“You act like mortals in all that you fear, and like immortals in all that you desire”
Lucius Annaeus Seneca, On the Shortness of Life


Apologies for the lag in columns. We were in Orlando last weekend for the 2021 Pan Kids, an event drawing competitors from all over North and South America. My 10-year-old was competing in Jui Jitsu.

Prior to the competition, we were unsure whether he would win a single match. Safe to say, he exceeded our expectations by winning 4 matches and gold in his division. It was a real-time lesson for him on the value of hard work and dedication.

In the months prior to the event, he trained 5 days a week, and twice a day on three of those days. As competition grew closer, he had to monitor his diet as well, in order to maintain his weight. It was a lot to ask from a 10-year-old, but he met the challenge like a duck to water.

While he was competing, the news of Simone Bile’s withdrawal from the Olympics broke. I watched with interest as commentators weighed in from both sides. There were those that hailed her as a hero and those who called her the greatest quitter in history. I would argue that she is neither and that furthermore we are all once again arguing about something few of us really understand.

Whenever we discuss the elite – and I’m throwing artists, scientists, and scholars in with athletes here – we try to frame the conversation as if these are individuals cut from the same cloth as you and I. They’ve worked a little harder, had a few more opportunities, sacrificed a little more, but essentially they think and feel the same as us. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Simone Biles is capable of doing things that less than .001% of people in the world can do. She arrived at that place through a unique combination of talent and work ethic, both an intrinsic part of her genetic makeup. I know, we hate to admit genetics has anything to do with our potential, preferring to credit hard work and opportunity as the primary factors, but the amount of work required to exceed at this level is beyond the comprehension of most of us. We may work hard in our life, but it will never be on the same scale with the level of focus.

Here’s the thing I’ve learned watching my son over the past several years as he develops, the talented brings a whole another degree to the definition of hard work. Sure we can all show up to the gym for four hours a day, and we’ll see results. Or we can spend 4 hours daily studying in the laboratory. The same holds true for mastering the violin. But that alone won’t ensure that we rise to the level of a Simone Biles or a Prince or Marie Currie. See the gifted bring something else. Something undefinable and unreplicable without that intrinsic gift.

In order to reach the levels she has achieved, Biles had to bring her mental game every day for decades. There were no days of training where her mind was allowed to wander. There were no days of wandering into the gym 20 minutes late because she decided to sleep in due to the week being difficult. There was no time off because she was sick, or a family member was having a bad day or any other countless reasons.

The argument that she is lacking in mental strength is a ludicrous one, with no merit. She would never have made it to the microphone in order to announce her withdrawal from the Olympics had she not already overcome a million other mental hurdles. Some of which she not even have recognized as hurdles.

It is easy to assign blame to outside influences for pushing Biles, and others, past their limits. But if that were true, how many great artists would have been produced by parents’ vain efforts to force them into chasing greatness?

Much is being made these days of Kerri Strug winning gold after performing on the vault with a broken ankle. Many are using this instance to try and paint her coach Karolyi as a monster. While undoubtedly his practices were questionable, they would have been unsuccessful had Strug not had that inherent desire to compete at the highest level. Karolyi arguably might have taken advantage of that trait, but it still lay within the gold medal Olympian.

Elite performers are driven by something within themselves. Outside influence can help shape outcomes and develop talent, but without the first, you can’t have the latter.

Each athlete comes with their own well of, for lack of a better word, desire. When that well depletes is unpredictable. I’ve seen athletes deeply committed to their sport, performing at a high level. suddenly decide enough is enough, and quit. Quit, even as they are still rising in achievement levels. For whatever reason, their internal debate has decided that all of the work, sacrifice and pressure is no longer worth it.

In this light, Biles is no different than thousands of other athletes across the world who suddenly decide…it’s all too much. And just like we can’t understand what drives these elite performers, we have no clue as to why they would walk away. As such, we have no real standing to offer commentary – either pro or con. Doing so is just another instance of us using another’s circumstances in order to frame our personal agenda.

We gravitate towards high performers because of their ability to push human capabilities. Whether we openly admit it or not, they inspire us in our own daily pursuits. Somewhat regrettably, over the years, athletics has become more influenced by commerce as opposed to art. We have come a long way from Terrell Owens playing the Super Bowl with a broken leg to openly arguing about the impact of star Giannis Antetokounmpo playing in the NBA Finals on a hyperextended knee would have on his career.

Some of that is good, but any argument still belies the fact that these high achievers are wired differently from you and me. Their entire lives have been spent making decisions and using tools different than you and I, yet we expect them to apply the same criteria to their thought process. All of this reminds me of the past argument over whether or not NFL QB Brett Farve should retire.

Farve’s performance had slipped in his later years and as such many thought, it was time for him to hang it up. Farve ignored the critics and played another 2 years. What was repeatedly dismissed was that Farve would never have achieved the level of success he realized, had he ever listened to his critics. If he didn’t do it at the beginning, why would he do it at the end? That single-mindedness of purpose was his greatest strength and his greatest weakness.

Describing Biles as either a hero or a villain does her a disservice. She is an elite individual capable of doing things in her sport we have never seen in the past, and she blessed us with the opportunity to view those feats. Others will come behind and do similar things, but she will always be the first to show us just what the human body is capable of by one blessed with greatness. For that, we owe her a debt of gratitude.

Yes, it is wonderful that she has brought more attention to mental health issues, but do you believe for a second that the next gymnast of her caliber is heading that message? Or do you think they are looking at her and plotting a means to surpassing her accomplishments?

I suspect the latter. And there is nothing wrong with that.

I view Biles announcement as being similar to when I took my stepdaughter to an AA meeting at age 17. It wasn’t because I suspected that she had a problem, but rather to demystify a safe haven in case she found herself in a position where she needed it.

My message to her was, to go and take as big a bite out of life as you can, embracing all that comes with being on the cusp of adulthood and the infinite potential laid before you.  Just know, that if it ever becomes too much, there is a place to seek refuge. To date she’s never needed that safe haven, but if she ever does…

This week. Biles decided she needed to seek a safe haven. A decision that is out of our purview,


Last week, education writer and teacher, Peter Greene, wrote a piece that in my opinion gets closer to the conversations we should be having about American history than anything written to date. In it, Greene acknowledges that all history is shaped by our own biases,

All history has to be treated as the work of unreliable narrators, because every writer has to make choices. If I write a biography of Abraham Lincoln that carefully and exactingly reports every detail of his life, you will need as much time to read about his life as he took to live it. So choices must be made.

Writing about history rests on a thesis and a judgment. If I’m writing about, say, the Civil War, I need a thesis, a main idea, a central point, a lens, an idea of what my book is going to be about. That guiding idea becomes my measure for the mountain of details I face, helping me decide what to keep and what to throw away. If I’m unscrupulous, or excessively committed to one viewpoint, I might throw out a bunch of contradictory detail, but even if I’m a scrupulous historian, everything gets passed through that lens I’ve created out of my own view of the world and the lens I’ve crafted based on my own ideas and studies. This is how there can be a gazillion Lincoln biographies with more still coming–because each passes his life through a unique and different filter.
And so even the writer of a history is unreliable, and the work will tell me much about that writer as well as the subject matter. Biographies may be the most prone to this effect, simply because it’s hard for a biographer to spend that much time with a person and not develop feelings about their subject.

The teaching of history is how we shape our collective narrative. Society’s rules and order are constructed from that collective narrative. That narrative, and accompanying social order, should never be static and need to change over time.

Author Joseph Campbell recognized the power of our “myths” and the role they played in societies construction, in his words,

The whole of the human race can be seen as engaged in the effort of making the world “transparent to transcendence” by showing that underneath the world of phenomena lies an eternal source which is constantly pouring its energies into this world of time, suffering, and ultimately death. To achieve this task one needs to speak about things that existed before and beyond words, a seemingly impossible task, the solution to which lies in the metaphors found in myths. These metaphors are statements that point beyond themselves into the transcendent. The Hero’s Journey was the story of the man or woman who, through great suffering, reached an experience of the eternal source and returned with gifts powerful enough to set their society free.

The conversation about what history is taught needs to be proceeded by a discussion on what we want our society to look like. Past narratives have supported elements that collectively facilitated the growth of our culture and brought us to a stage where we can evolve. Maybe, due to that evolution,  those elements are no longer needed.

I continually reflect on an interview with the entertainment mogul Jay-Z. The musician turned entrepreneur grew up in less than ideal circumstances. In order to thrive and reach his current level of success, he had to make decisions and exhibit traits that might be considered undesirable. But survival was linked to those traits and decisions were necessitated based on circumstances.

The interviewer asked him if, as a parent, he was instilling those same traits in his own daughter. If he was in effect, raising her to be “hard”.

Jay-Z’s answer was a very blunt, no. He was “hard” because circumstances required it. Those circumstances were no longer applicable for his offspring, and as such, she required different traits and skills. He argued that he was hard so that she didn’t have to be.

I would argue that the same is relevant to American history. Not to excuse the inexcusable practice of slavery, but we must be careful in judging our forefathers devoid of an understanding of their circumstances.

If we look at the media mogul’s life we can certainly find several instances that would paint him as a “bad person”, but if they set up his child to make a more positive influence on society were they wrong decisions?

When his daughter tells the history of her father will she focus on the drug dealing gangbanging era of his life, or will she focus on the supportive father that provided her a chance, and therefore them, opportunities that they would have never known. Will she tell her father’s history to his grandchildren when they are very young, or wait until they are more mature? How will she blend the complex history of their grandfather in a manner that allows them to gain an accurate picture of his life?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions. but this is a conversation that we need to be having around American history.

Do we focus on the negative, or do we accentuate the positive? Where do we strike the balance? Is the history we are teaching reflective of the narrative of who we aspire to be as a nation? In presenting the negative aspects of our history, are we supply context or just facts?

I don’t know the answer to any of those questions, but it seems that our time would be better spent trying to answer them, than endlessly shouting at each other.

Greene closes his piece with typically wise words,

This is also why words matter and why, in my universe, it’s immoral and unethical to use them to obscure and distort rather than to clarify and reveal. I’m not arguing that all ideas and viewpoints are equally valid and that everything is true and nothing matters–just the opposite. Really look, really listen, and really think about what you’ve taken in, and then express that honestly. Don’t lie, and don’t bullshit people–but also don’t ever sit back and think that you never need to be open to reconsidering an idea ever again.
To insist that you don’t need to take in any new ideas or observations or information about anything is to be willfully ignorant and to damage your own understanding of the world and your place in it. To insist that there is an objective and unbiased view of events is really to insist that everyone accept and agree to your own personal view and that people who have a different view just shut up, already. Which is the current stance of the anti-anti-racism crowd.
My only caveat would be that the “shut-up already” stance, is not the sole providence of the anti-anti-racism crowd, but rather one adopted by actors on both sides.
However…baby steps…closer…not there yet…but cause for belief that we can get there.
During her tenure as Commissioner, the Penny Schwinn-led Tennessee Department of Education has done some dastardly shit, but they may have topped themselves with the recent creation of the Best for All district recognition program. Billed as, “sharing benefits awarded to Tennessee school districts and public charter schools that plan to spend historic amounts of federal COVID-19 relief and stimulus funding directly on student achievement and improving academic outcomes”, the reality is a whole lot different.
To qualify for the Best for All recognition program, a district or charter school must spend 50% of its ESSER 3.0 award amount on proven, research-based strategies to raise student academic achievement and participate in the TN ALL Corps tutoring grant program to provide students with high dosage, low ratio tutoring opportunities. In other words, give them 50% of their Federal money to invest as they see fit, likely meaning more money for Schwinn’s Friends and Family program.
In exchange, districts receive some benefits that are questionable both legally and morally.

Celebration and Reporting Benefits 

  • Celebratory letter from the Tennessee Department of Education
  • Public Reporting: Best for All Leader Board
  • Recognition and banner as a TN ALL Corps District or School
  • Notation on the State Report Card
  • Highlights in external reporting
  • Parent communication support
  • Video for school boards celebrating work of the district

Resource Benefits 

  • Free online high school tutoring services
  • Free access to high quality, online math support and content
  • Free access to high quality, online English Language Arts support and content
  • Membership in Best For All /TN ALL Corps Community of Practice

Financial Benefits 

  • Planning grant bonus
  • Planning Grants fund redistribution
  • $700 per year for each participating student in TN ALL Corps
  • Consideration and bonus points for future grants and resources
  • Opportunities to increase teacher income through tutoring income
  • Exclusive access to funds that need to be recouped and reallocated to districts
  • Access to planning grants upon request, as part of the network

Operational Benefits 

  • Prioritized reimbursement processing
  • Additional consideration for waivers
  • Consideration related to priority school supports and interventions
  • Paperwork reduction, when available
  • Early enrollment in trainings

Look at “prioritized reimbursement requests”? So if a district is not part of this charade, their reimbursement requests get bumped below others and their payments delayed? That’s the implication.

Here’s another,  “Exclusive access to funds that are recouped “ – is this one even legal?

How about, “Access to grants upon request “? Since when has this been allowed by TN’s Central Procurement Office?

Then there is “additional consideration for waivers”. Remember that provision where a parent could ask for a waiver if their child was designated for third-grade retention? Better hope your child’s district is on team Schwinn or otherwise that request might not get equal consideration.

Hopefully, the state’s Superintendents are all over this one, because it just may be the apex of Schwinn’s time in Tennessee.


Participation trophies are often sources of ridicule. However, that didn’t stop Ms. Schwinn from awarding the ultimate participation trophy to the state’s individual LEA’s . In true Schwinn fashion, she kicks her announcement off with a little shading of the truth,

During the January 2021 Special Session, Public Chapter 2 removed negative consequences associated with accountability for districts and schools whose district-wide TCAP participation rate was 80% or higher. The department is excited to announce that 100% of districts met the 80% participation rate, with 80% of districts having met the federal 95% participation rate.

Yes…legislators did remove negative consequences associated with accountability, but it was Schwinn and team who put them back in for those who failed to reach 80%. Shockingly everybody hit 80% or above. Most were at 90% and above. Schwinn glowingly crows,

“After a year of uncertainty and disruption, we must celebrate Tennessee’s achievement and success in administering a strong statewide assessment to measure our students’ academic progress. This data will be crucial to inform efforts by the state, school districts, educators and families to ensure all students are able to recover from the pandemic and accelerate their learning,” said Commissioner Penny Schwinn. “District leaders and educators spent an extraordinary amount of time attending trainings, communicating with families, and developing thorough safety plans to ensure that our students could test in person and that we would have reliable data, giving all Tennesseans a clear sense of where students are and where they will need additional support. I am so proud of their hard work for kids.”

That’s all very pretty but means nothing, and ignores reality. The whole point of standardized testing is to create a standardized environment. There was no standard environment this past year. Kids received instruction through varied platforms, with disruption throughout. The testing window itself was extended to nearly two months in an effort to force participation.

She claims the test is essential to inform efforts by the state, school districts, educators, and families. News Flash: School is back in session for some districts and most will begin within the next two weeks. Yet, districts just received student results last Friday. None of which have been aggregated, and thus have limited use.

LEA’s are exiting the planning stage and entering the execution stage while the DOE is arguing that their data is viable and necessary. Nice try.

Commissioner Schwinn also announced that come Monday, student data will be available to the general public. She gives the warning that the data is very sobering. Per Chalkbeat,

“We expect, just like we’ve seen in the national data that has been released so far, that the COVID-19 pandemic is going to have a negative [impact] on what we might normally see in terms of outcomes,”

You didn’t expect the town crier to spend a year proclaiming a need to invest with friends due to the catastrophic events to suddenly reverse course, did you?

When you see the data, try and keep in mind who did take the test, as well as those who didn’t. Many of those families in urban districts who had the means to remain remote, did not bring their children in for testing. I would ask how many of those children who traditionally score high, opted out of this year’s testing. Remember it doesn’t take many to change the narrative.

That’s it for now, as this piece is already too long. But trust me, there is plenty more fodder for Monday.

f 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.

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Categories: Education

2 replies

  1. The state data could have same deception laced in. They have a chart in their presentation that shows “2020-21 Proficiency by Operating Model”

    And the data show that the more kids are “in person” the better they do.

    HOWEVER, what is MISSING is showing how those same schools were “performing” BEFORE the pandemic. In other words, I suspect that the same factors that lead districts towards being more “virtual” and less “in person” are going to be the same factors that result in lower scores fundamentally. If “virtual” students were disproportionately clustered in poorer schools and districts, then there is no news whatsoever in that slide – and I could well argue that it is a fraud as presented.

    I hope you will dig down a bit and see what we can learn.

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