And Then There Was One

“Endings need to be lived, they cannot be ordained.”
Manil Suri, The City of Devi

I know, I’m a day late but trust me, I ain’t no dollar short. I think at the end of this, you might want to give me a dollar.

Meant to write today, but woke up to excruciating tooth pain. This is where Will Pinkston might interject, “Which remaining tooth was it?”

However, after a visit to the dentist and a prescription for some Tylenol 800mg, I’m almost good as new, though still a little loopy. Just warning you.

That said…Let’s roll!

There has been a lot of conversation over the third-grade retention law, or as state lawmakers like to call it, the give the kids a leg up act.

I don’t know that I’ve ever seen a piece of legislation inspire so much hyperbole. On one side…seven million kids are going to be held back, left to wander the wilderness in the company of those kids who failed to recover from learning loss brought on by COVID.

On the other side, seven million kids will be provided an opportunity they never had, and within 5 years, the number of kids reading on grade level will leap to 60%. But of course, we all know what the response would be should that actually occur – standards and cut scores would instantly be raised. Not to mention a likely cut in funding.

Before we go any further, let me pause, and acknowledge that based on my experience this year, most of the folks trying to fix the issue, are coming from a place of wanting to help, but the solutions are just not clear. So just to reassure everybody, I haven’t seen any eating of small children or kicking of dogs. (Public service announcement: No dogs or small kids were harmed in the execution of that joke)

The biggest part of the problem is that the education industrial complex works overtime on creating a highly specialized language that is constantly confused, and off balance.

Don’t believe me, count the number of times screener, benchmark, and standardized test are used interchangeably in a policy conversation. Newsflash: they are not the same. Count the number of acronyms that get lobbed around. That’s intentional in order to undermine the confidence of those wishing to participate in the conversation.

Keep in mind that most lawmakers are desperately trying to balance maintaining their regular employment with becoming fluent in the areas of transportation, policing, and even parks. It’s a daunting task. Not making excuses, just saying, a little grace hurt no one.

Before we get back on track, can I make another request? Could we please the “fully fund public education” meme until someone can give me a definition of what that means? I’ve been at this for a decade and am still unsure.

We keep investing in programs over people and creating new initiatives that funnel funding away from teachers and students while continuing to ask for more. Eventually, fatigue sets in with the public, and funding starts going the other way.

I know, LAUSD just reached a tentative settlement that will provide raises of about 30% or more for the lowest-wage workers. The tentative settlement comes one day after the end of a strike that shut down schools for three days. While this is good news, I wouldn’t count on it providing an endless loop. By I digress.

This week the amendment to the third-grade retention law continued to move through the General Assembly. The amendment was put forth by Education Committee Chair Mark White (R-Memphis) and essentially does three things:

  • It adds the state-provided benchmark, AimsWeb Plus as a data point to allow kids to move forward. If a kid who scores “approaching” on TCAP scores above 50% on the final benchmark, they can move on to 4th grade. Now not everybody administers a benchmark, some of y’all just do three screeners a year. You might want to reconsider that decision. Some of y’all, most of you actually, don’t use AimsWeb Plus, you chose instead, one of the other 6 state-approved screeners – might want to reconsider that decision as well.
  • The second thing is it expands on who can help a student and their family file an appeal if needed. Most local superintendents like this one.
  • Three – it expands summer school and tutoring opportunities to at-risk students in K-2. Good idea, but has anybody asked where those tutors are coming from? That’s a national conversation with a recent article in Chalkbeat revealing that, by some estimates, just 1 in 10 studentsor fewer — are receiving intensive tutoring. So riddle me this, what happens when little Johnny is identified for retention and elects to do tutoring. as a means to move forward, only to have no tutor available at beginning of the year, or one quit in the middle of the year, with no replacement?

On the tutoring stuff, I’d also ask why is direct remote instruction bad, but remote tutoring rocks!

Here’s the other thing that is rarely mentioned, none of these changes take effect until next year. Yep, third-grade retention plans as currently outlined by the legislation are going full speed ahead as written. Regardless of if the amendment passes or not. That’s not confusing now, is it?

Think about this for a second, we are arguing over putting a band-aid on the elbow, when the wound might really be on the wrist. We won’t know until we actually get data back from this year and analyze where the band-aid goes. If it is indeed the wrist then we need to pull it off the elbow before adding it to the wrist. I’m not sure where you’ll find that listed among “best practices”, but it sounds much like a game we used to play as kids at birthday parties – where you blindfolded someone, spun them around, put an ass’s tail in their hand, and told them to put it where they thought it should go.

On Thursday, the Tennessee State Board of Education (TSBE) looked at the General assembly and said, “Here hold my beer”.

At a special meeting, called to pass the rules that would govern third-grade retention, there were more questions than answers, and the board ended up not passing the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE) crafted rules, and asking for a thorough edit to be brought forth in May.

Primary among the issues, was rather or not the rules actually aligned with the law, whether the timeline for getting information to districts provided adequate planning time, and my favorite, what was the definition of “adequate student growth” in order for students to be promoted to 5th grade.

The TDOE had no answers to any of these, and due to a large number of answers provided by the TDOE that included the phrase, “we plan to fix that between the first reading and final reading”, board members called, “no mas”.

Here’s some irony for you – when it comes to TN education policy irony is always in abundant supply – the day that the board will hear the new proposed rules, is the same day that districts will get their raw scores back from TCAP. Awesome timing, huh?

The highlight came at the close of the board meeting when Commissioner Schwinn chimed in from parts unknown – she never turned her camera on despite everyone else from TDOE having theirs on – to try and claw back some stolen authority. Board members were not intimidated, and expressed frustration that the presentation failed to meet expectations. despite allusions to conversations that took place between board members and TDOE staff outside of public meetings. Ssshhh…I won’t tell if you don’t.

I suspect we’ll have plenty more fodder for discussion on third-grade retention this coming week as White’s amendment is slated to appear in both the Senate and the House.

Lisa Got a New Job

Don’t be shocked if you see pictures depicting TDOE staff doing cartwheels down the hallway this week. Tennessee’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons has taken her bubbly personality across state lines to Virginia.

This week she was appointed as Virginia’s 27th superintendent of public instruction. During her tenure in Tennessee, Coons served in a multitude of roles, most recently she was a chief academic officer for the Tennessee Department of Education, where she led all birth to grade-12 academic programming, including K-12 teaching, learning in language arts, mathematics, science, fine arts, early childhood education, voluntary pre-K, and Head Start. She also pissed off a whole lot of people in the process.

This move comes in typical Coons fashion, as she was named earlier in the week as a finalist for the job of Nebraska’s State Superintendent of Schools. Coons accepting the job in Virginia came as a bit of a shock to Nebraska. They had no idea she had even applied for the gig.

In the immediate wake of Virginia’s announcement, State Ed Board President Patti Gubbels said the board had not received an official withdrawal from Coons. The board was not aware that Coons was in the running for Virginia’s top education position, Gubbels added. Is that the odor of smoke from a fire on a distant bridge I smell?

Four hours after the Virginia announcement, it was Commissioner Schwinn chasing after the Coons bus, offering very congratulatory remarks via Twitter, I guess MySpace is closed, “Proud and thrilled are not strong enough words to use as we celebrate @lisacoons10 appointment in Virginia! Lisa’s been an incredible member of our cabinet, an advocate for kids, and my dear friend. Go get ‘em Lisa!!!”

So what is Lisa walking into? Well…this is where it gets fun. Virginia’s previous superintendent of Public Instruction, Jillian Balow, announced her resignation on March 1 after just over a year of service. Yongkin appointed Balow last January after she served two terms as Wyoming’s state superintendent.

During Balow’s short tenure, the state education department came under fire for errors in its redrafting of K-12 history standards and for miscalculating how much education funding localities would receive from the state. Hmmm…where have I heard whispers of that before…must have been an Abbott Elementary episode I saw.

Furthermore, the Virginia Department of Education (VDE) has been criticized for its issuance, at Yongkin’s direction, of “model policies” that would limit the rights of transgender students in Virginia schools. That should all be very familiar to Coons.

Despite her resignation, Barlow will stick around and continue to serve as a consultant to the governor. That won’t be awkward at all. Maybe Barlow and Coons will become besties like Coons and Schwinn were. It’ll be like the season of Dukes of Hazard when the original Bo and Luke left, or the Aerosmith record where guitarists Joe Perry an Brad Whitford were replaced.

Professional Educators of Tennessee (PET) Executive Director JC Bowman offered this opinion, “Lisa Coons departure further thins the ranks of the already depleted Tennessee Department of Education. We wish her well in Virginia.”

That’s the unspoken nugget. Who the hell works at the TDOE anymore?

Last month, Charlie Buffalino, the assistant commissioner of Policy & Legislative Affairs for the Tennessee Department of Education, announced that he was joining the National Alliance for Public Charter Schools as senior director of State Advocacy and Support. In the fall of 2022, after moving to Tennessee from California the previous year, Rachael Maves, Tennessee’s state chief of preparation and performance, left the TDOE to join the BARR Center as its chief operating officer.

So it’s Eve Carney or bust until Schwinn makes her pending departure official. Though if I was Eve, I wouldn’t be looking for that top job. Lee has less than three years left, and it’s unlikely that he’ll promote anyone as anything but a placeholder. I’d look for either Mark White or former Knoxville Representative Bill Dunn to grab the brass ring. In Carney’s case, she should love dancing with those two.

Yea, I know that’s all speculation, but do you really expect Schwinn to put her name on a letter to the USDOE telling them that Tennessee is officially exploring pulling out of federal funding? And Speaker Sexton has made it clear that the project is hers.

As a closing note, this week’s episode of “where’s Penny” finds her on a familiar perch, the stage of a conference in Washington DC, as part of yet another education policy panel. This time it was the Council of Chief State Officers Legislative Conference. At this rate, her kids are going to qualify for in-state tuition in DC.

Quick Hits

Next, up in the so-ridiculous-it-couldn’t-be-true category, Metro Nashville Public Schools was slated to present to the House Education Instruction Committee meeting. It didn’t happen, and while there is very little public explanation, rumor has it that they called around 4 AM and canceled because they didn’t get the PowerPoint –  complete. Hope it’s not true, but if it is, why are we surprised went state lawmakers fuck with Nashville?

– – –

Speaking of MNPS, school principals have been struggling to craft their annual budgets due to uncertainty around the impact of TISA funding. In a cautionary move, most schools saw their proposed budget cut. Needless to say this was causing some strife among the ranks, luckily Dr. Battle found some extra money in the cushions. At this week’s principal meeting, she announced schools would receive an extra $200 per projected student enrollment. A not insignificant amount. A standing ovation ensued and peace reigned throughout the land.

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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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