“Do not think of knocking out another person’s brains because he differs in opinion from you. It would be as rational to knock yourself on the head because you differ from yourself ten years ago.”
Another Thanksgiving has passed, and while this year was markedly different than past years, it provided a welcome opportunity to reconnect with friends and family while providing time to inventory our blessings. Gatherings were smaller this year, but still provided the means to connect with those we love. I hope that for all of you the day brought some much-needed respite.
For my family, we checked all the boxes – close friends, traditional food staples, football, board games, a walk to work off added calories – all with a touch of overindulgence. In other words, much like life, it was different, but still, all in all, pretty damn good.
On Wednesday I touched on recent revelations that MNPS was out of compliance with Tennessee state law due to its use of the Florida Virtual School curriculum. This is a tricky subject and one which, in my opinion, falls squarely in the lap of the Tennessee Department of Education. Let me try to walk you through it all, but I forewarn you, much of this is subject to interpretation, and hence, probably raises more questions than it answers.
Let me take you back to early summer. Everybody was focused on getting schools open for in-person instruction in August. Very little energy was being expanded towards developing robust plans for remote education. In all fairness, I don’t think most people could wrap their heads around the difficulty of opening school buildings in urban districts for in-person learning,
I believe, in an effort to bring some focus and needed attention to the likelihood of every district likely being forced to provide some form of remote education at some point in the school year, the Tennessee State Board of Education, using the emergency powers granted by the governor, crafted policy requiring every LEA to create and submit a Continuous Learning Plan(CLP),
The purpose of this policy is to further define State Board Emergency Rule 0520-01-17. In light of the COVID- 19 Public Health Emergency, Emergency Rule 0520-01-17 requires local education agencies (LEAs) and public charter schools to develop Continuous Learning Plans (CLPs) for the 2020-21 school year. These CLPs will be submitted for approval to the Tennessee Department of Education (the Department).
In response to this rule, each district would be charged with submitting a plan to the DOE that would explicitly detail how they were going to meet state education requirements should the pandemic force the closing of school buildings. It was the TDOE’s job to collect these CLP’s, evaluate them based on a rubric they were charged with creating, and approve them based on that rubric. Initially, the DOE struggled with what the rubric should look like. They wanted to make the requirements rigorous, but also, in recognition of the existing time crunch, remain reasonable in their expectations.
As part of the approval process, the TDOE was to ensure that all plans met the requirements of state law.
The Department shall be responsible for the evaluation and approval of all submitted CLPs in accordance with the evaluation and approval process developed by the Department. The evaluation and approval process shall ensure CLPs adhere to the requirements of this policy, State Board Rule 0520-01-17, and all applicable federal and state laws and rules, unless waived.
The usage of instructional materials is codified in Tennessee. There is a required process for creating a list of state approved materials. All LEA’s are required to solely use materials off of the approved list of materials unless granted a waiver. The process of securing a waiver was intended to be limited to one of two scenarios,
- A district feels strongly about a material they have been using for multiple years and would like to continue to use that material.
- A district uses district-created instructional materials to compose the majority of a grade-level instructional curriculum.
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the case with this ELA materials adoption process this year. 88 LEA’s applied for a waiver to use materials not on the state list of approved materials, with 79 of the requests being granted. To me, this begs the question, why even have a list if 54% of the state’s LEAs are going to request materials not included on the list? Legislators appeared to concur, and as a result, they took the waiver power out of the hands of the Department of Education and placed it in the hands of the Board of Education. A welcome move, but not one without its own issues.
The BOE is considerably under-resourced in comparison with the DOE. Currently, I think the board has 12 employees, compared to several hundred department employees. Reviewing and approving materials is not an easy job, and requires considerable resources. Since the BOE is under-resourced, they are forced into a position of leaning on the DOE for much of the work. While the actual decision-making process is out of the DOE’s hands, I’m not convinced that there is a corresponding loss of influence. Influence legislators never intended them to have in the first place.
Per its own Web Site, the role of the Department of Education is defined as follows,
- Provides administrative assistance to the commission and maintains the Textbook Services website
- Provides training to new commission members and state advisory panelists
- Facilitates public access to, and ability to comment on, textbooks and instructional materials bid for state approval
- Notifies publishers of the existence of factual and editing errors in textbooks and instructional materials, and receives corrective action plans from publishers
But I’m getting a little ahead of myself.
As I previously mentioned, in response to the ongoing pandemic, the BOE was granted by the governor the power to make emergency rules in order to facilitate education continuance during the crisis. By my interpretation, under the rules created by the BOE through these emergency powers, districts were allowed greater latitude in selecting curriculum for use with their CLP. Obviously, their chosen curriculum had to meet the required guidelines, but instead of having to go through an additional waiver process, it was assumed that if the DOE approved the CLP then the waiver to use the material, not on the state’s approved list was implicitly granted. Hence, the reason why MNPS is not in violation for usage of FVS via remote instruction.
However, the emergency rules power only extends to the CLP. If a district intends to use a curriculum once it returns to in-person instruction, they need that waiver. This is why at the recent Government Ops joint committee meeting there was a proposal to extend the emergency rule’s power. This initiative was brought up short by Representative Regan who recognized what was at play. Had the emergency rules been broadened, the use of materials not aligned with Tennessee standards could have been permitted due to the approval of the CLP.
No extension, no approval, hence MNPS being in violation. Shelby County is also using FVS, but nobody is talking about them being in violation of state law. I’m assuming that is because they have remained remote all semester. Had they returned to in-person instruction and continued to use FVS, they would have found themselves in the same quandary as MNPS. Proud recipients of a nasty gram.
Now we are at a place where somebody needs to actually review the FVS curriculum and pronounce it in compliance with state law. If the DOE has properly vetted and reviewed all CLPs, that shouldn’t be an issue, should it? All you have to do is pick up the phone, call over to the Executive Director of Curriculum and Materials Lisa Coons, and say, “Hey Lisa, y’all reviewed this material for adherence to state law before granting approval of the CLP didn’t you? So how about you send over the supporting documentation utilized and we’ll knock this out lickity split?”
The only problem is, that documentation doesn’t seem to exist. In an open record request filed back in July, I asked MNPS for a copy of the crosswalk between FVS and Tennessee State Standards and was told no such document existed. So now, MNPS is left to scramble to create a document that the DOE should have initially required. The BOE is poorly equipped, through no fault of their own, to take on a review of this magnitude, and as a result, will likely be forced into a position of leaning on the DOE in order to accomplish it. We’ve seen in the past where that has gotten us. Once again, others are scrambling to cover up for the failure of team Schwinn.
Here’s another wrinkle to consider. If the chosen curriculum does not meet the requirements of Tennessee law, an LEA is required to detail how they intend to supplement the chosen materials in order to meet the necessary requirements. I’m assuming that MNPS will cite the utilization of the supplemental foundational materials recently created by the DOE for k-2. Materials that have not been reviewed or approved by anybody outside of the department. MNPS will presumably also point to the use of the material purchased from Great MInds. Keep in mind, these materials were themselves not included on the state’s list of approved materials, and in order to adopt those, MNPS had to submit a separate waiver request. That’s a lot of negatives needed to make a positive.
In looking at all of this, I don’t think it’s a stretch to conclude that MNPS was operating under the assumption – provided by guidance from the TDOE – that a waiver for FVS wouldn’t be required as they were including FVS as part of their CLP. The thinking being, since it was in the CLP, both in-person and remote would be covered. That would explain why back in July when asked by then board member Jill Speering on the board floor if a waiver was required, David Williams answered no. It would also explain why a crosswalk between FVs and MNPS was non-existent, as the district had been led to believe the CLP would be approved without it. Therefore rendering it unnecessary.
All of that of course is speculation, but it makes sense in light of existing information. Regardless, it all comes down to the Penny Schwinn led Tennessee Department of Education once again not doing its due diligence. I don’t think that anyone would argue that they met the requirements of the task designated to them by the TBOE to ensure CLPs adhere to the requirements of this policy, State Board Rule 0520-01-17, and all applicable federal and state laws and rules, unless waived. Last I checked, nobody had waived the law requiring schools to teach the Tennessee State Standards.
So now had Continuous Learning plans to their list of failures. On that list, you’ll find Child Wellness Checks, Special Ed vouchers, revision of accountability measures, literacy initiative, employee retention, and probably a few others that are escaping me at the moment. Compare that to successes and you have a scale heavily weighted to one side, and it’s not the preferable one.
Governor Lee has frequently praised Schwinn as a disruptor. And that’s all well and good – I like a fair amount of disruption myself – but if you are forever disrupting never rebuilding anything or strengthening anything, endless disruption is not beneficial to anyone. Unfortunately, a glance at Schwinn’s resume is checkered with disruption and scant evidence of any lasting creations. A legacy she seems to be building on in Tennessee.
File this one in the, “do we even listen to ourselves” category. One of the leading arguments in the case to re-open school buildings is that of an increase in unreported child abuse cases. Proponents continually rend their garments at the growing numbers of unreported cases. But, think about it for a minute. If cases are unreported, how do we know there are more of them? How do we even know the number of unreported cases in the past? I’d laugh if it wasn’t so damn serious.
In a similar vein, let’s talk about teacher evaluations. What is the purpose of conducting teacher evaluations under present circumstances? Are we trying to weed teachers out at a time we need every single one of them? Are we trying to increase the usage of best practices when under present circumstances we don’t even know what those are? Or are we trying to make sure that the chain of command remains firmly established? I continue to see no upside in doing evaluations in the midst of a pandemic, and oh so much downside.
Before they had their waiver powers stripped, the Tennessee Department of Education, through Lisa Coons, this year granted 33 waivers for LEA’s to adopt Great Mind’s Wit and Wisdom K-2 curriculum. What you might not know is that Wit and Wisdom, along with Great Minds math curriculum Eureka, is employed by the California charter school founded by Penny Schwinn. Schwinn was employed as Executive Director up until January 2019 and still sits on the school’s governing board. Through an opens records request I was able to obtain the school’s recent quote on materials from Great Minds. (Great Minds_2020-21 copy)
The quote shows a discount of $7,466.54, or a little over 20%. That’s interesting since I’m told favored nations’ regulations prohibit giving individual schools discounts. So that’s probably the living in Sacramento discount, right? Unless hypothetically, a certain someone had a consulting contract and the discount was somehow connected to that contract. But again, that’s purely hypothetical and speculative and I don’t mean to infer anything. I’m sure there is a perfectly reasonable reason for that discount.
Earlier in the week, two MNPS students tragically lost their lives to gunfire. Per the Tennessean, police identified the two killed as 12-year-old Abdiwahab Adan, who was driving a stolen pickup truck that crashed, and 14-year-old Donquez Abernathy, who was a passenger. According to Metro Nashville Public Schools spokesman Sean Braisted,Abdiwahab was a seventh-grade student at J.T. Moore Middle School and Donquez was a ninth-grade student at Hillsboro High School, Words can not express our sadness over these events, but J.T. Morre principal Gary Hughes tried in a letter to the school’s families. In it he expressed the importance that every child be surrounded by love, “It is so incredibly crucial that every child’s life is valued and that every child is surrounded with love and guidance from adults of all races, religions, and socioeconomic classes,” Amen brother. Amen.
I’d like to leave you with an op-ed piece recently penned by Pope Francis for the NY Times. He reminds us,
Sometimes, when you think globally, you can be paralyzed: There are so many places of apparently ceaseless conflict; there’s so much suffering and need. I find it helps to focus on concrete situations: You see faces looking for life and love in the reality of each person, of each people. You see hope written in the story of every nation, glorious because it’s a story of daily struggle, of lives broken in self-sacrifice. So rather than overwhelm you, it invites you to ponder and to respond with hope.
Francis goes on to offer the following conclusion,
God asks us to dare to create something new. We cannot return to the false securities of the political and economic systems we had before the crisis. We need economies that give to all access to the fruits of creation, to the basic needs of life: to land, lodging and labor. We need a politics that can integrate and dialogue with the poor, the excluded and the vulnerable, that gives people a say in the decisions that affect their lives. We need to slow down, take stock and design better ways of living together on this earth.
The pandemic has exposed the paradox that while we are more connected, we are also more divided. Feverish consumerism breaks the bonds of belonging. It causes us to focus on our self-preservation and makes us anxious. Our fears are exacerbated and exploited by a certain kind of populist politics that seeks power over society. It is hard to build a culture of encounter, in which we meet as people with a shared dignity, within a throwaway culture that regards the well-being of the elderly, the unemployed, the disabled and the unborn as peripheral to our own well-being.
To come out of this crisis better, we have to recover the knowledge that as a people we have a shared destination. The pandemic has reminded us that no one is saved alone. What ties us to one another is what we commonly call solidarity. Solidarity is more than acts of generosity, important as they are; it is the call to embrace the reality that we are bound by bonds of reciprocity. On this solid foundation we can build a better, different, human future.
Words we all should hear and heed.
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