“To know what people really think, pay attention to what they do, rather than what they say.”


Those of us who are parents are likely familiar with the strategy of repeatedly reframing a question until you get the answer you want. Our children do it to us on a daily basis.

“Dad, can we go to the playground?”

“All my friends are at the playground, can we go see my friends?”

“There is no place around here to play, Can we go somewhere we can play?”

The strategy being employed by Tennessee’s Education Commissioner with her push to create child wellness checks bears a remarkable resemblance. Over the last several years she has made repeated attempts at implementing a state-wide policy of regularly assessing students in Tennessee in regard to mental health. And like the aforementioned child, she has repeatedly been told no, yet continues to rewrite the question.

You might remember that it was around this time last year that the Commissioner tried to use $1 million dollars in federal funding for a child-wellness check program. Legislators were not pleased and forced her to change it. Per ChalkbeatTN,

Within days, Schwinn walked back her plan and apologized to state lawmakers dealing with public uproar about the prospect of families receiving phone calls, emails, or a knock at the door through a new government initiative. “Although well-intentioned,” she wrote on Aug. 14, “we have missed the mark on communication and providing clarity around our role in supporting at-risk students during an unprecedented time.”

At the time, Rep. Martin Daniel, the Knoxville Republican who chairs the legislature’s powerful Government Operations Committee, made a very prescient observation, “Our legislature is conservative and wants to keep government small, but some agencies get exuberant about their ability to create programs out of nowhere,”

Last year Commissioner Schwinn’s plan was foiled. Last week, Commissioner Schwinn tried a different tactic.

During this year’s Special Session, legislation was passed that required all districts to administer a universal reading screener to students three times a year, specifically those in grades K-3. In reality, this legislation bore little difference to existing RTI legislation, other than the state would provide districts with a free product, and districts were required to turn over results to the DOE within 2 weeks after administering the assessment.

According to legislation passed, the state’s screener would strictly serve as “a uniform tool that screens and monitors a student’s progress in foundational literacy skills.” To the legislator’s credit, they also included explicit language around how the literacy results from the screener should be applied. Nowhere did they include language calling for the reading screener to include a behavioral or mental health component. Current RTI laws already include a process for assessing and addressing potential mental health issues. A process that includes parents in the equation, before measurements are made, not after.

However, once again, Ms, Schwinn saw an opportunity to promote her personal agenda over that of lawmakers and by extension, Tennessee parents.

The TNDOE has issued a sole-source contract will a potential value of 12 million dollars based on the inability of other vendors to supply a mental health component. The state cites talking to 4 vendors as evidence for the need to create a sole source contract, thus avoiding the competitive bid promise. It’s worth noting that while a mental health screener is not in the legislation, the requirement of undergoing a competitive bid process is included.

I’m curious about how the companies approached were identified. Apparently excluded from the list were two of the most widely used and respected companies, NWEA and Illuminate Ed, makers of MAP and Fastbridge respectfully. No reason for the exclusion has been provided.

In talking to Superintendents, many of them express reservations around the mental screening component, as it’s unclear what will be measured and what will be done with those measurements. The Literacy and Learning Loss Bills are very clear about what will be measured and how they will be used in regard to literacy and math. Agree or disagree with the proposed prescriptions, you can’t argue a lack of clarity on the subject of expectations or ramifications. The mental health assessment, however, remains clouded in ambiguity.

It has long been argued that care must be given when disciplining young children, lest actions place a label on the child that potentially follows them throughout their academic career. I can’t see how that it is not an equal risk when it comes to mental health measurements. What precautions are being put in place to ensure that doesn’t happen?

As always, the question of cost raises its head. I’m assuming that services will be supplied to those students identified as being in need, but who will pay for it?

Again, I go back to the bills passed in special session, and funding sources and required services are clearly identified. That is not the case when it comes to the mental health component. So who gets the bill?

I don’t know about you, but before I go out to eat, I like to know who’s picking up the check. Even the best meal is ruined if I spend the whole dining time, wondering who’s going to pay. That’s the scenario the Commissioner is creating here.

The DOE may argue, “Hey, you can use your own screener. Don’t use ours. If your willing to pay, you can use yours.” And it’s true, LEA’s can select their own screener. But, there is a little more to it.

First of all, those districts choosing to use a screener other than that provided by the state must select one from the state list of approved screeners. Now it only stands to reason that if the state is requiring a mental health component as a minimum requirement to their provided screener, the same would apply to those on the list of state-approved screeners. At the very minimum that is going to impact the cost.

Who’s on the list of approved screeners? We won’t know until the State Board of Education’s meeting on 7/22. So you can either adopt the state’s free screener now or wait until a week before school starts, risking your selection not being on the list and creating a need to apply for a waiver. Not an attractive option.

It’s kind of ironic that in a conservative state the TNDOE is reconstructing the “if you like your healthcare, you can keep your healthcare” argument that was so vehemently opposed by conservatives during the introduction of the Affordable Care Act. And who says nobody learns anything?

Switching tests is not as simple as discarding one and administrating another. Every time you switch you lose all the previously accumulated data. Now the DOE has promised that they intend to basically create a crosswalk between assessments that gives a comparison of scores between assessments, We’ll see how much value that has.

It seems to me that once again Commissioner Schwinn has taken a direction given by legislators, and unnecessarily complicated it in order to suit her desires as opposed to theirs. It also seems that once again, that complication serves to benefit private interests more than the citizens of Tennessee. Once again, that complication and its implications seem to have the tacit approval of the Governor.

But why should we be surprised? Anyone who has no issue cutting employment benefits for Tennesseans the same week they offer travel vouchers to those outside the state, surely can’t be expected to understand the pitfalls of allowing individual departments the ability to create programs out of nowhere, now can they?


When you have the supermajority in both legislative bodies and the governor’s office, I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation that individual departments will work in a manner that supports those elected officials’ constituency’s core beliefs. Those department heads will behave in a manner consistent with those who pay their salaries. Ah…but when you hire a Democrat to run a Republican Governor’s Department of Education, apparently that’s not a foregone conclusion.

Yesterday the Tennessean wrote about the TNDOE and recently passed legislation concerning instruction in regard to race. The Commish has promised that the department will release guidance for schools by August 1. Here’s hoping that her guidance is a lot clearer than the letter she wrote to legislators.

Per the Tennessean, she writes,

“Recent legislation tasked TDOE with building a framework to prevent propaganda like critical race theory from being taught in Tennessee classrooms. The department is in the process of building this framework,” Schwinn said in the June 30 letter. “We acknowledge the challenges that exist in balancing the state’s current process for curricula approval but are committed to enforcing the CRT law as the legislature designed it.”

This passage raises a couple questions for me.

First off, what the hell is she talking about? The textbook adoption process seemed to be working just fine prior to Schwinn putting her fingerprints on it. Neither Wit and Wisdom nor CLK would have made the cut, thus there would have been no need for the DOE to create additional curriculum to offset a deficiency in foundational skills programming. Furthermore, there would have been no need for examination of alignment in regard to Common Core and Critical Race Theory, since neither of the curriculum currently in question would have been adopted.

It seems safe to say, any”challenges that exist in balancing the state’s current process for curricula are entirely self-created.

My second question is, why is she referring to recently passed legislation as the “CRT law”. Nowhere in the legislation is CRT referenced. In fact. lawmakers were very deliberate in their use of language not to directly reference CRT. It seems that the Commissioner is now undoing that deliberate work, and supplying fuel to the legislation’s detractors. This is not the first time she has done so, and arguably it won’t be the last either.

Unless of course, lawmakers decide to shrug off their reticence to counter the Governor, which seems unlikely.


Remember earlier in the week when Commissioner Schwinn feigned a lack of knowledge around Wit and Wisdom? And she demurred to local districts in materials selection.  She must be suffering from learning loss because back in 2019 she was familiar enough with the materials to lavish praise on Lauderdale and Sumner counties for their adoption of them.

During the tour, national instructional experts spend two days in featured schools interviewing principals and teachers, observing classrooms, reviewing student work, and holding roundtable discussions that give school leaders, teachers, and parents an opportunity to share the impact the curriculum is having on student achievement. This week’s visits to Ripley and Halls Elementary schools included Tennessee Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn and Assistant Commissioner Lisa Coons.

“We are honored that Lauderdale County is being recognized for their hard work and commitment to providing students with access to high-quality ELA materials and instruction every day. The work of Director Shawn Kimble and his team is directly aligned to priority one of our Tennessee Best for All strategic plan,” said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Commissioner of Education.

With Sumner County, she was even more succinct,

Sumner County made the decision two years ago to implement a high-quality ELA curriculum, and this move has had a transformative impact on how both teachers and students approach reading and writing, said Penny Schwinn, Tennessee Commissioner of Education. “We look forward to supporting them as they continue down this path for many years to come.”

I’m sure that anyone is capable of reading between the lines here and interpreting what the preference of the department would be when it comes to selecting curriculum.


When it comes to CRT, most articles I read examing the subject are extremely limited. Regurgitating the same talking points, be it from the Left or the Right. A recent article from Paul Thomas breaks that mold and supplies some fodder for thought. Thomas contends, American schools are already conservative and that lawmakers are mis-indentifying indoctrination. He uses the following to illustrate his point,

A vivid example of that is the enduring ways that children are taught about Hellen Keller, through the play The Miracle Worker.

Keller has been and remains a tool of educational indoctrination aimed at inculcating into children a belief in rugged individualism; if a person such as Keller can overcome her many sensory challenges, the message goes, then anyone can pull themselves up by the bootstraps.

But just like the mis-teaching of Martin Luther King Jr. in public schools (the overemphasis on his “I Have a Dream” speech and the de-contextualizing of his “content of their character” assertion), Keller of The Miracle Worker is not the full and complicated (or even accurate) story of this woman.

Keller was a socialist and political activist—something I am certain most students never hear in a K-12 classroom.

The Miracle Worker is the sort of “safe” text that most teachers default to, like King’s “I Have a Dream,” in order to avoid the relentless interference of parents and administrators.

Like I said fodder for thought.

When will the Tennessean put voucher advocate Shaka Mitchell on the payroll? It seems they already print a semi-monthly editorial for him, so it wouldn’t be too much of a jump to cut him a check and put him on benefits. Today’s is about…you guessed it…the glory of vouchers. Nothing new, nothing inspired, just another example of saying the same thing with different words.

It’s no secret that Dr.Battle considers moving 5th graders back to Elementary School a signature initiative. It’s also no secret that schools in South Nashville are already at capacity, or better. It’s going to take some creative thinking to solve that conundrum. But wait, what if you built another elementary school on the McMurray Middle School campus and then rezoned the surrounding elementary schools? Naw, nobody would be crazy enough to try that. We’ll just have to wait and see what they come up with.

As many of you might know, Executive Director Steve Ball retired at the end of the last school year. What you might not know is that his replacement comes to MNPS via Atlanta. Huh? How does a position that helps principals navigate the system works by being occupied by a person who is already learning the system themselves?

That should do it,

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. Now more than ever your continued support is vital.

If you are interested, I’m now sharing posts via email through Substack. This is a new foray for me and an effort to increase coverage. ‘ll be offering free and paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will receive additional materials as they become available. We’ll see how it goes.

If you wish 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. Not begging, just saying.

Next month will be our annual fundraising push. So please contribute if you can.

This week, I really am taking a week off from the polls. I’ll come up with something for next week.


Categories: Education

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