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.

For more on education politics and policy in Tennessee, follow @TNEdReport

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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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Lundin Falling

Nashville education blogger TC Weber has the story of Robert Lundin, who recently was relieved of his duties as Assistant Commissioner of Education. Here’s more:

Last summer Commissioner Schwinn created two cabinet-level positions for former Texas residents Lundin and Katie Houghtlin –  positions that paid in excess of $125k. Houghtlin led her department, which oversaw the department’s “Whole Child” initiatives, into some egregious territory and early indications are that Lundin may have done the same with his. Yesterday the former TFA corp member was unceremoniously removed from his position amid rumors of mismanagement of Independent Education Accounts overseen by his department.

Unfortunately. the enthusiasm of eligible families did not match the enthusiasm of Tennessee legislators. As of January of this year, out of 40k eligible participants, only 150 students were participating in the IEAs. In a presentation to the State Disability Council, Lundin chalked the low participation numbers up to a lack of information getting out to parents and too many procedural hurdles for parents to leap. Keep in mind, that any time a disruptor says there are too many rules, somebody is about to lose some protections.

Participation may have been low, and those participating often experienced challenges navigating the system, but for the most part, things ran efficiently for the first 3 years and parents received disbursements in a timely fashion. Initially, the program was overseen by Assistant Commissioner Elizabeth Fiveash, but in the Spring of 2019, Schwinn moved it under the purview of Assistant Commissioner Katie Poulos who she had recently brought in from New Mexico. Neither remains with the DOE, and Poulous has recently filed a lawsuit against the Commissioner and the TNDOE for wrongful termination.

Rebecca Wright, who oversaw the rollout of the voucher program for students with disabilities left in June and has yet to be replaced. Wright’s assistant resigned four months later and wasn’t replaced in 2019, and a third employee left Jan. 3 — all part of a staff exodus at the Department of Education under Schwinn. But there was no need to worry because Lundin and a few others were helping out. Apparently not enough though because in February ChalkbeatTN proclaimed things were falling apart.

MORE>

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A New Board Member

Nashville education blogger TC Weber breaks down Metro Council’s appointment of a new member of Nashville School Board.

Last night Nashville’s Metro Council appointed a new school board member. Congratulations to Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney as she takes over the seat vacated by the untimely death of former board chair Anna Shepherd. By all accounts, Nabaa-McKinney is a capable and exceptional replacement. Her presentation to the council yesterday was quite impressive and probably went a long way towards swaying council members to her side.

Unfortunately, last night’s proceedings were not completely free of political machinations. Education committee chair Dave Rosenberg cast his first ballot vote for Stephanie Bradford in an attempt to prevent candidate John Little from advancing. A move that was unsuccessful because McKinney and Little both tied with 11 votes while Bradford received 14. As a result, only the 4th candidate Steve Chauncey was prevented from advancing.

In the next round, Rosenberg switched his vote to Nabaa-McKinney, a move that successfully knocked Little out of contention. In the final round, the majority of Little’s votes transferred to Nabaa-McKinney, allowing her to secure the appointment by a vote of 25-14.

Mayor-to-be Council Member Bob Mendes missed the vote due to a family vacation. A curious decision seeing as he’s viewed as the city’s budget guru and MNPS takes up the largest portion of the budget. Mendes recently led the effort to raise property tax rates by 34%, in part to increase funding to the public school system. Surprisingly he was uninterested in influencing who would lead the district.

Dr. Berthena Nabaa-McKinney will hold the school board seat until November when voters will have the opportunity to vote for the candidate who will serve out the remainder of Shepherd’s term until 2022. Both Little and Bradford have announced their intention to campaign for the seat, and the assumption is that Nabaa-McKinney will as well. Convincing voters will present a decidedly different challenge as opposed to convincing council members.

TC also talks Florida Virtual School and more problems for Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn>

The Best

A new story out of the Tennessee Department of Education indicates more turmoil among staff there under the leadership of Commissioner Penny Schwinn. Here’s more from Chalkbeat:

The leader of Tennessee’s new “whole child” initiative that includes anti-bullying programs has been demoted and reassigned after an investigation found she verbally abused employees under her supervision at the Department of Education.

Katie Houghtlin has been stripped of her title as assistant commissioner, as well as her responsibilities managing personnel. She is now handling special projects for Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn, who recruited her from Texas where they previously worked together.

According to a summary of an investigation obtained by Chalkbeat, a state investigator found that Houghtlin “utilized verbal abuse, micromanagement, as well as harsh and inappropriate treatment” toward a staff member who later filed a complaint, as well as toward other employees.

An earlier story noted that Schwinn had been involved in the termination of a whistleblower during her time in a leadership post at the Texas Education Agency:

Federal officials have ordered the Texas Education Agency to pay a former special education director more than $200,000 in damages for illegally firing her.


Laurie Kash filed a federal complaint Nov. 21, 2017, with the U.S. Department of Education, claiming the TEA had illegally awarded a no-bid contract to a company to analyze private records of students receiving special education services.


Less than a month after firing Kash, the TEA ended its no-bid special education contract — losing millions of dollars — and promised to review its own contracting processes. A year later, state auditors found the TEA had failed to follow all the required steps before awarding the contract.
It also had failed to identify the personal relationship between the subcontractor and the main decision maker for the contract: Penny Schwinn, who was then the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics.

Seems like a pattern is emerging.

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