“I can normally tell how intelligent a man is by how stupid he thinks I am.”
― Cormac McCarthy, All the Pretty Horses

It’s been a week, both on a personal level, and in regard to education policy in Tennessee. The former we’ll temporarily set aside in order to delve into the latter.

As I scroll through my social media feed, it seems that everything education related in Tennessee is centered around the possible arrival of Hillsdale College. Every day brings a new revelation about the dastardly deeds of the sinister folks that seek to undermine our democracy. It’s great for fundraising fliers and campaign slogans, but trust me when I say Hillsdale is far from our biggest threat.

Surmise for a minute that all three proposed schools get approved next month, what’s it really mean? They won’t be up any running for years, and when they do, they won’t be the only schools rooted in religion established in Tennessee. After all Catholic schools have been here a long time, and have arguably been very successful. Some may argue that they aren’t taxpayer-subsidized, but if you believe that…you haven’t dug deep enough. Under the new Tennessee’s new ESA law, they stand to make even more.

I’ve got no issue with Catholic schools – as a younger man I was quite enamored with catholic girls – but that’s another story for another day. Catholic schools aren’t the only religion-based schools operating in the state either, all of which are benefiting from taxpayers to various degrees. So the religious argument fails to elicit much concern from me.

Are they the tip of a broadening effort to privatize the state’s public education system? Sure but that system has been under attack for years, and despite the current accusations of charter schools being a vehicle for Republicans, the early waves of charter proliferation were pushed by Democrats, and I’m willing to bet that nearly 90% of the families who take advantage of the Tennessee’s charter school option identified as Democrats. Up until recently, Republicans.

I watch the continued politicization of school choice with increased concern. As both sides gleefully spread tales of malfeasance by the other, we lose sight of the fact that these schools are all populated by actual children. Children of parents who for the most part want nothing but the best for their children. What that looks like in each family is different, and we should respect people’s choices as we wish them to respect ours.

Over the tears, I’ve made it pretty clear where I stand on the subject, but time, and circumstance,  have brought me humility and empathy where I once might have been lacking. We need to extend that to all children, regardless of their education choices. While I continue to believe that my choices are the best for my family, I can not say the same for anyone else. Raising children is hard, and gets harder every day, without turning parents into political weapons.

Back to Hillsdale, yea, I know, none of those other schools said mean things about teachers, but this is the thing we do, we try and protect those that don’t need our protection, and in doing so we reinforce those attacks through our own actions. Teachers are not a bunch of weak-kneed individuals that are going to suddenly run for the hills because some religious sectarian who has limited influence on their daily life spewed some words of lunacy. If you only had a true vision of what teachers face daily – in and out of the classroom – you’d realize how minuscule Arn’s words really are.

It’s all a political game played by those more concerned with scoring points against their perceived enemies, at the expense of actually protecting those who really need it – students. This department of education under the leadership of its current commissioner has put more students at risk and threatened democracy at a higher level, than any carpetbagger from the Wolverine State could even envision.

Commissioner Schwinn arrived in Tennessee with the reputation of a disrupter, and she quickly set about demonstrating how she earned that reputation. A disruptor can’t be concerned with existing laws, nor the opinions of those charged with crafting them, and Schwinn has repeatedly offered evidence that she fits that mold by defining state law as she designs, and not as designed by state lawmakers. Regularly her interpretation runs counter to those of Tennessee’s elected officials.

Those lawmakers serve as representatives of Tennessee citizens. Schwinn serves as a representative of Governor Lee. The two don’t always align. Let me explain.

It didn’t take Mrs. Schwinn but a few months after her arrival to run afoul of lawmakers in a quest to revamp the state’s accountability model, one that was adopted in 2017 as part of Tennessee’s school improvement plan developed with stakeholder input over the course of a year in response to the federal Every Student Succeeds Act or ESSA. model.

At the time it was reported that Schwinn favored a model that gave more weight to achievement overgrowth, contrary to the formula that was in place. Reportedly she was concerned that under the current system too many schools would receive top ratings, even if many of their students are not showing proficiency. Lawmakers did not agree and reacted angrily,

In response to Schwinn’s desire to move forward without stakeholder input prompted a joint statement by Sen. Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White, both Republicans who chaired the legislature’s education committees,

“We met and understand the commissioner’s concerns around our current accountability system. We are committed to ensuring we have a rigorous and transparent system in our state. We look forward to the Department of Education engaging all relevant stakeholders as they identify issues and evaluate solutions to our current system. And we look forward to our continued engagement with the commissioner during this process to ensure parents have accurate information as they make important decisions for their children.”

Remember that old Falkner quote about the past never being dead and not even being past? It holds true here.

About a month ago word began to leak out that Schwinn was planning to not issue letter grades for schools and districts, which were required by state law despite not being previously implemented, and was planning to change the state’s accountability formula. The former was quickly proven true while the latter was vehemently denied by the commissioner to everybody who asked, including the state’s education reporters on a scheduled press call. Once again offering evidence of Mrs. Schwinn’s tenuous relationship with the truth.

This week, at a gathering of state superintendents, Mrs, Schwinn informed those gathered that the state had received a letter from the USDOE informing them that their accountability model was out of compliance. In response to this letter, the TNDOE would be changing the state’s accountability formula. Superintendents were then given 3 days to get their recommendations in for consideration of inclusion.

Ironically, Schwinn has been telling superintendents that problems with the current formula stem from the process being rushed. This is an interesting claim, that can’t set well with TNDOE go-to-gal Eve carney as she was a principal architect of the current formula. But Carney has quietly eaten every piece of crow previously served by her boss, so there is no reason to believe she won’t eat this helping as well.

When superintendents raised the argument that, in the wake of her previous attempt to change the formula, lawmakers had put in a very defined process for making any changes to the ESSER plan that included the requirement of gathering stakeholder input prior to crafting any revisions, those concerns were summarily dismissed. Getting in compliance was viewed as taking precedence over following state law,

A couple things you need to know here. The first is a fact, while the second is informed speculation.

Being out of compliance with the USDOE does not put the state at risk for punitive action. The USDOE puts it upon state legislators to hold state departments of education accountable. They view themselves as an advisory body and not a punitive one. So while Tennessee needs to get back in compliance, there is no need for a mad dash to do so. We can take our time and use the opportunity to make prudent changes to an imperfect system. If rushing was an issue in the past, there is no reason why it need be repeated.

Secondly, though I haven’t seen the actual letter from the USDOE, I surmise that the area of concern is around the inclusion of science in the accountability model. Without getting too deep in the weeds, the ESSER plan approved in 2017 called for science test results to be a weighted element, but not included in the success rate. In other words, they were supposed to be a separate weight, ala chronic absenteeism and ELA scores.

Due to various reasons, partially due to changing standards, science TCAP exams were not administered in the years following the adoption This year is the first year that the department has both benchmark and comparison data and can therefore include results. This is where Schwinn’s powers of disruption come into play.

It’s not a secret that during Schwinn’s tenure, staffing at the TNDOE has been an ongoing revolving door, with professionals coming and going at an alarming rate. Especially hard hit is the accountability department. At the start of the year, there was not a single employee that had run a full accountability cycle.

That’s a big deal, and getting bigger as newly hired associate supperindent Rachael Maves recently resigned after a year and was followed out the door a month later by her replacement Eric Shay Olmstead.

Maves, if you’ll remember, came to us from California, She moved her whole family to Tennessee only to throw in the towel after a year. Doubtful that she had a change of heart without substantial evidence that she’d made a bad choice.

I believe that due to this lack of experience, and nobody referring back to the original plan,  science was weighted inside of the success rate, as opposed to a separate weight, thus putting Tennessee out of compliance. This is a screwup by Schwinn’s team, but an easily fixable error, certainly not one that requires a complete overall of the state’s accountability model. Unless, of course, you have bigger designs.

You got to admire the chutzpah that it takes to take your own fuck up and use it as a means to bypass state law in service of your agenda. Superintendents haven’t asked for a new model, nor have elected officials or parents. When it comes to the latter they barely understand the current system, so why ask for change?

Changing the accountability model in a way that favors achievement over growth, potentially changes the perception of school performance. Those schools with the most resources tend to be the highest achievers. Perception, unfortunately, serves to define reality and those schools with the most needs will find themselves perceived as failing schools and as a result face even more challenges. A surefire recipe for gutting large urban school districts.

Larry Arn can say all the dumb shit he wants, and manipulate the system to his heart’s desire, without having an iota of the impact that changes in the state’s accountability formula can unleash. It may not be as sexy a discussion, and the villains not as clearly defined, but the accountability formula is ten times as important for public education in Tennessee. We ignore this at our own peril.

In refusing to issue letter grades this year the commissioner defied state law, in proceeding on this path to change the state’s accountability formula she’s defying it again, but apparently, that’s not the end of the story.

As of late, there has been considerable conversation around Tennessee’s 3rd-grade retention law which is slated to be enforced this year. The law itself is not new and has been on the books since 2013. However, till now, retention has been left to the discretion of local districts. Recognizing bad policy when they see it, none have exercised their option.

This year all districts will be forced to retain children who fail to score “meets expectations” in literacy on their TCAP test unless they go to summer school or enroll in tutoring for a year.

More on that tutoring thing in a minute, but first let me make sure we are clear on who’s at risk of being retained. If your child meets expectations in math, science, and social studies but fails to make the cut in literacy, they are scheduled for retention. No matter how close they were to making the cut. That means another year of science, math, and social studies standards of which they have already demonstrated mastery. How’s that serving the student?

Luckily the Commissioner and her friends have a tutoring program that districts can utilize in order to prevent retention, TN ALL Corps will target elementary students who are just below proficiency in reading or math. Starting with the 2022-23 school year, third-graders who aren’t proficient in reading can be held back or forced to go to summer school. This is a plan that Meyer Lansky would be proud to call his own.

At risk are a considerable number of children. As Andy Spears at TNEd Report points out in regard to those students failing to “meet expectations”,

Nearly 70% of all Tennessee third grade students score at that level on TNReady in any given year. In other words, even if a majority of them complete the summer program and participate in tutoring, a significant portion of third-grade students will be forced to repeat third grade in 2023.

That’s not an insignificant number, and rightfully has superintendents concerned. At this week’s aforementioned superintendent gathering, Tennessee’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons attempted to assuage those concerns by telling superintendents that the decision to retain a student was still a local one. Needless to say, this received a less-than-desired reaction from those in attendance. Among them, was state BOE representative  Nathan James.

James serves as the board’s Deputy Executive Director for Legislative and External Affairs and felt compelled to publically inform Coons that the law said differently than what she was conveying. His attempted correction was met with a typical Coons response, sharp and vague. The exchange became testy and ended with her maintaining that this was the position of the TNDOE.

Further exploration, revealed that if a district desired, they had the option to declare any child scheduled for retention as being “potentially disabled”, and thus could pass them on to fourth grade. In consultation with their attorneys, most superintendents found little agreement with the opinion voiced by Coons and that districts were best served by following the law as it was written.

The way the government is supposed to work is that legislators craft laws based on the will of the people. The governor creates governing departments and appoints commissioners to educate and enforce those laws. When it comes to education policy, legislators write the laws, the board of education translates those laws into policy, and the TNDOE enforces those policies.

Nowhere in existing legislation is the Commissioner of Education provided the authority to create policy. Yet, be it attempting to change the accountability formula, changing the test book adoption formula, deciding which laws to enforce and which to ignore, or the misrepresentation of established law, Mrs. Sschwinn has repeatedly demonstrated a willingness to legislate from her office. By de facto, providing Governor Lee the means to bypass Tennessee’s elected General Assembly.

A review of the first term of Governor Bill Lee reveals abundant evidence of a department led by a commissioner who doesn’t believe that the laws of the state apply to her or the department. I would think that before casting a vote to re-elect Bill Lee, voters might want to ask themselves, is this an outlier or the general consensus of Lee and his appointees?

I know the answer, do you?


One last note from this week’s superintendent shindig, The event lasted 3 days but Commissioner Schwinn was only in attendance for Sunday night’s banquet. In addressing the state’s leaders she felt compelled to tell those in attendance that tales of her demise were greatly exaggerated and that despite what they might have heard, she wasn’t going anywhere. She then asked to be excused so that she could jet off to D.C.for a week of testifying before congress. Dry your own conclusions.

Nashville Public Education Foundation has released the results of their annual poll measuring the city’s opinion of the public school system, While still not very high, the growth scores are impressive. Fifty-one percent of respondents have a negative view of Nashville’s public schools, which is an 11-point improvement from last year’s poll results. Fifty percent of respondents who are public school parents approve of the district’s work in educating students — a 16-point improvement from last year.

When Tennessee voters go to the polls in November they will have several opportunities to amend the state constitution. The November ballot is slated to have four amendments to the Tennessee Constitution, and Amendment 3 aims to replace language that has existed in the Tennessee Constitution for more than 150 years pertaining to slavery. Though the Constitution was amended in 1865 to prohibit nearly all forms of slavery, a single line lingered to allow slavery and involuntary servitude for people convicted of crimes. Hopefully, this amendment passes by a large margin.

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 sharing posts via email through Substack. This has proven to be an effective way to increase coverage. Readers have the option of either free or paid subscriptions. Paid subscriptions will potentially receive additional materials as they become available. Your support would be greatly appreciated.

If you wish to join the rank of donors but are not interested in Substack, 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

3 replies

  1. It would not be that hard to get an interview with the TNDOE top lawyer and pin her down on facts about the retention law. It appears on the face of it that the Coons interpretation is in fact correct. You can make a large bet MNPS will not be retaining automatically as this would lead to millions of dollars lost in vouchers. While those schools are currently mainly religious, if there’s money in that game the list won’t be as religious for long.

    The gap in science success rates widened even more than math in 22. It is hard to imagine using sci success rates the same way absenteeism is used would make enough difference to be worth a fight. It does appear more globally that the comish still doesn’t like seeing growth rewarded over results. But you have to remember that even if she sits back and does nothing the growth could revert next year when we are no longer comparing to 21 when cities were remote.

    So she probably gets what she wants no matter what. The only real continued news here is the suspect timing of introduction of letter grades, set to start in 23. Ask who stands to benefit.

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