NOT YOUR CANARY IN A COAL MINE

“Never trust someone that claims they care nothing of what society thinks of them. Instead of conquering obstacles, they simply pretend they don’t exist.”
Tiffany Madison

 

All hail Overton High School’s favorite son Mookie Betts. Last night he led the Los Angelos Dodgers to their first World Championship in 32 years. Betts didn’t bat exceptionally well or win the series MVP award, but when needed, he responded with defense and speed on the base path. His home run in last night’s game was a thing of beauty that put the game on ice.

MNPS’s should be proud to be represented by Overton’s graduate. Throughout his career, Betts has not only exhibited incredible athletic prowess but has also been a great sportsman and a humble servant – never failing to assist those less fortunate than himself. Last night’s victory demonstrates that nice-guys do truly finish first.

HEADS IN THE SAND

Last Friday, the Metro Nashville Public School’s governing board held an emergency work session in order to review the district’s return to in-person learning. At the time, elementary schools had been in session since Fall Break, and middle schools were poised to reopen this week for those families who had chosen to resume in-person instruction.

The board could not as a body dictate a course of action to the director, but the work session provided an opportunity to get some much-needed clarifications and for board members to offer their personal recommendations. Based on the conversation, it was clear that all but one board member, Fran Bush, had serious reservations about continuing to open school buildings at the same time COVID cases were dramatically increasing.

Hours after the meeting, Superintendent Adrienne Battle announced that MNPS would be freezing it’s re-entry plan until data suggested it was safer to continue. The announcement was met with both gratitude and derision. While many teachers were concerned about health risks, many others had done considerable work in an effort to facilitate a return to school buildings. The sudden reversal by the director made all that work moot and required long hours this past weekend in order to adjust.

Elementary school teachers were particularly unhappy with both the discussion during the work session and the ensuing decision. There was little recognition for their ongoing work, nor apparent concern for their safety. The director’s decision to suddenly halt the re-entry plan was akin to me walking up to a building and saying, “That’s not safe enough for my family, but you go in there and let me know how it works out.”

The almost universal response I heard over the weekend was, “If it’s not safe for middle school and high school, why would it be safe for us?” Nobody signed up to be MNPS’s canary in the coal mine.

In all fairness, there were also a number of ES teachers that expressed concerns about a possible return to virtual instruction. For them, for whatever reason, remote learning had not been a successful endeavor and out of concern for their charges, they didn’t wish to go back to virtual school.

As a result of Friday’s actions, there was a great deal of anticipation and conversation around Tuesday’s regularly scheduled board meeting. Rumors were flying of a potential vote, or recommendation, to close elementary schools back down and send everyone remote. Prior to the scheduled meeting, speculation had reached such a level that District 8 board member Gini Pupo-Walker felt compelled to release a statement of clarification via social media.

It was in front of this backdrop that Tuesday’s board meeting opened. Any teachers or parents who tuned in for a discussion about current responses, challenges, and future plans as they relate to the ongoing pandemic, were sorely disappointed. After a brief high-level review, Dr. Battle quickly moved on to some individual presentations. No discussion of issues, no proposed strategies, no timelines were offered.

Instead of hearing an update on re-entry amidst a COVID crisis that presents potential staffing issues and relevant safety factors, the board was given a presentation on the following,

  • An update on the district’s communication plans, complete with numbers on people that had called in and had their calls answered at the communication center. Along with the number of emails sent and call-outs conducted. Communications Director Sean Braisted is a vast improvement over past holders of the position, but what does the proffered data actually mean? Are we just counting clicks?
  • There was a presentation about the district’s technology efforts. Props to head of technology Doug Renfro for clarifying why the new laptops that have recently arrived have been reserved for those returning to in-person instruction – it was seen as an opportunity to reach as many kids as possible as fast as possible. Good to know.
  • An update on the district energy conservation plan. This one brought forth the shocking revelation that if you close schools for COVID, you get energy savings. David Profit is one of my favorite people in the district, but what’s the point of this presentation in the midst of a pandemic?
  • There was an update from Dr. Keri Randolph, Executive Officer – Strategic Federal, State, and Philanthropic Investments, on the MNPS Navigator program. Again presenting data that amounted to clicks with no context. Sure there were 144K contacts made, but how families does that number represent? Is it 70k twice? Or some variation? As part of this presentation, both Battle and the presenter tried to spin some kind of narrative where teachers were thrilled to increase the level of expectations and work, without increasing  the level of compensation. There was also a failure to acknowledge that once teachers return to buildings, they will not have the capacity to fulfill the navigator role. Another area that wasn’t covered, was how MNPS’s navigator program is different than the one that was recently shot down on the state level by legislators.

As a side note, the navigator program appears to be another instance of MNPS helping the Tennessee Department of Education circumvent the wishes of the General Assembly. For the record, MNPS has adopted Wit and Wisdom as a literacy curriculum, a curriculum prefered by the TDOE, and questioned by the House Education Committee. It’s a curriculum that did not make the approved texts list for grades k – 2, and as such, in order to adopt it, districts must apply for a waiver. By requesting an exemption to adopt MNPS appears to be following the wishes of Commissioner Schwinn and Governor Lee over that of the General Assembly.

Taken as an isolated incident, it might be dismissed, but MNPS has also added other elements of Commissioner Schwinn’s proposed “Literacy Plan” that failed to pass during last Spring’s legislative session. One is the adoption of the Foundational Skills supplement created by Dr. Lisa Coons, former MNPS Priority School director and now TDOE’s Chief of Standards and Materials, and her staff. This adoption has taken place despite teachers raising concerns over the quality of the supplemental material, as well as it not aligning with the district’s professed literacy instruction philosophy of ‘Balanced Literacy.”

Furthermore, at the urging of Commissioner Schwinn, despite her public position, MNPS leadership is continuing to push forward with teacher evaluations. Principals have been given direction that evaluations need to be completed by the beginning of December. I’m really curious since the majority of instruction has been delivered remotely and remote instruction is a new frontier, who is qualified to do these evaluations? Will these evaluations take in the hours of uncompensated time that teachers have put into self-teach themselves on delivery remote instruction? Will the stress from trying to meet student needs while taking care of their families be factored in? Will the challenges associated with students not showing up be included? What about middle school teachers who found themselves suddenly creating new lesson plans for students based on the halting of the district re-entry plan?

The whole idea of evaluations at this time is inappropriate and should be suspended until a sense of stability is achieved. Unfortunately, Schwinn and the Governor need those evaluations to generate data in order to support their dastardly deeds. One long term DOE employee recently responded to an inquiry of mine by saying, “I have no idea. My sole job these days seems to be focused on forwarding the career of Penny Schwinn.” Teacher evaluations at this time reek of the same odor.

But I digress. Let’s get back to the board meeting. Buried amidst the other reports, was one that should have warranted its own meeting – MAP  testing.

Despite the challenges of students, families, and teachers adapting to remote learning, the district had insisted on continuing with MAP testing back in August. They did so, despite countless warnings that the results would be corrupted. They ignored the increased stress placed on teachers, students, and parents.

The push was conducted under the guise of concern around student learning loss, and came with continual dire predictions, despite experts urging caution in regard to trying to predict learning loss.

Executive Director Paul Changus’s report confirmed suppositions made by those questioning the necessity of MAP at the beginning of the year. Fewer students were tested, the results generated by early grades were highly questionable, and achievement scores were not far off from previous years. There was some slowing of growth, but lack of growth does not equal loss of learning.

It’s worth noting here that the testing window was widened while principals were forced to chase down students in an effort to get them to take the assessment. Once again, taking their focus away from facilitating instruction for kids.

I would particularly like to call attention to one of Changas’s bullet points,

Summary scores appear to be somewhat inflated in the early grade, (particularly k -2) – a trend observed in other districts that administered remotely.

In other words, you can’t really trust any of the data.

Ironically, under questioning, Changas acknowledged that while the data had issues, students and teachers are forming relationships, teachers are observing, and students are turning in work that is being assessed – ultimately at this time, those might be the most valid data points we have.

This prompted new board member Abigail Taylor to poise the question, if we are relying on teacher-generated assessments, and acknowledging that those are the best data points we have, what is the benefit of continuing to administer future MAP testing. Why couldn’t we instead free up that time in order to supply more teaching time in an effort to address student needs? To his credit, Changas acknowledged that the question was valid. He then offered that NWEA was not charging us for the August test, and so financially there was no cost to the district.

However, that answer indicates the district has agreed to play the role of guinea pig for the testing company. That’s something that parents, students, and teachers should be aware of. If NWEA was confident in their product they wouldn’t be giving away free samples to an existing customer.

While Changas was supplying his answer to Taylor’s question, new Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy felt compelled to leap to the microphone and offer that the state requires districts to administer universal screeners three times a year in order to meet RTI requirements. Bellamy’s answer was correct, but I wonder what led him to think Changas needed his assistance with the question. After all, Changas has been offering explanations on assessments to the MNPS board longer than Bellamy has been an educator. If you want to go further, Changas has been analyzing educational assessments longer than Mason has been alive.

Some credit needs to go to MNPS board members who were able to raise a number of pertinent questions, despite being presented with the materials for the first time and having little time to review. That still doesn’t negate the board’s failure to address stakeholders’ primary concern – COVID-19 and the impact on schools.

As valuable as the aforementioned presentations were, what people really want to know is how is the district planning to keep people safe and educate kids. Questions abound around why schools are unsafe for middle school kids but not elementary school kids. What about those MNPS employees that have contracted COVID?

Former MNPS principal Lance Forman’s, and current Literacy specialist Lorri Foreman Mast’s, mother, a MNPS librarian, is currently in ICU and not doing well. It’s unclear exactly how she contracted COVID. She was helping to distribute laptops, but at the same time could have gotten it elsewhere. Either way, the board needs to acknowledge her current situation, along with all of the other staff that are ill or quarantined. Word is that Mrs. Foreman’s husband has now also contracted the virus. It’s in a time like this we need to not just pray for our valued teachers and support staff, but also offer our support in whatever form we can. I can’t even imagine what the Foreman family is going through.

What is MNPS doing to ensure that this doesn’t happen to other teachers? What about schools where support staff is forced to quarantine? How are we filling those roles? What is the plan for procuring subs in the event teachers are out? Do we have enough staff to effectively operate schools? What are the metrics being employed in order to resume the district re-entry plan?

I get it. The conversation is a hard one and an emotional one. Districts across the country are wrestling with the implications of trying to educate kids, while also maintaining their safety. There are valid considerations on both sides of the debate. Nobody is 100% certain about the strategies. We can error in our decisions, but what we can not do is neglect to have robust conversations around strategies and the impact on schools out of fear.

The greatest failure in my opinion is that nobody has viewed day-to-day school operations through the eyes of a teacher. Nor the eyes of a parent or a student. That can’t continue.

Furthermore, failure to supply a credible narrative means that people will create their own narrative. A narrative that seldom aligns with the one you desire. As it stands right now, rumors are flying fast and furious across the district. At a time when MNPS needs stakeholders to focus on the very real challenges in front of them, principals are being distracted from the work at hand in order to try and address the speculations of teachers and parents. A distraction the district can ill-afford at this juncture.

A recent article in the American Prospect delivers an in-depth analysis of the current debate over the practicality and necessity of opening schools. Strangely the leading voice in the discussion, Emily Oester, is an economist and not a doctor. As a data-driven, empathetic, and trusted parenting expert, Oster offers plenty of evidence about why schools should open. She chalks up large urban district’s reticence to re-opening as being primarily borne out of a fear of bad press.

That said, she does seem to ignore the fact that large urban district’s demographics are made up of a greater number of kids from economically challenged households and children of color. The pandemic has hit black and brown families a lot harder than their whiter more economically secure counterparts.

She also fails to adequately take into consideration low in-person attendance rates for districts that have reopened, the lag time in reporting, and the persistent inadequacy in testing and tracing school-related cases. She also doesn’t take into account the major public-health fear that transmission could change as the weather gets colder, making no mention of the fact that children now make up 10 percent of all COVID-19 cases in the U.S., up from 2 percent in April. All important considerations.

One thing Oester does acknowledge that others fail to is the risk factor. Closing out the American Prospect article is the following,

In addition to emphasizing the social, emotional, and academic harms students face by missing in-person school, Oster says we accept mortality risks in normal times, like allowing people to drive cars, have swimming pools, and avoid the flu shot. “There will be some in-school transmission, no matter how careful we are,” she wrote in July. “This is the unfortunate reality. Some of these people may get very sick. If we are not willing to accept this, we cannot open schools.”

That’s the public conversation that the MNPS School Board and the Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle need to have. And it needs to happen sooner rather than later.

QUICK HITS

It’s only Wednesday and already this week the Nashville music community has experienced four devastating losses. Gone this week are country music outlaw Billy Joe Shaver, studio guitarist legend and all-around great guy J.T. Corenflos, bassist and prolific musician Shawn Scruggs, and rock scene stalwart Scott Nelson. Singularly any one of those losses would be monumental, collectively, it’s simply heart-rending. Y’all are going to be deeply missed.

Nashville is not the only district putting a halt to in-person instruction. Denver has recently announced that all higher-level elementary students will be returning to virtual learning after this week. Superintendent Susan Cordova is quoted in Chalkbeat, “There is real fear, anxiety, and concern on all sides, regardless of where you stand on this issue — parents and students who desperately want their children to be in school, teachers, and leaders who are concerned about their health and safety,” she wrote. “There is no easy answer.”

The Tennessee Charter School Center has hired Elizabeth Fiveash as its new Chief Policy Officer. Fiveash formerly worked with the Tennessee Department of Education where she earned a reputation for crafting and analyzing education policy. She was among the many who decided to pursue other avenues after the arrival of current Commissioner Penny Schwinn. I can’t really say congratulations, but kudos to TCSC for the incredible coup.

NAEP released results today that showed a decline in 12th-grade reading scores and that they are currently lower than they were in 1992. If you look at the accompanying chart, you’ll see we are talking about 2 points since 2002. I could dive deeper into the numbers, or I could just turn you over to Dr. Zack Barnes. For now, I’m choosing the latter.

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.

 

 



Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. I go to church with Eugenia Forman. Many people in her Sunday School class have Covid. Please don’t imply she contracted it at school as this does not seem to be the case. Prayers for her speedy recovery (and those of the rest of her Sunday School class).
    Thanks for the blog!

  2. Normally I am a fan of MAP, but Dr. Changas’ report is really frustrating. It should be noted that a MAP score only means anything in the context of another MAP score, and as if Covid did not invalidate MAP this year already, NWEA did a new norm study on their data for 2020, so the comparison between this year and last year is also invalid on its own as well.

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