“Being smart and rich are lucky, but being curious and compassionate will save your ass. Being curious and compassionate can take you out of your ego and edge your soul towards wonder.”
On Friday, I told you about Tennennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s plans to suspend rule of law and not issue grades for individual schools based on the state’s accountability rubric being unreliable. In reading the law, I’m not sure where the criteria of reliability are written into the legislation that governs the requirement. Previously, in 2018, the grades were suspended due to problems with TNReady, but that was done well in advance of the deadline and it was the General Assembly that passed a bill suspending the issuing of grades.
In my eyes, this is a huge issue and not one that should be glossed over, as it seems that Commissioner Schwinn once again believes that she gets to determine which laws are followed and which ones she is free to ignore.
The A-F legislation was passed in 2016 when for some reason legislators felt it was imperative to pass a grading system for the state’s public schools. While many advocay groups raised red flags, others applauded the move as a way to help parents make informed decisions,
“This new law represents a great step forward in our state’s ongoing effort to give parents across Tennessee better access to clear and transparent data about their children’s schools,” said Brent Easley, state director for Students First Tennessee, a group advocating to expand school choice options to include private school vouchers.
Yes indeed, that is the same Brent Easily who currently sits comfortably at the right hand of Bill Lee, serving as a policy advisor. Maybe he could ask Lee why if it was considered important in 2016 it failed to meet the criteria in 2022.
Easley might have thought it was a great step, but remember around here, it is the aspirations that get celebrated not the accomplishments that get celebrated. In 6 years, the actual step has never been taken. As previously mentioned pans were for implementation to begin in 2018, never happened. This means that for 4 years the state has been out of compliance with state law. In a state dominated by conservatives, you’d think that would be a concern, seeing as the rule of law is a prime conservative tenet.
But not in Tennessee.
Not under Bill Lee.
During TISA hearings this year, legislators voiced concerns that the TNDOE was continually failing to meet a mandate put forth by the General Assembly. They received assurances that this year would be different.
In suspending the assigning of grades to schools, Commissioner Schwinn suggests that inconsistent participation data across several years is skewing the results for holding schools accountable. As reported by ChalkbeatTN,
In her letter to superintendents, Schwinn said, “it is not possible to issue letter grades that fairly and transparently communicate the performance and progress of schools at this time.”
Ok, the next question, one probably best asked in front of the Senate and House education committee members, is when did she realize this? Participation rates for 2021 are already established, and predicting 2022 rates should be fairly easy, so…why the late announcement?
I would argue that she should have known last Spring that this year’s results would be unreliable, and been more forthcoming with legislators, But she had a funding plan to sell, and no distractions were permissible. Remember there are outright lies, and lies of omission. This seems to be a case of the latter.
Here’s my favorite quote from Commissioner Schwinn’s letter to superintendents,
“This A-F letter grading accountability system should always reflect consistent and trustworthy information to families, and especially so in this inaugural year,”
Ok…why is the inaugural year any more important than any following year? Is it permissible to lower the bar in future years? But let’s look at that bit about “trustworthy and consistent information to families. No one seems to be able to point to a definition of that phrase, but in looking at the information communicated to LLEAs by Tennessee’s Boris and Natasha, there is a lack of adherence at play as well.
In 2021 Lee and Schwinn were applying pressure on schools to suspend remote learning and get students buts back in school seats. Some schools complied, while others held fast to keep schools closed. Those who quickly returned kids to classrooms likely didn’t see the drops in student outcomes experienced by those who for the most part remained remote. By now, we all should agree that live instruction is best for all, and produces better outcomes.
When you start to look at participation rates in TCAP, once again if students were already back in-person, a school likely had a higher participation rate. The opposite was somewhat true for those schools predominately remote unless they had a principal who followed the dynamic duo’s initiative and pushed for as many students to come in and test as possible.
Now when you look at the students who chose not to test in 2021, who were they likely to be? I’m betting they were predominately those who understand the process and had the means to opt out. I don’t think it’s a stretch to assume many of them were your higher-performing students. What happens when those kids participate in 2022? Time for a football analogy.
If you play the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Tom Brady, along with three other starters, is out, and you beat them by 30 points are you really that good? The inverse holds true if you play later in the season and TomBrady, along with the other starters, is in and they beat you by 30pts, are you really that bad? I’d argue that neither game is indicative of your level of skill, and reality lies somewhere in the middle. This year TVAAS is the same way.
The reality is, had Commissioner Schwinn actually done her job, and generated A-F letter grades for schools the ones that followed her and Lee’s guidance would be the ones receiving the lowest scores because Tennessee’s accountability model emphasizes growth over achievement. Those schools that followed the lead of Schwinn likely didn’t see a precipitous drop in scores and therefore had less room for growth this year. Unlike those who didn’t their words, and likely experienced a large bounce back.
This is going to provide a conundrum for Schwinn going forward, Unless she finds a means in which to mitigate the influence of growth, lowering-achieving schools will continue to secure higher grades while higher-achieving schools will be penalized. For some state superintendents, this would be considered a fair trade-off, but somehow I don’t think this highly ambitious state leader falls into that camp.
Here’s where the real dishonesty kicks in. While admitting current test results are unreliable out of one side of her mouth, the commissioner continues to lend credence to them in order to support favored initiatives out of the other. It’s disingenuous and fails to meet the standard of consistent and trustworthy information.
Case in point, an article from Ed Post where long-time Science of Reading advocate Holly Korby writes,
Since the pandemic began in 2020, national data show many students—especially the youngest learners and children in poverty—have stalled or regressed in reading. However, in the 2021-22 school year, Tennessee, a high-poverty state with some of the country’s lowest literacy levels, saw noteworthy rebounds in student reading achievement.
Three-quarters of Tennessee districts saw students’ reading scores improve to some degree, with upper elementary and middle school students making the largest gains. The state even saw a slight gain in the number of students reaching grade-level reading.
Follow the embedded links and you are taken to press releases from the TNDOE. The article fails to add any context to the scores, instead choosing to trumpet all the initiatives that possibly might have contributed to the increase. Little credit is given to any teachers that might have seen gains by using a method different from that prescribed by SOR acolytes. It’s not until the end of the article that any caveats are provided.
Three-quarters of Tennessee districts posted reading gains that outpaced their pre-pandemic scores. Yet not everyone’s scores improved—while more Tennessee students scored ‘proficient’ in reading this spring, more students also fell below grade level. About a quarter of Tennessee students have fallen to the lowest reading level—the highest number since 2017. The gap widened especially for Black and Latine students, English learners, and students with disabilities.
“I’m wondering what people are celebrating,” said Sonya Thomas, executive director of Nashville PROPEL, a parent group that advocates for more equitable education outcomes. While Metro Nashville students’ reading scores improved at a faster rate than the state as a whole, achievement gaps remain wide. Overall, not quite a quarter of Metro Nashville’s students scored at or above grade level in reading.
To be fair, the Science of Reading advocates are not the only ones taking advantage of questionable data. At a recent principals’ meeting, MNPS Superintendent Adrian Battle was given roses and a standing ovation for providing leadership that allowed so many Nashville schools to post huge gains. Ironically, the accolades probably aren’t misplaced, but not for the reasons that Battle and her team are laying claim to.
If the TCAP scores are valid enough to recognize and condemn schools, then they should meet the standard required to generate school grades in compliance with state law. If not, that should be a decision made by the General Assembly after an in-depth explanation by the Commissioner of Education.
Before anybody gets too comfortable referencing this year’s TCAP scores, there is a little more information worth considering. First of all the process of computing TCAP scores is a complex one that requires an experienced hand, something the TNDOE does not have. Prior to this year’s cycle, there were exactly zero people who had ever run a complete accountability season. Think about that for a minute before you slide all of your chips over on red or black.
So what about the California girl who hit our shores last Fall? You know the one, Rachael Maves, who was going to fix all of our accountability issues, plucked from the Golden State to train the hillbillies. Well, if you call TNDOE by Friday you’ll have time to say goodbye, but after that, you’ll just get a forwarding number.
In a rumor too good to check, Maves has reportedly been looking for a new gig on the down low, when someone told Penny, she was blindsided and pissed. I suspect we’ll be seeing even more splitting from the TNDOE as we draw closer to what may become a contentious legislative session. Several folks have told me that a certain chief of staff has been frustrated by her boss’s lack of engagement and is considering a departure once the weather turns cold. But I digress.
Regardless of any defense put forth, this year’s TNReady results are unreliable and anybody who puts too much stock in them is either a charlatan, a fool, or both. It’s really that simple.
As it stands now, I can only assume that state representatives have little concern over whether Commissioner Schwinn follows their lead or not, content to let her set policy as she sees fit. That alone should be a question that demands an answer as Tennessee residents head to the polls in November.
FOLLOW THE MONEY
Hopefully, most of you heeded my advice when I told you to go ahead and subscribe to The Daily Memphian. This morning reporter Ian Round is back with a look at just how much money the Gates Foundation invested in the passage of the TISA bill. The numbers are stupefying,
Gov. Bill Lee scored a major victory in April when more than 100 people and entities endorsed his school funding formula.
On the list of those supporting the Tennessee Investment in Student Achievement Act (TISA) were 54 nonprofit organizations, 22 school districts, 17 county mayors and eight foundations. Six namesakes of those foundations also endorsed as individuals.
At least 22 of those nonprofits have something in common: they’ve received funding from Bill Gates and/or the Walton family, both of whom use their immense wealth in part to promote charter schools.
The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation has given $52,569,174 to those organizations, according to a review by The Daily Memphian of the foundation’s public, self-reported grants database. It’s given another $121,454,933 to national organizations with local affiliates that endorsed it. In total, that’s more than $174 million.
The Walton Family Foundation, which maintains a similar database, has given $37,344,156 to the organizations that directly endorsed it and $31,764,488 to national organizations whose local affiliates endorsed it, for a total just over $69 million.
Almost all of these grants are since 2010.
That’s a lot of cabbage. One would think that with that kind of investment, Tennessee student outcomes would eclipse those of all other states.
“The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation has been a strong supporter of Tennessee’s public schools and students for many, many years, working across multiple state administrations, and with a variety of outstanding partners,” spokesperson Josie McSpadden wrote in an email.
Over the past decade, we’ve seen Tennessee and other states make tremendous gains in education and student achievement, but clearly, there’s more work for Tennesseans to do,” McSpadden said. “Progress hasn’t come fast enough for many students, especially among Black and Latino students and students experiencing poverty.”
Hmmm…if you look at scores on TCAP, they’ve been mostly flat for the last 5 years, and we’ve already established their reliability for this year. So how are these generous souls measuring their bang for the buck? Hard to tell because there is an inherent lack of transparency in all of this. As Round writes,
“Because SCORE and other organizations are not required to disclose where they send subgrants, it’s difficult to know exactly where the billionaires’ philanthropic dollars end up. (Jon)Lundberg, the Senate Education Committee chair in the state legislature, said he believes they should voluntarily disclose that information or be required to disclose it.”
One final note on this. Round reveals that Education Trust has received $96,737,903 from the Gates Foundation. Surely that would be a sufficient enough investment that seed money for a southern office could be carved out. Apparently not, as back in July the organization received an additional quarter million in order to support the launch of a new organization, Ed Trust South. An organization assumedly headed up by former MNPS school board member Gini Pupo-Walker.
Here’s where it gets interesting, Walker used to serve as senior director of education policy and strategic growth for Conexion America, an organization that has done commendable work in Nashville serving Latino families. In 2020 she left that organization to join Education Trust as its first full-time staff member in Tennessee. Her departure wasn’t quite amicable, and there were questions around she’d already shifted her focus away from Conexion prior to her departure.
If we look at the Gates website, it’s revealed that in 2018, Conexion received $1,300,096, up from the $850,053 they received in 2015. Since Walker’s departure, the only Gates money the organization has seen is the $75k they received in 2020. Seems like the Foundation has a fondness for Walker that doesn’t extend to her former organization.
The bottom line is that at some point legislators are going to have to do a deep dive into how non-profit money is influencing education policy in Tennessee. It’s hypocritical to demand accountability for students, teachers, administrators, and even legislators, while there is none for non-profit advocacy groups who spend millions working on their personal agendas.
MNPS folks may remember the case of Euna McGruder. In a nutshell, McGruder was an executive director for the district’s priority schools. She sued the district for discrimination and retaliation. The discrimination charge was dismissed on summary judgment, while the court ruled in her favor on the retaliation charge, The jury awarded Dr. McGruder $260,000 in compensatory damages and $0 in back pay. Now she’s looking for her job back.
According to court documents(USCOURTS-tnmd-3_17-cv-01547-4),
Dr. McGruder submits that reinstatement is appropriate in the present case because it is necessary to make her whole for the injuries she has suffered on account of her retaliatory termination from Metro in January 2016. Dr. McGruder notes that the uncontroverted evidence at trial confirmed that she was a high-level member of Metro’s central office with an annual salary of $126,880.00, (Doc. No. 93 at PageID # 1452-53), until her retaliatory termination derailed her rising career trajectory of becoming a superintendent and left her unable to secure comparable subsequent employment. (See id. at PageID # 1457, 1468-69, 1472-75). Dr. McGruder further argues that reinstatement is appropriate because she is qualified and available for her prior position or any comparable central office position within the school system.
Safe to say, MNPS does not agree and they are fighting her reinstatement. This could get interesting.
This story in the Nashville Scene has nothing to do with education but does serve to illustrate why the Tennessean’s quality has continued to slip. Just some more Californians coming east to educate the hillbillies.
The prolific JC Bowman was on the radio talking jamming through ESAs and managing superintendents. and thoughts are worth considering. Bowman points out an important issue that many may not be considering when it comes to accepting a voucher,
And here’s one of the things, too, Michael. They have to give up their IDEA rights. This means if you have a disability, you lose that disability [allowance], and you can no longer accept services. So this is going to not be beneficial to children with disabilities.
Lately, you’ve heard a lot about 3 proposed Hillsdale Schools trying to subvert the locals and appeal to the state charter school commission for permission to open. Here’s what you may not know, as it has gone largely unreported, there are 10 other schools, non-Hillsdale affiliated, that are also pursuing the appeals process. The commission has 11 public hearings currently scheduled for September to discuss new charter school appeals.
- KIPP Southeast Nashville College Prep Elementary and Middle School
- Tennessee Nature Academy
- Saber Stem Academy
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