“The most necessary task of civilization is to teach people how to think. It should be the primary purpose of our public schools. The mind of a child is naturally active, it develops through exercise. Give a child plenty of exercise, for body and brain. The trouble with our way of educating is that it does not give elasticity to the mind. It casts the brain into a mold. It insists that the child must accept. It does not encourage original thought or reasoning, and it lays more stress on memory than observation.”
Thomas A. Edison

For my own part, I think that Johnston’s tactics were right. Anything that could have prolonged the war a year beyond the time that it did finally close, would probably have exhausted the North to such an extent that they might then have abandoned the contest and agreed to a separation.”
Ulysses S. Grant, Personal Memoirs of U.S. Grant: All Volumes

Yesterday I wrote about the TNDOE’s actions to manipulate the adoption process for state-approved ELA materials and textbooks. In it, I illustrated how the process was subverted for the benefit of the department’s chosen partners. That in itself was bad enough, but then things went even further south.

Yesterday evening the Governor of Tennessee, Bill Lee, dropped another shoe that further illustrated a willingness to sacrifice the welfare of the state’s children for the benefit of private entities. Entities that have been gobbling up public money for well over a decade.

Governor Lee laid out the funding for his educational priorities next year. Priorities that in my eyes are capable of doing irrevocable damage to the state’s public education system through the siphoning off of public resources that school districts can ill afford to lose.

In his speech, Lee praised teachers while laying out investments that do nothing to help retain veteran teachers. He proposed $117 million in order to grant the equivalent of a 4% raise for teachers across the state. It’s a raise of which – due to the discrepancy between what the TNDOE requires districts to hire and what the state BEP formula pays for – little will reach teachers’ in Tennessee’s urban school district’s bank accounts.

If you live in a rural community, don’t expect a windfall either. Per ChalkbeatTN,

“Our public schools need $1.2 billion to get us to the Southeast average and out of the bottom 10 in funding. It is something our state can afford, and it’s the best investment our state can make,” said Beth Brown, a Grundy County teacher who heads the Tennessee Education Association.

She added that the extra money for teacher pay breaks down to about $1,450 per teacher, or approximately $28 a week.

A common thread across the state for the last couple of years has been the growing shortage of teachers willing to ply their craft for the compensation local districts are offering. It’s well documented that teachers are leaving the profession in droves. Recent surveys show that 1 in 3 of Tennessee teachers is looking to leave the profession. You would think this would serve to wake up officials to the need for teacher retention.

However, that’s not what has either the TNDOE or Lee’s attention. Instead of focusing on concrete efforts to retain teachers, Lee proposes to dedicate $70 million dollars to literacy curriculum adoption and training. That’s right, we are focusing on what’s being taught as opposed to who’s going to teach it. But if you don’t really respect teaching as a profession, you are not really that concerned with who does the teaching, just that they follow your direction.

Lee also proposes $25 million — $5 million of that recurring— for a new teacher and principal institute, as well as $8.5 million to create a fellowship for high school seniors and college freshmen to train them to become teachers. The new training will provide replacements for teachers fleeing the profession and will likely focus on elements of the science of reading and other TNTP initiatives as opposed to lesson planning, curriculum mapping, and classroom management.

As the latter skills fade into oblivion and what will be left behind is a teaching force devoid of those abilities. As a result, the reliance on a scripted curriculum will only become more pronounced until eventually, it becomes the expectation. The art of teaching will be lost along will the argument for greater teacher salaries. After all, those who create the content deserve more compensation than those that deliver it and this budget sends a clear message that teachers can’t be depended on to create and deliver quality curriculum. As a result, the teaching profession will become forever altered.

The Governor and the TNDOE are wading into ideological waters much like what transpired with Common Core. People that have never spent time in a classroom teaching kids are again writing prescriptions for improving student outcomes with little or no input from those actually doing the work.

As Peter Green points out,

This remains one of the most infuriating things about the modern ed reform movement. For the moment, never mind the disrespect implicit in the exclusion of teachers from policy discussions– it’s just an ineffective way to do policy. A bunch of policy experts gather around with a bunch of political policy makers, usually in a comfy lounge paid for by some corporate sponsor or other, and they start shooting arrows over the wall at the schoolhouse on the other side. Then thay have a spirited argument about where the arrow landed– but they never talk to the people who actually work in that schoolhouse.

It’s like engineers who decide to add a feature to the drive train in a car, but never talk to anybody who actually drives the car they remodeled. It’s like medical professors who create a new procedure, but never talk to a doctor who has used that procedure.

In the wake of last night’s budget announcement, social media was awash with an abundance of accolades for the move to adopt the “science of reading” as an instructional template. But let’s not get too carried away and swept up in the moment.

This selling of educational policy is not a new proposition. In fact, many of those offering the most praise for the governor’s budget proposal were some of the same characters that beat the drum for Common Core half a decade ago.

The irony is not lost on me that SCORE raises the alarm of a state literacy crisis while never acknowledging its role in the creating of the present situation. It’s like lighting a bunch of neighborhood houses on fire and then canvassing residents to help you fund a fire department.

Then there is this whole business of the “science of reading” itself. Just because you put the word “science” in the title doesn’t make it so. The “science of reading” has been around since the dawn of the formalized instruction, except it used to be called “phonics”. In other words, this is like the KGB morphing into the FSB. It sounds like something different but in reality, it’s more of the same.

There is a bit of interesting twist with the latest incarnation. As P. L. Thomas, Professor of Education (Furman University, Greenville SC) notes,

This is all quite fascinating in the context of the current media blitz about the reading crisis and a need (yes, once again) to focus on the science of reading. Concurrent with that media fail is a move within the academia to shift reading away from literacy experts and into the purview of special needs, treating all reading instruction as something like remediation or a learning disability.

I believe this quite deliberate and is not unlike how Common Core proponents used parent groups to advocate for its adoption in the past.

There is a part of me that is trying to maintain an unjaundiced eye to this whole “science of reading” push. I’m pretty confident that in the next five to ten years the pendulum will swing back the other way and this whole initiative will be unwound. But I can’t help be angered by the number of resources being squandered in a futile effort.

Education is supposed to be about learning. Surely by now, we should have realized that at the heart of underachieving schools are issues of poverty, yet once again we are going to allow ourselves to be distracted. We are going to continue to put forth the supposition that a curriculum can supersede a student’s living conditions and that children are capable of employing delayed gratification strategies when most adults are incapable of doing so.

Imagine where we would currently be if all the money spent on Common Core had instead been used to mitigate the effects of poverty instead of lining the pockets of adults.

If the money squandered advocating for Common Core had instead been spent on Read to Be Ready Camps?

What if the money wasted training teachers on Common Core had instead gone to training teachers in dealing with student trauma?

Or making sure kids were fed?

or they attended adequately equipped school buildings?

Which brings me to the doorstep of my old friend irony. I once asked Knoxville Representative Bill Dunn why, if he so wanted to help poor kids, he didn’t advocate for the state to create a capital needs fund in order to assist districts with updating schools. He indignantly responded that the state has never helped with a local district’s capital needs issues. Apparently, that indignation doesn’t extend to charter schools as the Governor’s proposed budget includes 24 million dollars for…wait for it…upgrade of charter school facilities.

While we are on the subject of irony, here’s some more for you. In his State of the State speech, Lee spoke of teaching in a manner that is evidence-based. The evidence is pretty clear the Tennessee Achievement School District is a failed initiative. Yet, in his proposed budget, Lee is allocating an additional $25 million to support the ASD. A move which gives credence to education writer Gary Rubenstein’s suspicion that the ASD plans to concede failure with its existing schools, kick them back to local districts, and choose a fresh cohort of victims – I mean candidates.

I think, and I hope I’m wrong about this, that with the failure of the ASD there was no way that they could justify adding more schools to it.  But by ‘returning’ the 30 schools back to their districts, and probably keeping them as charters, there will now be room to add more schools in the bottom 5% to the re-booted ASD.  If this is what happens, the ASD won’t be disappearing or even shrinking, it will be expanding.  There will be the 30 schools that are still charters, but just operating as part of the district they have been returned to.  And then there will be another 20 schools, maybe, that are in the new ASD.  (They actually call it the ASD 2.0 in the state slide show)

Basically, this is like when a businessman declares bankruptcy yet finds a way to get out of debt that way and actually profits off of it.  Without those original 30 schools that are making their stats look so bad over the years, they will start fresh with other schools.  Then they can spend another 8 years with those schools and say “You can’t expect us to fix these schools overnight, we need more time.”  But this is just a shell game.

And let’s not forget the additional $15.3 million to Lee’s pet privatization scheme – vouchers. The havoc that vouchers will wreck on Memphis and Nashville schools cannot be understated.

So let’s summarize what Governor Lee’s proposed budget translates to for Tennessee’s urban school districts.

  • No money for teacher raises.
  • No help retaining veteran teachers.
  • Dictated curriculum and increased training time for teachers.
  • Increased competition for students from charter schools.
  • Increased competition for students from the ASD.
  • An increased number of independent charter schools housed in Nashville and Memphis.
  • Increased competition from private schools via the voucher program.

I may not be well versed in the new math, but I don’t see how this adds up to anything but a disaster for teachers, students, and families in Tennessee’s urban school districts and a windfall for the private corporations doing business with the state. If I was a little bolder, I might call it what it is, one big money laundering scheme. In with the public money, out to the private accounts. Someday maybe we’ll learn.


Categories: Education

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: