“What we learn from history is that no one learns from history”
Keeping up with everything that is going on in the education world is getting a little difficult. As the moves keep escalating and demands grow exponentially.
In regard to MNPS, the COVID-19 tracker has remained under 7 all weekend and currently sits at 6.9. Today at 3:30 Dr. Battle will hold a press conference to announce a likely return to school. It’s an announcement that will elicit mixed reactions.
While virtually everybody longs for the re-opening of schools, there is a difference of opinion on whether it can be done safely or not under current conditions. Let’s dive deeper.
RE-OPENING OF SCHOOLS
Since mid-Summer, Commissioner Schwinn, at the urging of Governor Lee, has been pushing for schools to re-open for in-person learning, even when doing so might be considered unsafe for teachers and students. There was some lip service paid to a commitment to improving remote instruction, along with some aid in securing technology, but the focus has remained squarely on opening school buildings.
The TDOE did produce some opportunities for teachers to get guidance and PD on remote learning, but most of the offerings were broad and general, with only some of the information applying to local LEAs. Instead, teachers were left to rely on each other and local district offerings which varied greatly in quality, while every effort was made to increase in-person learning opportunities.
In an effort, to pressure schools to return as quickly as possible, Schwinn and Lee issued a clarion call on the dangers of learning loss. This is where they first touted the dire prediction of students losing 50% proficiency in ELA and 65% in Math. Numbers that have since proven to be grounded in something other than reality. The reality is that there is currently no assessment that measures “learning loss”. That doesn’t prevent folks from trying though.
I found this definition in a paper published by PACE last week,
Year to year, students are expected to learn new content and develop new skills; formative assessments are designed to measure student growth throughout the year towards grade-level standards. Concerns about “learning loss” are concerns that students aren’t learning content and mastering skills at the same rate that they typically would be. We know from prior years what academic growth in learning looks like in a typical year. Given the disruptions in schooling since March 2020, we hypothesize that students may learn less over the course of the pandemic. The difference between what they would have learned in a normal year and what they learn during the pandemic is what we refer to as “learning loss.”
I’d argue that what they are defining is not “loss”, but rather a supposed lack of growth. The question remains if I never had something and I still don’t have it, is it a question of loss or failure to ever acquire? It’s like this if most teenagers get their driver’s license at 16 and I don’t, did I lose it or never fail to acquire it? I would suggest that a deeper look at why I didn’t acquire my DL would preclude emergency remedy steps. However, that is not the approach we are currently taking with students.
I would add that it’s not unexpected as educators were forced to invent instruction modes on the fly, with varying degrees of success. I would go even further and argue that as instruction models are evolving, it’s nearly impossible to predict their level of success going forth. Anybody who thinks that we have hit the ceiling in the development of remote learning is mistaken. Offerings will only improve going forth, and possibilities still remain untapped. Comparing past efforts to the current success rates is not an accurate assumption. Perhaps if we focused on instruction instead of assessment, some of that failure to acquire would rectify itself.
PACE offers plenty of caveats against drawing too many conclusions from the limited data available and concludes with the following,
Ultimately, addressing students’ learning loss will require a student-centered approach that puts family and student relationships first, and a systemic transformationin how schools address the overlapping learning, behavioral, and emotional needs that support effective learning and teaching.
Despite these caveats, the Governor and the Commissioner are continuing to use “learning loss” to ramp up their push for the state’s urban school districts to re-open their school buildings even as questions around safety remain. Vaccinations for teachers in both Memphis and Nashville remain unavailable to most until mid-February at best, yet Lee and Schwinn are putting on a multi-prong attack for the two districts to open up by February 15th. As a result, teachers are once again left to their own devices to find alternatives to mitigate the demands of state leaders.
Last week teachers, like characters in some dystopian novel, were not only scouring surrounding counties for vaccination opportunities but expanding that search out to surrounding states. Several MNPS teachers had made appointments in Hopkinsville Kentucky, only to have them canceled at the last minute. Teachers are now looking at Alabama as the best source of a vaccination.
In whose eyes is this a viable means in which to get the school buildings open?
During the recently concluded TN General Assembly’s Special Session, a bill was passed that would hold teacher’s and student’s harmless when it came to this year’s standardized testing. However, if districts failed to get 80% of their students tested, they could still face some accountability. This comes at a very interesting time as more and more states are recognizing the futility of testing this year and are instead applying for a waiver of federal requirements from the USDOE.
“In light of the ongoing pandemic, we have determined that the Spring 2021 state assessments cannot be safely, equitably, and fairly administered to students in schools across the state,” New York Board of Regents Chancellor Lester W. Young Jr. said in a statement announcing the state’s intention to seek a waiver. New York was among the first to ask for a waiver but has been since been followed by Michigan and several others. So many so that the USDOE sent out a letter to states informing them that the deadline to apply for a waiver has been extended past today, which was the previous deadline.
Tennessee is not only determined to give its standardized test, TNReady, but also demanding that it be done in person. This should prove challenging for both Memphis and Nashville, seeing as both have nearly half of their students continuing with remote learning even if school buildings open tomorrow. As a parent, why would I potentially put my child at risk, if I didn’t feel attending in-person instruction was worth the risk? Commissioner Schwinn and Governor purport to be big proponents of parental choice, except when that choice doesn’t suit their needs. By potentially penalizing school districts with adverse consequences, they are forcing parents to decide between doing what they feel is best for their children and what is best for the school district.
It seems as if this year’s TNReady is serving as a means to prove an assumption of which other policies have perhaps been prematurely adopted. To get as many students tested as possible the department has opened the testing window to 9.5 weeks. This means that some kids could be taking the exam 2 months after others and their scores may benefit from the extra weeks of instruction.
Again, if it is students we are concerned with, why not skip the assessment and instead focus on those skills we feel they aren’t acquiring? Out of one side of their mouth, Lee and Schwinn are saying children are suffering, while out of the other they are claiming a need to measure to see how they are suffering. You can’t have it both ways.
TUTORING AND SUMMER SCHOOL
Education policies seem to run on an endless hamster wheel. Old ideas are consistently recycled and repackaged as innovation. The latest is tutors and summer school. Both of them good ideas, but certainly not original. Do you really think that in the past nobody has sat around the teacher lounge and said to those gathered, “Boy it would be really helpful if I could get a little extra one on one interaction for my struggling kids”? Or, “Man, if these struggling kids couldn’t just get a little extra help during the summer…”
The truth is, we’ve been down this road before and have not been overly successful. I can remember tutoring programs that were targeted at what was known as “bubble kids”. You know the ones who were just a question or two away from moving to the “on track” level. The reasoning being that if you could move those, scores overall would look a lot better.
Every president over the last 30 years has had their own version of the tutoring brigade. Clinton had a program called “America Reads,” which was never able to meet the challenge of securing thousands of nonprofessional volunteer tutors, and those recruited did not transform reading outcomes. With George Bush, it was Ready to Read, Ready to Learn. President Obama made federal money available for tutoring programs as well. Despite, limited success stories, both were incapable of moving the needle in a meaningful manner.
Research has shown us that for tutoring programs to be successful they must draw from 4 key elements,
- Employs certified classroom teachers when available (whether currently teaching or not), or paraprofessional staff, such as existing paraprofessionals, teacher candidates enrolled in preparation programs or well-trained tutors who earn a stipend, such as AmeriCorps members;
- Is provided at least 3 days per week for at least 30 minutes, as part of the regular school day, in groups of 5 or fewer;
- Invests in staff capacity building by providing quality training and ongoing support; and
- Builds relationships among students, tutors, and teachers through structured time that is well-aligned with regular classroom curriculum.
In the past, the biggest drawback came from a lack of funding and staffing. Two areas in which recently passed legislation again fails to adequately address program needs. During the special session, In the senate finance committee, lawmakers themselves recognized the potential funding shortfall for the programs and questioned Commissioner Schwinn about it. She acknowledged that for those districts that don’t have the benefit of economic to scale, it could be a problem. No real solution was purposed and I suspect that was intentional.
Per the CARES Act legislation, the TDOE is not supposed to influence LEAs on how they invest their money. But first off, the recently completed ELA textbook adoption process gives us an idea about how the commissioner feels about respecting boundaries, and secondly, summer camps are slated to be offered this summer. The second round of federal funding is expected to be delivered to LEAs this month and they are currently planning on how to use their allotment as we speak.
Now hypothetically speaking, what would happen if a district was in the process of planning their summer offerings and they realized they were facing a financial shortfall. In response, they called the TDOE and expressed their concern. The department unfortunately would have to inform them that legislation provided no extra money in the event of such a shortfall. After much hand wringing between the two, the question of the LEAs’ federal money might come up. Perhaps they could change plans a little, scale back the local initiatives, and instead shift some of their money towards the summer school. Maybe those HVAC repairs could be slated for two years, while this year they fund summer school? Conveniently the state requirement to hold those summer schools ends about the same time as the deadline for spending ESSER money. Again, purely hypothetical.
Here’s another question for you. If summer schools and tutoring were so effective in accelerating learning, why is the state just now breaking out the checkbook? Was there not a perception of need prior to the pandemic? Were we doing so well that additional investments weren’t needed? SCORE released a statement praising the new laws,
SCORE believes that the policies put in place by these bills are important first steps in delivering wider student success across Tennessee. The new laws will enable our state to take on some of the biggest challenges facing K-12 education – addressing Tennessee’s literacy crisis, hastening learning recovery from pandemic disruptions, continuing statewide assessment of student learning while installing a year of accountability flexibility, and increasing teacher compensation.
So why haven’t they been done in the past? Why now and to what end? It not like the other initiatives championed by SCORE over the last decade have exactly been game-changers, why now?
I suspect that one of the biggest beneficiaries of the new legislation will be Teach for America and TNTP. The new legislation calls for a massive amount of training of both teachers and tutors in the state’s new instructional approach. As much as everybody would like to utilize teachers in the role of tutors and summer school staffing, additional troops may have to be called into service. Somebody will have to train them, and seeing as TNTP has set themselves up as the experts in “high-quality” curriculum, who better to do the training?
A decade ago when the nation was reeling from a recession and unemployment was high, it was easy for TFA to recruit education tourists. Faced with limited prospects for employment, it was an easy decision for graduating college students to chose to serve in schools for a couple years while awaiting the rebound of the job market. Now though, forced with a decision between pulling in a six-figure salary in the career of your choice, or making decidedly less in a job that you don’t want to make a career, recruitment becomes a whole lot more difficult.
But what if we weren’t talking about a career? What if we were talking about service you could perform while pursuing your career? Something that would look real good on a resume? Something that you could take pride in while pulling down your six-figure salary? Might be something there. And who already has the pipeline laid.
As an added bonus, some of these high-quality tutors might get bit by the teaching bug, Maybe they’ll want to continue with it. Luckily there are some local “grow your own” programs that could facilitate that happening. Maybe we could even save a little money because, why pay a veteran teacher when I can get 2 tutors for that price and one may eventually become a teacher? Again, we are faced with circumstances that tend to benefit adults more than kids.
On the heels of the new legislation, the Tennessee Department of Education has picked up their hiring pace. While they are hiring for roughly 19 positions, several are particularly interesting, including that of the Learning Acceleration Coordinator.
The Learning Acceleration Coordinator will support the execution of the statewide summer and tutoring programs for the state of Tennessee. This role will ensure that all students have the opportunity to learning (typo is theirs, not mine) successfully and be able to meet their future goals and dreams. This role will be positioned within the Office of Academics and will support the Senior Director of Learning acceleration and her/his implementation of a coherent learning acceleration strategy across the state of Tennessee.
The duties and responsibilities are listed as follows,
· Demonstrates a passion for and an unwavering commitment to ensure all students have equitable learning experiences and are on-track to be successful.
· Serves as a subject matter expert in learning recovery and learning acceleration in the Tennessee Department of Education.
· Reviews summer school content and tutoring content and develops guidance, supports, and overview tools for districts to implement as well as provide feedback to vendors in the development of high-quality content.
· Ensure K-8 tutoring, tutoring training, and tutor competency testing resources are integrated into the LMS system and the BFAC tool.
· Develop communication reports for tutor candidates and ensure LMS system provides appropriate documentation for successful course completion.
· Tracks summer school programming district staffing, student enrollment, and pre-and post-benchmarking data.
· Provide integration of student support resources for students with disabilities, English Language Learners, and students with Dyslexia.
· Provide technical support for districts, tutors, and other stakeholders in use of summer school and tutoring materials.
· Develop strong relationships within project teams for the student acceleration project.
Hmmm…looks like a whole lot of power consolidated with the department, as well as an increased level of student data collection. In the past, the DOE was only privy to TNReady data. The new legislation will give the TDOE student information as it pertains to the screener which will be administered 3x a year, the pre and post-testing data from those participating in both summer camps and tutoring programs, as well as data from those who retake TNReady in order to pass on to 4th grade. That is a lot of data, probably why the position of Early Literacy Coordinator (Assessment) is also posted.
The worst part of all of this is that it is transpiring in the midst of a pandemic, not after the fact. Kids are still dealing with health issues both with their families and other loved ones. They are still dealing with the negative consequences of a crisis that may have slowed but is far from over. In the midst of this, we want to measure them, not on what they value, but rather on what we value. We want to propose solutions to problems we find paramount, not the ones that are prioritized by students.
We are rushing off to do something before we even know if what we are doing is the right something. Instead of recognizing that children are dealing with more than just schooling issues – death and health of loved ones, financial issues brought on by pandemic, technology challenges – we are just rushing off to apply solutions as if the only issues are the issues of the past. Instead of recognizing that students have gained in some areas during the pandemic, we make the assumption that it’s been nothing but loss.
We haven’t taken a second to assess what has worked, to what extent it worked, what needs discarding, and what building upon. How much of what is prescribed today will need to be undone once we get a clearer picture?
Once again the over-quoted words of Rahm Emmanuel echo, “Don’t let a good crisis go to waste.” Words that will serve to the detriment of us all.
This is a good place to stop for today.
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