WHO ARE WE SERVING?

You’ve been dreaming lies again, Susana.”
Juan Rulfo, Pedro Páramo

 

Go ahead and pull up a chair. We are going to be here a minute or two. Every week seems to come with its own little touch of insanity, but this one… is a hold-my-beer kind of week. So with no further delay, let’s dive in.

You’ll remember just a few short weeks ago, the TNDOE released TCAP scores for the 2021-2022 school year. It shouldn’t have been a surprise to anyone that they showed incredible growth from the previous year. After all, the scores in the 2020-2021 school year weren’t supposed to count, many students spent a large part of the year in remote classrooms, and the mandatory participation rates for  TCAP testing were lowered from 95% to 80% – not to mention there was still a pandemic going on.

In 2021/2022, little of that held true, other than COVID still having an effect on students’ home life and attendance rates. Those are facts, not speculation, suppositions, or assumptions. Based on those facts, It should have been no surprise that scores bounced back once stability was restored, but there is no money in trusting students and teachers, so the drumbeat sounding the triumph of bureaucrats and their efforts was cued up.

TVAAS results were released last week; surprise, both Memphis and Nashville were level 5 schools, the highest designation available. Now keep in mind that the TVAAS model is heavily weighted toward growth over achievement. So it’s possible to be a level 5 school, and still have lower achievement scores than your neighboring level 1 school. In fact, that’s a little more prevalent than you might suspect.

No offense to the state’s urban districts, but they remained virtual throughout 2020/2021, and only fully reopened schools for the 2021/2022 school year. Both had substantially lower participation in the previous year’s TCAP testing. Is it any surprise they saw the greatest growth? After all, the greater the drop the higher the potential bounce back.

Ironically, Hamilton schools rushed to comply with the Governor, and his commissioner of education and opened schools well before the two larger urban districts. While doing so, they thumbed their noses at Memphis and Nashville, implying that the two weren’t as invested in children as they were. How were they rewarded for this compliance? This year they are rated as a level 1.

To be fair I don’t believe Hamilton County is a 1 this year any more than they were a 5 last year. But I do enjoy the comeuppance.

I tried to warn folks about the flaws in this year’s tests but went largely unheeded, drowned out by the sound of accolades that included the laying of roses at the feet of district leaders who insisted on acting as if these results were actually reflective of the hard work of teachers and students over the last couple years. Hard work continually seems to only serve to pad administrators’ resumes and enrich their friends’ bank accounts.

This week there was anticipation that the TNDOE would comply with a 2016 law and release letter grades for schools for the first time since that bill was passed. After all, during this year’s General Assembly, several Republican senators expressed how this was a priority for them. Alas, what they consider a priority does not carry any weight with Mrs. Schwinn and once again the law will not be followed, as it was announced that the TNDOE was pausing the process because the state’s “…accountability systems are not designed for the level of learning disruption seen as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic,”

She went on to cite participation rates as an example,

“For example,” she said, “almost 25% of schools eligible for accountability did not meet the standard 95% TCAP participation rate upon which many accountability calculations heavily rely. That resulted in a data set that reflected disparate and inconsistent information across the state, which became clear as the department completed our accountability protocols this week.”

But don’t worry, the data is still strong enough to release individual school designations and condemn schools to the Achievement School District. Yeah…that makes sense.

Here’s the prevailing story I hear coming from behind the scenes. Schwinn has long been an advocate for the state’s accountability model to put more emphasis on achievement over, which runs counter to federal law. Word is she saw the data, realized that Memphis and Nashville would be “A” districts, and said, “Aw shit, this doesn’t serve me politically.”

Most of her preferred high-achieving schools would have likely been “C” or “D” districts. Try selling that to those folks.

Now let’s see if any of those Senators who stressed how important following the law was complain that the TNDOE hasn’t. Maybe somebody might even ask if the Commissioner has the power to suspend law on her own authority. After all, isn’t the rule of law a conservative tenet? I suspect under Bill Lee it will fall into the same rubbish heap as small government, local control, and low taxes.

Rumor has it that the commissioner plans on undertaking efforts to change Tennessee’s accountability model and move the emphasis to achievement. This could be fun to watch,  as I suspect some previous proponents of the current model will twist themselves into knots trying to stay in Schwinn’s good graces while she tries to circumvent federal law.

The bad news is, that if true, it means Schwinn has been unsuccessful in translating her current smoke and mirrors into a new position and intends to stick around and generate more smoke and mirrors.

Quick digression here and something to consider. We know Chiefs for Change has free reign in the state, and we know that they often piggyback off of Mrs. Schwinn’s initiatives and promote them nationally. They contend they are not subject to open records requests. We also know that a similar education policy nonprofit, SCORE, already funds a position at TNDOE. What assurance do we have that Mrs. Schwinn is not receiving some kind of compensation or supplemental income from Chiefs for Change?

To be clear, there is no evidence to indicate that she is, and we live in an innocent until proven guilty world, but the lack of transparency around Chiefs, and other non-profit entities, involved in crafting policy can’t help but create speculation. Let’s not forget that we are also talking about the same woman who drew a six-figure salary from her charter school in California while serving as assistant superintendent in Delaware. So let’s not act like we are talking angels here.

If nothing else is taken away from Schwinn’s announcement to suspend the A-F school grading, we should realize that under the present conditions the results are bullshit. And if we participate, by either wringing our hands over them or celebrating them, we are only contributing to a false reality. One that will ultimately harm kids.

But who ever said any of this was actually about the kids?

EQUITY, EQUITY, WHO”S GOT EQUITY

Over the last 6 months, I’ve paid less and less attention to MNPS school board meetings. The disconnect between board room and classroom has only increased, as their only commitment seems to be to make themselves less and less relevant to actual governance. This week was a prime example.

As school started, Director Battle and company bragged loudly about how successful they were at staffing the city’s schools. According to their data, Nashville schools only had a 2% vacancy rate. The director heaped praise on the Human Resources department despite most recognizing this achievement for what it was, manipulation of numbers. Now we are beginning to see how those numbers were being manipulated.

As the school year starts, tales abound of new hires not being in the system yet and therefore lacking access to several key digital platforms. Some new hires have been sent home while the district waits for fingerprints and background checks to be completed. All of that would be bad enough, except there are a considerable number of people not getting paid for the hours they are owed.

Last week prior to Friday’s payday, HR communicated to employees that those who didn’t receive a check on Friday could be expected to be paid on Monday, or receive a paper check on Tuesday. On Tuesday, district officials did show up at schools with a check for those who still hadn’t been paid, but it came with instructions not to cash until the following day. That to me is inconciousable.

Now maybe the tales are hyper-inflated and it’s not really happening as much as perceived. Well it is happening enough for MNEA to communicate with members through social media, so there must be at least a grain of truth, right?

8-24-22 UPDATE: For those who are waiting to be paid, paper checks are being printed today, 8/24 & will be delivered to schools 8/25 or 8/26. Employees who have direct deposit will be paid via direct deposit on 8/25.

I received my first management lesson at age 17, it was a simple one, but a guiding principle, “Don’t fuck with people’s money.”

It’s generally recognized that a budget is considered a moral document, well shouldn’t the act of paying those people included in the budget in a timely manner fall under the same designation?

One might suspect that this would be a conversation for a school board meeting right? Nah…board members spent zero minutes delving into this situation in order to spend over an hour focusing on an equity policy promoted and crafted by a non-educator making 6-figures. A policy that, as pointed out by board member Sharon Gentry, is filled with lots of aspiration and little that is measurable.

When board member Gini Pupo-Walker asked what success would look like in a year, Chief Equity Officer Ashford seemed to only be available to provide more aspirations. But should he be able to tie his aspirations to classroom outcomes? He’s never managed a classroom.

I’ve long been a proponent of equity, but question if our current initiatives actually promote true equity. Equity doesn’t mean finding new groups to marginalize and promoting the formerly marginalized to favored status. It means a commitment to all students, to reference a video shown by Hughes during his presentation, one that showed 2 students at the starting line sans any backpack, while a black student lined up way in the rear with a supersized backpack.

The reality is that every student who enters the building comes with a backpack of negative influences, some are larger than others, but all have them. It also means that all students need help getting to the same starting line. That doesn’t appear to align with what Hughes is promoting, and somewhere the focus on achievement has been lost.

I don’t believe in schools as vehicles for social change. I believe in educating all children so that they have the tools to enact social change when they come of age, and I trust them to craft a world that is shaped by their vision and not mine. They are going to do it with or without my approval, so why not fully prepare them and then get out of the way?

Our current focus on equity is best summed up by a response on my social media. To paraphrase, our current focus is the inevitable result of myopically elevating a good value to the status of ultimate value. Every other good value becomes secondary to it and what’s more- subservient to it. “achievement” will be redefined in a way that serves “equity”. If achievement lowers, thus narrowing the achievement gap, will we count it as a success?

This myopia continued with the introduction of yet another needless, and toothless, board resolution. This one addresses equity in advanced academics.

The impetus behind it leaves me scratching my head. I’ve been deeply involved with MNPS’s gifted programs since at least 2015. Everybody is well aware of the disparate numbers in advanced academics, and to the best of my knowledge has been working to address the issue. Did I miss a recent presentation by the district’s advanced academic department outlining efforts that showed a lack of focus in this area?

Was there a sense that the advanced academic department was insufficiently committed to this goal? Were principals themselves not adequately focused on identifying more students?

Board member Abigail Tylor, herself a former educator of gifted students worked on the resolution with assistance from the Nashville Organized for Action and Hope(NOAH) education task force.

Per The Tennessean,

Bethany Ritlle-Johnson, a member of the task force, said they’ve been working to address these inequalities for a while, and she was hopeful to get the vote before new board members took office. She said the resolution was nothing new to the district.

“The equity resolution and policy go with what Dr. Battle said she wanted to accomplish with the equity roadmap. We’re just giving a push to make sure it happens,” Ritlle-Johnson said.

If it’s nothing new to the district and already fits what’s being done, why the need for the resolution? Does NOAH think that MNPS’s professional educators need them to push them in order to bring change? What qualifies NOAH to feel like need to push the district? Does NOAH have a track record that demonstrates successful student outcomes based on the policies they advocate for? Or are they just another political entity that feels educators would perform without their input?

As a quick side note, instead of us all clutching our pearls over recent comments by Hillsdale’s Larry Arnn, we might want to use the opportunity to evaluate if our own words and deeds aren’t actually inadvertently sending the same message to the state’s professional educators.

When it comes to recent changes within our advanced academic programs, I’d argue that in some ways, programs have been watered down in an effort to create equitable numbers. That equity is eclipsing achievement, and as a result, we are underserving gifted children.

The idea that any child can do advanced work if only they are exposed to it, serves nobody. Expecting someone to run a 4-minute mile without taking into account genetic makeup, nutrition, previous training, and other variables doesn’t result in that person automatically running a 4-minute mile.

The issue is much more complex and will likely take years to rectify. To start there should be a deeper conversation about how gifted children are identified. In many cases, testing fails them because their advanced intellect is not adequately captured by existing tests. It’s been long argued that multiple forms of identification are expensive. My response has always been that if they provide the only means to reach our goal, they are not expensive, they just cost a lot. One descriptor references a luxury, the other a necessity.

There is no magic wand that can be waved to undue years of under-representation, but the work needs to be done in a manner that serves students, not political agendas. Writing non-binding resolutions serve the latter more than the former. While I believe that Tylor brings this resolution out of a sense of pupose, NOAH is firmly rooted in the political.

But since the board likes writing resolutions, when can I expect to see a similar one around sports? In the name of equity, we will longer offer roster spots to the gifted or those who work extra hard. Everybody will be represented, and whether teams win or not will be inconsequential, as long as everybody receives equal playing time.

Perhaps a similar one could be offered for the arts.

I’ve long voiced my amazement that we recognize different levels of aptitude in the arts and sports, but somehow feel that academics are different.

Yes, inherent talents are brought forth based on many variables, and every effort should be made to bring those talents forth for all children, but all of us have different talents and those gifts should all be valued.

QUICK HITS

Recently I’ve heard some Tennessee education policy insiders not so quietly wonder if the recent dismissal of Joris Ray as Memphis superintendent for his sexual improprieties has made Commissioner Schwinn a little nervous. After all, her own actions and the gossip around them, once rose to such a level that she felt the need to clarify circumstances during a staff meeting. I don’t make up the speculation, I just ask the questions.

Speaking of the Schwinns, speculation on husband Paul’s place of employment has been a recurring conversation. Current rumors have him at either the Achievement Network or Great Minds. It would probably be a moot point save for the fact that his last employer was the beneficiary of approximately $17 million in state contracts.

While we are on the subject of TNTP, this week Mrs. Schwinn submitted paperwork to the fiscal review committee to amend their contract with the state to provide training in literacy instruction to teachers of 5th through 6th grade.(6. Education (TNTP) AMD-01) Initially the $9million contract was to be split into 3 payments with the smallest portion being paid after the completion of 2022 training. But according to Schwinn’s letter,

The Secondary Literacy Training contract was awarded to TNTP, Inc. through a competitive Request for Proposals (RFP) process. An amendment will allow for clarification of the State’s intention to split the cost item for the Course Two delivery into two payments, one for 2022 and one for 2023. Payment will be rendered upon satisfactory delivery of 2022
Course Two and upon satisfactory delivery of 2023 Course Two.

What that translates to is a payment of $5,483,750.00  next month, and one of $4,216,250.00 this time next year. The contract is slated to run until September 2024. Yea, I know California math, but when you know a guy who knows a girl…it all works out.

Nothing like some words from the Guv, to close out a week of lunacy. He tells WSMV news that his experiment in vouchers is a success. Again we recognize aspirations, not accomplishments, but…ok. He tells the news station that he personally has been reading the “submissions from the 600 students who have applied, including a child who lost his dad to cancer.” According to Lee,

“Another student who applied is in foster care and life just hasn’t been easy for him,” said Governor Lee. “But he dreams of becoming a veterinarian and he thinks he would benefit from a smaller class size, and he should have that benefit.”

I wonder if he knows that his recently passed funding formula makes that benefit more difficult. You can’t make this stuff up.

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.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support and a reminder that I will be out here heavily shaking the can all month. 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.

Fees associated with the blog are due the first week in September – 8 days away and counting – and any help with those is always appreciated. An old rival used to accuse me of begging on the internet, an accusation with a ring of truth. But we all do what we can.

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.

Ok, I’m kinda begging.



Categories: Education

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