“Publicity is justly commended as a remedy for social and industrial diseases. Sunlight is said to be the best of disinfectants; electric light the most efficient policeman.”
― Other People’s Money And How the Bankers Use It
I grew up a military brat and therefore spent my formative years on or nearby military bases. My father proudly served for 24 years in the Air Force. In the early Eighties, we were living in Pennsylvania, not far from Tobyhanna.
At the time there was a little lake/pond just inside the gate that was primarily used for fishing. Somebody took a look at that body of water and decided that it should also serve as a swimming hole. It was water and small enough, all someone presumably needed to do was buy some buoys and a lifeguard chair, and walla! A brand new recreational opportunity would be created. So without any delay or further research, a want ad for an aquatics director was placed.
Fortunately, I was an out of work lifeguard needing a summer gig. This sounded perfect. I could create something and watch over it. At 17, I would begin the crafting of my legacy. The powers that be were impressed with my sales pitch and I was hired.
After being sworn in, I quickly got to work getting quotes for beach equipment and writing policies. Unfortunately, two days after my start, the corp of engineers actually surveyed the proposed swimming hole and discovered the creation of a recreation area was not going to be feasible. Over the past several years, besides fishing, local residents had been dumping. As a result, the bottom was littered with debris, creating a swimming hole meant draining the lake and cleaning the bottom, then refilling it. There wasn’t money in the budget for that level of action.
Plans were promptly canceled, and I was shuffled off to the equipment rental shack. The rental shack was barely visited by enlisted men and women but was staffed by roughly four people. Among the seldom rented equipment was a ping pong table. The table was quickly assembled and I commenced to spend a summer drinking beer and betting paychecks over ping pong games. Luckily I won more than I lost, so for me, it was a great summer. I’m not sure taxpayers would agree.
Recently passed education legislation brings forth those memories. Once again, someone is rushing forward to do something at the expense of ensuring that it’s the right thing to do. Policymakers are making pronouncements on students while we are still in the midst of a pandemic. All kids are being thrown in a single bucket, the assumption being that all have been negatively impacted during the crisis. But they are individuals, all with different circumstances, all with different challenges.
In-person education looks pretty similar across the state, but even here there are variances. Remote education is a brand new undertaking, and as such, it looks different in different places, even within individual districts. The instruction from the beginning of the year has been improved on and now takes a different shape. It’s not just instruction that looks different, student circumstances and their ability to avail themselves of opportunities vary greatly among households. For some, the Coronavirus has had very little impact, for others, it has robbed them of family members and/or drastically impacted household finances along with creating learning challenges.
This morning I ran across a quote in a Wahington Post article that echoed a conversation held last night with my wife,
Like viewers of a pointillist painting, state- and district-level decision-makers see a holistic picture, grounded in legislation, local politics, assessment trends, and parent advocacy. They view the painting from a distance, where the individual dots form the impression of a single landscape.
But educators see the individual brushstrokes of color, the stray marks, the nuances that go missed when you stand too far away. We see the children. Both perspectives are needed. But states and districts have done a notoriously poor job of creating structures and cultures to truly incorporate educators’ close-range perspective.
It’s true, and as my wife pointed out last night, policymakers see things in the abstract, whereas for teachers, they can never lose sight of the individual students. Every single one of the state’s data points is a real, tangible student with real experiences influencing how they are responding to the ongoing pandemic. Designing remediation policy before ever fully analyzing the problem is a fool’s errand, and you can’t fully grasp the problems created by the crisis until you get to the other side. And we are not yet on the other side of the COVID-19 crisis.
As a special event bartender, I often am tasked with setting up a service area where none previously existed. There have times when I’ve arrived before those in charge. Oftentimes, my co-workers will want to dive in and set-up before receiving full instructions, assuming that they can divine the planner’s strategy. Unfortunately, all too often they make the wrong assumption, and precious time is wasted undoing the done and thus creating another crisis. All that was required was a little patience.
Any quality strategy must also include an honest evaluation of resources. Are we properly funding the plan? Can we secure necessary resources in a timely fashion? Do we have the right personnel in place to bring things to fruition?
Nobody knows the importance of the latter more than the person who carried recently passed education legislation in the Tennessee House, Scott Cepicky. Cepicky has long voiced a commitment to making Tennessee number 1 in education. What that means and how you define it, is inexplicable to me, but I don’t Cepicky’s commitment to serving students. Cepicky was a star athlete in high school, college, and had a brief career in minor league baseball. While being “number 1” is part of his lexicon, he knows nobody gets to be number 1, without assembling a team filled with talent.
I’m sure that frequently during his athletic career he sat around a locker room, silently evaluating those around him, weighing the odds of them bringing home a championship. Sometimes I suspect the ingredients were present, while at other times there were gaping holes.
Every July, 32 NFL teams open camp with the singular goal of winning the Super Bowl. But as rosters are analyzed, it becomes quickly apparent that only a few are built to successfully compete for the Lombardi Trophy. For most, there are deficiencies at linebacker, or they have a weak offensive line, perhaps the defensive backs are a little slow, whatever the case, not every team is built to win the Super Bowl, and those that failed to do the work during the offseason quickly fall out of contention.
I can’t help but wonder, what Cepicky sees when he sits around the locker room with the TDOE and looks at the team built by Commissioner Schwinn.
The legislation recently passed is ambitious, not unlike aspiring to win the Super Bowl. It proposes to dramatically shift the role of the Tennessee Department of Education from that of a source of support into one of leadership. It proposes putting control of the curriculum for both the school year and supplemental options in the department’s hands, along with a wide array of assessments. We can argue about the prudence of such decisions, but the change in scope is undeniable. As pointed out by several lawmakers, it’s a “heavy lift”, and as such it’s going to require an All-Star team.
We’ve already addressed the history of Commissioner Schwinn. Lisa Coons, the assistant commissioner of materials and curriculum has an equally transient past. Katie Houghtlin, Schwinn’s Special Advisor from Texas has never successfully implemented any large-scale legislative initiatives either, and newly hired Special Advisor Bill Dunn…let’s just say, if he ain’t bringing Glen Casada with him, his success rate drops dramatically as well.
So let’s exam the rest of the roster. It’s no secret that under Commissioner Schwinn, the TDOE has experienced a high rate of turnover. Many of you may be laboring under the assumption that the turnover rate has stabilized over the last several months. That would be an incorrect assumption.
Since October, at least 10 high-level employees have left the department. Including the following,
That list does not include Assistant Commissioner Robert Lundin who left under a cloud in September amid reports of mishandling Independent Education Accounts. Nor does it include Assistant Commissioner of Data Accountability and Data Governance Peter Witham who resigned on Monday. Word on the street is that Witham’s departure was hastened by a litany of errors on the release of Ready Grad information being inaccurate and including incorrect links,
Witham’s departure means that the number of people in the department who have run an accountability cycle is down to…wait for it..one. At a time when the Department is proposing multiple actions that are contingent on the accurate use and interpretation of student data, their human resource cupboard is bare. Some might consider that concerning.
The departure of Witham also means that his wife’s friend and recent hire, Sophie Mann is now highest in command. Mann if you’ll remember was the young lady who lived in Chicago and despite her being hired by the department of education insisted she wasn’t moving to Nashville. Word has it that she has since relocated, but that doesn’t make her resume any more robust.
This lack of experience at the data analysis position should be particularly concerning because it creates a vulnerability to data manipulation in order to support the Governor and the Commissioner’s vision, something both have shown a proclivity for in the past. I would say a heightened vigilance is in order here.
A look at the open positions listed on the department’s website shows 20 executive positions as being unfilled. One of them being the person who will be responsible for coordinating summer camps this summer. That means certifying teachers, creating a curriculum, and identifying eligible students, all will have to be done while being onboarded to the department of education. Not to mention the assembling of a team. It’s a timetable that begs questions. But will anybody ask them?
Meanwhile, the state’s two legitimate superstars, Eve Carney and Christie Ballard have slipped under the radar. Both proven assets that have gone incognito after testifying separately before legislators. Ballard if you remember, initially missed a hearing back in June due to a commitment to attend a wedding. She hasn’t been in front of legislators since and has kept a decidedly low profile.
Carney, was the face of the department this summer, seemingly taking on every new initiative. Until she had a contentious appearance during General Assembly’s summer session. Since then…crickets.
The reality is that Tennessee lawmakers have tasked a team that hasn’t proven capable of building sandcastles, with that of building pyramids. We are debating policy merit when the discussion should be centered on possibilities of implementation. A point that didn’t go unnoticed by several Republican lawmakers during the recently completed special session. The question now is, will they follow up with those reservations, or will they allow recently codified legislation to just sit on the shelf and wither?
The lack of depth at the department of education along with the continued turnover rate should be a concern to everyone. Executive positions at the DOE are highly specialized and as a result, draw from a very limited talent pool. Run one person off and you may be able to replace them, put run another off and you may quickly find yourself with limited options. Furthermore, once a workplace earns a reputation for toxicity, even a leadership change won’t improve the capabilities of drawing quality personnel. Making any successor’s task twice as difficult.
I guess the question that Representative Cepicky, and other lawmakers, should ask himself right now – as they survey the TDOE locker room – is, who do we want to emulate? Is it the Bucs or the Chiefs? Two teams, that have deeply invested in personnel in order to give themselves the best chance at success? Or is it the Jets or the Bears? Two teams that regularly craft lofty goals but never seem to have the players to make those goals a reality.
Or maybe, we’ll stick closer to home and choose the local team, the Titans. A team that for decades remains mired in mediocrity. Winning enough games to placate, but never able to bring home the championship. Hmmm…come to think of it…
COVID-19 TRACKER BLUES
Many, including myself, have been curious about how it was possible that MNPS’s COVID-19 tracker could fall from a high of 10 in mid-December to its current level of 6.3. The tracker may be a mathematical construction, but the principles of math hold to the idea that if you don’t alter variables, you won’t alter outcomes. And the truth is very little changed between November and now. Vaccinations are in the early stages of administration. People wearing masks now are the people who were wearing masks then, and the inverse holds true as well. The same goes for social distancing. So why the sudden drop?
Yesterday, while at the doctor’s office, I had an epiphany.
Think back to what was going on last year from November 1 to Christmas. Everybody was getting ready for the holidays, as part of the preparation, they were getting tested so as not to infect elderly family members. Even those who weren’t at risk were testing in order to assure that they didn’t inadvertently pass the virus on. As a by-product of circumstances, a considerable number of asymptomatic cases were caught.
Fast forward to January 1st. The holidays are over and nobody is planning to visit relatives. The impetus to get tested unless symptomatic or at high risk has been negated. As a result, testing is down, and by correlation, the number of asymptomatic cases identified has dropped as well. But has the rate of infection really changed? Who knows?
It is extremely likely that a similar number of cases of COVID still exist, and that the only thing that has dropped is the number of detected cases. But we’ve long bought into the theory of, it only counts if you are caught. Since we are not catching cases it stands to reason that it’s now safer out here. Or is it?
I would argue that it’s no safer to return to school now than it was last month. This also means, that if it is safe to return to school now, it was safe a month ago as well. I’m not taking a position, just pointing out a reality. If you are looking for support of either argument, two new studies released by the CDC will give you ammo. Still, anybody that thinks a return to in-person learning is anything but a response to pressure from the Governor is fooling themselves. Lee’s pressure has also facilitated another disturbing reaction.
By demanding that teachers return to classrooms despite his inability to adequately supply them with vaccinations, Governor Lee has spurred teachers to hit the road. Teachers are traveling 100’s miles in order to secure a vaccination in another county. It’s not uncommon for an MNPS teacher to be signed up for vaccination waiting lists in 14 different counties, anxiously awaiting the call from one before being forced back into a school building. While I certainly understand the motivation for teachers, what the hell is Governor Lee thinking?
Does he sit around with his Chief of Staff Blake Harris and brag, “Blake we are kicking ass in the leadership department. Teachers that should be focused on educating children are now traveling the state in pursuit of a vaccine in order to meet our demand of opening schools. Hell yea!”
It’s simultaneously ludicrous and inexcusable. Like something out of the latest Mad Max movie. As MNPS’s Director of Schools has said, “If the leadership in Tennessee is serious about keeping staff in classrooms, we need to make vaccinations a priority now, not just on a chart but in real life, at this moment.” This abdication of leadership likely to further inflame tensions between the state and its urban districts.
In today’s Tennessean, Meghan Mangrum offers some illumination of that conflict but fails to go deep enough. She neglects to mention the role of both Great Hearts and the bitter fights with the ASD over the potential take over of perceived failing schools. In both instances, the state was duplicitous in its actions towards both Memphis and Nashville. The legacy of the state Achievement School District has left deep scars in Memphis and probably has a great deal to do with why SCS Director Joris Ray takes such pleasure in putting his thumb in the state’s eye on a regular. After all, Memphis comes from a place of having documented proof that they can do better than the state.
In Nashville there are those that have never forgiven, let alone forgotten, then Tennessee Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman for his 3.4 million dollar penalty levied over the rejecting of Great Hearts Charter School. To this day, it remains a defining moment in Nashville’s education circles and implications still reverberate, creating divisions that have never healed.
Over at Chalkbeat, a deeper dive into the history of the rift between Nashville, Memphis, and the state. In their piece, they raise the idea of race as a possible root of the ongoing conflict. I’m not sure I’m ready to go there yet, but Memphis Rep Raumesh Akbari makes a very salient point when she tells Chalkbeat,do
“The official line is that this is not about race,” said Akbari, who is Black. “But it’s difficult for Memphians to think otherwise when folks from other places in our state are trying to decide what’s best for Memphis and Shelby County, and it’s in conflict with the decisions of local school leaders who know their community best.”
I’ve long questioned why white men from districts outside of Memphis and Nashville – Bill Dunn, Glen Casada, William Lamberth, Bill Lee – felt qualified to write prescriptions for the state’s urban school districts without local consultation. It is in this light that I was struck by the quotes in the Tennessean from Sumner County’s Rep William Lamberth about Memphis and Nashville’s failure to fall in line,
“I get very frustrated and I think some of my colleagues do as well, The money we sent to some of these districts, supposed to be for these kids’ benefit, some of these districts are using that money to sue the state of Tennessee rather than work with us for the betterment of our children. These lawsuits that seem to come up every single year are ridiculous.”
Apparently, he’s missing the obvious solution, quit writing legislation that fails to meet a bare legal threshold. Stop making people feel as if the only recourse they have is to file a lawsuit due to your inability to seek counsel. Lambert plays his true hand though,
“If the governor thinks it’s critical to student success then the approach should be ‘what do we need to get these things done,'”
Wow, maybe those citizenship courses are more needed than I thought. For the record, it’s Governor Lee, not King Lee.
At any rate, buildings in Nashville will begin re-opening this month. Just in time to administer the state tests, but that another subject for later in the week. For now, I’m going to leave it here with a prayer for the city’s educators. May the re-opening go as smoothly as possible and may they remain as safe as possible.
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