Why Not Waivers

As entire school districts close around the state due to the COVID-19 crisis, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has granted limited waiver authority to allow a shift to remote learning. Why, then, are districts closing without even asking for a waiver?

WPLN in Nashville explains:

As of Wednesday afternoon, 13 districts have applied to temporarily shift some schools online and 8 were approved. But other school systems have closed without pursuing the state waiver for virtual learning.

“It does not apply for an entire district,” said Jeff Luttrell, the superintendent of Wilson County Schools, which has been shutdown all this week.

“And our numbers determined to us that we needed to shut down our district for a few days, to see if we could kind of stop the spread and allow some people to get healthy,” he added.

The waiver issue is the latest in a series of ineffective state policies as Tennessee’s leadership continues to mishandle COVID-19. Now, indicators suggest Tennessee is the number one state in the nation for pediatric COVID-19 cases.

Tennessee also leads the nation in overall cases per population:

Meanwhile, Gov. Lee has said he has no plans to change the state’s COVID mitigation strategy.

woman holding sign
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Penny’s Power Grab

Legislation that would give Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn broad authority to fire a school system’s superintendent and remove the school board is advancing in the Tennessee General Assembly.

Chalkbeat has more:

A bill outlining reasons the state may take over a local school district cleared its first legislative hurdle Tuesday. 

Rep. Scott Cepicky, a Republican from Maury County, said his proposal aims to strengthen Tennessee law by providing a clear process for when the state education commissioner should take control of a district, which could include firing the superintendent and replacing elected school board members.

It’s no surprise that Gov. Bill Lee, who has long expressed distrust of local school boards, is behind this measure.

Cepicky’s comments in support of the bill, however, indicate he is disconnected from the reality of how schools operate in Tennessee.

“I’m here arguing for students, folks — the students that are trapped in failing school systems,” he said. “Most of our school systems are doing the best they can … but there are districts out here that are failing these kids year after year after year, and we’ve got to address that moving forward.”

It’s interesting that Cepicky serves on the education committees of the House, even chairing the Education Instruction subcommittee and yet he has made exactly zero moves to improve the state’s failing school funding formula.

If Cepicky would like to talk about who has been failing Tennessee’s students year after year after year, he need only look around at the legislature and note that the body’s majority party has done precious little to improve the situation.

Tennessee ranks 46th in school funding and consistently receives an “F” in both funding level and funding effort in national rankings. The legislature’s own advisory commission suggests the school funding formula (BEP) is $1.7 billion behind where it should be.

Still, Cepicky cheerily carries the water for a governor who has so far refused to demonstrate any sort of commitment to investing our state’s resources into schools in a meaningful way.

If only Cepicky chaired a key education subcommittee or sat on another education committee or maybe if he were a member of the majority party or a representative trusted to carry key pieces of the governor’s agenda, maybe then he could actually make a difference where it mattered.

Instead, he’ll have to be content to lament the failing schools allowed to beg for cash from a position of zero power or influence.

Oh, and since Cepicky is so concerned about failing schools, one can only assume he opposes Lee’s efforts to extend the reach and control of the Achievement School District.

I’ll be waiting for Cepicky’s statement on the matter.

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Did They Even Read This?

It’s not clear that the Department of Education previewed or even actually read the words in a document intended to dissuade parents from opting their children out of state standardized tests.

While activists in Tennessee and around the country are encouraging the Biden Administration to grant testing waivers, parents are not waiting and are taking matters into their own hands.

In fact, when one parent recently indicated to a school principal that their child would be “opting out” of state testing in 2021, they were provided with a one page document from the Tennessee Department of Education explaining that opting-out is not an option.

Here’s that letter:

Opting Out of Annual Assessments 

October 2020 Updated 10/19/2020 

What is the Purpose of Annual Assessments? 

Annual assessments are critical to ensure that all students are making strong academic progress. In Tennessee, one measure of  student, school, and district academics is through the Tennessee Comprehensive Assessment Program (TCAP), which are tests  aligned with our state’s academic standards, outlining what students are expected to know, guiding educators as they design their  lessons and curriculum. As Tennessee’s teachers work to equip all students with the knowledge and skills they need, we have to  ensure that we can identify any major gaps in students’ learning and find variations in growth among different schools – both so we  can strengthen support in places that need it and learn from educators and students who are excelling. 

Results from TCAP tests give both teachers and parents a unique feedback loop and big-picture perspective to better understand  how students are progressing and how to support their academic development. This yearly academic check-up is the best way to see  how all students in Tennessee are doing, and it is one key measure through which we learn if are meeting our responsibility to  prepare all students for college and the workforce. Because of the importance of annual assessment, we believe it is crucial for all  students to take all TCAP tests each year.  

May parents opt their students out of testing? 

State and federal law requires student participation in state assessments. These statutes specifically reference the expectation that  all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments. Therefore, school districts are not authorized  to adopt policies allowing these actions.  

No, state and federal law requires student participation in state assessments. In fact, these statutes specifically reference the  expectation that all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments. Given both the importance  and legal obligation, parents may not refuse or opt a child out of participating in state assessments. Therefore, school districts are  not authorized to adopt policies allowing these actions.  

With the exception of students impacted by COVID-19 as described below, school districts must address student absences on testing  days in the same manner as they would address a student’s failure to participate in any other mandatory activity at school (e.g. final  exams) by applying the district’s or school’s attendance policies.  

What considerations may be made for students impacted by COVID-19? 

Students Impacted Medically by COVID-19 

A student who tests positive for COVID-19 and is unable to return to school to test may be exempt from testing following  appropriate medical exemption documentation.  

Supporting Students with Existing Health Conditions 

Students with health conditions, such as those who may be immunocompromised, may also qualify for a medical exemption, if the  school building testing coordinator or district testing coordinator is unable to accommodate the testing environment needed to  ensure student safety. Students with other diagnoses whose needs can be addressed with appropriate supports throughout the  school year should have a plan that includes the student’s needs during testing as well. Districts should follow accommodations  available to students as outlined in these plans, as long as they do not compromise test security or the validity of the assessment.  

Guidance for Classrooms and Schools Impacted by Quarantine 

In the case of a student, set of students, or school impacted by a quarantine due to COVID-19 in advance of testing, school districts  are strongly encouraged to schedule make-up testing opportunities that would be able to be administered at a date when students  could safely return to school. School districts typically schedule make-up opportunities shortly after their previously communicated  test dates but this Fall may choose to offer additional make-up testing opportunities for students later if they can plan with enough  advance notice to ensure test availability. 

Key Phrase

Here’s the key phrase (repeated twice in the letter):

These statutes specifically reference the expectation that  all students enrolled in public schools in Tennessee will complete annual assessments.

Note that no sections of Tennessee Code Annotated (TCA) or United States Code (USC) are referenced here. Why? Because the codes that require students to take the tests do not exist. There are Tennessee regulations preventing districts from adopting policies regarding opting-out. Violation of such policies is subject to a penalty determined by the Commissioner of Education.

But, the laws on the books regarding students merely “reference the expectation” that students will complete the assessments.

Umm? What?

Did anyone at DOE read this “guidance” before sending it out? Does the staff there assume that Tennessee parents can’t actually read?

Your child “must” take the test because districts aren’t allowed to adopt policies allowing opt-out and because someone who wrote some statutes “expects” that children will complete assessments?

No. Just no.

That’s not how this works.

In fact, here’s something I wrote back in 2016 that is directly relevant now:

There’s just one problem: The federal government has not (yet) penalized a single district for failing to hit the 95% benchmark. In fact, in the face of significant opt-outs in New York last year (including one district where 89% of students opted-out), the U.S. Department of Education communicated a clear message to New York state education leaders:  Districts and states will not suffer a loss of federal dollars due to high test refusal rates. The USDOE left it up to New York to decide whether or not to penalize districts financially.

See, no big deal. Except, well, Penny Schwinn wants to make it a big deal. Just like the previous Commissioner of Education wanted to make it a big deal.

Dear parents: Don’t be bullied by letters riddled with redundancy from the Department of Education. Instead, push back on Penny’s petulance.

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Make Believe

The land of make believe is apparently where Gov. Bill Lee and his team go to find justification for their bad public policy. WMC-TV out of Memphis has the story about how the Lee Administration is using old data from a study based on projections to justify a demand that schools return to in-person learning.

Here’s more:

Despite new data suggesting COVID-19 learning loss wasn’t as severe as predicted, state leaders continue to use old data, which some have called misleading, to pressure school districts like Shelby County Schools to reopen for in-person classes.

The ACTUAL data from students suggests any “loss” of ground due to the pandemic is relatively minimal. Lending credence to claims made by Nashville blogger TC Weber and others that the entire concept of “learning loss” is pretty much ridiculous.

For example:

Shelby County Schools also released its own data in November, showing that while learning loss did occur in reading and math, it wasn’t as bad as predicted.

For instance, 28% of students placed below grade level in reading compared to 27% historically.

In math, 29% of students placed below grade level compared to 23% historically.

Despite the newer data, the governor and his administration continue to use projections from the April NWEA study to pressure school districts like SCS to reopen to in-person classes.

Calling out hypocrisy

Shelby County Schools Superintendent Joris Ray noted that while calling for students to return to in-person learning, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn appeared via video to legislators:

“Watching state leaders call for in-person learning on the state legislature’s virtual video meeting today sends a mixed and hypocritical message. We invite state leaders to step away from privileged podiums and try to understand the many concerns of our students, parents, and teachers,” Ray said.

Whether it is Bill Haslam’s Commissioner of Education telling tales about TNReady or Bill Lee’s Commissioner appearing virtually using make believe data to push for in-person learning, Tennessee’s recent history indicates education policy is made independent of actual facts.

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Commissioner-in-Waiting

Gov. Bill Lee has selected former State Rep. Bill Dunn to serve in an advisory role to embattled Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.

Sandra Clark has more in KnoxTNToday.com:

Former state Rep. Bill Dunn will earn $98,000 in his full-time position as senior advisor to state Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. He will work from both Nashville and Knoxville, according to Victoria Robinson, director of media for the state Department of Education.

Dunn started work Monday, Nov. 9, according to a press release from Gov. Bill Lee.

(Note: the new job will boost Dunn’s state pension, which is based on his highest-paid years. He has worked for 26 years as a representative, which currently pays about $24,000. Look for a follow-up when we get actual numbers.)

Dunn has been a long-time critic of public education in the state, opposing the creation and expansion of a Voluntary Pre-K program and taking the lead in ushering in Lee’s school voucher scheme. The voucher plan has since been declared unconstitutional.

Some speculate that Dunn’s role is in preparation for his eventual takeover of the Department of Education. Schwinn has come under fire for her mismanagement of the DOE, and even Republican allies of Gov. Lee are calling for an investigation into her leadership.

Meanwhile, Dunn is a familiar face at the legislature and a committed privatizer. Whether or not he ultimately receives the Commissioner title, there’s no doubt his influence will be felt in the Department and in pursuit of legislative action.

Will former State Rep. Bill Dunn become Commissioner of Education?

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In Light of These Outcries

It seems that someone is finally listening to educators from across the state who have consistently complained about poor management at the Tennessee Department of Education. Let’s be clear: Though flippant and abrasive, current Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is merely carrying out the privatization agenda of her boss, Gov. Bill Lee.

Still, it’s noteworthy that both Senator Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White (who chair the education committees in the Senate and House, respectively) are now calling for an investigation into the financial management practices at the DOE under Scwhinn.

Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

Two legislative leaders are calling for an investigation into the Tennessee Department of Education’s management of millions of dollars earmarked for coronavirus relief, as well as the state’s school voucher program for students with disabilities.

Sen. Dolores Gresham and Rep. Mark White, who chair the legislature’s two main education committees, want the state’s chief internal investigator to look into “questions and concerns” raised about both CARES funding and the 4-year-old voucher program known as Individualized Education Accounts.

Neither lawmaker provided details but, in an Oct. 23 letter to Comptroller Justin P. Wilson, said the concerns “come from every level of education across the state.”

“In light of these outcries,” they wrote, “we respectfully request that your office conduct an investigation into the management of these two areas to determine if they are being administered in accordance with both state and federal law.”

That only took — FOREVER. It’s nice to know the legislature would rather placate a governor hellbent on privatizing our schools instead of actually paying attention.

Here’s …. LOTS of evidence that Gresham and White clearly missed because they are either willfully ignorant or … YOU make the call:

Those are a few examples.

Make no mistake, Bill Lee stands by Penny Schwinn. This is HIS agenda.

Today is Election Day 2020. If you want a different outcome for Tennessee schools, the next time you can vote for someone other than Bill Lee is in November of 2022.

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What Passes for Rigor

Nashville education blogger TC Weber takes on the recently released CREDO study of supposed student learning loss in his most recent post. It’s the study relied on by Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn as she doubles down both on the need for kids to return to in-person instruction AND the critical need for ever more testing.

Here’s one paragraph that stood out to me:

Third, the need for rigorous student-level learning assessments has never been higher. In particular, this crisis needs strong diagnostic assessments and frequent progress checks, both of which must align with historical assessment trends to plot a recovery course. The losses presented here implicitly endorse a return to student achievement testing with the same assessment tools for the foreseeable future. At the same time, preserving and expanding the existing series is the only way to reliably track how well states and districts are moving their schools through recovery and into the future.

That’s directly from CREDO. Yes, they’re saying we need to continue with the testing regime we have. Since the folks at CREDO seem so interested in testing that aligns with “historical assessment trends,” let’s take a brief look at just how well testing has gone in Tennessee over the past few years.

To say that TNReady has been disappointing would be an understatement. From day one, the test has been fraught with challenges. There have been three vendors in five years, and a range of issues that caused one national expert to say:

“I’m not aware of a state that has had a more troubled transition” to online testing, said Douglas A. Levin of the consulting group EdTech Strategies.

Here’s more from the TNNotReady chronicles:

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Three vendors over five years. A broken system that sucks the life out of instructional time. That’s what CREDO and Commissioner Schwinn want to continue. Make no mistake, this is not about what’s good for Tennessee kids – it’s most definitely about what’s good for national testing companies and the Commissioner’s career aspirations.

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Nothing to Reassure Me

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is doing a lot of apologizing, but not much in the way of reassuring district leaders that she knows what the hell is going on in our state’s schools. TC Weber has more on Schwinn’s recent antics around data as it relates to “learning loss” and COVID-19.

Media outlets quickly took up the clairion call of pending doom and gloom. Most choosing to go with the headline on the TNDOE’s press release – Tennessee Releases Data Showing Significant Learning Loss Among K-12 Students. In their rush to sound the alarm, few noted that the state did not release any data, merely statements from Department leaders. But superintendents certainly noticed.

Their response was equally fast and furious. So much so that, Commissioner Schwinn was forced to send them an attempt-to-clarify email and schedule an afternoon ZOOM call with Dale Lynch and TOSS.

And, the always on-point Haywood County Director of Schools Joey Hassell for the win:

“The e-mail did provide context for the data shared in the release on Wednesday; however, it did nothing to reassure me that we could trust the department or expect a public apology regarding an ill advised press release.”

How long… how long must we sing this song?

MORE from TC Weber>

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Where Did This Data Come From?

Haywood County’s Director of Schools (Joey Hassell) always asks the important questions. He’s a former Assistant Commissioner for Special Education at the Tennessee Department of Education, so he’s familiar with how the education policy game is played in Nashville. Fellow blogger TC Weber reports on the questions surrounding Schwinn’s manipulation of data to fit her narrative:

What I’m referring to, of course, is the Governor’s press conference where Lee and Schwinn handed out information that indicated Tennessee’s students were suffering a decrease in learning proficiency of 50% in literacy and 65%. The information was alarming but should have raised questions about how it was arrived at. As quoted by Chalkbeat,

“My biggest question is, where did this data come from? What districts provided it?” asked Joey Hassell, superintendent of schools in Haywood County, near Memphis. “We have not provided any data and, as far as I know, the state has not asked for it.”

According to the online magazine Center Square – who is currently providing some of the best coverage available on Tennessee Education issues – projections were developed from a study by the department conducted with national researchers in June of how students were projected to perform this year. Chalkbeat went a little further, pointing out that she also cited early diagnostic testing data voluntarily provided by some school districts, as well as the results of an optional state assessment that more than 30,000 students statewide reportedly took at the beginning of the academic year. None of which was provided to district leaders or members of the media.

READ MORE>

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Gross Misrepresentation

That’s how one school district leader described Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s recent statements on learning loss as a result of school schedule changes related to COVID-19. Chalkbeat has more:

Pre-pandemic test data analyzed by national researchers — not recent back-to-school test results from Tennessee students — was the basis for state projections this week that proficiency rates will drop by 50% or more for third-grade reading and math due to schooling disruptions during the pandemic.

Schwinn had said her estimates were informed by back-to-school testing data that was voluntarily shared by some Tennessee school districts, combined with national study and analysis by two groups. But asked later for details, members of her staff referred only to “national researchers using historical, Tennessee-specific data.” That data dates from 2014 to 2019, before the coronavirus emerged in the U.S.

Numerous superintendents said Schwinn’s comments were misleading in suggesting that recent homegrown data was taken into account in formulating the state’s projections.

“This is about doing your homework,” said Leah Watkins, superintendent of Henry County Schools in West Tennessee. “Before the state releases numbers to millions of Tennesseans, let’s make sure it’s accurate and shared with appropriate context.”

She called the presentation a “gross misrepresentation” that left out important facts.

“It sends a message to the public of gloom and doom — that what we’re doing in our public schools is not adequate,” Watkins said.

READ MORE>

Perhaps Commissioner Schwinn is borrowing from the McQueen playbook when it comes to her relationship with the facts.

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