THANKSGIVING RUMINATIONS

“The tiger will never lie down with the lamb; he acknowledges no pact that is not reciprocal. The lamb must learn to run with the tigers.”
Angela Carter

Another Thanksgiving has come and gone and we now find ourselves fully embraced in the throes of the Christmas season. Before we formally let go of Thanksgiving 2021, I’d like to make note of two moments that particularly struck me this turkey day.

Prior to the Dallas/Las Vegas NFL game, Freddie Jones stepped to the microphone and played a rendition of the national anthem on his trumpet. It was beautiful and poignant, a reminder of why we are fortunate to call America home.

At a time when we seem endlessly focused on the negative connotations of our country, this was a welcome reprise. Like Jones’s trumpet rendition, we are an inspirational country capable of creating great serenity. It was a moment I both needed and appreciated.

Later that evening, I like many others sat down and watched Peter Jackson’s “Get Back”, the film created out of 60 hours of archived footage taken during the making of the Get Back record. It was myth-busting to view the musicians as 2O-something-year-olds trying to practice a craft that was still relatively newly mastered.

Years ago I either watched or read a piece – I really can’t remember which – that talked about modern technologies’ ability to freeze our impressions of celebrity in time. Few are more symbolic of this than the  Beatles, who have become both ubiquitous and iconic. Seeing them in this film was a refreshing reminder that the music created was not made by holographs but real young people, engaging in the world with limited but proficient skills.

Watching them start with virtually nothing and slowly cull out ideas that would go on and become linchpins of a generation’s soundtrack was fascinating.

I can’t help but wonder how many young people will watch the film due to its pacing. It’s a slow burn where even the fights seem understated. The Beatles created their art without the aid of loops and samples propelling things forward at a rapid pace. Will this laborious process hold the attention of the children of today?

Lastly, I was struck by the commitment to style embraced by all involved. They spent hours daily in a mostly deserted sound studio, yet their dress was impeccable throughout. No sweats and slides, ball caps, or sloppy T-shirts. It was a different time, and I miss the commitment to fashion that was prevalent.

I hope all of you made your own memories. It was a time to begin returning to, maybe not a more normal world, but at least a more collaborative one. Personally, it was a well-needed pleasure to reunite with people whose company I haven’t been graced with for 2 years.

While being safe is certainly an important consideration, it’s equally important to remember that time spent isolating to prevent infection will not automatically be added to a person’s life expectancy. Like all things, balance is the key.

Now onward to the educational stuff.

HOLIDAY RFPS

Nobody loves a holiday RFP like Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. In case you are not familiar, RFP stands for Request for Proposals. Before the state issues a contract for services with a private entity, they are supposed to open up the bidding process by issuing an RFP. Per the state website,

Tennessee buys myriad personal, professional, and consulting services which are used within state government to most efficiently meet the varied demands for high quality public service.  Typically, contractors delivering such services are selected through the Request for Proposals (RFPs) process or some other appropriate means and are paid on a “fee-for-service” basis.

The whole process comes with a timeline and prospective partners are expected to outline how they could best meet the need with the best cost. It’s meant to ensure a fair and equitable process that prevents the awarding of state contracts to friends and family. Unfortunately, it is often subject to manipulation by those who stand to potentially benefit.

A case in point would be what’s currently happening between the state and the company, ILO, founded by Commissioner Schwinn’s former Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah. It’s not uncommon and is difficult to police, for companies to be fed inside information about a pending RFP, but that’s not the only way to tilt the scales.

The timing of the release is another way. Last year, Commissioner Schwinn released an RFP worth 8 million dollars on the eve of Christmas Eve with a response date of January 6. A time frame that corresponded nicely with winter break. An RFP that ultimately led to a contract for her spouse’s employer. TNTP.

In an effort to appease lawmakers, Schwinn vowed that she would not be involved in evaluating solicitations for the contract, delegating final approval to a deputy commissioner, or engaging in discussions with her husband relating to the contract.

It was a statement met with skepticism as best voiced by state Rep. Bo Mitchell, a Nashville Democrat and frequent critic of Gov. Bill Lee’s Administration,

“It just so happens they get the contract and (we’re) writing a family a check. That sounds like a huge conflict to me. I’ve been warning of this for some time, and it’s coming to fruition if it hadn’t been going on from day one.”

The reality is that the commissioner has no further need to get involved because both parties have already received their desired benefit – TNTP a multi-million-dollar contract and Paul Schwinn. Penny’s husband, a job, something he didn’t have when the grant that funds the contract was being crafted.

Remember, Mr.Schwinn was terminated by STEM Academy, A Nashville charter school, back in January. Let that sit there for a moment while we appreciate the degree of difficulty involved in losing a job at a charter school when your spouse is the state’s commissioner of education. That may be an unprecedented accomplishment.

Fast forward nearly a year and it’s now Thanksgiving Eve and we’ve got the release of yet another RFP. This one is for $2 million and requires the following,

This Contract, by and between the State of Tennessee, TN Department of Education (“State”) and Contractor Legal Entity Name (“Contractor”), is for the provision of development, delivery, and maintenance of an interactive online public reporting platform for school and district report cards and accountability with guidance documents and training resources, as further defined in the “SCOPE.”

It seems that what this contract calls for is the building of an accountability system to replace the current model utilized for the state report card. It can’t take longer than five years to build and at the end of that period it becomes the property of the state, with no further costs. Hmmm…

My biggest question is, who asked for this? Who decided that the current system was inadequate and needed replacing at a time when the TNDOE is already embarking on creating a change in the school funding formula, is trying to make up so-called “learning loss”, dealing with a potentially massive exodus of teachers, and can’t meet necessary staffing levels in their own office.

Let’s not forget, there is still that pesky task of handing out federal funds to local districts, a job that the department seems particularly incompetent at, well unless a district is looking to employ their favored vendors.

I’m not looking to cast aspersions, but let’s just say, you wouldn’t be remiss in wondering if a friend of Schwinn’s is in need of a little extra holiday cash. Maybe this is a service that those helpful folks at ILO could provide.

Can’t wait to see what Christmas brings, pun intended.

YES, THEY ARE EXHAUSTED!

If you’ll remember, back in late Spring when everybody was singing the hymns for tutoring and increased summer school options, I was busy stomping on the brakes trying to slow the juggernaut down – a fruitless endeavor.

We were in crisis mode. Kid’s brains were quickly turning to mush, and if we didn’t act immediately – even if we lacked a full understanding of the challenges – a whole generation would be left wandering the desert unable to tie their shoes, let alone provide for themselves. It was a narrative designed to spur action into investing in private entities due to fear.

At the time I argued that kids and teachers were coming off one of the most difficult school years on record – they were exhausted and in need of rejuvenation. What was the point of rushing to the front of the pack only to fall behind later in the year due to teacher and student exhaustion? Wouldn’t it be better to let kids and teachers heal, while we got a better idea of exactly what the true issues were?

But this was never about kids, and always about heeding the advice of Rahm Emmanual to never let a crisis go uncapitalized.

My pleas fell on deaf ears, and we hurdled forward in an imprudent manner. Commissioner Schwinn promoted her personal brand with a taxpayer-paid state-wide tour of summer school offerings in Tennessee. Legislators leaped to get their pictures taken to show the folks back home their commitment to teachers, kids, and schools. It didn’t matter that their actions were benefiting none of the aforementioned.

Now here we are. it’s November and a new article from NPR relates the depth of teacher exhaustion highlights the pending crisis that comes from our summer recklessness,

School leaders say they are between a rock and a hard place. Alena Zachery-Ross is superintendent of Ypsilanti Community Schools in Michigan. She announced earlier this month that they were taking the full week off for Thanksgiving.

She says her staff got no summer break, since about a third of the district’s students came for extended summer school. Now that they’re back full time and in person, students have lots of work to do adjusting to classroom routines. COVID-19 protocols also take extra time. It’s all piled on.

That’s just one school district, but if you think it is an outlier, you are fooling yourself.

Over the last decade, the job of a school teacher has continually become more difficult as teachers are required to assume more and more responsibility and support staff hirings fell by the wayside.

As the spouse of a 15-year veteran teacher, I’ve borne witness to the increased pressures with my own eyes. I can further attest that it wasn’t always like this, despite what some may try to argue.

The change has come with a cost primarily absorbed by teachers, but not solely. The increased pressures impact spouses and families with regularity. Something discussed even less frequently than the depth of cost to teachers – as impossible as that sounds.

Half-hearted prescriptions for self-care are offered up by highly compensated administrators, but never a word on how a child is supposed to adjust to a parent distracted by the extra work required to meet the latest “signature initiative” put forth by an ambitious administer.

Or the father that is incapable of fully participating in family activities because they are exhausted by a schedule that frequently calls for meetings before and after school, and fails to provide adequate planning time.

Trauma is among our favorite conversation topics, but only if the scope is kept narrow.

What’s equally disappointing to me is the response from those who should be sounding the alarm. Once again we are going to point to ongoing issues as mere continuations of ongoing problems and just another sign that schools are chronically funded, never recognizing that the issue is deeper than just financial.

I get it acknowledging shortcomings that have become baked into the system often serve to open the door to those who would permanently alter the definition of public education, and as a result, run the risk of increasing participation by private enterprise.

But none of us benefit from the lack of an honest conversation.

This is not a well-traveled path we are on, but rather an offshoot that raises the expectations and requirements of teachers exponentially. This is not how it has always been, nor how it should remain.

Yes, more money would make the job more attractive. Yes, increased funding would allow for the employment of much-needed support staff. But we also need to consider ways in which we can take things off the plate of teachers and principals. Too often increased salaries have come with new expectations and an unwillingness to do anything further in order to make the job more tenable.

It’s not an either/or conversation, but rather, a both one.

Our current model requires teachers to be experts in pedagogy while also serving as social workers, therapists, equity agents, and a plethora of other duties, all while insisting that they jump through accountability hoops. Hoops that never seem to apply to the bureaucrats or education foundations that enrich their individual coffers off of the backs of teachers and principals.

Think about it. Without the sacrifices of teachers, SCORE is incapable of justifying a dollar of their funding? Without the hard work of principals, TNTP can’t secure a dime of taxpayer money. The depressing reality is that teachers and principals’ tireless efforts may serve children, but they also fuel the 6-figure salaries of those who work the furthest removed from kids?

Have you ever heard a teacher say, “Man without SCORE producing reports and promoting curriculum, I wouldn’t be able to adequately teach children to read?”

Or “I’d like to teach children advanced math, but I’m awaiting a report on equity from the Education Trust?”

Education has truly become a sector that suffers from a case of too many chiefs and not enough Indians.

Let me just close with this observation, one that’s been heightened by watching the townhalls devoted to gathering input on the school funding formula.

Tennessee is a densely populated and diverse state. The needs of students in Memphis are much different than those in Bristol. The circumstances that face students in Maryville are very different than those in Nashville. And it goes on. There is no universal approach that addresses the various needs of all kids throughout the state uniformly.

This is why the TNDOE and the Commissioner of education roles were created to support schools. Notice I said support and not lead schools, that was intentional.

Commissioner Schwinn at the very least has flipped the horse and the cart and set herself up as the leader of education in Tennessee. That’s an impossible role to fill, as no one individual can fully understand the needs of every student in Tennessee.

What’s needed is somebody who has the resources and experience to support schools when they face obstacles beyond their expertise or resources. Not somebody to do it for them, somebody to do it with them.

When those not in the classroom attempt to lead, instead of support, those actually in the classroom, the outcomes are predetermined and failure will always follow. It’s a subtle distinction, but an essential one. But it’s a difference that I think will continue to go unrecognized in Tennessee, to the detriment of us all.

QUICK HITS

Here’s something that has not been mentioned during talks around the BEP. Over the last year, Tennessee has reaped a huge financial windfall from the legalization of sports betting. Actual receipts have far exceeded projections. Yet nobody is talking about using that revenue stream in order to increase funding to schools. Might be time to bring it up.

Last week I told you about the ExcelInEd convention held down in Florida where Penny Schwinn was speaking about the revolutionary changes being undertaken by Tennessee. Well, apparently Ms. Schwinn wasn’t the only government official traveling to the sunshine state.

It is nice to see that Janet Ayers – who sits on both the board of Directors for ExcellInEd and chairs a sub-committee on the Tennessee BEP review – is still practicing safe distancing. That looks like almost 6 feet between her and Commissioner Schwinn.

That’s state Rep Vincent Dixie posing with the state board of education members. I’m assuming there weren’t any Republican Legislators in attendance, or at least any that were willing to get in a picture. If nothing else, this picture serves to remind us just how entwined the elites in Tennessee are.

Earlier in the week, it was decided that Nashville’s newest High School, replacing Hillwood, would be named after the Reverend James Lawson. According to Mainstreet Nashville,

Lawson, 93, is a civil rights activist and advocate of nonviolent protest. After being urged by Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. while in graduate school to come to Nashville, Lawson mentored Vanderbilt and Fisk university students in nonviolent protest techniques in the late 1950s, training such civil rights leaders as Diane Nash and John Lewis. He was expelled from Vanderbilt University in 1960 after being arrested for participating in lunch counter desegregation sit-ins. He later helped develop strategies for the Freedom Riders.

We’ll talk more on Monday about this week’s board meeting, but this decision they got right.

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.

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

1 reply

  1. Those of us working in schools cannot believe the lack of understanding among Metro leadership. They use the $1000 bonus LAST YEAR and pay raise that some got as if that’s all they are willing to do even though we have unfilled positions and this spring promises to bring more resignations and retirements at unprecedented levels. But yes please send the district coach to my classroom to see if I am doing what mnps wants because there’s so many people waiting to fill my position. Maybe the district coach can do it.

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