“Great is the power of steady misrepresentation”
Charles Darwin


By this time tomorrow, we’ll be hours from Orlando. Saturday my youngest competes in the Pan Am Games in Jui Jitsu. It’ll be a stressful, but welcome reprieve from the daily grind.

After the competition, we plan to spend a day in Orlando and another at the beach. It’s as close as we get to a vacation. (Though my son has repeatedly reminded us that this is not a vacation. he is going to Orlando with a very specific purpose.) For all intent and purposes, I’ll be out of the loop.

But, before I head out of Dodge, I wanted to leave you with a couple of nuggets to chew on.


I moved to Nashville in 1989, by way of State College Pennsylvania, home of your Nittany Lions. In SC, we take football pretty seriously, and since Vanderbilt was in the SEC, I expected a similar commitment from my new hometown.

Unfortunately, the two cities couldn’t have been further apart when it came to expectations for the local gridiron squads. To say I suffered culture shock is an understatement.

At the time, Vanderbilt’s football coach was Watson Brown. Watson was a local boy and generally well-liked, but was coming off of a 1-10 season. Unfortunately for Watson, that year brought more of the same, and once again he finished 1-10. At the end of the year, Mr. Brown was relieved of his coaching responsibilities and the community lost its collective mind.

I watched in astonishment as people appeared to be shocked that a man who went 2-20 over two seasons was sacked. That this was a warranted termination seemed to be beyond the grasp of the locals. The debate over his firing raged on over the winter and into the beginning of his successor’s tenure. Apparently, there were a substantial number of Vanderbilt football fans who thought Brown was doing a fantastic job despite the numbers on the scoreboard.

The reason I tell you this story is because as I observe the debate over the termination of Dr. Michelle Fiscus, the former medical director of vaccine-preventable diseases and immunization programs at the Tennessee Department of Health. I’m revisited by a familiar feeling. Let’s forget the ongoing political debate for a minute, and let me ask you, have you looked at the vaccine numbers as of late?

Fiscus may not be 1-10, but she ain’t far from it either. After nearly 6 months of vaccinations being available, only 38% of the state is fully vaccinated. When you look at people in their 20’s – who you could recruit without talking to their parents – the numbers fall below 30%. Maybe I’m wrong, but if Fiscus was really doing a bang-up job at outreach, shouldn’t those numbers be a little higher? Before she goes after school-age kids, shouldn’t she get the other age’s numbers up a little higher? You know button up the safe demographics before poking bears?

The number of Black Tennesseans vaccinated sits below 24% and the number of White Tennesseans sits just above 30%. Thank god the Hispanic population is hitting 33%, dragging the rest of us up, or the numbers would really be atrocious. The same goes for you ladies who are at 40% while men are just over 34%. The numbers ain’t pretty.

If you are the director of outreach, shouldn’t you actually have to reach someone? It’s pretty clear that Fiscus’s message wasn’t resonating with a lot of Tennesseans. Just as Brown’s was not improving outcomes for the Commodores.

I know, not all of this is Fiscus’s fault and this is Tennessee. They said the same thing about Watson Brown. But if you are the head coach of the football team, in order to keep your job, you gotta win some games.

And if you are the medical director of the state health department in the midst of a pandemic, if you want to keep your job, you gotta get people vaccinated at a higher rate than 38%. Whether it’s your fault or not, you have to put numbers on the board or someone else gets a shot, and the reality is neither of them was putting enough numbers up.

Maybe it was time for new leadership. Maybe the next director gets the numbers up. If the next director increases numbers by 30% over the next two months, does the argument for retaining Fiscus still hold water? Unfortunately, Bill Lee’s record of hiring cabinet members is on par with Vanderbilt’s when it comes to hiring Football coaches.

I would argue that a  bigger focus of this story, shouldn’t be on Fiscus’s termination, but rather Bill Lee’s inability to assemble a cabinet. I think members on both sides of the aisle would admit, his selections have been terrible. If he staffed his management team at Lee Air Conditioning like he has his team at the staff, he’d have been bankrupt long ago. If he doesn’t get better at this soon, it won’t be his company that goes bankrupt.


Years ago, I used to work with a sound engineer that had a piece of equipment in his rack that wasn’t hooked up to anything, but when you hit a button on it, a display of flashing buttons would come to life. He called it the “antisuck”.

Whenever he was mixing a show, and a patron would wander over and offer some advice, “Hey man, I can’t hear the guitar. Sounds a little thin.”

He would look at them earnestly, cock his head, and then snap his fingers, “Oh jeez, I forgot to hit the antisuck. Thank man.”

He’d reach over press the button, and an array of flashing lights would spring to life. The wanna-be sound expert, would look at the machine, look at the stage, and then invaiably they would start nodding their head, “Yea, that got it. Glad I could help.”

The Tennessee Department of Education and its erstwhile leader Penny Schwinn have their own version of the antisuck. The way it works is that legislators catch on that they are working off of their own agenda, they call them on it, and then Schwinn, or one of her minions, takes to the podium, hits the anti suck, and instead of lights leaping to action, its sounds in the form of meaningless phrases intended to befuddle elected officials that spring forth in an effort to placate critics. The reality remains though, there ain’t no substance behind the style.

ClassWallet, Wellness Checks, No-bid contracts, Reading bills, all have been presented with a heavy dose of the antisuck, but perhaps lawmakers are starting to catch on. Take a look at this week’s Joint Government Ops meeting.

During the special session held back in January, as part of the vaunted Literacy Bill legislators charged the DOE with creating a universal screener that would be available for free to districts. Somehow when legislators said “reading screener”, Schwinn heard “add a mental health measurement as well.” Somehow when legislators said to be sure to use a competitive bidding process Schwinn make it a sole-source contract. Because that’s what she did.

On Wednesday, lawmakers called on the DOE to explain the discrepancies between what was said and what she heard. In response, Schwinn’s wing-woman Lisa Coons tried to hit the antisuck using empty phrases like “optional”, and “phonemic awareness”, and “never our intention”. Unfortunately for Ms. Coons, the legislators weren’t buying what she was selling. They approved the use of the reading screener, but strictly forbid the use of the mental health component without further approval.

For those counting at home, this marks the third time Schwinn’s been told to knock it off with plans to measure children’s mental health. Sooner or later it’s got to sink in that her agenda isn’t Tennessee’s agenda.

Here’s something else to consider. The multi-million dollar sole-source contract recently awarded to Pearson is priced accordingly due to the inclusion of the mental health screener. If that screener isn’t going to be an offering in the final product, shouldn’t there be a price break for the state? Not so fast says the Department’s Charlie Buffalino, procurement has already approved that contract so…

These proceedings have left some observers scratching their heads, wondering why after years of distancing ourselves from Pearson are we suddenly embracing them again? Who’s driving that train? That’s becoming the million-dollar question. Maybe we should ask Bill Frist, after all, SCORE seems to be driving policy in Tennessee and if that means a closer relationship with Pearson, maybe he knows why? And the band played on.


Chattanooga now has a placeholder Superintendent of Schools. This week Nakia Townes was named as Interim-Superintendent of Hamilton County Schools. A move that should shock no one.

Townes who was formerly with the TNDOE, before getting undermined by a series of testing fiascos, arrived in the River City from Knoxville where she served under Superintendent McIntyre. Yea…that McIntyre.

In an effort to make up for throwing her under the boss, former boss Candice McQueen helped her become a member of the dubious organization Chiefs of Change. For the life of me, I’ll never understand why someone would join an organization where two-thirds of the founding members were fired, indicted or both, but that’s another story for another day.

By all accounts, Dr. Townes has done a fine job serving on former Superintendent Johnson’s staff. Therein lies the interesting caveat of her ascension to the main chair. By assuming the interim position, Townes removes herself from consideration for the permanent position. An odd move coming from a woman who clearly has aspirations of leading a district and was recently a finalist for the top spot in East Baton Rouge.

This one just gets more interesting all the time. I’d link you to a Chalkbeat article, but apparently, they don’t feel the change in leadership in Hamilton County Schools is worthy of coverage, as they’ve yet to produce a story. Personally, I think this one is going to make ripples across the state. But what do I know? I’m not a journalist, just a blogger. Or as one former MNPS school board member used to say..a man out begging on the internet.

Bird Cage Fodder

While we are on the subject of journalists, I love when the Tennessean does this. A recent article is teased with the liner, “Parent’s Push Back Against Nashville School’s Mask Policy”. Hmmm… I wonder…who’s pushing back? I click the article and begin to read about the ongoing debate over whether kids should wear masks or not when school resumes. After about four paragraphs, I’ve got a good overview of the debate but I still don’t know who the parents pushing back against MNPS’s mask optional policy are.

Then I get this paragraph,

Now, some parents are calling on Metro Schools to reconsider the district’s mask protocol, especially for those who are unvaccinated. More than 100 community members had signed on to a petition calling for the district to reinstate mask mandates for the upcoming school year as of Tuesday afternoon. Now, some parents are calling on Metro Schools to reconsider the district’s mask protocol, especially for those who are unvaccinated. More than 100 community members had signed on to a petition calling for the district to reinstate mask mandates for the upcoming school year as of Tuesday afternoon. 

Ok…100 parents in a school system with 80k plus kids…maybe. The petition is now up to 550, so there is that. But who are these parents? And how do I know they are actual parents? Or even community members. After reading the Tennessean article, I can’t answer any of those questions. Or even present a clear argument of why they are pushing back. If nobody else is enforcing a mask mandate, how effective is it…now that is a point the Tessessean includes, but without offering a clear counterargument.

At least the Let Parents Choose folks tell you who they are and clearly are parents and community members. It seems to me this article by the Tennessean falls into the clickbait category. Maybe in the future, we could get a little more of that who, what, where, and why. But again…


It’s getting late and we need to get on the road early. But before I turn in I want to offer congratulations to the Milwaukee Bucks and their leader Giannis Antetokounmpo on winning the NBA Championship. Giannis is a fantastic role model. Like his coach said last night, he’s better a man than he is an athlete. Very high praise.

Before game 6, Antetokounmpo offered some words that really resonated with me. To paraphrase, he said, when you focus on past accomplishments, that’s your pride talking. Giving in to your pride tends to hinder your present performance.

When you talk about what you plan to do in the future, that’s your ego talking. When you give in to your ego, you seldom achieve all that you can. Often failing to deliver on promises clouded by an overdeveloped ego.

What he’s been raised to do, is stay in the present. To enjoy each moment and compete at as high a level as he is capable of at that moment. To enjoy each and every moment for the opportunity it presents, untethered from the past and the future.

Wise words for all of us. Words that are truly those of a champion. One who at age 26 is only getting started.

That’s a wrap. See ya on the flip side.

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Categories: Education

4 replies

  1. Dear TC,

    I read your July 22 post; I thought about what you wrote; I re-read the post. I respectfully disagree with your depiction of Michelle Fiscus’ performance of her job.

    Actually, I am a little surprised at your criticism of her performance based on the low vaccination numbers in the state because that is similar to the criticism of teachers based on low student test score numbers.

    I’m a retired special ed behavior skills teacher, and one of the fundamentals of teaching behavior is that we can only control our own behavior; unless we hold a gun to their head or a knife to their throat, we cannot control anyone else’s behavior. We can modify our responses to someone else’s behavior in order to elicit the behavior we seek from them but that is all. Most parents, whether they have toddlers or teenagers, eventually learn this! The owner of a business modifies his employees’ pay in order to produce the behavior he wants. Professionals in the field of addiction deal with this daily: they provide support for the desired behaviors, but the addict is the one who changes her behavior.

    Some jobs are based on successfully modifying the behaviors of others, most notably sales and coaching. The people in those fields know what they are getting into. Other jobs are support jobs, where the employee provides support to ‘customers’ but the outcome is affected by factors unrelated to the quality of the support provided: doctors can be the best in their field but still lose a patient whose condition did not respond to either known or experimental treatments; law enforcement officers can patrol diligently to safeguard citizens but there are still those who break the law; teachers can present well-planned interesting lessons, but if a kid doesn’t want to learn … just ask your wife.

    From reading reports by different news sources, Michelle Fiscus seems to have done a commendable job of providing support to health professionals and others in the area of vaccine-preventable diseases and immunizations. The low rate of Covid vaccinations in Tennessee is not the result of poor performance on her part, but the result of many individual decisions by TN residents.

    She worked as the Medical Director of Tennessee’s Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program for the Department of Health.


    ps. Refusing to resign and choosing to be fired is usually an indication that someone is not afraid of publicity, which usually means they have supporting evidence; guess the involved politicians learned that lesson the hard way. I love how Ms. Fiscus has reacted to her firing!

    • Yours is not an uncommon argument. Again not dissimilar to those put forth in defense of Watson. And I give them merit, but at the end of the day, if you are hired to change behaviors, you have to change behaviors. In certain aspects, she seemed to be doing a fine job. But if vaccinations are the primary defense, and you are charged with public safety, you have to get people vaccinated or we need somebody who will.

  2. You have nailed the big question:

    “if you are hired to change behaviors”

    Watson Brown was hired to change the behaviors of his football team; people working in sales are hired to change the behaviors of their customers. Usually, if your job involves changing behaviors, you are paid based on the rate at which you successfully change those behaviors.

    Unfortunately, a search of the TN Dept. of Health produces no list of administration titles and responsibilities, and no flow chart showing who answers to who. In a news article about Fiscus’ firing, her title was listed as “*Medical Director of Tennessee’s Vaccine-Preventable Diseases and Immunization Program for the Department of Health”, *but that title does not indicate if she is responsible for outreach to citizens or support for medical professionals or both.

    Regardless, we can agree to disagree on her job performance, and still agree on Bill Lee’s abysmal leadership performance. We have had two business owners as governor recently: Phil Bredesen and Bill Lee. Bredesen started his business and Lee inherited his business. Bredesen’s decisions – while I didn’t always agree with them – balanced short-term and long-term needs and goals, as all business owners learn in order to survive. Lee’s decisions, unfortunately, seem like those of the boss’ son who is surrounded by yes men who hesitate to tell him the truth.

    Years ago I heard a political operative say that his hardest job was convincing candidates that not every vote was cast for them, that many of the votes were against the opponent. To me, Bill Lee is an outstanding example of that. He seems to believe that many Tennesseans voted for him because he was such a nice Christian guy, a successful businessman who would run the state just as successfully despite being a political novice and outsider, and his rumored higher office aspirations reinforce that. He seems oblivious to the reality of how many votes were cast to show disapproval for the negative campaigning of Diane Black and Randy Boyd.

    It takes a special ego to believe that giving money to residents of other states (*Tennessee on Me*) while denying basic assistance to residents of Tennessee (*Tennessee families struggle with state agencies to get home-based care for those with disabilities* ) is good governing!

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