IMPOSSIBLE ENDEAVORS

“God and the Soldier all men adore, In time of trouble and no more, For when war is over And all thing righted, God is neglected, And the Old Soldier slighted.”
Jan Morris, Pax Britannica: Climax of an Empire

If you are a Metro Nashville Public Schools parent, this week presents quite the quandary – to spend next semester going virtual or send your child back into a school building, whenever they open. Parents are being forced to make the decision at a time when COVID-19 cases are rising at an alarming rate, so much so that those who chose in-person for the fall semester are being sent home for the remainder of the year. Further complicating matters, announcements arrive almost daily of a vaccine soon being available. Maybe as soon as mid-Spring. But you’ve got to decide about school by Friday.

As a parent, I’m supposed to take the very limited information available and make a decision that will having a lasting impact on my children, in a very short window of time. A decision that will be carved in stone and will be irreversible, no matter what changes between now and the end of the school year. The ironic part is that MNPS is asking me to make an irrevocable decision while still retaining for themselves the ability to modify it.

Just because I decide to send my children back to school in-person doesn’t mean that they will stay in-person throughout the duration of the school year. Schools may or may not open come January 7th. Schools may stay open all the way until the end of May, or they may close intermittently throughout the Spring based on data the district is closely monitoring. In other words, I’m supposed to make my decision based on a snapshot and intuition, while the district gets to rely on science and a constantly updated data stream. Seems fair, right?

I’ve racked my brain over the weekend trying to think of a single other decision I’m required to make that holds the same level of permanence. The only one I can find is enlisting in the military. If I sign up for the Armed Forces, and I say I’ll be there for four years, then, by God, I’ll be there for 4 years. But every other decision comes with an opportunity to change course if I determine that my initial decision was not the right one.

Even if I commit a crime and am sentenced to jail, I have an opportunity to either qualify for parole or early release based on mitigating factors. No such opportunity exists for my schooling choice; it’s one or the other until May.

MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle has made the case that this iron-clad contract – and yeah, it is a contract, not a survey – is necessary because of scheduling concerns. Having children flip back and forth between virtual and in-person would just create too much instability. In the course of making the argument, the “for the good of children” flag is unfurled. Kids need stability and allowing any flexibility just creates disruption.

As usual, the “good of the children” argument is applied when adults need it and just as readily ignored when needed as well. Where was the stability argument back in October when the opening of school buildings forced large numbers of students to switch teachers? Teachers that they’d built relationships with since August. Relationships those students had been leaning on for support throughout the pandemic. Keep in mind also, when schools open in January, many students will switch teachers once again, and not a single member on the MNPS leadership team will bemoan the lack of stability.

Scheduling is a human construct. As such, it is entirely possible to create one that is flexible and responsive to all stakeholders. It may be difficult. It may be extremely difficult. But it’s not impossible. What’s required is the skill set and the willingness to put other’s needs ahead of your own. It’s not like anybody is asking anyone to teleport themselves. Now that would be impossible.

It’s not like teachers and principals are not daily undertaking the difficult that was once thought impossible. Think back to this time last year, virtually all of our present reality would have been considered “impossible.” Do you think if teachers and principals were structuring present-day schooling in a manner that they preferred, it would look anything like it does now? Fortunately for us, they possess both the skill set and desire to make the seemingly impossible possible. Sometimes despite the efforts of district leadership.

Several principals have proposed having teachers teach in-person and virtual simultaneously, a method that would give greater flexibility for students to go back and forth. Leadership never even gave the idea a thought before shooting it down. Too difficult, they said, as if present circumstances were a walk in the park.

Would it be difficult? Extremely. Impossible? I don’t think so.

Defenders of public schools constantly rail against charter schools over a perceived lack of democracy in governance. But where is that democracy displayed when it comes to the decision to force parents to choose a schooling option for next semester?

The school board is elected by the citizens of Nashville in order to govern the school system. Their purpose is purportedly to develop policies that reflect the desires of their constituency. Do they feel Dr. Battle’s decision aligns with the views of those that elected them? Is this what their constituents have told them is needed?

I don’t have the answer to that because the board has never taken a vote on whether or not they support the proposed plan. Near as I can tell, the board has never had a robust discussion around the proposed strategy at all. At least not publicly.

The school board is intended to be a board of governance, yet they seem to be content in assuming the role of blind acquiescence. Over the last decade, this idea has been put forth and built upon that questioning someone’s actions indicates a lack of support. I don’t know where that comes from because my wife questions me on a daily basis, yet I never doubt her support.

All my life I’ve worked in the service industry. A large part of my time has been dedicated to the handling of customer dissatisfaction. Experience has taught me that the most dissatisfied customers are the ones who feel powerless. The ones who feel they have no voice and no one cares if they are satisfied or not. I’d argue that for MNPS, it is no different.

It doesn’t matter if it’s the members of PROPEL or parents on the West side of town or parents from all corners of town calling for a transparent and vetted plan. It could be working parents or parents concerned about the emotional and mental health of their children. Maybe it’s those parents who feel kids need to be in school buildings or those who just don’t think it’s safe enough to return. The overarching root concern is the same: nobody is listening and my opinion doesn’t matter. That’s a feeling that doesn’t bode well for the future of the public school system. Especially at a time when school systems across the country are losing students at a rapid pace.

It’s not enough to just survive the current pandemic; how we survive is just as important. It’s entirely possible that schools can come out of this crisis in better shape than when it began. Brand new options could be made available to students and their families based on what’s been created through necessity. We could actually address some of the inequities that have been baked into the system for decades. But if we just focus on returning to the way things were, nothing is going to get better. If we just focus on the things that leadership finds important, nothing is going to get better. If leadership continues doing things to, or for, stakeholders instead of with them, nothing is going to get better.

Everything should be up for consideration. Continuous improvement should be the only non-negotiable. Sometimes that means doing the really hard stuff, the stuff that seems impossible.

SPREAD OF MISINFORMATION

Over the last four years, much has been made of Donald Trump’s blurring of facts. His most arduous critics accuse him of creating a culture of lies and untruths. While his actions are very troubling, sometimes misinformation is spread in a much more innocuous manner.

Today’s Tennessean carries an article by education writer Meghan Mangrum on how parents are navigating the decision of in-person vs remote schooling. It’s a good article with a lot of good information and some truly heartwarming stories. The article is well researched and it’s obvious Mangrum devoted a lot of time to it. But it does carry this gem:

The Tennessee Department of Education already estimated students across the state likely “experienced significant learning loss” — as much as an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in third-grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math, according to data released in September.

Though some educators have questioned the data presented by the department, Metro Schools’ own data supports the findings.

The first statement was made by Commissioner Schwinn to push schools to open for in-person learning before it was advisable. And yes, some educators did push back against the statement. But it wasn’t only educators, but rather anybody that knows anything about testing. There was no way that it was possible to use the data available to present the picture Schwinn and the Governor were trying to paint. They were trying to use apples and oranges to bake a blueberry pie. It doesn’t work that way.

The very concept of “learning loss” and “falling behind” has been debunked by numerous education experts. As always, educator Peter Greene says it best:

Likewise, the repeated reference to learning “loss”– what does that even mean? How does learning get “lost,” and how do you measure the lostedness? Is it like the time I lost my car keys? Yes, I know there are things I learned in Algebra II that I can no longer call up in my brain, but is that “loss” exactly, or just a natural mental process, like the way I lost my knowledge about what I had for lunch on September 3. Now tell me how you measure any of that with a straight face.

Mangrum throws in a link to her article that supposedly supports the TDOE estimates of 50 and 65 percent learning loss. But click on that article and actually read it. Nowhere in it is evidence offered that shows a loss of 65%. Instead, a picture of unreliable data emerges. Along with acknowledgment that the best assessment we presently have available is that of teachers. In fact, it reinforces the belief in a lack of ample evidence by acknowledging questions raised by board members.

Some board members, including Emily Masters, questioned why continue using the assessment at all this year if the data is unreliable. Instead, teachers could spend that time teaching, rather than proctoring the test, she said.

All of this would be innocuous, a simple disagreement over policy, if not for the repercussions. By repeating Schwinn’s falsehoods, virtually unchallenged, those untruths are given an unwarranted level of veracity. The casual reader assumes they are true, and as such, they become an unchallenged part of the conversation going forth, playing an increased role in crafting policy. Policy that as a result is rooted in untruth. Untruth every bit as dangerous as anything being spread by the outgoing president.

NOTHING THAT STARTS CORRUPT EVER BECOMES PURE

I’ve never been a fan of the sentiment that the outcome justifies the means. No matter how noble the policy, if you use unethical means to enact it, it will just become more corrupt over time. This weekend news came out over Tennessee’s voucher legislation that supports that view.

It’s no secret that Governor Lee’s ESA plan only passed into law because of backroom deals and political arm twisting. Evidence continues to mount that none of that stopped once the program started. Right out of the box you had the TDOE taking money out of a fund dedicated to compensation for educators to hire ClassWallet to facilitate enrollments. Then, even though the program wasn’t even set to begin until next year, the deputy commissioner position overseeing the program wasn’t funded by the General Assembly, but the DOE somehow found $180K a year to hire Amity Schuyler from Florida to oversee the program. Schuyler has since left and now works for Shelby County Schools. But that doesn’t change the fact that she was paid a high dollar amount to oversee a program not currently in existence.

To put that salary in context, the person in charge of curriculum and materials makes around $40K less. Which would you say is more vital to student outcomes – vouchers or curriculum?

The latest shoe to fall is the revelation, through internal emails, that the American Federation of Children, a leading proponent of the Governor’s voucher plan, was muddying up the application process to recruit more families. Per the U.S. News article:

“You’ve positioned AFC to funnel low income parents to your website where you have deliberately withheld important program information, withheld important technical assistance resource and translated materials, in order to broker an exchange of information to access a state application that is open domain,” Schuyler added in her May 1 email — less than a week before a state judge deemed the program illegal and prohibited it from being implemented.

Furthermore, Shuyler believed, “The AFC’s website failed to include information about the application deadline and didn’t translate critical information to Spanish. Additionally, emails show that AFC mailers touting the education saving accounts were sent not just to low-income families, but also families with annual incomes over $100,000 who wouldn’t be eligible to apply.”

While this is problematic, I think the article reveals a much larger issue, while also raising some questions.

The AP initially submitted its records request to the Department of Education in early May. Yet the agency didn’t hand over all of the documents until November. When asked why it took nearly six months to provide just under 200 pages of documents, the agency cited difficulty getting the records from employees who had resigned.

As virtually anybody who routinely covers education issues in Tennessee can attest, the TDOE regularly ignores open record requests. When they do fill them, it’s usually months after the request was submitted. That shouldn’t be surprising to anyone because, under Schwinn, the TDOE has made a habit out of ignoring state laws. Be it their role in the textbook adoption process, the utilization of Common Core for instruction, workplace culture, or the termination of employees, under Governor Lee’s blessing they regularly play by their own rules. Why should open record laws be any different?

Some people speculate that the DOE wouldn’t have even turned over the emails unless they believed that reporter Kimberlee Kruessi already had evidence that the emails existed. Furthermore, it is my understanding that after 90 days, all emails are automatically expunged from the system and cannot be recovered. Makes for some very interesting speculation over the source of these communications.

QUICK HITS

Nashville is set to have a new police chief. Currently serving as interim-Chief, John Drake is poised to assume the role of Chief later today. Per the online news magazine Tennessee Lookout report:

Drake, a Nashville native, rose through the ranks of the police department, beginning his career as a patrol officer before his promotion earlier this year to deputy chief in charge of administrative affairs. After working patrol, Drake was promoted to the department’s narcotics division and then to a role with the police athletics league where he showed the ability to reach out to the community by helping launch a youth basketball league.

The American Baptist College recently completed its inaugural Presidential Lecture Series to great accolades. The Tennessee Tribune reports that the series “provided an in-depth discussion on two giants of the non-violent movement of the Civil Rights Era of the 1960s. Historian Jon Meacham discussed Congressman John Lewis from a historian’s perspective and from his book His Truth Is Marching On: John Lewis and the Power of Hope and Theologian Dr. Riggins Earl presented information on Rev. C.T. Vivian from the perspective of an ethicist and theologian.”  Attendees were provided with an opportunity to hear bold insights about the movement that involved Congressman Lewis and Rev. Vivian, as well as their contemporaries in the struggle, such as Rev. Bernard Lafayette, Rev. Julius Scruggs, Rev. James Bevel, and William Barbee, among others. Barbee, one of the unsung heroes of the movement, died when he returned to Nashville after being severely beaten in Montgomery/Birmingham during the Freedom Riders’ activities. Keep your ears peeled for future events. 

MNPS’s new COVID-19 tracking page is up and running. Today we are at 8.2, what will tomorrow bring? What exactly does that 8.2 mean?

Congratulations to Eakin ES 1st grader Shania Davis. Shania was just accepted into Mensa, the largest and oldest high IQ society in the world!

Outgoing Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos has called on Congress to postpone Federal Standardized tests this year. Now she’s not talking about TNReady, but rather NAEP testing:

“The 2021 NAEP tests would have shed light on the significant learning loss following the school closures last spring and the widespread failure to reopen schools this fall,” DeVos wrote. “While the data would have been helpful, the much more valuable and actionable measures of learning loss will be the annual assessments required of states by the Every Student Succeeds Act.” 

But fear not, Democrats are poised to defend the high stakes test. Rep. Robert C. “Bobby” Scott (D-Va.), chairman of the House Education and Labor Committee, and Sen. Patty Murray (Wash.), the ranking Democrat on the Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee, said there is a “moral imperative” to collect data showing the scope of the learning loss during the pandemic. They said the delay of the NAEP is “unfortunate” but “understandable.”

“Existing achievement gaps are widening for our most vulnerable students, including students from families with low incomes, students with disabilities, English learners, and students of color,” they wrote. “In order for our nation to recover and rebuild from the pandemic, we must first understand the magnitude of learning loss that has impacted students across the country. That cannot happen without assessment data.”

A pox on both their houses.

That’s it for now.

If you’ve got 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. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you wish 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.



Categories: Education

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