“If you cheat on your road work in the dark of the morning, you will be found out in the big fight under the bright lights.”
After all these years I’m starting to get a bit of an understanding of charter school parents, and some supporters, frustration with public schools. Before you slam the door, hear me out.
In the early days of school closures, due to the ongoing pandemic, I thought, “Well this sucks, but there is an opportunity here. There is a chance that since we are being forced to change already, we’ll use this time to re-adjust and address some of the past inadequacies and inequities. Ultimately public education we’ll come out better for this challenge.”
Under this cynical exterior beats the soul of an optimist.
However, innovation is not what has happened over the past 6 months. Instead, it’s been a constant drumbeat to get kids back in traditional school settings. Instead of focusing on providing the best educational opportunities for children, we have focused almost singularly on refilling school buildings.
Over the summer when districts should have been developing plans to, at the bare minimum, incorporate remote instruction into reopening plans, they focused almost entirely on preparing for the re-entry of students into buildings. As a result, when August arrived and it was clear that it wasn’t going to be possible to restart in-person learning, principals and teachers were left scrambling to develop plans to deliver remote instruction to students. Plans that, despite the best efforts of a building by building educators, have done little but serve as a place holder, while we figured out how to get kids back in schools.
MNPS is no exception. Over the last 6 months, there has been little effort to create a cohesive plan to ensure that all kids are receiving a quality education. There has been little collaboration between schools, facilitated by the district, to ensure that best practices are being replicated. I’d argue that there has been little effort by leadership to even identify those best practices, let alone replicate. The focus has been entirely on what to do until kids can enter the building again.
That’s not taking anything away from teachers and principals, I know that those conversations are going on at the building level, but not as frequently as they should be due to a constant need to respond to district edicts that do little to ensure kids are getting the most robust education possible throughout the district, or allow schools to adequately address the needs of their students. Instead, loosely and poorly constructed SEL modules, a focus on MAP testing and other benchmarks, contacting families for social needs, and sorting out technical issues, have all eaten up time and taken away from the teacher what should be their primary, if not the sole focus, providing quality education to every student.
Now another month is being eaten up with return to school plans while infection numbers are on a steep incline. Nothing says students are not our primary focus like forcing them back into unsafe conditions while in the midst of a pandemic.
By contrast, it seems that out west of Nashville, in Memphis, they understand that students should be the primary focus. This week they announced that students won’t return back to buildings until January. When schools do open up, teachers will still have the option to teach in-person or virtually. Per Chalkbeat,
“We’re encouraging and we’re welcoming our teachers back into the buildings because we know that it is safe to do so,” Jerica Phillips, a district spokeswoman, told reporters Tuesday. “But we just want to remain flexible in giving them the option to teach from home. But certainly the goal is to have face-to-face learning.”
That’s called putting students, parents, and teachers first.
I get it, remote instruction is difficult. It’s maddening and highly stressful for many families. Kids sometimes have trouble focusing on and completing their work. Expectations at times are too high and the work overwhelming. School hours don’t necessarily align with work hours. Kids have trouble socializing. Parents are often ill-equipped to help students with their learning. Those are all very real issues. However, none of those problems are unique to remote learning.
We all have selective memory about what schools looked like in October of 2019 and we think that none of the aforementioned was applicable. But trust me, these very same issues were in actuality taking place in homes and schools all across the district. The pandemic has just brought those issues fully into our living rooms, and as a result, they become harder to ignore.
I’ve had ongoing conversations with several educators over the past several months about these very issues, and more. Almost universally they remind me, none of this is new. COVID-19 has acerbated the situation, but all of these challenges were present pre-pandemic. Equally present, is our prevailing strategy over the past several decades – just get kids in the school buildings, and magically all problems will evaporate. It’s something charter school parents have experienced for decades, hence, their frustrations.
It’s no secret that in the past, schools have failed to meet all student’s needs. We can debate the causes for that, but not the outcomes. The point is, the focus should be on providing an education in a manner that serves the greatest number of kids. Instruction can take all kinds of forms. The trick is to make all of them as effective as possible. That should be our focus at the present time, Using negative circumstances to produce positive outcomes.
Instead of just throwing our hands up and saying, “This is too hard. It doesn’t work”, we should be looking at the separate elements that work and how they can be incorporated into a greater plan. A plan that won’t just require changes in schools, but also changes in society.
It’s very difficult to change routines and practices, but keep in mind, things we take for granted – 40 hour week, social security, overtime pay, 5-day work week – weren’t always the norm, but were rather born out of a realized necessity.
Take the five day work week for example, per the Atlantic
It took decades for Saturday to change from a half-day to a full day’s rest. In 1908, a New England mill became the first American factory to institute the five-day week. It did so to accommodate Jewish workers, whose observance of a Saturday sabbath forced them to make up their work on Sundays, offending some in the Christian majority. The mill granted these Jewish workers a two-day weekend, and other factories followed this example. The Great Depression cemented the two-day weekend into the economy, as shorter hours were considered a remedy to underemployment.
Now I’m not falling into that trap of claiming there has been no innovation in public schools, just that there has been too little of it, and what has transpired is as a result of the efforts by building leaders and teachers, not district officials, legislators, or billionaires. Show me a school filled with innovative practices and it’s almost always traceable back to leadership that inspires and allows teachers to take an innovative approach. Principals that put the primary focus on students, and teachers.
I’m also not promoting private entities to take over the public system. Make no mistake, I’m a dyed in the wool public school advocate. To me, that’s defined as a system that serves all kids and is accountable to the public. What I am not wedded to is what form that system takes, be it in-person, virtual, or hopefully a hybrid of the two. The same holds true for schools to a certain extent, as long as they are accountable to the public – and not just individual stakeholders and private entities – and they serve all children, I’m basically good and open to variation.
District leaders command six-figure salaries. Salaries that in some cases are 3 times higher than that of the average teacher. Their thinking and strategy have to be more than just getting students back in the building. It has to be focused on continually building a better public school system that meets the needs of a greater number of students, whether buildings are occupied or not.
Previous pandemics have led to serious social change. After the Black Plague, the prevailing practice of serfdom was brought to an end and the growth of the middle class was facilitated.
We all know the story of how Newton discovered gravity when an apple fell on his head while sitting under a tree. What you might not know is that Newton was sitting under that tree because he was quarantining on his estate, due to a virus outbreak in London.
After the Spanish Flu pandemic, countries recognized the need for greater individual health care. This led to both the birth of socialized medicine and the creation of workplace health plans.
The point is those past pandemics have produced great tragedy, but also a great innovation. The question remains, will this current outbreak produce the same or will we merely rush back to fill school buildings to return what once was? Can we try and get a little bang for the buck out of the current crisis? Instead of focusing on putting children back in buildings, can we instead focus on what should already be the focus – getting ALL kids a quality education through whatever form that takes?
In other, can we put children before institutions?
WE DON”T NEED YOUR STINKING MONEY PART DEUX
Many of you might have noticed a recent posting on the Tennessee Department of Education job site announcing an opening for a Director of Early Literacy.
If you saw it, you might have scratched your head and thought, “hmmm…Governor Lee instituted a hiring freeze for government employees, right?” That’s only if you are using state taxpayer money, this position is being funded by the recent federal grants awarded to the TDOE. Now that means there is no guarantee that it will be extended past the length of the grant unless state lawmakers fund the position, but as long as they have grant money, they are free to hire.
“Yea”, you might be thinking, “but I thought departments could create positions, only legislators.”
Again that’s true if you are funding positions with Tennessee taxpayer money. The caveat from above also applies here.
There is a wrinkle here though, one I’m sure Lee and Schwinn want you to ignore. The grant in question, that allows for the creation of this position, is a reimbursement grant. What that means is state funds are initially extended, and the state is then reimbursed for the expenditures.
Here’s another wrinkle. Those reimbursements are not guarenteed, they must be approved by the federal government.
What happens if the Feds say, “Nah, we don’t think that expenditure is allowable”? If that happens, who’s responsible for the shortfall? Here’s a hint, it starts with “Te” and ends in “rs”.
A look a Commissioner Schwinn’s record in previous stops doesn’t exactly inspire taxpayer confidence in her ability to recognize an allowable expense. Remember, in Texas, the Federal Government looked to the state to repay more than $2.5 million after auditors found the Texas Department of Education violated purchasing rules when it awarded a multimillion-dollar no-bid contract to a group tasked with collecting data about special education students. That contract was under the purview of Ms. Schwinn.
Let’s stop a minute and look at that sentence about the feds demanding their money back. Does anyone sentence tell you any more about the current occupant of the big chair at TDOE than that one? It’s an indicator of behavior that she’s arguably repeated here in Tennessee.
Ignores purchasing rules when it comes to million-dollar no-bid contracts? ClassWallet.
Steers contracts to favored vendors? Amplify and Wit and Wisdom.
A robust collection of student data? Recently “suspended” child-wellness checks program.
All just another portion of two grants, that will give me plenty to write about over the coming months and should instill grave concerns in Tennessee taxpayers.
By the way, the picture above is from an event on Wednesday, October 14, when Tennessee first lady Maria Lee and Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn visited Westwood Elementary just hours before Mrs. Lee and her husband went back to the farm to quarantine.
DON”T JUST READ THE HEADLINE
These days there is a constant rush to show how virtuous and socially “woke” we are. As a result, we often attempt to cache policy changes under a social justice flag. A tendency that sometimes shifts the message away from the quality of those changes for all stakeholders.
Case in point. You may have seen recent headlines declaring that the San Diego United School District was changing its grading practices to combat racism. Conservative pundits have lept all over these changes and tried to paint them as a lowering of expectations for minority students, while not even really looking at the proposed changes. Closer inspection reveals that policy modification that is as much about improving practices, as it is about combating racism.
Sure the policy will prove beneficial to kids in poverty and those of color, but it will also benefit all children. Let’s take a quick look.
Under the new policy, “academic grades will only be about showing progress toward “mastery of standards,” rather than rewarding students for completing a certain quantity of work.” Ok…shouldn’t that already be the goal? Isn’t “mastery of standards” what we are all looking for? This switch will also prevent kids from getting dinged by low scores early in the process because grades will no longer be an average of scores throughout the semester. Again, beneficial to everybody as I’m sure White kids suffer from low scores at the beginning of a semester, as well as children of color.
Students will no longer be docked in their academic grades for turning work in late or other factors related to work habits. Those aspects of student behavior will be judged in a separate citizenship grade. Ok…that makes sense as well. A separate grade doesn’t make learning subject matter less important it just allows differentiation to take place between lack of subject knowledge and poor work habits. That differentiation should make it easier to address where a student needs work, and more easily rectify those issues.
Also, a student’s citizenship grade would be affected if a student or their parent asks for a grade change for reasons other than a clerical error. I can see some potential issues here, but a student needs to develop the ability to advocate for themselves, and I would again argue, that this allows for that development. Of course, there is a chance that parents could abuse this policy, but in the end, everybody is still aware of the issue.
The new policy provides students an opportunity for retakes to improve their grades. Again, something I think makes perfect sense. Few tests taken by adults do not provide an opportunity for a retake. Why would we not extend the same courtesy to children?
Had these policies been presented sans racial motivation, there would still have some pushback, but I wonder if it would have provided the current level of political fodder. I understand and fully embrace the need to eradicate systematic racism from schools, but sometimes you have to just do the right thing for no other reason than that it is the right thing to do. Changing the grading system in a manner to benefit all students, seem to me, is the right thing to do.
Congratulations to Overton’s Women’s Soccer team. Over the weekend they won the district championship. Additional props for earning individual honors go to Anastasia, Grayson, Natalie, Emma, Zoe, Lauren, & Olympia, who were named to the All-District Team. Anastasia was named Offensive MVP & Grayson was named Goal Keeper of the Year! The Overton HS tradition for athletic excellence continues.
Speaking of continuing, that old issue of conflict of interest continues to arise for MNPS Board Member Gini Pupo-Walker. In her role as Executive Director of advocacy group the Education Trust she has co-penned an editorial in the Tennessean for a broadening of history students are taught and an increased focus on the recruitment of teachers of color. I’m all for increasing diversity in schools and fully recognize its importance.
However, last I checked, MNPS was having trouble recruiting and retaining teachers period. In fact, as Andy Spears highlights in a recent TNEd Report, all Tennessee districts are suffering severe teacher and staff shortages.
In my opinion, it is every bit as important to have a qualified teacher in front of every student as it is to ensure that it is a teacher of color. I’m all for making the search for teachers more inclusive, but let’s solve the first before we make the latter a priority. If Pupo-Walker wants to advocate for a select sub-set of stakeholders that is certainly her right, but her role with a private entity shouldn’t supersede the needs of her constituents who elected her to represent all of them.
It seems like not all of Tennessee’s legislators was taken in by the Governor and the Commissioners testing song and dance last week. Four Democrats – Representatives John Ray Clemmons, Gloria Johnson, Bill Beck, and Jason Hodges – have signed a letter demanding that the governor suspend testing and teacher evaluations this year. Let’s hope it gets some traction.
Nashville’s District 4 voters may not be aware that a school race is taking place, but the outside money folks sure do. Financial disclosures were due this past week, and as always they tell an interesting tale. Leading the fundraising charge is Berthena Nabaa-McKinney. The currently seated board member raised $20,836 in campaign funds – an impressive haul. Over 4K of that was by donors who contributed less than a hundred dollars. Among the known donors were several Metro Council Members.
Next on the tally sheet was my preferred candidate, Pam Swooner, with $9142, the majority of it from MNEA. John Little was next at $9140, much of it from charter school advocates. Former Hillwood principal Steven Chauncey, who enjoys the support of Metro Council Member Steve Glover, has got to file a disclosure. This untimely filing of disclosures has become an increasingly alarming issue in Nashville elections. Voters need to know who is funding whom before they cast their votes.
Diane Ravitch reports today, a little tongue in cheek, that the “Reading Wars” are over. What’s she is refering to is recent reports that influential reading researcher, and long time supporter of the balanced literacy approach to reading instruction, Lucy Calkins, has modified her approach to include more phonics when teaching kids to read.
I leave it to you to decide to what degree that is revolutionary. I call it good research, as more evidence arises, you modify your thoughts to the extent the evidence warrants. So props to her. I also wholeheartedly agree with Ravitch when she writes,
I continue to object to the use of the phrase”the science of reading,” which I consider to be an inappropriate use of the word “science.” Reading teachers should have a repertoire of strategies, including phonics and phonemic awareness.
That’s it for today.
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See you Friday.