IT IS NEVER AS INNOCUOUS AS IT APPEARS UPON FIRST BLUSH

“What was educationally significant and hard to measure has been replaced by what is educationally insignificant and easy to measure. So now we measure how well we taught what isn’t worth learning.” —Arthur L. Costa; Professor of Education, Emeritus; CA State Univ, Sacramento

 

Every once in a while I feel the need to do a kitchen sink edition. A palate cleanser of a sort. Things pile up and I never get time to really address them. Today I’m going to hit as many of those as possible. So warning, this one may be a little more disjointed than most.

In the wake of recently passed legislation concerning literacy. the Tennessee Department of Education and in particular Its Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn, have kicked up their PR efforts.

What this translates to is a social media feed chock full of pictures of the commissioner visiting schools and posing for pictures with students and staff. A sure-fire method of currying favor with the masses. Who doesn’t love a picture of kids in the classroom?

It also means a subtle rewriting of history and putting a positive spin on events that transpired over the last several months. To serve this end, a new Twitter account has sprung up #LiteracyMatters Tennessee. A nice innocuous name, right? After all, everybody loves literacy.

There is little additional information about the account, but based on early thread entries I would suspect it’s been created by one of the regular culprits – TNDOE, SCORE, TNTP. All three paired together with Knowledge Matters to orchestrate a PR campaign prior to last year’s reading bill. So it’s not without precedence.

On the surface, all talk about literacy is welcome talk, but there needs to be some adherence to reality and not just smokescreens. For example, the #LitteracyMatters Tennessee thread links to a podcast interview with the state DOE’s head of curriculum and materials Lisa Coons conducted by the EDTrust. In it, Coons infers that last year’s Reading bill failed due to the pandemic. Not exactly true.

The bill despite being pushed by the Governor languished in sub-committee for many weeks amid legislators concerns over the usage of the terms “Science of Reading” and the overreaching powers possibly granted to the department of education. The bill only advanced after the “science of language” was changed and much of the potential scope was scaled back. COVID gave convenient coverage to legislators who were already openly questioning the merits of the bill.

It was only after many of the provisions were brought back during the special session, that the department was able to pass some of its vision. When looking at the legislation it is always important to look at the cost as well. and I’m not talking financially.

For Commissioner Schwinn and Coons, I would argue that it was an expensive proposition. Previously the power to grant waivers on the adoption of materials and textbooks rested with the TNDOE. In the aftermath of the initial reading bill failing and in response to questions raised around it, that power was stripped from the DOE and placed in the hands of the State Board of Education. That’s more than a slap on the wrist for the two.

Coons, herself, is inexplicably often presented as an authority when it comes to improving student outcomes. Not sure where this perception comes from, as she doesn’t have the resume to back it up. Before joining the TNDOE Dr. Coons briefly served as the head of MNPS’s priority schools. During her tenure, she proved more adept at improving TNTP’s bottom line than she was at improving student outcomes. Instead of decreasing, the number of priority schools grew.

Interesting sideline for you. Before Coons, MNPS had a list of preferred vendors list that individual schools could use to provide teacher professional development. Nashville uses a school-based funding plan, so these decisions are left up to individual principals. TNTP, while on the list, was not utilized. Nobody was using them. When Coons became head of priority schools, she ushered in several contracts for priority schools to use their services.

Among those services was a diagnosis of MNPS’s schools and their literacy practices. As part of the diagnoses, 20 schools would pilot the reading program CKLA. The pilot didn’t go well. But hey, TNTP put an additional $379K in the bank. The next year they added another $120K and extended the contract for a year. Before Dr. Coons contact with MNPS was allowed to expire, TNTP would sign two more contracts valued at just shy of a million dollars. Both contracts were allowed to expire after Coons left MNPS.

The timeline here also needs clarification. Dr. Coons did not leave MNPS of her own volition in order to join the TNDOE. Rather, Dr. Battle deliberately chose not to renew Dr. Coon’s contract and go in a different direction with leadership for MNPS’s Innovation Schools.

In case you are wondering, yes the aforementioned TNTP is the same one that just signed an 8 million dollar contract with the state of Tennessee to supply similar services like those they supplied unsuccessfully with MNPS. The contract was awarded based on an RFP that was released by the department on Christmas Eve and required a letter of intent by the first week in January.

Admittedly, people like to work with people they know and continue with relationships that provide successful outcomes. Can’t fault them for that, except that TNTP doesn’t have a record of success in Tennessee, despite being employed by SCORE since 2015.

That’s when SCORE hired them to independently evaluate schools in Tennessee on their literacy programs. Luckily when literacy programs turned up deficient as a result of their evaluation, TNTP had a remedy quickly at hand. One that will only cost taxpayers $8 million initially. Oh…I’m sure this ATM is just getting started.

So you might ask, who else responded to the PreK – 4 FoundationalReading Skills Training RFP? There were two additional applicants. One was Lexia Learning. Their proposal was deemed non-responsive because they did not propose a course two in their RFP response. Odd, but maybe they were too busy unwrapping presents with their family during the holidays to read the entire RFP.

The other respondent was a group called the Public Consulting Group(PCG). PCG already has a contract with the state of Tennessee to manage student data. By all accounts, they do a solid job. But their bid was determined to be inferior to TNTP’s bid.

It’s a shame that at a time with massive federal funding available and an education consultant around every corner, nobody who did not already have a working relationship with Coons or Schwinn chose to respond. It’s almost like they knew they wouldn’t receive fair consideration. But that’s crazy talk.

So why the lengthy diatribe about a new, seemingly positive Twitter account? Because it should serve as evidence that now more than ever, it’s essential that public education advocates keep their heads on a swivel. Good intentions don’t always lead to good work, and things are oft not what they seem.

Ten years ago, we saw similar PR campaigns around Common Core funded by Race to the Top money. Since then, the conversationalists haven’t changed, the topic is the only thing that’s different. Where once it was “standards” that were going to lead us out of the wilderness, it is not “high-curriculum”. Same discussion, different subject. I suspect that once again, those who will benefit the most are those that have a vested financial interest and not those that need it the most.

If you don’t change the players, you won’t change the game.

FINANCIAL LIMITATIONS

Much has been made of the availability of federal funds to schools for capital projects. Proponents are touting them as an opportunity for schools to update classrooms and improve ventilation systems. On paper, this all sounds very promising, but the reality is a little different.

For various reasons, construction costs have skyrocketed over the last year. Things like materials for subfloors have nearly quadrupled. Even basic needs like lumber and nails have exponentially grown. High cost means a low-profit margin. Government projects are seldom as lucrative as private offerings.

What we now have a case of is increased financial resources at a time when the cost is through the roof. This could serve to hinder getting those long overdue projects off the ground.

MORE TESTING BLUES

Ask your kid what they doing in school this week and if they are in Tennessee, the likely answer is…getting ready for TNReady, the state’s annual standardized test. Once again we demonstrate where our priorities lie. We are not only willing to incur more learning loss due to missed instruction time in an effort to measure how much learning loss has occurred, but first, we’ll try and put as much of that learning loss back in place short term. Does any of that make logical sense?

To compound matters, if you are a Nashville student, you’ll take MAP testing the week after TNReady ends. MNPS ELL students will be going from WIDA, to TNReady, to MAP testing. If you were a cynical person you’d probably wonder if the rush to get students back in school wasn’t as much about testing as it was teaching.

Last week MNPS sent out information about the upcoming testing process to parents. As part of that communication,parents were told that Tennessee does not provide an “opt-out” option to parents. The inference was that it’s mandatory for students to take the test. Not exactly an accurate portrayal.

Schools district are mandated to offer the test, nobody is mandated to take it. Since the test is only offered in-person, all a parent needs to do in order to opt-out, is not send their kids into a school building on testing days. No big deal, If you choose to do so, nobody will show up your door and drag your child out to test. They may get an ominous sounding, “unexcused absence”, but what does that really mean? Unless your child already has a bucketful, that is just a mark on a paper.

SOUND AND FURY SIGNIFYING NOTHING

Two weeks ago there was great gnashing of the teeth over a proposed bill in the Tennessee General Assembly that would’ve allowed the Commissioner of Education to remove a superintendent or even a school board member. Cooler heads knew this bill wasn’t going anywhere, and last week their forethought was borne out as the bill met a quiet death – at least for this year -when the bills sponsor Sen. Joey Hensley delayed the measure in the Senate Education Committee until next year.

The reality is, nobody really wants to run schools. That work is hard and improvements don’t come quickly. The role legislators, and education commissioners, much prefer is the that of the vulture threateningly sitting over the shoulder of the state’s educators. A presence intended to spur them into action as if self-motivation wasn’t enough. It is why the state’s Achievement School District is still operating.

Anybody with an ounce of sense can tell you that the ASD is an abysmal failure. But if you shut it down, who’s going to keep those lazy teachers and administrators in line? Despite evidence to the contrary, the assumption is that the state knows more about running schools than those that are actually running schools.

It’s ironic to me that many of those who serve on the General Assembly’s education committees come from an athletic background, a world where reputations are earned by accomplishments, As opposed to the one they currently inhabit, where just showing up seems sufficient.

I’m sure next year we will see this bill arise again. Perhaps at that time, there will be a commissioner in place capable of making it a viable threat. If not, it will be just another round of sound and fury, signifying nothing.

QUICK HITS 

Has anybody thought to ask Governor Lee why he doesn’t just name David Mansouri Tennessee Commissioner of Education and let everyone quit pretending?

Speaking of the TNDOE, they continue to work to ensure that if you have the desire, they have the position of employment available. As of today, there are 31 executive positions listed on the state website. Up from 22 last week. If there is not currently one there for you, I’m confident that next week will bring even more possibilities.

Much has been made of the role Teacher’s unions have played in delaying the re-opening of school buildings. Despite what you might believe, the unions haven’t played nearly a focal point as advertised. Andy Smarick, certainly no friend to teacher unions, has the data and he lays it out.

For the last year, it has been fashionable to attribute all sorts of bad motives to school systems, their leaders, and the advocacy groups influencing them. But the story hasn’t been politics, unions, laziness, risk-aversion, or ignorance. It’s been parents, pluralism, and self-government.

A worthy read.

Tomorrow brings another MNPS school board meeting. A look at the agenda shows an intent to approve the 2021/2022 school budget. Included in the budget materials is a chart that shows MNPS relative to other districts in regard to per-pupil spending. When looking at this chart, keep in mind that it does not always desire but often need that drives per-pupil funding. Many districts have seen a greater exit by middle-class families from public schools. That leaves mind students with higher needs and thus higher financial requirements,  One more reason why a truly diverse student population is essential.

Another education reporter is coming to town. WPLN has announced the hiring of Juliana Kim as the newsroom’s first Education Reporter, starting May 3, 2021. Kim comes to Tennessee via the NY Times. It’ll be great to have another voice on the scene though some of my excitement is tempered when I reads the closing paragraph in the press release,

Nashville Public Radio thanks the Thorne Family Charitable Fund, the Scarlett Foundation, the HCA Healthcare Foundation, the Joe C. Davis Foundation and the Andrew Allen Foundation for their generous support of our education beat.

The Times has been a proponent of testing and other preferred reformer strategies, as have those support entities listed. Sometimes I hate following the money. But I will keep a positive attitude.

Next time you see one of Tennessee’s exhausted looking teachers bear in mind that somewhere there is an education non-profit executive director at a cocktail party painting themselves as equal partner in student outcomes. Or maybe it’s on a Zoom call where they are presenting a powerpoint that frames them as driving improvements in student achievement. Ask yourself who is really essential.

This past weekend I spoke with a friend who is French, her parents still live there. France, along with the rest of Europe is once again under lockdown and vaccines remain scarce. It’s a scenario that much of the world faces. While in this country we currently have 22% of the country fully vaccinated. It’s an enviable position to be in and one that should remind us of the immense privilege we have in being American. Our country is oft imperfect, and recognizing its greatness is currently out of style, but we are truly blessed to reside where we do. Sometimes it behooves us to stop and remember. The US of A, often imitated, yet to be duplicated.

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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