“What you do in this world is a matter of no consequence. The question is what can you make people believe you have done.”
“Where’s jazz going? I don’t know. Maybe it’s going to hell. You can’t make anything go anywhere. It just happens.”
The day begins as most do around the Weber household. My nine-year-old son Peter is in the recliner with his Ipad. I’m sitting with my laptop catching up on the morning’s news. A record plays in the background, providing the soundtrack for our lives. This morning it happens to be the Beatle’s Rubber Soul.
“Daddy,” Peter says from the chair, “They should just wait to start school till they can do it in person.”
“Yeah buddy, that’s not going to happen,” I respond.
“Because that’s the decision they’ve made.”
“And you agree with every decision they make? Come on Daddy.”
He goes on to expound on why he’s not a fan of online learning. It’s boring. Kids have trouble learning in person, how do we expect them to do it on a computer. There are so many glitches that you don’t really get to learn. Don’t people know what real school looks like? He closes with the observation that many of those making decisions about schooling haven’t actually been in class for a decade and so he graciously volunteers his spot in order to provide them the opportunity to familiarize themselves with the classroom.
His comments are not unlike those I hear frequently expressed on social media and in private parent conversations on a regular basis. Teachers and administrators are working diligently to smooth the rough edges, but digital learning is very much a work in progress. That is the essential thought to remember right now – It’s a work in progress
The way virtual learning looks today is not the way it is going to look next month. And it will probably look even more different come next Spring and doubly so in the years to come. Practitioners will modify practices and policies. New players will enter the field. Parents will modify in order to meet changing needs. Clearly defined needs will produce new policies and practices, as well as new tools. The door has been kicked wide open and as new possibilities are realized, new looks will emerge.
Some of the changes will prove detrimental and some will make learning infinitely more accessible. Many are those that will try and make predictions about outcomes. The only sure thing will be that many of those predictions will be proven wrong. The only prediction that I am willing to make is that now that the process has started, evolution will accelerate and in some cases, the challenge will be just to keep up.
What’s going on now is now unlike when caveman first walked out of the dark with fire. I’m sure those first lessons were painful ones, but it wasn’t long before human ingenuity was unlocking the many benefits made possible by the discovery of fire. I have little doubt that along the path to enlightenment there were plenty of those who focused on the dangers of the flame and encouraged fellow tribesmen to extinguish the fire and not expose themselves to the destruction of bodies and property. After all, our caves were pretty comfortable and had met the needs of the majority of tribesmen for centuries.
Going backward was never an option though. Once exposed, the flame would never be extinguished. The only true path was forward.
Henceforth from today, distance learning will forever be an integral part of education. In that light, I continue to urge school districts, especially MNPS, to hire a Chief of Virtual Schooling and compensate them accordingly. If public schools are to compete then it is essential that they are running near the front of the pack when it comes to the advancement of virtual schooling.
Today it is only anecdotal, but when the official counts come in, I think it will be confirmed that public schools are taking a substantial hit when it comes to enrollment numbers. A lack of confidence in the public school system is inflating the rolls of private schools, homeschoolers, and out of county schools. Schools that have been underfunded for years now find themselves facing a future with even fewer resources unless they quickly adapt to changing times. Charter schools, long used to playing the role of the poacher, are now equally in danger of losing students in the ever-evolving future where parents will have even more choices. .
By all accounts, kindergarten registrations this year are about half of what was anticipated. In some ways, that is to be expected. Hopefully, the trend will right itself next year and the 2021 class will double in size. But we can’t take that for granted and must recognize that families that begin their educational journey on one path are unlikely to switch roads midway.
Under the current circumstances, opening schools virtually is absolutely the right strategy. Failure to do so would not only be a denial of current circumstances, but also an exercise in clinging to the past. However, in making the argument for the prudent strategy, care must be taken to not install so much fear that people forever turn from public schools. By the same token, we must be careful that we don’t rely on the current state of digital learning in order to make the case for the value of in-person instruction. Many of today’s shortcomings will be corrected in the near future and as a result, old arguments won’t hold weight.
The only certainty from here on out is that nothing is certain. The change will be fast and in some cases painful. Acknowledging that pain and the discomfort involved is essential to finding new solutions. Solutions that create new avenues of comfort.
Personally, I believe that as public education evolves, so will society itself. Businesses may be forced to become more flexible with work schedules. The internet may become a public utility. Health care may evolve in order to accommodate the increased risks.
The point of all this? Just to tell you it’s all right to hate all of it. It is all right to wish for a return to the way it was. It is all right to doubt the possibilities of the options being put forth. Just know that all of this is going to keep right on evolving and just because you aren’t comfortable today, doesn’t mean you won’t find more comfort next week. Or next month. Or next year.
It all right to be inspired by the changes. It is all right to be thrilled at the potential being presented. It is all right to want to help speed things along. That doesn’t mean you’ll necessarily feel that way next week. Or next month. Or next year.
Where you are with the change is not where you will be in the future. There will be peaks and there will be valleys – good times and bad times. Through it, all the processes will continue moving forward. In other words, the flame is not going back in the cave.
So strap in and enjoy week two and remember these days are going to give us some great tales to tell our grandchildren.
Last week Commissioner rolled out a handful of “new” Department of Education initiatives under the title of “Best of All Central”. Upon reviewing the offerings I was deeply puzzled. What was the point of putting up video lessons, while schools were in the process of opening? I wrote the effort off as being a typical Commissioner Schwinn led initiative, too little, too late. But I forgot the other hallmark of a Schwinn Strategy.
With this commissioner, there is always a hidden agenda, or embedded friends and family plans. Best of All Central is no exception.
You’ll remember that over the last year Commissioner Schwinn, along with her trusty sidekick Lisa Coons, has tried to get their preferred ELA vendors product in as many schools as possible. A move they were quite successful at pre-COVID. The majority of LEA’s adopted curriculum offered up by the department’s friends – Great Minds, Amplify, Expeditionary Learning. Unfortunately, before purchasing could commence, COVID struck and the district’s budgets were hit hard preventing them from actually buying products.
Instead of those companies championed by the TNDOE getting paid, the windfall has fallen to the Florida Virtual School. Shelby County Schools, Nashville, and Knoxville are all planning to invest in their curriculum instead of previously made selections. I suspect that has led to more than a few terse conversations between vendors, Ms. Schwinn, and Ms. Coons. What’s a humble public servant to do when they can’t deliver on promises made to their friends at private companies?
In the commissioner’s case, she just gets more creative. She enlisted PBS to start airing lessons on their channel. Lessons that upon closer inspection revealed a heavy CKLA influence. That’s Amplify if you are keeping score at home.
Watching the lessons offered in the Best for All hub reveals an interesting copyright – 2014 Common Core , Inc. Some rights reserved. commoncore.org.
Those of you following along at home know that Common Core Inc was the name of the organization that produces Wit and Wisdom prior to re-naming the company Great Minds. Per Educator Mercedes Schneider,
2015. Common Core, Inc., changed its name to Great Minds. In August 2015, Common Core-holdout and 2016 presidential candidate, Jeb Bush, called Common Core “poisonous.” Not sure if the name change was influenced by an attempt to avoid the words, “common core,” but the now-Great Minds nonprofit was making notable money. Program service revenue (the money generated by Great Minds products and services) ballooned from $3.2M in 2014 to $20M in 2015. At the same time, contributions and grants dropped, from $6.2M to $1.5M.
It is further worth noting that earlier in 2015 Common Core board chair Barbara Byrd-Bennett pleaded guilty of receiving kickbacks and bribes. Bennett had been on the Common Core, Inc., board since 2008. Probably all just a terrible misunderstanding.
In light of her pals’ ability to move product being hindered, Commissioner Schwinn has been quick to readjust. What better opportunity to demonstrate the value of favored vendors, then by providing them an opportunity to showcase their product to a captive audience during a pandemic. Surely this isn’t acceptable to state legislators.
Here’s an added bonus for you. Back during State Senate hearings, Schwinn was being quizzed by education committee chair Delores Gresham on her decision to bring in John Hopkins University and David Steiner to review Tennessee’s textbook adoption process. When Gresham pointedly asked if Schwinn had a prior relationship with Steiner, the commissioner gave her best Eddie Haskel face and answered, she’d gone to school at John Hopkins, but that’s the extent of her and Steiner’s relationship.
Interesting, because the middle school lessons offered through the Best for All hub utilize Engage New York Common Core materials written by…wait for it…David Steiner. Remember conflict of interest does not exist in the COVID era.
All of this would merely be a cause for raised eyebrows if not for Schwinn’s recent history in Texas and her failure there to acknowledge a prior relationship in awarding a contract to SPEDx. A contract that ultimately cost the Texas Education Association over $5 million dollars in assorted costs and legal actions. Is this something that Tennessee really wants to emulate?
EDUCATION IS SUPPOSED TO BE ROOTED IN LEARNING
I think some people subscribe to the theory that if you ain’t getting sued, you ain’t doing meaningful work. If that is the case then Commissioner Schwinn is doing some of the most meaningful work in the country. Friday brought the announcement that she now had a wrongful termination lawsuit filed by former chief schools officer Katie Poulo to match the one she earned and ultimately lost in Texas.
Poulos ended a successful 3.5-year tenure with the New Mexico Public Education Department to join Penny Schwinn in Tennessee. In New Mexico, Poulus was instrumental in increasing accountability for the state’s charter schools. Within a month after joining the TNDOE under Schwinn as an Assistant Superintendent, she was promoted to Chief of Schools. In this role, Poulos was charged with overseeing the state’s Achievement School District and programs overseeing charter, private, and home schools across Tennessee. The promotion was supposed to come with a $14,000 annual salary increase, raising her salary to $144,000. A raise that never materialized.
Prior to the restructuring that resulted in Poulos’s promotion, respected Memphis Educator Sharron Griffen reported directly to the Commissioner. The restructure place her as a direct report to Poulos. Griffen left shortly after. Evidence however indicates that Griffen’s departure had more to do with Schwinn’s leadership style as opposed to the reassignment.
A letter written by Dr.Merideth Machen of the League of Woman Voters upon Poulos’s departure from New Mexico highlighted the administrator’s success while employed by NMDOE,
Through her leadership, there has been better training of charter school governing boards and administrators, improved evaluation rubrics, and more financial oversight. Unlike her predecessors, she worked with the PEC when it decided not to authorize a charter and when it voted to revoke a charter. She also helped to bridge the gap between the LESC and the PED.
Poulos had been an aspiring attorney before giving up the practice to teach 8th-grade pre-algebra in Greenville, Mississippi.
Over the summer of 2019, for Poulos, working under Schwinn had become untenable and as a result, Poulos took a 6-week leave of absence to address some mental health issues that contributed to a public breakdown at work. After returning the administrator was treated poorly at by both Schwinn and the Human Resources Department under David Donaldson. She was told that she could keep her salary and position but her duties were removed and she was assigned as a direct report to Eve Carney. Employees that were hired during Poulos’s leave of absence were given details by leadership that by all rights should have been HIPPA protected. Seven weeks after her return from leave, the Chief of Schools was dismissed.
Because Ms.Poulus’s medical leave was related to mental health, there have already been whispers out of the department trying to paint her in a disparaging light. This seems blatantly hypocritical as the department under Schwinn has tried to position themselves as champions of mental health for children. It’s hard to reconcile the image of Ms. Schwinn has a protector of children’s mental health while discriminating against someone who actively sought help while under her leadership. You can visit all the schools opening up in person under a pandemic, and it still won’t change the facts.
By all accounts, the way Ms. Poulus was treated by Schwinn and Donaldson was horrific. As details continue to emerge, they will only serve to further color the tenure of Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Hopefully, it’ll also force us to have a conversation about how we perceive and treat mental health. To her credit, Ms. Poulos sought help and has taken steps that have allowed her to continue as a ranking administrator with Republic Charter Schools after being disacrded by the TNDOE.
Eventually, an adult is going to have to step in and hold Schwinn and her team accountable for the way they’ve conducted business in the name of the state of Tennessee. But I guess that’s what happens when you hire people from out of state who don’t embrace the principals and expectations of Tennesseans. There is nothing in Schwinn’s tenure that is reflective of the Tennessee way of doing things. The only question that remains is, how long will the governor allow her to besmirch the reputation of Tennessee educators.
There is a school board meeting scheduled for Tuesday, Septemeber 10th. A perusal of the agenda shows the district poised to spend several million dollars on programming for the exceptional education department. I must say recent purchases give me a little bit of a spider-sense tingling when it comes to teacher autonomy in the coming months. Hopefully, it is just me being paranoid.
Rae Pica put a piece out last week addressing parents’ worries about potential learning loss in early childhood. The article is worth reading but this paragraph sums it all up,
I’m sorry, but how devastating could it be? What learning, specifically, is being lost? The ability to meet unrealistic standards imposed on them by people who don’t understand child development, including the ridiculous expectation that they read and write by the end of kindergarten? The capacity to fill in worksheets or stare at a computer screen, or to take useless tests? The ability to handle pressure they should never have been exposed to in the first place?
One thing that is becoming increasingly clear, as MNPS enters its second week of virtual instruction, is the need for stricter guidelines on the teacher time commitment. A recent MOU between MNPS and MNEA states the following,
All teachers shall be present at their respective schools seven and one-half (7 l/2) hours each school day. This accounts for the seven-hour instructional day and arrival and departure based on the needs of the students.
Let’s be real for a minute. There ain’t a teacher in Nashville right now working a 7.5 hour day. Most are working 10 -12. So what are the expectations if an email comes in at 8 at night? How responsive should a teacher be to chats received by team members? How should teacher meetings that take place in school be conducted if not all parties are comfortable attending in person? Right now all of that, and more, are being left unaddressed, subject to individual interpretation. That needs to be addressed pretty damn quickly.
The chat feature of TEAMS is quickly revealing itself as a sticky wicket. Inappropriate conversations, a constant distraction, and other issues are driving it to the top of the leader board for teacher issues. Maybe I’ll collect some amusing anecdotes for later columns.
Let’s take a quick look at the results from this past weekend poll question.
Question 1 asked for you to assign a grade to week one for MNPS. This one raised an eyebrow for me, as a quarter of you gave it a “B”. I don’t know, maybe you were grading on a curve, but if last week was a “B”, I shudder to think what a “D” looks like. 23% of you indicated that you couldn’t even assign a grade and 21% gave it a “C”. Here are the write-ins,
- How would we know-really?
- Failure. Pure failure.
- How do you grade something like this?
Question 2 asked for which virtual meeting platform you prefer. Zoom was the clear winner with 42% of the vote. The district preferred TEAMs came in second with 21% of the responses. Here are the write-ins,
- Bottle of Jack Daniels
- No contest -zoom -teams is awful
- Zoom or Google Classroom or pretty much anything not made by Microsoft
- in person
- TEAMS won’t even load
- Anything but Teams
- The one where training has been given
Question three asked for your thoughts on when MNPS, if numbers permit, should resume in-person classes. 41% of you said January, followed by 24% who responded as soon as possible. Only 10% felt that after Labor Day was a viable option. Here are the write-in votes,
- Can’t be all or nothing. Phase in a hybrid approach.
- Depends on whose numbers.
- Once there is a vaccine
- Until it is safe for all without looking like medical professionals
- when COVID numbers are better than they were in March
- After the Q if numbers permit
That’s it for now.
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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