“Fight for the things that you care about, but do it in a way that will lead others to join you.” – Ruth Bader Ginsburg
“I will baptise her,” he said. “You have walked a long way for something you believe in. In our day that is rare. People seldom walk long distances for their faith. That’s why the world looks the way it does.”
Forgive me if some of today’s piece comes off a little disjointed. Things are evolving quickly and I’m still trying to process and consider implications – as are teachers and parents across the country. We are in a time of not only heightened health concerns but also of quickly evolming norms and practices. The events of today, and our reactions, will reverberate for decades. We have to do more than just find a means to survive the health threats. We need to ensure that our reactions don’t lead to greater inequities and economic threats to our most vulnerable.
In Tennessee, we are now officially 2 weeks away from the start of school. Except if you live in Shelby County, where they have had the good sense to push back the start of school to August 31 in an effort to ensure that they are adequately prepared. I’m not sure why MNPS doesn’t follow suit. It should be recognized that the possibility of bringing teachers back on one day and students back later, is also an option.
But since as of now MNPS is committed to August 4th as start date, I’d like to see a quick show of hands. Raise your hand if you currently have a computer and wifi access. Raise your hand if you have an understanding of what the typical day is going to look like for your children. Raise your hand if you have a clear understanding of the expectations your child will be asked to meet as they enter the classroom for the forthcoming school year.
If you are a teacher, raise your hand if you have a clear understanding of what each school day will look like for you. I’m not talking about suppositions and assumptions based on deciphering opaque district communications, I’m talking about actual written on paper directions on what your average school day will look like. Raise your hand if you are familiar with the lesson plans that will be provided to instruct students come 2 weeks from Monday. Raise your hand if you have a clear understanding of how attendance will be taken. Raise your hand if you understand how assessments will be conducted.
That’s about what I expected.
MNPS is poised to start the school year in two weeks, with all too few details settled and at a time when the consequences couldn’t be higher. I’ve repeatedly stated of late, and I’ll continue repeating it, we are now in the midst of a time not unlike the industrial revolution. Some may believe that this is crisis state and that as soon as we get infections under control, things will take on a familiar shape. Nothing could be further from the truth.
In the wake of COVID, the rules and practices of society are undergoing a rapid transformation that will forever change how we live our lives. Things are only going to keep going forward as we adapt, there is no returning to a previous state. That may sound hyperbolic, but in reality, is probably an understatement. Nowhere is that transformation more evident than in public education.
Due to the ongoing health crisis, and due to the tepid response by leadership, parents are being put in a position where they must make decisions about how they are going to procure their children’s educational opportunities. In the past, that was more a decision of “who”, but has now evolved to include “how” and “when”.
In making their decisions, they must not only weigh the quality of instruction available but also address safety concerns and how procurement will fit into professional and family lives. In response to this heightened need, alternatives are rapidly starting to spring up. Instead of just choosing private, public, or charter, parents can now choose to bind together with other like-minded families and avail themselves of multiple virtual options. Options that may appear limited now, but will quickly multiple and diversify.
Much of the growth is being fueled by the tepid and inadequate leadership being provided by the very people that should be providing reassurances. The Federal Department of Education under Betsy DeVos’s leadership has remained more invested in personal agendas than providing support for the nation’s public school system. As Charles Pierce points out in Esquire Magazine, “Public education never has had an alleged caretaker that’s more committed to its ultimate destruction.”
For its part, the Tennessee Department of Education under Penny Schwinn has not proven to be much better. The department seems much more invested in promoting themselves than in supporting schools. As it was expressed to me recently by one department staff member, “I am part of an entire workforce whose sole purpose is to further the career of Penny Schwinn.”
As a result, planning for the reopening of schools has fallen almost exclusively to the local level. And here’s where things get tricky and I’m probably going to say some things that will rub some folks wrong. I apologize if I offend some sensibilities, but I think some realities can not go unspoken. The stakes are too high.
In order to adequately open schools – virtually or face-to-face – there needs to be an influx of funding to address the increased challenges of operating in the current environment. Increased device usage translates into the procurement of materials, but also increased responsibilities for the IT department. Increased virtual learning brings an increased need for increased professional development for teachers. If schools are ever to open for f2f instruction, increased funding for janitorial services and cleaning supplies is going to have to be provided as well as the long-overdue updating of HVAC systems and facilities. For the larger school districts, who are already facing funding challenges, the needs far outweigh current resources and as a result, puts them in a very precarious position. Yet nobody shows any real urgency in addressing those needs.
While lack of resources is certainly a viable concern for MNPS, and districts like it, for their part there seems to be a decided lack of urgency and a failure by too many to recognize exactly what is at stake this coming school year. Yes these are difficult times and clear answers remain eleusive, but that doesn’t mean leadership is excused from meeting their obligations. Anyone can lead under optimal conditions, these are the times that define leaders.
Prior to the dawn of charter schools, district schools had the luxury of communicating information and rolling out plans at their leisure. Parents had little alternatives or opportunities for recource if left in the dark. Sure, they could go private, but how many could afford that option?
The same held true with teachers. You could leave them in the dark and demand increased accountability without fear, because what were they going to do? Where would they go? If you wanted to be a teacher, your primary source of employment was going to be the public school system. As a result, all the power resided with administrators. That’s fixin to change, but more on that later.
Charter schools became an alternative, along with a rise in homeschooling, and suddenly the landscape altered a bit. Parents had more options and so did teachers, albeit many of those opportunities proved to be not much better than the current crop, but options were growing.
Now they are fixing to change again, and curiously enough the very people that stand to lose the most are providing the least amount of input. Instead of strengthening relationships, administrators are actively putting stress on that essential element by not consulting, informing, or implementing in a timely manner. The fact that it is two weeks prior to the start of school and teachers are just now gaining access to the curriculum in inexcusable. Trying to deliver over 40k laptops and hot spots days before the start of school is equally so. Both will potentially have a negative impact on student learning.
School may be starting on August 4th, but instruction is to be focused solely on SEL subjects until the 17th. Academic instruction is not supposed to be delivered until after then with teachers relying on materials provided by the district that they are still in the process of creating. Some may think they will that they may ignore this district edict by quickly moving through the SEL component and beginning academic instruction. The old “shut your door and teach” strategy. But ‘shutting your door” is no longer an option as all synchronous instruction will be recorded and available to students. How much district leadership will enforce district policy remains to be seen.
Previously a parent looked up what school their child was assigned to, signed them up, and sent them off. There were questions of quality, but for the vast majority of parents, the idea of knowing that your children were accounted for and being provided educational opportunities for a consistent number of hours a day was sufficient. For those, that it wasn’t, and who had the means, charter schools and private schools were an option. But other than transportation, those choices had little impact on a family’s ability to seek employment or the day to day schedule. Charter and private schools for the most part mirrored the public option.
Safety and quality of instruction were considerations, but they weren’t, by and large being balanced against parental obligations in most homes. I know that for those that entered into the choice portal, these were frequent subjects of conversation, but again, the majority of parents simply sent their children to their zoned school or another district option.
All that has now changed. Parents are being expected to weigh the safety of their child, mental health implications, quality of instruction, along with an increase in family commitment, in deciding on schooling for their children. To make matters even more difficult they are being forced into these decisions with very limited information or guidance. Work schedules, child care, additional education services are all being considered independent of district offerings. If the district isn’t giving clear communications in a timely fashion, parents are going to turn to those that are offering clarity and reassurance.
With this hyper-scrutiny, comes a need that makes it essential that MNPS get the coming months right. Nothing short of the survival of the public school system hinges on it. Increased scrutiny and sacrifice is going to come with increased expectations. If a parent has to sacrifice an employment opportunity in order to stay home and monitor kids, there is going to be an expectation of increased value.
If a parent is put in a position where they feel they have to hire a tutor or join a micro-school in order to ensure that their child receives a quality education, the door is opened to questions on why they are paying increased taxes to fund schools. An issue that is especially pertinent to Nashville and sure to come into play.
I would caution teachers about making too strong an argument about the safety of opening schools for f2f instruction. Yes, the health of educators is a vital consideration and should not be taken lightly. Teachers are rightfully concerned for their personal safety, but if fear is instilled too deeply, how will you convince families to return in the future? The COVID may recede, but the issues raised in regard to the safety of re-opening are likely to stay. I’m of the mind that the coronavirus, and other health threats, will remain a part of the permanent landscape. In that light, how do you convince future families that schools are a safe place for their children?
If future families don’t invest in public schools, then the system will only become more underfunded. This means fewer families will be properly served and even more of them will seek alternatives. Where does that spiral end?
Based on current circumstances, I would not be the least surprised if come the beginning of this year’s general assembly, Governor Lee announces that the courts ruling on his voucher bill was the correct one – that he was too short-sighted. As a result, he’s introducing new legislation that makes vouchers available statewide and broadens the eligibility parameters. For the parent that has a pod or a micro-school that they are happy with, but doesn’t want to rely on the public school due to poor communication or a failure to align, there is now a path forward. Why would a family not take it?
Yes, there are huge equity issues that will come into play, but invariably, if it comes down to your child’s needs versus the needs of all children, your child’s needs are going to win out.
However, I’m pretty confident that non-profits will spring up that will offer micro-schools to lower-income families. Keep in mind that “non-profit” is a tax designation, not a income descriptor. If you have doubts, take a look at the parking lots of your favorite non-profit and count the number of luxury vehicles.
Organizations will leverage grants, donations, and corporate dollars into supplying services that will supply both child care and education services. I’m sure they will solicit volunteers to provide tutoring hours and other offerings. Ideally, some would focus on the needs of special education students, but that will be determined in the future. Whatever scope this takes, the potential for a negative impact on public schools will remain.
Florida Virtual School may be the only viable source of distance learning at this time, but I promise, come the spring, parents will have any number of options to choose from. With more options will come more departures.
What holds true for parents, also holds true for teachers. They will suddenly find any number of means to match their current earnings with increased flexibility. Now it won’t happen instantaneously, these things never do. But there will be no stopping the future opportunities and they will come sooner as opposed to later.
It always starts with the pioneers, the first ones through the door. They seldom benefit the most but are integral to identifying obstacles. Bill Gates didn’t become a billionaire because he was the first one through the door, but rather that he was in the second wave. The same will hold true here, challenges and issues will be identified and addressed allowing the preceeding waves to benefit at an increased level, until things eventually level off. However, there is no guarentee that things wil level off to such that public schools can adequately compete for the best candidates.
Some of the issues raised have been around pensions, health insurance, and other benefits. I’m pretty sure that if Lee brings voucher legislation, he will also bring legislation that allows teachers who serve as tutors or are employed my micro-schools a means to qualify for the state retirement system.
Professional organizations will spring up that cater to teachers who teach in alternative settings. These organizations will provide opportunities for teachers to purchase health insurance at a reduced cost. If you are making 45K while not having to pay 10K in insurance, you are still making less than a teacher earning 80K and having to pay 7k in insurance cost.
My main point here is that if a district is treating its reopening plan as simply crisis management, and failing to adequately consider future implications, they are leaving themselves at a serious disadvantage. The time for crisis management was back in the Spring, we have since moved into the realm of evolution, and participation is not an option. If LEAs don’t develop their own future policies and protocols, others – including parents – will do it for them. The world ain’t returning to a shape that we are familiar with and the only option is to embrace and try to positively impact the future.
One area that I would be concerned with were I a teacher, is the planned recording of teachers delivering lessons. MNPS’s plan is that teachers will record themselves and those lessons would be available to students who couldn’t originally be present for class. A nice concept, but who has propriety rights to those recordings, and who determines future use? I’m almost positive that since the recordings are done by district paid teachers on district paid time, that the district will lay claim – a position I don’t necessarily disagree with. But, what’s the scope for usage? That’s a conversation that I think needs to be held.
Teachers may or may not be aware that the Florida Virtual School offers an extensive list of offerings for professional development. Check them out.
Nashville’s Metro Council will hold their scheduled meeting tomorrow and as part of the agenda, they will name a replacement for Anna Shepherd’s vacated board seat. This is an important appointment as these are critical times for MNPS. I’m supporting Stephanie Bradford for the position. Bradford has 15 years of experience as a professional educator, the majority spent in the classroom. Her experience brings a sense of awareness to the unique challenges our schools are currently facing and makes her better equipped to aid in the search for solutions. She’s an independent voice who owes no allegiance to political entities, choosing instead to focus solely on the needs of the city’s children. Stephanie has received the endorsement from SEIU, MNEA, and the Central Labor Union. If you could, please contact your council member and ask them to vote for Stephanie, I’d be greatly appreciative. The right person, at the right time.
Apparently, y’all didn’t like my poll questions this past weekend, because participation was at an all-time low. I’ll hold those answers back for now and try to come up with better ones for next week.
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.
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Do you have a paypal account? I don’t know how to access Patreon or venmo.
I do it’s Thomaswebber1@comcast.net
Thank you for asking.