“The era of procrastination, of half-measures, of soothing and baffling expedients, of delays is coming to its close. In its place we are entering a period of consequences.”
This week marks my 13th opening of school week as the spouse of a classroom teacher. It marks my 7th as an author of a weekly education blog. It marks my 7th as a parent of school-age children. This week I find myself wrestling with a plethora of challenging issues. Like many involved in the public education world – parents, teachers, principals, administrators – I’m struggling to process it all.
I started this blog 7 years ago after watching the struggles my wife went through in order to pursue a passion that called to her. I watched her first several years unfold, filled with a sense of pride and amazement. Being a classroom teacher is hard work. That seems like an understatement, but there is no way to adequately describe the sweat, tears, and elbow grease that goes into educating children. It’s never a 40 hour week, and it’s a job that’s never completed. There is never enough time – never enough resources.
I’ve seen the tears of frustration shed late at night while trying to pull together the final strings of a PBL project that nobody wanted to undertake but has now fully engaged a classroom of 5th graders. I’ve seen the tears of tragedy when a former student, one filled with so much promise meets an untimely end due to the constraints imposed on them by an uncompromising society. I’ve seen the tears of joy after running into and being excitedly greeted by a former student who is now working at Kroger and putting themselves through college – an affirmation that past lessons had taken root. It case you haven’t caught on by now, there are a lot of tears involved in being a teacher.
The first week of school, by my observation, has always been difficult. New students to meet. New policies to implement. New colleagues to integrate with. In the early years of her career, the school year would end and the planning for next year would begin. The first week of June was a time to meet with teammates and map out the coming year while the successes and failures of the previous year were still fresh. It’s been my experience that teachers by nature are planners and have a desire to be over-prepared as opposed to operating on the fly.
June would be the time to lay the groundwork, while July would be the month devoted to recharging and gathering materials for the coming year.
July for some teachers meant working a second job, or pursuing additional degrees. Others, knowing that family time during the school year would be limited, planned family activities and undertake household projects. By the time the start of school rolled around plans were in place and teachers were ready to greet children, anxious to meet their students. to begin anew.
Over the last several years. something has changed. There seems to be a larger disconnect between those supervising teachers and those actually in the classroom. New initiatives and expectations are repeatedly introduced late in the summer, giving little time for integration and preparation. As a result, stress levels have risen and attrition rates have increased. Still teachers soldier on, no matter how untenable the position becomes the vast majority rise to the challenge and do whatever it takes to set students up for success. Often at great personal cost.
It’s gotten to the point where the extra effort is longer appreciated, but rather an expectation. The expectation has become that you can raise the bar as high as you like and teachers will leap to meet it. Thus creating a safety net for district administrators. As the bar for teachers is being raised the bar for district leadership is lowered.
What is the incentive to create concise and timely communications when you know that teachers will decipher your words and make it work no matter how plans are communicated? No matter how incomplete they are?
Why create plans early enough to allow proper vetting and ample time for adjustment when you know that you can dump things on teachers at the last minute and they’ll work overtime to make them work? Sure they may grumble a bit, but does anybody really listen?
Too often administrators creat plans under the guise of easing teachers’ burden, only to have the result be the opposite because they never really asked for teacher input before implementing.
In the last couple of years, I equate the start of school with the following analogy. You are walking down a long stretch of road with a loved one and on the horizon you see a truck speeding towards you. It’s barreling right towards your loved one, but you are powerless to stop it from running over them. In the past, the truck was content to just run them over, but these days it seems like the truck stops and backs over them repeatedly, while you stand there powerless to intervene. After the truck departs they get up, battered and bruised, and want to continue walking the road, knowing full well that the truck will be returning soon.
When you ask them why. They explain this stretch of road is a beautiful walk and that the people they meet pull at their heart. They explain that for some inexplicable reason they are compelled to continue forth. And so the walk continues.
This year is presenting so many challenges. Challenges created by COVID but acerbated by leadership. Challenges that I believe will permanently alter the way public education is delivered. There is a tendency to want to maintain a “positive air” and to avoid negative thoughts as parents, teachers, and administrators forge forward. In my opinion that would be a mistake, now more than ever it’s imperative that we practice tough love with an institution that I believe is a cornerstone of our democracy.
It’s like the conversation with my 11-year old daughter earlier this week. Her and her mother never seem to flinch from a conflict, even when I wish they would. There love for each ever never in doubt. “Sorry Daddy if my truth hurts”, she says to me, “I don’t mean it to, but I’m like mommy. Her truth really hurts.” Their brutal honesty with each others makes them both better.
We must try harder than ever to make our schools adapt to the changing times. To embrace innovation and move out of the world of crisis management. What transpires over the next 6 months will reverberate for decades. School districts have an opportunity to either demonstrate their relevance or send families scurrying to explore other options. And trust me, the options will be more plentiful than at any other previous time.
There have been repeated calls this week for patience and grace. Yes, they are important but also recognize that the ability to practice both is a sign of privilege. Not every family has the capacity to be patient. This past week many re-arranged work schedules in order to help their children navigate the first week of school only to encounter technical issues and sparse offerings. As an appeasement, they were told this week is just so we can become acclimated and everybody can get used to the system. It’s all fluff.
How is that appeasing if as a parent you’ve taken off work, putting your employment at risk, in order for your child to start school only to be told these days are more dedicated to adults than children? This happens while we simultaneously preach the value of social-emotional learning. So which is it, days filled with the opportunity to work out the kinks, or essential SEL instruction. It can’t be both.
As a parent, if the state demands 180 days, then it is my right to decide the value of each of those 180 days and to expect the district to treat each of them with equal value. The requirement isn’t for 90 really important days, 30 that are kinda important, 30 that may be important, and 30 that are just for adults to get things figured out.
I’m no Pollyanna, and I understand that every day is not created equal, but who gets to decide which days are more equal than others? And shouldn’t we always strive to do better?
There is a quote by Winston Churchill that I almost used at the beginning of this piece because I believe it is so relevant,
“It is not enough that we do our best; sometimes we must do what is required.”
Teachers have been living that quote for a long time, and it’s high time that those who lead start living it as well. It’s imperative that as we re-invent education that we also revise how we are setting up teachers. There will always be a need to work longer hours and make personal investments. But it the need doesn’t need to be deliberating.
Teaching will always be hard work. It’ll never be an easy job. But it shouldn’t be a job requirement to regularly get the shit kicked out of you and accept it.
Before closing, I do need to give props to the district’s IT department. There’s is not the task of providing the plan, merely making sure the tools to enact function. They too have worked long thankless hours in an effort to work miracles.
Going back to my illustration, it’d be a natural reaction to ask, if you know the truck is coming down the road why after getting repeatedly run over don’t you get of the road? I don’t know the answer to that question, but I do know that I am extremely grateful that many teachers are still searching for the answer themselves. It’s time we start coming up with a better answer and make the walk a little safer before they decide it’s no longer a worthwhile endeavor. It’s time we start valuing the invaluable.
MNPS SCHOOL BOARD
The MNPS school board began its own process of transformation yesterday. Mid-afternoon saw the swearing-in of the newest board member, Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney, as the representative for District 4. Dr. Nabaa-McKinney, a former teacher with MNPS, was appointed by the Metro Council to serve following the death of Chair Anna Shepherd. She’ll have to run for re-election in November.
Yesterday was also election day in Tennessee. And keeping in tune with past school board elections, it was great news tempered with heavy disappointment. On the positive side, both Abigail Taylor and Emily Masters won their bids to replace Amy Frogge and Jill Speering respectively. Both won handily.
This is especially notable in the case of Masters who was the target of an extensive mail campaign funded by the education reform group Tennesseans for Student Success. It is estimated that the group spent upwards of 20K in an effort to defeat Masters. Her win also plays counter to a narrative that opponents of Jill Speering were trying to establish. They argued that voters in the district were displeased with Speering over her handling of the former Director of Schools Shawn Joseph. Since Master was Speering’s chosen successor, the thinking was that she would be vulnerable. That proved to be a false presumption.
The disappointing news was that once again former board chair Sharon Gentry managed to win re-election. This news is especially disappointing because it appears to reiterate that politics trumps all. Gentry who has continually underperformed as a board member benefits from her ex-husband former deputy mayor Howard Gentry’s political connections and acumen. Prior to the election, there was speculation that Dr. Gentry would be vulnerable this year because, in the age of COVID, Howard wouldn’t be able to fire up his old truck and deliver BBQ to the district’s voters, a proven tactic in the past.
In Robert Taylor, she was faced with an opponent who was not only a dedicated family man, but also an experienced educator and a tireless community advocate. It’s hard to imagine the district finding a more worthy challenger. In the end, it wasn’t enough. Gentry won by a large margin. Whatever she’s got, the constituents of District 1 want more of it.
I guess the silver lining to it all is that in Emily Masters, Abigail Taylor, and Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney, the board has received an infusion of leadership potential. This year the chair position will likely fall to either Gini Pupo-Walker or Christiane Buggs, two troubling candidates. Buggs is prone to not do her homework and as a result, often misspeaks. Walker simultaneously serves as the executive director of an education reform group that champions standardized testing despite MNPS’s parents frequently voicing concerns about standardized testing.
Hopefully will get through this year, and one of the aforementioned will be able to take the leadership mantle.
A large thank you goes out to Amy Frogge and Jill Speering for their 2 terms of public service. You will be missed.
A quick shout out to my dear old friend Heidi Campbell who yesterday won the democratic primary for District 20. Here is hoping she beats Dickerson in November.
A QUESTION OF TESTING
While superintendents and teachers continually raise questions about the validity of standardized testing this year, some parties are continuing to push for testing waivers requests be denied this year. Last week a consortium of ed reform groups sent a letter to Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos requesting that the Eduction Department make clear that it expects states to stay the course on statewide testing, while also committing to ways it plans to support them as they address these challenges (e.g. technical assistance, funding flexibility, and/or guidance). In other words, let’s get to testing.
Among those signing the letter are Tennessee’s own SCORE and EduTrust, which is headed up by MNPS board member Gini Pupo-Walker. Apparently, conflict of interest isn’t a thing in the age of COVID. This call to maintain testing comes at a time when MNPS is starting school all virtually, despite a lack of computers for all students. As part of this transition, teachers are just now seeing the curriculum that they will be teaching over the next couple of months. That data produced under these conditions can not be compared to previous efforts, nor can it be effectively used as a benchmark because circumstances are continually evolving.
Now is the perfect time to recognize the imperfections of standardized testing. The truth is their results speak more to the socio-economic status of students than they do to actual learning. As public education itself is undergoing a rapid transformation, it’s imperative that assessment models embark on a similar transformation if they are going to provide information tht truly benefits students.
WHAT ARE YOU TALKING ABOUT?
I must make an admission here. Often I suffer under the illusion that Tennessee is served by an effective and competent Department of Education. That belief leads me to accept pronouncements at face value. When the state board of education created the rule that all school districts across the state had to complete, and submit for approval, a continuous learning plan, I took it at face value. I warned educators that the state was serious and that these CLPs would heavily impact LEAs going forward. After all the threat of holding up BEP was attached to the rule.
Well, those CLPs are now available online and I’ve been proven wrong. In her portion of yesterday’s Governor’s update, State Superintendent Penny Schwinn touted the completion rate for CLP’s as being around 60%, but when I go to the department’s website and randomly click through the district’s, I find outside of the major urban districts, most have not completed their plans. In reading both MNPS’s and Hamilton County’s plans, it quickly becomes clear that due to the density of these plans, it would be virtually impossible for the TNDOE to review and vet these plans in a timely manner. So I don’t anticipate that’ll they carry the weight I originally anticipated.
At yesterday’s Governor’s press conference, Commissioner Schwinn outlined the many initiatives that the Department is rolling out through their Best For All hub. I perused the hub per Schwinn’s invite and came away only more confused. The hub is home to several video tapped lessons from teachers across the state. In describing these lessons, the commissioner seemed to indicate that they could be used for instruction by districts that were moving to a remote setting. And the Governor’s press release includes the following
“Best for All Central provides resources that allow a district to move seamlessly in and out of face-to-face learning and distance learning. Moreover, the resources allow districts to serve students who may be safer at home, and students who can attend lessons in their traditional school environment. Over time, the tool will provide innovative solutions for connecting resources to assessment data, customizing instruction for a variety of situations, and family well-being tools,” said Lisa Coons, Chief of Standards and Materials.
But it’s almost mid-August, does is the inference that districts haven’t already made plans? Surely the TNDOE and the Governor don’t think districts have been waiting around for materials from them, do they?
Part of the rollout is a Standards portion that is supposedly intended to help parents understand Tennessee state standards despite using language that is probably unfamiliar to most parents. All in all, this is just another case of too little, too late. To me, Schwinn’s whole appearance at the Governor’s briefing felt like an audition for another employer. Hopefully, she aced the interview.
One last question for Governor Lee. Are Tennesseans capable of accomplishing anything? The reason I ask is, his Chief of Staff is from Alabama. His Education Superintendent is from California and her cabinet is comprised of people from Michigan and Texas. Governor Lee hired a woman from Florida to oversee the implementation of state voucher programming, who hired a Florida company to handle program enrollments. The masks being supplied to government employees were somewhat produced in Tennessee, but the manufacturing company’s headquarters are in North Carolina. And now, he’s brought in a tech company from Maryland, that has done extensive business with the Texas Education Authority, Trinity Education Group, to help construct the Best For All hub.
The owners of Trinity are Clyde Boyer and Christine Case, late of Laureate Education. In 2014, the Washington Post reported that “Laureate is backed by several of the biggest names in finance, including Henry Kravis, George Soros, Steve Cohen and Paul Allen“. At least now maybe we can get some of that Soros money. Though, it sure would be nice if some of that Tennessee tax money could help Tennessee’s business owners. Unless we are just not capable of doing the work in-state.
And in late-breaking news, what would a Penny Schwinn administration be without a wrongful termination suit? We’ll never know because according to ChalkbeatTN, Katie Poulos, a former member of Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s executive team is seeking $1.5 million in damages from the Tennessee Department of Education in a lawsuit that says she was fired after being hospitalized and taking a medical leave. Per Chalkbeat,
Poulos was chief schools officer when she was dismissed on Oct. 29, 2019, about seven weeks after returning from a six-week medical leave. She had been responsible for the state’s school improvement work, the school turnaround initiative known as the Achievement School District, and programs overseeing charter, private, and home schools across Tennessee.
You can’t make this stuff up.
That’s it for now. We’ll see you on Monday.
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.
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