OF SEAHORSES, AND OTHER DISTRACTIONS

“I probably didn’t share his feelings – he hoped, really, that I didn’t – but he was no longer interested in socialising; in fact, increasingly he found other people positively bewildering. The interesting ones are like islands, he said: you don’t bump into them on the street or at a party, you have to know where they are and go to them by arrangement.”
Rachel Cusk, Outline

 

This morning I read an interesting article by Yasch Mounk – The Perils of 180ism. In it, Mounk expresses many of the concerns I’ve voiced over the years but does it more eloquently than I. He also assigns a name to the phenomenon that is hindering our public discourse – 180ism.

He lays out the three principles of 180ism, which should be readily apparent to anyone paying attention over the last decade,

The first and most obvious is that the primary question most participants in public debate ask themselves is not “How do my values inform my views on this matter?” or “What is the evidence for what is being asserted?” Rather, it is “How do I demonstrate that I am a loyal member of my political tribe?” As it happens, the easiest way to do that is simple: Look for what the enemy says on any one issue and stake out the opposite position.

The second component is that public discourse becomes dangerously narrow when a lot of individuals with big platforms reflexively contradict whatever their adversaries say. Complex questions that should, in principle, allow for a large number of different answers are then flattened into a simple referendum between diametrically opposed sides.

The third component is that the dynamics of 180ism exert enormous pressure on anybody who does not behave as expected. If, unwilling to let the discourse shoehorn you into one of two sanctioned positions, you insist on giving a third answer, you are denounced as an attention-seeking contrarian. And if, following your long-held values or principles, you come up with an answer that your political adversary happens to agree with, you are denounced as a traitor. In a discourse dominated by 180ism, occasionally disagreeing with your friends—a sign that you are willing to think for yourself—is widely interpreted as proof of bad faith.

How does this fit into a conversation on public education? Let’s cast an eye towards Williamson County where a battle has erupted over the adoption of the curriculum Wit and Wisdom?

Throughout the recent tenure of former MNPS Superintendent Shawn Joseph, I often told stakeholders that nothing that starts impure suddenly becomes aboveboard. Joseph’s selection was manipulated by outside influences – who for the most part have left the public stage – and has such, was predestined to end the way it did, with his departure before finishing his initial contract. The adoption of Wit and Wisdom shares similar traits and is thus likely to suffer the same fate.

But before that happens, we’ll likely spend a great deal of time focusing on distractions – like seahorses and CRT. But I’m getting ahead of myself, so let’s back up.

Two years ago, Tennessee underwent its regular adoption of ELA textbook materials. It was a process that was heavily manipulated by Commissioner Schwinn, the TNDOE’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons, SCORE, TNTP, all financed by the Gates Foundation in order to get as many individual districts as possible to adopt the commissioners preferred curriculum. Ultimately the manipulation was able to reverse previous actions that prevented the commissioner’s preferred curricula from making the state’s approved material list. All were deemed High-Quality Instructional Materials and included, well, except for Wit and Wisdom’s K-2.

That took a little more work. In order to facilitate widespread adoption of Wit and Wisdom K-2, Schwinn and the company had to create a supplemental foundational skills piece. To do so they enlisted Common Core proponents, the Liben’s, who rooted their offering in CKLA. That comes directly from the department’s own mouth in their federal grant application,

The department also hired the Liben Consulting Firm to incorporate sounds-first activities (phonemic and phonological awareness specific) to fill the gaps in the Core Knowledge
Curriculum. Finally, a Tennessee educator team created a suite of guidance and support documents to assist educators in implementation of the TN Foundational Skills curriculum.

It’s pretty clear. But just in case it’s not, here’s more,

One reason CKLA was selected as the basis for the TN Foundational Skills Curriculum Supplement is that its materials are uniquely educative: they provide teachers with the knowledge and understanding they need to implement the materials well. TheTN Supplement is also supported by a seven module course developed by the Student Achievement Partners.

Legislators got it, they stripped the commissioner of both her voting membership on the Text Book Adoption Commission and her ability to grant waivers to LEA’s on materials.

Think about this for a minute, the commissioner’s actions were considered so egregious that a legislative body, with a supermajority of Republicans, took away power from a commissioner appointed by a Republican governor. You don’t see that every day. But then again you don’t see this level of manipulation every day either, do you?

Let’s also not forget that the charter school in California founded by Commissioner Schwinn, and who paid her a leadership salary up until 2019, adopted Wit and Wisdom several years ago. To date, she still serves on the school’s governing board.

Schwinn’s husband, Paul, was paid over 40K annually to serve as a literacy coach for the California school while the family resided in Texas, and he worked for a Texas charter school. He is now employed by TNTP, who has set themselves up as the experts in High-Quality Instructional Materials, i.e CKLA and Wit and Wisdom. TNTP just received a contract for $8.5 million to train Tennessee teachers in HQIM. The money comes from a federal grant that was in the process of being written – and names TNTP especially – when Schwinn was hired, The Schwinn’s promise not to interfere with the contract, but nobody asked about the connection between Schwinn’s job and the awarding of the contract.

Basically, what I’m saying, is there is a lot of smoke around Wit and Wisdom, and it’s not abating. I’m not shocked to discover that parents are starting to question the appropriateness of the materials. Why not? Everything else around the adoption of the materials has been a clusterfuck, why shouldn’t parents be upset as well?

And we haven’t even talked about SCORE coupling with TNTP and using Gates’s money to run a basically illegal pilot program demanded by nobody, but SCORE, TNTP, and presumably the Gates Foundation.

It seems there is plenty to talk about with Wit and Wisdom, and their subverting of the Democratic process should be of concern to everyone. But not so fast, you see, the parents questioning the appropriateness of Wit and Wisdom are conservatives, therefore, democrats can’t join in, and thus, we are left talking about … seahorses.

Over at the Tennessee Lookout, Sam Stockard writes one of the most balanced accounts of what’s happening. Yet, somehow he fails to mention that back in January he wrote a piece on the manipulation of the textbook adoption process.

In his latest go-around, Stockard focuses on CRT while eschewing seahorses, but also underplays other concerns. I would argue that the entire process should be factored in when considering the appropriateness of the materials.

But apparently, due to 180ism, that’s not a conversation meant to be. Instead, we’ll argue seahorses and past battles over Common Core.

This is extremely important because Tennessee is poised to start both a review of Math standards and the adoption of Math materials. Early indications are that the TNDOe is breaking out the old playbook in order to push their preferred curriculum. Fortunately for us, there has been a considerable turnover 0n the Text Book Commission, and new board members are well aware of the past actions of Schwinn, Coons, Score, and TNTP. Considering the Gates are currently undergoing divorce proceedings, the financial initiative may have dried up as well.

Before we move on, there is one paragraph in Stockard’s January piece that is worthy of interjecting,

During Senate floor debate last week, Bell – out of caution – urged members of the Fiscal Review Committee to “scrutinize” the “universal screener” contract to make sure it is done properly. In addition, he pointed out the Comptroller’s Office is to review the contract to ensure everything is handled correctly.

As far as I know, that “screener” only exists on a milk carton, because nobody in Tennessee has seen it. That’s all right, it’s still a month away before schools are back in session. There’s lots of time to develop it.

MORE LACK OF TRANSPARENCY

With the Tennessean content to serve as a PR vehicle for MNPS, it’s been left to Main Street Nashville’s Vivian Jones to try and answer questions about the district’s COVID testing contract with Meharry. Luckily, she’s quite capable of picking up the slack.

This week she reports,

With less than a week to go before Metro Nashville Public Schools’ contract to provide COVID-19 testing in schools expires, officials are projecting a final cost of $14.3 million and hailing the effort as a success, despite fewer than 11,000 tests being conducted.

If you do the math, that’s $1300 per COVID test, a fact not mentioned in the Tennessean article. It’s a number that brought retired school board member Will Pinkston out of self-imposed Twitter exile. He rightfully makes the point that this number is one that might want to be questioned by those watching the public’s money. But they are not. thus leaving lots of confusion.

Making things even more confusing is a recent addition to the student handbook that was passed on the consent agenda at the last board meeting.

This entry seems to indicate that MNPS plans to continue COVID testing into next year, even as the Meharry contract comes to an end. Which raises the question, what does that look like?

Thanks to former teacher, and current CM, Tom Cash, we now know that school nurses will be provided testing material and filling the test administrator role next year. But shouldn’t this have been discussed at the board meeting? Shouldn’t we be given an update on the number of nurses currently employed? Since start-up costs of nearly $5 million have already been paid, wouldn’t it be more effective to just continue with Meharry? Do individual school nurses have the capacity to meet current obligations and the increased responsibilities associated with testing? Will they also be responsible for notifying families and the county health department?

Much like the Wit and Wisdom contract, there seems to be a whole lot of questions not being adequately addressed.

At the root of this is a major misunderstanding about the role of the consent agenda with the current MNPS board and administration. It’s not meant to be a means to drive decisions through with little discussion, but rather a means to streamline meetings by quickly passing measures that don’t warrant discussion. I would argue that neither changes to the student handbook, nor the ESSA application – two items on this last board agenda – qualify as such.

Administrators and board members may argue that these items were discussed in committee, and therefore don’t require additional discussion on the board floor. Though I can’t find evidence of such, I would counter that argument, by pointing out the difficulty for parents and other stakeholders in following the district calendar to determine when committee meetings are held and what will be open for discussion.

Other than being listed on the district calendar, committee meetings are under-advertised, Furthermore, the agenda is often not included or vague in calendar postings. As an example, I would point to last week’s budget meeting.

Was the IDEA/ESSA application discussed at this meeting? I have no idea. Because no agenda was shared. So I guess I’ll have to find time to watch the meeting. Any questions that arise out of that viewing will need to be addressed after the fact.

A review of the agenda from a recent board retreat indicates that changes to the student handbook and the ESAA application were not discussed at that time. So this begs the question, how is the board honoring its commitment to the public, if conversations about policy changes are never held publicly?

Back to Jones’s article. In it, she details the decision by MNPS to forego the use of $1.5 million worth of thermal camera packs donated by Infrared Cameras Inc. due to them being “not sufficient for use in schools,” and instead, choosing to purchase an alternative, VIGIL eV mobile kiosks from R3DSTAR Inc. The former runs about $10k per unit and the latter around $19K. A not unsubstantial difference.

I gotta say I love this quote that Jones shares,

“Primarily our systems are meant for security,” Paul Kapu, CEO of R3DSTAR Inc., told Main Street Nashville. “Metro actually has the most feature-rich, maybe the most sophisticated system out there. I mean, it is astounding, of all the different things that it does. They’re only using it to do temperature detection, but for all of the other things that it does — there’s just nothing like it. It is a very sophisticated system.”

Perhaps that should be the quote that lives on the wall at Central Office.

QUICK HITS

If you are still wanting to work at the Tennessee Department of Education, but are afraid all of the jobs have been filled, fear not. The list is still extensive and growing. I’m sure this is just another case of people living off their stimulus check and not wanting to go back to work, right? Though the revolving door is still in action at the DOE. This week it is the remains of the research department that exited. Some are downplaying that development, as the team was only down to 4 members and they left for various reasons. Maybe so, but that doesn’t change the fact that there are some more positions available.

Despite the growing list of failures, word continues to come out of the Governor’s mansion that Lee is committed to Mrs. Schwinn and that she will be in place for his next term. That said, here’s what I believe is happening. The governor is voicing his support and she’s out traipsing the state in a vain attempt to curry a future employer’s interest. The hope is that she lands a job on the federal level, and thus prevents the Guv from ever having to take a stand. A win/win for everybody but the future students impacted by her future employment.

Shaka Mitchell is out, and John Patton is in. American Federation for Children-Tennessee on Thursday welcomed a new state director, John Patton, to oversee AFC’s policy, advocacy, political, and grassroots efforts across the Volunteer State. Shaka Mitchell, AFC-TN’s previous state director, now serves as the director of state strategy and advocacy for the American Federation for Children. Fear not though, I am confident that AMC will continue advocating for the same bad policies, despite the change in leadership.

An interesting personification of the “the enemy of my enemy is my friend” trope took place this week in Memphis. It’s no secret that Republican legislators are extremely frustrated by Shelby County School’s leadership. Parent organization Memphis Lift has also long been at odds with the district. So how do you think the conversation went when the two got together last weeks ago? Yea…

Speaking of rifts, there seems to be a bit of one growing between the TNDOE and Hamilton County schools. Seems the state had one vision of how assessments associated with summer school should look like and Hamilton County had another. The state tried to impose their will, and well Hamilton County wasn’t having it. Let’s see where this one goes. Over the last year, Hamilton County has enjoyed a close relationship with the DOE. It might be the Chiefs of Change connection.

That’s it. Don’t forget the poll questions.

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. Not begging, just saying.

 



Categories: Education

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