POLITICS OR VIRTUE?

“Why are you in such a rush?” Sophia asked, and her grandmother answered that it was a good idea to do things before you forgot that they had to be done.”
Tove Jansson, The Summer Book

 

This past weekend I’ve given a great deal of thought to David Plaza’s editorial for the Tennessean praising MNPS and SCS Superintendents as “heroes” for standing up to the Governor’s Executive Order that would allow parents the right to opt-out of mask mandates. I’ve also chuckled while I read long-time journalists heap praise on school board members whose resignation they called for just two short years ago.

Hunt this weekend writes, “Local school board members and public health authorities should be thanked, not threatened. Their authority should be respected, not gutted by a governor with too narrow a definition of liberty and freedom.” A far cry from his words in 2019 when he wrote, “It would help for all current board members to resign en masse immediately and ask the mayor to appoint a new slate. Otherwise, the first step may be to invoke the recall provision in the Metro Charter, which the founders of Metropolitan Government wisely put in place.”

Last I checked he never apologized to board members for his damaging rhetoric. You would think that once proven so wrong, one would exercise a little more caution in the future. But what’s a little hyperbole among friends?

Alas, I’m getting a little sidetracked here. My goal in today’s piece is not to explore the unchecked hubris of the chattering class, but rather to look at today’s current events and raise, what I think, are serious holes in our crisis management policy. And trust me, we got holes.

I can’t speak much about SCS, as I’m not a resident, but I am impressed with the savvy political skills of Director of Schools Joris Ray. He’s brought a jolt of energy to the leadership office and has shown himself to be a staunch defender of the city’s kids.

Since arriving in the top seat he’s continually used the position to poke the Governor and state legislators in the eye whenever an opportunity presented itself. Standing up to the state whenever he felt their mandates were not in the best interests of the city’s students. Before the mask mandate fiasco, he was one of the last districts in the state to return to in-person instruction out of precaution for students and families. When Memphis decided to open schools, they did it on their timetable despite ever-increasing pressure from the state to speed the process up.

Close inspection might reveal that MNPS’s Dr. Adrienne Battle is every bit as political as Ray, just not as readily perceived as such. Though I have heard Battle described by some as being “the most political of our recent Directors of Schools.” My initial thought was to dismiss that claim, but closer evaluation makes me hesitant to do so.

As Director of Schools, she has closely aligned herself with both the Mayor’s office and the State, except when it is politically beneficial to do otherwise. Thus threading a thin needle. MNPS has been, through Dr. Carrie Randolph, very closely aligned with TNDOE on their signature issues, even when legislators raise concern i.e the navigator program and adopting the new ELA curriculum.

Battle is very vocal in her support for teachers when broaching subjects that can earn her political points, unfortunately, that support falters a bit when you start to recede from the spotlight a bit. More on that momentarily.

Some may view my painting her in a political light as a criticism, but it’s not wholly so. My father, a career serviceman, used to say that when you got to the level of Colonels and Generals, the ranks were more a signifier of political savvy than of quality soldiering. What he meant is, that to thrive at that level and be effective, you had to be political. The same holds true in education. It is a delicate balance that the great ones have the unique ability to strike,

Unfortunately, Battles leadership is starting to show a greater emphasis on politics over true leadership. Her position on masks and her course of action in response to Governor Lee is the correct one at this time based on current circumstances. But that fact shouldn’t prevent the district from addressing some equally important steps that haven’t been taken, and whose oversight shows an alarming lack of foresight.

Let’s start with virtual schools. The decision to dismantle them was an extremely shortsighted one and should have never happened. Anybody, paying any attention, should have been able to predict that there would be a need for some students to continue attending virtually. Instead, ignoring the fact that remote education was still in the developmental phase, virtual schools were determined permanently sub-par and dismantled. The 300-seat Nashville Virtual School is not a sufficient offering by any measure.

To be fair, Governor Lee and the TNDOE bear the brunt of the blame for this failure, as they do for many others. They declared that in order for remote instruction to continue this year, LEA’s must apply for and be granted a completely separate school number. In other words, virtual instruction could no longer be considered an extension of an existing school but must become its own entity. A move that is extremely difficult on multiple levels for individual districts. As a result, most districts folded their emergency response offerings into smaller entities that served fewer students and leave little room for scaling up.

Lee and Schwinn’s position on virtual schools, as proponents of parent choice, is a little baffling to me and I suspect the motivation for this policy is to keep public schools from getting a perceived unfair advantage in the newly developing remote instruction field. After all, parents choosing remote instruction are no different than those choosing charter schools, private schools, or accepting vouchers, all ideas the two support. In this light, the dynamic duo should have been enthusiastic in the development and offering of remote education as another avenue of choice, Instead, they chose to block public schools from making the option available to their families. Thus. ultimately, hurting public school systems.

But districts could have fought the state’s demands, as the mask mandate has demonstrated, They could have said that due to the still lingering threat of COVID, our virtual options are still necessitated – not just for those that choose that platform, but for those who must quarantine due to COVID exposure as well. instead, we are now left with no good options for kids who must quarantine, and for those whose family members are at heightened health risk should their children be exposed to the rising Delta strain.

Per the Tennessean, ss of Monday, 2,879 students are quarantined or isolated and 143 staff members. The district has about 80,000 students. Yeah…probably need that virtual schooling element.

Quick caveat here about positive numbers. Remember, they are likely higher because all parents don’t rush off to test kids just because they are exposed. Many kids will not get tested unless they develop somewhat severe symptoms. That skewers reporting a little bit. So I’d say the need for virtual instruction is likely more than we are publicly acknowledging.

Unfortunately, championing virtual schools doesn’t earn the same political goodwill as championing mask mandates.

Another area that should have been addressed before the start of school, was the issue of teacher pay in the event of a forced quarantine. As it stands, teachers are having to use their personal sick days. Those who are just starting out their careers don’t have many accumulated and find themselves at a real disadvantage. It’s like forcing soldiers into battle and then making them pay for their medical treatment if they become wounded. To not have this issue settled before now is inexcusable.

MNPS has an additional 400 million dollars on hand, there is no reason why a small portion of those funds couldn’t have been set aside to preserve teacher sick days. And yes, the subject is now being tackled, but once again, it is after the fact instead of being preemptive. Something teachers are entirely too familiar with.

But hey, fighting for teacher pay earns a lot more political clout than protecting those sick days does, so…here we are. This needs to get done, and done quickly.

We are fighting about the mask mandate, without looking at the implementation. Adherence to the policy may be high in school buildings, it’s the opposite on buses. Furthermore, MNPS, and I am sure other districts, are facing a shortage of bus drivers. What would happen if some of the federal money was utilized in order to hire bus monitors to ride with drivers and relieve them of the burden of managing students while driving? If we simultaneously offered a bump in pay, might we not attract more candidates based on the enticement of more pay, less responsibility? Seems to me we could solve two problems with one investment.

Yet…I’ve yet to hear a beep from our courageous leadership.

While Battle and her team publicly fight the state’s on masks, they are quite compliant with the state’s requirements for assessments. Kids are returning to schools after a lengthy absence, for some it’s been 18 months, only to be greeted by an assessment in math and ELA. With nary a chance to assess their new surroundings, reacquaint with teachers and peers, they are instantly being required to demonstrate their knowledge of math and ELA standards, It’s a ludicrous proposition that only aids in helping Commissioner Schwinn write her narrative as the savior of Tennessee school children.

The test administered these first weeks of school will be re-administered come January. In all likelihood, due to multiple factors, the results in January will be much better than those being collected today. Those scores will be delivered by the commissioner and her minions as evidence of the tremendous gains brought forth by their collective strategies. Thus setting them up as heroes of public education.

In reality, if our true desire was to get an accurate picture of student knowledge, we would allow students a minimum of a month in order to re-establish their relationships – not just with teachers, but the school itself – before doing any measuring. We would ensure that they had the necessary supports for re-entry before making rigorous demands. Before returning to full competition, professional athletes take some time to ensure that they are at full capacity, why would we fail to provide our students with the same opportunity?

Again though, fighting testing policy, is not a means in which to garner political capital, Though it is the right thing to do, and puts student interests at the forefront.

Doctor Battle, and by extension Joris Ray and others, deserve credit for their principled stand on masks, But the fights can’t stop there, Masks should be one element of a comprehensive and cohesive plan developed with students at its center. Unprecedented times, call for unprecedented thinking. We can’t act as if slapping a mask on 2021 will suddenly turn it into 2019. Yet, that seems to be our preferred strategy.

It is a strategy that will leave us chained to the past while those who seek to undermine public education rush to embrace the future. It’s a strategy that will potentially alter public education beyond recognition. Now more than ever, it is imperative that we face the challenges of today with an eye toward shaping the future.

I’m thankful that MNPS is led by a leader that understands the political nature of the job, but I hope she understands that politics is just one element of the job. And that while building political clout is important, spending it is equally so.

DIGITAL THINKING

The Tennessean has another one of those PR pieces that are so out of touch that they’d be laughable if they weren’t so depressing. This weekend they trumpeted Mayor Cooper’s new plans, dubbed a Digital Future, to prepare students for opportunities in Nashville’s burgeoning technology sector and tech’s role in Nashville’s education system amid yet another coronavirus surge. Ok…a fine plan as long as you consider a few caveats.

The first is the monkey in the room. As the Tennessean points out, as Nashville’s mayor, Cooper has no direct control over how the city’s public schools are run. But through annual budget proposals and the influence of the office, mayors typically carry considerable influence. I’d go further and argue that “considerable influence” might be a bit of a stretch.

Secondly, and not mentioned in the article, is the disaster technology has been at the beginning of the year. Laptop software was not updated over the summer which means they weren’t ready for students to use for MAP testing. Some students were instructed to return computers at the end of last year while others held on to their computers. Many of those who turned theirs in, don’t currently have computers.

These are just a couple of the instances making life at the beginning of school a little more difficult. Most of these issues are being handled by individual school librarians, or as we now call them “Media Specialists”. They are doing tremendous work, but it’s pulling them away from their normal duties serving students.

Before embarking on the grandiose, we might want to master the mundane. It’s nice that the mayor has ideas, but they’re a long way from fruition despite the best of intentions. And it probably wouldn’t hurt to talk to your kid’s teachers before…what…oh yea…your kids go to private school…my bad…well, maybe you have some neighbors who are public school teachers. Or some staffers who have neighbors who are teachers. But you know what I mean.

RICH GET RICHER

A few months ago you might have noticed an RFQ from the DOE. It was for providers to offer support for newly created literacy implementation networks. “Over the next five years, the regional Pre-K–12 Literacy Implementation Networks will foster opportunity for districts to learn from each other and to form unique partnerships to support high-quality literacy instruction to build strong readers, which ultimately promotes success for our students and our state,” according to Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Each regional implementation network will consist of one mentor district, 4-6 participating districts, and a regionally selected vendor partner, with the option of selecting an elementary, middle or high school focus. The districts selected to make up the eight regional Pre- K–12 implementation networks are:

Per the RFQ,

Contracts will be awarded for up to five (5) years and will result in awardees being placed on a list of qualified suppliers; from which Regional Networks may select a supplier to lead their comprehensive literacy strategy.

You might have been wondering who got these contracts, If you’ve been paying attention, the names won’t surprise you.

  • Instruction Partners – which was founded by and run by Emily Freitag. Who used to be Emily Barton. She flamed out as an Assistant State Superintendent of Education under Kevin Huffman and was a prime pusher of Common Core back in the day. They received $414K from the Gates Foundation this year.
  • National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET) – which until recently was headed up by former Tennessee State Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen. In that role, she collected over $400k.
  • Teaching Lab – Another beneficiary of the Gates Foundation. This year they received $525k. The Board of Directors has representatives from Teach for America, the Gates Foundation, and Bellweather.
  • TNTP – employer of the Commissioner’s husband and beneficiary of a previous RFQ, to the tune of $8 million. Over the past three years, they’ve received several million dollars from the Gates Foundation.

In other words, it’s the same old cast of characters culled from Commissioner Schwinn’s friends and family list. this should be especially concerning because these kinds of contracts are being awarded in other areas overseen by the Lee administration as well. So while many have commented on the Governor’s affinity to Commissioner Schwinn, it’s more likely that he has a type, as opposed to an individual attraction.

Either way he and his commissioner’s friends and family benefit at the expense of the state. These contracts also work to continue the failed practices of the past. Something has to be done.

If Speaker Sexton doesn’t back down from his threat to call a special session, this might be a good topic to add to the agenda.

That’s a wrap.

August is the month in which I engage in my annual fundraising pitch, and it’s coming to a close. 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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