“We should be rigorous in judging ourselves and gracious in judging others.”
“Authority is supposedly grounded in wisdom, but I could see from a very early age that authority was only a system of control and it didn’t have any inherent wisdom. I quickly realised that you either became a power or you were crushed.”
Several years ago I attended a training for one of those things that I’ve been trained in over the last several years. The training kicked off with an “icebreaker.”
The room was divided into teams of 8. Each was given a bag of 6 items – maybe a piece of yarn, a marble, 2 spaghetti sticks, and a rubber band. Other bags may have a rubber ball instead of a marble, or two straws instead of the spaghetti sticks. Each group was tasked with using the items in their bag to find a solution to a common challenge in under 20 minutes.
After being given their assignment and the slimmest of details, teams lept into action. Some pursued creative efforts, while others went a more practical route. Some were focused and created highly detailed plans and some came up with the barest of plans and were content to spend most of the allotted time socializing. Some of the groups worked together as if they had been at this forever, while some were dominated by two people, or they disintegrated into a mass of disagreement – bickering at fighting among themselves.
The facilitators meanwhile walked the room, observing the participants at each table – on occasion throwing in a comment or two, an eye always on the stopwatch. Every so often they’d give a cry out, “You’ve got 12 minutes left.”
“Just so you are aware, you’ve got 5 minutes!”
After 20 minutes, time expired. Each team was asked to present their solutions. Most every team had arrived at some kind of operable solution, some more executable than others. We oohed and aahed over the good ones, and quickly dismissed the poor ones. The overseers of the challenge crowed with pride over the creative plans but offered little sympathy for the less successful – they became an occasional source of mirth for the rest of us.
The first two weeks of school for MNPS reminds me of that icebreaker. Each school has become its own team, given its own box of resources and set upon the task of delivering instruction to students through a digital platform. There are some commonalities, but not all have the same resources, let alone the same priorities or strategies.
Some have chosen to stick to the district edict of not delivering content while some are already knee-deep in content. In some schools, everyone has access to a device, while in others they are still struggling to get everybody computers. There are schools that host a morning homeroom, and those that leap right into classes via the student schedule. For some kids there is synchronous instruction every day, while for others, there are whole days without teacher contact.
Even the platform itself is not universal, as individual teachers have resurrected Zoom or Google Classroom, abandoning the district’s preferred platform of Microsoft Teams. Entry through Schoology is utilized district-wide, but the appearance of its pages varies from school to school as well, with important links placed at varying locations for different schools.
Some may tout the different approaches as a symptom of district leadership’s respect for school autonomy and a desire not to micro-manage. Fair enough, though the counter-argument would be that they are exerting their control through other means – the utilization of curriculum, teacher observations, and testing.
The curriculum purchased through the Florida Virtual School came advertised as a means to ease teachers’ lives. It supposedly wasn’t a canned curriculum and teachers were free to modify. As teachers get into the curriculum though, they find that in truth, there is little room to modify and that the curriculum is a lot more scripted than originally presented.
As a result of MNPS leadership’s approach, the last two weeks have served to lay bare the baked-in inequities of the school system. Some schools are shining, some are struggling. It shouldn’t be a shock that those schools who shined pre-pandemic are the ones that are shining even brighter now. The ones that struggled pre-pandemic are struggling even harder now. All we’ve done is widen the gap between the “haves” and the “have-nots.”
The “haves” may still be shining, but they are taking their hits as well. PTA participation is down, and families are choosing to go private or join homeschooling pods. Some may look at this change in fortune as fair turn around for benefits reaped in the past. But an exodus from wealthier schools has a negative impact on all schools if only just in funding. Public schools work best when they serve the whole public, not just those with limited options.
Blame for the current disjointed approach can’t be laid solely at the feet of MNPS or any local district, however. The TNDOE has been running a similar exercise on the state level.
For months, districts have been asking for more guidance and answers from the state. Those pleas have gone unanswered and instead, the state has focused on releasing guidance that either arrives in an untimely manner or is so basic that it can be derived through a simple Google search.
It’s ironic, and if it wasn’t so tragic, it would be funny that a department that invested so much time over the last year trying to install a common state curriculum now regularly responds to LEA inquiries with a terse, “We believe those decisions are best left to local discretion.” The department’s new mantra should be, “We believe in local authority except in how you teach and what you teach. Then we’ll step in as long as we are not held accountable.”
Word is that MNPS is starting to shift towards planning for an eventual reopening of schools. Hopefully, in developing plans to address that return, district leadership has spent an appropriate time deconstructing the last couple of months. Equally so, that they are not considering a rush back to f2f instruction as a result of political pressure or fear of financial impact. Word from legislators is that the spring will bring “safe harbor” legislation that will protect LEA’s from financial impact due to a loss in enrollment numbers. That would be a welcome development and one that would allow districts to put student and teacher safety first.
Care has to be given, in scheduling the next phase, to recognize the tremendous amount of work that has gone into establishing present practices. Parents have willingly shifted work and family schedules in order to accommodate the new process. Readjusting would not be just a simple return. Returning prematurely only to have things shut down again a month later due to a surge in the virus would needlessly negatively impact families’ lives as well.
To say teachers and building administrators have been working hard seems almost an insult. They always work hard, but what they have been delivering as of late is more akin to the proverbial pound of flesh. After 2 weeks, they are just now reaching a degree of comfort. A sudden shift in practice would be like trying to teach students algebra before they have fully mastered pre-algebra.
Care must be given to addressing inequities revealed by the shift to distance learning, with care given that those inequities aren’t ignored or exacerbated in phase two.
Everybody needs a little time to sit with where we are at currently. A time to acclimate. Large urban school districts aren’t designed to pivot on a dime. That’s neither a good thing nor a bad thing, but rather just a thing. Care has to be given that a rush back to the classroom doesn’t break the system.
I would argue that the next phase needs more structure. More structure doesn’t equal more control. I would suggest district leaders view the show “Hard Knocks” in order to garner some inspiration. The HBO offering embeds a camera team with an NFL team for 4 weeks as they prepare for the start of the football season. This year’s planning is impacted by the need to keep players safe from COVID infection. The amount of planning these teams go through in order to protect the players is awe-inspiring.
The words expressed by Ram’s coach Sean McVay sum it up best. To paraphrase, he says that COVID will affect everyone. Some teams will deal with it better than others. Those will be the teams that compete for the Super Bowl. There is no reason why the Rams shouldn’t be one of those teams.
I’d say the same pertains to MNPS.
IT SLICES, IT DICES
Some of you may be old enough to remember the old Veg-O-Matic commercials. The pitchman would spew lines with utter confidence, “Folks, this is the Ronco Veg-O-Matic! It slices, it dices in teeny, tiny slices. It makes mounds of julienne fries in just seconds. Wouldn’t you love to greet your friends at the door with lovely vegetables like these?” Every time I hear MNPS talk about MAP testing, that infomercial leaps to mind.
MNPS uses MAP like you would use a Swiss army knife. They use MAP testing to monitor student growth. They use it as a screener for access to magnet schools and advanced education programs. In their latest communication, they promised parents that the test would allow them to measure students’ mastery of Tennessee state standards and give a comparison to kids nationally. All that’s very impressive, but unfortunately not very accurate, nor in line with the uses intended for MAP.
A simple look at MAP’s website explains the purpose of the test as stated by NWEA – the company that designs it:
MAP Growth is the most trusted and innovative assessment for measuring achievement and growth in K–12 math, reading, language usage, and science. It provides teachers with accurate, and actionable evidence to help target instruction for each student or groups of students regardless of how far above or below they are from their grade level.
In other words, it is a formative assessment that is intended to be used as a means to guide instruction, not an educational Veg-O-Matic.
As school starts back up, there is a rush to test kids out of concern that they have fallen way behind in their educational pursuits due to weeks of no school. My initial question would be, who’s in the lead, since the pandemic affected everybody? I’m not alone in raising that question- education writer Peter Greene puts it even more succinctly: “Behind what, exactly? Is there some line scribed by the Hand of God in the intellectual sand that tells us, yes, a child who has been on earth 193 months should have crossed this absolute line on the One True Path of intellectual growth?”
Greene goes on to remind us that it’s all just made up:
The line that says “This is where they should be” is made up. In fact, the notion that there is a single path along which progress should be measured is also made up. Hell, this should not be news, because it wasn’t that long ago that we moved all the lines, accompanied by declarations about rigor and challenge and other baloney that posited that making kindergarten the new first grade was somehow a good idea because it would push students “ahead” of that made up line on that made up path. none of this “ahead/behind” baloney is based on anything scientific or objective or rooted in anything except that some people with power decided “This is the rule we’d like to make up.”
And it really is. Though there is a perverse side of me that would love to see the kids take the exam and all score high. Imagine the chaos that would follow if results came back showing kids actually grew intellectually while they were out of school for a protracted period.
The thing is, there is no need to have some kind of formalized evaluation of learning loss at this time. Teachers have been doing that very thing since the dawn of time. What do we fear by allowing them to continue their practice?
As classes resume, teachers and students are attempting to forge relationships amidst an unfamiliar landscape. There is no research that shows scoring well on a standardized test is related to success in life, there is plenty of evidence that demonstrates the importance of a strong relationship between teacher and student. From Education Week:
A Review of Educational Research analysis of 46 studies found that strong teacher-student relationships were associated in both the short- and long-term with improvements on practically every measure schools care about: higher student academic engagement, attendance, grades, fewer disruptive behaviors and suspensions, and lower school dropout rates. Those effects were strong even after controlling for differences in students’ individual, family, and school backgrounds.
Perhaps students would be best served by allowing teachers to focus on the latter and delay participation in the former.
The idea of my children generating a permanent record under the current circumstances gives me more than a little cause for pause. In the future, the present crisis will fade from memory, but the numbers from next week’s MAP results will remain forever, sans context.
I know things will proceed as scheduled, but I see no justification for testing students at this juncture other than the need to make adults feel better.
TEA’s Chief Lobbyist Jim Wrye recently decided that the organization was not going to weigh in on legislation being considered during the TN General Assembly’s recently concluded special session, despite the grave concerns of many of the union’s members. A recent email making the rounds, voices Wrye’s position:
On the topic of the special session and the COVID liability bill moving forward, it is TEA’s policy to work bills that deal in education, usually unless they specifically impact our students and families, such as Medicaid expansion, etc. The liability bill in our opinion doesn’t get us to that threshold, and even if it did, because we adhere to staying in our lane to build power where threats to public education occur (read: vouchers, funding), our influence on a Title 29 bill would be limited and also be possibly injurious to our capacity to fight. On another note, LEAs have far-reaching blanket immunity to civil lawsuits in state law and the addition of gross negligence in the proposed bill possibly weakens that immunity for systems. After consulting with our attorneys, I advised our association not to weigh in on HB8001. If there is a movement to add specific K-12 language we would weigh in to stop it. That there isn’t guides our actions.
In case it’s unclear, his comments are related to a recent bill that passed freeing up school districts and businesses from liability as it relates to COVID. Many teachers were concerned that the protections afforded by the bill could be used to force teachers back to classrooms before it was safe. To be fair, Wrye often relies on his own guidance in pursuing positions as opposed to considering the wishes of his members. To me, this is just one more example and reflective of how he serves. Perhaps this is okay, perhaps it is not. That’s a decision for members.
Things blew up during last week’s aforementioned special session over the child wellness task force being created by Penny Schwinn and the DOE. Many Republicans thought it was a gross overreach by the department and granted them powers to intrude into a family’s life in a manner that was offensive.
One normally mild-mannered Republican legislator was said to be livid. He was overheard telling others that the General Assembly had tried this in the past using DCS but the fiscal note attached ran into the tens of millions and made it unfeasible. Schwinn is proposing that by requiring teachers to serve as DCS employees – they’ll be held responsible for going to families’ homes to check on children – the initiative can be done for less than a million dollars. And that includes the salaries for the 8 employees required for the project.
Seeing that as far as I could tell this was just another example of the DOE’s current modus operandi, I wasn’t too upset. Though I must admit the irony of referring questions about the child welfare task force to a person recently disciplined for workplace bullying wasn’t lost on me. You can’t make this stuff up.
It’s been my experience that most leaders create teams as they progress up the ladder. They realize that no one person can successfully lead alone and as such recognize the importance of surrounding themselves with “their” people. Often times the quality of the team around a potential leadership candidate is the deciding factor in hiring. In continuing to study Commissioner’s history I find myself wondering, who are her people? Her staff is not made up of individuals who have been with her at previous stops. They are not people who have been a part of her journey throughout the last decade. Which begs the question, why does Penny Schwinn have no people?
I think it’s safe to say that people are starting to wake up and realize that learning pods and micro-schools might be a bigger threat to public education than charter schools. Unfortunately, the tactics being employed in the past are only being redirected. A recent Chalkbeat article reports on a letter published by the Denver School Board discouraging parents from forming pods: “We are deeply concerned about the pods’ long-term negative implications for public education and social justice,” the board members said in a statement posted to the district website and included in a weekly email to parents. Hmm… that statement may be true, but public schools have to get better at fighting for something instead of against something else.
At a recent MNPS school board meeting, district leaders showed numbers that indicated MNPS was only off a little under 700 students from last year’s enrollment. Though kindergarten was down roughly 2000 kids. I’d be slow to put too much stock into these numbers as it is a little early in the year to get an accurate picture. Enrollments are still in a fairly fluid moment. It won’t be until at least the end of next week that numbers firm up. An interesting wrinkle is that teachers are reporting students who never show up for synchronous learning but are showing up for asynchronous lessons and completing the work. Just one more challenge in a challenging time.
On Tuesday, Maury County teachers and families got an interesting email from the district. Apparently, all teachers have been declared essential employees and as a result, they are subject to different guidelines. Employees exposed to someone with COVID are permitted to report to work as long as they are not showing symptoms, Though they must wear a mask the whole day. I wonder if it will be a red one. On a further note, you can bet I wouldn’t get tested until I showed symptoms. All very interesting.
That’s it for now. We’ll see you on Monday.
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