“Politics will eventually be replaced by imagery.
The politician will be only too happy to abdicate
in favor of his image, because the image will
be much more powerful than he could ever be.”
Sometimes these posts fly from my fingers like bolts of lightning, but the majority of the time the process is closer to extracting a splinter – lots of poking, prodding, and scraping before completing the task. Today fall’s into the latter camp. There is a lot of things I think need hitting, and I’m going to try and cover as many as possible today. Some will require going backward and revisiting in the coming weeks, but hopefully, we’ll lay the groundwork. So forgive me if this feels more scattered than usual, but let’s see if I can pull some threads together.
TRAGEDY IN ANTIOCH
As happens all too often, today’s offering starts with tragedy. Earlier in the week, a 15-year-old male was shot at killed at his home in Antioch. Per the Tennessean, EJ Utley was a freshman at Hillsboro HS. Despite being a freshman, he saw significant playing time with the Hillsboro HS football team this past season. By all accounts, he was a good student, who stuck mostly to himself. His killer allegedly hid on his porch while a young lady visited Utley in his house. After about 10 minutes of her arrival, Utley came out on his porch where he was ambushed by his assailant.
It seems like nothing can stem the tide of senseless youth gun violence. Even amidst a pandemic where all are attending virtually, students are still victims. For Nashville as a whole, homicides are up. EJ may be the first victim under 21, but 2021 has already produced 15 criminal homicides. That number should be of concern to all of us.
IRONY IN TENNESSEE
Yesterday, Tennessee’s Attorney General announced that the state would be receiving approximately $15.2 million as part of a settlement with McKinsey Consulting over their role in the opioid crisis. Per the Center Square,
Court documents outline how McKinsey advised Purdue on how to circumvent pharmacy restrictions to deliver high-dose prescriptions, how to target high-volume opioid prescribers, and on specific messaging to get doctors to prescribe more OxyContin to patients.
But it wasn’t just a case of not knowing better,
According to the complaint, McKinsey partners exchanged emails about deleting documents and emails relating to work for Purdue when states began filing lawsuits against the opioid manufacturer.
Here’s irony comes into play. Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn have repeatedly tried to drive urban districts into re-opening school buildings by using dire warnings around “learning loss”. They do so despite knowing that no district in the United States delivers an assessment that measures learning loss. Now, you can argue that students may not be at the same level that preceding students were at the same point of the year, but that’s a failure to acquire not learning loss.
In discussing knowledge acquisition, it’s important to remember that all students are in similar circumstances and there is no expiration date on when knowledge can be acquired, nor that it can not be more rapidly acquired in future years. Just because students this year aren’t performing at a similar level as prior classes, does not mean that in future years they won’t outperform them.
McKinsey Consulting disagrees. Since the shuttering of schools, they have been pushing the narrative of “learning loss’, and sounding the alarm of a lost generation due to a failure to deliver in-person instruction to students. They warn this will be particularly damaging to minority and economically disadvantaged kids. Their reports have been frequently quoted by Governor Lee and Ms. Schwinn in an effort to drive schools back to re-opening before student and teacher safety can be assured. Companies that offer products to school districts have also touted McKinsey’s reports in an effort to move units.
So let me put this in a nutshell. You have a company that admittedly facilitated the opioid crisis, which has been particularly damaging to minorities and the economically disadvantaged, for financial benefit now driving a policy position that could lead to those very same groups being placed at risk, again for a possible profit motive. That’s rich. If you’ve already demonstrated a willingness to bend the truth to serve your own needs, why should we believe that you are not doing it again? Sometimes when people show you who they are…
For a more nuanced look at “learning loss”, I would refer you to a piece by John Hattie – Visible Learning Effect Sizes When Schools Are Closed: What Matters and What Does Not. Hattie is a respected education researcher. His research interests include performance indicators, models of measurement, and evaluation of teaching and learning. He became known to a wider public with his two books Visible Learning and Visible Learning for teachers. Visible Learning is a synthesis of more than 800 meta-studies covering more than 80 million students. After a lengthy explanation of what is truly important while schools are closed, his piece concludes with the following,
Schools, no matter via what medium, can be hubs of response and recovery, a place to support emotional recovery and promote social togetherness—and this is as important as any achievement gains. It would be wonderful to use this pandemic as an opportunity to learn about learning from afar, so share stories of success of teachers and students learning from this crisis, pay particular attention to below average or special needs students, discover how to develop collective efficacy among teachers and school leaders, and use this experience to learn how to best work with all students.
I think I’d pay closer attention to Hattie, as opposed to McKinsey.
AN INTERNAL WALL
Earlier in the week, the Tennessean published an article chronicling the ongoing feud between the Governor’s Office and the state’s urban districts. it’s a solid piece, filled with lots of information that should serve to give context to current events. There was one passage later in the article tough that caught my eye.
In the passage, the relationship between MNPS Board Member Gini Pupo-Walker and the Tennessee Department of Education is examined,
Nashville school board member Gini Pupo-Walker has a different relationship with the department than other board members because of her position as state director for The Education Trust, a national nonprofit that works to close opportunity gaps that disproportionately affect students of color and students from low-income families.
It goes on to quotes Ms. Walker,
Pupo-Walker said she works closely with relevant department staff for her day job but doesn’t interact with the department as much as a board member.
That statement should set off all kinds of warning bells about conflicts of interest. If I read the piece right, Ms. Walker collaborates regularly with the DOE in an effort to provide benefits for her private employer, but not so much for the benefit of those who elected her to represent their district. Furthermore, unless she is the rare person with an internal Berlin Wall, I fail to see how the two responsibilities can remain completely separate, yet remain equal.
Ms. Pupo-Walker is up for re-election in 18 months, hopefully, district voters will raise these questions. Or perhaps, it is of no concern to them and they’ll just re-elect her. Time will tell.
SOME CRYSTAL BALL GAZING
It seems that just before the start of the recently concluded General Assembly’s Special Session, Republicans took a trip to the cemetery, at midnight, in order to turn in their old hymnals and pick new ones. I say this because currently, they are all singing out of the same book, and it not the previous one. It’s also not one that’s been widely distributed.
Throughout last fall, and into early winter, there was a growing number of Republican lawmakers who were critical of both the Governor and Ms. Schwinn. There was no shortage of those who were concerned about the direction of the TDOE and openly expressed doubts about the commissioner’s ability to lead. Once the special session opened, that number shrunk to one comparable to the number of Democrats at a Morgan Waller concert.
Ever since the conclusion of the special sessions, those previously open lawmakers have only become more cagey and less willing to raise questions. Part of this I chalk up to national politics and a growing need for Republicans to coalesce into a picture of unity. There is enough criticism coming from external sources, that the last thing needed is the appearance of internal duress as well. I get it. Still, I don’t think that’s the sole reason, and as a result, my spidey sense is tingling something fierce.
In yesterday’s Tennessee Board of Education workshop, something we’ll continue to dive into, Penny Schwinn updated the state board on ongoing events. At a point, Board Executive Director Sarah Morrison asked for clarification on the proposed screener the DOE was charged with developing. The conversation soon diverged into the amount of work the two now faced, and how “they had spreadsheets spread all over”. Nervous laughter slipped from both, and the conversation subtly took on an air of shared recognition of the degree of difficulty of their assigned tasks and unspoken recognition that much of it would likely go undone. It got me thinking.
What if Governor Lee was deploying a two-part strategy. As the architect of the first part, what if Schwinn’s role was that of breaking everything? Perhaps she was never charged with building up the department, but simply to break down practices and protocols, and strip it to its roots. Setting things up for someone else to come in and re-build?
After all, the Governor has often referred to her as a disruptor? Not a builder, not a creator, but rather a disruptor. For those unfamiliar with “disruption theory” and how it works, the Harvard Review offers this overview,
First, a quick recap of the idea: “Disruption” describes a process whereby a smaller company with fewer resources is able to successfully challenge established incumbent businesses. Specifically, as incumbents focus on improving their products and services for their most demanding (and usually most profitable) customers, they exceed the needs of some segments and ignore the needs of others. Entrants that prove disruptive begin by successfully targeting those overlooked segments, gaining a foothold by delivering more-suitable functionality—frequently at a lower price. Incumbents, chasing higher profitability in more-demanding segments, tend not to respond vigorously. Entrants then move upmarket, delivering the performance that incumbents’ mainstream customers require, while preserving the advantages that drove their early success. When mainstream customers start adopting the entrants’ offerings in volume, disruption has occurred.
It’s not a straight apple to apple translation, but arguably, much of this, loosely adopted, has been transpiring over the last couple of years at the TDOE. Perhaps now, it’s time to exit the initial phase and begin the “adopting of the entrants’ offerings in volume” phase. Perhaps that means it’s time for Ms. Schwinn to ease out of the picture and a new commissioner, better equipped to capitalize on the opportunities she’s created, to enter the stage. It wouldn’t be surprising, since a quick look at the commissioner’s resume shows her average tenure to be about two years.
What if the reason that criticism and skepticism had minimized was that while down at the cemetery, party members were told of impending change? That they realized that further questioning was unnecessary because, well the governor was about to answer the ultimate question. What if?
What if the next commissioner is already here in Tennessee? What if he’s already leading a large urban district successfully? What if he was so successful that he was recently honored for his leadership with a statewide award and considered a finalist nationally? What if he recently became a Chief for Change? What if his current district had another Chief already in the wings ready to take over? What if his wife was already well established in Nashville social circles and would relish a return to the capital city? I know that’s a lot of “what ifs”, but what if?
TESTING, TESTING, 1, 2, 3…
Yesterday’s state board meeting left much to be unpacked. In several instances, the descriptions of bills provided by the Commissioner appeared to differ from those discussed in last month’s Special Session. Suddenly the new legislation is filled with options that put participation decisions in the hands of LEAs. The majority are supposedly left up to them to opt-in. Which begs the question, if the legislation is purely optional, why codify it?
One such area of question pertains to student retention. As part of the “learning loss” bill, the retention of third-graders who failed to achieve “on track” status was approved. In all fairness, there are numerous methods in which a child can avoid retention. None the less, this provision raises multiple concerns. Detractors point to the mountains of research that show the detrimental effects of retaining third-graders, not to mention the financial burden placed on districts that retain large numbers.
Much of the support for retention policies spring from a 2011 report written by Donald J. Hernandez (Hunter College and the Graduate Center, City University of New York, and Foundation for Child Development) on behalf of the Annie E. Casey Foundation, “Double Jeopardy” which ties third-grade reading proficiency (more or less as defined by NAEP) to high school graduation and then ties them both to poverty. A tie that could be as much correlation as causation. As pointed out by educator Peter Greene,
Research might well show that third grade shoe size is a good predictor of adult height, but it does not follow that making third graders wear bigger shoes, or making them stay in third grade until their feet are big enough, will lead to individual students to grow taller, nor raise the average height of adults.
And while it is traditional to shift fourth graders into “read to learn” mode, there does not seem to be any body of research that suggests that some developmental door slams shut when students are eight years old.
Greene goes further, pointing out that third-grade also happens to be the year we start standardized testing kids. Causation or correlation?
According to Ms. Schwinn’s presentation yesterday, despite being codified, the decision to retain third-graders will remain in the hands of the local districts, just as it has been since first codified back in 2011. Under questioning, Schwinn admitted that there is no penalty for a district choosing not to retain third graders. Interestingly enough, the Department created FAQ sheet offers no further explanation.
The new legislation does require that those in danger of retention be offered an opportunity to participate in summer school, a bridge camp, and or a year-long tutoring program. Participation in any of the aforementioned allows the student to pass on while requiring a pre and post-assessment. What happens if even after the remediation efforts the student still fails to achieve an adequate score on the test? Per the conversation during Schwinn’s presentation…nothing. The child is presumably passed on.
In discussing remediation efforts, the subject of TNReady was visited. Tennessee is committed to administering the test even as other states are recognizing it as an exercise in futility. David Berliner and Sharon Nichols wrote an opinion article for the San Antonio Express-News expressing several reasons why. The headline: “STAAR Outcome Obvious; Test Is a Waste of $90 Million.” Nichols is a professor at the University of Texas in San Antonio and Berliner is an emeritus professor at Arizona State University.
Another important reason for not testing this year is that content coverage by students has been uneven. Some kids took to remote learning, some didn’t; some kids had an adequate computer and a reliable Wi-Fi signal, but some did not. Some had a parent at home working with them, some did not. Some grappled with COVID-19 directly having to cope with sick family members, some did not.
We know that depression rates skyrocketed over the past year, with three times as many Americans meeting criteria for depression during the pandemic. We have no idea how this has affected millions of school-aged children. So, if the Texas curriculum for, say, 5th grade mathematics or language arts was not taught fully, or not received by every child, the test is patently invalid. That is because the test designers assume all kids have had an equal chance at exposure to the content of a state’s required curriculum.
If that assumption has clearly not been met, as in the 2019-2020 school year and now the 2020-2021 school year, the test scores obtained are prima facie uninterpretable. Furthermore, to use such a test for any consequential decision-making is in violation of the code of ethics of the American Psychological Association, the American Educational Research Association, and the National Council on Measurement in Education. Consequential decisions made on the basis of those invalid tests are easily and rightfully challenged in court. STAAR data for 2021 are tainted.
All pretty good reasons not to test and a recent article in the Wahington Post provides even more via Diane Ravitch. You know who doesn’t consider testing a fool’s errand this year? The Education Trust. In a letter written to soon to be Secretary of Education Miquel Cardona, they voice the following dubious claims,
To understand the effects of the COVID-19 crisis and ensure that this pandemic does not undermine the futures of students across the country, we must collect accurate, objective, and comparable data that speaks to the quality of education in this moment, including data from statewide assessments. Without this, state leaders will not be equipped with information about the disparate impact of unfinished learning; nor will they be able to equitably allocate resources, personnel, and services that accelerate learning. They will be unable to identify schools for comprehensive or targeted support, as required under federal civil rights law; they will be unable to require these schools to develop plans to address resource inequities; and they will be unable to target, in a meaningful way that recognizes COVID’s disparate impact, the billions of federal dollars that go to identified schools. For parents, families, and the communities we serve, assessment data aligned to state-adopted standards shows how well schools are serving all students, while holding students to high expectations and preparing them for postsecondary education and the workforce. In addition, schools, districts, and states should have designed a high-quality educational approach for remote and hybridized settings in the 2020 – 2021 school year based on lessons learned in spring 2020. Absent data, communities will be hard pressed to properly assess the appropriateness of COVID-19
related strategies and investments.
One of the long term criticism of standardized testing, that also applies here, is that results don’t come back quick enough. Results often don’t arrive until the beginning of the next school year, rendering them useless for guiding instruction. According to Ms. Schwinn’s testimony yesterday, that won’t be a problem this year. She has talked to the vendor and they have promised raw scores within 2 weeks after the close of the testing window. Sounds great huh?
Except for the fact that raw scores are virtually useless. Knowing that Johnny got 15 questions right means very little. To make the test a useful tool, scores need to be converted. That’s going to take a bit longer. Especially because TNReady is administered with paper and pencil. So I wouldn’t hold my breath on that two-week turnaround.
Ms. Schwinn has also talked repeatedly about a “short form” retake that will be made available to third-graders in jeopardy of being retained. Nobody I talk to can seem to get their head around that one. The TNReady test is a three-hour test that covers all of the grade level Tennessee State Standards. Will the short form do the same? If not, how are the applicable standards being determined? If we are just going to measure these “power standards” on kids facing retention, why we are giving all kids a three-hour test that covers all standards to begin with? Lastly, will districts be able to factor retakes into their accountability scores? Seems to me they’ve done the work, so they should get the credit.
There are just too many questions related to testing going forward. The DOE is already requesting a waiver of the mandatory 95% participation rate, need to go one step forward and join other states in asking for a complete waiver.
Andy Spears noticed that Republican lawmakers were crowing about how over the last decade they’ve awarded $616.5 million towards teacher salaries. He also noticed a few things that apparently slipped their mind. Well, in going through the FAQ on the Teacher Salary bill provided by the TDOE, I noticed something that likely slipped both their eyes. Something that will serve to further punish Tennessee’s urban districts even further.
In a department provide FAQ, when asked how charter school teachers would benefit from the recently passed bill, this was the answer,
Charter schools will continue to be funded following the average per-pupil funding provided to the district (per TCA 49-13-112(a)). As these funds will increase that average funding, charters will experience increased funding as a result.
So not only do the big urban districts employ more teachers than the BEP covers, thus necessitating a further spread of the designated funding, but that money will be further reduced before it even gets split. This why larger districts often don’t pass on the raises designated by the General Assembly. By the time the money is ready to be applied it’s such a minimal amount that it’s deemed more prudent to apply elsewhere. Lawmakers know this, they just choose to ignore it annually.
Here’s a fun game to play. Go to the MNPS COVID-19 tracker, it currently stands at 6.0. Now go over to the state data site. Enter “Davidson County”. About halfway down you’ll see a graph saying “tests reported for the day”. Compare the two. say it after me, “It’s all math.”
At any rate, buildings in Nashville will begin re-opening next week. Just in time to administer the state tests, but we’ll talk more about that in the future. 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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