A CALL FOR EQUITY IN ACCOUNTABILITY

“In this dirty minded world, you are either someone’s wife or someone’s whore. And if you’re not either people think there is something wrong with you….but there is nothing wrong with me”
John Irving, The World According to Garp

“And once the storm is over, you won’t remember how you made it through, how you managed to survive. You won’t even be sure, whether the storm is really over. But one thing is certain. When you come out of the storm, you won’t be the same person who walked in. That’s what this storm’s all about.”
Haruki Murakami

 

I’ve been writing about education issues for about 7 years now. During that time, I’ve learned a lot and I’ve seen a lot. A lot that doesn’t pass the smell test. Watching the bad actors perform with impunity has allowed for a certain degree of cynicism to set in, despite my best efforts to keep it at bay.

The identity of the bad actors is never really a secret. Like bad teachers, they are almost universally recognized. However, unlike bad teachers who generally get better or get out, the administrative bad actors continue to ply their trade with little regard for the opinions or concerns of others. Instead of finding ways to reform their behavior, they search for ways to make their path less encumbered.

In the midst of the writing about the tenure of MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph, I was often struck by how many privately acknowledged his shortcomings, but would try to convince others of his competency from the public pulpit. Or they’d turn a blind eye to his actions, expressing a not uncommon fear, “well we could end up with someone worse.”

Since his departure, for which he was handsomely rewarded, facts have come to light that reinforce what was being said privately. Over two million dollars were spent on legal action related to sexual harassment litigation. An HR department that had to be completely restructured and purchasing policies rewritten. Joseph himself forced to surrender his Tennessee educator’s license. That’s not the coda of a successful run, yet some still defend him.

These days I’ve been focusing on the TNDOE, and it’s commisioner Penny Schwinn, and history is repeating itself. Privately most acknowledge that under her leadership the DOE is a dumpster fire with one embarrassing moment after another. Publically few work to hold her accountable, allowing her to regularly circumvent the intention of established policy, if not the laws themselves.

Along with deputy superintendent Lisa Coons she manipulated this year’s ELA textbook adoption process to the benefit of their agenda. Legislators recognize this but accept it so as not to fall out of favor with the governor.

Her handpicked candidate, Katie Houghtlin, chosen to lead the DOE’s prime initiative of “whole child education” – which encompasses student mental and physical well-being – stands accused of running her department by emulating the schoolyard bullies she is tasked with eradicating. Accusations that are confirmed by the department’s HR department. Accusations that should be cause for dismissal, but since she enjoys favored status, she only got a slight reduction in salary. Ironically, she now receives the same salary as Coons.

Instead of termination, Houghtlin receives “demotion” to a leadership position with less responsibility and a reduction of pay of $5000. 5k that is taken from a $12k raise she received just 2 months ago after only being with the department for 9 months.

Publicly commissioner Schwinn expresses concern for the employees of the department,

“This department takes employee concerns seriously and all employee complaints should be heard, respected, and handled appropriately,” Schwinn said in a statement Tuesday when asked about the findings. “Every employee’s experience matters.”

Privately she bemoans what “happened” to her friend and mourns events as a loss for the state and its students. The reality is that nothing “happened” to Houghtlin, but rather her actions – which had they been those of a teacher or administrator, would have led to not only termination but a forfeiture of licensure – were recognized for what they were, unacceptable.

When a constituent raised the question of propriety in regard to the level of punishment Houghtlin received with their state representative, this is the answer they received, one that was less than reaffirming. Apparently, the State’s HR department, under Governor Lee’s tutelage finds Houghtlin’s actions to be a minor offense.

This position might serve as an insight into why the TNDOE has continually shed employees at an alarming rate since the commissioner’s arrival. Nearly every supervisory role has turned over in the last 18 months.

Earlier this month, just before the hiring freeze by the governor was announced, the department of education went on a hiring bender to fill some of those recently vacated seats. A hiring bender that has raised some eyebrows. Especially as the qualifications of those being hired come to light.

Among those hirings is a data analyst from Northwestern. Apparently, her 9 months on the job make Sophie Maya Mann qualified to oversee the TNDOE department of accountability. In all fairness, Mann did work for two months as an editorial associate with Towards Data Science, and 8 months as a recruitment coordinator for BrainChild Technology, and 6 months as a Program Fellow for Breakthrough Greater Boston, and 9 months…well you get the picture, no need to list the other 6 jobs she’s had since graduating from Northwestern in 2018 and earning her Masters from Harvard in 2019.

I’m not trying to pick on Mann, in actuality, her resume – which includes work in child behavior programs and suicide intervention strategies – makes an argument for her being more qualified than Houghtlin to lead the department’s whole child initiative. What I’m trying to illustrate is that the commissioner’s leadership style makes it impossible for experienced competent individuals to thrive and as a result, there are a whole lot of inexperienced youngsters leading the show, and doing it badly.

Less than a year ago, Amity Schuyler was hired out of Florida to lead up the Governor’s pet ESSA project. I may not have agreed with Schuyler’s politics but her qualifications were hard to dispute. A year later, she’s out the door and now employed by Shelby County Schools and working for a superintendent that shares none of her educational philosophies.

Christy Ballard, the respected and long-tenured head of legal council, has all but disappeared from public view in the last two months. Possibly another experienced professional marginalized by inept leadership.

Word on the street is that Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah will be returning to Texas come June 1. Officially, is this is being sold as part of a long standing plan. The relocation of her family last year, coupled with reports of a recent breakdown in front of staff, privately cast doubt on the public position.

If you are a teacher or principal, the default public opinion is one of regularly failing to meet expectations. But if you serve as superintendent, or lead a state department of education, you are afforded a level of permissibility towards your actions that would never be afforded the aforementioned. Whereas a teacher or principal’s license would be jerked with just a whiff of the impropriety that surrounds high-level officials, in their case a deaf ear is continually turned and new protections afforded.

Much has been recently been raised over 3 MNPS board member’s filing suit to have language affecting their ability to serve as elected officials removed from Dr. Joseph’s termination agreement. Some view it as a sign of pettiness, but on closer inspection, it appears that this is not an issue pertinent to just Nashville. That the clause against speaking against the former superintendent not only opens them up for future litigation but serves to establish a precedent. As evidence, I cite language in a recently submitted severance deal between a school district and a superintendent in North Carolina,

Each current Board Member agrees that he or she shall not make any disparaging statements or comments, written or oral, about xxxxx, and Dr. xxxx agrees that she shall not make any disparaging statements or comments, written or oral, about the Board or any Board Member that served during her employment by the Board.

As used in this Agreement, the term “disparaging” means a false statement made with knowledge that the statement was false or with reckless disregard as to whether it was false or not.

If the last 4 years have taught us anything, it’s taught us that the truth is subject to interpretation. An interpretation that is dependent on the courts and can prove quite costly to the elected official. As a dear friend once said to me, “If you’ve got nothing to hide, why are you trying to hide stuff?”

In thinking about the unwillingness to hold district and state leaders accountable, I search for an understanding. It would be easy to default to a position of people just not caring enough to get involved, but I can’t accept that.

I’m left with the theory that the subject is so dense, and intentionally clouded in ambiguity, that people feel intimidated about weighing in. A feeling that is repeatedly re-enforced by those in power as opposed to working to dispel. Be it budgets, curriculum, testing, or hiring, a confused populace is a compliant populace. After all, that confusion and compliance lead to accepting that leadership is worth upwards of 6 times the compensation rate of that of a classroom teacher.

The other factor that can’t be dismissed, is the lack of belief in our appointed or elected leadership. As a country we have gotten to a point where we don’t just disagree with leadership, but we’ve divested ourselves in any belief in them. Which has led us to a place where we are all too willing to excuse gross incompetence by taking a position of, “yes, they are incompetent but the next guy maybe even more incompetent”. Or worse yet, “he may be more competent but not share my views.” And as a result, incompetence is allowed to continue unchecked.

It easy to lay the blame for the present circumstances at the feet of the current occupant of the White House, but I’d argue that he’s just the latest symptom of an ever-growing national crisis. One that if not addressed, will continue to serve to our detriment.

When it comes to education and the accountability of superintendents and commissioners, the solution exists. The model has been created. What if we held them to the same level of accountably that we currently reserve for teachers and principals?

If Katie Houghtlin was a teacher the process wouldn’t end with a slap on the wrist from her supervisor. Rather a report would be filed, a further investigation conducted, an appearance before the state board of education required, and quite likely a loss of license would result. Instead, she continues to serve in a supervisory role with a minimum loss of compensation. A deal that would never be afforded to a classroom teacher or building principal.

Teachers will all tell you that it all starts with trust. Without trust, it’s impossible to properly educate a child. Administrators will reaffirm that argument and point to accountability measures as a means to ensure that trust is being established. The problem is that those tools are only utilized for those who directly interact with children and seldom for those that supervise those that teach. The evidence is continuing to mount that we need to widen that scope. The unaccountable can not continue to supervise those held to a hyper level of accountably.

It’s an untenable situation that continues to have a negative impact on teachers, students, and their families.

RANDOM THOUGHTS

This past weekend marked graduation season in Tennessee. This year’s season, due to the pandemic, brought lots of questions and concerns. Since students and their families couldn’t gather together let alone walk the stage, how would we properly celebrate students’ accomplishments? By the look of pictures on my social media threads, where there was a will, there was a way.

Car parades became the norm and families went all out by dressing those vehicles in celebratory fashion. It may not have been the desired form of ceremony, but it certainly produced the desired effect. Way to go 2020 graduates!

MNPS teachers are returning back to their building this week in order to retrieve personal and student belongings. This has not been the best-executed plan ever crafted. Teachers have quickly discovered that building AC units are already in summer mode and therefore buildings are likely to be hot. Also in short supply are trash bags and disinfectant. So teachers need to bring their own to collect personal items.

While I understand the reasoning behind some of the shortages, it would have been nice had it been recognized just how emotional this week would be for teachers and an attempt made to mitigate. This is the last official opportunity for teachers to see students that they were never afforded a proper opportunity to say good-byes to. I suspect this will be a week filled with teacher tears, and steps to ease that would have been appreciated.

I think it’s also sinking in with students that this is the end and they are themselves feeling the lack of an adequate ending. This week my son, who regularly bemoans having to go to school, has been randomly listing people and things he’ll miss from elementary school. For us as a family, next year will mark the first time in 6 years that we won’t have a child at Tusculum ES. A school whose teachers and Principal, Alison McMahan, have afforded us a level of care and consideration beyond any expectations. It’s due to y’all that the Weber kids are poised on the cusp of success and I can’t thnk all of you enough.

School board races are starting to shift into gear and this weekend revealed the first list of endorsements. Few endorsement lists carry more weight than that of MNEA, yet few come with as many moments of bewilderment. This year is proving to be no exception.

Not surprisingly, despite running unopposed, both incumbent board members – Christiane Buggs and Freda Player-Peters – received MNEA’s endorsement. The preferred successors of current board members Amy Frogge and Jill Speering for their respective seats also received endorsements. Congratulations Abigail Taylor and Emily Masters, I know you’ll be great. And then we arrive at our moment of bewilderment.

MNEA has chosen to endorse Sharon Gentry over challenger Robert Taylor. It’s a move that defies explanation. Over the past decade, Gentry has proven to be incompetent and uncommunicative, choosing to talk at people instead of with them. During discussions over Dr. Joseph, she always placed his needs above those of the district, negotiating a deal more favorable to him and one that left the MNPS open for further litigation. During her term, nearly every school in her district has fallen to priority status. During a recent ZOOM call with constituents, it was instantly clear that she had not maintained the desired level of communication with them.

Taylor is a transplant from the Northeast – ironically from Prince George – but since his arrival in 2008, he has worked tirelessly to serve his adopted community, with a focus on family and parental engagement. While I don’t always share his views, he’s quite literally the definition of a quality candidate. The only possible knock I see is that some of his children attend private school. I’m never a fan of purity tests and if having to choose between a candidate who can pass one and a candidate who is highly competent, I’ll choose the latter every time. In the last two weeks, Taylor has done more to inform District 1 residents about possible school consolidations than Gentry has done around any subject over her entire term. That should count for something and is the kind of purity I look for in an elected official. Hopefully, this is one endorsement that will go unheeded by the public.

In 2019, the Scarlett Family Foundation released the Cluster Profiles resource, a data-driven look into the performance and demographic metrics of Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) zoned school clusters. Last week they updated it to reflect the 2018/2019 school year. As a result, it now shows 3-year growth trends for individual clusters along with building utilization data.  While it certainly shouldn’t be treated like a bible it does offer some interesting data.

Most concerning to me is the teacher retention rates of individual schools. Roughly a third of the schools in the district hold a retention rate of 75% or less. There are several instances of the retention rate being below 60%. While some clusters are worse than others, none are immune. Losing one out of 4 teachers from year to year is not part of a recipe for success.

Along the same vein, I’m starting to feel trepidation around both the central office reorganization and principal placement for next year. In a year that is going to require an unprecedented amount of planning, too many positions are currently still open and it’s the middle of May. White Creek HS, McGavock HS, Belmont-Waverly ES, Percy Priest ES, A.Z. Kelley, Haywood, and others are all awaiting word on Principal selection and as a result, are losing precious time planning for next year. Delay in hiring a principal also puts the schools at a disadvantage in hiring teachers, something they can ill aford.

Last week, ChalkbeatTN printed a piece on the TNDOE paying millions of dollars for tests that were canceled this year. Assertions in the piece seemed to run counter to praise lavished in a recent Chief for Change report.  In an attempt to reconcile the two, I asked for clarification from the TNDOE. Here’s their response,

The state will only pay for products and services that are requested and delivered. To this end, the state will not be paying for many assessment services that are scheduled annually (such as scoring tests, providing detailed data reports and analysis, and printing paper student results reports) for the spring 2020 testing cycle, as these activities did not take place. Our assessment costs for the 2019-20 school year will be reduced and we anticipate saving about $5 million. The department is continuing discussions with Pearson to negotiate down our costs but we do not have a final figure yet.

Hmmm…savings of $5 million with expenditures over $15 million. You form your own opinion.

POLL QUESTIONS

Let’s take a quick look at the weekend poll questions. The first question was in regard to the situation with the situation involving the actions of Associate Commissioner Katie Houghtlin and whether you felt the punishment was sufficient. 69% of you felt the human resource department findings were sufficient to call for termination. None of you felt the punishment was sufficient. Here are the write-in answers,

But teachers should accept less $? Riiiight. 1
She and the Commish need to be fired! 1
Don’t have info but there is nothing that seems proper here 1
Who?

Question 2 asked if you were in favor of an extended school day next year. 34% of you said absolutely not, and 28% of you cited the lack of data support as a cause to reject the idea. 27% pointed out that we’d be lucky to have any school at all. Only 5% of you saw it as a neccesity. Here are the write-ins,

Where are the funds coming from to pay people? 1
Where would the funding come from? 1
No, very complicated and LOTS of planning needed 1
We can’t even pay teachers now. Seriously?

The last question asked how you felt about standardized testing this fall when kids return. 28% of you felt some will be necessitated. While 28% of you rejected the idea, trusting teachers to get it right. 20% of you recognized that there were already enough education vultures circling without adding testing vendors to the mix. Here are the write-ins,

Authentic testing -yes. No vendors 1
Nor state testing; ok w/ dist bm as a formative 1
Administer my step raises from the last decade first. 1
The question with testing is always one of PURPOSE 1
No! Focus on community building. Teachers know how to identify and fill gaps. 1
Telling MNPS staff to accept less is BS. Screwed r

That’s it for today.

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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