“Absolute power does not corrupt absolutely, absolute power attracts the corruptible.”
“In a completely rational society, the best of us would be teachers and the rest of us would have to settle for something less, because passing civilization along from one generation to the next ought to be the highest honor and the highest responsibility anyone could have.”
As the week comes to a close, clean up efforts continue across the city of Nashville. It has truly been inspirational to watch people from across the city, from all walks of life, come together to help their neighbors recover from the devastating effects of Tuesday’s tornados.
In the wake of the storms, it quickly became apparent that unprecedented damage had been inflicted on the city. Twenty-two years ago was the last time tornados hit Nashville. From what I’m told, that storm took out 225 utility polls, this go around it was 600. Over 15k residents still lack power in their homes. According to Bill Herbert, who leads the department, Metro Codes has tallied at least 1,100 homes or duplexes damaged or destroyed from the tornado.
Despite the magnitude of the devastation, it hasn’t served to dampen the resilience of the city’s residents. All across town volunteers are suiting up and showing up. From a state representative skipping general assembly meetings to serve food, to a school board member running a laundry service for victims, to a principal organizing supply collections and food drives for those in need, to an attorney volunteering their services with a chain saw, everyone is pitching in with equal enthusiasm.
Unfortunately, it often takes a crisis in order to get the full measure of a leader. Leadership may be awarded in the boardroom, but it’s earned in the field. It’s easy to say and do the right thing when everything is running smoothly. A crisis provides a stress test for both the mettle of a leader and that of the organization they’ve constructed. Early indications are that MNPS might have something sustainable here.
Recovery in Nashville is far from complete, it’s going to be quite sometime before business as usual returns, but I don’t think its too early to recognize the efforts of MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle and her team over the past week. I mention both because it’s impossible to grade one without the other. One should be a reflection of the other.
Battle has done well this week, making decisions in a timely manner and her team has delivered on her edicts. She’s made decisions with an eye toward long term implications instead of just grabbing at the instant fix. While being a public presence, she has been content to push others forward, never making relief efforts about her.
I don’t know how many times over the last week I’ve looked at pictures via social media of relief efforts and realized that Dr. Battle was present, always in the background or off to the side, never forcing herself forward. That may seem like an insignificant thing but think about the crisis of the recent past and all the leaders that charged to the front and made sure the spotlight was on them. To resist that urge, especially in the midst of a director search, is a testament to her character.
More importantly, it was the was way that central office administrators, principals, and teachers all took charge of the situation. I’m was not surprised to find the city’s educators at the forefront of relief efforts, but I was surprised at the latitude they were given to use their best judgment in implementing strategies. In the past the heavy hand of the administration prevented individuals from acting in an expedient manner, that wasn’t the case over the past week. A big part of leadership is empowering others, and it is clear that Dr. Battle understands that and embraces the role.
Schools were open, even though classes were canceled. Supplies were collected and delivered. Principals participated in debris clean up. All of this and more with the support of the leadership team – facilitating, not dictating.
I remember a time not too long ago when it was argued that no matter what decision a director of schools made, it would make some folks unhappy. Under Battle that doesn’t seem to hold as true, while the second-guessers haven’t completely disappeared, their numbers seem to have receded and their voices have muted.
Next week will come with its own set of challenges. Maybe things will run as smoothly, maybe they won’t, but for whatever it’s worth, this week Nashville got a glimpse of what it is like to have a steady hand at the wheel of our school system in a time of crisis and as a result, can’t help but feel a sense of reassurance.
LACK OF LEADERSHIP AT THE STATE
If MNPS and the TNDOE are two sides of a coin, the quality of leadership currently being delivered is night and day. While Battle continues to ascend, State Superintendent Penny Schwinn continues to trend the other direction. This week she appeared before the TN Senate Education Committee. It was an appearance that failed to indicate that she would be reversing direction any time soon. It was an appearance that caused many long term observers to remark that it was the most interesting Senate Education Committee meeting they’d ever seen.
Schwinn was there to present the education department’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year, but it didn’t long for the realization to dawn that senators had a different agenda. An agenda that cast Schwinn in a role similar to that of a piñata. A role that it quickly became apparent Schwinn was not prepared to navigate.
The more I watch Ms. Schwinn the more I’m reminded of the recently departed head of Nashville Schools Dr. Shawn Joseph. Both arrived from other parts of the country with a distinct lack of respect for the natives. Both demonstrate a lack of intellectual curiosity and both when questioned, avoid direct answers in favor of a lengthy oratory. Both bring an evangelical zeal to their role and a sense of entitlement that their way supersedes all others. Both share a past affiliation with John Hopkins University and the Broad Institute.
Throughout the tenure of both Joseph and Schwinn, their respective organizations have suffered from high turnover and low morale, with a propensity to toss others under the bus as a means of self-preservation. In evaluating their collective actions it’s impossible to discern whether they are unethical, ineffective, or both. The culmination of the way they conduct business is that criticisms quickly turn personal.
On Thursday, Senators raised a laundry list of issues with the way the department is currently conducting business. The curriculum adoption process, the Achievement School District, even the pending voucher program all came under intense scrutiny from senators. Throughout the proceedings, the superintendent failed to supply answers that assuaged the legislator’s concerns and often her answers failed to address the questions that were asked.
At one point, under questioning by Representative Steve Dickerson, Schwinn described a scenario where voucher recipients could earn a scholarship to a private school and as a result, utilize their $7k in voucher money with greater latitude. It was an exchange that led to Dickerson describing himself as flabbergasted, and board chairwoman Deloris Gresham cautioning him about making public statements based on Schwinn’s words until further review and promising to revisit recently passed legislation. In other words, be careful because she may be throwing bullshit.
Gresham made a similar statement later when Senator Mike Bell intensely questioned Schwinn about the ongoing textbook and materials adoption process. Having previously served on the commission, Bell is familiar with how the process is supposed to run and was not pleased with this year’s execution. Gresham shared his concerns and wondered if legislation was actually being adhered to.
Legislation dictates that the textbook commission is set as an independent entity from the TNDOE. The sole role of the department is to be that of an administrative assistant, and as such merely to assist and not influence. The intent was to structure the textbook commission in such a manner that the department of education could exert no undue influence over the adoption of textbooks and instructional material.
In describing this year’s process, Ms. Schwinn outlined a change in the rubric from one of compliance to one that ensured that what made the state list of approved materials was of high quality. A term that the department loves to throw around – if we were playing drink “high quality” during department presentations, we’d be sloshed 20 minutes in – but regularly fail to define. In truth, it’s a subjective term that is open to individual interpretation.
Schwinn gave former director Dr. McQueen a nice toss under the bus by painting the focus on high quality as being unprecedented. In other words, her predecessors were willing to settle for “low quality” or “no quality” materials while she was not. A debatable assertion.
Bell was curious as to who had given Schwinn the authority to make such a change and furthermore who had given her the authority for the department of education to assume a leadership role in the process. An answer that Schwinn really couldn’t address, citing the department’s legal advisor being at a funeral as being the reason. She did offer up a recently concluded State Comptrollers report on the textbook adoption process as support for her actions.
In fairness, the report does describe a process plagued by a lack of resources. In March 2019, the start of the ELA adoption process was delayed by the commission for several months due to a lack of enough membership appointees in order to reach a quorum. This is an ongoing problem as the textbook commission has not had full membership since 2016.
The first official meeting was held on June 11, 2019, with two of the newest members to the commission, having been appointed one week ahead of the June meeting, giving them little time to undergo training and become acquainted with their new position and duties, such as casting votes on changes to the textbook adoption cycle, adjustments to the scoring protocol used by TDOE, and other matters voted on during the June meeting.
As for the actual reviews of materials, per the report,
The actual review of textbooks and instructional materials is conducted not by the commission, but by advisory panels of expert teachers and other experts in each subject area or grade level. Each advisory panel must include at
least one expert licensed teacher with an endorsement to teach in the subject area or grade level for the materials they are reviewing.
Other experts may include college professors and credentialed subject matter specialists.
TDOE aims to have three or more reviewers per advisory panel, but actual numbers depend on how many applicants the department receives for each subject and grade level. Some panels have only two reviewers while others may have five or more.
The report goes on to outline the difficulties involved with securing reviewers,
In 2019, the ELA adoption had 154 total advisory panel reviewers – five of whom were not assigned any reviews – who conducted a total of 633 reviews on 138 titles. Each panelist reviewed between four and five items and had two months to conduct the reviews on the items assigned. Training
for the advisory panel reviews cost approximately $213,000. The department noted that it is often difficult to recruit and train enough reviewers to evaluate the materials for each review cycle, especially in subject areas with fewer teachers, such as career technical education or foreign languages.
In August, a new Chief of Standards and Materials was assigned to oversee the department’s work for the textbook commission, Dr. Lisa Coons. Coons conducted a review of the process to date and found problems and issues. She reported those issues to Schwinn who took it upon herself – as a member of the textbook commission – to contract for a third-party review of the process to date. She hired John Hopkins University.
Why it was necessary to go out of state in order to find someone capable of conducting the review is never made clear, nor is the criteria that were involved in deciding what entity was capable of this task. Perhaps there was an RFP generated and I’m just unaware of it, but much of the process around the contracting and empowering of John Hopkins is left rather vague.
To try and make a long story short, John Hopkins identified numerous issues – the selection process of reviewers did not appear rigorous, reviewers who did not pass the gateway assessment still reviewed multiple curricula and were on review teams whose curricula frequently passed for adoption, the recommendations of the advisory panelists were not consistent with reviews conducted by independent, third-party national organizations, and four publishers with higher market shares had a higher chance of approval over those with a lower market share.
As a result of the Hopkin’s study, TNDOE made several changes. Changes that moved them from a manager role to a director role. Again it is unclear who authorized that shift and how it is consistent with current legislation.
To address the issues raised by John Hopkins University, the TNDOE decided that instead of re-reviewing all materials the commission would only reevaluate those that failed the initial process. Those that were approved for the initial list would remain state-sanctioned.
What that means is that when Schwinn touts the increased commitment to “high quality” she’s failing to acknowledge that the majority of items on the state-approved materials list may or may not meet that threshold per a study she commissioned. It’s up to LEAs to make that assessment. Ironically the very people she’s trying to strip of power with HB 2229.
Senator Bell and other Senators are clearly concerned with the manner in which the TNDOE is currently conducting themselves, as we all should be. Several times in her testimony Schwinn cited research to support her policies that in actuality, under closer examination, say exactly the opposite.
Case in point being when she touted that by offering teachers scripted lesson plans time is freed up for teachers to focus on the actual practice of teaching. The reality is that it does no such thing, as freed time is in turn eaten up by the additional demands that have been placed on teachers over the last decade.
Ms. Schwinn never did get to present her budget to the committee as she failed to adequately answer the senator’s questions in the allotted time frame. Her performance earned her another appearance in front of the Senate Education Committee next week. One that I don’t anticipate will go any better than this past one did.
If I was Schwinn, I would take the tone of the senators in the room very seriously. Many of the senators asked their questions in a manner that would seem to indicate that they already knew the answers and were leading the Superintendent down a pathway of self-incrimination. If I didn’t know better I would suspect that they had been made privy to conversations that the superintendent considered private,
The irony is that Shawn Joseph was offered similar advice before he was ushered out the door, and chose to ignore it. Time will tell if Schwinn reads the writing on the wall or adds to the long list of similarities between her and the former MNPS director.
MNPS has announced that due to structural damage to some schools, upon returning next week affected students will be reassigned to different buildings. Gra-Mar students will report to Jere Baxter where they will continue to operate as a separate entity under the same roof. Meigs will move into the Gra-Mar building. Robert Churchwell Magnet School will temporarily move to Park Enhanced Option School. These moves provide a volunteer opportunity for those looking to help as teachers will need help packing and unpacking classrooms. I know they would appreciate it.
By now, I’m sure most of you are aware that a case of the coronavirus has been reported in Williamson County. My only recommendation I have to offer is that we don’t lose our minds over it. Yesterday I heard reports of people walking around the Cool Springs Costco wearing WWII era gas masks, that’s a little extreme and not at all helpful. MNPS has proactively provided some guidelines and I encourage you to follow them.
I’ve never thought of Indiana as a particularly forward-thinking state, but I may have to revisit that assessment as they are on the cusp of removing student test scores from the teacher evaluation process. Indiana Representative Anthony Cook (R-Cicero) authored HB1002, “AN ACT to amend the Indiana Code concerning education” by removing the testing requirement. It was a move that proved popular with fellow legislators, The Indiana House voted unanimously (100-0), and the Senate, 49-1, in favor Cook’s HB 1002. As justification for the bill, Cook offered up the following in an Indiana House press release:
Local school administrators have a better grasp of educators’ strengths in the classroom. Giving individual school districts the flexibility to decide how to use test scores in evaluations will provide a more complete and accurate picture of teachers’ overall performance.
All that’s left is for the governor to sign the bill.
There has been much debate of late over the “science of reading”, with much of it focused on the instruction of future readers. Educator Nancy Bailey has a unique view of the issue, one that focuses on how we often pay homage to the power of literacy but fail to honor that homage through our actions. If it doesn’t give you some pause for thought, you may not be looking at the whole picture.
Long-serving state senator Delores Gresham has announced that she won’t be seeking re-election. Gresham served six years in the state House before she was elected to three four-year terms in the Senate. She became the Education Committee chairwoman as a freshman senator. Your opinion of Gresham probably aligns with how you feel about charter schools and vouchers, she was a proponent of both. However regardless of your affiliation, there is no denying that during her tenure she was a force to be reckoned with, her departure will definitely cause a shift in dynamics.
The following statistic was brought forth during Thursday’s senate education committee meeting. Currently, there are over 1200 openings for teachers across the state, impacting over 20K kids. That doesn’t exactly align with the recognition that teachers are the singular most important in-school factor impacting student outcomes. Maybe changing those numbers is where our focus should be directed.
That’s it for today. Thank you, teachers and administrators, for everything you do.
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