“You’re nothing more than a clever prostitute. You accepted the conditions in which you found yourself and you triumphed.”
Growing up, the most popular show in the country was “Dallas”. For those of you too young to remember, “Dallas” was a nighttime soap centered on a Texas oil family and their many machinations. Each season ended with a cliffhanger, with the intent of holding viewers’ interest over the Summer until new episodes debuted in the Fall.
This was all before the rise of cable TV, so I understand if you younger folks are a little confused, but bear with me. The most successful cliffhanger was when antagonist J.R. Ewing was shot and we all spent the summer trying to decipher who the killer was. The phrase, “Who shot J.R.?” was on everyone’s lips throughout the summer.
In 1986, the “Dallas” producers tried once tried to catch lightning in the bottle by kicking off the season with the jealous Katherine running down the popular Bobby with her car because she was in love with him, Bobby later died in the hospital. The season unfolded from there, until the last episode in which Bobby’s ex-wife Pamela awoke in her bed, the entire year had been nothing but a dream. The season ended with Bobby in the shower, very much alive.
This cliffhanger turned out to be the antithesis of the “Who Shot J.R.” cliffhanger. The show remained on everybody’s lips for the whole summer, but for all the wrong reasons. People were rightfully upset and felt like they were duped. The show lasted another 4 years after that season but was never again as popular as it had once been. The “it was all a dream” script was universally rejected.
So right about now you might be wondering, “What does a nighttime soap opera have to do with education policy?”
On the surface, there may not appear to be any connection, but if you listen closely to Dr.Battle and her team layout plans for next year, you may get a sense of deja vu.
By all indications, we are intent on pretending as if this past year, never happen. Four months before the start of the 2021/2022 school year, plans are unfolding as if the year was all a dream and next year we are going to open the year as if it were a normal year.
In closing out the year, MNPS is squarely focused on common themes – testing, and curriculum. Instead, how do we build a better model that serves more students based on the accomplishments of last year?
It’s amazing to me that out of one side of their mouth administrators call out the “learning loss” of students and the missed opportunities for growth, while out of the other side they rob students of opportunities for growth with the administration of meaningless tests. In fact, one wouldn’t be remiss in surmising that the only purpose that in-person schooling has resumed is to facilitate testing and provide babysitting services.
Nine weeks are remaining in the school year and during those 9 weeks, MNPS students will take TNReady, MAP, and I-Ready tests. Besides, many students will take the TNReady experiment. Apparently, a couple years ago MNPS was supposed to administer a TNReady test to students anonymously online to assess the functionality. It wasn’t administered at that time, so it’s happening now. What’s one more test among friends?
Let’s not forget that ELL students have also spent March taking the WIDA exam.
Notice I said “test” as opposed to the currently more popular term, “assessment”. That was intentional. Per Alfie Kohn,
Assessment literally means to sit beside, and that’s just what our most thoughtful educators urge us to do. Yetta Goodman coined the compound noun “kidwatching” to describe reading with each child to gauge his or her proficiency. Marilyn Burns insists that one-on-one conversations tell us far more about students’ mathematical understanding than a test ever could — since all wrong answers aren’t alike. Of course this assumes that we’re really interested in kids’ understanding, not merely their level of phonemic awareness or ability to apply an algorithm. The less ambitious one’s educational goals, the more likely that a test will suffice — and, again, that the words testing and assessing will be used interchangeably.
Don’t be fooled by the whole canard of, “We have to know where students are to serve them”. It’s quite frankly, bullshit. Students at MNPS have already taken both MAP and I-Ready this year – twice. We have a general idea of where students are and what they need. We just aren’t willing to put those needs before those adults who need justification for the six-figure salaries they earn.
While we are on that subject, let me digress for a minute. You want to talk about inequities? Let’s talk. Here are the salaries of the Executive Directors at the state’s most prolific education non-profits,
- 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.
Out in Memphis, there is a group dedicated to working with students and families in high-poverty schools called Memphis LIFT. I don’t agree with all of their positions, but there is no denying that they are in the communities all day, every day, doing the heavy lifting. They are the forebearers of Nashville’s PROPEL. The ED of Memphis LIFT is Sarah Carpenter. Know what Carpenter makes a year?
According to their 2018 990, less than 54K a year.
So please explain to me what John King is doing that makes his work worth nearly 10x that of Ms. Carpenter’s? Why is David Mansouri making 6 figures while somebody who is meaningfully impacting lives daily is making a fraction of that? It’s gross and the very picture of the inequities that the others claim to fight against.
But let’s leave that alone for right now. But trust me we’ll come back to it in the future.
Back to testing. The state has mandated that to avoid any potential penalties, MNPS must secure 80% student participation in TNReady. How do you do that when the test can only be administered in person and 45% of your students remain virtual?
Parents of virtual students may be under the illusion that all they’ll be required to do is bring their kids in one time. No, TNReady testing requires several days. So in other words, parents will be required to bring them in all week. I’m curious, as the testing window approaches, when does MNPS intend to survey parents to determine how many will be bringing their kids, or are they just assuming compliance?
Some students, my daughter as an example, are not ready to be in buildings yet. Several months ago she was subject to a COVID test and it has left a lasting impression on her. She takes the illness very seriously and is not prepared to return to school buildings. So if I force her to, it will be under duress. How will that impact her scores? Why should I force her to create a permanent record just so a bureaucrat can get their body count?
Furthermore, over the last 3 months, she has owned her education and worked extremely hard in pursuit of learning. Why would I administer a test to her under duress that could potentially serve to undermine that work? Who benefits here, her or administrators? Who will be quoted in the trades, her or Commissioner Schwinn?
Why should I supply the fodder for what will ultimately become a future PR campaign?
Personally, I feel no compunction to do so.
Tuesday MNPS had a board meeting. Much of the time was spent with Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy outlining the district plans for the next school year. Now admittedly. Bellamy’s voice is akin to fingernails on a chalkboard to me, but all I heard were plans that benefited adults while failing to acknowledge the circumstances of the past year. Between all of MNPS’s administrators, I heard nothing but a regurgitation of past failed policies.
No retention bonuses for teachers in hard-to-staff schools or subjects, but recruitment bonuses for new teachers. What if you offered all teachers a 2500 bonus in December if you stuck from the beginning of the school year until then. Another $2500 in June if you finished the year. Think that might impact the number of vacancies?
It continually baffles me that MNPS for the last decade has put recruitment before retention. Why is it so hard to grasp that you can’t fill a bucket with a hole in it by turning up the faucet? Yet. that remains the prevailing strategy. That and offer up a few general platitudes.
Throughout Tuesday’s presentation, I heard repeated references to Summer School, SEL, and Professional development offerings. The reviews on PD were especially glowing, With Bellamy going as far as saying that he’d never worked in a district with as many PD offerings as MNPS. Translated, Clarksville had fewer PD offerings because the only district he’s ever worked in is Montgomery County Schools.
Throughout all of this, I heard little to no talk about the SEL regarding teachers. Nobody seems to care about the sheer volume of work this year and the toll it’s taken on them. Nobody talks about any needed adjustments in light of a year with no in-person instruction. Reportedly there has been an uptick in discipline issues at schools where kids have returned to school. That shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. It shouldn’t be a revelation that children used to a year of the relative freedom of remote learning are chafing at the compliance inherent in in-person schooling.
With time, more students will come into compliance but it will not be an instantaneous process, merely requiring re-entry. Kids didn’t get the memo that adult needs always trump their needs and desires.
Speaking of remote instruction, all the work that was done this year around virtual schooling is apparently being discarded, and next year the only platform offered to students will be the MNPS Virtual School. Which is a fine program, but certainly not one that is designed for the average student. But so what, a virtual school is a virtual school, right?
Never mind that some teachers have become very adept at delivering remote instruction, and despite the popular narrative, not all kids are failing at remote learning. A not unsubstantial number of students are thriving, and may not do as well when forced to return to in-person instruction. Once again we mouth the chorus of serving “ALL STUDENTS” while pursuing strategies that better serve adults than kids.
As part of the conversation around remote instruction, Bellamy and his cohorts continually reference our past usage of the Florida Virtual School Curriculum with virtual schooling. That’s a little disingenuous. The previous contract(2- Contract Terms) with FVS was for $22,500, while the current contract bears a price tag of a cool million a year for the next 4. Somehow, that hasn’t been previously mentioned.
The MNPS Virtual School as it is currently set up is entirely asynchronous. There are teachers available to assist when needed, and a resource center where students can go for in-person assistance, but in no way does it look like the virtual schooling students received this year. Any potential participant that thinks they will be continuing as they did this year is in for a rude awakening.
Athletics, band, and drama all serve to keep a student engaged in their education. How does a student participate in any of those activities while attending the MNPS virtual school?
By unhooking virtual schooling from existing schools, you sever students’ ties to a community and drop them into a much more nebulous one. Since it’s a less concrete community, what is the impact on the average student?
Bellamy cited the Tennessee Department of Education as being the cause of abandoning virtual options at individual schools. Apparently, according to him, they view offering virtual instruction as the creation of an entirely new school, requiring a new state number. He argues that to pursue that avenue would be impossible in a district with 147 schools.
Maybe, but not all schools have the same demand. We have the data, why not utilize it to create the option in the buildings where demand warrants? Students in buildings where demand is not adequate could be shifted to those that have the remote option. It’s not like we don’t already have large numbers of students attending schools outside of their zoned districts.
To establish credibility, Bellamy offered up that he’d been working on offering a school-based remote option back in Clarksville without success. What I take from that is a willingness to fight for Montgomery County students but not MNPS students. Just because the DOE says it is so, doesn’t make it gospel. Do the students who thrived this year not deserve the same opportunity to do so next year?
As if this past year wasn’t hard enough on teachers, Bellamy and company seem intent on making sure next year is just as challenging and potentially equally demoralizing. While ven for teachers learning is a continuous process, the last year required a great deal of heavy lifting to meet the needs of students. To their credit, the majority of teachers dived in and delivered, despite a lack of assurance that doing so would pay dividends past this year.
Since the learning curve was so steep, despite all their efforts and extra work, coupled with a lack of support, not every teacher was successful this year. Teaching remotely and in-person are markedly different propositions, and not every teacher was able to make the transition. For some, it meant a year with fewer wins than in the past. If you are a veteran teacher with a long record of success, the results of this past year were potentially demoralizing. Now we are going to set them up for more of the same next year.
The merits of Wit and Wisdom can be argued ad nauseam. But, read any review and you’ll see that all come with a caveat of lack of progress in the first year. Real results aren’t promised until year 2, or more likely 3.
So what MNPS is now asking is that teachers in k-5 sacrifice needed recuperation time to implement a strategy that may or may not be here in 3 years – history shows it likely won’t – in order to once again fall short with little acknowledgment of the degree of difficulty involved. That won’t impact retention rates, will it?
Mind you those shortfallings next year, won’t count against administrators evaluations but will factor into a teacher’s TEAM score. This idea gets more attractive every minute.
Also missing from the conversation is any consideration of the toll on teachers and students if they teach summer school or devote extra hours to learn a new curriculum. What’s the sense of rushing to hypothetically “catch students up”, if we only let them fall behind when teachers hit a wall and start to take personal days for mental health in October?
Nothing in Tuesday’s presentation revealed any plans or strategies that haven’t been tried in the past. Tutors, summer school, restorative practices, all take us back to a time pre-pandemic. Nothing was presented that built upon work done this past year. Like Pamela Ewing, MNPS leadership seems content with rolling over in bed and pretending it was all nothing but a dream.
I’ve yet to hear a public discussion about student gains this year. I’ve yet to hear individual stories of teacher success, along with scalable strategies developed during the year. I’ve yet to hear the conversation around student success and how it can be continued next year. Instead, conversations are rooted squarely in a trip back to pre-pandemic.
I surmise, that the reason for that is that we always put adult comfort before student needs,
In-person schooling, we’re comfortable with that?
Curriculum implementation? Comfortable with that.
Focusing on recruitment instead of retention? Very comfortable.
I’ve heard it said by more than one veteran MNPS educator, Jay Steele certainly had his faults, but were he our current superintendent, I promise you we would have come out of this with some progressive programs. We would have built on the year instead of trying to pretend it never happened. I can’t say I disagree.
At this point, my prayer is that the “dream sequence” script doesn’t have the same impact on MNPS as it did on the television series “Dallas”.
Earlier in the week, the Tennessee Lookout reported on Commissioner Schwinn’s spouse being employed by TNTP who had just received an 8 million dollar contract from the Department of Education. Schwinn offered the following in defense of the contract,
First, though, she obtained approval from the state’s Central Procurement Office, promising to distance herself from the agreement, according to a letter to the department’s legal counsel from Michael Perry, chief procurement officer for the state’s Central Procurement Office. Perry approved the matter based on Schwinn’s proposal dealing with conflicts to ensure she and her husband, Paul, didn’t get involved in the work.
Whether she or he, interferes is not the primary concern. Mr. Schwinn is not a long-time employee of TNTP, though he has worked with them in the past.
Paul Schwinn’s contract with a local charter school was not renewed in May. No small feat in itself, because as we all know, getting fired from an education administration job in Tennessee is tough under natural occurrences, let alone when your spouse is the head of the state department of education.
As a result, Paul went in search of employment and just happened to secure a position with a company that was at the time being written into a multi-million dollar federal grant(Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant_Full Application Submission copy). Did no one around the Schwinn household recognize the potential optics and say, “No, you better not take that one”?
Back home there are jobs held by relatives of union members that only require attendance on payday. Mr. Schwinn may be working with Philadelphia principals, but the majority of Philly schools are still remote, so it’s likely the majority of Schwinn’s time is spent in Nashville.
I would like to see examples of the services that Mr. Schwinn has provided to TNTP over the past year, as well as an explanation as to why he is uniquely qualified to work for TNTP. Though I won’t hold my breath that such information will be forthcoming anytime soon.
For a deeper look, I encourage you to read my piece which was picked up and shared by the Network for Public Education. In response to my question on who’s actually controlling Tennessee education policy, NPE prefaces my piece with the following,
What I’ve shared here is just the tip of the iceberg. SCORE, TNTP, and other non-profits have been exerting an undue influence on Tennessee education policy for at least a decade. As unelected officials, they are free from disclosing where their money comes from or how they ply their trade. They implement education policy with little accountability to anybody but their funders. It’s the best of all worlds – lots of influence, little responsibility.
Consider the irony if it turns out that despite having a supermajority, Republicans have abdicated control of education policy to Democrats. You don’t think TNTP, the Gates Foundation, and other influencers are run by starch conservatives, do you?
Questions continue to abound over MNPS’s contract with Meharry Medical College for COVID-related services. Yesterday, Meharry released data that showed 500 students have been tested to date and a likely unfilled promise to test students at every school in Nashville by week’s end. Per the Tennessean,
Of those tests, 203 were administered on Monday and Tuesday at 21 schools each day. The majority of the 203 individuals tested were students (163), with 41 staff members also chosen to be tested, according to the district.
That certainly is welcome news, But what’s not being discussed is what happens if the designated $18 million is not spent. It’s not clear that there would be ample time for MNPS to redesignate the funds due to a passed deadline and new monies from a third Federal stimulus. Unpent monies would likely have to be returned. Truth be told, I’d prefer the money go to Meharry, then back to the Feds to be redistributed elsewhere.
Earlier in the week, ChalbeatTN ran a cautionary article that warned against possible outcomes if stimulus money was not prudently spent by LEA’s. Included was this quote by Commissioner Schwinn.
“I’m looking at 900 different ways to explain this moment to school districts so they understand both the opportunity and gravity of this funding,”
House Education Committee chair Mark White echoed her sentiments,
“If the needle has not been moved in two years, don’t come here griping because you’re not using your money wisely,” he said, citing student test scores as the primary measure of success.
Ironic, since neither of them can point to any concrete success stories during their tenure. The same hymn from the same bible, “Accountability for you and none for me.” Let the record stand as well, that inequities with the BEP have only grown under White’s watch.
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