“The music we play has to be tomorrow’s, the things we say have to be today, and the reason for bothering is yesterday.”
― Who I Am
2021 is now officially underway, and unsurprisingly, it’s coming in as noisily as 2020 went out. Increasing cases of COVID-19, an increasingly unhinged president, along with fights over whether school buildings should be open or not, are quickly sucking the air out 2021 before it can even get a proper start. When it comes to education policy, buried amidst all the noise, are several myths that need exposing. This is especially important in Tennessee, where Governor Lee is convening a special session of the General Assembly specifically for education policy.
Normally that might be considered good news. But these certainly are not normal times, and I would argue that the focus isn’t borne out of concern for kids, as much as it is out adults protecting their revenue streams.
The ongoing pandemic has decimated several industries – restaurants, tourism, entertainment, among them. Education is equally vulnerable.
Districts risk losing state funding due to a loss of students. Luckily this is one area legislators can offer some protection. But equally at risk are those private entities that have taken root in the education world over the last decade.
One of the stated goals of the Race to Top legislation was to increase investment in the education sector of the economy. And in that, it succeeded beyond the wildest dreams of its crafters. While investment in teachers may have stayed flat over the last decade, growth for charter schools, testing companies, education tech companies, consultants, and assorted other entities reached unprecedented heights. Despite studies showing that the number one ingredient in student success was teachers, we’ve spent the last decade investing in everything but teachers. Makes sense, right?
Education profiteers may have gotten into the field with the best of intentions, but when paychecks get threatened, a shift in priority is only natural. Let’s be honest, we know what it would take to improve student outcomes, crisis, or no crisis. But if we did substantially improve literacy rates, would the revenue stream generated be as substantial?
I always use drunk driving as an example. Decades ago we recognized that drunk driving was taking a toll on society, so laws were passed and an effort was made to curtail the number of deaths caused by inoxicated drivers. Out of those good intentions sprang a cottage industry. Over the years, a lot of people have made a lot of money from drunk driving – lawyers, courts, townships, counseling centers, private prison companies, etc.
At this juncture, I’d argue that if we truly desired to, we could all but eradicate drunk driving. But to do so, would eradicate a revenue source for a substantial segment of society and so here we are, stuck in a holding pattern. Deaths are drastically down, but the revenue pump is still primed. a healthy balance is struck. Unless of course one of the victims happens to be a loved one of yours. Then you are probably left wondering why we don’t do more. Unfortunately education policy is not that much different.
Take a look at the salaries being tossed around out there for people heading up organizations supposedly dedicated to improving student outcomes. As head of Education Trust, John King makes over half a million dollars a year, with 9 other employees accounting for an addition 1,876,160 in annual salary. Michael McGee as CEO for Chiefs of Change makes nearly a quarter of a million dollars. What about Teach For America? Elisa Villanueva Beard clears over $450K, with an additional 9 administrators accounting for an additional $2.5 million.
What about locally? Surely those salaries aren’t comparable. As president of Tennesseans for Student Success, in 2017 Adam Lister cleared slightly less than 200K. Over at the Tennessee State Collaborative for Reforming Education, the latest figure we have is also from 2017, when David Mansouri split the year as CEO with Jamie Woodson. She took home $327K while he settled for a paltry $235. I think it’s safe to say, Mansouri’s salary has increased significantly since.
Keep in mind, those are just some of the non-profits. Just think about the cash involved with all the private companies. When it comes to the GDP, education is lumped in with health care and social assistance, and all three combine to make up 8.8% of the economy. The 5th highest sector. That’s a lot of cabbage. And for what?
For the most part, student outputs have been relatively flat for a decade, with some mild gains. So exactly what are these people doing to warrant these kinds of salaries? Secondly, when you are making that kind of money, when does the focus shift to self-interest? Solve the problem, lose the income. Where’s the attraction of that? That’s where the need to sell some myths comes into play. Nothing gins the pump quite like a manufactured crisis.
The pandemic has brought the issues of schooling out of buildings – where we can ignore them – and into our living rooms – where that is no longer an option. If I’m commanding the aforementioned salaries, that concerns me, because I don’t want people asking too many questions, less my salary fall among those questions. Nothing prevents the asking of too many questions like pulling the fire alarm. Hence, the beating of the drum on learning loss. Remember, the best defense is a good offense.
Imagine for a second, we were pragmatic about the impact of the pandemic, which is a real crisis. Instead of rushing pell-mell to hire an army of consultants armed with assessments, we let schools get back open. We let teachers assess where students are, and we allow them to guide the implementation of strategies. We canceled assessments for a year while we allowed for an adjustment to a new normal. After all, it’s not like we aren’t all in this together, right?
What if after this, we found out the results weren’t quite as we perceived? What if we discovered that targeting resources in a different direction, led to better results? In other words, what if we realized that the emperor has no clothes and that we’d been listening to the wrong people for entirely too long?
That’s why it is so important that those vested, make sure we get sold the myth of ‘learning loss”, despite an inability to define it. In a piece for Forbes, John Ewing raises the questions we should all be asking,
But what’s it mean—”five months of learning loss”? What exactly is lost? Do students forget facts? Skills? Are memories erased? Can they find what’s lost? And what does “five months” mean? Yes, I know, it’s calculated from a mathematical formula, but formulas are only as good as the data and assumptions that go into them. Mathematics is not magic. What are the assumptions? What’s the data? Where does it come from? When people discuss learning loss, they generally don’t know the answers to any of these questions. And if the notion is so vague, how can it be so easily and precisely measured?
Ewing goes on to explain that much of the detail on learning loss comes from the testing industry, but that doesn’t make the argument any more valid.
Politicians and bureaucrats definitely do not want to hear any talk about suspending standardized tests for the year, despite this being a prime opportunity to do so. As educator Mercedes Schneider writes, “This is a school year fraught with quarantine disruption, turnstile attendance, distancing and sanitizing burdens, and spotty internet capabilities.” Administring tests at this juncture is a fool’s errand.
Here’s the thing though, when I was a functioning alcoholic, I never missed a day of work. I couldn’t afford to. If I was out, you might actually look at what I did all day and realize that I wasn’t anywhere near as valuable as I had led you to believe. Those feeding at the trough of education spending are facing the same quandary.
Don’t believe me? Try this trick.
Call your state representative and ask them to ask testing companies and learning loss specialists to suspend their fees for one year. After all, this is a crisis, right? We have to put what’s best for kids first, and every dime that goes in their pocket doesn’t go to them. So just like in World War II, when we all banded together in order to serve the public good, we need to volunteer to save kids from the year’s tragic occurrences. We all love kids, right?
Let me know how many takers you get.
There are a couple other misconceptions to examine before the TN General Assembly convenes their special session.
Among the ideas bandied about for solutions to “learning loss” incurred by the pandemic is that of an army of tutors deployed to serve the state’s children. Sounds good if you say it fast. right? But who will make up this army of tutors?
Once again we are downplaying the importance of teachers. Students don’t need a quality teacher in order to succeed. They just need some well-meaning adults to spend some time with them.
What strategies of instruction will these tutors use, and how will that align with the practice of the actual classroom teacher? Or isn’t that important? The TDOE has spent the year arguing that most early education teachers don’t know how to teach reading, but bow we are going to turn loose a squad of tutors? Are there plans to pay and train these tutors?
Part of the focus on the special session will be on securing additional funding for schools so that they can hire more staff. Interesting, I didn’t realize there was an orchard out there that we could pluck from, not just for teachers, but also for substitutes, bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and others. An orchard that we couldn’t access because we couldn’t meet the cover charge. That’s another myth.
Over the last decade, we have decimated virtually every aspect of school employment. Schools have gone from places of joy and magic to places where pay is low and turnover is high. Like a giant robovac bouncing across the country, nearly every aspect of oy has been sucked out of working for schools. What we are left with is the novice, and the truly dedicated, with a smattering of those trying to last until retirement.
Look at it this way. Our education system is a wood-burning stove. For the last several decades we’ve been feeding it with pine and spruce – woods that burn bright and quick – when we should have been building forests of madrone, live oak, apple, or cherry – woods that burn much longer and steadier. This quote strikes me as appropriate,
If you just burn a fire every once in a while, try a seasoned softwood like fir. You’ll like how easy it is to get started and the smell is wonderful. But these softwoods won’t keep burning as long as hardwoods, and you’ll need to keep feeding the fire.
That’s exactly what we’ve been doing, feeding the fire. Increased funding is necessary, but it’s not a stand-alone game changer. It’s way past time to invest in our veteran teachers, and spend as much time on retention as we do recruitment.
In order to reverse a decade of attrition, you are going to have to restore prestige to the profession. You have to allow people to use the tools they acquire through training and experience. How many teachers and principals do you believe will be invited to speak at the up coming special assembling? Every legislator will claim to have talked to every teacher in their district, but none will bring any forward, and most only talked to those who parrot their preconceived notions. It’s like trying to run a restaurant without ever talking to the cooks and servers. Not exactly a recipe for success.
As we lead up to the special session, don’t fall prey to the numbers bandied about by the Commissioner and the Governor. They will continue to use threats of a 50% loss in literacy and a 65% loss in math as justification for their agenda. It’s not that we disagree on the numbers but rather the fact that they are even drawn from an established source. It’s like arguing over the color of a unicorn. The conversation is moot because unicorns do not exist, and neither does the database for Lee and Scwinns warnings.
And if they are willing to make up those numbers, you have to ask, what else are they willing to make up?
During the special session, anyone who raises questions needs to be prepared to have their commitment to literacy questioned. The myth being that if you object to what is being put forth, you are anti-science and anti-literacy. As if there is only one way forward and commissioner Schwinn was sent to lead us out of the wilderness. It is possible to have a deep commitment to literacy and question the governor’s strategies.
Keep your ears open as the year gets underway. Question everything. I suspect the crisis calls will only increase in their urgency. Take them with a grain of salt.
Metro Nashville Public School teachers are back at work today, with students reporting on Thursday. All students will remain virtual until at least MLK day. The COVID tracker for the district is currently at 8.7.
MNPS and Nashville Health are hiring school nurses. Learn more during a virtual recruitment fair from noon to 3 p.m. Thursday, Jan. 7. Full and part-time positions are available for RNs and PRNs. More info and registration link on the Careers page: mnps.org/mnps-careers
The good news, MAP testing starts next week for MNPS students. Yea team!
Let’s look at results from the weekend poll questions.
Question 1 asked, when do you think school buildings will open up? I have gone on record as saying come February first, buildings will be open. Y’all don’t agree with me. 44% of you feel it’s going to be Spring break, while 23% don’t believe they’ll open this year. Only 11% of you think February 1. Here are the write-ins,
- They will phase in. End of Jan for Elem, then Middle, then HS
Question 2 asked for your feelings on charter schools. 34% of you felt they should be abolished. 31% said, “some good, some bad.” 21% indicated that no matter how they felt, it was already a settled matter. Here are the write-ins,
- They should be incorporated into regular district funding and governance
Question 3 asked for your level of optimism when it comes to Governor Lee’s special session. 60% of you referred to it as a dog and pony show. 21% said it was sound and fury signifying nothing, while only 3 of you felt some good could come out of it. Here are those write-ins,
- (Lisa)Coons is a snake
- Stinking barge of recycled garbage that will pass
- Not at all. Totally pessimistic!
There ya have it.
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