FEAR AND LOATHING IN THE POLITICAL THEATER

“We fight for and against not men and things as they are, but for and against the caricatures we make of them.”
Joseph A. Schumpeter, History of Economic Analysis

 

December 17th. That’s when the last Dad Gone Wild post appeared. Over two weeks ago and to be honest, the break could have been much longer.

It’s been two weeks spent reflecting on what the purpose of this blog is, and whether it truly mattered. Seven years ago, when I started writing it was out of a desire to make a difference. My wife had received her Master’s in Education about 10 years prior and was well on her way to completing her first decade of teaching.

A decade that provided me with a front-row seat to all the challenges faced by the nation’s public schools. Challenges that educators were not free to comment on.

It’s strange to say, but man, those were different times.  The pressures were high but manageable. The same held true for expectations and time demands. Yes, it was always a professional pursuit fraught with challenges, but when I reflect back it all seems so much more innocent.

As we’ve codified everything into numbers, it’s made everything more manipulable. Data and science are presented as being forever unchallengeable and harbingers of the truth. They are of somebody’s truth, just don’t confuse it with irrefutable truth, nor even universal truth, The science we embrace is always the science that tells the truth that aligns with our beliefs. Instead of looking at numbers as a means to spot trends that require further investigation and investment, we use them to promote our agenda and to justify inflated salaries for those that align.

A prime example would be MNPS’s latest initiative to return 5th grade to Elementary School. A highly disruptive mood that accomplishes little more than rearranging the deck chairs on a troubled ship.One that is sure to produce a plethora of unintended consequences.

Sure, in most parts of the country 5th grade is part of elementary school, but it hasn’t been like that in Metro Nashville for several decades. As such, MNPS teachers have built careers around Nashville’s policy, some have invested decades in buildings and now suddenly find themselves afloat and adrift. What’s to happen to them under the new initiative?

Some have suggested that they’ll just relocate to the local elementary school and resume their practice. That presents a number of issues for a teacher. Once they return to elementary school they are assigned at the whim of the principal. That 5th-grade assignment could suddenly become a second-grade one, leaving the said teacher with little recourse.

These aren’t rookie teachers, or ineffective teachers, but rather some of the best in Nashville. Think about the logic here, at a time, when it’s nearly universally accepted that the nation is facing a teaching crisis we are disrupting teacher lives for the sake of what is essentially a political move. Not only are we disrupting senior teachers’ lives, but we are also sending a message to young teachers, those in their first few years, of just what kind of value they can expect to hold in the future. Do you think the lack of consideration is lost on teachers?

Districts have long employed a strategy of using recruitment as a primary method of addressing attrition rates. But once again those efforts are undercut by their own actions.

As a young teacher, you insure as much debt as your peers, only to assume a position that will never allow you to make a fraction of what those peers will earn in their chosen careers. But not only that, but you’ll be continually subject to the political whims and personal ambitions of politicians and bureaucrats. Whims and ambitions that will not only prevent you from utilizing the training you’ve so heavily invested in but in some cases will demand that you do things that you know are not in the best interests of kids.

Who would you sign up for that? Who are the people that would willfully say, “That’s for me”?  Those people are becoming far and in-between, and all you have to do is look at the enrollment in education prep programs and you’ll see that a once-honorable profession has been relegated to something you do in order to transition to an administrator role, or better yet join the private sector.

I’m not alone in my observations, Cynthia Carver is the chair of Oakland University’s Department of Teacher Development and Educational Studies, she’s noticed a change. She’s been at the teacher prep game for nearly 20 years. She used to ask students, “How many of you have been discouraged from teaching by someone you care about?”

“About a third of hands would go up,” Carver said. “That was alarming to me then. Probably five, eight years later, I continued to ask the question, and I noticed that now, I had half to two-thirds of students raise their hand.”

In the last three years, the raised hand has become even more prevalent, with nearly every student raising their hand. Carver observes that “Someone they care about, someone they respect, has discouraged them from teaching as a career.” She goes on to raise a point that we all need to hear,

“For a professional career to have a lack of autonomy is hard,” she said. “I think that’s why a lot (of) teachers discourage young people from going into the profession because they’re told what they need to teach every single day. They’re told how to test what students know and are able to do, as opposed to taking their insight and expertise as a teacher and determining what’s the best thing for that particular child at the moment.”

Every district in the country is attempting to diversify its teaching force. I would argue that the single most significant factor in bringing those goals to fruit would be the restoration of teaching as a respected profession. Yet that factor never enters the conversation.

So back to this 5th-grade initiative, why knowing the fragile state of the teaching profession, coupled with the increased stress from an ongoing pandemic would we launch an initiative without adequate evidence that it’s going to make a dramatic difference in student outcomes?

Unfortunately, that evidence doesn’t really exist. Sure, sure, MNPS’s Executive Project manager Elisa Norris will stand in front of MNPS’s school board members and cite vague results that show 5th graders in elementary schools “do better” than those in middle school.

“Our own data shows us that students who remain in the 5th grade setting in elementary – as a group rather who remain in the elementary setting, outperform their peers who are in the middle school setting,” said Dr. Elisa Norris, head of MNPS Strategy and Performance Management.

Couple of things to consider, primarily that Norris has never stood in front of a classroom full of students and led instruction. She’s the equivalent of a legacy hire, both she and her father served some kind of nebulous role in the Register regime, and now she serves the same in the Battle’s cabinet. Another bureaucrat who earns triple the pay of an MNPS teacher, for a third of the work.

Secondly, any data that is available, is comparing students in a familiar setting with those in a transitional period. There is ample evidence that demonstrates student performance suffers the most during transition years. Regardless 0f when the transition to middle school occurs, be it 5th, 6th, or 7th grade, the result is a drop in student performance. If we were actually data-driven and committed to science we would invest in creating K-8 schools and devote more energy to improving transitions to middle school at whatever grade they happen.

Perhaps, I missed the slide in Norris’s presentation where she talks about more supports for 6th graders than in the past. Perhaps I wasn’t paying attention when Dr. Battle outlines her proposal to mitigate any detriment to students entering middle school in grade 6 and how we will address that impact going forth. There has been little commentary on what kinds of change we’ll see in middle school and way too much back clapping for making a highly expensive and disruptive plan that likely does little more than garner political favor.

It’s a popular sport in these parts to bash former chief academic officer Jay Steele, but at least he saw the need to increase support students transitioning to middle and high school. 5th graders are limited in their participation in extra-curricular activities in order to allow them time to acclimate. Increased alignment between feeder schools and middle schools was fostered. Admittedly his efforts could have gone further, but they eclipse tenfold anything being currently put forth.

As a parent of 2 middle schoolers, I get it. My huggable super sweet young man has been replaced by a semi-surly child constantly quoting questionable rap lyrics and mangling the English language. I have to remind myself at that age I was blasting the Dead Kennedys and sulking through my parent’s house. I can’t imagine that chants of “kill, kill, the poor” filled them with optimism for the future. But was I listening to those songs, and exhibiting those behaviors because I needed another year in elementary school or because I was 11 going on 45, and all of this, much to my parent’s chagrin came with the territory?

I’m picking out MNPS’s 5th-grade initiative, but it’s not the only misguided policy hatched out of a desire to benefit adults over kids, and done with little consideration of possible negative connotations. High-dosage tutoring, increased summer school, more training for teachers, all sound great as long you don’t dig too deep. The first two are prescriptions delivered before a diagnosis has ever been, or can be conducted.

Hello! The pandemic is still going on, the impact on students is still ongoing. Why in god’s name are we working twice as hard to produce further disruption as we do to increase stability?

The training canard being circulated is one that makes me chuckle, save that its purveyors are so serious. I talk to teachers, a lot of teachers, and I can count on one hand the number over the last decade, that has indicated what they need is more training. During the past two years, not a single teacher has said to me, “if I only had some more training to go with my endless to-do list, all of this would be so much easier.” None. Nada. Not a single one.

I hear I need more time. And I hear, I wish the district would allow something to stick before rushing off to change it. And I hear, “I would like better PD.” Better PD does not equal, more PD.

I’m not saying anything new here, but we demand increased accountability to students and teachers, but never to those who reap the most money from schools. Has anybody threatened to suspend the funding of SCORE because of their marginal success over the years? has anybody asked  SCORE to explain to legislators why they should play such an influential role in the state’s education policies despite their continued failures? If SCORE was a school, they’d have been in Achievement School District years ago, yet they are continually allowed unfettered access and treated as if they have a clue what they are talking about.

Imagine the results if teachers were given the same access and level of trust as SCORE, or any one of the other education non-profits? Instead, Governor Lee implements pay scales that enable starting prison guards to make as much as teachers who’ve spent a decade in the classroom. At least those we fail today will be guaranteed to well-compensated people to watch over them in the future.

While we are on the subject of money and schools, let’s not forget that Tennessee’s Pinky and the Brain – Governor Lee and Penny Schwinn – would have us believe that amidst the holiday season, they have fully listened to the state’s citizens, fully vetted all potential funding plans for both intended and unintended consequences, and now stand poised on the precise of fundamentally changing, for the better, the way the state’s schools are funded.

It’s bad enough to treat the state’s residents like they simply bit players in your traveling roadshow, it’s quite another to try and pretend that you can take their input and produce a consensus in such a limited time frame. It’s all bullshit. And can’t go unchallenged.

I’ve had a number of education leaders who I respect tell me that they were going to take this opportunity to voice their concerns and not allow the other side to have their voice better heard. They knew this was kabuki theater, but just in case it wasn’t, they were going to be there. My question is, why?

Do you think your voice is getting an equal shift? Do you think that somehow two people who don’t give a fuck about what anybody else says for the last 4 years are suddenly going to reconsider their priorities because you showed up at a staged town hall and repeated the same things you’ve said for years? It’s just like standardized testing, all you are doing is supplying the data points so that they can craft the desired narrative.

What ifs nobody had shown up? What if people had just said, I’m not participating in this canard? Would they have the data to demonstrate that they’d consulted every major stakeholder, or would they instead now be forced to justify to legislators why they failed to actively engage families, teachers, and students?

I’m going to give you a little prediction about what to expect come mid-January. The proposed funding formula will indeed be student-centric, but it will include performance metrics that will reward those that are perceived to be successful with different student sub-groups over those determined to be less so. It’ll be a formula guaranteed to make the rich richer, and the poor, even more, challenged.

It’s a plan that will have lots of opportunities for Governor Lee and Ms. Schwinn to crow about their progressive mindset and love of students while showing that they are economically prudent. In essence, expect a whole lot more of the same. You know what they say…if nothing changes…nothing changes.

I’ll have more next week and in the future. I’m not sure that what I contribute truly makes a difference but I refuse to allow the charlatans and the thieves to go unchallenged.

Enjoy your New Year, and rest assured, that Dad Gone Wild will be here in the coming year. Maybe a little more strident. maybe a little more profane. But will be hear sounding the clarion call.

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

5 replies

  1. It is so sad the district cannot see fit to fully support students through 8th grade. Delaying choice day a year might help a little but they could have delayed it 4 by allowing all 8th graders to be eligible for Hume Fogg on equal footing. Instead of understanding why families flee, instead of ending the you lose again lottery, they just pushed the heartache back one year. So myopic. And last I heard meigs has not yet been converted to 6-8. The tangled mess gets only worse.

  2. Happy New Year, TC. I’m glad to have met you in 2021 and wonder what we’ll encounter in 2022! Thank you for all the work that you do and your good humor while doing it.

    Sincerely , Robin

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  3. Totally Agree with your perspective.

  4. TC –

    Yours is one of the few voices that supports classroom teachers. You are totally on target re: top-down changes for no reason as well as better (not more) professional development.

    Moving 5th graders to elementary schools is an unnecessary, expensive, time-consuming exercise to try and keep more families from leaving public school and going to private school. The positive research results for K-8 schools is much stronger. We should put our efforts there. And yes! Students lose something every time they change schools.

    Drs. Johnson and Garcia initiated the interpretation that teachers were guaranteed a job but not a specific position. Since then, thousands of MNPS teachers have left education to find jobs elsewhere in the work force or, like my husband, became ill from stress and was forced to retire on disability. (When Dr. Johnson learned from me what he did for a living and that he enjoyed it, she personally reassigned him to a new school, grade level, and subject area every year for 5 years). Or, like me, just retired (early in many cases). Why bother developing your practice if you are forced to change every year or so??

    It is a shame that district leadership will not stand up to parents on behalf of teachers. And it is terrible that the state has become controlling.

    What can someone like me do to support classroom teachers?

    Thank you for what you do. Beth

    Sent from my iPhone

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