DISCRETION AS THE BETTER PART OF VALOR

“With distrust came suspicion and with suspicion came fear, and with fear came hate–and these, in already distorted minds, inflamed a hell.”
Zane Grey, To The Last Man: 8 Western Novels – Collection

 

Since the dawn of social media, Nashville’s education leaders have chosen to utilize the platform as a means to division instead of unification. Some will say, they are just using it as designed. There may be some truth to that, but if you look around you can find plenty of examples where people have not given in to their worst angels, and have instead chosen to use their public words to educate and inspire, instead of as a weapon against perceived enemies.

Memphis’s Joris Ray and Maury County’s Ryan Jackson are two social media presences that instantly come to mind. Jackson is singularly focused on the positive, and while Ray will sometimes defend his district against detractors, he always does so with an eye towards the larger picture. It’s that sense of scope that has been missing in Nashville’s education leaders for nearly a decade,

In the beginning, the fight was between charter school proponents and opponents. It seemed every other night there was another bitter exchange between people who all swore they were committed to the same thing – what was best for kids. Much to my chagrin, I participated in more than a few of those scrapes. Scrapes that in the end, proved to be nothing but an exercise in futility.

After the presidential election in 2016, then board member and now board chair Christiane Buggs used her Twitter account to brand then-incumbent Donald Trump as a “Cheeto Satan” and a “Habenero Hitler”, among other things. Obviously, some folks took exception. Lately, Buggs has raised the ire of proponents for school buildings being closed due to shared posts inviting people to an election day in-person event and announcing a mid-pandemic trip to the islands while simultaneously arguing the need for social distancing, mask-wearing, and other COVID-19 related precautions. Posts that arguably paint her in a hypocritical light.

During the closing days of former Director of Schools Shawn Joseph’s tenure, social media was on fire as board members, after being denied other avenues of address, took to social media to air their grievances with the director. The battles culminated with then board member Will Pinkston resigning after a weekend of hostile Twitter exchanges between himself and Joseph critics, many of who were MNPS educators. At the time, board member Rachael Elrod offered her view on events, “”If any of my fellow board members continue to be unable or unwilling to stop governing through social media and enter into a truce through compromise and talking with one another instead of at each other, then perhaps they don’t want to do the hard work it takes to lead our schools.” Joseph’s contract was terminated and things quieted down.

As we head into 2021, it seems hold habits have re-kindled. Once again, the conversation around education issues is dominated by the weekend’s social media battles. While normally this would be considered as mere fodder for clucking tongues, it comes at a time when public school advocates can ill-afford distraction. At a time when MNPS and Tennessee teachers are fighting to fend off a league of attackers.

Saturday’s war of words began when MNEA President Amanda Kail posted to her personal Facebook page a call for people to stop focusing on re-opening school buildings and instead focus on children’s’ and teachers’ safety. A reasonable plea from the head of an organization dedicated to advocating for the rights and benefits of teachers amidst a pandemic that has already cost some teachers their lives. Teachers are legitimately cautious about a return to buildings in which they may be placing themselves and loved ones at risk. Again, not an unreasonable fear considering most won’t receive the first round of vaccinations until late February and the introduction of two new strains of COVID-19 that are more transmissible than the current dominant strain.

School Board member Fran Bush doesn’t see it that way. She believes that kids need to be back in school to reverse a hypothetical “learning loss”. In her eyes, along with those of other Nashville parents, believe that children are suffering social-emotional damage and are being denied adequate education opportunities due to buildings being closed. Also not an unreasonable position. A position that many have tried to marginalize by attributing it solely to privileged white parents. An inaccurate portrayal, but even if true shouldn’t be used as a means to marginalization. True equity means all issues by all groups are considered and accepted, or dismissed, on their merits, not their champions.

The longer said buildings are closed, the more Bush and her supporters’ frustration grows. A frustration that spilled out Saturday night via Bush’s response to Kail’s post. One that sparked an ugly conversation that extended nearly 12 hours and over 600 posts.

In her responses, Bush voiced her frustration with Kail’s efforts to oppose the opening of school buildings while going on to suggest that those who didn’t want to return to the live classroom should, “quit your day job with MNPS’. Seemly encouraging teachers to quit. Later in the exchange, she goes on to say that parents are organizing to become subs to make up for shortages. While I can certainly understand her frustrations – these are extremely difficult times for many for a variety of reasons – I can’t agree with her tone or suppositions.

In the past, Bush has been an ardent supporter of teachers, two years ago she pushed the board into proposing a 10% raise for teachers. While ultimately unsuccessful she worked harder than most for its passage. Ironically, some of her detractors are fellow board members who argued against the 10% raise. In this instance, she inexplicably seems to fall into the belief that teachers are somehow benefiting from buildings being closed and that the union somehow wields more influence than it does.  Neither of which is factual.

Closed buildings are especially hard on teachers. They’ve invested a great deal in preparing to educate children in person, which is something they are presently being denied. Many are afraid that programs that they worked hard to build will fall prey to lower revenues and children not being present – arts programs are particularly at risk. To meet the needs of children, they have been forced to suddenly develop a new set of skills with which to deliver instruction remotely. All at a time when the health of their families, and loved ones, is at risk due to a continuing health crisis. You’d be hard-pressed to find an educator that isn’t longing for a return to in-person instruction, they just want to ensure that it can be done safely.

Unions have long served as useful strawmen for those critical of the country’s education system. Kid’s not performing at the desired level is oft blamed on the union, with attention diverted away from the impact of socio-economic issues. Critics claim that the union only exists to protect bad teachers, while its role in securing even semi-adequate pay and working conditions goes unacknowledged. The true value of the union only becomes apparent when a teacher is faced with a situation in which an advocate is needed, and the union provides. Otherwise, contributions go unrecognized and the role of the union leader is a thankless and under-appreciated one.

Bush’s comments throughout Saturday night are concerning, and in bad form, but the reality is, she is entitled to them. I would think a position that could be considered unsupportive of teachers could prove detrimental to her position on the board, but that’s not for me to decide

It is important to remember, she a member of the school board, not a member of the teacher’s support board. If her words, as poorly chosen as I find them, are reflective of the feelings of her constituents then she is doing her job as an elected representative. Her constituents will have an opportunity to confirm or rebuke soon enough. There is nothing that says that a school board member has to love all teachers, or even be nice to them at all times. Obviously, it’s preferable, but not required.

I would argue that encouraging certified experienced teachers to quit would eventually harm the very people she is trying to protect – children. The teacher shortage is real, and will likely grow in the wake of the pandemic. Enrollment in teacher prep programs is declining, and I’m not sure that anything in Saturday nights exchange would serve to entice those thinking about teaching as a profession to pursue it. This is just one more instance where we fail to grasp the alignment between teacher issues and student issues. There are very few instances – I can’t think of one off of the top of my head – where teacher demands aren’t also beneficial for children.

Furthermore, the idea of parents becoming substitute teachers is not a viable one. There is an arduous process evolved with becoming a certified sub that includes a background check and fingerprinting, not to mention the completion of an online course. Fees associated with all of the aforementioned are assumed by the applicant. I know, because I’ve undertaken the process. Substitute teachers, like tutors, might seem like an attractive alternative but in the end, can’t mitigate the reality that student success is dependent on high-quality teaching. Taking care of teachers is doing what’s best for kids. We don’t always like it, but sometimes the simplest answer is the right answer.

Am I offended by Bush’s statements? I certainly wish she would have used a different tone and different words, but I don’t have the capacity to be presently offended, as there are already too many other things going on in the education world that are more worthy of taking offense at. To be honest, I’m offended that we are spending valuable non-recoupable time on this exchange while more damaging events are transpiring.

Last week, in a special session, the state’s lawmakers passed a series of bills that will serve to place an added burden on LEAs, while robbing them of local control. The whole impetus for these bills, and the whole special session itself, was based on false assertions around learning loss made by Tennessee’s version of Boris and Natasha – Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn. Remember that canard about students losing 50% of learning in ELA and 65% in math? The one continuously repeated in the press? Turns out, shockingly, it’s not accurate.

In November, the purported source of those predictions, NWEA, issued a follow-up report with revisions made after reviewing data from Fall testing,

“This fall, students scored better than NWEA’s projections in reading, while math scores were in line with our projections for grades 4–6 and slightly above our projections in grades 7–8,” the study’s authors said.

Despite enjoying a close relationship with NWEA, and their partner CREDO, and knowing full well that the original proclamations were false, Boris and Natasha continued their disinformation campaign unchecked. The two did so not out of loyalty to children, but rather because it suited their needs and their political agenda. Let’s not get the two confused.

I’m equally offended that the state is forcing schools to administer WIDA testing in person, even if a family is choosing remote instruction, and even though WIDA has a provision in place for students to exit EL services without in-person testing. In case you are unfamiliar WIDA is the test administered to English Learners to assess whether they are ready to exit EL services. By insisting that it be administered in-person fails to acknowledge that the families taking the test are among those that have been the hardest hit by COVID-19. Many of whom have expressed an unwillingness to enter school buildings at this time. Once again this is a decision that puts the state’s needs before those of families and students.

This morning MNPS School Board Gini Pupo-Walker, in her role as Executive Director of Education Trust’s Tennessee office, announced a new partnership between Tennessee Education Advocacy groups. One whose Charter members include the Memphis Education Fund, Tennessee Disability Coalition, NAACP state conference, Nashville Area Chamber of Commerce, Knoxville Urban League, Teach for America, and the State Collaborative on Reforming Education.

The Chamber of Commerce has long viewed public education as means for its own ends. SCORE has long sought undue influence over the state’s education policies. While Teach for America has done more damage to the teaching profession than a thousand social posts by Ms. Bush could possibly do. Furthermore, no one questions how a sitting school board member can sit at the head of an alliance of organizations that often act at cross purposes with MNPS. That’s offensive to me.

Riddle me this, since the Tennessee Charter School Center is a partner in the coalition head up by Pupo-Walker, how do we know that they won’t have an undue-influence on school board votes concerning charter school authorizations? What about TFA and future employment contracts? Noticeably absent from the list of partners is Pupo-Walker’s old employer Conexion, who is among the most respected of the state’s advocacy groups.

The General Assembly is still open, and new laws that could potentially harm MNPS are still in play. We can’t be distracted by a battle between a school board member and the union while the system is under attack. I try to imagine what might have happened had just one of the previously mentioned issues garnered a third of the attention that Saturday night’s social media spat has brought forth? Maybe instead of imploring teachers and supporters to file ethics complaints about Bush’s comments, Kail could encourage them to email the state and complain about in-person WIDA testing.

Perhaps instead of demanding MNPS open school buildings before teachers are vaccinated, Ms. Bush and her supporters could lobby lawmakers and the Governor to move teachers to the head of the line.

People often argue about the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time, while I seldom see evidence that they can walk or chew gum.

At a time when MNPS is under increased scrutiny, the last thing that anyone needs is the appearance of a district divided. It’s a division that serves no one well. These are frustrating and scary times filled with anxiety, it is at this time that real leadership is needed. Leadership can only be provided through the careful choice of words, and rightfully prioritizing battles. In that light, we can ill-afford social media fights that only serve to create further divisions. Conversations must shift away from who’s at fault and towards defining who will rise to the challenge.

Nobody wins if everybody loses.

SCIENCE OF READING

I had my own social media conflict this weekend. Albeit a calmer more measured one.

Joey Hassell, Superintendent of Haywood Schools, is a proponent of the science of reading and therefore by default a proponent of the newly passed literacy bill. Saturday night he shared his support via Twitter.

That is perfectly within his purview as a highly trained educator with years of experience in teaching children to read. The parents of the Haywood School System seem to agree with him, though ELA growth has been flat over the last several years. There is no reason to not believe that Hassell knows what is best for the kids in his and is committed to providing them what they need. Here’s where I take exception though.

Hassell is provided a privilege that due to new legislation is not being afforded to MNPS’s superintendent Dr. Battle.  In fact, with his implicit blessing, she is being told that her years of schooling and experience in the classroom are irrelevant, as others know best. That somehow she is incapable of reviewing data and drawing conclusions at the same level as he, and other science of reading supporters. It stakes out a position of superiority in either knowledge, intention, or interpretive skills. That’s a slippery slope to tread, and frankly a bit…offensive.

In the past, LEA’s were given a metric to reach and a list of materials they could use to get there. The state didn’t try to dictate the purchase of materials, nor how districts worked towards the goal. The assumption was that each knew their district best and was thus, best suited to prescribe strategies. After last week that is no longer the case. The assumption has been flipped to one that the state now knows better than local districts. An argument easily refuted by reviewing the history of the Tennessee Achievement School District.

In a move that appears to be contradictory to the Peter Principle, every LEA must now submit an early literacy plan to the state for approval. Mind you, this means that the very people that couldn’t develop the means to make meaningful improvements in a handful of schools will now be dictating strategies to the entire state. In the past, the district could adopt materials without having to purchase them. This allowed for districts to base decisions based on their affordability and means. No more, under the new rules.

Before turning over the keys though, shouldn’t we at least take a look at the history of the new driver first? Shouldn’t their track record matter?

Commissioner Schwinn has a record that speaks more towards accountability than it does instruction, with minimal success stories. Superintendent of Curriculum Lisa Coons hasn’t been successful at any of her previous positions, be it in Sumner County, TDOE, or MNPS. Under her leadership as Executive Director of MNPS Innovation Schools, not only did the number of priority schools not shrink but just the opposite, they grew. Currently, the Department of Education is searching for a Senior Director of Early Childhood Literacy. Yet it is TDOE who is being empowered, while some of our most respected and experienced educators are being marginalized. That’s not a recipe for success.

Science of Reading proponents would have you believe that the issue of reading instruction has been settled. That after a century of debate, all are in agreement. That’s not true, just because you say “science” does not automatically make you the winner by default. Once again, proponents are trying to confuse causation and correlation. Remember when I told you last week about Commissioner Schwinn admitting that 3rd-grade TNReady was not a reading test? What that means is that TNReady can measure student performance based on standards but not skills. It can not tell us if it’s decoding, or phonics that is the cause of low ELA scores. Makes the prescription a supposition.

That’s why I strongly believe that if Joey Hassell believes that a “Science of Reading” approach with an intense focus on phonics is better for his kids, he should not only be allowed implementation but also offered ample support. The same holds true if Dr.Battle believes that a “Balanced Literacy” approach is best, or if another superintendent favors combining elements from both. That’s what it means to put trust in our education leaders.

The role of lawmakers and the Department of Education should ever be one of support, as opposed to dictation. The opposite of current circumstances here in Tennessee.

QUICK HITS

Unlike Tennessee, which is just asking for a waiver on the percentage of students taking the big standardized test, New York state is applying for a waiver to suspend testing this year. Hopefully, more states will choose to emulate New York instead of Tennessee.

On Thursday a group of Tennessee doctors asked Governor Lee to open schools based on science, not politics. In a statement release, critical care doctor Jason Martin says “Re-open schools based on science, not the same politicization of COVID that ignored doctors, made the outbreak worse and closed schools in the first place.” Dr. Martin goes on to say, “Governor Lee, the fact that our children can’t go back to school safely is a direct result of your failed “fend for yourself” response to the COVID-19 crisis.”

Today the MNPS COVID-19 tracks in the wrong direction. Currently, it sits at 8.1, after closing the week out at 7.9.

We’ve still got more to cover, unfortunately, time constraints require that those issues be tabled briefly.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. It’s definitely frustrating when our elected leaders turn out to have drivers and agendas that we might have overlooked during our vote casting. Between chronic under-funding, and the rain of insanity from the outside, its a miracle more School Board members don’t go off the rails.

    Thank heaven we have Ms. Elrod, and others, who are hanging on to lucidity and coherency in the battle.

    Vaccines are getting here. I’m so thankful our teachers are at the top of the list.

    Surely we can go back to school in August. Surely… Right?

    Great piece!

  2. TC, I have a practical question about what science of reading would mean in the classroom. One of the things I have repeatedly heard about it is the statement that kids should not be clued in to the text by pictures on the page. Does that mean that the books and texts kids would use in early grades would have to have no illustrations, so kids cannot look to the picture? This seems like it would eliminate a good bit of children’s literature.

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