“War is fought in mystery. The truth can take days to travel, and ahead of truth flies rumor, and it is ever hard to know what is really happening, and the art of it is to pluck the clean bone of fact from the rotting flesh of fear and lies.”
Bernard Cornwell, The Last Kingdom


‘Twas the night before Christmas, when all through the house. Not a creature was stirring, not even a mouse; The stockings were hung by the chimney with care, In hopes that St. Nicholas soon would be there;

The children were nestled all snug in their beds, while visions of sugar-plums danced in their heads; And mamma in her ‘kerchief, and I in my cap,
Had just settled down for a long winter’s nap,

When out on the lawn there arose such a clatter, I sprang from the bed to see what was the matter.
Away to the window I flew like a flash, tore open the shutters and threw up the sash,

Only to find Commissioner Schwinn and her elves up to more dastardly deeds.

Transparency and equity are common squares on the edu-talk bingo board. Unfortunately, administrators find it harder to adhere to these tenants than they do to say them. The Christmas Eve 2020 release of an $8.9 million RFP is just the latest incident in a checkered career of an administrator who obviously feels rules and decency are for other people, but not for her. At a time when most everyone’s thoughts have turned to family and loved ones, she is busy trying to sneak through a nearly nine million dollar tax-payer expenditure.

In decades past, big government contracts were often handed out to friends and family. Obviously, if you weren’t one of the benefactors of the friends and family plans, this didn’t sit well with you. Enough stink was raised that the Request For Proposal(RFP) process was created.

The RFP process was intended to ensure that government entities secured financially prudent contacts while providing an oportunity for anyone to pursue those opportunities. You know that equity and transparency thing. Over the years the process has been refined in an effort to really balance the playing field. Unfortunately, not everyone is committed to a balanced playing field.

If you think back to last year, you’ll remember that the department acted similarly, albeit on a much smaller scale. Throughout the Fall of 2019, the former superintendent of public schools in Nevada Steve Canavero was a fixture around the DOE. While not formally employed by the department, it was clear that he was advising on the creation of the state’s Charter School Commission, something he had experience with. To be formally hired, the state would need to conduct the RFP process. He’d have to submit, and if he was deemed the best resource out there – a contract would be offered. That’s a lot of work when you already know who you want to work with.

In all fairness, sometimes the need is very specific and as a result, options are limited. Still the process needs to be followed.

In recognition of that, low and behold shortly before Christmas, an RFP appeared for the contract Canavero was uniquely qualified for was open for bid. By the first week in February, Canavero and his company were officially in place. Note that the recently filed Educator Reading Instruction RFP’s deadline for contract signature is February 26. 2021. If a plan works, why change.

To fully understand the deception involved in this year’s RFP, you need to understand a little of the history behind it. A process that began with the arrival of Penny Schwinn from Texas.

Last January, Governor Lee and the DOE proposed a literacy bill. The bill came with a 68 million dollar price tag and, to put it mildly, was considered by many as a massive overreach. Especially as details began to emerge about the ongoing EL textbook adoption process and the TDOE’s over-involvement.

Lee, Schwinn, and their posse headed up by Mark White expected a quick and easy passage. Unfortunately, White’s fellow legislators weren’t as ignorant as White and Schwinn predicted. They quickly caught on to what was up and brought their red pens to the bill. Any reference to “Science of Reading” was stricken, along with provisions that robbed LEA’s of control. Ultimately it wasn’t enough, and the bill failed to pass, despite the best efforts of SCORE.

But fear not, our bold disruptor Schwinn had not only a plan B but a plan C as well. Plan B was the aforementioned ELA textbook adoption process. If she couldn’t get her wishes codified, she could at least get them embedded through practice. Behind the scenes, districts were quietly encouraged to adopt materials that reflected the desired switch to a Science of Reading strategy. I can’t say it enough, why create a list of approved materials if you are going to just offer waivers to half of the state’s districts. Waivers that overwhelmingly consist of materials that reflect the DOE’s preferred vendors. That’s what in fact happen.

The state statute clearly spells out the role of the DOE in the textbook adoption process and Schwinn and company crossed the lines this year. This didn’t go unnoticed and the power to grant future waivers was taken from the DOE and transferred to the State Board of Education. But the rebuke should have been firmer.

Plan C involved securing federal grants in order to finance the Commissioner’s plan. Despite including an admission of overstepping in the textbook adoption, and including elements of instruction that have yet to be approved by legislators, two federal grants totaling $40 million were secured. Thanks to the largesse of Betsy DeVos there was no need to pay any heed to state legislators. Schwinn had cash and was ready to travel.

Interestingly, the timeline presented by TDOE in its application doesn’t reference a competitive RFP process; it simply mentions launching a “vendor selection process” in late October, with hiring and signing contracts with vendors in November 2020. A glance at that timeline shows they are already months behind schedule and potential vendors were beginning to wonder what was up.
So here we are, Christmas Eve and the RFP finally drops. It’s timeline calls for all vendors who intend to participate, to indicate such by January 5th. In other words, the process starts days before the holidays and ends around the first day most people return to work. Nothing sneaky about that, right?
Embedded in the RFP are several caveats that should raise some eyebrows, at the very least they put the DOE at odds with individual districts.
MNPS’s school board recently passed a non-binding resolution recognizing Balanced Literacy as their official literacy strategy. The RFP instructs potential vendors that they will be disqualified if their proposal contains any elements of Balanced Literacy.

All course materials shall be grounded in scientific research and adult learning theory, use multiple modes of learning, meet ADA compliance requirements, and provide clear connections to the cognitive science that grounds sounds-first approaches to developing Foundational Reading Skills. No materials and Instructional Approaches shall incorporate MSV (Cueing), Leveled Literacy practices, or workshop approaches. Supports for adult mastery, including checks for understanding, mastery building, and conceptual reinforcement shall be evident in materials and course outlines.

Per the RFP, the state plans on training up to 1200 teachers in the Science of Reading, over the course of the summer – from May 24 to August 9th.

Course Two shall be a one-week course delivered at multiple sites and times over the course of summer 2021. Sites will span all eight CORE regions of the state (see map at https://www.tn.gov/education/about-tdoe/centers-of-regional-excellence.html); each site will serve up to 50 Participants at a time, and 12 week-long sessions will be held in each region between May 24 and August 13, 2021.

Apparently, there is going to be a little cash involved in those pieces of training.

The Contractor shall perform administrative tasks including, but not limited to, printing and distribution of materials; pre-registration, on-site registration, and check-in; tracking of attendance and completion (for use by the State and Participants’ districts in order to provide a $1000 stipend to each Participant), and other tasks as requested by the State.

Has any of this been approved by legislators? How much do LEA’s know and how will they notify teachers of these intentions promptly? Summer for teachers often mean educational opportunities, second jobs, and families, was any of that considered in creating plans? And I thought we were talking about summer school for kids this summer? How does this plan align with that idea?

Since I had questions about the RFP, I headed over to the TDOE’s web site to check out the accompanying press release. 8.9 million dollars is a pretty big deal right? To get the best people involved you want to hype it right? Imagine my shock. when I discovered there was no press release. Not even a social media post touting the exciting opportunity. Crickets instead. It’s almost like Schwinn and company didn’t want to draw any attention to the RFP.

You don’t think that Schwinn already has somebody in mind for this $8.9 million contract, do you? Nah…that’s crazy talk.

None of this comes as a surprise to me. My spider-sense started tingling last week when SCORE started promoting an article from the TNTP blog on the work of the LIFT districts. Read the grant application(Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant_Full Application Submission) and you’ll notice there are several opportunities for those LIFT districts to earn some money. As far as TNTP goes, they have done an excellent job setting themselves up to be the de facto experts on the commissioner’s preferred vendors. Wouldn’t shock me if they suddenly found themselves in charge of teacher training for the state’s teachers.

At the end of the day, the cynic in me believes that this all about money. The adoption of Common Core argued that all states needed to adopt new standards. The standards were adopted and minuscule growth was achieved. Now we’ve arrived at the juncture where the argument becomes, with new standards we need a new curriculum. The new curriculum requires new people to train teachers in the use of that curriculum, which will in return beget new tests to measure the benefits of the new curriculum. Common Core fed the money pipeline for at least 5 years, this should be enough to keep the checks flowing through the next 5 years and then we’ll rinse and repeat.

The best part is that in 5 years, none of those getting the money, or spending the money will be around. They’ll all have migrated to the private sector or cashed in their retirement. A new crop though will be ready to start cashing new checks. And so the cycle continues. An endless churn of crises created by those who will never be held accountable. Not bad work if you can get it. Certainly better than the alternatives, I can promise you that Ms. Schwinn ain’t sitting at the computer churning out a blog on Christmas Eve.

Maya Angelou once said, “When someone shows you who they are believe them; the first time.” Well, Governor Lee and Penny Lee have shown us who they are on more than one occasion. Since she first arrived in Tennessee Schwinn has embarked on a path that is loyal to neither legislators nor citizens, and solely focused on the desires of the Governor and her’s agenda. Along the way, friends have benefited, and opponents have been pushed out. Schwinn may cloak her intentions in a kinder, gentler manner than her predecessors, but at the end of the day, she will continue to wreck her damage on Tennessee students and families in a manner that continually pays homage to the actions of exiting US Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Betsy would be proud.

In looking at all of this I flash on the closing of the Grinch,

“And the Grinch, with his Grinch-feet ice cold in the snow, stood puzzling and puzzling, how could it be so? It came without ribbons. It came without tags. It came without packages, boxes or bags. And he puzzled and puzzled ’till his puzzler was sore.Then the Grinch thought of something he hadn’t before! What if Christmas, he thought, doesn’t come from a store. What if Christmas…perhaps…means a little bit more?”

I continue to hope and pray, that at some point a similar awakening will happen for Ms. Schwinn and her ilk. Improving student learning can not be achieved with a silver bullet. There is no need for saviors, but supporters are always welcome. If you want to know how to improve student outcomes, talk to those who do the work every day, and celebrate the fact that they still show up daily despite the increased difficulty of the work. If we rewarded teachers like we reward our friends and family, I bet we would increase student results.

I racked my brain for meaningful things to say. The best I got is to take pride that despite all its challenges, the end of the year finds us still in the game. If you are still in the game, anything can happen. Here’s a prayer that all of you are finding a way to remain in the game.

In researching the checkered past of our Commissioner of Education I discovered a blog called Exceptional Delaware. A couple of days ago he produced a review of 2020. While the whole piece resonates with me, it’s the second to last paragraph that bears repeating,

I sit here typing in a different place than I was the beginning of this year. Chances are very good I will be in a different place a year from now. I learned a lot this year but the biggest lesson was this- make sure you are in a good place with yourself because you have to expect the unexpected. Heal your heart and mind and plant yourself firmly in the ground because a mighty wind is blowing. Tell those you love how much you love them. Reconnect even if you can’t see them. Don’t live your life through the lens of politics. Find common ground with those who think differently from you. Don’t base your religion on the politics of the day. Truth is a matter of perception and there are those who can and will easily manipulate you if you let them. If you are going to love do it completely. Don’t put conditions on it. Don’t live your life in fear and insecurities and doubt. Figure it out, deal with it, and move on. If you can’t, get help. It IS that simple. Find out who your people are. Lean on them and be there for them in the bad times. Tell them how much they mean to you every chance you get.

Y’all are my people and for that, I am forever thankful. My bottom line may not read like the Commissioner, but I’m also not afraid to go around mirrors.

And with that…He sprang to his sleigh, to his team gave a whistle, And away they all flew like the down of a thistle. But I heard him exclaim, ere he drove out of sight,


Categories: Education

3 replies

  1. RFP stands for Request for Proposal.

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