ARE MASKS THE NEW CHARTER SCHOOLS?

“I guess it’s like James Joyce when he was a kid, you know. He hung out with all the great writers of the day, and he was a little kid, like, with tennis shoes on, and they said ‘Look at this lame!’ They didn’t use those words in those days. They said ‘God, here comes this nut.’ And he told them, ‘I’m great!’ And he sat with them, and he loved to be with them, and it ended up that he was great.”
Art Pepper, Straight Life: The Story Of Art Pepper

 

If you’ve spent any time around education politics over the last decade, you are well aware of our proclivity to take a single issue, choose sides, and argue its merits and demerits ad nauseam, at the expense of all else. We show a distinct preference to those subjects that are usually unresolvable and allow for a clean delineation between us and them. The importance of the need to align with the powers of “good” cannot be understated. Pick your subject, and you’ll find folks on both sides claiming to be aligned with the angels.

Common Core, standardized tests, school funding, and what is equity, have all taken center stage at one point or another. But no strawman has proven to have the staying power as the subject of “charter schools”.

We’ve spent nearly a decade arguing endlessly on the role of charter schools in the modern educational system while reaching few conclusions and allowing the growth of other challenges. For me, it’s reminiscent of a Jets/Colts football game that I was forced to endure back in the Nineties.

It was a Sunday afternoon after a badly misspent Saturday night and I was enduring the consequences of my poor choices from the night before. in which I had been grossly overserved. The game ended in overtime with a 6-3 win for one of the teams – I’m not sure which, because the win was overshadowed by my joy at the game reaching a conclusion – and I don’t believe either team ever went past the other teams 30-yard line. In other words, the entire game was played in the middle of the field.

You might be wondering, why I didn’t just leave. The answer is that people I loved were deeply vested in the outcome for the Jets, and I felt that a show of support was warranted for their sake. No different than today’s battle over charter schools.

In the end, my support played no role in the outcome, and sticking around for the game, instead of doing more pressing things, only served to acerbate my hangover. The outcome of that game, bore no real relevance to the fortunes of either team that season, as both had so many other issues that needed addressing before they could actually become competitive football teams. Focusing on the outcome of that one game only served to obfuscate reality.

Yeah…like I said, feels remarkably familiar.

Now here we are in 2021 and we’ve found a new boogeyman to fight over – masks.

Mask mandates in schools check all the boxes for an education politics fight. Including the ability to claim the company of angels.

As a result, teams are being chosen, purity tests are being administered, and battle lines are being drawn. Absolute fidelity is being demanded. You can’t support mask mandates and harbor reservations about the long-term implications on students in regard to social development, development of immunology, or ability to effectively learn. You can’t be anti-masks and recognize the imminent danger our kids are being placed in and the minimal knowledge we have in regard to the effect of the virus on kids.

Not unlike the long-running battle over charter schools. Where you can’t be opposed to charter schools and recognize the failings of some traditional schools for some students. You can’t be pro-charter schools and recognize that some charter schools suffer from many of the same inadequacies as traditional schools. I mean you can, but trust me, it’s an uncomfortable place to live.

As a result, our arguments are reduced to an endless loop of sound bites attacking the perceived enemies of public education and the defenders of the so-called defenders of the status quo. Sound bites that sound better in our carefully crafted silos, than they do out in the wild. And where has it gotten us?

Defenders of traditional schools may point to the limiting of new charter school options, but the reality is that the number of charter school enrollments has continued to grow despite the lack of new options. Yet, has that growth fueled greater student outcomes? Not if we look at the data, where some kids are doing better while others are still being tragically underserved. In other words, we are still headed towards a 6-3 victory with all the action taking place essentially mid-field.

And now we are doing the same with masks.

Yes, masks will potentially keep more kids safe, but not if their usage is not supported by a robust overarching COVID response policy. I’m sorry to say, if anybody watched this weeks’ Metro Nashville board meeting and still feels such a plan exists in Nashville, I’ve got some swampland in Arizona. Watch it yourself and then tell me I’m wrong. but Nashville isn’t an outlier.

Part of the blame lies squarely at the feet of state governing bodies. In Tennesse, Governor Lee and his Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn continually emulate the parenting scenario wherein dad says you can’t do something and then mom tells you how you can circumvent dad’s edict, but only this one time and only if you don’t tell dad, because after all, he has the final say. Much like that strategy only works to confuse kids, in this instance, it only works to confuse school districts and as a result, puts kids at a heightened disadvantage.

Yes, it can be argued that the evidence is not overwhelming that masks prevent the spread of the virus in schools. Looking past schools, and looking at data from coimmunities, an equally compelling argument can be made that masks have mitigated the community spread of COVID. As Matt Barnum points out in a very nuanced article for Chalkbeat, “there is a broader body of evidence collected in other settings that suggests that masks help prevent the spread of respiratory diseases like COVID-19. That appears to be what’s driving health authorities to recommend masking in the classroom, alongside a general desire to minimize the risk to children and communities when cases are rising.’

I must admit, I was rather surprised to discover that New Zealand, a country oft-cited for its successful policies in regard to combating the virus does not require masks in schools.

“Overall, we think it is important not to interfere with learning as much as possible, so it’s about balancing up the benefits against the potential harms,” said New Zealand public health director Caroline McElnay, who recommended against required face coverings in schools.

But it’s worth noting as well, just 6 months ago we thought that COVID wasn’t spread through schools. This year’s data, tells a different tale due to the prevalence of the Delta strain. So what’s the effect on a child’s learning if they become infected bring it home to a parent, who becomes infected and is thus forced to miss 10-days of work? For many of us, losing 10 days of pay would be devastating.. To the point that recovery would be challenging. The devastation that would be compounded if the infection proved fatal for the parent…or the child.

Despite, the lack of an overwhelming argument, either pro or anti, the battle is waged as if masks are the single most important element right now. We can’t get students to school with regularity because of the bus driver shortage. We have no viable means of remote instruction for students should they become quarantined. We are still hamstrung by teacher shortages. As well as a long litany of other issues. Yet all of our passion is put forth in arguing about masks.

Many recoiled in horror as they watched footage from last week’s Williamson County Schools board meeting, where the board took up the subject of a proposed mask mandate, I wish that I could share the shock of those new to the school board arena, but unfortunately I’ve seen similar behavior at board meetings where charter school policy was on the agenda.  So I’m not surprised to see folks run down this rabbit hole again.

Ultimately, if we are going to put this much passion into a fight, we should be able to identify what a win means. Over the last decade, my driving question in regard to charter schools has become – if all charters were eradicated tomorrow, would all children then be adequately served?

If we suddenly had unfettered charter school growth, would all children suddenly become adequately served?

If the answer to either question is, “no”. Then the next question should become, why are we fighting like it’s a zero-sum game?

The questions apply to masks. And again, if the answer to either question is, “no”, why are we fighting like it’s a zero-sum game?

For the record, my kids are in masks. Do I like it? No. But they are everything to me and I don’t enjoy gambling with their life. When they were born, I told my wife that my only two goals were that they develop the ability to tell a story and that they aren’t afraid of life. As a result, I have kids that exercise calculated courage. They aren’t afraid of risk but nor do they court it needlessly. For us, that means wearing a mask in schools when the Delta variant is running rampant. As new information emerges, we may adjust.

Your calculations may be different, but please respect mine as I respect yours. But let’s refrain from becoming so myopic that we fail to address the issues we can agree on. Issues that may have a greater impact than our current focus.

SAY WHAT?

Yesterday afternoon, I read an interesting op-ed piece in The Tennessean by a PROPEL parent who was apparently upset by a recent op-ed by MNPS board chair Christianne Buggs that encouraged parents in gentrified neighborhoods to choose their zoned school. Where I Miss Buggs, I would perhaps not have narrowed the advice to just parents in gentrified neighborhoods, but overall, I think it is a position I would expect from the Chair of Metropolitan Nashville Public Schools,

However, Ivory Wilson, who describes herself thus,

I am a 2015 graduate of Whites Creek High School in Davidson county. I am now a single mom to my beautiful 3-year-old son Avery and I currently working two jobs to make ends meet.

Doesn’t see it that way, She feels that Ms. Buggs  is exercising a privilege,

The fact that she has a choice at all is a privilege that I and many other parents don’t possess.

This is where I feel a need to point out, that if you are a Nashville parent, you most certainly have a choice. Arguably too much choice. Now all may not have the ability to take advantage of that choice, but that is a different story and one none of us are immune to.

Two years ago my son qualified and was offered a seat in one of the district’s academic magnet schools. Unfortunately, the school was located across town, and work schedules made it impossible to take that option. Two years later I am fighting for his seat in advanced academics courses at his zoned school, where the AP is offering to include him in classes because she’s all about giving “kids chances”, failing to acknowledge that it is not a chance we are looking for, but rather what he’s earned. So I understand the frustration, but to say we didn’t have a choice is not correct.

We could have found a means to make the magnet work. We could have pursued a charter school. We could have elected to home school. Time will tell if we made the correct choice, but we had a choice.

We used choice when we selected which elementary school our kids would attend. My wife was a teacher and so we could choose our zoned school or any school in the cluster she taught. Again, the choice came down to work schedules. We picked the school down the road from where she taught because it made it easier to arrange child care after school. Also because diversity was equally important to us.

The school is one that is over 70% ELL and has a rate of poverty in the 90percentile. Our choice to enroll in that school was beneficial to both the school and us. My children spent their elementary school years with kids from very diverse backgrounds. I also discovered that while the school had some real challenges, it was blessed with a staff of talented educators. I believe their life experiences have been richer because of it and that their teachers ensured that they are prepared for the future. But there were definitely challenges.

When we started at the school, there were 26 portables. As a result of these less than optimal circumstances, the school struggled both academically and with chronic absenteeism. The school was in desperate need of new facilities, but because of their demographics, it was easy for them to slip off the priority list. I was able to help make them a priority and they now have a brand new building. One that has contributed to better academic outcomes for kids, and less chronic absenteeism.

Schools serve kids best when they are diverse. Having a school of all wealthy kids is no more beneficial than having a school of all economically disadvantaged kids. A school that is predominately black children should be no more desirable than having one that is predominately all white. We need those parents who have the ability to take advantage of choice to remain vested in our public schools just as much as we need those who cannot take advantage of offered choice.

Yes, Ms. Buggs could choose to enroll her child wherever she chooses, but by putting her child in a zoned school she will offer that school access to increased resources. Resources that can only serve to benefit more kids. More kids benefiting, is never a bad thing.

I have no doubt that the schools attended by Ms. Wilson benefit in a similar fashion by choice. Those schools, and by extension those kids that attend those schools, can only improve through the passion and experience she brings to the table.

Ms. Buggs’s article does try to paint herself as making a heroic sacrifice. Hopefully, she’ll learn what my children and I learned, schools impact us as much as we impact them. Her intent in enrolling her child may be to better the school, but in the end, I guarantee, that school, will make her child better and by extension her. We can’t let hyperbole get in the way of the results.

Thank you Ms. Buggs for your investment in MNPS and your faith that the district will make your child the best they can be.

SHORTCUTS

While Governor Lee and the State General Assembly are so focused on protecting parent interests, I got one for them. Last year legislators passed a law that made it a requirement that results from mandated universal screeners are made available to the TNDOE within 2 weeks after administration. I’d ask that this year they pass legislation that extends that courtesy to parents. Why should the TNDOE know my kid’s results before me?

With the Delta variation of COVID quickly increasing and arguments heating up over the safety of schools, I’m starting to hear more and more questions around what LEA’s did to improve air circulation in schools. It would be nice if there was a readily available list of school improvements districts have undertaken to ensure student safety.

So I’m sure you’ve heard about the tremendous potential of high-dosage tutoring (yea, there is a little sarcasm there). Well, MNPS is looking for 2,000 volunteers to help launch Accelerating Scholars, a high-impact virtual tutoring program for up to 7,000+ students. Just a mere 2K.

As the argument around the need for remote education continues to keep heating up, with Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn declaring an unmitigated failure, I’d like you to consider some things. Virtual education is in its infancy. And despite what Boris and Natasha claim, MNPS’s kids who were remotely performed better than those who went in person. That’s according to TCAP….but shhh don’t tell anyone.

It baffles me while MNPS has no issue with fighting the Governor on masks and the teaching of race, yet the idea of opposing him on virtual schooling was a non-sequitur. But let me share a story with you.

Starting in 1958, the U.S. launched 15 consecutive uncrewed lunar missions over a six-year period, all failed their primary photographic missions. How do think the country responded. Did they declare the whole idea a terrible failure and declare that we’d never go to the moon? No, we kept at it until we got it right and in 1969, we landed a man on the moon.

For the program to succeed, its proponents would have to defeat criticism from politicians both on the left (more money for social programs) and on the right (more money for the military). By emphasizing the scientific payoff and playing on fears of Soviet space dominance, Presidents Kennedy and Johnson managed to swing public opinion: by 1965, 58 percent of Americans favored Apollo, up from 33 percent two years earlier. After Johnson became President in 1963, his continuing defense of the program allowed it to succeed in 1969, as Kennedy had planned.

Since then twenty-four U.S. astronauts have traveled to the Moon. Three have made the trip twice, and twelve have walked on its surface.

We used to do big things. we still can.

The only thing that stands in the way…is us.

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

11 replies

  1. Masks absolutely do work as an excellent mitigation tool for the spread of all diseases, including Covid-19. Are they perfect? No. Are they in the “95th percentile”? Certainly.

    What makes mask mandates ineffective?
    1. Allowing school cafeterias to be packed to the gills with students, all of whom have masks off for 25-30 straight minutes at a time.
    2. Allowing the same amount of time with no masks during recess/physical activity. Even outside, kids will cluster and clump together with reckless abandon.
    3. 4-6 students at a time crammed into carpool minivans on the way to/from school.

    I understand that last one may be “unavoidable” for many families, but it matters nonetheless. Those first two are completely within the control of individual schools, but no one seems willing to even discuss it.

    • While I respect your opinion, it’s not supported by research and if we are going to set the bar, we have to adhere to it. Cafeteria is definitely an issue but I would argue buses are a much more immediate challenge.

      • What isn’t supported by research and real data?? While you can absolutely add busses into the mix, and one would be foolish not to, teachers can look directly at the in-school contact tracing and quickly see where so much of it, in many schools, is coming from the areas of concern I listed.

      • If you read the links, they’ll confirm research on masks in schools is painfully thin. We know virtually nothing about potential long term developmental effects of wearing masks all day. There are more kids on buses then carpooling and the mask policy is simply not being adhered to. It would help if schools had better ventilation as well.

      • >What isn’t supported by research and real data??

        there’s evidence showing that the idea masks work is questionable – but where is the evidence you claim exists?

        all we see are people claiming over and over that masks work, but….no evidence to support that opinion.

        merely repeating an opinion isnt evidence. even when the repeater is a doctor.

        https://nymag.com/intelligencer/2021/08/the-science-of-masking-kids-at-school-remains-uncertain.html

    • >Masks absolutely do work as an excellent mitigation tool for the spread of all diseases

      ok…so you say this – but where is the proof?

      where’s the data stating they are ‘an excellent mitigation tool’?

      • https://www.pnas.org/content/118/4/e2014564118

        This is just one of hundreds of studies on the efficacy of masks. Very easy to find if you look past certain cable “news” channel’s talking points. I can also see the evidence of my school’s contact tracing measures that show where the vast majority of problems occur: the areas where masks are not being used – CAFETERIAS, busses, carpools, and to a smaller degree recess.

        Moving on now. Enjoy the read!

  2. You cover a lot of ground in this piece.

    I thought we were seeing closures of districts around Tennessee correlate to anti-mask density of thought.

    The masks, and the charter issue, do share the thread that we cannot remotely expect individual choices to sort through it. Both demand a systemic approach. So long as MNPS trumpets its score-segregated academic magnet schools, without addressing the waitlists and drive-across-town for them, its policies are creating large pools of perceived losers. And this is terrible for civic support.

    Adding insult to injury we disproportionately reward teachers at schools of choice, schools with test score screens.

    https://nashvillepef.org/brt2020awards/

    No. Masks, charter schools, are not going to be fixed because Ms. Buggs sends her kid to a zoned school, or because my kid wore their mask today.

    We need a district where EVERY 8th grader, at EVERY zoned school has the same shot at a score-segregated Hume-Fogg/MLK seat in 9th grade. That’s a K-8 school district we can believe in, and we will only get there if we end the auto-pathways, which were only introduced in 1999, 18 years after the magnets were court ordered, and only possible because the courts had removed themselves from oversight of bad decisions that clearly insult equity.

    We also need every kid to wear a mask until we get the data totally sorted out, until everyone has a vaccine, and a booster I suppose, until the hospitals are back undercontrol.

    • >We also need every kid to wear a mask until we get the data totally sorted out, until everyone has a vaccine, and a booster I suppose, until the hospitals are back undercontrol.

      what we need to do is quit pretending this will ever be ‘over’. COVID will never go away – like the flu. we’re going to have to learn to live with it. no amount of boosters will rid of of it.

  3. Having read your blog for a few years now, I have had one point of contention for a while that you illustrate in the “Say What?” section.

    If you live on the southern tip of Davidson County and look north, Metro Schools looks completely different than if you live at the northern tip of the county and look south. Talking about choosing different schools around you when you are talking about Oliver, Croft, and even McMurray is talking about schools that draw a lot more funding just because they are bigger schools that thus draw more state money per student and can have more APs and secretaries, etc. to divide up the work. Schools with high EL populations have more children that are more likely to be living in two-parent homes, and the schools in the southern quadrants more often than not have a reputation that draws from a different pool of teacher talent. Serving zip codes with higher incomes has an impact as well. I think Ms. Wilson would agree with me that when you talk of “choice,” you, too, are coming from a place of privilege, and that’s not mentioning the things evident here in this post that influence your choice: your kids live in a two-parent home, your wife is an educator, you are an educational blogger.

    If a choice isn’t available to someone, it isn’t a choice. A single parent working two jobs doesn’t have the same choices even to access the schools of choice, limiting their feasible options to ones where their child can attend and receive transportation. When she wrote that she just doesn’t want her child to lose his spark, she too is speaking of choices she will make about his schooling, but I doubt you live with the fear that she does with her three-year-old that the school you choose will take your child’s spark. Sure, it’s a concern all parents have, but how worried were you about that when your child was three?

    I take particular issue with your statement, “Having a school of all wealthy kids is no more beneficial than having a school of all economically disadvantaged kids,” by asking in which one of those scenarios is your child more likely to die before the age of 25? It is plenty more beneficial to be in a school of all wealthy kids.

    I applaud your choice and Ms. Buggs’ choice, but please remember that yours and her situations are vastly different from that of others and that the one school system is actually made up of very different systems under the Metro Schools umbrella.

    • I agree with a lot of what you say, with the caveat that you make a lot of assumptions. Yes the two areas are very different, Chris Barbic finally recognized the difference between impoverished immigrant families and those coming from homes with generational poverty. Regardless, MNPS is rife with choice opportunities and while none, nor is impossible to create, one that perfectly fits individual needs. All require varying degrees of adaptation. Yes, kids that go to impoverished schools are more likely to die before age 25, but is that causation or correlation? Schools can not be expected to solve every social challenge, yet that is what our expectations have become. I stand by my statement about wealthy schools, studies have repeatedly shown the benefits of a diverse education. Thank you very much for giving me more to think about. I very much appreciate it.

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