AN UNQUENCHABLE HUBRIS

“The irony of our culture is that people are constantly telling other people to go to hell, but no one tells them to go to heaven.”
Art Buchwald, Too Soon to Say Goodbye

 

Well, that didn’t take long – 2 half days and one full – to shut a school down due to COVID-19. Robert Churchwell ES will go virtual after 21 staff members and 1 student is forced into quarantine due to a staff member testing positive. In my honest opinion, if I was a staff member at the school, I’d be pissed.

For the next two weeks, schooling may be virtual for students, but each of those 21 staff’s lives will also be virtual, as they’ll be locked in their house waiting to see if they get sick or not. That means no visits to family, no visits to the grocery store, no trips to Target. That means, their family members are also at risk. Yet, we shrug and say, “Hey what do you expect? We knew there would be outbreaks.”

Indications are that Churchwell is not the only school that has a positive result. Per a letter sent home to parents from Belmont-Waverly’s principal,

As you may have heard, we have been notified of one individual who has been diagnosed with COVID-19 and was present at Waverly Belmont ES while potentially infectious. I would like to assure you that we, along with our local health department, immediately began an investigation to determine who may have been in close contact (within six feet for at least 15 minutes) with that individual.  All who have been identified as close contacts have been notified and instructed to quarantine at home for 14 days from their last contact with that individual. Quarantined individuals are not allowed to return to school until the quarantine period has elapsed.

There is no indication of how widespread the school quarantine protocols will extend. But we have to ask, how many more schools are also infected? I do find this line from the email a little galling, and at the least downplays the serious health consequences that could possibly arrive through infection,

While COVID-19 does not cause illness in every person who becomes infected, it is highly contagious. If we work together with students, parents, staff, volunteers, and the Tennessee Department of Health, we can avoid closing our schools.

I’m scanning through the job listings on the MNPS website, and maybe I’m just missing it, but I don’t see where it is listed that applicants must be willing to serve as the district canary in a coal mine. Nowhere does it say, must be willing to put family and self at risk to satisfy political winds. I’ve seen comments on social media posts saying, “This is what you signed up for, shut up and teach”, but I don’t see those expectations spelled out in any official job descriptions.

Even Dr. Battle is a bit cavalier in her comments, per the Tennessean,

“While we believe the risk of transmission based on the circumstances of this situation is low, health protocols dictate that we take this step in order to protect the health and safety of staff and students,” Director of Schools Adrienne Battle said in a statement. “Our staff will continue to work with students to provide a meaningful learning experience in the virtual environment until the school can safely re-open.”

But then again, what should be expected from an administration that can’t even publicly voice an official policy on teachers with accommodations and whether or not those designated to work from home can be forced into buildings to teach remotely from an empty classroom while helping with car and lunch duty?

It should be a gimme that people expect to go to work in a safe environment. But in an era when teachers are expected to absorb physical and verbal blows from students, teach from classrooms infested with mold due to poor ventilation, and to use their bodies as shields in the event of a random shooter, why should the latest demands be a surprise?

This week the TNDOE announced with great pride the steps they were taking to enable greater teacher workforce diversity and empower LEAs to “Grow their Own”. Here’s an idea, why don’t we first focus on keeping the ones we have safe? Just a thought, one I doubt will hold any real interest from those in positions of power. After all, we can always head out to that mystical teacher orchard and pluck some more right?

WHO NEEDS THE TENNESSEE GENERAL ASSEMBLY?

Say what you will about the competence of Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, you have to begrudgingly admire her hubris and tenacity. Last year, she hijacked the state’s textbook adoption process to ensure that her preferred vendors’ products were adopted by as many LEAs as possible. In the Spring, she attempted to shepherd a reading bill, supported by the Governor, through the General Assembly that was quickly recognized for the overreach that it was. Throughout March and April, Schwinn was grilled by legislators, who repeatedly voiced concerns and disapproval of what she was proposing.

As a result, the bill went through several revisions, among them being the removal of language referring to the “Science of Reading”. Legislators were also repeatedly reassured that the state was not returning to the usage of “Common Core” standards. For many Republicans, this was a huge sticking point. A provision guaranteeing that the TNDOE will use a competitive bidding process to choose all vendors associated with the proposed strategy. Commissioner Schwinn had been criticized a few weeks before over a $2.5 million no-bid contract involving the state’s new education voucher program so this was a needed addition.

All were welcome revisions, but in the end, the bill failed. It never made it out of the Senate Education Committee. At the time, per Chalkbeat, Ms. Schwinn refused to comment, though the DOE issued a statement saying,

“During this time of uncertainty and given associated costs for the proposal, the department looks forward to working with the Governor’s office and the Tennessee General Assembly to revisit legislation in the future.”

One of the questions at the time was, how to pay for the $36 million plan. In private, Ms. Schwinn made comments that led some to speculate that she had secured private funds for the bill, and if the General Assembly wasn’t going to fund the proposal, she’d proceed anyways. Speculation was also raised that CARES Act monies could provide a potential revenue stream for the initiative. As I said, Ms. Schwinn is nothing if not ballsy, nobody should have suspected she would abandon her craftily laid plans.

Here we are, come Fall, and it has suddenly become clear, neither the Governor nor the Commissioner was ever too concerned about input from legislators. Even as they were arguing the merits of the bill to legislators, they were cooking up a contingency plan behind the scenes. One that would allow them to finance their initiative even if legislators failed to approve it.

Recently Ms. Schwinn appeared before the Tennessee House Education Committee during its summer workshop sessions. During her session, Schwinn made mention of $40 million in federal grants the department had procured but provided little explanation of their intended usage. Apparently $40 million between friends ain’t that big a deal, because nobody asked any more questions. And trust me, there are plenty of questions.

The 40 million she referenced comes in the form of two $20 million grants. The first we discussed a couple of weeks ago. Its primary goal seems to ensure that all of those vendors promoted by the department got their potential revenue back that was temporarily derailed by COVID – 19. The grant’s application pretty much says that,

All LEA sub guarentees, including district participants and mentor districts will receive approximately $73000 per year to procure instructional suport services from an implementation support vendor from the TDOE approved vendor list. 

Not hard to figure out who’ll make that list. That’ll account for roughly all but $2.5 million of the grant valued at $20 million.

Interestingly, the grant application(Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant_Grant Award Notification) talks about the Governor’s literacy efforts as if they’ve already been codified with secured funding, the only thing left to fund being the proposed instructional support networks(ISN). Fortunately, we in Tennessee know a little different, as previously mentioned the Governor’s bill failed and he subsequently cut all funding for additional literacy supports. As a result, none of his initiatives is funded.

Curiously, the grant refers to a “birth to post-secondary education” approach. Does that align with TCA 49-1-102(a)? According to that statute, “The system of public education in this state shall be governed in accordance with laws enacted by the general assembly and under policies, standards, and guidelines adopted by the state board of education that is necessary for the proper operation of public education in kindergarten through grade twelve (K-12).”
So, where is the TDOE deriving support for its birth to post-secondary education approach? Does TDOE have the authority to expand its scope to birth? As well as include it in the
scope of work for the Chief of Standards andMaterials? Hmmm…
There is plenty more to discuss in this grant, and over the next few weeks we’ll continue to delve deeper, but I also want to introduce you to its sister, the K-12 Education Stabilization Grant(K-12 Education STabilization Grant) This one is especially dastardly. Let me quote from its introduction,
The Tennessee Department of Education’s (TDOE’s) Connected Literacy: Engaging Parents as Partners proposal is aligned to Absolute Priority 1 in the Education Stabilization Fund’s Rethinking K-12 Education Models grant. The primary goal of the Connected Literacy project is to remediate and accelerate literacy development through parent choice by providing vital early grades literacy support for our youngest students (grades 1-3) who were most impacted by the COVID-19 school closures. This initiative will offer microgrants to families to access instruction and tutoring grounded in Tennessee’s Foundational Skills Curriculum.

What does that sound like to you? Yes, it’s a voucher program. Thirteen thousand of Tennessee’s k-2 students will receive a stipend of $1470 to supplement their education using the state created Foundational Skills Curriculum. So Schwinn and posse are proposing creating a voucher program using a curriculum that many have questioned whether it was even in the department’s scope of responsibilities to create. But fear not, they didn’t create this curriculum alone.

In the appendix of this application under Tennessee Comprehensive Literacy Plan – I know, I didn’t think we had a plan either – it’s made pretty clear who they turned to and why in creating this plan.

For kindergarten through second grade, the department requires districts to address both foundational skills and knowledge building. Therefore, the Tennessee Department of Education, (TDOE), has developed a free foundational skills curriculum and suite of resources to support districts in implementing research and evidence based materials for foundational skills. The TN Foundational Skills curriculum is anchored in a research-based open source curriculum. The open source curriculum, Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) Skills curriculum provides the foundational components of the Tennessee Foundational Skills curriculum, and this curriculum is grounded deeply in sounds based language study, sound-symbol combination, and decoding. The CKLA program was uniquely designed with the cognitive science of practice in mind and utilizes a sounds-first approach. In K-3, the program teaches children 150 spellings for the 44 sounds of English. Each unit focuses on a small number of letter-sound relationships and lasts approximately 2-3 weeks. Further, each day, children are given the chance for extended practice in those same letter-sound relationships through play and extended practice within texts (Bevilacqua and McGinty, 2016). The department also hired the Liben Consulting Firm to incorporate sounds-first activities (phonemic and phonological awareness specific) to fill the gaps in the Core Knowledge Curriculum. Finally, a Tennessee educator team created a suite of guidance and support documents to assist educators in implementation of the TN Foundational Skills curriculum.

Hmmm…remember back when the legislator was repeatedly reassured that the TDOE wasn’t reimplementing Common Core Standards? Personally, I’m really not that concerned over Common Core, but I am concerned with honesty. And I don’t know how you can gather this cast of characters and claim a lack of Common Core influence. The Liben’s themselves helped craft the standards and continue to be supporters.

Remember back in the Spring when legislators were upset about the TDOE entering into a no-bid contract with ClassWallet to manage the state’s voucher program? You probably thought that since vouchers in Tennessee were dead, that contract was dead as well. Not so fast, from the grant application,

“The TDOE is also utilizing existing infrastructure in the parent platform to ensure the payment portal previously funded with state funds is utilized for this project as well.”

The US Marines have a guiding principle of, “never leave a man behind”. For Penny Schwinn it seems to be, “Never leave a vendor behind.”

After the grant application, the department admits that there is currently no funding available to extend the program past the years covered by the grant, but they’ve got plans.

While it is not feasible to ensure funding to sustain the project beyond the grant in the current financial climate, implementation that yields expected literacy gains and other ancillary benefits has a greater likelihood of gaining political and financial support. The connected Literacy project, with common pre- and post-tests, as well as the normalizing across providers, will yield actionable data to support subsequent legislative and philanthropic asks for sustainability. Much of the infrastructure needed to sustain the project is included in the grant, and utilizing some internal capacity will also aid in making sustainability more feasible.

I don’t see how anybody reads either of these 2 grants and fails to see them for what they are – an end-run on the General Assembly. One that, based on the letter of recommendation included in the Education Stabilization Grant, is supported and encouraged by Governor Lee. It’s no secret that he and Schwinn are dismissive of the work of their predecessors. Their actions this Spring indicate equal disdain for the state’s elected body. Their mindset seems to be, “We allowed you to climb aboard the gravy train, you chose not to, so the hell with you. We’ll do it without you.”

Facilitating the Governor and Ms. Schwinn’s end run in the State House is our good friend House Education Chair Mark White. If you are familiar with the game of curling, White is the guy running in front of the puck shot by the governor with a broom, clearing the way for the puck to glide unimpeded to its goal.

It’s ironic that, despite there supposedly being no fear of an election loss for White this coming November, Republican leadership is rushing out to Memphis to shore up his support. I wonder if they realize that the man they are rushing to support is more interested in supporting the Governor’s agenda than he is in supporting his fellow Republican lawmakers.

Personally, if I was a legislator…I’d be pissed. But maybe Tennesse’s lawmakers aren’t. Maybe they are comfortable being ignored by the governor and his cabinet. Maybe they see the role of the General Assembly as being one of primarily supporting the governor’s initiatives. Time will tell.

As a citizen of Tennessee, I am deeply concerned with the corruption of processes and the apparent disregard for the laws of Tennessee. But that’s just me. You have to make up your own mind.

QUICK HITS

Remember former MNPS Superintendent Shawn Joseph? Apparently he doesn’t agree with a recent court ruling siding with former board members Jill Speering and Amy Frogge, along with current board member Fran Bush over first amendment rights. Word on the street is that he is in the process of appealing that court ruling. We’ll see how this turns out.

Per Chalkbeat, Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn are calling on lawmakers to remove any negative consequences from this year’s Spring student testing. Yea…nice smoke screen. The state is still going to test, so the testing vendor is still getting paid. Teacher evaluations are currently still being pushed, so teachers are still getting reviewed based on criteria that nobody is qualified in. That the test is administered means a permanent record for students and teachers is still being generated. All you have to do is read the commissioners statement to get the real picture,

“Administering assessments to gauge student learning and ensuring strong accountability best enables us to meet the needs of all students, however we know the significant challenges our teachers and school and district leaders are facing and it remains critical to reward their good work,”

Has anybody noticed hundreds of new laptops laying around MNPS schools lately? Apparently district leadership hasn’t, because if they had, surely they would have communicated a plan to building administrators on how those laptops should be utilized. Maybe they are too busy making sure that school security is chasing parents trying to watch their kids sports from their car out of school parking lots.

While the Governor and Schwinn are grandstanding over standardized tests, know that the TNDOE is still demanding that teachers in pre-k and k complete their student growth portfolios. The state guidelines read that teachers will be measured on student growth from the time they started with the teacher until April when portfolios are due. This fails to take into account that many teachers have gotten new students this month and may again in January. Additionally, the literacy standards are supposed to measure a student’s ability to recall details of a text and write about it. How are teachers supposed to measure a FOUR-YEAR-OLD’s ability to focus on a read-aloud over a screen, and to level student writing ability when many do not have the supplies? Another ridiculous proposition on top of a sea of ridiculous propositions.

If you live in the 56th district, please consider casting a vote for Bob Freeman. He’s a good man and worthy of your consideration.

The re-mastered version of Tom Petty’s LP Wild Flowers is out today. This version returns the record to Petty’s vision of being a 2 disc collection. It’s pretty damn good.

That’s it for today.

If you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

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 share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

Oh, yea… don’t forget to answer the poll questions.



Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. So with three different schools in MNPS not making it more than two full school days without having positive COVID-19 cases amongst students/staff, how long before Dr. Battle is forced to pull the plug on other grade levels returning to in-person instruction before January? * Note, those three schools had MAYBE 35-40% of their total enrollments back in the building, and two entire grade levels still out.

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