THANK YOU, TEACHERS

“I said, ‘The truth is whatever you can get away with.’ ‘No, that’s journalism. The truth is whatever you can’t escape.”
Greg Egan,      

 

I hope those of you enjoying Spring Break this week are using the time to recharge batteries and reconnect with families and friends. As the spouse of a public school educator, I can attest that this has been perhaps the most challenging year ever, and has definitely taken a toll on teachers, principals, support staff, and even students.

There is no shame in admitting that, despite efforts by several folks on social media. They would have you believe that all the negative talk comes from the uncommitted and the malcontents. Not so.

It’s ironic that teaching is a calling and a service profession when outsiders are looking for more sacrifice and commitment, but just a job when teachers are looking for more input and influence on their profession. and practice

Lately, we’ve seen a plethora of articles published that attempt to downplay the current challenges with staffing schools – teachers, substitutes, and support staff – in an attempt to downplay the very real issues at hand. The latest comes from Matt Barnum over at Chalkbeat. Barnum’s piece argues that despite all the anecdotal evidence, teachers may be unhappy but they are staying put.

He’s got lots of numbers and data to support the argument that things are about where they always are.

But data obtained from five states and 19 large U.S. school districts, including New York City and Houston, shows that turnover going into this school year was comparable to rates before the pandemic.

In Maryland, teacher attrition hovered between 9% and 10% from 2011 to 2019. In 2020, it fell to 7.3%, but it ticked back up to 9.3% ahead of this school year, according to data provided by state officials.

Mohammed Choudhury, Maryland’s state superintendent. goes a little further in painting a positive picture, “Our retention rates overall are holding steady. It is not some kind of broad-stroke, red-alert type of concern.”

Tell that to the teacher who’s covering a class for the third time in a week because no one else is available. Tell that to the high school students who are spending third period in the gym again because there is not a qualified teacher available for their class.

Evidence abounds in our schools of the impact and challenges of staffing, but to see those you have to actually spend a little time in the building, and you actually have to build authentic relationships with the people in regular contact with kids. Something that district leaders seem loathe to do.

Administrators like to point to their walk-throughs, and guest substitute teaching appearances as evidence of them keeping their finger on the pulse. I particularly hate the latter. Spending a day playing with kids, invariably leads the practitioner into a false sense of knowledge about a teacher’s actual day-to-day responsibilities.

Furthermore, don’t these executives have actual jobs that require their attention? We are paying them six figures for a position that allows them to substitute teach for a day, while we pay teachers half that and their presence is inflexible.  Doesn’t that seem a little misaligned to you?

My favorite quote in Barnum’s article comes from a researcher at the University of Arkansas who has studied teacher turnover. Apparently, she’s still a little concerned about the situation.

 “I still worry,” said Gema Zamarro. “Teachers are stressed and burned out. Even if they don’t leave, that could be bad.”

Could be bad?!?

As a career middle manager, I’ve made the argument throughout my life that there is more than one way to quit a job. Unhappy people may not leave – especially not in the age of the passive-aggressive – they may stay and do less work. Equally undesirable.

Sure you retain a body in the position, but are you getting the full benefit of that person? Are they contributing to a culture conducive to realizing high expectations? Are they being innovative and willingly doing a little extra? Or are they merely drawing a paycheck and marking time to retirement?

So yes, a staff full of unhappy teachers is cause for concern. In fact, it can be catastrophic.

Let’s be clear, I’m not accusing teachers of purposely tanking. Lord knows there is more than enough evidence to argue the contrary. But when you have a staff that is nearly universally exhausted and disheartened, things go south unconsciously and that becomes the issue.

Teachers for the most part hate the term human capital, and I’m in agreement, but for the purpose of this illustration, it works. If you are running a steam engine that burns coal inefficiently, you are never going to get full production out of that engine, let alone operate in a financially prudent manner. That’s a concept that is universally grasped, yet we fail to adhere to it when managing school staff.

The same holds true for support staff. Think bus drivers don’t impact student outcomes? I’ll direct you to the middle school math teacher who shared with me his recent analysis of MAP scores from the winter.

Shockingly, all of his students whose busses regularly arrived on time achieved their projected growth. Of the students whose buses were routinely late, all but one student failed to make their projected gains.

Causation or correlation? I don’t know, But I do know that we’ve made policy decisions based on far less evidence, so I wouldn’t discount it.

Despite knowing the importance of support staff, nearly 3/4 through the year, schools still face shortages of bus drivers, cafeteria workers, and substitute teachers. When pushed for answers, legislators and district leaders for the most part shrug and say, “That’s a national problem. it’s tough all over.” As if that is supposed to serve as a solution. Though in all fairness, sometimes they’ll put an ad in the paper or stage a job fair., so I guess in their eyes they are trying.

At some point, somebody has to grasp that we’ve increased teacher accountability while increasing their societal responsibilities. We also have to realize that newly enacted policies are increasingly putting teachers in harm’s way. I plan to write more about this in the future, but the incidents of teachers being hurt on the job are growing at an alarming rate and as such, demand attention sooner rather than later.

The other point that has to be screamed from the mountain tops, is that we better hope that the actual data never matches the anecdotal. If that happens, we are really up shit’s creek without a paddle. Because it is well documented that enrollment numbers in teacher prep programs have been on a steady decline over the past decade. In other words, the flow of water being used to fill the leaky bucket is slowing to a dribble at the same time more holes are rusting out in the bucket. For you STEAM fanatics, that’s an engineering problem that needs solving.

Sure TNDOE and former TNDOE HR head honcho David Donaldson are out promoting their fantastic “grow Your Own” Programs, but the results from those programs, while mostly positive, have been limited and there is little evidence that they are scalable at a level that could adequately meet our current needs.

In the early part of the last decade, legislators and administrators were able to shrug and say, “Meh, it’s be all right. We’ve got Teach For America and TNTP to lean on for staffing needs.” Yea, well that crutch has been jerked away as well.

TNTP has found that producing poorly researched position papers, and using them to procure state contracts, is a much more lucrative endeavor than staffing schools,

As for TFA, their numbers are down as well. Seems like when presented with a choice, college graduates with high student debt would prefer to start addressing that debt with a high-paying job instead of adding to their debt by teaching for a couple years. Who knew? Well other than almost everybody.

This isn’t the soapbox I meant to climb up on this morning, but sometimes you have to go where the dance takes you. The bottom line is, in the immortal words of Chuck D, don’t believe the hype. No matter what story people might try to paint, schools – charter, public, private – are facing a significant labor challenge in the coming years. One that won’t be solved through the increased use of tutors or technology.

To Tennessee teachers, to steal from the Marines, you are the few, the brave, and the proud. And we salute you. Enjoy the break…you’ve earned it.

LEGISLATIVE PLAZA

This is going to be a make-or-break week for education policy in Tennessee. This year’s session of the General Assembly is close to coming to an end, and legislators are tired and need to get out on the campaign trail, But some heavy lifting remains. It’s time to play the TISA game.

After 3 months of a traveling sideshow that was equal part vaudeville and kabuki theater, it’s time to deliver a pass or fail mark.

The Senate is likely to pass the funding bill, as they are the more staid of the two branches. You seldom see as many fireworks and they tend to follow the lead of the Governor. They are akin to kids in the class who sit in the front row.

Though I will say, that today in the Senate Education Committee meeting, they made liars out of me. Senator Bell did a wonderful job of reading his script, but several others left theirs at home and instead pushed the Commissioner of Education. Senator Yarboro(D) did a good job illuminating the shortcomings of the department’s projections and others across the aisle from him, picked up the thread by asking very probing questions.  All of it worked to illustrate that the governor’s bill is rooted in some very shaky math. Maybe it’s an example of that California math, and we Tennesseans can’t quite grasp it.

In response to questions around today’s hearings, Yarboro stated,

“The biggest problem with the BEP is that it doesn’t actually include all of the teachers. I’m not sure why we’d do a whole formula overhaul without fixing the single biggest problem for educational funding.”

That’s a good question and one Commissioner Schwinn didn’t have a talking point for.

Furthermore, I’m not sure everybody was aware of just how much paperwork and supporting calculations will be required by the TNDOE, not to mention oversight, if this bill passes. There is just no way that the DOE in its current configuration can meet these needs. Luckily I’m sure that Schwinn knows a friend, who knows a friend…but I digress.

Tomorrow she’ll face Tennessee House members, who more closely resemble those students who sit in the back row. They are often more unruly and willing to challenge authority. Like those unruly kids in the back of a classroom, it’s easy to dismiss them as being less intelligent. By the same token, to do so with either group is a  risk to your own peril. They often see things invisible to those in the front row.

TISA legislation is by all accounts fraught with issues. Many of those issues are nicely laid out by ChalkbeatTN’s Marta Aldridge. After reading her piece, it’s pretty clear that “transparency” is one of the words that we like to say more than we like to adhere to.  After watching today’s Senate hearing, I’m not sure how anyone can postulate that the new formula qualifies as transparent.

For me, the primary issues come down to a loss of local control, and the risk of future tax increases, devoid of tangible benefits. The Governor and his Commissioner of Education like you to believe that the local/state split will be 70/30. but remember those Chuck D words. The reality is that for many it will be closer to a 65/35 split, while others will see a 60/40 split. That makes property tax increases inevitable.

When the bill hits the House Education sub-committee floor expect a flurry of amendments, and potentially some substantial alterations. The Governor has already released his amendment, chief among those is the curtailing of professional development. For his part, Chair Mark White will have his hands full pleasing his committee members while maintaining the vision of Governor Lee.

It’ll be interesting to see if both White and Bell qualify for the Dunn retirement plan, or if the Governor will only bestow one of them with the honor.

No matter what, by this time next week, we’ll have a clearer picture of what the future holds, and where the power lies.

So to quote the sheriff of Nottingham, “Let the games begin.”

WHO”S REALLY BENEFITTING

The rich just keep getting richer. You might remember me telling you about an RFP that the TNDOE had recently filed looking for companies to provide training services for the adoption of math materials a year before the math adoption process was to begin. Quite a few people said, “WTF?”. Well, this week the winners of that RFP was awarded and no one should be surprised by who the riches went to,

  • TNTP (The employer of Commissioner Schwinn’s husband Pau and already a recipient of $16 million in state contracts last year)l)
  • The New Teacher Center (Led by Atyani Howard, who before her role at NTC, served as the vice president of academics for The New Teacher Project (TNTP))
  • NIET (Recently led by former Tennessee Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen)
  • PIVOT Learning (Led by Dr. Arun RamanathaCEO . Prior to joining Pivot Learning Partners, Dr. Ramanathan served as the Executive Director of the Education Trust-West. Yep…that ED Trust)
  • School Kit (Their COO is Linda Budririonis, who is the project lead for the Louisiana Department of Education ELA content leader initiative).
  • Instruction Partners (led by former TNDOE Associate Superintendent Emily Freitag)

All are substantially funded by the Bill and Melanie gates Foundation. Instructional Partners alone have received over $4 million. And here you thought that just because Common Core was moving to the background,  its proponents weren’t getting paid anymore.

The question I would suggest asking Bill Lee this summer would be, who’s setting state education policy, the Gates Foundation, or the General Assembly as representatives of Tennesseans? That might be a good question for campaigning legislators as well.

I doubt you’ll get a truthful answer. But the picture is becoming more apparent every day.

QUICK HITS

Last week saw the introduction of SB 2021. It was dropped last minute into a caption bill and it empowers County Mayors to appoint school board members to replace elected members s if a district has 10 or more schools designated by the state as “Priority Schools” for three years running. It takes no stretch of the imagination to figure out who this is directed at. Republican legislators have repeatedly referred to this bill as the “Mayor Cooper” bill. Maybe. It was hatched though by the Nashville Chamber of Commerce. Once again demonstrates their belief that they know better than the voters of Nashville.

No evidence exists that supports the supposition that a mayor will make better choices than the voters and ample evidence to the contrary. Ironically, after years of turmoil, the former employer of Nashville’s former superintendent, Prince George, is moving towards an elected school board. The chamber never wavered in their support of Dr. Joseph, despite overwhelming evidence, seem bent on making us repeat their failed experiment. Per Sasser, a Virginia blogger,

The Prince George’s school board has been mired in controversy on and off for years, prompting a series of changes in the panel’s structure, from all-elected to all-appointed to hybrid and eventually — it would appear — back to all-elected.

The education sub-committee Chairman Mark White has indicated that he plans to take the bill off notice this week, but we’ll see. Some people feel that the amendment was floated out in an effort to curtail opposition to TISA legislation. So its future may be linked to that bill.

Keep in mind, just because it’s taken off notice, doesn’t mean it disappears. it is likely that the House and Senate will pass separate TISA bills. That means reconciliation between the two bills could be required, That’s where this initiative could resurface.

To quote Sherlock Holmes, “Watson, the game is afoot.”

QUICK HITS

Let me lay this out. A former Baltimore TFA alumni arrive in Tennessee from Puerto Rico. Previously he’d been in Michigan, where he was the Chris Barbic of Michigan’s Achievement School District,  He arrives in Tennessee in the wake of a fraud scandal involving their Commissioner of Education with whom he has a long-standing professional relationship.  She was a reference on his resume.

A newly hired Tennessee Commissioner of Education, reeling from her own scandal in Texas, hires him as head of the TNDOE Human Resources department at a six-figure salary. He and the Commissioner worked together to the level that questions were raised about their relationship outside of the office,. To the point where reportedly rumors were addressed in a staff meeting.  Rumors were cleared and nothing was ever proven that the two shared an inappropriate relationship.

Upon arriving in Tennessee, said young man quickly jumped on a successfully budding teacher development program being implemented in Clarksville and claimed it for the state’s own. The program received recognition from the US Department of Education. Roughly seven months ago the young man leaves the employment of the TNDOE. For 6 months he worked with Columbia law school before a month ago starting his own  501C, called…wait for it…the National Center for Grow Your Own. He hired his former executive assistant and as near as I can tell the two remain the only employees.

This week a new RFA was released by the TNDOE for

The Department is seeking a video production vendor to create, edit, and produce short videos with pre-submitted footage and pre-submitted content. The Contractor will be responsible for building a series of 7-10 videos that range in length from 2-10 minutes (as determined by the State). The vendor will be asked to generate key visual elements (graphics and animations) to help deliver key messages intended for various audiences.

It’s only for a $50K contract, which feels a little low for what’s required. The proposed contract does have this stipulation,

The Contractor acknowledges, understands, and agrees that this Contract shall be null and void if the Contractor is, or within the past six (6) months has been, an employee of the State of Tennessee or if the Contractor is an entity in which a controlling interest is held by an individual who is, or within the past six (6) months has been, an employee of the State of Tennessee.

Luckily,,, never mind… I await the outcome of all of this with bated breath.

That does it for today.

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 sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. I am offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. Your support would be greatly appreciated.

If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, 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

1 reply

  1. Regarding teacher flight – rather than the ones who quit and leave, I worry far more about the ones who quit and stay.

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