“Any idiot can face a crisis; it’s this day-to-day living that wears you out.”
Yesterday Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn made a long-anticipated appearance before the Tennessee House Education Committee as part of their Summer study. Luckily she had Memphis State Representative and Education Committee Chairman Mark White to serve as her escort for the affair. White for his part did everything but present her with a corsage before presenting her to Committee.
Throughout the proceedings, he did everything he could to ensure the commissioner emerged unscathed. At one point he diffused criticism by comparing her to past officeholders,
“You are in a very tough position. I’ve been here for 11 years. Commissioner (Kevin) Huffman went through the same thing. Commissioner (Candice) McQueen went through the same thing,” White said. “It’s a very tough position. I’ve been around you enough to know your heart is in the right place and you want to make a difference.”
If only throughout my life I’d have been afforded jobs based on my heart as opposed to my competency, but I digress.
I’d like to pretend that I am shocked at the way things played out yesterday, but once I saw the agenda, it was all easily predictable.
The agenda called for a presentation by Sara Morrison, State Board of Education Executive Director, along with Nathan James, from 1pm to 1:30. Needless to say, legislators had questions for the two, and time ran over until 2PM
Up next was a supposed sampling of Tennessee school district superintendents slated to present on the progress of schools to this point. It didn’t take but a glance to realize these superintendents shared several common traits. All were from rural school districts, and all were friendly with Ms. Schwinn and the Tennessee Department of Education. Later, under questioning from D – Antonio Parkinson, it was revealed that the superintendents had been chosen through collaboration with Ms. Schwinn and Dale Lynch, from the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents(TOSS).
All 6 superintendents painted a picture of virtual instruction failing, and the need to get kids back to school physically. An initiative strongly pushed by Commissioner Schwinn. Bradly County Superintendent Linda Cash went as far as to paint a picture of children “falling 2 years behind.”
This is a pet peeve of mine, and “years of learning” is a metric that is falling out of favor with researchers because it is misleading. It gives the illusion that there is a carved in stone standard of what kids should know at each age and if kids fail to reach those marks they doomed to wander the earth as part of a tribe of mindless zombies incapable of participating in the world. Per Educator Peter Greene,
No, because it’s all made up. The line that says “This is where they should be” is made up. In fact, the notion that there is a single path along which progress should be measured is also made up. Hell, this should not be news, because it wasn’t that long ago that we moved all the lines, accompanied by declarations about rigor and challenge and other baloney that posited that making kindergarten the new first grade was somehow a good idea because it would push students “ahead” of that made-up line on that made up path. none of this “ahead/behind” baloney is based on anything scientific or objective or rooted in anything except that some people with power decided “This is the rule we’d like to make up.”
Learning is fluid, and while it’s important to have road marks, they should serve as such and not be used as pseudo predictors of future success. The world is full of people that struggled academically in 3rd grade, only for it all to come together in 6th grade. There are also examples of the inverse holding true.
It should come as no shock to anyone that the Superintendents ran 90 minutes over their allotted time. While their information was important, it was irrelevant to over a third of the students in Tennessee who attend schools in a large urban district. There is a tendency to only consider the traditional big 4 – Chattanooga, Knoxville, Memphis, and Nashville – in discussing Tennessee’s urban school districts, but keep in mind Murfreesboro, Clarksville, Jackson, and arguably Franklin all fall into that category. The lack of equal representation definitely took away from the value of the superintendents’ presentation.
It was at least 4:30 before Ms. Schwinn took her place in front of the committee. Proceedings were scheduled to end at 5pm, but White graciously said things could go until 5:30 or 6. It’s important to note exactly what White had facilitated to this point – a transference power.
When the committee summoned Ms. Schwinn to her appearance at 3pm they were setting the agenda. There was a clear time limit, from 3 to 5, in which to hear her presentation and ask questions. Time could be taken to carefully layout questioning in a manner that divulged the most information. The power of controlling the preceding lie with the committee.
That power shifted when Schwinn was allowed to appear 90 minutes after her scheduled time. Legislators now had no clear idea of when the meeting would end and thus were forced to edit their line of questioning, out of fear that they would not be provided an opportunity to raise them. In essence, White and Schwinn did the very thing that legislators were most concerned about – they assumed authority that rightfully belonged in the hands of the General Assembly. I know, our old friend irony.
It’s tempting to sit down and dissect Schwinn’s presentation, separating fact from fiction. But that’s a pointless exercise. Schwinn is very much a product of today’s political sphere where truth matters little, and merely landing in the vicinity is considered an acceptable substitute. She’s is acutely aware that the majority of the public is so bombarded by information that few will have the capacity to discern veracity, nor have the inclination. By the sake of her position, coupled with a confident presentation, she will be afforded a belief in what she is saying.
For example, early in her presentation, Schwinn touts a partnership with UT to make PD available on virtual learning to the state’s principals at no cost. She claims that Tennessee is the only state in the union to do so. Is that true? I don’t know. Is it worth the effort to fact check? probably not. The default becomes that most of us believe that Tennesse under Schwinn’s leadership is doing something that nobody else in the country is doing, regardless of if it’s true or not.
At one point, in talking about her belief in the one way to teach literacy she cited her experience as an elementary school principal. She did so, confident that few will remember that she served less than a year as the principal of a school with only 60 kindergarteners. When it comes to being the principal of a school populated with grades 1-4, she and I have the same level of experince, zero.
While the Commissioner is recognized as an adept user of vocabulary, you’ll notice she seldom offers specifics. Her speech is littered with phrases like, “it’s been our experience”. “”what we’ve found to be true”, “partnerships formed”, “through collaborative efforts”, and such. Words that give a sense of accomplishment to the listener without ever fully describing those accomplishments.
She is seldom confrontational and instead prefers to recite a litany of phrases that ultimately say nothing, but leave little room for rebuttal.
At one point Representative John Ragan asked for specific examples about how the department plans to address teacher retention issues. He maked it clear that he didn’t want just generalities, but actual action steps. In response, Schwinn talked for the next three minutes but ultimately gave no specifics. I can assume that Rep Ragan was as flumoxed as I was. With Chairman White serving as her shepherd, she was allowed to move past the question without ever providing the requested information.
Ms. Schwinn is also very good at sweeping things up under her carpet things that are happening simultaneously, but independently, of her actions. She claims to have provided guidance to Superintendents about schools reopening when most had already planned before the department ever offered guidance. She likes to take credit for the district’s “Grow Your Own” programs when most of those programs were in development prior to the DOE’s involvement.
At one point I expected her to claim the TNDOE was the first state in the country to recognize the importance of vitamin D for children and had therefore taken steps to ensure throughout the summer all children had access to sunshine before 7:15 AM. If her claim was questioned, she would merely repeat her point that all children did indeed have sunshine before 7:15 and unless you had evidence to the contrary, she stood by her statement.
She seems to not suffer from any fear of contradiction either. Early in her presentation, the commissioner touted the department’s early technology iniatives, even offering to drive down to Georgia to pick up some laptops, only to later unequivocally state that children must be in the classroom. Huh? If children are going to be in the classroom than what is the need for those computers you just brought back from Georgia?
It’s long been held that Schwinn is not a believer in vouchers. However, when asked yesterday by legislators she affirmed a strong belief in voucher programs. A brave move considering that recording devices are readily available and there is no telling what people have taped over the last 2 years. I would hate for a recoding to surface that showed that Ms. Schwinn wasn’t always such an ardent supporter of the state’s ESA program.
At this juncture, I think it’s become clear that as long as Representative White is the head of the House Education Committee and Lee is the Governor of the state, Schwinn is going to remain the head of the TNDOE, no matter how hard and fast she plays with the truth. Both have shown an extraordinary willingness to go to great lengths to protect her by deflecting criticism. There is no reason to believe that won’t continue. That said, I do see a couple of key issues that arose from yesterday’s proceedings.
The first being the revelation that the department now has $40 million dollars in federal grant money in which to pursue their vision of literacy instruction. Those of us who remember that god awful reading bill from the spring should be terrified over that prospect. It was a bill that included a provision for third-grade retention – which studies continue to show as being detrimental – as well as an over-reliance on phonics instruction. Both Representative Cepicky and Cochrane raised concerns about creating a one-size-fits-all model, but since the DOE no longer needs the state’s money to fulfill their vision, I can’t help but feel those protestations will fall on deaf ears.
There was a touch of unintentional comic relief when Representative Terri Lynn Weaver raised the question in regard to the use of phonics and whether or not those would be “Tennessee State Phonics”. Rep Parkinson later asked for a definition of what constituted Tennessee State Phonics. An answer was not provided.
Parkinson for his part raised some salient points around the Tennessee Achievement School District, concluding with, “ I can say this with certainty that there is not one single person in this room, or in your staff, that will send their child to an Achievement School District school, not even yourself,” Parkinson said. “And if we would not send our children to a state-run school, why on God’s Earth do we sit here and justify achievement schools in our state to the citizens?” It’s a question nobody seemed to have an answer for.
All in all yesterday’s hearings turned out as expected, lots of sound and fury signifying nothing. I think that Schwinn did just enough to placate legislators. Legislators were careful that while they made their points they didn’t risk hurting themselves before election day.
I continue to suspect that a sacrificial lamb will be offered up to appease legislators. The most likely candidate being the Assistant Commissioner of Policy and Legislative Affairs Charlie Buffalino. It could be argued that many of the issues between the General Assembly and the TNDOE stem from communication problems. Buffalino is responsible for that communication and one of his reports receiving praise from a legislator at the beginning of his testimony should raise eyebrows. Would a change at Assistant Commissioner be enough to assuage concerns? I don’t know, but we’ve seen it happen before.
Penny Schwinn as Commissioner of Education remains a problematic proposition. The silver lining for me is, that while she is particularly adept at words, she has proven to be equally inept when it comes to performance. I have no doubt that between now and the beginning of the year she’ll make multiple more missteps. Hopefully one of those will serve to open the governors eyes to how unqualified she is to lead the state of Tennessee on educational practices. Till that time, we’ll just try to hold on and pray for the best.
That’s it for today. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you, teachers and administrators, for everything you do.
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