“Memory,’ wrote the Lebanese novelist Elias Khoury, is a process of organizing what to forget.”
― The Way to the Spring: Life and Death in Palestine
Today is the last day of classes for Metro Nashville Public Schools. As I sit here and craft my latest missive, I am uplifted by the sounds of my youngest’s chortles wafting through his bedroom door. His teachers are throwing a pajama party this morning for all of the children who completed their assigned work. To earn the reward, he worked especially hard this week – frequently checking and rechecking to make sure everything was completed. As a result, his morning holds promises of quizzes, jokes with classmates, and prizes. A grand time for all.
My daughter has a book club meeting later today, in which they’ll discuss several recently read titles. She enjoys the time spent with her classmates and teacher. Along with her brother, she has spent the last couple of days, checking and re-checking work to ensure that everything is completed. Back in mid-October, she struggled for a bit, but found her mojo and has since re-applied herself, mostly making up lost ground. She’ll still only earn a “C” in Social Studies, due to her earlier transgressions. Not the expected grade, but the one she earned and one that comes with its own lessons. It’s safe to say that she has learned as much from that “C” as any “A” she ever got
Meanwhile, out in the world, there continues to be a steady drumbeat for the narrative that the public school system is failing children and we must re-open buildings as quickly as possible to stave off deliberating damage. It’s a narrative that only holds true if you believe public schools can only look one way, the things we measure are the only things worth learning, and grades tell the whole story.
The reality is that for many kids, this has been a successful school year. In talking to one Black parent, they expressed, “We must be bad parents because our year hasn’t been anything like described on social media. Our kids go to class online, while we do our work on-line. Sometimes we don’t see each other all day. In talking with them, I can tell they are learning as they continually tell me about things that happen in class or with classmates.”
But success doesn’t sell like a failure. Hence the old journalist meme, if it leads it bleeds.
Yesterday I attended the Tennesseans for Student Success & TennesseeCAN webinar. The event was previewed as an opportunity to see what the Tennessee General Assembly would be tackling this upcoming session. On the panel were House Education Chairs Deborah Moody and Mark White, along with State Senator John Lundberg. Lundberg is the presumptive successor to former Senate Education Committee Chair Dolores Gresham, though there has been some chatter about the position falling to Senator Kelsey. joining them was SCORE Director of Policy and Government Relations, Aleah Guthrie.
I’m not sure what I expected, since I can’t cite a single instance of the three pre-mentioned organizations getting in a room together and producing anything memorable, but the conversation was fairly predictable. All three continually scream, “Crisis!” while conveniently ignoring the role they’ve played in shaping policy over the last decade. Today would be no different.
The prevailing theme of the entire session was “loss” – be it learning or students. To put it into perspective, had I been playing drink “learning loss” – taking a shot of whiskey every time I heard the phrase – I would have been hammered by the mid-point of the event. On the flip side, had I been playing drink “student gains”, I could have gotten behind the wheel and driven to Memphis with no worries.
It’s fascinating to me that in a state filled with proud conservatives, so many are willing to subscribe to a belief that children can’t learn without government intervention. The government can’t tell me to wear a mask, but a child is incapable of learning sans legislator involvement. No statewide mask mandates, but hell yea, bring on the state testing mandate.
The portrayal of nothing but losses is an inaccurate one. The lessons that kids are learning may not be the ones prescribed by policy experts and politicians, but I think they are worth acknowledging. We have long talked about the need for increased fluency in technology. Has there ever been a year that mirrored the growth of this year? We have children as young as five, navigating systems and receiving instruction better than half the state’s adult population. I would think that goes in the win column and is cause for celebration alone.
There has been considerable hand-wringing about the number of students not signing in for classes. A recent report in the Tennessean indicated that roughly 30% of MNPS students are considered truant – The state of Tennessee defines truancy, a legal term, as five unexcused absences at any point in the school year. interestingly enough that number is lower than in previous years.
Some will argue that the lower number is a result of a lowering of the requirements. This year students only have to log in once before 11:59 PM, whereas in previous years students were required to be present all day in order to be counted present. I would, and have argued, that the current policy is a mistake. The expectation should be that students are in every class, every day. There may be barriers that prevent that for some students, but you can’t solve those barriers if you don’t identify them and the current policy offers no diagnosis.
While some point to the lower participation rates of remote learning as a fundamental flaw of the process, I would offer a different observation. The ongoing pandemic has laid bare many of the inadequacies of the past. In this case, it is a societal failure to instill the importance of education in students and families. If more students understood the importance and valued their education, more would participate.
Critics of remote instruction may offer the excuses of lack of technological savviness or pressure from outside responsibilities as a primary reason for lack of engagement. They may go even further by pointing to a lack of comfort with on-line instruction and as a result, increased anxiety. Legitimate criticisms, but if I was offering a free car, or something of equal value to every child who signed attended every class every day for a month, how many free cars do you think I’d end up awarding?
I guarantee you that people who apparently can’t navigate the system would suddenly find a way if the reward of something valuable was attached to participation. Schedules would quickly free up and people would make time if they believed it beneficial to them. To many people, the reality is, education in itself is not of value, and its real value lies in providing affordable child care. Otherwise, people would not let mere inconvenience stand in the way of acquisition.
We as a family place a high value on education, as a by-product of the last semester, my children have learned that their education is also their responsibility. They need to show up to class, keep up with their work, and when they have questions, develop pathways to answers. I believe current circumstances have worked to instill in them a deeper appreciation for learning and a willingness to take advantage of opportunities. It’s doubtful that they are the only children that have learned this. Something that deserves recognition.
Their problem-solving skills have also grown exponentially. This morning my daughter informed me that next semester she will continue to work from the dining room table as opposed to the desk in her room, recognizing that she focuses better when not isolated in her room. It’s a result of recognizing a problem and developing a solution and then assessing whether that solution was successful.
My question for policymakers and politicians would be, what is being done to recognize and sustain the growth that many students made this past year? What are we doing to capitalize on the unintended positive consequences of the pandemic? Or are we just going to let student progress fall by the wayside to fulfill our need to produce higher standardized test scores? After all Mark White can never let an opportunity go by to argue that prior to the pandemic Tennessee was on the right path and…wait for it…Tennessee was the fastest rising state in the nation. The latter claim is based on NAEP results from nearly a decade ago and I’m continually baffled how in the weeks prior to the pandemic we were in a literacy crisis despite being on the right path.
At yesterday’s forum, I raised the question of what data was being used to assess this supposed dramatic “learning loss.” SCORE’s policy director pointed to data produced by NWEA, a testing company, along with work done by McKinsey and Company, a long time education policy advisory company.
NWEA produced a report recently that failed to substantiate the dire warnings they issued over the summer and McKinsey and Company…well, as educator, and blogger, Nancy Baily points out, we should perform a rigorous assessment of the quality of their work. Baily highlight’s the company’s over-reliance on I-Ready testing.
I-Ready pulled the fire alarm recently with this statement,
While the worst-case scenarios from the spring may have been averted, the cumulative learning loss could be substantial, especially in mathematics—with students on average likely to lose five to nine months of learning by the end of this school year. Students of color could be six to 12 months behind, compared with four to eight months for white students. While all students are suffering, those who came into the pandemic with the fewest academic opportunities are on track to exit with the greatest learning loss.
Yea about that I-Ready testing. There is a caveat though. Consider this blog post by a math teacher, “Why iReady is Dangerous.”
…the iReady Universal Screener is a dangerous assessment because it is a dehumanizing assessment. The test strips away all evidence of the students’ thinking, of her mathematical identity, and instead assigns broad and largely meaningless labels. The test boils down a student’s entire mathematical identity to a generic list of skills that “students like her” generally need, according to iReady. And yet despite its lumping of students into broad categories, iReady certainly doesn’t hesitate to offer very specific information about what a child likely can do and what next instructional steps should be.
She goes a little further,
I came across many troubling questions that made me seriously question whether the makers of this assessment have any business writing a math test, let alone making instructional recommendations.
On a personal note, we are navigating these very waters with my son Peter, whose MAP results going back 3 years don’t align with his current I-Ready assessment and as a result, he’s being assigned unnecessary remedial work. That’s problematic.
Testing itself is a major issue that the General Assembly will take up in January. Based on statements from White and Lundberg, legislators appear to favor a plan of administrating tests, but not using them for accountability purposes, purely for guidance. A ridiculous stance that begs two major questions.
The first being, if you don’t believe that the results will be accurate, or reflective enough for accountability purposes, why would you feel that they were valuable in guiding instruction and making policy?
Secondly, there is a constant clarion call about learning loss due to lost instructional time, yet we are willing to forfeit further instructional time in order to administer a test that we don’t believe will produce reliable information? Let’s remember that when we are talking about lost instructional time, we are not just referring to the time lost to test administration but also test prep time. You may say that it’s just a practice run, a scrimmage per se, and an opportunity to improve, but if you are keeping score you can bet people want to come out on the winning side.
Panelist yesterday, threw out more failed initiatives from the past as possible investments for the future – increased summer school and longer school day hours. I find it ironic that the state is now considering funding summer school when they failed to do so last year with the Read to Be Ready Camps, an initiative that seemed to be making progress. Furthermore, countless studies have failed to show conclusively that longer school days produce greater student outcomes. Most experts now believe that quality is more important than quantity.
Lastly, at TSS and TNCan’s forum, there was some discussion on getting a literacy bill passed. The emphasis seems to be on getting something passed, as opposed to getting the right bill passed. Tennessee is threatening to pass a bill that looks similar to one recently passed in Colorado that places an emphasis on so-called “hi-quality” materials. A term that generally reflects an alignment with materials that promote the “science of reading” as supplied by companies who enjoy friends of Schwinn status. I’m hoping that before a bill gets passed, legislators take a deep look at what’s happening in Colorado and how these “hi-quality” materials don’t actually serve all children, often underserving English Learners.
Worth noting, in Tennessee the TDOE approved 35 waivers for LEA’s to adopt Wit and Wisdom as a primary curriculum. While in Colorado, Wit and Wisdom materials are only approved to be used as a “supplemental or intervention program.”
This is just another reason why I believe that somebody in the General Assembly, other than the respective education committees, and perhaps government ops since they seem to be asking the most pertinent questions, need to look at last years textbook adoption process to ensure that it was, in fact, constitutional and to ensure that the mistakes that plagued the ELA process don’t taint the upcoming Math textbook adoption process. I think there are more than enough irregularities to warrant such action.
If you look at all of the initiatives discussed at the Tennesseans for Student Success & TennesseeCAN webinar you’ll notice a common thread, some private entity is going to receive a substantial payday. Be it tutoring companies, education consultants, testing companies, textbook producers, or any one of several other private companies that enjoy the favored status of Tennessee legislators. In a state where the governor has already demonstrated a propensity to steering public monies to private friends, this is a little worrisome.
The narrative focusing solely on deficits needs to be mitigated. Most of us are old enough to know that nothing that happens in a year is irrevocable. Hell, I slept in Cumberland Park for several nights a week due to temporary homelessness in my 20’s with no residual effects other than a deeper empathy for those facing permanent homelessness. again evidence of a seemingly disastrous occurrence that produced positive outcomes.
Student successes, even when we can’t measure them precisely, need to be recognized. When kids return to school, supports for continued growth need to be in place, as well as any remedial help that may be required. Yes, some kid’s needs will be acerbated, but many others will make unexpected large gains and they will require equal help continuing those gains. We can’t treat a return to in-person instruction like we are cleaning up our house and just throwing things in the closet. Everything must be evaluated and sorted, else all we are going to do is creating a messy closet. One that fails to offer true value for anybody.
On a closing note, a thank you to all of the educators – principals and teachers – for proving that you are always willing to go the extra mile for kids. I never did find the right words to describe your herculean efforts and the pressure you were under. Throughout the semester there were wins, and there were losses, per usual, but y’all never stopped trying and you never backed down. For that, you deserve a happy and restive holiday because in 3 weeks it will all begin again. There is no rest for the weary. Thank you again, for everything you have done, and know that I have a deep-seated appreciation for your efforts.
MNPS’s COVID-19 tacker currently sits at 9.9. Yet Dr. Battle insists on waiting until Monday to announce plans for the beginning of next semester. What could possibly change in the next 5 days, other than local educators getting a brief reprise with some clarity? What will happen is that educators and parents will build speculations in their heads. When Dr. Battle finally unveils her plan, it will but up against those existing suppositions, and as a result, implementation will be harder.
Speaking of COVID realities. Last week Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn visited Tullahoma High School. Not surprisingly she saw a lot to praise.
“It was fantastic,” she said of her tour. “It was incredibly high quality instruction. You could see that there were health and safety procedures in place. You could see students that were engaged, and you saw staff that care deeply about their students, both academically and personally. It was the best case visit, and I could not be more pleased and happy to be here.”
Apparently, Ms. Schwinn was so focused on her own mask that she failed to notice a lack of adherence to mask or social distancing protocols by others. Not surprisingly, when you check the state’s COVID tracker you’ll see that the THS reported 15 new cases this week. I gotta say, it may not be her fault, but if I’m a Tennessee Superintendent and Ms. Schwinn asks to visit, I’m going to pass, because like a modern-day Typhoid Mary, increased cases seem to flow in her wake.
In what has to be considered a surprising move, Higher education leader Mike Krause, an architect of the Tennessee Promise scholarship and the 2016 plan to create independent boards for six public universities, is leaving state government this week. Among the most respected educators in the state, Krause will be missed. Tennessee Promise was the first statewide initiative of its like in the nation. Other states have followed suit in efforts to increase statewide post-secondary enrollment numbers. Krause intends to move to the private sector.
That’s it for now.
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