SCHWINNING AGAIN

“All knowledge that is about human society, and not about the natural world, is historical knowledge, and therefore rests upon judgment and interpretation. This is not to say that facts or data are nonexistent, but that facts get their importance from what is made of them in interpretation… for interpretations depend very much on who the interpreter is, who he or she is addressing, what his or her purpose is, at what historical moment the interpretation takes place.”
Edward Said

 

I was planning on waiting until after the 4th to write this piece, as I felt it was too important to risk getting lost in the holiday disconnect, but the events of the last week are so egregious that I felt it couldn’t wait. While local newspapers were writing PR fluff pieces around Commissioner Schwinn’s whistle-stop tour, her minions were once again manipulating the state procurement process.

It’s a manipulation that has been consistent since Schwinn’s arrival in Tennessee and quite frankly has been endorsed by state legislators through their failure to demand accountability. Oh they do their little kabuki theater every time she gets caught, and on occasion, they give her a little slap on the wrist, like they did when they took away her seat on the textbook adoption commission, but by and large, she is allowed to continue to act without impediment, even when her actions run counter of the wishes of the state’s citizens and their elected lawmakers. Last week, was just the latest chapter in an ongoing novel devoted to imposing the commissioner’s agenda over that of everybody else in the state.

This morning’s edition of the Tennessee Star has an article that does a pretty good job of setting up what transpired in front of the curtain last week. I can feel some of you rolling your eyes, “The Tennessee Star?!? Those partisan hacks?”

Yes, the Star leans heavily to the right, but in this case, last week’s actions by the department should be a concern to everyone, Right and Left. And it spares me the need to recapture all that happened this week.

To summarize a bit, legislation passed last January requiring that all districts administer a universal screener for reading, three times a year. This is something that is already required in Tennessee because of RTI laws. But there are two major changes required under the new law.

The first is, results must be turned over to the state DOE within 2 weeks of testing being completed. Previously the state was not privy to student scores.

Secondly, the department was charged with creating, or providing, a screener to districts at no cost in order to meet state requirements. In recognition of past department Schwinigans, a provision was built into the law that required the DOE to competitively bid out any required materials,

The department shall procure any good or service selected or approved by the department to effectuate this part competitively and in compliance with all state laws and administrative rules regarding the procurement of goods and services by state agencies, including §§ 12-3-101 – 12-3-104. The department shall submit all contracts for the procurement of any good or service selected or approved by the department to effectuate this part to the fiscal review committee of the general assembly for review according to the timelines and requirements established in § 4-56-107(b)(5)(A).

Despite that caveat, it’s pretty clear that’s not what the department has done. Despite putting out an FAQ that indicates the screener would be available by the end of May, the DOE is just now bringing the screener to districts. A fact not lost on legislators. It’s also single sourced under the guise of being such a unique product, that there was only one vendor who could meet the requirements. The Tennessee Star supplies the following quote from Ms. Schwinn,

“While a full RFP is not tenable on this timeline, the department competitively solicited bids from four vendors, identified based on current usage in Tennessee districts. The vendors were asked to indicate whether they meet the State’s minimum requirements,” wrote Schwinn. “Only one vendor met the State’s minimum requirements, NCS Pearson, Inc.”

Schwinn adds that the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) hadn’t put forth a complete request for proposal (RFP) out due to the short notice and prompt need for schools to obtain these services. All of this is…quite frankly…bullshit.

Yes, the bill was passed back in January, but the screener was also part of last year’s failed Literacy Bill. So over the last 18 months, has Schwinn not once looked at her Associate Superintendent Lisa Coons, and said, “Say, Lis, we’re going to need a screener in the near future. Have we outlined the requirements and done a preliminary look of what we might need?”

And Coons replied, “Already on it boss.”

Please, that defy’s the realm of logic.

The only difference between the previously proposed screener and the one now required is the price tag. Previously there was a million-dollar budget attached. This new contract is for three years at $2.5 million a year. Money that will come out of federal funds. So let me see if I’m clear here, Tennessee lawmakers passed a state law that is dependent on federal money for implementation. Money that is likely to go away in three years. That sounds about right.

Furthermore, there is an attempt here to paint screeners as being some kind of uniquely elusive product, which is disingenuous. There are probably at least a dozen different screeners currently available on the market, all with various strengths and weaknesses. In justifying the need for a single-source contract, Schwinn cites 3 others that were supposedly incapable of meeting the requirements of the state – Riverside Insights, Renaissance, and Curriculum Associates.

Riverside is a company that purchased a division previously part of HMH. Renaissance does STAR, and Curriculum Associates is the provider of I-Ready. The latter two are widely used across the state. While neither is without their detractors, both have a lot of fans. Oddly omitted from those cited are NWEA’s MAP testing and Fastbridge. Both are utilized by Metro Nashville Public Schools.

For the purpose of clarity, I probably ought to include the definition of “reading screener” here as given by the legislation,

“Universal reading screener” means a uniform tool that screens and monitors a student’s progress towards phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension.

But the department seems intent on going further than legislators requested. In looking at their submission to the Fiscal Review Committee(1. RFS 331.01-2108733111FAF3 Education (NCS Pearson – contract)) the following requirements are revealed,

The contractor shall provide, for all Tennessee Students in kindergarten, first grade, second grade, and third grade, an Early Grade Universal Screening and Monitoring System (“EGUSMS”) which includes at a minimum, Universal Screening for Literacy and Math, Dyslexia Screening, Mental Health Screening, Progress Monitoring, data organization, and Online Reporting tools and the Training Resources and Technical Support for any Tennessee Educators servings those students to effectively use those tools.

I’m not quite sure how they got all of that out of the language in the bill, but ok. I get the need to align new legislation with past legislation. Due to the existing RTI laws, it makes sense to include math and dyslexia screening, but the rest?

In looking at those companies previously referenced, all are capable of delivering the measurements required by law. The only area that seems to be lacking from those not selected is the ability to provide a mental health screener.

But let’s be clear here, the legislation does not include requirements that the screener include a mental health screener. In fact, when the commissioner prosed a program that required wellness checks to all student’s families, constituents quickly contacted legislators to protest. Now the TNDOE is planning to gather the same data without knocking on families’ doors or calling them on the phone, but rather through a test administered in the classroom.

What questions will be asked? What will be measured? Legislators have recently demanded that teachers stick to the prescribed state standards when providing instruction to students, what are the Tennessee State Standards for SEL?

Marketing material provided by Pearson offers the following,

Market-leading, norms-based academic measures + norms-based self-behavior rating and teacher-completed behavior rating scales = a powerful partnership. Experience how early identification of students at risk for behavioral, emotional, and academic issues in the classroom can make a world of difference!

I’m not sure how parents will feel having labels placed on their children at such an early age. Labels that are readily available in a state database. Personally, I’m not so good with it.

For districts, there is an added concern. Say that historically your district budgets for behavior services based on – and I am just making this number up – 10 kids requiring services annually. The new screener identifies 40 that require services, who pays for the additional students? And if I am a parent in a district where my child is identified as requiring services, but there are not enough resources to meet the need, what is my course of action?

If a district chooses to pay for an alternative screener, there is at present no requirement that it include a mental health measurement. At least, according to state law. But since we have yet to see the state’s approved list of screeners, there is no way to say for sure that all those won’t also have an included mental health screener. The list of approved screeners is to be taken up at the July 22nd meeting of the State Board of Education.

Yes, I said July 22nd. But at this week’s Senate Fiscal review, didn’t Senator Bo Watson (R-Hixon) express concern that a negative recommendation would prevent the implementation of the screener, therefore hurting schools.

“The only reason I’m asking these questions is [because] the screener is an essential part of the legislation that we passed, and failure to approve this could potentially delay implementation of that law,” explained Watson. “You have a risk of running a patchwork of screening that you have across the state and therefore, a lack of consistency in the screening. […] I understand the committee’s desire to hold agencies accountable […] I have no objection with that – but I do think we should tread carefully here because of the potential impact this has on a piece of legislation that I assume everyone in this room supported, and the screening tool was an essential and key part of that legislation.”

I assume he knows that patchwork already exists, right? I assume that he is aware that every district already utilizes a screener, right? I assume he is aware that part of his job is holding government agencies accountable. right? So why the disingenuous argument?

Schwinn herself maintains that the screeners would have to be implemented by the start of the school year, which begins as early as July 22 for some districts. She said that she hoped to implement the program by then, at the latest. But the list of alternatives won’t be available until July 22nd, and if a district’s preference isn’t included then they will have to apply for a waiver, so how is this not hindering districts?

Where I come from, we call that a market advantage. My product is available a full month before yours which encourages its adoption. And it’s free!

But is it really?

If you take the free screener, the department sneaks in a mental health screener that potentially costs districts a lot more money in special needs services than the screener would ever cost the district? Though I’m sure that by the time that those costs arise the Governor will have told districts how to access the funds in the recently created Student Mental Health fund. Something that hasn’t been done to date.

For the record, while MNPS doesn’t use it, Fastbridge also has a behavioral screener available. Which further weakens the argument for a single-source contract.

It also confuses me that Republican lawmakers are poised to disband the state Department of Health because they’ve been promoting COVID vaccinations without parental approval, but they are completely cool with the measurement of student mental health 3 times a year sans parental approval. But it wouldn’t be the first time that Governor Lee, an avowed conservative, governed contrary to conservative principles.

The Star also points out that in 2019, Schwinn awarded Pearson nearly $40 million in a vendor contract to oversee Tennessee’s student assessment test for elementary and secondary students. A test that wasn’t administered in 2020. At the time, that contract was scheduled to end on Wednesday, with an option to pay around $93.1 million to renew through 2024. No word on the state of renewal of that contract, but there has been chatter of possible changes in the state’s mandated standardized tests.

Lastly, it continually frustrates me that there is a lack of bi-partisan effort on this subject. I don’t understand what’s keeping a legislator from one side of the aisle from picking up the phone and calling a legislator on the other side and saying, ” Hey, 9/10’s of the time when you talk it’s like nails on the chalkboard to me, but about this procurement stuff…I have similar concerns. Let’s work together.” Why is that so difficult? Fiscal malfeasance shouldn’t be a partisan issue.

It seems that this would be more productive than arguing over seahorses, but what do I know?

The bottom line is that, if nothing changes, nothing changes. Or better put by Stephen King, “Fool me once, shame on you. Fool me twice, shame on me. Fool me three times, shame on both of us.” There is a lot of shame to go around in Tennessee.

QUICK HITS

ChalkbeatTN reports on Commissioner Schwinn being greeted by protestors at her Sumner County whistle stop. The article is accompanied by what might qualify as the most staged-looking protest photo evah. I’m sure things weren’t quite as polite in a meeting between Williamson County’s Moms For Liberty and the Commissioner that took place earlier in the day. But hey…you never know. many will attest, Commissioner Schwinn is a charmer.

This week saw the premiere of a new documentary from the Nashville Public Education Foundation: “By Design: The Shaping of Nashville Public Schools.” Grounded in footage of historical documents and photos, the documentary follows the history of Nashville schools and the education of Black students from the post-Civil War 1880s to the present day. It examines the effects of city and state policies — including urban development projects, school zoning, and court-mandated busing — and community priorities on schools. For more information about the film and future screenings, visit www.nashvillepef.org/by-design.

Congratulations go out to Emmi Offutt, a 2021 graduate of Hume-Fogg High school, who has been selected as one of four recipients of the 2021 Council of Great City Schools (CGCS) Bernard Harris Math and Science Scholarship. Offutt will receive a $5,000 scholarship to continue his STEM education in computer science at Vanderbilt University. Offutt wants to utilize his education to impact technology and the health care industry where he currently serves on the Coronavirus Visualization Team, a student-led initiative from Harvard University dedicated to producing visualizations and analyzing data to help defeat COVID-19. Well done.

And the hits keep coming in relation to MNPS and their contract for COVID testing with Meherry University. To fulfill the $14.3 million contract to test 10,530 Metro Nashville Public Schools students for COVID-19 this spring, Meharry Medical College Ventures Inc. appears to have relied heavily on the services of Recover Health LLC — a for-profit company co-founded last year by Meharry executive Patrick Johnson. Vivian Jones provides plenty more details in her piece for Main Street Nashville. She has really provided a public service on this issue, Past MNPS Superindent Jesse Register used to have a policy that if something appeared to be unethical, it should be classified as unethical. Perhaps its time to resurrect that policy.

That should provide enough fodder for conversation over the holiday weekend. Be safe and get some rejuvenate.

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.

Next month will be our annual fundraising push. So please contribute if you can.

No poll questions this week, as I need to rush out the door to take the kids to the pool and don’t have time to think any up.  If you have some suggestions, send them on and I’ll add them. See you after the holiday!

Whoops…I lied just thought of some.

 

 



Categories: Education

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