“The great philosophical question goes: if a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear, does it make a sound? But this is a troubling question, exalting one kind of being above all others. What then of the ears of snakes, or wood frogs, or mice, or bugs? Do they not count? What then of grass, of stone, of earth? Does their witness not matter? If a man flies in Jamaica, and only the poor will admit to seeing it, has he still flown? (…) Always – always – there are witnesses.”
Kei Miller, Augustown


One thing that has been consistent since the arrival of Commissioner Schwinn in Tennessee is the burn and churn of constant turmoil. Throughout her tenure, Tennesseans have been subject to a neverending drumbeat of sturm and drang.

One hallmark has been the practice of chasing off the qualified in order to usher in the unqualified. People leave, people, come, people leave, while quality levels fall.  It’s like being on the Tilt-a-Whirl ride at the local fair. As a result, you have leadership positions unmanned, or filled by the questionably qualified – yes, I’m talking about you, Jared Mrycle and Rachael Maves.

If you took the combined years of experience of those currently in leadership positions at the department and added them up, I feel like I would have more years on earth than they have in relevant positions of leadership.

Now here we go again.

Over the past year, the position of Director of Schools for the Tennessee Achievement School District has remained unfilled. A status that would normally cause some concern, but the ASD has been such a colossal failure, that at this point, in the eyes of many, no official leader is probably just as good as any leader.

Come to think of it, that’s one thing that the ASD and the Commissioner of Education share in common. Mention them to anyone with any involvement in Tennessee education policy and you get the same reaction – an eye roll, a shrug of the shoulders, and a failure to act in any way that addresses the failure associated with their brand.

Simultaneously, outsiders like Chief for Change, ExcellInEd, and TNTP tout them as sources of success. A clear case of put money in my account and I’ll put praise in your pocket.

In the case of the ASD, legislators decided to move the failing program from an off-broadway production and bring it on to the big stage. To do so, they are going to recast the whole production, out go the current crop of underperforming actors, and a whole new lot will be cast in the starring roles of turnaround schools.

Of course, while proceeding down this path we’ll neglect that the  “turnaround school” designation is an adult concept created so people can write “turnaround specialist” on their resume. After all, “turn-around specialists” command a higher salary than your run-of-the-mill high-quality educator. Not as much as a “trauma-informed” educator, but any leverage is good leverage.

Don’t believe me? Define when a school is considered “turned around”? If a school improves its test numbers and then after 2 years reverts back to its previous numbers, was it ever turned around?

Since school outputs are generally related to the socio-economic status of their communities, that reversing happens quite often. I encourage you to go look at the district report cards supplied by the state that give you a trajectory of scores for a number of years. Scores go up a few points, then go back down, then maybe rise a little again, but the level stays pretty consistent with a few wild swings.

If anybody had any sense about them, the whole ASD production would be shut down. Relegated to the history books as a lesson of what not to do. But since too many legislators don’t believe that people will do the right thing unless you force them to, and they like having the vulture glaring over educator’s shoulders, the program limps on.

Per ChalkbeatTN, filling the ASD Superintendent position has been a challenging one,

Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn has put the superintendent search on hold twice — once in 2020 when the pandemic began and again in January due to budget uncertainties and pending ASD legislation. Schwinn says those matters are now settled, including the legislature’s passage of a plan for schools to leave the Achievement School District after 10 years in the program.

So in July, the pot got sweetened, whoever is hired will no longer be charged with just overseeing a failed social experiment, but now they will work on schools across the state,

The turnaround chief will supervise state interventions within the ASD and other “priority” schools performing in Tennessee’s bottom 5%. The superintendent also will oversee schools with large achievement gaps among groups of historically underserved students, such as English language learners, students with disabilities, or those from racial and ethnic groups or economically disadvantaged backgrounds.

The problem, you see, wasn’t that we were creating an ugly portrait, it was just that the canvas was too small. The new chief will be like James Bond and have a license to drive around the state getting in everybody’s business, not just that of the large urban centers. With that many schools in the mix, you are sure to find a few success stories you can tout, right?

So after nearly 5 months of waiting, yesterday the Commissioner announced the three finalists for the leadership seat. One’s from El Paso, one’s from Kansas City, and ones from…Memphis. Hmmm…wonder who’s getting the gig?

You know, since one of the key lessons learned from the ASD is, as stated by Peter Greene, “Listen to the people who know schools, who know these particular schools, who live in and know the community.”

Don’t worry, just because we know the lesson, doesn’t mean we actually intend to follow it.

All three candidates are mostly about what you’d expect, albeit slightly under-qualified. What I do find amusing is that Memphis candidate, Cedrick Gray, is currently an education adviser to Shelby County Mayor Lee Harris.

Harris is a lifelong Democrat, so unless the mayor employed an unusual strategy and hired a Republican to advise him, Gray likely has a “D” after his name as well.

This might serve to explain why Democrat legislators are slow to publicly criticize Commissioner Schwinn. Over her brief tenure, she has been a one-woman hiring initiative for Democrats. Nearly every recent TNDOE hiring has come from the ranks of Democrats, including the aforementioned recently hired Chief accountability Officer from California Rachael Maves.

I know that as a rule, Republicans look down on government jobs, but you’d think in a state where you hold a supermajority, a few of your peeps would want some benefits. It’s not like any of those Democrats securing high-paying government jobs are going to donate any of that newfound cash to candidates working to flip the supermajority.

The Memphis candidate, Gray, does come with a bit of extra baggage, having been run out of town on several occasions after financial audits, including the Superintendent’s job in Fayetteville County. In 2012 the Tennessee comptroller wrote the following, “It does not appear that the budget was monitored or adhered to at any time during the audit period…”

Kinda, matches up with Schwinn’s leadership style. But a closer match might be with the El Paso candidate, Tamekia Brown.

Brown spent her summer on administrative leave while her district conducted an audit around overspending on programs. The year before, a separate audit revealed that 29 seniors who graduated, shouldn’t have. I guess that’s one way to turn the numbers around.

That leaves, the Kansas City candidate, Lathesia Woodley, Woodley has a fantastic and heroic story as long as you ignore this line from her author’s bio, “Dr. Woodley has worked with organizations such as the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation’s Youth Truth Project and Small School Transformation Initiatives.” The more things change, the more they stay the same.

Looks like all three would fit right in with the TNDOE where you have the following who are currently employed or recently departed,

  • Katie Houghtlin – busted in pay and rank for creating a hostile workplace
  • Mike Hardy – released due to actions related to this year’s TCAP administration.
  • Rebecca Shah – Founder of ILO who is currently embroiled in a purchasing contract scandal in Rhode Island that is threatening to bring down the governor.
  • Sophie Mann – also involved with TCAP issues but managed to work for TNDOE without relocating to Tennessee
  • Robert Lundin – fired for failure to properly administer the special ed voucher program. Currently serving as Executive Director for Communications & Special Projects for Adams-14 School district. Adams is currently embroiled in an argument with the state over takeover status.

Teamwork makes the dream work.

All of that might be good for a chuckle if not for the truly dastardly portion of the announcement – who got a say in who secures the position,

Participants in the virtual interviews — which were led by the Iowa-based search firm of Ray and Associates Inc. — included representatives of Shelby County Schools, Achievement School District, Memphis Lift parents group, State Collaborative on Reforming Education, Tennessee Public Charter School Commission, TennesseeCAN, Hamilton County’s Partnership Network Advisory Board, Hyde Family Foundation, and Capstone Education Group.

What do any of these groups know about “school turnaround” policies? Last I checked, none of them have a record of success they can point to. SCORE is led by David Mansouri who has a degree in violin. What is going to do? Evaluate their ability to play Foggy Mountain Breakdown?

The key point is, that once again, while her own department is critically understaffed, Schwinn turns to the private foundations to do the work that should be done by the DOE, and nobody questions the propriety of leaning on people who are not accountable to Tennessee citizens.

That, to me, is a dereliction of duty on a massive scale.

That’s enough for today, See you on Monday.

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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