PEEKING BEHIND THE CURTAIN

“Acceptance of prevailing standards often means we have no standards of our own.”
Jean Toomer

 

This weekend I’ve came to the conclusion that I have to get someone to ban this column. I don’t know who, but nothing generates eyeballs like the perception of censorship.

I say perception, because like educator Peter Greene points out, Banning books are dumb.

This has been true forever. Mark Twain took out newspaper ads to thank the people who banned Huck Finn because they helped make copies. When our local scolds got up in arms about a performance of La Cage Aux Folles, it sold out. Today, after news spread of the banning of Maus, it was suddenly on the best-seller list again. No high school teacher with half a brain ever tells students, “Do not do X.” Never, for instance, say, “I don’t want another peep out of you guys,” because you know what the next sound you hear will be.

Another case in point would be country singer Morgan Wallen. He was recorded by a neighbor coming home drunk and loudly using racial slurs. Boom…that career was supposed to be done, but it didn’t turn out that way, and despite being pulled from radio stations and barred from participating in award shows, the record went on to sell millions and qualify as arguably the biggest record of the year..

My personal takeaway is that his actions were unacceptable but, thank god nobody was recording me back in my drinking days because I can promise you I said some pretty obscene and offensive things. That’s kinda the calling card of drunks. You may think that you are the epitome of wit and wisdom, but I promise you are not.

I always thought it ironic that fellow singer Jason Isbell was one of the leading critics of Wallen, despite being a recovering alcoholic himself. I’m pretty sure if I rooted through Isbell’s trash, I’d find some questionable statements.

The flip side is true with Critical race Theory. Two years ago I wouldn’t have been able to find three people in a 100 with an opinion on the subject, let alone an awareness. Fast-forward to the GOP passing some laws banning the teaching of CRT, and walla, books are flying off the shelves and royalty checks are through the roof.

Which brings us to he second point espoused by Greene,

I keep thinking that the current wave of book banners will be really upset when they hear about the internet. Smart phones! Snap chat! Tik tok! There are so many avenues for children to access whatever content they want to find that there could be nothing less productive than pulling a book from the school library. That’s before we even get to publicly available stuff like streaming Squid Games (of course, that’s only violence, which is somehow less distressing to folks). Trying to control all the media paths to your own child is a major challenge, but trying to control them for other people’s children is just folly. You will fail.

Yep…the whole idea of banning a book is a fairly archaic one and not really representative of the times we live in. There are just too many avenues available for procurement. Which is a good thing.

But that said, there are a couple things that need to be repeated here, and maybe expounded on. Primary being, that the current actions being taken by school districts in Tennessee are around a curriculum that shouldn’t even be in place. And wouldn’t be with the state’s commissioner of education putting her fingers in the pie.

But let’s back up for a minute, books are added and removed from required reading on a fairly regular basis. You may believe that all children should have access to all books -and I don’t disagree – but time constraints mean that only a limited number of books can be taught.

As a result, teachers are often deciding between, say, Refuge and My Side of the Mountain. Both excellent books. The decision on which to teach is based on numerous factors specific to the class, and deciding to teach one over the other doesn’t translate to embracing one and banning the other. Nor is it saying one is a better book than the other.

Yes, it does mean that a book can’t be taught, but it doesn’t mean a book can’t be read. I’ve read a large number of books in my lifetime, only fraction were required reading.

I would argue that which book to teach a decision best left to a teacher who has knowledge specific to her students and their families. The state provides the satndards and the teacher is best suited to provide the map to get there.  Which is yet another argument against investing in programs over people.

In Tennesse, materials for local districts fall under the purview of local school boards and the superintendents they hire. Recognizing the difficulty of this ob, legislators created a textbook adoption process and a textbook commission to oversee the process.

The textbook commission is comprised of The State Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission is composed of 10 members whose responsibility is to recommend an official list of textbooks and instructional materials for approval of the State Board of Education.

By law, the commission includes a county superintendent, a city superintendent, a principal, one teacher or supervisor from grades K-3, one teacher or supervisor from grades 4-8, one teacher or supervisor from grades 9-12, and one member not employed in the educational system of the state from each of the three grand divisions of the state. The commissioner of Education serves as Secretary of the commission.and tasked with establishing a process where proposed materials are reviewed.

The statute provides commission members with the following objectives,,

  • To provide a wide variety of materials that will enrich and support the curriculum as defined by the Rules, Regulations, and Minimum Standards of the State Board of Education.
  • To provide materials that will enrich and support the curriculum and personal needs of educators and students.
  • To provide students with a background of information to encourage critical thinking.
  • To place principle above personal opinion and reason above prejudice in the selection of materials of the highest quality to assure a comprehensive media collection appropriate for the educators and students.

The process, when allowed to function as designed, has proven to be highly effective and transparent. Every piece of material submitted by a publisher is reviewed based on a standard rubric and citizens are free to view that score on the state’s website. A glance at the scorecard for Exploratory Destinations(LearnZillion – GuidebooksGrade 8), the materials supplied by LearnZillion and adopted by McMinn County, support the argument that they should not have been adopted.

It was only after Commissioner Schwinn suspended the process, brought in her own reviewers, and then granted waivers to LEAs that these materials became eligible for adoption. The list of waivers granted contains over half the districts in the state. If half the state is going to receive a waiver why have an approved list at all?

Even a perfunctory glance at that list shows an alignment between those materials currently raising questions and waivers granted by the TNDOE. It’s not a stretch to say that had the process been allowed to function as designed, free of the commissioner’s personal agenda, we wouldn’t even be having this discussion.

Here’s the other ironic element, every one of the questionable materials, is firmly rooted in   Common Core and designed by the Core’s primary architects.

Yea, you probably thought Governor Lee was serious when he said he was getting rid of Common Core in Tennessee. The truth is, he’s doing the opposite –  he’s doubling down on the investment.

Whether the influence of Common Core bothers you or not is fairly arbitrary, though if you are one of those research-minded people it should be a non-sequitur. Writer Stephen Peha wrote in a 2020 letter to education expert Rick Hess,

As you pointed out, Rick, the failure of the Common Core made subsequent national improvements in schooling much more difficult. Indeed, I don’t think we’ve seen a significant effort in raising standards since. Nor do I think such an effort is likely any time soon given the extraordinary political and social divisions we have experienced in our country over the last five years. In the end, I’m convinced the Common Core will be remembered, not as Secretary Duncan claimed as “the single greatest thing to happen to public education in America since Brown v. Board of Education,” but as an unfortunate detour on the road to improving public schools

Regardless of how you feel about the Governor or his minions and their relationship to Common Core, the distinct lack of honesty should be troubling. Luckily there will be ample opportunity this year for citizens of Tennessee to ask their campaigning legislator about this. Due to redistricting, many of these office-seekers will be meeting new constituents for the first time. Should make for some interesting conversations.

If you are like me, your weekend social media feeds were likely clogged by people expressing their feelings about the action of the McMinn County school Board. It seems like everybody had an opinion. Well everybody except for one person. One person that should have had an opinion, given her highlighted role in the growing controversy, Commissioner Schwinn.

Schwinn is no stranger to social media, in fact, she is a frequent contributor. Often crowing about growing your own programs, approving ESSER applications for funds that were made available last year, to the power of adoption. Even going as far as retweeting close friend RepMark White’s message of Holocaust rememberance.

But when it comes to commenting on a school board that has stepped into controversy due to materials ushered in by her hand, she’s strangely silent.

Not surprising, considering that this is a superintendent who in the same week voiced her commitment to equity while recommending harsh penalties for those who used materials considered inappropriate.

In a letter to state senator Jack Johnson, she wrote,

Parents have every right to question the reasoning or process behind the content being taught in Tennessee classrooms. Materials come into the classroom through a variety of channels, but districts ultimately make selections,” she said. “While the department evaluates materials for academic standards, we believe parents provide important oversight into how sensitive or controversial subjects are approached.”

Based on those words, I would argue that maybe a voice of support for McMinn County Schools is in order. Such is life for a liberal in a conservative’s house. That is if you are still believing that Lee is a conservative.

I suspect that part of her reticence comes because she doesn’t want you to notice that she is still monkeying with the textbook adoption process as we head into the adoptionof math materials.

Over the last six months, Commissioner Schwinn has been strong-arming local districts into participating in the All Corp program. Basically, All Corp is a state-managed tutoring program that requires a substantial financial commitment of ESSER funds from participating LEA’s. Currently, 79 districts are participating,

Tutoring services through All Corp are primarily focused on ELA and Math. Keep in mind again, we are at the beginning of the Math material adoption process.

Let’s look closer at All Corp. We’ll start wit the TN All Corps Mathematics Guidance on the state’s website. Things get real interesting real quick. From the introductory page,

The department has partnered with Zearn to support the TN ALL Corps math tutoring program through a competitive request for proposal process. Zearn is the department’s online mathematics platform and includes progress monitoring, math lessons that are connected to students’ core math learning, and foundational content to support deeper interventions. More information aboutTennessee’s tutoring partnership with Zearn can be found here.

So who is Zearn, you make ask yourself? A simple Google search reveals that Zearn is a math curriculum capable of doubling student learning while providing a digital package to augment teacher learning. It is also fully aligned with Common Core State Standards. Zearn is very proud of their friends,

As the only comprehensive personalized learning experience aligned to Engage NY / Eureka Math, we are thrilled to have a full K-5 sequence to offer this large and growing community of educators and students.

So if 79 districts start using Zearn for tutoring the year before the math textbook and materials adoption, who are they likely to choose to use going forth?

The beauty is, there are no regulations on tutoring materials. An LEA can use any curriculum it likes, and it won’t impact the adoption process. Even better, Governor Lee is expected to embed tutoring into the BEP formula, insuring that Zearn will be cashing checks long after ESSER money runs out.

Since Schwinn’s friends always travel in packs, we should not be surprised that Zearn’s supporting research comes via another old crony, TNTP.

In case you’ve forgotten, TNTP is the organization that was founded by Michelle Rhee whose husband is the former mayor of Sacramento, Kevin Johnson, who once employed a young Penny Schwinn at the charter school he founded. They are also the current employer of Mr.Schwinn.

TNTP has already benefit financially from the state via two contract worth roughly $16 million. Who said employing the family of the boss doesn’t pay?

Why stop there when you have a free pass from the Governor, and by extension the General Assembly to do as you please? And make no mistake,Schwinn does as she pleases.

But by all means, let’s pay attention to the perceived banning of books while the commissioner raids the taxpayer coffers for the benefit of private entities.

Someday we are going to have to see the trees in the forest. Or we can just keep running around the hamster wheel while the rich get richer.

QUICK HITS

Governor Lee will unveil his budget for the coming year in tonight’s State of the State speech. There is still no clear indication that he intends to pursue his initiative to reform the state school funding formula. I suspect he’ll announce a substantial investment in education but advocates need to be careful and wait for the details to comment.

Speaking of comments. Commissioner Schwinn has continually touted the number of participants in the state’s fact-finding mission on school funding.

“Tennesseans recognize what a historic moment in time this is for education in our state, and I want to thank those who submitted public comments as part of our engagement process on a potential new funding formula for Tennessee’s public schools,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “As has been shared in subcommittee meetings, at town halls, on social media, and at local meetings, a new public education funding formula for Tennessee must be centered around our students so that we can ensure our children can thrive in the classroom and be successful after high school.”

According to the commissioner that number is over 1300. If you do the math that is .13% of the 1 million kids enrolled in Tennessee K-12 schools. But let’s ignore that for a minute.

The responses are available on the state website, though oddly there are none received for about 2 weeks in December. Of the ones available, there is frequent repetition and evidence of cut and paste. The two primary themes that emerge are, no vouchers and more money. So tonight we’ll find out if the Governor was actually listening.

Because Nashville doesn’t have enough education non-profits led by enough non-educators, a new one is picking up its game and hiring its first full-time executive director ever –  Councilwoman Tanaka Vercher. I guess we should be grateful it wasn’t Steve Glover or Freddy O’Connell. Varcher has been an exemplary councilwoman and some feel is pre-destined to take the city’s highest seat. That wouldn’tsuck. We sincerly wish Vercherthe best of luck.

Speaking of non-profits, PENCIL Box, the free school supply store for Metro Nashville teachers, cut the ribbon on a new satellite store in Antioch last week. PENCIL Box has been vital resource for Nashville teachers and now with a second location they’ll be able able to help even more.

The week one of my favorite writers writes about one of my favorite people, Daryl Sanders and Tommy Womack respectively. Womack has just released a new 42-song career retrospective, 30 Years Shot to Hell: An Anthology and Sanders uses the opportunity tocatch upwith an old friend. It’s a wonderful read.

That’s a wrap.

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. This time of year 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. Thank you for what you said last week about McMinn County. On point.

    You have long used the same argument as you did today–that Shwinn bypassed state policy to get certain materials, insinuating that she did it to give a payday to her friends. Bypassing policy is a problem, but what if the policy is in fact flawed?

    As a long time secondary ELA practitioner in Metro, MyPerpectives is garbage. I am someone who has done my share of professional reading and hearing the big names in literacy speak at national conferences and been to MNPS trainings over the years where they reference all these same ideas, and yet here we are supposedly all aligning around the same curriculum in ELA where we have to go around and behind them to actually implement the principles I have heard all along.

    At the same time, I have used the free version of LearnZillion in the past and found it much stronger than what we have. While no curriculum is perfect, the materials they produce are considerably better than what we have. You produced some relevant facts to the process in today’s column. Why not have more people who teach a given grade band approve the materials since they will teach it? Do they have to have other qualifications, or can one of them be Governor Lee’s wife? LearnZillion was reviewed in the document by two people, And only received a “no” in one listed category, providing a comparison between film and text, which is never tested and the easiest for any teacher to use on their own while publishing companies will struggle with that one because they usually have to in some way secure the rights to show something. Regardless of where you stand on the CC/TN Standards, the book Metro adopted doesn’t fit them. The text dependent questions are a mess, and all the major tasks of each unit have to be significantly re-tooled to align with the text. The test questions they provide look nothing like TNReady, despite being published by Pearson. From my perspective, I wonder if Shwinn was using dubious means to try and actually adopt the better materials? That may not absolve her of anything, but maybe we need to update the textbook selection process to match what people in the field are doing and need to do.

    • I think in Schwann’s mind she was indeed thinking she was in process of getting better materials but the outcomes are debatable. If I’m not mistaken ED was failed on 2 out of 3 categories on its initial review. The issues at play obviously is money, but it’s also an attempt to change the entire profession of teaching. I’ll try and address that more in the coming weeks. Thank you for the thoughtful response.

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