WHAT YOU SEE, AIN’T ALWAYS WHAT YOU GET

“Sometimes I aint so sho who’s got ere a right to say when a man is crazy and when he aint. Sometimes I think it aint none of us pure crazy and aint none of us pure sane until the balance of us talks him that-a-way. It’s like it aint so much what a fellow does, but it’s the way the majority of folks is looking at him when he does it.”
William Faulkner, As I Lay Dying

 

Recently I’ve spent a lot more time focused on the state and its education policies and less on MNPS and their actions. There are several reasons why.  First and foremost being that under the leadership of Commissioner Schwinn and her chief enabler Governor Lee, the TNDOE has become an ever-expanding dumpster fire. You can slap all the lipstick you want on the pig, but it remains an ever-growing swine.

At the same time, the administration under Dr. Battle’s leadership has proven to be a marked improvement, though there is still plenty of room for more. The tendency to treat everything as if it was a state secret still exists, as does the practice of crafting policy in isolation. Sure there is a parent advisory council, and a teacher panel, as well as a principal advisory committee, but in reality, those exist primarily as a means to disseminate information to their selected bodies. Seldom are the aforementioned called on to offer insight on proposed policy before implementation.

Perhaps some of this will improve as Dr. Battle and her team gains more experience. Several folks have cited evidence of such already transpiring.

Another reason is that with the majority of the district attending remotely, it’s harder to get a true overarching picture. The focus tends to be on individual schools and the quality of leadership in those facilities, versus the district’s overall leadership. I think there is an argument that could be made for that being the correct focus. Still, it makes understanding applications and policy more difficult.

At the end of next week, children of all grades will have returned to an in-person option. This will open even more challenges and create unforeseen potential issues. Will the new options satisfy those most dissatisfied with the district?

There has been a very vocal push to get school buildings open faster, but I think it’s safe to say, that Nashvillians, for the most part, echo national findings that schools are opening at a pace that the majority of parents are comfortable with. Per Chalkbeat,

A sizable minority of parents want more in-person instruction for their children, though their numbers appear somewhat more modest than their presence in the national political debate. The polls also offer some evidence that white and high-income families are the most likely to want a kind of instruction that their child is not receiving.

The challenge in this day and age, more so than in the past, is gauging the numbers and how they align to the noise. We tend to fall into the trap of equating the volume of complaints with the volume of those being critical. I think the words of Janelle Scott, an education professor at the University of California Berkeley sum it up best,

The new data is a sign that “districts are doing some things well.That’s not to say districts are doing everything well. There have been both very public stumbles and more local stumbles that people have rightly been frustrated with.

Admittedly, the timeline as students transition back is an interesting one. By the first week in March, all school buildings will be open. Two weeks later, starting March 15th, students are out for a week for Spring Break. Upon their return, the TCAP testing window will be open until May 14th. The TNDOE expanded the testing window this year to ensure that testing can happen and students can be kept safe. Legislators have also set the participation bar 80% for districts to be held completely harmless – whatever that means.

Legislators and DOE administers can put forth the argument all they want that scores won’t be used in a punitive manner, but anybody who’s been around for more than a minute, know that those scores will absolutely be used to paint a narrative that is more aligned with adult desires than children’s needs.

As I’ve written before, scores from this year will likely be utilized to paint a picture of dire circumstances this summer and then used next to paint a picture of the dramatic effects of “hi-dosage” tutoring next summer. But I digress.

What about that 80% participation rate? It’s a threshold that will be tough for Memphis and Nashville to hit.

First off, just because 55% of families have indicated a desire to return to in-person schooling, doesn’t mean 55% are showing up. Remember included in that number are those who made no selection and were, therefore, defaulted to in-person. . If you didn’t make a decision initially, there is no reason to believe you’ll honor a default assignment.

The challenge will be to get at least half of those attending virtually, to show up at school and take a test in-person that is supposedly meaningless. Not likely that is going to happen.

What about the kids taking the test? Do we think they won’t pick up on the fact that the test is essentially meaningless? Or are we all going to put on our fake mustaches, talk in an authoritative voice and try to convince them otherwise.

So now MNPS and SCS educators are simultaneously running and staffing two school districts while trying to drum up interest in a test that is devoid of both value and fidelity. But we are not done there, we are going to ask them to do all this in the midst of the budget season. One that is a great deal more complex than in the past.

Last week, MNPS principals received their enrollment projections for next year. For the most part, based on the most recent count in January (MNPS_Enrollment_2020-21_January_sum) those numbers are expected to be up. This runs contrary to the public narrative that MNPS is hemorrhaging students. In the coming weeks, Principals will get the actual dollar amounts attached to these numbers, and the calculating will begin in earnest.

As a public service, the Nashville Public Education Foundation has produced an infographic to help understand the process. What makes things more interesting is that early indications are that Dr. Battle’s administration intends to pass along funding awarded to the district by the CARES II Act. That means that individual schools could suddenly find themselves with an abundance of cash on hand. Normally a good thing, but not without pitfalls as well.

Funds are considered non-recurring, which means they are a one-time pot of money. Since personnel levels are considered recurring expenses, the advice is to not use this money for hiring personnel. That means investing in technology and materials. That makes the challenge a little more difficult.

Those of you who were around after the passing of Race to the Top, and the influx of cash it brought in, possibly remember book rooms full of materials that were never opened, let alone utilized. The thing with federal money is that you have to spend it by a certain date, or you have to return it. Nobody likes to return money, be it your neighbor next-door or the local school district or the state, so the result is often imprudent spending.

As a parent of children who’ve attended a school with high needs, it’s been my experience, that those schools suffer more from a deficiency of facilities and experiences than they do of money. It would be my preference that the district looks at ways to address those inequities rather than just throw money at problems.

Many of Nashville’s schools are housed in older buildings that have long required repair, or an upgrade. While there is probably not enough funding to address all those needs, surely there is enough to make a dent.

I read with interest that Dr. Battle will be talking with the parent advocacy group PROPEL this week. On the agenda is the long-promised student dashboard. The district has talked about this tool since the days of Dr. Joseph without actually producing it. Now would be a good time to heavily invest in not only producing a dashboard but producing one that won’t be obsolete soon.

Even with school buildings opening, there are still those that are going to prefer to remain remote. Now would be the time to invest in training people and developing a platform that improves remote instruction capabilities.

Many of the charter schools have been back-stocking technology. Not a bad idea, as long as we can be sure that inventory won’t quickly become outdated.

So let’s review, principals and teachers are now being charged with maintaining 2 school systems, facilitating a testing program, and developing budget needs for next year. When we expect this much multi-tasking, it shouldn’t surprise us that not all areas receive the same level of attention. It’s also clear that 3 other areas of focus could benefit from the elimination of one area of focus – testing administration.

If we allowed teachers and principals to focus on serving students, not only would their current needs be better serviced, but also we’d get a clearer picture of future needs and how to provide for them. Extending past MNPS, I don’t believe there is a superintendent in the state that needs assistance from the TNDOE or legislators in assessing the needs of their students and their families. Not a one.

The narrative is continually put forth that unless the state conducts TNReady testing, we will have no idea where students are learning-wise. It is an assertion that is categorically false. RTI legislation requires the administration of screeners 3 times a year in math and ELA. That data is readily available to each local district. They don’t need help interpreting that data. And I’m sure the vast majority of them have already designed and implemented strategies to address those interpretations.

An oft put forth defense of testing is that you can’t measure weight loss without a scale. Well in this instance, you don’t step on the scale only an hour after starting a diet. The role of the Tennessee Department of Education should be one of support, not one of dictating and prescribing. The fact that I even have to say that in a state with a conservative majority at the level of Tennessee, is baffling to me.

I guess my roundabout point here, is that it is hard to judge the quality of leadership if they are not allowed to lead. Dr. Battle and her team have done a better than average job leading in this crisis, but one can’t help but wonder what that leadership would have looked like without the constant pressure from the state.

Perhaps, teachers wouldn’t be driving across the state in search of vaccinations because they were being forced back into schools before adequate precautions could be put in place.

Perhaps, state testing could have been suspended in order to focus on increased instructional time for students.

Perhaps, leadership could have drawn on their experience and education in the design of instructional practice instead of being forced to adopt the state’s prescribed practices and materials.

On a side note, the irony is not lost on me that the materials and methods that MNPS must adopt are being forced upon Dr. Battle by the only person that she actually fired as director – Dr. Lisa Coons. Coons couldn’t make progress with MNPS’s priority schools but she’s now going to determine the course for the entire district and the state of Tennessee.

I’d laugh if it didn’t so make me want to cry.

A DIFFERENT KIND OF READING WAR

Quietly behind the scenes, former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen has assumed control of the previously created “Blueprint for Early Childhood Success“. When initially created, it was touted as the envy of the nation and presented as citywide framework for literacy that aimed to double the number of third-graders reading at grade level by 2025. At the time it was managed by NPEF, but later it found its way under the umbrella of the United Way. Since its inception, it’s mostly laid dormant.

Now it’s getting new life as reports surface of McQueen interviewing MNPS literacy experts and reportedly rewriting the strategy. Some reports indicate that she’s been contracted by Great Minds to facilitate the implementation of their literacy materials. The timing of this is interesting.

While both McQueen and Tennessee’s current Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn are proponents of instructional practices that place emphasis on foundational skills, there is little else they see eye to eye on. Schwinn if you’ll remember defunded McQueen’s successful and popular reading camps. The SOE and MNPS have been at odds for several months over several issues, how will this all comes into play is a reasonable question.

Recent legislation passed during the special session requires that all districts submit to the DOE an early childhood literacy plan. It’s hard to imagine that McQueen won’t be heavily influential in MNPS’s submission. How will this sit with Mrs. Schwinn, who has been very critical of the past efforts put forth by McQueen during her tenure as state commissioner?  What happens, if McQueen’s strategies surpass the efforts of Schwinn. Seems like we have the making of a whole another Reading War.

FOLLOW THE MONEY

Many of you are aware of the plethora of so-called non-profits that set themselves up to exert influence over state education policies. They present themselves in an altruistic light, though a glimpse behind the scenes doesn’t always support that narrative. In Tennessee, we have the State Cooperative on Reforming Education(SCORE).  SCORE has been involved in education policy for over a decade despite its supported policies making little difference. Depending on which potential donor they are talking to, they’ll tell you the state has been either wildly successful or that it is mired in a crisis.

Just for fun, in an effort to get a better picture of circumstances, let’s take a look at their 1099 for 2019. Now there is a lot here that should pique your interest, but for today, let’s just focus on grants awarded. In particular, the quarter of a million dollars going to the Phara Institute. Now to many of you, that organization may be an unfamiliar one, but a quick perusal of their website will clarify what they are all about.

David Mansouri, the current head of SCORE, was fortunate enough in the Fall of 2018 to be included in a cohort of Aspen-Phara fellows. Here’s a fun game to play, look at the list of people in his cohort and see if you can spot the public school advocate. Hopefully, you’ll have better luck than I did. Hint, it’s not the guy from Uncommon Schools, or the gal from Foundations for Excellence in Education, nor the guy from Excell Academy Charter Schools. But I’ll let you draw your own conclusions.

SHORT SHOTS

Yesterday, Tennessee State University President Glenda Glover proudly announced that she was joining the board of Core Civic, a company that oversees the operation of prisons across the country. It was an announcement that was not greeted with congratulations. Push back was fast and furious. Today she announces that she will not be accepting that role or the $200K that comes with it. A welcome decision.

Tennesse Democrats filed a bunch of bills last week, despite sessions being closed due to weather, in an attempt to address financial shortfalls. The bills are unlikely to go anywhere due to Republican lawmakers feeling like they adequately addressed educational issues during Special Session and an apparent desire to focus on important issues like transgender athletes possibly playing high school and middle school sports or stopping the spread of Common Core. If you are unsure what the phrase”fully funding the BEP” means, I encourage you to watch TEA’s video shared by Andy Spears.

Tuesday is another school board meeting for MNPS. A look at the agenda raises a couple questions. TNTP is on deck for approval of a contract to provide leadership training. Also up forth consideration is a contract with the Nationa Teacher Residency in which work has already begun without a purchase order. There is also no contract number or dollar figure attached. I thought we didn’t do this kind of thing anymore. Some of you might find this passage from their website interesting,

Originally incubated in Project Renaissance, NTR became its own non-profit in 2017. In 2018, we were admitted to the National Center for Teacher Residencies, a nationwide network of 30 exceptional teacher residencies which informs and pushes our work and thinking.  Our partners have expanded from 4 schools in the 2016-17 school year to 17 in 2019-20, including Metro Nashville Public Schools, Clarksville Montgomery County Public Schools, and public charter schools. 

A look at their board also raises some questions. A few names there that have not exactly been friends of MNPS over the years. In particular, Coverstone and Testerman. Coverstone was formerly the Chief Executive of Charter Schools for MNPS, while Testerman was the COO of the Tennessee Charter School Center. Hopefully, a board member will pull this one off of the consent agenda for further discussion.

In related news, why am I not shocked to find out that Coverstone is now working for the Gates Foundation?

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

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If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. The sliding ownership of the blueprint is unusual

    I thought there were some good observations in this one

    Click to access Full-Report.pdf

    We are great about making plans in this city. Executing? Not so much

    • I’m part of a working group under the auspices of the Blueprint. Our task, which is just beginning, is to improve the ability of parents, etc to learn about and access the vast amount of services and resources that are available in MNPS and the community at large to help their children succeed.

      You’re way ahead of the game if you’ve been following the Blueprint. Wanna join us?

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