POISED ON A PRECIPICE

“Charms strike the sight, but merit wins the soul.”
Alexander Pope, The Rape of the Lock

“As a lobbyist he had long ago concluded there was no difference in how Democrats and Republicans conducted the business of government. The game stayed the same: It was always about favors and friends, and who controlled the dough. Party labels were merely a way to keep track of the teams; issues were mostly smoke and vaudeville. Nobody believed in anything except hanging on to power, whatever it took. …..”
Carl Hiaasen, Sick Puppy

4:30. That’s what the clock read. 4:30 AM to be precise. Once again I found myself lying awake in bed, turning thoughts over in my head. Not an uncommon occurrence, but this morning it was something specific.

I couldn’t shake the feeling that later today Metro Nashville Public Schools was poised to make a disastrous error. The school board was meeting this evening, and after an update to their questions surrounding this year’s curriculum adoption, they were poised to accept the recommendations of a 19-member teacher cabinet. Doing so could have dire consequences, not for just the district, but for the state as well.

“Get up and write about it,” I thought to myself.

“You wrote yesterday. Nobody wants to hear from you two days in a row. Give it a rest. Go back to sleep,” my more pragmatic side answered.

Unfortunately, I’ve never been good at listening to my pragmatic half. So I dragged myself up, put Springsteen’s The Rising on the turntable, popped the laptop open, and here we go. Let me try and lay out just what’s at stake later tonight when the MNPS school board convenes.

Earlier in the year when the General Assembly opened their annual session, the TNDOE, with the blessing and encouragement of the Governor, introduced HB2229, which became known at the Reading Bill. This bill was far-reaching, and if passed, would allow the TNDOE the ability to dictate to local districts how reading was taught, which materials to use, when to assess, how to assess, and a course of action based on those assessments.

In the words of Lisa Coons, the state’s chief of standards and materials for K-12, “The state will take steps to make sure that ‘schools follow the science of reading.'” Furthermore, she went on,

“Districts would be required to provide high-quality instructional materials aimed at building content knowledge. In the past, districts could “adopt” a curriculum without being required to actually use it. The proposed legislation would change that by requiring districts to use curricula from the state’s list of high-quality materials.”

Read that paragraph again because we will be referring back to it in a minute.

Fortunately, legislators caught on quickly to what the department was up to and recognized that if this bill passed, it would award unprecedented powers to the TNDOE. It would also rob Local Education Authorities (LEA’s) of local control. As a result, a bill that was expected to have clear sailing to passage hit some road blocks.

Throughout February and into March, both the senate and house education committees became must-see TV as legislators pushed back against the Governor’s bill. It took three weeks and three rewrites for the bill to exit the House’s education sub-committee and when it did, the “science of reading” language had been stripped from it.

In the Senate Education Committee, the bill didn’t fare any better. One Senate hearing opened with Chairwoman Delores Gresham asking that the rules on perjury be read and explained before the hearing proceeded – an instance few can remember occurring in the past. Unfortunately, that didn’t slow the roll of Ms. Schwinn, the state’s Commissioner of Education. When asked by Ms. Gresham if the department had already begun holding meetings to discuss RFPs associated with the bill, Schwinn answered no, despite the department’s website depicting two meetings taking place on February 4th with vendors to discuss upcoming contracts involving the need for literacy supports.

In those meetings, Schwinn not only talked about the scope of the potential RFPs, but the funding associated with them. In the first video, around the 40-minute mark, Schwinn clearly states the intended goal of her department: to ensure that there is only one way to teach reading and that all strategies associated with balanced literacy – including leveled texts – are ended. There is no need to interpret what she’s saying; she speaks clearly as day – in Tennessee there will be only one way to teach reading and that method will be dictated by the state.

There were some serious doubts about whether the Reading Bill would be passed or not when the General Assembly adjourned due to the COVID-19 crisis. That was actually beneficial to Schwinn and posse because in pursuing their agenda, they hadn’t put all their eggs in one basket. They’d been working a Plan B. A Plan B that had roots back in the previous Commissioner’s administration. A plan that was likely hatched and put into motion by Tennessee’s shadow Department of Education, SCORE.

SCORE was established by the wealthy former Senator Bill Frist back in 2009 and has been pitching bad education advice for the last decade. SCORE was a heavy proponent of the Common Core Standards, at least until they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar. It is also worth noting that SCORE is a member of the right wing network called PIE (Policy Innovators in Education), created by the Thomas B. Fordham Institute to connect groups that are attempting to disrupt and privatize public education. Like other members of PIE, SCORE loves them some charter schools.

About five years ago, SCORE started an advocacy group called LIFT. Per their website:

LIFT is a group of committed superintendents from across Tennessee working together to explore innovative approaches and share best practices that will benefit their students, as well as students across the state and nation.

LIFT is made up of 11 different districts, mostly smaller in size, but both Nashville and Memphis are members. About three years ago, LIFT convinced several of their districts to participate in piloting some new curricula. These were curricula that aligned with the newly-emerging philosophy of the “science of reading.”

If you haven’t been paying attention for the last say… 100 years… you may believe that “science of reading” is something new. It’s not. It’s a rebranding of the centuries-old phonics philosophy, and what’s currently taking place is a reigniting of the war between phonics advocates and whole-word advocates, This is nothing new, and it’s a fight that’s been raging for decades with the two sides taking turns becoming the prevalent theory. All of this is well-documented.

After getting the pilots started, the next step was promoting the massive successes these newly-adopted programs were producing. The problem is the adoptions were so new that any gains needed to be taken with a grain of salt, and if you really dig into results, you discover that there may be some promise. But overall, the results weren’t exactly as advertised. Both SCORE and the TNDOE have utilized Knowledge Matters for their PR work. This passage is taken from a recent inter-office communication between commissioner Schwinn and her staff:

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

If you need further evidence of the collaboration between SCORE and Schwinn’s TDOE, look no further than SCORE’s recently released poll: What Parents Think About Learning During COVID-19: A New SCORE Poll. A poll that seems to lend support to Schwinn’s plan/not plan leaked earlier in the month. The two definitely seem to be singing out of the same hymn book, though that could get interesting if rumors that former SCORE Executive Director Jamie Woodson is considering challenging Bill Lee in the next gubernatorial election. Some speculate that if the election were held today, she’d handily defeat the governor.

Yesterday, I went into detail about the many issues and manipulations with this year’s ELA adoption of textbooks and materials process so there is no need to revisit in detail. I should offer one clarification though, or as I like to call it – another sneaky wrinkle.

Yesterday, I cited TNDOE’s policy that suggested that the LIFT districts were not in compliance because they were piloting CKLA and Wit and Wisdom in the period prior to the text adoption process.

4.100 TEXTBOOK AND INSTRUCTIONAL MATERIALS PILOT POLICY No local school board or publisher may participate in a pilot program of materials being considered for adoption during the 18-month period before the official adoption of the materials by the State Textbook Commission.

It appears that they were utilizing the OER version of CKLA. That version was not considered for inclusion on the approved list of materials. Amplify’s “version” of CKLA was approved and therefore can be adopted without a waiver. Those LIFT districts have to apply for a waiver to continue the use of the curriculum they’ve been piloting. Luckily, Coons changed the waiver policy several months ago, and so that approval is easily granted. This may bring everybody into compliance with the letter of the policy, but I would argue it’s a clear violation of the spirit.

As a side note, the Tennessee Comptroller report that Schwinn and Coons often cite as justification for changing the adoption process mid-stream was initially ordered by Senate Education Committee Chair Delores Gresham and was partially motivated by a desire to clear up questions around the use of OER’s. It seems additional clarification might be in order.

The state’s push to control curriculum cannot be divorced from earlier efforts to adopt the Common Core State Standards. At this juncture, most education stakeholders are in agreement – Common Core was a flop. But if you read a review of Common Core from the recent edition of Education Next, you’ll see that many so-called experts are not quite yet ready to abandon ship. Dr. Morgan Polikoff is an Associate Professor of Education at Rossier who writes:

What kinds of policies do I have in mind? First, these leaders could take curriculum more seriously than they have in the past. States could require the public schools to choose from among just a small number of curricular options. Teacher-education programs could train teachers in using those specific curricula, and the state could follow up by giving them ongoing training on those curricula. Teachers could be strongly discouraged, or even prevented, from cobbling together curricula from random, unregulated websites like Pinterest (or at the very least, states and districts could curate these kinds of materials). In exchange for this loss of control, teachers could be given more support to effectively implement their adopted materials—time to collaborate with teachers in their school, observe what’s working and what’s not, and make changes to improve implementation. But the Wild West days of every teacher and every school with their own curricula must come to an end.

That seems pretty explicit to me, and I always believe that when someone tells you who they are, believe them the first time they tell you. If your memory is a little foggy about the halcyon days of Common Core, let’s revisit just who was spending what to push it. You’ll find quite a few familiar faces.

I can almost promise you that once the adoption list is completed and a large number of districts have applied for, and been granted a waiver, there will be a move to codify their decisions. The narrative around any proposed reading bill will shift from one of adherence to one of support. It will become hard for legislators to resist a call to codify decisions already made by local LEAs. As a result, there will become only one method of teaching reading in Tennessee. Once codified, rewinding decisions made today will prove extremely difficult. It will be game, set, and match.

MNPS and many other local districts are looking at this adoption period through today’s lens. Yes, the Tennessee Department of Education cannot force a district to purchase materials they choose to adopt. In the near future, that will change. Once the materials are put into use, we will soon discover that they truly don’t align with a balanced literacy approach, and, in an effort to make things easier and more effective for both students and teachers, the district will adjust in order to more closely align with the recently adopted materials. That will signify the end of a balanced literacy philosophy and the dawn of the district embracing the “science of reading.”

I 100% believe Dr. Battle when she says the district is not altering its philosophy. I 100% believe her when she says teachers will maintain their autonomy. I 100% believe her when she says she and her team will plot literacy strategy for the district, not a curriculum company nor the TNDOE. I also 100% believe that the TNDOE will do everything in their power to ensure that she reverses herself on every one of those policies. That effort starts with and will be facilitated by today’s school board vote.

Much has been made of the requirement that the board has no choice but to accept the adoption committee’s recommendations. There is some truth to that. According to statute, they must adopt the recommendations put forth by the advisory committee, but the penalty to do so is minimal. There is no reason that the board can’t table this vote while they wait to see what happens with the reading bill when the General Assembly reconvenes. Let’s make sure that by rushing to a passage, we are not creating future obstacles for both the district and Dr. Battle.

Those who are trying to speed the process along cite a need to begin negotiations with textbook companies on the purchase price as an impetus to speed up the process. The district can’t purchase anything until July 1 – and even then it’s debatable how much money will be available to make any purchases. Are you really arguing that the best price can’t be arrived on between June 15th and July 1? Is Great Minds going to penalize MNPS for waiting until the last minute? That’s unlikely based on the size of MNPS’s order and the financial state of Great Minds. This purchase alone will eclipse the total amount of revenue generated for Great Minds by Wit and Wisdom in 2017. I’m pretty confident that our purchasing power will guarantee us a good price no matter when we enter negotiations.

The district also has the option to only adopt the proposed materials for three years. If the board feels compelled to follow through with adoption today, let us hope they choose the lesser time period. The terms can always be extended in the future if desired.

There has been some accusations that in not quickly adopting the review committee’s recommendations, those 19 teachers who participated in the review process have been disrespected. If that’s the case, I apologize, but let me offer this. To date, nearly half of the state’s 147 districts have applied for and been granted a waiver to adopt materials not on the state’s approved list. Which begs the question, why have a list at all? Why did the state even bother convening a much larger group of educators together to review materials if they were just going to grant waivers on a whim? Why waste their time? Which action is more disrespectful?

Too often we suffer through the myopic vision that charter schools and vouchers are the only threats to our public school system. Unfortunately, disruptors have developed an aresenal to use against our democratic institutions. Just because they aren’t successful on the first attempt – or even the hundredth – doesn’t mean they won’t keep coming. Currently, we are in the midst of one of those attacks. I just hope that we can open our eyes and recognize it in time to prevent damage from being inflicted.

 

 



Categories: Education

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