QUESTIONS, QUESTIONS, I GOT QUESTIONS

“No intelligent idea can gain general acceptance unless some stupidity is mixed in with it”
Fernando Pessoa

 

Sometimes it’s the things that are not talked about that echo the loudest. Case in point, this week reigning State Superintendent of the year Bryan Johnson of Chattanooga announced his resignation as leader of Hamilton County Schools. His date of departure is slated for just a couple days after the start of school. In other words, as students are leaving the building, Johnson is exiting.

Coming on the heels of a pandemic that disrupted in-person schooling for over a year, you’d think his departure might raise a few eyebrows. You’d think that ChalkbeatTN, who spent several barrels of ink promoting the Superintendent, would have something to say, But in the wake of his departure, things have been strangely quiet.

It’s been three days since Johnson announced his intentions, yet nary a peep from the online news source. Instead, they’ve covered the firing of Tennessee’s immunization chief, and a parent group out of Memphis. Important subjects, but not quite on the level of Johnson’s departure, which comes without any clear future plans for the Tennessee Superintendent of the Year, and National Superintendent of the Year finalist.

Detractors claim that he couldn’t handle the pressure and so he’s leaving to pursue less stressful and more profitable ventures in the private sector. Sure, maybe, but the timing undercuts that argument. If that was the case, surely he would have announced back in May, giving the district adequate time to prepare for the upcoming school year. Leaving now with little time to prep prior to the school year certainly puts Hamilton County schools at a disadvantage.

While admittedly I don’t live in Chattanooga, from my perspective, Johnson was, for the most part, liked and respected by the city’s stakeholders. Undoubtedly he made enemies, as all leaders do, but it was my impression that they were in the minority. Coverage from the local rags seems to support that impression.

Sometimes these moves are preemptive, an effort to counter a pending scandal that is about to break. There is nothing to even at that being the case with Johnson.

By all accounts, under Dr. Johnson, Hamilton County Schools were making considerable progress. For that fact alone, in a field where retention is a constant subject of discussion, you would think the departure of a successful superintendent would spark more introspection, but apparently not. Perhaps we’ve come to accept the role of superintendent as a transient one. I wouldn’t call that welcome news.

Johnson’s departure isn’t great for the TNDOE either, because while they were often in conflict with the state’s other two large urban districts, Chattanooga was more closely aligned and less openly critical of the state’s DOIE. The last thing Schwinn and company need is a new Superintendent who joins in with Memphis and Nashville in making life difficult.

So what is Johnson going to do next? There is plenty of room for speculation here. He could return to the private sector, but it would have to be something large-scale. Over the last several years, the PR campaign to paint him as a modern-day superhero has been quite successful. For him to take a lower profile job would be anti-climatic, and would run counter to the picture painted by the press. The established narrative is that Johnson is a leader born to the big stage. The Rolling Stones don’t due 500 seaters and neither should Johnson.

He himself has said he doesn’t plan to go to another district, and I believe that. You see, Johnson along with cabinet member, Nakia Townes, are Chiefs for Change. As is Clarksville-Mongomery’s Millard House, who recently took the job as Superintendent with Houston Independent Schools. A job that many feel was facilitated by Chiefs for Change (Yes, the non-profits have that kind of power). I would argue, that because of this, any job offering to Johnson would have to be in a higher profile district than Houston. There is only a handful of those. all of which would require the lifelong Tennessee resident to relocate.

There is one job that he has never denied interest in, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education position. I know, we currently have a Commissioner of Education, but what if that Commissioner suddenly secured another position? Word is that she is actively looking at this juncture. A look at Ms. Schwinn’s resume shows that based on the past, she’s fast approaching her sell-by date. Schwinn has made a career of splitting around the three-year mark. So it’s not like we are talking about an individual with a history of long-term commitment.

Now, in the age of social media, and with her track record, I think securing an equivalent or higher position than she currently holds will prove to be a difficult feat. Think about it, who wants to bring in someone at a 6 figure salary with a long history of questionable ethics, financial, and personnel decisions. Who wants to hear their constituents howl when they Google, and they well, the new appointees hire and they read of her exploits in Delaware, Texas, and Tennessee? It’d be one thing if she actually made omelets out of the eggs she breaks, but somehow she’s is always out of the kitchen before they make the move to the frying pan. As a result, they are left in the mixing bowl, either waiting for the next cook to utilize or discard.

In my opinion, it’s more likely that a sudden personal situation arises that demands her attention back in California. Remember, she’s never been immune to crafting a tale in order to justify personal whims. She could gracefully exit with claims that her work in Tennessee has been so successful that while she regretfully leaves to attend to family needs, she does so with confidence that Tennessee is in good hands. Thus freeing the Governor up to hire someone who has worked closely with her for years to assume the commissioner role.

If I believed that Governor Lee was more politically astute, I’d credit him with recognizing the benefits of hiring Johnson as Commissioner of Education. It would be a coup to have the state’s Superintendent of the Year in the seat. Johnson as Commissioner would blunt a lot of the criticism received by Lee that he favors the rural districts over the urban districts. With a new commissioner in place, legislators would likely temper their criticism in an effort to give him some latitude to work.

As an added bonus, children would probably benefit as well. Johnson is a lifelong educator with lots of time in the trenches. Governor Lee and legislators have publically wrung their hands over the state of Tennessee’s urban school districts. You’d be hard-pressed to find a more qualified candidate than Johnson to address their concerns.

Some have pointed to Johnson’s public stance on charter schools and vouchers as a possible obstacle. And there’s merit to that but let’s not forget that the current occupant of the office isn’t exactly aligned with Lee’s preferences either. She is neither a supporter of vouchers nor of the current laws around discussing race in the classroom, just to name two instances. It’s probably a pretty safe bet that Johnson would disagree with Lee in a more respectful manner and it is hard to envision him referencing the governor in a derogatory manner in front of staff. So there is that.

Those who enjoy the privilege of being members of Nashville’s chattering class will also attest to how much Johnson’s wife Candy enjoys being a part of that scene. In her role as   Policy Director for Nashville’s Chamber of Commerce, she was a prominent presence in the Nashville non-profit community. Those who know her, attest to her love of the Nashville community and her desire to return. Her husband becoming Commissioner would present an opportunity to not only return, but to do so triumphantly.

Here’s a wrinkle for you though, Candy served as an advisor to former Chattanooga mayor Andy Burke. Burke is reportedly considering a run for Governor. Some moderate Republicans have voiced the opinion that despite their feelings that Burke is a bit of putz, they would vote for him because..well…they consider Bill Lee a bigger putz. I would think that a finalist for National Superintendent of the Year would be an asset to a Burke campaign. Especially one who is not considered a putz, but is actually mostly liked and respected.

As far as who succeeds Johnson, that campaign should prove interesting. In addition to Townes, Justin Robertson, county schools chief operations officer, has also been put forth as a candidate. But let’s not forget that former MNPS district official Sonia Stewart is also serving in Hamilton Schools as a Community Superintendent. Stewart fell just short in a bid to replace Dr. Joseph before the position went to Dr. Battle. Recently she was a finalist to lead Green-Bay Schools. She should be considered a worthy successor.

The implications of this sudden resignation are significant outside of Hamilton County and deserve attention. Let’s see how long the silence continues. Sometimes, it’s not what they say, but rather what they don’t say that tells the true story.

A LACK OF WIT OR WISDOM

I continue to watch the ongoing fight over the Wit and Wisdom curriculum with a sense of bafflement. Well-meaning folks, spurred on by their opposition to the Mom’s for Liberty organization, who have raised questions over the curriculum, have leaped to its defense. While this is understandable, I think it fails to acknowledge the prime issue with this curriculum adoption.

We can argue over seahorses and historical text ad till the end of time, but that doesn’t change the core fact, sans the intervention and manipulation of the adoption process by Commissioner Schwinn this is a conversation we wouldn’t even be having because Wit and Wisdom wouldn’t be available for districts to adopt.

Wit and Wisdom, along with its Science of Reading-aligned brethren CKLA, did not make the initial adoption list. It was only after the Commissioner halted the adoption process and, despite a lack of authority, brought in outside sources to revise it, that portions of WW made the approved adoption list.

In Colorado, a state who recently took a deep dive into its approved materials, Wit and Wisdom is only included as a supplementary curriculum – Kindergarten, First Grade, Second Grade, and Third Grade for Vocabulary, Listening & Reading Comprehension. So Tennessee reviewers weren’t alone in their assessment.

Without the department creating a special supplement focusing on foundational skills, adopting Wit and Wisdom would not even be an option for the 32 districts that applied for and were granted a waiver to adopt. There is no other curriculum on the state’s list of approved materials list that requires an additional adoption of supplemental materials.

Few questions have been raised about Ms. Schwinn’s relationship with Great Minds. A company that her charter school in California uses as its curriculum provider and of which her husband has served as a trainer. Due to the intervention in the process by Schwinn, Great Minds stands to make a fortune. Especially since districts are currently flush with federal dollars and few places to spend it.

So while defenders may rightfully feel that they are defending a company under attack for its content, they are in reality facilitating the financial windfall of people that benefited from the manipulation of the system and circumvented the process designated by Tennessee law.

It’s understandable to disagree about content, but we should all believe in the adherence to a process created by legislators. To circumvent that process based on a personal whim shouldn’t be acceptable to anyone. If you don’t like the process, change it, but until that happens it should apply to all. That’s not the case with Wit and Wisdom and the adoption process and that is indefensible.

The bottom line should be, you either believe in the rule of law or you don’t. Again, the battle over content is a conversation we shouldn’t be having, but thanks to the Commissioner of Education, it’s now sucking all of the air out of the room.

One final note on Wit and Wisdom, despite protestations, it is a scripted curriculum. Teachers are told in training that they can deviate from the script but asked to wait at least 3 years before doing so.

Teachers go to school for multiple years, at great personal expense, in order to train for a career as an educator. We constantly call for efforts to recruit the “best and brightest” for our classrooms. We just as consistently fail to recognize that status once we secure these “best and brightest”, and instead treat them in a manner that indicates the opposite.

How would you feel if I told you that all of your hard work and sacrifice was for naught? That you’d better be served to go out in the street and throw the money you spent on teacher prep up in the air. It left you unqualified to design lesson plans and teach children without additional courses designed by those who’d spent, for the most part, minimal time in the classroom.

Why would anybody invest hundreds of thousands of dollars to pursue an education in order to enter a field that dismisses their acquired education? Why would the best and brightest join a profession that regularly forces them to dumb themselves down? Does that really sound like an effective pathway to successful recruitment and retention?

UNIVERSAL SCREENER

As we get closer to the start of school, more details are starting to emerge about the state-required universal screener. RTI legislation has long required that districts utilize a screener three times a year, however, new legislation has changed a few things.

First off, districts will no longer set their own screening schedule. That will now be under the TNDOE’s purview. Currently, the upcoming school years schedule has not been made available. For me, the biggest question in regard to scheduling is whether the third screener will be scheduled before or after TNReady. This has implications because whichever is scheduled last will likely fall victim to test fatigue. Which could have further implications for teachers and their TVAAS scores.

Secondly, the state is now privy to the results of the district screeners. Whereas it wasn’t a requirement in the past, LEA’s are now required to report results within 2 weeks of completion. What these results will be used for is anybody’s guess. I’m sure that Commissioner Schwinn will argue that they will fuel instruction. But results are seldom made available in a timely enough fashion to allow this utilization to take place.

It’s now mid-July and results from last year’s TNReady tests are still not distributed, even as some school districts head back to class in the coming weeks. The same is true for the results from state-mandated assessments given pre and post-summer school. What good is assessment if the data comes too late to shape instruction?

As part of the new law, the TNDOE must provide districts with a free universal screener. For this option, Commissioner Schwinn has chosen to enter a multi-million dollar contract with the Pearson-produced AimsWeb Plus screener. Included with this screener is a mental health component. Those who choose the state’s offering will also be screening kids for mental health three times a year. The state standards for mental health remain unclear, as is what the state will do with the results. The proposed contract lists only emotional and behavioral risks and executive functioning risks. Hmmm…I wonder how many prominent Tennesseans could pass such an assessment.

Districts don’t have to choose the state’s option. They are free to choose their own preferred vendor off of the approved list but must pay for it themselves. That list is now available and will presumably be approved by the state board of education late next week at their scheduled meeting.

The list includes the following options,

  1. (a)  The Tennessee Universal Reading Screener provided by the Department.
  2. (b)  Aimsweb Plus.
  3. (c)  Dibels 8th edition.
  4. (d)  EasyCBM.
  5. (e)  Formative Assessment for Teachers (FAST).
  6. (f)  Star Early Literacy.
  7. (g)  Measures of Academic Progress (MAP).
  8. (h)  Fastbridge Suite.

It’s an interesting list and I’m not sure how it was arrived at. Items 1 and 2 are in fact the same and are included as such in order to cover all bases once the Pearson contract expires. Dibles is an oft-criticized screener. I’m not familiar with 4 and 5, though 4 was originally developed by Houghton-Mifflin before breaking with the company in 2018, it is reportedly the screener of choice for Sumner County. The last three are among the most widely used screeners in the state, especially prevalent in Tennessee’s large urban districts.

If we were doing a list of snubs it would have IReady at its head. For some reason, the widely used and respected screener was left off the approved list. In comparing screeners, it is hard to see anything that the others do that IReady doesn’t. A may mean nothing, but several of the districts that currently utilize IReady are often less than ardent supporters of leadership at the TNDOE…so perhaps it is political. After all, everything is political.

In looking at the list, it begs the question, exactly who is going to adopt the state’s offering. I find it doubtful that the large districts flush with COVID cash will at this time choose to veer away from programs they are familiar with and like. Districts like Williamson County, who use Star, love Star, and are therefore unlikely to switch. It’s a headscratcher to be sure.

A cursory look at the proposed contract(1. RFS 331.01-2108733111FAF3 Education (NCS Pearson – contract)) seems to indicate that compensation is dependent on the number of participants, though there is no minimum stated. Though surely there is some protection for Pearson if only 10 small districts adopt their product.

Another question I would ask is, is there a notable difference between AimsWeb Plus and the Tennessee Universal Reading Screener? If Pearson did extensive modifications to their existing platform, then a higher cost would be justified. Though it’s hard to envision would state-specific ingredients could be added to a K-3 literacy screener.

Hopefully, more details will emerge at next week’s Board of Education meeting.

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.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. Fast has been used by Metro for progress monitoring for the last five years. I think it is the same thing as Fastbridge, making 5 and 8 the same. Now that I think about it, EasyCBM is another part of FAST as well, making 4, 5, and 8 the same.

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