“Someone can decide it’s in their best interests to agree to something, but a choice is only really a choice if there’s a genuine alternative. Otherwise it’s manipulation and it’s taking advantage.”
― The Lost Man
The sound of the bell drew my eyes to the barbershop door. A smile quickly creased my face as I recognized my good friend Slotsky entering the shop.
“Morning friend”, he said plopping into the open set next to me.
“Here to get your ears lowered?”, I replied in greeting.
“Figured it was about time. Don’t want to be looking all shaggy in the holiday photos.”, answered my friend.
We sat in silence for a minute or two waiting together for our turn in the barber chair, before he inquired about what I’d been up to.
“Well I’m assuming you saw the piece this week about TNTP getting an $8 million dollar extension on their $8 million dollar contract.”, I offered in response.
“You mean the one-year contract that’s advertised as a 2 year? I like how the Schwinn crew did that. Sign a contract in March of 21 for fiscal year 2. Collect money for three months of work for 21, and then the contract expires March of 22, so you collect for fiscal year 22 as well. You do realize that the extension was the plan all along?’
“What do you mean?”
“The law gives teachers the next 2 years to get trained. Very few MNPS teachers did the training last summer because they were focused on summer school and that Wit and Wisdom training. So if the contract wasn’t extended, who would train teachers this summer?”
“Dammit. I never thought of that”, I answered, becoming irritated, “That explains why I haven’t been able to find anyone locally who’s done the training. Found a few people outside of Nashville, but they ain’t talking. Like Schwinn is the godfather or something.”
Chuckling, Slotsky said, “Calm down big fella, what do you wanna know? I’ve been through the training and I know what real mobsters look like, so I ain’t scared of no ghost.”
“You’ve been through the training?”, I asked incredulously.
“Yep. I thought you knew I’d been doing some teaching of second-graders in a county south of here. Somehow I qualified to attend the training and get the $1000 stipend.”
“Yea they paid us a grand for the week to take the training. Though once we got there, they sure didn’t want to give it to us. Kept threatening to revoke it if we didn’t pass the test at the end like that was part of the deal. How do you think Schwinn got her 96% approval rating for the course? Pay people a grand they’ll praise your bologna sandwich like its Filet Mignon.”
“I can see that. You passed, right?” I asked.
“How the hell do I know. They never gave us any feedback. But I did get my money.”, he replied laughing at the memory.
“They never gave you any feedback?”
“Not a whisper.
“They never followed up to see how you implemented what you were taught? Or the success rate that was being fueled by their pearls of wisdom?”
“Man, you really are naive,” he said outright laughing, “You think they care about any of that? When was the last time you saw any of these reform types produce actual results to justify their million-dollar contracts? It’s all about the intention and how it sounds when you say it aloud.”
He was warming to the subject now, “Take that tutoring bullshit. It’s an old tried and true formula. Give it a fancy name – in this case, it’s “high-dosage tutoring”. Like we’ve been out providing low-dosage tutoring for decades and they’ve suddenly found the secret sauce.”
“Then you make some kind of ridiculous promise – one that anyone with any sense knows is bullshit – like MNPS promising to secure enough volunteer tutors for 7k kids when they can’t find teachers, bus drivers, subs, or bottle washers.”
“After you promise the world, you under-deliver, humbly saying the job was a whole lot tougher than anyone could envision, and you promise to do much better next go around. The result is, if you promise 7k and deliver 1k the first go around, you look like a world-beater when you deliver 1200K the next time go around. Meanwhile, you are dropping benjamins in your account. Rinse, wash, repeat.
“Jesus”, I said
“Check out the article in the 74, where MNPS’s Keri Randolph is quoted saying that It’s this giant puzzle, adding that tutoring is hot and sexy right now, but people have no idea how hard it is. Well no shit Sherlock, that’s what people were saying from the beginning.”
“With education, it’s especially easy to sell this crap, because you are always moving kids onward. So it’s a constant supply of new ones. It’s great hustle if you don’t have a conscience.”
I give Slots a look, “A little salty this morning aren’t you?”
“Sorry, I’ve just lost my patience with these people. Non-educators tell educators how to do their job. At least Randolph spent a little time in the classroom.”
Shaking my head and trying to comprehend it all, I asked, “I guess I shouldn’t be surprised. But getting back to these classes, was there any value to them.”
“Sure a bit. They are exclusively focused on foundational skills, to the exclusion of all else. And foundational skills are important, so if you needed some refreshers on those skills, or you had limited training, these classes could help. But the idea that there is only one way to teach a kid to read is a little…disingenuous.”
“It’s advertised as adhering to Tennessee standards, was there much talk around standards?’
“I don’t even know what that means. Tennessee reading standards are the same as Kentucky reading standards or any other state. But to answer your question, no. standards were completely left out of the conversation.”
Appreciating his candor, I asked, “So are these classes in-person or online.”
“The first week is completely asynchronous, and when I say asynchronous, I mean asynchronous. The second week is in-person.”
We were briefly interrupted by the barber motioning me to his now vacant chair, “You two can continue to chit chat, but I got work to do. So get on up in here, so I can get you done and on to the next guy.”
I took my seat in the barber chair, while Slotsky moved to a closer chair so we could talk while the barber worked.
“During her testimony to the finance committee, the DOE’s Robin McClennen painted a picture of the in-person classes being like some kind of conclave for teachers to collaborate in order to improve instruction. What you are describing sounds a little different.”
Rubbing his head in puzzlement, Slotsky replied, “I don’t know about all that, but there was no collaboration here. This was a one-way street and it wasn’t coming from us. There was a little time provided for turn-arounds, but not a lot. And no time spent on any kind of curriculum mapping.”‘
“I think my favorite part was when they told us that when teaching beginning readers, we should only refer to the letters by their sound, not their name. Yet assessments require kids to name letters.”
“Think any of this will help improve literacy outcomes?”
“Sure, maybe. Here’s the thing. The DOE is throwing so much at literacy – tutoring, summer school, retention, curriculum – how in the hell do you tell what works and what doesn’t? Which makes it difficult to decide where to place future investments. But Schwinn and company, aren’t concerned with that, their emphasis is on building the personal brand and like I said, dropping benjamins in friends accounts.”
Now it was my turn to laugh, “It’s funny when you say Schwinn and company, because exactly who is Schwinn’s posse. You got Lisa Coons and Katie Houghtlin, maybe Eve Carney, who’ve stuck it out. But the rest of the previous team have all but split. Shah, her old chief of staff is gone. HR Director Donaldson is gone. Mike Hardy and Drew Harool are gone as well.”
Slotsky raised a finger, “Well don’t forget Sam Pearcy and Charlie Bufalino, they’re still loyal foot soldiers. But look at Pearcy, he’s got no one under him. Rick Zadd (procurement) went to SCORE and Gomer Pascual (budgets) went to charter commission. How anyone goes from the TNDOE to SCORE, instead of vice versa is beyond me, but with this commissioner, anything is possible and this is the story throughout the department”
“I guess in all fairness, she has brought in Rachael Maeves from California to oversee accountability. Though I am hearing she’s in way over her head. Which should not surprise anyone because her resume reads like Schwinns when she became a deputy commissioner in Delaware and we know how that turned out.”
Slotsky smiled slyly before saying, “Commissioner’s former special assistant, Emma McCallie, has a new job title: director of national strategy for Tennessee department of education. Why Tennessee has a director of national strategy is slightly puzzling. But okay.”
“What are you talking about? It gives dumpster fires a bad name. You’ve seen the latest right?”
Puzzled, I ask, “What are you talking about?”
With a sardonic laugh, he replies, “You’ll love this one. Apparently, you ain’t been keeping up with Hamilton County.”
“I know they got a new Superintendent. What’s his name, Dr.James Robertson?”
“Yep, that’s him. and he’ll do fine. But the real news is around the state’s new “pilot program” that allows them to take over a school and turn it over to a management company. MNPS tried to stick it on the consent agenda before ultimately voting to give them Jere Baxter Middle School. Memphis at least discussed it with their board. But Hamilton County not only discussed it with their board but went one step further when the board said, no thank you.“
“Get the…can you do that?’
“We are about to find out”, scrolling through his phone, “Let me find my favorite quote for you. Here it is”
I am really tired of the state using our district as guinea pigs for their home grown garden programs and because orchard knob is already in a pilot I just don’t understand why they need to be in two pilots,’ said school board member Karitsa Mosley Jones.
“Apparently, the Hamilton County school the state wants is already getting special attention and is about to come off the priority list as a result. It’s the same story with Jere Baxter, the school was already getting special attention and Schwinn is attempting to step in and claim the credit. But whereas MNPS rolled over and showed their belly to the state, Chattanooga ain’t playing their game.”
“That’s crazy”, I said, “What do you think the state will do?”
Slotsky shrugged, “Schwinn was supposed to give them a response on Friday. Bet you’ll be shocked that she didn’t. Maybe she’ll call them on Christmas morning and tell them. They could be fined, but that’s an interesting look since the Governor and Schwinn are out running a traveling circus on redoing the funding formula for schools.”
“They are trying to paint themselves as concerned willing partners with school districts and now they are going to whop one of the urban districts with a stick? Let’s see how that plays in an election year.”
“How’s that look?” interrupted the barber holding up a mirror.
“Don’t forget his eyebrows”, interjected Slotsky.
“Thanks, but I can talk for myself.” I shot back.
“Don’t forget the eyebrows,” I told the barber.
Slotsky snorted before asking me, “Getting back to TNTP, did you see their boss has a new gig?”
“Yea, he’s the number two in NYC schools now. Despite never doing anytime in the classroom. The guy was an effing lawyer for god sake. Then he creates TNTP which is supposed to be some kind of B-level Teach For America but instead becomes a b-grade research organization that produces papers long on supposition and short on evidence. This is the plague we endure these days. It’s always the lawyers getting paid and never the educators.”
“Do you know his replacement, Tequilla Brownie? Graduated from UT and worked for Memphis Schools from 2004 – 2013 where she oversaw the district-wide, nationally-recognized, Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation-funded effort to improve student outcomes by increasing teacher effectiveness.”
“Not really”, I respond, “I do know she serves on several local and national boards including Stand for Children, ForwARd Arkansas, The MindTrust, KIPP Delta School Board, and Memphis Seeding Success. She is also a founding Leadership Committee member and former Board Member of Education Leaders of Color (EdLoC).”
“Great company to keep”, Slotsky responds, “I guess we can expect more public money flowing to private entities. It never ends.”
“All right. You are done.” said the barber as he lays his scissors down. Motioning to Slotsky, “You are next.”
I thanked the man for the cut while checking it out in the mirror. I told Slots I see him soon, and he waved me off while he told the barber what he was looking for in a cut.
As usual, he’d certainly given me a lot to think about. And hopefully you as well.
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