PIERCING THE SMOKE

“After all, isn’t that the Gatsby glory of the New York dream: telling the grandest story about yourself that you could hope to have others believe in the distant hope that you’ll believe it yourself?”
Torrey Peters, Detransition, Baby

 

Before diving into this week’s musings, I would like to share a thought that’s been running through my brain as of late.

Some of you may be familiar with the educator/writer Robert Pondiscio. He’s a former teacher, now writer, who’s a senior fellow at the Fordham Institute. He wrote a book on Success Academy that I hated so much that I never finished, one of a number of which I can count on one hand. I’m one of those guys, who start a book, finish a book or you never learn the full message of an author.  I view reading as a commitment between author and reader, one I honor with consistency but felt justified in breaking with Pondiscio.

An avowed libertarian and advocate for choice, I often find myself in disagreement with his views, That said, I also believe that you can learn from everybody, even those who have opposing opinions. These days, with Pondiscio, I try to focus on the similarities and ignore the differences. An approach that often rewards me with nuggets to chew on.

A couple weeks ago the pundit produced an article on something or other, if I could remember the title I’d certainly share it. He teased the article on Twitter with a statement that raised the postulate that future generations will look back on this age and be surprised at just how committed we were to be unhappy.  That’s not an exact quote – sans an independent research department, I’m too lazy to dig up the exact quote – but close enough for horseshoes and hand grenades.

Ever since I read it, Pondiscio’s thought has stuck in my head like a snippet from a Pitbull song. He’s right you know, We are so focused on what we don’t have, or how we are marginalized, that we routinely fail to take notice of what we do have and how we’ve all been elevated over the years.

We are so busy looking for the next offenses that we miss the celebrations. When was the last time you tunes into a social media platform and were swamped by a positive message of acknowledgment over anything?

I’m not going to go into explanatory mode here, because I think it’s a thought best left to individual minds. We all need to take a moment and self-analyze. Ask yourself, are you more committed to finding reasons for glorification, or are you continually searching for the next justified outrage?

Is it revelry or condemnation you are in pursuit of?

Triumph or failure?

Heroes or villains?

You can’t control your destiny, but you can control your perception.

Now that’s enough of that, onward and upward.

LITERACY PRESENTATION

Commissioner Schwinn may not be particularly good at keeping the TNDOE fully staffed, or prudently using taxpayer money, but she can turn a phrase with the best of them. For example, during the just-completed session of the General Assembly. she sold state legislators on the proposed education funding formula by describing a system where additional benefits were “generated’ through additional investment in the base, and not additional costs.

It was a clever way of deflecting away from reality. It’s not “benefits” that are generated by the weights included in the formula, but rather costs. But in proposing a change, “costs” are no-no words, while benefits are yes-yes words. If you pay attention to Commissioner Schwinn, she seldom traffics in no-no words, always preferring to paint a picture of the positive, whether it’s true or not. After all, the truth is subjective, right?

it shouldn’t surprise anybody that her lieutenants practice the same approach. This week it was Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons who was painting with a broad swath.

Coons, if you are not familiar with the name, came to the TNDOE after a spectacular flameout at MNPS. She was in charge of priority schools but was at a complete loss as to how to improve outcomes. Coons hit up every local institute of higher learning and their experts in search of a way forward, unfortunately for her, MNPS’s Director of Schools Adrienne Battle came up with a strategy before she did, one that did not include Coon’s input.

Having previously been at the TNDOE, this lack of success or clear strategy didn’t deter newly anointed Commissioner Schwinn from making Coons part of her cabinet. Once in place, Schwinn emboldened the new addition and unleashed the Kraken on the state’s LEAs. Coons quickly became the Sammy the Bull to Commissioner Schwinn’s John Gotti.

In her role, Ms. Coons has orchestrated the manipulation of the literacy materials adoption process and has laid a strong foundation for pulling off the same with the newly begun math adoption process. While she was at MNPS, TNTP, who had fallen out of favor with local educators, saw their fortunes suddenly reverse with the awarding of a couple contracts allowing them to work with priority schools in Nashville. Those fortunes have only increased for the education advisory group now that both Coons and Schwinn oversee the state department of education.

Recently Coons has seen all her hard work rewarded with an appointment to the 2022-23 cohort of Broad Fellows. Per the press release,

Starting in June, the Fellows will gather four times over 10 months for weeklong modules at Yale SOM designed to expose them to leading management research and skills that can be applied to the public school systems in which they work. The program also places an emphasis on peer-to-peer learning within the cohort and with leading practitioners in the field. Fellows leverage these learnings as they drive transformative work happening in urban school districts, charter networks, and state education agencies that advance equity and excellence for all students.

In case you are unfamiliar with Broad, they are pretty much at the root of everything wrong with education today. I know that comes as a bit of an overreach, but a simple Google search will offer ample evidence to back up the argument. If you are a comic book fan, picture Emma Frost joining the Hellfire Club. Alright, that’s a little hyperbolic, but you get the idea.

This past week offered Mrs. Coons the opportunity to ply her language manipulation skills in a presentation to the state board of education. Under the guise of sharing results from the state-mandated universal screeners, she tried to paint a picture of success that may or may not be there.

Every good presentation begins with the creation of a brand new phrase. In this case, it is, “URS Statewide Composite”. Sounds official, doesn’t it? But what is it?

Under recently passed legislation, Tennessee schools must administer a state-approved universal reading screener – I’m assuming that’s the URS referenced above – three times a year. The USR used must come from a list of 7 approved screeners. Included in the criteria for the approved screener is the requirement that they are “nationally normed”. There needs to be a little clarification on what that means.

It would be easy to fall under the false assumption that all seven screeners are normed to the same national grouping of students. That would be a false assumption. Each screener is nationally normed to the students nationwide who take that particular screener. That is seven very distinct and different groupings of students.

What that translates to is a wide range of results. Just because a student scored in the 41 percentile for say…MAP…does not translate into an equal percentile in STAR or IReady. They may be 41% in MAP, but if they took FastBridge they’d fall into the 38 percentile, or it is equally possible that they would fall into the 49 percentile. The point is, that all 7 screeners are very different assessments normed to completely different national populations. Yet, Coons and company are trying to take scores from all 7 and reduce them to some kind of composite score that is reflective of the state’s children. That is not an accurate representation. Just as generating benefits was not an accurate description of the weights in the new TISA formula.

But the sophism does not stop there, Coons goes on to present several slides with minimal data points in order to express optimism about the trajectory of student performance. But how can anyone draw a reasonable conclusion without context? None of which is included in Coon’s presentation. It may be great that students grew by 2 percentage points between fall and winter unless of course they usually grow 4 points. Again, it’s not an honest presentation.

Unfortunately, board members did not appear prepared to ask pointed questions, nor raise objections to the associate commissioner’s presentation. Hopefully, somebody is out doing their homework so that future presentations can provide a more accurate portrayal. Allowing the TNDOE to manipulate language unchallenged does the state’s students an incredible disservice, one that needs to be rectified at the soonest opportunity.

A NEW LEADER

Clarksville-Montgomery Schools selected a new leader this week. Provided that contract details work out, Jean Luna-Vedder, who currently serves as chief of student readiness for the Tennessee Department of Education and garnered the votes of 4 out of 7 of the district’s board members, will be the new CMCS director. The other three votes were split between interim superintendent Angela Huff and current chief academic officer Sean Impeartrice, with the former receiving 2 and the latter 1.

Impeartrice is a rising star who is responsible for several of the district’s signature initiatives,. Huff an Atlanta native, was a finalist in a recent director search by MNPS before joining WCS and then CMCS. The fourth finalist was MNPS’s CAO Mason Bellamy who received no votes, thus quelching any illusions that CMCS wanted him back. He was previously an executive officer for the district.

While Luna is a respected administrator and is certain to do well, her selection does raise some questions. Luna has been rumored to have wanted out from the TNDOE months ago, having grown frustrated with Schwinn’s leadership and direction. It’s possible that this move is a reward for years of faithful service and is viewed as a safe landing spot for her. CMCS and TNDOe have shared an especially close relationship over the past three years, so it’s not an impossibility that some behind-the-scenes lobbying was done on behalf of Luna.

Either way, it looks like Clarksville is acquiring a talented leader, while the state losing yet another talented administrator. That might be a good topic for legislators to study this summer – why does nobody want to work at the TNDOE?

A QUESTION OF CHIEFS

Now that Tennessee has passed a school funding formula, speculation has turned to the timeline for the departure of state education commissioner Penny Schwinn. One prevalent rumor has it that she’s ready to get out of town pretty soon because she has no appetite for the pending voucher battle which will be coming next legislative session.

Names have begun to come up in speculation as to who will be next to lead the TNDOE. Jamie Woodson, Bill Dunn, and even former Hamilton County director Bryan Johnson are names that have surfaced. Along with dark horse candidates like Scott Cepicky, JC Bowman, Gini Pupo-Walker, and David Mansouri. But I need you to think about something else, and why we might be getting a little ahead of ourselves in the conversation.

The Jeb Bush founded education non-profit Chiefs for Change has been very active in Tennessee, In the past, they wielded influence, this year playing an integral role behind the scenes in the passing of TISA.

Not too long ago, Tennessee had 5 active Chiefs. Since then Nakia Townes has relocated to Georgia. Millard House to Houston. Candice McQueen doesn’t even allow the organization the use of her name and likeness. Bryan Johnson is still listed as a member, but he currently is a manager at a trucking company. We are not even going to discuss Kevin Huffman. The only remaining active Chief in Tennessee is Penny Schwinn.

If you stop and consider for a moment, Tennessee’s DOE has been led by a Chief for Change member for damn near 15 years, you’ll realize the influence they’ve enjoyed. That’s quite an accomplishment. And likely unmatched in any other state by any other non-profit.

In that light, do you think for a second Chiefs for Change is going to let Mrs. Schwinn ride off into the sunset before the cupboard is re-stocked? Not likely.

So we keep our eyes peeled for the next group of future Chiefs? My money would be on the following, Joris Ray from Memphis, Adrienne Battle from Nashville, and perhaps Danny Weeks from Dickson – though I would argue his sphere of influence is too small. Jean Luna is also a likely candidate as she’s already worked with the organization. I wouldn’t rule out Dr. Jon Rysewyk as a candidate. I would also keep an eye on whoever is selected to run the state’s achievement school district.

Whoever is selected, I think it’s a pretty safe bet that we are stuck with Commissioner Schwinn at least until the new cohort of Chiefs for Change is announced.

MNPS SCHOOL BOARD BLUES

True confession time. I rarely watch MNPSschool board meetings anymore. It’s not that I’m uninterested it’s just that I feel like they’ve become irrelevant. Even a cursory viewing shows a director of schools that excludes board members regularly from major decisions and staff that holds the same in borderline contempt. If you need evidence, just watch HR head, Melissa Roberge, any time she has to climb down from the mountain to address the board.  Roberge, by the way, is still serving as the board’s legal advisor, even as she helms the HR department. How that’s possible escapes me. In any case, the emphasis appears to be on managing the board rather than actively engaging them.

For their part the board appears content to be managed, seldom raising objections when they don’t receive relevant materials in a timely fashion or are included in decisions after the fact. A greater emphasis is placed on the appearance of civility as opposed to actually overseeing the district. Any open disagreements are interpreted as a sign of dysfunction. Only in the world of board politics.

At this juncture, I just don’t have the time or energy to watch a bi-weekly gossip fest. This week though there were some signs that change may be on the horizon.

Mayor Cooper recently announced that he was dedicating an additional $92 million to MNPS for support staff salaries. Whether the mayor has the ability to designate the use of approved funds or not is an often debated subject, though based on the city charter as it is currently written, shouldn’t be. The charter puts the power in the hands of the board. At this point, it’s pretty clear.

At Tuesday’s meeting, the board took up discussion. Per the Nashville Scene,

Highlights from the proposed summary include a 4 percent cost-of-living adjustment for all staff, along with certified step increases and paid family leave. Some support staff positions would also see raises. Bus drivers were benchmarked to receive a $6.20 raise that would put starting wages at $22.25 per hour, while nutrition service workers were set for a $2-per-hour salary increase, and paraprofessionals’ starting pay was proposed to jump by $2.52.

Not everybody thought this was a fair division of funds. Several representatives from local employee advocacy groups raised questions, and in some cases objections. The recommendations were based on a study commissioned by the Mayor’s office and conducted by NPEF. All fair and good, save that the board had not been made privy to the study, yet they were expected to approve the suggestions. When they asked for further explanation, Battle and her team did not exactly leap to compliance. It was clear that they felt this had been discussed with the mayor’s office and that was all the explanation needed. For once board members objected,

“I just think that this school board is at a severe disadvantage and that this much-talked-about pay study has not been presented to us in any way, and yet we have been presented with this summary budget that is supposedly based on this pay study,” said District 3 representative Emily Masters.

And then things got heated, with the motion being tabled until the next meeting.

Perhaps there is hope that the board will now begin to exert some of its authority. Maybe somebody will remind Dr.Battle that she serves at the will of the school board, not the mayor’s office. Maybe somebody will tell the Chief of Staff that he’s not as clever as he thinks he is and that is about educating kids and not political gamesmanship. maybe somebody will finally tell Mellissa Roberge that she can’t continue to serve two masters.

Maybe, maybe is the best we got right now.

Closing thoughts on pay studies. Sure, they are nice and useful, but in the end they old little meaning. A sufficient salary is determined by the number of people willing to do the work for the salary. In the end, it doesn’t matter if you can brag that you pay teachers higher than any other districts in the state if the majority of applicants don’t believe that the salary profered is sufficient for the work required. Nobody is going to be satisfied with their salary solely based on a comparison of salaries in neighboring districts.

Case in point a dear friend who is a level 5 teacher just took a job in Nolensville with a 3k a year payout. what they decided was the additional 3 grand wasn’t worth the expectations of MNPS. What page of the study is that on? The retention of staff can not be reduced to a simple conversation around compensation comparison. just like a school board can not be expected to make a decision bout compensation without all the information available.

That’s it for today, see you at the end of the week.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

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Categories: Education

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