THE CONTINUAL REPACKAGING AND RESELLING OF EDUCATION POLICY

“Monsters exist, but they are too few in number to be truly dangerous. More dangerous are the common men, the functionaries ready to believe and to act without asking questions.”
Primo Levi

Legend has it that American’s once appreciated quality, and built things that last. When things broke down, we didn’t rush out and buy a new one but rather repaired the existing model. Growing up, my father spent weekends fixing everything from vacuums to carburetors. Only purchasing new when all other options had been exhausted.

At an early age, I was taught the lesson that things cost what they cost. You can haggle over the price, a good deal was highly valued, but ultimately when you were making a large purchase, you were making an investment. You were buying something of quality, something that you planned on using for many years. The desired sweet spot was that place between price and quality.

Somewhere, over the last 50 years or so, there has been a switch. Manufacturers realized that there was more money in producing things with a shorter shelf life, forcing consumers to replace with an increased frequency. They convinced American’s that the newest shiny thing was always better than the previous offering, even if the difference between the two was only cosmetic. It’s a practice that is widely prevalent in education as well.

For decades now, those outside the classroom have been trotting out new and improved options of old ideas, touting them as the secret ingredient in the secret sauce. A look under the hood though, quickly reveals that what’s really being offered, is just more of the same. But with prettier colors.

“No, no, no, that was lo-dosage tutoring. This is completely different. Much better. You can write the check out to I Love Kids inc.”

This past week, I took the time to view MNPS’s Community Literacy Engagement Training video, presented by Dr. David Williams and Dr. Mason Bellamy of Metro Nashville Public Schools with Erica Mitchell and Leslie Watt of United Way of Greater Nashville. The new video was produced to educate parents and community members about MNPS’s impending curriculum switch for K-5 literacy.

The video is not without positive elements. It’s refreshing to see a formal recognition that science and social studies don’t need to be sacrificed in order to improve literacy efforts. That the two can serve to improve student learning while providing kids with valuable instruction. It’s a theory that I would file under good teaching, but in the recent past has been ignored. Science and social studies instruction have both fallen victim in past to the pursuit of greater test scores.

Like all reading programs, the new curriculum, Wit and Wisdom, comes with its own set of essential texts. In this case, it will be actual books, instead of hands outs that reproduce passages. I am familiar with most of the proposed texts, and for the most part, they are solid.

The video also goes further in communicating what actual practice will look like than anything previously communicated by district leaders in MNPS board meetings, or elsewhere. All in all, it appears well thought out and for some schools and students, will be beneficial. But don’t fall for the hype, none of this is anything reimagined or even really new. Everything covered has been a part of past practices to varying degrees. Just re-packaged and spit-shined.

One of my favorite moments of the presentation is when MNPS curriculum head David Williams touts the new initiative as not the next thing, or the next new thing, but rather, THE THING. Ok…Chuck Norris…we’ll see in 5 years. To make such a pronouncement belies the reality that is the churn in large urban school district leadership. The average superintendent lasts about 3 years. When the next one shows up, it’s seldom because they promise to keep doing what’s been done in the past. Thus another round of rhetoric.

Back in 2010, Common Core was being touted as the savior. Kids weren’t making the desired progress because of a supposed lack of common standards and rigor in the existing ones. It was prescribed that, if school districts just adopted Common Core Standards, student outcomes would take off. In order to ensure that districts complied, Race To the Top Legislation was passed that included funding for schools that at the time was unprecedented, but has currently been easily eclipsed by COVID relief funding.

A passage in a blog post recently written by former Assistant Commissioner Emily Freitag on Lessons learned from Race to the Top resonates here.

I also remember how much the money created moments of frenzy. I remember how hard vendors worked to get in front of me to make a pitch. I remember how much effort it took to manage coherent work across vendors once the contracts were awarded. I remember internal conversations trying to generate creative ways to spend money effectively and fast when faced with a reversion deadline. And at the same time, I remember how hard it was to procure basic things like an event registration system, even if we had the money to pay for it.

What’s not mentioned here is how poorer districts, who could ill-afford it, were sold an underperforming bill of goods. The federal money ran out shortly before the inadequacies were discovered, putting districts in a place where they were forced to continue using inferior materials because they lacked resources to replace the junk science they’d been sold.  An occurrence that is likely to be repeated again.

You would have thought that such colossal failure would have served to drive the pretenders out of the business. But that’s not how it works in education. Not when there is a whole lot of money to be made.

During my drinking days we used to have an unwritten rule that if you acted a fool in a place the night before, it was essential that you walked into the same establishment the very next day as if nothing had happened. You never acknowledged the boorish behavior from the previous evening and demanded that you be treated as if it never happen. Stay away for a day, and people might talk about your behavior and cast you in a disparaging light. Politicians call that controlling the narrative before somebody else assumes control. 98% of the time it worked and apparently it works with education policy as well.

Looking around at the numerous non-profits that currently exert influence over Tennessee education policy, you’ll see a familiar cast of characters. Be it Education Trust, SCORE, TNTP, TFA, NIET, Scarlet Foundation, or Instructional Partners, you’ll recognize a familiar cast of characters pushing the last self-enriching product. It might have once been Common Core but “High-Quality Instructional Materials”will serve the same purpose equally as well.

The New Teacher Project was among the first to read the writing on the wall and propose the next train leaving the station. They jumped out with the Opportunity Gap, a PR piece masquerading as a research paper, which argued the merits of Common Core while attributing its shortcomings to the lack of “High-Quality” instructional materials. Thus the next marketing term was born.

Most of us envision “high quality” materials as meeting the definition recently supplied to me on Twitter, “a broad term to refer to curriculum that is aligned to standards, includes diverse and complex texts, and is reviewed positively by groups of teachers – not a particular program.” If only that were so. If that were the case, we would be having a different conversation.

The reality is one that is consistent with privateers’ past skilled manipulation of language. A presumed benevolent term is used to define something entirely different. Think “rigor” and “grit”. In this case, “high-quality materials” is used to define materials produced by a select number of publishers, all of which have past ties to Common Core. A group that stands poised to cash in big on the latest federal infusion of cash.

Now that doesn’t mean it’s all bad. Nor does it mean that all of Common Core was bad. But it does mean that we need to look at things with a little more of a jaundiced eye.

One of the people cashing in mightly right now is author Natalie Wexler. Notice I said, “author” and not “educator’. Per her own website, “She holds a BA from Harvard University, an MA in history from the University of Sussex (UK), and a JD from the University of Pennsylvania, and she has worked as a reporter, a Supreme Court law clerk, a lawyer, and a legal historian. The author of three novels, she lives in Washington, D.C., with her husband and has two adult children.”

Impressive resume no doubt, but one that doesn’t designate her as an expert in reading. In fact, I’m not sure she’s ever taught a kid to read, other than possibly her own. Wexler’s hook is the argument that children do poorly on reading tests due to a lack of background knowledge. Hmmm…where have I heard that before? I’m presuming that the statement included in MNPS’s presentation comes from Wexler’s work, she is after all referenced frequently,

The statement, “We teach knowledge”, is a head-scratcher and serves to reinforce the idea that helping children acquire knowledge is just a matter of opening their heads and pouring knowledge in.  A deeply rooted misconception.

My biggest issue with the Williams and Bellamy song and dance is not what’s in the presentation, but rather, what’s not. There is a decided lack of teacher acknowledgment. The prevailing thought seems to be one of current teacher inadequacy and that provided these materials, anyone can excel. The myth is that teachers when confronted with poor materials, adhere to them with fidelity. They pursue other resources and the concepts espoused and presented by Wexler and Great Minds are somehow inaccessible to them. That it only exists in a holy grail-like state.

Ascension into heaven is only available through the keepers of the flame. Nothing quite protects your status and inflated paycheck like the establishment of a guardian of the tomb role. It’s quickly forgotten that quite a few teachers have both degrees and experience levels that eclipse both Williams and Bellamy, not to mention those crafting the product.

Education writer Robert Pondisco offers an endorsement of the move to HQIM – you know you’ve made it when you become an acronym – but also offers a caveat about professional development,

There are two things you need to know about teacher “professional learning.” It almost always sucks. And it’s hardly ever about the curriculum teachers use. There’s a third thing worth knowing, too: Despite an estimated $18 billion spent annually on “PL,” there’s very little evidence that it’s effective. One report found that professional development tends to improve student outcomes very little, despite an average cost of $18,000 per teacher per year.

He goes on to add,

But there should be no illusions about the complexity of the work. It’s a far steeper challenge than reviewing curriculum materials, which are comparatively static. The number one provider of teacher professional learning is not TNTP, ANet, or any of the two dozen other outfits that get the thumbs up from Rivet. It’s schools and districts themselves. Next come local universities, independent consultants, curriculum vendors, and the inevitable parade of camp followers with something to sell.

Throughout the MNPS workshop, presenters offered up anecdotal stories of how they became inspired to read. Mason Bellamy told of his third-grade teacher reading Charlotte’s Web. Another tale centered on a kindergarten teacher who made books come alive through the use of alternative voices and recreation of animal sounds. All the stories were of a similar nature.

The story that nobody told was how they remember the day they were introduced to vowel sounds, nor the day they were first introduced to decodable texts. There is a reason for that. You can’t create magic without recognizing magicians. Teachers have always brought reading to life and will continue to do so despite the lack of acknowledgment by administrators. It’s what they do.

At the end of the day, no matter how Great Minds dresses up their product, it will be teachers that make the magic happen not curriculum curators. No matter how we wish to color things, the rubber hits the road with teachers. Instead of investing huge amounts of money in private companies, we would be better served investing in the true difference makers.

That’s the knowledge we continually refuse to acquire or acknowledge. Despite overwhelming evidence.

SPECIAL SESSION FAILINGS

In all its communications, the TNDOE likes to refer to this year’s legislative special sessions in grandiose terms. Often calling the outcomes “historical” or “extraordinary”. The truth is the legislation was rushed, poorly written, and ill serves those it was intended to benefit.

Harsh words despite my belief that most legislators had the best of intentions, but we’ve witnessed is the output of a system that suffers from an epic gap between those that create policy and those who must adhere to it. Furthermore, they’ve continually received bad advice from Commissioner Schwinn and the company. Bad inputs lead directly to bad outputs.

Teacher evaluations are a prime example. The stated goal of members of the general assembly was to recognize the burden levied by these unprecedented times and ensure there would be no negative accountability consequences for teachers, students, or schools from 2020-21 TCAP testing results. That might have been the intent, but the reality is something else.

Teachers annually receive a Level Of Effectiveness(LOE) score based on evaluations that combine qualitative measures, growth measures, and achievement measures. For 15% of their LOE, they are allowed to select a measure of their choice. It can be graduation rates, MAP scores, or an assortment of other approved measures, including TCAP. Their selection is made in the Fall.

At that time, nobody knew the status of TCAP and some teachers chose it thinking that it would be administered per usual. Others chose one of the other options. Fast forward three months and TCAP is no longer a viable option. Those who chose TCAP are now provided an opportunity to change their selection, while those who chose differently are not given that option. The teacher who initially chose TCAP is now at an advantage because results are in for the other measurements and they can select one that benefits, as opposed to hurts, their LEO.

A teacher who can not change could potentially see their LEO drop from a 5 to a 3 based on the pandemic’s impact on their chosen measurement. That’s not going to inspire.

Now the counter-argument would be that legislators foresaw the potential for such and therefore created the provision where a teacher could nullify their LOE. I’m sure legislators envisioned that by doing so, educators would be held harmless. They also ensured that teachers could protect their LOE if it improved. However, there was a wrinkle they didn’t foresee.

Per communication from the TNDOE,

Nullification means that, due to the lack of an LOE score, there will be no data on which to base professional development points (PDPs) or observation pacing for the following school year. Teachers electing to nullify will not receive LOE based PDPs for 2020-21 and will have observation pacing based on state board policy 5.201 which states any non-PYE educator without an LOE in the previous year shall have the maximum number of observations conducted based on the educator’s license type.

That doesn’t sound like it’s holding anyone harmless. Nor does it seem to be an accurate reflection of the intent of lawmakers. I went back and watched the video from those sessions and it’s clear that they wanted to do what’s best for teachers. Unfortunately, it once again appears that the TNDOE has different priorities.

There is still time to align the department’s interpretation with legislators’ desires. Hopefully, someone will seize the moment.

QUICK HITS

The Tennessean released an article yesterday that attempted to address parental concerns with upcoming TCAP tests. There was plenty of information, but I’m not sure much clarity. The TNDOE, and by extension MNPS, continue to argue that Tennessee does not allow parents an option to opt-out. An argument that education advocacy group Save Our Schools strongly refutes.

As they rightfully point out,

There are only eight states that allow you to opt your child out of testing. Tennessee is NOT one of those states. However, there are no state laws in TN that require your child to take any TNReady test, so you and your child can refuse the test.

That might seem like a minor distinction, but it’s an important one.

Clarification must also be added to the state’s requirement that a district obtains 80% participation in order to be held harmless. Per the legislation, the only accountability factors that come into play should a district not meet the threshold, are in regard to being assigned a letter grade and being designated a priority school. Per department communication,

This new law offers the ability for school districts and schools to be held harmless of any negative consequences of accountability. Student performance and growth data generated by TCAP assessments administered in the 2020-2021 school year will not be used to assign a letter grades or any other summative ratings to schools and districts on the state report card this year, so long as at least 80% of eligible students participate in the TCAP tests. Additionally, for school districts being held harmless, student performance and growth data generated by TCAP assessments administered in the 2020-2021 school year shall not be used to identify a school as a priority school or to assign a school to the
achievement school district.

So if anybody tells you that by not participating you are hurting teachers or schools, they are being a little disingenuous. Furthermore, parents should keep in mind that Tennessee has not secured a waiver for the federally required 95% participation rate.  Until that happens, 80% is just a fictitious number.

The USDOE is still in the process of reviewing waiver requests and is showing an increased level of flexibility as evidenced by a recent ruling for New Jersey that allows for students to take an abbreviated test in the Fall.

I like what New York is doing this year. They are offering the state tests, but parents who want to participate are required to opt-in. A brilliant idea.

When evaluating the value of testing, I urge you to heed the words of Akil Bello, Senior Director of Advocacy and Advancement at FairTest,

Learning loss has become more of a marketing catchphrase than a term that captures what students have faced in the last year. The marketing of learning loss, however, has been fairly effective in getting money allocated that will almost certainly end up benefiting the industry that coined the phrase. Ostensibly, learning loss is a term that sprung from educational research that identified and quantified an effect of pandemic-related disruptions on schools and learning. In actuality, it’s the result of campaigns by test publishers and Wall Street consultants. 

He goes on to add,

The introduction of these terms out of context of the research that created them leads to misinterpretation of their true meaning. Learning loss, for example, has been digested and filtered through common knowledge to take on at least three meanings: evaporation of previously acquired knowledge, predicted loss of career opportunities, and predicted or measured standardized testing performance losses

Bello goes on to explain the many ways that standardized testing has contributed to the ever-growing disillusionment with public education among the general public. Something that should be a cause for alarm to all of us.

That’s more than enough for now.

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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