“Just the kind of girl I liked—the weirdo in the bunch.”
You’ve got to hand it to Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. Tennessee’s Department of Education has suffered under poor leadership for at least a decade, but none of her predecessors brought the level of drama to the position as has Schwinn. She continues to strike a delicate balance between corruption, incompetence, and the outright bizarre. She’s kinda morphed into the Huey Long of State Education Commissioners. minus the success stories or the ideology.
Where lesser bureaucrats might have toned done the noise as their tenure progressed, Schwinn hit the stage three years ago with the amps set on 11, and despite repeated setbacks has never turned them down. It’s almost like her daily morning routine consists of looking in the mirror and saying to herself, “Here hold, my beer.” This week though, she may have set a bar that’ll be hard to top.
As classes resume, Tennessee schools are faced with a rapidly growing threat from the Delta variant of the Coronavirus. According to data from the state health department, more than 38% of all Tennessee COVID cases reported last week were among children up to age 18. Left with few alternatives, as both mask mandates and virtual instruction options have been limited by state leadership, schools have been forced to shutter their doors for brief periods in order to try to mitigate the virus’s effects on staff and students.
To be fair Schwinn has allowed for individual schools to apply for a waiver to go remote for seven days, but with varying results. To date, 8 out of 15 such schools that applied have been granted waivers.
The criteria for granting a waiver remains cloaked in mystery with Schwinn offering the explanation that there are no clear criteria for granting waivers because “there’s a lot of variance across the state” based on the size of schools and districts and availability of staff. She goes on to say, ‘It really is going to be about specific individual waiver requests at the classroom and at the school level, and it is when there is no way that you can continue to reasonably provide in-person instruction.”
It’s like going to visit King Solomon.
In response to parent demands, the state has re-opened the application process for districts to create virtual schools. Over the summer, 29 new virtual schools were approved bringing the total in-state to 57. But, to be clear, these offerings are decidedly different than what students experienced last school year. Uncoupled from local schools and offering primarily asynchronous instruction, they also offered limited seats for student enrollment. Thus providing less appeal to parents.
This is reflective of a national trend. Chalkbeat reports,
In Philadelphia, for example, just over 1% of students transferred into the district’s virtual academy this year. In Charlotte-Mecklenburg schools, less than 2% of students chose the virtual option. A Chalkbeat survey of 10 Colorado districts last month, including Denver, found that between 1% and 2% of students had picked remote options, though districts cautioned that their numbers were still in flux. In Los Angeles, just over 2% of students have enrolled so far in the district’s virtual independent study, though some students are still waiting to have requests processed.
Regardless if it is a national trend, or local, the bottom line is that parents are feeling a growing sense of uneasiness. One that is only increased by fights over mask mandates and a growing health threat. You can argue all you want about the low rate of serious implications of infection for kids, if it’s your kid, no rate of severity is acceptable.
Amidst the growing concerns of parents, Schwinn decided what was needed was a welcome back to school message devoid of any mention of COVID. Parents were not amused. Their collective heads exploded.
But hey, Ms. Schwinn wasn’t done there. as the week progressed, rumors started to swirl about a pending change in leadership at the department. Most of it coalesced around Michael Hardy. Hardy is the Chief Strategy Officer at the TNDOE. In that role, he is charged with setting the vision and improving the quality of data for schools across all of Tennessee by managing Assessments, Accountability, Data Use, Data Governance, and department-wide strategy. Before coming to the DOE in June of 2019, Hardy spent 8 plus years with IDEA Public Schools in Texas. He’s also a former TFA corps member.
It’s long been acknowledged among the walls of the DOE that Hardy is incapable of meeting the demands of his position. This shouldn’t surprise anyone, as there is nothing in his resume that would indicate that he would be. Further complicating things is Hardy’s inability to keep his personal world and business world separate. During his brief tenure he has been the subject of several reports to HR. Both to the department office and to the state office.
No offense and I’m showing my age, but if he was young, blonde, and female…we’d call him a hot mess.
Back in July, Hardy was placed under the supervision of former Assistant Commissioner of Whole Child Katie Houghtlin, under the guise of improving Communication. A move that makes perfect sense because who better to supervise him than someone who has already run afoul of human resources themselves? I guess the thinking was that since they were both from Texas, they could help each other out.
What some of you may or may not know, is that the TNDOE sends files from TN READY to a company called SAS. SAS uses that data to compute TVAAS. The chatter around the office indicates that the TNDOE’s Chicago liaison was not up to the task of delivering these files, so she had been relieved of those duties and instructed to defer requests to her boss, Hardy. What may or may not have happened, is that as a result of this action, the wrong files got transmitted to SAS, thus impacting TVAAS calculations.
Now whether that is true or not, and to what degree calculations were impacted, is impossible to verify due to the secrecy policies that surround state testing, and perhaps is a question best taken up by the General Assembly’s Government Ops committee. This is what you get when you conduct business cloaked in secrecy. However, there is enough chatter, with enough specificity, to indicate, that there is a degree of truth to the story.
Perhaps, if TOSS’s Executive Director Dale Lynch could take a moment away from his duties of writing congratulatory quotes for Schwinn’s press releases, he could survey his members and find out if there are any universal issues with the data received by districts. Again, not assigning blame nor swearing to the veracity of the story, merely sharing prevailing chatter and raising questions.
Adding some credence to the story is that as of yesterday, Michael Hardy is no longer Chief Strategy Officer at the TNDOE. The official story is that Hardy is only being repurposed and that he will remain with the department in another capacity, What that capacity is, is anybody’s guess. But he’s not being terminated. Let me repeat, he is not being terminated.
The cynic in me sees this as the kind of thing you do when you don’t want someone talking out of school. Keep him in the fold and hopefully, the skeletons stay in the closet. Nonetheless, there is now an opening at the TNDOE. One that Ms. Schwinn has moved quickly to fill. Of course, she is not filling it with anybody from Tennessee.
Over the past year, Tennessee has seen an influx of refugees from California. Souls that have grown weary of the sun, sand, and politics of the Golden State and hitched their wagons eastward to the greener pastures of Tennessee. Now we can add one more name to the list, Rachael Maves, Deputy Superintendent at California Department of Education is coming to Tennessee.
Maves’s resume seems written on the same parchment as Commissioner Schwinn’s. From High School English teacher in 2004 to Superintendent of Harmony Union School District a little over a decade later. A move that might have been aided and abetted by 8 years as a consultant with AmeriCorp. An impressive ascent, as long you ignore that Harmony Union only consists of 260 students. But she wasn’t long for that position.
Two years later she made the leap to a Director position with the Sonoma County Office of Education focusing on continuous improvement. For clarification, California schools are structured a little differently. There is both County and district governing bodies. The County office oversees things but has little power. That resides with the independent districts.
Per their Linked In page, SCOE is,
a strategic partner to the county’s 40 districts and their 175 schools, providing service and support to help them meet legal mandates, operate cost-effectively, and raise student achievement. SCOE provides fiscal oversight to districts and operates schools for special education and alternative education students not enrolled at district sites. SCOE’s career technical education (CTE) programs are offered as elective classes at every comprehensive high school as part of the county’s commitment to graduate college- and career-ready students.
In May of 2020, Maves joined the California Department of Education as a Deputy Superintendent. Pretty good for an educator with an English degree and little experience in managing accountability models. I would think for someone whose whole professional career was rooted in California, this would be pretty close to the apex. Yet when Schwinn came calling, she quickly loaded up the family and headed to Nashville. Word is that they’ve already relocated, despite her official start date being September 13th.
Maybe she harbors a secret ambition to a career as a country singer. Maybe she has a daughter who is the next Taylor Swift. Maybe the rest of the country thinks Schwinn is rocking it in Tennessee. Maybe all of that is true, but to be brutally honest, I can’t think of a single logical reason why a successful California Administrator would pack up and bring her family to Tennessee under the current administration. Hell, she’s likely taking a pay cut to do it.
As if there aren’t already enough twists, here’s another. It seems that while Maves served in the role of Deputy Superintendent the state of California took up an initiative to address perceived inequities in math instruction. The state’s proposed plan — which aims to “counter the cultural forces that have led to and continue to perpetuate current inequities” — recommends districts keep all students in the same math classes through sophomore year of high school, rather than allowing some students to start taking advanced math courses in middle school.
It also recommends delaying when students take Algebra 1, encourages students not to rush into calculus, and seeks to replace the notion that some students “have natural gifts and talents” with the “recognition that every student is on a growth pathway.”
While it’s hard to get a read on Maves personal views, in her role as Deputy Superintendent this initiative would have come under her purview. If this is something she personally believes in, there are some stark realities that she is about to face. If not, then there are some folks, including those at Chalkbeat, that might have some questions for her.
None of this works to temper the divisive nature of education policy in Tennessee under Schwinn and Lee. Just the opposite, it feels like somebody decided to go out and secure another can of gasoline because the flames just weren’t hot enough.
Also keep in mind, that we are getting ready to start the process for the state adoption of an approved list of materials for math. During the EL adoption process, Schwinn and her minion Deputy Superintendent Lisa Coons, managed to get their preferred curriculum adopted by roughly two-thirds of the state’s school districts. That means cash for friends. MNPS alone is planning to spend $17 million with Wit and Wisdom. Not bad work, if you can get it.
That makes getting the band back together, perchance with a new lead singer, to tackle math materials an attractive proposition. After all, she’s already got a greatest hits album to pull material from and there have already been reported sightings of Coon’s automobile on the back roads of Tennessee.
Fortunately for Tennessee taxpayers, on paper, it looks like the TNDOE is bringing in John Corabi or Gary Cherone instead of Ronnie James Dio. But you never know, Maves could easily turn into Sammy Hager.
Either way, as the textbook and materials process gets underway, vigilance is going to be required. Luckily, on this tour, the show is being road managed by Linda Cash, Someone who is more than capable of curtailing the band’s bad habits.
I’ve long wondered why Commissioner Schwinn remains in Tennessee. After all, she could easily head back to Cali, reclaim her job at the charter school she founded, along with its 140K annual salary, and reap the benefits of her brief tenure as commissioner. I’m sure that grateful vendors would be only too happy to meet her nominal fees to come speak at their gatherings, touting the merits of “high quality” materials. Her husband is already employed by TNTP, who has benefited financially during her time as commissioner, remember they just got another million dollar contract last month, on top of this Springs $9 million contracts.
It’s a recipe for a life with decidedly less stress and plenty of compensation. One that would prove alluring to most of us.
But like the serial con man, always planning that one last score, the lure of turning over even more contracts to preferred vendors has to be equally alluring. The siren call of pulling off one last heist often proves irresistible. Perchance, Ms. Schwinn is no less vulnerable.
At least we know, that as long as she sits in the big chair at the TNDOE, Tennessee’s education policy will never suffer from a case of the impossible. Because with Commissioner Schwinn, everything is possible, maybe not beneficial, but nothing is impossible to imagine.
Y’all have a great Labor Day weekend. Especially you teachers. Lord knows you’ve earned it. We’ll see you on the flip side.
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