TIMES THAT TRY MEN’S, AND WOMEN’S, SOULS

“The world is not a prison house, but a kind of spiritual kindergarten where millions of bewildered infants are trying to spell God with the wrong blocks.”
Edwin Arlington Robinson

 

The week before independence Day is a time of reflection for me. These days, reflection is needed more than ever. As our beloved union is under threat on multiple sides. That may sound like hyperbole, but short of civil war, I see no healing in sight. Everybody is committed to being right, over finding common solutions. Willing to lay waste to anything, or anybody that challenges their ideology.

Most of my posts are crafted in my head in the days before I sit down and write. This morning, I planned to comment on the need for us to hear each other. Of the need to fight for our ideals while preserving faith in our institutions. I’d put a great deal of thought into what I wanted to say.

I even had a clever analogy about calling your neighbor a dumb ass and a sloth, then asking him for his help in keeping the neighborhood clean. He’d likely tell you to go fuck yourself, and that’s what we are doing to each other on a daily basis. We seem to think we can insult each other to solutions, despite that never having worked in the history of forever.

For decades now, we’ve demanded that our schools produce critical thinkers, but for what purpose? There is little need for critical thinkers when the art of civil discourse is all but lost. These days, if an issue can’t be reduced to a clever t-shirt slogan, it’s summarily dismissed.

In my mind, I had about 600 words of thought-provoking prose. Words that would make people think, and possibly provoke discussion. Naive maybe, but I often suffer under the illusion that from my tiny corner of the world I can make a difference.

A funny thing happened on the way to the keyboard though. As I lay my fingers on the keys, it hit me, nobody cares about solutions that work for everybody. Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody is going to read anything on social media, and reconsider. their role. To think otherwise is a fool’s errand.

All my efforts would get me were catcalls over “bothsideisms”, as if the multi-color world we live in can suddenly be reduced to monochrome. People would likely tell me to wake up and smell the oppressors. But there is enough stench to cover everyone, and at some point, we have to ask, has this country really been reduced to its lowest common denominator? And how are we going to lift it?

We are all quick to espouse our love of immigrants, here’s my challenge to all of you this week, go talk to a few. Ask them why they came to this country. And then listen. I mean really listen.

I’m sure you’ll hear multiple answers but woven through it all will be the pursuit of a better life. America offers opportunities that just aren’t available where they come from. Many who come from places like China, Russia, Egypt, Iran, and others, understand political oppression of a level we can’t even comprehend.

While there are certainly countries that would be considered less politically oppressive than the US – Ireland, Denmark, New Zealand, and Canada come to mind – by all accounts, the United States falls into the top 25%. Not bad when you consider that America eclipses the Canadian population by around 294 million people. So why have so many given up hope?

A recent quote by Robert Pondiscio has haunted me for months. He speculates that future generations will look back on this era and be amazed by our commitment to unhappiness. I can’t say I disagree.

The thing that gives me hope is that the world painted by social media and traditional media alike, doesn’t seem to be an accurate reflection of the one I live in. In my world people of every race, religion, creed, and sexual orientation interact together. I see evidence of strangers finding common ground on a daily basis.

It’s not always perfect, but little in life is. Come next weekend, that’s what I’ll be celebrating, along with the opportunities my citizenship has afforded me.

Hand in hand with those celebrations will be discussions on how we can improve our world. Conversations with people that will probably make me a little uncomfortable at times, make me concede some of my tropes, yet will listen to my arguments, giving them the same weight as theirs.

However, you choose to spend your holiday, I ask you to take a moment and recognize the need for both improvement and preservation.

FRIENDS KEEP GETTING PAID

Over the weekend, I read an article depicting a contract awarded to the company of former MNPS Superintendent Shawn Joseph’s boutique education consulting company, Joseph and Associates, by the Philadelphia School District The name of Joseph’s company is a bit of a misnomer since the only “associate” appears to be his wife Ocheze. Though the cool “Joseph Unchained” T-shirts are still readily available.

I would say that paying a new superintendent $340K annually, and then spending $450K to guide him in their new job should be cause for raised eyebrows, But a glimpse at the resume of new superintendent Tony Watlington Sr provides some clarity.

Prior to his arrival in the nation’s 6th largest school district, Watlington served as the director for North Carolina’s Rowan-Salisbury school district, which educates roughly 19,500 students. A position he held for a year and a half. That’s right he ran a small school district for just under 2 years.

Prior to that, he worked for 25 years in Guilford County Schools. He’s got a compelling back story, raising from bus driver to Chief of Schools over two decades, but while he’s from New Jersey, let’s not forget, Guilford County ain’t Philadelphia. When asked by Chalkbeat magazine about the challenge of moving from a smaller district to the nation’s 6th largest, Watlington responded,

Number one, teaching and learning transcends school size. The second thing I would say is that the key is to have collaborative relationships with parents, because teachers and principals cannot do this work alone, regardless of the size of a school district. The third thing I would say is that it’s important for the Board of Education to have a committed focus. And this board has done just that with its “goals and guardrails.”

First off, Watlington may see himself as an educator, and that may give him the insight into how schools operate, he ain’t in teaching and learning anymore. He’s in operations, and to argue that operations in a small district are the same as in a larger district is a bit naive, or disingenuous.

He is right though in his assertion that this is about relationships, and that nobody can do the work alone. But it is an odd choice to look for help in facilitating those relationships with a man who failed to build those relationships in his lone entry into a school district where he was considered an outsider.

Joseph has worked hard to preserve a narrative that his failure is directly tied to racism and his commitment to doing the “right thing”. In response to questions from Chalkbeat about his Nashville tenure, Joseph said it ended because “I did not believe that the climate supported a successful continued focus on achieving equity and excellence” in the district.

Bullshit.

From the very beginning, Joseph treated local educators as if they were sub-par. He increased the salaries of associates from his home district and steered contracts to companies with which he already had established relationships. Always sending an unspoken message that things were better in Prince George County, A theory easily disproven with a simple Google search.

Initially, he was greeted with unprecedented support, as Nashville may be in the south but it considers itself a progressive city. Rarely has town wanted to but what a transplant is selling as much did with what Joseph had to offer. Unfortunately, his product couldn’t hold up under scrutiny and the district is still trying to recover from his missteps.

Joseph spent his political capital like a sailor on shore leave after months at sea. It was my way or the highway approach, where critics were quickly painted as racist, and him going as far as to insert himself into political races in an effort save what little clout was left. Eventually, the weight of his multiple infractions forced him from his position. Current MNPS board chair Christianne Buggs may argue that the buyout was mutual but it only came about after it became clear that his contract would not be renewed in the following year. Board members who were initially supporters became bitter foes, due to Joseph’s own actions.

In the wake of his termination – and make no mistake, it was a termination – Joseph fought hard to maintain his desired narratives, Included in the buyout agreement was a clause that prohibited board members from publically speaking critically of his leadership. Former board members Amy Frogge, Jill Speering, along with current board member Fran Bush sued to have that clause stricken on grounds that it was unconstitutional. An argument they won not just once, but twice. Both times Nashville taxpayers picked up the legal bill for Joseph’s pursuit. Should there be a third time, they’ll pay for that as well, thanks to the contract crafted by Dr. Gentry.

The question that immediately comes to mind is if Joseph was dismissed due to board members “who were unable to reconcile their desire for their district with how Dr. Joseph was approaching it,” and he “was trying to do exactly the right thing and, frankly, exactly what the board asked him to do on the front end,” why has Joseph fought so hard to prevent the complete story from being told?

If the kids were his focus point, why is willing to spend money that could be better allocated for his personal use?

Why has no other district snapped him up to lead their efforts? If he’s worth $450K to consult, surely he’s worth $300K to actually do the work.

Here’s a little something you might also not know. Prior to taking the job with MNPS, Joseph was the selection to lead Guilford County Schools. He turned down the job for Nashville, paving the way for a longtime associate who was serving in Syracuse despite getting a no-confidence vote from the local teachers union, Sharon Contreras. Getting 95% of teachers to agree on anything is quite the feat, but Contreras was up to the job.

The two served together on the board for AASA and their careers have crossed paths on multiple occasions through the years. Both have ties to the Broad program. There are some who believe that when Joseph’s tenure fell apart, Contreras helped some of his leadership team find soft landing spots. Former Chief Academic officer Monique Felder currently leads Orange County Schools in North Carolina. Just a stone’s throw from Guilford.

I do find it interesting that Joseph has been charged with creating a 5-year strategic plan for the district, considering that the average tenure of a superintendent in a large urban district is around 3 years. Incoming supes seldom stick to the plan of their predecessor, so it’s likely that much of the plan ends up falling to the wayside. The good news for Philly is that Joseph should be able to produce a document fairly quickly, as this plan is being written by Betty Morgan. Morgan has authored the last 4 hundred-day plans that Joseph has been involved with. Hey, I got an idea. He could make her an associate, then there would be two.

I look for a couple Nashville folks to be included when the transition team is announced. These transition team appointments are a good opportunity to bank some cash and a chance to hole up in some cushy digs. Trust me, transition team members won’t be staying at Motel 6. Nashville put its out-of-town transition team member up at the Omni, a downtown hotel that routinely runs about $500 a night. I look for Christianne Buggs, Dr. Sharon Gentry, and Will Pinkston as the most likely candidates. But who knows, maybe a few council members will get tagged.

Since the contract is already complete and the ink dried, about all I can do is wish one of my favorite cities good luck. They are going to need it.

QUICK HITS

Come Friday the employment rolls at the Tennesse Achievement School District will be a lot lighter. Last month amid restructuring, all employees were forced to reapply. For administrative staff, only 14 of 40+ jobs were available for reapplication. Despite a recent fluff piece in the Commercial Appeal, interim Director Lisa Settles knew months ago that she wouldn’t be reapplying.  Word on the street is that of the 13 remaining positions, only 4 of the 13 positions went to previously employed administrators. Wouldn’t it be much simpler to just dismantle the whole thing? Instead, it’s more chaos for those families that are most in need of stability.

New appointments for MNPS continue to leak out as the summer continues. Word has it that executive director James Witty will be promoted to executive director of Human Resources. Lisa Spenser will serve as interim HR Chief. Spencer has been with HR since 2017, prior to that she was with the TNDOE. Witty is an odd choice, having no experience or training in the HR field. Nor has he been involved in any teacher recruitment or retention efforts on the scale required by MNPS.

MNPS continues to look for people to staff HR with folks with little or no previous success. We then get shocked when they produce the same results. This is not a new issue and it’s been well over a decade since MNPS had successful leadership in place in HR. It’s like whoever is superintendent at the time, just awards the job to whoever is standing in the room when the announcement needs to be made. At least Witty brings the promise of shiny new checklists, something he has shown to be highly skilled at producing. But of course, we wish everybody luck.

The Tennessean has an article this morning that attempts to shed light on the declining enrollment of MNPS. As suspected the primary culprit behind the decline is the city’s charter schools.

As the district’s traditional, zoned schools continue to see enrollment declines, including a 6.99% drop during the 2020-21 school year, charter school enrollment has increased. During the same school year, Nashville charter schools saw a 5.89% increase — through the same schools later lost students as the district transitioned fifth grade out of middle schools and back to elementary schools.

This shouldn’t be a shock to anyone, and at some point, administrators are going to have to figure out a counter to their allure. It’s interesting that the Tennessean attributes a reversal of the attrition trend to 5th-grade realignment without any supporting data or explanation of its depth. Once again our old friends, “correlation” and “causation” raise their heads. But hey, it’s as good as an argument as any. and that seems to be the manner in which MNPS rolls these days.

In a world overpopulated with stupidity this article over at The74 still managed to stand out, “New Learning Loss Calculator Estimates COVID Slide, Costs of Catching Kids Up, in 8,000 School Districts.” Utilizing the calculator reveals that MNPS students lost an average of 16 weeks in learning in math, and 14 in reading. Something that could be remedied by $109,326,649 in math tutoring and $60,633,637 in reading. I guess it’s just a matter of writing the check and is independent of securing tutoring, the quality of tutors, or the turnover rate of tutors. My question remains if we can predict the cost of the results we desire with accelerated learning, why is it we can’t do the same with daily instruction?

Ironically, during the time it took me to write this piece, jurists on the Supreme Court released another opinion sure to raise divisions. As illustrated by educator Peter Greene, this one seems to beamed in from an alternate universe. In his words,

I am absolutely gobsmacked. I expected that SCOTUS would okay school prayer via Kennedy v. Bremerton School District. I did not expect that their decision would be based on disconnecting themselves from reality.

I’d read all of it. Remember policies over personalities.

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. Re: “As I lay my fingers on the keys, it hit me, nobody cares about solutions that work for everybody. Nobody wants to hear it. Nobody is going to read anything on social media, and reconsider. their role. To think otherwise is a fool’s errand.”

    1) A Pastor friend made this post last week, “I think that in these darkest of times, it’s needful to remind ourselves — unceasingly — that in the whole of human history no amount of despair has ever moved so much as a single grain of sand.”

    2) It’s not “nobody”, as you wrote. Indeed, I know for an absolute fact that at least 45% of the Democratic Party are vociferous readers, self-critical, and searching for the betterment of the world, even if at our own personal expense.

    It will be different to “celebrate” July 4th 2022. I am profoundly alarmed at what the country seems to be becoming, and in particular, how the emerging de facto theocracy is creeping (stampeding) into public education. At least we can celebrate that, if our neighbors might someday wish to change course, that is still their right, at any time. As you well note, in many countries, even that tiniest glimmer of possibility is nonexistent. So sure, July 4th!

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