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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Explainer

The State Board of Education met yesterday to adopt emergency rules for schools in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The Board noted there may be a need for additional changes, but for now, these changes address issues like grades and teacher evaluation. Here’s a great explainer from Knoxville-based online publication Compass.

Highlights:

  • School systems cannot require attendance or mark students truant for failure to participate in any remote learning activities they make available while schools are closed. Many school systems, including Knox County, are providing some level of instruction or review materials either online or via paper packets. Many teachers are also engaging students online via email or video conferencing. (Knox County’s resource page, consisting mostly of PDF worksheets, is here.)
  • High school seniors will receive grades for their classes no lower than what they were as of March 20 (This is true for ALL students). School systems have the option of providing extra work to allow seniors to raise those marks so that they can graduate with higher GPAs.
  • All year-end state testing is suspended, although school systems can choose to administer the tests if feasible.
  • Student performance data from this year won’t be used in teacher evaluations, but school systems can use information from classroom observations performed earlier in the year to make decisions about personnel placement and to provide professional feedback.

Mike Krause, executive director of the Tennessee Higher Education Commission, told the board that students may be nervous about having grades sufficient to qualify for the state’s HOPE lottery scholarship program, which requires a 3.0 GPA.

But he noted students can also qualify by scoring at least a 21 on the ACT college entrance exam or a 1060 on the SAT test. He also said the HOPE scholarships are not the only vehicle for post-secondary aid.

The article also referenced the controversy surrounding a survey sent by the Department of Education and subsequent revelations of a plan of action pushed by Commissioner Penny Schwinn.

The state survey caused some initial confusion, because the original version included questions that made it sound as if the state was considering adding instructional days during the summer in 2020 and/or 2021. But then those questions vanished, so that people who opened the survey Sunday saw different options than people who opened it when it was first sent out.

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Yeah, About That

So Jeb Bush’s school privatization group, Excel in Ed, is highlighting the Tennessee survey on the use of CARES Act funds. Trouble is, Jeb fails to mention that the survey has multiple versions and that the state’s Commissioner of Education accidentally revealed her desired outcome BEFORE the survey was finished.

Here’s the statement on Tennessee:

Tennessee officials have released a survey to gather public input on how the state should spend the funds received from the federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act to support the educational response work already underway and the future recovery efforts. Examples of eligible supports include better internet access and/or devices for students, addressing needs of special populations, professional development for effective distance learning strategies, online learning resources and mental health services. The deadline for completion is April 13. 

Maybe next time, Jeb should check with the folks on the ground before touting a plan he happens to like.

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TEA Statement on Emergency Rules for Schools

The Tennessee State Board of Education today adopted a set of emergency rules for schools in light of the COVID-19 outbreak. The changes impact attendance requirements, grading, teacher licensure, and evaluation.

Here’s a statement from the Tennessee Education Association on the changes:

“As educators and families continue to grapple with so much uncertainty, we appreciate the State Board of Education addressing some of the problems caused by school closures. The actions taken today are another step forward in ensuring students and educators are held harmless during this time.

TEA understands that this will not be the only round of emergency rules needed. As the Department of Education and local districts continue to get their arms around what public education looks like during an extended school closure, the state board will need to further adopt rules and approve waivers to allow for learning to continue in a way that prioritizes the health and well-being of Tennessee students and educators.

TEA is already hearing from members across the state with concerns about the impacts on tenure, differentiated pay and other issues affected by the suspension of evaluations and testing. The association will work closely with the department and the state board to ensure districts have access to the waivers needed to support teachers and students.”

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The Issue

While much has been made in recent days about Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn’s “plan” and a survey sent to various “stakeholders,” Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch gets to the heart of the matter in a series of tweets:

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The Plan

Significant controversy has surrounded a survey put out by the Tennessee Department of Education in relation to the use of COVID-19 stimulus funds for schools. So much controversy, in fact, that the survey was changed to take away questions about summer school and extending the school day as ways to “make up” for time lost due to school closures during the global pandemic.

The flames were further fanned when what was labeled a “bold and visionary” plan from Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn was discussed in Education Week. The heat was so hot that the article ultimately changed to reflect a more nuanced discussion of Schwinn’s ideas.

Here’s the language that generated a LOT of interest from parents, teachers, and others involved in public education:

Penny Schwinn, understands that making up for lost time will be a multiyear effort that starts immediately. Her three-year learning plan—which should be a model for other states—retools the school year calendar with a mix of in-person and online learning, including a surge of 20 days of learning over the summer.

Her plan to retool time to support a coherent long-term, three-year academic plan for the students of Tennessee is bold and visionary. 

These remarks left the impression that no matter what happened with the surveys, Schwinn had already decided what options would be on the table for school systems.

Wondering where else the idea of extended school days and summer school as “make up” for lost pandemic time is mentioned?

Turns out, it’s in a March 30, 2020 document about how TDOE is responding to COVID-19.

On page 11:

Make-Up Missed Instructional Time

• Local districts may consider afterschool programs, optional summer school, and other locally-led strategies to extend learning time

Page 17, discussing use of funding:

Providing summer learning and supplemental afterschool programs (including on-line learning);

Page 29:

in 18 months, a full school year will have finished, with additional minutes recovered, potentially in a mixed learning format

And, of course, there’s MORE testing:

It will be important to measure student achievement and growth now more than ever, so that teachers and leaders know where to focus efforts. (page 10)

So, there’s a plan. According to one of Schwinn’s pals, it’s “bold and visionary.” And it involves re-tooled (longer) learning time (minutes added to days, summer days). Will this be a statewide mandate? That’s not likely. But, it is possible that local districts receiving CARES funds will need to follow rules created by the state. It’s also noteworthy that while Schwinn attempted to avoid the controversy by clarifying what was published in Education Week, the March 30th plan tracks with the original account.

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Penny’s Plan

So, it turns out the survey on how to spend COVID-19 stimulus funds — the one claiming to seek “stakeholder” feedback — was all window dressing. As some suspected, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn already has a plan. In fact, it’s all explained right here in Education Week.

In Tennessee, our member and future chief alum, Penny Schwinn, understands that making up for lost time will be a multiyear effort that starts immediately. Her three-year learning plan—which should be a model for other states—retools the school year calendar with a mix of in-person and online learning, including a surge of 20 days of learning over the summer, to make up for lost days. She is revisiting every element of her strategic plan to align with the needs for quality learning at a distance, for a more robust digital infrastructure, and for frequent checks to ensure students and adults are handling these enormous shifts emotionally as well as academically. She is working on plans now to develop her own statewide online tool that will provide a system for teachers to deliver content and remediation for small groups, participate in virtual professional development, and provide resources for families, including information on meal locations. Her plan to retool time to support a coherent long-term, three-year academic plan for the students of Tennessee is bold and visionary. 

UPDATE

While the Education Week article has been changed to reflect a more nuanced version of Schwinn’s response, there is a screenshot that still holds the original version as quoted above.

And, Williamson County School Board member Eric Welch is all over the changes with a series of key questions on Twitter:

So, Commissioner Schwinn has a “bold and visionary” plan she has yet to share with policymakers or parents or teachers. It includes a “surge” of summer learning. 20 days, to be specific.

It’d be nice if everyone else in the state could be clued-in to this “coherent, long-term, three-year academic plan.”

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TEA Calls for Statewide School Closure, Canceling TNReady

Even as Gov. Bill Lee has called on schools across Tennessee to close as soon as possible to mitigate the spread of Coronavirus, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn in her most recent guidance suggested that TNReady testing would continue. Now, the Tennessee Education Association (TEA) is calling on the state to release a plan to both cancel TNReady and protect educators and staff who may be impacted by the closure.

Here’s the TEA press release:

“As concerns about the spread of COVID-19 rapidly increases statewide, we are relieved to see Gov. Bill Lee take decisive action to protect students, educators and families. The Tennessee Education Association supports the call for an immediate closure of our public schools statewide.

The Center for Disease Control and other federal agencies have issued guidance that gatherings of more than 50 people must be avoided to slow the spread of this dangerous virus. With that direction, it is irresponsible to keep our public schools open. If it is no longer safe for the General Assembly to conduct business with the public present, it is no longer safe for our schools to remain open.

It is critical that the state implement a plan to ensure students’ needs are met and educators are not harmed during a statewide closure. Many Tennessee students face food insecurity at home and rely on their school for a hot meal each day. Many students are also without computer or internet access at home, and thus unable to participate in distance learning. The Tennessee Department of Education must act quickly to address these concerns and work to identify a solution to protect our students.

The state’s plan must also include protections for educators during a statewide closure. No educator should be forced to use sick time or go unpaid while the state copes with a global pandemic, this especially includes education support professionals. Local school districts are the largest employer in many communities. A disruption in pay for educators would significantly increase the financial impact of the pandemic in Tennessee.

TEA is also concerned about the upcoming TNReady testing window. The Tennessee Department of Education’s recent letter to directors of schools indicated TNReady testing will continue as planned. Tennessee students and educators are dealing with increased stress and uncertainty following the devastating storms in Middle Tennessee and now a global health crisis. It is inappropriate to move forward with TNReady testing this year.

The Tennessee Education Association is calling on the Lee administration and the Tennessee General Assembly to cancel all TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system for this school year. There will be a significant loss of classroom time for students, and the continuity of instruction critical to building knowledge will be disrupted. Continuing with state high-stakes testing, or the time-consuming portfolio system used in Kindergarten and related arts, will only be setting our students and teachers up to fail.

The U.S. Department of Education has already released guidance stating it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests.

The Tennessee Department of Education and our state legislature must prioritize the health and well-being of students, educators and families. With that priority in mind the decision is simple to close all public schools, and cancel TNReady testing and the portfolio evaluation system. It would provide needed relief in this health crisis.”

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

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Coronavirus Extends Spring Breaks

As more information about Coronavirus (COVID-19) becomes available, school districts around the state are extending their Spring Breaks or otherwise canceling school functions and events. Here’s an example from Sumner County:


Sumner County Schools will extend spring break an additional week, March 23-27. We are taking this proactive step to help keep our school community healthy and safe. We will continue to monitor this rapidly changing situation closely based on information provided by the National Institute of Health, the Center for Disease Control, and the Tennessee Department of Health. We encourage you to visit our website or Facebook page for the most current information.

Meanwhile, the Department of Education has new information/guidance available here.


Starting March 16th, the Department of Education COVID-19 hotline is available for district leaders 629-888-5898 or toll free 833-947-2115. The hotline is available Monday-Friday 6:30 am – 4:30pm CT
Tennessee Department of Health has launched a Tennessee Coronavirus Public Information Line in partnership with the Tennessee Poison Center. The hotline number is 877-857-2945 and will be available from 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. CT daily.


COVID-19 coronavirus is a respiratory illness caused by a novel (new) virus. Stopping transmission (spread) of the virus through everyday practices is the best way to keep people healthy. 
State health officials are currently taking steps to prevent the spread of COVID-19 in Tennessee. Schools can play a key role in this effort. Through collaboration and coordination with local health departments, schools can take steps to disseminate information about the disease and its potential transmission within their school community.  

However, the Department and Commissioner Schwinn are still insisting the state proceed with the annual TNReady testing.

What is your district doing regarding Coronavirus? Let us know!!

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

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Penny on TNReady and COVID-19

Here’s a letter Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn sent to Directors of Schools regarding Coronavirus, testing, and school attendance/school closures. In short, she’s not going to make any decisions or take any leadership role.

Schwinn does not seem ready to ask the legislature to waive the tests or to recommend closing schools or to advocate for any emergency measures. This insistence on continuing to test comes despite federal guidance suggesting that states could very well receive waivers from testing mandates:


Guidance released by the U.S. Department of Education says it will consider waiving requirements for state-wide tests, currently mandated in grades 3-8 and once in high school. State testing occurs throughout the spring, and some school closures were already running into planned testing windows.  

So, we could have a Commissioner asking for a waiver. And, we could be taking steps to close schools or waive the 180 day attendance requirement. We’re just … not.

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

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