“There are two ways to be fooled One to believe what isn’t true The other is to refuse to believe what is true.” Soren Kierkegaard
The battle between those who believe that school buildings should be open and those who believe they are unsafe under current circumstances shows no sign of abatement. In fact just the opposite, as opposing sides cling tighter to their positions.
Personally, my focus isn’t on either option, but rather encouraging policymakers to find means to ensure that students are getting what they need, be it in school buildings, rec centers, churches, or individual homes. Obviously, the benefits of in-school learning are well known, but we are still discovering the potential of remote learning. Yes, it is difficult, inconvenient, and the jury is out on its effectiveness. But in its defense, it is still in its infancy, so potential in addressing long standing issues with in-person instruction remains untapped.
Because remote learning is so new, and we don’t have reliable data on which to draw from, there is a concern with so-called learning loss. Policymakers and administrators are leaping to use that supposition as a weapon against schools. Whether the belief is backed by evidence, or not, is immaterial.
On a recent, Zoom call with Nashville’s PROPEL, State Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn went so far as to proclaim that when children are not in classrooms, learning can’t take place. In her words, “Learning does not happen through osmosis.” Yeah…that’s not exactly right. I would argue that in its purest form, that is exactly how it takes place.
According to Britannica, Osmosis is defined as the spontaneous passage or diffusion of water or other solvents through a semipermeable membrane (one that blocks the passage of dissolved substances—i.e., solutes). So her statement seems to suggest that if kids are not in classrooms, nothing penetrates their brain and as a result, they remain static. A statement that ignores that learning is the natural state for children and they will learn either with or without direct instruction. Now granted, it may not be what we want them to learn, or better yet, learning what we currently measure, but they will learn.
In that light, this may be a prime opportunity to re-evaluate what we teach and what we measure. Are we educating kids in a manner that equips them to navigate the world they will inherit or are we attempting to bind them to the current world? I don’t know the answer to that, but I believe it is a legitimate conversation for the near future.
When the questions around learning loss were first broached, those advocating for school buildings to open pointed to test scores that they predicted would show huge amounts of learning loss, serving as a clarion call to action. Those results are in, and the losses aren’t anywhere near the scale predicted. Reading scores are about the same, and math scores are only 5 to 10 percent behind. Predictably, since test scores didn’t tell the desired narrative, proponents are now calling for a postponement of NAEP, and other standardized tests, this year, and have shifted their focus to student grades.
I’ll bet you are shocked to discover that when faced with a new method of schooling, and in the midst of a pandemic disrupting their personal lives, students are struggling with grades. Among the new challenges negatively impacting grades are navigating new learning platforms, staying motivated, balancing the proper amount of work, and providing individualized assistance where needed. Per Chalkbeat,
“It is hard for students who need independent help,” said Heather Worley, a high school teacher in Chicago, where students are only allowed to meet remotely one-on-one with teachers with parent permission. “Everything I understand about how to stop a kid from failing involves being present with them. You can pull them out into the hallway. You can say: ‘Hey, come here, you’re staying with me for lunch, go get a sandwich, come back, we’re going to do this until we get it right.’”
All of that is true, but as the Chalkbeat article points out, teachers are making adjustments and finding new ways to support students. I would argue that many of the early attempts at remote instruction failed because too many schools were just trying to recreate in-person school in a remote environment. We now know that doesn’t work. Teachers, as usual, were the first to start altering their approach, but unless administrators and policymakers soon follow suit, their ability to make a meaningful impact on student outcomes will be limited.
Teachers teach. It’s what they do naturally. It’s not dependent on circumstances or locations. Give them time to adjust, and evaluate, while supplying support and they will find a means to educate children. But we’ve to date provided them neither time, space, or capacity – as evidence in our determination to continue testing kids and evaluating teachers despite current circumstances. At some point, we have to let go of the past and embrace the future, which if done right, will hold elements of both.
At this point, grades represent little beyond a child’s ability to navigate a new platform. Parents need to remember, that their child is not alone in struggling to balance course work and navigate the new reality. Every child is currently facing a similar dilemma. As such, there will be accommodations made and new metrics will be created.
Along with learning loss, we need to be very careful in our description of “students falling behind.” Behind what? Claiming that kids are falling behind paints learning as being akin to cashing in coupons. As if they don’t learn decimals by age x, they will be forever denied that information. It doesn’t work like that. There is no imaginary race out here where riches await those students who finish first. I’d argue that those who finish first are actually those who manage to exhibit both resilience and adaptability. Two traits that children are being supplied with an opportunity to develop.
As an adult, I’ve had to reinvent myself on more than one occasion. I credit that ability to having switched schools every 2 years while growing up. Each school was different. Each school came with different components requiring different degrees of acclimation. Somehow I did it, as did many others faced with similar circumstances. There is no reason to believe today’s children won’t be equally successful.
For the immediate future, MNPS is remaining virtual. They are not alone in that decision, as 51 of 74 of the nation’s urban districts are currently remote only. At last night’s board meeting, Dr. Battle shared the results of a recently completed survey where parents selected their preferred option for the Spring. Based on the survey, coupled with the one taken back in September, when school buildings reopen 55% of students will attend in person while 45% remain virtual. Keep in mind, those who didn’t respond, defaulted to in-person.
That raises a question though. The district is reporting at least 25,000 Metro Nashville Public Schools students have missed five days of school or more since the academic year began on Aug. 4. So if you can’t make it to school regularly, are you capable of responding to a survey expressing your preference in schooling options? I don’t know, but it’s probably worth considering.
As it is, the information shared by the district is hard to decipher, even if you are a school board member. Board member Emily Masters shared the following figures on her Facebook page along with an invitation to reach out to her about your decisions,
I was having trouble deciphering these charts presented at last night’s board meeting, so here’s the overall picture for virtual/in-person choices:53,556 responded to the survey in September.9,408 responded in December, and 1,319 of those were people who did not respond in September.691 previously non-responses and 1,702 previously virtual switched to in-person.628 previously non-responses and 2,498 previously in-person switched to virtual.3,889 responded the same in December as in September.When you add back in the responses from September that didn’t change, that leaves totals of 30,172 in-person and 24,703 virtual.That doesn’t account for students who may no longer be in MNPS since responding in September.I would love to hear from anyone who previously chose virtual and switched to in-person and anyone who previously chose in-person and switched to virtual if you’re willing to share your perspectives with me to help me better serve MNPS families. My email is firstname.lastname@example.org / number is 615-275-6922 (text or call).
I suspect the battle over in-person vs remote will rage throughout the remainder of the school year. As I’ve expressed previously, I am sympathetic to arguments from both sides. The safety and health of teachers should be our first concern, but, devoid of necessary supports for those children who for various reasons require in-person schooling, we need to get buildings open. My argument remains that service trump location.
In wrapping up this portion of the program, I’d like to give you something else to consider. Back when young Patrick Mahomes was growing up, I doubt many witnessed his playground antics and thought he was preparing himself for a career as a future Hall of Fame quarterback. They probably just marveled at his energy as he ran, jumped, and rolled, in a random manner across playgrounds and ball fields. Eventually, as he grew older, he started to apply his considerable abilities to organized sports and came under the tutelage of coaches.
Like many young athletes, he progressed from there to high school, and then college, playing fields. Along the way, I’m sure he received some exceptional coaching. But in that light, I challenge anyone to watch him play on Sundays in the NFL and argue that his game is solely a product of coaching. Mahomes throws the ball across his body while on the run that could have only been developed on the playground, as not a single coach worth their salt would instruct him in that manner. Those long-gone days still provide a basis for success.
All that time engaged in unstructured play, only set Mahomes up to take advantage of the structured coaching he would receive later. Take either element – free play or structured instruction – out of his development and he still might have become a very good quarterback, but greatness would likely allude him. There is no way of knowing that current situations are not working to provide similar opportunities for students of the future. Lost instruction in traditional subjects may allow for the unexpected development of skills that when coupled with dedicated teaching produce greater outcomes than expected.
It’s certainly worth considering.
JOINT GOVERNANCE COMMITTEE MEETING
If yesterday’s Joint Governance committee meeting is any indication, this upcoming Tennessee General Assembly legislative session is not going to be an enjoyable one for Commissioner Schwinn. On yesterday’s agenda was a discussion around the state’s textbook adoption committee, but like a Zoom meeting suddenly sprung to life, the meeting quickly devolved into several threads going several directions, none of which were sympathetic to the TDOE.
Hat’s off to Nashville Democrat Representative Bo Mitchell, who quickly cut to the chase by raising questions around the level of department involvement in the recently completed ELA textbook adoption process. A process that is widely recognized as being manipulated by the department of education to facilitate their own desires. Mitchell asked Charlie Bufalino, Assistant Commissioner for Policy and Legislative Affairs, Department of Education, how many waivers for materials had been granted this year. In a Benny Hill-like moment, Bufalino feigned ignorance, clearly forgetting that when he appeared with Commissioner Schwinn at a House Education Sub-Committee meeting back in September he pretended to search through papers on his table in response to the same question. A question he certainly knows the answer to.
Unfortunately for him, Mitchell knew the answer as well, 72. Somebody probably ought to let Bufalino know that the number is available on the state’s website if one is inclined to look. The only defense that the AC could offer to the high number was, to ask why are we talking about the number of waivers when the department no longer had the ability to grant waivers. Of course, the department no longer has that ability because legislators took it out of their hands and placed it in the hands of the State Board of Education due to a lack of trust. Bufalino failed to include that nugget in his defense.
Questions were raised by legislators around the vetting of SEL material, the legality of the department’s whole child education initiative, and the filling of appointments for seats on the test book commission. Currently, the commission, which is responsible for creating the recommended list of materials from which districts choose, only has one of 9 seats approved by the General Assembly. Apparently, despite several vacancies being shown on the website, appointments for all but one seat have been submitted. Hopefully, those recommended appointments are better than the one submitted by House Speaker Cameron Sexton, Laurie Cardoza-Moore.
Forget Moore’s philosophical failings, and look at her financial skills. The TnEd Report details how her group – Proclaiming Justice to the Nations (PJTN) raised just over $1 million per her 2017 IRS 990 form. How’d she spend the cash,
Well, she paid herself $130,000. Then, she paid her husband’s business $67,000. There was a business “office expense” for occupancy at just over $49,000. She runs PJTN from her home, so that means she’s paying her mortgage with the cash. That’s $200,000 in payments to Moore and her husband, and another 50,000 a year to cover their mortgage. Then, there’s another $26,000 paid to Moore as an “occupancy expense.” Oh, and there’s $41,000 on “meals and entertainment.” Finally, her two kids received a total of around $2000 from the organization for “contract labor” that year.
Hmmm…come to think about it, she might fit right in with Schwinn’s posse. After all, this is a commissioner who founded a charter school in California that paid her as ED while she lived and worked cross country in an executive state government position, fails to keep past travel records, purchases discounted curriculum materials without a contract, and hires her husband as a part-time coach while he’s the Chief Academic Officer for a charter chain in Texas. Yea…Cardoza-Moore and Ms. Schwinn might want to sit down over coffee and share notes.
As yesterday’s meeting progressed it became clear that legislators had some serious issues with the way Schwinn and company operations, while no one was willing to step forward and offer support for the commissioner. Chair Regan invited legislators to sign on to a bill that he is promoting as designed to “clean up the department of education”. By his count, his bill had over 20 points and 25 legislators already on board. It’s likely up to 50 and 50 today.
Hmmm… the governor may have ideas about what he wants to talk about education-wise next session, but others clearly have their own agenda. This might be why the Governor’s office floated out the idea yesterday of calling a special session focusing on education. This smells a whole lot like a case of “if you are not going to adopt my agenda, I’m going to take my ball and call my own meeting, with my own agenda.” In my opinion, he can posture all he wants, but too many legislators have gone too far down the road to be put off without major concessions.
To change the conversation, some sacrificial lambs are going to need to be offered up. Now that Bill Dunn is employed and collecting his $96K, it’s time for Bufalino to apply his considerable talents to another department in the Lee administration. Or perhaps, Tennessee Students for Success needs an able-bodied spokesman. Either way, it’s clear that with Dunn on board there is no need for a second voice in legislators’ ears.
Next up would be a reassignment for Chief of Curriculum and Materials Lisa Coons. Coon’s fingerprints are all over the botched adoption process and as a result, she has earned the ire of many legislators. Moving her out of her current role would be viewed as a concession by the department, evidence that Schwinn is learning some hard lessons. It may be a large enough concession that GA members are willing to step back and give Schwinn another chance, maybe.
Another candidate for reassignment might be Katie Houghtlin. If you’ll remember, according to a summary of an investigation obtained by Chalkbeat, a state investigator found that Houghtlin “utilized verbal abuse, micromanagement, as well as harsh and inappropriate treatment” toward a staff member who later filed a complaint, as well as toward other employees. I would argue that in light of recent resignations in Governor Lee’s cabinet, her qualification for employment might need reevaluating.
Personally, if I was Lee, I would take these steps before people started paying too much attention and realized that too many of my appointments share too many negative qualities. That might lead to people possibly questioning his judgment.
Props go to the Antioch Middle School Bears for getting out and visiting students’ homes in an effort to re-engage. This week’s school representatives joined with Community Achieves and MNPS Social Workers on home visits to check on students, drop off food bags, & encourage them to end the semester strong by attending school every day!
It’s fun to criticize MNEA, but it’s also important to remember all of the important work that Amanda Kail, Michelle Sheriff, and Paula Pendegrass are doing behind the scenes. The three have sat in countless accommodations meetings, representing teachers, and ensuring that they get a fair hearing. They have pushed continually to ensure that teachers’ voices are heard and that everything is done to ensure that their health is protected, mentally, and physically. Doing so at great professional risk. You don’t have to agree with them, but they deserve your respect.
Earlier in the year, I posted about long time beloved South Nashville educator Eugina Foreman’s COVID diagnoses. It’s been a long fight, but she’s starting to see day light ahead. I guess prayers do work, this update comes from her son Lance via Facebook and should brighten everybody’s day. This family of talented educators has done so much to make the world better for Nashville’s children and families. So happy that things are trending in the right direction,
I now turn it over to Lance,
I have had this post drafted in my mind for a while now. There were moments along the way when I didn’t think I would ever get to share it. I am so very thankful to share that today, on the 45th day of hospitalization, mom was transferred to a long-term care facility where she will receive intensive rehab and support to continue to recover and heal her body. No more ICU. No more wires running all over her body. No more wondering if she’ll ever get out of there. It is, truly, a miracle that she is where she is today.
As mom was being wheeled out of the ICU today to be taken to her transport ambulance, the nurses gathered in the hallway to clap for her and offer their good-byes and well wishes for continued healing. Mom became somewhat of a legend in the ICU as this lady who wouldn’t give up and was fighting every single day. She was there for so long that several of the nurses had come back around to her on rotation and at least two previous nurses came to check on her outside of their rotation just to see how she was doing. One of the techs in the ICU had bonded with mom along the way, and she had been working on him and witnessing to him. Dad sent me a candid picture today of this person standing beside her as she was being wheeled out of the room, and mom was saying something to him. Knowing mom, she was probably giving him some words of encouragement, which is amazing to think that the person who had been in ICU for 45 days was encouraging others in the room. I can’t say enough about the people who cared for her in the hospital. They were so special to mom and us while she was in the ICU. They were wonderful people.I have left out some of the details along the way because I knew mom was probably reading these posts and because there was family privacy that I wanted to respect. There is a great testimony of faith and healing that we will, one day, share. It’s mom’s story, so when she’s ready – and when she’s home and fully discharged – we’ll share it.This is not the end of the journey. Mom still has a road of recovery in front of her. She has developed fibrosis in both lungs as a result of the damage from COVID. We don’t know yet what that means for her, but we know that the miracle didn’t come all this way only to be stopped with this. We are celebrating with mom tonight for “breaking out of ICU” as she put it, and we are going to enjoy that with her. She sounded so strong tonight on FaceTime and was in much better spirits to be in a different setting. We are continuing to pray for strength and healing and complete recovery in her lungs while she is in rehab.
Thank you so very much for the prayers for mom on this journey. They mean so very much to us, and we request your continued prayers for strength and healing for mom.
That’s it for now.
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