A musician’s or artist’s responsibility is a simple one, and that is, through your music to tell the truth,”
Tom Morello


It’s that time of year once again. Every year the National Assessment of Education Progress, or NAEP, releases the results from assessments given to a sampling of students across the United States. The assessments are designed to be a snapshot of student progress – a means to see if school systems are investing in the proper strategies.

For those unfamiliar with NAEP, we turn to ChalkbeatN for an explanation.

NAEP tests a nationally representative sample of students in every state. The results, published as the nation’s report card, allow comparisons across states and are an important marker for showing how students are doing over time. The national test is also helpful because, unlike state tests that vary widely and change frequently, it’s essentially the same test every time and has been administered for decades to provide long-term data.

NAEP normally runs their assessment every two years but suspended the exam in 2021 due to COVID. The test is administered to 4th-grade and 8th-grade students, based on research identifying these years as pivotal.

Coming off of the pandemic, there has been considerable debate over the effects of school closings on student outcomes. At the center of the debate is a newly created term – “learning loss”. In that light,  NAEP will be seen by many as a means to define that so-called loss.

Let’s take a moment to address the term “learning loss”. It’s not an accurate descriptor and has been created primarily as a political tool with the power to enrich private entities. Before you start howling, let me explain.

In order to “lose” something, you must first possess it. For example, the state of disarray in my house caused me to lose my car keys. I had them, now because my house is a mess, I don’t. What’s being ascribed to children and lost, is not knowledge they previously had and then lost due to the pandemic. Its knowledge that is typically gained during a year of schooling that there is some question as to how much they actually gained.

Even though we all oo-pah the very idea, there still seems to be this lingering perception that when you send students to school, the teachers unscrew their heads and dump in the appropriate amount of learning for each year. That’s not the way it works.

Some years everything clicks for kids, and some years it seems like nothing resonates. Some years students are focused on their learning, and other years other priorities surge to the front. It’s an ongoing process that unfolds at it an individual pace.

Children are living breathing humans, and as such progress comes at varying degrees. Yes, policies enacted to combat the spread of the virus impacted instructional time and came with some unintended consequences. Those consequences fell into both positive and negative categories. Furthermore, at this point, it is impossible to tell the depth and duration of those consequences. In rushing off to make pronouncements with limited information, we run the risk of greater unintended consequences.

The point here is, all the data that we gather in relation to student learning needs to be regarded as one piece of the puzzle. The just-released NAEP results are just the latest in a series of measurements that should be considered in designing policy going forward.  That said, this year’s results are not good. Particularly for Tennessee.

In reading, scores fell for both 4th and 8th grades nationally by 3 points, but in Tennessee, they dropped by 5. For 4th grade math, the inverse was true – a 5-point national drop, while Tennessee only dropped 3 points. Eight grade math showed an 8-point drop for both the nation and the state.

So how concerning is this? Hard to tell given that we don’t have any context as of yet. Interestingly enough, the release of NAEP results comes unaccompanied by a TNDOE press release to help add context.

There has been an argument put forth that TCAP focuses on Tennessee State Standards, while NAEP’s focus is much broader. That sounds good as long as you forget that Tennessee State Standards are essentially CommonCore Standards with some local branding. The differences are not significant.

There has also been some inference that Memphis was over-sampled in the latest round of NAEP testing. It’s my understanding that the over-sampling is a result of them being included in a separate database used for comparing large urban districts. There are those who would have you believe that this over-sampling is born of a desire to make the district look bad.

That’s a difficult position to defend, as NAEP has been constant in Tennessee for decades. The list of those who owe their careers to the NAEP 2013 results is quite long and influential. If you gave the test merit then, how do you deny it now?

These lower results shouldn’t be unexpected, as the idea that any interruption is going to slow any process shouldn’t be a hard one to grasp. If still in doubt, try this experiment at home.

Let your spouse tell a story, don’t interrupt them, and time how long it takes to tell the story. while noting the clarity of communication. Now have them tell another story and interrupt them intermittently throughout the telling. I think you’ll find that in the case of the latter, the relating of the story took a whole lot longer and elements of the tale were lost due to repeated interruption. The same holds true for school years interrupted by COVID.

That doesn’t mean that you’ll never grasp the story. It doesn’t mean that the information from the story is lost forever. Nor does it mean that the information won’t be garnered from a different story told in a different manner. It just means that for today, you don’t necessarily have all the information. The same holds true with student learning.

As a Tennessean, I would pay attention to long-term trends. This year’s results put Tennessee back at the level it was at in reading in 2011, before outsize gains on the 2013 exam earned us the title of the nation’s fastest-improving state. A title that many of the state’s policy influencers, especially SCORE, have used as a means to make their bones. They’ve done so despite q consistent drop in scores since that breakout year. This is a trend that would suggest 2023 is an outlier and not a true indicator of progress.

Those of you who regularly review data, be it students or others, understand how this game works. You can tweak gains out of a database by making some changes in practice and policy. However, often times those are only short-term gains, and subsequently, numbers eventually return to their true levels. That appears to be the case here.

If that is the case, it begs the question, why are the same voices still the loudest at the table?

Two years ago at the insistence of Tennessee’s Chief Academic Officer Lisa Coons, TNTP, and SCORE, the state began requiring that all elementary school teachers be retrained in the “Science of Reading”, which is now often referred to as structured literacy. TNTP collected $16 million for their efforts and the move was heralded as a game changer.

As part of this initiative, districts were pressured by the TNDOE, SCORE, and Schwinn to adopt instructional materials aligned with the reformed and prescribed literacy instructional model, and defined as high-quality materials. Giving the inference that previously most folks were using “low-quality.” This came advertised as a game changer.

I don’t think it’s an unreasonable expectation that Tennessee’s taxpayers should see at minimum a modest gain from their investment. Something that indicates we are on the right path. After all, this has been ongoing for two years. Yet that doesn’t seem to be the case.

The test results offer one evaluation opportunity, but observing people’s reactions to the results presents another. As a Tennessean, and I’d offer this observation to potential future employers of Commissioner Schwinn, I’d pay close attention to the way she tries to use language to deflect potential criticism and circumvent accountability for the less-than-desired results.

When questioned about the disparity in results between recently released TCAP scores, which were generally positive, and the just released NAEP results, which were not, she argues for the TCAP tests taken by Tennessee’s nearly 1 million public school students this spring, as opposed to NAEP’s representative sampling of fewer than 10,000 students several months earlier — before the state’s high-dosage tutoring program began in earnest at scale.

She tells ChalkbeatTN, “Frankly, I’d be pretty unhappy if we did not see a difference between January NAEP and our end-of-the-school-year state assessment,”

Sounds good if you say it fast, but it’s a little disingenuous. Surely as a state leader in education policy, she is well versed in the validity of sampling size – having used it to serve her own purposes in arguing public support for the recent change to the state funding formula for schools  –  and for her to suggest otherwise is a little concerning

Reportedly, House Education Committee chair Mark White is less than enamored with this argument. Seeing as he sits on the governance board for NAEP, I don’t he would take threats to their validity lightly.

The Commissioner is correct in that NAEP is administered in January, but those end-of-the-school-year tests she references are not administered at the end of the school year, but rather just 6 weeks later, starting March 14th. To argue that Schwinn’s preferred interventions are capable of making such a dramatic difference in just a few weeks requires a degree more of a suspension of belief than she’s earned. In fact, if they are that capable of accelerating learning at such a pace, why are students even attending school for 12 years.?

She goes on to tell Chalkbeat,

“We picked research-based interventions,” she said, “and we’ve gotten these programs to a scale that is significantly bigger than any other state I know of. But we started the vast majority of those interventions at the same time this (NAEP) test was taken. So for me, this test will serve as a great baseline.”

Hmmm…you mean summer camps didn’t start two summers ago? Interesting, because in September of last year she had this to say,

“This past summer, Tennessee school districts launched rich academic programs and thoughtfully prioritized student and family engagement to help their students get extra learning time and recover from a very tough school year,”  Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn said in a press release. “In doing so, they built tremendous momentum for students and staff heading into a brand new and still very tough school year.”

At the time Schwinn further offered that elementary school students saw an improvement of 7.34 percentage points in English and language arts and 11.66 percentage points in math. Meanwhile, middle school students made saw an improvement of 0.66 percentage points in English and language arts and 6 percentage points in math.

Anybody who has paid any amount of attention to Commissioner Schwinn over the past few years should not be surprised at the level of fluency she demonstrates when speaking out of both sides of her mouth. Throughout her tenure, she has demonstrated a high degree of mastery when it comes to embracing facts that suit her needs while discarding those that don’t. This is not a unique circumstance.

Mrs. Schwin arrived in Tennessee billed as a “change agent”. In four years she has changed very little unless it’s too the negative. Teacher attrition rates are up. Turnover at the department of education is up. Tennessee is out of compliance with USDOE. Now NAEP results have returned to a ten-year low. Maybe somebody should have a talk with Governor lee about what kind of change we were expecting.

The last decade has seen an over-influence on education policy by those outside the classroom. Perhaps it’s time to change that and start listening to those who serve in schools.

Going forth, we will continue to unpack this year’s results from NAEP. Throughout it all, I would urge stakeholders to recognize that this is a snapshot of one day in a collection of students’ lives. As such, long terms trends should be considered more valuable than individual results.

There will be some, that will push to use these results as a means to hold students and teachers accountable. I’d argue that any effort to do so is misplaced, and student outcomes would be better served by using them to measure the validity of the advice by self-proclaimed policy experts.


NAEP results may have come in less than promising, but that never deters education policy influencers from offering their own self-congratulatory celebrations.

Over the last couple of days, my social media feed has been inundated with posts from the PIE Summit 2022. Apparently, a host of Tennessee education advocates were recognized for dubious achievements. In other words, it was an opportunity for those who spend the majority of their time clapping themselves on the back, to spend more time patting themselves on the back.

But let’s backtrack for a minute. PIE stands for Partners in Education. Another one of those entities whose name sounds noble until you dig a little deeper.

According to their website, it’s a network that was created in 2008 because students need champions, and champions need support. Initially, it was made up of 12 state advocacy agencies and national partners. Since those nascent days, it has grown to a powerful collection of 131 local, state, and national education advocacy, and policy organizations in 32 states and D.C. that represent students, families, educators, business and civic leaders who share a commitment to core values and policy pillars and are working to transform our education system so that every student can succeed.

And you probably weren’t even aware of their existence.

Tennessee members include the Tennessee Charter Charter School Center, Memphis Lift, Stand for Children, Education Trust, Tennesseans for Student Success, TennesseeCan , and the omnipresent SCORE.

Nationally you’ve got CRPE, Democrats for Education Reform (has anybody told them that charter schools are a Republican plank?), EdChoice, ExcellinEd, ….you get the picture. Pick a misguided or ineffective education policy promoted in the last decade and you’ll likely find one of these groups at its roots.

Right now, you might be asking who sits on the board for this thing? If you are a Tennessean you might be proud to know that SCORE’s CEO David Mansouri holds the title of treasure. The irony that he can hold down a $300K plus a year job and hold down a part-time gig as treasure, isn’t lost on me. Other board members include Denise Forte, Interim Director of Education Trust,  and Derrell Bradford, President of 50Can.

I’d argue, that if you are getting an award at this dinner, you might want to do some self-reflecting on whose company you are keeping.

At this juncture, the primary question becomes, who’s footing the bill. In this case, it’s a cast made of the usual suspects – Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, along with Bloomberg, Walton, and Zuckerberg.

So, look back at the recently completed campaign to change Tennessee’s funding plan, and who was sinking the money into the state’s efforts? But of course, it was the Gates Foundation. If social media posts are any indication, Delaware better prepares to gird their loins because they are next on the list and DelawareCan is already giddy at the prospects.

Bet the recently released NAEP test results weren’t a primary discussion at this gathering, unless if course, it was around how to utilize them for benefit of policy influencers’ desired agenda.

Once again, we are presented with evidence that education non-profits are afforded entirely too much influence, and use that influence to further the agenda of their investors as opposed to the public.


Effective communication is all about removing your intended audience’s embedded filters in an effort to ensure that your message arrives unencumbered. This is why I strive to prevent a potential reader from discerning my political bent. It is my intention that what I write will stand, or fall, based on its own merit, unaffected by the political biases of a reader. The closer I can adhere to that principle the clearer my communication, and the greater the potential of reaching a larger audience.

Personally, I have no desire to write serial pieces that only reach people who hate charter schools and dismiss all conservatives as troglodytes.

Inversely, I’m equally uncompelled to write pieces that only attract readers who perceive public schools as indoctrination centers and all liberals as godless groomers.

In a world that has only grown more divided, this is not always a welcome initiative, but I believe an essential one.

Evidence would suggest that this is not a view shared by MNPS’s Executive Officer of Communications, Sean Braisted. Braisted serves as the public voice for Nashville’s public school system. Previously he was employed by Mayor Meagan Barry and the State House Democrat Caucus. He joined the MNPS Director of Schools Dr. Adrienne Battle’s team in 2019.

Initially, Braisted did a solid job of improving MNPS’s communication efforts. Admittedly there was considerable room for improvement, but Braisted thrived where others had fallen short. As of late though, some of the bloom is falling off the rose.

His relationship with reporters has grown increasingly caustic, and his answers bring to question whether he realizes that to many people he represents the face of the district.

To be fair, some of this is a natural progression. His is a difficult job, and often a thankless effort. The more you give, the more people want.

Some of it is who Braisted is as a person. He’s a sharp intellect with a sarcastic bent who’s been at this for more than a minute. As such, it’s easy for those who don’t know him to misread him.

Some of his challenges are his own doing, and questionable judgment,

Not being forthcoming with parents around an incident that involved a gun being brought to school last year at Oliver Middle School is an example. Oliver is a tight-knit community and as such members are privy to almost everything that happens in the school. It was inevitable that parents would be aware that the district-presented timeline of events didn’t jibe with reality. Trying to be clever and sell something that was inaccurate only fueled criticism and distrust.

On Saturday, in an apparent reaction to a local Ben Shapiro event, Braisted posted to his Twitter feed remarks dismissing the “parent rights”movement and conservatives. A questionable choice when you are the public information officer for a public school system that is constantly under attack and has experienced declining enrollment over the last decade.

I get it, he doesn’t like conservatives and their beliefs. News Flash! It shouldn’t matter. Public education prides itself on taking all students, not just the liberal ones. Imagine if he would have referred to the parents of children with disabilities or EL parents in a similar fashion.

Yes, Braisted has the right to post his personal thoughts to his personal social media feed. But come on, as I mentioned before, he’s no spring chicken. He’s been at this long enough to recognize that his personal thoughts voiced on a public platform will reflect on his boss. No great revelation.

We often hear about the war of survival that public education currently faces. If that’s true. it’s not solely due to outside influences, but rather that we just can’t seem to get out of our own way. Continuously engaging in fights, and expressing views that serve to do nothing but limit our audience does not convince detractors of the value of public schools and only serves to up the ante.

If conservative parents pick up their ball and go home, it’s game over. The same holds true for liberal parents, wealthy parents, or any other large demographic group who currently enroll their children in public education. All means all. It ain’t public if it doesn’t include the public.

Not surprisingly, several MNPS parents – not sure if it was the real ones, or the fake ones – took exception to Braisted’s comments. He responded by reactivating his privacy settings and allowing only those he admits to the silo from to see his views. Not a great look from the man charged with communicating with the general public.

We are capable of being so much better.

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

1 reply

  1. Sean Braisted is not an effective communicator for MNPS. We were so much better off years ago when the communications dept was run by 1 person and not a cadre of high paid do nothings. He is an example of a bloated central office that doesn’t understand the mission of a school district.

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