“Investigations, meditations, careers, relationships were much the same, he mused. They failed because no one thought to ask the right question.”
― The Skull Mantra
It’s taken 364 days to get here, but we have arrived. Today officially marks the last day of a year that certainly ranks among the most challenging. It’s been a year that few would have predicted 365 days ago.
While in many ways it has been a devastating year – I watched my primary source of income crater and my family’s anxiety skyrocket – I don’t want to overlook the many positives that came out of the crisis. With children attending school virtually, I was provided with the opportunity to spend more time with both my children and my wife. It was an opportunity that brought us even closer together,
Before the pandemic, like most families, we were in a constant rush to somewhere. Be it school, work, or kid’s activities, something was always taking precedence and pulling us in different directions. Time together was something to be carved out as opposed to savored. This year has served to reaffirm that I don’t just love my wife, but I really like her as well.
My kids drive me nuts, but by the same token, this extra time with them is something that can never be taken away. Several years ago – when I had been working long hours and not spending nearly as much time with them – we went on a vacation where I suddenly discovered their developing humor, the depth of their intellect, and natural curiosity. 2020 provided me with an opportunity to enjoy a front-row seat to watching the continual development of those traits.
For my wife the year presented other challenges. A veteran teacher who, along with her colleagues, was continually tasked with reinventing her profession. I’ve always known that she was a good teacher, but to hear her conduct class and collaborate with equally talented teachers through the bedroom door behind me only served to deepen my appreciation for her unique skill set. Somebody should market #TeacherStrong because this year brought that phrase into even greater clarity.
Years ago I read a book by Eliot Pattison called the Skull Mantra. It was set in Tibet, and its protagonist was a former Chinese investigator who had run afoul of the authorities and was a political prisoner in a Tibetan prison. If you’ve ever read anything about the Tibetan people, you know that over centuries they have faced more than their share of hardship. You would think that as a result, they would become hardened cynical people. You’d be wrong.
The challenges they receive are considered gifts. An opportunity to demonstrate their faith. An opportunity that god does not afford to everyone. Over the past 12 months, I’ve tried to hold on to that interpretation. While I haven’t been as successful as the Tibetans, it has helped me appreciate the good parts of this year, and look forward to a brighter future next year.
Education-wise, there should be a few things on your radar, so in preparation, let’s take a quick look at them.
Vaccinations are on the way. A light at the end of the tunnel, albeit a light that remains at a considerable distance. Delivery of the vaccination in Tennessee has been slower than anticipated. Per the Tennessean, the state is less than halfway to the number of shots delivered predicted. Initial indications were that by this time 200K vaccinations would have been administered, the reality is that only 90K have been inoculated to date.
Keep in mind, each vaccination requires two administrations 21 days apart. During those 21 days, the recipient can still contract the virus. Wearing masks and social distancing will remain an essential practice for at least the first 6 months of the new year.
A new strain of the coronavirus has also appeared in both California and Colorado. The new strain is said to be more transmittable and less discerning when it comes to affecting children. So far, it hasn’t proven to be more dangerous to children, but we are in the infant stages of assessing its threat, so caution is warranted.
Yesterday Tennessee Governor Bill Lee announced that the state’s priority settings for the administration of the vaccine had been changed. Teachers are now number 2 on the list, after essential workers. The announcement came with little details about when and how teachers could receive the inoculation.
In response to the announcement, I called the MNPS clinic, Vanderbilt hospital, and the COVI taskforce, none of whom could provide concrete information. The Tennessean quotes MNPS spokesman Sean Braisted as saying,
“We appreciate the State prioritizing teachers in the vaccination plan,” Braisted said in an email. “We will provide further information to staff and the public as those details become available.”
There are reports trickling in from smaller Tennessee districts that teachers are getting notifications from their local health departments to start scheduling their appointments.
So we’ll just have to continue to monitor. Worth noting, word on the street is that Tennessee Department of Health Commissioner Lisa Piercey is about as competent as Bill Lee’s other Commissioner appointees. That, in itself, does not bode well.
One other thing to caution against is that the move up in priority doesn’t come with a vaccine mandate. What you put in your body is entirely a personal decision, one that should be respected and left to the individual.
OPENING OF SCHOOLS FOR IN-PERSON INSTRUCTION
Here’s my bold prediction for 2021. By February 1, school buildings across the state will be open for students, I know, it’s hard to envision such a scenario under current conditions. But hear me out.
MNPS’s COVID tracker currently sits at 8.7 on a scale of 10. Still at a concerning level, but consider that it was at a 9.9 just a week ago. What’s changed since then? The state is continually announcing elevated infection rates and deaths related to COVID, so how is the COVID tracker making such dramatic drops?
In reality, the only thing growing faster than transmission rates is the indifference rate of those at risk of infection. Take a venture out and you’ll find that traffic has returned to pre-pandemic levels. All of these people are certainly going somewhere, and it’s doubtful that their destinations are strictly adhering to COVID-19 protocols. In other words, we’re moving on, even if the virus is sticking around.
Newly elected president Biden – see how easy it is to say – has gone on record as wanting to accelerate school openings. National union leaders support his 100-days vision and Biden’s appointee for Secretary of Schools Richard Cordona is a strong proponent for opening schools. Governor Lee wants school buildings open, as does his commissioner of education Penny Schwinn. It’s a safe bet, school buildings will be opening sooner rather than later.
Is it the right move? Absolutely, if it can be done safely. There are undeniable benefits to having school children return to buildings. As far as whether a return can be safely executed or not, that jury is still out.
Both sides of the argument make strong cases, ultimately though it comes down to the number of educators you are willing to sacrifice. No matter how safe you make it, there will be infections, some of those infections will likely lead to death. So…
CHANGES TO HOW PUBLIC EDUCATION LOOKS
Many folks, including myself, have written about how the pandemic will transform how public education is delivered. As of late, there are a growing number of arguments against that hypothesis. Proclaiming all efforts at remote learning a failure. The shortfalls of technology, the inequities of access, declining attendance rates, and the number of students failing, have all been well documented and offered up as evidence of why we need to return to “normal” as quick as possible.
While these are all very valid criticisms and concerns, it doesn’t mean that the only way to educate kids is the way we’ve done it for 100 years. Obviously having school buildings open is important, but I continue to believe that certain elements of remote instruction will remain and be further developed. Hopefully, some of the lessons learned over the last year can be incorporated in a way that will serve a greater number of students.
A simple return to in-person learning will not be a universal elixir. For better or for worse, the pandemic has forced parents to take a deeper involvement in their children’s education. As a result, they have been forced to evaluate what they want that education to kook like and what they don’t want. I can’t see this leading to a decrease in desired options. It will become imperative for districts to incorporate elements that will satisfy as many of their families as possible. If they don’t, they run a heightened risk of others coming in and meeting those needs.
What’s the old song, How Ya Gonna Keep ’em Down on the Farm (After They’ve Seen Paree?). Maybe not the majority, but a substantial number of families have benefited from remote learning. I can’t see them just saying, “Well that was fun. Tell us where we go now.”
The changes may not be as rapid as some predicted. But they are coming. The primary question for public school proponents will remain, do you want to affect change, or do you want to be affected by it?
BILL LEE’S SPECIAL SESSION
Earlier in the week, Governor Lee announced that on January 19th he intends to convene a special session to focus on education issues. Andy Spears, of TNEd Report, succinctly points out the irony of this action.
Reading this is actually pretty amusing, considering the very problems or challenges Lee is seeking to address were created by a man named Bill Lee who happens to be the Governor. Maybe “Special Session Bill Lee” should go have a talk with “Regular Session Bill Lee” and see what they can work out?
Spears is correct in asserting that many of the problems Tennessee schools face are facilitated by Governor Lee’s policies and relentless focus on voucher legislation. But let’s dig a little deeper for a second.
Lee is asking that legislators focus on 5 key areas – accountability, learning loss, teacher compensation, funding, and literacy. Hmmm…which one doesn’t quite fit in?
Accountability, funding, and learning loss deserve immediate attention. Without clear guidance on TNready, TEAMs, and district funding, schools are absolutely hamstrung when it comes to moving forward. Every indication I have is that this is going to be a hold harmless year for both funding and accountability. BEP money for districts will be frozen to last year’s numbers in an effort to allow districts time to recover lost enrollment. The only question is will it be a one year or longer period of “hold harmless.” I’m guessing two years.
Testing and teacher evaluations will be administered, but the old trope of “results won’t be counted if they negatively impact, but will if the impact is positive”, will be applied. It’s a ludicrous proposition and speaks to our lack of trust in teachers to ascertain what students need. Unfortunately, no one seems to have the stomach to champion the canceling of tests. Add in the factor that Cardona is also a proponent of testing, thus unlikely to grant state waivers, makes the canceling of tests even less possible.
While most recognize that the term ‘learning loss” is more a marketing tool than anything else, legislators won’t be able to resist doing something. Likely actions are funding summer school and increasing tutoring opportunities, both, within themselves, have the possibility of making a positive impact. I would caution against widespread remediation and increased testing, though I’m sure both have their proponents.
Teacher compensation has long needed addressing, and COVID-19 has only made it more difficult to secure quality educators. I suspect that shortly we’ll see even more teachers flee the profession. Keep in mind also, that over the past year Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn have both tried to employ the stick to get legislators and school districts to toe the party line. Teacher compensation makes an effective carrot to garner support.
That leaves the literacy plan. Literacy, for Governor Lee, is on par as a priority with vouchers. It’s been widely reported that his work with Men of Valor – a volunteer group that works to improve literacy rates with prisoners – has had a profound effect on him. Last year he introduced his plan to combat k-4 literacy rates. It was a flawed one that robbed power from LEAs and served to reward the friends and family of the commissioner, thus raising legitimate concerns with legislators. The bill languished in committee before advancing and ultimately failing. It was a black eye for Lee and Schwinn. One they have no desire to earn again.
To instill through practice, what they couldn’t codify, outside funding in the form of federal grants were secured by the department of education. In other words, they flew a giant bird at the wishes of the general assembly. A bird they haven’t since retracted.
On Christmas Eve, with no announcement, an $8.9 million RFP to train teachers in Schwinn’s preferred manner of instruction was released. Respondents have until Monday to indicate their intent to submit. It’s an RFP, based on the timeline they submitted to the US Department of Education, should have published at the beginning of November. It’s a contract for a training program that will take tools out of educators’ tool kits, ultimately limiting their ability to serve all kids.
Along with the RFP, the TDOE, despite a reported state hiring freeze, has embarked on a hiring bonanza. Among the advertised positions are several that appear related to the secured grants, including Connected Literacy Family and Vendor Liason, Connected Literacy Grant Manager, and Senior Director of Early Literacy. The job description of Senior Director is of particular interest.
The Senior Director of Early Literacy Strategy will drive the strategy, process, and partnerships necessary to empower schools and districts to accelerate literacy opportunities for all Tennessee children. This role will be positioned within the Office of Standards and Materials and will coordinate a coherent literacy strategy across the Department of Education.
Listed among the essential duties is the following,
Directs and coordinates statewide early literacy strategy, including implementation of multiple comprehensive project components of Literacy 360, communicating status reports to Commissioner, Governor’s office and legislature.
Hmmm…first off, that feels like a whole of dictation coming from the DOE to local LEAs on how they teach reading. If a literacy strategy is working, why must it be coherent with other districts? Are the needs of individual districts different? Does the state not create a list of approved materials with a wide scope in order to incorporate individual district’s preferences? So the TDOE is presumed to know best when it comes to the instructional practices of each district? There are a lot of assumptions here.
Second of all, what is Literacy 360? Nobody seems to have a clear of whether it’s a constructed program or a department vision. Yesterday’s press release concluded with the following,
During the special session, the legislature will be tasked to take up five key education issues: Learning Loss, Funding, Accountability, Literacy, and Teacher Pay. Details on each proposal will be released by the Department of Education in the near future, in addition to the department’s plans to implement a new literacy program, “Reading 360.” The program will leverage one-time federal relief funding to support a phonics-based approach to literacy and will ensure Tennessee districts, teachers, and families are equipped with tools and resources to help students read on grade level by third grade.
Again, what is “Reading 360”? Is “Reading 360′ the same as “Literacy 360” which is mentioned in the essential duties of the previously referenced Senior Director position? Nobody seems to know.
A simple Google search shows that there is an accelerated reader product produced by Renaissance Learning with that name. On the board of directors for Renaissance Learning is one Chaka Booker. Per Booker’s bio,
Chaka Booker serves as a managing director on the senior leadership team at The Broad Center, a national organization focused on leadership development in public education. He is a member of the advisory board for the National Head Start Association as well as the National Association of Charter School Authorizers. In addition, Chaka is a Pahara Fellow at the Aspen Institute and a Forbes contributor on leadership and entrepreneurship.
Hmmm…who else do we know that’s a Broad grad from Calli? Google Learning 360, and you find another organization with another product, one that partners with Renaissance Learning. So is this another instance of the Commissioner creating opportunities for preferred vendors?
I don’t know, it is equally as likely that the brain trust at the DOE got together, thought “Read 360′ or “Literacy 360” was a cool name, and never bothered to do a simple Google search. Only time will tell. But it certainly bears questioning.
Several lawmakers, on both sides of the aisle, have indicated that they do not feel safe attending sessions under current conditions. Which makes me question how much of the outcome is already pre-ordained. The possibility is high that legislators will come in, quickly pass agreed-upon legislation, and exit. Spending little time diving into propositions. If this is the case, they will be doing the teachers, students, and families of Tennessee a grave disservice.
Those are just a few of the things on the radar for next year, I’m sure much more will pop up as the months progress. As they do, we will share information and questions.
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The covid tracker is only down because there was no testing on 12/24 and 12/25. Same thing for this week. The numbers haven’t improved.