THE LIMITS OF SPIN

“When people make a contract with the devil and give him an air-conditioned office to work in, he doesn’t go back home easily.”
James Lee Burke, In the Electric Mist With Confederate Dead

 

Tennessee’s Governor Lee fancies himself a bit of an education savior. Since taking office, education has been a primary focus of his administration, oft referencing what he feels are the education policy failures of past administrators. It’s safe to say, this savior mentality was a primary driver in his decision to bring in current Commissioner of Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

Schwinn arrived in Tennessee short on experience, but with a long history of disruption. A former TFA corps member, mentored by Michelle Rhee’s husband Kevin Johnson at his charter school in Sacramento.

Schwinn won a seat on the city’s school board with the support of Democrats for Education Reform and other charter school advocates. She used that elected position to leverage herself into school administration, working for the city’s department of education before traveling cross country for an assistant superintendent position in Delaware.

Her time in Delaware was mired in controversy as she disrupted things by attempting to take over a number of schools that were beyond her purview. It didn’t take long for Delaware to grow weary of her all hat no cattle routine. Ironically, it was Texas who next stood waiting with open arms.

Once again in Texas, her tenure was flavored with disruption over success. She was briefly considered for the job of State Superintendent in Massachusetts but failed to secure a single vote for the position. It is in this light, that she was the perfect candidate for Bill Lee, a governor who wanted to disrupt the work of his predecessors.

Over the last two years, she has delivered on that promise. She has turned over staffing at the state department of education at least three times. She’s successfully disrupted the state’s textbook adoption process. She has disrupted the level of local control afforded districts. She has disrupted how schools meet the social-emotional needs of their students. Now she is in the process of disrupting how federal COVID relief money is delivered, or not,  to local districts.

The true value in disruption comes from what arises out of the disruption. Sometimes it’s essential to break up staffing. Sometimes it’s necessary to break the existing performance model. Sometimes upsetting the apple cart is necessary in order to build a better cart. But disruption for disruption’s sake is counterproductive. At some point, stability needs to take hold.

After nearly 3 years of leading the department, we should begin to see a little bit of method to the madness. But so far, outside of claims by Governor Lee and Ms. Schwinn and parrotted by state education reporters, there are no definable indisputable success stories. Three years and counting and Ms. Schwinn is still scrambling for her signature initiative.

That was not the case with her predecessors. Kevin Huffman had the Achievement School District and NAEP results to point towards. Candice McQueen had the Read to Be Ready camps and a rewriting of the state standards. While none of these have truly stood the test of time, at least they are evidence of an attempt to build something.

But it goes even deeper. Past state superintendents may have been less than competent, but as several legislators have privately remarked, Schwinn marks the first time that they’ve had to pass legislation in order to reign them in.

The reality is that things associated with Tennessee’s education policy have only gotten more chaotic as of late. Ms. Schwinn claims that the TNDOE has outpaced other states in their response to the pandemic, yet families are suing the state with increasing frequency over policies supported by Ms. Schwinn that they feel fail to keep their kids safe. And everybody is screaming for help.

Schwinn is feeling the heat and scrambling to change the narrative.

After a year of claiming that “learning loss” presented a generational challenge, Ms. Schwinn then turns around and presents an argument that the most challenged students in the state achieved unprecedented growth.

Questions continue to circulate over the distribution of Federal ESSER funds. Despite the process being ongoing for nearly a year, only 77% of ESSER 1 money has been spent, and 21% of ESSER 2. ESSER 3 distribution is still in the early stages.

Schwinn didn’t like distributing money in Delaware and apparently, she doesn’t like distributing it in Tennessee either. Here’s hoping it doesn’t take a year for LEAs in Tennessee to receive their federal dollars.

Over the last month, Mr. Lee and Ms. Schwinn have taken a considerable number of dings over their leadership as it relates to Tennessee schools. The most damning coming last week from the national online magazine The Hill which posted an opinion piece that closed with the following,

Children are being affected unlike any time before in the pandemic. Tennessee in particular needs to get serious about their schoolwork, study and bring our grades up, or else we will be repeating this grade over and over again at the expense of our children. Please don’t follow the Tennessee lesson plan.

Not exactly what a governor who is gearing up for a re-election campaign, while entertaining presidential aspirations, wants to hear. The noise around his leadership is growing and a change in the conversation is desperately needed.

It can only be presumed that changing the conversation was the motivation behind holding a closed pre-testimony meeting with the state’s press corps. And that’s what the testimony to state legislators presented by Ms. Schwinn later in the afternoon was designed to accomplish. Disruption of the growing realization leadership was failing Tennessee students and their families.

At 10 AM, Commissioner Schwinn presented a virtual word-for-word presentation of what she would be presenting to state legislators later in the day. The information was embargoed until after she made the same presentation to the joint state education committee later in the day. Though it’s beyond me what purpose was being served by embargoing information that should have been general knowledge.

Perhaps they were afraid that someone would leak the color of the dresses worn by Ms. Schwinn in the multitude of pictures of her summer bus tour housed in the presentation.

There were approximately four slides showing off Ms. Schwinn interacting with students, legislators, and teachers. Ms. Schwinn is admittedly an attractive woman, and the pictures certainly generate the desired level of sympathetic feelings, but other than that, what is their value?

Is there a study that I am unaware of that shows a correlation between a state superintendent visiting a school and that school’s increased student outcomes?

Is it an homage to the thought that through nearness to greatness, all rise to greatness?

During the Summer Study session, a legislator relayed a humorous anecdote about witnessing the commissioner successfully participate in a student kickball game while wearing high-heels. Ok, an amusing anecdote, but what does it have to do with student learning? Are there studies that show watching a grown woman run the bases in high heels creates more equitable outcomes? Was former Commissioner Huffman less successful due to a lack of playground participation?

Or are the pictures and anecdotes shared for an entirely different reason? Are the pictures more about strengthening the “brand” of the commissioner or are they truly include to promote Tennessee schools? If the latter, why was Schwinn in virtually every shot? Why not more focusing solely on teachers, and local educators?

Traveling the state and visiting school districts is not a new idea. I believe that both former commissioners Huffman and McQueen conducted their own version. Now admittedly their version didn’t have its own fancy bus, nor the same level of narcissism employed during last summer’s tour, but they were ou there on the state’s highways and bi-ways.

The question remains, how did the commissioner spending taxpayer dollars, traveling in style. in order to promote her resume, benefit the state’s students and their families?

Unfortunately, that question was never asked during her presentation to legislators.

Instead, Commissioner Schwinn was allowed to present unchecked data that seemed to indicate significant progress delivered by the state’s summer offerings. But just how valid is that data?

The growth percentages delivered were based on a 10 question assessment delivered pre and post-summer sessions. Ten questions mean that at most 10 standards could be measured. And by measured, I don’t mean well.

It is one of the reasons that TReady is as lengthy as it is. It measures all standards through multiple questions. Tennessee’s list of standards is a lengthy one.

We have 7 standards for Foundational skills, each with multiple sub-standards, 10 for reading. 6 for speaking and listening. 10 for writing. All of these are under the ELA umbrella.

So the question becomes,  which 10 standards were measured, and who ranked their importance, in order to produce an average of 5.97 points in improvement? Were those the only standards addressed during summer programming?

And since all districts choose their own curriculum for Summer School, to what extent did the standards addressed coincide?

Now, do I think summer school programming is a waste of time? No, I’m sure many students benefited and Ms. Schwinn did list several legitimate ways which are unmeasurable. But I do resent the disingenuous claims of success where it’s not clear success exists.

For example, Commissioner Schwinn claims that attendance rates were at 96% and nearly identical for both economically disadvantaged students and for non-economically disadvantaged students. A little digging reveals that those numbers are based on a student attending one or more days. That goes a long way towards explaining the higher than usual numbers.

During her presentation to the General Assembly, the hardest questions for Commissioner Schwinn came from Representative John Ray Clemmons. Clemmons who in the past has had a tendency to grandstand a bit shed that coat, and instead delivered much-needed grounded pushback.

On the subject of comparing student performance for those students who were remote and those primarily in-person, he drew out several errors in the commissioner’s thinking., including how students who were remote compared with those in person.

While state data showed remote students performing at a lower level, MNPS students, who were remote actually out-performed those who returned to in-person. Schwinn also tried to assert that per MNPS’s Data Guru Paul Changus, when it came to opting out on the state test, the result was an underrepresentation of previously low performers. Which is the opposite of what was stated at the MNPS board meeting.

Under further questioning, Schwinn admitted that the DOE did not break down results based on whether students remained virtual or in-person all year, but rather on the predominant model of the district. She also indicated that she had not looked at the data breakdown performed by MNPS.

A little weird considering the size of the district and the respect afforded nationally to MNPS’s executive director of assessment Paul Changus. Maybe she felt the assessment supplied by recently displaced head of data Mike Hardy was more reliant than that of Changus, which begs the question of why Hardy was demoted.

Schwinn’s argument for in-person over remote instruction failed to adequately differentiate between causation and correlation. Designations being based on predominant model of a district fail to take into consideration of students who went back and forth throughout the year.

The state’s model fails to take in other variables that could lead to such a back and forth motion, ones that also could impact student performance. Isn’t it possible that a child who remained remoter had a higher chance of a parent’s health impacted? Isn’t it possible that those remaining remote fell into demographic groups that were more severely impacted by the pandemic? All of these variables serve to make it impossible to draw clear conclusions between remote and in-person learning.

Clemmons also challenged the Commissioner on how waivers were being granted for remote instruction this year. Currently, districts are not allowed to offer remote instruction on scale, unless they receive a waiver from Ms. Schwinn. Clemmons was looking for criteria on which she was basing decisions.

Schwinn stated that there were no firm criteria because flexibility was deemed more important. I would argue that without firm criteria, which could be crafted with flexibility, there is no assurance that exemptions are being granted based on policy instead of personality. I’d say that based on past history, this is a legitimate concern.

Pushing on her even further, Clemmons asked if she felt comfortable in making medical decisions for districts when she was not a medical expert. Schwinn countered by saying she was not making “health decisions” but rather “operational decisions”. Arguably these are operational decisions mandated by health decisions. But who’s splitting hairs.

Throughout her presentation, Ms. Schwinn made several references to Tennessee being number one in the country, or at least top 3, in COVID response and the number of students enrolled in summer school programs. It was an assertion that brought forth clarification from Representative John Ray Clemmons.

Telling the commissioner that he appreciated the competitiveness but pointing out that Tennessee is on the lower end of educational funding, teacher pay, and other standard measurables and is number 2 in the country in daily COVID cases, he expressed more interest in leading across the board and not just in narrow categories.

His comments brought forth a strong rebuke from Representative Cepicky who has long voiced his desire to be number 1 in the country for education – Tennessee is currently ranked 46th. “If you don’t want to compete, fine. There are other places to live,” Cepicky said, pointing his statement toward Clemmons, then shaking his head.

Here’s my question to Cepicky who enjoyed a prolific athletic career prior to entering the field of politics, when you were playing sports, were you satisfied being on the teams that recorded the most interceptions or the ones that won the most games?

Did you prefer playing on the teams with the most fans, or the ones with the most wins?

Did you prefer playing for the coaches that were charismatic, or the ones that actually won games and produced better players?

Seems to me that Clemmons was only giving voice to that which should have been coming out of Cepicky’s mouth. But that’s what happens when you try to serve two masters, you end up doing right by neither.

When it comes to education in Tennessee, you can either serve the party and the Governor, or you can serve the people of Tennessee. The gap between the two grows every day.

To use another sports metaphor, if Cepicky would stop trying to focus on protecting the Governor and his minion, and focused on the families of Tennessee, it would be akin to Julio Jones coming to the Titans. But for that to happen, you have to sometimes indulge those on the other side of the aisle, something Cepicky seems loathes doing. And that’s a loss for the citizens of Tennessee.

It’ll be curious to see how many legislators bought the shinola that was being shoveled yesterday. Ms. Schwinn is by all accounts a master saleswoman, but sometimes, the product has to match the pitch.

We’ve spent a great deal of time over the last year talking about the importance of history. Right now, the Commissioners history is giving a clear indication of what to expect in the future. But will we heed it, or continue to try to hold our nose and soldier on?

QUICK HITS

There has been a considerable number of questions around Commissioner Schwinn’s signature tutoring program All Corp. Is it a staffing program or a revenue stream? What are the benefits and requirements of participating districts? Questions arise over what’s in it for the commissioner considering how much arm twisting she’s done in order to increase district participation?

Rep Griffy tried to get some clarity during this week’s Summer Work Session with limited success. This notice from the TNDOE website should shed some clarity on the subject. A guide with partners whom have met the guidelines set by the TNDOE will accompany the check for tutoring services. In other words, here’s your cash, and here’s where we’d like you to spend it. The more things change, the more they stay the same.

I’ve been thinking lately as I read about staffing challenges in schools. We are in the midst of a teacher shortage. The substitute shortage is continually growing. The bus driver shortages are well documented. Schools have trouble staffing nurses. Districts are in dire need of special ed teachers. But you know the one area in the educational field where there never seems to be a staffing challenge? Central Office. Never a problem hiring people there.

There has been considerable hand-wringing about the impact COVID will have on the number of students enrolled in public schools. Last year, MNPS lost around 4k kids, but the prevailing theory was that those numbers would bounce back this year. Yes and no.

A look at the district’s 20-day count(Day20_Enrollment) shows that there hasn’t been a massive return, but the district isn’t losing more students either. At this juncture in 2019 MNPS served 84, 368, last year it dropped to 80,118, this year it is at 80.061. Good news, as enrollment is tied to funding. The next important count is the 40-day and I suspect, if history holds true, MNPS will pick up a few more students.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it on to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. 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.



Categories: Education

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