“Remember: The rules, like streets, can only take you to known places.”
My buddy Slatsky called me this morning to see if I wanted to grab some lunch. Slat’s family is originally from Chicago, where his grandfather seeped into politics. He’s been here for a couple of years and continually trying to figure out our politics. Conversations with him are always thought-provoking, and enjoyable.
“So what do you say?”, he asked, “Noon at the Teacher’s Hideaway Lounge?”
Upon arriving at the agreed-upon time, I found him already perched on a barstool. Eyes glued to set where scenes from the presidential inauguration played out.
“Something else.”, he remarked as I slid into a barstool next to him, but socially distant, nodding in agreement.
We watched in silence for several minutes, till he broke the silence, “Too bad this isn’t our Governor hopping on the flight out of town as well. A tough-talking sum of a bitch that Lee is.” Slat’s clearly had some thoughts on his mind.
“How’s he get away with endlessly repeating those phony stats about learning loss with no one questioning him? They don’t exist, there is no test that measures learning loss, but he keeps regurgitating, ‘50% in ELA and 65% in math’, and people keep lapping it up. It’s like arguing over the color of a unicorn. Unicorns don’t exist, so the color is immaterial.”, he was clearly irritated and went on, “Who’s he trying to impress with that tough-guy talk about following the science and people doing virtual school being in hiding. My kid’s teachers sure ain’t in hiding, though I bet they’d like to be. Every day for the last 6 months, there they are rain or shine, like clockwork, delivering instruction like nobody’s business. Damn, kids have gotten so good at computers they put me to shame.”
I could tell he was just getting started, “And another thing, hasn’t he seen the news that over in Europe they are reclosing schools because the transmission rates are rising? Like that Boris Johnson fella who runs England said, ‘The problem is not that schools are unsafe for children, The problem is schools may nonetheless act as vectors for transmission, causing the virus to spread between households.’ Think he’s following the science?”
“The thing that pisses me off”, I answered, “Is that Lee, with his TNReady edict saying districts must test 80% of students or face consequences, is putting me in a position where I have to decide between risking my child’s health or risk my districts resources. I don’t need that kind of pressure. Why does it even matter to him? All of this new legislation is just him trying to micro-manage. Set the goals and let educators figure out how to get there, in my opinion.”
We sat in silence for a minute or two, till Slats picked the thread back up, “How about that Education Commissioner of his? Lee blasts us all for being fraidy-cats, then she turns around and testifies to the Senate via a remote location, out of caution due to COVID. I’ve been in that room she testified from, it’s in the same building as the Senate was in. If kids can go back to school, then testimony can be given in person. And open up the building to the public, Hypocrites.”
Nodding along, I chime back, “You see how she tried to elicit sympathy from senators over health risks by claiming that it’d been months since her kids had seen their grandparents? All you have to do is scroll through her social media feed and you’ll see they flew out West the first week in November. Remember, she flew out right after her kid’s school experienced a widespread outbreak? She and Lee had visited right in the middle of that time.
“Battle reminded him of it in her rebuttal statement to his attack. Let me find it”, I said, picking up my phone and scrolling through it, “Here ya go. She said, ‘While students may currently be attending school virtually, learning continues to take place,’ Battle said, before reminding Lee of his own visit to a Nashville school last fall. ‘Just this school year, we welcomed Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn to Metro Schools and Julia Green Elementary, where they talked with staff and the students who were there for in-person instruction. So he knows that MNPS was and is working to offer in-person instruction to students who chose it.’ Battle can’t help it that COVID numbers continue to run unchecked. Maybe if he’d get his crap together. He and Schwinn can’t even get their COVID tracker right.”
“Hell yeah”, he said grinning from ear to ear, “How about Joris Ray’s body slam? He said, ‘ state leaders should step away from privileged podiums and try to understand the many concerns of our students, parents, and teachers. In Memphis and Shelby County, and in other urban areas in America, nearly everyone knows someone who has been seriously ill or died from COVID-19,” he told school board members Tuesday evening. “It is disingenuous to think that the children of poor families need any less protection than children in other settings.’ Mic drop moment.”
We paused for a minute to reflect as the bartender placed a hot chicken sandwich and fries plate in front of us. Between bites, I picked the conversation back up, “How about the Commissioner admitting to legislators that TNReady is not a reading test?”
“Get out! Did she really?”
“Yep, in response to their questioning her on what proficient looks like. She admitted that while the test can tell us how well kids know the standards, it can’t tell us if their lack of knowledge is due to a specific reading skill – like decoding, or phonemic awareness or comprehension. It’s a standards-based test and we are making skills based assumptions from it.”
“What’s the story with this new super screener the two of them are talking about? Lee talked like it’s been built and then Schwinn told Senators that hadn’t been commissioned yet, which is it? And why does the department get to build it and control the setting of proficiency levels, that’s some bull…”
“Ya got me, but sometimes I wonder if the two even talk.”
We both finished up our sandwiches nibbling on the remaining fries Slat’s commented, “I hate that they are going to start flunking 3rd graders. I know the laws been on the books since 2011, but damn.”
“Or at least use Google.”, he countered which brought forth some more guffaws.
“I’m a little confused how they are going to use TNReady with retention”, I admitted, “The bill says if you don’t score proficient on TCAP you can be retained, but if you retake the test before school, go to a bridge camp, or agree to see a tutor all year…you can be passed on to 4th. Is that retake, TCAP, or that new benchmark screener…or something else? I’m so confused.”
“What we need to do”, Slats retorted, “is start a tutoring company. You read those bills? You know how much money is going to be out there for a couple guys like us and our homegrown tutoring program? You gotta figure, come May, teachers are going to be so exhausted that there is no way they’ll have the capacity to consider working summer school. That’s where we come in. Recruit a bunch of college kids, send them through the required training, pay them slightly less than the state pays us, and we make bank. Hell, set ourselves up as a 501C and we are in an even better. Lotta paperwork, but it can be done. Next year we are even more set. Maybe even hire a few teachers”
I nod in agreement, “it is certainly tempting. But I’m sure TNTP and TFA are already poised to gobble up the lion’s share. But that tutoring stuff has me thinking, what’s the impact on teachers? What’s to keep a district from hiring more tutors at a lower rate, and fewer teachers who command a higher amount? If a kid improves, they’ll chalk it up to the tutor. Think they are going to subject them to TVAAS?”
“That’s a good question.”, Slats acknowledges, “I’m shocked SCORE hasn’t tried to cash in on this learning loss brigade thing.”
“Don’t worry about them. Those LIFT districts are going to get paid through the federal grants due to “mentor district” status. It pays to be a friend of Schwinn. You didn’t think for one minute that SCORE would let this kinda money flow into the state without some of it landing in their pocket, did ya?”
“Tru dat”, he replied, “I like how they keep talking about great progress out of one side of their mouth while screaming, “crisis” out of the other. All the while never acknowledging their role in policy crafting and adopting over the past decade. Honesty is certainly not their strong suit. Know what really cracks me up? SCORE has advocated for Literacy for 10 years and results have been flat, they’ve ignored math, and it’s continued to climb. Making steady progress. Kinda makes you wonder what scores would look like if we ignored SCORE’s advice, pun intended.”
I chuckled while signaling the bartender that we were ready for the check. He laid it on the bar, only to have Slats snatch it up before I could look at it. “This one’s on me, buddy. Besides, your wife’s a teacher, I know y’all ain’t got no money”, he retorted with laughter.
“Come on man, she’s getting a raise. The Governor’s promised 4%. He loves teachers. They make great campaign props.” I responded with mock seriousness.
That really caused him to break out in laughter, “Yeah right. Did you hear that conversation between Schwinn and legislators yesterday? If you don’t believe that BEP is broken, that conversation should have convinced you otherwise. By the time it get’ to teachers, it’ll be around 1%. How long’s your wife been teaching? 15 years? So she’s making around 51K. You are talking about…maybe $750 a paycheck…before taxes. And then when they raise insurance rates, and the city raises property taxes…maybe you should just see if you can send the Governor $250 and call it even before you end up even more in the hole.”
He was on a roll now, “The only reason that the governor and Schwinn are doing this is so that they can proclaim they love teachers. I bet he tries to claim you as a campaign expenditure because you know, come summer after next, front and center on all of his literature will be how he got teachers a raise. If you can’t even figure out how to give all teachers a minuscule raise, how do you think you can truly increase student outcomes? Ridonculous. Did you hear Schwinn tell legislators that teachers are emailing her all hours of the night with questions and looking for resources?”
“Yea cracked me up. I pictured the wife and her team sitting around planning next week’s Anne Frank lesson and suddenly emailing the Commissioner to get additional resources. Forget about Teacher’s Pay Teachers. Forget about an administrator or senior teacher. Hell, let’s skip right by district coaches and go directly to Penny Schwinn. Been laughing about it all morning.”
Joining me in laughter, Slat’s signed the bill with a flourish and we made our exit. Out on the street, we wrapped up our conversation.
“The sad part”, he said, ” Is that these bills are likely to soar right through.”
“True”, I said in concurrence, “We’ve got legislators that are reticent to embarrass the Governor. Unfortunately, it’s not a feeling that’s reciprocal. Not passing the Governor’s bills during a special session would certainly be embarrassing. About the best that we can hope, is the bills pass, but legislators revisit them in the general session. A thin glimmer of hope.”
“I don’t disagree. it’s a comedy of errors with potentially disastrous results.”
We said our good-byes and headed in opposite directions, both preoccupied with thoughts about disasters that lurked ahead. It might be the dawning of a new day in America, but in Tennessee, we were committed to a return to old ways when it comes to education policy. Governor Lee’s position saddens me because I’ve spoken with members on the education committees and have found many of them to be genuinely open to ideas and vested in doing what’s best for students. Unfortunately, those good intentions are being obstructed by Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn’s self-interests. It’s a combination that does not bode well for the children of Tennessee.
That’s a wrap.
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