CONSTRUCTING UNICORN BARNS

“These stories aren’t told for the same reason you can’t go to the circus and see yetis riding on unicorns while playing bagpipes built out of skittles.” – Peter Greene, CURMUDGUCATION

 

I have two kids enrolled in MNPS. One is in 5th, the other in 6th grade. Both are remaining virtual for the duration of this school year. My thinking is, back in August I enrolled them into one experiment, why would I jump mid-stream into another experiment. And that’s exactly what in-person schooling is currently, an experiment.

It’s one that comes with heartwarming pictures and anecdotal tales of sudden student rejuvenation. It’s sold as a return to “normal”, whatever that is. But like most things in education, everything that glitters is not gold.

A return to school building means excepting a plethora of new protocols – safe distancing, rotating teachers instead of students, lunch in classrooms, and masks. Every input has unintended outputs. At this juncture, we have no concept of the long-term impact of these protocols intended for short-term safety. The reason being, we’ve never done school like this. Just like with remote schooling, we’ve never done in-person schooling with this level of safety protocols currently employed. As such, it’s impossible to predict the effectiveness or outcomes.

Some of you may be protesting here, citing that kids are in-buildings interacting with friends, getting instructed by teachers, doing a lot of things that we associate with school as we know it, so it can’t help but be better. Sure, but there is all the other stuff as well, to compare what is happening now to what transpired pre-pandemic, is like calling a hawk an eagle. There may be a lot of similarities, but there are some marked differences as well. A hawk may be a bird of prey, but it shouldn’t be mistaken for an eagle.

Back in October, my 6th grader struggled. Always an “A” student, she wasn’t used to the processes of remote schooling. It didn’t feel like real school because classes were held in her bedroom. She was easily distracted, and if she didn’t do well there were plenty of excuses at hand. Here Ipad provided a constant temptation, and she missed her friends and the interactions at school. People around her were getting sick, some dying, and it was hard to get motivated to sit at the computer for long stretches or turn in work that wasn’t always challenging. Not surprisingly she disengaged, failing to complete a couple of weeks assignments, regularly skipping social studies class.

In early November I got an email from her teachers, my daughter had been missing classes and had fallen behind on her work. I was shocked. While I’m not one of those parents that constantly hover over their kid’s work, I do regularly check with them and they had assured me all was fine. My wife is a teacher, for those of you who are or know teachers, that’s all I need to say. She was covered up keeping her own head above water and ensuring that our only consistent paycheck didn’t disappear.

Avery’s teacher and I got together and talked. We shared what we’d observed. Together we arrived at a complete picture and devised a strategy. Then I talked to Avery.

I explained to her that everybody in our family had certain expectations they had to meet, and she was failing to meet hers. Not going to lie, I might have yelled a little bit. There are plenty of you who might disagree, but  I believe, a dose of fear and a dose of kindness often compliment each other.

We then talked about why she was not meeting those expectations. What was she feeling and how could we work together to meet those expectations, because failure to do her part was not an option. She proposed that for class and schoolwork, she would move out of her bedroom, to the dining room table. The Ipad was put away each morning and remained untouched until after class. She also begrudgingly talked me into offering a financial incentive, $10 for every “A”.

The school did its part as well. Changing things up slightly. After the first of the year, they added 25 minutes of synchronous instruction for each class to previously asynchronous days. In my eyes, this was a game-changer. As kids became more familiar with the technology, they started to reach out more to each other via chat before and after class. another game-changer.

In short, both of my kids have taken possession of their education. I’m suddenly faced with a $50 debt. Avery is 2 percentage points away from all A’s. Her brother is producing similar results.

Yet, despite my personal experience, the national narrative continues to be that of kids in crisis. All of them universally facing years of lost learning as an aftereffect of the pandemic. Making statements without substation, like the following from a recent Tennessean article,

“There is also that notion of, ‘Why does it matter if this kid is reading at this level at seven rather than this level at eight?’ If we are all competing with one another and we all lost a year, what difference does it make?” said Ellen McIntyre, dean of the College of Education, Health and Human Sciences at the University of Tennessee — Knoxville, said. “I think it is absolutely a moral issue that we as educators do everything we can possibly do to help make up learning loss and help kids get back on track.”

If the prospect is cause for moral outrage, surely you can tell me why, or provide a means of measurement. But when I ask, “How do you know these kids are losing all this learning?” Nobody can tell me. Because “learning loss” is merely an invention of the marketing class. Educator Peter Greene says it best, “Learning loss” is educational halitosis.

Jordan Wheat Lambert and his son Gerald had a problem. They had a product that was doing a modest business, an antiseptic that was particularly useful for treating infections in the mouth. But they wanted more. And so they took “halitus,” the Latin word for breath, and the suffix “osis,’ which sounded medical. Halitosis was born—and Listerine started turning a hefty profit. Did it actually fix bad breath? The Lamberts weren’t wasting time trying to find out; they were too busy making money.

It’s not that they made up bad breath. But they gave it a scientific-sounding name which provided a perfect hook for selling their product. Fake science, it turns out, is great for marketing.

You could easily substitute the names of the Education Profiteers for that of the Lamberts. Imagine if they didn’t try and strike fear in our hearts, if they were to produce a study, or white paper, that said something like, “We are in the process of talking to teachers in order get a real sense of where students are. At this point, we recommend focusing on delivering instruction to students while we attempt to normalize, or more closely align experiences. Parents should rest assured though, that their children will be fine”. How many dollars do you think would flow to their coffers? How many new clients do you think they would secure? The only way to go is the path filled with fear.

There is an old saying, “Absence makes the heart grow fonder.” The flip side is, “Out of sight, out of mind.” I can remember jobs that I had when I was younger. There were times I would be on my death bed and still come in. Petrified that if I missed a day, the realization would set in that I could be replaced. How much of that is playing through the mind of testing companies and their supporters right now? It’s not like they have a cupboard full of success stories to fall back on as a reminder of their importance.

As Peter Greene again points out, the cupboard is bare for a reason,

These stories aren’t told for the same reason you can’t go to the circus and see yetis riding on unicorns while playing bagpipes built out of skittles. Test-centric score-driven education has had decades to show the wonders it could accomplish. Back in the earlier days, the excuse was “states aren’t doing it right” and “we have fifty different testing systems.” But NCLB and RttT were supposed to fix all that. And yet, testocrats still have no signature successes to point to. Test-driven education has been tested, and it has failed. Not only has it failed, but it has turned out to be hugely expensive, financially, educationally, and psychologically.

Along with the obvious profiteers, the education policy world is rife with non-profits who are well-oiled machines committed to overly influencing education policy for their own personal gain. Don’t believe me? Why else would SCORE employ 11 lobbyists?

Eleven. Somebody obviously feels it’s necessary to wield some influence. This just adds fuel to my feeling that SCORE’s primary function is to serve as a bag man for the Gates Foundation. Spreading the billionaire’s cash and currying influence under the guise of doing what’s best for kids. But I digress.

In order for those aforementioned machines to run, they need fuel. In this case, that fuel is money. Remember the old newspaper trope, “If it bleeds it ledes”? No different here. Trying to raise cash sans a crisis, is a whole lot more difficult. And those salaries for Executive Directors ain’t going to pay themselves.

  • 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 $402K
  • Emily Freitag, Instruction Partners, in 2018 cleared $225K, willing to bet it’s a lot higher these days.

Profiteers have access to an unrestricted platform from which to raise their clarion call. Yet, whenever I offer up my personal experience with remote learning, you know as a parent, I’m dismissed for being insensitive and bragging about my privilege. Not to be even more insensitive, but the casting of a wide net of failure before offering adequate measurement is equally offensive to me. To downplay the hard work and dedication, that both my kids and their teachers have applied over the last year to pursue a personal agenda is more than a little offensive to me.

I worry about the message sent to kids. It seems to be one of, there is no need to adapt and work hard, if something is just too difficult, just opt out and wait for the world to adjust around you.

That’s not meant as a slap against the parents that have endlessly campaigned to get their kids back in school buildings. They are fighting for what they believe based on their experience, I don’t agree with it but nor do I begrudge them their views based on experience.  I don’t believe their experiences should be dismissed either.

All I know is that my kids, and their teachers, have worked their ass off this past year and grown in unimaginable ways. They’ve persevered despite circumstances beyond their control and an environment far from optimal. They have become proficient in things I could have never predicted. And I don’t believe that they are an outlier. I believe that there are thousands of students in MNPS that have had similar accomplishments this year and attempts to paint them as a lost generation, do them, their teachers, and their families, a terrible disservice.

Chalkbeat has a story this week about a young woman who prior to COVID, rarely participated in class due to social anxiety.

“This year, I participated more than I have — ever — just because I’m not in person,” Casandra said. “Using the chat has helped me get more comfortable sharing my ideas. I feel like I can share my ideas … and feel proud of it because I know what I’m talking about.”

What happens to that child when we force everyone back into buildings? What happens to the thousands of other kids who benefited from various aspects of on-line learning? I suspect we’ll just add a couple seats to established virtual schools, and call it a day. Focused, per usual on getting kids in school buildings instead of actually attempting to actually serve all kids.

In moving forward it’s essential that we do not rob kids of their victories this year. Instead of the endless focus on what went wrong, let’s honor teachers, families, and students for what they did right. Let’s find a way to build on those successes as we begin to normalize experiences, instead of retreating to past failed practices that put money in all the wrong pockets.

Here’s my closing question, how do you know that your kids have learned less this year than last? I talk to my kids daily and they don’t show outward appearances of being any dumber this year than last. They regularly surprise me and disappoint me in what they know. This is no different than in previous years, where I often uttered, “What the hell are they teaching you in school.”

How do I know what they would have learned this year? I have no idea. I can obviously look at the school syllabus, but that’s just a plan, like any other plan. Who knows what other learning impediments would have come into play had COVID-19 not struck – bullying classmates, a regularly absent teacher, personal illness, relocation. If someone could point me to a list of all they were guaranteed to learn this year and didn’t, I’d appreciate it.

The same stands for their SEL. My kid’s moods often vary greatly, but when they do, is it due to the pandemic or the fact that they are.. 12? or 10? What is the difference between normal development and COVID-related behavior? How do I factor out all the variables to isolate the exact contributor? I have to admit, that as a 55-year-old man, I still don’t always know why I’m sad, or mad, or even happy. How am I supposed to be able to differentiate that for my child?

I offer this challenge, show me accurate evidence that supports a theory of learning loss or emotional suffering solely due to COVID. Yes, children may have acted differently prior to COVID, but that was also prior to them being 12, or 7, or 16. Kids go through all kinds of unpredictable changes, and some years are better than others, but only time shows the true impact.

I do know that right now my daughter is incredibly proud of herself and what she has accomplished this year. She knows that when faced with adversity, she can navigate a path forward and achieve success. She did that and nothing should diminish that. Especially a cadre of self-interested individuals with a need to keep the money tree fertilized.

Even as the pandemic starts to fade, we are headed for some scary times. There is an unprecedented amount of money currently swirling around public education. Yesterday, I listened to Commissioner Schwinn present the Tennessee Department of Education’s budget for the upcoming fiscal year. As she rapidly threw out numbers like $250 million, $1.1 billion, and $2.5 billion my head became foggy. That’s a lot of cash, all of which must be spent by September 2023.

What did stick out is that 20% of the proposed $2.5 billion awarded to the state must go to fight “learning loss”. In other words, the state has to spend 50 million federal tax dollars on building unicorn barns. After all, COVID has made it impossible to keep all the unicorns in their barns, and they are out running free, eating the neighbor’s gardens. Don’t believe me, look at the shape of some of the neighbor’s gardens.

Ms. Mary has always had a great garden and never had a problem with rabbits in the past. This year she got sick, and the fence fell a little into disrepair, but she’s never had a problem with rabbits, so it’s got to be unicorns. And we’ve got to get them back in barns.

Who’s going to be the one that figures out when all the unicorns are back in the barns? Why the people who are getting paid to build them of course. Who else would know better?

In the past, cost could serve as a detriment to implementing bad bills. That barrier has been removed. Since it’s federal money, it’s viewed with less ownership than state money. But both are derived from US taxpayers. Despite that, legislators and administrators will become more inclined to just throw things against the wall and see what sticks, after all, they are not paying for it. Doesn’t help that it has to be spent by 2023.

History has shown us, that with this kind of cash infusion comes misuse. Misuse, that will be cited as evidence against making further investment in education after 2023. So when the money goes away, it’s really going to go away.

Except of course for those who stand to make a profit. They will show how their barns are housing more unicorns than ever before, and with just a couple million more, they could get the rest of those unicorns rounded up, and if you don’t, they won’t be able to promise that unicorns won’t start running out of the barn again. And thus the cycle continues.

I don’t know the answer, but I do know where it lies. It’s not in faulty tests administered by testing companies. It’s not in studies produced by opioid crisis facilitating marketing companies. It’s not with non-profits whose leadership earns nauseating levels of pay by taking advantage of manufactured crises.

It lies with students who have risen to the challenge and grown in ways unimagined this year. It’s in families who’ve managed to cobble together education plans for their families that meet student needs and family obligations. It lies with teachers and building administers who have tirelessly sacrificed this year in order to meet ever-changing student needs. Not every hit this year was a home run, there were plenty of singles and even a few strikeouts, but we need to recognize everybody for continually stepping up to the plate. e also need to preserve and study the lessons learned.

In education, it is oft said, “We know what to do, but we often lack the courage to actually do it.” Those words ring more true today than ever.

Sorry for getting long-winded. Again I blame it on Peter Greene. Prior to writing this, I read a quote on his site from Mark Twain,

You’ll have to excuse my lengthiness—the reason I dread writing letters is because I am so apt to get to slinging wisdom & forget to let up. Thus much precious time is lost.
–Mark Twain

I resemble that remark. We’ll get back to more news on Monday.

If you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

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

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