IT’S GOOD TO HAVE FRIENDS

Well I was movin’ down the road in my V8 Ford
I had a shine on my boots, I had my sideburns lowered
With my New York brim and my gold tooth displayed
Nobody give me trouble ’cause they know I got it made
I’m bad, I’m nationwide
Well I’m bad, bad, bad, bad, bad, I’m nationwide – ZZ TOP, I’m Bad, I’m Nationwide

 

There is always a Tennessee connection. Always open the links and read them when they are provided. Those are my two driving thoughts this AM.

Let me explain.

On Monday, I linked to a news article written by education blogger Mercedes Schneider. In it, she describes a recently completed contracting process in Rhode Island. I initially didn’t read the article in depth. Today I did, and you’ll want to as well.

Schneider does an excellent job recapping events and I encourage you to read her entire summary. For the sake of brevity, let me give you some key points.

Back in March of 2020, Rhode Island got a new Governor, a democrat named Dan McKee. McKee promptly initiated the bidding process for some education contracts related to opening schools in the Fall. Based on the scoring process, two companies emerged in a dead heat – WestEd and ILO.

The former has provided services to Rhode Island schools for over two decades. They have a long and respected history of working with schools, both in Rhode Island and in nationally. A look at their website shows that they’ve done extensive work in Tennessee.

The latter group — ILO Group LLC — was incorporated on March 4, two days after Gov. Dan McKee took office. Its leaders are former executives at Chiefs for Change, a prominent education nonprofit whose CEO is longtime McKee ally and adviser Mike Magee, who served on the governor’s transition team last winter.

Per WPRI,

ILO Group won the seven-figure contract after the initial bidding process unraveled, in part due to the new firm’s vastly higher estimate of how much it would cost to do the work. ILO initially put in a bid of $8.8 million, while a competing firm that has served as a state education consultant for two decades — WestEd — said it would only cost $936,000.

After review it was determined that the initial ask was too broad and in response, the two companies resubmitted bids of $3 and $6.5 million respectfully. Despite the large discrepancy, the decision was finally made to award $5.2 million to ILO and $926,000 to WestEd.

I’m not exactly clear on what the state is getting for its millions, but some are even questioning the necessity of the contract.

Secretary of State Nellie Gorbea, who is running for governor next year, accused McKee of “cronyism.”

“This multi-million dollar contract was awarded without any public discussion and vetting of the need for its activities. Creating companies in the middle of the night to win contracts for services that might already be provided by public sector employees is wrong,” Gorbea said in a campaign statement last week. She said McKee “took advantage of the system.”

Hmmm…sounds familiar.

Much of the focus has been on Magee, who sits as the current CEO of Chiefs for Change. But also in the mix, as a managing partner of ILO, is the former COO of Chiefs for Change, and ex-head honcho at Teach for America, Julia Rafal-Bae. During the application process, there was no mention of any connection between ILO and Chiefs for Change. Must have slipped their mind.

I’ve been writing about Chiefs for Change for nearly a decade now. The organization was founded by Jeb Bush back in 2011 and membership was initially reserved for just state education superintendent. Unfortunately, the founding members all ran afoul of either their employers, the law, or both. In 2016, the organization opened its membership rolls to include just about anybody in a position of leadership that wanted to join.

The changes in membership led many to write them off and conclude that their influence was on the wane. As respected education writer Peter Greene said at the time,

Chiefs for Change were going to be Educational Masters of the Universe. Now they’re more like one of those padded ghost band versions of some sixties rock group playing county fairs and mall openings. Such big dreams. They coulda been contenders. Now, like many folks who were depending on the Jeb! Bush political machine, they are going to have to find a new path.

Unfortunately, the 60’s band they are choosing to emulate these days is Queen after they found Adam Lambert instead of the Doors when they hired Ian Asbury. They may have broken from Jeb Bush but their political influence has only grown as of late. In Bill and Melinda Gates they’ve found financial backing – nearly $5 million since 2018. Tennessee has suffered under the Chief’s influence on multiple fronts.

Former state education commissioner Candice McQueen is a member as is her predecessor, Kevin Huffman. Current Commissioner Penny Schwinn, also a member. Acting Hamilton County Superintendent of Schools Nakia Townes is a member, as is her predecessor Bryan Johnson. Clarksville’s former Superintendent Millard House parlayed his membership into taking over the top spot in the Houston Independent School District. To say that Chiefs for Change have been an influence in Tennessee is a bit of an understatement.

Rhode Island has a couple of C4C members in positions of leadership as well. Harrison Peters the former state turnaround superintendent of Providence Public Schools holds a membership card. As does Angélica Infante-Green, commissioner of elementary and secondary education. Green is a graduate of the first cohort, while Tennessee’s Penny Schwinn is a member of the third cohort. Despite the difference in years, the two are reportedly close friends. A friendship that was likely forged when the two were finalists for the job of Massachusetts’s State Superintendent of Education. A job neither got.

So right now you might be thinking, this is an interesting anecdote but what does this have to do with Tennessee?” Stay with me.

Now we get to the third managing partner of ILO – Rebecca Shah. That name should be familiar to many of you as she is the former Chief of Staff for Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Upon arrival in Tennessee, she was introduced to department staff as Penny’s “best friend”. Despite that deep friendship, she departed Tennessee after 15 months. Per a press release from the TNDOE announcing that Chelsea Crawford would be replacing Shah,

She will replace Rebecca Shah, who is returning with her family to Texas after fulfilling a fifteen-month commitment to serve Commissioner Schwinn and TDOE.

What I didn’t know is that Chiefs For Change has a Texas office. You know, so she could be close to her family because that was her next gig. One she took after leaving Tennesse in June of 2020 and starting with Chiefs in July.

So let’s run through this timeline and see if you see a pattern.

In 2018 Shah and Schwinn worked together at the TEA who contracted with a TFAer-run, new nonprofit, SPEDx, which promptly led to a no-bid contract scandal to the tune of $4.4M in Texas. The two show up in Tennessee together where they quickly reveal a no-bid contract penchant.

Now after a year with the parent company, Chiefs for Change,  Shah is involved with a company that is once again running afoul of the contracting process. At some point, these stop being isolated events and take on a pattern of behavior.

Back when Schwinn first announced the hiring of Shah as her Chief of Staff she was quoted in Chalkbeat, “She ran performance management for me in Texas, so she really knows what I’m looking for in terms of data collection and holding us internally accountable.”

Maybe it’s time to add product and vendor procurement to that list as well.

FURTHER MUSINGS

Like most school districts in the country, MNPS is facing an employment shortage. In response, they will be holding yet another job fair. This one takes place on October 8th and will be both virtual and in-person. While I applaud the effort, at some point it’s going to have to dawn on the district that the same old strategies are not producing the desired results. At some point, it’s also going to have to sink in that retention comes before recruitment in the formula.

Lest you think the lack of staffing has diminished the number of new initiatives designed to make administers look good while simultaneously heaping more work on educators should fear not.

This week, two new ones have been announced. The first was revealed at a recent principals’ meeting. Attendees were informed that transition plans would be required for those transitioning to middle, or high school. Furthermore, 12th-grade teachers would be required to create one for graduating seniors.

This may sound great on paper and win accolades for district leadership, but all it really does is create more work for principals and teachers.

First off, who is going to pay attention to the produced plans? After a three-month lapse between crafting and implementing, how relevant are they?

Secondly, once a student graduates, he is beyond the purview of the school system. If they want to sit on the couch all day and smoke pot for the next year, that’s their right. While we hope they don’t, it is not the responsibility of schools to ensure that its graduates don’t make bad decisions.

I promise you, not a single student is going to consider spending a day smoking, or vaping, only to be persuaded to make a better decision after reading their transition plan.

The second initiative was announced at last night’s school board meeting – Vanderbilt University and Metro Nashville Public Schools are launching a research partnership to study and address racial and social inequities in the city’s K-12 schools. As if new answers will suddenly be revealed after years of consideration and discussion.

When I first moved to Tennessee, whenever I heard the phrase, “You’re not from around here are you?’, I instantly knew the conversation was going south and wouldn’t produce any productive results. The same holds true when I hear quotes like this one from board member Gini Pupo-Walker, “I think this will be a game-changer for us to ask the hard questions and then find the answers together.”

We need to stop looking for and touting “game changers” and actually start doing the work that changes the game.

Also, it’s virtually impossible to meaningfully address inequities while the district suffers from staffing shortages like the aforementioned, a list that doesn’t even address the number of nurses and substitutes needed. Solving those staffing issues will go a long way towards addressing equity issues.

The proposed partnership will include the same old talking heads per usual, with a steering committee whose members will include:

  • Adrienne Battle, director of Metro Schools
  • Camilla Benbow, dean of Peabody College
  • Paul Changas, executive officer of research, assessment, and evaluation for Metro Schools
  • Ellen Goldring, executive associate dean of Peabody College
  • Jason Grissom, Peabody College’s Patricia and Rodes Hart Chair and professor of leadership, policy and organizations
  • Ashford Hughes Sr., executive officer for equity, diversity, and inclusion for Metro Schools
  • Maury Nation, Peabody College’s Bob Innes Chair and professor of human and organizational development
  • Keri Randolph, chief strategy officer for Metro Schools
  • Marcy Singer-Gabella, PEER Faculty Director and professor of the practice of education at Peabody College

Keri Randolph has officially become that kid in every class who starts a lot of projects but rarely finishes one. Already this year she has been responsible for MNPS’s launch of the Navigator and the Tutor programs, two initiatives that are in their infancy. In addition, she has been an integral part of the distribution of ESSER money. Can’t wait till next month to hear what her next exciting project will be.

Here’s something I hope somebody is watching. Last week I gave you the official 20-day count for MNPS(Day20_Enrollment) The number was pretty reassuring, with the district maintaining the same attendance levels as last year. Here’s the issue though, last year was down around 4K, give or take a few 100. So we currently remain down from 2019, which affects funding.

This year is a hold-harmless year, so the decline in number didn’t have a negative impact on MNPS funding. Schools are funded at the same level as they were in 2019. I wouldn’t count on next year being treated in a similar fashion.

In other words, MNPS could be looking at a $44 million dollar deficit in its funding from the state. That’s why everybody needs to be paying close attention to what we are spending money on.

When considering future implications, we have to keep a broad scope open. For example, I think it’s safe to say that most of us hope that Dr. battle stays past her contract extension in two years. But if she doesn’t, for whatever reason. A school district with a large deficit and a top-heavy cabinet is not going to be overly attractive to a future candidate. Contingency planning is an important element of leadership. Hopefully, one that is not being neglected by the board.

Sometimes I just gotta shake my head. Since the initial announcement on “high-dosage” tutoring programs, I’ve been banging the drum asking. “Where are we going to find these tutors?” Well according to Chalkbeat more and more districts across the country are asking the same question. But as districts are looking for answers, how will the answers they discover impact the teaching profession?

Per Chalkbeat,

To attract quality applicants, several programs are offering higher-than-usual pay and other perks. The Chicago, Dallas, and Denver area initiatives are paying college-age or adult tutors at least $20 an hour. Oklahoma is paying college students $25 an hour. Some are giving high school or college students course credit. And New Mexico is offering educator fellows a $4,000 stipend toward any degree in education, in the hopes of converting some into teachers or other school staff.

Roosevelt University, which is helping the Chicago district with its early literacy tutoring, is providing child care and travel stipends to tutors who need them, after hearing those costs were barriers for prospective tutors from the communities where schools most need extra support.

“That’s really a result of thinking about the types of candidates we want,” said Allison Slade, who is overseeing Roosevelt’s tutoring program. “We have a corps that is highly Latinx and African American, so that the students are seeing people that look like them and they can identify with.”

That excerpt alone should raise alarms. All of that recruitment effort should be focused on teachers, but is it? Once tutors are procured what steps will be taken to ensure retention? How will future funding, once the federal dollars are gone, be directed? Hopefully, someone is paying attention. But are they?

Teacher, turned writer Nancy Baily, takes aim at Nashville Charter Valor Academy this week, calling into question their SEL practices. The criticisms ring a little hollow to me. Valor is what it is and as such will continue to remain a part of Nashville’s education landscape for at least the foreseeable future. Theirs is an education model that has proven successful for many, while it can still be argued it’s not for everybody.

The true warning that should be heeded from Baily’s article comes from this paragraph,

SEL has become a big part of the curriculum for all students and even teachers. There’s a fine line between helping students with stress, and an obsession with shaping student behavior, also linked with words describing social justice and equity, so it’s critical to weed out the meaning of SEL practices.

Ain’t that the truth. Words that should be on the wall of every school.

f 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.

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 are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish to join the rank of donors, you can still 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.



Categories: Education

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