“The slickest way in the world to lie is to tell the right amount of truth at the right time-and then shut up.”
― Stranger in a Strange Land
Another Tuesday night and another board meeting has left me scratching my head – trying to decipher what I just witnessed.
One thing that is becoming more and more clear is that the MNPS’s leadership is growing increasingly disconnected from what’s actually taking place in schools. Presentation after presentation paints a picture of events unfolding uniformly across the district when the reality is entirely different from school to school – often even within buildings themselves.
Whether it is instruction during quarantine, small group instruction, usage of Florida Virtual School curriculum, or even the Navigator program, results and adoption are greatly varied across the district despite claims from district leadership. Lost in the whole conversation is the increasing level of stakeholder frustration, the declining level of student engagement, the number of students failing, or the actual impact that district initiatives are having on teachers and other building staff.
Take the Navigator program for example. Last night it was painted by Dr. Keri Randolph, Executive Officer – Strategic Federal, State, and Philanthropic Investments, as being highly successful and widely embraced by teachers across the district, Which just isn’t true. The requirements of the Navigator program exponentially increase the responsibility of teachers at a time when they are struggling to engage students, learn digital platforms, and adapt their instructional practices to the new reality, all while having the hammer of state-required evaluations hanging over their head. As someone who was a science teacher for 10 years, you would think that Randolph would have a better understanding of teacher responsibility and take it into account when pushing initiatives.
The idea behind the Navigator program is admittedly a noble one, but one whose responsibility is better shifted to non-profits and local government entities. I would argue that teachers need a Navigators program for themselves as much as anybody. Instead, all we do is increase responsibilities while continually telling teachers to make sure they practice self-care. That is not a recipe for effective SEL.
I’m not meaning to pick on Dr. Randolph, as there are plenty of questions to go around. Let’s talk about the newly unveiled COVID “Thermometer.” The tool presents the daily risk factors on a scale of 1 to 10. 0-3 is considered safe for all students. 3-7 indicates a need for a blended approach. Everything over 8, means all virtual. We are currently at 8.8, which should indicate an all virtual approach, correct? My assumption would be that we’ve been above 7 for at least a week, so why were kids in school this week? Admittedly, it’s a pretty tool, but does it really add any transparency to the equation?
The “thermometer,” as Director Adrienne Battle called it during a Metro Nashville Board of Education meeting Tuesday evening, consists of a weighted formula that uses the same metrics the school district and the city have been using throughout the pandemic to calculate and show of the risk of COVD-19, according to district officials.
The only difference appears to be the weight being given to those metrics. Again, per the Tennessean, “The formula weights some metrics differently, with the number of new cases per 100,000 residents making up 60% and the other two metrics each making up 20% of the overall calculation, spokesperson Sean Braisted said in an email to The Tennessean.”
While acknowledging that staffing issues also play a role in the feasibility of keeping schools open, the district does not allow a place for that data in the proposed thermometer. Now the district will be adding a column in the report on individual schools’ new COVID cases and new quarantines, that will provide a running total of staff and students currently in quarantine – a welcome addition – but no word on how that will impact in-person offerings.
MNPS is not unique in the staffing challenges faced by administrators. In both Colorado and Louisiana, school principals are calling on the state to relax quarantine guidelines in an effort to maintain staffing levels. Per Chalkbeat,
Bret Miles, executive director of the Colorado Association of School Executives, said the state’s quarantine guidelines are the biggest barrier to reopening school buildings. In counties with high COVID-19 transmission, the guidelines call for entire classrooms or cohorts of students to quarantine if a teacher or classmate tests positive. In counties with lower transmission, only that person’s close contacts need to quarantine.
Colorado’s Governor Polis has responded by forming a task force that will look at ways to give school districts more support as they try to open school buildings. That task force meets for the first time, this coming Wednesday. A majority of the state’s 30 largest school districts, which serve more than 80% of Colorado students, will be remote after Thanksgiving.
Despite an inability to provide more clarity and true transparency, the MNPS is still expecting parents to decide on their children’s mode of instruction for the rest of the school year by next Friday. In an effort to downplay the weight of the decision, MNPS is labeling parents’ decision as a response to a “survey.” Let’s be clear, this is not a “survey” but rather a contract. Calling this is a survey is like a military recruiter claiming that he’s surveying young men about whether or not they’d be interested in joining the armed services. Just like an 18-year old enlisting in the military, parents will be forced to adhere to their decision until the end of the contracted period.
When concerns are raised over forcing families to decide in the midst of a peak time for the virus, with little clear guidance, Battle shrugs and maintains that her plan is a necessity in order to adequately plan for next semester. But hey, why be surprised? Teachers are being forced to choose an assessment to satisfy their TVAAS responsibilities with little guidance as well. It seems like informed decisions are so, like, 2019.
Instead of providing adequate information for next semester, Battle and her team delivered a recycled presentation on plans for three of the district’s underperforming clusters – White’s Creek, Maplewood, and Pearl Cohn. A centerpiece of the strategy was the intent to retain 5th students in those clusters in elementary schools. Again a noble but flawed plan.
How does one set of policies for one segment of the district further our voiced goals of equity? Due to the district’s high rate of mobility, it’s possible that a 5th-grade student could spend their time fluctuating between an elementary school and a middle school. Being on the top tier in an ES is very different than being in the lowest tier in an MS.
The biggest flaw to me though is that we are making decisions about the future while still in the midst of a crisis. Attendance numbers were thrown around during the presentation like we actually had any idea what the numbers going forth would look like. I recently looked at enrollment data from the district’s 40-day count (MNPS_Enrollment_2020-21 (40 Day) copy). While admittedly, the aforementioned clusters haven’t experienced the large losses of enrollment like other clusters, there is still no way to predict the long term impact of the current crisis. As a result, it feels like we are building houses in the sand.
The MNPS ReimaginED presentation was delivered by Elisa Norris, the district’s executive officer of strategy, performance, and management. Norris is a specialist in professional development but has spent no time in a k-12 classroom. On the other hand, the district has a Chief of Priority Schools in Sharon Griffin who has spent time in the classroom. The majority of these schools affected by the proposed changes fall under Griffin’s purview. As such, she seems the likely candidate to present to the board. If she presented not only would a picture of change emerge, but it would provide an opportunity for the board to get caught up on what exactly has been done for our “Innovation Schools” over the last three months. I suspect that is why Norris gave the presentation instead of Griffin. We don’t want to open that can of worms.
Before wrapping up this recap of last night’s action, I’d be remiss if I didn’t highlight the exchange between board member Abigail Tylor and Dr. Battle around the Florida Virtual School curriculum. Traylor asked if we had heard back from the State Board of Education regarding approval to use FVS’s curriculum, a curriculum that MNPS has spent $1 million to utilize and is contracted to continue using for the next 5 years. So an approval by the State Board of Education is kinda a big deal.
Battle informed Tylor that since FVS was included in the district’s required DOE approved Continuous Learning Plan, we were approved to use the curriculum in the virtual sphere. Approval for in-person learning had not been secured yet and was scheduled to be heard at a state board meeting after the first of the year. It all seemed rather innocuous and merely a matter of semantics. What she didn’t tell the board is that the district has been alerted through written correspondence that they were in violation of Tennessee state law (MNPS Textbook Waiver Letter_11_17_20_Final copy) by the TNBOE over the usage of FVS. While the tone of the letter is cooperative, it clearly states,
It is important to note that until such time as a waiver request is approved, any use of unapproved textbooks or instructional materials for in-person instruction is a violation of Tennessee Code Annotated section 49-6-2206, which specifically prohibits the use of unapproved textbooks andinstructional materials without a waiver approved by the State Board of Education.
Even when doubling back to further explain the district’s status to board members, Battle failed to mention the communication from the Board of Education. This is a huge deal to me because for the life of me I can’t understand why you would try and obscure the fact. The letter was read last week on the statehouse floor. It has the attention of legislators. Other than a failure to follow the required protocols back in the Summer, MNPS is not guilty of malfeasance. Just own it, and explain the steps being taken to rectify. The attempt to hide the letter indicates a willingness to hide other unpleasant news. In a district that already suffers from a lack of trust, that’s not a healthy position to assume.
Apparently, nobody has read the meme that the cover-up is always worse than the crime.
All I can hope is that the Thanksgiving holidays supply an opportunity for district leadership to reflect and hold themselves to a rigorous honesty in that reflection. A reflection that will result in a renewed commitment to ideals espoused, and demonstrated, by this administration during the time it served in an interim status. Because that’s the leadership that MNPS needs now. And that’s not the leadership we are getting.
The Tennesse State Textbook Commission continues to be the gift that keeps on giving. I’ve extensively covered the TDOE’s manipulation of the ELA textbook adoption process earlier in the year. What many of you might not have known is that as a result of that fiasco, membership on the board had been depleted. As a result, all members save Lynn Michelle Bowman and Marcie Rudd are new, due to several members resigning before their terms were slated to end. Of the new member, Dr. Linda Cash is a welcome addition while Laurie Cardoza-Moore raises serious concerns.
Cardoza-Moore is no stranger to Middle Tennessee residents. She made an unsuccessful run for the WCS board back in 2015. A run that was scuttled when tales of time spent in Dallas as a reported shoe show model began to circulate. Unfortunately, as journalist Cari Gervin points out, there is so much more to be concerned with than the glories of a misspent youth. Yep, the shining examples of leadership keep on coming forth from Governor Bill Lee.
Speaking of shining examples of leadership by the Governor, yesterday the state’s Attorney General Herbert Slatery III filed the state’s application to appeal to the state’s highest court Lee’s repeatedly blocked voucher bill. The action comes just days before the deadline to file was set to expire. Per Chalkbeat, the filing makes clear Lee’s intentions,
The program was “designed to initiate the ESA concept on a trial basis on a small scale in school districts that clearly have a track record of failing to provide tens of thousands of students with a quality education, and they are deserving of special attention from the pilot program,”
The Governor further indicates that he intends to provide funding for the program in this year’s budget.
Booker prize winner Doug D Stuart, author of SHUGGIE BAIN, did not read a book cover to cover until he was 17. He’s trying to track down the teachers who put books in his orphaned hands and tell them the news. A fascinating story.
Over here at Dad Gone Wild, we’ve been closely following the story of Susan Cordova’s departure from Denver Public Schools. Diane Ravitch has even more to share.
One of the most repeated tropes in education policy is the one that says that if kids don’t read on grade level by third grade they are doomed to a future of failure. That trope has been repeated so often that it’s been accepted as gospel. But should it be? Diane Ravitch shares the research of Laura Chapman who asks, “Who is behind the read by third grade or be retained campaign?”
Seems like the courts are not viewing for Superintendent of Schools Shawn Joseph any more favorably than the schools did. Yesterday he lost again in his his lawsuit with board members Bush, Frogge, and Speering. You can read all about it here. (Frogge v Joseph-MOR-Final Order ruling on Pl attorney’s fees copy)
That’s it for now. May you and yours have a wonderful Thanksgiving. We’ll see you again on Friday.
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It’s a small point but I’d not characterize the sickness in MNPS leadership as being “disconnect”. I’d characterize it as being “burying one’s head in the sand”. The district’s grade on family engagement thru this time is a solid D. This, at a time it can ill afford to face budget cuts again in April. Failure to address this head on is the one true big thing. All else mentioned will ultimately not matter.