“You’ll never decide what you want until you’ve decided who you are.”
Who’s in charge of education policy in Tennessee?
It seems like a pretty straightforward question, right? Those with a passing knowledge might answer that it’s the General Assembly who set’s policy.
Those with a little deeper knowledge might elaborate more by saying that the General Assembly expresses their priorities based on the desires of their populace. The State Board of Education takes the legislation created by elected officials and creates policy out of it. The TNDOE in turn implements and enforces that policy. Local districts use the boundaries created by DOE policy and mix them with local preferences to execute local governance.
While that is the way it is supposed to work, there is a growing body of evidence that suggests a different story in Tennessee. A story where two private entities, funded by a third, wield more power than that of elected officials. Entities that remain cloaked from the general public while they work their magic. Magic that seemingly benefits their friends and family more than the students and families of Tennessee.
This past week I was finally able to confirm that The New Teacher Project was the recipient of an $8 million state contract(69466 TDOE_TNTP_FA_Literacy_Services_Agreement_FY21 copy) for teacher training. The contract means that the training on foundational skills for all k-5 teachers mandated by recently passed legislation will be facilitated by TNTP, close associates of both SCORE and Commissioner Schwinn. It’s a contract produced by a flawed RFP process. The TNDOE did their best to hide the contract’s recipient until after this year’s General Assembly ended. It’s a contract that bears the signature of Commissioner Schwinn, and if you stick around I’ll show you why that is important.
On December 23rd – that’s right, the day before Christmas Eve – the TNDOE released an RFP for training k-5 teachers in foundational ELA skills. The timing was curious, not just because it took place as people were leaving on holiday, but also because funding for the contract was derived from a federal grant(Comprehensive Literacy State Development Grant_Full Application Submission copy) that had been awarded to the department back in late summer. Included in that grant was a timeline that called for this RFP to be released in late October, early November. So why now, 2 months later?
The deadline to indicate that a vendor would participate in the RFP was set for January 5th, just as most people were returning from holiday.
Towards the end of January, job postings started to appear on the TNTP website that appeared to align with positions needed for this contract. Did they know something nobody else did? An argument could be made, that TNTP was merely preparing for the possibility of securing the contract, which came with a very tight window of implementation. Still, it raised suspicions.
Per the RFP’s timeline, the deadline for the contractor’s signature was to be February 26th. On the 24th, I called Tamara Byrd, who was handling the RFP for the DOE, to see who had been awarded the contract. After a lengthy phone conversation, which was terminated after she had to leave for a meeting, this is the response I received.
Hi Mr. Webber,
I left you a voicemail, with the information that is below. This is a follow up to our call from earlier today. The RFP solicitation “Notice of Intent to Award” is made available to all respondents that submitted bids or responses to the procurement.
The “Solicitation Schedule of Events” is moving forward and we hope to have the contract in place by April 15, 2021. At that time a contract number will be available, and you can request a copy of the contract via the public records request link below.
I hope this addresses your concerns.
To secure a copy of this contract, I needed to engage members of the General Assembly. Even with their assistance, it took nearly a month to get a copy of a contract signed on February 26th. It’s probably just a coincidence that the General Assembly usually closes around mid to the end of April.
So who is TNTP and why should we be concerned about any of this?
Per their own website,
“The New Teacher Project was formed in 1997 as a spin-off of Teach For America, …. Teach For America (TFA) has successfully recruited thousands of individuals into teaching in urban and rural areas, …. Wendy Kopp, the Founder and President of Teach For America, recognized the need for school districts to be able to replicate these effective recruiting and training practices. In this way, school districts could fill their classrooms with high quality teachers and begin to reduce teacher turnover. She established The New Teacher Project to address these very needs and promptly recruited Michelle Rhee to head up the new company.” (emphasis added)
Back in 2009, TNTP published a report entitled “The Widget Effect,” which was highly critical of the teacher evaluation systems. The Gates Foundation was also highly critical of these evaluation systems, so a financial partnership was born.
Beginning in 2009, three school districts and four charter school management organizations (CMOs) participated in the Intensive Partnerships for Effective Teaching initiative. Its purpose was, in large part, to align the participants’ evaluation systems with a model designed by the Gates foundation’s Measures of Effective Teaching (MET) Project.
The evaluation model was part of a bigger package of teacher reforms that were supposed to result in student test-score improvement and better access to high-quality teachers for low-income minority students. Components of IP included the metric–driven evaluation system, mentoring, hiring practices, individualized professional development based on teacher evaluations, the redistribution of “effective teachers” and merit pay. Its assumption was that the application of business principles such as financial rewards, standardized inspections and measurement would transform the teaching profession and increase student learning.
The cost was astronomical. Across the seven sites over half a billion dollars were spent — $574.7 million between November 2009 and June 2016. While many believed that the Gates Foundation paid the bill, overall the foundation paid less than 37 percent — $212.3 million. Taxpayers paid most of the costs via local or federal tax dollars.
Shelby County was one of the participating School Districts, going as far as to turn over their HR Department to TNTP. It was all an unmitigated failure. All that was produced was a 600-page report that failed to pinpoint what went wrong. For the record, I tend to concur with award-winning principal Carol Burris who summed it up this way,
The project failed because evaluating teachers by test scores is a dumb idea that carries all kinds of negative consequences for achieving the goal we all want — improved teaching and learning. Every good principal knows that improvement in teaching requires coaching built on a relationship of trust and mutual respect — not boxes and metrics intended to determine whom to punish and whom to reward.
TNTP might not have been very good at producing teachers, but they quickly became very good at raking in the cash, as educator Thomas Ulican pointed out in 2018.
Fast forward to 2015, and TNTP once again releases another report, this one called “The Opportunity Myth” and focused on a lack of student access to a “High Quality” curriculum. Hey, that “high-Quality” moniker worked with teachers, why not curriculum? I do suggest reading Peter Greene’s Field Guide to Bad Education Research before diving into the TNTP piece.
In 2016, SCORE along with TNTP banded together to create the LIFT district, a network of 12 innovative school systems across Tennessee. Now, who is the impetus for this initiative is difficult to determine. Both SCORE and TNTP are non-profits who don’t disclose the source of their income, so it’s hard to discern whether they were driving or being driven. . We do know based on their 990’s that income for SCORE dramatically increased in 2015, from $1,551824 in 2014 to just under $11 million the next year. For context, the organization’s previous income high over a five period was $3,722,241 in 2013.
We also know that starting in 2016 and up until recently SCORE has invested heavily in TNTP, to the tune of, at a minimum, $3 million. For some reason, the SCORE’s 990 for 2017 is unavailable.
Again, where the demand for the LIFT districts came from is unclear. Far as I know, parents weren’t clamoring for a review of the curriculum. Nor were school boards.
Mind you this was also shortly after Tennessee began their endless victory lap for ranking as the fastest improving state in the country according to NAEP results. Why the need for new strategies when leadership all felt we were rowing in the right direction?
Somehow, SCORE read the TNTP report and decided that they needed to recruit 12 Tennessee school districts to serve as lab rats. They hired TNTP to go in and evaluate the current curriculum these districts were using and low and behold they found them to be deficient and in need of consultation Which TNTP was happy to supply for a nominal fee.
This shouldn’t surprise anybody, because if you pay me a million dollars to come in and evaluate something with the promise of more in the future, I am sure as hell not going to find that your current practices are sufficient. Luckily TNTP had already identified some “high-quality” curriculum, primarily CKLA and Wit and Wisdom.
The DOE, under Candice McQueen at the time, for some reason allowed the LIFT districts to adopt a curriculum that wasn’t on the state’s approved list without a waiver. The argument put forth by SCORE is that these materials weren’t available when the state last underwent the ELA textbook adoption process.
Again it was fortuitous that TNTP was there to help. Per TNTP’s website,
In partnership with Tennessee SCORE, TNTP helped these districts select standards-aligned instructional materials that reflect the latest science on how children learn to read. But picking the right curriculum was just the beginning: TNTP worked side-by-side with district leaders, principals, and teachers as they put in the hard work of bringing stronger curricula to life for every student—offering change management strategies, troubleshooting implementation challenges, providing one-on-one coaching, and helping educators share their successes with colleagues across the state and across the country
To be fair, TNTP’s assistance did bring some success. Over the past three years, 11 of the LIFT districts have shown an increase in the percent of third-graders scoring on-track or above in reading – three have shown a decline. That means that 21% of the districts participating in the reading model being pushed by SCORE and TNTP actually saw a decline in performance over the past three years. Before we jump to investing millions, we probably ought to look for more results.
In 2019, Penny Schwinn was named Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education. Schwinn has her own past ties with the TNTP crowd. Remember she worked for Rhee’s husband in Sacramento and without his assistance, she would never have won her school board seat. We’ll get to some more links in a bit here. But let’s bring our narrative into the present.
Former MNPS Director of Priority Schools Lisa Coons joined the TNDOE after being dismissed by new director Dr. Adrienne Battle, in the summer of 2019. Once named Assistant Director of Curriculum and Materials she helped orchestrate the department’s manipulation of the ELA textbook adoption process and, along with Commissioner Schwinn championed legislation that would have mandated the “Science of Reading” as the sole strategy for teaching reading in Tennessee. Luckily they were less successful at the latter than they were at the former.
The original Literacy Bill was not passed in the 2020 legislative session, as many elected officials voiced concerns with the strategy and its close ties to Common Core founders. When the bill was revised and passed, during this year’s special session, it called for all literacy instruction to be grounded in foundational skills and not adhere to a “science of reading” philosophy. An important designation, as a “balanced literacy” approach also incorporates foundational skills.
It should be noted, that all of TNTP’s experience in curriculum adoption is in relationship to using “science of reading” materials. Close inspection reveals that when referring to “high-quality curriculum”, TNTP is actually referring to a curriculum rooted in “science of reading” – CKLA and Wit and Wisdom. I would argue that in awarding the training contract to TNTP, the Department of Education is trying to circumvent legislators’ voiced concerns and mandate a “science of reading” approach. If it was the will of the Tennessee General Assembly to embrace the “science of reading” as a guiding philosophy, the language in the bill would have gone unchanged. It didn’t.
That fact seems lost on the TNDOE, along with SCORE and TNTP, who have decided that their desire supersedes that of the state’s elected officials. That’s a bit of a cause for pause.
Before we move on and take a look at the Commissioner’s role, let me share a quick anecdote. Some of you may have seen the flattering article honoring Sullivan County in today’s Times-News. The article relays how Sullivan County Schools recently got a shout-out from the Carnegie Corporation in a “challenge paper” lauding the system’s work with the Core Knowledge Language Arts or CKLA program. It’s a nice piece, and Sullivan County has obviously done good work lately – heck it got their instructional leader Robin McLennan a new job with the DOE. A look at the above reference 990 though will show you that SCORE once paid $25K to the Carnegie Corporation. Always a connection, right?
Let’s now turn an eye to the Commissioner. Or more specifically, her husband Paul. Being married to Penny has worked out really well for Paul. She got hired by Kevin Johnson out in California, and he soon secured a position as a principal in Johnson’s charter school network. She moves out east and before too long he’s got a new gig as well. The only problem is his new gig is with a company funded by his wife’s employer, the Delaware DOE. Some saw that as a conflict of interest.
A year or so later, Penny gets a job in Texas and Paul gets hired by a Texas charter chain but also secures a contract as a literacy coach with Capital Collegiate, the charter School his wife founded in Sacramento. While in Texas Schwinn got in trouble when she awarded a contract without disclosing that the company was run by a friend. The friend, Richard Nyankori, was a former deputy chancellor with DCPS that was recruited by…wait for it… former DCPS chancellor Michelle A. Rhee from the New Teacher Project. Yea, small world.
Now Schwinn is here in Tennessee. Paul initially secured employment with a Tennessee charter school but was not renewed at the end of the 2019/20 school year. In September, Paul was working for PhillyPlus at TNTP. That’s right, the very same company that was just awarded an $8 million contract from the employer of his wife.
It’s unclear whether or not Paul is currently working for TNT. He was working for the company when the wife’s team was applying for a grant with an application filled with TNTP references. Every year the Governor’s cabinet must file a conflict of interest form, the commissioner’s for 2020 isn’t due for a couple weeks.
What I’ve shared here is just the tip of the iceberg. SCORE, TNTP, and other non-profits have been exerting an undue influence on Tennessee education policy for at least a decade. As unelected officials, they are free from disclosing where their money comes from or how they ply their trade. They implement education policy with little accountability to anybody but their funders. It’s the best of all worlds – lots of influence, little responsibility.
Legislators are starting to become aware of the power wielded by both the department and the non-profit entities it co-exists with. As a by-product of last year’s manipulated ELA textbook adoption process, changes were made to the waiver process. The TNDOE was no longer allowed to grant curriculum waivers, but LEA’s could ask for a waiver at any time. That’s unfortunately become a double-edged sword.
As part of the legislation passed during this year’s special session, LEA’s are now required to submit an early literacy plan. This begs the question, as the designer of the state’s training on foundational skills, how much influence will TNTP try and exert over materials adoption? How many districts will adopt Wit and Wisdom or CKLA due to the sales pitch TNTP might deliver via training sessions? I’d be lying if I said it wasn’t concerning.
Back in 2019, I wrote the following,
Last year under Coons’s leadership the district approved multiple contracts with TNTP totaling roughly a million dollars. Those contracts facilitated the growth of CKLA throughout the district. I don’t think it’s unrealistic to anticipate her pursuing a similar strategy at the state level. That’s not a strategy that’s good for students.
I hate that those words have become prophetic. Still, the question remains, who is responsible for Tennessee’s education policy.
Some may argue that it is Commissioner Schwinn, but many of today’s actions are rooted in initiatives started under Dr.McQueen. Some would argue that it’s Governor Lee, yet these were initiatives also started under Governor Haslem. It would be one thing if all of the aforementioned were just a continuation of one upon another, but by all accounts, no one could accuse Schwinn, Lee, McQueen, and Haslem of being Bob and Carol and Ted and Alice.
So perhaps all are being led by forces outside of the public purview, If that’s the case then it’s time for someone to do some explaining.
There is a reference at the end of the Core Knowledge article on Sullivan County about SCORE and TNTP, “building lasting infrastructure. The article refers to when trainers leave. But I can’t help but think it also means when Governors, Commissioners, and Lawmakers leave as well.
Just after I finished this piece, Tennessee Lookout followed with more information. Give it a read, it’s a good companion piece.
On the agenda for the week ahead are two caption bills. If you are unfamiliar with the term, a caption bill is one whose description is left purposely broad so that it can be amended at any time. It’s a strategy that allows for lawmakers to launch a surprise attack and get a bill advanced quickly before detractors can mount a challenge. This weeks caption bills are,
- HB0074 (Rep. Lamberth) – Achievement School District. Deletes the requirement that the achievement school district adopts an appropriate dress code for its professional employees. Caption bill.
- HB0525 (Rep. Cepicky) – K-12 education. Requires the commissioner of education to notify electronically each LEA when the office of research and education accountability of the comptroller of the treasury publishes a report germane to K-12 education for dissemination by the LEA to all licensed personnel. Caption bill.
Both are scheduled to be heard on Tuesday in the sub-committee. I’d keep a close eye on them, as they are bound to be interesting. I can’t see the dress code of the Achievement School District as being of paramount concern for lawmakers. So what’s really on their mind.
Somebody who is probably not looking forward to the week is TNDOE Charlie Buffalino. Last week, Buffalino was working to ensure that the DOE would have the ability to select, or at least recommend the reviewers for the upcoming Math materials adoption process. It was an idea that was promptly shot down and contributed to Buffalino calling Representative Weaver a liar within earshot of several observers, It wasn’t a good look and I can’t believe that lawmakers will let it go unnoted this week.
Among the plethora of job openings at the state department of education is that of an Executive Assistant to the Commissioner. While it sounds a lot like a chief of staff position, it does come with some interesting responsibilities, not parenthesis are mine,
- Plans, coordinates, and ensures the commissioner’s schedule is followed and respected (followed is not enough, respect must be given)
- Provides “gateway” role, creating win-win situations for direct access to the commissioner’s time and office (In other words, don’t come unless you have something for Penny)
- Maintains confidence and protects operations by keeping information confidential (My favorite, don’t apply if you can’t keep your mouth shut)
- Completes critical aspects of deliverables with a hands-on approach, including drafting acknowledgment letters, personal correspondence, and other tasks that facilitate the commissioner’s ability to effectively lead the organization.
Good luck to whoever gets the gig. Just in case that’s not the one for you, there are 22 other positions available.
According to Governor Lee, the high turnover rate at the DOE is by design. He came in with a desire to clean the house. That might have held water if it weren’t for the inconvenient truth that the house cleaning has been continuous and Ms. Schwinn is now in the process of replacing the people who replaced the people she wanted to supposedly wanted to get rid of. The way a clean sweep is supposed to work is that you clean house and then your people stick around, that’s not the case at the DOE where the revolving door hasn’t stopped spinning in two years.
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