“Perhaps the most extraordinary characteristic of current America is the attempt to reduce life to buying and selling. Life is not love unless love is sex and bought and sold. Life is not knowledge save knowledge of technique, of science for destruction. Life is not beauty except beauty for sale. Life is not art unless its price is high and it is sold for profit. All life is production for profit, and for what is profit but for buying and selling again?”
W.E.B. Du Bois, The Autobiography of W.E.B. Du Bois: A Soliloquy on Viewing My Life from the Last Decade of Its First Century

“When a woman once asked Joe how he could come from such a magnificent home and such a good family and still become a gangster, Joe’s answer was two-pronged: (a) he wasn’t a gangster, he was an outlaw; (b) he came from a magnificent house not a magnificent home.”
Dennis Lehane, Live by Night


Yesterday, we took a little field trip up to the legislative plaza to catch the debut of HB 2229 (HB2229-SB2160_AMENDMENT) in subcommittee. It was an interesting journey and a nice opportunity to reconnect with some friends while offering opposition to a troublesome bill. I’m still trying to process much of the 90-minute subcommittee meeting. If anything, yesterday reiterated the breadth and width of the issues with this bill. It is because of that breadth and width that we have to get this right. HB 2229 touches every level of public education in Tennessee, including teacher preparation.

Before we get too far into this, I want to take a minute and express my gratitude to the representatives who sit on the Curriculum, Testing & Innovation subcommittee chaired by Debra Moody. I must say that listening to them and the questions they asked yesterday was a very pleasant surprise. In the past I’ve been critical of Representatives Byrd, Dunn, Cochrane, Cochrane, and DeBary. That wasn’t the case today. They were well informed and on point.

Along with Democrat Representative Harold Love, it was clear that representatives recognize the magnitude of what was being proposed by the Governor and the TNDOE as evidenced by the lines of questioning pursued.

State Education Director Penny Schwinn was called to testify and in that role, she attempted to address legislators’ concerns. To the untrained eye, it might have appeared as if she knew of wence she spoke, for those who know better it’s clear why she now finds herself under fire. While she never made any glaring errors and there were no gotcha moments, there were several times where I found myself asking, “What the hell is she talking above.” Schwinn may be knowledgeable about education issues in general but it is pretty clear that she and her staff lack a deep understanding of current Tennessee Education policy or past history.

Representative Dunn set the tone for the 90-minute meeting by cutting to the chase right from the start, and asking for a definition of “reading on grade level” or “reading proficiency”.  Despite rewording the question 3 times, Schwinn never provided a clear answer. Instead chose to cite various test results and observations with a few anecdotes thrown in. In the end, a clear definition was never delivered.

To me, this has always been the crux of the literacy issue. There can be no solution without a clear definition of terms. When we talk testing we often fail to acknowledge the difference between a skills-based test and a standards-based test. TNReady is a standards based test. It measures how well students have learned Tennessee standards, it does not measure the skills that reading consists of.

Some will argue that if a student doesn’t possess reading skills than they can’t learn the standards. There is some truth to that argument, but I would argue that TNReady doesn’t differentiate on why a student gets a question wrong – whether its due to an inability to read or because of lack of knowledge on the standards.

Representative Byrd followed up by questioning the validity of current standardized tests and whether they were an accurate portrayal of student learning. He cited several of his schools’ officials raising concerns about the tests, and the lack of alignment with internal testing, as reasons to question test results. This earned him a lot of words, future promises, and a few giggles from Schwinn, but few solid arguments for the tests.

Representative White asked one of the million-dollar questions – why the science of reading? This led to a  lengthy soliloquy by Schwinn that for the most part was long on inferences and short on detail. She attempted to paint the science as being settled, when anybody who knows how science works, knows that it is never settled. People are continually doing research and things change as new evidence is uncovered.

I would never support any legislation that limited modification based on the surfacing of new evidence. It’s recognized by most folks that the largest impact on student on student outcomes is from those in the classroom, as opposed to those in the statehouse.

Schwinn vaguely referred to practitioners that have had limited success with the “science of reading” both inside Tennessee and out. most who come from small districts and have only recently implemented the new curriculum.

On a side note, Schwinn promised representatives that she could get them written evidence, she just didn’t have it with her presently. This is a pet peeve of mine. Why didn’t she have it handy?

She knew she was going to a meeting in which legislators would be questioning the proposed bill and likely be asking for evidence of success elsewhere. Why did her staff not have evidence prepared to produce in anticipation of legislators questioning? Why the need to go back and collect the data and evidence? Why the need to wait a week for answers. It’s sloppy work. A sloppiness that has become all too common with the current TNDOE. That’s a leadership problem.

When Schwinn talks about evidence in Tennessee, I’m assuming she is referring to members of the LIFT network. LIFT is the SCORE affiliated group of schools across the state that have begun using curriculum aligned with the “science of reading” with a modicum of success. Ironically, some of you may remember that LIFT was formed in order to help use Gates’s money to get Common Core curriculum into schools. To those of you who were around during the introduction of Common Core, a whole lot of this will feel familiar.

Schwinn also referenced the increase in NAEP results by Mississippi. The Mississippi miracle is often cited as a reason for states to subscribe to the adoption of “Science of Reading Curriculum”. Unfortunately, there are a whole lot of caveats to Mississippi’s increase in scores.

The biggest for me is our old friends, causation, and correlation. Yes, Mississippi retrained the state’s teachers in the tenets of the ‘science of reading”, but what did those teachers do with that training once they returned to their classrooms. There are no studies that show the fidelity of implementation.

I’m sure some of those teachers completely altered their strategy of teaching. I’m equally sure some completely ignored the training and continued teaching in a manner that has produced results in the past. Between those two extremes is where most teachers probably fell – adopting some methods, resisting others, to varying degrees.

It’s deeply disturbing to me that the state is trying to prescribe exactly how teachers are to teach while still using TVAAS to hold them accountable for student outcomes. In other words, I’ll do the crime but you’ll do the time.

The truth is, we don’t know if training teachers in the “science of reading” caused scores to rise or if it was a correlation. There has been, to my knowledge, no effort to isolate factors in order to identify a dominant contributor to the change. Equally important, is that there is no way of knowing whether policy addressing poverty issues – a major influencer on standardized test results – would have had a greater impact had they implemented.

It’s also worth noting that while Mississippi’s 4th-grade scores rose, 8th-grade scores have plummeted. Which leads Furman University Professor P.L. Thomas to ask, “Are any 4th-grade gains by MS (or any state) merely mirages since many states with 4th-grade gains see a drop by 8th grade and since longitudinal 8th-grade scores are mostly flat since 1998?”

Furthermore, you can’t discuss the Mississippi Miracle without discussing their third-grade retention policy. Interestingly enough in Schwinn’s filibuster on why the “science of reading” is the only way to go, besides offering Mississippi’s scores,  she offered the District of Columbia, which also has the policy to retain 3rd graders.

In Mississippi’s case though, per the Fordham Institute, the policy has a lot more muscle,

But Mississippi has taken the concept further than others, with a retention rate higher than any other state. In 2018–19, according to state department of education reports, 8 percent of all Mississippi K–3 students were held back (up from 6.6 percent the prior year). This implies that over the four grades, as many as 32 percent of all Mississippi students are held back; a more reasonable estimate is closer to 20 to 25 percent, allowing for some to be held back twice. (Mississippi’s Department of Education does not report how many students are retained more than once.)

Yikes! That’s a lot of kids. Something that particularly concerns Rep Harold Love who asked if kids would still be held back if they were meeting expectations in all other subjects but not literacy. The response was, this law has been on the books since 2011 and they are not changing anything just including it with this bill. Oh ok, but that doesn’t answer the question. Love also asked for a deeper explanation of exemptions. If the TNDOE had the ability to alter the criteria at whim, weren’t we in danger of creating a permanent failing percentage, much like with the legislation that created the Achievement School District.

Representative Cochrane lauded the section of the bill that calls for the department, in partnership with the state board and the Tennessee higher education commission, to form a commission and do an in-depth analysis of the current state literacy practices, their effectiveness, and a deeper dive into elements of the state’s teacher prep programs. His concerns are rooted in the scale of the bill, the cost, and the speed of which the department of education was moving.

In response to his praise, he was told that the section he was referring to, only pertained to teacher education programs. I agree with Cochrane though and think it might behoove us to do a deep dive into literacy instruction on the whole before making grand savior like motions.

The speed of implementation was also raised with Schwinn. She cited a state of crisis and a need to raise the scores – her words, not mine – as quickly as possible. What she seems to not grasp, is that many of her confidants helped create this supposed crisis and that many of the actions in this bill are already being done, albeit without the sacrifice of local control.

All k-2 are already being regularly given a skills-based assessment – Tennessee calls it a universal screener – with regularity, as called for by RTI legislation. The TNDOE, however, does not dictate to the LEA’s which screener they must use, though financial assistance is offered if districts choose one of three of the state’s preferred vendors.

Schwinn herself admitted that teacher prep programs are already doing much what is being called for in the proposed bill as it pertains to preparing new teachers to enter the classroom.

In my estimation, a study would show that the good elements of this bill are already in place and would be better served by a tweak, as opposed to an overhaul.  It’s the new demands in this bill – the adherence to “science of reading”, removal of local control on curriculum and testing, the active retention of 3-grade students, additional training and a test for teachers specific to “science of reading” – that require deeper study and further exploration of unintended consequences before implementation.

I would further argue, that the amount of taxpayer money that these new elements may require makes a deeper study not just a prudent strategy, but an essential one. It gives me hope that members of the Curriculum, Testing & Innovation subcommittee seem to recognize this and are employing it.

Schwinn, much like former MNPS Director Shawn Joseph, are indicative of the downside of hiring outside people who are intellectually incurious to lead. Both were extremely dismissive of the work of their immediate predecessors upon assuming the lead. Both failed to grasp the necessity of studying the history of the state and in Joseph’s case, the district. Both failed to assign the proper amount of value to the people already doing the work and thought success could be achieved merely by bringing in more outsiders. Hopefully, Schwinn comes to some realizations quicker than Joseph did and as a result avoids duplicating his outcome.

Before closing, I’d like to give a hat’s off to chairwoman Deborah Moody, for her deft touch in allowing legislators the ability to dig into the proposed bill. She applied enough pressure to keep things on track while allowing representatives plenty of latitude to get to the meat of the bill. Much appreciated.

Next Tuesday at noon, we do it all over again.


Yesterday the Tennessee School Board Association – the organization charged with organizing the search – delivered the names of five finalists to become MNPS’s next superintendent of schools to MNPS school board.

  • Adrienne Battle: Interim Director of Schools, Metro Nashville Public Schools, TN
  • Brenda Elliott: Chief of School Improvement & Supports and Chief of Equity, DC Public Schools
  • Brian Kingsley: Chief Academic Officer, Charlotte Mecklenburg Schools, NC
  • Shelley Redinger: Superintendent, Spokane Public Schools, WA
  • Roderick Richmond: Executive Director of Student Support Services, Shelby County Schools, TN

My impression?

Before I give that, let me throw out this caveat, I don’t think any list produced will be free of question. There will always be questions about why some folks made the cut and some didn’t. In the end, it is what it is. With that in mind, here are my thoughts.

I’m curious as to why Marzak and Miller didn’t make the list, both have extensive experience with leading school districts and on paper at least, appear more qualified than some of those who were named finalists.

Battle was a gimme and rightfully so, she’s done a good job at changing the tone of MNPS, though still needs to show more willingness to break from previous policies. If I’m truthful, I’m not sure anyone on this list has the experience, the charisma, or the chops to beat her, but that’s why we go through the process. On any given Sunday…

Brenda Elliot was formerly a principal at Stratford whose tenure comes with some very mixed reviews. That’s all I’m going to say about that.

Kingsley is an interesting choice. He has no superintendent experience but as a chief academic officer, has written several papers on the “science of reading” with administrators from Jackson and Sullivan Counties – members of SCORE’s LIFT network. Sure would be helpful if the TNDOE had an ally at the head of MNPS, who by the way, despite what some of its administrators publically preaching, subscribes to a balanced literacy approach to teaching reading as opposed to the “science of reading” approach.

Redinger is interesting. She seems to have done well in Spokane. One thing I like about her is that she’s been known to substitute teach on occasion. I look most forward to her interview.

Richmond I know very little about, other then he has spent his entire career in Memphis and that he is also a finalist for the head job in Jackson – Madison, Tennessee. Another search being conducted by TSBA.

I’m sure I’ll have more to hare as the process advances.


Early in the week, ChartbeatTN writer Marta Aldridge published a piece about HB 2229 and how some education advocates were calling for a slow down in the passage of the bill. In her second paragraph, she writes.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Penny Schwinn said Monday that the Department of Education is in the process of issuing requests for proposals to contract with outside vendors who would help with everything from teacher training to developing a new diagnostic reading test for students in early grades.

Am I missing something? Are RFP’s typically solicited prior to the passing of a bill? What happens if the bill is modified, or fails to pass at all?

MNPS administrator, Sonia Stewart is still awaiting word on whether or not she will secure the position as director of Green Bay schools. The board met on Monday and failed to come to a consensus between her and the other finalist, Steve Murley, superintendent for the Iowa City Community School District. Plans are to meet again later this week to try and reach a decision.

Remember that old adage, trust but verify. It’s a good rule to keep in mind. You might have seen the viral video of the J.T. Moore teacher who addressed the school board about teacher frustrations, a lack of supplies was cited as a contributing factor. The video inspired a strong rebuke from the school’s principal, who has since taken down that rebuke. The reality is that at many schools teachers consistently go into their own pocket for everything from school supplies to funding pizza parties that reward student performance. It’s deeply frustrating. Some schools though have the resources and recognition to face the challenge, as a result, they mitigate teacher expenses as much as possible. Not taking sides here, just pointing out things are not always what they appear at first glance and we owe it to ourselves and others to look below the surface.

Some of you have jumped on the Bloomberg bandwagon before you get too entrenched, I’d take a deeper look at his history when it comes to public education.

That’s a wrap, I’ll be back on Friday, if not before then.

Until then, 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.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

A huge shout out to all of you who’ve lent your financial support. I am eternally grateful for your generosity. It allows me to keep doing what I do and without you, I would have been forced to quit long ago. It is truly appreciated and keeps the bill collectors happy.

If you so desire to join the rank of donors, you can still head over to Patreon and help a brother out. Or you can hit up my Venmo account which is Thomas-Weber-10. I don’t need much – even $5 would help – but if you think what I do has value, a little help is always greatly appreciated, especially this time of year when my contracted work is a little slow. Not begging, just saying.

Don’t forget, if you have student-written blog posts you’d like to see reach a wider audience…send them on. I’d love the opportunity to share them.

Categories: Education

1 reply

  1. It’s almost March and we haven’t heard anything about proposed raises or a new salary schedule. What gives? I need to start looking for a job now if we aren’t getting raises.

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