“It is a good lesson – though it may often be a hard one – for a man… to step aside out of the narrow circle in which his claims are recognized, and to find how utterly devoid of significance, beyond that circle, is all that he achieves, and all he aims at.”
My daughter has been taking ballet at Nashville Ballet for about 5 years now. It’s been a fantastic experience and I have no problem handing out a shameless plug. If you are looking for ballet classes for your young’un, they are the go-to place.
Back in the Fall, I was picking her up one evening from class, when she hopped in the car in an obviously good mood. If you are a parent of a pre-teen or teen, you know these moments are often fleeting and thus need to be treated with the care of holding a butterfly in your palm. A thing of beauty that if held too tightly can be crushed, or with the slightest movement, will take flight.
“Good class?”, I asked.
Still smiling, she nodded to me and responded. “Great class. I got lots of corrections!”
Puzzled, “That’s a good thing?”
She proceeded to launch into an extended explanation, “It’s a great thing! Ms. Miriam has taught me that when people give you corrections it means that they recognize how hard you are working and improving. It means that they think you have the potential to get even better. If they didn’t think you could improve, they wouldn’t say anything to you. Offering corrections means they believe in you.”
I was taken back a little bit. In my estimation, these were pretty mature thoughts coming out of the mouth of an 11-year-old. She wasn’t done yet though.
“This is kind of not the best example, but let me see if I can explain”, she continued, “It’s like if you were carving figures out of wood. Your first creation would be full of imperfections, but then you would go back and keep working on it. Changing it here and there until it got closer and closer to being right. That’s how ballet works. Sure I’ve learned a lot over the years but I’ve still got so much more to learn. When a teacher gives a correction it acknowledges what I’ve done, but gives me a way to get better. If they didn’t think I could get better they would just say compliments or nothing. So corrections mean they believe I can get even better and that makes me feel good.”
That conversation served as an eye-opener. I started looking at elements of my own life through this lens, and to be honest, it was illuminating and inspiring.
My daughter and I have established a new pattern when I pick her up. Instead of just asking how class went, I ask if she got a lot of corrections. The answer isn’t always positive, some times she’ll quietly say, “No so much.”
On those days I can see the wheels in her head-turning, as she silently analyzes the previous class, looking for areas of improvement. I always find it amusing that she takes the lack of corrections as inspiration to work harder and get to a place where she will earn more corrections. She’s focusing on growth over mastery. For many of us, it would be the opposite.
We would take the lack of criticism as a sign that everything was as it should be and that we don’t need to work any harder. Or we would look for ways to earn more compliments, to show how competent we are. Earning an award, as say, a Blue Ribbon School, might be taken as evidence of mastery as opposed to a need for continual improvement.
There is an observation that I think dovetails nicely here and I’d like to offer it. Those who have been regular readers of Dad Gone Wild know that I am seldom complimentary of MNPS Board Member Sharon Gentry, but there are times she gets it right, and for those she deserves recognition.
At a recent board meeting, Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy presented on the district’s efforts in the area of leadership development. During his presentation, he focused on the multiple gatherings of principals and AP’s in an individual and exclusive shared space for training. Dr. Gentry raised the question of whether there were ever sessions that included multiple tiers of employees, i.e. teachers, APs, and Principals all intermingling.
Bellamy’s answer was that the district had not done that, because Principals and APs preferred to gather in a space where it was just them exclusively – principals with principals, APs with APs.He cited a need to be able to be “vulnerable” as a primary justification. It was an answer that clearly wasn’t the one Dr.Gentry was looking for, and I agree with her on this point.
Too often leadership tries to set themselves up in a King Solomon-type role – all-knowing and handing down proclamations from Mt. High. But effective leadership doesn’t work that way. I would argue that the ability to appear vulnerable should be considered a key ingredient for an effective leader.
How do you get others to show their vulnerabilities if you refuse to show yours?
How do you get people to admit that they don’t have all the answers when you set yourself up as having all the answers.
Effective leadership is all about building relationships. Strong relationships can’t be build without transparency and honesty, both dependent on a willingness to be vulnerable.
Think about your personal relationships, I’d be willing to bet that some of the strongest bonds have grown from both parties seeing each other at their most vulnerable moments. Leadership shouldn’t be any different.
Leaders, young and inexperienced ones especially often fall into the trap of thinking they need to be the smartest person in the room. Me, I like to lead from the inverse. I like to gather a team that is smarter and more experienced than I and utilize those strengths to face our collective challenges. To me, that’s the ultimate goal, building a team that individually is strong, and then bringing it to a place where the team is even greater than the sum of its parts.
It’s in that light, that I hope Dr. Bellamy made some time after the board meeting to listen to Dr. Gentry. When people get it right, they get it right, and personalities should never stand in the way of progress.
Before we move away from MNPS, I would like to offer one final observation.
MNPS has long subscribed to the belief that individual principals know best about their individual schools. It was out of this belief that the practice of school-based budgeting was implemented. Based on students and their needs, individual principals draw up and present budgets that they believe best serve their buildings. There are a few non-negotiables that the district mandates, but for the most part, principals are given a fair amount of latitude.
It’s a system that for the most part works out well. Over the years the amount of centralized control has waxed and waned. As one of the districts recently announced Core Tenants, Dr. Battle has promised to give even more control by committing to transforming Central Office into a role of primarily supporting individual schools. Taken on the surface, that’s a good thing. But there still has to be some basic structure. It is that structure that is currently lacking.
As someone who has spent nearly a decade covering MNPS, I can tell you that these days, it’s extremely difficult to share an accurate picture of district policies and practices. With every school being left to its own devices, it’s nearly impossible to look at an instance and determine if it’s, a teacher issue, a principal issue, a school issue, or a district issue. Be it scheduling, adherence to the Florida Virtual School curriculum, how students in a building are transitioning, or even how teachers are taking time off to get vaccinated must account for their time, every school is doing it differently. And those differences are only growing. Despite Bellamy’s assertations to the board, everybody is not doing the same thing.
Part of this is just the normal way things are done, with a heightened illumination due to the pandemic. But more and more is happening at the discretion of individual principals, and thus creating precedence that will be hard to unwind post-crisis. Before too much longer, any efforts at unifying experiences among schools by district leadership will not be greeted warmly.
Part of me is hesitant to even raise the issue, out of fear that district leadership will overcorrect. But a lack of a common structure ultimately hurts teachers and students. When teachers communicate with peers and hear the different strategies, it creates more questions and resistance.
MNPS is a district with high student mobility, when practices vary greatly from school to school it creates confusion for students that find themselves having to transfer mid-year. Repeated transfer only served to acerbate problems.
Ultimately, principals, for the most part, do know best and as such, should be empowered to make day-to-day decisions. But MNPS is a school system and not a system of schools. As such, district leadership should create a framework to ensure all schools are playing on the same field.
It’s like this if we are all playing football, but some of us were playing on regulation fields, and some were playing on baseball diamonds, while some were playing in parking lots. The results would vary greatly and some teams would find themselves at a constant disadvantage. It’s up to the Director of Schools, and her team, to ensure that all are playing on a field that adheres to common regulations and provides the best opportunities for success for everyone.
A wise friend reminded me this week that inequities lead to casting schools as winners and losers. In education, there should never be any losers. Unfortunately, it’s a tenant we all too often forget while following our individual North Star.
Watching Tennessee General Assembly meetings can often be akin to shoving a sharp stick in your eye repeatedly, but on occasion, they can be illuminating. This week, Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn appeared in front of both the House and Senate Finance, Ways, and Means Committee. I encourage you to watch the tape. The real fun starts about 32 minutes into the House Committee meeting when Representative Faison brings up a recently written article in the TNEd Report. Props to Andy Spears.
Quoting from the article, Faison asks for confirmation that Tennessee’s BEP is indeed extremely underfunded, especially compared to other states and that there was $3 billion potentially available to the TDOE that wasn’t being used. Apparently, Faison is getting beat up at home by educators and he was looking for a Paul Harvey moment, to defend the state’s underfunding of education.
The argument of underfunding at this point shouldn’t even be a debate. According to the state’s own estimates, derived from a study done internally, the BEP (TN’s education funding formula) is underfunded by $1.7 billion per year. So why we are even acting like this is some kind of debatable assumption is a head-scratcher. But nonetheless…
In her response, Schwinn was very deliberate, pointing out that the state of Tennessee is currently involved in a lawsuit with Nashville and Memphis over BEP funding. She quickly dismissed the $3 billion reference as likely being about ESSER funding – it wasn’t – and reiterates that the state has no influence over how individual districts use federal money. It’s a well-executed deflection, but not an accurate one.
The $3 billion figure comes from a report recently produced by the Sycamore Foundation. One that I find it hard to believe has not been read by Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education. I am equally sure that Mr. Faison has read it as well. The report clearly states,
The FY 2022 recommended budget reflects a significant shift in revenue expectations compared to the current budget passed in June 2020 (Figure 1). At that time, the COVID-19 pandemic’s effect on state revenues remained unclear. Now, the Lee administration expects General Fund revenues to grow 1.8% in the current fiscal year and another 3.2% in FY 2022 – generating $1.1 and $1.5 billion more revenue, respectively, than is currently budgeted for FY 2021. An additional $1.0 billion is also available from an FY 2020 end-of-year surplus, reducing certain programs next year, and other revenues and balances (Figure 2).
It is that revenue stream that TNEd is referencing. Schwinn goes on to make it clear that the state has a formula they use to calculate education funding(BEP) and that the state fully funds that formula. On whether or not that formula is the correct one she doesn’t offer an opinion. Instead, repeatedly cites that over the last decade, legislators have put $1.4 billion into increased education spending, she also acknowledges that when compared to other states, most lists have Tennessee at best in the mid-thirties and some in the mid-forties regarding their level of education investment. That acknowledgment is presented as an “aw, what are you going to do” kind of moment.
Given a clear opening to advocate for a needed increase in financial support from legislators, Schwinn punts and instead, chooses to support the status quo. In other words, you have House Education Committee Chair Cerpicky challenging the state to produce the number one school district in the country, while his quarterback is advocating against signing better receivers. Let’s be clear, Tampa Bay didn’t recently win the Super Bowl by having a payroll that ranked in the bottom third of the NFL and Tennessee won’t meet Cerpicky’s challenge while remaining in the bottom third of state’s investing in education.
While not completely meaningless, the past increase in spending is irrelevant to the argument. It is akin to my HOA showing up and telling me that my house is in disrepair and needs to come up with codes, and my counter-argument is, “Yea, well I’ve spent $50K in improvements over the last decade.”
Their response would likely be, “Yea great, but your house still looks like crap. So maybe you need to spend a little more.”
If you need more evidence, former MNPS board member Amy Frogge does a great job laying out the argument for fixing the BEP formula. An eye-opener for me this week is the news that the BEP as it currently exists, does not fund counselors. Seems like that at the tail end of a pandemic, that would be kind of important.
Unfortunately, at her hearing, Commissioner Schwinn also revealed that the state could potentially receive upwards of 4.5 billion dollars in federal funding over the next 2 years. That’s a lot of benjamins and makes it difficult to create a sense of urgency around fixing the BEP.
The good news is that several state legislators are growing weary of the never-ending annual conversation, and are taking it upon themselves to dig deeper and possibly find solutions. There is a long way to go, but I am encouraged by these members of the General Assembly’s willingness to take up this challenge.
TESTING, TESTING, 1,2, 3
This week, Acting Ed Secretary Ian Rosenblum sent a letter out to state education chiefs indicating that state testing waivers would not be granted this year. It was a letter that seemed to fly in the face of promises made on the campaign trail by Joe Biden. Slapback was fast and furious, with others being better than I at explaining the fallacy of the policy. Among the best, Mark “Jersey Jazzman” Weber, who raised the following,
A core concept of assessment is that tests must be shown to be valid for the purposes in which they will be used. In other words: you should make a separate argument for every proposed use of a test. A test that may be valid to use for, say, determining whether there are enough overall resources in the education system isn’t necessarily valid for the purpose of determining whether a student should pass to the next grade.
Psyshometricians often speak of making a validity argument in favor of the use of a test for a particular purpose. That argument should touch upon the relevancy of the outcomes to a specific use, the consequences of making decisions based on these outcomes, the opportunity to learn the content in the test, and other factors.
One of the biggest failings in our current testing system is that we use statewide standardized tests for many purposes — even if no one has presented an argument for those uses. Some lawmakers have argued that these tests should be used as a graduation exam or to determine grade promotion, even though most have never put forward an argument that the test is valid for that purpose. Some say test outcomes run through a statistical model should be used to evaluate teachers, again without making an argument against the many reasons that’s a bad idea.
That’s especially true this year. The fact is that too much of what is happening in schools is out of the control of teachers, administrators, or students. Students have had wildly uneven opportunities to learn during the pandemic, and it’s not fair to visit consequences on them or their teachers based on outcomes in this year’s tests.
That kind of says it all. The whole point of standardized testing is that it is standardized. Care has been given, hypothetically, to remove as many variables as possible to accurately measure outcomes. That’s not happening this year. It can’t, no matter how much we try and put our finger in our ears and sing loudly, the pandemic has altered the landscape in too many diverse ways. The educational experience for every child in America over the last year has been different, dramatically different. Thus making the question of what are you going to do with results even more pertinent.
Educator and writer Peter Greene makes an especially salient point when he explains,
When your doctor wants to perform a biopsy, there’s a reason, and it’s not “Just thought I’d chop you open, dig around, see if I can figure out anything about your diet or your blood pressure or maybe check for cancer, and then we’ll do, I don’t know, something.” Your doctor has a specific intent both for the operation and for hat’s going to be done with the results.
If we are going to sacrifice valuable instructional time, we must do so in a very deliberate manner. For those of you concerned about that mythical threat of “learning loss” I refer you once again back to Greene,
Outline the testing benchmarks that you believe students should be reaching at this point in their education. Provide the research and evidence that establishes the validity of these benchmarks, showing how the selected test scores predict better life outcomes for the students who reach those scores on schedule (and the worse life outcomes for the students who don’t).
Additionally, provide an evidence-based program for how learning can be accelerated in order to get students to achieve those benchmarks.
Come Monday, we’ll dive a little deeper into the vested interest of those pushing for Standardized Testing. Groups like Education Trust, SCORE, TNTP, NIET, and the rest of the education alphabet. In the meantime, education writer Nancy Baily raises some especially troublesome questions for EduTrust, which is led in Tennessee by MNPS board member Gini Pupo-Walker. As Diane Ravitch points out,
EdTrust is Gates-funded, and its leader is John King, who served briefly as Secretary of Education in the last year of the Obama administration. King was Commissioner of Education in New York, where he was an enthusiastic proponent of the Common Core and high-stakes testing. His background is charter schools; he founded Roxbury Prep, a no-excuses charter school in Massachusetts with the highest suspension rate in the state.
EdTrust pushed hard to persuade Biden not to issue any testing waivers this year. The Department’s announcement was made by Ian Rosenblum, acting Assistant Secretary, who previously worked for…wait for it…EdTrust in New York, advocating for testing.
For all of those private entities, what are you going to do with the results doesn’t appear to be a hard question to answer. Like Rahm Emanuel once said, don’t ever let a good crisis go to waste. Rest assured that the aforementioned, have no intention of wasting present opportunities.
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