“So it’s you and a syringe against the Capitol? See, this is why no one lets you make the plans.”
Suzanne Collins, Catching Fire

“Never hate your enemies. It affects your judgment.”
Mario Puzo, The Godfather


Years ago I was working an event, leading a team of bartenders. Despite showing up early, several team members were already present and working when I got there.

Taking in the surroundings I asked if our contact was present. They hadn’t seen them.

Further looking around it appeared some things had been set up prior to our arrival. I asked what had been done before their arrival and what they’d began to set up. Without pausing in their work, they gave me a brief rundown of what they’d seen when they’d arrived and what they’d done since. They actually seemed a little put out by my questions, wasn’t it obvious – they were working.

In response, I pointed out how some of the tables were positioned and that the advance information that we’d received didn’t align with what they doing. Perhaps we should just stop and wait for the arrival of the coordinator in order to ensure that we were working in an efficient manner. We were early after all.

My suggestion was off-handedly dismissed, “Look, we got to get set up. All of this stuff needs to get out there so we need to just keep working.”

“But shouldn’t we make sure that we are not working just to be working, and that what we are doing is actually the right thing. If we spend a lot of time doing it wrong, it’s going to take longer to dismantle and then reset. Just waiting for 5 minutes might save us 30 minutes later.”

Now they were actually starting to get irritated with me. It was obvious to them that I was lazy, while they were here to work. If I wasn’t going to help, maybe I could at least get out of the way.

Tensions were starting to mount when the coordinator called. He was running ten minutes late, but he’d done a lot of the pre-work so it shouldn’t slow us too much. He gave me a quick rundown of his vision but asked if we could just wait until he got there.

Even after I communicated this directive, my co-workers didn’t stop. The work they’d begun, as I suspected did not align with the coordinator’s vision, and so much of the “work” they’d done needed to now be undone.

To make a long story short, when the coordinator arrived we had to virtually undo everything that we had done and redo some of his previous work. Much of his preset effort was negated because we’d gone in the wrong direction. As a result of  the redirection, we never got completely set before guests arrived, which meant we were making adjustments on the fly all night long.

The event was ultimately successful but it could have been even more so had we just stopped and waited. If instead of being slaves to the concept of perpetual motion, we adhered to the concept of efficiency. We were more concerned with the appearance of being hard at work then we were with getting things right and aligning with the vision of the coordinator – who’s agenda we needed to adhere to, instead of trying to impose ours.

Watching the recent mad dash to embrace distant learning in the midst of a pandemic brings that incident to mind. We are rushing to implement practices that we have not taken the time to fully consider the future implications and as are such.  Worse yet, people are using the crisis as justification for establishing their agenda instead of focusing on the long term needs of children.

Kids are suffering from a massive disruption of their lives, family members may be dealing with devastating financial challenges, not to mention the potential risk of illness and death, yet people are celebrating current events as an inspiration to “innovate”. Shame on you.

It is not enough that, in the best of times, we expect teachers to solve the issues of poverty, racism,  and the inherent inequities that arise, now in the midst of an unprecedented crisis, we expect them to establish a new short term reality.

The research on distance learning shows that it holds potential, but we are not at a place where it can be effectively implemented on a large scale. It has been effectively used as a supplement to classroom instruction, but there are still a plethora of issues that need to be solved before it becomes a viable alternative. Starting with the fact that most teachers have not been properly trained and are not comfortable delivering distance instruction.

Students have also not been properly prepared to engage in distance learning. Forgetting the equity issues for a minute, in order to successfully engage in distance learning students have to be trained for time management skills. Studies show that girls tend to fare better than boys. As always income inequities rear their head, children from wealthier homes tend to lead more structured lives and thus more readily adapt to the distance learning requirements than those from economically disadvantaged homes.

Existing technology also plays a role. Quality of devices and internet connections vary across districts. Both impede the quality of instruction delivered.

If you need further evidence of the challenges presented, I would up the virtual staff meetings held this week by MNPS. Based on reports from teachers and administrators across the district, I’d argue we don’t even have that part of the equation figured out yet. Microphones unmuted, connections timing out, people talking over each other, among other things, contributed to less than optimal execution.

To counter technology challenges, districts have begun securing funds for purchasing chrome books for students. The federal stimulus package currently being considered by congress includes substantial monies for investment in technology by schools. To me it begs the question of, has everybody forgotten the LAUSD’s recent disastrous attempt at supplying a laptop for every student?

In case you are not familiar, back in 2013, then superintendent of Los Angelos United School District John Deasy decided he was going to demonstrate his innovation abilities by implementing a technology program that would spend $500 million on devices and curriculum for students and another $800 million on upgrading internet. The result was a colossal crash and burn. Why?

To put it simply: a complete breakdown in the planning and execution of the initiative. The Los Angeles Times labeled the mega-technology project “ill-conceived and half-baked.”

Hmmm…now that sounds familiar.

And who was a partner in this debacle. None other than Pearson. Who’s is with a sense of altruism jumping into the fray to help today? That would be Pearson.

The lack of long term planning currently employed literally makes my head explode. Eventually, this crisis will come to an end. What do you think will happen with those generous edtech partners when that happens? Will they just say “glad to help” and recede back to a support role? How many contracts will be entered into today in order to address a short term need at the expense of long term quality? What future obligations are we committing ourselves to with our lack of foresight?

Yesterday the Tennessean published an interview with Tennessee’s Superintendent of Education Penny Schwinn. Schwinn in her short tenure has shown a propensity to adhere to the philosophy of disruption. Prior to the current crisis, under her leadership, the TNDOE was spearheading an effort to completely change the way reading is taught in Tennessee. Eradicating Balanced Literacy was a central theme of that effort.

In the interview, in response to a question about the possibility of closing schools past the current deadline of April 24, Schwinn offered the following,

“We’re trying to take measured steps that extend school closures long enough where districts can really invest time in providing opportunities for distance learning, while at the same time leaving room open to reopen schools at the earliest possible opportunity when it is fully safe for all of our children and the people who work in our school buildings and in our districts.” 

It struck me as a very odd statement to make. What did opportunities for distance learning have to with opening schools? Then I started to think back to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina and the school of thought of “Never let a crisis go to waste”.

The devastation of New Orleans By Hurricane Katrina was a watershed moment for the charter school movement in America. I’m sure to some it was a swift kick in ass moment to get out there and innovate. It provided a means to do what charter proponents could only dream about prior to the tragedy, turn an entire urban school district into charter schools.

Under the guise of helping, charter schools quickly sprung up as a means of replacing public schools that had been damaged by the hurricane. The state quickly moved to establish a separate district made up of previously underperforming schools called the Recovery School District, placing governance of those schools under state control.

It wasn’t long after Katrina that the number of public schools in New Orleans was reduced to 8, and eventually zero. Recently control has been returned to a local governing body, but its power is greatly limited and charter school self-control remains predominant.

Today, New Orleans’ school are recognized by most as a mess and no better than they were pre-Katrina – awash in financial, accountability, and equity issues. All traceable directly back to the embracing of a strategy based solely on meeting short term goals and an over influence by innovative disruptors committed more to their agenda than that of children.

In the wake of the creation of the RSD, charter proponents rushed to try and recreate, sans natural disaster, their model in other states. Since Tennessee was in close proximity, they seemed a natural partner. Soon the Tennessee department of education was proliferated with people from New Orleans. As a result, we found ourselves on a similar path as Louisianna and the Tennessee Achievement School District was born.

Unfortunately for the innovators, a lack of a crisis meant that people actually asked the important questions and considered the possible outcomes. Nearly a decade after it’s creation, the Louisianna model as implemented by Tennessee is generally recognized as a failure and efforts are being made to exit schools currently governed by the ASD.

The problem is, those students who were subjected to the ASD schools, will never get that time back. As a result of our shortsightedness and commitment to perceived innovation, their educational futures were forever negatively impacted.

Fast forward to today. Last year the General assembly passed an ESA program – essentially a voucher program – that is not dissimilar to one that exists in Florida. Suddenly Tennessee education circles are inundated by advisors from Florida.

The recently created Tennessee Charter School oversight board has a member – Alan Levine of Ballard Health – who sits on SCORE’s board and serves on the board of governors of the State University System of Florida, the governing body of Florida’s 12 state universities. That’s a lot of education bodies for a doctor of medicine to serve on.

Late last year, Schwinn hired Amity Schuyler to be the deputy education commissioner tasked with rolling out education savings accounts. Schuyler comes from Florida, where she reportedly retreats to every Friday through Sunday, and has extensive experience with ESA. She was previously the chief of staff in Palm Beach county having also worked in Lee County Schools.

One of the first moves Schuyler made was to offer a $2.5 million contract to ClassWallet to oversee online payment and application systems for its new education voucher program. To find the funding,  the DOE had to rob a dormant program established to provid compenstaion to Tennessee teachers. ClassWallet is a Florida company.

Under ESA legislation participating families are allowed to use scholarship monies to pay for distance learning programs. By pure coincidence, Florida has one of the largest distance learning programs in the country, the Florida Virtual School System. It’s chairman, Andy Tuck, is a supporter of vouchers but not evolution.

For Florida students, courses with the FVSS are free, because it is considered part of the Florida Public School System. But fear not, students outside of Florida can still take classes through the schools global initiative, though there is a fee associated with the courses for those outside of Florida.

Now let’s take a look at the email sent late yesterday from MNPS Director of Schools Adrienne Battle.

Starting next week, MNPS will be distributing printed paper materials, with translated instruction support, at meal sites and possibly other locations so students in grades Pre-K-12 will have enriching learning materials to keep them engaged while classrooms are closed.
Printed material will match what is going to be offered online in the form of two learning supports teachers and students can use that offer high-quality instructional materials in a digital format:

For students in grades K-5, Imagine Learning offers creative and engaging content and programs for our youngest MNPS students.

For students in grades 6-12, the Florida Virtual School programming provides great content in many different subject areas that will allow students to maintain progress or explore new learning areas.

Hmmm…coincidence? Maybe, but it begs some further questions, first and foremost being who’s paying for programming? Secondly, if it’s a waived fee by FVS, what’s the motivation? It could be that by offering a sample they are setting the hook for a bigger payday down the line. It’s not like drug dealers haven’t been employing that strategy for decades.

To be perfectly clear, and as not to inspire a nonsensical diatribe from Nashville’s only education reporter, I don’t believe that Battle has anything but the best of intentions for Nashville’s students as evidenced by our actions since taking the job. Others though are a lot more malicious than she.

Prior to the current crisis, many families would have never considered distance learning as a possibility. Present circumstance has changed that and many families will now engage. What happens if they like what they find and decide that it’s something they’d like to pursue? Coronavirus restrictions provide an opportunity to experience a process that most wouldn’t have undertaken without the perceived sense of necessity.

As luck would have it, should a family utilize FVS programming and build a temporary family routine around it, with Tennessee’s ESA program they don’t have to change back after the crisis passes. The DOE will provide a means to make short term reality, and it’s perceived benefits, a long term reality.

Of course, the perceived benefits don’t always actually translate to real benefits. Often times strategies created in a time of crisis rob the future of required resources and energies due to a needed rewinding of policy before steps forward can be taken. Think about the possibilities that went unrealized in New Orleans due to commitments hatched out of supposed necessity instead of foresight. Are we merely repeating a previous error in our rush to implement distance learning?

What I describe in relation to FVS may or may not be actually transpiring – I’d feel a whole lot more reassured if there wasn’t still $41 million of funding for ESA’s left in the state budget and the governor had actually signed the bill releasing districts of accountability measures – but it still remains, that at the minimum we are rushing pell-mell into policies with little or no forethought to future implications in the midst of a true crisis.

Commissioner Schwinn frequently voices a commitment to the whole child in setting Tennessee education policy, and that’s commendable, but that’s an ongoing process and not just an item on a checklist.  Right now children have more pressing needs than a continuation of formalized education. Teachers should be reaching out to students and addressing their needs as expressed by those students. We always talk about listening to students, now when presented with a critical time to do so, we rush off to supply what we think they need instead of listening. .

Their needs are as varied as the circumstances they now find themselves facing. Some may require some sort of schedule. To others, an informal group chat on zoom may be beneficial. Some may be looking for work they can do at home or games they games they can play with siblings. Please don’t underestimate the need for additional reading material, while rushing to prescribe additional screen time. Some may just need a teacher they love to reach out and tell them they are loved.

One thing that this crisis has clearly demonstrated is the vital role that schools and teachers play in our society’s safety net. Whether it is providing food, books, reassurance, or stability – nobody is better equipped to aid our nations children like its professional educators. This is a time that we should be recognizing, supporting and facilitating those talents, not rushing off to empower strategies that in the long run could serve to do nothing but further dismantle that very safety net.

We will get through this current pandemic, but the future will not be free of challenge. Economic and societal recovery is going to present a multitude of obstacle to overcome. We need to be careful that we don’t focus so much on survival that we hamper future efforts to thrive.

To give you one of my favored sports analogies, we are currently in the first period of the game and the opposition has scored a couple quick touchdowns. Despite being early in the game, the path to victory has been made substantially more difficult and the fans have become despondent. But there is still a lot of football to be played and if we are prudent, come the fourth quarter, we’ll be poised for victory.

Games are seldom won in the opening minutes of a contest, but how a team reacts to early setbacks, influences the potential for success in future quarters. We need to be sure that our reactions today are not just addressing todays deficit, but are indeed setting us up for long term victory.

That’s it for today. I hope everyone is keeping themselves and others safe.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. What on earth are districts going to do for “accountability measures”? Good grief. He won’t overcome a veto override on this and it would be the dumbest thing in the world to even get into that tangle. He’ll have to sign. Dumbass, just go ahead and do it now so you don’t look like a turkey later.

  2. An other thing needs askin perhaps

    after economy eventually heals, teachers that wanna retire or leave profession will have options, ones they do not have this year

    If distant learning becomes a Big thing will veterans leave&retire in droves Esp once other work options are around?

    It happened after economy recovered earlymid 2010s. Lots of tfa in education in 2008, 9, 10 when grads had no options. After options reappeared about 5 yr later, that’s when their fall in numbers began

    Might be same thing for Ts that don’t like distant thing. might drive some people away

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