“If I had a message to my contemporaries it is surely this: Be anything you like, be madmen, drunks, and bastards of every shape and form, but at all costs avoid one thing: success . . . If you are too obsessed with success, you will forget to live. If you have learned only how to be a success, your life has probably been wasted.”
Back in the early ’90s, in the music world, there was a rejection of what was considered “corporate rock”. Out of this rejection, the indie rock scene was born. Suddenly so-called indie labels were springing up everywhere – Alternative Tentacles, Sub-Pop, Restless, Discord, Lookout Records, Epithath, just to name a few. Buying indie records and supporting the bands that released them, was seen as a rejection of the corporate influence.
Well, huge corporations didn’t become huge out of sheer luck. The big labels like Warner Brothers, Sony, Capital, quickly caught the drift and countered by buying up independents. They would continue releasing music under the independent moniker but the profits were going in the corporate bank account. Record buyers might have thought they were supporting the local DYI effort, but the reality was that the same old people were getting paid. It was an eye-opener for me, and one that has become quite relevant when pursuing education issues.
The casual observer likely believes that schools are governed by school boards and superintendents, overseen by the state department of education and the state school board. The General assembly sets policy that they feel supports the vision and desires of state residents. The Federal Department of Education helps set overarching policy and funds initiatives. When it comes to schools, the general belief is that the power remains primarily with parents and other citizens. If only it were that clear.
In a general sense, that is kind of how it works. Except over the last several decades, there has been a rise in “advocacy” groups that lobby and push for special interests. Special interests usually benefit financially by the implementation of their preferred policies. These groups usually have innocuous names that give the impression that they are fighting for parents and kids – Stand For Children, Teach For America, The New Teacher Project, Education Trust, Tennessee Campaign For Achievement, State Cooperative for Reforming Education. If you didn’t know better, you’d have positive feelings about their efforts. That’s not by accident.
Behind these feel-good names lurks a lot of cash. Cash that comes via a select number of billionaires – Gates Foundation, Hyde Foundation, Walton Foundation. To most of you, this is not new information, but I wonder if even the most informed are aware of the salaries commanded by the “public interest” groups and the volume of money they spread around. The most recently available tax forms are from a year or two ago, but I doubt anybody has taken a pay cut since then,
- John King, Education Trust, made $531,027 in 2018. Many of you know that Acting-US Secretary of Education Ian Rosenblum previously worked for EDuTrusrt but did you know that in 2018 he cleared a salary of $216,788?
- Elisa Villanueva Beard, Teach For America, in 2017 drew an annual salary of $493,836
- Daniel Weisberg, TNTP, in 2018 received $348,779 in compensation.
- David Mansouri, SCORE CEO, and Sharon Roberts, Chief Impact Officer, pulled in $313,295 and 272,808 respectively.
- Brent Easly, TNCAN, the year before he went to work for Governor Lee cleared roughly $170K.
- Candace McQueen, NIET, didn’t take over as Executive Director until last year but in 2018 her predecessor drew a salary of
I think we are all in agreement when I say, we are talking about some hefty dinero here. Being the good capitalist we are, the next question would be, for what? What good are they producing, or what service are they providing, that justifies the level of salaries they are earning? Have they improved student outcomes to a level where such compensation is warranted? This is especially pertinent when you consider that it would take the average classroom teacher nearly a decade to earn what John King gets paid in a year. (But hey thanks for the $50 a week raise Governor Lee.)
Before we go any further, I think we need to recognize that when it comes to these folks, we, the public, are not the client. We are not the ones that are paying their salaries, so we can’t really determine if we are getting a bang for our buck. These organizations are not unlike the teacher’s unions, the field of work may be in k-12 education, but neither works directly to serve the state students and their families.
The difference between the unions and these advocacy groups is that who the unions work for is crystal clear, and studies have shown that usually what’s good for teachers, is good for students. Secondly, nobody running a union is making a comparable salary to the aforementioned. In fact, most of the salaries are greater than that of the people charged with running the state’s individual school districts, and even that of Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education. MNPS’s Dr. Battle is responsible for 80K plus students and over 10K employees, what in god’s name could David Mansouri be doing that warrants a comparable salary?
It remains rather murky on who’s footing the bill for the advocacy groups. But here’s the thing, somebody obviously believes that they are getting value for their dollar, or else they wouldn’t be employed, right?
Influence is the currency these CEOs are trading in. Influence that is invisible to most of us. Somebody is paying them to influence legislators to create and pass policies that are favorable to them. Now to change laws, there has to be a reason. Nothing creates a purpose like a crisis, if none exists, create one. This is why we are currently mired in the “learning loss” crisis. Does anybody else find it ludicrous that we have legislation named for something whose existence we can’t measure? How do we know when we’ve erased “learning loss”?
Even though we can’t measure “learning loss’, the people that keep the lights on at EDuTrust believe strongly in the power of standardized testing to affect student outcomes. It doesn’t hurt that it also happens to be a very profitable endeavor. Therefore I can promise you that John King, is never going to come out and say we don’t need standardized testing. He’s collecting that half-million annual salary by convincing all of us that testing is more essential now than ever. Luckily for him, he has a former staff member that is serving as acting-Secretary of Education, so he doesn’t have to do too much convincing.
In light of the recent announcement that the USDOE won’t be granting testing waivers, I think the people funding John King’s salary feel like they are getting their money’s worth. But what if a different message was delivered.
Imagine if the people leading these advocacy groups came out and said the truth, “Kids haven’t got as much instruction this year as in past years and therefore growth is not going to be at the same level in measured subjects. Though they have increased their mastery in other areas like technology, time management, perseverance, all areas essential to career and life readiness. Teachers and local districts are best suited to address shortcomings and develop strategies for delivering instruction in those areas. We believe that now is a prime opportunity to reassess what we teach and how. Children will be fine.”
Think of the lost revenue from unadministered assessments. Think of the lost revenue from consultant services that went unpurchased. Sans crisis, who’s going to spend billions on education if things are essentially “fine”. In that scenario, I don’t think the folks footing the bill would feel like they were getting their money’s worth.
So right now you might be asking, what’s this got to do with independent records from the ’90″s? Well here’s the thing, we are all pretty aware of the goals of the billionaires and their foundations, and likely are loathe to give them more influence. But these other groups, with their friendly-sounding names, are left free to operate under the radar. Fueling supposed crises and using their funding to influence practice.
Over the past year, Commissioner Schwinn has been talking about “High-Quality Curriculum”, a term first put forth by TNTP. Over the past 18 months, TNTP has been conducting training around “High-Quality Curriculum” as part of the SCORE-created LIFT districts. Somehow, the LIFT District schools were allowed to adopt a curriculum that was not, at the time, on the state list of approved curriculum, without securing a waiver. In 2019, SCORE paid TNTP $666,135 for identifying and sharing best practices. Practices that centered around a curriculum that was not, as previously mentioned, state-approved. This year, Wit and Wisdom is approved for adoption for 3-8, however, 30 plus districts were granted a waiver to implement at the K-2 level.
How many of you knew that,
In 2020, the Tennessee Rural Acceleration and Innovation Network (TRAIN) was established in partnership with NIET, The Ayers Foundation, the Ayers Institute for Teacher Learning and Innovation,
and State Collaborative on Reforming Education. The goal was to support 15 rural districts as they prepared for back-to-school and considered what professional development their teachers and leaders most needed for 2020-21. Most of the districts are considered economically distressed or at-risk. The district partners are Benton, Chester, Decatur, Gibson SSD, Hardin, Haywood, Henderson, Henry, Hickman, Lauderdale, Lawrence, Paris SSD, Perry, Unicoi, and Wayne County. Read more about TRAIN.
Of those 15 rural districts, 7 received a waiver to adopt the aforementioned ELA k-2 ELA curriculum. Probably just a coincidence.
The point is, that there a growing number of private entities exerting a growing amount of influence unbeknownst to stakeholders and legislators and unaccountable to both. We may believe that we have a handle on the influence of the billionaires club, but don’t ever forget that there is more than one way to sell a record.
Most state’s already have lobbying laws that require lobbyists to register and fill out background information. I would argue for a similar policy for those involved in education advocacy and policy work. As part of that law, you would have to file with the state and publically declare where your funding comes from, whom your passing resources on to, what contracts you’ve entered into, and where you are exerting influence.
I’d propose that as part of a new law, a fee be charged as well. One that goes back to schools in some form. If you can pay an Executive Director a six-figure salary, you can afford a registration fee.
Some parents might be shocked to find out who’s actually influencing their child’s education. Much like music fans who thought they were buying an album on Sub Pop were actually paying Warner Brothers.
Back in the Fall, Commissioner Schwinn informed legislators of about $40 million in grants the department had received from the USDOE. During her presentation, the Commissioner pledged to use a transparent RFP process when securing services from vendors. At that time she said all the right things – transparent, equitable, open, timely. Sounds good right?
The first RFP dropped late on December 23, as people were preparing to begin the Christmas holiday. It was a $5 million contract to supply literacy training to the state’s k-5 teachers. Those who wished to offer a proposal had to do so by January 5th. Yea, I know. The response deadline was set for January 27th and a signed contract date was set for February 26th.
The turnaround time on this proposal was a tight one. Expectations were as stated per the state-created timeline, that the State will deliver the rubric to the contractor eight calendar days after the contract effective date, which is March 20. It is expected that courses will be available on April 2nd. Like I said, tight schedule.
During January, TNTP was running employment notices for jobs that sounded remarkably similar to what was outlined in the state’s RFP. This raised a few eyebrows.
In late January, the department released another RFP. This time for a vendor to create civics courses. It was a poorly written RFP that outlined unrealistic expectations thereby inviting questioning. I submitted an intent to respond to this RFP, making me privy to all communications and questions associated with it.
Last week, I called over to the individual at the TNDOE responsible for the literacy training RFP. I hadn’t been able to locate who the contract had been awarded to and I was hoping they could tell me. Instead, I was told that since I wasn’t a respondent, they couldn’t inform me. We went around and around for about 20 minutes before they had to disengage for a meeting. An hour later, I received this communication,
I left you a voicemail, with the information that is below. This is a follow up to our call from earlier today. The RFP solicitation “Notice of Intent to Award” is made available to all respondents that submitted bids or responses to the procurement.
The “Solicitation Schedule of Events” is moving forward and we hope to have the contract in place by April 15, 2021. At that time a contract number will be available, and you can request a copy of the contract via the public records request link below. https://stateoftennessee.formstack.com/forms/dgs_public_records_request
Hmmm…not sure this meets the definition of transparent. Probably just a coincidence that legislators will be out of session around that time. An hour later another email arrived,
The State has decided to cancel RFP #33101-2013033109FA3- Provision of resources for a Tennessee-specific pK-12 citizenship and civics curriculum. At this time, we do not have any information about when this RFP will be rereleased, the State plans to significantly expand the scope of procurement.
That would be the civics RFP. Causation or Correlation? I don’t know. Today the department announced another RFP. This one for k-2 support services. At the time of publishing, I hadn’t had time to dig into it but rest assured, I will. Here hoping that the process is handled better this go around.
Much ado has been made of a recently passed Tennessee State Board of Education Teacher Diversity policy. Under the new policy, Tennessee school districts will have to set goals and strategies to get more teachers of color in front of their students. Per Chalkbeat,
Beginning with the 2021-22 school year, district leaders must submit their plans to the Tennessee Department of Education, then share subsequent reports annually on how they’re doing. State officials also want them to publish their goals and data on district websites to create an environment of collaboration, transparency, and accountability around racial diversity.
It’s a policy, that on paper, I’m all for. A more diversified teaching force can do nothing but improve offering to students. I do have a couple of caveats though. The first being the failure to mention the ever-growing overall teacher shortage.
For the most part, the narrative around recruiting more teachers of color centers around the picture of an overabundance of teachers available, and districts only choosing the white teachers. An inaccurate portrayal. The reality is that an overarching teacher shortage has been growing for several years and there are considerably fewer students enrolling in teacher prep programs. This shortage has gained momentum as teachers are continually faced with more responsibility and stagnant salaries. As a result, few want to take up the profession under the present circumstances and compensation rates.
If we truly are interested in securing more teachers of color, then we need to start attracting more teachers period. You can’t make a job so unattractive to everybody, and then announce initiatives to get more black and brown people to fill the jobs. More doors than ever are open to people of color, why would you expect them to walk through the one that under compensates and fails to treat them like the professionals their education level warrants? That’s fostering unrealistic expectations.
When talking about diversity, we talk almost exclusively talk about recruiting more black teachers. The reality is we also need more male teachers and more Hispanic teachers. MNPS is currently made up of 26% Hispanic students yet only has 2 Hispanic principals and one Hispanic on the Central Office leadership team. That’s not representative.
If we are truly committed to diversifying the teacher corp then we need to start increasing salaries and start working on increasing workplace satisfaction as well. If we actually developed a pool of teachers, then we could be more selective. A selectiveness that would benefit all.
We are always saying we have the ability to walk and chew gum at the same time. Now is the chance to prove it.
That’s it for now.
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