“Good writing begins with passionate reading.”
― Laura Ingalls Wilder: A Writer’s Life
Over the weekend I was at the local Target picking through the remnants of Halloween candy and costumes when I heard a booming voice behind me, “They’ll let anybody in this place, won’t they?”
Slightly startled, I turned around to see my good buddy Slotsky standing n the aisle chuckling at his own joke.
“You should be one to talk”, I retorted, “What brings you out among the masses?”
“Just had to grab a few things for the house. How about yourself?”
“Another year of waiting too late to prepare for Halloween, so I’m left picking through the scraps. How’s your week been?”
“I’m still trying to recover,” he said shaking his head, “Watched one of those state board of education meetings on Friday, and now I think I’ve done permanent brain damage. If you think the locals are bad, watch one of these meetings. Between falling asleep and not knowing what the hell they are talking about, you ain’t got a chance.”
I nodded my head in agreement and asked, “They do tend to be pretty formal and use a whole bunch of specialty language, citing codes and whatnot. Did you learn anything?”
“I learned that we still can’t get our head out of our ass when it comes to staffing schools with teachers.”
“Not that I disagree, but how so?”
Pushing his cart aside to let a woman pass, Slotsky was clearly ready to talk about his observations, “So they spent a fair amount of time discussing new pathways for teacher licensing, passing a couple things on first reading, and approved dropping EdPTA – you know that test that allows people who have non-teaching BA’s work in the classroom while taking graduate level work. I think this affects something like 900 people, maybe a third of the pipeline. Apparently, the test requires candidates to produce a portfolio, and it is stressful and time-consuming. Kinda like teaching, but I digress.”
“Ok, that doesn’t sound bad.”
Slotsky snorts, and continues on, “It’s fine except that once again it opens the door for that argument of removing barriers, but not lowering the bar. What’s the happy medium? They love to talk about it and virtue signal to the masses, but you know where we never talk about lowering barriers or the risk of lowering quality?”
“Pray to tell.”
“In the classroom” he replied, “Once teachers are in the classroom we could care a less about barriers thrown in their path, or the loss of quality when level 4 and 5 teachers decide to peace out. Do you know what would prevent the need to make revisions to teaching pathways? If you made the job attractive. Do you ever hear the NFL say we are going to make it easier to become a professional football player? Or that high-priced law firm pitching a plan to ease the pathway to partner? We have to have these conversations in education because the job is increasingly untenable. But I often think that’s a part of the plan.”
“You got a point there. I will say, let those pesky teachers stick around too long and they’ll not only cost you too much, but they’ll start to form their own pesky ideas. I used to have a friend who described their dating philosophy as keeping them young and keeping them dumb. In this case, its keep them young and keep them inexperienced.”
“Yikes!”, he said with a start, looking furtively over his shoulders, “What are you trying to do, get us thrown out of Target? Please don’t get me canceled.”
“Relax”, I tell him, “My friend was a woman describing the men she liked.”
“Oh in that case…” he said with relief before continuing, “I went to a meeting last week to discuss teacher retention and recruitment. Not a single soul there argued against the truth that teachers had too much on their plate, yet nobody could agree on what to take off their plate. Mind-boggling.”
“Preaching to the choir, friend,” I said, “I’ve long argued that focusing on retention should be a primary tool for recruitment.”
“Agreed. it is so painful to listen to these people talk. Because not only do they focus on the wrong things, but then they throw in these caveats to downplay the growing problem. Arguing that only certain schools and subjects are having staffing issues. And their arguments sound reasonable, until once again your kid comes home from school and tells you about not having a teacher all day, which happens all too often. But hey….don’t mess up the attendance rates, because every minute of instructional time is essential. As if the mere act of being in a school building changes outcomes…ah, don’t get me started.”
Shaking my head, “That whole attendance focus drives me nuts. I get it, being in school is important, but attendance rates shouldn’t carry the weight we give them. There are all kinds of legitimate reasons why a child may miss class. Especially in a district that serves impoverished children. Little sister gets sick and needs to stay home, who’s staying with her? I guarantee it is not the people in the family earning a paycheck.”
Continuing on, I added, “Once again, we are also focusing on one individual. If little Joey is sick, but still comes to school, he runs the risk of infecting lose valuable instruction time. Make it a priority, but don’t try to use it as an accountability tool. Like principals are trying to keep kids out of the building.”
Picking up where I left off, Slotsky chimed in with, “Here’s another thing, what’s the biggest time consumer of all in schools that we don’t do a damn thing about?? The big old standardized test. Think about all the lost instructional time lost to that canard. Between administration and test prep…it’s ridiculous. Yet we protect its vendors like they are the Vatican writing new versions of the Bible.”
“What do you mean?”
Slotsky waited for another person to squeeze by us before replying, “So, at this last state board meeting the Department of Education presented, for first reading, some rules around legislators reviewing TNready materials. Of course, the only goal here is for the TNDOE is to make life easier for districts.”
“Of course”, I responded
“Under these rules, say…who’s your Rep?”
So, say Freeman writes over to MNPS and says he’d like to review materials on TNReady. All requests are now directed to the state and the district would have 5 days to send the request to the state. The state would then have 5 days to acknowledge receipt of the request and 15 days to actually fill the request. Now, remember, those are business days, so there would actually be a 6-week window before Freeman even saw a slip of paper. let’s not forget the provision that requires a recipient to be fully educated on what they are seeing before they are allowed to see it. Like I said…the Vatican writing new bibles.”
Rubbing my eyes in frustration, I respond, “Good lord. Well, that certainly serves nobody but the vendors and the TNDOE.”
“Here’s something else that came up. Did you know that “field test” questions are part of TNReady?”
“What do you mean?”
“Embedded into TNReady are questions that the department is field testing for quality. So kids take the test and answer every question, but are only scored on some of the results, though its top secret which ones. The department wishes to ensure that which questions are which remains confidential to protect the integrity of the test”, Slotsky says while making air quotes, “I can’t even. I hope the irony is not lost on you.”
“Sounds about right to me. People with little integrity protecting a test with little integrity”, I say, “Speaking of testing, have you been paying attention to these NEAP results?”
“A bit”, he says with a shrug.
“Here’s the thing. Florida is getting all high and mighty over theirs. In 4th grade ELA, they are ranked 3rd in the country, and in math 4th. Up from 9th and 6th respectfully. But when you look at the 8th-grade scores, that’s a little different. In ELA they are 21st and in Math, 38th.”
“Holy sinking rocks Batman!”
“Here’s where it gets interesting for Tennessee. Florida has two things that Tennessee covets, vouchers and third-grade retention. Florida retains kids in third grade that are considered struggling readers, so they don’t impact the fourth-grade test. Remember, NEAP is a random sample test, so those who may take NEAP might actually be 5th graders who are stiull in 4th because they likely got retained the year before.”
“OK, I’m following you.”
“Florida has like 5 different voucher programs. That makes it relatively easy to get yourself a voucher and then head to a private school where you won’t be retained, nor take NEAP. Imprecise measurements show that about 60% of families that take vouchers hold them for about two years, and 75% drop them after 3 years. So you do the math, kids who might have been struggling, drop back into the system just in time to take the eighth-grade version of NEAP, giving a more realistic picture. Seeing as Tennessee’s version of third-grade retention kicks in this year, when Commissioner Schwinn brags that Tennessee may really shine in the 2024 NEAP, she might not be lying, but it also may not be good news either. ”
“Always a numbers game, ain’t it?”, Slotsky asks, shaking his head.
“It is, it is”, I respond.
“Changing gears here a minute”, I continue, “You going to this MNPS celebration of schools next month? You know the one that used to be the school choice festival?”
“That thing down at Titans stadium on the Saturday before Thanksgiving?” he asks, “Yea, not likely.”
“Come on man, they are having a parade of schools. Could be fun.”
Scowling at me, Slotsky responds, “Let me get this straight, on the Saturday before a major holiday, when we are trying to get out of town on Tuesday, you expect me to face downtown traffic to watch some schools march around the field and celebrate test results whose shelf life is about expired? To what end?
I shrug, “To show your support?”
He just stares at me, “Really? Maybe they should show a little more support for my schedule. Maybe next year they could do it on Christmas morning.”
“Yeah, the timing ain’t great,” I acknowledge.
Chuckling and after humming the tune to Shady is Back, he asks, “Did you see who’s back?”
I look at him quizzically, so he answers, “Pinkston is back in the news again. Got himself a new anti-charter team. Calling themselves Public School Partners, or something like that. Talking about the financial strain charter schools put on school districts.”
“Has it suddenly become 2013 again. Here we go with all the charter school battles. It just never ends.”
“You know what doesn’t get talked about?”
“What’s that?”, I ask
“Homeschooling. Did you know that there is something like 3.7 million kids homeschooled in America? That number has grown by about one and a half million kids since 2019. Tennessee ain’t in the top 10 there yet, but Georgia, and Florida. and North Carolina are, so what do you think is going to happen here eventually?”
“That’s a lot of kids. Any idea what the numbers in Nashville are like?”
“No. Nashville Public Education Foundation put out this one-sheeter on where the kids are, but it didn’t include homeschooling. Last year I heard it was about 13% in Tennessee, but it may have dropped since then. Still a lot of kids.”
As I take that information in, he looks at his watch, “I better get out of here if I’m going to catch that Titan’s game.”
“Yea, me too. Good seeing you again,” I tell him. We give a quick fist pump and head our separate ways. As always, both of us have a lot to process.
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Interesting choice to remove the requirement for edTPA. I wonder how many people that used to keep out. I never met anyone who didn’t pass it, but I may be a killer mentor. It does add a lot of unnecessary stress on top of student teaching expectations, but removing it won’t increase the numbers of people wanting to go into teaching. I always associated the test with the more elite programs, but that is just my anecdotal feeling.
Homeschooling numbers are way up. Lots of people have moved to Tennessee since 2020, and lots of them homeschool. Again this is anecdotal, but it is definitely on an upswing. When everything in media and government sells the narrative of failing schools, why invest your kids in a failing system?