A ROAD NOT FAR ENOUGH

“I couldn’t help it. I tried to keep it down but it just flooded through all my quiet spaces. It was a message more than a feeling, a message that tolled like a bell: change, change, change.”
Junot Diaz, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao

“It is the absence of facts that frightens people: the gap you open, into which they pour their fears, fantasies, desires.”
Hilary Mantel, Wolf Hall

 

What to do when you write a blog on education-related issues and all the schools in the state are shut down?

Fortunately, there is still plenty of work that is being done away from the classroom that needs reporting on. The students may be gone, but the challenges are not.

Times of crisis tend to amplify the character of leaders. They also serve to do the same with their flaws.

Last Friday afternoon, State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn met with local school superintendents from across Tennessee, presumably to outline a course of action in the wake of the current pandemic.  Unfortunately, it was a course of action that gave little direction and placed the onus on others to make decisive moves. It was a course of action that didn’t set well with superintendents.

In Schwinn’s words, the DOE had little power to dictate action to individual districts and to waive accountability measures. While this may be true, there was nothing that limited her ability to lead by making recommendations and advocating with those that do hold the authority. Instead, she placed those responsibilities on the shoulders of others while choosing to focus on addressing students out of school needs – food, clothing, and shelter.

At some point, decades ago, the responsibility of addressing basic student needs was shifted off of the shoulders of communities and foisted onto those of our schools. It was deemed that since schools were central gathering places for kids, they were the natural place to mitigate society’s failings. It was a move made without adding resources in order to facilitate success.

In my opinion, the shift placed local districts in an untenable position and placed on them a burden that continues to hinder their effectiveness. It’s not a great mystery why our schools in wealthier districts consistently outperform – per standardized testing – our more economically challenged districts. At some point, in order to utilize schools to their maximum potential some of this assumed responsibility needs to be shifted back to cities and municipalities.

The upside of this is that school districts have become very good at being a source of relief for students. They have created backpack drives to make sure all have school supplies. Coat drives and clothing closets have been established to meet clothing needs. Washers and dryers have been installed to assist families in that realm. Schools have also partnered with local non-profits in order to make sure that students receive food while schools are closed, whether it be due to inclement weather, illness, or summer vacation.

What I’m saying is that schools long ago accepted additional responsibilities for their students and made it part of their mission. So somebody needs to let Ms. Schwinn know that they don’t need the DOE to do their job, they need the DOE to do its job – a responsibility that the commissioner seems loathe to accept.

LEA’s need the DOE to be out advocating to remove superfluous requirements from their plate so they can focus on their students. That means securing waivers from the USDOE to waive testing and other accountability requirements for this year. If that needs to come from legislators, then the DOE needs to be leading those initiatives by laying out recommendations and providing supporting evidence that will allow them to pass legislation that best meets the needs of Tennessee’s children.

It’s a responsibility that Departments of Education in Texas, Colorado, Indiana, New York and other states have all taken up. Apparently, Schwinn doesn’t share their views and refuses to make recommendations to lawmakers. Per the Tennessean,

“There are just about a million students out of school, and knowing how many of them rely on services provided by schools and districts, I know there’s no more important place for me to put my focus than there.”

I’m not saying that any freeing of federal funds that Schwinn and her team can facilitate are unwelcome, what I’m saying is that it’s imperative that students, teachers, and families have as many obstacles removed as possible and as quickly as possible. That’s the responsibility that the Schwinn and posse should assume as partners.

Teachers are planners by nature. That’s not to say they are inflexible, but they like a plan. Right now they face unprecedented anxiety about the future.

Do they need to cancel summer plans – not just vacations, but higher educations pursuits and second jobs – in order to meet potential state requirements?

Will the tests, that have a profound influence on their professional future, happen and how should they be prepared if they will?

The tests also have a profound impact on student futures, how should they be preparing them?

Will they be paid throughout extended closures? What about all the support staff, what should their expectations be? Perhaps the DOE should be focusing on establishing funding sources to ensure that those needs are met long term.

These and many more questions are swirling through educators and their students’ heads while they try to meet the challenges of a pandemic. Challenges that the TNDOE seems unwilling to assist in meeting. As former a former classroom teacher herself, this Schwinn should be well versed in how teachers think and supplying them with more guidance. Remember there is still a teacher shortage in Tennessee, and we can ill afford to lose any now.

The lack of leadership by Schwinn and posse, who have spent the last several months pushing for expanded powers and oversight, is appalling and should send a very clear message to the legislators she’s punting responsibility. Instead of leading she seems to be waiting for others to direct her. Not good enough. As I was once informed by a supervisor, if you have to be told what leadership is, you are not ready to lead.

Fortunately, Tennessee is served by legislators who are ready to pick up the torch Schwinn desires to drop. Within minutes of the conclusion of last week’s conference call a state representative, Scott Cepicky, began working to craft legislation to relieve the state’s teachers and students of unnecessary accountability requirements. In doing so he enlisted the aide of senior leadership in reps Moody and White and state senator Gresham.

The result is proactive legislation that allows the entire education community to take a deep breath while they focus on meeting new challenges as a result of the current pandemic. If passed the legislation would relieve districts from the burden of TNReady, attendance mandates, instructional day mandates, and any form of alternative accountability measure, including but not limited to portfolios.

The intent of the legislation, per Cepicky, is that In order to ensure that no school districts, schools, school district employees, or students are adversely impacted by school closures, student absenteeism, or other hardships related to COVID-19 and the tornadoes, the commissioner of education, at the direction of the general assembly, shall immediately waive the following requirements:

o 2019-20 spring administration of the TNReady and end-of-course assessments. (Schools and districts may still voluntarily administer these assessments).
o Teacher evaluation growth scores based on 2019-20 assessments, including alternative growth scores such as portfolios, unless such growth scores result in a higher overall evaluation score for the teacher.
o Student final grades being comprised in part by 2019-20 assessments, unless inclusion of assessment scores results in a higher final student grade.
o School and district accountability based on 2019-20 assessments, including assignment of priority schools, unless data results in a higher letter grade for the school or district.
o 180 instructional day requirement.
o BEP-related attendance requirements to ensure that school districts and employees shall
continue to receive full state funding despite any lengthy school closures.
o The 11th grade postsecondary readiness assessment for the 2019-20 school year. (Schools and districts may still voluntarily administer this assessment).
There has been some question around leaving the ability to chose to administrate testing in the hands of local districts, and while I’m normally a strong proponent of local control, I must admit that I share this concern.
In the past, there has been recognition of the need to suspend accountability while in the midst of the crisis, only to have that data come back and haunt schools, educators, and students after the crisis passed.
In 2018, legislation was passed with an intent to hold harmless. Unfortunately, 2019 saw the TNDOE release a State Report Card that rated schools 1 – 4 instead of A -F. The move ran counter to the legislator’s intent, but by 2019 the testing issues of 2018 were just a distant memory and no one took exception to result being used as a “yardstick”. Administrators may assert that the data will not influence any actions or decisions, but that’s just not an accurate assertion. We know that due to recent history.
At today’s House Education Committee Dunn defended leaving the language unchanged by putting forth the canard that teachers use testing for self-evaluation. That is perhaps the single most ludicrous thing I have heard. Results don’t even come back until October, by that point they are 3 months into a school year. Furthermore, teachers never see the questions, so how would they evaluate what instructional practices to change? Somebody is protecting Pearson’s interests.
Dunn’s arguments continue to defy logic. He argues allowing the teachers to turn in their portfolio because some teachers may be earning a 5. Now I know where the department of education got the idea to just retest textbooks and material that failed initial inspection due to problems with the adoption process. What part of, if the data is corrupted it’s corrupted no matter what the outcome. We are not changing the accountability model due to potential harm, we are changing because the data will be produced would be inaccurate. If we argue that negative results are inaccurate, what makes us believe positive results will be any more accurate?
Luckily Rep DeBerry is pointing out that often in the past legislative intent got lost when translated to LEA. Teachers who turn in a portfolio are producing a record. One that will not always be viewed through the level of the current circumstances. That’s a problem.
Legislators need to know that without a clear definition of their intent this bill will not serve its desired purpose. Rep Clemmons pointed that out when he argued that teachers will not accept “likely” as a reassurance. Without further codifying language, there is not a teacher out there that will believe that given the opportunity to administer tests, LEA’s won’t test and that judgments won’t be made based on accumulated data. As a result, the anxiety amongst educators and their students will continue unabated and legislators’ hard work will result in naught.
MNPS’s Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle has already stated her position, that any value of the assessments is outweighed by a focus on returning to classrooms. “There are still many uncertainties about how this school year will proceed, and taking this off the plate will reduce added pressure on students, teachers and administrators.”
In the end, legislators gave in to the desire to do something even if ultimately it was ineffective and the bill advanced out of committee. Dunn and others effectively argued that it was more important to align with what the senate has already agreed to than it is to craft meaningful legislation. I disagree. It is my assumption that we argue for a high-quality curriculum for students, and therefore that same standard should apply to legislation.
The legislation that passed out of the house education committee today will serve as nothing but PR for state representatives. It is legislation that will put very few teachers and students’ minds at ease. If I had 100 bucks and Vegas was taking bets, I’d bet that if this legislation passes, come June, Tennessee’s students will be taking TNReady, with it having the same implications as it always does.
The bill now passes to the full House floor at 9 AM tomorrow, where it will be voted on. It’s important to note that any comments made on the house floor will be read into the bill and while they may not change the language, they will offer an indication of intent that will add an additional layer of protection.
A heartfelt thank you to those that have been working so hard on this bill, especially Reps Cepicky and DeBerry. It wouldn’t hurt to reach out to both and personally express gratitude. While you are at, maybe reach out to other members and let them know that you don’t think this bill in its present form goes far enough. They are walking the right path, they just need to go down the road a little further.
WHAT CAN WE DO?
As I stated earlier, educators by nature are planners and doers. That doesn’t change just because schools are closed. Plans are already being floated to reclaim some instructional time while we wait for schools to re-open.
That shouldn’t be unexpected. Service is in the DNA of teachers.
I would offer the following considerations though. Let’s make sure that in doing something that we aren’t emulating the Tennessee General Assembly, and that we are not just acting to act and that we are cognizant that we are acting in a manner that won’t have negative conniptions in the future. Everything has to be viewed through the lens of scalability and equity.
There has been talk about teachers putting together assignments for students and then having parents singularly pick up those assignment. Sounds fine, but invariably it’ll involve worksheets and I thought work sheets were not an effective means of educating.
Which parents will pick up the assignments and which won’t? I don’y know, but I can almost guarantee that it’ll be less than 80% that comply. On top of that, many parents are currently working from home. How do you balance the requirements of working from home while ensuring that your child does their school work.
How much schoolwork is appropriate? Some teachers will create a heavy workload, while others the bare minimum. This creates another equity issue.
Will the work count towards a grade? If so, how will it be weighted?
Again I’m not saying that the idea isn’t without merit. Personally, I think just encouraging students and their families to read an hour a day would be sufficient. But again that’s me.
Much has been made of the potential of digital learning platforms. But again, its a matter of access and equity. Not everyone has access to a computer, and a smartphone is not an acceptable substitution no matter how fluent students may appear on them.
I’d also offer caution about the devils we let through the door in a time of crisis. Rahm Emanual once said, “Never let a crisis go to waste” and there are plenty of people that adhere to that policy.
Digital learning companies have been trying for several years to get a toe hold into the educational system, that ambition hasn’t changed due to the pandemic. What better means to sneak in the door than as a benign partner during a time of crisis? We need to be extra careful here that short term fixes don’t have long term consequences.
As a bartender I often work with those that have the inability to stand still. They are slaves to the need for perpetual motion, even if that motion is non-productive. Invariably by the end of the shift they are exhausted and therefore ineffectual in assisting with closing – a time when the need is high.
I’ve read enough books featuring ex-military protagonists to have learned the old edict of, “rest and eat when you can because you never know when the next opportunity will arrive.” Those words are especially relevant right now.
Children have survived long breaks from formal schooling in the past and they’ll do so now. They don’t suddenly stop learning in the absence of formal instruction. Despite what we do, they will keep on learning while out of school, maybe not what adults think is important, but they will be learning. We don’t have to recreate school at home.
But when we move to the next stage of this crisis, no matter what it looks like, the need we’ll be great and it’s important that all hands are refreshed and ready to go. So take care of yourself and your family right now and remember, this is going to be a marathon and not a sprint.
This is one of the reason’s that I feel confident with Dr. Battle at the helm for MNPS. She is deliberate by nature and therefore is unlikely to pursue strategies that are inconstant with her approach to life. I expect that she’ll continue to lead in a manner that is both prudent and has an eye towards the future, qualities that are desperately needed at present.
SHORTCUTS
The MNPS communications department has created a central location for updates and information about the ongoing crisis. It contains plenty of useful information and is updated regularly.
Goldman Sachs has released an economic analysis of coronavirus. It raises some very salient points and makes some observations that I haven’t see elsewhere. They conclude,
There is NO systemic risk. No one is even talking about that. Governments are intervening in the markets to stabilize them, and the private banking sector is very well capitalized. It feels more like ‪9/11 than it does like 2008.
Post 911 I ran the Exit/In and I have to agree, this does feel very similar.
If you are looking to support small businesses, the Tennessean has compiled a list of who is doing take-out and who is closed.
Board member Jill Speering has returned from her month long self financed trip to New Zealand to study their education system. While there, she personally visited multiple schools and talked to numerous educators. I’ll share more of her observations going forth, but she did say the singularly most impressive thing she came away with was the countries commitment to putting it’s students at the center of every policy.
Several meme’s have started to circulate in response to the current semi-quartentine state. In the spirit of if you don’t laugh, you’ll cry, I share.
Please remember to be kind to your grocery store workers. It can’t be fun experiencing the level of work, hours, and stress that they are now enduring. Same goes for health care workers and first responders. Hell, just try and be kinder to everyone.
That’s it for now, if you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work 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 and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, 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, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

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

1 reply

  1. The road not far enough is the hundreds of millions still going for vouchers this fall but teacher raises cut to 2%. I’m feeling lucky to get a raise at all but the fact that the governor is still maintaining full funding (and it’s a lot of dough) for vouchers that will assist a previous few is disgusting. At least he should take one on the chin for that programs funding. Think of all the economic value it could have in so many other places in the state (beyond education). And why does it take a crisis to actually start talking about spending down the TANF surplus? It’s sad, but it all shows what our governor values,

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