November 29, 2023

Gabe Hart: Going for the education jugular

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Gabe Hart is a former English teacher who serves as chief communications officer for Haywood County Schools in Tennessee. This commentary was originally published in Tennessee Lookout.

I wrote my first piece for Tennessee Lookout over two years ago on a topic that felt frivolous at the time: Critical Race Theory (CRT) in public education.

I had been a teacher for 18 years at that point and had never heard that acronym, so I was dumbfounded by the fact that lawmakers passed a bill banning the teaching of a topic that I had never seen on one state standard or one standardized test.

I chalked it up to political theater, even comparing GOP lawmakers to Don Quixote waging his faux war on imaginary dragons. I didn’t realize at the time that this inane legislation didn’t fit in a vacuum; it was part of a much more insidious legislative plot to systematically chip away at public education in our state.

When Bill Lee was sworn in as governor in 2019, he wasted no time verbalizing his desire for school vouchers and charter schools; he was transparent about his preference to offer families “school choice” across the state. What he failed to mention, though, was that to make “school choice” appealing, he had to find a way to make public schools in Tennessee appear as if they weren’t a viable educational option for families — he needed to float the idea that public education wasn’t effective or, even worse, a system hellbent on indoctrinating students with divisive concepts.

Mirroring other conservative states across the south, Tennessee lawmakers began introducing legislation aimed to “protect children” from questionable topics in lessons — including the purported CRT — as well as inappropriate materials supposedly festering in school libraries and classrooms. While no one would argue that children should be exposed to pornographic material in books or be made to feel guilty for the color of their skin, those things weren’t ever happening in schools and classrooms, to begin with; they were simply fabricated exaggerations of desperate narratives peddled by the far-right.

Once the moral soul of public education was called into question, the next logical step was to rearrange the rules of the game to create the illusion of academic failure by school districts across the state.

Despite input from educators, the General Assembly passed a law to retain third graders who don’t meet expectations on the TCAP Reading assessment — an assessment that doesn’t even measure reading comprehension.  Thus, thousands of Tennessee families were horrified to learn last spring that their third-grade students weren’t being promoted to the fourth grade — three out of five Tennessee third graders fell into this group.

Everything Lee and his supermajority set out to do four years ago was in place; in the last two weeks, they have gone for the jugular

Framed against a backdrop of reading failure and wicked brainwashing, a legislative panel made up of eight Republicans and two Democrats met to discuss the possibility of rejecting nearly $2 billion of federal money for public education. At the same time, the Tennessee Department of Education unveiled a new A-F rating system to further prove their point that public education is failing Tennesseans. The former is the most egregious to the general public, but to a lifelong educator, the latter could be the most damaging.

Even the preliminary discussion of whether or not to reject billions of federal dollars for education in Tennessee — a state that has consistently ranked near the bottom in per-pupil spending and teacher compensation — is simply asinine.

Nearly 90% of the federal dollars Tennessee receives goes to support our state’s most vulnerable students, schools, and districts. The billions of federal dollars Tennessee receives are used to feed children breakfast and lunch in schools that qualify as Title 1 schools, where at least 40% of students reside at or below the poverty line.

Nearly every school in my district, mine included, is a Title 1 school. Not only have federal dollars helped feed students two meals a day, but many districts used federal funds to save local taxpayers money on capital projects such as roof repairs and building maintenance.

As an educator, however, I’m most concerned about the new ranking system the TDOE announced last week.

Education Commissioner Lizzette Gonzalez Reynolds has wasted no time exchanging a numerical rating scale of 1-5 for the antiquated letter ranking system of A-F. To the public, a numerical ranking scale doesn’t carry the same subconscious weight as the A-F scale.

When used in rankings, numbers are fluid. Depending on what’s being evaluated, the number 1 could mean the best or the worst; it all depends on how the levels are aligned. To understand the value of a certain number in a graded system, one has to take the next step to discover if the number is positive and, in that discovery process, hopefully, understand a little more about what is being evaluated.

A letter system, though? Well, there’s no nuance or discovery to that; we all know what an “A” is, and we all know what an “F” is. Once we see a particular letter assigned, we automatically form our opinion and aren’t likely to waste time trying to understand the intricacies of the rating. While that’s a small but powerful change, the most significant change was the formula used to craft the district and school rankings.

Most of a district’s and school’s yearly rating hinges on the end-of-the-year standardized tests. From these tests, two primary metrics are evaluated: student growth and student achievement.

In the old ranking system, the state valued growth more than achievement. This philosophy was logical and equitable given that public schools educate every type of student regardless of their academic aptitude. Schools could still garner a high rating if they showed gains with their students. The new scale, however, flips the weighted distribution and places a much larger emphasis on student achievement.

Frankly, the importance placed on standardized testing has done far more damage to public education over the last 25 years than anything else. It has been a millstone around the necks of teachers, and now it is being weaponized as a tool to punish the poorest districts in the state.

Countless studies correlate achievement level on standardized testing with the socio-economic status of the student taking that test. Students make schools, and schools make districts, and at the end of the day, the letter ranking of a certain school or district will be less about what students know or what teachers teach and more of a reflection of the disparities between wealthy districts and ones that aren’t. And, when the dust settles, those same letter rankings will be used by families in communities to request vouchers or religious groups to open charter schools, thereby decreasing the resources in local districts and the schools that comprise them.

Two years ago, I was surprised that CRT was a talking point. It appeared out of nowhere and was subsequently legislated before most of the public knew what it was. Nothing surprises me now, though. Not even rejecting billions of dollars.

My students and I just finished Chapter 7 of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s “ The Great Gatsby.” The most beautiful chapters of the book are waiting on us, but for my kids, what started as a love story turned quickly to a tragedy when our characters “drove on toward death in the cooling twilight.”

The threads of all of it were there all along, though — right in front of them. There was no way this story would ever have a happy ending. Sometimes, I wonder how they never see it coming, how they hold out hope like Gatsby did for so long, but now I realize that I did the same damn thing. I was hopeful that the fear of CRT was a flash-in-the-pan talking point, that it was a random response to a ridiculous narrative.

I should’ve known better. The threads were there all along.


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