THE BREAK IS UPON US

“Your ego wants to conceal your insecurity and your fear. And that’s why it can be such an unwelcome intrusion when we’re trying to create or perform. You need your human frailty to be at least somewhat visible if you want to connect on an emotional level”
Jeff Tweedy, How to Write One Song

 

 

The end of this week marks the end of a quarter for many schools across the state of Tennessee. Whether it’s been a good one or not, probably depends on personal perspective. Over in our household, it’s been a mixed bag.

On the local front, Metro Nashville Public Schools continues to struggle with staffing and discipline issues, including many instances of guns being brought to school. Some would write the latter off as a societal problem, 0ne that is beyond the capacity of schools to address, yet we expect schools to address just about every other social malady.

Say what you will, I will continue to argue that ensuring student and teacher safety should always be a paramount issue for schools. Few things put kids in more danger than a gun at school, so minimizing instances is critical.

Academically, the district continues to clap itself on the back for last year’s bounce back from COVID. While the numbers are certainly worthy of fostering optimism, anyone who thinks they will be the same next year doesn’t quite understand math. There is a reason that the theTNDOE is running the priority school numbers again next year, despite previously being on a three-year cycle. It is a reason that likely will not benefit the state’s large urban districts.

There is also a reason why virtually every district in the state which was a 5 previously, is now a 1 or 2. It’s not because they provided inferior instruction or their students suddenly got dumber, it’s COVID. I know it’s unpopular to recall the challenges of the last two years, but that doesn’t mean they didn’t happen. The truth of the matter is that we are still learning and evaluating the impact.

Over time we will likely identify previously unknown areas of impact. Educator Robert Pondiscio argues that the real challenge is going to come from language accumulation,

It’s no surprise to see math test scores drop more than reading, as they have in New York City, for example. Nor is it reassuring that reading scores appear more resilient in the first rounds of post-pandemic testing. Both are exactly what we should have expected. Math is largely a school-based subject, instructionally-sensitive, and more likely to show immediately the effects of lost instructional time. This also makes it easier to catch kids up. But language proficiency is different, and we shouldn’t be lulled into complacency if it appears to be less impacted by Covid. Reading test scores are stubbornly tied to what happens outside of school, and there’s not much mystery why: Children of well-educated parents enjoy verbal advantages at home that grow each day. Their lives are enriched by rich dinner table conversation with educated adults, bedtime read-alouds, weekend visits to museums, all manner of summer activities, plus other out-of-school learning opportunities, sports teams, music lessons, and sundry forms of “concerted cultivation.”

Reading researcher Keith Stanovich dubbed the impact of these structural advantages and disadvantages in language and knowledge the “Matthew Effect,” after a passage in the New Testament Gospel of Matthew: “For to everyone who has, more will be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who does not have, even what he has will be taken away.” In simple language, the rich will get richer, the poor will get poorer. Privileged children come to school on day one with larger stores of knowledge and vocabulary than their disadvantaged peers. Those accumulations provide fertile soil in which to grow new knowledge and vocabulary.

It’s a fair point, and if the theory holds true, will impact scores and perceptions even as the memory of the pandemic recedes. You hear a lot about “accelerated learning” as a means to combat these effects, but if we could really “accelerate learning” don’t you think we’d already be doing it?

Politically, those who look to profit off of the state’s children have run into a little trouble, though I am loathed to say, it’s not likely anything they can’t overcome.

The increased accountability measures put in place if third-graders fail to score on track for literacy on TCAP go into effect this Spring, and it seems like people have finally actually read the bill. Its policy sans research supporting it as beneficial for kids, and in fact, research demonstrates the opposite.

Samuel J. Kamin and Alexandra J. Lamb, Neag School doctoral candidates in the Department of Educational Leadership, lay it out pretty succinctly in a research brief,

As parents, schools, and districts assess student learning progress at the end of the 2020-21 school year, some stakeholders may propose grade retention as a mechanism to support students. As this brief will explain, the research is clear that grade retention has no long-term benefits for student achievement or long-term outcomes and may in fact have negative consequences for both students and districts. While there is some evidence of short-term positive effects, these are to be expected as students are completing work they have already been exposed to. As students move into later grades, these effects disappear, indicating that while students may improve on work they have already completed, grade retention does not provide a scaffold for learning new skills or approaching new challenges in future grades.

Tennessee’s policy is modeled after Mississippi’s – the producer of the so-called Mississippi Miracle. While Mississippi is probably the most known example, the retention trend started in 2003 with Florida and now 16 states, along with the District of Columbia having similar policies.

Mississippi does hold the distinction of holding back more students than any other state. In the 2018-2019 school year they retained 9.3% of 3rd graders, double the rate for the previous year. As author Todd Collins points out in a piece for Fordham,

These retention levels are much higher than other states. The closest are Oklahoma at 6 percent and Alabama at 5 percent. Florida, probably the most well-known example, today holds back 4 percent of its K–3 students, including 8 percent of third graders. When it first enacted its retention policy in 2003–04, Florida’s third-grade retention rose as high as 14 percent before steadily declining; it has risen again in recent years. The average for all states is about 3 percent; many states have retention rates of 2 percent or less.

Collins, followed up his previous analysis with an update this year and found that retention alone does not ensure success, Florida and Mississippi combine retention with robust interventions. Thus they’ve seen greater growth, while others like Oklahoma and Louisiana, who have similar retention rates but lack the supports, have-not.

The money line in Collin’s report is where he begrudgingly admits that retention might not be as important for students, but look at its impact on adults.

The prospect of student retention forces all these adults to come to grips with the fact that a child they care deeply about is significantly behind in one of the most crucial areas of their education. This often comes as a surprise to parents and sometimes also to the teacher. Yet that arresting realization, made vivid by the risk that a wonderful child might be retained, helps them focus on the problem and change their own behaviors.

In other words, teachers are content to just pass a kid along unless the state steps in and forces them two care. Tell me again how the words of Hillsfale’s Larry Arnn’s are the most disturbing things said this year.

And how is that carpetbagger doing this week?

Well despite the three proposed charter schools affiliated with Hillsdale pulling their appeals to the state charter commission last week, he’s still making headlines. Both the Tennessean and the Tennessee Lookout ran pieces in the last couple of days offering analysis of the strategy of Hillsdale College and its lucifer-like founder Larry Arnn.

While the ongoing clutching of pearls was taking place, many of you might have missed that the fore-mentioned commission overruled MNPS’s decision to deny a charter to two KIPP schools, while upholding the judgment of the Clarksville school board to deny a charter applicant. I suspect that future rulings will follow a similar pattern.

Far be it from me to cast aspersions at people, but I wouldn’t be surprised if the narrative around Hillsdale next year is a little less heated. Any concerns around usurping local control will be met with quiet reassurances that the only reason that the commission exists is that Nashville and Memphis forced lawmakers’ hand by failing to provide a fair process for charter operators. After all, look how seldom the smaller communities have their denials overruled.

Meanwhile, while we chase Arnns and company around the mulberry bush, Nashville gets 250 more seats awarded to the charter school community. That’s likely another 250 students that leave MNPS-zoned schools for other opportunities. It’s a hit Nashville can ill afford.

The district recently completed its 20-day attendance count(2022_23_Day21__Enrollment) as mandated by the state for funding purposes. Overall, the numbers are pretty consistent with last year, as long as you don’t look at the 5-year trend. Then things get a little more disconcerting.

In 2017 the 5-8 tier contained 18,343 students. In 2022 that number has dropped to 16,361. That’s an 11% drop.

Now to be fair charter enrollment has also taken a hit at a similar rate. In 2017 they had 6111 students. That number dropped to 5490 in 2022.

What has grown is the number of students in state-governed schools. Remember once the commission overrules the LEA on a charter school, the application goes back to the locals who decided if they want to govern the school or have the state do it. As of late, Nashville has shown a propensity to take a you-broke it-you-buy-it approach, turning those schools over to the state to administer.

Those middle schools didn’t come into existence until 2019, at that time they only held 125 students. In 2022 that number has increased to 471. This number is likely to grow because these schools have almost doubled the number the students they serve on an annual basis. . Enrollment has grown fro a total of  39 students in 2017 to the current level of 2197 across all grades K-12.

So now, Nashville has 250 more seats available. With only an iota of the protest that followed Hillsdale. If I was a Republican legislator, I might subtly point out that all of Nashville’s charter schools are created by, and populated with, Democrats. The only time anybody seems to get really worked up is when a conservative school wants to join the party.

As a quick side note, a cursory glance at Nashville elementary schools that now have 5 grade housed in their buildings fails to produce much evidence that demonstrates the switch in policy is paying dividends. Nearly all of them have lost students from their previous 4th-grade class. Maybe long-term data will prove different.

What’s undocumented in MNPS is the growth in homeschooling. Talk to any superintendent, rural or urban, and they’ll tell you what was once considered an anomaly, now happens with regularity, There is no reason to believe that this trend will not continue in the coming and only increase in frequency. Adding one more rift to an already fractured system.

The importance of relationships continues to be lost in the whole public education conversation. In the past, traditional schools weren’t popular just because everybody had to attend them. They were popular because of the relationship they forged with the community. For a plethora of reasons that relationship is currently broken, and the damage is only worsening.

Is it repairable?

Are we willing to do whatever it takes to repair it, even if it makes us feel a little uncomfortable?

These are the questions we should be asking ourselves as we head into the break.

QUICK HITS

I’m still attempting to unravel the mess that has been created by Commissioner Schwinn and her team at TNDOE following her announcement that the department had received a letter from the USDSOE that they were out of compliance on accountability issues. Many superintendents were taken by surprise by the demand that changes be made this year instead of phased in. Changes that in some cases work counter to the current state board of education rules.

Now speculation is growing that the letter – which remains unseen by most – is just a small piece of the puzzle and involves much more than just accountability. There is speculation that the USDOE has serious questions about EL services and other programs as well and that they made these concerns known to the commissioner as early as last November. Addressing any concerns at that time would have distracted from the TISA push, but to date, Schwinn has failed to offer corrections, and thus the rush to change. We’ll keep watching.

Speaking of accountability, the TNDOE has a new head honcho in the accountability department. David Laird, formerly of Peabody, takes over as the assistant commissioner of assessment. Will he fare any better than the previous occupants?h Who knows, but hopefully, he added a no-throwing-under-the-bus clause to his employment agreement.

Fox News 17 in Nashville has a report on literacy rates at Nashville’s priority schools. Achievement numbers are admittedly low, but do they indicate what we ascribe to them? It’s a nuanced conversation.

When Tennessee voters go to the polls in November they will have several opportunities to amend the state constitution. The November ballot is slated to have four amendments to the Tennessee Constitution, and Amendment 3 aims to replace language that has existed in the Tennessee Constitution for more than 150 years pertaining to slavery. Though the Constitution was amended in 1865 to prohibit nearly all forms of slavery, a single line lingered to allow slavery and involuntary servitude for people convicted of crimes. Hopefully, this amendment passes by a large margin.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. 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.

If you are interested, I’m sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. Readers have the option of either free or paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will potentially 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.

 

 

 

 



Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. I teach in an elementary school that added 5th grade this year. All of last year’s “brightest and best” 4th graders left and went to magnet schools. We’ve always done pretty well on TVASS but I bet we take a huge hit this year with the 5th graders that remained.

  2. I have a grandchild in 3rd grade who essentially missed out on 2 years of school due to Covid and the policies that resulted. He is struggling in ESL. He often refuses to complete work if he knows it won’t be 100% correct. I am concerned that if he remains in a public school in TN he could end up being almost 21 years old (October birthday) before he finishes high school. It’s ridiculous to apply numeracy based tests o skills that aren’t measurable numerically. We may be looking at home schooling or private school for him if this ridiculous scenario plays out. THis law needs to be repealed.

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