“Unless you’re ashamed of yourself now and then, you’re not honest”
The world of education was abuzz with the sounds of preparation this past week. While it was a welcome sound, it wasn’t one always created in the service of the collective good. While teachers and administrators toiled away preparing schools for the imminent arrival of students and the start of a new school year, others were conspiring to make their jobs even more difficult.
Let’s review the week that was, and what it means for the upcoming school year. We’ll start with the positive and work our way down.
Early in the week, PENCIL had a teacher pep rally. By all accounts, it was an extremely successful event. Teachers were invited to come town to the First Horizon Ball Park and hang with their peers in celebration of the incredible work they do. For the most part, the event was agenda-free, something that was much appreciated by the teachers in attendance. Instead of being browbeaten with the latest initiatives, teachers were afforded an opportunity to soak in the prevailing positive attitude while catching up with others. Hopefully, this will become an annual event and only grow.
Something which falls into the positive category, though not necessarily for the reasons you might expect, is the announcement that former State Commissioner of Education Dr. Candice McQueen has been named as the new President of David Lipscomb University, the first woman to do so in the school’s 130-year history. Many alumni are celebrating the announcement due to their perception of McQueen as a talented administrator. Me, I’m celebrating because hopefully, this will keep McQueen busy enough to stay out of state education policy where she’s been anything but talented.
As the state’s Commissioner of Education McQueen was ineffective but benefitted from her tenure being bookended by two of the worst Commissioner in recent history, Penny Schwinn and Kevin Huffman. McQueen entered office advertised as a breath of fresh air, but in the end, proved to be nothing more than a kinder gentler version of her predecessor Kevin Huffman.
Under McQueen, the influence of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education grew as she turned a blind eye towards their piloting of ELA materials in their LIFT districts. Material that was not on the state’s list of approved curriculum, nor ever approved as supplemental materials. Today SCORE functions as a pseudo-Tennessee Department of Education. Continually exerting undue influence on Tennessee’s education policy despite their unproven track record. Something they owe a debt of gratitude to McQueen for facilitating.
I guess this is as good a place as any to stop for a minute and congratulate SCORE on the $2.2 million dollars in funding they received this year from the Gates Foundation. The number is nearly double last year’s reward from Bill and Melinda. My only question would be, at a time when the world of education is flush with cash, what could they possibly use $2 million for? Oh course, the 10 lobbyists on the payroll do need to eat. So congrats to SCORE, may they use the funds wisely, though if history is any indication…
Back to McQueen, to her credit her administration did help to create the Read to Be Ready camps that were showing positive outcomes until her successor Schwinn put the kibosh on them. Schwinn is also fond of pointing out that under McQueen student outcomes flattened due to lack of effective policy.
After leaving the Commissioner seat, McQueen became executive director for the National Excellence in Teaching organization. Another non-profit that pays its CEO’s mid-six-figure salaries to meddle in education policy. In my opinion, McQueen’s biggest success here was her ability to gain access to MNPS teachers and literacy coaches in order to write the majority of the district’s early literacy plan despite a lack of a contract, scope of work, or even am MOU. The lack of those documents means it’s impossible to ascertain how much influence she exerted, but it’s widely acknowledged that her contribution was substantial.
To be sure, McQueen has her army of dedicated followers. Many who have produced work equal to, or superior to hers. It’s in that light that I offer a prediction that she’ll be an exceptional leader for Lipscomb University. An institution that has produced some of the finest teachers over the last 2 decades.
The only thing to watch now is, who gets that 6 figure salary at NEIT that she’s walking away from. Maybe it’d be a good fit for another former Tennessee Commissioner of Education.
LET’S TALK MASKS
On Thursday, the MNPS Board of Education did the expected and passed a mask mandate. This means that starting today, all students and teachers will be required to wear masks when on busses or in school buildings. It’s a prudent move in light of rising counts of the Delta strain of COVID, but per usual just scratches the surface of what’s needed.
Wearing masks all day in school is not a move that comes without cost. As humans, we don’t communicate just through words, but rather through non-verbal signs as well, including facial expressions. Masks make the reading of those non-verbal cues difficult and thus have social implications. Yet there was no discussion around plans to mitigate that effect.
I can testify that bartending in a mask is a difficult proposition, I can’t even imagine the challenge of teaching in a mask, Thankfully, board member Abigail Traylor, a former classroom teacher, raised concerns around how masks would impact practice in the classroom. To adequately teach the new emphasis on phonetics, it’s important that young learners see the mouth movements of teachers when forming the prescribed sounds. How is that going to happen under the current policy?
Will small group instruction be permitted? What will be the penalty for kids who don’t comply with the mask rule? Will infractions be considered dress code or behavioral? What if a student has to quarantine? What if a teacher has to quarantine? Does a teacher have to use sick pay to quarantine?
MNPS’s virtual options have been diminished from last year and the current three hundred available seats are already claimed. MNPS is looking to hire a few more virtual teachers, so the capacity for meeting increased needs is not really there at present.
MNPS likes to brag that it has doubled its virtual school offering, but the truth is that we may have doubled seating, but MNPS hasn’t built on the successes of last year, and there were some.
MNPS virtual school is all asynchronous. Kids have the opportunity to see an individual tutor if struggling, but instruction is delivered through taped instruction models provided by the Florida Virtual School.
I can’t help but wonder how many students are aware of this change. It’s a model not suited for every student, and in fact, will set some up to fail. At a time when resources for innovation are at an all-time high, MNPS is moving backward. Instead of buying a new Porsche, they are deciding to just fix the muffler and brakes on the old Toyota.
In defense, MNPS will hide behind the state on this one, claiming that they were prevented from offering large-scale options by the TNDOE. And there is some truth to that, but if student needs were seen as an actual priority, the district would have found a way to offer better options. The truth is that very little effort was applied to addressing the possibilities of an increased need and demand for remote instruction. Instead, Chief of Schools Mason Bellamy made a choice that made life easier for him, at the expense of the children and families he’s charged with serving. That shouldn’t be acceptable.
Much like last year, instead of using the summer to actually evaluate what worked, what could work, and use that information to plan for the coming year – remember the inquiry cycle – administrators chose to act as if COVID was going to just disappear. Over the past month, I’ve fielded quite a few emails from teachers asking about protocols for the coming year. A common refrain is, “I may be nuts, but it feels like we are just going to proceed as if last year never happen. Am I nuts?”
Yes, planning for the future is difficult. Yes, things change. But we are not afraid to ask parents to do the heavy lifting sans a fraction of the information available to administrators, why is not permissible to expect the same from them? This is one area in which Dr. Battle has got to get better at or find some team members with more capability.
Reaction to the board’s action yesterday has been swift. Some have questioned whether the board has the authority to take such action. They absolutely do. It’s a school issue, albeit one without precedent, and as such, they are the ones charged with making the decisions. Personally, I’m happy to see them finally rise to the challenge. Props to them.
Some have said they needed to wait for the Mayor to make an announcement on a mask mandate in order to strengthen their action. Whatever. This is a school’s issue and the city charter is pretty clear on who makes decisions of governance on city schools. Some local politicians over the last decade have tried to cloud that issue, But again, the charter and a reading of history during its creation make it pretty clear who the decision lies with.
That said, just because you make a policy, doesn’t guarantee that you’ll be able to enforce it. Teachers have been shutting their doors and conducting business since time began. Once those doors shut, there is only one authority. Some teachers will comply, while others may not quite follow the letter of law. Much as it works on everything. Education writer Robert Pondiscio recently wrote about this in regard to curriculum, and it holds true in other areas as well.
Now you certainly could have building administrators regularly popping from classroom to classroom policing the mask policy, but is that really a prudent use of their time? What kind of building culture would that create? Like it or not, there will be varying adherence to the mask mandate. But I still think overall, it’s a necessity.
Many parents have threatened to fill out a religious exemption form, and that’s their prerogative. I’d be cautious here, especially with a middle schooler, do you really want to differentiate your child, at a time when a primary objective is finding a means to fit in? Do you really want to essentially put your child in a position of fighting your battles? I don’t know, maybe, and that’s a decision that should be left to parents. i know what mine would be.
Speaker of the Tennessee House Cameron Sexton has threatened to call for a special session focusing on vouchers if districts institute mask mandates. This is just another incident of lawmakers supporting local control out of one side of their mouth while attacking it with the other side. What I’d love to see is every school district in the state designates a day to all simultaneously institute a mask mandate for one day. I know, that would be using kids for political fodder, but we do repeatedly anyways. As we’ll talk about in the next session on testing.
Some doubt that Sexton has the ability to get his desired special session, but keep in mind he is the hand-chosen successor of Bill Lee. With that designation comes certain privileges.
As a final word on MNPS’s mask mandate, again, kudos to MNPS’s school board, especially Chair Christianne Buggs, for taking the initiative and attempting to claw back some of the power abdicated over the last several years. It’s not a perfect solution, but for right now, it’s the best.
SO LET’S TALK TESTING
On Monday the TNDOE is slated to release its latest round of TCAP results from the Spring. This time the focus will be on districts. Once again the value of these assessments will rest primarily in their ability to paint Nashville and Memphis schools as abject failures. Yet nobody, save Commissioner Schwinn, the TNDOE, and select legislators can verify the validity of these results.
Since the release of the first set of results, I’ve turned to several assessments experts in an effort to understand the data. All of them give me the same answers,
“I don’t know the answer.”
“I can’t even begin to attest to the validity of these results.”
“I’m at a loss at how any of these pronouncements were arrived at.”
We tend to think of assessments being a simple formula of asking 10 questions, get 9 right and you score a 90%. But in reality, it’s a much more difficult task that requires a great deal of mathematical expertise. Expertise that the TNDOE is currently lacking due to mass exits over the last two years.
Hell, one of their top “experts” lives in Chicago despite being employed in Tennessee, has very little experience at this level, and has already proven incapable of meeting the needs of her current job. It’s pretty safe to say the data is likely riddled with errors. .
Back when the tests were given, the message delivered to districts, and thus kids, was not one of, “Come in and kick-ass”, but rather one of please come in and take the test so we don’t incur the wrath of Commissioner Schwinn. Raise your hand if you are shocked to discover that kids who were told an assessment had no meaning did poorly on said assessment. If your hand is in the air you are either an employee of the TNDOE, a member of the General Assembly or in need of a remediation course of Common Sense 101.
The release of district participation rates was devoid of a few important breakdowns. Where was the breakdown by grade level? It would have been helpful to see a breakdown of who participate based on performance on the last TCAP assessment given. Again, just not enough information in order to make valid evaluations.
In conjunction with the release of the data, the TNDOE produced a fancy PowerPoint filled with charts. Charts that raised more questions then they answered.
I love the chart that attempts to illustrate the difference in achievement between remote, in-person, and hybrid students with no explanation of how those designations were defined. Remember few kids fell into any of those categories for the entire year, and it was not uncommon to repeatedly bounce back and forth between remote and in-person instruction. What about when a kid was forced to quarantine? I am hearing that the DOE is busy getting LEAs to reconfirm those numbers, good luck with that.
Let me draw your attention to the “approaching’ numbers. Remote instruction is a brand new model, it took a bit of time to get things going, and there is still lots of room for improvement, yet the numbers aren’t that far removed.
Furthermore, how many of the kids who were remote all year, but forced into schools to take their test in-person, had their scores impacted by duress? How many of those kids, if they took the test today, would score in the on-track category? How many kids that scored ‘mastered” last year didn’t take the test this year? Thus skewing the numbers. Again, more questions than answers.
If I was a proponent of in-person instruction as the only means of educating kids, I might want to slow my roll a bit. Using these numbers doesn’t provide overwhelming evidence of your theory, nor does it provide evidence that future results won’t disprove your assumptions.
My other favorite chart is the one that shows overall ELA results. The 2021 results are arguably better than the 2016 results and comparable to 2017 and 2018. Yet somehow I don’t recall anybody calling for a special session by the General assembly to address reading scores. In fact, a simple Google search would probably show accolades for Commissioner McQueen and the DOE by the very same people offering a negative interpretation of this year’s data in the state’s latest press release.
We could play this game all day long. Before we stop though, I have to point out the particularly duplicitous manner in which Ms. Schwinn uses Science scores. The test administered in 2021 is an all-new test, one that was never given to students in the past. Based on all-new standards. To try and compare it to past assessments and attempt to draw meaningful conclusions is either willfully ignorant or deliberately deceptive. I’ll let you decide which applies.
The bottom line is, these TCAP results are only useful to frame a political agenda. One that puts adults above kids. We should collectively be ashamed of this deceptive practice. Unfortunately, we’ll probably just allow them to become part of the accepted conversation around education. After all, these numbers are going to allow a whole lot of adults the ability to buy new cars, new yachts, and send their kids to a better private school. The rest of us will be left to fend for ourselves.
IS THIS WHAT DAVID PLAZA MEANT BY CIVILITY
Over the past year, Tennessean Editor David Plaza has written several editorials for the paper on the need for increased civility. In a conversation with fellow journalist Cayla Hayes, he stated,
One of the things I’ve found is that a lot of people who send criticism don’t expect me to respond, and I do. I always try to respond at least kindly, and even if it’s something that’s caustic, I respond to say, “I appreciate your reply, and here’s where my position actually is.” Very rarely do I have to just cut off people, and say this person is not worth dealing with; but it has happened because there are some folks who are unrelenting. So I have to cut my losses because there are other things I have to do in a day.
I wonder if his idea of “cutting off a person” entails publicly telling them to, “kindly fuck off”? Because that’s the tactic that Tennesean Education writer Meghan Mangrum employed recently on Twitter with education advocate Amy Pate.
Now Pate can be aggressive with city leaders when advocating for schools. Her views often don’t align with theirs. But that’s her prerogative. She’s passionate. Does her homework and is not threatening. She is also a parent in the public school system. I know public schools would be so much better without the public, right?
That last sentence was sarcasm by the way. The bottom line, is Pate does not deserve that level of animosity and I can’t believe that Meghan Mangrum’s response would be considered a civil one by the paper’s standards.
Mangrum on the other hand is remarkably thin-skinned for a large market journalist. Often lashing out at those who question her writings. I blocked her months ago after she responded to one of my criticisms by calling me an ass. That may be true, but I saw no value in continuing to hang around.
She seems to have joined the political class of Nashville that feels they are above reproach just because of the position they hold. Constituents and clients need to talk to them in a prescribed manner, while continually honoring their standing and reaffirm their current beliefs, or subjects are dismissed as unworthy.
Well here’s a newsflash, there are no sacred cows. None are beyond reproach or questioning. It should all be considered fair game. As they used to tell me as a kid, if you can’t stand the heat, get out of the kitchen.
I can list 100 people that I don’t enjoy talking to. Every time I see the phone ring and caller ID reveals their name, I inwardly cringe. But invariably, more times than not, I come away with a deeper understanding of an issue,
Years ago, I told a fellow education advocate who I deeply respect, to take a flying fuck. It was done out of anger in a private conversation, yet I regret it to this day. She has not spoken to me since. Truly I earned that.
My suggestion to Plaza, if you are going to continue your civility campaign, you probably ought to get your house in order before you start working on the neighborhood. Perhaps Mangrum could read some of his past editorials for the paper. Unless of course, it was all just empty words.
That’s it for now, but trust me, there is plenty more fodder for Monday.
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