BETTER WAYS TO SPEND OUR TIME

“Sometimes I wonder if we’re livin’ in the same land.
Why do you wanna be my friend
when I feel like a juggler
running out of hands?”
Elvis Costello

Throughout the ongoing pandemic, the one thing that has remained consistent is our endless belief that if we just ignore reality and recreate things the way they used to be, everything will be fine. As if by sheer will we can negate the impact of the coronavirus.

Case in point, MAP testing. We do it at the beginning of the year every year so by damn we are going to do it this year. For 3 weeks in August, and a week in September, MNPS had its principals running around chasing students down to administer a test nobody really wanted to take. They were charged with this challenge despite repeated warnings from parents and teachers about its lack of usefulness.

Two months later, district leadership is admitting that parents and teachers were right, the most valid data points we have are those supplied by teachers at the individual level.

To mitigate criticism, MNPS Executive Director Paul Changas at this week’s board meeting touted that NWEA wasn’t charging us for the assessment. Ah, but please don’t fall into the trap of thinking that just because MNPS is not delivering any cash to NWEA that there is no cost. Au contraire.

There was a huge cost to the district due to the decision to participate in MAP this year. A cost in both time and resources. Principals were forced to spend large amounts of precious time locating students and pressuring them to participate. A time that could have been better spent focused on ensuring that teachers had what they needed to deliver quality remote education and that students were prepared to receive said instruction.

Students were overly stressed at a time when they were trying to navigate the online process. A time that could have been better utilized in efforts to help them become more comfortable with remote learning and the new expectations, was wasted on a test that couldn’t be delivered with any fidelity.

Parents were stressed because they were forced to help their young children navigate the test-taking process. As expected, some gave in to the temptation to offer extra “help” to their children. Despite their best intentions, this only served to make already unreliable data, even more unreliable.

Out of one side of their mouth education leaders were busy screaming about “learning loss” due to a loss of instructional time, while with the other side they were justifying taking even more instructional time away to administer tests that produced little meaningful data.

To be fair, had they been given an option, I think Dr. Battle, and most superintendents, recognizing that administering assessment the first month of school was an exercise in futility, would have suspended testing in favor of instructional time. Unfortunately, the Tennessee Department of Education continues to refuse to give them an option. Despite Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn’s bold statements about teachers, students, and schools not being held accountable for results from TNReady, the department continues to gather data that could be used against them.

Lee was quoted in Chalkbeat as saying,

“At this time, it’s most important that our teachers have a clear runway to focus on delivering solutions to students that need to grow academically whether it’s online or in person. To me, that means accountability in teacher evaluations should be temporarily paused this year.”

Makes him sound like a reasonable guy doesn’t it? Don’t be fooled. Behind the scenes, the pressure hasn’t eased a bit.

Not only are districts still being forced to adhere to RTI legislation and administer a universal screener three times a year. The TDOE is also forcing districts to conduct teacher evaluations (Best Practices for Implementing TEAM Processes in a Distance Learning Environment) despite widespread disruptions in schools due to the pandemic.

A look at the department’s COVID-19 tracker – which is basically useless because it only updates once a week – shows that out of the state’s 147 school districts, 125 are operating under a hybrid model. Only 11 are fully in person, while 7 are remote only. That means that the vast majority of the state’s school districts are operating in a manner in which they have little experience. As some like to say, they are building the airplane while flying it.

How useless do you think that evaluations produced under these circumstances will be? How many principals do you think will give teachers a standard 3 or 4 based on the principle of things? Pun intended.

We are going to evaluate teachers while schools struggle with student attendance. We are going to evaluate teachers who are in varying stages of acquiring the technical savvy to navigate the rudiments of virtual instruction. We are going to evaluate teachers in the midst of ever-shifting classroom rosters. We are going to going to evaluate teachers at a time when many are enduring personal trauma due to either themselves or their families facing risks from a virus that has killed over 225K Americans. Lucky teachers, the TDOE is offering an opportunity to take a hit on your personal health and your professional record simultaneously. In what world does any of that make sense?

What do we hope to do with the data delivered through these evaluations? Evaluations that will become a part of a teacher’s permanent record. As such they will potentially affect a teacher’s ability to earn tenure and to secure future employment. Are we hoping to use this data to drive out those hypothetical “bad teachers”? If so, where will districts find replacements?

Or will the data derived from the evaluations be used as ammunition against teacher prep programs throughout the state? Will TDOE use teacher evaluation scores as a means to leverage those programs into adhering to their agenda? Don’t think that is out of the realm of impossibility. Last spring, Commissioner Schwinn pushed a literacy bill that would profoundly alter the way Tennessee teacher prep programs would train potential future teachers. All you have to do is look at the recently awarded $20 million grant to see that they are still looking to change teacher practice (Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant_Grant Award Notification).

This comes directly from the grant:

Leading indicator measures will show clear impact in years one and two of the grant. All districts will meet and exceed completion requirements and show 10 percent increases in proportions of participants meeting knowledge and mindset benchmarks. In teacher practice and informal IPG tracking, teachers will demonstrate instructional shifts at a 50% average increase in section one of the IPG and a 25% increase in sections two and three of the IPG.

I’d like to give you more information on exactly what is meant by “IPG,” but unfortunately, when I hit the link in the grant application this is what I get:

Resource at ‘/content/dam/tn/education/textbook/TN IPG Handout.pdf’ not found: No resource found

Since per the grant application, “TDOE has partnered with the Core Knowledge Foundation and Meredith and David Liben of Liben Education Consulting to develop supplemental PA and APA supports and integrate them into a comprehensive suite of foundational skills materials tailored to Tennessee’s standards and context,” I suspect that when the link is active, the guide will resemble that of the Achieve the Core Instructional Practice Guide. And yes, we are talking about that “Core.”

As if to add insult to injury, schools and districts are also going to start taking nominations for individual school’s teacher of the year awards.

During the best of times, I think the teacher of the year award process is ridiculous. That’s not to take anything away from past winners – I’m confident all of them are quite competent – but all the TOY award does is reinforce the myth of teachers as either saviors or superheroes. The reality is great teaching is accomplished through great collaboration. Show me an exceptional ELA teacher and I’ll bet you find they benefit from a great principal, a great social studies teacher, and likely an exceptional related arts teacher. High student achievement is not brought about by calling in Superman, but rather by building the Justice League.

In what we would refer to as normal times, school staffs are often so large that it’s impossible to be familiar with every teacher’s abilities. This is especially true in high schools, where a school may employ over 100 instructors. Explain to me how teachers are capable of evaluating the instructional abilities of all their colleagues while maintaining their own heavy workload? Hence, the process is often reduced to a popularity contest.

In my opinion, every teacher that is currently employed and is trying to maintain the currently unsustainable workload deserves the accolade of Teacher of the Year. Instead of trying to rank teachers, we should be begging everyone of them to stay. We should be celebrating the fact that despite having all of our responsibilities and expectations dumped on them amidst a pandemic, they are still consistently trying to serve kids. Myself? I would have probably thrown in the towel a month ago and told you to go…

There is no mythical orchard for teachers available. One where we can just pluck a few as needed. As Andy Spears recently reported in the TNEd Report, “Tennessee public schools suffer from a severe teacher and staff shortage.”

Ranking teachers, evaluating teachers, recognizing some overall ain’t going to help those numbers. It’s time we got a little more intentional and instead of trying to re-create what we used to do, we need to figure out what we are trying to do. I would say a large part of what we are trying to do is ensure that as many – preferably all – of Tennessee’s students benefit from a qualified teacher every day.

Then we need to ask ourselves, is this policy or practice going to help that or hurt it? If it’s the latter then we probably ought to abandon it, at least till we can convincingly demonstrate that it benefits students. I just named three practices that do not currently meet that threshold, and you can throw TNReady testing into the bucket as well. All need to be suspended.

QUICK HITS

If you are interested in exactly how much money Tennessee spends on education and how it compares with other states. Check out this handy dandy tool. Trust me, you won’t be impressed with Tennessee’s level of investment.

A glance at social media reveals that Commissioner Schwinn is employing that age-old strategy of unpopular commissioners throughout time, get out and get your picture taken with students. She’s seemingly been everywhere this month – Tusculum View, Rogersville City, Kingsport, Hancock County, and others. The intent is to fill you with the warm and fuzzies. Is it working?

Just a reminder, next Tuesday is election day and as a result, MNPS schools will be closed. If you are keeping score at home that will mark the third consecutive four day week.

Gary Hughes is a respected Nashville middle school principal who recently lost his mother to COVID. Last night WKRN News did a feature story on Dr. Hughes in which he warned people to take the COVID-19 threat very seriously. Hughes offers some words we all need to hear,

“I wish people would not allow their politics to get into the middle of them thinking clearly,” Dr. Hughes said. “This is not like the flu, and people are dying in huge numbers…people would rather hear the truth and don’t panic over the truth.”  

How about them Creepy Carrots hanging around the second-grade hallway at Tusculum ES?

Yesterday wrapped up early voting locally. Davidson County had a record-breaking total of 220,983 early voters, which is 45.83% of registered voters in the county. This does not include absentee ballots. For comparison, in the 2016 presidential election, a total of 252,926 people voted in Davidson County, which is 61.94% of the registered voters at that time. If 61.94% of the currently registered voters (448,197 in Davidson County) vote this year there should be 277,491 total votes cast. Yikes.

Keep in mind that there is a school board race ongoing in District 4. If you live in District 4, I’d appreciate you considering voting for Pam Swoner.

Indiana’s Education Commissioner Jennifer McCormick’s days are probably numbered. She’s a Republican in a red state that has pissed off state Republicans by her willingness to buck the party line to do what’s best for kids.

“They want me out. That doesn’t hurt my feelings right now,” she told Chalkbeat. “What is alarming is the direction, from the federal level on down, that Republicans are going regarding education. I just simply do not agree with it… I believe in public education. That’s just who I am, and I make no apologies for that.”

The Democratic candidate for Governor has said he’ll hire her if elected, but his chances seem dim. If she is out of work come January, I know a state that could really use her services.

Writer Michael McCall has always been a Nashville treasure. Nobody better understands the Nashville music scene better. Unfortunately, he doesn’t offer as much insight as he once did. In this week’s Nashville Scene he takes a look back at the ’90s and the influential albums produced by the city’s bands. Not to quibble, but a few key entries are missing – Iodine, Bone Pony, Fleming and John, immediately spring to mind. Had the Cactus Brothers album been released today, it would spawn a multitude of hits and be called a seminal Americana work. Still, just a chance to read the words of McCall is a gift I’m grateful to have.

That’s it for today.

If you’ve got the 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.

Make sure you enter this week’s survey questions.



Categories: Education

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