“Once I called Miami City Hall a “bribe factory,” and another time described Tallahassee as a “festival of whores.” Too subtle? Possibly.” – Carl Hiaasen


An interesting event occurred Last Friday, MNPS announced its new literacy initiative, Literacy Re-imagined. A more appropriate title would have been, Literacy Rebranded. Rest assured there was nothing here that constituted a re-imagining, in fact, almost everything covered was a retread of past efforts.

The timing of the event was equally suspect.

The event took place at a time that is typically referred to as the “Friday news dump”. Politicians use Friday afternoons to drop information that they don’t feel like talking about. The thinking being that on Fridays people’s minds are already focused on the weekend. Meaning pass over their head unnoticed. Also, most of the staff is out of the office, so any follow-up questions will have to wait until Monday. The hope being, that by then people will have lost interest or something of greater interest came along. Holiday weekends are even more helpful for this tactic.

I would argue that 12:30 on a Friday before Spring Break is not the ideal time to announce the beginning of a “brand new era” unless you didn’t want a whole bunch of people heralding that moment. This school year has been the hardest one in my memory. For parents, teachers, and students, nearly every waking moment has been sucked up with thoughts of school, as contributed to overwhelming exhaustion. Most folks couldn’t wait for Spring Break to get here to take a break from thinking about schools. By mid-Friday morning, thoughts were focused on closing the computer, shutting off email, and hitting the road out of town – or at the very least, hitting the couch.

For those who had already received the vaccine, this was going to potentially be an opportunity to reconnect with friends and family with who they had not spent in-person time for months. You’d be hard-pressed to find anyone thinking, “All right, a week off. Let me start it out by listening to some PR from Central Office telling me how I’m going to have to work harder with greater expectations and little compensation next year.” I’m quite certain that most who tuned in did so with a jaundiced eye. After all, we’ve heard this record before.

Central to Friday’s presentation was MNPS Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy. Many of you are unfamiliar with Bellamy, but if you remember former Chief of Schools Sito Narcisse, think a less improved version of him. To his credit though, Narcisse at least hung around a few large urban school districts before arriving in Nashville. Bellamy has spent his entire career in Clarksville, a district one-third the size of Nashville with one-third the diversity.

By the way, in case you didn’t know, Narcisse is the new head of East Baton Rouge Schools. Took over about a month ago and has hit the ground running with the playbook he helped build here in Nashville, much to the pleasure of Great City Schools, Arbinger, and former MNPS literacy head Barbara Lashley. All are the beneficiaries of new contracts. But back to Bellamy.

As Chief of Schools Bellamy is responsible for overseeing the daily activity of schools. He oversees and employees a group of executive directors in interpreting Dr. Battle’s vision of the school board’s desires. Dr. Bellamy began his career in Clarksville as a teacher and then principal before moving to Central Office in 2014. he made the move south to Nashville this past summer.

Apparently, our Clarksville resident hasn’t quite recognized the differences between the two bergs. His presentation on Friday was filled with hyperbole that might have played well with the folks back home, but here in the big city, we are well versed in it and less easily impressed. Basically what Bellamy was rolling out under the guise of a systematic changing event was a new curriculum.  Which makes things a little confusing.

You see, MNPS has already recently adopted a new curriculum. That was last April at the end of the state’s ELA textbook adoption period. MNPS adopted one of the TNDOE’s preferred products, Wit and Wisdom, for K-5. We had to get a waiver to include K-2, as despite being touted as a “high-quality curriculum”, it didn’t make the state list of approved materials. The waiver was secured because MNPS agreed to also adopt the state-created foundational skill supplemental materials. The Pearson product was adopted for middle and high school.

What’s important to remember, and Bellamy wasn’t here at the time so he might not know, is that the board approved the adoption of Wit and Wisdom with some very strict caveats,

Motion to approve the ELA Material recommendation to adopt Wit and Wisdom curriculum for a three-year period for grade K-5th with the understanding that Wit and Wisdom materials will be used within our current Balanced Literacy Framework, along with an array of other supplemental materials. This motion is to approve ELA Materials for the remaining grade levels for six years.

By Amy Frogge, seconded Jill Speering Motion Passes
Vote: 9-0

It wasn’t a hotly debated issue and clearly passed with a unanimous vote. Had I been playing drink “balanced literacy” during Friday’s presentation, I could have driven through a sober checkpoint without any concern, because it was never mentioned. In fact, failure to mention balanced literacy when discussing the district’s literacy plan has happened with such frequency that one might suspect that district leadership is willfully ignoring the board’s desires. But I’m sure that’s not the case.
So did the board have a new conversation around literacy in which they changed their directive? Did they offer a new directive about how literacy was to be taught in the district? If they did, I certainly missed it.
While we are talking about things that probably should have been shared with the board, let’s talk about who’s actually crafting MNPS’s literacy plan. Repeatedly during Friday’s presentation, and on other occasions, Dr. Bellamy has praised the input of former state Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen and the organization she leads, NIET? But where is the contract with them? MOU? Scope of Work? Data sharing agreement? At the very least, as a parent, I would like to know that everybody who is viewing my child’s data has signed an agreement on its proper usage. Yet none seems to exist between MNPS and the private organization NIET that’s crafting the district’s literacy plan.
It’s also well known that Dr. McQueen is very much an advocate of the Science of Reading approach and not so much a balanced literacy fan. So how is her involvement in alignment with the board’s wishes?
Some may argue that legislation passed by the state’s General Assembly during the recently held special session mandated a change. But I don’t see it that way.
Reading the TNDOE supplied FAQs around the new bills doesn’t support the need for a shift either.
The new law requires LEAs and public charter schools to use foundational literacy skills instruction as the basis of K-3 English language arts instructional programming and submit a foundational literacy skill plan to the department for approval. Foundational skills are already a part of a balanced literacy approach, perhaps the amount of time devoted might need shifting, but that doesn’t mean other elements of balanced literacy couldn’t be incorporated as well. After all, throughout the textbook adoption process, Dr. Battle regularly argued the compatibility of Wit and Wisdom and balanced literacy. So where is it now?
If something has changed, mandating that MNPS change its approach, shouldn’t the board have been notified?
How does this new approach dovetail with the Florida Virtual School curriculum that was adopted last summer at a cost of a million dollars a year for 5 years? If we are ending that contract, shouldn’t the board be informed? Ending the contract is an option available to the district despite having signed a 5-year contract.
The aforementioned give rise to plenty of questions already, but let’s talk a little more about curriculum as a whole. As much as Bellamy likes to advertise that all schools in the district will use the new curriculum with fidelity, history shows it doesn’t quite work that way. Despite his urgings to teachers to focus on “delivering lessons and forging relationships”, many still consider lesson planning an integral part of teaching, and as such, they are going to keep right on doing it.
Teachers have earned degrees, some even Masters and Doctorates, that taught them how to take a standard and deconstruct it to use a variety of materials to teach children the elements that make up the standard. This is good because their professional evaluation is dependent on how many students master those standards. I know, many of you thought they were evaluated on how many kids got fed, how they interacted with their friends, how appreciated they were, how safe they felt, etc. Unfortunately, statistics related to those areas don’t appear in a teacher evaluation rubric, their career trajectory is dependent on children mastering the standards.
It’s like I always say, the way we compensate teachers is akin to paying a salesperson on commission while also insisting they clean the office. A clean office may facilitate sales, but by the same token, it takes away time that could be devoted to sales. Increased sales come when a salesman is allowed to devote time exclusively to selling. The same holds true for teaching.
Lesson planning has a whole lot more to do with teaching than say, serving as a Navigator. Think it about this way, would you hire an experienced lawyer to survey clients of their social and emotional health, or would you hire somebody else for that function while allowing the attorneys to focus on practicing law? Yet we don’t blink an eye when we shift the responsibility of completing surveys to teachers. It’s almost like we don’t value their degrees and experience.  Crazy huh?
When it comes to embracing change, I can also promise you that schools that are currently producing high test scores on ELA are not going to suddenly switch because the newest regime claims a better way. Most of the leaders in those schools have lived through several superintendents and curriculum switches. They’ll keep doing what they’ve always been doing while pretending to embrace the new way. The same holds true with veteran teachers.
So who’s going to make the switch? Well since studies have repeatedly shown that standardized test scores are more adept at indicating socioeconomic status than they are at reflecting learning, it’ll be the most challenged schools. Unfortunately, those schools are often predominately staffed with less experienced leadership, and teachers, so they’ll get hit with a double whammy.
Now when you are listening to all the soaring rhetoric, I need you to keep something else in mind. While veteran teachers often don’t tow the company line, you know who does? And does it a lot cheaper. Someone who is capable of “delivering lessons and forging relationships” – tutors, that’s who. You can expect the new literacy initiative to require lots of input from tutors, especially since there is a surplus of cash from which to fund tutoring programs.
Don’t get me wrong, tutoring can be a successful strategy but only if closely aligned with what’s taking place in the classrooms. This means another requirement for teachers who are already overburdened.
I don’t doubt for one moment that both Teach for America and TNTP are poised to expand their current teacher pipelines to include tutors. How many of those tutors will eventually be encouraged to enroll in 6 weeks of training to become teachers? As the Tennessee board of education loosens teacher certifications and more school districts are empowered to certify teachers, how many of those previous tutors will find themselves in front of classrooms? Since most will lack training in lesson planning, they’ll have no problem “delivering lessons”. Lessons that will contribute to the homogenization of schools and further marginalization of teachers.
You got to remember, charter schools and vouchers are but two tools in the arsenal of those who privatize public education. Public schools are continually under a multi-prong attack. Getting control of the curriculum was always the next step after the establishment of Common Core standards. What’s now transpiring is nothing different than that which has been ongoing for decades. Just a little more sophisticated.
The one thing that has changed, is the amount of cash in play. For the first time in decades, districts are flush with cash. Back in the Spring when textbook adoptions were announced, money was tight. The pandemic hit, budgets were frozen and suddenly all the effort spent on manipulating the textbook adoption process appeared to be for naught. COVID-19 changed that.
With the inflow of federal cash, districts don’t have an excuse for not purchasing materials. I expect MNPS will spend millions more than they would have had COVID-19 never struck. The same is likely to hold true throughout the state, thus making Commissioner Schwinn an MVP with the executives of the publishers she’s been championing for the last several years.
The question will now center on the quality of those proposed “high-quality” curriculums. Commissioner Schwinn and her trusty sidekick Lisa Coons have frequently pointed to the LIFT districts as evidence of how curriculum can improve student outcomes. On the surface level, the results of the LIFT district school appear quite promising, but there are cracks in the argument.
Over the past three years, 11 of the LIFT districts have shown an increase in the percent of third-graders scoring on-track or above in reading, but three have shown a decline. In other words, 21% of the districts involved in the TNDOE’s SCORE-enabled program failed to increase student outcomes. Extrapolate that out to include all 145 districts and it is reasonable to expect that 31 of the state’s districts would see student outcomes decline.
It is equally important to note that over those same three years, 17 non-LIFT districts scored higher than the highest scoring LIFT district. Including Oneida Special School District with a 22 percentage point gain.  Others near the top include Perry, Franklin SSD, McNairy, Lake, Arlington, Weakley, and Rhea. Perhaps we ought to take a closer look at what those districts are doing before we leap to emulate the former. Or better yet, instead of emulating we empower districts to use the tools that work best for them.
In Nashville, we’ve seen this movie played out multiple times. Be it charter schools, the Achievement School District, Chris Barbic, Kevin Huffman, or a host of others, somebody is always promising to drastically improve literacy scores in a short period of time. It always ends the same, they grab their shoes and slip out the door barefoot, careful not to wake us while they depart.
In 2018 it was the Blueprint for Early Childhood Success that was announced with great fanfare, anointing themselves as the envy of the nation, only to slip off and disappearing into oblivion before reappearing this past Friday. A look at their self-released timeline shows them as being more adept at launching websites and forming committees than at improving student outcomes. I’m sure they’ll soon be promising that this time will be different, just share a little of the recent windfall and we’ll do amazing things together.
Ironically, buried under the recent mountains of cash is an initiative that might actually improve student outcomes. As part of Biden’s relief package is an expansion of child tax credit which could arguably lift half of America’s impoverished children out of poverty,
Outside estimates on its impact have come to the same conclusion, including one from the nonprofit Center for Budget and Policy Priorities, which said that two key tax credit provisions could “together lift more children above the poverty line, 5.5 million, than any other economic support program.” An Urban Institute analysis of the plan said the child poverty rate in 2021 will fall by more than 52 percent, largely from changes in tax law and the $1,400 stimulus checks that are part of the relief package.
This is huge and could in the opinion of many be the beginning of a shift in how we think about education reform issues. Let’s keep our fingers crossed.
Imagine the possibilities if teachers’ burdens were lifted by society actually taking responsibility for its obligations, and they were allowed to actually perform the jobs for which they trained.
If Tennessee’s Governor lee was serious about his concerns for kids, he would piggyback on the national effort. After all, it’s not like Tennessee doesn’t have the money,
Tennessee Department of Finance and Administration Commissioner Butch Eley today announced that Tennessee tax revenues exceeded budgeted estimates in February. February revenues totaled $1.13 billion, which is $112.7 million more than the state received in February 2020 and $190.9 million more than the budgeted estimate. The growth rate for February was 11.06 percent.
One can dream, right?
As part of Friday’s performance, it was put forth that Central Office was being re-branded as the “support hub”. It would be nice if that were actually true, but in order for that to happen, you’d have to actually listen to teachers and principals. something that kids harder and harder to imagine every day.
If you are still reading the Tennessean and you still think “learning loss” is a real thing, Peter Greene has collected a group of writings on the subject. Out this collection comes a quote by Rachel Gabriel that puts it quite succinctly,
It is loss of a previously imagined trajectory leading to a previously imagined future. Learning is never lost, though it may not always be “found” on pre-written tests of pre-specified knowledge or preexisting measures of pre-coronavirus notions of achievement.
The legacy of the standards movement of the 1990s, and the high-stakes testing it inspired in the early 2000s, is a version of education that is assumed not to exist or matter unless or until it is predicted and measured. The pandemic has illustrated with searing definition how wrong that assumption is. 
MNPS leadership recently announced a plan to give teachers a one-time bonus of $1000k. Sounds good, until you remember that the district is poised to receive $273 million in the latest stimulus package. Which is on top of a recently receiving $123 million. The move will cost the district about $7.8 million, or less than 3% of monies received in the last two federal packages. Guaranteed to be considerably less than what’s paid to tutoring companies, publishers, and consultants. Almost feels like letting the kids keep the change found in the couch cushions.
Russ on Reading has a parable for modern times. It starts with,
It was a difficult year in the barnyard with all the animals confined to their own homes because of a mysterious and devastating avian flu. Henny Penny, cooped up in her humble abode with a half dozen chicks scurrying about unable to go school, was at her wits end. She barricaded herself in the TV room and turned on Foxy News. There she heard a report from an education expert, one Chester Tester, that the entire barnyard was going down the tubes due to an outbreak of  “learning loss…
I think you’ll enjoy the rest.

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Categories: Education

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