Of Thin-Skinned Geniuses. And More

“He knew what he was against, but found it hard to defend what he stood for.”
Lea Ypi, Free: A Child and a Country at the End of History


What a strange week it has been – but then I seem to say that every week. This week, I managed to get myself blocked on Twitter by an education reformer whom I’ve come to find areas of agreement with of late. Yea, I didn’t know that was a thing anymore either, the blocking not the agreeing.

Indulge me while I recline in my rocking chair, light up my corn cob pipe, and talk about days gone by.

A decade ago battles raged on social media, particularly Twitter, between the reform troops and those who defended public schools. A lot of that has subsided as we’ve all gotten older, and a lot less bolder.

Funny how you never see twenty-somethings raging at each other on Tik-Tok about the evils of those attacking public education, or those trapping kids in failing schools. But I digress.

I’m not saying moments of vitriol don’t still pop up on occasion, just that we’ve all come to realize that we share the same space, and a little cordialness never hurts. More and more, I’m reminded of the old cartoon where the coyote and sheepdog spend a day fighting each other over the sheep, then clock out at the end of the day and walk together discussing the family as they head home.

Robert Pondiscio has been a round a minute or two. He started as a writer, but after twenty years in journalism, including senior positions at TIME and BusinessWeek, Robert became a fifth-grade teacher at a struggling South Bronx public school in 2002. He hung out long enough to gather enough material to write a book – How the Other Half Learns, based on his year of observations at New York City’s Success Academy network of charter schools – and then skedaddled over to some foundation work. He served as vice president of the Core Knowledge Foundation.

As much as I disagree with much of what Pondiscio puts forth, he is not without his salient points. Truthfully, lately, I find myself more often in agreement than not.

This week, he published a piece that nailed a few things, but got others extremely wrong:

Decades of education policy have evinced unshakable faith that the way to raise student outcomes is to improve teacher quality, whether through training and certification, unlocking excellence through incentives, or by luring away the cognitive elite from more remunerative careers through some combination of higher pay or enhanced prestige. None of these strategies has been fruitful at scale, nor are they likely to be effective in the future. The inconvenient fact is that the nation needs nearly 4 million people to teach its children. Any number that large means the men and women who staff our schools and teach our children will be, by definition, ordinary people. There will never be a sufficient number of classroom saints and superstars to go around, nor enough hours in the day to meet the ever-spiraling demands we place on teachers to fulfill multiple roles, from instructional designer and deliverer to unlicensed therapist attempting to reach and teach the “whole child.”

In sum, there is a conceptual problem at the heart of our decades-long effort to improve teacher performance. We are seeking to raise and enhance the capacities of millions of teachers while, at the same time, placing ever greater burdens on them. We have known for several decades that some teachers are more effective than others. But identifying what makes them so has proven elusive. No consistent or clear relationship has been found, for example, between teacher credentialing or certification exams and classroom effectiveness. If achievable, sustainable progress is our aim, we should endeavor instead to make the job one that can be done with a reasonable degree of fidelity and success by the teachers we have, not the teachers we wish we had.

Pretty solid thesis, right? We are expecting too much from teachers and we need to start removing some responsibilities. I can get behind that.

The “You go to school with the teachers you have, not the teachers you might wish you had” motif may be a bit much. I’d argue that we’ve never really given the teachers we have an opportunity to share who they are, but if we are going to use it to relieve pressures, sure.

So what will we remove? Maybe we’ll pull back on social work? Perhaps curtail some lunch and bus duties? There is a paperwork burden that we are throwing on teachers’ backs, maybe we could alleviate some of that. Curtail the ear growing central office initiatives? Nah, none of that is what he has in mind.

Instead, he writes, “One concrete improvement to teacher effectiveness would be to reduce the burden placed on them by lesson planning, which tends to be incoherent, below standards, and incredibly time-consuming, taking time away from potentially higher-yielding uses of their time and energy. “

Ah that pesky lesson planning, if only we could rid of that tired burden and just have districts buy our product, and teachers recite our product. Student outcomes would be so much better. Except, A) how do you define student outcomes and B) there is no evidence that supports taking away lesson planning from teachers improves anything but the sales figures for curriculum and textbook companies.

The thing is when perusing Twitter, or other social media, and you see these fantastic claims coming from people other than professional educators, remember, they are selling something for somebody. Even with people who purport to be classroom educators, there is cause to be suspect. Nobody is endorsing the brain drain that is social media 24/7 and posting constantly about their educational miracles without an ulterior motive. They are looking to make a little money. Myself included.

If Twitter and Facebook weren’t the main distribution method for this blog, I would have been gone years ago. But I want you to read my words, and perhaps buy my product – this blog – hence the pitch in the conclusion. And I ain’t unique.

In Robert’s case, I pushed back and raised the question of, wasn’t lesson planning an integral part of teaching?

In my view, it’s where the teacher combines their formal training with observations of the unique properties of their class and devises a means to teach the standards as prescribed by the state government. You may think that the process can be done more effectively by some wonks in an office in Texas or Colorado staring at some data points, but I respectively disagree. A good teacher can teach the standards using nothing but a novel. Others see that as a point of contention.

If you are a wonk or a product pusher, this is a great position to be in. Your product is aimed at an ever-aging target. The third-graders of today will be twelfth-graders in less than a decade, and by then everyone will either be checked out or forget what the discussion was about, let alone the goals you set. You know like 50% reading on grade level by 2025. Newcomers are going to take a couple years to get years to get caught up, and then they’ll be in the same boat. It really is an optimal system for churning a buck.

Look at the current argument around high-quality materials. Baked into it is the idea that districts up until now have been using “low-quality materials”.

Whoa…if Coke designed an ad campaign around the idea that for years you’d been buying low-quality soda, but now they are providing you “high-quality” soda, you’d probably be pissed that they’ve been selling you an inferior product all these years. Might even want your money back.

In education, it seems par for the course and nobody is ever held accountable for once pushing an inferior product.

The so-called “Science of Reading” is another brilliant marketing tool. Those pushing it surely recognize that “science”, by its nature, is ever-changing. So the odds are that once the market is saturated by the current textbooks and materials, “science” will have new revelations demanding the purchase of a new product. It’s kinda brilliant, once you remove the bullshit.

Now some of you may be protesting. You might argue that there are all kinds of “free” stuff out there because we all love kids. Yea…I’m sure you are familiar with the old marketing ploy home printers and razor blades used. We’ll give you the handle or the printer, but sell you the blade and the ink at an accelerated price. She takes place in education.

We’ll give you the textbook, but you are going to want supplemental materials like workbooks, study guides, teacher editions, and exams. But we gave you the books. Now give us the millions.

So don’t believe the hype when people tell you that they are just pushing stuff on social media due to a love of kids. They are selling, selling, and selling.

Now back to Pondiscio. In response to my rebuttal he responded, and I’m quoting from memory because he blocked me, that if lesson planning included “intellectual preparation” and “anticipation of questions and potential misunderstandings”, he agreed that it was integral. He went on to argue that, musicians aren’t composers, actors aren’t playwrites, and chefs aren’t waiters.

Might want to tell Sam Shepherd, John Lennon, Mel Brooks, Bob Dylan, Ethan Hawke, and countless others that, because they are certainly considered among the best and brightest of their profession, and we are in pursuit of the best and brightest…only we are not.

What he is proposing is much more similar to hiring a chef, who has educated himself, and you, in turn, allow them no input in crafting recipes. You start a restaurant, draft a menu devoid of chef input, and just kick out the product. You are not looking for chefs, you are calling for cooks. In turn, you are turning schools into franchises when I thought we wanted a little bit more for kids.

The famed education theologian did not take kindly to my blasphemy, and promptly found myself banished outside the silo. I’ll be honest. I’m a little proud I still got it.

Let me end this portion of our program with the words of Alfie Kohn, which I subscribe to, “Ever notice that when people describe something as “more art than science,” they’re really just saying that we haven’t figured out how to do it successfully? The (annoying) implication is that “art” is synonymous with inadequate science.”

How true. How true.

Union Blues

Democrats in Tennessee spend a lot of time telling folks how dumb the Republicans in Tennessee are. Particularly in the case of Governor Lee. Yet, as stupid as he is, he continues successfully hit them at every turn. This week it was the teachers union that took the blow to the head.

Om Monday, an amendment to a bill called for an increase to starting teacher salaries, with this year’s salary being set at $42K, was introduced. Currently, the minimum salary for a teacher with a bachelor’s degree and zero years of classroom experience is $40K annually. In 2021, it was $38K. Per the legislation, salaries would rise annually by roughly $4,500 annually until reaching $50K in the 2026/2027 school year.

Pretty good news, huh? Except there is a hitch. The proposed increase in salaries comes with a caveat, local school districts will no longer be able to make payroll deductions for labor union dues. Um…wait a minute…that’s going to hurt the local unions and at the bare minimum require the employment of an administrative person.

In response, TEA sent out their best and brightest, lobbyist Jim Wrye, to defend the need for payroll deduction. While praising the Governor for the proposed salary increases, he lamented the linking of raises to union dues. He confirmed that under the current circumstances, union participation is fully permissive for both the teacher and the district. Despite telling legislators he was “[p]roud to work in a right-to-work state,” Wrye asked that they separate pay and union dues and leave the current payroll deduction system in place.

I never thought I’d see the day that a union rep would tell legislators that he was proud to work in a “right-to-work state”. I thought the argument was that Tennessee being a right-to-work state necessitated the union. Apparently not.

The best part came when Representative Sam McKenzie (D-Knoxville), tried to push back against Brent Easley, who was serving as a representative of Lee. Easley repeatedly stated that the Governor believed that linking teacher raises and payroll deductions was a “good policy.” It was a position he would not waiver from this explanation, despite McKenzie’s efforts to extrapolate more information. It was apparent that Easley felt expressing the Governor’s desire was all the justification needed.

Apparently, his assumption wasn’t wrong, the bill was brought to a question for a voice vote and passed out of committee. Don’t expect it to hit any roadblocks on the way to full passage.

Linking teacher raises to crippling the union seems to be a pretty effective strategy, but we’ll see.

Quick Hits

I suspect, over the coming months, some interesting tales are going to emerge from Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS). Much of it probably won’t be pretty. You likely won’t be shocked by the villains, because it is always the same villains. I just encourage everyone to keep an open mind and remember, there are real people at the heart of it all. I just wish that when it comes to SEL and mental health, we walked the talk.

– – –

I’m not always as impressed with Tennessee Lookout writer Sam Stockard, as Sam Stockard is with Sam Stockard, but today’s piece is a quality read with plenty to digest. I encourage you to sit down and enjoy the meal.

– – –

In my time here in Nashville, I’ve gotten to know some incredible people, many of who I count as friends I would consider bassist Michael Rhodes to be one of them. Back when I wore a younger man’s clothes, we had a lot of fun and shared a lot of joy. The laughs were quick and the music spiritual. It’s hard to conjure up a picture of Michael without a smile on his face. A visage that never fails to place one on mine. Michael left this mortal coil this week and we are all worse for it. God speed sir and know that you were loved.

Today marks both the start of Spring Break, and the release of K-Pop group Twice’s new album. That means it is imperative that I rush my daughter off to the nearest retail out to purchase said release. It does my heart good to know, the more things change, the more they stay the same.

See ya on the flip side.

– – –

Putting this blog together requires a great deal of time and resources, If you think it’s valuable, your support would be greatly appreciated.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve already 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.

If you’d like less opinion and more news, check out my writing for The Tennessee Star. It’s a bit drier but equally informative.


Categories: Education

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