“[P]erhaps you notice how the denial is so often the preface to the justification.”
Christopher Hitchens, Hitch 22: A Memoir


You would think that if a politician stood in front of a room full of microphones and made a pronouncement about pending dire outcomes, that the easiest question to answer after the announcement would be, where is the data to support your announcement? After all, if you are in a room full of microphones, you are likely in a room full of reporters. However, if the recent presser by Governor Lee and Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Lee is any indication, the follow up is much more difficult than one would anticipate.

Last Thursday, at one of his weekly press conferences – remember these events are scheduled in advance – Ms. Schwinn announced that she and Mr. Lee believed that proficiency rates for Tennessee students were fixin to drop by 50% in ELA and 65% in math.

Myself, I would view that as a pretty big announcement. One that I would anticipate requiring further explanation. Before leaving for the press conference I would probably give a shout out to department data guru Mike Hardy, and say, “Yo, Mike, don’t forget the data that backs up these dire warnings.”

If I was the Governor, I might text the Commissioner and say something like, ‘Yo Pen, make sure Hardy has that data before we start running our mouth to the press.”

But since Lee seems incapable of even passing legislation that can stand up to legal review, I shouldn’t be surprised that neither of those interactions took place. Instead, the dynamic duo strode into the room and rolled out a hand grenade. One that seems to lack any backing evidence through reputable sources.

As I’ve already reported, both state superintendents and members of Tennessee’s Generally Assembly were not only taken completely by surprise but enraged over this sudden announcement regarding student learning. Before their public announcement, there were numerous opportunities for Commissioner Schwinn to privately inform stakeholders of the bending dire prediction, but she failed to take advantage of them. As a result, legislators and superintendents were left scrambling to explain the commissioner’s prediction to their charges. To adequately do that would require some actual data, unfortunately, somebody had left that back at the house.

The next day on a conference call with superintendents, Ms. Schwinn tried to frame the data as being derived from a national study done by NWEA back in the Spring and a state-specific study by CREDO using past data to predict learning loss. According to a News 5 Memphis story, she described the numbers as an “estimated prediction.” Headlines from media outlets picked up the thread and over the weekend they blared, Commissioner uses old data to predict future scores. Per Chalkbeat on September 25,

The Tennessee analysis was conducted by the Center for Research on Education Outcomes, also known as CREDO and based at Stanford University. It is based on a national study conducted by the education nonprofit NWEA, which makes and sells assessment materials used by many school districts.

It’s a claim that doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. Yes, CREDO did supply a study that looked at individual students and predicted anticipated learning loss. The study was part of a much larger study that included 19 other states and with results scheduled to be released later this week. CREDO’s report calculated no link between learning loss and proficency scores. Let me say that again, CREDO’s study measured learning loss which does not directly link to proficency rates and they did not connect the two.

Just because 100 students suffer x amount of learning loss does not mean you will see a drop of y in proficency rates. That calculation would be dependent to a number of factors – demographics of sample, pre-pandic proficency, amount of individual learning loss. It is a complex computation and not just a simple if x = y then y = z.

By Monday morning, reporters were looking for more answers. Luckilythe governor had a press conference in Memphis where they could ask their questions. In response to their questions about his commissioners dire predictions, Lee answered, “It validates the powerful role of a teacher in the classroom.”

Huh? He might as well have answered, “I’m the D to the O, P to the D, O to the straight up G see, I been around like Jesus laying tracks.” It would have made about as much sense as the response he provided.

Surely he’s aware that teachers are in classrooms all across the state, some virtual and some brick and morter, but they are in classrooms teaching kids. Since these are unprecedented times, the outcomes are still in question, but make no mistake, if student outcomes drop it certainly won’t be from a lack of effort by teachers. So what the hell is he talking about?

But fear not, Schwinn heard his gibberish and said, “Hold my beer.” She is quoted by Fox News Memphis as saying, ”

“Because we know this is an unprecedented time, we’ve never experienced a pandemic and we certainly know a lot about learning loss during the summer months but this is three additional months for many students and the multiplier effect of that is real.”

In other words, “Bawitdaba da bang a dang diggy diggy diggy said the boogy said up jump the boogy.” Her statement makes about as much sense as those Kid Rock lyrics or Governor Lee.

First off, even CREDO admits that the time off in the Spring was a time off that only about 50% of instruction would be ongoing. Secondly, the multiplier effect is not real. Let me repeat, you can’t just take a month of learning loss and extrapulate it out. Over time the rate of learning loss declines, until eventually it stops. I find it hard to believe that Dr. Schwinn is unaware of this basic fact, so the only concluson I can draw is that she is being disingenuous,

A view supported by no less a source than Education Week,

Plenty of predictions of just how far behind we’re talking about have been tossed around—most of which are, in effect, extrapolations from studies of what is sometimes called “summer learning loss”—the decline in student achievement over the long summer vacation. I’m here to remind you that while these predictions can be helpful, there’s huge variation in the extent of such loss—from 40 percent to 10 percent—and as Paul von Hippel explains here, there may, in fact, be little or no learning loss over the summer.

So it looks like the commissioner is starting her whole argument with some possibly faulty assumptions. But she wasn’t done there. She had more to say,

“We also know that in-person learning is the most effective way we have to educate children and I think this certainly provides more emphasis on the urgency that you are hearing from me that our students get as much opportunity as possible to achieve as much as possible this year and I do believe that happens in the seat for that child which is in classrooms.”

Way to write off all the hard work and sacrifice that Tennessee’s teachers have been doing over the last nine weeks. To be clear, we don’t know that in-person learning is the most effective way. It is the way we are the most familiar with and as such is the most comfortable. That doesn’t make it unequivocally the best.

We are very early in the virtual learning game. It may turn out that a hybrid version of in-person and virtual is more effective. We may find out that for some students, virtual is the most effective. We may discover that the lessons learned by students taking control of their own learning supercedes those things that we use to place emphasis on. To just dismiss virtual learning based on such a small sampling size is not prudent or very innovative.

The point is, teachers and principals are busting their ass to make instruction as effective, or more so, than it has been in the past. That can not be allowed to go unrecognized by the Tennessee Commissioner of Education. She can’t just simply dismiss their work in an effort to fuel the governors agenda. It’s unconciousable.

It’s a fact not lost on Memphis House Representative Antonio Parkinson, who told WMC 5,

“The fact that we have all of these hard-working educators, students, superintendents, and not one time did they request data, actual data, to from the superintendents or from the school districts to justify the numbers or the claims that they were making,” said Parkinson. “This narrative went out nationally, stating that our students were behind on learning.”

My favorite line is still to come though. Per the Fox News report, “After reviewing these national trends, the department said they performed a gut check. Schwinn says they reviewed existing data from 30,000 students to make projections of learning loss in Tennessee from prolonged school closures.”

A “gut check”?!? Huh?!?

I have no idea what a gut check has to do with any of this but it sounds good doesn’t it? It also sounds like she advertently admitted she was trusting her gut and not any actual data.

While CREDO has confirmed that they used no new data for their study, Ms Schwinn has repeatedly referenced the 30K students that have taken a state offered benchmark test this year. Along with Pearson, who administers TNReady, the TNDOE created a smaller assessment that districts could administer to students as they returned back to school to get a sense of where they are at. In the TNDOE’s own words,

The Checkpoint can be used at the beginning of the school year to measure retention on key standard-aligned skills that are most essential for students to be able to access, and engage in, on-grade-level content for the current year. Because of this, the Checkpoints are smaller than a summative TCAP assessment and do not cover all the standards from the previous year. Instead, as recommended by experts 1 , they focus on fewer, prioritized vertically-aligned standards, with the intent of providing educators more meaningful and actionable information about student needs so you can support your students’ ability to access grade-level learning throughout the year.

There is nothing in that statement that indicates that scores will be used to support policy or attempt to predict proficency scores, as Schwinn is attempting. In fact, just the opposite. They promise to not use these results in an attempt to predict or compare to TCAP results. So why is Schwinn using these numbers to do exactly what she said she wouldn’t?

Questions remain about how this “checkoint” was developed. Was it done in conjunction with Pearson or did they provide TNDOE Director Mike Hardy with a bank of questions, and he just choose questions on his own? One of those, “I’ll take two of those, one of those, leave that out, and gimme another one of those.”

Tennessee has a lenghty list of standards for each grade. It is impossible to cover all standards in a test is made up of only 17 questions. Who decided which standards were important and which weren’t? Did state superindents have any say in which standards should be measured and which shouldn’t?

Further more, who were the students that took the “checkpoint” and what districts did they come from? Was the administering of the “Checkpoint” a district decision or that of an individual classroom teacher? I’ve heard that some teachers are concerned because they administrated the test in order to address the needs of their students, and now the state is taking data that they feel belongs to them in order to push a political narrative.

Data sharing is another glaring question that has emerged out of the latest Schwinigan. Where did the data come from and who had access is at the forefront of conversations. NWEA was sited as a scource of potential student data since many Tennessee districts utilize MAP testing. As a result, NWEA has been inundated by calls from Superintendents across Tennessee, to the point that they are considering issueing an official statement.

It’s a week later and Ms. Schwinn has failed to justify her public “estmated prediction”. Substantiating that prediction should not be that difficult. Just walk down the hall to Mike Hardy’s office, unless like recently hired data manager Sophie Mann he lives out of state, and ask him to attend a press conference in order to clarify the so far unjustifiable numbers. Though word on the street is that Hardy is currently denying any involvement in those “estimated predictions”. In that case Ms. Schwinn may have to hop on a plane to Chicago and see if Ms. Mann has any answers.

I know some of you are probably tired of me beating this drum, but this is important. As pointed out by Representative Parkinson, the Commissioner’s words are being used to paint an inaccurate narrative, both nationally and locally, about Tennessee’s students, schools, and teachers. That can not be allowed to go unchecked.

If the numbers are in fact true, than they demand a convening of state and district leaders in order to counter the deliberating trend. A couple shows on PBS, a bad foundational literact supplement, and a help wanted employment board for teachers should be considered far from suficient counteraction if the state is looking at ELA proficency rates of 17%, as predicted by Dr. Schwinn. To date the departments response does not match the size of the crisis they are describing. Shooing kids back to in-person learning may help the economy but there is no guarentee that doing so will result in a reversal of their prosed slide.

For the record, my gut check tells me that Ms. Schwinn is full of shit. Sorry to be so blunt, but there is simply no other way that you can examine the offered evidence and come to any other conclusion and I get tired of playing the game of fake decorum. Yet she is continually protected by those who should be holding her accountable.

If Chair of the House Education Committee Mark White continues to treat Schwinn like a prom date, Governor Lee continues to treat her like a foreign exchange student enjoying an extended stay at his house. Continually writing her misteps off as being due to an unfamiliarity with Tennessee practices and protocols. Instead of holding her accountable, he looks for ways to frame her in a better light, as evidence by recent efforts to bring her along as he tours schools.

Yesterday, in order to promote her brand, the Governor announced that she and the First Lady were planning to join together in order to create a GoFundMe account for Tennessee students. To facillitate this he has partnered with a non-profit out of Georgia called Purposity that has created an app that allows people to donate to schools. Once again, apparently this is work no one in Tennessee is capable of doing. I think somebody needs to ask Lee at his next press conference to list the jobs that he thinks Tennesseans are capable of doing and why the need to continually outsource contracts to companies outside of Tennessee..

It boggles my mind that a man that cut his education budget, refuses to expand Medicaid, committed to the bare minimum in unemployment insurance, now feels that Tennesseans need to chip in even further when it comes to financially supporting schools. Is he really going to argue that an app promoted by the first lady and the education commissioner is going to generate more income than a couple of well attended fund raisers in his home county?

Earlier in the week House Democrats called for the Tennessee State Auditor to take a look at how the governor has dispensed federal COVID funds. Initially I wrote the iniative off as just another political stunt, but after this Purposity Schwinigan, I may be something to it.

That’s it for today. I’ll be back tomorrow to talk ASD, MNPS, and Fall Break. As well as have some new poll questions.

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 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

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