“Choose not to look, however, at your own peril. The owner of an old house knows that whatever you are ignoring will never go away. Whatever is lurking will fester whether you choose to look or not. Ignorance is no protection from the consequences of inaction. Whatever you are wishing away will gnaw at you until you gather the courage to face what you would rather not see.”
― Caste: The Origins of Our Discontents
Like most MNPS’s parents, the wife and I spent the week trying to decide what our choice for schooling would look like starting after the first of the year. Would we return to in-person instruction or remain virtual.
Nashville in-person instruction is scheduled to begin on January 7th for those opting in. Based on rising COVID-19 cases – the district’s recently revealed measurement tool shows the city currently at 9.3 out of 10 – it’s hard to imagine that deadline actually being honored. But, the measurement tool doesn’t factor in political winds, so there is no guarantee.
We are one of the fortunate families in that this year has been pretty similar to past years. The kids haven’t exactly embraced remote learning, but they are slowly mastering it. Along the way improving important life skills like time management, self-advocacy, and technical mastery while becoming more self-sufficient. I continually see signs of learning.
Yesterday my 5th-grade son raised questions about Hoover’s economic decisions amidst the growing economic collapse and my 6th-grade daughter excitedly described her meeting that day with her Battle of the Books group. As I haven’t spent a lot of time with him discussing the economic policy of the early 20th century, I can only surmise that his interest is being stoked via his teachers and the online instruction he’s receiving.
The issues we’ve had this year, have been issues we likely would have encountered had it been a normal school year. Questions around curriculum and engagement have come up, and at times the kids have not done a good job of keeping up with their work. In response we’ve scheduled meetings with their teachers and reestablished expectations with the kids, Not every issue has been resolved, but I’m confident everybody is working towards a resolution. Again, no different than if the children were attending schools in-persons.
Grades might be a little lower than in the past. But since they are in middle school and these are different times, I take that with a grain of salt, choosing to focus on why they are low and what can be done to improve them. At the forefront, is paying attention in class, utilizing office hours, and doing the required work. The girl child has raised the argument that her grades would be much higher if she was in person. My response, “Maybe, but you are not and if you weren’t doing your work, paying attention in class, or raising questions with your teacher when you have problems…they wouldn’t be.”
There are legitimate concerns around social interaction or lack of it via remote school. As usual, kids often find a way to get what they need. My son has helped organize several Zoom meetings and created friendships with kids he’s never met in person. In one instance, he’s overcome his initial lack of connection with a child he met this summer at the pool and the two have bonded over their love of internet pranks, especially the joys of Rick-Rolling. Is the relationship different than if it had been formed in person? Absolutely. Would they describe each other as friends despite the lack of in-person contact? I would say most certainly. Is one way better than the other? The jury is still out.
The boy has also maintained a regular schedule of Jiu-Jitsu classes, attending 3 times a week. Many of his fellow classmates have been together for years, and so they have created a natural support system for each other. Personally, I think RMA should be put in charge of opening schools because their policies and protocols, along with their commitment to actual transparency, have been nothing short of inspiring throughout the whole pandemic.
My daughter is a little more socially reticent, so for her, it’s been a little more difficult. But she has held on to neighborhood and family friends while remaining connected on-line to past classmates. She attends ballet through Nashville Ballet four times a week. While the workload in ballet is not conducive to forming and building relationships, she has begun to develop a few.
I’d be remiss if I didn’t give a quick shout out to Nashville Ballet for its incredible diligence in providing great instruction while doing everything possible to keep kids safe. Never would I have believed that it would be possible to keep kids masked while doing the rigorous exercises required. Yet, after a semester, her mask has become as much a part of her attire as her leotard, tights, and ballet shoes.
I recognize that not everybody has these extra-curricular activities available to them and that I’m blessed by my in-law’s generosity which makes it possible for us. But on the flip side, what have we as a community done to supply such opportunities for those who can’t afford it? I’ve long argued the need for local non-profits and businesses to partner with MNPS to create pods and smaller learning groups to mimic what is going on in wealthier communities. This is an area that remains undeveloped yet rife with possibility.
To me, it’s evidence that we continue to have the wrong conversation. Back and forth we argue, should kids be in school buildings or remotely. Instead, the conversation should be – what do kids need, and how do we get it to them. If all the school buildings in America suddenly disintegrated and disappeared, would all schooling stop? So why should it now? Forward, not backward. But I digress.
In weighing our decision about next semester, extra-curricular activities were a huge factor. The CDC recommends that if your children are attending in-person schooling, you curtail all outside activities. That’s kinda a deal-breaker for me. There is nothing my children would gain by attending school in person that would be superseded what they could get outside of the classroom that warrants canceling their activities.
When weighing options, economics has to be considered as well and that’s a tough nut. We are fortunate in that both my wife and I have the ability to work remotely. My non-remote work is fortunately limited to most weekends. So we have some flexibility.
But make no mistake, we are struggling just like almost everybody else. My income is probably down by about 25 to 30% due to the pandemic, as a result, I’ve taken some jobs I normally wouldn’t consider. Having the kids at home limits options, but so far, we’ve been fortunate, blessed by generosity and good fortune.
I fully get the fact that my employment could shift, and as a result, my ability to facilitate on-line learning could suffer. Doesn’t help my near-constant anxiety. My hat goes off to all those parents who are trying to juggle economics and schooling, continually searching to find what’s best for their children. It’s a thankless and largely unrecognized challenge.
After deliberation, my wife and I backed into a decision of leaving the kids enrolled in remote instruction. In the end, it came down to a sense of trying to recapture something versus a sense of continually moving forward. In-person schooling will not resemble the October 2019 version. It will be a work in progress, not dissimilar from that of online learning. There seems to be a prevailing thought that by merely opening the doors, we can replicate the past. Elementary school educators can speak to the fallacy of that assumption.
As a family, we’ve navigated the waters of remote instruction for a semester now – with both successes and failures. I’ve witnessed the hard work of teachers in delivering continuous improvement, despite a lack of district support, and I’m not ready to render all that work moot, by jumping to another developing strategy. Furthermore, I think it’s important to recognize that progress only marches forward, and never retreats. I’m committed to preparing my children for the world of the future, and not binding them to the practices of the past.
Come June, we’ll re-evaluate and weigh the options again. Perhaps come August we’ll walk through the doors at Oliver Middle School. Perhaps we’ll look at other opportunities, but it’ll always be with an eye looking forward instead of trying to capture a foregone time.
That’s our decision, today. It may change tomorrow. It may not be the choice for everyone. It may not even be the choice for most people. Whether it was the right choice or not, won’t be apparent until long after I’ve left this world. Everybody has to make their own choice and instead of tearing at each other over those choices, we need to work together to align options. The accelerated potential for growth as a result of the pandemic just might turn out to be the biggest upside to this tragic year.
I’m a firm believer in the power of public schools, but I’m not an adherent to the trope that they must look exactly like they have for a hundred years, or else we are somehow destroying public education. Though I will argue, change comes no matter what you do, you can either do it or have it done to you. I prefer the former over the latter.
In that sense, some things are non-negotiable. Chief among those being accountability to the local community and reflective of their wishes. Some will argue that the governance model is not important, I strongly disagree. The governance of public education absolutely needs to remain with the public.
Out of crisis, opportunity is born, and now more than ever we have a chance to expand the umbrella of public education. Ironically that will require a little learning loss and a willingness to be uncomfortable for a while.
If we don’t let go of some of the things we think we know, we’ll lose this opportunity. If we value form over function, the chance to address long-standing inequities will slip from our grasp. If we don’t apply rigorous honestly to what we teach, and in our evaluation of what’s important, student outcomes remain unchanged.
I hope every parent can arrive at a decision they can live with, whatever it may be. These are hard times, and while there is hope on the horizon, the heavy lifting is far from over.
A FUNDAMENTAL FLAW
So as I just mentioned, stakeholder input and influence are non-negotiable for me when it comes to the concept of public education. Let Parents Choose is a parent advocacy group trying to influence school districts to re-open schools as quickly as possible. While I don’t necessarily agree with their whole premise, I do think that they expose a large flaw with the system. If you are a parent group, how do you make your desires known and how do you influence policy decisions.
The obvious target would be the local school board. But in reality, the individual power of school board members is negligible. No offense to any of the fine member’s currently serving, but in the case of MNPS, if you don’t have four other board members that share your ideas, they aren’t going anywhere. In a district, this disparate, forming that alliance is a lot more difficult than it might be perceived.
The only board member with real power would be the chair. They have the power to control the agenda, and thus, the conversation. For anything to garner attention, it has to come through them. If an individual board member brings an issue for consideration to the chair, there is no guarantee that the issue is getting on the agenda. Failure to include the item pretty much kills any chance of it moving forward. So if you are lobbying board members, I would say the focus should be on whoever holds the chair position.
Currently, some parents are mad at Amanda Kail and MNEA – the teachers union. In my opinion, that is misplaced ire.
First off, she may hold a position of influence, and the perception may be that she wields considerable power. The reality is that the extent of that power is greatly exaggerated by opponents. This is 2020, and not 1975. Union rolls have continued to dwindle down over the last decade. Unfortunately, that has served to limit the unions’ ability to influence.
Secondly, Kail is only doing the job for which she was elected. While oftentimes the issues of teachers and parents align, her loyalty will always be, and rightfully so, to teachers. Her job is to ensure that they are practicing their trade in as safe an environment as possible while earning as much as possible. That’s it. Sometimes she will be at seemingly cross purposes with parents, and that’s unfortunate, but she is the head of the teachers union, not the parents union, or the school board. And in honesty, she and her cabinet are doing a much better job than their predecessors.
Nashville’s city charter was designed to create a public school system that was free of the influence of the city’s political class. To his credit, Mayor Cooper is honoring that agreement. Per that important document, the Mayor and Metro Council are free to postulate all they want but, without an amendment to the city charter, they can exert little real influence. Sure they control the purse strings, but last I checked, holding up funding to schools was not a sure path to re-election.
On the state level, the board of education, the department of education, along with the governor, in some cases, wield considerable power over schools, but the importance of local control is held dear by legislators so their influence is often mitigated. As we’ve seen with both funding and ESA’s, trying to exert control over LEA’s does not come without the risk of litigation and is not always successful.
So where is a parent to go with their concerns? In my best estimation, the best target is the Superintendent and the chair of the school board. But since the chair is drawn from the ranks of school board members, it’s also important to become engaged in those elections. Electing a school board that is receptive to all stakeholders is always a good starting place. Nashville will get another chance in 2 years to change the rolls.
SPEAKING OF EVALUATIONS
I’ve previously stated the obvious flaws in the practice of evaluating teachers in the middle of a pandemic when the majority of teaching is being done remotely. The obvious drawbacks being a lack of qualified evaluators along with the unintended consequences of delivering criticism when people are over-worked and under-supported. But, we are all about accountability right? Yea, not so fast.
For the last several years, MNPS has administered the Panorama Survey to teachers and students. The survey is designed to add another layer of assessment to teachers while gauging the culture of a school building and it’s administrators. In the past district leadership has touted it in flagging buildings that had culture issues and allowing ineffective administrators to be identified.
To be fair, some schools have produced very positive results, while for others the survey has been a flashlight illuminating a school’s toxic culture. Results from the survey were used to shore up support for administrators who were struggling.
This year, while maintaining the need to administer all measurements to students, Dr. Battle, and her team, have decided that it is not the time or place to provide teachers the opportunity to provide feedback via Panorama. Apparently, all administrators are performing at an exceptional level and there is no need to identify any that may need additional support.
Students will still participate because obviously teachers are struggling and we have to identify those, while possibly ignoring the possible roots of that struggle. (That was sarcasm in case you missed it.) I think that some schools would surely benefit from an administration of the survey, one school helmed by a former Community Superintendent leaps to mind, but alas it’s not to be.
The teacher version has been pulled back until at least Spring. per inside MNPS,
“Due to the unique challenges and differences of the current school year, we are working to revise our certificated and support staff survey topics. Therefore, we will not be administering a school climate survey to staff this fall. We will continue work with the Director’s Teacher Cabinet, principals and other key stakeholders to further refine and develop the survey.”
Yet, the student version is proceeding as scheduled. Is that version somehow exempt from the unique challenges and differences of the current school year?
There has been an endless clamor to access students and teachers to address shortcomings, yet we magically know what’s going on in individual schools without asking one. Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy has repeatedly bragged about the performance of the district’s Executive Directors and individual principals, how about a little data to back that up.
If we can’t accept a teacher’s assessment of their students without independent verification, how can we extend that courtesy to administrators?
I suspect that the revamped questions will heavily tilt towards a “solutions over criticisms” bent. That’s all nice and good, but sometimes you need a frank conversation about problems in order to identify solutions. Solutions that are best brought forth by collaboration versus individually.
So here is a math problem. Teachers are evaluated via multiple measures, while they provide zero opportunities to evaluate current practices and administrators who directly impact their ability to meet expectations. If A equals teacher evaluations received, and B is those they offer on others, how does A ever equal B?
Here’s another formula to remember. If A is what you say, and B is what you do, it’s always true that B>A.
This whole possibly initiative reeks of protecting the sensibilities of leadership over, identifying solutions. In other words, reduced to the vernacular, ‘We don want to hear your shit.”
Talk to any principal worth their salt for any period of time, and they will offer that among the most important tasks of a principal is to protect their teachers. And by protecting them I don’t mean shielding them from evaluation, but rather to provide them with an environment where they can focus solely on educating kids. How does the failure to allow them to express their views and observations contribute to that initiative?
That’s a wrap.
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.
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I sincerely hope all parents evaluate and settle in a solution for their children as you and your wife have done. We are way too narrow in our understanding of in school versus remote. There are benefits to both we are not pursuing or even considering. Pods is really a great idea in all our communities!