IN FOR A DIME, IN FOR A DOLLAR…or 5 MILLION OF THEM

“He read a lot. He used a lot of big words. I think maybe part of what got him into trouble was that he did too much thinking. Sometimes he tried too hard to make sense of the world, to figure out why people were bad to each other so often. A couple of times I tried to tell him it was a mistake to get too deep into that kind of stuff, but Alex got stuck on things. He always had to know the absolute right answer before he could go on to the next thing.”
Jon Krakauer, Into the Wild

“The man of knowledge must be able not only to love his enemies but also to hate his friends.”
Friedrich Nietzsche

 

Last night Nashville’s Metro Council appointed a new school board member. Congratulations to Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney as she takes over the seat vacated by the untimely death of former board chair Anna Shepherd. By all accounts, Nabaa-McKinney is a capable and exceptional replacement. Her presentation to the council yesterday was quite impressive and probably went a long way towards swaying council members to her side.

Unfortunately, last night’s proceedings were not completely free of political machinations. Education committee chair Dave Rosenberg cast his first ballot vote for Stephanie Bradford in an attempt to prevent candidate John Little from advancing. A move that was unsuccessful because McKinney and Little both tied with 11 votes while Bradford received 14. As a result, only the 4th candidate Steve Chauncey was prevented from advancing.

In the next round, Rosenberg switched his vote to Nabaa-McKinney, a move that successfully knocked Little out of contention. In the final round, the majority of Little’s votes transferred to Nabaa-McKinney, allowing her to secure the appointment by a vote of 25-14.

Mayor-to-be Council Member Bob Mendes missed the vote due to a family vacation. A curious decision seeing as he’s viewed as the city’s budget guru and MNPS takes up the largest portion of the budget. Mendes recently led the effort to raise property tax rates by 34%, in part to increase funding to the public school system. Surprisingly he was uninterested in influencing who would lead the district.

Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney will hold the school board seat until November when voters will have the opportunity to vote for the candidate who will serve out the remainder of Shepherd’s term until 2022. Both Little and Bradford have announced their intention to campaign for the seat, and the assumption is that Nabaa-McKinney will as well. Convincing voters will present a decidedly different challenge as opposed to convincing council members.

For the record, I just want to say how proud I am to have supported Stephanie Bradford in this race. She came into this race with little name recognition, and no political mentors, yet managed to almost take it based solely on her vision and ability to communicate that vision. It’s impressive. She’s impressive.

THE TEXAS GIFT THAT KEEPS ON GIVING

If you’ll remember, back when Governor Lee first appointed Penny Schwinn as Tennessee’s State Superintendent of Schools, there was a bit of scuttlebutt about some shenanigans with special education contracts and the commissioner’s favoring of friends in awarding those contracts.

Back in 2017, the Texas Education Agency, awarded a no-bid contract to a Georgia-based company SPEDx to help overhaul its special education practices by analyzing thousands of personal records of students with disabilities. Advocates quickly protested the awarding of the contract while by-passing the competitive bid process. In December the contract was canceled due to improprieties on TEA’s part. The cancelation meant the forfeiture of 2.2 million dollars that had already been paid to SPEDx

In August of the same year, TEA hired Laurie Kash as Special Education Director. In November, Kash was fired by TEA after allegations arose out of her previous employment in Oregon that she had helped cover up a case of sexual abuse. The two incidents might seem at first to be unconnected. Unfortunately for TEA, once it was revealed that Kash had filed a complaint against the agency for the illegal awarding of a contract one day prior to her termination, the narrative changed. Eventually, the agency was found guilty of a whistleblower violation and forced to pay Kash 200K.

That wasn’t the end of it though. A year later, a state audit reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx. The audit reported that TEA had failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision-maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.” Probably just slipped her mind, you know like her relationship with David Steiner who when she engaged to review the state’s ELA textbook adoption process she claimed, despite several notable connections, she barely knew, but I digress.

Here is an exercise in compare and contrast for you. After the whistleblower verdict was delivered the Texas Monitor wrote,

TEA said in a statement on Friday that the ruling was “extremely disappointing,” but “it does not change this essential fact: Texas needed to make serious improvements to its special education program. The commissioner took responsibility for fixing the program — and that included making personnel changes.” 

At the same time, in defending Schwinn, Governor Lee issued the following statement,

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” (Lee spokesperson) Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

In other words, damn the rules, full speed ahead. Maybe this is the very quality that led Lee to hire her.

Yesterday another shoe fell in the case of the SPEDx contract, with the Houston Chronicle reporting that “The U.S. Department of Education has asked Texas to repay more than $2.5 million after state auditors found the agency violated purchasing rules when it awarded a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract to a group tasked with collecting data about special education students.”

Man, that contract is getting expensive. Let’s see…2.2 million… plus 200k… plus 2.5 million…carry the one…that’s just shy of 5 million dollars burned due to the inappropriate actions of the commissioner. Impressive. Not every state education commissioner can put that on their resume.

Rumors that risen that the Governor was trying to show Penny off by having her appear at the White House in hopes that somebody would come along and take her off of our hands. Perhaps Lee might want to call Texas and see if they can give some tips on that strategy since its looking like that’s how they played us.

LESSONS NOT LEARNED

A logical person might assume that losing $5 million in taxpayer money due to contract improprieties would instill some lessons learned. Perhaps the party responsible would be a little more cautious going forth. That doesn’t seem to be the case with the commissioner.

I’ve written repeatedly this past year about the issues around the ELA textbook adoption process. Issues that contributed to legislators taking material waiver powers away from the department and giving them to the state board of education.

MNPS was originally slated to adopt Wit and Wisdom as an elementary curriculum. One of Schwinn’s preferred vendors, But the coronavirus has led to MNPS starting up school full time virtually and therefore preferring to procure their curriculum from the Florida Virtual School. Other districts across the state are making a similar decision to varying degrees.  For Nashville, that’s a 5 year/5 million dollar contract to provide a curriculum that will be utilized even after MNPS returns to f2f offerings and resulting in no money for Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom.

Simultaneous to MNPS’s decision, the coronavirus has led to budget cuts for districts across the state and therefore few are purchasing new materials from the department’s preferred vendor list. That can’t sit well for some of those vendors who have invested heavily in Tennessee via sponsored trips to Baltimore, district informational meetings, and an expensive PR campaigned geared towards promoting the adoption of their materials, including, but not limited to, products from Amplify and Great Minds.  All that investment, seemingly, has gone to waste.

Luckily the Department of Education doesn’t forget it’s friends. Yesterday in a press release Ms. Schwinn announced that “The Tennessee Department of Education today released a free, optional supplement to support early literacy, TN Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement, which follows evidenced-based research to build a solid foundation for literacy in pre-K through second grade.”

It doesn’t take a literacy specialist the similarities between this material and the offerings of the aforementioned vendors. The material is being touted as optional to districts, but I heard yesterday that MNPS has already made plans to implement the material. Which raises a question of how optional is it?

The materials are purportedly produced through a collaboration between several different local participants, but it is acknowledged to be based on previous work developed by Core Knowledge, or as we like to refer to them, CKLA. I’m not exactly sure where it is written that the department of education is tasked with the job of curriculum development, but since they’ve taken it upon themselves, let’s look at who they are collaborating with for curriculum development. Featured prominently in the credits, are the names, David and Meredith Liben.

You may not be familiar with the Liben’s names, but I bet you are familiar with their work. According to the web site for the organization Achieve the Core,

Together with Meredith Liben, David founded two innovative model schools in New York City – New York Prep, a junior high school in East Harlem, and in 1991, the Family Academy – where he served as Principal and lead curriculum designer. David synthesized the research behind the Common Core State Standards in ELA, and, with his wife Meredith, was part of the research team that determined the complexity levels for the standards.

If you want to know more about the Libens, you can go to Amplify and listen to their podcast. And yes, that Amplify, the one who was marketing CKLA in Tennessee pre-pandemic.

Now, let’s hop in the way back machine and revisit Governor Lee’s first State of the State speech where he declared, “Another important issue in education is curriculum. We should continue to root out the influence of Common Core in our state.” Hmm…the Governor giveth and the commissioner taketh. It doesn’t seem like the two are on the same page, does it? If I didn’t know better I might think this development paints Lee as being a little…disingenuous.

The Commissioner touts the material as being cost-free to districts, but was it cost-free to develop? A good question and one that probably bears further investigation. Let’s just hope this doesn’t end up costing Tennessee taxpayers 5 million dollars.

LOOKING OUT

Online news magazine the Tennessee Lookout ran a piece on Monday that attempted to lift some of the mystery around MNPS’s usage of the Florida Virtual School, but unfortunately for me, it just created more mysteries.

The article attempts to draw a line of differentiation between FVS and MNPS.

It’s important for parents to understand that their children will not be enrolled in Florida Virtual School. Students will be enrolled in the same schools they were expected to attend and they’ll be taught by teachers at that school.

This statement needs some further clarification. Yes, MNPS students will remain tettered to their local schools and instruction will be delivered primarily by MNPS teachers. But the materials are all provided by FVS.

FVS uses a learning management system called Brightspace to deliver content. Instead of learning a new platform, MNPS chose to utilize an LMS they are marginally familiar with, Schoology. That and the teachers involved are the only differences between students being enrolled in FVS vs MNPS. To some that is a huge difference, but if teacher input is limited, how big a difference is it really?

FVS classes are created out of the Florida State Standards, instead of the Tennessee State Standards. You might wonder how the two compare. I did, so I asked MNPS for the crosswalk between them and was told that the document doesn’t exist. Per the Tennessee Lookout, Executive Director of Teaching and Learning David Williams says, “the district’s content teams are in the process of reviewing the Florida Virtual School curriculum grade-by-grade to ensure it meets the state Department of Education standards and aligns with TNReady, the end-of-year standardized test that was skipped last school year due to the pandemic.”

He goes on to add, “that before the curriculum is shared with teachers, the content team will add or supplement the materials provided by Florida Virtual School. That might mean an extra lesson plan or two in a particular subject.”

This begs a couple questions. Earlier in the article, it is pointed out that this isn’t the first time Metro has utilized Florida Virtual School for curriculum since MNPS has offered a virtual school option to middle school and high school students since 2011. So how come the standards comparison is not readily available? Has nobody thought to compare the two in over a decade of usage?

Secondly, teachers are being encouraged to modify materials but since assessments are embedded in the lesson plans, how will that work? If teachers’ currently had access to lesson, we might have an answer to that question, but high school teachers are just now being granted access and K-5 teachers are not being slated to see the materials until late next week. the subject remains moot. I’d be lying if I didn’t say that it was concerning.

Williams and Vitty are attempting to portray the relationship between MNPS and VHS as more collaborative than it likely is. I would argue that the current circumstances are probably not dissimilar to those with roofers who descend on a neighborhood after a tornado. In the aftermath of the natural disaster, they are securing as many contracts as a possible knowing competitor is right around the corner. That first day, you have 15 people working on your house, while the next day the workforce has shrunk to two while the contractor rushes to secure more contracts.

I’m sure that the FVS is cognizant of the fact that while they’ve gotten the jump on the competition, come Spring it will be a crowded field. They need to operate with some urgency, less they get left behind.

There are other questions that the article fails to address. One would be, doesn’t the district need to submit a waiver of materials request to the Tennessee Department of Education in order to utilize the FVS curriculum? At a recent school board meeting, Dr. Williams indicated “no” to that question. But that makes no logical sense to me as none of FVS content providers are on the state’s preferred vendor list. A fact that has to not sit well with those vendors who jumped through hoops to get on the list.

Lurking behind all of this is the state’s requirement to submit for approval a Continuous Learning Plan. That plan is due to be submitted by the end of the week and I’m increasingly interested to see the state’s response to submitted plans. There are a number of areas where I’m not sure the district’s plan aligns with the state’s vision.

For example, the state is requiring that the district plan meets the 180-day threshold with the district providing asynchronous and synchronous instruction each of those days. Guidelines from the TNDOE advise that all students must receive daily instruction, not just content delivery. MNPS is proposing that the first week of school consists of no synchronous instruction and that all instruction focus on SEL and be delivered asynchronously via modules created by the district. Does that meet the State’s threshold? Or at some point are we going to add days at the end of the calendar? It would be a great opportunity for another survey.

Attendance in synchronous learning opportunities is not mandated by MNPS. Lessons will be recorded and students will be given the opportunity to watch on their schedule. So if nobody attends a synchronous class, when does that become an asynchronous offering? And is the district still meeting its requirements? I would think that would depend on whether the threshold is “offering” or “delivering”.

Seeing as there is BEP money attached to a district’s adherence to its CLP, I would want to make sure there was complete clarity on those answers, as the consequences of misinterpretation could have some very negative connotations.

These are some of the questions I have going forth. While I recognize that it’s impossible to have answers to all of them, it is imperative that more are answered than not. As I stated earlier in the week, we are moving out of crisis management and into evolution, as such it’s imperative that districts get as much right as possible. If we don’t control the process, someone else will and the outcomes could mean lost revenue for districts resulting in an increase in educational inequities.

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

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: