“The flute of the Pied Piper of Hamelin has never left us and it is essential that we train our ear to detect its false notes because in our case the flute is being played by the rats.” ― Dimitris Mita


Yesterday, was one of those days that seem to be occurring with more frequency. I spent the day researching numerous education initiatives, both on the state and the district level. It was research that evoked the conundrum of whether to laugh or cry. It seems the more things change, the more they stay the same. All of it would have fallen into the category of the former if it didn’t have such a negative impact on people – students, teachers, families.

One of the things I watched was Tuesday’s Teaching and Learning School Board Committee meeting. We’ll revisit it in greater depth come Friday, but some of the comments made by Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy are just so egregious that they can’t be left until later in the week.

The overarching question that I want to ask Bellamy, after 3/4 of a year observing and listening to him, is do you think we are all stupid? Is it your belief that you came down from Clarksville, where you spent your entire career, to the land of the rube? A place where we are all so ill-informed that we’ll buy the snake oil you are peddling sans question? If that’s the case, perhaps you should study a little bit more about the team that preceded you, they came in with a similar mindset and it didn’t end well.

Some of you might think I’m being a little harsh on Mr. Bellamy. If so, let me give you a touch of what I’m talking about. Bellamy begins yesterday’s presentation to the school board – you can watch it beginning at about the 33 minute mark – by making the assertion that in the past teachers were forced to write their own materials and scramble for resources, but now for the first time ever, a high-quality curriculum is being adopted by the district.

At the end of his presentation, board member Frieda Player-Peters reminds him that for decades there has been an adoption process in place and that previous MNPS school boards had engaged in a rigorous review process before adopting curriculum and materials. In light of this, she was a little confused by what Bellamy had described regarding teachers writing their own curriculum, and perhaps he could elucidate.

Well, he chuckled, before admitting that his original statement was an overgeneralization, what he meant to say was, that over the years Tennessee Standards had changed with such frequency that it was hard for the curriculum to remain viable and therefore teachers were left at a disadvantage. That’s not exactly true either.

In 2012, the state of Tennessee adopted Common Core standards as part of Race To The Top. In 2017, those standards were changed, due to political pressure, to the Tennessee State Standards. However, as most educators know, the difference between Common Core Standards and TN State Standards is marginal at best. Just a word change here, and a dropped standard there, but essentially the same.

Pay attention to what else he says. In describing teacher responsibilities, he argues that teachers need to be focusing on delivering instruction and forming relationships. Do I need to break out the decoder ring to help you understand what he means? Basically, it’s shut up and read the script. I’m sure that translation will evoke plenty of protestations from District Leadership, but sometimes you have to believe what people’s words say when they say them. And Bellemy is preaching about getting materials in the hands of teachers so they can read them to students…I mean in order to deliver the lessons.

Throughout his presentation, he talks about everybody rowing in the same direction and adopting the curriculum with fidelity. A question, from here in the back row, can you please cite one thing the was implemented with fidelity this past year? Just one?

Last year, MNPS paid $1 million to the Florida Virtual School to adopt its curriculum. And then proceeded with a snowflake adoption process, no two schools alike. Hell, I can go into individual schools and find varying degrees of usage within the building itself. Now here he is preaching uniform adoption district-wide, forgive me if I don’t reach into my pocket and throw some money into the collection plate.

While we are on the subject here, let me ask another question. This year so much has been left to principal discretion. Right, wrong, or indifferent, principals have been put into a position of making the majority of decisions for their individual schools sans proper supports from district leadership. How do you think they are going to react if district leadership suddenly tries to exert more control over them next year? What would your reaction be in a similar circumstance?

Here’s a note for Bellamy to jot down, just because the natives are quiet doesn’t mean they are not restless.

During his explanation to board members, Bellamy makes reference to his 10 years of experience in Central Office. Huh? he only arrived in Nashville this past summer. Maybe he’s talking about his time spent in Central Office in Clarksville. No, he only joined Central Office there in 2014, when in March he became Director of Exceptional Services for Children. Prior to that, he was a principal at Hazlewood Elementary School. I guess this is another one of those over-generalizations, huh?

There is more to unpack, but we’ll get to that on Friday. Right now, I want to shift to some state Schwinigans. To be fair, Bellamy isn’t the only one who seemingly thinks they are living in the land of the rubes. Or at the very least, in a world where everyone doesn’t have access to Google.


Before we get started here, I need to make something really clear. When you hear the phrase “high-quality” materials, don’t think that it means what you think it means. Naturally, most of us believe that the words apply to a wide range of materials that have been reviewed and deemed worthy of usage. You wouldn’t be remiss in thinking that everything included on the state-approved textbook and materials list was considered “high-quality”. Unfortunately, that is not true.

When you hear state and district leadership, along with private entities, talk about “high-quality” materials, they are talking about materials produced by a narrow number of publishing companies – Great Minds, Amplify, LearnZillion. These are curriculum aligned with the newly branded “Science of Reading”. A form of instruction that is heavily tied to foundational skills. Professor of Education Paul Thomas has written extensively on the subject and as he points out,

After a relatively quiet phase, the “reading wars” reignited in 2018 in the wake of a flurry of news media coverage sparked by a public radio documentary that argued that students across America were receiving inadequate phonics instruction. More than a dozen states—including Florida, Texas and North Carolina—rushed to react, passing laws requiring pre-service and current teachers to place a greater emphasis on phonics.

Add Tennessee to the list of states rushing headlong into the way-back machine and retreading on ground already well plowed. Earlier in the year, during Special Session, the Tennessee General Assembly codified the practice of “Science of Reading” as the official state philosophy of instruction. No need to retread a well-explored subject, just want to supply some background info as we take a look at current events, with a little context.

In looking at current events, you also need to know that back around 2012, a group of Tennessee Superintendents got together and started to collaborate. They called themselves LIFT  – Leading Innovation for Tennessee Education districts.  in 2016, they identified a common issue,

K-2 students are not yet accessing a high-quality literacy program that lays the foundation for meeting rigorous standards. District teachers and leaders have not yet fully made the shifts that ensure the implementation of those standards.

In 2017, with the help of SCORE and TNTP, they began to transition to an alternate curriculum. Out of 9 districts, 7 implemented either Wit and Wisdom or Common Core Language Arts. How this was done is unclear, because neither curriculum was on the state-approved list of materials at the time. The best I can tell is that they did so under the guise of claiming usage as being of a supplementary nature. The results were varied, but the accompanying PR campaign painted a picture akin to the bringing of fire to the caveman.

Pushing the narrative were the usual suspects, all beneficiaries of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, early promoters of the “science of reading” – TNTP, SCORE, along with others who we will get to in a minute.

At the beginning of this week, The Tennessee Department of Education announced the awarding of membership, along with grant money, to 48 Tennessee districts that would make up the impressive-sounding, Tennessee Pre-K–12 Literacy Implementation Networks. The 48 districts would be divided up into 8 districts, with one designated mentor district in each network. Together they would share in a federal grant of $20 million. Per the press release, “Each regional implementation network will consist of one mentor district, 4-6 participating districts, and a regionally selected vendor partner, with the option of selecting an elementary, middle or high school focus.” Initially, I thought the vendor would be Great Minds or Amplify, but I should have known it wouldn’t be that simple.

Again per the press release,

Mentor districts have multiple years of high-quality instructional materials implementation experience and will help build the capacity of participant districts who have adopted and purchased new ELA materials in the past year. Additionally, mentor districts will support participant districts’ system-level implementation strategy.

Well, here’s the mentor districts and their most recent TVAAS score – if you buy into that kind of thing.

District Number District Name Overall Composite
380 Haywood County 2 3
490 Lauderdale County 1 1
531 Lenoir City 5 5
590 Marshall County 1 3
710 Putnam County 2 5
830 Sumner County 5 5
850 Trousdale County 5 5
860 Unicoi County 1 2

The last column is the literacy composite. Not exactly a compelling argument for those selected. Well, perhaps it’s not based on TVAAS. Maybe it’s proficiency scores. let’s look.

Lauderdale, a mentor, has a proficiency rate of 25.7 based on the most recent results of TNReady. Their mentees are, Paris(44.7), Trenton(22.1), Stewart(38), and Dyer(40.7). Hmmm…that’s confusing.

What about Marshall which has a 32.9? They are mentoring Marion(28), Dayton(34.20, Lincoln(43.2), Franklin(58.8), and Lawrence(38.2). That doesn’t help.

So I started to dig a little.

Of the 8 mentor Districts, 6 are members of LIFT. Of the remaining 2, one is overseen by a former TNDOE employee and the other is a member of the recently created TRAIN district, which is counseled by NIET, led locally by former State Commissioner of Education Candace McQueen.  McQueen, through NIET, is playing a significant as credited by Bellamy, in crafting MNPS early literacy plan. I will give some credit to NIET in that most of their people actually work in schools, unlike some of the other like organizations. But still…

Then I looked at the person quoted in the Department of Education’s press release, Millicent Smith, Supervisor of Instructional Services, Lenoir City Schools. Smith is quoted as saying, “Lenoir City Schools is thrilled to be able to join the PK–12 Literacy Implementation networks to collaborate around the important work of supporting high-quality literacy instruction. We are excited to share lessons we have learned and look forward with anticipation to additional training and learning to support our continuous improvement!”

Unfortunately, this isn’t the first time Smith has been quoted by the TNDOE. Back in 2013, she was used to help push Tennessee’s transition to Common Core State Standards,

Millicent Smith, Executive Director of Curriculum, Instruction, and Professional Development for Knox County Schools, similarly praised the standards, saying that they will make a difference for children. Smith believes the Common Core empowers teachers to push students to meet higher expectations.

“Great teachers hold students accountable to their individual potentials,” said Smith. “I believe these changes will truly build the capacity of our teachers to challenge all students to explore their full potential from the time they first enter school.”

That didn’t turn out so well…but this time…

Smith was also part of Jim McIntyre’s administration at Knoxville County Schools until he was run out of town…I mean left to pursue other interests. Before going to work for Lenoir City Schools, she became a founding member/director of instructional support for Instruction Partners (formerly D2D).  Instruction Partners serves districts across Tennessee with curriculum, instruction, and professional learning support.

Instruction Partners is a non-profit led by former TNDOE Assistant Superintendent Emily Freitag. In 2018, Freitag made about $240K a year leading the organization. One that employs a veritable who’s who of former TNDOE employees, including former Achievement School District Superintendent Malika Anderson. Also employed by Instruction Partners is charter school proponent Justin Testerman.

In fact, if you flip through included bios of employees, you’ll find a rich history of employment with reform-friendly organizations – TFA, TNTP, numerous charter organizations are all well represented. My favorite bio belongs to the Director of ELA, Christina Gonzalez,

Christina has more than 20 years of experience as a Nationally Board-Certified ELA teacher, reading specialist, and instructional coach. Christina believes that high-quality instructional materials matter and has written ELA curriculum for organizations such as Insight Education Group, Amplify, and Great Minds, where she was part of the grade 3 Wit & Wisdom writing team. Christina is passionate about improving teaching and learning for all students. As the Director of ELA she gets to spend time doing one of her favorite things – designing and delivering professional development for teachers and school leaders. Christina and her family reside in Jacksonville, FL.

It seems that Instruction Partners has proven very useful in assisting districts with the implementation of a new curriculum. So useful that Dr. Norma Gerrel, Superintendent of the Paris Special School District is moved to publicly testify that, “The curriculum support guide is a game-changer for district work”. Wait a second, Paris is in one of the Literacy Implementation Networks with Lauderdale as its mentor district. So if Instruction Partners is so kick-ass, why do they need further mentoring, and couldn’t their spot instead go to a more deserving recipient, one who doesn’t have access to a resource like Instruction Partners?

In case you are interested, Instruction Partners is a recipient of support from the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation.

In digging around, I also discovered another organization – Curriculum Matters. Let’s compare their roster to that of the mentor schools in the LIN. Look at that, 5 out of 8 are in both – Haywood, Lauderdale, Sumner, Putnam, and Lenoir City. Strangely missing from the mentor districts’ names, though a member of Curriculum Matters, is Sullivan County, home to Robin McClellan.

McClellan regularly works with SCORE and she ” spearheaded the implementation of high-quality curriculum across eleven elementary schools and considers this the pinnacle of her career. She has secured over 1.8 million dollars in grant funding for the district to narrow subgroup gaps, provide books for the low-resourced student population, offer summer reading camps, place Pre-K classrooms in seven schools, and secure high-quality ELA  curriculum for elementary and middle schools.” If anybody is qualified to be a mentor district, it is Sullivan County. Alas, they are not.

Instead, they are part of a cohort that has Unicoi County schools serving as a mentor district. Uh, yeah…I don’t get it. But I’m starting to.

Why is it that every time I pull on a thread a familiar name or entity pops up? Why are they all recipients of the generosity of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation? Why do I suspect that if the names of the assigned vendors are ever revealed, it will be a familiar cast of characters? At the very least, perhaps somebody could explain to me why the names of the assigned vendors weren’t announced simultaneously with the assigned districts.

In Tennessee, the only people expected to produce positive results are the students. Adults just shift jobs and organizations, collecting 6 figure salaries despite outcomes. Promises are continually made with future target dates – 50% proficient by 2025 – with everyone knowing that none of the adults will be around when the deadline arrives.

Tennessee just beefed up its 3rd-grade retention policies so that soon the state will require that students who fail to show proficiency on 3rd-grade tests be forced to repeat the grade. Maybe it’s time to pass a similar policy when it comes to adults who work in the education field.

Like I said, do you laugh or do you cry?


Andy Spears reports on some Tennessee Superintendents who are offering their take on recently passed legislation that includes the intent to hold back students who score below proficient on TCAP.

“I have never seen anything that will hurt students as bad as what they are proposing,” Germantown Municipal School District Superintendent Jason Manuel told the suburb’s Board of Education in a recent meeting.

Read the whole article for even greater insight.

MNPS announced this morning that starting June 7, they will offer no-cost summer learning at nearly 70 school sites around Nashville and Davidson County for students who will be entering grades K-12 in August. Breakfast, lunch, and transportation will be provided, and some sites will offer before- and after-care. Per Dr. Battle, “It has been nearly a year since MNPS and schools across the country had to close due to the COVID-19 pandemic that has disrupted so much of our normal way of life, and many of our students have been learning virtually for much or all of the year. We want to give those students who may have seen their academic progress slow down, or who just want the chance to have more face-to-face learning time, the opportunity to catch up this summer.”

Get caught up to what, I’m not sure but…ok. The district is advertising that students will not be graded, but there is a caveat. Per state law, students will be tested before and after the summer program, and results shared with the TNDOE. Still unclear is who will staff the summer program. It’s not like teachers and students have had a rough year and need a break or anything. Sure am glad that we are focusing on these camps as opposed to planning for next school year. This is where you tell me that the district is capable of walking and chewing gum at the same time and I ask for evidence.

That’s it for now.

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Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. Sounds like the internet is not yet a thing from perspective of state educators.

    For others, the 21st century has been here a while:

  2. I believe it’s Robin McClellan, not McClennon.
    Robbie Mitchell

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