JUST MAKE THE CALL

“Because of the movies I make, people get nervous, because they think of me as difficult and angry. I am difficult and angry, but they don’t expect a sense of humor. And the only thing that gets me through is a sense of humor.”
Martin Scorsese

 

We got a lot of ground to cover today, so let’s not waste a lot of time with formalities.

If you are a resident of Nashville, or you work for the school system, the biggest question on your mind is, what’s happening with the city’s elementary schools after today?

Like the rest of you, I have absolutely no idea what the plan is. Earlier in the week, everyone got an email from Dr. Battle giving them the heads up that after Thanksgiving break, the whole district would return to virtual, or maybe it wouldn’t. But then again, maybe schools would return to virtual before the break. The communication provided no real insight and only served to set people scrambling to make preparations. What kind of preparations?  That was open to everyone’s interpretation.

Later in the week, Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy sent an email out to high school and middle school principals asking if they could put together a list of their staff that might be able to help out in elementary schools due to a lack of subs. Earlier in the year, I’d been criticized for “deficit thinking” by some administrators, seems to me this email would serve as a prime example of “deficit thinking”. It makes the assumption that since school buildings are closed, middle school and high school administrators are sitting at home popping grapes and watching new episodes of The Crown.

News Flash! They are not. They are engaging with teachers, students, and families to perfect strategies to provide as much quality instruction to students as possible. Attendance rates are still not where they need to be for remote classrooms, so administrators are trying to find solutions. They’ve got EBT cards to distribute, navigators, to supervise, and evaluations that need completing, on top of all the other requirements that go with running a school. in essence, they are kinda busy.

I don’t think it can be said enough, school buildings are closed, school is not. Let me say it again, school buildings are closed, school is not.

Principals and teachers are working every day to provide students with the best educational experience possible. They are doing everything they can to engage and challenge students. The continued promotion of the idea that the closing of school buildings equals the closing of schools does a tremendous disservice to all of those that are devoting their energies to ensure that schools remain open and students receive an education.

I can hear the chorus of protest now, and I acknowledge the validity of concerns. Yes, parents need to work, and they don’t have the time to remain at home with kids. Yes, not all kids are being served at an adequate level. Yes, there are socialization opportunities that kids are missing out on. Yes, some kids are not fully engaged. Yes, it’s hard. Yes, it’s uncomfortable. But which of those previous statements were not true before the pandemic?

If the answer is none, sign me up for your school.

All of these issues were present before the COVID-19 outbreak. We have never created, nor fully invested in, a school system that adequately served the needs of ALL kids. That’s the sad truth. When presented with these issues in the past, did we all say the situation was hopeless, and cry out for a return to a one-room schoolhouse? Or did we dig in and try to find solutions?

Some of us did pronounce the system as a failure and worked on the development of a new system rooted in charter schools. While I vehemently disagree with that prognosis and approach, at least it was trying to do something rooted in the future and not anchored to the past.

Time has shown, that the same issues that plague traditional schools, also provide challenges for charter schools. Despite all the uproar and all the arguing over which buildings should house students, in the end, we have still failed to create a system that adequately provides for all children. Why not use the lessons of the past, combined with the opportunities of the future, to rectify that?

This next point is going to be an unpopular point with some of you, but that doesn’t make it any less true. At a recent MNPS school board meeting, Dr. Bellamy told the board that we know kids can’t be in front of a computer all day. The board accepted that assertion without question. But I ask, how do we know that?

The reality is that Valor Charter Schools have been providing online instruction for its students remotely every day, all day since August. Students attend class via the computer just like they would in-person. Yet, I haven’t heard of any increased instances of mental illness related to overexposure to computer screens by their student body. I haven’t heard of any mass exodus of families from their rolls. In fact, based on the official 30-day counts, they are not losing anybody. Attendance reports confirm that they are not only not losing kids, but getting them to engage as well.

Valor announced last week that they will be virtual until February 1. Despite the inconvenience to parents this presents, I didn’t see any social media outbursts. No accusations of Valor damaging kids or not having their best interests at heart. Why?

Surely Valor’s parents work. Surely they have other obligations that have to be tabled to accommodate their kids’ schooling. Why not the backlash against Valor that is being experienced by Dr. Battle?

I don’t know the complete answers, but after talking to a number of parents, I suspect that the root of their success lies with trust. The parents whose children attend Valor, trust that school leader Todd Dickson and the administrators have their best interests at heart. Something that Dickson and company have never taken for granted.

To their credit, they’ve worked hard to garner that trust through regular communications and true transparency. One parent described the level of communication delivered as rising almost to the level of over-communicating. Can MNPS parents say the same about MNPS?

Trust issues have long been a thorn in the side of public schools and the reasons are 1000 fold. We could spend weeks dissecting the issue and still not arrive at a clear picture. It’s not a Dr. Battle issue, any more than it is a Shawn Joseph or Jesse Register issue, yet it remains an insurmountable challenge. Until it’s solved, or at least mitigated, there will not be a successful path forward.

Am I a fan of Valor? Absolutely not. I respect founder Todd Dickson and even like him on a personal level, but we have certainly had our moments in the past. Here’s the thing though, I don’t let my personal feelings get in the way if you have something that I want. Currently, Dickson has something I want. Valor clearly has some answers that can help better serve MNPS. Answers that would serve the district’s school kids.

Are they perfect? Absolutely not. But, as they say in say in AA, listen to it all and disregard what you don’t need. It’s about time we hold our nose and see what can be gleaned from Valor. ideology shouldn’t stand in the way of doing the right thing.

But I digress, back to Bellamy’s email. The whole first email was rendered moot when moments later a second email arrived. This one explained that his executive assistant had done exactly as he’d instructed, he’d just forgotten to tell her that he and his executive directors had changed their mind on strategy. Therefore, disregard the first email asking for help…unless of course…you had help to offer…but that help might not be needed because Dr. Battle might make a decision that erased the need, Confused yet?

The Bellamy email did nothing but increase questions and speculation among the MNPS community.

If that wasn’t enough,  at 4:17 yesterday, after most staff had called it a day, the “MNPS Insider” newsletter arrived with this paragraph buried inside,

Dr. Battle updates district on COVID-19 status, plans
Earlier this week, Dr. Adrienne Battle updated staff, families and students on the potential transition to all-virtual learning after the Thanksgiving holiday. 
All students will likely return to virtual learning on Monday, Nov. 30, if Nashville’s COVID-19 metrics don’t improve by Thanksgiving.
Dr. Battle plans to make a final decision no later than Tuesday, Nov. 24. If elementary school students in Pre-K through 4th grade and those with exceptional needs rejoin students currently in the virtual learning environment, all students can expect to be learning virtually for three weeks until the start of the winter holiday break on Dec. 17.
It also remains possible that schools could close before Thanksgiving if the city’s numbers get drastically worse between now and then.
As a reminder, you can always find the district’s COVID-19 guidance here: www.mnps.org/covid19-guidance.
So that frames things in an entirely different light, no?. Look, the 24th is entirely too late to deliver a decision, and waiting until then to make the announcement just ensures another school break spent preparing for a change in plans. Parents and teachers need to know now.
Why the delay? Are numbers going to suddenly take a dramatic turn towards the better? Are families that are concerned about kids attending in-person going to feel less concern if they find out on Tuesday instead of today? I don’t even want to think about the reaction of elementary teachers and principals should come the 24th they find oy that after appearing to recognize the danger, Dr. Battle plans to proceed to continue in-person instruction come November 30th. Talk about holiday ruined.
Please Dr. Battle, just call it. One way or the other, call it. Nothing is going to dramatically change between now and November 24th. There is no benefit to waiting and there will be detractors no matter which way you go. You are recognizably between a rock and a hard place, but let’s just call it one way or another.
THE TERRIBLY BAD, CONTINUALLY AWFUL TENNESSEE ACHIEVEMENT SCHOOL DISTRICT
Over the past year, I’ve continually heard the Tennessee Department of Education’s Chief of Districts and Schools Eve Carney described as the last great hope for the department of education.
“Eve’s the only one keeping the department running.”
“Without Dr. Carney, it would all collapse.”
“Eve is the only competent leader in the department.”
Frankly, I’ve never seen it, but I’m always willing to defer to those with more insight than I, so I never pushed back on the narrative. That said, after sitting through yesterday’s presentation on the future of the ASD, gloves are off.
It’s been conveyed to me on more than one instance, that few despise the ASD as much as Carney, yet here she was painting an optimistic picture of an experiment that can only be described as an abysmal failure. In other words, she was only too happy to put more lipstick on a pig that’s already been over glossed.
State law requires that schools currently included in the ASD be released after 10 years. During the last session, the law was amended, under the guise of providing time for a plan to be developed, to push back their release date to the 2024/2025 school year. Legislators further tasked the TDOE with developing and delivering a robust exit plan for those schools by January 1, 2021. Based on yesterday’s presentation, there is going to be a lot of work required over this holiday season in order to meet that deadline.
So much so, that it wouldn’t shock me if the next legislative session opens with House Education Committee Chair Mark White introducing legislation that extends the deadline for the DOE to 2022. Of course, it’ll come with all the accolades about how difficult this work is and how hard the department has been working to develop this plan. Everybody will sprain an elbow clapping themselves on the back but little relief will be provided for those trapped in the state’s failed initiative.
Here’s the rub though. Despite proclaiming a new vision, the TDOE and, by extension the state, continue to cling to a terminally flawed program. They are still holding on to the metric of serving the bottom 5% while failing to acknowledge that there will always be a bottom 5%. They are still holding on to the belief that the state is more knowledgeable and capable when it comes to improving student outcomes despite a lack of evidence supporting that assumption. Insanity is oft described as doing the same thing while expecting different outcomes. If the shoe fits…
During the opening remarks of her presentation, Carney stated that the ASD was created in order to disrupt the status quo. My question would be, after a decade of failure, isn’t the ASD now considered the status quo? Who is going to disrupt them?
If you’ve ever been to an ASD community meeting, nothing that transpired yesterday would be new to you. Lot’s of talk about the difficulty and importance of the work. Lot’s of talk about the need for transparency and authentic community relationships. Even that old trope about people wanting things done with them, not to them was brought forth. As usual, the insights garnered through extensive community meetings were shared. As usual, they were the same ones shared in 2015, 2016, 2017, 2018, and 2019. If nothing changes, nothing changes.
The department furthermore voiced a commitment to moving forward in identifying new candidates for priority status. There was little explanation how at a time when LEA’s were delivering instruction in a manner without precedent, the department was going to not only determine who needed remediation, but what strategies were required as well.
It was clear by the end of the meeting that Carney had nothing new to offer and was content to carry water for the policies of Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn. Policies firmly rooted in the failures of the past.
Let’s stop pretending and using students and their families as guinea pigs. Release the students from the rolls of the ASD, providing robust guidance on the options provided by the local LEA. If you want to keep the charter schools established, fine, make them renew their charter through the LEA and make them compete for students with the other choices offered. Relegate the state back to a role it is better suited for, support and not the governance of individual schools.
For the families involved in the ASD, any plan is going to come with pain points. But the state owes it to those families to admit their role in creating many of those pain points. It needs to be acknowledged that intentions might have been good, but the execution was awful.
Unfortunately, though, the savior complex will probably once again rear its ugly head, and whether it’s Carney or some other career bureaucrat, the assumption will be made that the state knows better than the people in those schools. An assumption that will lead to the sins of the past being revisited on the children of the future.
SHORTCUTS
A couple months ago I wrote a story about Commissioner Schwinn holding another job while serving the states of Delaware and Texas in an executive position, I was kind of surprised that it didn’t raise any eyebrows in the Governor’s office. After last night’s report on Channel 5 about recently departed Commissioner of Insurance Hodgen Mainda, I think I understand. You see apparently Mainda held another job while serving as Commissioner of Insurance, not unlike our beloved Commissioner of Education. I always say, look for the patterns, ignore the outliers.
In my humble opinion, it’s time to move away from the “wear a mask” campaign and move to one of “mask maintenance”. Let’s face it, none of the people currently not wearing masks are going to suddenly start because I told them for the 275th time. In fact, evidence shows the more I tell them the more iron gets injected into their resolve. However, too many people are repeatedly using masks that were not designed for repeated use or not consistently washing their masks. Both which mitigate the effectiveness of wearing masks.
A “mask maintenance” campaign would come from a place that assumed most people were wearing masks. It would provide useful, possibly life-saving information, to those who had let requirements slip. While still maintaining a “wear a mask” message. Just a thought.
The Special Olympic’s Tim Shriver name as emerged as one being vetted by the Biden administration as a possible replacement for Betsy DeVos. The always informative Nancy Baily concludes he’s not a terrible selection but draws attention to some of the negatives that come with Shriver,
He co-founded and currently chairs the Collaborative for Academic, Social, and Emotional Learning called CASEL, another nonprofit. Linda Darling-Hammond who is guiding the Biden education transition team is a CASEL board of directors emeritus. Social-emotional learning has been controversial among parents, but it was sweeping through the education curriculum before Covid-19 hit. Some promote it as replacing the past harsh test requirements, but it is about getting students better prepared for tests if you read between the lines. SEL is like sophisticated character education with publishing companies cashing in on questionable assessments that collect online data about student behavior.
She further states,
He’s repeatedly called a leading educator. But he has done more in entrepreneurial pursuits than in public schools. The CASEL website bio states: He has produced four films, written for dozens of newspapers and magazines, founded an ice cream company, and been rewarded with degrees and honors which he said he didn’t deserve but happily accepted on behalf of others. There’s nothing wrong with that, but it’s hardly a vita that emphasizes time in the classroom.
Remember Biden might be a spouse of a school teacher, but he was also a former meber of the Obama administration. An administration not known for it’s strength in education policy.
We’ll have to continue watching.
Next Tuesday is another scheduled MNPS School Board meeting. Gratefully, this week’s agenda includes a Director’s Report. Reportedly Dr. Battle will be talking about “Our Community.” Looking forward to it.
Superintendents in Colorado are asking the Governor to either relax quarantine requirements or offer them more support for their decisions in closing school buildings.
“If you want schools to open as we do, then districts need increased flexibility in the rules for managing classroom cohorts, especially at the elementary level where transmission is the lowest,” they wrote. “We need to reevaluate the quarantine requirements in the state guidance to ensure we have enough adults available to run our schools.”
It’s a valid point and probably should be part of the discussion in Tennessee as well.
Rumors are circulating about the imminent release of this year’s ACT numbers. I’m being told that when released they’ll show a decrease of .1 on composite average, participation rate also down, and down 1.25 on those scoring a 21 or higher. These are the results for the 2019/2020 school year.  What’s it mean? I have no idea, but the pundits are busy sharpening their message as we speak.
That is it for today.
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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. If the ACT is for the senior class who just graduated then the numbers can’t be anything but down, the ACT is designed to test seniors but most seniors did not get a retake in Spring 2020 due to the pandemic. Thus, the metric will be using their junior test scores. You’ll get lower participation & reduced scores since students tend to improve when taking it a 2nd time due to familiarity with the format and knowing what to work on since the first exam. Apples to oranges!

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