“We’re all islands shouting lies to each other across seas of misunderstanding.”
Rudyard Kipling, The Light That Failed


So riddle me this? I can shop at Publix without a mask, but I can’t get more than 4 tickets per student to a high school graduation ceremony, why? A graduation is a once-in-a-lifetime event and it appears we are erring on the side of caution. We are talking about robbing students and families of an event that was over a decade in the making without good cause.

Administrators talk about the need to make meaningful relationships and the importance of SEL. We want communities to celebrate and buy into the value of education. Yet here we are, a time for celebration and the reinforcing of bonds between communities and schools, and we are punting. For what? What is the possible upside of depriving students of the opportunity to share one of the most memorable moments of their life with their extended families?

At a time when people are re-emerging from their COVID cocoons, I would argue that it is more important than ever to reaffirm the touchstones of our lives. Graduation, marriage, the birth of children, are milestones that mark our journey through life. Yet, MNPS feels it’s permissible to steal one of those from the city’s students. For what gain?

It’s not like students and their families won’t be gathering afterward for celebrations in private facilities. It’s not like schools haven’t been open and serving children for months. It’s not like the CDC hasn’t relaxed its suggested protocols. If I was of a cynical nature – I know, I know – I would chalk up the clinging to the edict as pure laziness or stubbornness. But of course, that couldn’t be true, because everybody knows, kids come first – except when they don’t.


Sometimes people you really respect say things that are just…well let’s just say…incorrect. Sometimes the smartest people say the dumbest things. Such is the case this past weekend.

Matt Barnum writes for Chalkbeat magazine, a digital education publication. Barnum is an exceptional writer, and his coverage of schools during the pandemic has been essential reading. On Friday, Chalkbeat published a piece of his on how education non-profits were no longer driving policy decisions. It was filled with quotes like this one,

“Philanthropy used to be very influential in shaping policy,” said Leslie Finger, who studies education philanthropy at University of North Texas. “But I think these days, philanthropy is not in the driver’s seat.”

In his piece, Barnum argued that non-profits had a heyday under the Obama administration, but have since pulled back. In his own words,

But what’s clear is that philanthropies and the organizations they fund aren’t offering the same unified and sweeping set of ideas that took hold during the Obama years.

He further argued that education non-profits have become less unified in their vision of policy.

To all of this, I can only offer one word, “bullshit”.

Sorry for the coarseness, but it’s the only word that fits. Tennessee as a state is under assault by education non-profits, with the largest, SCORE, assuming the role of a shadow department of education. Professional Educators of Tennessee executive director J.C. Bowman does a good job of outlining the undue influence exerted in a press release from last week.  To quote,

“When we watch policymakers grasp at the complex issues facing public education, we realize that outside influences and political donations are having greater influence over our classrooms and often fail to connect the educator with the policy.”

A look at recently passed state legislation, reveals that nearly all of it can be chalked up as a win for those outside influences. The literacy bill itself was born out of an initiative undertaken by SCORE in 2015, where despite the state receiving accolades for its literacy progress, they felt compelled to take the state in a different direction. They created a small network of schools in order to pilot new literacy materials. materials not included on the state’s list of approved materials.

This was down despite state regulations that districts only use materials included on the state-approved material list. In other words, they felt their views superseded those of the state. They found a loophole and exploited it for their gain.

I don’t have to make the case for this argument, SCORE does it itself in a 2017 publication,

Over the past 18 months, LIFT districts have engaged in a rigorous effort to improve early literacy outcomes. In nine of 12 districts, TNTP performed an instructional review in spring and summer of 2015 alongside district leaders. This review included knowledge-building sessions about early literacy for district staff, visits to 20-30 K-2 ELA classrooms, and debrief sessions to plan next steps. The network then came together to identify common trends across the district instructional reviews.

A common theme emerged during these reviews: while most K-2 ELA classrooms were teaching foundational skills (including phonics, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, etc.), few were systematically building students’ vocabulary and knowledge of the world through engagement with rich, complex text appropriate to their grade level. Improvement in this area became the goal for the first year and a half of the work.

A common theme emerged during these reviews: while most K-2 ELA classrooms were teaching foundational skills (including phonics, phonemic awareness, concepts of print, etc.), few were systematically building students’ vocabulary and knowledge of the world through engagement with rich, complex text appropriate to their grade level. Improvement in this area became the goal for the first year and a half of the work.

The materials pushed by SCORE come from 3 primary sources,

  • Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA), a full PreK-5 curriculum created by the Core Knowledge Foundation and based on significant research by E.D. Hirsch, Jr., CKLA contains a “Knowledge” strand focused on complex text, ideas, and vocabulary, often presented through read-alouds, and a “Skills” strand focused on foundational skills. (Note that most districts only piloted the Knowledge strand.)
  • Wit & Wisdom (W&W), a K-8 ELA curriculum from Great Minds (also the authors of the popular Eureka Math curriculum). W&W presents a knowledge-building curriculum based on trade books, often focusing on the fine arts.
  • The Read-Aloud Project is an initiative of Student Achievement Partners, a nonprofit organization focused on improving practice under rigorous standards. The Project provides model units centered on knowledge-building, high-quality texts, although it is not a comprehensive curriculum.

As coincidence would have it, those were also the materials adopted by the majority of districts during the last curriculum adoption period and the beneficiaries of a PR campaign run by another non-profit, Knowledge Matters. This happened despite not all of their offerings making the state-approved materials list. The TNDOE just granted waivers for those that didn’t – 77 of them. If you are doing the math, that’s over half the districts in Tennessee. This year’s General Assembly went even further by codifying endorsement of usage.

This was all done despite a lack of evidence that these materials were actually effective. Results out of the LIFT network experiment are mixed at best, in some incidents scores actually dropped. Not to mention that the average size of district members was less than 20 schools. The largest, Sullivan County, was 23. Not exactly science to scale, but here we are and why?

Maybe your thinking right now, “Yea, maybe in Tennessee non-profits are driving the conversation, but the rest of the country, not so much.”

Well, you can get that out of your head. The High-Quality material initiative is currently a nationwide issue. Colorado, North Carolina, Mississippi, and others, all have legislation surrounding the implementation of high-quality instructional materials, or as it is affectionately known, HQIM. You know when an initiative has earned its own acronym, it’s gone nationwide.

There are those that would argue, HQIM, is just the next step after Common Core. Giving that argument credence is the number of folks that are currently pushing HQIM that were also instrumental in the creation of Common Core. TNTP, David Steiner, the Libens, and of course, SCORE, were all among those cashing checks earned through Common Core advocacy and now they are looking to cash in again. Remember, non-profit is just a tax designation – it doesn’t mean you are not getting paid.

Hell, if you want a counter-argument to the waning influence of education non-profits, just look at the salaries being commanded by their executive directors,

  • 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.

Do those strike you as being the salaries of the uninfluential?

Barnum, in his Chalkbeat piece, argues that,

“It does not appear that the Biden administration is similarly entwined with big education philanthropies. “My sense is that the people whose voices matter more in the Biden administration are teachers and teachers unions,” said Finger. (Notably, though, the Biden administration has already broken from the union on a couple of issues.)

Really? One of those issues is standardized testing. Teachers were near-universal in their calls to cancel state testing this year. Ah…but the Education Trust, not so much. They collected a number of like-minded non-profits and wrote an impassioned plea to the Federal Department of Education. Teacher’s voices were ignored in deference to the philanthropy voices, and as result 3 weeks of instructional time was stolen from my children. So much for waning influence.

Mercedes Schneider is an educator out of Louisianna, who is an impeccable researcher. She offers this about Education Trust,

“For all of the corporate reform nonprofits that I have researched for accepting Gates operating support money, none has exceeded the millions of dollars Gates has paid to Education Trust.” It is astutely pointed out that “top-down, test-driven reform” will forever have a “gap” to try to “close.” So, they will always have an issue to champion, or as I previously pointed out, a way to continue to profit off the system. Capital One, in their well-known advertising tagline, likes to ask: “What’s in your wallet?” Perhaps we should look at WHO is paying to influence our education policy, and ask WHY?

In all fairness, not all efforts by non-profits fall into the realm of the nefarious. Here in Nashville, teachers are poised to see a huge increase in pay due to the efforts of the Nashville Public Education Foundation. NPEF paid for the study that substantiated the need for increased compensation and spurred Mayor Cooper into action. For that, they deserve a debt of gratitude.

But even in this case, questions arise. A line-item budget for the coming school year has yet to be approved by the school board. It appears that Mayor Cooper is proposing to re-write the pay schedule for MNPS, something that is outside of his purview. How much is NPEF complicit in what appears to be a bit of stretching of mayoral powers? Good question.

This week, NPEF is releasing a trailer for their latest project – By Design: The Shaping of Nashville’s Public Schools. An hour-long documentary that will examine the history of public schooling in our city dating back to the 1800s and the effects of city policies and priorities on Nashville schools. Is the purpose of this project to educate or influence? Perhaps a combination of the two. At this point, NPEF has earned the benefit of believing the former, but it can still be the latter.

The words from Barnum’s piece that rings most true are when he concedes,

Admittedly, tracking the influence of education philanthropy is quite difficult. Some funders disclose their giving, but others do so in a piecemeal fashion or not at all. (It’s challenging even to say whether donations targeting education policy have declined or increased in recent years, although there’s little indication of a sharp dropoff that would explain funders’ declining influence.) Many of these rich donors also separately spendon elections, including school board races.

Those of us who have been involved in education policy work for more than a minute can testify to this observation. There is also a continual flux of focus, efforts shift from national to state to local, and back, with regularity. Usually shifting to the realm receiving the least amount of scrutiny.

No discussion on the undue influence of non-profits would be complete with taking a deeper look at Chalkbeat itself. Over the last decade, the digital news magazine has become a primary source of information, employing some of the best journalists available. It’s impossible to be fully informed on education issues without reading it daily. But how many of you know that it is also a non-profit entity?

Barnum’s piece does bear the required disclaimer,

(Chalkbeat is philanthropically supported by Arnold Ventures, The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, the Emerson Collective, and the Walton Family Foundation.)

It’s not at the top of the article though, appearing several paragraphs into the piece. Headline readers would never see it.

So how much money does Chalkbeat receive from the aforementioned? a look at their 990 for 2019 shows revenue of $6,877,978, almost exclusively derived from contributions and grants. Since the organization doesn’t list who gives what, we have to do a little more rooting around to get those numbers.

With the Gates Foundation, it’s just under 2.7 million dollars since 2014. Last year, it was half a million.

With the Walton Foundation, it’s just under 1.8 million since 2016. In 2019 it was $435k. For comparison’s sake, SCORE over the same time period raked in $2.625,000.

Arnold Ventures chipped in a half-million dollars to Chalkbeat from 2019-2021.

it’s a fair question to ask, what Chalkbeat provides in return? This kind of cash is doled out purely for altruistic purposes.

Chalkbeat CEO Elizabeth Green’s story offers some reassurance. Hers is one of those American feel-good stories. After doing time in the trenches as an education reporter she founded Chalkbeat. In her own words,

In addition to leading Chalkbeat, I’m also the author of Building a Better Teacher. Recognized as one of the 100 most notable books of 2014 by the NY Times, and appearing (to my amazement) on the NY Times bestseller list, Building a Better Teacher describes an alternative to the most popular — but doomed — ideas about how to reform education. While some politicians grandstand about whether we should have more accountability or more local freedom, what we really need is infrastructure that empowers teachers to learn the science behind their craft.

On the surface, everything seems for the greater good, but a jaundiced eye should still be applied.

I share this information, not in an effort to tear down or discredit, but rather to ensure that we are having an honest conversation. I hope that in the near future, Tennessee legislators will lead the nation in an effort to have such a conversation about who’s influencing, and to what extent, education policy.

Parents are out here trying to forge the best path forward for their children. They don’t have time, or the resources, to research who’s pushing what and why. They trust legislators to craft policy that best serves their children. A policy that doesn’t favor urban students over rural students, nor poor kids over wealthier students. Or the opposite.

Equity means that all students are served at the levels they require. You can’t do that without an accurate picture of who’s spending what, where.

How can policymakers trust that they are serving all kids if they don’t have a clear picture of the money flow? Everybody claims to be “for the kids”, but when you are feeding at the philanthropy trough, where do lines get blurred, and who holds these non-profits accountable?

Legislators can be voted out of office.

Superintendents and district administrators can be terminated.

But non-profits continue to repackage and resell, despite seldom producing results. Seemingly immune from the level of accountability applied to everyone else. Why?

When is the tent of accountability extended to encapture them?

Barnum is a great writer and I will continue to count him as a leading source of information in regard to education policy. On this one though, he screwed the proverbial pooch.


Andy Spears has an excellent piece on the expansion of charter schools in Tennessee. No matter how you feel about charter schools, there is a little math that needs to be done here. Currently, there are roughly 30 schools in the state Achievement School District. These schools are slated to exit the ASD in the next 2 years. Feasibly, at least 25 of them could end up being in the newly created state-run charter school district where a handful of schools already live.

Recently, Governor Lee handed out expansion grants to 15 additional charter schools that could also feasibly be housed in the district overseen by the state. Add in a handful of other charter schools that have been recently rejected by local districts, yet could be approved by the state, and you could end up with 50 plus schools in the state-run charter school district by 2025. Somebody is going to have to pay the administration costs that go with overseeing those schools.

Arguably that funding could come from the individual operators, but do you really want a self-funded charter school district? Seems like a recipe for disaster to me.

If these were schools run by an LEA, property taxes would help fund administration costs. But they are not, so it’ll be up to the General Assembly to write the funding checks. And where does the GA get its money from? You guessed it, Tennessee residents. So the next time somebody tells that small rural districts bear no financial burden for charter schools located in big urban districts, just smile at them and say, “Bless you.”

The silver lining on this dark cloud is that legislators are about to get an up-close education on what means to underfund a school district. Maybe that will give them the stomach to take a closer look at funding the other school districts in Tennessee. One can dream.


Psst…has anybody seen that RFP for the screener that the TNDOE is supposed to be supplying free to schools next year? What about the one for the screener that is to be given before and after summer school? I know they’ve been kinda busy with staffing but shouldn’t those be out by now? As a side note, I challenge any Tennessee Republican to look at that list of staff openings and then tell me how the TNDOE is adhering to conservative principles of small government. Asking for a friend.

The Quarantine Diaries of Glencliff High School,” shares poetry, reflections, and artwork inspired by the pandemic from the Class of 2024. “Quarantine Diaries” is full of moving moments. In a poem called “Trapped in Quarantine,” Marjorie Alvarado compares herself to a goldfish in its bowl, asking, “What is life outside like again?” I urge you to check it out.

As if not enough for Overton High School to have produced Los Angelos Dodger superstar Mookie Betts, they are also the alma mater of Seahawks safety Ugo Amadi. Like Betts, Amadi also has a strong sense of community. Last week he up at Rosebank Middle School, with some NFL friends in tow, to hand out free shoes to the kids. Props. There must be something in the water over there at Overton High School.

Under a new bill, which passed both chambers without dissent, state employees involved in procurement cannot take a job with a bidding company until two years after a contract ends or until a year after they quit their state job. Per Tennessee House Speaker Cameron Sexton, the new bill passed this year in order to prevent the kind of public corruption that recently marred a massive prison contract. Here’s my question, does the same law apply to spouses?

Remember, right around the time the TNDOE was crafting its Federal Literacy grant applications, Commissioner Schwinn’s husband Paul was hired by TNTP – about a year ago. They went on to secure an $8 million contract with the state to train literacy teachers. Worth noting, that if an employee is caught violating the law, it could be prosecuted as a Class A misdemeanor. It’s probably ok though because it’s not like Commissioner Schwinn has ever been accused of showing favoritism in rewarding contracts before, right?

That’s it.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to 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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