“Literature, like magic, has always been about the handling of secrets, about the pain, the destruction, and the marvelous liberation that can result when they are revealed. Telling the truth when the truth matters most is almost always a frightening prospect. If a writer doesn’t give away secrets, his own or those of the people he loves; if she doesn’t court disapproval, reproach, and general wrath, whether of friends, family, or party apparatchiks; if the writer submits his work to an internal censor long before anyone else can get their hands on it, the result is pallid, inanimate, a lump of earth.”
Well, that certainly didn’t take long. Yesterday, I wrote about the prior day’s proceedings at the House Education Committee’s Summer study. I wrote about how Chairman Mark White treated the Commissioner of Education like a prom date. I wrote about how Ms. Schwinn continually plays around in the neighborhood of the truth without ever establishing residency. I wrote about a warning delivered by Representative Cerpicky to Mark and Governor Lee’s belle of the ball, ““I don’t ever want to be blindsided by something like this again, OK?” Cepicky said. “I’m just telling you, as representative of District 64. As we move forward, I’m constantly evaluating you.”
In continuing with the prom theme, with Cerpicky in the role of chaperone warning Mark White about his troublesome date, what Penny Schwinn did yesterday – with the Governor serving in the role of enabling parent – was pour liquor in the punch bowl and then burn out of the parking lot, kicking up rocks, in her Firebird convertible with her finger in the air. A finger clearly aimed at Cerpicky and any other state legislator that dared question her, as the Governor gazed on in affectionate appreciation for his disruptive child, In essence, telling everyone, “She’s a wild one. Can’t control her. She’s going to cause chaos and I’m proud of her for her reckless spirit.”
What I’m referring to, of course, is the Governor’s press conference where Lee and Schwinn handed out information that indicated Tennessee’s students were suffering a decrease in learning proficiency of 50% in literacy and 65%. The information was alarming but should have raised questions about how it was arrived at. As quoted by Chalkbeat,
“My biggest question is, where did this data come from? What districts provided it?” asked Joey Hassell, superintendent of schools in Haywood County, near Memphis. “We have not provided any data and, as far as I know, the state has not asked for it.”
Ms. Schwinn vaguely referenced but never shared the suppossed data at the House’s summer study. Nor was the data shared on a conference call with superintendents at 1pm. One would think that if the situation was as dire as painted, and not political in nature, both of those opportunities would have been seized in order to begin developing solutions for the pending crisis. Yet neither was. So where was the data that supported the commissioner’s claims derived fro
According to the online magazine Center Square – who is currently providing some of the best coverage available on Tennessee Education issues – projections were developed from a study by the department conducted with national researchers in June of how students were projected to perform this year. Chalkbeat went a little further, pointing out that she also cited early diagnostic testing data voluntarily provided by some school districts, as well as the results of an optional state assessment that more than 30,000 students statewide reportedly took at the beginning of the academic year. None of which was provided to district leaders or members of the media.
I’m assuming that the study reference is to a CREDO study and an NWAE study that was done back in the spring and doesn’t account for any strategies that have been employed since. Neither study uses Tennesse data either.
The claim that 30K students have taken the beginning of the year voluntary student assessments is equally troubling, as a newsletter attached to a recent email sent out on September 14th indicated that only 11k students had taken the assessments. Double the number in one week would be quite an accomplishment. Not to mention that 33K is a small slice of the over 1 million students that live in Tennessee.
Back a few years ago, I was a part of a team of education advocates that helped usher in a state law that mandated all districts post prominently during the first weeks of school a clear schedule of planned testing, including who was asking for the test and the purpose. As part of RTI legislation, local districts administer benchmark tests 3 times a year in order to assure students receive needed services. Neither of those sources come with indications that this data would be shared with the state.
As a parent, I would be highly troubled over assessment data being shared with the state sans my approval, or at the very least, notification. As of now none of the larger districts have come forth and confirmed that they shared data with the state. MNPS indicates that it has not. I think it’s absolutely imperative that legislators demand to know exactly what data districts shared with the TNDOE, and which shared it. This is every bit as concerning as the proposed child welfare checks.
Many people perceive the Governor and the Commissioner’s actions as an effort to push districts back into school buildings before they are ready. Both have repeatedly expressed the need for kids to be physically in classrooms.
In talking to legislators on Wednesday, Schwinn once again did that finagling of the truth thing she is so fond of, bragging that over 90% of Tennessee’s schools were offering in-person instruction. One thing she failed to mention and is confirmed by the TNDOE’s own COVID-19 tracker is that the vast majority of Tennessee school districts are employing a hybrid model – offering both virtual and in-person instruction.
In the Governor’s press release Schwinn is quoted as saying, “We know that increased time away from school has negative implications for students, which is compounded during extended building closures,” said Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. “The department is focused on ensuring we provide essential services and resources to mitigate learning loss and keep students on a path to success in this new school year.”
We know no such thing and at any rate, kids are away from school buildings, not “school”.
Despite Ms. Schwinns assertions, my children, and their peers, are actively participating in formalized instruction 5 days a week, 7 hours a day. Now admittedly it does look like it has in the past, and it has been challenging, but to infer that my children are not getting quality instruction merely because they are not in a brick and mortar location, is a discounting of the hard work and diligence that my children’s teachers and those across the state, have applied over the past 9 weeks.
How efficient is it right this minute? I have no idea because it’s an ongoing process and we are in the very early stages. I know both my children have developed increased skills in the areas of time management, self-advocacy, and the use of technology. I know they have formed lasting and trusting relationships with their teachers. My son has maintained his accelerated math skills while developing a deep interest in drama class. My daughter is writing more and at a more proficient level than ever before.
To put forth statements without context, like those made by Ms. Schwinn is very damaging. The message from U.S. Senator Lamar Alexander in response to her questionable statements, is equally disturbing, ““The message is clear that children, especially young children who are further behind already, need to be in school so they can be taught in-person so their learning loss is less dramatic.”
No such clarity exists. The best way to educate children is not a resolved argument, but rather an ongoing discussion. There is always room for innovation, to instantly assume that the current methodology does not serve children because it is unfamiliar, evolving, and difficult, in the long run, does all of us a disservice and in my mind is an example of deficit thinking.
When circumstance permit, schools will resume providing in-person instruction and children will return back to school buildings. But virtual learning will not go away, nor should it. People like Governor Lee and Ms. Schwinn talk about in-school learning as being without flaws, it is not. Before COVID-19 there were many discussions about those flaws and the shortcomings of schools adequately educating kids. I sincerely hope that the lessons learned from virtual schooling, the emerging technology, and our existing knowledge around best practices are combined in order to make public school offerings even more robust. But that can’t happen if we insist that there is only one way in which to educate children. A dogma that both Penny Schwinn and Bill Lee continually appear to subscribe to and as long as they do, they cannot be considered aligned with the students, teachers, and families of Tennessee.
I would argue though, that Schwinn and Lee’s ill-informed action does give credence to the argument that state testing be suspended this year. A position that is not supported by the two.
“I think that’s what most important is that we have an assessment of students in the spring so we know where they are. If we don’t know here out students are then we don’t know how to improve,” Lee said Wednesday. “With regard to teachers, the legislature obviously has a decision to make about changing the responsibility of how assessments impact teachers.”
Why test in the Spring if according to the dynamic duo, we already know where kids are? Why waste time assessing that could be used for making up “lost time”? What’s the real priority at play here? And exactly whose interests are being pushed front and center?
Equally disturbing to me is the media’s role, specifically the daily newspaper, in permeating the myths of Schwinn and Lee.
After their press release was distributed, the Tennessean printed an article that failed to note that neither provided Lee nor Schwinn provided data to support their “dire warnings”. The second paragraph of the paper’s article led readers to believe that actual data had been shared that supported Schwinn warning,
Preliminary data released Wednesday by the Tennessee Department of Education projects an estimated 50% decrease in proficiency rates in 3rd grade reading and a projected 65% decrease in proficiency in math.
In fact, there was no data presented that verified the veracity of the Commissioner’s claim. According to the paper, Governor Lee referred to a report, “We are seeing through this report an alarm that’s been sounded, especially with regard to not only the short term impacts on kids but the long-term impact on our state.” But no report was actually delivered.
The article printed Schwinn’s prurposterous claims about proficiency rates without ever questioning the feasibility of any study, let alone one the commissioner had access to, making those predictions,
Schwinn predicted the state’s third grade literacy rate, which typically hovers around 33%, could be as low as 12-14% statewide this year.
For fourth grade math, it could be 17% based on current projections — down from the typical 33-35% proficiency.
The article allows Schwinn to further blur the lines between between out of school and schooling taking place,
“We know that every year when students enter summer break we expect there to be a slight decrease in proficiency as a result of multiple months outside of school buildings,” Schwinn said during Wednesday’s briefing. “Our students have been out of school for a long time. Some of our schools have not had their buildings open for more than six months. The summer slide is compounded by the fact that we had three additional months of school closure and many of our students are learning virtually.”
Perhaps after that quote would have been a good time to point out that Tennessee teachers have been busting their ass in order to provide Tennessee’s students with as robust an education as possible. Instead, it was allowed to go unchecked, further advancing the narrative of a learning crisis in Tennessee. To blindly allow Ms. Schwinn and Governor Lee to make unsubstantiated claims about the teachers and students of Tennessee defies description.
Going forth that narrative will continue to live in the public sphere and will influence perceptions about what our children are learning and their public school experience. It will influence both policy and funding decisions. Reporting those claims without demanding they be substantiated does a terrible diservice to both students and teachers.
Last week, the Tennessean went out of its way to fact check a Fox News Report on the Mayor’s office, perhaps in the future, they might want to consider doing equal diligence in regard to their own house.
Regardless, it becomes more and more clear daily that Tennessee’s students, teachers and families are in need of a champion. Governor Lee and Penny Schwinn seem to lack both the desire, and the qualifications to serve in such a role. By default, the role would presumably fall to the chairs of the Senate and the House, one of whom is retiring and the other…well we know the story there. It seems the best that the citizens of Tennessee can hope for is that Mark White loses his bid for re-election and a champion emerges from both the Senate and the House.
That’s it for today. But I’d be remiss if I didn’t say thank you, teachers and administrators, for everything you do. Y’all really are making lemonade out of lemons every day.
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