LESS TEAM FIDELITY AND MORE TEAM WORK WOULD BE WELCOME

“I’m stuck on this planet with you. And honestly, I’m glad. I’ve been exposed to a lot of awful people in the last few months, but I’ve met so many more that are amazing, thoughtful, generous, and kind. I honestly believe that is the human condition. And if the Carls are testing us, this final test is the hardest to accomplish. If you pay attention, there is only one story that makes sense, and that is one in which humanity works together more and more since we took over this planet. Yeah, we fuck it up all the time, yeah, there have been some massive steps backward, but look at us! We are one species now more than we have ever been. People fight against that, and they probably always will, but could there be any time in history when what Carl is asking would be more possible?”
Hank Green, An Absolutely Remarkable Thing

 

I was talking to a friend earlier this week about the current pandemic. “The CDC is predicting that by the end of June, everybody who wants a vaccination will be able to get one’, he said, “but I’m afraid what that means for Tennessee is that we’ll become one of the first states to pass legislation allowing people to opt-out of vaccine’s.”

As outlandish as that statement may seem, I can’t disagree. It would be consistent with how we approach every issue and development these days. Research, analysis, followed by the formation of opinion, have been replaced by the creation and selection of teams. Teams that repeatedly consists of the same players.

Think about every issue we’ve faced recently. Be it the wearing of masks, the severity of the virus, the opening of school buildings, it’s all almost instantly devolved into 2 camps. Once the teams are formed, the arguments shift to discrediting the opposition, instead of finding solutions for the issues at hand.

Look at the opening of the school buildings. Once again, 2 camps. The prevailing arguments assert that all of those who are pushing for school buildings to be open are just looking for baby sitters for their children and a return to their privileged lives. On the other hand, those advocating for schools to go all remote are being manipulated by the teacher’s union to create a gravy train for teachers. While both may have elements of the truth, neither is remotely accurate.

The Let Parents Choose camp is primarily made up of parents concerned about the loss of opportunity for their children, while the other is made up primarily of people concerned for the safety and health of students and teachers. Sure both have members pursuing a selfish strategy, but they are outliers and not indicative of most members.

Myself, I disagree with those that feel certain that schools can be safely opened under current conditions, but I understand and empathize with their concerns over the potential fallout of kids not receiving in-person instruction. As a result, I’m not looking for a victory for my team. Instead, I’m interested in how we can improve remote education while figuring out how we can get buildings open to also offer that option of instruction. How can we use the present circumstance to create better options for ALL kids going forward? The keywords in that are “going” and “forward”.

Just like with the argument over discipline policies, I’m less interested in “where” we get kids the services they need than I am in “how” we get them the services they need.

In exploring options, I have little interest in reverting to some supposed idyllic vision of the past. One kid’s isolation from peers is another escape from schoolhouse bullies that made their lives miserable. For some, the flexibility of remote instruction allows them to contribute more to household responsibilities and thus ease that burden. It’s been reported that some children feel more secure in having frank classroom conversation on-line as opposed to in-person. None of that should be discounted.

Yes, there are tremendous benefits to children receiving in-person instruction. For the majority of families it is the preferred method, and rightfully so. But that doesn’t mean it’s beyond reproach or lacks a need for improvement.

In crafting this article I carefully considered two quotes by Hank Green before settling on the one above. The other was, “Just because someone has power over you doesn’t mean they’re going to use it to hurt you. People who believe that tend to either be:  People who have been victims of that sort of behavior, or . . . People who, if given power, will use it to hurt you.”

I thought about this quote as I read pieces by national education bloggers. In particular, Peter Greene’s recent piece, Is This How Post-pandemic Ed Tech Will Be Different. In it, Greene once again exposes the bad actors of the Ed Tech world. Concluding,

Look, these are not education experts. These are venture capitalists trying to predict where the money should rush to next. The problem is that the rush of investor money skews the market. Here we are, say, in desperate need of hamburger and the investors have decided to back companies that produce gold-plated tofu, and so when we go to the store, there are aisles of gold-plated tofu, plus aisles of budget tin-plated tofu, and almost no hamburger. Worse, people who mistake market fluffing for actual predictions run out and buy the gold tofu for us because they heard that’s what we’re going to need.
Ed Tech has so many problems, but the most fundamental one is that they read and write tofu articles like this one, instead of going out into schools and asking teachers, “What would actually help you get your job done.” Which leads to another issue, also captured in this article–when disaster strikes, instead of running to the scene to ask, “What do you need,” they park themselves in their offices and ask, “How will we be able to make money from this?”
He’s not necessarily wrong, but I’d caution against painting with too broad a swath. You don’t hate a hammer because you don’t trust DeWalt. The point is, technology is a tool. One that is used appropriately can provide huge benefits. We shouldn’t close ourselves off to those potential benefits solely based on our perceived views of its providers.
It’s just like if I showed up for a construction job and was tasked with hanging windows, I wouldn’t automatically reach in my bag and grab a hammer because it’s the most popular tool. I would evaluate the job and then reach in my bag for the appropriate tool. If my bag only had a hammer and a screwdriver in it, I wouldn’t be a very versatile craftsman, would I? The more tools in my bag, the more options that available to me. Technology is no different than any other tool.
I would also argue that Ed-Tech companies are not the only ones plagued by the fundamental problem Greene exposes. No one is asking teachers and families what they need. Instead, they are all more focused on scoring points for their team and facilitating policy that aligns with their agenda.
I’ll go even further and argue, that we are actually working against teachers and families by demanding that we continue utilizing some tools of the past – testing and teacher evaluations being the most obvious. Now more than ever we need innovation. Innovation only comes with the risk of failure. By holding on to past accountability tools, we are preventing teachers from fully utilizing their training and experience to reach out of the box and create new opportunities. In forcing them to conform to an outdated model of evaluation, we are ensuring that progress is stifled.
Remember that old saying, that which gets measured gets priority. Right now, the priority is clearly about moving backward instead of forward. That’s a priority that benefits adults at the expense of kids. We need to focus less on promoting our teams, and more on finding solutions.
ANOTHER FORMER LEGISLATOR GETS A PAYDAY
This week brought the announcement that former Memphis Representative John DeBerry would be joining Governor Lee’s cabinet. A position that comes with a $165K annual paycheck. We can’t afford to give teachers a raise but we can hire friends to an inflated salary? But I digress.
The announcement comes on the heels of that announcing former Knoxville Representative Bill Dunn’s appointment as a special consultant to the Tennessee Department of Education with a salary of $96K a year. Now if I was Dunn, I’d be on the phone to the Governor demanding to know what made DeBerry worth nearly double my worth. Truthfully, I’d be a little pissed. My guess is that Dunn has proven so loyal at carrying water that Governor Lee rightfully figured he could get him for a reduced cost.
That doesn’t solve the major conundrum here, what in the hell are the two providing that could be considered worth a quarter-million dollars at a time when every department is being asked to cut their budget for next year? It’s not like either is a Delores Gresham, who despite her recent retirement, still holds considerable sway with lawmakers. DeBerry probably hasn’t courted anybody to his side in over a decade and Dunn…let’s just remind people that he failed at passing voucher legislation for nearly a decade until Casada gave him a hand.
Here’s another thing, over the last two years, Lee has defended the antics of Commissioner Schwinn by touting her as a disruptor and Tennessee’s education policy in dire need of disrupting. So you turn around and hire two of the architects of Tennessee’s current education policy? The two retired lawmakers have over two decades of experience on the House Education Committee between them. To use one of my favored sports analogies, that is like hiring Vanderbilt’s recently fired coach Derek Mason to consult on the hiring of the new coach. What’s the point of disrupting if you are only going to turn the reins to those responsible for the previous bad policy?
MORE FIENDS AND FAMILY…no that’s not a misprint
On Monday. I discussed the recent AP article showing that Shaka Mitchell and the American Federation of Children muddied up the voucher application process. A couple things warrant further explanation.
In Monday’s piece, I raised questions about why the DOE made the cited emails available and why it took 6 months. I mistakenly reported that all emails were expunged from the system after 90 days. That wasn’t completely accurate. While emails are deleted from individual employees’ email accounts after 90 days, the state backs them up daily, archives them, and someone somewhere has access to them. Besides, the state must be able to provide email exchanges for anyone who is under “litigation hold,” in case they are necessary for legal proceedings- which, quite frankly, at this point, could include almost everyone at the department.
In that light, there has been considerable chatter around the actions of recently terminated TDOE asst commissioner Robert Lundin, along with those of Peter Witham (Assistant Commissioner of Accountability and Data) and Mike Hardy (Chief Officer of Strategy). Lundin was the point person on vouchers  (with and then after Amity Schuyler) while Hardy is considered responsible for crafting that horrendous learning loss prediction trotted out in September by the Commissioner and Governor Lee.  A warning questioned by most experts. Lundin’s car has been recently spotted around the DOE offices, raising even more questions.
An important consideration left out of the AP article was the fact that several of Lee’s trusted advisors also have ties to AFC. Blake Harris is a former American Federation of Children director for the Alabama chapter. While Tony Niknejad worked for AFC in Tennessee. Harris is Lee’s Chief of Staff and Nicknejad is the policy director. Then there is the TDOE’s Communication’s Officer Chelsea Crawford in the past also handled communication duties for AFC. Crawford was recently promoted to Chief of Staff.
Sniff..sniff…what’s that smell? Smells like smoke.
TESTING BLUES
Betsy DeVos recently came out supporting the cancelation of this year’s NWEA testing and even implied that state testing is postponed as well. This was welcome news to many, myself included. In making her call, DeVos cited a lack of reliability amidst a global pandemic as grounds for her recommendation. Let me propose a different reason.
As I mentioned earlier, back in September officials and testing companies were predicting massive learning losses for students due to a reliance on remote instruction. We’ll yesterday, news came from NWEA that cast doubt on those dire predictions.
The results show in almost all grades, most students made some learning gains in both reading and math since the COVID-19 pandemic started. However, in math: student achievement in fall 2020 was 5 to 10 percentile points lower than the pre-COVID-19 performance by same-grade students, and students showed lower growth in math across grades 3 to 8 relative to peers in the previous, more typical year, resulting in more students falling behind relative to their prior standing.
That leaves room for a little concern, but it is not the house afire results expected due to earlier predictions. Predictions that were being used to drive bad educational policy and push to open unprepared schools. I’ve always said he who controls the cut scores controls the narrative. In this case, I’d raise the question, if a test doesn’t produce an argument for your narrative, is it worth administrating? Apparently not.
NWEA did raise questions about the drop-in students who took the test but couldn’t pinpoint exactly why they didn’t. Remember NWEA bills MAP as a nationally normed test, but that doesn’t mean every district in the country administers it. Just those that pony up the money. Some of the loss in the number of tests administered might be chalked up to kids transferring out of the district, enrolling in a private or charter school that doesn’t administer MAP, or becoming homeschooled.
Either way, results don’t show the 50% ELA or 65% Math drop as predicted.
QUICK HITS
Throughout the ELA textbook adoption period, the TDOE was out…praising Wit and Wisdom. Over 30 Tennessee School Districts were granted a waiver to adopt Wit and Wisdom for K-2. The California Charter School founded by Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn recently adopted Wit and Wisdom. Penny Schwinn is a member of the organization Chiefs for Change. In light of all of that, guess who’s sponsoring today’s Chief for Change’s 2020 annual membership meeting? If you guessed Great Minds, give yourself a gold star. Maybe it’s a coincidence…or maybe, sometimes things are exactly as they appear.
Fear not though, they are not the only sponsor. Joining them is NWEA, Spotlight, ZLearn, NIET – led by CFC alum and former TN Ed Commissioner Candice McQueen, ETS, and Curriculum Associates. Must be an expensive meeting to require so many sponsors. Most school boards meeting regularly with none. How do they do it?
So all over Tennessee cases of COVID -19 are rapidly increasing, but the TDOE’s COVID tracker indicates a substantial drop in cases by school districts. I’ll need some help with that math. For the record, MNPS’s tracker has the district currently sitting at a level 9 out of a possible 10, up from 8.8 last week and 8.3 earlier this week. Very puzzling.
Rumor has it the exit doors at the Tennessee Department of Education are still swinging outward. The latest to exit is recently promoted Communications Director Amanda Duvall. Duvall was promoted a few months ago when previous director Chelsea Crawford took over Chief of Staff duties for Rebeka Shaw. Shaw’s tenure lasted less than a year before she headed back to Texas. Duvall herself joined the department last year, coming over from Crisp Communications with Crawford. The unofficial reason for Duvall’s departure is that she wanted to spend more time with her child. But wait…isn’t the department already working from home?
Not too long ago it seemed like the only people covering education issues in Tennessee were Andy Spears, Marta Aldrich at Chalkbeat, and myself. Andrea Zelinski had long departed the Nashville Scene, as had Cari Wade Gervin. Jason Gonzales and Nate Rau were no longer at the Tennessean. While Vesia Hawkins and Momma Bears had slowed their output. It was a virtual news desert when it came to education issues. Thanks in part to the TDOE and their willingness to continually generate stories, that’s no longer the case.
Nate Rau has found a new home at the Tennessee Lookout. Vivian Jones is producing great pieces at the Center Square. Andy Spears continues to nail it regularly at the TNEd Report. Marta Aldritch is still at Chalkbeat but she’s being joined by a handful of other writers. Meghan Mangrum has filled the void at the Tennessean left by Jason Gonzales. Cari Wade Gervin continues to provide quality freelance investigative pieces. On top of all of that, AP and the New York Times are taking a more active interest in the state. All in all, it’s getting harder and harder to keep secrets in Tennessee.
That’s it for now.

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Categories: Education

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