“The future is called ‘perhaps,’ which is the only possible thing to call the future. And the only important thing is not to allow that to scare you.”
I’ve been struggling this weekend with organizing some thoughts. Thoughts connected through two disparate sources – the release of ACT scores and my reading of Kathy Valentine’s biography.
Valentine, in case you are unfamiliar, is a founding member and bass player of the seminal all-girl rock band The Go-Go’s. While Valentine achieved tremendous success as a musician, early in her life there was little to indicate that she would rise to the pinnacle of success that she did.
She was raised in Texas by a single mother more interested in being a pal than a parent. As a result, she started playing around with sex, drugs, and alcohol at way too early an age. Her friends and she often skipped school to pursue those aforementioned interests. The strange part is, as sobering as her tale his, much of it is entirely familiar. Many of my peers can tell very similar stories about growing up.
At one point Valentine talks about a place right off campus where all the “losers” would gather before school. I think it’s a place most of us are aware of, and many of us frequented it all too often. IA smile escapes when I think back to my own adolescence.
At my high school, it was a pull-off on the main road to school less than 100 yards from campus. We’d meet there to blast a little music, smoke cigarettes, or even a little pot. None of what took place in that little gathering spot prepared us for the rigorous instruction we were about to receive, nor improved any outcomes on any assessments administered. Luckily at that time, standardized testing wasn’t quite the beast it would grow into over the next several decades. I shudder to think what an ACT test at that time would have revealed about us.
Recently, I was talking to some retired military men. If you entered their homes today and saw their families, you would think that they were always the driven and dedicated individuals they are now. The reality is for them, and many others, it was a choice between the military or jail. One of the most successful and decent people I know joined the military after appearing before the judge for stealing cars. I don’t think that he would have been declared career and college ready by any of the standards we employ today.
The interesting thing is that those dead-end days, weren’t the end of the story for most of us. My generation, fueled by AC/DC, Porky’s, and copious amounts of marijuana, has somehow managed to grow up and become productive members of society. We’ve help jobs, raised families, and weathered both highs and lows, despite early predictions of failure and ineptitude. Yes, some have not made it, and, as a recovering addict, I know better than most the dangers inherent in the fire we were playing with. Still, more have made it than not.
Some of those seemingly pre-destined for greatness never seemed able to capitalize on their early promise. They fell by the wayside and continue to inexplicitly struggle today.
I don’t bring this up to encourage miscreant behavior, but rather as a reminder that life can not be reduced to any single number. Despite our best efforts, it continues to remain unpredictable and often out of our control.
We go to the right school, or we go to the wrong. We marry the right person, or maybe the wrong one. Sometimes we pursue a career for all the wrong reasons, merely because we are told that’s what we are supposed to do only to discover later in life we are better suited for something entirely different. Sometimes health, both ours and that of our loved ones, intervenes in a manner that upends the best-laid plans.
We need to keep that in mind when we see the results of an assessment. First off, behind every single data point is a real child navigating real life. Sometimes that navigation is not reflected in those data points.
Furthermore, those data points reflect where a student is a today, not where they’ll be in the future. A dear friend of mine uses the illustration that test results are like class pictures, they represent what you look like on a certain day.
As I reflect back on my own k-12 educational experiences, the lessons that continue to resonate, are not the ones that improved my scores on a test. What resonates, are the times that a teacher shared some insight that spurred me on to dig deeper, or opened my mind to other possibilities. Sometimes these moments happened in class, and sometimes through individual interactions. The importance of many of those lessons went unrecognized for years. In some cases, only now is their value truly revealed. To me, that is a testament to good teaching. The ability to deliver what I need though I may not realize the need.
As we continue to navigate the pandemic and children’s interrupted educational opportunities, we need to remember all of that. We can’t lose sight of the individual for the sake of growing data points. We also, now more than ever, need to recognize the importance of the individual teacher.
No matter what the circumstances – be it the best of times or the worst of times – there is no more an important element, sans a parent, in a child’s education process than the teacher. But we have to tap that resource and allow teachers to do what they’ve trained for and dedicated their lives to – enriching the lives of children.
This Thanksgiving, I’m especially thankful for those teachers that instilled the lessons in me that allowed me to overcome my worst demons and find success in life. Their names – Mr. VonHendy, Mr. Anthony, Mr. Dennis, Ms. Wickum, Mr. Belew, Mr. Melnikoff – are forever etched in my heart and soul. Thank you.
FLORIDA VIRTUAL SCHOOL BLUES
Last week, the Tennessee General Assembly Joint Government Operations committee met. On the agenda was a discussion on the emergency rules enacted in response to the ongoing pandemic. (I urge you to go to the link – http://tnga.granicus.com/MediaPlayer.php?view_id=414&clip_id=23612 – and watch from State Board of Education).
These emergency rules provide great latitude to the Department of Education and the Tennessee State Board of Education to waive rules for local school districts. One of those rules is about curriculum and materials.
To oversimplify, per law, Tennessee school districts are required to teach Tennessee standards using materials drawn from the state’s approved list of materials, or in which a district has obtained a waiver of use. The emergency rules allow a little bit more flexibility when it comes to online learning, but not when a district is delivering in-person instruction.
To ensure, that all districts had a transparent coherent plan to deliver alternative instruction should in-person learning need to be suspended, districts were required to submit a continuous learning plan to the TDOE for approval. Hypothetically the DOE received, reviewed, and approved a plan for all 147 districts.
As part of its response to the challenges presented by COVID-19, Metro Nashville Public Schools chose to purchase a curriculum from the Florida Virtual School in order to standardized instruction across the district. As an added benefit, many of the accountability requirements called for by the state were embedded in the FLVS offerings – attendance, grading, assessments. It was a plan that made a lot of sense in light of the disruption students would experience this year. But to bring to fruition, it required every school to adopt the curriculum with fidelity. Which is something, right or wrong, that did not happen.
At last week’s committee meeting, State Representative Regan brought forth a question as to whether MNPS had been granted a waiver to use the FLVS curriculum. Board spokesman Nathan James did his best to dance around the question, but Regan was relentless, and eventually, it was revealed that no such waiver had been secured despite ongoing collaboration between the DOE and MNPS. Furthermore, MNPS had received written notification that they were in violation of Tennessee state law due to a failure to secure that waiver.
Regan’s main bent seemed to be whether or not the FLVS curriculum taught Tennessee standards. It was an answer that James was unwilling to provide, so instead he engaged in a little back and forth with Ragan that was reminscent of the “I bite my thumb” scene that kicks off Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet.
He cited the volume of work required – apparently MNPS’s waiver application was over 100 pages. He cited the fact that this was the first time the waiver requirement process was being undertaken by the board of education. He cited the level of seriousness and care the department devotes to education policy, He threw out a plethora of excuses, but in the end, the best answer he could give was, I don’t know.
Throughout his hemming and hawing, there were several statements made by James that warrants… how shall I say it… clarification.
First, I’m not sure exactly what is in Nashville’s application, but over 70 of the state’s LEA’s file applications for a waiver on materials and had them granted before the responsibility was shifted to the state board of education. Of those more than 70 applications, all but a handful were less than a paragraph or so, and none of the depth of the MNPS offering.
Since the use of FLVS was approved by the DOE for online learning, as part of their required CLP, shouldn’t there be some documentation available on how the department arrived at their approval? So why don’t they just send that over to the state BOE? Why is the approval process being portrayed as a brand new undertaking? Unless of course the DOE never reviewed CLIPS, and just summarily approved them.
This question of approval is not a new conversation for me. Back when the use of Florida Virtual School was first proposed I raised the question of it requiring a waiver. That question was posed at an MNPS school board meeting by then-school board member Jill Speering back in July. Speering’s question was dismissed and she was assured, no waiver was required.
At the same time, I submitted an open records request to MNPS for a copy of the crosswalk between FLVS and Tennessee State Standards and was told that none existed. That was a little concerning to me because MNPS had been using FLVS for years, though it’s own virtual school offerings. Surely somebody had taken the time to check the alignment of state standards, but apparently not.
At issue here is that Tennessee law prohibits the teaching of Common Core State Standards, it takes less than a perfunctory search to identify that Florida Virtual School curriculum is deeply rooted in CCSS. Now that might be a dismissable factor considering the current situation if we choose to ignore the proliferation of CCSS architects currently employed by the Tennessee Department of Education. Be it AchieveTheCore, the Liben Foundation, CKLA, or David Steiner, it’s pretty clear that the department is deeply invested in the theory of CCSS despite their repeated claims to the contrary. If it looks like a duck, walks like a duck, quacks like a duck… it’s probably a duck.
I would venture that James and the folks at the state board of education, along with those at the DOE, are well aware of that, and therein lies the issue with approving the waiver. It’s not voluminous paperwork so much as it is the fact that approval could run counter to Tennessee law because it would allow the teaching of CCSS. So once again you have a department, now being supported by a board of education, that believes the law doesn’t apply to them.
An argument could be made that the Tennessee State Standards are really just CCSS with a little bit of local color added. But, if you are a Republican legislator, that’s not something you want to say too loud. After all, many of your constituents sent you to Nashville with implicit directions to rid the state of the scourge of Common Core. I can’t imagine they’d be too pleased to discover that all legislators had done was trim a few feathers and start calling that duck a swan.
Here’s another interesting wrinkle for you. Throughout the last couple of months, I’ve referred to FLVS as being like roofers after a hurricane – rushing from house to house focusing on securing as many clients as possible instead of focusing on quality. That illustration is becoming more and more accurate.
Over at Accountabaloney, they note some recent actions that should raise concerns:
- In the spring, Florida has invested $5 million of federal CARES funding to expand Florida Virtual School’s capacity, so that it can serve all of Florida’s students.
- By mid-May, FLVS C.E.O. Dr. Algaze assured the FLBOE that FLVS was “fully ramped up, and secure and operational and able to support up to 2.7 million of Florida students.”
- The Commissioner of Education now calls that “a second-tier education” and predicts 70-80 percent of students will return to face-to-face options by August 31st.
- In the meantime, FLVS, which has been overwhelmed by families choosing it as their virtual option, is closed to new enrollments and is “striving” to ensure that students who have already registered will be able to start with classes “by the end of September.”
- Also, keep in mind that FLVS, embroiled in financial scandals just two summers ago and now undergoing massive expansion in uncertain times, is a $200 million/year publicly funded school, operating on last year’s budget, WITHOUT a governing board.
During his testimony, James claimed that FLVS was a “non-profit” and that they were basically the only option that could supply the required digital learning path. Both statements are untrue. Florida Virtual School is recognized as an official district of the Florida State School system, and therefore not a non-profit. Both Pearson and Houghton Mifflin Harcourt have products similar to the FLVS offerings and have deep ties to Tennessee.
Wednesday’s committee meeting ended with no action being taken in regard to the emergency rules. MNPS is still in violation, though who knows what that actually means or what impact it’ll happen. Especially since Tennesseans are now being served by both a DOE and a BOE comfortable with building a plane as they fly it and interpreting rules in a manner that suits their needs.
I would also think that having the number 2 school district in the state in violation would be of some concern, but so far, none of the other media outlets have mentioned it. So maybe, it’s not that big a deal.
THE REALITY OF SCHOOLOGY
The last several months have provided lengthy conversations about the amount of work assigned to students and how they are meeting those demands. I would suggest that many parents and district officials are unaware of just how much work is being demanded by teachers in this regard. Over the weekend, as part of their weekly communication, a teacher at my children’s school provided a welcomed frank explanation:
Missing Assignments – I will open up unpublished folders to give students an opportunity to improve their current grade. These folders (Weeks 10 – 16) will remain open until Thursday, December 17th. The mentioned folders will close at 11:59 p.m.
I am doing my best to make sure that your child has every opportunity to succeed in this class. They now have yet another chance to complete missed assignments. With this being said, I would like to explain the process that happens when your child completes an assignment that has been flagged as missing. I am sharing with you as the process is laborious. In order for the grades to appear correctly in the gradebook, I am tasked with making multiple manual adjustments. I do not receive notifications from Schoology when students complete missing assignments.
Here is the process:
- Once missing assignments are completed, I will have to go and find the assignment in the gradebook.
- After locating that assignment, I will have to search for the student’s name. When I get to the student’s name, I will have to unclick the missing assignment icon. From there, most assignments will then show up in the gradebook. There are some that will require me to go to the actual assignment and view the submission information to acquire the student’s grade.
When you add 92 students and over six weeks of assignments to the mix, it is going to be complex. If I have 92 of my students complete at least 5 missing assignments over the course of the next couple of weeks, please know that it is going to take some time to reconcile new grades. I would like to thank you in advance for your understanding in this matter.
There is a board meeting scheduled for tomorrow and one of the items I hope will be open for discussion will be this: how do you hold a board meeting virtually while forcing children and teachers to attend schools in person? Inquiring minds would like to know.
Not to take away anything from those being recognized, but naming a school’s Teacher of the Year under the present circumstance is not unlike being stuck in a fox hole in a battlefield and nominating the guy in the foxhole three holes over, and one hole up, as the soldier of the year. My vote for TOY goes to every one of the teachers still showing up for work every day.
A little bit of a head-scratcher at the end of last week: Metro Nashville Health Department tweeted out their recommendation that MNPS suspend indoor extracurricular activities until the end of the calendar year. Ok, do they not have Dr. Battle’s phone number in order to advise her? Is Twitter the only means of communication available to the Health Department? What other recommendations on schools can I look forward to in the future? The year gets weirder all the time.
Many people were surprised when it was announced that retiring Knoxville Representative Bill Dunn was hired as an advisor to the Tennessee Department of Education. They shouldn’t have been. I would argue that Dunn started assuming his duties even before officially retiring from the General Assembly. At a meeting for the Government Ops joint committee, held back on September 18th, Dunn was provided an opportunity to address the committee. Instead of delivering the expected “so long and thanks for the fish” speech, Dunn used the opportunity to bemoan the lost opportunity of vouchers and to begin stumping for a new program. In essence, working a little overtime for a 96K annual salary.
Another day, another SCORE poll that begs the question… isn’t penny Schwinn giving them enough to do? This one is on parental opinions, and the shift as school year interruptions continue.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t take a look at the weekend’s poll result. Especially in light of the large volume of responses. So here we go.
Question 1 asked for your preference to replace Betsy DeVos as Secretary of Education. 53% of you admitted you had no earthly idea. Of those who did, most preferred one of the two national union leaders. State Senator Cory Booker managed to score 8% of the vote. We’ll see who emerges as we get closer to the inauguration. here are the write-in votes:
- “excites” might not be the best descriptor
- none of those
- all clowns
- none of the above
Question 2 asked, do you think that the MNPS school board in its present form adequately represents stakeholders. As the city has grown the structure of the board has remained unchanged for over a quarter of a decade. Does it need modifying to keep up with the increased population of Nashville? 38% of you thought the quality of the candidates was more important than the structure of the board. 29% of you admitted that you hadn’t thought about it. 18% of you were open to more members, while only 4% were satisfied with the current construction. He are the write-ins:
- They are very close to irrelevant
- Happy it’s comprised mostly of women; that reflects teacher demographics.
- Affiliation with a paid educational group should disqualify board members
- HELL TO THE NO
- Pre-requisites: worked in education as a teacher, counselor, or administrator
- There should be one rep for each Cluster
The last question asked if you plan to adhere to Mayor Cooper’s guidance to limit Thanksgiving gatherings to 8 or less. 49% indicated that you already planned to limit it to just immediate family, and 32% said absolutely. Here are those write-ins:
- Not when I teach in an elementary school where it’s ok for 500 kids and adults to gather
- We’ll have 10 at the table, but I appreciate his call to action.
- John Cooper is an absolute fool.
- Nashvillians act as if they don’t give a damn who dies
- who cares what Chicken Coop says?
That’s it for now.
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