THE DANGERS OF JUST SKIMMING

“He who controls the spice controls the universe.”
Frank Herbert, Dune

 

Long-term readers of this columned are likely familiar with the term, “Friday news drop”.

For the newly initiated, the “Friday news drop” is the term applied to the practice of dropping news late in the day on Friday, in hopes that it will go unnoticed by most. The thinking is that people become occupied with other activities over the weekend, and by the time Monday arrives, more pressing news has been delivered, pushing the bad news down the agenda.

This past Friday brought a very interesting news dump from the Tennessee Department of Education, the release of TCAP scores by individual schools, and the school report cards.  The opening line from an article in ChalkbeatTN kinda sums it all up,. “Nearly six months after Tennessee students sat down for their end-of-year tests, all of the scores are now out.”

Yep, data collected 6 months is now reported as if it bears relevance to where students are today. I suspect that’s why the department tried to sneak it out without any of the press conferences or videos that they’ve grown so fond of as of late.

It is worth noting, that legislators passed a law designating  2020 as a “hold harmless” year for schools, students, teachers, and districts. What that meant is that none of the aforementioned should face negative consequences due to results from the Spring’s state testing. The released school report cards may follow the letter of that law, but do they follow the spirit?

Available on the individual school reports are the percentage rates of their students showing proficiency. No context is supplied, just the scores and in some cases these show incredibly low proficiency rates. Rates that are influenced by which students took the test.

For example, in MNPS you have middle schools with similar demographics located less than 5 miles apart with widely dissimilar participation rates. School A has 72% participation, while school B had 92% participation. A factor that likely impacted their proficiency rates, yet without digging, most people will not notice the discrepancy.

Is a school truly being held harmless if its low proficiency scores during a pandemic are widely distributed, or is the department contributing to a self-fulfilling prophecy? That’s the million-dollar question.

Passing off “standardized testing” as being any such beast is arguable during the best of times. However, during a time when nothing is standard due to factors beyond school control, is a new level of dishonesty.

There are so many multiple variables between individual schools during the normal times that impact success rates, but these days there are wide dependencies in challenges within schools as well. Passing of scores at this time as being meaningful is just a canard.

And yes, I can hear the protests from those that did well, (cue the Battle Hymn of the Republic) “We managed to combat the adverse conditions, and through sheer will and grit we thrived. We serve our kids 24/7 and 365.”

Bullshit. Taking nothing away from anybody, but if you found success it means, you found some solutions that worked and were fortunate not to serve a population particularly susceptible to the virus. Count your blessings, congratulate everybody on the small victories, reward them for their hard work, and don’t think for a minute that you somehow know better than others. Navigating the past year has been as much about being lucky as it is about being good.

Here’s the money shot in the Chalkbeat article, the point you need to pay close attention to.

The new scores spotlight how each school fared after two straight years of disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. It also sets a new baseline for proficiency as schools seek to catch their students up on any learning lags.

Don’t fall for it. These scores do not set a “baseline” despite the best efforts of the TNDOE and Commissioner Schwinn. That conversation is very much an ongoing one. Legislators tend to favor going back to 2019, the last time we even marginally reliable data. Schwinn and company know that state scores have been flat for nearly a decade, therefore, they are all about a reset.

Some argue that if we don’t reset, teachers could’ve punished when students don’t instantly rebound. I’m willing to concede that and encourage the development of some workaround. But I still oppose creating of a new benchmark based on one set of questionable scores.

If Schwinn and company can get a new baseline, they can look like heroes when the scores naturally bounce back. and trust me scores this year will bear little resemblance to last year’s scores. Appearing as heroes will certainly benefit the bottom line of private education companies.

Right now, Commissioner Schwinn is out carroting-and-sticking school districts to participate in her pet tutoring project Tennessee’s Accelerated Literacy and Learning Corps(All Corps). Districts that participate not only get money, $700 per student, towards paying for individual tutors, but they also get a handy dandy guide of friends and family who are deemed, high-quality tutors by the TNDOE.

If the expectations are that tutors will get students back to 2019 levels, that’s going to be a hard row to sow. But if you only have to show improvement from last Spring’s test, then you are almost assured a winning hand.

If All Corp can show improvement, mind you nobody will read past the headlines, LEAs will have no option but to increase spending on tutor services, right? Another coin in the commissioner’s retirement account.

Before we wrap up this portion of our program let me just offer these final words on tutoring. Studies have shown that tutoring can be an efficient method of improving student outcomes, provided certain ingredients are included – sessions at least three times a week, held during the school day, conducted by highly qualified and trained individuals. Remove any of those elements, and the odds of success decrease dramatically. Ask yourself, when considering tutoring programs being offered, how many of those elements do you see happening?

My biggest question throughout all of this remains, where are you going to find the staffing? At a time when teachers are in scarcity, did we suddenly stumble into a previously undiscovered tutor orchard? Consider me skeptical.

When looking up your individual school’s TCAP results, please be sure to check the participation rates and realize when this data was collected. I would argue that it offers very little true insight into the present learning transpiring at any individual school.

Rest assured, if scores were valid enough to wring out any credibility or political benefit, they would have been released long before a Friday night in September.

PAY CLOSE ATTENTION

Sam Stockard over at Tennessee Lookout has been offering high-quality coverage of the TNDOE’s Schwinigans. Last week he shared about Commissioner Schwinn being warned not to repeat the sins of the past and try and pilot programs and curriculum during the math curriculum adoption period like during the ELA adoption. A warning that she seemly took great umbrage with.

“But the department is not running any pilots related to math instructional materials, and the department didn’t run any pilots for (English language arts). I know there were pilots that existed, but those did not run through the Department of Education,”

It’s a very odd protest and one that ignores the central fact that no programs or pilots should be running in Tennessee’s schools without the express approval of the TNDOE. The pilots she is referencing were ones run by schools in the LIFT district which was created by the Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education(SCORE). A group that over the past decade have been accused, with good reason, of being a de facto Department of Education.

In 2015, in a testament to the old adage of asking for forgiveness instead of permission, SCORE began piloting literacy programs with a select group of Tennessee school districts, utilizing funding from the Gates Foundation and manpower from TNTP. Something that under Tennessee law shouldn’t have been permitted.

Those materials piloted were eventually adopted by Tennessee school districts despite not initially making the state’s approved material list. It was through Ms. Schwinn’s: “improving” of the process and granting of waivers, that those materials became widely available in Tennessee.

All of which Stockard nicely points out,

Schwinn, though, was referring to LIFT, a network of school districts created by the education consortium SCORE and TNTP Inc., that piloted materials during the ELA adoption. (TNTP Inc. holds a sole-source $8 million contract with the Department of Education even though Schwinn’s husband works for the company. She got approval from the Office of Central Procurement and promised that he wouldn’t be involved in Tennessee work.)

Acting as if SCORE was some completely independent and separate entity is at best a ham-fisted attempt at sleight of hand. SCORE enjoys virtually unfettered access to the DOE. The two bodies regularly meet via conference calls. Over the last decade, Tennessee education policy implementation is seldom done without express approval from SCORE, which goes as far as to fund a position at the state department of education.

You can be assured that if SCORE was piloting anything in TN Schools, they were doing it with the blessing of the state.

Early indications are that SCORE and the DOE are chomping at the bit to reproduce the playbook from the ELA adoption as the Math adoption enters its early stages. Unfortunately for them, the playbook is now well known and not endorsed by legislators of the textbook adoption committee.

Rigging the game at this juncture is going to be decidedly more difficult.

EVERYTHING IS CONNECTED

Many of you likely heard about the untimely passing of State Supreme Court Justice Cornelia Clark, a trailblazer who sat on the high court for 16 years. Clark was appointed by Phil Bredesen and by all accounts was considered a model jurist and her death is a severe loss for Tennessee.

Prior to her death, The Supreme Court was composed of two Democrat-appointed justices (Justice Clark and Justice Sharon Lee) and three appointed by Republicans ( Justice Jeffrey Bivins, Justice Holly Kirby, and Chief Justice Roger Page). Governor Lee will be tasked with selecting Clarks’s replacement.

I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t feel comfortable with allowing Lee to select the person charged with overseeing paint drying on my back fence, let alone overseeing the application of the state’s laws. Has any Governor passed as many laws overturned or blocked by the courts as he has in his first term as Governor?

Governor Lee should be an easy endorsement by the state’s Bar association during his re-election campaign simply based on the amount of work he’s generated for their members during his tenure. Yet here we are.

For education advocates,, this pending appointment is particularly worrisome. Hanging in the balance is a ruling on the Governor’s state voucher program of a lawsuit filed by Metro Nashville. Lower courts have already ruled it unconstitutional. Earlier in the year, the state Supreme Court heard arguments of appeal, and a ruling is already overdue.

It is not inconceivable that the Governor could name a jurist who would provide a favorable ruling for his pet project.

This is going to bear some close watching.

QUICK HITS

Speaking of generating work for lawyers, Governor Lee suffered his latest legal loss last Friday, as U.S. District Judge Waverly D. Crenshaw, Jr. issued the order blocking Gov. Bill Lee’s executive order allowing parents to opt their children out of the district’s mask mandates. This marks Lee’s umpteenth loss in the courts to challengers of his executive orders. To date, the rumor that he has contacted the NY Jets, for advice on handling a culture of losing, can not be substantiated. However, it must be noted that the two share similar records of ineptitude.

Speaking of Lee, perhaps it is time for long-time enabler Brett Easley to have that difficult conversation with his boss about his presidential aspirations. At this juncture, there is no reason to think that he would be the conservative choice over either Florida or Texas’s governors should they enter the race. Even then, both have their own challenges should they pursue a run for the oval office. In others words, he’s the C-list guy on the B-list. But then again, Easley has been keeping the truth from the Governor for so long, why start now?

Question, has anyone adequately explained why Commissioner Schwinn’s ethics disclosure for 2020 shows the family only earning income from STEM Prep and the TNDOE, but the 2020 tax returns for her California charter school CapitolCollegiate show over 6K of compensation? Asking for a friend. It’s not like Schwinn drew a 6 figure salary from Capitol Collegiate while she was an associate superintendent in both Delaware and Texas…oh wait…she did. My bad.

The Tennessean has a disturbing article about guns being brought to MNPS schools. Something that is happening with alarming frequency this year. School board chair Christianne Buggs is quoted with a comment that might indicate a future run for higher office,

Buggs said it would be helpful if state lawmakers would address the state’s gun issues, but that is unlikely to happen.

“Schools are often the place where issues first start to bubble up, and we’ll have to tackle it just like anything else we do,” Buggs said.

Her reply may be political but she’s not wrong.

Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education is both a member of Teach For America and Chiefs for Change. If you are unsure of why that is important, you need to read the latest from long-time teacher and education writer Mercedes Schneider in which she takes a deep look at the benefits of membership in the two.

She starts thus, and it’s a downhill run from there,

I have been following a story in Rhode Island in which new governor, Dan McKee, who took office on March 02, 2021, initiated a bidding process for millions in educational contracts on March 23, 2021, then awarded the lion’s share (just over $5M) to a “consulting firm” that had been formed on March 04, 2021— only two days after McKee took office.

I’m sure we’ll referencing this piece frequently in the future.
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

1 reply

  1. Perhaps they released the data quietly because it might show what they fear the most: The simple truth that bring kids into the presence of professional teachers correlates to academic growth.

    That truth would was also revealed in the Nashville’s old Blue Print report, where truant K-2 students were far less likely to be “on standard” compared to the kids who show up for class.

    Where can I find this same report for our private schools?

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