“What plagues people is not those who don’t love them, but those who do.”
― Perfected Sinfulness
It’s 7:45AM and I’m sitting in traffic outside my kid’s school waiting to drop them off. I’m not alone, as backed-up traffic snakes for miles up and down Nolensville rd.
Allegedly bus drivers have grown weary of voicing legitimate concerns about staffing and over-crowding that have largely been ignored, and are staging a sick in today.
More power to them. The system has been broken for months, and it’s become apparent that sans pain points, nothing is going to be done.
The action, if true, comes after months of drivers doubling up routes and piloting busses so overcrowded that children are sitting in the center aisle.
To be fair the district claims to be exploring multiple strategies to address the challenging situation. As MNPS spokesman Sean Braisted tells the Nashville Scene,
“While we continue to seek out qualified applicants for our open driver positions,” says Braisted, “our transportation team is deploying all available strategies such as attendance bonuses to encourage staff to work full schedules, running A/B routes, combining routes, or having CDL-trained staff in supervisory or other positions go out to serve the needs of students.”
While this may be true, I’ve seen scant evidence and it certainly has not alleviated challenges wrought by the current situation.
All of this may be considered a momentary annoyance, or a problem affecting only students, but it should also serve as a reminder that what happens in schools reaches past the four walls of the building.
Parents who are being forced to make alternative transportation arrangements for children impact business, as work schedules must be adjusted as well. Time spent in traffic translates to lost time lost at the office and increased pressure on our roads. All of which brings an economic cost to the entire community.
All of this needs to be consideration as Tennessee moves to revise the formula on how schools are funded. Funding that follows the student sounds good unless it fails to adequately fund the services that allow schools to function and thus affects children indirectly
it all reminds me of how decades ago there was a proposed initiative to close military bases in an effort to repurpose funding. What was quickly realized was the impact that closing those installations would have on those communities that had sprung up around those bases.
Closing those facilities became impossible because of the negative consequences on the surrounding economy. Revamping schools funding without considering community impact could also deliver unforeseen negative impacts.
I’m not arguing that the state’s BEP formula can’t be revised, just pointing out that it needs to be done in a manner that considers the impact on all stakeholders, not just students, lest we inadvertently hurt students by hurting those who support them.
Conducting the review process over 3 months at the end of the year already rife with new challenges doesn’t exactly speak to a well-thought-out process.
QUANTITY OVER QUALITY
There has been much written about the effects of the critical report A Nation at Risk on the world of American education.
Written in 1983 at the behest of then-President, Ronald Reagan, it ushered in an era of hypercriticism of America’s public schools. We can argue if the criticism was warranted or not, and whether the report served to improve education or to further people’s dissatisfaction with a treasured national institution. What we can’t argue about is that in its wake, education policy became a numbers game.
Now more than ever numbers drive the game. I would argue that in an arena where quality should trump quantity, the opposite has taken an increased hold. As the numbers mount we increasingly lose sight of the fact that they are connected to real human beings and not some mythical creatures.
Instead of fretting about the quality of education children are receiving, we focus on the number being declared ‘proficient”.
Instead of worrying about whether or not kids are truly prepared for adulthood, we focus on the number graduating from school.
Instead of focusing on kids’ safety, we focus on lowering the rate of incidence of disciplinary actions, as if the number of arrests is an accurate indication of the number of crimes.
Want to know how effective a teacher is? Look at the numbers.
Want to know how a school is performing? Look at the numbers.
How is a district doing? It’s supposedly in the numbers.
And while those numbers may tell a part of the story, invariably they put quantity over quality, and thus, only tell a portion of the true story. Lost is arguably the most important part of the story.
Sometimes our race to be bigger and faster means that those we aim to help go underserved, despite the increasing rates of participation.
While discipline rates and suspensions may be decreasing, are kids safer in schools today than in the past? If anecdotal information from those actually working in schools is to be believed, that answer is an unequivocal, “no”.
While graduation rates are higher than they’ve been in the past, are children actually better prepared for life than in the past?
Nowhere is this more apparent than in two of Metro Nashville Public Schools’ recent signature initiatives – the parent portal and increased SEL implementation.
MNPS principals are currently under intense pressure to increase enrollment in the parent portal. That pressure isn’t borne out of a desire to actually inform and involve parents but rather a desire to cite enrollment numbers as evidence of a self-avowed commitment to parent involvement.
Save the protest, if the push was truly a desire to inform and involve parents, there would have been equal pressure exerted to ensure that the portal was stocked with quality information considered worthy of parents enrolling. Current offerings are spotty because the district’s preferred communication platform for teachers and students, Schoology, doesn’t naturally align with the parent portal. This means teachers have to enter data in multiple locations.
Something they just don’t have the capacity for due to other mandatory requirements. If this was truly about parents those constraints would be recognized and alleviated. They aren’t and they haven’t been.
This is nothing new. Administrators have been aware of the situation for at least 3 years, partially why progress reports have been consistently late. Despite this knowledge, the only thing that changes is the PR campaign. Save the effort, and put it into an effort to make the portal something of value to families. In other words, build it and come.
The increased focus on SEL is another example. Every presentation to the board centers around the number of students reached, offering little insight into the quality of interaction delivered to students. This raises the concern that in an effort to “see every child”, we are only seeing what we want instead of what they need. That’s an important distinction.
As an offshoot, the district has facilitated a “check the box” mentality when it comes to education practice. It’s a mindset that s equates merely performing an initiative with success, at the expense of making a qualitative evaluation.
Teachers aren’t evaluated based on the quality of instruction, but rather upon the number of students who score a number on a test. The two are not necessarily interchangeable, but one checks a box while the other requires more exploration.
Principals aren’t evaluated on the quality of their leadership but rather upon their ability to deliver participation numbers on district initiatives – discipline rates, parent portal sign-ups, number of students reached by navigators. The two are not interchangeable, again, one takes more work, while the other checks a box and justifies a district administrator’s existence.
Ultimately this will work to our detriment. High quantitative rates do not necessarily equal high-quality results. And quality should always be at the center of any policy initiative.
TVAAS, TVAAS WHO’S GOT THE TVAAS?
Teacher observations are currently underway, and teacher evaluations are supposedly being calculated. I say supposedly because there is a very important element missing – teacher TVASS scores from last year.
These scores are supposed to be pinned to current evaluations in order to compute the current teacher ratings. Typically these scores are delivered during mid-summer. They were on schedule, though slightly behind, to be delivered this past summer until a funny thing happened on the way to the delivery room.
On the eve of posting those scores, the TNDOE pulled them down and to date has not reposted them. Let me make sure you understand that, it’s November, and teacher TVAAS scores, an integral of the educator accountability model, are not available to teachers. That should be considered a pretty big deal, but it’s been met mostly with crickets.
For some reason, with little to no explanation, the decision was made by Commissioner Schwinn to completely recalculate TVAAS scores. An almost unprecedented action that comes with a pretty hefty financial cost.
In other words, the shit ain’t free and if we are getting hit with the bill there needs to be some explanation and accountability.
Sure there is the official story, Tennessee has recalibrated some of its most recent test results after assessment materials arrived late to its testing company due to pandemic-related shipping delays. The delays affected fewer than 1,000 students, and most of the impacted districts will see a slight bump in proficiency rates as a result of the recalibration, according to quotes attributed to TNDOE spokesman Brian Blackley in ChalkbeatTN.
Ok, but if this is an annual occurrence. and it has been stated privately by those with experience, that this is nothing different than what has occurred in past years, why the rerun?
It’s not unreasonable that something as complex as state testing, with as many moving parts, has glitches. In the past, the policy has been, if your stuff ain’t here, it ain’t being included. TVAAS deadlines were met.
Why the difference this year? And if this is such an insignificant occurrence, why did Assistant Commissioner Mike Hardy get told to walk the plank? Something ain’t passing the smell test. But will anybody do anything about it?
I would start by asking for the official communication between Pearson and the TNDOE requesting that scores be recalculated. That should include the cost of the recalculation along with an explanation of why the necessity. It would also be beneficial if someone could provide a timeline of when new calculations could be expected.
There is a constant drumbeat demanding accountability from teachers and principals, yet seldom is that call extended to TNDOE leadership, nor for that matter, the foundations like SCORE that act to influence policy from the shadows. What’s good for the goose needs to be considered equally good for the gander.
While Commissioner Schwinn continues to dance around constituents and legislators, somebody needs to be asking about TVASS results.
While they are at it, it wouldn’t hurt to also inquire about staffing shortages at the department and ESSER distribution hold-ups. Maybe someone could even ask why LEA’s are feeling empowered to purchase math materials in a year leading up to a math adoption, a violation of state law.
The prevailing message I get is that by publically asking those questions, the Commissioners ability to find a new position in another part of the country is impeded. It’s not unlike the defense I frequently heard in regard to former MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph.
Let me just say, making a problem someone else’s problem ain’t the same as solving a problem.
I’m struggling a bit this week. I often have conversations with leaders in education policy, and nearly almost always keep those off the record. I think it’s important to try and keep the message on policy, and not make it personal.
At times though I hear things that are so egregious that they demand public comment. To what extent do I share in these cases? That is the conundrum I currently face.
In this case, I’m going to share the conversation but leave the speaker anonymous.
We were discussing the current work conditions and mental state of teachers. I was trying to convey to this person the sheer amount of stress and pressure that teachers are currently facing.
She responded to me, “I keep hearing mixed messages about that.”
Puzzled, I asked, “Mixed messages?”
“Yes, many teachers tell me that this is the worst year ever, but many also tell me they feel tremendous levels of support.”
My jaw dropped and I was left speechless. I talk to a wide variety of teachers and have yet to hear any voice experiencing exceptional levels of support. It’s almost universally the opposite.
“Who’s telling you that teachers feel supported?”, I asked once I’d regained my composure.
This week, MNPS teachers and support staff showed up prior to the board meeting to hold signs to communicate their present circumstances,
“We keep hearing from teachers and staff that they’re drowning under the weight of lack of staff [and] all the new mandates,” said MNEA president Michelle Sheriff. “They are begging for some help and relief. And so they’re asking for the district to throw them a lifeline. … The working conditions at this point are really unsustainable. And the lack of staff — we know it’s a systemic issue, but we need something right now to provide some relief.”
And there you have it.
I’m going to leave my anecdote here for you to do what you wish, but also ask that you take a minute to recognize the truly hard work our nation’s teachers are doing. They may not be heroes, but they are public servants and that may be something even more admirable.
PEOPLE OVER PROGRAMS
The sudden influx of federal dollars has acerbated the emphasis of programs over people. ESSER money limits the amount of money that can be spent on people, no such limit exists on people. That is not a desirable place.
Programs can be helpful but they can’t replace people. Let me say it again, education does not need additional investment in programs, it is in dire need of more investment in people.
Without that investment, we’ll be chasing the learning loss unicorn for eternity.
That my friend is a simple fact.
Local education superhero Jill Speering has written a book, and it’s a doozy. Covering her formative years through her education career, including her years of service on Nashville’s Board of Education, she gives insight into what the world of education looks like from the front lines. You can now order an advanced copy through Amazon. You don’t want to miss this one.
MNPS Board Member Emily Masters describes Speerings book such,
From horrifying descriptions of her attempts to shield her mother from her father’s abuse to uplifting accounts of her determination to stand up for the “underdogs” with whom she so deeply identifies, Speering’s Rubies in the Rubble is more than a memoir; it is a call to action for anyone who has ever felt helpless at the hands and will of a bully. It is a story of triumph over difficult circumstances and refusal to succumb to the aggression of a manipulative egomaniac who is more than willing to make personal attacks and create chaos where reason should clearly be the reigning motivation
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.
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