“I believe in kindness. Also in mischief.”
It’s been my experience that when dealing with the unpleasant – be it debt, employment dissatisfaction, marriage infidelity, health risks, or school shortcomings – we often default to a strategy akin to sticking our fingers in our ears and making loud noises in hopes that if we don’t acknowledge the issue, it will cease to exist. In essence, we seem to think if we can just ignore the negative, the positive will transcend all challenges. Unfortunately, no matter how hard we try, reality has a way of making itself known, oftentimes to our greater detriment.
Over the last several months, I’ve watched us as try to apply the same strategy to the pandemic, with predictable results.
Before we dive in, let me offer this disclaimer. I am far from a strict adherent to all safety protocols. Due to work, and personal necessity, I have been out in public since inception. I was probably a little slow to adopt adequate mask-wearing, but I’ve socially distanced, lowered my circle of interaction, and been as cautious as possible. Throughout it all, I’ve come to recognize the severity of what we face while also balancing recognition of people’s personal rights. A balance that leaves me open to criticism from all sides. I freely admit I don’t have all the answers but some things are fairly apparent to me and warrant pointing out.
The first thing that needs pointing out, is we are still in the midst of a pandemic with case numbers rising. Let me say that again because while that may seem apparent, many seem to have lost sight of the fact. Specifically while arguing over whether or not schools should be open. Factors and arguments are thrown out as if they exist independently of the current health crisis.
Just like test scores, the data points showing the rapid increase in cases are not simply numbers on a graph. Each data point correlates to an actual person facing very real challenges. Exposure can not only result in health risk but economic risk as well. Fears around economics include but are not limited to – maintenance of employment, finding new employment, maintaining income level, cost of contracting COVID…there are so many potential impacts that I can not even begin to list them, and anything that impacts adults, ultimately impacts students. Yet we seem shocked to discover heightened levels of anxiety, depression, anger, and other assorted emotions in students.
I guess I shouldn’t be shocked, because we’ve also failed to recognize the impact on adults. We continually expect everyone to perform at post-pandemic levels despite the possible loss of family members, the imminent threat to personal and loved ones’ health – both physically and financially. We react to people as if we aren’t all living in trauma infused circumstances, influenced accordingly. Apparently, it’s only children who are impacted by trauma, who knew?
Arguments around the re-opening of schools serve to illustrate our penchant to proclaim that “students should come first”, while continually acting in a manner counter to that mantra. We are like shoppers on Black Friday, cordially sharing coffee and stories until the doors open, then it’s suddenly a mad rush, with elbows flying, to fulfill our desires. If we were truly concerned about kids, we’d be developing solutions that addressed their specific needs before shoving forth our primary desires to open school buildings.
A rally for the latter was held yesterday at Bransford Avenue by the Parent Group, Let Parents Choose. Two school board members – John Little and Fran Bush – were in attendance, along with roughly 100 community members. A decent, but not overwhelming turnout. While I sympathize with their cause, some of their arguments call for pushback.
In a rush to open schools, children’s social and emotional well-being is often cited as a core reason for re-opening. A legitimate issue, but one that falls into the aforementioned trap of ignoring existing conditions. I don’t doubt that there is ample evidence of increased student depression and anxiety, but how do you isolate the cause of that depression and anxiety? What is school closure related and what is brought forth by dealing with the effects of a pandemic? Is a child depressed because they can’t receive in-person instruction or because a parent has lost income at work and is struggling to meet the bills? Is a child anxiety-ridden because they can’t interact with their peers in-person, or is it because pandemic-related issues are causing the disintegration of their parent’s marriage?
There is no way to tell what the causes are for a child’s mental state, some children may not even know themselves. Secondly, schools are not equipped to solve all of society’s issues while still delivering high-quality education. It is just not feasible, yet we continue to try and pound that round peg into a square hole.
Speaking of educational issues, this quote by a high school student from News 5 at yesterday’s rally struck me,
“Where is the student interaction,” said high school student Daniel Bush. “When I have questions, I don’t want to email them, I want them in front of me to walk me through the lesson, to make sure I’m learning so I’m prepared for college.”
It is our friend irony showing up once again. When you get to college, good luck finding a professor willing to meet with you face to face to answer questions. One of the very real struggles of first-year college students in developing the ability to self-advocate and to take advantage of office hours offered by instructors. It sounds simple but is difficult in practice.
Time management, coupled with self-motivation are also areas where many students struggle. I know I did. Present circumstances allow a student to develop those skills before putting their personal money, via tuition, on the line. I would argue that learning these soft skills are every bit as important in making kids college and career ready as is learning about ancient civilizations. Not to downplay any of those past classroom offerings, but if students fully embrace the opportunities currently being offered, not only will they find themselves better prepared for post-secondary school education, but they will also have developed tools in which to help fill any gaps in their formal education.
Another argument for re-opening school buildings is the supposed lack of transmission by children. A recent op-ed in the Tennessean put forth the postulation that we are not following the “science when it comes to opening schools,
And The New York Times has published several pieces in recent weeks highlighting the science behind schools that “do not seem to be stoking community transmission.” Notably, “Elementary schools especially seem to seed remarkably few infections,” important to consider when charting a course for elementary students in Nashville.
Interestingly, the leading proponents of a return to open school buildings are economic experts as opposed to education experts, but putting that aside, the hypothesis that schools are not causes of community transmission is supported primarily through contact tracing, an inexact science. As pointed out last month in the Olean Times Herald, “NYC data show tracers made contact with 90% of new cases, but only 75% answered tracers’ questions.” The article continues, “New York health officials conceded this week that for most new cases, “we don’t have a way to directly attribute their source of infection.”
The science is far from settled. If we are truly doing what’s best for children, we’ll error on the side of caution while searching for alternative means to meet student needs.
A recent Washington Post article paints a picture of a doomed generation of students where, “If the status quo remains through June, it is predicted White students will lose seven to eight months of math, and students of color will lose 11 to 12 months.” Closer inspection of the article show that the dire predictions are coming from folks who have been attacking public education for decades, Overstated are the findings from McKinsey and Company – a management consulting firm, while NWEA results are downplayed.
It’s been argued that the NWEA results show less learning loss because fewer students took MAP testing in the last year. Critics of remote learning put forth that those are the most marginalized of students so their omission mitigates the appearance of lost learning. I put forth that it is just as likely that those who didn’t take the test were on the opposite end of the spectrum and their parents enrolled them in private schools or charter school that didn’t take MAP. had they taken the test this year, results might have surpassed last year.
To the Post article’s credit, it does highlight alternative ideas for meeting student needs. Ideas that include scaling up high-intensity tutoring, which to cover half of all U.S. students would cost $66 billion, at $2,500 per student as estimated by McKinsey. It estimates it would cost $42 billion, or $1,600 per student, for “vacation academies” over summer break to serve small groups.
Over the summer, a Milwaukee elementary school held an online tutoring program, pairing teachers and college students, many of them Black, with about 30 mostly Black children for up to four hours of one-on-one video instruction each weekday. Teachers report that participants were better prepared for school this fall than their peers.
Another idea is to tighten focus to foundational, core skills, and leave out other enriching but not essential material. The theory being, the ability to multiply numbers is a core or “focus” skill because multiplication facts are used as students progress. Rounding numbers is not because other skills do not build on that. I’d be a little wary of this one.
Many districts are working to find missing kids by tracking attendance and sending staff members to their homes, delivering supplies, and touching base. Maybe we should emulate past efforts by former Maplewood Principal Ron Woodard and AP Ryan Jackson.
I’ve repeatedly raised the need to create smaller groups, call them pods or learning communities, that could work to supplement the social, emotional, and educational needs of our children. This past weekend I was reflecting on MNPS’s academies model. A model that has won worldwide acclaim for the district. Many of you probably think that the model was created to establish career pathways for students. That’s not the whole story.
Back several decades ago it was recognized by experts that high schools were large and unwieldy buildings. Because of the size, it was too easy for students to get lost and fall between the cracks. It was thought that if smaller communities were created in the building, and each cohort was assigned a singular educator to maintain contact, some of that risk could be mitigated. Assigning potential careers to the smaller groups was a practical manner in which students like interests could be harnessed. In reality, the smaller cohorts could have just as been easily named after houses in Harry Potter, existing universities, or automobile companies. Whatever the name, they have proven to be very successful.
It’s not unreasonable to believe that creating small groups outside of schools using public-private partnerships would prove to be equally successful. Like the academies, they would operate as a smaller entity inside a much larger one, reaping the benefits of both. Yet to date, an initiative has failed to be put forth.
Instead, we stick our fingers in our years, hum a joyful tune, and expect everything to return to normal. As if anything in the world ever remains static. We’ll probably follow a finger in the ear strategy with the time-honored practice of acting surprised when circumstances fail to improve, and in fact, get worse.
Life is filled with times where we can’t do exactly as we want to. We take jobs we don’t like to feed our families. We put our life on hold to help parents navigate health issues. We buy smaller houses for larger families because we can’t afford larger ones. We go to Gulf Shores because we can’t afford Destin. The point is, life seldom comes wrapped in everything we want and need, but we adapt, We find a place and a strategy that allows us to wring everything we can out of what we are dealt.
That’s why I also laugh at the idea of preparing kids to be career and college ready. Life has a way of throwing us curves and making sure that we are never prepared for its challenges. The trick is to hone the ability to adapt and modify.
In the immortal words of the Stones,
And I went down to the demonstration
To get my fair share of abuse
Singing, “We’re gonna vent our frustration
If we don’t we’re gonna blow a 50-amp fuse”
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
You can’t always get what you want
But if you try sometimes, well, you just might find
You get what you need
Yeah, oh baby
But you have to try. These are difficult times, but we’ve weathered difficult times in the past. It’s what I like about being 55. When I wore a younger man’s clothes, you had to offer me evidence that things would improve because I hadn’t witnessed it with my own eyes. Now I know, if I just deal with reality, and put one foot in front of the other, things will get better.
That means accepting that these are exceptional times and that we can’t have everything we want, but by working together we just might find..,.
PROBLEM AT THE STATE AS WELL
Continuing in the same vein, but turning our eyes to the state, I want to bring another example forth. The schools across Tennessee that are open, are operating for the most part under very tight restrictions. Masks are being worn. Social distancing protocols are being adhered to. The admittance of adults is being heavily restricted, including parents. Unless of course, you are a state superintendent in need of PR shots. In that case, you ignore health department recommendations and traipse in and out of schools like the coronavirus doesn’t exist.
In recent weeks, Commissioner Schwinn has stepped up her visits to school despite a skyrocketing number of cases of COVID-19 across the state. But for whose benefit? Do students at the schools she visits experience an increase in learning because she walked into the building? Does student engagement double because kids participated in a photo op? Does she observe best-practices and try to include them in policy going forth?
Visiting schools has always provided a source of goodwill for embathed school superintendents. Nothing warms the hearts of critics like seeing the Commissioner immersed in a sea of shining student faces. In the past, this was a fairly innocuous occurrence, the only risk being a lost day of learning while students served as props. COVID -19 has changed all of that.
Every contact is a potential infection and a risk of further infecting others. Limiting the number of contacts a student faces is seen as a major factor in allowing school buildings to stay open. The commissioner knows that. After all, she’s often found standing next to the Governor when he is warning about the need to wear a mask and practice social distancing. But for some reason, she wears a mask – at times failing to cove her nose – but proceeds to enter buildings at whim. Carelessly putting kids at risk, while delivering little benefit to anyone but herself.
But hey, it’s always kids first, right?
On the agenda for tomorrow’s MNPS board meeting is talking about the annual Budget Amendment. This is a process the board goes through every year in December. The annual budget is reviewed and amended to more accurately reflect revenue and need. Obviously, both are areas of impact this year. In looking at tax collections it would initially appear that MNPS is doing better than expected – collections for the year are up almost 20% over expected.
Normally that would be cause for celebration, but let’s not forget projections were considerably lower this year. They were lowered to roughly $85 million. Comparing last year’s tax collections to this year shows we are a little over $5.75 million behind. Depending on the rest of the year, it’s not unfeasible that the district could match or exceed last year. It’s also possible, we could fall further behind. Hopefully, this will be part of tomorrow’s conversation.
I told you t keep an eye on happenings in Denver and this past week, things got even more interesting. The Fordham Institute decided to weigh in with their self-interest fueled view. One line really struck home with me, a paragraph everyone needs to remember, come the next Tennessee legislative session,
The tumult in Denver suggests that the portfolio strategy may not be politically sustainable. Low academic performance notwithstanding, failing schools still function as mediating institutions that help bind people together. Even the most carefully drawn up of plans to replace or close one can adversely affect an entire community. What might be sustainable is an approach that focuses on curriculum-based reform, but by itself that seems unlikely to yield breakthrough results either.
Don’t say I didn’t warn you.
A little 4 years ago I wrote a piece focusing on the issue of lead in water and MNPS. Luckily Channel 5’s Phil Williams was relentless and changes were made to district policy. Even more fortunate is that since then others have taken up the issue on the state level. This week Chalkbeat TN reports on how a Democrat from Shelby County, State Rep. London Lamar plans to file a bill requiring school leaders to notify parents within 24 hours of test results that show high lead levels, and requiring districts to publicly post all water test results. This is great news for all of Tennessee’s kids.
MNEA Executive Director Amanda Kail received significant push back over a post earlier in the week defending MNEA’s position of keeping schools closed until numbers of COVID cases substantially subside. In response, she penned a heartfelt missive that should be considered must reading for everybody. It closes ith following sound advice,
And maybe most importantly, let’s act from a place of compassion, where we think to ask “are you ok?” before we condemn and ridicule someone in this fight. There are just way too many people who are not ok right now.
The Tennessee Lookout has an interesting article this morning on new Governor Lee cabinet member John DeBerry. Seems DeBerry never even thought about looking for a job with Governor Lee. Lee just showed up at his door and offered him $160K. Ol Bill Dunn is probably scratching his head and wondering why he had to go looking for his $95K job. One consolation for Dunn should be that the Governor’s cabinet ain’t too stable a place to be these days.
Rodgers becomes the third cabinet member to resign in recent weeks. First was Hodgen Mainda, who served as Lee’s commissioner for the Department of Commerce and Insurance. He resigned in late October following a human resources investigation into allegations that he made unwanted sexual advances on an employee earlier in the year. Then Danielle Barnes, who was commissioner of the Department of Human Services, resigned around the same time after finding a new job in the private sector. If only we could have a fourth.
That’s it for now.
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