“I don’t feel very much like Pooh today,” said Pooh. There, there, said Piglet. I’ll bring you tea and honey until you do.” – A.A. Milne, Winnie-the-Pooh
“You are either the sort of person who shapes society, or the sort of person whose life is affected by the shape of society.”
Like most parents in Nashville, last week was one fraught with a choice – to remain virtual or to send the kids back to school. Decisions were sorta kinda due on Friday, more on that in a minute, so the week felt uniquely stressful.
Earlier in the week, MNPS’s Superintendent of Schools sent out an email that was supposed to reassure parents that there were “no bad decisions.” I’m going to give her the benefit of the doubt and assume she made that pronouncement in the effort to put on a positive face. The reality was that due to a lack of information. and ever-changing directives, it was hard to make a good decision.
Many parents lept at the option to send their kids back to schools with the expectations that they would return to a similar environment as they did last Fall. While I don’t believe that this option is as stark and dire as some tried to paint it, the reality is that the classrooms of November are not going to be the same as in the past. At the very least, interactions between students will be limited, and a simple process will take longer due to new protocols.
For example, the car line. Fewer kids will be riding the bus resulting in more being picked up, combined with new safety practices this will naturally mean an extended process. That alone was enough to discourage me, as I’ve spent probably about 90 minutes a day for the last 6 years in the car line. I’ve never been able to figure out whether the best practice is to be the last arrival or earliest arrival.
Some parents probably chose to return to in-person with the expectation of renewing old patterns. Unfortunately, it is entirely possible that a child could return to school on a Tuesday and a week later is out for 14 days due to showing COVID symptoms. School nurses are going to be under intense pressure to make sure that any child with a cough, slight fever, runny nose, or a headache is removed from school. An action that will require a parent to leave work and pick up the child. Before returning to school, a child will need clearance from a doctor.
Many schools in MNPS are still trying to figure out where the “COVID” room – the place where children wait for parents – will be located, let alone who will be responsible for monitoring it while awaiting the arrival of parents.
Equally unclear is how a child will continue their education while in self-quarantine. I have heard a gamut of strategies, from the teacher assigning asynchronous work to the child receiving no schooling until the return. I suspect, that like most of MNPS’s strategy, this will be a school by school decision.
The most troubling portion of the process is teacher assignments. While parents have been provided the opportunity to select virtual or in-person, teachers have not been afforded the same opportunity. As if they weren’t already subject to enough high stress, they now have one more straw thrown onto the proverbial camels back. Many teachers are considered high risk due to their own medical conditions and many more have family members at home that should they become infected, they may not survive a bout with the virus. That is a lot of pressure to put on someone who is already hyper concerned about their students, learning new technology, mastering a new curriculum, and assuaging the fears and concerns of parents. So far the camel’s back has remained pretty sturdy, but for how long?
Out of health concerns, many teachers have already applied for and been granted an accommodation to teach virtually. It bears clarifying though, that just because you have an accommodation does ensure that you will continue teaching from home. It just means that you won’t be in front of live students. How that actually looks is still being worked out. Again, odds are that this is also going to be a school by school decision. I’m hoping that someone at MNPS’s Human Resources has the good sense to make sure that all principals and building administrators are well versed – beyond a simple pamphlet with a web site reference – because this is a potential field of landmines.
In talking to a plethora of building administrators, no clear instructions have emerged from the central office about how teacher designations will be determined. Simply relying on teachers that have accommodations to teach virtual does not ensure all students are getting the best instructors. Some teachers have proven to be more adept at adapting to the virtual sphere, but due to a numbers game will be forced to return to a live setting. If teacher assignments become strictly a numbers game, are we honestly putting children first?
Here is the other unspoken, yet slowly dawning fact, most students will be switching teachers come transition time. A move that seems to run counter to the district’s devotion to SEL earlier in the year. This is a subject whose importance I don’t think can be overstated. Teacher/student relations are essential, especially when kids are resuming classes in an environment that potentially exposes them to increased trauma.
COVID is not gone, just because we’ve gotten tired of talking about it. The numbers are declining but the risk remains high. Masks are essential protective gear, but they also serve as a constant reminder of the imminent threat. Combined, this makes for a stressful environment.
What happens if a classmate develops COVID and becomes intensely symptomatic? What supports do we provide to a student who sat nearby and may not be symptomatic but now has the dual fears of having been possibly infected or being the source of infection? Either way trauma levels are going to be high and they will need a teacher they trust to help navigate circumstances. Tet the district has pulled that support.
By the same token, students and teachers have bonded together over navigating the new technology. They are now working in synch. MNPS has failed to establish a common set of standards, so it’s entirely possible that the student gets a new teacher that does things completely differently than the previous teacher. Last weekend poll showed that schools for only 30% of respondents have adhered to FVS curriculum 100%. The others have instituted various levels of advance, that’s troubling on a couple of levels.
First off, it’s an incredibly low level of compliance for a program that is costing the district $1 million a year. Secondly, it was purchased under the guise of providing student consistency in transitioning from virtual to in-person, arguably that ability has been negated due to a lack of fidelity. All of this could result in increased levels of trauma for kids without established supports to help mitigate.
That may sound hyperbolic, but we already are busy conducting child wellness checks on students based on a professed concern over circumstances at home. It is not unreasonable to assume that some of these students have established relationships with teachers that serve as safe harbors in the storm. Now we are going to rip those supports out and start from scratch. If there is logic at play here, I’m failing to see it.
The idea of having teachers teach both virtual and in-person simultaneously has been raised by several educators as a strategy to maintain teacher assignments. To date, as far as I know, MNPS’s leadership team has refused to consider this a viable option.
Friday may have been advertised as the deadline for making a decision on how students would attend school, in truth it was not. Most schools, by my unofficial count, saw a participation rate of between 65% and 75%. This week principals and their assigned staff have spent their days calling those families that did not indicate a selection, in order to offer them an opportunity to make a selection. An incredible amount of increased work. Not surprisingly, many of those who did not respond initially are members of our Hispanic and other immigrant communities and serve to illuminate the many inequities that often go unnoticed.
For example, participation in the survey required the submission of an email. Those of us in less vulnerable demographics take the existence of an email address for granted. In the undocumented, and lower socio-economic categories that is not always an option. Thus, inadvertently a barrier to participation was erected.
Personally, I can’t understand why the default option wasn’t one of maintaining virtual instruction. Those who wish to go live would opt-in, the rest would remain virtual. It would have been much easier to determine teacher assignments and would have possibly mitigated the need to chase families around to ensure their desires are met. Advocacy groups have been out there demanding the return of live instruction. Making virtual the default selection would have put the onus on them to chase families. In other words, if they claim the majority are pushing to return, back up the claim with the numbers.
Making parents choose to go live would have presumably also offered the district an additional layer of legal protection should a student become infected.
We are now two weeks out from Fall Break. After the break, the phase-in will begin in earnest – though some high-needs kids have already returned to schools. I would like to say that, I feel that MNPS has developed a well thought out plan that is equitable and takes into account most contingencies. Unfortunately, I still don’t believe there is a plan other than the ones being concocted by indivual principals. While that might be fine for those that have experienced quality leadership at the helm, it certainly doesn’t serve all kids well, or meet the bar of equity.
Under the leadership of Executive Director Katie Cour, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has morphed into an organization that strives to help the district meet it’s challenges as opposed to in the past when they worked more to dictate an agenda to MNPS – a partner vs a dictator. Over the best year, they’ve actively worked on teacher compensation and recruitment initiatives, while also helping the district meet technology challenges. This week, NPEF released a poll surveying the city’s attitudes towards public education.
Between the dates of August 19 – 23, NPEF interviewed 500 registered voters on a series of questions, most education-related. I would argue that it’s a sample size that falls on the low side, but the information is still interesting and perhaps useful.
On the subject of how well MNPS is handling the current crisis caused by the pandemic, those with kids in the household give schools a 59% positive / 29% negative rating. Now that rating is from before all the survey and return to school information was released. It would be interesting to redo the survey and measure how much attitudes have changed. If they have.
If I was the Tennessean or any other form of print media, I would be concerned over the responses given to the question of where parents receive information about schools. I think the only entity as a source of news that the Tennessean beat out was “carrier pigeons.”
Looking at the demographic numbers in response to the survey. White respondents came in at 11%, while for Blacks it was only 4%. Somebody seems to also not be catching the newspaper’s claims of diversity.
I encourage you to read the whole survey and draw your own conclusions. Also while you’re at it, throw them couple bucks so they can continue to improve their services.
I AM NOT READY
This week, some Nashville students are scheduled to take the IReady Math Tests. IReady is an adaptive math test designed to measure student learning. If you are like me, it sounds a whole lot like MAP testing, which begs the question why? One I don’t have an answer to, but a sneaky suspicion.
Testing will take place over the next two weeks during students asynchronous instruction time, with students being able to stop and start at will. Just as long as they finish before Fall break. MAP testing produced regular stories about parent assitance on its administration, I’m curious what safeguards are in place to prevent a repeat with IReady?
Supposedly, unlike MAP, the iReady platform will not be used for PLT placements. The purpose of this test is to see any learning deficits that have occurred over each student’s individual math learning. When the diagnostic is complete, iReady will assign lessons tailored to each student’s needs. It will be used for extra practice for each student for the rest of the year in regular math class (homework activities, etc.), and in Math PLT for students that are placed there.
Here’s my prediction, one of two things will transpire. Either the scores between MAP and IReady will be very similar thus producing an exercise in redunancy. Or, the results will prove widely dissimilar which will beg the question of validity. As a parent, I’m going to gravitate towards whichever one produces a higher score for my kid.
Neither test is inexpensive, which further raises the question around, are we being prudent with resources? Either way, this will be the second major assessment in just the first 9 weeks of school, that’s a little too much testing for this Dad.
BIG DAY ON THE HILL
Today marks an appearance for Tennessee’s beleaguered Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, in front of the House Education Committee. A look at the agenda shows that proceedings are scheduled to kick off at 1pm with a presentation by Sarah Morrisson and the state Board of Education. From 1:30 to 2:45 Dr. Dale Lynch of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents is slated to introduce superintendents. After a break, Ms. Schwinn is scheduled to appear at 3pm.
While she is supposedly being made available to answer questions from legislators, it’ll be interesting to see just how many questions get answered. Rumors have already floated that the Commissioner has a lengthy power point that she is intent on presenting.
In the past, Dale Lynch has repeatedly carried water for Schwinn and Governor Lee, I would not be shocked if his allotted time before the commissioner ran over.
The Governor himself has gone to extreme measures to ensure that Ms. Schwinn is not held accountable for her multiple miscues. Will today be any different?
Coinciding with today’s appearance is an article in the online magazine The Center Square detailing the TNDOE’s 33% turnover rate under Commissioner Schwinn,
Since Schwinn took office as commissioner in February 2019, a total of 405 employees, or roughly 33 percent, have left the department. The vast majority of employees leaving the department have resigned – about two-thirds of the total number.
Since last February, 116 employees have resigned from the department’s central office, 19 have retired and 26 were terminated. As of this month, 391 employees remain in the department’s central offices.
The article goes on to state that the turnover rate is having an adverse effect on the department’s ability to serve stakeholders. “We’re not getting callbacks,” J.C. Bowman, executive director and CEO of the Professional Educators of Tennessee, told The Center Square. “It’s just a constant turnover. We call sometimes, and phones have been disconnected. We don’t get return phone calls on behalf of our members.”
The rate for high-ranking members of Schwinn’s team is even higher. Five of 11 cabinet-level executives hired or retained by the Commissioner have left the department or been removed from executive positions since last October. That’s getting pretty close to 50% and if Katie Houghtlin had been dismissed as warranted, that number would be over 50%.
It’ll be interesting if legislators bring up any of these concerns this afternoon, as Schwinn’s Schwinigens have definitely raised some eyebrows from both sides of the aisle,
“We have a really chaotic department,” said Rep. Gloria Johnson, D-Knoxville, a former educator who sits on the House Education Committee. “It’s really hard to get the work done if you’re not organized and structured and really have a plan going forward, and I don’t feel like that department is thinking past two weeks from now. It’s frustrating.”
Oh, and just in case you are worried about how any of those former cabinet members are faring, if a recent tweet by recently dismissed Associate Superintendent Robert Lundin is any indication, they are doing just fine. For the record, Dr. Peter Witham is the Assistant Commissioner of Data and Accountability at the Tennessee Department of Education. Maybe that could be another question for today?
That’s it for now.
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