“What gets us into trouble is not what we don’t know. It’s what we know for sure that just ain’t so.”
Years ago I worked at a bar down in the Elliston Place area of Nashville. Five days a week you could find me slinging drinks to people as they got off of work. My bar didn’t adhere to the rule of never discussing politics or religion, the only rule was that you respect each other. As a result, it wasn’t uncommon to hear passionate conversations taking place around a plethora of subjects.
There used to be a gentleman named Biff that was regular. Biff would often interject into the conversation in a manner that lent itself to the assumption that he was making a factual point. He looked intelligent. He acted intelligently. Owned his own business and said things in a confident manner. It was logical to conclude that he knew what he was talking about and so his assertions went unchecked. That would have been fine except he was often wrong.
Finally,, after weeks of this behavior, I challenged him. “We are not going to do this anymore,” I said, “You don’t get a free pass just because you say something with an air of confidence. From now on, we are going to call this kerchief the Biff flag. Every time you say something questionable, I’m going to throw it, and in order for you to continue to be a part of the conversation, you will have to provide evidence that supports your pronouncement.”
And that’s what we did. He’d still try to sneak things in, but it greatly reduced the questionable assertions that he threw out. I think we need a Governor Lee flag, and we need it sooner rather than later.
Yesterday, the Governor, to great fanfare, released three bills that will be considered in next week’s special session of the General Assembly. These were bills that were scheduled to be released last Monday and then were pushed back to Tuesday. And well, Tuesday was swearing-in day for the General Assembly, with family obligations taking the center court, so they got pushed back to Wednesday. Wednesday came, and it was clear that some edits were required, so the promise was made that they’d be delivered Thursday morning…which of course turned into Thursday evening.
Luckily two of the three bills are so blatantly bad, that there is plenty of time between now and next Tuesday, when the General Assembly special session is scheduled to begin, to expose their flaws. And that’s what we are going to start to do here.
Before we go any further let’s clarify something. The term “Learning Loss” is a made-up term, created primarily to retain and obtain funding. There is little evidence that supports it’s existence than there is of President Trump winning the recent election. We have no assessment that measures this hypothetical phenomenon. It is a tool utilized to prey upon the fears of parents as their children navigate unprecedented times and to make sure that companies who provide so-called student supports don’t lose money.
Kids may be learning at a slower pace, or they may be learning things differently than what current assessments measure, but they are still acquiring important knowledge and previously acquired skills are not fleeing their brains. What required more than remediation, is a reassessment of what we measure.
Case in point technology skills. For decades, we’ve argued for the need to increase student technology fluency levels. This year we’ve succeeded beyond our wildest dreams. If we had a tool that measured growth rates in technology skills and proficiency levels, I suspect we’d find a generation head and shoulders above its predecessors. Are those skills no longer considered valuable? What will we do going forth to ensure that they are capitalized upon?
But don’t think for a moment that Governor Lee let facts get in the way of a good narrative. In his press release for the bills, he once again referred to ungrounded predictions of supposed learning loss.
“COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of education and we are on the cusp of severe consequences for our students if we don’t act now,” said Gov. Lee. “Data suggests that Tennessee third graders are facing an estimated 50% drop in reading proficiency and a projected 65% drop in math proficiency and that is not an acceptable path for our kids.
It was nice of him to annotate his statement this time, though what is the point in annotating a source that doesn’t actually support your argument?
1] National research organizations, NWEA and CREDO, analyzed historical data to project an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in math proficiency
First of all, there is no data, historical or current, that can accurately support the supposition of a learning loss percentage. NWEA markets the MAP test, which does a fantastic job of measuring growth and proficiency. Both are very different than “learning loss”. NWEA waked back it’s summer predictions last month after they received actual data from assessments administered this Fall. In EL students fared about the same, and in Math, they scored 10% lower. Now, remember those numbers represent proficiency and growth scores, not losses.
So what about the “summer slide” you might ask. Are you saying it is not real? It’s not that simple. As a recent Washington Post article points out,
At the same time, it’s important to recognize that concerns about summer loss are grounded in an idea that learning is linear and that students’ gains or losses are best measured by performance on achievement tests. Any gaps these tests reveal need to be considered with caution
Research supports the idea that as we regularly use a skill it stays at the forefront of our brain, readily called upon. If we don’t regularly engage the skill it recedes to a storage shelf in the back in order to clear space for new skills. After a couple of months or longer, of sitting on the shelf, the ability to instantly recall fades. But the skill is not lost, and depending on the length of time between usages, can be readily recalled with some refreshers. However long it takes, is shorter than the initial learning period.
Think of it this way. Back in high school you probably read the Great Gatsby. You probably reflected on it for a bit after completion, but eventually, you put it on the shelf and made room in your brain for other books. If I gave you a test today on the book’s content, you probably would not fair very well. But if I showed you a few passages, and some reviews, before testing, you’d in all likelihood fare much better. Might even say things like, “Not sure how I remember this but…”. The information wasn’t lost, it was merely shelved for future recall.
I acknowledge that’s a bit of an oversimplification. What’s really at potential risk for loss is income. Imagine if NWEA and CREDO put out a report that said, “Students are faring well and in some cases actually succeeding. Teachers are adequately meeting the needs of their students and in some cases, making more progress than in a normal year.” BOOM…the world would cave in.
The need for CREDO and NWEA’s products would dry up faster than toilet paper on the shelf at the beginning of the pandemic. Nothing moves product like an invented crisis. And an invented crisis allows for the invention of products, and the promotion of some non-existent ones as well. It also creates the potential for opening markets for greater profits. So let’s review.
Students doing well equates to lower potential profits. Students failing miserably set the stage for record investment.
To show you what I mean, we’ll take a look at the 3 bills submitted yesterday. HB7004/SB7002, is the bill affectionately referred to as the ‘learning loss” bill. It sets forth proposals to address the massive amount of learning loss incurred by Tennesee’s students over the last 9 months. It defines learning loss as the loss of academic knowledge or skill previously acquired or a pause in academic advancement, most commonly due to extended time away from school or in-person instruction. In order to combat that loss, LEAs will be required to create, “after-school learning mini-camps, learning loss bridge camps, and summer learning camps, as determined by the respective local board of education or governing body of a participating public charter school.”
The language here and throughout the bill is a little confusing because it refers to charter schools with the qualifier of participating. There is no such qualifier for LEA’s. So do charter schools have the ability to opt-out if they choose? It also seems to indicate that the state won’t be footing the bill, but rather, individual school districts.
The bill goes on to list those students that will be eligible to participate, primarily those that fail to score adequately on a universal screener, defined as follows,
“Universal reading screener” means a uniform tool that screens and monitors a student’s progress towards phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.
This definition would make me laugh if it wasn’t so serious. You see, last year’s Literacy Bill came with language referencing the “Science of Reading”. Legislators objected to the branded name, and the language was stricken from the bill. But was it really.
The current language is similar in practice to you telling me you don’t want me to bring any ducks to your house, and I respond by telling you that I won’t, but I’ll be bringing a web-footed, billed, and feathered Aves to your house instead. Would you be shocked and appeased when I showed up with a duck? Yet, the Governor and Penny Schwinn expect that legislators won’t see through this ruse, But I’m surprised, through the whole process the governor and Schwinn have acted as if they thought legislators were stupid, this is congruent with that previous approach.
In creating after-school, tutoring, and summer school opportunities, HB 7004 stes, “Instruction, intervention, and supplemental supports in reading and math must be provided by a teacher licensed and endorsed to teach the subjects and grades served, a candidate enrolled in an educator preparation program, or a person with a college degree who has successfully completed a learning loss and remediation and student acceleration program preparation course, using instructional materials adopted by the state board of education or provided by the department.”
It even goes as far as promising teachers, “A differentiated stipend plan developed by the department that provides teachers with at least one thousand dollars ($1,000) per week in compensation, but no more than twenty-five percent (25%) above the weekly compensation rate of the highest salary step for teachers in the LEA’s salary schedule.” Sounds fantastic huh? Accept the part about the stipend being based on performance data and ability to teach hard to staff subjects. Sounds to me that some districts will be looking at that “hold unaccountable” data in order to set compensation levels.
As far as the learning loss and remediation and student acceleration program preparation course go…what the hell is that? it is like saying, we’ll be hiring some unicorn cowboys, but in order to qualify for employment, you’ll need to have completed a unicorn wrangling course. It’s ludicrous.
This bill also calls for the creation of a universal screener and that all participants in any of the remedial programs must, in addition to the three times a year they will already be required to take the test, participate in the screener at the beginning and end of the program, with results being submitted to the DOE in a timely manner.
There’s lots more to talk about here, but let’s do a quick count up of the potential vendor contracts we’ve already identified. Somebody will need to create universal screeners. Somebody will need to manage the data produced by the screeners. Somebody will need to manage district participation in the additional learning programs. Somebody will need to procure additional potential instructors, as well as train them. (TNTP and TFA lead to mind as two established organizations that could stand to benefit from the latter two needs.) That’s a fair amount of somebody.
It’s a whole bunch of opportunity for a whole bunch of private entities, That might be a cause for some celebration if we thought the contracts would go to Tennessee based companies. But if past behavior is any indication, it’s companies from outside of Tennessee that will stand to benefit the most from this legislation. To legislators’ credit, they did insert a clause in both bills meant to ensure that the procurement process is above board.
The department shall submit all contracts for the procurement of any good or service selected or approved by the department to effectuate this part to the fiscal review committee of the general assembly for review according to the timelines and requirements established in § 4-56-107(b)(5)(A).
SB 7003 is a revamping of the literacy bill from last year and serves as another example of the Governor and Commissioner Schwinn’s willingness to circumvent established protocols when they stand in their way. Last year the General Assembly failed to pass the literacy bill and so the DOE went out and secured federal grants to supplement the funding that was denied.
At the end of the last session, the GA made it clear that the TDOE was not to interfere with the textbook adoption committee. So in this year’s version of the bill is a provision that requires all LEAs to submit an early literacy plan to the DOE for approval. It is required that the plans include a detailed description of how foundational skills instruction will be delivered. While there is nothing in the bill that details the consequences for non-compliance, it does raise the question of, why bother with the textbook adoption process if the DOE is going to have final approval on what materials you use?
This year’s bill is not only trying to rob LEAs of their authority but also serves to usurp power from the textbook commission. To me, it’s pretty concerning.
The third bill, SB 7001 is the most innocuous of the three. Its primary purpose is to hold teacher’s unaccountable for results from standardized testing. Of course, it contains the flawed logic of allowing teachers to benefit from test scores if positive while not counting them if negative. Makes no sense, but the least of worries at this juncture.
Word on the street is that the Governor would like to see these bills passed and the special session concluded in one day. That’s a tall order. There is a lot to be considered in these three bills. I haven’t even mentioned the third-grade retention clause, the fiscal note, or how the bills propose charter schools and LEAs collaborate. A lot to unpack here with wide-ranging implications. I could easily see the session stretching out to a month, but let’s see what happens.
HOW DID YOU DO THAT?
Last week as Commissioner Schwinn unveiled the state’s new literacy initiative, Reading360. A component of Reading360 is one that sends parenting advice 3x a week to parents of kids in k-3 and is called Ready4K. Ready4K was founded by an education researcher at Standford and is rooted in “nudge”, a discipline of behavioral economics that proposes that you can nudge people into desired behaviors by frequent short communications, usually through text messages. Most of the research around these kinds of programs is inconclusive, as it’s hard to separate causation from correlation.
This week, the TDOE released a press release touting that 144k families had been enrolled in the just-released Ready4K program. 144k in just one week is pretty damned impressive. Color me skeptical, but if true, I nominate Schwinn to be put in charge of the delivery vaccinations. Unfortunately, there is always more to the story.
Last week an email went out to MNPS families describing the program,
Through a partnership between the Tennessee Department of Education and the Governor’s Early Literacy Foundation, starting in January, Metro Nashville Public Schools is offering families with students in grades Pre-k through 3 free access to Ready4K, a research-based text messaging program that will help you continue your child’s learning at home.
After listing some of the program’s benefit it went on to inform,
We want to help bridge the gap between the classroom and the home and help ensure your child is learning no matter where they are. Families will automatically be enrolled in this service based on information provided through the Family Portal, and once you receive the first text, you may opt out of this service if you choose.
Hmmm…I enrolled in the family portal and maintain an account in order to monitor my child’s classroom performance and requirements. I don’t remember empowering the district to enroll me in programs they think I might like, nor share my contact information with third-party vendors. In fact, there have been lawsuits in the past few years around similar circumstances. 36,044 MNPS families were auto-enrolled in the initiative.
Apparently, I’m not the only one concerned with the auto-enroll practice, as Memphis is not currently participating in auto-enrolling families until they receive greater clarity on the legality and the data-sharing agreements. Perhaps, MNPS should have followed suit. I hate to quote former board member Will Pinkston, but his remarks from several years ago are still relevant today,
“The RePublic lawsuit underscores, in real time, the reason why MNPS needs to get a long overdue handle on student and family data security,” said school board member Will Pinkston, a charter school critic who has been vocal on the data issue. “As the source of the data, we could have very easily ended up as defendants in this case. I’m glad the plaintiffs chose to focus their litigation on the chief offender, but that doesn’t alleviate our obligation to do better in the future.”
Who would have guessed that both of Dr. Joseph’s lieutenants would secure superintendent positions before the boss? Last night the Baton Rouge school district voted 5-4 to make Sito Narcisse their next school superintendent. Of course per usual with Narcisse, there is a hitch. In this case, it’s because he lacks the minimum of five years of classroom teaching experience required under Louisiana law in order to earn a superintendent’s certification. Luckily it doesn’t appear to be an insurmountable obstacle to his employment. Former peer Monique Felder is still employed by Orange County schools in North Carolina where the school board recently awarded her a $10000 bonus and an added year to her contract.
MNPS has indicated that students will remain virtual after MLK and for the foreseeable future until the COVID-19 tracker drops below 7. The tracker currently sits at 8.6. A recent visit to the state Capitol revealed a growing level of frustration among some legislators over Memphis and Nashville’s refusal to offer in-person instruction. Look for several bills to be introduced with the intention being to open those school district’s buildings. One lawmaker indicated to me that of the urban centers, Chattanooga and Knoxville would likely receive their full funding from last year, while Nashville and Memphis might not be as fortunate. MNPS is predicting that employee vaccinations will not be available until late February or early March, which is further impacting the opening of school buildings.
The Tennessean provides details today around the behavior of recently departed Tennessee Commissioner of Veteran Affairs Courtney Rogers. The report is horrifying and what makes it worse, is that she is not the only one in the Tennessee government accused of bullying behavior towards subordinates. Over at the TDOE, assistant commissioner Kathie Houghtlin has already been disciplined for like behavior, while a lawsuit filed by former Chief of Schools Katie Pulos over wrongful termination is still pending. Having a similar lawsuit pending didn’t stop Commissioner Schwinn from recruiting Robert Lundin for an assistant Commissioner position. Patterns, it’s all about patterns.
There ya have it.
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