End of Year Ramblings

“Did you have parents or just some people who thought they should own somebody?”
Catherine Lacey, Pew


Another school year has drawn to a close. The best I can say is…we survived.

My daughter graduated from 8th grade with her name etched on the principal’s list. Of course, in a district supposedly governed by the mantra, “every child known”, her name was strangely omitted from recognition at the ceremony, and only after she pointed out the error to the VP mid-ceremony was she given her award.

As always, in making her case she was considerate and polite, but insistent. Not sure what makes me prouder, her academic achievements or her ability to self-advocate. Her father could probably learn a thing or two from her.

The boy has one more year of middle school, and hopefully, a little more maturity – by both adults and himself – will make it a smoother journey next year. Argue however you want, but our schools, especially middle schools, are not designed nor structured, to adequately serve our young men. Too often it is more about compliance than it is about learning. Whole books have been written about the importance of establishing the “Why”, yet somehow those arguments rarely make it to practice.

Despite the challenges, as always there are educators that make it all worthwhile. A football coach who is accessible to serve as a mentor well after the end of the season. A science teacher who piques curiosity while building confidence. A theater teacher who opens whole new worlds. A math teacher, willing to adjust mid-stream in an effort to forge a relationship to facilitate learning. Through it all a front office staff that is universally kind and unfailingly helpful. Scattered along the rocks are a lot of gems. These and more, keep me hopeful.

If I knew now what I didn’t know then, I’m not so sure I would have fought so hard for the system. It’s grown increasingly unresponsive, and I find it hard to argue that it has the capacity to serve all kids. It’s not the money either. Sure more money always helps, but I’ve never yet heard anyone able to define when the public school system is “fully funded.” I don’t think you ever will.

I’ve long argued that the system suffers because of our inability to hold the right conversations. We are so intent on tearing at and, in some cases defending strawmen, that we seldom get to the crux of the subject. Nothing reinforces that like the recent controversy over the third-grade retention law. Sure it’s not a good policy, but why is it not a good policy?

It’s not because it’s a “Republican plot designed to destroy public education”.

It’s not because “it is one more effort to privatize public education”.

The bottom line, it’s a bad policy because it does not take into account the day-to-day logistics of schooling. It fails to recognize the lack of resources and sustainability. it fails to fully engage the people responsible for implementation. It short it feels like something being done to, instead of for.

Now how do we address that without putting self-interest first?

In doing so we need to understand the limitations of the data we are receiving. Keep in mind, the third graders taking this test, are doing so for the very first time. They’ve never taken a test of this scale, evah. Studies show that students perform better after they become familiar with the structure and requirements of an assessment.

We are also talking about an entirely different group than the ones who took TCAP for the first time last year. The only thing they truly have in common with the previous kids is that they are about the same age, live in Tennessee, and don’t attend a private school. That’s it.

They didn’t even have access to the same teachers or school leaders. Tennessee has a very real, and growing teacher shortage, and teaching ain’t plug-and-play.

So it’s a little disingenuous when MNPS proclaims, “results from the 3rd grade ELA TCAP exams show that MNPS students have scored the highest level of proficiency since the TNReady system was implemented in 2017′ as some kind of growth measurement. It’s a nice marker, but I’m not sure it signifies much else.

The scores just released are raw scores, so in some ways, we get more insight, but it also makes the comparison of cohorts more difficult. This year a student needed to score 34 points out of 52 to be considered proficient. That’s an average of 4 questions away from proficient.

While those in the approaching category don’t concern me much, if we look at the data released for individual districts, there are some areas that bear further investigation.

Look at, for example, the Tennessee Achievement School District (ASD), which for years has been recognized as a failure. This year’s results should cause further concern. Sixty-four percent of their students are scoring below proficient. Remember, the ASD was created to serve students not being served by traditional schools. Data suggests, once again, that the solution is not a solution, so why does the policy still exist?

Kudos to State Representative Antonio Parkinson (D-Memphis) for making progress this past session in getting this experiment terminated. He passed legislation in the House, that will hopefully be taken up in the next general session that would reform the district, and perhaps make it responsive to students. It should be Democrats who modify the program because it was Democrats who crafted the legislation.

That’s not intended as a shot at Democrats, merely a recognition that both sides are capable of bad education policy.

The number of kids in Tennessee that scored in the below category is about 18.5k. That’s a number that I don’t think any of us are comfortable with. Now we can argue about retention as a solution, but I don’t think that we can argue that eighteen thousand kids are not a problem.

So why are we not talking about that problem?

A News 5 report quotes House Representative John Ray Clemmons, “The more people feel like they have to leave our public school system, they have to look for alternatives, and that goes right into whether it be private, private charter schools, and that’s exactly what they want to happen, so they can have an excuse and reason to steer more tax dollars to their private friends and individuals.”

Maybe they do have to explore other options. Maybe that school is not serving that family. maybe we should have a candid talk about that.

Instead, we argue about the evilness of legislators, test makers, and assorted other culprits. But little talk has been centered around what we do for 18K who can’t score above “below”. If this was a child-centric system, conversations should be all about those kids and what we do for them? Instead, it’s about the system and how we protect it? That’s adult-centric.

Preserving the public education system, while admirable, does not automatically address the needs of those kids. Maybe a forthright conversation goes a step further than just accepting.

Can tutors and summer school? Possibly, what about a deeper commitment to existing RTI programs? Why not supplement instead of supplant?

Can certain social programs that address poverty and homelessness make a difference? Absolutely.

That includes legislation that protects children from gun violence beyond the threat of random gunmen. Nashville had one school shooter this year. In excess of 18 guns were found in schools. None of those were AR-15s.

So instead of just yelling at each over a perceived threat, why not address the real threat?

Last session there were bills brought forth about the storage of weapons in both homes and cars. There was legislation around stolen guns. There was bipartisan cooperation and bills were on track to be passed. Bills sponsored by Democrats like State Senator Jeff Yarboro (D-Nashville) and State House Representative Caleb Hemmer (D-Nashville). But then the circus came to town, and all bets were off.

Democrats will tell you that they’ve tried to pass bills addressing those social challenges, but those assholes would rather drink the blood of babies than listen to common sense. When I ask if they feel that’s a productive position to take, the general response is, “The truth is the truth.” Maybe, but what good is a great idea if it never gets implemented?

Try talking to your neighbors like Democrats and Republicans talk to each other, and let me know how much cooperation you get.

Channel 5’s esteemed reporter Phil Williams aired a so-called investigative story, that boiled down to, “The super-majority is super mean and they don’t listen to us.” Really? That investigative news? That’s the way it works, it’s the way it’s always worked, and it’s the way it’ll work if Democrats get back in control. But instead of winning, how about demonstrating the power of the ideas?

Over the years, people have asked me how I ever got sober. They tell me how much they hate AA, or not being able to go to social affairs or the judgment of friends. I tell them, I didn’t care. None of that mattered to me.

I was willing to do whatever it took to be sober. Whether it made me uncomfortable or not.

I went to 90 meetings in 90 days and hated just about every one of them.

I missed so many “special events” that I lost count.

Last night I was telling Peter, my son, how people who I thought were friends, suddenly felt I was self-righteous and thought I was better than them. Eventually, I made better friends.

I didn’t care about any of that. All I cared about was solving a problem, and that problem was my lack of sobriety. In order to be sober, I couldn’t focus on anything else.

That’s the mindset we need to bring to crafting education policy.

We need to stop focusing on strawmen and start focusing on ideas.

Because I’ll be honest with you, if the public school system, as it exists today, is preserved while 18K gets shortchanged, that’s a trade-off I ain’t comfortable with, and you shouldn’t be either.

– – –

Speaking of focusing on strawmen instead of issues, too many people are walking around thinking that the departure of Penny Schwinn as state education commissioner changes anything. It doesn’t.

I mean it’s satisfying that another huckster is getting run out, but whether she is here or not, the same problems remain.

Some of you seem to suffer under the illusion that she’s some cracked evil kind of genius, bringing her machinations to the Volunteer State. Schwinn ain’t nothing but a tool.

She didn’t spout a single original thought the entire time she was commissioner. She didn’t try to implement a single program that wasn’t stolen from somebody else or handed to her by an outside entity. There isn’t a single initiative she attempted to implement that fell outside of the will of Governor Lee, and in turn, those who fed it to Lee.

Why do you think Lee never objected to her incessant travel over the last year? Because she doesn’t do any of the work. Since she couldn’t add anything to the implementation of third-grade retention or the new school funding formula, why not let her promote the state at taxpayers’ expense.

If you live in Tennessee, and you got the time, ask your local superintendent when was the last time that they saw her at one of their meetings. You’ll be shocked.

Come July, when Lizzette Reynolds Gonzales starts, it’ll be more of the same. All the pundits writing pieces about what she needs to do to “right the ship” are wasting ink.

She’s a Texas native who has never lived in Texas and never taught in a school. Maybe she taught Sunday School, but still, what makes you think she has any vested interest in the students of Tennessee?

She is here for three years, and then back to Texas or Florida. The only interest she has is serving the agenda of Bill Lee. What that is, is anybody’s guess. It could be growing vouchers, or growing tomatoes, or it could be simply keeping the TDOE out of the gossip papers. Maybe he hasn’t even been told it yet.

The bottom line is if you don’t like the direction of public education policy in Tennessee, you better start trying to win the next election and quit worrying about who’s running the depleted Tennessee Department of Education.

That goes for both Ds, Rs, and Is.

– – –

Now that it is summertime, you’ll likely be heading to the pool. If you are looking for something to read while there, you can’t go wrong with former MNPS school board member Jill Speerings book, Rubies in the Rubble

it wasn’t that long ago that the cadre of principals that oversaw Nashville’s high schools was a formable group of educators. They were savvy veterans with a combined level of experience of over a century and a half. Getting a high school principal job with Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) was viewed as a crowning achievement. My how times have changed.

Steve Shaffer, who moves over to James Lawson from Hillwood HS, just five years ago was considered a young buck and is now considered a senior statesman. This year, the principal at Cane Ridge HS has been forced out, while at Overton, McGavock, and Antioch their principals have retired. At East, the principal is under fire, while the principal at Glencliff manages to somehow hang on.

At Maplewood, Pearl Cohn, and Whites Creek, you have experienced middle school principals who recently made the transition to high school. At Stratford, you have an interim that was just recently made permanent.

Only at Hillsboro, Hume-Fogg, and Hunter’s Lane do you have leadership with over a decade of experience at the high school level.

That’s a little cause for pause.

– – –

Nashville is in the midst of a mayoral race, and I’m struggling to find a preferred candidate. If I had to pick now it’d probably be Wiltshire, but that’s not carved in stone. Freddie O’Connell is undeniably running the best campaign, but his populist tendencies still give me concern.

Did he really think Nashville wasn’t building a new stadium? Look outside. See all the cranes? That decision was made a decade ago. Do you this that hotels have invested this heavily in building new ones so Joe from Dickson can spend the night when he and the Mrs. go see Billy Joel at the stadium? Not likely, they’re looking to cash in on the next-level events that only come with a new stadium.

Taylor’s concert in the rain is the stuff of legends, but not everybody is willing to play that game, You need a roof. That building was getting built even if 90% of Nashville was against it.

Equally troubling is the playing of Robin to his Batman by CM Mendes. A Chicago-bred politician that decries Chicago-style politics while fully engaged in… Chicago-style politics. Furthermore, O’Connell likes to assume the role of the smartest man in the room, Mendes is unlikely to concede that position. Still, I really want to fall in love with Freddie.

The Vivian Wilhoite stories continue to bubble up. Kind of impressive that she’s managed to piss off this many people in Nashville.

State Senator Heidi Campbell, is always a formidable campaigner and an old friend, so you can never count her out.

State Senator Jeff Yarboro is equally impressive when he wants to be, I’m just not convinced he wants to be Mayor of Nashville.

Alice Rolli, a smart Republican, has great ideas but is struggling to make an emotional connection with voters.

I’ve always got a soft spot for Fran Bush.

There is my thumbnail sketch of where we are today. Let’s see if it holds.

– – –

With summer here, you are likely looking for some summertime reading. if so, check out former MNPS school board member Jill Speering’s Rubies in the Rubble. As described by Amazon, “There are many different paths in life that we can choose to follow. There are also circumstances where life imposes the only choice of acceptance. Rubies in the Rubble is the story of one woman’s courage and commitment to accept her lot in life and bloom where she was planted.” Check it out.

– – –

I’d also be remiss if I didn’t mention the passing of my dear friend James Lewis. James toured extensively as a vocalist with Trans-Siberian Orchestra. But he was also a successful jingle singer as well. we used to giggle like 12-year-olds over the one he sang for Trojan.

James believed in me fresh out of rehab when nobody else really did. When we met, he was managing the Exit/In and he worked hard at making sure I replaced him. Even though I was still smarting from the first go around.
That was pre-diagnoses for diabetes and I was a bear to be around. I remember him saying after diagnoses…I knew something wasn’t right. Even though he barely knew me…he offered grace.
Such a kind soul. For my first year of sobriety, he gave me a Vox Bulldog guitar. Google it. Hard to find, and not cheap if you do. Still hangs on the wall of my house and I play it on occasion.
I just don’t have words right now other than I am better for knowing him.
 – – –

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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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