Is Anyone Minding The Store?

Obviously these are not normal times at the state department of education as all hands are on deck grappling all the unknows of re-opening schools in the middle on a pandemic.  Virtual learning is front and center in this effort as a number of systems have said their first nine weeks of school will be conducted on-line and many parents have chosen have their children take remote classes in systems that will be in class.

To this end, the state gave a $12.4 million contract to an out-of-state company to provide pre-recorded lessons.  My sources say these will be most beneficial to small systems where resources are limited.

However, investigative reporter Josh Moon with the Alabama Political Reporter has learned there are many questions and concerns about the company–SchoolsPLP–and its product.

Here is what he reported on July 27:

“The Alabama State Department of Education is defending its selection of an Arizona company to supply the state with a “digital curriculum” for remote learning in Alabama’s public schools after several parents and schools’ officials raised questions about the company’s apparent false claims of accreditation and its limited history.

The company, SchoolsPLP, formed two years ago and with an address that appears to be a rented mailbox at a UPS store in Phoenix, was awarded a $12.458 million contract by the state earlier this month to fulfill the task of providing a “digital curriculum” option for schools.

Following the announcement of that contract, several parents began digging into SchoolsPLP’s background and operating system in their process of determining whether to send their children to physical schools or accept the safer online learning options. What they found was troubling.

SchoolsPLP removed two accreditation agency logos after questions.

 

“It was very concerning,” said Eileen Zeanah, whose son is entering the 10th grade in Vestavia Hills. “The more I dug into this company, the less information I was able to find. And what I was able to find turned out to be wrong.”

Zeanah and several other parents and school officials contacted Cognia to inquire about SchoolsPLP’s accreditation. They were told in writing by Cognia representatives that the company did not have accreditation. Shortly thereafter, the Cognia and AdvancEd logos disappeared from the SchoolsPLP website.

Additionally, a check of approved providers on the California A-G website shows that SchoolsPLP is not listed. And the NCAA has suggested in the past that courses through SchoolsPLP might not meet certification standards.

In response, ALSDE said the issues with accreditation are mostly irrelevant, because SchoolsPLP was not hired to provide the state with a virtual school platform. Instead, it filled the request to provide a “digital curriculum.”

Essentially, SchoolsPLP is providing Alabama with a set of digital textbooks that can be used by teachers to facilitate their course lessons.

“ALSDE did not contract with SchoolsPLP for a true ‘virtual school’ which typically includes the vendor providing teachers, special education services, etc.,” a response from the state department said. “Since ALSDE contracted for digital curriculum resources only, accreditation is not relevant.  For example, textbook companies do not seek accreditation, which is reserved for institutions that provide full delivery of education.

“The ALSDE/SchoolsPLP contract is more akin to what ALSDE has purchased in the past for students in grades 9-12 as part of the ACCESS program. ACCESS offers a full program model with ACCESS teachers and a separate ‘franchise model’ where schools utilize the curriculum only for delivery by its own teachers.”

Still, the issues with accreditation for SchoolsPLP were troubling for some, because they seem to indicate an attempt at deception. The response from ALSDE said it believed SchoolsPLP included the accreditation claims because it worked with school systems that were accredited by Cognia and others.

However, that is not a normal practice and is generally frowned upon.

“Everyone involved in education and the purchase of accredited materials and programs understands that the use of accreditation agency logos is done only when those agencies expressly provide accreditation,” said a source with several decades in public education administration. “Those accreditations are important, and they are sought after, because they indicate to parents and others that the services and materials being provided have been deemed by an impartial entity to meet accepted educational standards.”

Regardless, though, the issues with accreditation should not affect Alabama students who participate in online classes through SchoolsPLP, since the accreditation for those courses would be through school districts.

Similarly, ALSDE said concerns about NCAA eligibility issues are not valid, because the approved core courses taught by Alabama schools would still be approved if taught through the SchoolsPLP platform. ALSDE provided APR a link to an NCAA webpage addressing that specific concern.

The was, however, one prominent concern remaining: The inability to integrate SchoolsPLP’s platform into Alabama’s management system, Schoology. Under the RFP sent out to companies vying for the project, integration into Schoology was a requirement. But the ALSDE statement acknowledged that is impossible, and that they have instead instructed systems that wish to use SchoolsPLP to download a new management system.

“Instructions for this were sent out Friday morning,” the statement said.”

Editor’s note:  I talked to one of my most trusted sources in one of the state’s largest school systems.  She called this a “$12 million mistake” and explained that the state’s explanation about accreditation makes no sense.  Her system will not use this system.

“Teachers are scared and frustrated about starting school. Many aren’t coming back”

Most educators I’ve talked to recently are very nervous about re-opening schools.  Most have a lot more unanswered questions than they are comfortable with.  By and large they think the “plans” put forth by the state department of education are a joke.

Josh Moon writes for The Alabama Political Reporter.  He has also been talking to educators and hearing the same things I’ve heard.  Here is what he wrote on July 13:

“Terrified. Confused. Frustrated. Those are the terms teachers — both fulltime and substitute teachers — from across Alabama used to describe how they feel about schools reopening in about a month in this state. 

Over the course of the last week, I have spoken to dozens of teachers, principals, administrators and employees from school systems around the state. On Sunday, I used social media to solicit more comments, asking teachers and school employees if they have been provided specifics about the upcoming school year and how they’re expected to handle students and staff testing positive for COVID-19. 

Their answers were eye-opening and infuriating. 

Not even a little bit. 

Among the shocking pieces of information provided by teachers and employees, these stood out: 

  • There is no plan to screen students, teachers or staff prior to school starting. 
  • There is no statewide plan for quarantining students, teachers or staff should someone at a school test positive. 
  • There will be no requirement that students wear masks. 
  • There is no statewide plan to contact trace any positive student, teacher or staff member. 
  • Teachers don’t know if they’ll be required to quarantine if they come in contact with a coronavirus-positive student or employee, and they don’t know if a quarantine will eat into their leave days. 
  • No one knows if there will be mandatory testing of students if another student in class tests positive, or who will pay for such tests. 
  • There is currently no plan in place to address the very obvious teacher shortage that is about to strike Alabama schools. 

Among all of those problems — and all of the unknowns that will go into them — a teacher shortage is probably the most certain, and possibly even the most important. 

Because Alabama had a big problem with getting enough teachers to fill its classrooms prior to the current pandemic. Now, as we near a ridiculously-early start date, and teachers across the state begin to realize that there simply is no plan in place to protect them, hundreds are weighing their options. 

And the mass exodus could be staggering. 

Which, honestly, shouldn’t be surprising. Even if there were a great plan in place, most teachers over the age of 60 would be on the fence about working during this pandemic. In Alabama, that’s a decent percentage of the state’s total number of teachers and a big percentage of substitute teachers. 

Now, add to that list all of the teachers who are at-risk or have underlying conditions that put them at greater risk should they contract COVID-19. 

Then add all of the teachers who can afford to either not work or who have other employment options. 

Now, add in ALSDE’s complete and utter joke of a “roadmap” for reopening — which only served to scare the living hell out of most school employees — and you’ve got a serious mess. 

“I know for a fact that eight of my teachers are probably not coming back and it could be as high as 12,” a principal of a school in Montgomery told me. “There aren’t people to fill those spots and we’ll be fighting with every other school in this city and surrounding area for substitutes.”

That same story is playing out all over the state. 

Because teachers are scared to death. And the biggest reason they’re scared to death is because they haven’t seen any sort of real, aggressive plan from anyone. 

Instead, the instructions appear to be: Do all of the things you were doing before, and then add in socially distancing your students, monitoring them for COVID symptoms and trying not to become sick yourself. Oh, and also maybe help with checking kids’ temps and quarantining them, since 300 or so of our state’s schools don’t have nurses. 

Would you go back to work in that environment if you had any other choice? 

There is, however, a glimmer of hope. But only a glimmer. 

Gov. Kay Ivey has apparently taken a liking to the Safely Opening Schools (SOS) plan that I talked about a couple of weeks ago. That’s the plan from the school nurses association, which is backed by a bipartisan group of lawmakers, that would use CARES Act funds to put a nurse in every school and also build a stand-alone first aid/quarantine area for every school. It would also provide on-site testing and equipment to check the temps of students at a variety of different points. 

Ivey has invited several lawmakers to speak about the plan to the state Board of Education during Tuesday’s work session. 

APR has also learned that the SOS plan is one of several being considered by the White House to be part of its recommendations to schools across the country. 

That plan isn’t perfect, and it doesn’t address all of the problems that teachers, students and staff will face every day. But it does take some burdens off teachers, and could help prevent flare-ups and outright hot spots. 

And maybe, just maybe, it’ll ease some of the very real, very understandable fears.” 

Here We Go Again

Any good All-American deep-fried “educrat” loves a good study.  About 150 pages on nice, shiny, slick paper, maybe with some charts and graphs tossed in.  Something that will look good when you hand them out at a press conference.  And that will still look pristine a couple years later when a secretary stumbles on a box of them in the back of a closet in some government office.

In fact, we like them so much that here in Alabama we’re about to spend up to $750,000 on one the voters of the state recently said they did not want.

Remember a year ago when the legislature planned to take control of the state department of education by getting rid of the elected state school board?  There was only one problem, the voters had to go along with the legislature by passing a constitutional amendment saying they did not want an elected state school board.

Obviously, someone did not think, the voters could think for themselves so they got the wheels rolling by setting aside $750,000 in the 2019-20 education trust fund budget to hire a consulting firm from Boston.

And as you see by this article, the consultants recently showed up to make a presentation to members of the state school board.  But when things really get interesting is when you to look at the 14-page Executive Summary.  Which you can do right here.

Back to the constitutional vote held on March 2, 2020.  Among other things, if passed we would have created the Alabama Commission on Elementary and Secondary Education.  But it did not pass.  Did not even come close to passing as voters rejected it 75 percent against, 25 percent in favor.

But apparently it takes a while for news to get from Montgomery to Boston because right there at the bottom on page one in the summary the consultants talk about how great it is that Alabama is creating the Alabama Commission on Elementary and secondary Education and doing away with the elected state school board.

Just one small problem.  IT AIN’T TRUE.

On page two of the summary it says the ALSDE (Alabama State Department of Education) must take full ownership and accountability for student progress across Alabama.  But where is the accountability for blunders like this?

 

Last Call For Some “Book Learning.”

According to grandpa, “learning” came in at least two varieties.  One was by “doing.”  Like when you find a flat surface to put down an old, crooked nail and make it straight again.  Of course, it helps if the surface is fairly hard and you are right particular just how you hold the nail.

The other being “book” learning, the kind a school boy should do when they have a desk and a book in front of them.

This is the variety my son Kevin will be doing on June 1 at 4 p.m.  Thanks to the good folks at the Alabama Humanities Foundation, Kevin is leading a discussion of the book, American Nations, by Colin Woodard every Monday of June.

For more info on how you can sign up for this on-line adventure, go here.

As I’ve said before, this is one of the most interesting books I have ever read and I’ve gone to it many times, which is why my copy is so dog-eared.  If you are like I used to be, when you studied the history of the United States you never paid much attention to how this country was settled and how the backgrounds of early settlers had great impact on the various regions of the U.S.  And continues to do so even today.

I can almost guarantee that at some point in this exercise you will have an “ah ha” moment.  One of those instances where a light goes off and you say, “damn, why haven’t I ever thought about that before.”

Hope to see you then.

A Special Invitation

I have mentioned the book, American Nations: A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America by Colin Woodard, a number of times.  It has made a big impact on the way I now view this country and the very meaningful regional differences that impact our culture.

For example, there are tremendous differences in the ancestors of us folks in the “deep south” and those who first inhabited New England’s “yankeedom.”  Differences that are impossible to ignore as we mistakenly try to compare education in say, Massachusetts, and Alabama.

And in June, my son Kevin is doing a series of webinars with the support of the Alabama Humanities Foundation, to discuss the book.  These will take place at 4 p.m. central time on June 1, 8, 15, 22 and 29.

You can sign up by going to this link.

Hope to see you there.

 

Remembering Ms. Lanning

Our friend Wendy Lang from Decatur takes us back many decades to a Birmingham kindergarten class and her teacher, Ms. Lanning.  It’s a trip most of us could take, back to our own Ms. Lanning, someone who touched our young lives in special ways and enriched us far more than they might ever have imagined.

And in such trying times as we now find ourselves, such memories are more precious and sweeter than ever before.

“I remember very well the year I turned five. Daddy took a position at Steel City Olds in Birmingham and we packed up what we needed from our home in Decatur and took a one room apartment for the year. Mother signed me up for kindergarten at South Avondale Baptist Church and from 9 until noon each day, I was totally spellbound by Mrs. Lanning, my teacher.

Mrs. Lanning was remarkable. Every day was a new adventure. We learned French and sang songs and took walks that led us to fun things to do right there in the neighborhood. We went to a farm where I refused to milk the cow and rode a train from way far away right in to the center of town at the biggest most elaborate train station I had ever been privy to see. It was also the only train station I had ever seen.

I remember one evening in May Mother dressed me in my Sunday best with my white gloves, black patent Mary Janes polished to shine and crinoline petticoats that put little squares in my rear end when I sat down. It was a special occasion…..my kindergarten graduation. Mother and Daddy were thrilled and I marched in with my class and took my seat and waited my turn. Mrs. Lanning called my name and I walked up to her and she handed me my diploma curled up like a scroll and tied with a white satin bow. It was a proud moment.

At the reception following the ceremony, she took me in her arms and gave me the biggest hug and I told her that I would never forget her. To this day, my tattered and torn diploma is hung proudly with those from high school, college, graduate school and other schools I have been blessed to attend. But the thought that sticks out to me tonight as I contemplate Teacher Appreciation Week is the real impact that she had on my life.

Years later I went on to become a kindergarten teacher in the basement of the old stone building at Eva School. While the building has been torn down, I will forever cherish the memories of those children who taught me while I was there (yes, you read that right), but even more so, I will always remember the love, the creativity and the imagination that Mrs. Lanning brought to South Avondale Baptist Church Kindergarten and to me. She taught me more than 1,2,3’s and A,B,C’s. She taught me by example and I am proud to have followed her lead.

To everyone who touches the life of a child, you have instilled in them dreams, desires and ambitions and have lead by example. Thank you for giving of your heart to our children. You are appreciated not just this week, but every day of the year”