schools. But think of what they could do if we removed more of the barriers that are limiting how high they can fly.
How about meaningful steps to address the growing issues with teacher attrition? To use a sports metaphor, it doesn’t matter how good your playbook is if you don’t have the players to execute it. To many classrooms across the state are taking place without a quality teacher at the head. Yet instead of focusing on recruiting and retaining teachers, we are talking about retraining them, changing materials, and bringing in additional coaches. On what planet does that make sense?
At this point, the TNDOE’s framework is just a proposal they still have to present to legislators and secure the votes for passage, I’m hoping that some clearer heads prevail during that process.
Again there are things that can be done to improve statewide literacy outcomes, but the wholesale disruption of our education system has never proven to be an effective strategy and we need to reign this proposal in before we once again walk out into the middle of the street and set a bag of money on fire.
Yesterday, ChalkbeatTN printed an article that included a list of private schools that are interested in participating in the upcoming voucher program. The list was secured through an open records request filed by Chalkbeat. Take a moment and peruse that list. Notice anything? Yep, a whole lot of religious schools. You all right with that? The taking of public money and giving it to religious institutions? Keep in mind that if it’s good for one kind of religion, it’s good for all of them.
Starting to hear rumblings that MNPS paychecks are going to be problematic this week. Those insurance premiums that were double deducted last week are just not going to be deducted this week instead of being reimbursed. I’ve also received reports that sick time and vacation time is still not right. This is a problem. It’s hard to fix organizational culture when you can’t get employee compensation right. Let’s hope early reports are wrong.
When it comes to addressing the growing teacher shortage, Lipscomb Univesity is definitely getting in the ring. In conjunction with new partnerships with LEA’s they have held meetings in order to outline their recently created program to assist with TA’s becoming certified teachers, with an option in certain partnerships to earn a master’s degree. These meetings have drawn robust crowds in both WCS and CMCSS. Partnerships are individualized to meet districts’ unique needs.
Word on the street is that the latest episode of the Tony Majors story will drop tonight on Channel 5. If recent history is any indication, the story will have zero repercussions. Majors will continue to act with impunity and will retain his status as one of the district’s highest compensated employees. But feel free to tune in and publically comment.
Things have gotten a little interesting over in Muarry County where last night the school board voted 7 – 3 not to renew Director of School Chris Marczak’s contract when it expires in June. Talk of a buyout and immediate termination was tabled for a later date. The timing and optics created are problematic for Marczak as he’s rumored to be throwing his hat into the ring for the MNPS Superintendent job. We’ll have to see how this plays out.
Happy 90th Birthday to Inglewood ES, who is having a party at 10 a.m. Saturday for the whole community. It’s a pretty amazing feat and worthy of a citywide celebration.
A bit of a highlight for me yesterday. Diane Ravitch’s new book was released yesterday and the Washington Post’s Valerie Strauss printed an excerpt from it. It was good to see that they’d spelled my name right, and oh yea, she said a lot of incredibly nice things about Nashville’s very own Amy Frogge. I urge you to pick up this important book.
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