“All politics is marketing. And in marketing, there are but two variables: product and salesmanship.”
I’ve been deeply involved in the world of public education for nearly a decade now, yet I am still consistently amazed at just how weird it all gets. You would think the world of academia would adhere to some sort of logic and consistency. Unfortunately, and I chalk it up to the politics and money involved, it does neither. Instead, it continually seems to be driven by self-interest masquerading as a desire to do what’s best for kids.
That’s not to insult teachers or principals. because at its core level, public education does remain centered on kids. I’m reminded of that constantly, just this morning I received a copy of an article about a teacher that continued delivering instruction to her students, even while undergoing chemotherapy. Fortunately, those kinds of stories occur with regularity, because most teachers enter the profession out of a sense of service. It’s when you move up the stratosphere that things get a little less altruistic.
For example, on Wednesday, I wrote a story about Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn sending a letter of rebuke to Metro Nashville Public Schools over their handling of federal funds. In her letter, Ms. Schwinn cited an audit from the state comptrollers office, an audit that won’t be completed until March. As a follow-up, I sent an email to department spokeswoman Victoria Robinson,
My name is TC Weber, I write the blog post Dad Gone Wild and have a question about the recent letter to MNPS from Commissioner Schwinn. The Tennessean references a comptroller’s report and findings of non-compliance.
After talking with the comptroller’s office, it is my understanding that the referenced report is in the early stages of construction, field investigations were just completed.
After the initial findings were made available, the DOE did their own investigating, the issues were confirmed. My question, is there a report or case notes available to substantiate those allegations? And if so, may I be provided a copy?
Thank you, I look forward to your response.
Forty-eight hours later she responded,
Per the letter that was sent to MNPS from the department, costs of over $1,000,000 of Title I, funds intended to be used to support low-income students in MNPS were found in the Tennessee Comptroller’s audit. This is specific to expenditures by MNPS that have been discovered in the Tennessee Comptroller’s audit, resulting primarily from both a lack of documentation and unallowable uses of Title I funds by MNPS.
Ok, but where is the audit? Where is the documentation that supports the allegations? Where is there any sign that the Commissioner’s letter is anything but a thinly veiled means to force Dr. Battle to re-open school buildings before she feels it is safe? Why is the safety of teachers and children considered secondary to the Governor’s political needs?
Apparently, the Tennessee Department of Education doesn’t feel the need to meet even the narrowest definition of burden of proof when trying to bend districts to its will. I asked Ms. Robinson for a copy of the hypothetical audit in a reply email. I suspect it will be a lot longer than 48 hours before I hear from her again.
THANKS FOR THE LACK OF MENTION
It was with mixed emotion that I read an article featured in today’s Tennessee Lookout. It’s an article that should contain few surprises for Dad Gone Wild readers, as it neatly condenses a year’s worth of my reporting on the Tennessee Department of Education. Part of me feels a bit slighted at the lack of a citation, but that is smoothed over by the knowledge that the information will reach more people.
That said, there are a couple points in writer Sam Stockard’s piece that require additional information. Of particular interest is, this quote that he secured from the aforementioned Ms. Robinson in response to allegations that the department was playing favorites,
Responding to questions, Education Department spokeswoman Victoria Robinson said the department follows all state procurement laws and processes, “which explicitly prohibits promotion of vendors as well as any engagement with vendors throughout the competitive procurement process.”
This is an interesting assertion, as during the textbook adoption process the TDOE frequently promoted Wit and Wisdom via social media. The Department also collaborated with SCORE and Knowledge Matters to undertake a PR campaign to highlight the work of Tennessee LIFT districts that were early adopters of Wit and Wisdom and CKLA. Those districts are now poised to benefit from their early adoption by serving as “Mentor Districts” per a recently secured federal grant.
To go even further, CKLA, at the behest of the Department of Education, conducted several workshops across the state designed to help educators “benefit” from the work of CKLA. The lesson plans on PBS are derived from CKLA lesson plans. In her quote, Ms. Robinson is asking us to disbelieve what our own eyes show us and instead believe the words of the Commissioner. A difficult task, especially because over half the districts in Tennessee were granted waivers to use materials not included on the list of state-approved materials.
The Lookout article closes by quoting state Sen. Ferrell Haile, a member of the Senate Education Committee, who seems to give a vote of confidence to Ms. Schwinn, “There has been some political mistakes made along the way. There have been some procedure mistakes made. But we all, in this type of process, those things are going to happen. They tend to build one upon the other.”
In the immortal words of legendary radio personality Paul Harvey, and now the rest of the story. Sumner County Schools, which falls into Haile’s district, is a LIFT District member. As such they enjoy a very close relationship with the DOE. They are also the former employers of the department’s Assistant Director of Materials and Curriculum Lisa Coons. Over the last year, they have been one of Great Mind’s most arduous supporters, and back in the early Fall traveled to Baltimore to observe Wit and Wisdom in action. Because everybody knows, Baltimore and Gallatin face similar issues.
Hopefully, this Lookout article isn’t the end of their dive into the Schwinigans of the past year. It’s getting past time that we enter into the accountability phase of this tragic yarn.
AND ANOTHER Hmmmm…MOMENT
On Christmas Eve the TNDOE dropped an RFP on an unsuspecting public, most of whom were off enjoying some holiday cheer. The RFP was for an $8.9 million contract hiring an outside vendor to train the state’s teacher’s in Foundational Literacy. The selected company would design two pieces of training, the first asynchronous and the second to be delivered over a week of live instruction. Furthermore, the hired vendor would supply trainers to work with individual districts on implementing material that reflected Tennessee’s new commitment to focusing on foundational skills when teaching reading as well as supply additional resources to assist LEAs in improving reading scores.
The RFP process is scheduled to end in mid-February. Imagine my surprise when perusing the TNTP job board, I found this listing – TNTP seeks future full-time Directors, ELA to join our Consulting Team in the Southeast Region to work with districts across Tennessee, supporting literacy instruction. TNTP is also hiring for a Senior Manager, English Language Arts – Tennessee. The job responsibilities for the latter are,
Supporting district and school leaders to deliver on their instructional leadership priorities and improve instruction for all students, particularly in literacy, by supporting them with key aspects of their roles, such as: (1) Leading compelling and practical professional learning on research-based practices in literacy instruction, topics including knowledge-building instructional materials and the explicit teaching of reading foundational skills, (2) Designing and executing regular cycles of teacher professional learning, observation and feedback, or student work analysis intended to improve instruction and student outcomes, (3) Conducting classroom visits to assess the quality of instruction and support coaches and leaders in identifying trends within and across schools, (4) Modeling effective observation and feedback practices, (5) Facilitating the implementation of strong instructional materials aligned to the shifts and demands of the Tennessee Academic Standards, and (6) Setting up and maintaining data systems and supporting teachers and leaders to engage in ongoing reflection and use of data to drive improvements
Hmmm…the TDOE itself is currently looking for A senior Director of Early Literacy whose job responsibilities are listed as, 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. As such, it’s not difficult to see the overlap between positions. Despite several months of looking, to date, they have yet to fill the position.
The RFP states,
Project Team – The Contractor shall provide the State with a project team to support the scope of work defined in this Contract, including the delivery of training, venue management, materials distribution onsite, and registration and attendance data reporting.
Not hard to match up those requirements with those listed in TNTP’s job listing for ELA directors. Probably just coincidence, right?
Yesterday, Tennessee Governor Bill Lee once again tried to bully Nashville and Memphis teachers and students back into buildings. The Governor voiced his opinion that both districts should offer in-person learning options by February 15th, despite that being Presidents Day.
MNPS Director of Schools took what appeared to be a defensive stance. Per MNPS spokesperson Sean Braisted,
“As Dr. Battle has repeatedly said in public and to the Governor today, MNPS will begin phasing-in students based on a decrease in community spread as reflected in our COVID-19 risk tracker. The schedule for returning students back to the classroom will be based on the health and safety of our students and staff as a top priority, and not on arbitrary timelines requested by the Governor.”
Words that were met with gratitude from many of Nashville’s teachers and families. Well luckily for Dr.Battle, the fight will be a short one. Today the district’s COVID-19 tracker dropped to a 2 month low of 6.7, well below the required 7.0 for re-opening. Despite previous assertions that the number had to remain below 7 for five days, today’s drop prompted the following from the Director of Schools,
“The Nashville community has made great progress in slowing the spread of COVID-19. I’ve made a commitment to our families, students, and staff that we would offer the in-person option when it was safer to do so based on our community spread. We will continue to watch the numbers over the weekend, and if they are sustained below 7, we’ll be providing a proposed phase-in schedule for students on Monday afternoon.”
Want to bet those numbers stay below 7 for the weekend? Want to bet the phase into in-person instruction begins a week from Monday? It is an absolute miracle that the COVID-19 number s have dropped 3.3 points in just a month despite little change in the city’s strategy, but here we are. Many parents should be elated at this turn in events, no more than those of the FB group Let Parent’s Choose who have worked tirelessly over the last several months.
One rumored change when kids return is that if they are forced to quarantine, they will be able to join an online classroom. Previously they were only offered asynchronous options. I suspect there will also be a further loosening of quarantine protocols, mirroring schools nationwide.
As for my household, we’ll be remaining virtual until 2021/2022. I’ve already signed my kids up for one experiment, I see no need to sign them up for another.
THE QUIET RETURN OF AN OLD ENDEAVOR
One of the signature initiatives of Dr. Joseph’s tenure was the creation of the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success. The initiative was announced amidst great fanfare and a promise of doubling the number of third-graders who read on grade level by 2025. Despite all the hoopla and the multitude of partners, the NPEF led initiative soon went dormant. In 2019, some life was breathed into it – or at least the hoopla was brought forth again – when the United Way was chosen as the lead organization,
“The Blueprint is one of the most comprehensive literacy plans in the country, and I’m confident that United Way’s vision will bring it to life,” said Mayor David Briley. “I look forward to seeing how they accelerate progress on the plan in 2019.”
Well, it’s now 2021 and little has been achieved under the Blueprint. School board chair Christiane Buggs was hired as a project manager, but no longer serves in that role. David Briley lost his re-election bid. Shawn Joseph is no longer the Director of Schools for MNPS. Many have probably forgotten all about the Blueprint.
Not so fast though, apparently there is a new wrinkle in the equation. Over the last several months, former State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen has been very quietly interviewing the districts reading experts. Rumor has it that she will be taking over the initiative in either an official or unofficial capacity.
As part of her interview process, I hope she interviews Victoria J. Risko, professor emerita at Vanderbilt University and a former president of the International Literacy Association. You see, McQueen is a proponent of the “Science of reading” and Risko, along with David Reinking, professor emeritus at Clemson University and a former president of the Literacy Research Association, and George G. Hruby, an associate research professor of literacy and executive director of the Collaborative Center for Literacy Development at the University of Kentucky, have written a piece for the Washington Post that warns of the dangers in thinking there is only one way to teach reading.
In their piece, they recognize the argument over the use of phonics but add this caveat,
Underlying that continuum is the question of whether a deficiency in phonics is at the root of virtually all reading difficulties, or whether, like many medical conditions (e.g., heart disease), those difficulties have multiple etiologies, including external factors, such as impoverished school resources to support students.
They go on to say,
It is relatively easy to find measurable increases in decoding ability after phonics instruction. However, establishing a causal relation between approaches to phonics instruction and gains in real reading has been more elusive. Prominent studies across decades have failed to do so convincingly. One example is a critical review of several meta-analyses (comprehensive statistical analyses of effects across hundreds of studies), which was published recently in a highly regarded, peer-reviewed journal. It found no clear advantage for programs with a strong emphasis on phonics compared to those foregrounding other approaches (click on this).
It is tempting to misappropriate science in claiming a higher ground in an argument, especially one framed as a war. Unfortunately, some have naively suggested that science has unequivocally resolved how reading must be taught to every child and that those who disagree are science deniers.
Not only is that conclusion unwarranted, it is quintessentially unscientific. Among scientists, scientific certainty is an oxymoron and the bar for even approaching certainty is extremely high. The science of reading is more about reducing ignorance than finding ultimate, immutable truths applicable to every child. In the reading wars, scientific certainty is often used rhetorically to deny reasonable differences and cut off healthy debate, turning science into scientism.
Unfortunately, state lawmakers weren’t given this article before passing literacy-related legislation this year. Still, it’s a must-read for anyone who hopes for better outcomes for students.
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