WHY WOULD ANYONE WANT THE GIG?

“The popular contemporary wisdom that a liberal arts education is outmoded is true only to the extent that social equality, liberty, and worldly development of mind and character are outmoded and have been displaced by another set of metrics: income streams, profitability, technological innovation.”
Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos: Neoliberalism’s Stealth Revolution

 

I wasn’t going to write anything this week, We are getting out carpets replaced, and as a result, the house is in a state of complete disrepair. But I got to thinking…and to reading…and to talking..and here we are.

Yesterday, Memphis’s Commercial Appeal ran a piece about the pending departure of the Achievement School District’s interim Superintendent Lisa Settle.  Settle, the latest individual to think she could make sense out of a billion-dollar train wreck, Many of us, myself included, labored under the misinformation that Settle had been named permanent director back in 2020, but that’s not the way it was laid out to legislator this past session when department officials said they were still searching for a permanent leader. Whatever, her official title, it’s now in the rearview mirror and the state is looking for another sucker.

I know that sounds harsh, but let’s be honest, the whole priority school initiative is a fool’s errand. Over the last decade, there have been a half dozen individuals who thought they’d take a shot at it, and every one of them has fallen short. Every one of them has left within two years, having failed to significantly move the needle. But nobody seems to notice, we just trot out the next idealist and watch them crash against the rocks. The definition of insanity certainly applies here.

For those of you unfamiliar with the term, “priority schools” are those designated by the state, that live in the bottom 5% of districts across the state. Roughly a decade ago, under then-Commissioner Kevin Huffman and his boy wonder Chris Barbic, Tennessee formalized priority school status and created a brand new district dedicated to those schools, the Tennessee Achievement School District.

Within four years. Barbic was packing it in. Much like Settle, he tried to write his own press release and spin the past as a rousing success. But it was easy to read between the lines.

Critics at the time recognized the basic fatal flaw in the design was that there would always be a 5% and thus the need for the district would exist in perpetuity. They also recognized that the state had not shown any indication that they were qualified for improving individual schools, so it was doubtful that they would meet the goals of this social experiment either. The results were unfortunately predictable and the abysmal failure of the ASD has been well documented.

When Barbic departed, he gave the eulogy that should have been accepted, but never has been, “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results,” he wrote. “I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.” Words that continue to fall on deaf ears.

Around the idea of “priority school,” a cottage industry sprung up. Labeled “turn around school work”, it worked off the concept that talented educators could lead chronically under-performing schools out of the wasteland and transform them into high-performing institutes of learning. A grand but fruitless idea.

My argument has always been that the “turnaround school” concept is nothing but a resume builder for ambitious administrators. When is a school officially turned around? If they string together 2 years of improved test scores and then fall backward, was the school ever turned around? I promise you though, it is going on somebodies resume.

Still, the concept persists, and we continue to pretend that a problem is being addressed. It’s a canard that plays out on both state and local levels.

Metro Nashville Public Schools just announced the promotion of Renita Forbes Perry to Chief of Innovation for MNPS, a position previously held by Dr. Sharon Griffin, who retired in January of 2022. This position oversees the district’s priority schools. Perry has been serving as interim-Executive Officer for the Schools of Innovation since Dr. Griffin’s retirement and previously served as Executive Director for Elementary Schools in the division. She brings more than 20 years of school leadership and teaching experience, including in Morocco, Texas, and Tennessee.

Perry is by all accounts a talented educator, and worthy of the promotion, but quick, name me the last 5 people that held the position prior to her. Griffin comes to mind, and Lisa Coons prior to her. But the only reason that Coons sticks with me is that she went on to be the state’s chief academic officer despite failing miserably to make an impact on the district’s priority schools. But I draw a blank when I try to name anyone prior to Coons. That has become the nature of the job.

I hate to say it and pray I am wrong, but I can’t help but think that Perry is destined for the same fate. Precious few schools have transitioned off of the priority school list over the last decade, and it seems the only means a district has to decrease its number of priority schools is through school closure or performing a little better than the other poor-performing schools. Neither is an attractive proposition.

That doesn’t mean conceding the fight to improve student outcomes, but rather a widening of strategies, including possibly redistricting some schools and expanding the curriculum. In the past, arguably too much emphasis has been placed on tested subjects, while other areas like the arts, sciences and social studies have been neglected. Even if tho test scores in question rise, I think few will argue that students in high-needs schools are getting a comparable education to those in schools populated by the more affluent. That should not be acceptable to anyone.

Peter Greene recently wrote an article for Forbes that addresses this very issue,

And decades of high-stakes testing have convinced many schools that the rule is “don’t get too many low scores,” resulting in little focus on creating excellence for students who are sure to get high test scores while focusing resources on getting low-achieving students to crank out good math and reading test scores—even if we have to take away other courses and recess to do it. This doesn’t push to make schools excellent; just to avoid doing poorly.

It seems like we are capable of recognizing the needs, and potential pitfalls, but remain intent on doing what we know doesn’t work. In sports, we talk a lot about the difference between playing to win and playing not to lose. There is a huge difference, and the latter often produces the very thing it aspires to avoid.

The underlying problem is, that legislators have created a punitive system that forces schools to narrow options to avoid a takeover by the state. The threat is levied despite any indication that the state department of education knows any more about increasing student outcomes than the locals do, The opposite is often born out.

Recently Boston Schools were threatened with a takeover by the state of Massachusetts. A threat that produced an in-depth analysis of previous state takeovers, and found that success remained elusive. “The stories of success are few and far between,” said Paul Reville, a former Massachusetts secretary of education who also helped craft the legislation creating the school takeover authority. “Those expecting a miracle from a state takeover in Boston are likely to be sorely disappointed.”

Part of the problem is that we now live in a world of school choice, and those with options are free to exercise them. Few parents with options will leave their children enrolled in a school that has been taken over by the state. What’s left behind are those students with few or no options. Making the job infinitely more difficult.

This past legislative session provided an opportunity to put an end to the whole ASD dumpster fire but Democrats failed to pick up the ball. There was a significant number of Republican legislators that quietly expressed an openness to supporting legislation that would end the ASD. Instead, the TNDOE was allowed to craft ASD 2.0, another social experiment destined for failure.

The schools included in the first cohort are scheduled to depart by the end of the 2025-26 school year. Though it remains unclear how many will receive independent charter school contracts and how many will be absorbed by their home school district.  Officials have indicated that 2.0 will encompass turnaround work for 85-90 low-performing schools across the state but only translate to state takeover for a smaller number than the 27 the state last took over.

During testimony to legislators, Schwinn indicated that the ASD would be grabbing new schools. Since the commissioner has shown a propensity to say whatever suits her at the moment. whether or not 2.0 is populated or not is another wait-and-see proposition.

The problem at the root of all of this is that educating children is a multifaceted endeavor shaped by a combination of socioeconomic factors. The very tests we rely on as indicators of growth, are themselves better indicators of socioeconomic status than student achievement. Yet we continue to rely on them and act as if employed strategies are successful. Settle herself pays homage to the idea herself in the Commercial Appeal.

“I love turnaround work, I love priority schools…My heart is in education and educating children, especially in Memphis. This is my home,” said Settle. She plans to stay in education, welcoming new roles in Memphis or with the state, but didn’t share the next step on Monday.

I’m glad adults love “turnaround school” work. Now if only it was a little more successful, then we might have something.

IF IT WALKS LIKE A DUCK, TALKS LIKE A DUCK, IT IS LIKELY…

For almost a year now there has been considerable talk about the financial windfall created by MNPS’s COVID contract with a private entity founded by Meharry Medical College executives. Supporters point to it as a public/private partnership that benefited both the historically black college and the public school system. Often painting critics of the $14 million no-bid contract as being seeped in racism. They claim that the only reason that we are even discussing the contract is because of Meharry’s status as an HBU. A claim that is getting harder and harder to sustain as more details emerge.

The latest comes from an article in Mainstreet Nashville that reveals officials “pressured a vendor to provide equipment at a price significantly below market value, then charged Metro Nashville Public Schools $1.9 million for the equipment – nearly double what it paid the vendor.”

“When it came to light that Meharry billed Metro $1.9 million for the cameras, I was surprised as our negotiated program price was significantly less than that amount,” Paul Kapu, owner of RED.Care Inc., which provided the devices, told Main Street Nashville.

It seems that the increased scrutiny was not without merit. Here’s hoping that nobody starts asking individual schools where those body scanners now reside. Most are in storage facilities and back rooms, while some remain unassembled. Not unlike the exercise machines, we buy for our households only to turn them into expensive clothes drying racks.

This is a little alarming when you consider that the primary purpose of these scanners is to provide early detection of armed intruders,

“It’s important to understand that the SecureScan system is overkill when it comes to thermal temperature measurement as it is primarily designed for secure access control and has the capability to detect active shooters. This is a high-end solution,” Kapu said.

In other words, there are tools already available to every single MNPS school and they are not being utilized. This opportunity where we could make lemonade out of lemons if we chose to do so. But that would require an admission of miscalculation, and ain’t nobody doing that.

Another concern often raised during the period of implementation was the number of man-hours billed. Mainstreet Nashville has found evidence that those concerns were also warranted,

According to a list of employees hired under the contract obtained by Main Street Nashville through a public records request, there are no employees specifically listed for IT work. According to records, it appears only one employee – ReCOVer Health executive Alfonzo Alexander – apparently has any experience with IT.

That’s important because,

MNPS was billed a total of $2.9 million for data integration services during the course of the contract. According to memos submitted to the district accounting for man-hours worked, just 689 man-hours were reported worked on data integration services between February and June 2021.

It seems that was once written off as merely bad optics might run a whole lot deeper. But will it raise to the level of being a conversation on the board floor? If precedent is our guide, the answer to that question is not a positive one.

At the very least it should be part of any conversation around a contract extension for Dr. Battle. That conversation is slated for today, and its outcome could greatly influence the future of MNPS. If the board communicates an unwillingness to hold leaders accountable, will the public continue to pledge fealty to the public school system?

If only we weren’t so quick to label critics as ill-informed, and show a propensity cast those who question as being ill-intentioned. Over the past decade, those who raise questions around MNPS spending have been proven right more often than they’ve been discounted. That equation needs to flip.

QUICK HITS

If rumors are to be believed, MNPS has some real problems in both the Federal Programs and SEL departments.  The former has seen considerable turnover over the last month and the latter has seen its meetings rachet up in intensity. Details remain elusive, but more and more smoke is starting to seep out. And you know what they say smoke is an indicator of.

EduWeek has an interview with Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. Per usual, she offers more word salad than red met,

While other Grow Your Own partnerships required partners to track participant data, we’re pushing past simply tracking surface-level outputs. We’re shifting to develop rigorous evaluations of GYO programs to measure intended outcomes and impact. We’re using apprentice-performance data, mentor coaching, Praxis pass rates, and student-growth data. Quality program evaluation is essential to garnering support for future growth and sustainability.

Read the whole thing yourself and you’ll understand why teachers remain skeptical. The one thing I am sure about is that under all of this there will be a contract for former TNDOE  Human Resources Chief, David Donaldson, and his fledging non-profit National Center for Grow Your Own. Remember “non-profit” is a tax designation, it doesn’t mean nobody is making any money.

Per ChalkbeatTN, The Tennessee Supreme Court has declined to reconsider its recent decision upholding the state’s 2019 private school voucher law. This is another hurdle cleared in Governor Lee’s pursuit of establishing a statewide voucher program. There is at least one case waiting to be heard that could derail Lee’s efforts, and the injunction to begin enrolling families has yet to be lifted. So we wait, and we watch.

One concerning rumor-making round is that the recently mandated MNPS principals meeting held down in Muscle Shoals Alabama has turned into a bit of a super spreader event, with several participants testing positive in its aftermath. Trust me, this is one instance where I’m hoping rumors prove false. Still, let me wish anyone infected a speedy recovery.

Gas is hitting $5 dollars a gallon in Tennessee but Penny Schwinn’s traveling campaign caravan preservers. Sure hope there is air conditioning on that bus.

That’s it for today,

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

1 reply

  1. what a surprise, funds around COVID misused. i wonder what percent of all COVID funds actually got used ‘well’.

    will meharry see any consequences? i wouldnt hold my breath.

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