Tis The Season…Fa La La La La

“A common view of knowledge, going back to Plato, is that knowledge is justified, true belief. To know something, you have to think it’s true (that’s belief), you have to be right about it (that’s truth), and you have to have good reasons for believing it (that’s justification).”
David J. Chalmers, Reality+: Virtual Worlds and the Problems of Philosophy


Today marks the end of the first half of the school year for Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). For two and a half weeks, students and teachers will try to enjoy the holidays, recharge their batteries, and prepare for the academic year’s back half.

Invariably there will be talk of who’s coming back after the break and who is not. A decade ago these conversations never took place, it was the expectation that if you started the year you’d finish it – barring major illness or pregnancy. Those rules don’t apply in our new reality.

A reality that I don’t see changing due to the continual focus on recruitment over retention. As part of that increased recruitment effort states are relaxing requirements amid cries that it’s too difficult to become a teacher.

School leaders defend their decisions with increased frequency:

“I’ve seen what happens when you don’t have teachers in the classroom. I’ve seen the struggle,” Dallas schools trustee Maxie Johnson said just before the school board approved expanding that district’s reliance on uncertified teachers. He added, “I’d rather have someone that my principal has vetted, that my principal believes in, that can get the job done.”

Teachers have become akin to new cars. Once you drive it off the lot, a new car’s value drops exponentially. In the case of teachers, the value drops by half once they walk into the classroom.

Its been long debated whether teaching is a calling or “just a job”. The “just a job” argument seems to be winning, and when you don’t have a deeper connection to a profession, there is little inclination to stick around when things get difficult. And trust me they get difficult. On top of serving children, feeding the ambitions of career bureaucrats is a full-time job.

In the past, it was common for people to have careers that spanned lifetimes, but slowly that eroded, and loyalties shifted. With the shift in loyalty came a greater willingness to leave a position at whim. Teaching is just the latest profession to be hit by the shift.

For teachers, the shift comes with an increase in expectations. The public may not trust teachers to teach their children, but they recognize them as adequate babysitters, emotional support givers, counselors, disciplinarians, and executors of assorted other responsibilities that have been heaved onto their shoulders in recent years.

Teaching isn’t the only occupation suffering from a spiritual crisis. As we continue to fuel the narrative that public service jobs are the realm of the naive and/or foolish, it becomes harder to fill positions for nurses, police, clergy, and first responders. Someday there will be a reckoning and it won’t be pretty. These individuals serve an essential role in society, and their contributions are overlooked at our own peril.

Ramifications are already apparent. With increasing frequency educators, of all ranks are leaving mid-stream. A mid-year departure robs kids of continuity and stability. Two elements that are often lacking in children’s lives. Teaching, like most professions, is contingent on relationships. It is hard to form authentic relationships under the threat of one party potentially prematurely departing.

Just this week, MNPS announced two principal changes.

Dr. Casey Campbell, previously the AP will take over as interim principal for the current acting principal Dr. Carlos Comer. Comer has served as an administrator in MNPS at multiple locations for over 2 decades. with mixed results. Apparently, this stint isn’t ending well.

Earlier in the month, Crieve Hall Elementary Principal Nate Miley announced his departure in order to take a principal job at a private school. In an odd move, Hank Staggs, currently a Director at the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching (NIET), has been named as Miley’s replacement.

Staggs was last a principal in 2012, before leaving the school building to pursue opportunities with TDOE, Vanderbilt, and eventually NIET.His focus over the last decade seems to be on leadership and coaching leaders. Hopefully, his new job is more than just an opportunity to test those theories developed with little input from kids.

Like Mike Tyson always says, “Everybody has a plan until they get smacked in the face.”

Hopefully, changes are minimal this holiday season and more people return for the second half.

Rest up, charge up, and know that you are valued by the families you serve.

An Irish Goodbye

As schools across Tennessee break for the holidays, it becomes more and more apparent that Commissioner Schwinn kicked her holiday season off weeks ago. While her deputies openly speculate on her whereabouts, those of us who reside outside of D.C. have seen little of her.

Since much of the TDOE is still working remotely, there is no reason for her to report to the office. Perhaps she’s busy packing boxes and engineering her move to a new house after selling her in November.

Some speculate that she’s out beating the bushes looking for a new gig, as Governor Lee has yet to announce his cabinet postings for next year.

She sits on the board of Capitol Collegiate, a charter school in Sacramento that she founded. They had a board meeting earlier this week, but since they are slow to update their board minutes, it’s hard to know if she attended that gathering or not.

Her absence is problematic because several state initiatives are in the developmental stage and could benefit from a little leadership. The textbook commission is wrestling with increased responsibilities placed on them by legislators. Despite repeated requests, they have gone largely ignored, and are functioning in a legal sphere with no guidance.

Per ChalkbeatTN, “We have gotten zero guidance from any attorneys — zero. And we’re just out here as volunteers doing this,” said commission member John Combs, a school superintendent from Tipton County.

Local superintendents are trying to craft policy in response to third-grade retention laws, and are getting few clear answers to their inquiries. A recently updated FAQ sparks more questions than answers.

Districts are also attempting to navigate a transition from the BEP to the TISA school funding formula. Like everything else scheduled to be delivered by the TDOE, projections are late coming, and districts are left waiting.

Calls to the department offer little relief, as they either go unanswered or if answered, provide little clarity. The level of frustration is growing about district superintendents, and more are talking to their legislators.

It’s odd that a woman who embarked on multiple heavily hyped bus tours of local districts would suddenly pull a Garbo, and recede from the public. But all indications are that she has.

To paraphrase Schwinn’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons, “If you see her, let her know we are looking for her.”

Maybe she’ll resurface once the General Assembly reconvenes. Or maybe she’ll remain as elusive as good pizza in the south.

Assessment Blues

Students throughout Tennessee recently completed their second round of benchmark testing. State law requires that students be tested 3 times a year. While the data produced is helpful, parents need to be wary of the results.

In many cases, due to increased offerings by the state, districts are employing a new assessment suite. What this means is that the benchmarks don’t have benchmarks. In the case of MNPS, which this year switched from MAP to Fastbridge. it means that there is no longer comparison data available.

With MAP, there were 5 years of collected data available, which provided a more reliable means to track trends. Despite efforts to portray the two measures as interchangeable, or even aligned, they are not.

Fastbridege has only been administered twice. Expectations, based on research, would be that students do better on the second administration due to increased familiarity. This means that looking at results and discerning actual growth, in addition, separating causation and correlation, is speculative at best. Benchmarking testing is useful for guiding instruction, but we should be cautious in assigning them too much weight.

Unfortunately, MNPS seems determined to use benchmarks in a manner they were not designed to be used. That includes using them to determine eligibility for students applying to academic magnets. Upon inquiry for clarification, one administrator wrote me the following in response, “Benchmark testing is not the only factor, but they will look at the data points for growth.  If they are growing and meeting expectations, they should be in contention.”

What?!? Why is growth a consideration for eligibility in an academic magnet? Forget that it is more difficult for higher achieving kids to show growth, you can either do the increased level of work or you can not, and growth shouldn’t be a factor.

While we are on the subject of academic magnets, let me interject. Looking at requirements to be eligible for the lottery for Hume-Fogg, a long-standing MNPS magnet that has consistently produced high student outcomes, I found this, “80 GPA or higher (Quarter 3, Quarter 4, and Quarter 1)” That is lower than this year’s requirement of an “85 GPA or higher (Q3, Q4, & Q1”.

I’m a believer in a school that collectively serves those who are considered academically high achieving. Their needs are different than the average student, and by centrally locating them you can focus resources on their needs. I’d argue that each school in the district only has a handful of students that fall into this category. However, if you lower the bar to 80, then I am sure every school has a substantial number, but let’s not think that the needs of the students scoring low 80s are identical to those scoring in the mid-90s.

Meeting the qualifications only gets you into the pool. Admission is based on a lottery and therefore random. Hypothetically, you could end up with more kids that fall into the 80’s range than those who score much higher. This would serve to alter programming, potentially leaving true high achievers in the same predicament they’d be in at their zoned school. Do district administrators really believe that parents won’t recognize the conundrum, and explore other options?

It would seem that this policy works against the interests of MNPS. Maybe, unless you take into account that high achievers will never show the growth rate of lower achieving kids. Seeing as the Tennessee accountability model favor growth over achievement, it’s unlikely that those high achievers will ultimately benefit the district. So if they explore other options, that might not be a bad thing, and if they go back to their zoned schools…meh, they may pull up the achievement scores.

Remember, none of this is about kids and almost always about ambitious adults.

MNPS parents have yet to see results from the first administration of benchmark testing, and there has been little education or explanation provided in interpreting results should they be released.

I am sure that in the coming weeks we’ll see a press release touting how well MNPS kids are growing, based on benchmark results. Likely that means more dancing by the school board. Nobody dances around the issues like the MNPS school board.

Quick Hits

The TDOE has quietly released ACT district and school results for the graduating class of 2022. Results for states were released back in October. The takeaway locally is that scores are flat and are lower than in previous years, maybe that’s why they waited til the holiday season to release them.

Professional Educators of Tennessee’s Executive Director J.C. Bowman has some thoughts as legislators prepare to head back to session after the first of the year. in an editorial printed in the Murfreesboroboro Voice, he writes, “Educators have constantly battled against the false premises that our public schools are failing, that educators are the problem, and that outsiders (usually non-educators) should take control of running our schools. Too many policymakers, including state leaders, have simply bought into the jargon fostered by disruptive education that pushes that agenda. The 113th Tennessee General Assembly has work to do this legislative session.” That they do. That they do.

Over at The Nashville Scene, Kelsey Beyeler continues to watch MNPS board activity so you don’t have to. This week she reports on board chairman Rachael Elrod’s intention to adhere closer to existing board policy limiting public participation to only items on the agenda. “My goal, of course, is not to limit people talking to us about any of the concerns that they have,” said Elrod. “I take the role of us making sure that we are streamlining all of our practices, and making sure that we’re as efficient as possible, really quite seriously.”

Since nothing of substance ever makes it to the agenda, unless the public feels like talking about charter schools or sub-contractor contracts, they might consider just emailing their concerns. Or, for all the good it will do, just going into the backyard and screaming it into the wind.

Here’s a little Christmas cheer for you. Thanks to Coach, priority school principals got a chance to shop for some luxury goods, presumably in appreciation for their efforts. No word on what principals who worked their asses off to keep their schools off the priority list received.

Riddle me this, is it ever appropriate to reward expensive luxury items to employees of a district that serves as many impoverished children as MNPS? I’ll leave that one up to you, but clearly, the message wasn’t received well by everyone. Unfortunately, the public will not be permitted to ask questions about this at the January board meeting, since it is not likely to be on the agenda.

I wonder if The Tennessean education writer has been hanging out with Commissioner Schwinn since both remain as elusive as Nessie.

Speaking of The Tennessean, and if you are looking for a humorless chuckle, check out the opinion piece from Ryan Holt of Nashville who has served on Tennessee’s State Board of Education since February 2022. He practices law at Sherrard Roe Voigt & Harbison. In another life, he was a Math teacher. Holt offers guidance on Tennessee’s 3rd-grade retention law that goes into effect this Fall.

In an “if you understand why I’m punching you in the mouth it won’t hurt as much” moment, he writes, “It is my hope as a parent and State Board of Education member that clarity around this law will reduce parents’ anxieties and highlight some of the resources recently introduced to support their students.” He goes on to call the new plan, “an opportunity for Tennessee to re-envision how we support students in the earliest and arguably most-critical stages of their education.” If you must, read the whole thing, but I can tell you, it never gets better.

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, Christmas is right around the corner.




Categories: Education

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1 reply

  1. It is _very_ troubling when we lose teachers mid-year. On the other hand, with the madness raining down on us from above, and lack of funding, the increased turnover should not surprise us too much.

    I had missed Ryan Holt’s piece in the Tennessean (thanks). Pure nonsense. Until we understand that the standards are engineered so that half the kids come out below them, we can’t remotely make good policy around them. Alas, the Tennessean has turned off comments. There had been zero comments anyway. No one much cares about his nonsense, thankfully.

    The School Board dances around the issues because voters want that. I so wish our Board would take decisive action to better support for schools and teachers across the city. But instead they celebrate fleeting little score pops, and now a dance. I lost by 89, and my campaign was at every turn about the issues. Voters will remember the silly dance, keep asking how to work the lottery, and forget the next 5 charter school disasters.

    Oh well. Merry Christmas. There is still a GREAT deal to be so thankful for in public ed. I’ll go do a dance too….

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