“When the whole world is crazy, it doesn’t pay to be sane.”
“The best way to show that a stick is crooked is not to argue about it or to spend time denouncing it, but to lay a straight stick alongside it”
It was about 7, or a little after, as we made our way back across town from my daughter’s ballet class at Nashville Ballet. Both my 5th-grade son and 6th-grade daughter were engaged in an animated conversation about their school day.
“Daddy, Mr. Keel’s sense of humor is so like mine. Right now we are covering the Mesopotamian age. Mr. Keel says it is really a lot of ground to cover and we don’t want to rush through it too fast. But it’s so interesting.”
“Ms. Cacho’s class is really good. She’s almost as hard as Mrs. Yaklin. She’s really making us work hard.”
“Yea well everybody says Mr. Keel is really strict, but Daddy he’s not. Sure he’s tough but he really tries to help students. I also really like the way Dr. Lemmon is teaching us writing, the prompts really get me thinking. Peter, how was Drama class?”
“Drama Club!!! I was in Drama Club! it was good, Grace and Diana were in there.”
“Grace? Well, that figures, she likes drama…but I didn’t know Diana would be in there. I need to get in that.”
By just listening to them talk, you’d never realize that every class and every teacher they discussed was experienced virtually. Eventually, they got around to listing their favorite all-time teachers, because that’s what middle school kids do. It was a list in which this year’s teachers were well represented. It was a list that made me feel better about virtual school.
Every day, all across the city, tales are told of the failures of distance learning and how kids aren’t learning. While I don’t doubt that for many families it is an untenable task, that’s not been our experience, nor is it universal. Sure it’s been difficult, but I’ve never found parenting to be a particularly easy job, to begin with.
I don’t know, we spend so much time screaming about what we are not getting, that we fail to recognize the miracles taking place right in front of us. We forget that school was not a perfect place prior to the pandemic. Too many kids were not getting the services they need, there was bullying to contend with along with other discipline issues, as well as questions about the rigor of instruction. And all that was after nearly a century of practice.
It needs to be recognized that once again, teachers are doing what they always do – rising to the challenge. Less than two month into an unprecedented cultural revolution, positive things are happening.
And once again, we are doing what we, always do – demand more while giving less.
Time to break out a sports metaphor. If I have Lamar Jackson on my team – Baltimore’s superstar QB for those unfamiliar – do I let him focus on just being a QB, or do I say, “Hey you are pretty good at that QB thing, now I’m going to need you to coach special teams, fill the water coolers for the team, and if you could, take up tickets from fans before the game.”
It sounds ludicrous, yet that’s what we do with teachers every year. Instead of allowing them the ability to focus on what they do best, we invent new responsibilities for them. This year we are asking them to be navigators, IT specialists, data entry specialists, video stars, and whatever else we can throw on the plate. Name me the teacher prep program that prepared them for any of those roles. Meanwhile, we conveniently forget that they are also parents and spouses themselves.
Going back to Lamar, if the Baltimore coaching staff finds him sitting slack on the locker room bench, eyes glazed over, clearly mentally and physically exhausted, do they say to him, “We know you are really tired but we really need you to learn this new playbook by tomorrow because we are switching strategies. The fans in the box seats, don’t like the way we are doing things, so we are going to put a little razzle-dazzle in for them. But make sure you get all that other stuff too.”
Or do they say, “Damn, you are our team leader and we need to let you work your magic. We need you fresh and sharp. Let’s get somebody else in to take these added responsibilities off of you. in order to make sure that you get the proper rest and nutrition. We need you to be able to perform at peak level, so we are going to offer supports.”
Unfortunately, it’s the former we continually offer. And as a result, our teachers may be working magic, but they are suffering. It further appears that we have become desensitized to that suffering. Over the last few years, we’ve continually increased our expectations and demands, teachers have balked, but for the most part, delivered. As a result, our attitude has become, “Hey you handled that 300lb stone in the past, what’s a 1000lb boulder now?”
We take advantage of their love of children and passion for learning with regularity. When they raise a fuss, we shrug and tell each other, “What else are they going to do?” Conveniently ignoring that they are highly educated, highly skilled people that ain’t a dime a dozen and it’s not like there is a long line of substitutes waiting in the wings, ready to jump into the breach.
Right now our teachers are suffering. If adjustments aren’t soon made, we are going to send people en masse to the hospital, and it will not be because they’ve come down with COVID. We are going to facilitate permanent damage to marriages and their relationships with their children. It may sound hyperbolic, but we universally recognize the impact of trauma on children, why should it be any different for adults?
Have no doubt, we are subjecting teachers to high levels of trauma.
All week I struggled with how I would write a piece about the current teacher crisis. The problem became, how do I write anything different than what I wrote in 2016, or what I wrote in 2018, or what I wrote in 2019, or even what I wrote earlier this year. For half a decade it’s been a continuous drumbeat, continually falling on deaf ears. Why should now be any different?
I guess that’s a trait I share with teachers. You just keep doing the work in the hope that someday knowledge will take root and lead to positive action. But we need to do it before it is too late.
LET THE SIDESHOW BEGIN
Next week should prove to be an interesting one for Governor Lee and his newly minted Republican Commissioner Of Education Penny Schwinn. What you didn’t know she was a Conservative? Well, you are not the only one, but that’s the trope she’s been selling to legislators as she meets with them behind closed doors.
Despite interning as a young woman for Senator Feinstein, receiving support from Democrats For Education Reform during her school board run, having a close relationship with Obama confidant and former Sacramento Mayor Kevin Johnson and his wife, famed education reformer Michelle Rhee, and a well-documented aversion to being photographed with conservative leaders, she’s really a Republican. The only people trying to paint her as a liberal are… wait for it… state liberals. Which is a headscratcher, because why would democrats rush to claim a trainwreck when they already have enough trainwrecks in their own camp, but okay…
On Tuesday of the coming week, Schwinn will appear in front of the House Education Committee for a summer work session. I’m sure she’ll have a nice new shiny American flag lapel pin for the occasion. Governor Lee has already been doing his best to try and muzzle legislators, privately telling them to sit down, shut up, and listen. It the event they hear anything that pertains to them, they can ask a question. Otherwise, zip it. Rumor has it, the Guv himself may make an appearance in case legislators are confused by his dictate.
The agenda in itself limits all conversation to COVID related discussion. That’s fine for me. I gots some COVID questions.
First up, let’s talk CARES Act money. What feels like decades ago, but was actually only back in May, congress awarded $30 billion to schools to help them with the effects of the pandemic. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos offered the recommendation to state education heads that a portion of the loot goes to private schools. Some states decided that they would ignore DeVos’s recommendation and not share it with private institutions. The TNDOE made the decision to follow the Secretary’s lead. Though in true Schwinigan fashion, the commissioner never publically spoke on the subject, that fell to Associate Superintendent Eve Carney. Per Chalkbeat,
Carney said following the guidelines “is one of the assurances that we as a state sign and agree to in order to accept these funds.”
Say it with me: “plausible deniability.”
Once the lawsuits started to mount, DeVos advised state leaders to put the money in an escrow account until the courts had an opportunity to sort things out. Now it’s September and the courts have sorted it out. DeVos has quietly rescinded her order. Private schools are not entitled to any of the CARES Act money. Which now begs the question, where is the money at? In the case of a district like MNPS, we are talking around $2.26 million. That ain’t chicken scratch. And if it was already delivered to private schools based on the advice of the TNDOE, what is being done to recover and redistribute the monies?
Maybe that’s already been done. Maybe it hasn’t. But like the kids say, “I’d like to see some receipts.”
Next up would be a closer examination over the funding of the PBS programming. The department recently announced that funding for instructional programming that airs on PBS will continue through the third quarter despite all of Tennessee’s students now engaged in some form of formalized instruction delivered by their local school districts. The programming was a nice supplement in the Spring while schools were shuttered, but does it still remain a necessity? Could the funding not be better repurposed? And who is responsible for the development of the programming being aired?
Tennessee recently concluded a textbook adoption process that was fraught with problems. Not the least being the level of involvement by the Tennessee Department of Education. A level that raises questions. Questions that are supported by a look at a recently submitted Federal Grant application for literacy supports.
Tenn. Code Ann. § 49-6-2201is explicit in describing the role of the TNDOE as being that of an advisory one, and that the textbook commission is to act independently of influence from the DOE, legislators, or the Governor. Yet in the grant application includes the following:
Though literacy has been a priority in Tennessee for a decade, past literacy initiatives have been neither comprehensive in scope nor anchored by high-quality curriculum materials that provide the necessary roadmap to improve instruction. But in November 2019 TDOE launched a textbook review process that culminated in local adoptions of high-quality English language arts (ELA) materials across the state, and in February 2020 Governor Bill Lee’s State of the State Address announced a comprehensive approach to literacy development, Tennessee’s Comprehensive Literacy Plan.
Beyond the enjoyment that Candice McQueen and Bill Haslam must derive from reading that statement, it begs the question: who gave TNDOE the authority to launch a textbook review process? A process that resulted in over 30 waivers to adopt being awarded in regard to Wit and Wisdom, a curriculum that is produced by the company formally known as Great Minds and previously known as Common Core inc. Just for fun, Google the web address listed: CommonCore.org. Look at that, it’s Great Minds.
Great Minds is also the company whose curriculum was adopted in 2018 by the charter school in California founded by Commissioner Schwinn. Seeing as there are 1099’s that list her as the school’s executive director up to 2017, I don’t believe clarification of any previous relationship between Ms. Schwinn and Great Minds would be out of order. Especially since Great Mind’s previous trademark as Common Core Inc initially appeared on several of the videos utilized by the DOE.
Over a period of 6 weeks, the trademark morphed 2 more times until it settled on the current incarnation which includes both EngageNY and a company called UnboundEd. EngageNY is who supposedly contracted Great Minds to write Eureka Math. If you go on UnboundEd’s website, you’ll find an interesting passage from an article about the curriculum and Great Minds from 2017:
Given this major opportunity to break into the curriculum marketplace, Great Minds has now gained a national foothold as one of the top Common Core-aligned math curricula developers. In addition to its open math curriculum—which Great Minds calls Eureka Math—the organization also offers several paid services that build upon the open content: It sells printed copies of the resources and also markets an enhanced digital version of the curriculum online. According to Munson, the proceeds from these activities are used to maintain and update the materials, as well as create resources in additional subject areas.
So not only do we have an issue with possible favorable status but also, why the close alignment with a Common Core-aligned curricula when the General Assembly has repeatedly sought to distance the state, based on constituent desire, from the Common Core curriculum? Noticing a pattern yet?
Here’s another question. TNDOE recently rolled out a plan to create a program that included “child-wellness checks” for every child in the state. After the blowback from legislators, Schwinn sent a letter promising to withdraw the program and go back to the drawing board. In response House Republican Caucus Chairman Rep. Jeremy Faison (R-Cosby) tweeted out, “The program will not move forward the way it was put out yesterday. The [Tennessee Department of Education] has heard your voice and is correcting the mistake.”
Here’s the question though: if TNDOE had truly heard legislators’ voices, why is there still grant money available for LEA’s to create “child-wellness check” programs? Why is MNPS participating in such a program – Navigators? How many districts have implemented such a program? How many districts have received monies for a program that the General Assembly has explicitly stated it opposes?
The thread that runs through all of this is a distinct lack of interest by the Commissioner to work with the General Assembly. A thread that extends back to before the pandemic. Whether it’s moving money from a teacher compensation account in order to jump-start vouchers, or changing the way Special Education Vouchers are administered, or the accountability system that the General Assembly helped craft, Schwinn shows no desire for compromise. Which would lead me to ask, were I a legislator, does the Governor himself have any desire to collaborate with his fellow Republicans in order to govern the state? And if so, how does that transpire when a key member of his cabinet regularly ignores the wishes of those Republicans?
In looking at my crystal ball, here is what I envision will happen over the next couple of weeks. Tuesday’s session will be fairly rough and tumble with Ms. Schwinn taking some direct hits. Shortly afterward the Governor’s office will weigh in with their interpretation of what transpired. They’ll proclaim the cause of the rift between the commissioner and the GA stems from a lack of communication and the governor plans to rectify that. A certain legislative administrator with a long history of working with Democrats, and in particular DFER, will find themselves shuffled off to Buffalo. A new liaison will be appointed with the promise of better communication, and the caveat of a need for time to be afforded in ordeer to let the changes take root. This will result in Schwinn getting a 6 month reprise. One I’m sure she’ll burn through in about 2 months.
I hope I’m wrong, but unfortunately, that seems to be the writing on the wall I’m reading.
So riddle me this. Yesterday, Mayor Cooper announced that high school football games could resume. The band and cheerleaders would even be allowed to resume their respective roles. However, parents would not be allowed in the stands. Huh? Who thought that was going to fly? To throw a little more salt in the wound, it was also announced that fans would be allowed to attend Titan games in October. Brilliant, I say.
Check it out: Hillsboro High School’s Eric Arteberry and Hillsboro’s Academy of Global Health have upped the face mask game with embroidered Academy masks for their team! On brand and SAFE! And yes, he got these out of pocket for his team.
I’m hearing some schools are considering starting teacher evaluations in the next couple of weeks. Another brilliant idea. Luckily Tennessee legislators are already on the case. Per Chalkbeat, “Evaluating kids or teachers – adding that stress – it just seems ludicrous to take time out to do those things,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson, a Knoxville Democrat, and retired educator. Hopefully, somebody with some sense steps in quickly.
An interesting tidbit from this week’s House Government Ops Committee meeting. You may remember that legislators were supposed to get a shot at Commissioner Schwinn before Governor Lee intervened, causing them to keep their powder dry. Well, apparently somebody forgot to give House Representative G.A. Hardaway the memo. Twice during proceedings, he voiced the Black Caucus’s displeasure with Schwinn due to her canceling a recent meeting and failing to reschedule a makeup. It never stops. Somebody really needs to send her a copy of How to Make Friends and Influence People.
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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