WHAT’S A SWEETHEART LIKE YOU, DOING IN A PLACE LIKE THIS?

“Steal a little and they throw you in jail, steal a lot and they make you king.” – Bob Dylan

“We got a lot of kings out here.” – TC Weber

 

I’ve spent a lot of time this week trying to wrap my head around the relationship between money and public education. On one hand, schools are perpetually underfunded. In Tennessee, state-level of funding is determined through a formula referred to as the BEP. If you watched any of the General Assembly’s sessions on education this year, you’ve heard the Governor’s minions at the TNDOE deliberately couch their answers to legislators’ questions on school funding by saying, we fully fund based on the formula. Whether the formula is adequate or not, is a question carefully avoided.

Governor Lee frequently brags about fully funding the BEP and gets away with it because, frankly, most of Tennessee’s citizens don’t understand that formula. unfortunately for Mr. lee that is a situation that is rapidly changing.

This year, the Nashville Public Education Foundation, an organization that is usually aligned with the agenda of the Chamber of Commerce and education reformers, has joined the choir. They’ve broken with tradition and produced a comprehensive report on the inadequacies of the BEP formula. Something they deserve huge props for, not just for the quality of the report, but also for their courage in stepping out. A move that hasn’t gone unnoticed by the city’s education advocates, many greeting it as a welcome surprise.

The report points out that,

The BEP regularly and consistently underestimates the requirements of running a school system, regardless of its size. Nowhere is this more apparent than in the way the formula estimates the number of teaching positions required to staff a district. Of the 146 districts, only one is able to adequately staff schools with the funding generated by the BEP. In fact, in the 2018-2019 fiscal year, Tennessee districts employed nearly 7,000 more teachers than the amount of funding generated by the BEP.

Most of us already know that, but for NPEF to put it in writing, is extremely beneficial. The problems with the BEP need addressing, but there appears to be little stomach among legislators to take up this need action at the present time. More on that in a minute.

As underfunded as public schools are, don’t for a minute fall for the false assumption that there is no money in education. Money’s availability has never been an issue, getting it in the hands of the right people has always been the conundrum, A problem that was only acerbated in the aftermath of Race To The Top, when we explosion in publishers, consultants, tech companies, testing companies, and non-profits. Don’t believe me? Let’s take a look at the salaries of the Executive Directors and leaders for some of the leading non-profits in Tennessee,

  • 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.

By contrast, the superintendents of Tennessee’s two largest urban districts, Memphis and Nashville, make $293,550 and $285,000. The two people who are responsible for roughly 20% of the state’s children get paid less than the head of the Tennessee State Collaborative for Reforming Education(SCORE). Hell, Mansouri even receives a salary larger than the Tennessee State Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn who earns $200,004 annually. That in a nutshell sums up the money issue in Tennessee. And it’s only going to get worse.

Tennessee’sschool’s are about to receive an unprecedented amount of money from the federal government. MNPS alone is set to receive around $270 million on top of the $123 million it recently received in January. Now some of that money has to be shared with the city’s charter schools, but still, it’s a butt load of cash. Some people, like my good friend Andy Spears, are more optimistic over the sudden infusion of cash than I – probably why people like him more than me. He points out that most of the money will flow to local districts. Which is admittedly a positive.  Still, I have concerns.

I see the money primarily becoming a payday for private entities. First off, the newest money calls for 20% to be reserved for addressing “learning loss” – something we’ve yet to truly identify, and have no means to measure.  One of the leading experts on education policies, Yong Zhao, warns that so-called “learning loss” is a trap where the cure could potentially worse than the supposed illness,

This is wherein the trap lies. There is nothing wrong with making estimates about learning losses, but the possible actions these projections can induce are worrisome because they can, at best, waste resources and, at worst, lead post-pandemic education in the wrong direction. The concerns of educators and policymakers are to be expected, but these policymakers could end up investing in unproductive educational efforts. Below are a number of undesirable outcomes that their concerns could lead to.

He then goes on to list several potential outcomes including,

First, any standardized testing given to all students will have a typically limited scope, with a focus on math and reading. In other words, what will be measured is not the entirety of students’ learning but a small piece of their overall education. Even assuming that the assessments are highly accurate (which they are not), they would miss other equally and perhaps more important aspects of learning, such as confidence, self-determination, creativity, entrepreneurial thinking, and other subjects.

Education has many desirable outcomes (Zhao 20172018b). These outcomes can be short-term or long-term, cognitive and non-cognitive, and instructional and educational. Short-term, cognitive, and instructional outcomes do not necessarily translate directly into long-term, non-cognitive, and educational outcomes. For example, test scores have often been found to have a negative correlation with students’ confidence and well-being (Loveless 2006; OECD 2019; Zhao 2018b). Test scores have also been found to have a negative correlation with economic development and entrepreneurial confidence and activities across (Baker 2007; Tienken 2008; Zhao 2012). Test scores do not predict the future of an individual’s success very well, and non-cognitive skills may play a bigger role than cognitive skills play (Brunello and Schlotter 2010; Levin 2012). Some assessments show successes that are only productive in the short term, while failures may actually be more productive in the long term (Dean and Kuhn 2007; Kapur 20142016).

So that’s 20% out the door. MNPS, to its credit, is pushing much of the money down to the individual schools. Unfortunately, they have the same restraints as the district – money shouldn’t be used for recurring expenses and please refrain from using it on people. So what’s left? Programs, programs, and more programs. And devoid of options, much of the money will flow to those program providers? Again, those that were around during the Race to the Top era will remember book rooms filled with unopened boxes of books and materials. No reason to believe that sin won’t be repeated.

On a positive note, David Lipscomb University has already jumped in to offer an alternative, helping teachers get their ELL certification at no cost to them. That is potentially a beneficial expenditure. Unless a teacher takes that credential and goes to another district to ply their trade because of the challenges of working in MNPS. But that’s for another day.

When it comes to people, tutors are definitely on the approved expenditure list. Here’s the thing to keep an eye on with that. The cynic in me believes that the TNDOE is intentionally pushing ahead with camps this summer. They may claim it’s about the kids, but the reality is that there is nothing that demands that remedial camps be held this year, other than a need to supply child care so parents can work and catch up on financial shortcomings brought on by the pandemic. This is a legitimate cause, but don’t use the narrative of failing kids to cover for it.

But, holding them this year does mean that teacher participation will be lower. Teachers are exhausted, this year has required more out of them than any previous year. A break is needed and many of them will turn down the generous financial compensation to recover. That opens the door to the tutoring corp.

To meet the demands of recently passed legislation, thousands of tutors will need to be recruited. many of them will be drawn from teacher ranks, and there is a voiced priority towards certified teachers, but a large number will come from elsewhere. How many of those tutors will be encouraged to transition to the teacher ranks? You know what we could do? We could create an alternative licensing process, you know like TFA or TNTP, which will allow tutors to quickly become teachers. I’m sure either TNTP or TFA would happy to aid in this for a small piece of the COVID pie.

Remember, students are required to take an assessment at the beginning and end of summer camps. Don’t think for a moment that those numbers won’t be utilized to make a case for the effectiveness of tutors. As a legislator, why would I invest in the state’s teachers as opposed to an alternative licensing process to combat teacher shortages? Experienced teachers are a pain in the ass – they don’t always do as they are told, they actually know what works and what doesn’t, and they are expensive. Get this tutoring thing going and right about the time the first batch starts catching on to difficulties of the teaching profession and starts to burn out, you’d have another group ready to go. A perpetual cycle, at a fraction of the price.

But what if teachers don’t take a break? What if they just tough it out and white-knuckle it through the summer, jumping right into the Fall? Warnings about playing two college football seasons in 9 months seem pretty applicable here,

These aren’t normal times, and certain concessions have to be made. But think about what teams would be asked to handle with two seasons in a calendar year: massive changes in personnel for both players and coaches, very little practice time, virtually no recruiting time, eligibility concerns and the potential for injuries to cost players multiple seasons. This would rattle the foundation of a sport that’s already on shaky ground.

What’s the point of “catching students up” this Summer, only to have them Fall back behind because teachers can’t sustain the pace and there are no subs available? Seems pretty short-sighted to me.

As districts rush to spend their new wealth, invariably, large amounts of money will be dedicated to projects whose value isn’t appreciated by the general public. Case in point, the recent $18 million was awarded to Meharry Medical College to create a COVID mitigation program for the remainder of the school year. A no-bid contract who many feel is more expensive than warranted,
 
Per Main Street Nashville,

The contract authorizes Metro Nashville Public Schools to pay Meharry Medical College Ventures, a for-profit entity owned by Meharry Medical College, up to $18 million for services during an 18-week period ending June 30.

Patrick Johnson, senior vice president of institutional advancement at Meharry, says the plan requires about 400 staff to be hired to serve the school district’s population of more than 60,000 people.

Costs are estimated at between $500 and $1,000 per school, per day for all the services. Board Chair Christiane defended the use of a no-bid contract due to the on-going health crisis.

“We allow for emergency stipulations like these contracts coming up very quickly because we knew we were hearing from the community that they wanted to be back in person. And so here we are, trying to work to get you all back in person.”

Perhaps, but critics point to the fact that school buildings have been closed for several months and MNPS officials should have predicted the need for such a program months ago, a time frame that would have allowed for an RFP process. They also point to other districts being able to supply similar services for less money.

My biggest question is around the onboarding of 400 people in just 4 months. Not everyone hired is going to work out, how do you ensure adequate numbers before the contract expires?

Also, where is the 60K number derived from? Only 55% f Nashville’s students have returned to school buildings, maybe 45K. I guess if you add in teachers and support staff, you’d approach the 60K number, assuming everybody opts in.

Here’s the bigger picture though. The whole conversation has become moot in the wake of the Biden administration announcing this week that they would provide $10 billion to states and some cities specifically for COVID testing in schools. So that basically ends that argument or does it.

In 2 years, the federal money will be gone, and schools will be back to scrapping for resources. That means asking for money from state and local municipalities. Don’t think for a second that stories of supposed misspent monies won’t be resurrected in an effort to thwart those requests. I’ve already heard stories of the standard answer to questions around the inadequacies of the BEP being, “Memphis needs more money? You mean the district that recently got $500 million in federal money, needs more?”

That hymn will only get louder and there will be a Nashville, Chattanooga, and Knoxville verse as well.

The general public likely isn’t aware of the limitations that come with the current federal. They just know it’s a windfall. What this likely translates to, is little will be done to currently address BEP shortcomings and lots of reasons will develop as to why not to in the future. If administrators are not real careful, this supposed windfall could extract a huge price in the future.

In an effort not to paint too dire a picture, it does need to be acknowledged that there will be some students that will benefit from the infusion of federal dollars. They will benefit from tutors, and summer camps, maybe even some of the canned curriculum rolling down the pike. And that shouldn’t be underlooked. If it makes a difference in just one child’s life, it’s a success. So I try and temper my cynicism.

I would just encourage administrators to put as much of the newly available money as possible in the pockets of those that do the heavy lifting every day. Maybe in two years, some of it disappears, or maybe we get evidence of the dividends paid by investing in teachers. Maybe once we see the clear value, we’ll find a way to maintain that investment. Maybe. But whatever happens in two years, until then, teachers are making a little more money.

When I started this blog a decade ago, I did so with a clear separation of state between myself and my wife, who is a teacher.  We don’t talk much about education policy, though more than the kids would prefer. But recently, one of our conversations led to her being frustrated with me.

“You deal with education policy as a philosophical, or academic excise”, she cried, “For me, it’s about real kids. Kids that are in front of me every day. Kids that need care and attention. That’s my focus. Not saying it’s not yours, but you don’t have the same immediacy that I experience.”

I’ve spent a great deal of time since, thinking about that statement. And she’s right. That’s the fundamental problem with public education, there are too many people like me making decisions for too many people like her. In some ways, it’s a flaw in the design.

The further away you get from kids the more money you make. Once you start making that money and lose the immediacy of children in front of you, it is only natural to want to hold on to that money. Part of that holding on is by creating justifications for your elevated status. It’s a situation that doesn’t facilitate seeking advice from those that still face children daily. After all, you secured the position by convincing someone you knew more than the average classroom teacher. And thus input from those who should have the most is limited.

What we really need is education policies designed by more people like my wife and less designed by people like me.

SCHOOL BOARD BLUES

MNPS has a school board meeting next Tuesday. On the agenda is a million-dollar contract with Great Minds for the provision of professional development for Wit & Wisdom elementary English Language Arts (ELA) instructional materials, coaching supports as needed, and training for having MNPS personnel become certified Wit & Wisdom trainers. The contract also covers the provision of Eureka Math professional development for the Schools of Innovation. A fair enough proposition, as MNPS adopted Great Minds Wit and Wisdom as K-5 curriculum last year. But I have a caveat.

Where is the equal investment of training in balanced literacy practices? Some may think that recent state legislation abolished balanced literacy as a teaching strategy. That’s not necessarily true, While the original language in the literacy bill specified that a “science of reading” approach be mandated, that language was stripped from the bill in favor of one that merely requires a strategy rooted in foundational skills. A bar that is met by a balanced literacy approach.

Science of Reading proponents would have you believe that Balanced Literacy teachers don’t utilize foundational skills in reading. A patently false claim. No matter what anybody tries to tell you, nobody is teaching reading without the inclusion of phonics and decoding. Balanced Literacy just uses other tools to address a child’s individual needs.

In adopting Wit and Wisdom, the MNPS School Board passed 9-0 a requirement that the district maintains its commitment to a Balanced Literacy philosophy. This was done after repeated assurances from Dr. Battle that this would indeed happen. It hasn’t, and now we are looking at purchasing training in the adopted curriculum without equal resources being devoted to the districts overarching literacy philosophy. That doesn’t appear to be in alignment with the board’s expressed desires.

Furthermore, this might be a good time to reveal the extent of former state superintendent of Education Candice McQueen’s role in the crafting of the district’s literacy plan. During a recent presentation, Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy offered lots of praise for her role, but little definition. McQueen is a strong proponent of Science of Reading, so now – before things get too far down the road – might be a good time to explain how she plans to align her views with that of the MNPS School Board. Included in that explanation might be, who’s compensating her and at what rate.

Or maybe MOU’s don’t mean anything anymore, and we just proceed forward at will. In any case, it would be nice to know.

SHORTCUTS

The CDC has relaxed its guidance on social distancing, now it’s 3ft. Also, they removed the requirement for shields between desks. So there you have it.

Ah…I just learned this week that the TNDOE”s Assistant Superintendent of Curriculum and Materials Lisa Coons has blocked me on Twitter. First off, I never even knew she was on Twitter. Secondly, I hope she’s not using that account in any official capacity, as I am a parent of two children enrolled in Tennessee’s public schools and she might be denying me information as it pertains to them. Rest easy though Dr. Coons, come Monday we’ll be discussing a subject dear to your heart – TNTP. You won’t want to miss this one. Plus you might be surprised to find out who’s employed by TNTP.

Dr. Coons has herself a new Assistant Director as well. Joining the team is former Sullivan County Elementary Supervisor Robin McClennan. McClellan was an active participant in the LIFT consortium and an open promoter of CKLA, Great Minds, and such. Riddle me this though, Sullivan’s former home Sullivan County was recently designated as a mentoree district in the newly created Literacy Implementation Districts. Why would the TNDOE pluck the leader of a district that needs mentoring on how to implement materials for the role of assistant superintendent of curriculum and materials. Unless of course, the real purpose of the Literacy Implementation Districts was something other than advertised. Nah, couldn’t be.

Check out this Chalkbeat profile on Hamilton County’s Superintendent Bryan Johnson. This comes on top of a profile that ran just a couple of months ago. read it, file it away, and remember where you heard it first.

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

3 replies

  1. Thanks for citing the precedent-shattering NPEF email and report on the BEP. I so hope this might be a truly new moment for Nashville to come together around the BEP underfunding.

    That said, the State of TN is set to deliver us permit-less open carry and for-profit charter schools. Taxes have been slashed. My last gasp of Hall tax payment goes in the mail soon. The state environment seems utterly hostile to public education.

    What next for “us”? What, if anything, can “we” do besides gripe here and there on social media? Yeah, I know about “get and wear a gun” for the coming shootouts. But what _else_?

  2. 1. work to elect representatives that will do what you think is right. This is gargantuan effort, but your question above is spot on.

    2. get your opinions into public domain as much as you can.

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