“If a liar tells you he is lying, is he telling the truth.”
I’ve said it before, but it always bears repeating, when I first started writing about education policy I was blessed to have access to some accomplished educators who were willing to share their knowledge. Not to mention a wife who was a pretty talented educator herself.
Back then, I can remember, thinking a policy sounded absolutely fantastic, only to have it explained to me in a manner that exposed its flaws. The same held true when it came to the opposite. Things aren’t always what they seem, and sometimes the unintended consequences are worse than the intended.
The problem is that not everybody has the same access as me, nor the time to devote to delving into the nuance. Couple that with the propensity of district leaders to under-communicate, and you have the recipe for a culture of distrust. A culture that has borne especially bitter fruit of late, as more and more parents are questioning the purpose of schools.
National writers have blamed the increasing levels of parental anger with schools on supposed astro-turf groups, misogyny, racism, self-interest, homophobia, ignorance, and a host of other convenient culprits. Sure that is a thread that runs through it all, but mostly it’s just a reaction that comes from a lack of understanding and even more so, a lack of trust.
Rarely is the time taken to explain anything in a manner that those with skin in the game can truly understand. Unless it involves serving as a classroom aide, advocating for select policy, or raising money with the PTA, parents are mostly viewed as a nuisance as opposed to actual partners. As a result, even good policy becomes viewed as an attempt to usurp the authority of parents, and nobody should become shocked when fear turns into anger.
Now, most of this doesn’t fall into the lap of individual schools, they, for the most part, are kept so busy responding to district leadership and their ambitions – who are also overly influenced by the bureaucrats and legislators above them – that there is little capacity left for meaningful authentic communication with parents.
The more time I spend on education issues the more I realize that it really consists of two separate worlds coupled with a couple moons circling around them.
The first world is populated by bureaucrats. legislators and non-profits bent on shaping policy while spending as little time interacting with kids as possible. Their exposure to students comes primarily through spreadsheets, PR events, and maybe their kid’s carpools. This, unfortunately, is the world where the money resides.
Some of its residents may have started out in the classroom, but that time is now viewed in a similar fashion to that of a hillbilly’s ruminations about growing up in the sticks before escaping to a cosmopolitan life in New York City. They talk about the great times, and the level of respect they have for those who remained behind, they just don’t want to associate with them or move back home.
The second world is the actual classroom and those who populate it. What transpires here is so far removed from the perceptions and desires of those who reside in the first world that it might as well be populated with plumbers. While the second world is where the actual serving of children transpires, It’s here that policies developed in a world devoid of actual children must be modified in order to bring success.
A success that s defined by those in the first world and used to hold those of the second accountable, while the citizens of the first rarely face any accountability. At times it feels like the first world is so concerned with impressing each other with their brilliance and level of caring, that they lose sight of the fact that their mental exercises have real-world implications for students and communities.
Parents are like the moon circling the two worlds struggling to find where they belong in the equation despite everybody swearing fidelity to their importance. In reality, parents are often treated as if their only true role is to supply the product both worlds require. Harsh maybe, but unfortunately not without merit.
Lost in all of this is that in order to truly foster success in student outcomes, you have to build relationships. Relationships that are authentic and rooted in trust. You’d have thought that the abysmal results from Tennessee’s Achievement School District would have taught us that, but no we keep chasing neon rainbows while failing to forge essential relationships, and then we are baffled when we fall short.
There is a gas station, and quick market, by my house that I frequent. It’s a little dated but has most of what I need, Gas is a bit cheaper than elsewhere, but what truly sets it apart is that anytime I go in there it is staffed by people who display the same level of kindness and friendliness and provide high-level customer care. In short, I feel not just welcomed every time I enter the place, but valued.
It’s not just me either. Word is, it’s the second most successful station in the region. My kids and wife experience the same level of kindness and warmth as I do. In the summertime, the kids will often take their bikes and ride to the market to get a treat. They feel comfortable sitting there and eating their snack, and I feel a sense of safety in them visiting the store.
As a result, I will often bypass other more convenient gas stations in order to visit this one. They have fostered a level of trust and comfort that has created in me a sense of loyalty. Of all of the options available to me, this is the one I choose to frequent because they give me a sense that I matter.
It’s a lesson that is applicable to schools but all too often is ignored.
The Nashville Public Education Foundation recently released the results of its annual poll measuring public opinion around Nashville Schools. Per the Nashville Scene,
According to the poll results, Nashvillians’ perceptions of public schools are improving — though they’re still not very high. Fifty-one percent of respondents have a negative view of Nashville’s public schools, which is an 11-point improvement from last year’s poll results. Fifty percent of respondents who are public school parents approve of the district’s work in educating students — a 16-point improvement from last year.
I would find that troubling and indicative of a need for improvement, but concerns are dismissed by statements like this one from NPEF president and CEO Katie Cour, who tells the Scene,
“We were excited to see … movement in the right direction about public perception of our public schools. There’s no urban district in the country that has positive approval ratings that I’m aware of. And so we’re not expecting to see 100 percent approval of everything that the district is doing across the board. What we are looking for year after year is the trending of changes of opinion.”
Not to pick on Cour, whom I have a lot of respect for, but I must point out, fifty-one percent is a long way from a hundred percent, yet it seems fifty percent is where we are setting our sights. Yes, the growth is nice, but considering that this poll comes on the heels of a pandemic – remember that thing – is it enough? We’ll see.
But once again, we have to ask, were parents’ opinions given adequate weight. MNPS School Board member Emily Master’s asked that and more in a recent blog post.
The press release states that the “margin of error for the sample is +/- 4.4 percentage points at the 95% level of confidence.” Hearkening back to what I learned in high school statistics class (in a Tennessee public school, no less), I recall that a 95% confidence level means there’s only a 5% chance that the data is wrong, and a margin of error tells you how much your results will differ from the real population value.
There were 484,814 registered voters in Davidson County as of August 4, 2022. I looked up the formula to calculate sample size to achieve a certain margin of error, and according to that formula, the margin of error reported by NPEF can be achieved by polling 496 members of a population of 484,814. Good job NPEF; they polled 500 Davidson Co. voters. However, I still had questions, because so much of what they’re reporting is specific to MNPS.
I reached out to Katie Cour, President and CEO of NPEF, to ask what percentage of respondents were MNPS parents. I also asked what they meant by “likely voter,” and was that the only requirement for a respondent’s answers to be included?
According to Cour, “33% of respondents had children in the household and of those, 64% were public school parents and 26% private school (6% home schooled). Likely voter is defined as a voter who voted in one of the last 3 November elections (’16, ’18, ’20) or a new registrant who says they are certain to vote this fall.”
With Cour’s response in hand, I got out a calculator. 33% of 500 is 165, and 64% of 165 is 105.6. So, 105.6 survey respondents were MNPS parents. I then went back to the formula to calculate sample size. I know there are at least 82,610 public school parents in MNPS (accounting only for one parent per student). The formula results tell me that 493 MNPS parents should have been polled to achieve a margin of error of 4.4 for the portion of the survey data NPEF claims to be representative of the thoughts and beliefs of MNPS parents. Looks like the margin of error for that portion of the results is 10. I learned during my public school education that an acceptable margin of error at a 95% confidence level should be between 4 and 8. I’m starting to question whether or not I should trust this survey data as a reliable measure of MNPS parent “perceptions of local public schools.”
Well, I think you got your answer. Whether it’s by intent or by accident, the results are the same, parents and their voices are continually marginalized. Eventually, there will be a price to pay, people who don’t feel welcomed and valued, choose other options.
The choice now at hand is what we want to focus on. We can throw all our energy into arguing about why parents are feeling a growing sense of dissatisfaction, or we can choose to focus on how we are going to repair and strengthen relationships and better serve students,
Ultimately it’s about taking the power out of the first world and investing it in the second. If there is money to fund six-figure salaries in the non-profit advocacy world, why can’t a similar investment be made in teachers?
If there is money to fund surveys that under-represent parents, why is there not enough to fully fund support staff?
Education non-profits are continually growing their staffs, while public schools struggle to staff classroom positions, why?
Think about the combined income of bureaucrats and non-profit company employees, think about the millions that they invest in studying data, producing press releases, holding conferences, lobbying lawmakers, and countless other activities that don’t directly impact kids, an entire sub-economy fueled by student outcomes. Then ask yourself, what if we chose to invest that money only in what actually touches children’s lives?
I’ve long argued that we could eradicate DUI if we truly wanted to. Between advances in technology and tighter sentences, the means exist. The issue becomes what to do about the sub-economy that had sprung up around DUI arrests. Between the police, judges, bail bondsmen, clerks, and insurance companies – just to name a few – there is a lot of money generated by DUI arrests. If DUIs were wiped out, how would you make up that lost revenue?
Schools face a similar dilemma, if student outcomes suddenly soared through the roof and public schools were all viewed as success factories, there would be a lot of lost revenue, so how would you make it up?
When it comes to school choice, the only choice that matters to me is, where are we going to invest our money and our resources? Are we going to maintain the status quo and keep putting it in the hands of private entities that have gotten rich off of the backs of children while making a marginal impact, or the ones that have repeatedly shown that at the end of the day it all comes down to the relationship between a teacher and a student?
I’ve spent a fair amount of time this past week diving into Tennessee’s accountability formula and recent allegations that the state is out of compliance with its ESSER plan. There is a lot of confusion around the issue. Confusion could be somewhat clarified if the TNDOE would just produce the letter from the USDOE. Something they don’t feel particularly compelled to do.
Despite the help of some very knowledgeable folks, and a great deal of study, I’m still pretty much at a loss to explain exactly what game is afoot. Laura Testino at the Memphis Commercial Appeal has attempted to illuminate some of what’s going on, but despite an admirable effort, in the end, through no fault of her own, she just raises more questions.
So let’s start with why this is important. While the accountability formula is peripherally tied to funding, its main impact is on how schools are perceived as performing. Are they succeeding, or failing? Should parents send their kids to them or look for alternatives? What should schools focus on to ensure that they are being viewed as succeeding? These and other decisions are based on the accountability formula. So it matters a great deal and that’s why it is monitored by the federal government.
Each state is responsible for creating an individual plan that is submitted to the USDOE, reviewed, and then approved. Tennessee’s current plan was created in 2015 and was one of the first approved under the Every Student Succeeds Act(ESSA).
The primary purpose of the plan is to ensure that Tennessee is meeting its obligation to all of its students, including those who speak English as a second language and those with disabilities. It takes into account several elements, including achievement scores, chronic attendance, TVAAS, EL growth, and for high schools, College and Career readiness, and graduation rates.
Interesting side fact, initially Tennesse wasn’t even going to include grad rates in their plan because of redundancy. Those rates are already included in CCR, because you have to be a graduate to be ready for college or a career. The USDOE disagreed and both are now included. Ironically, this is where some of the compliance issues are rumored to lie.
As a part of ESSA, states were instructed that they must create an alternate graduation pathway for students with disabilities. In Tennessee’s case, the pathway allows for those students to stretch out algebra I into a full year and graduate without taking algebra II and thus earn an alternate diploma. Federal law allows schools to include those graduates in their graduation rates. Tennessee’s requirements are included in our USDOE-approved ESSA plan.
Per the Tennessee Department of Education, the USDOE is now arguing for the exclusion of students with disabilities from the grad rate if they only complete Algebra I and Geometry. Not only that, but this change must take place immediately, despite superintendents arguing that students would be best served with a phased-in change. Why?
In essence, it is being argued that the entity that mandated the state to create a process and approved the created process, is now saying that the process is not allowed. That’s a little weird.
As far as Tennessee goes, there is another odd wrinkle. Even if they are out of compliance, arguably, they are only doing so because they believe that their policy better serves kids. So if the feds push back, it only stands to reason that they would defend their position, and counter-argue, not just automatically fold. Yet all indications are that this is exactly what Commissioner Schwinn and her rapidly shrinking team did.
This is at face problematic, but even more so when you consider that Tennessee”s Governor Lee likes to portray himself as an acolyte of Donald Trump, while the USDOE is led by a Republican who was appointed by the Democratic president that defeated Trump in the last election. This is a tailor-made opportunity to stick a finger in the eye of a political opponent and argue that you know what’s best for kids. Instead, Tennessee chooses to roll over and show its belly. A baffling choice.
There is a lot to decipher here, and I’m sure we’ll spend a fair amount of time discussing it in the near future, but one thing that needs to be pointed out from Testino’s article is the discussion around letter grades for schools.
In informing about compliance issues with the USDOE, the TNDOE also distributed a survey that seems to go beyond the scope of the compliance issues it outlined to district leaders. The department solicited input into what an A-F grading system for schools should look like from the perspective of parents, educators, and community members.
Per the Tennessean,
TDOE spokesperson Brian Blackley told The Commercial Appeal the responses were gathered to continue efforts to make accountability measures “digestible and understandable.”
“The department is taking every opportunity to sharpen the messaging and support for the use and interpretation of school letter grades, for a wide variety of intended audiences,” Blackley said. “Stakeholder engagement in this process is important for the use of school letter grades to have the greatest impact.”
It’s a nice gesture, but letter grades went into law in 2016. Despite rules created by the state board of education, these grades have never been implemented. Not once, So why are we reviewing something that has never existed?
It’s common practice to implement a system and then after a set time limit, come back and review and adjust. That would be considered prudent, but to review something before it has ever been brought to fruition is questionable. Are we looking for feedback here, or is it another case of when we want your opinion we’ll tell it to you?
Again, as mentioned earlier, the trickle of information emerging from Commissioner Schwinn is only producing more questions. As usual, its implementation which always seems to present the biggest challenge for her. Whether it’s accurate or not, the manner in which she conducts business repeatedly lends itself to the perception that she is up to something nefarious. This instance is no exception.
Reportedly the custodians at the offices of TNDOE have announced that they are quitting, Eve Carney is expected to assume the duties of cleaning the building in the wake of their departure. Ok…that’s not true, but would you be surprised if you heard that in the near future?
Yesterday, former TNDOE associate Casey Haugner Wrenn announced she’s starting a new position as Director, of Career Readiness with the Education Strategy Group.
The latest shocking discovery by News 5’s Phil Williams is that Tennessee’s recently created charter school commission is partisan and heavily influenced by SCORE. Who would have thunk it? While it’s nice to see Williams documenting the bias, it begs the question of who thought the purpose of the commission was to do anything but bypass local decisions? It also raises the question of how much governing power are we comfortable conceding to SCORE?
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