“I don’t make jokes. I just watch the government and report the facts.”
Those of you who have done a little fishing likely are aware of what happens when you take a fish off the hook and it slips out of your fingers, dropping to the floor of the boat or dock. The fish immediately starts frantically flopping around in an effort to return to the water. The fish is blindly jumping all over the place, and depending on its size, there is a chance of it doing serious damage to either your belongings or itself. That was last week for Tennessee’s Boris and Natasha, Governor Bill Lee, and his education commissioner Penny Schwinn.
You’ve probably grown weary of me talking about it, but as I’ve explained ad nauseam over the past 2 years, the ELA textbook adoption process was heavily manipulated by Commissioner Schwinn and the Tennessee Department of Education in order to facilitate the adoption of their preferred materials – Wit and wisdom, CKLA, and EL That whole fiasco has been thoroughly covered and is recognized as corrupted by virtually everybody, but Bill Lee. Though, in my opinion, he’s well aware of what transpired privately, he just publically says otherwise.
Tennessee is now in the early stages of the adoption process for math materials, and not surprisingly the Commissioner is trying to work her magic once again. Only the rules have changed, and as a result of the pandemic, and even though the ELA adoption proved to be a financial windfall for publishers, there is even more money on the table with math.
Nobody could have predicted how profitable the ELA adoption process would be for publishers. If you’ll remember at that time, not everybody had a lot of cash, and districts were afforded the right to adopt but not implement. in other words, an LEA could indicate that were adopting materials but then plead poverty, and not purchase anything. It happened with some regularity.
Well, COVID changed all of that. The state, and districts, suddenly found themselves flush with cash from the Feds, and new legislation was passed requiring districts to not only select materials but actually put them to use. Since the Federal money was only temporary and couldn’t be used for recurring expenses – i.e. teachers – incentive was created to use it to purchase programs and materials. I’m sure many a glass of champagne has been raised from the deck of a publisher’s newly purchased yacht to Ms. Schwinn.
With success comes a desire to replicate, and so the same tactics were slated to be employed for the upcoming math materials adoption, but unfortunately, replication was going to be a bit more difficult. Some legislators have grown wise to the Schwinigans and as a result, laws were passed designed to limit the Commissioner’s involvement in the process. A new chair was appointed to the textbook commission – Linda Cash, who isn’t wasn’t as prone to play the Commissioners nod, nod, wink, wink, game. The number of folks paying attention had also increased exponentially.
The degree of difficulty has definitely increased, but nothing a little creativity can overcome. And when it comes to creativity, the commissioner has it well covered.
First, the TNDOE jas floated a quiet hint that if districts wanted to use some of their federal money to invest in math materials, they wouldn’t object. Even though the vetting process on materials hadn’t even begun, it is quite understandable that LEA’s would want to get a jump on adopting “high-quality” materials and if they didn’t do it now, they might not have access to that federal money. As long as those districts pick the right vendor, the TNDOE has shown no inclination to stand in their way.
The state’s department likes to use the term “high-quality” materials in championing one set of curricula over another. The problem is, what is the definition for HQ materials? Since the commission hadn’t yet begun the review list of qualified state materials, who knows? Of course, you can always ask the Commissioner and her head-henchwoman LisaCooons and they’ll steer you right, but other than that, there is no official definition for what qualifies as “HQ materials.”
Several districts have taken advantage of the current financial windfall to “early adopt” math materials, even though state law expressly forbids it, They’ll dance around what they’re doing, being very careful not to use the words, “core”, “supplement”, or “Pilot. They may not be calling it an early adoption, but that’s where the old nod, nod, wink, wink, practice comes into play, and it’s always easier to ask for forgiveness than it is to ask for permission.
Another useful tactic has been the implementation of “high-dosage tutoring”. You may be under the impression that tutoring in Tennessee follows whatever the classroom material calls for..ah, but not so fast.
The TNDOE has entered into a contract with Zearn, a video platform that helps accelerate student learning through the use of its curriculum. Let’s forget for a moment that the TNDOE is endorsing a remote learning platform to accelerate student learning while refusing to allow districts the ability to decide if they should go remote or not, and focus on this curriculum. The beauty is that the adoption commission has the ability to limit supplemental usage, pilot programs, and core curriculum, the law says absolutely nothing about the curriculum used for tutoring.
Equally fortuitous, Zearn promotes itself as being a curriculum that aligns with Eureka Math and EngageNY, the same folks that produce Wit and Wisdom and CKLA respectively. The very same Wit and Wisdom received 33 waivers for adoption from Commissioner Schwinn despite failing to pass the rubric put in place by her selected panelists on the adoption committee.
Zearn also is closely aligned with Illustrated Math, a curriculum developed at the University of Arizona and yet another beneficiary of the Gates Foundation. To the tune of $881,657.
Now think about this, if you are heavily invested in “high-dosage” tutoring and you are using the platform promoted by the TNDOE, when it comes to adopting math material next year, aren’t you going to lean towards one that closely aligns with your tutoring offerings? Or are you going to pick one that you are unsure of how it aligns.? When setting up your tutoring program with your Zearn rep, they are probably not ever going to mention Eureka or Engage NY, right?
It’s all very sneaky but subtle, two of the commissioner’s favorite criteria. But she ain’t done yet.
last week the TNDOE released an RFP that calls for the following,
Access to High-Quality Instructional Materials (HQIM) has a significant impact on learning for students. Through our state-level work with English Language Arts (ELA), we also know that strong district implementation of materials is crucial to maximize the benefit of HQIM for student learning. Districts who have selected vendor partners trained to support effective implementation as a part of their participation in the ongoing literacy implementation networks are successfully moving through the stages of implementation. This procurement will capitalize on that momentum by providing an approved mathematics vendor list from which a school district that is a Math Implementation Support
Grant recipients can select a vendor to support their district math HQIM initiatives.
Up to one hundred (100) participant districts may be awarded Math Implementation Support Grants. The grants will fund HQIM implementation supports spanning the 2022-23 and 2023-24 school years.
Huh? The year before a math adoption takes place, the state is offering to offer assistance in adopting “high-quality” materials/ Materials that have yet to be identified.
Here’s where the flopping starts. When legislators questioned the propriety of this RFP and its possible undue influence on the textbook adoption process, they were told by the DOE that it had nothing to do with the future. This was to supply help with materials that had already been adopted. Now, I’m not sure if the DOE is referring to those materials adopted 6 years ago, or the ones that have been adopted illegally prior to the official adoption period. Either way, the explanation is laughable.
You may be asking, why do I care about any of this? If you don’t care about local control and the ability of districts to determine what’s best for their students and families, you probably don’t care. If you don’t care about money’s going to people who have personal relationships with government officials, you probably don’t care. If you are a proponent fro a national curriculum, you probably don’t care. And if you have no qualms about transferring large amounts of public money to private entities with little accountability, you probably don’t care.
One last little note on this subject, before we proceed to more flopping on the deck, Governor Lee likes to tout his commitment to conservative values by claiming that Tennessee’s education policy is set at the local level. Well, let’s consider that. The driving force in education policy in Tennessee over the last decade has been the Tennessee State Collaborative On Reforming Education(SCORE). SCORE has received millions from the Gates Foundation including over $6 million to, “support the ongoing work with LIFT and to provide guidance/oversight for teacher engagement efforts through ECET2s and teacher leader network development.”
Remember the LIFT districts are where the Science of Reading and HQ curriculum first got their toes in the door. Independent of everything else they receive, SCORE receives every couple of years an extra couple million for, “general operating support”. That number was 2.2 million and it was received in April.
So here’s the riddle, if the state’s leading policy advocates are funded by an out-of-state billionaire, whose policies are really getting adopted? What’s the difference between Gates determining Tennessee’s education policy and the federal government? Those are questions sure to produce some flopping on the deck, but will anyone ever ask them?
Last session laws were passed by legislators that were designed to minimize the input of Commissioner Schwinn on textbook adoption. Those efforts have clearly not worked as intended, as the commissioner has made it abundantly clear that she cares not a wit about the desires of the General assembly. She couldn’t make that any clearer unless she hammered a sign into the front yard of legislators that read, “I don’t give a fuck what you think.” Some would argue that she’s already done that.
The only question left, is why do legislators allow this, and why are they afraid of Governor Lee?
THE ULTIMATE PARTICIPATION TROPHY
If you are an education policy advocate, and you were on social media last Friday, you were likely inundated by social media posts from districts and the TNDOE celebrating Best For All designations. Like most people, you were probably a little confused and labored under the belief that these districts had actually accomplished something worth celebrating. Hell, there were cakes and flags and charming children galore, the only thing missing was true merit.
Like everything the commissioner does, this was more smoke and mirrors.
So how does a district earn “Best for All” status? Do they increase measurable student outcomes? Do they retain more teachers? Do they increase attendance? Do they pay teachers better? Maybe. Maybe not. Because Best For All doesn’t actually utilize any of that criteria.
Taking a look at the press release from last July – yes I said last July – the criteria are laid out as such,
To qualify for the Best for All recognition program, a district or charter school must spend 50% of its ESSER 3.0 award amount on proven, research-based strategies to raise student academic achievement and participate in the TN ALL Corps tutoring grant program to provide students with high dosage, low ratio tutoring opportunities.
That’s it. Nothing else, Has there ever been a lower bar for inclusion? Yet, as low as that bar is, Commissioner Schwinn could only get 68 out of 147 LEA’s to participate. That includes the state Achievement Schools District, which I think we can all agree is far from anyone’s vision of “best for All”.
So are we assume that the other 87 districts in Tennessee are using non-proven strategies? Because the inference is that they are all doing less than all for their students?
Here’s the catch to it all, in order to be classified as “Best for All” a district has to invest in programs favored by Commissioner Schwinn. It’s no secret that TN ALL Corps is her personal baby, and those 67 participants did not come easy. She had to do some extensive carrot and stick work to get that many involved, Which begs the question, if participation is so admirable, why did less than half of the state’s LEAs choose to stay on the sideline?
That question is amplified when you start to look at the benefits of membership,
- Celebratory letter from the Tennessee Department of Education
- Recognition and banner as a TN ALL Corps District or School
- Free online high school tutoring services
Oh, wait, that last one doesn’t exist yet. The RFP was just released a couple of weeks ago.It’s still in the development phase. Though these benefit do raise some eyebrows,
- Planning grant bonus
- Planning Grants fund redistribution
- $700 per year for each participating student in TN ALL Corps
- Consideration and bonus points for future grants and resources
- Opportunities to increase teacher income through tutoring income
- Exclusive access to funds that need to be recouped and reallocated to districts
- Access to planning grants upon request, as part of the network
Where is this money coming from and who authorized the commissioner to pick winners and losers based on participation in her pet projects?
What the commissioner has pulled here is akin to the old protection rackets. The local mobsters show up and explain the dangers and benefits of you forking over a portion of your earnings to them. Schwinn took it one step forward and held a press conference to claim they are now living in the safest neighborhood in town. The chutzpah. employed is almost admirable.
Before we move on, let take a look at this nugget from July’s press release,
Districts will document their spending in federally required plans that are due to the Tennessee Department of Education by August 27th, 2021 for review and approval. All district plans are required to be posted publicly upon approval, and Best for All districts and public charter schools will be announced in September.
Worth noting that the DOE just got around to approving all plans 2 weeks ago, and now in February we are holding a Best for All celebration. Nothing ever gets done on time with this department of education.
Last week Governor Lee held another press conference to announce that is legislation reforming the BEP hasn’t been written yet, but when we see it, it’ll be awesome. This comes on the heels of a press conference the previous week that announced basically the same thing. It’s starting to look a whole lot like a Saturday Night Live skit, and begins to beg the question if you can’t produce legislation in a timely manner, how can we trust the legislation you produce?
In the same vein, Memphis Rep Mark White is out calling folks to support the BEP legislation, but when lawmakers ask to see the legislation, I can only imagine a long pause follow by, “How about them Grizzlies?”
When Governor Lee celebrated the state’s $5.6 billion investment into an electric vehicle and battery factory in West Tennessee, he also mentioned that the state would invest $40 million to build a Tennessee College of Applied Technology near the mega-site to provide skilled workers for the electric vehicle plant. The CAT program currently produces less than 100 graduates a year. Ford has indicated they plan to bring 5800 jobs to the county, So, where are the extra 5700 coming from?
Hmmm….perhaps there are some union members in other states looking to relocate. Unfortunately for Governor Lee most of them are probably Democrats. Ooops. Like i said in the beginning, fish flopping around on the deck.
Muted congratulation is in order for Fall-hamilton’s Matthew Portell. Portell has taken a job with a national organization that addresses trauma students. A talented administrator, the opportunity will allow him to build upon his success at Fall-Hamilton. The congratulations are muted because the principal’s exit is scheduled for March 4, A skilled educator leaving for another position prior to the completion of the school year is never desirable, but we wish Principal Portell luck in his newest endeavor. MNPS will definitely miss him.
We got more, but that should whet your appetite for this Valentine’s Day week, Give your special one an extra tight hug and we’ll have more for you soon.
.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.
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