WHAT ARE WE REALLY TALKING ABOUT?

“Truth cannot be imparted,” said Kline. “It must be inflicted.”
Brian Evenson

 

You gotta give credit where credit is due, and Tennessee’s Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn deserves a boatload of credit,

Not for what you might expect – improving student outcomes, creating a non-hostile workplace, or promoting policy that actually benefits kids and their families. When it comes to those things, her tenure has been an abysmal failure, no matter how many accolades Jeb Bush and his minions throw at her.

What she’s been incredibly good at is creating eye candy that makes you think something is happening while in reality, it’s just sound and fury signifying nothing. For evidence, just look at recent headlines.

You got Best For All Districts, which are touted as having accomplishments until you read the fine print and realize that the whole program is simply a celebration of intent. None of those districts have done anything yet, other than hand over a large chunk of their ESSER money to the TNDOE to disperse at will. It’s like the ultimate participation trophy in a state run by people that supposedly loathe participation trophies.

Then there is the TISA debacle in which she convinced state legislators that creating a school funding formula that required a $217 million investment to increase the base by t $100 million was a great idea. Somehow she and the Governor sold that one as being innovative. The only innovation connected with this bill was in the number of questions you could answer by saying, “! BILLION DOLLARS” while doing your best Willie Wonka impersonation.

These performance pieces are note-worthy,  but none have achieved the Oscar-worthy level of the theatrics around TNDOE’s Grow Your Own initiative. This one has brought the skill of talking a lot and saying nothing to never before seen heights. Listen to the governor and Mrs. Scwinn talk and you come away with the conclusion that they’ve accomplished something akin to the moonshot. But in reality, all we are talking about is creating a clearer path to letting locals become teachers, provided that Governor Lee and the commissioner’s other policies haven’t poisoned them on that idea. And that is not a foregone conclusion.

So let me explain what Grow Your Own is and isn’t. A few years ago, up in Clarksville the district’s Chief Academic Officer Dr. Sean Impeartrice , realized that teacher shortages were beginning to mount and so he paired with local universities Austin Peay and David Lipscomb in an effort to create a homegrown pipeline. In and of itself, not a bad idea.

Around the same time, a couple of career opportunists arrived in Tennessee – Commissioner Schwinn and her close friend David Donaldson. Schwinn was running from a lawsuit in Texas, while Donaldson was leaving his previous post in Puerta Rico ahead of one of his primary advocates, Julia Keleher, being indicted. Despite a history of failure, and malfeasance, Tennessee welcomed them with open arms.

Schwinn’s reign in Tennessee did not begin well. Appointed in January, she didn’t officially take over until March. By June, the revolving employment door began swinging as high-profile long-term leaders began exiting. That door hasn’t stopped spinning since, In some cases, like that of departing Achievement School District head Sharon Griffin, positions have remained unfilled for over two years.

Chew on that for a moment, a commissioner that continually virtue signals her love of children has left the state-run school district dedicated to the state’s most underserved kids leaderless for over two years. Meanwhile, she’s found plenty of work for friends and family. I mean couldn’t she get anyone at TNTP to bite the bullet and take one for the team? It’s not like Tennessee hasn’t been profitable for them.

Hell, Donaldson ran Michigan’s Achievement School District, why not woo him into taking on the responsibility. Other then him being aware of it as a losing bet, I don’t see an argument against it.

In September Schwinn had alienated stakeholders by proposing a new accountability model that ran counter to everything legislators had worked on for the last 5 years October brought, against advisement by TNDOE cabinet members, an email critical of Tennessee Educators and students and their performance on the NAEP report card. A move that paved the exit for several well-respected leaders. Things were definitely starting off badly, and she was in dire need of some smoke to obscure the mirrors.

Hired as an assistant in March, 9 months later Donaldson was elevated to Chief, and he needed to make a splash. What better splash than to claim the work of CMCS, Austin Peay, and David Lipscomb as the states and reap the accompanying accolades? A glance at his LinkedIn profile shows the following claim,

-Rated #1 state in the country for Prioritizing Educator Diversity and Equity by Education Trust
-Launched “Grow Your Own” program with 63 districts and 14 education preparation providers resulting in 650+ future educators who will become a teacher tuition free while being paid to do so, serves in a multi-year residency and ensures dual certification in special education or English as a second language
-Created partnerships to provide over 5,000 teachers the opportunity to earn free additional endorsements in English as a Second Language and Special Education
-Launched TN Teacher Job Connect and TN Educator Job Board which provided districts with 3,400 candidates looking for employment opportunities and had over 100 districts share job postings for hard to staff positions
-Launched Principal Supervisor Network (largest in the country with 25 participants amongst 16 districts), Aspiring Assistant Principal Network (330+ participants in two cohorts earning their master’s degree for free), Diverse Leader Network (120+ participants in two cohorts), and redesigned the Rural Principal Network (over 125 participants in three cohorts)

The state used the base established by Clarksville to secure a federal grant and recruit 62 other participants while chasing off every single state employee who did the early work on the Grow Your Own Program. Last September Donaldson left the TNDOE, 6 months later announcing the formation of a new non-profit, National Center for Grow Your Own.

This brings us to Monday’s announcement of the opening of a Grow Your Own Center at the University of Tennessee in Knoxville in order to bolster the educator pipeline across the state. Per ChalkbeatTN,

The $20 million center will centralize and strengthen the state’s 65 existing “grow your own” programs, which seek to create new paths to the teaching profession by providing students with early teaching apprenticeship opportunities at no cost to them, state education officials and the UT system said during a Monday press conference at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville.

The concept, and the plan, are worthy of investment provided that you recognize that without additional support, you’ll never make up for the number of teachers currently leaving the profession. Schwinn and company would like you to believe that there is a mythical orchid of potential teachers waiting to ripen if only the barrier of cost of entry was lowered. That’s just not true.

Think of the teachers you currently know, most of them would crawl through glass to be a teacher. Most of them still do, overcoming impediments erected by folks like Schwinn and Governor Lee. Which raises the question, if a candidate can’t navigate the original barriers, how can they be expected to navigate the continual barriers that teachers face?

All this Grow Your Own kumbaya comes sans any real conversation around lowering the responsibilities currently thrown on teacher plates, Responsibilities that do nothing to support children. Case in point Tennessee’s current model of teacher evaluation.

Under the current model, 15%of a teacher’s evaluation comes from achievement scores. Teachers are given a number of options to choose from as the source of that 15% – MAP, TNReady, WIDA, ACT. Sound great right?

Except here’s the catch. Chose the wrong one and you suffer. The difference between test results could be enough to turn a level 3 teacher into a level 4 or the other way around. Now is that an accurate portrayal?

No, it’s bullshit and leaves a good portion of a teacher evaluation to a spin of the roulette wheel. Why not just change it to where teachers are just assigned the results that put them in the best light. If a school’s MAP scores are higher than its other measurements, assign the MAP scores to the 15% achievement requirement. At the very least, that would alieve the pressure of a teacher having to make the right decision. And right now teachers could use all the relief they can get.

Grow Your Own not only does not relieve any existing pressure on teachers but rather, it adds to it. In Schwinn’s words, “The apprenticeships supported by Tennessee’s Grow Your Own Center give future teachers “exceptional preparation at no cost,” Schwinn said, with thousands of hours of experience in the classroom alongside an experienced lead teacher who serves as a mentor.

Which raises the question, who exactly will be training these novice teachers? But of course, the same people that trained candidates enrolled in her old model Teach for America – existing teachers. What makes you think that those teachers already overwhelmed with meeting the needs of their students, will have the capacity to take on additional students?

I’m curious as well about what happens when those mentors don’t follow the department’s lead and provide guidance that runs counter to Schwinn’s gospel. Maybe the state’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons pays them a late-night visit, or someone from TNDOE leaves a horse head in their bed.

But I digress, let’s get back to the proposed center. Why was the University of Tennessee chosen as a recipient of this financial reward?

Currently, UT doesn’t have the infrastructure in place to support such an initiative. Unlike, say, Vanderbilt University, which is an actual education research facility that is nationally recognized. It is the home of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, which would seem to be a perfect fit for a center like this, provided an education commissioner could keep her personal feelings out of the equation.

Here’s where the cynic in me comes out. Say one was inclined to subvert the RFP process and make it easier to get money into the hands of friends a little quicker. Using Vanderbilt as an example, having the infrastructure in place would allow them to do the majority of work in-house instead of investing money into establishing capacities, meaning very little of the work would need outsourcing.

Lacking internal capacity means that some of the work will need to be outsourced to outside entities,  I bet Schwinn and her chief henchwoman Lisa Coons will be there to help advise on potential partners.

I’m not casting aspirations at anyone, just pointing out that the RFP process at UT is not nearly as scrutinized as that of the state government. If one was inclined to use the procurement for their own means, there would be an opportunity.

Again not to cast aspirations, but if we are honest, we’ll recognize that Schwinn and friends’ record on procurement is not exactly…shall we say…untarnished. In case we need reminding, there is the SPRDx contract in Texas, the ClassWallet contract in Tennessee that tapped funds dedicated for other priorities, and the Christmas Eve RFP that ended up going to the employer of her husband – TNTP. Not to mention the current state of affairs of Schwinn’s long-time friend and former Chief of Staff Rebecca Shah’s recently created company, ILO.

The accomplishments of ILO are particularly admirable. Many companies go decades without running afoul of state law. In less than a year of incorporation, ILO has managed to get not just one law written, but two, in direct response to their activities, That’s a pretty mean feat.

It’s worth noting that ILO was founded by not only Shah but also a former CEO of a group in which Schwinn is a prominent member – Chiefs for Change. If we were playing 6 degrees of separation that would count for two points.  So I think it is safe to say, there’s room for questions.

Here’s the other interesting coincidence. On Monday, the $20 million for the Grow Your Own Center at UT was announced. On Tuesday, the University of Tennessee announced that all campuses in the University of Tennessee System will again require standardized test scores, such as the ACT or SAT, for students applying for the fall 2023 semester. This may seem like an unrelated event until you consider how much money ACT makes from Tennessee.

Tennessee is one of the few states in the country that pays for students to take the ACT, and a re-take as well. It also pays for an ACT prep course for students who feel they may need it. Just because those tests are free to students, doesn’t mean they are free to the state. Even at a discounted rate, we are talking millions of dollars that flow from Tennessee to the bank accounts of the ACT providers.

The University of Tennessee is by and large the biggest attractor of students who live in Tennessee. If suddenly they begin admitting students sans ACT scores, what’s the point of students taking the test?

Let’s also consider that UT is taking this step despite warnings from experts and that many of their peers are extending the practice of standardized test scores for admissions.  Universities like Alabama, Kentucky, and Missouri, and aspirational ones like the University of Wisconsin have all done so. The NCAA has backed test-optional policies, saying student-athletes at test-optional schools are eligible to compete in sports without submitting standardized test scores.

UT has benefited from not including tests in the admission process, as there has been an uptick in overall applications and the diversity of those applicants. Critics feel that the return to previous practice could have a negative impact on those gains.

The cynic in me would suspect that somebody is protecting the revenue stream instead of the interests of Tennessee’s families, but what do I know?

I do know that Commissioner Schwinn, according to state job listings is looking for a new executive assistant. I’ve lost track of whether this is number 5 or number 6. And I do know that being a friend of Schwinn has been very beneficial to select individuals.

The bottom line is, in the words of Chuck D, “Don’t believe the hype.” Even though the hype is the only thing commissioner Schwinn seems to be good at producing.

I’m not looking to take anything away from the fine work done by CMCS, Austin Peay, and David Lipscomb, nor those who followed into the fold after them. Unfortunately, when outside forces get involved they don’t always do so with the same level of purity of intent. I don’t doubt that these programs will provide a pathway for some fine teachers, and will benefit some students that might not have been able to participate without this added aid,

We just can’t let this be the end of the conversation or allow ourselves to fall into the trap of believing that Grow Your Own programs are capable of solving the teacher attrition crisis without significant investment in retention. An investment that can’t just center on teacher salaries.

That’s what I got today. See you Friday.

If you’ve got something you’d like me to highlight and share, send it to Norinrad10@yahoo.com. Any wisdom or criticism you’d like to share is always welcome.

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Categories: Education

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