“The good was good and the bad was the beginning of wisdom. (Electric Brae)”
Sometimes you just have to walk away from things for a minute or two, to avoid saying things you might later regret. When I wore a younger man’s clothes, I would often fail to exercise that option. instead, I’d unfurl my banner of truth and let the chips fall where they may. It wasn’t until much later that I realized that the truth isn’t always enough and that delivery matters.
That might be a lesson from AA, but let’s not give them too much credit. The point is, that gathering your thoughts before speaking is always good advice.
Last week was a time to push back from the keyboard and take a moment to recoup and collect my thoughts. Thanks to the generosity of dear friends, this moment aligned with a planned trip to Dollywood. An amusement park was just what the doctor ordered. So we loaded up the family and headed to Dollywood for a much-needed respite from the insanity.
Dollywood was a lot of fun and we owe a debt of gratitude to our friends for making it possible. Normally I’m not one for roller coasters, but this trip brought an ephinony. Life has proven to be the ultimate roller coaster, and after 57 years I’m still standing. Considered in that light, what real; threat does a man-made contraption present? So I rode the rides, every one of them, and while some induced nausea – much like parts of life – with others I was able to overcome the fear in order to embrace the thrill. It took me 57 years to grasp that, and open myself up to the experience.
Further evidence that life’s lessons don’t just exist in the classroom, and that learning is a continuous process. Two things we often lose sight of.
But enough of my babbling, let’s get to the meat of the matter.
LEARNING LOSS CANARD
Last week the TNDOE released preliminary results from Tennessee’s annual standardized test, TNReady, and as a shock to no one, they were cause for surface optimism. For some, they served as vindication for the efforts put forth throughout the year. If you listen to head cheerleader Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, you’d think that student achievement had lept to unprecedented levels,
“Today, I am incredibly proud to be able to share Tennessee’s 2021-22 TCAP assessment results, which demonstrate the hard work of Tennessee’s districts, schools, educators, and families, the leadership of Governor Bill Lee and the Tennessee General Assembly—and the incredible impacts all of these efforts have had on improving academic outcomes for students.” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “Tennessee’s gains to meet or exceed pre-pandemic proficiency levels were hard-earned, and now is the time to ensure we continue the policies, practices and programs that are supporting academic achievement.”
But don’t look at the silver-tongued words, look at the reality, “Notably, ELA proficiency has returned to pre-pandemic levels in almost all grades, with more students scoring Met and Exceeded than 2019.” So without getting in the weeds here, we are now celebrating the scores that three years ago were cited as evidence of a literacy crisis, and used to justify sweeping policy changes through a special session of the General Assembly. Out of that session came a host of new strategies – from summer school to tutoring to the threat of third-grade retention – only to produce the same results as were achieved prior to the special session.
In 2019, similar results produced the following statement from the TNDOE,
Tennessee has made tremendous gains in student performance over the past several years – except in reading. Despite our educators’ best efforts, reading skills in elementary school learners have failed to improve, and in some cases have even declined. But these abilities are some of the most important ones our students need, and they are foundational to their success.
So now, we are celebrating these very same results as evidence of “significant learning acceleration”?
I know, the pandemic and learning loss. If anything these results offer evidence of what I and others have been saying since the inception of the pandemic. Essentially, relax, and keep a cool head, once students return to the stability of the classroom and the threat of the pandemic is reduced, scores will bounce back. And look at that, it’s exactly what happened.
Furthermore, testing over the last two years took place in a chaotic environment. Scores produced last year were supposed to be discounted. Yet here we are, comparing this year’s scores to last year and screaming recovery. If the prescription written by legislators were truly justified, we’d be seeing scores that eclipsed past efforts. As it stands, there is no evidence that supports attributing this year’s scores to enacting policy. It is just as likely that these results would have been produced had we continued with existing policies.
The problem is, and was, that there is too much money floating around out here due to the federal stimulus, and nobody helps a brother out like Commissioner Schwinn. A prudent approach gets less of that available cash in the pockets of friends and family, and that’s just not acceptable. If there is a state legislator out there looking for a little summer reading, call over to the TNDOE and ask for copies of all the COVID and learning loss-related contracts awarded to just TNTP, Who by the way is the former employer of Schwinn’s husband Paul. It’s appalling.
The coincidence is not lost on me that the commissioner is crediting the adoption of “High Quality” materials for the gains in literacy, while math scores are dropping amidst the adoption of math materials. Wow…lucky for us huh? This year all new materials are being made available by friends of Schwinn for adoption. The COVID crisis has been a blessing for the Schwinn family. First, it provided districts with the funds to adopt her ELA preferred materials, and now it’s provided justification for districts to adopt the offering in math provided by those very same friends.
Keep in mind, that the current hype train is being driven purely on state results. District results won’t be available to the public until July 6th, and I’m sure individual results will be available sometime after the start of the next school year.
I can’t wait to compare district results of those who are participating in Commissioner Schwinn’s “Best for All” Ponzi scheme? Why do I get the feeling that despite the newness of the program, we’ll see a plethora of accelerated learning?
BURYING THE LEDE
Budding young journalists are often cautioned to not “bury the lede’, which means hiding the most important information in the body of a story. A case in point is a recent article in The Tennessean.
On Monday it was announced that the review process for Social Studies was kicking off. This is a routine undertaking that happens every few years and is led by the state board of education. As the Tennessean reports,
The review will begin with the board seeking feedback from the public on the existing standards, followed by a committee of education experts who will review and propose revisions to the standards.
The current standards for social studies include not only key facts and information, but also concept strands like culture, economics, geography, history, politics/government, and Tennessee history, state board spokesperson Elizabeth Tullos said in an email.
The Tennessean does note that this is the first time the review will be conducted since legislators passed controversial laws intended to guide instruction of race and sexual orientation in the classroom. Ironically these laws are described as CRT laws, despite the legislation never mentioning CRT. I know, we all do it on both sides. But I digress.
Here’s where the actual lede comes in,
The Tennessee Department of Education, which in the past has provided support when requested by the state board for the review process, will not be involved in this year’s social studies review despite a request from the state board, emails obtained by The Tennessean show.
The department previously assisted the state board with recent math and science standards reviews. A department spokesperson said in an email the state’s education department currently “does not have any subject matter experts on staff for social studies.”
Whoa, Nellie! That’s kind of important, no?
I’m not surprised that the TNDOE has no social studies experts on staff. It’s no secret how decimated the staff at the department has become under Schwinn’s leadership, but now is certainly not the time to not have an expert on staff.
You have a supposed Republican governor who appointed a supposedly Republican Commissioner of Education with the supposition that both would support the policies of their fellow Republicans. Republican legislators passed legislation that they felt was extremely important to Republican voters, and now you don’t have anyone qualified on staff to advise how these standards should look? Forgive me, but that feels like a bit of dereliction of duty to me.
Unless of course, your governor and your commissioner ain’t really republicans. In private Schwinn has given every indication that she wants no part of the so-called CRT debate. Remember, she has been very deliberate in the development of her national brand. It’s a safe bet that she doesn’t want even a whiff of this potential stink sticking to her. But it’s kind of her job, isn’t it?
The way this whole thing is supposed to work is that legislators write laws, that that are translated into policy by the board of education, and then implemented by the TNDOE. Schwinn has no problem influencing the adoption of the ELA and Math curriculum, why so coy here?
Unless of course, the concerns of Tennessee citizens are not shared by either her or Governor Lee. That might be a question for an upcoming gubernatorial debate.
TAKE MY POWER PLEASE
George W Bush once remarked that incoming President Obama may disagree with his policies, but he’d likely be grateful for the expansion of presidential power secured by the Bush administration. A similar statement could be made by former MNPS Director of Schools Shawn Joseph in regard to his successor Dr. Adrienne Battle.
Once upon a time, the MNPS school board actually provided oversight for the district. They provided direction for the director, asked hard questions at the board meetings, and weren’t afraid to be critical when warranted. All that stopped when the board hired Shawn Joseph to run the district.
Joseph was the first black man to run the district, so any criticism was seen as being rooted in racism. Any questioning of the direction his decisions were taking the district was viewed through the lens that people objected to him, not the poor policies. As a result, it took nearly three years to reveal the problems with his administration. Problems that led to a decision not to renew his contract. A decision that came with a $$261,250 price tag.
The practice of limiting board members’ ability to speak was so engrained that three board members – Fran Bush, Amy Frogge, and Jill Speering – sought legal recourse to ensure their right to speak out publically. They brought suit in response to a negotiated severance package that included a public gag order for board members. Yesterday they won their lawsuit, reestablishing board members’ right to speak candidly in order to adequately represent their constituents. Something this board would be well advised to remember.
After Joseph, the board turned to homegrown talent, Dr. Battle. Vowing that they’d learned from previous mistakes, they were slow to offer her a permanent contract and only did so when the pandemic presented its unique challenges. They also reduced her vacation time and compensation. In April of 2020, they made her director with a contract that extended to April 2024. As part of that contract, she was considered exempt from any COLA increases during her tenure.
Battle has proven to be a less experienced but more palpable alternative to Joseph while holding fast to his commitment to evoking a cloud of secrecy around policy decisions. Seldom is the board brought into discussions prior to decisions being made, and often they are informed of decisions at the same time as their constituents. Several have raised their concerns with the director, but nothing has changed and the board is continually viewed as something to be managed, and not as a true partner.
Multi-million dollar contracts are routinely placed on the consent agenda, leaving it to board members to discern if a further conversation is warranted. A prime example would be the recent contract to Illuminate, makers of Fastbridge. This new contract signified a switch to how MNPS would benchmark test students, moving away from MAP testing and replacing it with FastBridge.
MAP was initially brought to MNPS by Dr. Joseph and over the past five years has provided a consistent and vital database, even as it has been widely misused. MNPS has used MAP as a gatekeeper for advanced academic programs, a practice inconsistent with the design of the assessment. Would FastBridge replace MAP as a gatekeeper? Who knows? It was never discussed.
What about the database of MAP data accumulated over the last 5 years? What would happen with that? Board member Abigail Tylor attempted to broach the subject, but it was clear that she was the only board member that showed any inclination to gather information. As a result, yet another multi-million dollar contract was approved without proper board oversight. Or even them having a basic understanding of what they were approving. Something that happens with increasing regularity as of late.
Another example would be the Meharry Medical College Ventures Inc. contract to conduct COVID testing in schools. A $14 million contract that was never fully vetted and continues to raise questions around propriety. Per Mainstreet Nashville, the for-profit subsidiary of Meharry Medical College dramatically up charged Metro schools for equipment to monitor student temperatures during a controversial $14 million no-bid contract last year. New details reveal, that the district was charged nearly double what the company actually paid and they apparently pocketed the difference.
Further complicating things is that the owner who provided the devices, Paul Kapu, of RED. Care Inc., describes the body scanners purchased as being primarily designed to provide security for schools,
“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,”
Despite this statement from the owner of the company providing the scanners, Dr. Battle at last week’s board meeting, in response to a question from board member Fran Bush, maintained that all of the purchased scanners were currently being utilized in their designed manner, as health screeners. At the very least this would be a prime opportunity for the board to ask for an inventory of scanners and their current usage, But I guess nobody feels it’s important because the money came from federal funds, as any further conversation was quickly squelched.
Tylor has at least tried to use teaching and learning committee meetings to explore academic issues, but this board has shown little interest in engaging in policy talks. Instead, they consistently accept whatever answer is provided by Dr. Battle and move on. A typical exchange may look like this,
Board member: Have the invoices and related documents been fully scrutinized?
Dr. Battle(In a thoughtful manner): Well the cow did jump over the moon, and at the inquest of the state, the dish ran away with the spoon. We were surprised that the dog laughed at the sight, but it is our expectation that these are one-time occurrences and in the future will be closely aligned with MNPS’s Northstar.It is a great honor to serve the students and teachers of this district.
Board member: Thank you Dr. Battle for your frank analysis. Personally, I find it refreshing to work with a director that is as committed to transparency as you. Thank you for the privilege to raise my questions.
While forgoing in-depth academic policy discussions, the focus of this board has been on labor issues and social justice issues. Both are important but should be considered secondary to the primary task of educating kids.
This board has furthermore demonstrated a deep commitment to making itself irrelevant. Dr. Battle is supposedly their one employee, yet they consistently fail to offer any kind of meaningful evaluation of her performance. The one conducted earlier this year was over 6 months late and included no data, instead choosing to focus on Battle’s self-dictated initiatives. Akin to me being evaluated on my role as a husband based on how I treat the dog, how I feel about the kids, what color the garage is, and what TV shows I like.
The head of the director evaluation committee is long-time board member Sharon Gentry. While she was incapable of providing a timely means of evaluation, she is perfectly capable of delivering a proposed contracted contract extension well ahead of schedule.
Last week the board approved that contract extension despite 2 years remaining on Dr. Battles’ current contract. The new contract means that if Metro Council approves the Mayor’s proposed budget, Battle will get an $11,500 raise, as the new contract makes her eligible for any district COLA raises. She’ll also get an additional 2 weeks of vacation, which she can cash in f she doesn’t use them. The new vacation days essentially make her a 10-month employee.
Props to Dr. Battle. Good work if you can get it. My question that continually goes unanswered is, why? Why now?
Dr. Battle, to my knowledge, is not being courted, or coveted, by anyone. She is homegrown talent and thus probably not prone to relocating. The evaluations, which board members Little and Bush both criticized, offered little data to back up claims of success, In response, board member Rachael Elrod offered the ridiculous defense that the contract renewal is based on the “day-to-day performance.” OK, will we be evaluating teachers and students in the same manner?
Well, let’s talk about that day-to-day performance. Three-quarters of her leadership team has left. Next year will see 14 new principals take the reins. Teacher attrition remains out of control, as does support staff attrition. We don’t have enough bus drivers to meet the needs of the summer’s promising scholars program. People can’t get out of working in the federal programs department fast enough, which indicates some deep-seated problems. Remember that person who oversaw the department, who we gave a $35k raise in September? She’s gone back to Chattanooga. Apparently, $35K wasn’t sufficient enticement to stay, despite being more than many district employees will make in a year.
Several middle schools have parents who are in open revolt over discipline and teacher attrition issues. How many of them will explore private, charter, or home school options due to MNPS’s lack of action? Think it doesn’t matter? Let’s not forget that the district is having to ask Metro Council to make up a $22 million shortage due to declining enrollment numbers.
Hmmm…perhaps Mrs. Elrod would like to return to those evaluations and forgo consideration of day-to-day performance.
At some point, MNPS is going to be faced with the financial impact of rising gas costs. Where is the funding to overcome that potential shortfall going to come from? But by all means, let’s spend hours addressing a janitorial contract that the district can’t even begin to address, which is what was done at the last meeting.
These are extraordinary challenges, ones that should mandate all hands on deck. Unfortunately by extending Dr. Battle’s contract, the school board has relegated itself to the galley for the foreseeable future. They have no power over their one employee due to their own actions. Way to squander an important legal victory by three board members that truly grasped the importance of their role. God, I miss Frogge and Speering, and I pray Bush is re-elected. It might not have always been pretty, but they always chose substance over style. Hell. I’d even take a return of Will Pinkston over the current roster.
Meanwhile, Nashville is left with a billion-dollar entity with no oversight. Any council member who attempts to question spending is instantly labeled as anti-education by SSIU. Hard to get elected with that moniker. The mayor is limited in what he can do by the city charter. Potential board members outside of the political class have little chance of being elected, as the system protects its own. Eventually, taxpayers will get fed up, and the threat of a mayoral-appointed board will once again surface. All because MNPS board members were more concerned with appearances and building relationships than they were with doing the right thing.
That’s a hell of a legacy, but for those exiting this year, consistent with their past record. We spend so much time wringing our hands over the reform crowd and the proliferation of charter schools that we often fail to consider the image in the mirror. Sometimes we have nobody but ourselves to blame.
That’s it for today, but I’m sure we’ll be talking about it a lot in the coming months.
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