A QUESTION OF PRIORITIES

“Genuine heroism for man is still the power to support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem.”
Ernest Becker

“This is what you have to ask yourself: Do you want to be good, or just seem good? Do you want to be good to yourself and others? Do you care about other people, always, sometimes, never? Or only when convenient? What kind of person do you want to be?”
Charles Yu, Sorry Please Thank You

 

 

Yesterday I was fortunate enough to be permitted to help out with MNPS’s weekly food distribution. Once a week 40 plus volunteers gather at various high schools across Nashville in order to assemble and distribute boxes of food for families that need it. Last week at the Antioch HS location – my location – they prepared 200 boxes, yet had to turn away 100 families. This week we prepared 400 boxes.

When I arrived around 9 AM, pallets of food were already coming off the truck. I donned my mask, put some anti-bacterial soap on my hands and pitched in with the other volunteers, most of whom were MNPS employees, We began unpacking and carrying food inside so that the packing of boxes could be done.

I remember the government cheese days of the Eighties, where families were given food of questionable quality. Such was not the case here.

Each box would include the following,

  • a bag of apples
  • a bag of oranges
  • a bag of potatoes
  • a bag of rice
  • frozen chicken breast
  • frozen turkey breast
  • several cans of beans
  • juice

Around 1130, cars began lining up for the distribution of boxes that would not begin until 1. By that time the line would rival the longest car lines at the largest elementary schools.

Many of us are wrestling with the issue of how to continue our children’s learning through distance strategies. Pundits put forth the argument that this is a time of innovation and for schools to begin their adaptation to the modern era. Wealthier school districts brag that their kids are still attending classes and earning grades via online platforms. It becomes easy to fall into the trap of thinking lost learning time is the worst byproduct of the ongoing pandemic and if we can just mitigate that, we can create a new normalcy.

Unfortunately, the reality is in the car lines stretching once a week out of the parking lots of the Nashville schools. Think about how much you hate sitting in the school’s daily pick up lines and imagine having to do double the time just to secure food for your family. For many families it’s become the new normalacy through no fault of their own.

In order for a family to pick up food, they must have a child present. Imagine sharing a car with your child when the news is delivered that there isn’t enough food for everyone and therefore there is no box for you. I’m wracked with guilt when I have to tell my kids that I can’t take them to play in the creek, I can’t imagine telling them there is no food. Yet this is the challenge that many Nashville parents face every day while we demand kids to keep up their learning.

I’m often critical of society dumping the addressing of social needs on the backs of our public schools, but in watching events unfold yesterday, I’m extremely grateful for the talented people at MNPS. I found myself asking, if not public schools, then who?

Politicians and administrators are continuing to pull the alarm over lost instructional time and wringing their hands over students “catching up”. Ironically, these are the same people that are continually citing test scores to show that 2/3 of students can’t read on grade level, so I find it nearly impossible to even wrap my head around what “catch up” even means. These are people that also continually look at education as a sprint versus a marathon.

If I’m competing in a race and twist my ankle, do you stand beside me and lament how far behind the other runners I’m falling, or do you treat my ankle and ensure that I’m healthy enough to get back in the race?

That’s what needs to be taking place in regard to students right now and that’s what teachers are doing. They are packing boxes to make sure families get fed. They are individually reaching out to students to provide social-emotional supports first and foremost, and then guiding them to educational opportunities. Teachers are doing what they always do, focussing on the needs of students and doing everything they can to support them.

They’ll be plenty of time for addressing instructional deficiencies, but you can’t address those issues if you don’t make sure that kids are fed and cared for first. Let’s get our kids back in the race and running before we worry about them catching up.

Thank you MNPS and volunteers for letting me help yesterday. Thank you Second Harvest Food Bank for the services you provide. Y’all are incredible and I’ll see you next Thursday.

BOARD RULES

Yesterday afternoon, the Tennessee State Board of Education met via phone to vote on emergency rules needed to close out the school year. The policies left room for the possibility that schools may return but recognized that most schools release students in May and that many had already given final grades.

For the most part, the policies were welcome ones, though there were some questions around grading.

For some reason, Tennessee policymakers always approach the suspension of accountability from a “hold-harmless” approach. Invariably in suspending testing or teacher evaluations, they allow for the acceptance of accountability results if they benefit the recipient, but not if they hurt them. They’ve done it again with grades and it baffles me as much as ever.

I fail to understand why if a measure can’t produce reliable negative results, it’s considered reliable in producing positive. results. The position makes no logical sense, it’s a simple question, does the measurement produce accurate results or not? If it doesn’t then all results should be halted or denied.

In this case, the state rule is that districts are to assign grades based on student work as of March 20 – the date Governor Lee ordered schools closed – unless students happen to attend a school that is grading work completed remotely. This is a policy that should raise some concerns for parents based on equity.

Simply and foremost, grading should not be going on right now. Just the fact that a district even has the ability to consider such an option is symptomatic of the inherent disparity of our public education system. Is the grading being conducted in connection to remote learning aligned with the same rigor as that from the rest of the year? Are students being held to the same standards? Based on earlier waivers it has already been established that districts can’t take attendance and attendance has always played a factor in grades. Per ChalkbeatTN,

“I don’t see how anybody can give grades at this point unless you are certain that you have equity across the board with all of your students. Some districts in Tennessee can, but it’s not many,” said Jason Bell, a supervisor for Polk County Schools who also serves on the board of the Tennessee Rural Education Association.

What if there are not enough grades recorded for a student in the fourth quarter in order to accurately reflect their learning for the semester? Say a student had a large project due that was targeted to be a significant portion of their quarter grade and it was due on March 25th? Perhaps that student had struggled due to personal issues early in the year, but had gotten on track and had viewed this project as a means to counter early underperformance. The reality is that they would be SOL and would lose any opportunity to overcome challenges from earlier in the year. Meanwhile, a peer in a wealthier district would have the opportunity to raise their grade, potentially negating any negative impact from earlier in the year.

Grades become a factor when students are applying for the HOPE Scholarship and other financial incentives, those kids with the ability to raise their grade are going to have an advantage over those that don’t. So while the grading rule is hailed as a hold-harmless policy, the reality is that it potentially could end up harming some students by creating an unequal playing field.

It’s also important to remember that grades create a permanent record that in the future is not viewed through the same lens as when created. In the future, nobody will recognize that one student had extra opportunity to raise their grades while the other was dealt a hand by a pandemic.

You would think that this is an issue that the Tennessee Educators Association would be all over yet for some reason their statement after the emergency rules were passed fails to mention any potential issues of inequity, let alone the gross inequity inherent in the grading policy.

“As educators and families continue to grapple with so much uncertainty, we appreciate the State Board of Education addressing some of the problems caused by school closures. The actions taken today are another step forward in ensuring students and educators are held harmless during this time.
TEA understands that this will not be the only round of emergency rules needed. As the Department of Education and local districts continue to get their arms around what public education looks like during an extended school closure, the state board will need to further adopt rules and approve waivers to allow for learning to continue in a way that prioritizes the health and well-being of Tennessee students and educators.
TEA is already hearing from members across the state with concerns about the impacts on tenure, differentiated pay and other issues affected by the suspension of evaluations and testing. The association will work closely with the department and the state board to ensure districts have access the waivers needed to support teachers and students.”

Normally I would take solace in their noting that these would not be the only round of emergency rules needed, and perhaps they intend to address the grading rule in the future. But, TEA has taken an oddly conciliatory tone as of late with the TNDOE as demonstrated by their response to Commissioner Schwinn and posse’s survey fable,

“A little while ago I talked on the phone to Commissioner Schwinn about an EdWeek blog (linked in comments below) quoting her about a statewide summer school surge and a three-year plan in response to the COVID-19 outbreak.
Schwinn told me what TEA already knew: the commissioner has no power in state law to dictate local school calendars. She said specifically there isn’t a summer school plan and the blog was changed when brought to their attention. She noted department staff is doing what many of us are—working remotely under trying circumstances.
It’s been a tough few days for the department. Their school survey received criticism from TEA members and others because it seemed to point toward certain policy outcomes, namely summer school for 2020 and 2021. In fairness, the survey was changed when objections were made, just like the blog post. I took her at her word.
TEA expects to be a part of any policy planning because whatever solutions are needed to re-engage students, it will be teachers doing it.”

There was no follow up from TEA when it was later revealed that there was indeed a plan, just one that hadn’t been shared with anyone besides the commissioner’s Chiefs For Change cohort.

Some of this can probably be chalked up to the announcement last week that Executive Director Carolyn Crowder would be retiring effective immediately. The TEA Board of Directors has tapped Assistant Executive Director Terrance Gibson to serve as interim executive director until Crowder’s replacement is hired later this year. A leadership change amidst a pandemic is a tricky feat. Here’s hoping Carolyn enjoys her retirement – she’s certainly earned it – and that TEA holds the state education commissioner a little more accountable in the future.

It is worth noting that Commissioner Schwinn was not online for a yesterday’s board meeting – though the chair calling on her for comment would indicate that she was expected. She did appear with the governor at his daily 3 pm news briefing to tout the accomplishments of the TNDOE.

Interestingly enough, an inner-office memo from yesterday indicates that despite the current crisis the DOE is still finding ample opportunity to pursue their personal agenda and promote their preferred curriculum.

This morning, I want to close by highlighting early literacy work that our Standards and Materials team was leading before COVID-19 changed our daily lives. In partnership with the Knowledge Matters Campaign, our team has been sharing important and impressive early literacy stories from across our state. There are a series of pieces in The 74, and this one was published this week featuring Putnam County. This work is so critical for our students and a major component in our Academics priority within our Best for All strategic plan. I know we are thinking about our day-to-day differently right now, but the need for early literacy instruction remains essential so that we ensure all students are on a path to success.

With appreciation,

Penny Schwinn, PhD | Commissioner

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

MNPS LITERACY NOTES

Tuesday will be the first MNPS School Board conducted via a digital platform. A look at the agenda shows that as part of the consent agenda the board will be voting on the adoption of new ELA materials. Further review shows that the recommended materials include Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom for Grades K – 5. Since WW doesn’t have adequate coverage of foundational skills, the state recommends districts that adopt Wit and Wisdom also adopt a foundational skills supplement. I’m assuming – since the agenda comes with very little explanation – that Geodes, another Great Mind’s product, will be that supplement.

On Monday I’ll get more into detail, but suffice it to say that on a purely logistical level I find this recommendation extremely problematic, as it will completely alter the literacy philosophy of MNPS. They will no longer be a “Balanced Literacy” district but rather “A Science of Reading” district. Some will welcome that change in philosophy while others, not so much. For me the philosophical shift, while critical,  is secondary to the concerns around making such a change in the midst of a health and economic crisis.

Many teachers right now are probably shrugging and saying, “We’ve been through this before. we’ll just continue doing like we always do.” Normally I would agree, as in the past districts were given latitude to adopt the curriculum, but not implement it. Unfortunately, I don’t think that is a possibility in this case. Schwinn has on numerous occasioned voiced her expectations that LEA’s will adopt and implement off of the state list and indicated little leeway in meeting that expectation.

The TNDOE has made no secret of their preferred philosophy of teaching and their preferred curriculum. Before axed from the budget due to the pandemic, there were financial supports offered to districts that adopted off their preferred list – approximately $13 – $15 per student. Nashville’s adopting of Wit and Wisdom would be a feather in their cap. Do you think that they are going to promote their preferences through their partnership with Knowledge Matters and not capitalize on Nashville implementation? To do that they need compliance.

Compliance includes the removal of all previous materials. While at SCORE’s Literacy Summit, I heard Great Minds executive’s brag about taking boxes of LEA’s previous materials out to the curb for the garbage man upon the adoption of Wit and Wisdom. They were quite gleeful about their actions, leaving little room for the belief they wouldn’t do the same in Nashville.

Since Wit and Wisdom signifies a major shift in strategy, it will require a tremendous amount of training in order to adequately implement the curriculum. There site itself gives the warning to districts that it takes up to 3 years for teachers to go from “nay to yay”.

Who will pay for the training? Who will it supply it? On what schedule will we adopt the new curriculum? When will teachers participate in the training? These are all questions that may or not be covered at Tuesday’s board meeting, but certainly, need to be answered before the board considers any recommendations. Is this really the time to undertake such a heavy lift?

This year, schools are not required to include a Literacy coach in their individual school budgets. I would think that if MNPS decides to undertake this transition, that would need to be revisited.

Back in December the job of Chief Academic Officer was listed as being open for applications. That listing went away with no clear resolution. Is this switch an indication that current interim CAO David Williams is now considered the permanent CAO? If not, does this limit the district in its efforts to recruit a new CAO?

Again, at this point, I’m not arguing the merits of the proposed curriculum, merely the considerations that need to be taken into account if the board decides to endorse the C & I department’s recommendations. There is a lot to be considered at a time when the district is scrambling to make up a potential $100 million hole in next year’s budget and has no idea what school will even look like come August. Hopefully, the board will not rush to approval but rather fully vet the plan going forth.

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

Don’t forget to answer the poll questions at the end. Your voice matters.

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.

 



Categories: Education

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