LET THE REINDEER GAMES BEGIN

You have to know where the funny is, and if you know where the funny is, you know everything.”
Sheila Heti, How Should a Person Be?

 

This week marks the official return of both MNPS students and Tennessee lawmakers. Both enter their respective houses faced with a great deal of uncertainty, partially due to the latest strain of COVID and partially due to the strain of politics.

While ask policies remain in place in Metro schools that are likely not in Legislative plaza.

Redistricting plans are expected to be unveiled for the state this week, with some folks aghast at the fact that the party in power is making things tougher for the minority power. Elections have consequences. Meanwhile, papers are being drawn for Nashville’s first partisan school board race, causing equal vexation. While the former could be devastating, I can’t work up too much fear for the latter.

It’s much easier to extract a legislator’s loyalty when you hold the pen for the redrawing of district lines. A power that is surely being wielded as the Governor ramps up his push to redo the state’s education funding formula.

November and December have seen an unprecedented number of community meetings, geared to give citizen’s the illusion of having a voice, the sad reality being that the plan is likely already written and all that is being supplied by the endless community meetings are data points to make the case that the plan is born from the hearts of Tennesseans. and not policy wonks far removed from the halls of public schools.

The reality is that Commissioner Schwinn and Governor Lee may have talked to everyone, but they listened to no one – save those that live in their respective silos. Andy Spears points out at the TNEd Report, long-time pro-privatization group TennesseeCAN is already out sharing the details of the plan well before the official release. A plan they likely had a hand in writing.

But is that surprising? TennesseeCAN used to be called StudentsFirst until that organization merged with 50CAN. StudentsFirst was founded by Michelle Rhee who used to be married to former Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman but is currently married to former Sacramento Mayor and charter school founder Kevin Johnson. Johnson’s charter school employed a young Penny Schwinn, fresh from a TFA stint in Baltimore. When Schwinn ran for school board, Johnson was a primary supporter. Along with the local chapter of Democrats for Education Reform.

But how about recently? Let’s not forget that Governor Lee’s Legislative Director is Brett Easley. The same fellow that was head of TennesseeCAN from 2016 to 2018, when he left to work for Governor Lee.

These are the kinds of things, coupled with the Tennessee Charter Commission’s recent approval of a charter school in Rutherford County, despite the local LEA’s desire to deny, makes it hard to believe the Governor or the Commissioner when they say the initiative to revamp the finance formula for schools is not linked to privatization efforts. Per The Tennessean, Governor Lee has an answer for the concerned.

“I’m a strong advocate for school choice and continue to be, but this is really not about choice issues for education,” Lee said, calling the funding formula to revamp and voucher issues “two entirely different things.”

Still, doubt remains.

This seems like a good time to point out some misconceptions about Lee and Schwinn’s pitch for a “student-focused” funding plan. The current model is already “student-focused”. If students enroll in a school, the school receives a level of funding. If students don’t show up, then the school gets no money. Weights are already included to supply additional funding for students with more needs. So how different can a brand new “student-focused” funding model look, as compared to the current “student-focused” funding model.

Here’s the dirty little secret, it’s going to come down to the money. If you designate some extra cash, I’d argue that you meet the threshold for being more student-focused. If you add  more accountability measures, like those legislators have hinted at, ones that potentially deprive students of additional funds, you probably lose that distinction of being “student-focused.” So let’s cut to the chase – is it more money you are proposing, or more accountability. I suspect less of the former and more of the latter.

There is considerable concern that instead of putting more actual dollars into the system, there will be an attempt made to roll funding for schools that currently live outside the BEP into the reworked BEP, and pretend that it’s new money. This would include items like SROs and pre-K. Again doing so, would invest in a system as opposed to students.

Before moving forward let me pause a second to thank Tennessee Charter Commission member Eddie Smith for pushing the application through in Rutherford County. He might have thought he was sending a different message, but the message received by LEAs was that nobody is safe from having their community desires overridden. It stoked a sense of urgency to ensure that other districts are better prepared to protect their students and schools.

Staying with the local level, when it comes to the dawn of partisan school board races, let’s take a breath. Political operators have been trying to recruit sympathetic candidates for decades. Those efforts have consistently proven less than successful. Running a campaign for a school board is a pain in the ass. As is serving as a member of the school board. To think that potential candidates will suddenly leap at the opportunity now that a partisan layer has been added is doubtful,

Evidence of that belief can be observed in Williamson County. Again, per The Tennessean, “just two sitting school board members have pulled petitions to run in the 2022 Williamson County municipal primary election as of Jan. 5 despite the petition period beginning Dec. 20.

To be fair, some potential candidates may bow out due to a lack of desire to interact with either party. Still, those who have a desire to serve, usually are motivated by intrinsic motives and I don’t really see that changing. All that is really being accomplished here is an increase in the level of difficulty required to actually make schools better. A category that 90% of prosed education policy falls into, so in other words, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

Looking into the crystal ball shows the coming months filled with more of the same as last year for both legislators and students. I’m sure the battle over mask mandates will continue in both houses, with how to accelerate learning, as if such a thing was possible.

What probably will go unnoticed will be the volume of testing that MNPS students will face over the next 4 months. Two rounds of I-Ready, coupled with Two-rounds of MAP, along with the state’s annual big test, TNReady, will be administered to students between now and the end of the year. No doubt each of these tests will be coupled with lengthy test prep.

Many of Nashville’s students will be required to participate in “data chats” before they take the winter version of MAP testing. Chats that will certainly contain encouragement to get scores up, and messages that convey the importance of doing well on upcoming assessments.

Let’s also not forget that our English learners will also need to participate in a round of WIDA testing to measure their acquired English language company. You get test, and you get a test, and you get a test. Meanwhile both on the state and local level so many initiatives have been put in play that it’ll be impossible to determine what works and what doesn’t.

On the state level, ChalkbeatTN has shared 5 potential initiatives that lawmakers may attempt to address;

  • Funding reform.
  • More school nurses, counselors, and pre-K.
  • Supplemental teaching materials
  • Teacher evaluations
  • Testing

While action on any of these areas may be desirable, I don’t see it happening. It’s an election year and lawmakers are going to be itching to hit the campaign trail. Funding reform and redistricting are going to eat up most of the air in the room, and upon resolution likely leave General Assembly members ready to bolt. But maybe I’ll be surprised.

TEACHER ATTRITION

Some interesting numbers have emerged from Pennsylvania this week in regard to teacher licensing. The data comes via the Act 82 report, which requires the state Department of Education to report on how many Instructional Certificates it issues every year, which is a good measure of new teachers. In 2010-2011, 21K plus certificates were issued. After a decade of continuous decline, 2019-2020 saw just shy of 7k certificates issued.

Educator Peter Greene breaks the data down even further,

Looking from 2013-14 through 2019-20, here’s what has happened in certain certification areas of K-12.

Grade PK-4 has dropped from over 3,000 to under 2,000.

English 7-12 has dropped form 666 (I know) down to about half that.

In 2019-20, there were 5 new certifications for French K-12 issued in PA.

Phys-ed dropped from about 350 to 130.

Math from almost 400 to under 150.

Social studies from 722 to 300.

It ain’t a pretty picture and one likely reflective of the country as a whole. Anyone who truly cares about kids and their future should be alarmed.

These numbers align with  recent tales from the trenches, per Mark Perna in Forbes Magazine,

Understaffing has plagued schools for years, but it’s now reaching epic proportions. At a conference last month, I sat around the table with four superintendents from various parts of the country and asked them, “What percent of teachers quitting would create a cataclysmic drop in your organization’s ability to educate young people?” The answers were all shockingly low—with one superintendent answering, “One. One teacher quitting would hurt us in a big way.”

It’s a crisis that’s been unfolding for years and is now accelerated by challenges associated with the pandemic. Lawmakers and administrators have been quick to try and respond with various programs, and initiatives, neither of which are capable of addressing the real issues.

In order to reach and teach students effectively, teachers must forge a human connection with them. Today’s younger generations simply will not move forward in their education and career journey without that connection. This is a non-negotiable; it’s just who they are.

The vast majority of teachers truly want to forge that meaningful connection with students. In fact, for many it was the driving force behind their decision to enter the profession. But, understaffed and overworked as they are, many simply have no time to show students that they see, hear, and care about them. Survival mode—where many teachers have lived for the past two years—doesn’t allow much room for relationship building.

This creates a vicious cycle. Students aren’t performing, so more burdens are placed on teachers to help students hit the mark, thus decreasing teachers’ time and bandwidth to forge a human connection with students that is the basis for all learning. Teachers’ legs are cut out from under them, yet they’re still expected to carry their students across the finish line. It’s a gridlock.

That’s it, in a nutshell.

Perna offers several recommended actions, key among them – rebuilding trust. For a field that is so contingent on trust, there is little that remains intact. Lawmakers and districts don’t trust teachers to do their job without forced accountability. Teachers don’t trust that the aforementioned have their best interests at heart. Teachers are perceived as brainwashing students, while parents are viewed as disruptive interlopers. In short, nobody trusts anybody, despite the millions invested in social-emotional learning.

Does anybody perceive this as a recipe for success?

The best anyone else can come up with is to teach self-care to teachers. It’s the message that fails to resonate and doesn’t take into account that the majority of teachers are perfectionists, control freaks, and planners. All good qualities for serving the needs of children, not so much when you are trying to maintain mental health amid rising expectations. Basically, we are telling teachers to be less committed to their job while calling for increased accountability.

“Hey teach, we need you to get everybody caught up while being a little less good at your job.”

Call me and let me know how that works.

Amid all of this, we are deploying an effort to diversify the teaching profession. A worthy goal but one made impossible by the damage we’ve done to the profession. If I am a first-generation graduate of higher education why would take on increased debt for a job that offers less professional autonomy and potential compensation than something in the private sector? In essence, asking people that from demographics that have been historically marginalized to assume a role in a profession that that is currently being marginalized.

I think I’d prefer to swim in a pool of barracudas rather than take on that initiative.

If you want to increase diversity, make the job more attractive to everyone. It’s not a difficult concept. But we won’t grasp it.

I’m a strong believer in the theory that people never really change without hitting a threshold of pain. Clearly, when it comes to schools, we as a public, haven’t hit that threshold, yet. Just keep in mind, that in the future, it won’t be today’s current adults that feel the pain, but rather the children of the future who will be denied the gift of being instructed by a high-quality educator.

If only we’d put a little of the effort we invest in championing high-quality curriculum, Common Core, Science of Reading, charter schools, and the plethora of distractions we get caught up in, into championing teachers, we might get somewhere. After all, none of those distractions are worth anything unless they are implemented by a high-quality educator.

QUICK HITS

This AM I received an interesting follow notice from Twitter – Ezra Howard. Howard, for those who might not remember, was a founding member of Bluff City News, an education blog out of Memphis. Howard was a gifted writer and thinker who withdrew from the advocacy field to focus on academics. Hopefully, this Twitter notification is a harbinger to a resurgence in advocacy work. His voice would be a welcome addition to the current conversation.

Tennessee’s redistricting plans are starting to sneak out, with AP reporting,

Tennessee Republicans plan to carve fast-growing Nashville into multiple congressional seats, making it potentially easier for the state’s Republican-dominated congressional delegation to flip a previously Democratic-controlled district, House Speaker Cameron Sexton confirmed Monday

Sexton is being demure in just how many splits Nashville will see, but the full plan is expected to be revealed later this week. Buckle up.

On Friday, I shared MNPS School Board member Gini Pupo-Walker’s decision to not seek re-election. I think my favorite part of her announcement was when she revealed that she had spent several months discussing her decision with a “small circle of advisors”, aka. “the cat, Marge from across the street, her husband, and John King, with a smathering of neighbors thrown in”. Hopefully, they were the ones that advised her that continuing on as both the head of the local chapter of Education Trust and sitting on the school board, opened the door to a plethora of ethical questions.

Those interested in running for her seat, or any of the other available seats, need to hop to it. The deadline to turn in paperwork is fast approaching – February 17th.

Commissioner Schwinn and Riley the Reading Raccoon were spotted out and about during the holiday season. Together they appeared at Blanche School. The two will be traveling to schools across the state to help emphasize the importance of early literacy for our youngest students. Blanche School was his first stop on the journey. No word yet on whether or not they’ll be once again utilizing the bus that was so popular during the Commissioner’s summer tour, or whether Riley will be available for birthday parties and Bar Mitzvahs.

It’s a school board meeting week for MNPS. A look at the agenda shows a resolution on gifted education and a renewal application to be considered and discussed by the board. Still missing is any indication that a review of the director’s performance is anywhere on the approaching horizon.

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

2 replies

  1. In a sense, it is “good” that Rutherford is getting a charter school, at local expense, that its citizens’ School Board reps rejected.

    Maybe, just maybe, voters outside Nashville will start voting against legislators who wreak this disaster upon them.

    Though, as with Davidson/MNPS, Rutherford set the wheels of this disaster in motion by opening Central Magnet. Once you create long lists of losers with test score screens or lotteries, families on the short end of that madness are naturally going to ask, “But what about us?”

    https://www.usnews.com/education/best-high-schools/tennessee/districts/rutherford-county/central-magnet-school-92233

    It is quite interesting that Williamson has, so far, been exempted from having to take charter schools…. I’ve always claimed that if charter schools accomplished anything for the benefit of children, Williamson would be first in line to convert all their schools. Perhaps folks in Williamson understand kids and money both, a little better than we do in Davidson or Rutherford county. Or, perhaps the state will come for them next.

  2. iReady testing in January, MAP testing January, WIDA ACCESS for English Learners in February, and TN Ready in April. How are we supposed to teach? How are kids supposed to stay motivated? How do we run the school when teachers are absent and there are no subs?

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