WHO GOVERNS SCHOOLS?

“looking off at the past as though it were a place one might still get to”
Cathie Pelletier, Beaming Sonny Home

“I don’t know how to describe that feeling, just to say that it’s kind of like cold, sunny days. Something is discomforting about a sun that gives no heat but keeps shining.”
Renée Watson, Piecing Me Together

 

It seems like as of late the week comes to an end, only to have the next Monday roll around and say, “Here, hold my beer.”

This week was no exception. There is a lot of threads running through the week in regard to education, and a lot to unpack. I’ve taken a couple of days to figure out how to weave those threads together into a coherent cloth. At first glance, they may appear as disparate threads, all independent of each other, but if you take the time, you realize that they are more like the pieces of a puzzle waiting to be assembled. Once assembled, you realize the picture was there all along.

Before I begin to attempt to put the pieces together, I want to acknowledge that focus on education issues in Middle Tennessee has grown a lot sharper this week. Nate Rau, a former writer at the Tennessean is now a co-founder at  The Tennessee Lookout, an on-line newspaper and has already filed a number of breaking stories, including the one about the “emergency engagement” of an outside consultant group contracted with a no-bid contract by the mayor’s office to assist with the re-entry plan for MNPS.  More on that in a minute.

The Tennessean has also hired a replacement for long term education writer Jason Gonzales. Gonzalez left a couple months ago to return home to Colorado and write for online education news magazine ChalkbeatCO. Picking up the ball for Gonzales is former Chattanooga reporter Meghan Mangrum – possessing possibly the second-best reporter name behind Lois Lane. Mangrum filed several stories this week, and early indications are that she is going to be a force to reckoned with.

I’m excited to have increased coverage for education. It’s long been my belief that the more voices the better. Welcome back Nate and welcome to Nashville Meghan. I can’t wait to read more of what you cover.

POWER OVER SCHOOLS

As long as there have been public schools there have been arguments over who should have control of them. Business folks recognizing schools as suppliers of labor have tried to exert influence when possible. Politicians have vied to exert control in order to curry votes. Parents, out of love for their children, have demanded that schools recognize their priorities, and act accordingly. We could literally spend hours talking about the different entities and the means in which they attempt to gain influence.

In 1983 things got serious. That’s when the U.S. National Commission on Excellence in Education released a report – A Nation at Risk: The Imperative for Educational Reform. It’s a complex report but the basic premise was that the American School System was failing and it was imperative that Americans act quickly before our democracy fell into ruins. Like a cannon shot over Fort Sumner, the report kicked off a battle between reformers – now called disruptors – and defenders of the school system – oft referred to by their foes as defenders of the status quo – that is still active nearly 40 years later.

Like independent militias, privately funded entities sprang up in the wake of the report in order to advance or defend public education. These independent groups became adept at making the pendulum swing between the two entities. Sometimes it appeared as if reform efforts were winning, and then suddenly their influence was receding, only to see the trend reversed a few years later.  Meanwhile the country’s economic engine, despite some hiccups, continued to hum and kids continued to learn.

Here in Tennessee, reform efforts have been led by SCORE, the group founded by former US Senator and current super-wealthy guy, Bill Frist. SCORE augments the deep pockets of Senator Frist by aligning with national entities Chiefs for Change and the Gates Foundation. In exchange for funding, they often promote the policies championed by the national folks. Over the years SCORE has championed a number of failed initiatives while declining to take a stand on important issues like vouchers. Despite their failures, their influence has only grown.

Recently a veteran Tennessee education administrator said to me, “Feel how you want about former commissioners Huffman and McQueen. At least they were able to keep SCORE at bay. To get the governor they had to go through the TDOE. That’s no longer true, now they go directly to the governor and dictate policy to the department.”

A case in point would be this year’s literacy bill which grew directly out of the aforementioned groups publicly voiced desire to create a national curriculum as reflected by the adoption of the Common Core Standards. It was not dissimilar from efforts in other states. Earlier this month, a similar bill in Louisiana failed to pass out of committee, effectively killing it.

In Tennessee, legislators didn’t just kill the bill but followed up that action by smacking the Department of Education for their attempted overreach. A little-noticed reconciliation bill(Conference Committee Report as passed) was passed, and now awaits the governor’s signature. The bill takes the power to grant waivers in regard to curriculum adoption out of the hands of the department of education and places it under the powers of the state board of education. This year the TDOE granted 72 waivers, which equates to nearly half of the state’s LEAs. As the state’s chief of standards and materials, Lisa Coons tried to exert even more control by installing a deadline for districts to apply for a waiver. That has also been lifted by this bill and LEAs can now apply at any time.

The intent of the General Assembly was clearly communicated in the following passage,

The commission shall maintain independence from the department of education. The department’s role in the textbook adoption process is strictly limited. The department shall not perform any duties as part of the textbook adoption process other than the duties specifically assigned to the department in §§ 49-6-2201–49-6-2203.
This bill is important because attention now shifts to the adoption of Math curriculum and early indications are that the TDOE is intent to continue with their reindeer games. The timeline for the adoption process has already been pushed back 2 years while standards are updated. Standards that weren’t originally slated to be updated until 2023. For local districts that means the adoption cycle for math will end next year while the adoption of new materials won’t begin until 2 years after that, which translates into some scrambling to fill the gap. Just what districts need right now, more scrambling.
It’s important to note that you can’t exert control without a scoring system. That scoring system for education has long been a standardized test. Every year schools are forced to administer the test under the guise of measuring student learning in an effort to improve outcomes. Bull shit.
Sorry, but at this point in the game, it has become clear that standardized tests are better at measuring students’ socio-economic status than they are at measuring learning. Furthermore, Tennessee hasn’t pulled off annual testing with any kind of fidelity for a half-decade. As a result, decisions on teacher pay, school quality, and policy are all being made based upon flawed data. The public is beginning to awaken to that fact and support for severely curtailing standardized testing is growing in both Republican and Democrat camps.
This week Memphis School District Superintendent Joris Ray announced that he planned to request a waiver from the state in administering TNReady for the 2020/2021 school year. Several states, including Georgia have indicated that they will pursue waivers as well.
The clap back against Ray was fast and furious from private entities. You see if you take the scoreboard away, you put control back in the hands of individual districts and ultimately teachers. Private organizations don’t like that, as it undercuts their arguments.
Both SCORE and The Education Trust were quick to issue statements that referred to calls to suspend testing as being pre-mature. Education Trust Executive Director Gini Pupo-Walker also sits on the Metro Nashville Public School Board. The Education Trust’s statement features the following conclusion,
We believe it is premature to call for a cancellation of testing for next spring and encourage policymakers and education leaders to stay the course while providing support to districts as we move into the coming school year.
So riddle me this, what if MNPS’s board proposes a resolution supporting Memphis County Schools and commits to requesting the same exemptions? That would create a number of issues.
First of all, Walker would have to recuse herself from any vote concerning testing, and second, if the resolution passes how does she reconcile the two positions. I have no idea, and I believe Pupo-Walker should be given the benefit of the doubt in any case, but the answer would give a clear indication of who controls schools.
Quick side note on testing, most re-entry plans indicate a need for some kind of testing when students return in order to garner information about current academic levels. Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has even gone as far as offering portions of the TNReady test that not was administered in the Spring for use in the Fall. A ridiculous proposition. And a financially imprudent one at the least.
Once again, this argument speaks to who knows best for schools and students. It displays a lack of trust in teachers’ ability to assess the current levels of their students and adjust accordingly. It also assumes that all students will come back to school with a deficit. An assumption, that may or may not prove true, but either way teachers will be able to offer insight. In looking at the source for calls to test when schools open, few seem to emit from teachers.
What is needed more than anything upon the re-opening of schools is SEL. And not just for students, but also for the adults in the buildings. Everyone accepts the effects of trauma on students, yet either we don’t extend the same importance to adults, or we don’t consider the past 4 months traumatic. Teachers, students, administrators, and support staff are all going to return in varying mental states with varying degrees of anxiety. Easing that anxiety as quickly as possible is going to be essential.
The teachers that had the most success with distance learning during the spring are the ones that had the strongest relationships with their students. Fall will bring a whole new batch of students and it’ll be vital that the student/teacher relationship be firmed up as quick as possible. It’s in that light, that I would argue that the first two weeks of school be focused almost solely on building those relationships and assessing SEL needs.
In fact, I’d go even further and get teachers’ student rosters as soon as possible so teachers could reach out to students and begin the relationship-building process. We always argue that the budget is a reflection of what we assign importance to, last month we paid teachers $85 a day to participate in Wit and Wisdom training. Perhaps that money could have been better spent paying teachers for a day or two devoted to reaching out and preparing students for the upcoming school year.
In talking control, let’s not overlook that the local level has not been immune to forces outside of the school board vying for control of the system either. Nashville is currently home to several groups that exert a great deal of influence over school policies and practices while being unaccountable to the voters.
The Nashville Public Education Foundation this year engaged in lobbying the mayor’s office for teacher compensation with little input from the school board. Mayor Cooper’s decision to use the city’s CARE funding to purchase 90K laptops can be directly traced back to lobbying by Tara Scarlett and the Scarlett Foundation through Nashville NOW, again with little or no input from the school board. NOAH has attempted to bring it’s political leverage to bear in order to influence the district’s discipline policy, even though their position runs counter to the school boards expressed concerns. These are just a handful – arguably the most prolific – of the private groups trying to exert influence on schools while remaining unaccountable to voters.
I want to be clear here, I’m not being qualitative, nor trying to downplay their efforts. NPEF’s teacher study was a much-needed initiative and was instrumental in securing Mayor’s Cooper’s support for improving teacher compensation in Nashville. The Scarlett Foundation provides vital information for stakeholders about the various MNPS clusters. NOAH has been instrumental in making schools more equitable. The problem is, things are never clearly good, nor clearly bad. While done with the proper motivations, the unintended consequence can often prove detrimental. We’ve all heard the saying, “Beware of the well-intentioned man.”
When Nashville became a municipality, it’s the authors of its charter understood the importance of separating the control of schools from political operatives. During his campaign for re-election in 1967, Nashville Mayor Beverly Briley said, “I believe in progress and a good school system is essential to progress. I also believe, as I have demonstrated over my last three years as mayor, that the schools should be run by an independent school board and not be subject to the whims of the mayor or any other politicians.”
Last year his grandson David, tried to alter that vision and proposed creating an MOU between the Mayor’s office and schools. It was not met warmly and the board refused to sign the proposed MOU. In the words of late school board chair, Anna Shepherd, “That ain’t gonna happen.”
Briley ended up failing to secure reelection. Outwardly his successor, John Cooper has shown little impetus to exert influence over schools, until recently.
At this week’s board meeting, the school board agreed to a non-binding resolution to follow the “Nashville Plan” for re-opening schools. The “Nashville Plan” is based on a template created and posted by a company called Opportunity Labs, managed by Nashville resident Dr. Mario Ramirez, who previously served as a White House fellow in President Barack Obama’s administration. Per their press release, “The approach is supported by a range of local education leaders and other prominent supporters, including former Secretary of Education Arne Duncan, former Housing and Urban Development Secretary Julián Castro, Jeff Colyer, M.D., former Governor of Kansas, and John White, former Lousiana Superintendent of Education.”
John White is not only the former Louisiana Superintendent of Education but also a founding member of Chiefs for Change. Duncan, during his tenure as Secretary of Education, had a reputation as a micromanager, to the appoint of oppression.
Prior to passing the resolution, it was pointed out that it was non-binding and the no-bid contract with Opportunity Labs was only for $20K, hardly worth raising a fuss about.  But it does raise two questions for me.
The first being, why would Opportunity Labs enter into such a minuscule contract. Especially in the midst of a pandemic. A brief perusal of their web site reveals a company with full a stable of heavy hitters. People who don’t come cheap. It also shows an affiliation with the Walton Foundation, a company with a long history of commitment to disrupting public education. There is also a plethora of ed-tech specialists employed by Opportunity Labs. Hmmmm…90k computers…ed-tech specialists…probably just a coincidence. Maybe $20K for access ain’t so low.
My second question would be that if Opportunity Labs provides valuable guidance during the worst of times why would we not continue to engage them during the best of times? This would translate to a company serving in an advisory role to the school district engaged and paid for by the mayor in perpituiy. Far be it from me to cast aspirations, but its been my experience that people’s loyalty tends to lie with who signs their checks. So if we get into a situation where the mayors and the school board’s vision fails to align, where will Opportunity Labs support fall and which side will be supported by the “Nashville Plan”. I think it’s a discussion worth having.
I don’t see the question of who oversees schools being resolved anytime soon. My preference will always be that of a democratically elected school board, but that in itself is not without its own issues.  At the very least, it’s a conversation that requires constant diligence.
QUICK HITS
This week the TDOE loses 2 more assistant commissioners. Brian Stockton, assistant commissioner of district operations has reportedly made the decision to leave the department. Felicia Everson-Tuggle earlier in the month indicated that she will be joining MNPS as Executive Director, Middle School Support, and Principal Development. They sure do have trouble holding on to people over there at the department of education. If anybody ever decides to hold a reunion of former employees they may need to look at Bridgestone Arena to hold it.
Finding a leader for the state’s newly created charter school commission is proving to be more difficult than anticipated. Per Chalkbeat, at a recent organizational meeting, two commission members expressed dissatisfaction with the quality level of candidates brought forth by the search firm. The commission itself is already two members short as not all of Governor Lee’s appointees were approved. This should prove to be another fiasco for a governor who is becoming very good at manufacturing fiascos.
Speaking of Governor Lee, he’d expressed a desire to bring legislators in for a special session to address liability issues as related to COVID-19. Well apparently that idea is dead in the water due to party A demanding an apology from party B and party B saying…either way, indications are that there will be no special session in the coming weeks.
Maury County Public Schools Assistant Superintendent of Academics Ron Woodard is leaving the school district after more than four years at the system’s central office. In those 4 years, Woodard has compiled an impressive list of accomplishments. As the assistant superintendent of instruction, he served only second to the superintendent overseeing principals, teachers, curriculum, and instruction including counselors, nurses and all other roles associated with educating the school district’s students. Earlier in the year, there had been some rumblings of a possible return to his hometown district of MNPS, but for whatever reason, those rumors never bore fruit. Woodard is an excellent educator and where ever he lands will benefit from his vast experience. Maury County Schools is better for his time spent there, per Woodard
“There are good things on the horizon,” he added. “I believe that we have a civic duty to provide a high-quality education for all children. I will always be a servant of the community, and I am just a phone call away. I have thoroughly enjoyed my time in Maury County, and now I am moving forward to seek other opportunities. I wish everyone the best.”
There is a whole lot more to cover, including MNPS’s re-opening plan. But that’ll have to wait until Monday. Till then, if you’re 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 deliver 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 non-existent. Not begging, just saying.

Make sure you don’t leave before answering this week’s poll questions.

 



Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. I think, the more localized institutions are, the more responsive they are to the people. In early America, there was no schools. That came later. Yet, during the revolutionary war, regular people, farmers and such, won and built this nation. Home schooling, with all the resources, is a much better prospect today. And by staying home, learning online, learning through books, guided by parent(s), even bringing a few families together, they will better think for themselves. The incredible amount of disinformation, lack of information, altered realities of understanding being perpetrated throughout society makes the opportunity for home schooling much brighter. I’ve always said, if you do it right, by the time a student/child has finished 5 or 6 years of home schooling, they will be far ahead of many high school graduates today, and some college students. Plus, they won’t have the disinformation swimming around in their heads. This is key. There are a few good teachers left, but they have to swim and dodge all the propaganda and controls, and this goes down to the children.

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