THE CONTINUATION OF THE GREAT CURRICULUM DEBATE

“The rumours, as usual, didn’t take into account the complexity, much less the truth.”
Lisa Taddeo, Three Women

“An interesting thing about touch is that the brain doesn’t just tell you how something feels, but how it ought to feel. That’s why the caress of a lover feels wonderful, but the same touch by a stranger would feel creepy or horrible. It’s also why it is so hard to tickle yourself.”
Bill Bryson, The Body: A Guide for Occupants

 

Earlier in week a funny thing happen. A process that some thought would be a simple procedure suddenly became a whole lot more complex. As a result, observers were left scratching their heads and wondering, “what the hell just happen?” I’m talking about the ELA curriculum adoption for Metro Public Schools Nashville.

At Tuesday’s board meeting, MNPS’s Chief Academic Officer David Williams presented the adoption committee’s recommendations with the expectations that they would readily be adopted and everyone would move on. Unfortunately for him, several board members had several questions they wanted to be addressed. Questions which he was not equipped to adequately answer. That inability led to a 6 -3 vote to delay approval until after board members were provided an opportunity to seek more clarification. So what does this all mean?

Let me see if I can’t offer a little explanation and edification. It’s a complex process and if you haven’t been following it for the last year, a very confusing one.

Some people have criticized certain board members of hijacking the process to serve own special interests. I’d argue that it’s hard to hijack a process that’s already been hijacked, but I’m getting ahead of myself. Let’s start as close to the beginning as possible.

Tennesse is one of twenty-two U.S. states that have “state adoptions” administered and implemented by the state board of education and the state department of education. It is a process that has long been rife with issues. Back in 2004 education stalwarts Chester Finn and Diane Ravitch wrote a paper together that outlined many of the abuses inherent in the process. They concluded, “That there is no evidence that textbook adoption contributes to increased student learning. In fact, the vast majority of adoption states are also in the bottom half of all states when it comes to NAEP reading and math scores.” I don’t know if I’d go that far but this year Tennessee has conducted a master class on how not to engage in a text book adoption process.

Before we get too far down the road we should define what we mean by curriculum.  For our purposes, we’ll define it as the lessons and academic content taught in a school or in a specific course or program. At one time the majority of curriculum creation was left in the hands of teachers. Over the last couple of years, administrators have played a larger role and the implementation of the curriculum has taken on a greater and greater sense of purpose.

Back around 2010, reform groups had brought forth a revision on state education standards. Through Race To The Top they emulated Moses returning from the mount, but this time instead of 10 Commandments, the tablets bore the Common Core Standards. These standards were designed to unlock student potential, allowing them to soar to unimagined heights.

But it didn’t work out that way. After a brief spark, test results – the primary form of measurement – settled back into a flat line for the next 5 years. Since it was impossible to admit that the standards were flawed, a new narrative had to be written. The new tale came with a familiar villain – teachers.

You see the benefits from the standards were being held back by those dastardly teachers. Some of it was intentional, but some of it was because they just didn’t know any better. Nobody had trained them on the proper way to teach reading and too many school districts were utilizing curriculum that wasn’t considered… hi-quality. Thus was born the “rigor” for the next generation.

In order to unlock the “rigor” made possible by Common Core, it was essential to have a “hi-quality” curriculum. In the last 2 years, the term has become ubiquitous. “Hi-quality”, like it’s predecessor “rigor” remains a fluid term, one that is usually defined by the evoker.

In order to push the new narrative, an old battle was reignited – the so-called Reading Wars. This time though the phonics posse took on a new moniker. They were proponents of a new model, proclaiming themselves disciples of the Science of Reading. A handy term, because critics could readily be dismissed as non-believers in science, painting them as being akin to flat earthers. You got to give it to the reform crowd, they’ve always been adept with language. Unfortunately for them, folks are seeing through the word games.

The new moniker along, with the failing of Common Core, provided an opportunity to develop a pitch to sell legislators on new laws and school districts on new materials and curriculum. Unfortunately, the Common Core brand had become tarnished and as a result, links to the new science of reading had to be buried. Companies like Common Core Inc became Great Minds. Common Core Knowledge Language Arts branded itself as CKLA. And the list goes on.

Several states became early adopters of the curriculum. Mississippi paired the science of reading with an arduous 3rd-grade retention policy to artificially produce gains on NAEP that thrust them into the forefront of the movement. A closer look at the scores raised some concerns, proving that the reform movement is great with language, but doesn’t fare so well when it comes to details.

Across the country, education departments had caught a fever, and the only thing that could quench it was the science of reading. Suddenly legislators and departments of education were falling all over themselves to craft new policy’s that thrust educators into tight parameters of how they should teach reading. If we just followed the science, poverty, discipline, and all other factors would just fall away and within just a short period of time, the majority of all students would be reading at grade level by the conclusion of their 3rd-grade year.

It was into this environment that Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn assumed her position. A reformer with bonafides that put her in elite company – former Teach For America corps member, Charter School Founder, turnaround district specialist, and a current Chief for Change. She arrived in Tennessee primed to do some savior work. This being an adoption year for English Language Arts textbooks and materials provided the perfect vehicle for her ambitions.

The first thing she had to do was “fix” the process for generating the state’s list of approved materials. A process that was well underway prior to her arrival. When some of the commissioners preferred vendors who did not make the cut, she used an audit by the Tennessee Comptroller to give cover to changing the rubric and re-evaluating those that failed to pass on the initial review.

The problems with the review process at the state level has been well documented. There is no need to rehash all of that here.

Throughout the summer the department communicated that expectations were that all districts would adopt and implement materials off of the approved list of materials. While an appeal process was available for districts that wanted to adopt materials that were not included, it was only to be utilized by LEA’s under 2 circumstances.

Per a TNDOE FAQ, those waivers requests are described as such,

  • Type One Waiver: A district wants to continue to use materials it is currently using and that represents high quality. A district can apply for an open education resource if the material is represented on the original bid list (e.g., Expeditionary Learning or Core KnowledgeLanguage Arts).
  • Type Two Waiver: A district wants to use materials that are classified as a newer open educational resource (full curriculum) that were not reviewed during the statewide adoption process or district-created curricula that include all instructional materials necessary to replicate a formal textbook and instructional material program.

Despite that communication by the department, 54 LEA’s applied for waivers. That’s over one-third of the entire districts in the state. Of that number, 21 requests were for Wit and Wisdom k – 2. Maybe it’s just me, but the likelihood of 21 districts across the state of Tennessee all deciding that they had to have a curriculum that failed state review on multiple occasions with multiple rubrics, and has only been established for less than 5 years, requires more than a touch of suspension of disbelief. Especially in light of the amount of effort the TNDOE had put into promoting Wit and Wisdom through its partnership with Knowledge Matters.

Equally puzzling is that HMH, a company with a much lengthier history, and approved for both K-2 and 4-8, only garners 3 appeals.

Bradley county’s appeal to continue using Open Court Reading K-5, a program that they’ve been successful with but is aligned with balanced literacy, was also refused.

In all, there are only 5 waivers denied. All of which could be considered Balanced Literacy aligned.

MNPS applied for, and received, their waiver for Wit and Wisdom k-2 on January 17th, shortly before materials were made available for public viewing at MNEA headquarters. This would seem to indicate a preferred direction by the district adoption committee and I’m curious as to the reasoning behind the application for a waiver.

In his presentation to the board about the literacy recommendations, David Williams was rather vague about plans for implementation. Unfortunately, the TNDOE does not share his reticence. They’ve produced a plethora of supports under the guise of helping districts implement their newly adopted high-quality curriculum. Their materials state very clearly, “High-quality instructional materials are much more complicated and require complex teacher practice change.”

Hence my questions around whether now is the proper time for a change of this magnitude. It’s clear a great deal of training will be required in order to effectively adopt the proposed curriculum.

At Wednesday’s meeting board member Jill Speering asked Williams to what extent The New Teacher Project(TNTP) – a poor man’s TFA – would be involved in training. He replied that we wouldn’t use them at all and that MNPS’s current contract with the organization ends soon. I’m not sure that is possible given their current involvement with the “new high-quality” curriculum at the state level. They are the experts and to me, it would seem only a matter of time before it’s necessitated that we call on them.

In February the TNDOE produced a FAQ that further outlined their expectations in regard to the upcoming adoption process.

At Tuesday presentation the assertion was made on several instances that Wit and Wisdom could be aligned with balanced literacy, which as echoed by Superintendent Battle on multiple occasions, is the district’s official philosophy. That assertion is incorrect, Wit and Wisdom will leave no room for small group instruction, leveled texts, or guided reading – all major components of balanced literacy. Those strategies will be replaced by an increased focus on decoding and phonics.

This represents a fundamental shift in how MNPS approaches early literacy instruction. A shift that will come with considerable expense and as mentioned prior required training for teachers. Expense and change that comes amidst Nashville trying to recover from the effects of a tornado and the effects of a pandemic.

To counter my questions I repeatedly hear defenders state that Nashville has been through “bad budget years before”. It’s a mindset that reminds me of the aristocratic class in England, who continually deny the dwindling of their fortunes while their estates fall into deeper disrepair. This ain’t a “bad budget year”, this is a crater that if we don’t act in a prudent manner, threatens to swallow us all. This is not the time for moonshots and big bets. This is the time for stability and care.

it is clear that the Tennessee Department of Education takes the adoption of ELA curriculum very seriously. I appreciate the MNPS school board matching their concern. Now we need David Williams and the Curriculum and Instruction department to do the same.

This isn’t a situation where you just throw an outline up on the wall and have stakeholders fill it in through trial and error. This is a case where financial ramifications and implementation plans need to be well thought out and detailed. Tuesday’s presentation left a lot to be filled in. Hopefully, over the next two weeks, those details will emerge. MNPS can ill afford not to have them come forth. Once this adoption is made, they are tied to the selection for 6 years. Within those 6 years, every purchase in regard to literacy instruction must be made with the chosen vendor.  6 years is a long time to be tied to a strategy that you can’t afford and you lack the capacity for the required training. Ultimately, make the wrong decision and students will suffer.

QUICK HITS

Chalkbeat TN has the numbers each LEA can expect to receive in regard to the Coronavirus Stimulus Bill. The TNDOE gets 26 million dollars to use at their discretion. MNPS is predicted to receive also receive roughly $26 million. Districts have a great deal of latitude in how to use the funding. Basically, anything COVID -19 related or mandated by ESSA is considered within acceptable parameters.

State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn grabbed her Human Capital Director David Donaldson and took a little field trip yesterday to Cleveland County. While they were there they graciously lent support to volunteers who were busy distributing food to those in need. The area has been devastated by both the coronavirus and tornadoes in recent weeks.

While discussions continue in Tennessee around the best way to handle grades for high school students, in Denver they’ve adjusted their policy after receiving feedback from stakeholders. Per ChalkbeatCO

Students will now have a choice: For each class, they can decide whether they want to receive a letter grade or would prefer their transcript to show that they earned or did not earn credit for the course. No student will receive an F this semester.

Initially, the plan was to employ a system where the student either earned a credit, or they didn’t. However, not all students embraced that plan. Some students worried it would affect their college prospects, while others felt it failed to honor the hard work they’d done this semester. Perhaps Tennessee should take a closer look at their actions.

Pearl Cohn High School is working to build reiliant families. Beginning April 20th families can access their YouTube channel for helpful sessions on maintaining mental health during uncertain times. Kudo’s to them and you don’t have to be a Pearl Cohn family to benefit.

Who’s ready to entertain the idea that if we are going to require kids to participate in distance learning we are going to have to make the internet a public utility? Ouch! Didn’t like that one did you?

On Wednesday Governor Lee appointed Commissioner Schwinn as head of the COVID-19 Child Wellbeing Task Force. It’s Friday now, do we have a roster? Has anyone gotten their super-duper decoder ring in the mail?

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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