THE COMMISSIONER’S TERRIBLY BAD NOT SO GREAT DAY ON THE HILL

“virus. In biology, nothing is clear, everything is too complicated, everything is a mess, and just when you think you understand something, you peel off a layer and find deeper complications beneath.”
Richard Preston, The Hot Zone

“The Lord is my shepherd. I shall not want for nothing. He makes me lie down in the green pastures. He greases up my head with oil. He gives me kung-fu in the face of my enemies. Amen”
Stephen King, The Stand

 

The call came last night around 9:45.

Hello, MNPS employees. This is Dr. Adrienne Battle. In consultation with the Metro Public Health Department, all schools will be closed Thursday, March 12, and Friday, March 13, ahead of next week’s scheduled Spring Break out of an abundance of caution to protect against the spread of the COVID-19 novel coronavirus.

District offices will be open, and 12-month central office employees are asked to report to work unless notified otherwise.

There have been no students or staff who have tested positive for COVID-19 at this time. Our school nurses have been monitoring symptoms of staff and students who have stayed home from work. Closing for the final two days before spring break will give us time to work with the Health Department to assess this evolving situation.

We will do our best to be as open, transparent, and communicative as possible as our city, state, and country take the appropriate steps necessary to protect our citizens. Thank you.

It was a call met by many with a sigh of relief. For others, it brought a sense of relief, but a realization that plans would have to be quickly formulated for the next 2 days. Consensus among most was that it was the right call, made at the right time.

But now the question becomes, what next?

Schools are closed. Events that involve large gatherings of people have been canceled. Stores have been depleted of toilet paper and cleaning supplies. Dire warnings and prescribed behaviors have been delivered. So what do we do next?

Do we huddle in our houses consuming Netflix and Xbox?

Curl up with books and disconnect from the world?

Give our houses a deep cleaning and scour the information for news of the coronavirus?

I don’t know. Personally, I’m going to try and live my life as normally as I can. Later today, we’ll go to the Y and maybe grab a bite to eat on the way home. The weekend will be taken up with ballet and baseball. On Sunday, I’ll attend the wedding of a dear friend. Hopefully, the added time off will provide an opportunity to spend extra time with family and loved ones.

And I’ll pray that the work I have on the books doesn’t get canceled, as several events have already fallen prey to precaution.

Despite all the cancellations, there are some obligations that remain. Things like mortgages, rent, utility bills, and groceries. Every convention or sporting event cancellation translates to a lost paycheck for custodians and hospitality workers. Teachers and Administrators will still draw checks while buildings are closed – crossing guards, cafeteria workers, bus drivers, and the others that make the system hum may not be as fortunate. Many of those that regularly go unnoticed live paycheck to paycheck, even if they remain healthy this pandemic could prove crippling.

Last night I listened to former Titan’s GM Floyd Reese describe how the culture of NFL doesn’t allow for sick days. That’s a culture that also exists outside the NFL, where people don’t have lucrative contracts that offer guaranteed salaries.

At the end of this pandemic, there will be a financial reckoning. While the cancellation of basketball tournaments and music events keeps people safe, the cancellation of motel rooms and dinners downtown means less money in the city’s coffers. Money that is desperately needed in order to keep up the standard of living we have grown accustomed to.

Every indication is that the Mayor intends to increase salaries for city employees. Depending on how long the current conditions last, intent may not be enough.

These are anxiety-riddled times, we have to remain cautious but also practical. It’s not just about not becoming infected today. We can’t allow our fear to blind us to future ramifications.

What that all means, I’m not 100% sure. Thankfully we have experts to guide us. I do know that I don’t want to be the guy who thinks its all an overblown hoax, any more than I want to be the one refusing to use bank pens, wiping down doorknobs, or bumping elbows in greeting, but rather somewhere in between. So I ‘ll listen to experts, follow their advice, and try to live my life while maintaining as much normalcy as possible. We will survive this, of that I’m confident.

RADAR WARNS OF RAPIDLY APPROACHING STORMS

If I was compiling a list of ominous signs to be wary of before testifying at a state senate committee meeting, I think at the top of the list would be the clerk briefing the room on perjury protocols. So when that’s exactly what kicked off yesterday’s Tennessee State Senate Education Committee meeting yesterday, I went and grabbed myself a tub of popcorn and settled in for some must-see TV.

In talking with long term observers of the Tennessee legislature, most can only remember a handful of times that proceedings have started in this manner. And when Senator Bell asked for the playing of a video recording of previous testimony by Dr. Lisa Coons. Chief of Standards and Materials at Tennessee Department of Education and Superintendent Schwinn it became crystal clear who the information was directed at.

The video revealed some apparent contradictions around testimony from the two department leaders, contradictions that were only acerbated over the next 45 minutes as Sen. Mike Bell systematically deconstructed their words and actions over the past several months, mostly centering on this years textbook adoption process but with the governors pending literacy legislation always lurking in the background.

Bell questioned Schwinn on the textbook adoption process including but not limited to the timeline, her perceived overstep of authority, the depth of relationships with the department’s selected partners, and perceived favoritism towards preferred vendors.

As I’ve been reporting since late summer, this year’s ELA adoption process has been a hot mess. Earlier this month the Tennessee comptrollers office tried to offer clarity on what had transpired. Per the report, the process was started in March, frozen in June, and restarted in August with the appointment of Dr. Coons to oversee it. Based on some incongruencies that led to inconsistencies in which material were approved and which weren’t Schwinn ordered a review of the process and contracted with a third party to conduct the review. After the review confirmed perceived issues the department altered the process and re-reviewed all materials that had previously failed.

As part of that alteration, previous reviewers were instructed that they had to reapply for their positions. Despite previous denials by Schwinn, it seems that some reviewers were replaced.

Furthermore, I’ve heard from several people that were involved in the process that during this time the rubric for evaluating submissions was also changed. These charges are hard to substantiate by looking at the TNDOE’s listing of reviews due to a difference in the information offered on those that went through the process a second time and those that passed on initial review.  Those items that were approved on the first round have the entire review displayed, for those that failed the initial review and were given another opportunity, only a truncated version exists.

All of this is extremely important because the intent of the legislature is to have the textbook commission operate as an independent operator unencumbered by influence from the DOE. There is some question if that has remained the case in this instance.

During the hearings, Coons with Schwinn’s prompting tried to explain her actions upon taking over leadership of the department’s role in the process. She spun a tale that told of alerting the commissioner to problems with the adoption process, John Hopkins University being chosen to do the process review, the university accepting the challenge, conducting the review, reporting the findings to the DOE, her scheduling a meeting with the chair of the textbook commission after a scheduled meeting of the commission was oddly canceled, driving to Dyersburg to meet with the commission chair, securing the permission of said chair to seek reapplication of reviewers, and then gathering those applications, all of which was completed within a 30 – 45-day window. It’s a timeline who’s effectiveness begs for questioning.

All of this was done despite Schwinn having no previous relationship with the university other than having completed her master’s with them. Luckily the University was able to drop all of their current obligations in order to focus on Tennessee’s need. Perhaps that is a courtesy they extend to all former students. Schwinn testified that she only turned to the university because they are recognized as the leading expert in the field. Huh? What field? The field of reviewing textbook adoption review committees? Color me skeptical.

When Bell questioned her about two of the more visible curriculums – CKLA and Wit and Wisdom – on the state’s recommended adoption list, Schwinn claimed to be unaware that the two’s parent companies -Amplify and Great Minds – were in fact partners with John Hopkins. Something that it would seem to me one would check out before engaging said organization to conduct a textbook and material review.

Coincidently, Amplify and Great Minds were two companies that benefited from the changes recommended by John Hopkins. Both had failed their initial reviews, but due to the 2nd review were able to make the state’s approved list.

For clarity’s sake, for k-2, Wit and Wisdom failed the second review and as a result, are not approved for  K-2. But despite failing the second review for  3-5 they made the list with the following  caveats,

The re-reviews determined that titles for grades 3 through 5 passed sections I through III but failed Section IV (Foundational Skills). In review of Section IV of the rubric, the Tennessee Department of Education recognized overlap with Section II. Because your materials passed Section II, you will receive a passing score for Section IV as well. However, comments left in Section IV by reviewers will be published under “for information only” for reference by districts during their local adoption processes. As you work with districts during their local adoption processes, we recommend that you encourage them to find supplemental materials that focus on foundational skills support to pair with your materials.

Hmmm…what’s the governor’s new literacy bill calling for? Per ChalkbeatTN,

Lee’s amended plan now centers on equipping the state’s youngest children with “foundational literacy skills,” defined as “systematic phonics instruction, with a focus on phonemic awareness, phonics, vocabulary development, fluency, and oral language,”

I would think that based on the language in the pending legislation that to be considered high quality, the curriculum should be especially strong in “foundational literacy skills”, but I guess when you are friends with the boss allowances get made.

Senator Bell raised further questions around why the curriculum failed the rubric yet was recommended for inclusion, but since the senator couldn’t name the specific curriculum, Schwinn pleaded ignorance though I would argue it was clear the senator was talking about the Wit and Wisdom curriculum. I would argue that seeing the amount of time Schwinn has spent promoting the work of counties touting Wit and Wisdom, she should be familiar with how they scored during the review process. But maybe that is an unfair expectation.

Things got even more surreal when Bell questioned both Schwinn and Coons on how it was that both recognized Edu Post as an authority on reviewing curriculum despite site praising a curriculum as high quality, yet that very curriculum failed the review of the commission. Coons stated that was likely due to Edu Post basing their reviews on adherence to Common Core and Tennessee rated based on adherence to Tennessee State Standards. Funny, the major knock on CKLA is that it doesn’t align with Tennessee state standards.

These questions served as the basis for Bell to further push Schwinn on her and Coon’s appearance to endorse one curriculum over another, a charge that she dismissed,

“The department does not get involved in the local adoption process in terms of decision-making,” Schwinn told Bell. “We recognize those are local decisions. … The department is in no way pushing any particular publisher.

Bell held up several sheets that offered evidence via social media to support his claims. At this point, he decided that despite having several more questions, he would save those for later in order to move things along. He closed his questioning by voicing a lack of faith in the department and its leadership,

“It doesn’t give me a lot of confidence — not only in how the textbook commission is operating but the influence of the Department of the Education over the textbook commission and with the leadership of the Department of Education at this time.”

Chairwoman Gresham wasn’t letting Schwinn off the hook. She proceeded to ask several pointed questions around the pending literacy bill and the expected number of requests for proposals(RFP) potentially generated if it passed. She cautioned Schwinn about getting ahead of herself in the process and asked if any conversations with vendors around the bill had already taken place.

Schwinn answered no despite the department’s web site showing 2 meetings scheduled on February 4th with vendors to discuss upcoming contracts involving the need for literacy supports. Furthermore, a ChalkbeatTN article from several weeks ago also seems to paint a different picture.

It baffles me that any of this is going on. It’s not like Schwinn and her HR head David Donaldson haven’t been down this road before. Both have been involved recently in very similar activities in other states. Schwinn in Texas and Donaldson in Puerto Rico where he assisted recently indicted education secretary Julia Keleher. Schwinn’s case is especially disturbing because she denied any involvement with SPEDEX, only to have emails revealed through open records request prove different. (TX Report on SpedX contract copy) You would have thought that they’d have learned from those instances and tried here to do everything possible to avoid even the appearance of impropriety.

It’s worth noting here, with apologies to some of the longer employed TNDOE leadership folks, that the newer younger members of the leadership team have arrived with a level of arrogance not backed up by their level of experience. They seem unable to admit failings and act as if they are accountable to no one. it’s baffling how they can act with such conviction when they are so frequently wrong.

After the Governor’s literacy bill passed out of yesterday’s house subcommittee meeting, they were all acting as if it’s passage was now a slam dunk. They entered the senate committee with their normal arrogance buoyed by yesterday’s success. In watching the proceedings on video it was interesting to see that sense of superiority recede. By the end, you could visibly see on Schwinn’s face the realization that she was swimming in very treacherous waters. Waters that could potentially drag her under.

Respected legal counsel Christy Ballard was not present at last week’s education meeting where the grilling of Schwinn began. Notably, she was absent from yesterday’s proceedings as well. Make what you will of that.

It’s been said to me that what the public observes on the legislative floor is only allowed because it’s been previewed in private. In this case, the word is that everything that played out at the education committee meeting was previewed for the Republican caucus on Monday. So none of it should have come as a surprise. The fact that the commissioner wasn’t better prepared is a bit alarming.

In her short tenure as the Tennessee State Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn has made some substantial enemies. Enemies that she has underestimated to her detriment. Enemies that are seemingly intent on showing her the depths of her miscalculations.

By all accounts the cards that senators displayed yesterday where just a portion of their hand.  Speculation is that the intent was to send a message to that if the governor wants to see his literacy bill become law he might want to consider a new commissioner of education. I don’t know if those rumors are rooted in truth or not, but I don’t see a scenario in which Schwinn survives a full term. As it stands, she is in danger of becoming just another example of an outsider coming to Tennessee thinking they would rule the rubes, only to find themselves unceremoniously driving their car out of town with their luggage in tow.

Thirty years ago, when I arrived in Tennessee, I quickly learned that when people start talking to you in a slow Tennessee drawl, the conversation ain’t going to end well for you. Yesterday, I heard a whole lot of drawls.

I will offer the caveat that it’s important to keep things in perspective when following legislative doings. Promises can get made and broken – fortunes can rise and fall – on a moment’s notice based on behind the scenes action. What seems a sure thing today can suddenly disappear tomorrow. Maybe the commissioner can see the error of her ways and seek forgiveness. Maybe her enemies can forgive her transgressions. Or maybe this ends as alluded to by the chief clerk with indictments and prosecutions, making now a good time to call Saul.

One thing I can say with certainty, yesterday was a terribly bad not so great day on the hill for Commissioner Schwinn.

That’s it today, I’ll be back tomorrow to continue with our regularly scheduled programming.

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. Here is how we know the commish is an ijjit of the highest distinction. Those Wilson schools doing half days the rest of the year? Not immune from tennready says the state. Now the county has canceled off another whole week. Want to guess who will this game of chicken? Bless her little heart.

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