With Apologies to John Denver, She’s Leaving on a Jet Plane, Who Knows When She’ll Be Back Again

“I have got a daughter, whose life is already separate from mine, whose will already follows its own directions, and who has quickly corrected my woolly preconceptions of her by being something remorselessly different. She is the child of herself and will be what she is. I am merely the keeper of her temporary helplessness.”
Laurie Lee, The Firstborn


Another week, another road trip for Tennessee’s beleaguered Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn. This week, it was an appearance in Washington D.C. as the Federation of American Scientists (FAS) launched the Alliance for Learning Innovation (ALI), a bipartisan initiative co-led with Lewis-Burke Associates, LLC, to increase education research and development investments across the federal government.

While back home in Tennessee, districts were still struggling with the implementation of TISA, looking for guidance on the appeals process for school library books, strategizing around the third-grade retention law, and discussing the role of School Resource Officers, Schwinn was hanging with some pals dreaming up new ideas based, per their release, on expanding federal investment in education:

The alliance brings together a group of education nonprofits, practitioners, philanthropy, and the private sector to advocate for research-based innovations in education. As a coalition, ALI focuses on innovative solutions that build education R&D infrastructure, center students and practitioners, advance equitable outcomes for students, improve talent pathways, and expand the workforce needed in a globally competitive world. To that end, the alliance has developed a comprehensive multi-part agenda including the goal of dramatically increasing the federal investment in education R&D.

So let me see if I get this, while the State House Speaker, and heir apparent to the Governor’s mansion, Cameron Sexton, is proposing that Tennessee cut federal education funding, the Commissioner is out spending taxpayer money to increase federal funding. Do these people even talk to each other?

While lawmakers begin to grapple with the undue influence exerted over education policy by non-profits – SCORE, EducationTrust, ExcelinEd, Instructional Partners – Schwinn is seeing if she can’t get them more comfortable seats at the table. Lets look at who she is on stage with.

Education Trust has its seat, represented by Denise Forte. Forte is a former staff member of the House of Representatives, where she served for 16 years. This qualified her to hang out as a shingle as an education consultant. She takes over as EdTrust’s CEO for John King, the former US Secretary of Education. Not sure if she inherits his half-million dollar salary as well. King’s tale is too delicious not to retell.

The former Education Secretary was pulling in 550K as Executive Director of Education when he decided to take a run at being Governor of Maryland. He took a leave of absence for that pursuit, while still drawing his obscene salary. To say he got his clock cleaned in that race, would be an insult to clocks. It was a crowded field and he was back of the pack. He returned to EDTrust, cashed a few checks, and then promptly left to become chancellor of the State University of New York, taking over the largest public university system in the nation. And they say there is no money for education work.

Joining Schwinn and Forte on the panel is Joshua Edelman. Most of you probably aren’t familiar with Edelman, but you should be. Edelman spent almost 13 years working for the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. During the last year and a half, he served as the Senior Advisor to the President of the United States. He describes his work as, “Supporting division-wide DEI work to enhance expected investment outcomes, creating a new Program Officer development program for the division and bolstering strategy development with our Economic Mobility and Opportunity and US Charter portfolios.”

Prior to that role, he “Led foundation efforts to prepare students for college and career success in Tennessee and Florida. Oversaw the 7-year, 90M investment in teacher effectiveness in the Memphis City/Shelby County Schools. Led learning cohort about principal leadership for 11 districts/CMOs.” Hmmm…but like King, he’s got an interesting backstory.

Edelman has a brother, Jonathan Edelman. Jonathan is the founder of that lil ol lobbyist group Stand for Children. Way back in the stone age, 2011 to be exact, John got himself in a little bit of hot water when his organization came out hard in support of a proposed Illinois state law that would have stripped tenure from teachers. He felt so good about it that he took to the stage boasting that Stand “hired eleven lobbyists, including four of the absolute best insiders and seven of the best minority lobbyists, preventing the unions from hiring them.”

That’s who your queen is out hanging with and whose ideas she’s promoting. This week she told this gathering, what things have looked like in Tennessee. “Without evidence-based solutions driven by R&D, we won’t have strong outcomes for kids. We are utilizing education R&D with the goal of improving student outcomes, supporting educators, and building a better education system for all learners.”

I guess she probably didn’t mention that during her tenure the accountability department at the TDOE has been completely gutted and currently employs nobody with more than a year of experience in running accountability models. Her last hire, Rachael Maves split the gig after a year on the job. Inviting Penny Schwinn to talk about research and development is like calling Kanye West in to talk about Jewish-American relationships.

But fear not, Schwinn won’t be unpacking her overnight bag any time soon. She’s already got more trips planned.

In 2 weeks she’ll be in Austin for SXSW, and then in April, it is off to sunny San Diego to present at the ASU summit. Meanwhile poor former state rep Bill Dunn, who was appointed by Governor Lee as an education advisor, is stuck traveling back and forth on I40 to Knoxville and talking with legislators. Luckily taxpayers are paying him a six-figure salary, so gas expenditures shouldn’t be an issue.

Last Fall, the Commissioner was all over the country. A look at her travel expenses reveals that if you were a resident of Austin, Arlington, Boston, Philadelphia, Salt Lake City, or Washington D.C.. you had better odds of seeing her than if you lived in Tennessee. This led to frequent speculation about her future plans. Plans that still remain unclear, and reminiscent of a Clash song.

If the General Assembly is legitimately looking to reject federal money in the near future, and there is growing trepidation around the influence of non-profits, what are these trips promoting?

It is Governor Lee’s potential future run for President?

Schwinn’s availability for a new gig?

Maybe a couple legislators could fly to D.C. and ask her. or to San Diego. Or to Austin. Maybe Philadelphia? Or New Orleans. Or …yea I know, it’s exhausting.

Metro Nashville School Board Blues

The MNPS School Board convened on Tuesday of last week, and the district’s Chief Academic Officer Mason Bellemy provided a presentation on the district’s benchmark testing.

You can watch it for yourself, but the supposed good news is that MNPS is tracking in the right direction. Except, there is no real way to know, since the evidence is based on results generated by Fastbridge testing, and therefore, it is unclear whether the data is a clear indicator, or not.

Fastbridge is a benchmark assessment produced by Illuminate Education and designed to guide instruction. It replaced MAP testing which the district utilized for roughly 5 years. Whether Fastbridge is a better test or not, is debatable, and you can find arguments both for and against it. What is undebatable is that with MAP, the district had an established database that could be referenced to identify trends.

That is no longer available, and since Fastbridge has only been administered twice, we are still in the process of establishing a new baseline. The common wisdom is that kids do worse on the first administration of a new test due to unfamiliarity, but do better as they become familiar. Is the data presented by Bellemy an example of that, or is it a product of district innovation? Or a mixture of both?

That’s probably something that Bellemy should have shared, but he chose to focus on nuggets without context. My favorite is that in Grade 7

• Students struggled to explain the importance of griots in the transmission of West African history and culture.

• Students excelled in identifying the Niger River as a strategic hub for trade and exchange in the Mali Empire.

That’ll come in handy if the internet ever goes down.

During the presentation, East Magnet School was given tremendous accolades. School Board member Frida Player gushed over Principal Bruce Jackson like a blushing fan girl at a K-Pop concert. She threatened to steal him away for advocacy work based on his presentation. A presentation that shows interesting programs that are still in their infancy. I hope all of it works, and next time Jackson is presenting substance instead of style. By all accounts, he’s a talented leader. But context does matter.

East Magnet is not a zoned school. It is a school that all students choose to attend. Not taking away anything way from their work, just making sure we are comparing apples to apples.

The answer to the question that everybody wants to know – is MNPS performing well – continues to be a case of who you ask and what you define as well. Unfortunately, too many folks are continuing to decide in a manner that leads to exploring other options.

A recent article by the Tennessee Lookout shares that “Tennessee public schools have lost more than 14,000 students since the start of the pandemic — with most switching to private schools and a lesser number newly homeschooled, a new report from the Urban Institute has found.”

According to the report,

In Tennessee, there were 981,321 public school students enrolled in 2019; by the Fall of 2021, that number had decreased to 967,278, according to the report.

Tennessee had among the largest new enrollments in private schools, with 18,862 new private school enrollees — or about a 24% increase in private enrollment overall. By the Fall of 2021, there were 98,452 students enrolled in Tennessee private schools.

Homeschooling increased by more than 2,240 students to 13,600 — a 20% increase in enrollment.

Another 2,678 student shifts in education remain unexplained.

I can’t help but think that presentations like this one are aiding and abetting the flight.

The Challenge of Unintended Consequences

Over at the Nashville Scene, where Kelsey Beyeler watches MNPS School Board meetings so you don’t have to, is a story about some unforeseen issues with recently enacted charter legislation:

The second director’s report considered a matter that district officials described as an “emergency” and “unprecedented” situation regarding LEAD Neely’s Bend Middle School — a charter school — in Madison. The school is currently under the purview of the state-run Achievement School District, which was created to turn around the lowest-performing schools in the state. (Its efforts have been largely unsuccessful.) In November, the school’s leaders submitted an application to the Tennessee Public Charter School Commission — because it was an ASD school, it did not have to submit an application to MNPS — and the commission approved the application in January. As a result, the school will move from a zoned school to a “choice-only charter school,” which will affect sixth- through eighth-graders in the Hunter’s Lane cluster who are currently zoned for Neely’s Bend middle school, including students from Amqui Elementary and Neely’s Bend Elementary.

She goes on to describe the MNPS response:

MNPS staff scrambled to figure out how to make space for those students and is “proposing that Amqui and Neely’s Bend Elementary Schools be converted to PK-8 grade structure to provide the most seamless transition for the students,” according to the report. This process would start by adding sixth grade to the schools during the next school year and adding the two additional grades in each subsequent year. In the meantime, seventh- and eighth-graders would be zoned to Madison Middle School, though sixth-graders could attend and receive transportation to Madison Middle if desired. There will be a community meeting to discuss the matter on Feb. 23 at the Madison Branch of the Nashville Public Library at 6:30 p.m.

So MNPS will now have some kids in k-6 models, 5-8 models, and k-8 models. Now that speaks to some equity.

Quick Hits

Got a little piece in The Tennessee Star this week about a new bill incorporating “data science” into graduation requirements for high school students. Bill, probably ain’t going anywhere, anytime soon, but it doesn’t open some interesting questions about standards and how they might need to evolve. But wait…we’re extending the review process from 6 years to 8 years…well at least the test makers won’t have to spend any money updating assessments.

WPLN claims to have a draft of a document that was legally supposed to be codified in December of 2022 by the state Textbook Commission – the appeal process for local decisions on library books. There is nothing new in the draft and it’s still being reviewed by the State Attorney General’s office. There are no plans to vote on a document at the next meeting in March. The April meeting was canceled.

The Nashville Mayoral race just got a little more exciting. State Senator Jeff Yarboro is throwing his hat in the ring. Why he’d want to be mayor when he’s got a pretty secure gig as a State Senator is a mystery but, what the hell. Full disclosure, I’ve helped Jeff campaign in the past and I like the man. I agree with him when he says, per The Tennesseean:

“It’s time for us to invest in ourselves,” Yarbro said in a statement. “This has to be a city where you can not just make a living but build a life. Our city’s future can’t be set by investors from all over the country or legislators from all over the state. We — the people of Nashville — have to decide our own future.”

– – –

A new year doesn’t equate to greater financial stability. Putting this blog together requires a great deal of time and resources, If you think it’s valuable, your support would be appreciated.

A huge shout-out to all of you who’ve already 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.

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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, Christmas is right around the corner.

If you’d like less opinion and more news, check out my writing for The Tennessee Star. It’s a bit drier, but equally informative.


Categories: Education

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