THEATER OF THE ABSURD REDUX

“pay attention to your enemies, for they are the first to discover your mistakes.”
William B. Irvine, A Guide to the Good Life: The Ancient Art of Stoic Joy

 

If the first week of school was any indication, we are in for one long ride this year. One focused even more on the desires of adults than in the past. One that can only add to the divisiveness that already runs ramped through our society.

COVID has exposed the difference in core tenets of Americans. It has served to further drive us into existing camps that have long divided us. We were never good listeners, but our skills have only deteriorated further in the wake of the ongoing pandemic. Where once there were widespread calls to show grace as often as possible, that prescription has all but evaporated as time marches on.

Parents frustrated by a year of interrupted schooling, and under a constant barrage of clarion calls about learning loss, are literally at wit’s end. Add in the growing health threat presented by the new Delta strain of COVID, and it’s like the old science fair entry the volcano – vinegar and baking soda combining to create an eruption.

I would argue that to be a parent, is to exist on a plane of perpetual fear. Fear that you are doing the right thing. Fear that your children are safe. Fear that your children will be equipped for the world as adults. Fear that you haven’t done enough. The pandemic has only amplified those fears.

If we are honest with ourselves, we all have a desire to have our children realize their dreams while avoiding the pain and suffering that we have endured. A desire that ignores the truism that much of the strength and character we exhibit in our current incarnation was brought forth by hard times peppered with pain.

Yesterday, the Tennessean published an article on TCAP scores from last spring with the following claim, “Together, the statewide and district-level test results provide educators and parents a clearer picture of how much pandemic-related learning loss occurred.” That is just not an accurate statement. The tests do no such thing. Sorry, but this is as big of an untruth as that plague our current reality.

We have no assessment that measures “learning loss”. None. It’s a made-up term because once you learn something, you don’t really lose it. It might recede back into your brain until necessity calls it forth, but it’s not lost.

The beauty of standardized tests is that they are standardized. In order to get an accurate measurement of learning you try and control as many elements around the administration as possible. None of that happens last year. Are you going to tell me that the administration of the test was the same in both MNPS and Cannon County? Or Hamilton County vs Sumner County?

Furthermore, the standards themselves are relatively arbitrary constructs. In the not-so-distant past, we gave a test that was graded on a bell curve, if too many kids scored on one side of the test or another, adjustments in expectations were made. The advent of Common Core changed all that.

While I recognize that this is a bit of an oversimplification, what basically happened was 30 something education “experts” got in a room with one classroom teacher and set what they thought kids should accomplish at each age. It’s not rooted in science, nor child development. In that sense the standards are arbitrary.

Kids’ scores have dropped dramatically since the early part of the last decade, Instead of having an honest conversation about if the standards were correct or not, those scores were used to gin up an artificial crisis that served to enrich private entities. While teacher and administrator salaries have remained static for a decade, the money invested in the field of education has exploded. Somebody is getting rich on the back of a crisis narrative, but it ain’t the right people.

In 2015 I wrote a piece about Common Core Standards and an example I used then, given to me by an educator,  is still relative today,

When you go to a doctor, he has a list of guidelines that you should adhere to in order to be considered healthy. The doctor, however, doesn’t just recite those and send you on your way with a proclamation of healthy or unhealthy. He takes those guidelines and compares them with your lifestyle, family history, past medical history, and any other factors he can glean from you. Sometimes you may not be exactly healthy, but you are getting as close as you possibly can to adhering to those guidelines and so he recognizes that and offers praise. That’s what teachers do with children, expectations, and standards. They treat the child as a doctor would a patient and get them as close to those standards as possible. Sometimes that means a 100 percent and sometimes it might be a little less.

Just one of the many ways in which Common Core has proven to more damaging than beneficial.

We’ll talk more about testing in a minute, but I want to make one more point first. When you continually amplify the pre-existing fears of parents you raise their level of anxiety and agitation to a place where it eventually has to spill over. Unfortunately doing so at a time when anxieties are already heightened after 18 months immersed in a global pandemic, they spill over in a manner that is socially unacceptable.

For decades, parents, teachers, and students have been used as political footballs, tools to add to the bottom line of special interest groups. A permanent crisis only guarantees a permanent flight or fight mentality. And parents, teachers, and students have been flying and fighting with regularity as a result.

Many people were horrified by the events that transpired at this week’s Williamson County School Board meeting, and rightfully so (If you haven’t seen the footage, just trust me, it was unflattering). Doctors and nurses, who dedicate their lives to helping people, were verbally assaulted and threatened to never show their face in public for voicing their opinion on COVID protocols. Not cool. But what do we expect?

Mask mandates have been presented as independent pieces of mitigating spread in schools, not as a piece of a larger more thought-out program. Personally, I believe, had they been presented as just one element in a more robust plan to ensure kids remain in school uninterrupted they might not have received as much pushback as they did. I’ve been married long enough to know, how you present something is every bit as important as what you are presenting.

My wife hates being hit with something either minutes after she walks through the door or minutes before we walk out the door. I could hit her with a million-dollar check seconds after walking in the door and she’d be pissed. Effective communication means evaluating what I’m communicating and structuring it properly in the proper time frame. The greater the degree to which I accomplish that, the higher my success rate. None of that has been done in communicating mask mandates,

Instead, the approach of, “will tell you what we decide and when we decide. If you don’t like it that you are a selfish ignorant human being” was utilized Let me know where in your personal life this approach works for you. For years, I have been preaching that just because you say something doesn’t mean you are effectively communicating. It’s a sermon that continually falls on deaf ears, and as such serves as an example of ineffective communication.

For a whole year, the Governor and Commissioner Schwinn, along with publishers, testing companies, and other private entities, have been pouring gasoline on parent fears by describing a future for their children bereft of opportunity, all because of a year of interrupted formal schooling. How do we expect parents to react when faced with obstacles that they perceive will serve to limit their child’s future? When it comes to our children, we all suffer from a touch of the irrational.

Worth noting, in the wake of the infamous mask mandate School Board meeting, WCS announced that 3400 waivers have been granted on religious grounds for elementary school kids. That’s about 20% of the population. It’s pretty clear that somebody is not communicating something effectively.

Think what the conversation might look like if, throughout all of this, the Governor and his surrogates had been preaching a gospel of moderation, instead of fear.

What if he explained that remote education was not perfect but it was improving rapidly? What if the commissioner would have explained that, yes there may be a little regression in progress for students in each grade, but teachers were working to quickly address those needs? What if in addressing current circumstances, officials used language like, “interrupted formal instruction”. or “lack of growth we measure, but many areas of growth we don’t measure”, instead of using “learning loss”?

Have we had an honest conversation about remote education, over at the Substack Cafeteria Duty, the author would argue…no,

Did bad classes happen? Sure. But were they “hell?” Please. Good teachers regard their failures the same way professional athletes do after losing a game: with a shrug, a bit of sangfroid, you win some, you lose some, tomorrow’s another day. What’s more, there is not a single teacher I know who would honestly say their own students did not learn significantly this year, and I don’t think any of the students who regularly showed up would have said that, either, a note Michael B. Horn echoes over at his Substack newsletter, The Future of Education.

In addressing remote instruction, we make the mistake of lumping it all together, however when you look closer, you find there is a great deal of difference between synchronous and asynchronous instruction as spelled out later in the Cafeteria Duty piece,

Luckily, a 4th grade teacher from Illinois, Krystal Clifton, apparently had the same question, and conducted her own little research experiment in her classroom. She found that her “students who worked asynchronously generally performed worse than their peers who received instruction from me in real time, either online or in person.” Small sample size, sure, but here’s the money quote: “My students’ relationship with me seemed to positively influence learning, and this was one of the missing pieces for my asynchronous students.”

What strategy has MNPS employed this year for remote instruction? All asynchronous and no live instruction.

At some point, we are all going to have to calm the fuck down. I know I’ve been dropping F-bombs with increased frequency as of late, but it’s the only word that seems to fit.

School board battles, like schools themselves, are a microcosm of the whole. We can’t continue to exist in a world where one side of society is perpetually at war with the other. It’s not just about school issues either. It’s America today and it’s tearing us apart. As  Dianne Hessen writes in a piece published by Real Clear Politics,

And here’s the thing: our inability to hear each other, our speculation, and our impatience are tearing us apart. This has now caused a crisis in Gary’s close circle, and, repeated everywhere in America, it is dividing us as a country. It’s a sickness that permeates the American culture, erodes our collective mental health, paralyzes our ability to move forward, and makes us hate each other. Substance abuse is up, mental illness is on the rise, and sales of guns and ammunition are exploding

She goes on to point out,

Conversation is less about coming to agreement than about honoring the other person’s perspective. It’s taking a deep breath and making the assumption that the person on the other side might share values with you after all.

I would argue, those are words it wouldn’t hurt any of us to read every morning before we start our day. To illustrate her point, she tells a story that draws from the world of sports,

A great example of this happened in July of 2020, when Philadelphia Eagles wide receiver DeSean Jackson posted an anti-Semitic post on Twitter. Although a storm of criticism followed, Julian Edelman of the New England Patriots, who is Jewish, reached out to Jackson to ask for a conversation about why he posted the quote. Edelman wanted to take Jackson to the Holocaust Memorial Museum, but he also wanted Jackson to take him to the National Museum of African American History and Culture. The two had a conversation about challenges for Blacks and Jews that they kept private, and they made museum plans for after the football season. This was all about looking for common ground, instead of accusing and blaming.
I love this story. How many of us would have the temperance to engage in such a strategy? Instead, we scream at each other, demanding compliance, resorting to demagoguery when those efforts are unsuccessful.
Stress levels are high right now. Parents are fearful of kids returning to school and equally afraid of kids not returning to school. We are all suffering from pandemic exhaustion though we all need to find ways to direct our anxiety in a healthy manner.
Hessan closes her piece with words that resonate with me,
Here is what I know: we are not merely Black or White, Democrat or Republican, rich or poor, Southern or Northern. We are complicated, flawed human beings who are not always rational—and we are trying to move forward in life in the best way we can. Along the way, we pick up beliefs and influences that shape who we are. If we choose to judge each other solely by a box that we checked, we are missing the story. We are missing humanity.
LET”S TALK ABOUT TESTING
Yesterday, was about the most convoluted release of district data on TCAP testing by the Tennessee Department of Education that I can remember. They have always had issues getting the data out in a timely manner, but this year was a Blue Ribbon effort.
Last week it was announced by the DOE that they would be releasing district-level data on the 11th of August. The day dawned with no timetable for release announced and rumors of the embargo being pushed back until the 19th.
MNPS’s Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle had a public Teams meeting scheduled at 2pm to review the results with stakeholders. An odd time, as most of those said stakeholders, were occupied with work obligations during the scheduled time. Remember, scheduling is an indicator of your commitment to transparency.
At some point in the early afternoon the Daily Memphian released the results for Memphis, while at 2:45, The Tennessean released the scores in an article devoid of commentary from Commissioner Schwinn and bearing the following disclaimer, “As of 2:45 p.m. Wednesday afternoon, the state had not yet released data for all of the state’s districts.” Hmmm…
Finally, at some point in the late afternoon, results were released unceremoniously for all districts. Included in the release was a PowerPoint with additional information on Districts individual scores, along with a graph of district performance over the last decade. Graphs that under other circumstances would provoke ridicule and mockery, but under current circumstances, just bring forth sad shakes of the head. That’s how low the bar has fallen for the TNDOE. We can’t even laugh at their incompetent hijinks.
The graphs are useless because there has been no fidelity in testing administration since 2010. How many versions of TCAP have been adopted? How many years have inconsistencies and interruptions corrupted the data? How many different kids with different circumstances passed through those districts over the past decade? Yet the TNDOE thought it imperative to produce a 300 plus page slide deck to accompany results from a test that were supposed to be meaningless. Wonder how much ESSER money was designated for creating this slide deck.
The biggest thing that needs to be shouted from the mountain tops is that prior to the administration of this assessment teachers and students were told that there would be no accountability measures linked to this test, yet here we are. You don’t produce a 300 piece slide deck devoted to individual districts if you ain’t planning to hold someone accountable.
I have to chuckle though, because if you look at that graphs for individual districts you will, for the most part, see a downward trend, with a few exceptions. Including the years under the current administration, making a strong argument for the incompetence of those influencing education policy over the last decade. Yes, SCORE, I’m talking about you.
Even when rigging the game, the DOE and by extension SCORE can’t make a compelling argument about why we should listen to them on education policy. Whenever I think of TNDOE, SCORE, EdTrust, and the other interlopers, I can’t help but think of the old Jimmy Breslin book, The Gang That Couldn’t Shoot Straight – a tale of incompetent gangsters.
My favorite graph is the one for Jackson-Madison, the former home of the recently hired TNDOE head of early literacy, Jared Mrycle. No offense to the fine educators of Jackson-Madison, but what about this slide screams, “widen my sphere of influence”? If my son’s driving record looked like this, I’d take away the keys to the car, not buy him an upgrade,
In all fairness to Mrycle, he does fall prey to Ms. Schwinn’s misguided decision to return to the practice of highlighting individual grade’s results. This was excepted practice under former Commissioner Huffman until an internal audit revealed that doing so magnified the errors inherent in scoring tests.
As I’ve stated in the past, the general public does not have a firm grasp of what goes into evaluating TCAP results. The data has to be scrubbed to ensure that the data included is the correct data, it needs to be run through a series of calculations that requires specific software, that is beyond the means of most districts outside of MNPS, SCS, and the larger urban districts, and talented experienced people. Remember those tales of high attrition that have dogged Commissioner Schwinn since arrival? This is where that comes into play.
As it was explained to me, it’s a very specialized execution that is not a simple process, but it isn’t rocket science either. Indications are, that the data was presented to districts in a format much different than they are accustomed to. As a result, many are scrambling to figure out exactly what it all means.
One added oddity of the week’s data dump was a tweet sent out by acting Hamilton County Schools Director Nakia Townes. In it, Townes touts that the district outscored the state in 23 of 28 categories. An impressive feat if you ignore the fact that the Director of Schools who led the district to such heights is walking out the door next week to go to work for…a trucking company. That’s right…from kids to trucks. That sounds about right in this day and age.
All right, time for me to get on the road to Cincinnati. The boy has another Jui Jitsu tournament this weekend. Wish him luck.

August is the month in which I engage in my annual fundraising pitch. While undertaking this blog was my choice, it’s grown past expectations. It takes a lot of work and resources in order to keep up with it. That’s where I need your help.

This year I began sharing posts via email through Substack. It has been a new foray for me and has helped to increase coverage. I offer both free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. Still a work in progress.

If you don’t wish to subscribe but would like to join the rank of donors, you can 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.

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’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.


Categories: Education

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