“The point is that, whenever we propose a solution to a problem, we ought to try as hard as we can to overthrow our solution, rather than defend it. Few of us, unfortunately, practice this precept; but other people, fortunately, will supply the criticism for us if we fail to supply it ourselves.”
Nearly a decade ago, upon founding my think tank and beginning to release my white papers (tip of the hat to Peter Greene), I promised myself I wouldn’t write angry. And for the most part, I’ve stuck to that self promise. Though there have been times where I’ve been filled with self-righteous rage, feeling a burning desire to slam out a passionate missive, I have fought the desire and chosen to wait 24 hours to allow myself time to arrive at a bit more of a nuanced take. Till now.
These days I’m struggling a bit. Since the conclusion of the Tennessee General Assembly’s recent Special session, I find myself in a constant state of agitation. To be truthful, you should be as well. A big part of the problem is that the approved legislation was so sloppily written and hastily passed, that I continue to find new issues every time I look at it. Issues that serve to benefit adults more so than kids.
An added factor is the taking of what is supposedly a historic tragedy and offering a pedestrian solution. For months, Governor Lee and Commissioner Schwinn have been pedaling a narrative of dire consequences for the state’s children due to the pandemic using easily disputable data. According to Lee, “COVID-19 has disrupted every aspect of education and we are on the cusp of severe consequences for our students if we don’t act now.”
By now we are all familiar with his claims of 50% learning loss in ELA and 65% in math. If these numbers were true, they’d be cause for deep concern. I’d assume that Lee believes they are true. So it stands to reason that faced with such dire straights, he has some bold initiatives in hand. Surely if he’s calling a special session of the General Assembly to focus on education policy, they’ve already delved into the crisis and are ready to meet the unprecedented circumstances with unprecedented actions.
Nope, what we’ve got are summer schools and tutoring corps. Kinda like going to the doctor and having him tell you that you have COVID-19, and then prescribing Tylenol and NyQuil to treat it. Fine under normal circumstances, but damn, you’ve got a serious life-threatening illness. One that should call for a little more than previously utilized remedies that are readily available.
Worse than that, the more you look at the legislation that came out of the special session the more you recognize it as a series of bills slapped together like a bad batch of bathroom hootch. So bad, that apparently the Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn herself isn’t quite sure what’s in them. When presenting the legislation to the State Board of Education members, she painted a picture of a series of plans designed to assist LEA’s, all fully optional and dependent on local decisions. That’s not the picture painted by a recent synopsis produced by the Tennessee Comptrollers’ office.
For example, go to the 1 hour and 12-minute mark of the aforementioned state board of education meeting and you’ll hear Ms. Schwinn clearly say, “districts do not have to retain a single child.” This was about the 3rd-grade retention rule in the recently passed policies. Arguably, she was arguing that there are several offerings in order to keep a child from being retained, but it also seems clear that Ms. Schwinn was downplaying the threat of retention. The video is full of similar instances of soft-peddling.
I’m not the only one picking up on the problems with the bills. Over at the TNEd Report, Andy Spears reports on push back by the Germantown School Board. The school board takes exception to the 80% TNReady participation required to avoid negative consequences as a result of student testing. In their eyes, the legislation provides the commissioner with the power to grant waivers but fails to provide requirements for earning those waivers. They are rightfully concerned that with a large percentage of students remaining virtual, they will have a hard time meeting that threshold.
Here’s the big picture, Tennessee’s legislators have codified a power to the Commissioner concerning something that she hasn’t been granted a federal waiver to implement. Federal legislation says that districts are required to test 95% of students. Many states are applying for a waiver to not conduct standardized testing at all this year. Tennessee isn’t one of them, we are asking for a waiver to only require districts to test 80%of eligible students. A waiver that has yet to be granted, despite Schwinn’s assurances that a cousin of a friend who has a sister who works in a coffee shop outside the DOE offices in Washington thinks that this is aligned with the thinking at the newly staffed USDOE. This is despite Biden’s pick for Secretary of Education, Miguel Cardona, still awaiting confirmation.
It’s a pretty presumptuous move considering that Cardona has sent mixed signals on how he’ll address standardized testing this year. Per Chalkbeat,
“If the conditions under COVID-19 prevent a student from being in school in person, I don’t think we need to be bringing students in just to test them,” he said. At the same time, he said getting a gauge of student learning is important. “If we don’t assess where our students are and their level of performance, it’s going to be difficult for us to provide targeted support.”
A bigger question would be, why are we even administering standardized tests at all this year? Across the state of Tennessee, students have faced a wide array of educational options this year. Some have been exclusively remote, while some have received mainly live instruction. Others its been a mixed set of options. Some families have been severely impacted by COVID, while others remain mostly unscathed. The bottom line is that everyone is doing their best to navigate the ongoing crisis with varying degrees of success. As such, time spent testing would be better spent helping kids adjust to their circumstances and continuing instructional efforts. The Education Trust and several allies disagree.
The national non-profit education advocacy group, headed up locally by MNPS school board member Gini Pupo-Walker, have sent a joint letter to the USDOE urging them to not grant any testing waivers. Citing a report by McKinsey and Company – yes, the opioid folks – they claim,
These factors have cost students, by some estimates, an average of seven months of learning, with a disparate impact of nine months for Latino students and 10 months for Black students. The projected impact of interrupted learning for students from low-income backgrounds is more than a year.1 Perhaps even more concerning, as many as 3 million students are still missing from school.2
Besides the obvious, that “months of learning” is a bullshit number that assumes all kids learn at the same rate, the letter paints a picture of schools not having a clear idea of where students are after nearly a year of interruption due to the COVID-19 crisis. It’s a picture shared by Commissioner Schwinn and Governor Lee as well. It’s also inaccurate.
What everyone fails to tell you is that we have already tested the heck out of kids. Since arriving back from Winter Break, my 5th grader and my 6th grader have already been subjected to the second round of Math and ELA testing with both MAP and IReady. EL students are now starting on WIDA testing. Tennessee’s RTI legislation requires schools to use a screener three times a year. So to act as if we don’t know where students are at this juncture is a little disingenuous. As is the inference that by administrating the BIG TEST, three million students are going to come running back to schools. Both are myths crafted to fuel adult agendas.
Let me tell you what is more likely to happen. The state does not have access this year to individual LEA’s student data from local tests, which changes next year. Therefore they need the results from the BIG TEST. I know they said that this year is a hold harmless year, but that doesn’t mean that results can’t be used in order to support the TNDOE’s narrative of failure. I’m sure that over the summer there will be a great clutching of pearls and rendering of garments over the sad state of Tennessee’s schoolchildren based on results from a test given in the midst of a pandemic. Legislators and bureaucrats will sprain their arms patting each other on the back about their great foresight in passing legislation to combat the dire straits our children now find themselves in.
That’s not to say that summer camp and tutoring can be beneficial to kids. research has shown under the right conditions, both have proven beneficial. However, for many kids, it is not going to be enough. They, unfortunately, require so much more, some of which fall outside of the purview of the classroom. Those kids will, per usual, be left to their own devices, because serving them would actually require some boldness and forethought. It would also require addressing poverty issues, which we are always loathed to do. Well, maybe we’ll give them a voucher, then we won’t have to worry about them.
There is another group of kids – “Bubble Kids” – that are very useful for politicians and their ilk. These are the kids that sit just below the “on-track” level. The ones who, with just a little bit of extra attention can be pushed over the line and claimed as a success story. Now before you recoil in horror, rest assured, I’m just making this up. It’s been an unspoken practice in the past and there is no reason to think it won’t be in the future. Especially when a man is running for re-election and needs some positive states.
Here’s, for further explanation, is an excerpt from a piece written in 2005,
So the bubble kids are identified, divided into groups, and tutored relentlessly. The kids who missed by 5 or 6 points, maybe 10 points; what happens to them. It’s simple. They cant raise their scores enough to help the schools rating, so they are ignored. Why would you waste your time with them the school thinks, they can’t help us. They don’t get intense help with their work. After all, don’t you know, they won’t ever pass anyway. Why waste valuable tutoring time on them? Of course, what a brilliant idea – work with the kids who can make you look good and throw the others to the sharks. I truely wish I knew which of our administrative geniuses brought that obscene idea into the district. Thats Sheldon Independent School District, always go for the easy stupid solution instead of the complex one that would require planning, actual thought, listening to teachers, or giving a care.
Lest we forget, tutoring and summer school are not new. The new legislation proposes 1:1 tutoring levels for kids. Where are those tutors supposed to come from? And if they are truly out there why have we not identified them in the past? How many people will sign up to be a tutor, collect their per diem to go through training, and then bail when they realize that it’s a lot more difficult than they imagined?
Tennessee established a successful summer program back in 2016 with the Read to Be Ready initiative. The program proved effective and popular with local school districts. But since they were initiatives of the previous Governor and not products of Schwinn and Lee’s tenure, they were left to wither, along with the network of literacy specialists when funding was left to dry up. Lee and his commissioner chose instead to focus on voucher legislation, which is still tied up in court.
Reading about the program in a past edition of Chalkbeat can evoke a clear sense of missed opportunity,
And what began with 12 summer reading camps in the program’s inaugural year — through a $1 million gift from the Dollar General Literacy Foundation — had grown tenfold by the second year, thanks in large part to a federal DHS grant. Last summer, more than 7,700 children who are mostly economically disadvantaged took part in 250 reading camps across the state, and more than 193,000 high-quality books were given to the students to take home. Even more camps are underway this summer via an $8.9 million grant program.
According to a report released last fall, first-, second-, and third-graders who participated in the camps showed gains in reading comprehension and accuracy skills for a third straight year. And the last two summers generated statistically significant improvements in those skills, based on assessments given in the early and last days of the camps.
Despite recent evidence, nobody called, “Bullshit,” when special session legislation was rolled out. Nobody pointed out that previously camps were funded at a 1:16 ratio of teachers/students in the past and that under the new legislation, despite being flush with federal dollars, it would be 1:20. Questions were raised about adequate funding, but just as quickly dismissed. The reality is that this year’s legislation fails to provide adequate funding for districts to open their buildings in the summer months.
It was no different with the bill granting raises to teachers. $120 million sounds great unless you do the math. Teachers may have been promised a 4% raise, but all one has to do is read the Comptrollers report to get a clear understanding that Tennessee’s teachers shouldn’t be planning any big purchases shortly.
The additional funding may be used to support salary increases for certified staff as well as school nurses. Flexibility within the appropriations language allows districts to determine how to distribute the additional funds, such as through salary increases or bonuses. The increase is generally based on the number of positions calculated for each district in the instructional salary category of the BEP. In FY 2021, the BEP funded approximately 66,241 licensed instructional positions; school districts employed 77,704 instructional personnel in 2018-19, the latest year of data available.
Once again, politicians get a blurb for their palm cards, while teachers are left with an empty bag. But nobody says anything. Teachers say nothing because they’ve become accustomed to empty promises from legislators and as a result tune out the words before they even leave the mouths of legislators. Others are too concerned about losing access or their seat at the table. Don’t want to make anyone mad, or you’ll lose your staus. And so once again, another session passes with teachers falling economically further behind.
Right now in D.C., there is a lot of talk about the death of Democracy. Nothing will destroy democracy faster than enabling politicians to continually craft bad laws unchallenged. While we all fight to preserve our seat at the table, the table continually shrinks, until it reaches a point where all the power is consolidated in a few hands. Hands that work to exclude all that disagree.
Representative Cerpicky from Maury County is this year’s Chair of the House’s Education-Instruction subcommittee. This week he held his first committee meeting. He began proceedings, by stating the purpose of the committee. In his words,
“We are here to be child-centered. To be student-centered. We are not here to protect the status quo ore the system. Except for the parts of that system that succeed in putting the success of our children first. We are not here for the comfort of adults, but for the opportunities for excellence, advancement, and ultimately to be advocates and essential stewards of the individual independence afforded by an excellent education.
How are the citizens of a Republic to be be free without the ability to look after themselves and participate as critical thinkers in this work of self-governance?”
They are beautiful words. Heartfelt words. Inspiring words. I hope that is not all they are. Otherwise, we are going to need a whole lot more than NyQuil and Tylenol.
This week Senate Education Committee Chair Brian Kelsey launched another attack on Shelby County Schools for not opening school buildings. Kelsey is supporting a bill that would give the Governor executive powers to open/close school districts. The fight is part of a much larger battle going on nationwide over urban districts opening school buildings. It’s a discussion devoid of nuance. Keeanga-Yamahtta-Taylor adds some of that nuance in a recent New Yorker piece.
Chicago public schools are only eleven per cent white; Black and Latinx students make up eighty-one per cent of the student body. Unsurprisingly, white students are overrepresented among those opting for in-person learning, and also those who are actually showing up to school. Since early January, there has been a phased-in return to public-school buildings, beginning with preschool and special-education students, with the next phase bringing back kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. Among C.P.S. elementary-school students, only thirty-one per cent of Latinx students, thirty-three per cent of Asian students, and thirty-four per cent of Black students were opted to return to school buildings by their parents. In contrast, the parents of more than sixty-seven per cent of white children opted them in.
Taylor goes on to show that just because schools are open, does not mean that students are showing up. I strongly encourage you to read the whole piece.
It’s good to know that I’m not the only one noticing how inadequate the TDOE’s READ 360 is. Today national writer Nancy Baily takes it apart. She rightfully questions Tennessee’s stated goal of “accelerating learning”. Pointing out that,
Accelerating learning seems to be an obsession among some policymakers, and it’s hard to understand. What possible good comes from forcing children to learn fast? Why are states still trying to make students race to some obscure finish line? How many children will end up with learning problems because of it?
Tru dat. read it all, you won’t be sorry.
At least one Tennessee lawmaker seems to have some common sense. Lt. Governor Randy McNally is quoted in today’s Tennessean as observing that, “Whatever we do will probably be reviewed by the federal government and they can cut funding to the state,” he said. “It’s an issue I think that we need to move very carefully.” His comments are in stark contrast to those of Governor Lee who 2 days ago made the claim that ‘transgenders participating in women’s sports will destroy women’s sports,” he told reporters. “It will ruin the opportunity for girls to earn scholarships. It will put a glass ceiling back over women that hasn’t been there.” In a ludicrous that is predicated on a large number of transgender athletes looking to participate in woman’s sports and a larger number of college programs willing to by-pass female athletes for college scholarships. To date, there is evidence of neither.
Congratulations to former MNPS principal Darwin Mason on his being named as Ensworth’ss new Head of Middle School for the 2021-2022 school year! Well done. Ensworth conducted a Nashville search before finding their man right here in their back yard.
Note to leaders. Creating an advisory cabinet of teachers, principals, or superintendents, is not sufficient. You have to actually listen to them. Otherwise, you might as well not form an advisory cabinet. Just saying.
We are slow in offering this, but we still want to offer our condolences to former MNEA President Eric Huth. Eric lost his son a couple of weeks ago. No parent should ever have to bury their own child, and our heart goes out to him.
If you’ve got time and are looking for a smile, check out the Dad Gone Wild Facebook page, where we work to accentuate the positive. We’ve started to include more pictures of kids returning to buildings.
If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to [email protected]. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.
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If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.
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