#Schwinning

Mercedes Schneider offers more detail on a case out of the Texas Education Agency that probably should have raised some concerns for Tennessee Governor Bill Lee BEFORE he hired now-Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn.

On November 21, 2017, then-Texas special education director, Laurie Kash, blew the whistle on the Texas Education Agency’s (TEA) entering into a $4.4M no-bid contract with a special education data collecting company, SPEDx; she filed a report with the US Department of Education (USDOE) Office of Inspector General (OIG).

The following day– November 22, 2017– Kash was abruptly fired via email. (For these details and more, see my March 19, 2018, post.)

She sued for wrongful termination, and on November 22, 2019– two years to the day following Kash’s termination– the USDOE Office of Hearings and Appeals ruled in Kash’s favor. From the ruling:

The OIG report found that Kash’s communications with OIG and TEA’s internal audit office were a contributing factor in TEA’s decision to terminate her employment. Although TEA asserted other reasons for firing Kash, the OIG report found TEA did not provide clear and convincing evidence that it would have taken the same the personnel action without Kash’s disclosure.

Now, Tennessee has a Commissioner of Education causing a bit of disruption and there are even questions about the relative readiness of this year’s TNReady test:

There is a complete lack of urgency or understanding regarding the human resource needs to launch an effective assessment in support of the districts, schools, teachers, students and parents of Tennessee.

I guess that’s what you’d call Schwinning?

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Only the Best People

Amid reports from staffers that the Tennessee Department of Education is in turmoil under the leadership of Commissioner Penny Schwinn, a story out of Texas notes this isn’t the first time Schwinn has been involved in a situation involving whistleblower complaints from staffers. Here’s more:

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.

When Schwinn was hired, I noted the Texas Tribune story on Schwinn’s troubles at the Education Department there:

In an audit released Wednesday morning, the State Auditor’s Office reviewed the education agency’s work and found it failed to follow all the required steps before offering a no-bid $4.4 million contract to SPEDx, which was hired to analyze how schools serve students with disabilities and help create a long-term special education plan for the state.

State auditors also said the TEA failed to “identify and address a preexisting professional relationship” between a SPEDx subcontractor and the agency’s “primary decision maker” for the contract. Penny Schwinn — that decision maker and the agency’s deputy commissioner of academics — did not disclose that she had received professional development training from the person who ultimately became a subcontractor on the project.

Now, staff at the TDOE are raising concerns that sound similar to the trouble Schwinn faced in Texas. Problems that a simple Google search could turn up. Still, Governor Bill Lee remains committed to Schwinn and the “disruption” she is causing:

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” (Lee spokesperson) Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

That’s not exactly how it worked out in Texas, where the department lost millions of dollars and also now is being orderd to pay damages to a whistleblower.

American cent

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Penny Doesn’t Know

At a legislative committee meeting today where state representative Andy Holt, often the purveyor of terrible ideas, advocated for allowing Tennessee teachers to carry concealed weapons at school, Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn seemed unable or unwilling to stand for teachers. The Tennessean has more on how Penny dropped the ball:

Ahead of the 2020 legislative session, at least one lawmaker is already expressing interest in allowing teachers to carry guns in schools.

It’s a measure some Republican lawmakers have pushed unsuccessfully in recent years, and one that Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn on Monday declined to give a position on.

“I’m not in a place to comment on that at this time,” Schwinn said after a House budget hearing when asked whether she supported the notion of arming public school teachers. “We’re focusing on the budget hearing.”

Apparently, the issue of allowing guns in schools was too much to handle for the former educator who also noted many times during the legislative hearing that she’s also a parent.

Does Schwinn want teachers at the schools her children attend to be armed? Does she, someone with classroom experience, think it’s wise to arm teachers?

It seems she doesn’t know. Or, well, she’s just unwilling to challenge a bully and blowhard like Holt, known more for his obnoxious cowbell on the House floor than for his legislative efficacy.

Schwinn is running a department that is in disarray and now seems unable (unwilling) to stand up for Tennessee teachers and students when they need it most.

All of this raises yet another question: What does Governor Bill Lee think? Is the HVAC mogul a supporter of arming teachers? Does he support Holt’s idea? Will he continue to back a Commissioner of Education who can’t be bothered to offer support for teachers on a pretty straightforward question?

American cent

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Penny’s Problems

An earlier story indicated some staffers in the Tennessee Department of Education are worried the current climate there means the state won’t be ready for this year’s round of TNReady. Now, a new report in Chalkbeat suggests a department in turmoil, with high turnover and chaos in the ranks. Here’s more:

Tennessee’s education department has experienced an exodus under Commissioner Penny Schwinn, with almost a fifth of its employees leaving in the nine months since she took over.


The exits include people with decades of institutional knowledge, leaving many local school leaders wondering whom to call about everything from testing to information technology to early intervention programs for students with learning disabilities. Also gone are dozens of mid- and lower-level employees responsible for executing essential department responsibilities, including the state’s testing program.

American cent

For his part, Governor Bill Lee stands by the disruption led by Schwinn at the DOE:

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

While Lee seems ready to “disrupt” both the DOE and public schools, it’s clear that he’s not on board with efforts to disrupt poverty.

An alternative explanation? Bill Lee is not exactly sure how to run state government, so he’s just keeping his head in the sand.

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Penny’s Perspective

Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn is finally bringing some perspective to the claim that Tennessee is the “fastest-improving state in the nation on NAEP.” This comes after the release of the 2019 NAEP results, which showed that Tennessee remained statistically flat in terms of overall achievement. The results add further evidence to the claim that the 2013 “fastest-improving” numbers were an outlier.

Here’s some of what Schwinn had to say about the results, according to a report in Chalkbeat:

“If I’m a parent, I’m not necessarily thinking that flat is positive,” she said. “I’m thinking that flat is flat.”


“If we’re looking at proficiency by student group over time, the large increase in 2013 was largely from our white and non-low income students,” she said, calling for more support for economically disadvantaged students, English language learners, and students with disabilities.


“When we look at our suburban and urban students, we know that those students accounted for much of the 2013 growth, but our rural [scores] have remained relatively unchanged,” she said.

Schwinn noted that Tennessee continues to perform lower than peer states.

The bottom line: Tennessee is “gaining” because other states are losing ground. More specifically, as Schwinn notes, our rural and low-income students still lag behind. In other words, it’s very important to pay attention to poverty — and to enact policy that lifts up communities.

American cent

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Should I Stay or Should I Go?

That’s the question teachers and school administrators may be facing during this year’s round of TNReady testing.

The Daily Memphian reports that thanks to new “real-time” management of the online TNReady test, state officials may be able to see if the online system is becoming overloaded and give districts an option to switch to paper tests on test day. Here’s more on that management nightmare:

“We have in the last six weeks made some pretty significant adjustments and improvements with the vendor,” Schwinn said after visiting Georgian Hills Elementary Achievement School in Frayser. “We are able to measure that in much smaller increments. We can see things in 3-second and 5-second intervals as opposed to hour intervals.”

The real-time view of how the online testing is moving could allow teachers and school administrators to make rapid decisions about whether to stay with the online testing or switch students to pencil-and-paper tests instead.

I bet teachers are super excited about this new development. Kids are in the computer lab, ready to test, and then are sent back to the classroom for a pencil and paper test because the system is (predictably) overloaded. Clearly, this is a solution developed in close consultation with actual teachers who actually administer the actual tests every year.

Wait, no? You mean Schwinn and the holdovers from the Huffman-McQueen DOE are still doing things the same exact way they always have?

Shocking!

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Penny’s Problem

Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner has a problem. While she’s going around the state and supposedly listening to teachers and parents, she’s missing the key message: No one trusts TNReady.

Just this week, the Maury County School Board passed a resolution opposing the continued use of TNReady tests. The Maury County Education Association immediately announced support of the move. This comes as a new survey reveals an overwhelming majority of teachers don’t believe TNReady is an accurate reflection of student performance.

Meanwhile, Commissioner Schwinn is reassuring everyone that the next iteration of TNReady will be just fine, despite the fact a new vendor won’t be in place until 2019.

It’s a line we’ve all heard before. Failed Commissioner Candice McQueen often told us that we’d get TNReady right “this year.” But we never did. TNReady is never ready. It hasn’t been and it seems likely it won’t be.

To be fair, Schwinn inherited a hot mess in taking over the Tennessee Department of Education. That said, exhibiting real leadership requires that she make tough choices. Instead, she’s trotting out the same tired lines Tennesseans have heard year after year.

We have a new governor named Bill. Just like the last Bill who was our governor, this one has chosen an education commissioner who is putting her head in the sand instead of standing up and facing the very real policy problems impacting our schools.

TNReady has consistently failed our students, teachers, and communities. Groups across the state are sending this message loud and clear. Still, the highest levels of power are ignoring the screaming masses.

“Trust us one more time,” they say.

We’d don’t. We won’t. We can’t.

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Not Listening

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has been visiting schools around the state, but apparently, she’s NOT listening.

Here’s more from a visit she made to an elementary school in Bristol:


During a visit Thursday to Anderson Elementary School in Bristol, Tennessee, Schwinn emphasized a number of priorities. 
She said it’s essential the next vendor puts more safeguards in place to ensure testing goes smoothly.
“Certainly we’re going to hold the new vendor accountable,” said Schwinn. 

Additionally, Schwinn commented on the timeline for hiring a new testing vendor:


Schwinn said the bidding process for a new vendor will begin in a few weeks but they don’t plan to execute a new contract until September 2019. 

That’s right. There won’t even be a new testing vendor for the next iteration of TNReady until September of 2019. Students will start taking tests (at least EOC) by December. The September hiring also gives the new vendor just 8 months to prepare for the heavy testing month of April 2020.

Here’s the deal: No one trusts TNReady. Teachers tell us they don’t believe it accurately measures student performance. After a year of supposed hackers and imaginary dump trucks, students don’t take it seriously.

Schwinn is repeating lines used by former Commissioner Candice McQueen. She’s talking about safeguards and teacher resources when there are testing problems. Those of us who have actually been in Tennessee the past five years know what that means: Nothing will change.

How long will we tolerate a failed testing regime that provides little usable data and results in policy that’s bad for kids?

Good news, Tennesseans — the new Governor Bill is as tone deaf as the previous Governor Bill. Maybe he should stop sending out weekend reports from the farm and start actually talking to (and listening) to teachers and parents in our schools. Meanwhile, his handpicked Education Commissioner is demonstrating that while she might appear to be doing the right things (visiting schools, listening) she has a serious comprehension problem.

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Disconnect

According to the results of a recent survey of Tennessee teachers, there’s a huge disconnect between education practitioners and our state’s policymakers.

The Tennessee Education Association released the results of a survey of more than 5000 teachers indicating solid majorities have significant concerns about TNReady as well as the state’s portfolio evaluation system used for some teachers.

Here are some key findings:

When asked if they had a choice in state testing systems for end-of-course exams in their subject area, 87 percent of high school teachers said they would choose the ACT suite of assessments. Eighty-three percent of high school teachers rejected the notion that TNReady accurately measures student knowledge and Tennessee standards. 

Ninety-eight percent of Pre-K and Kindergarten teachers want to eliminate the current portfolio system or make fundamental changes with better teacher input. Among middle school teachers, most would like to see expanded use of benchmark testing used for RTI, followed by ACT. 

The TEA also points out some legislation is moving to address teacher concerns:

One of the key bills is HB383/SB488 filed by Rep. Terri Lynn Weaver (R-Lancaster) and Sen. Janice Bowling (R-Tullahoma), which would allow districts to administer the ACT, ACT Aspire or SAT tests as an approved testing alternative in math and English language arts for high school students.

While those on the front lines educating our children are asking for a move away from TNReady, Tennessee’s new Education Commissioner, Penny Schwinn, has said she’s committed to getting TNReady right. While some legislators are finally getting the message, it seems Schwinn has not tuned-in to the very real concerns of our state’s teachers.

It will be interesting to see if Schwinn raises objections to legislation that would move Tennessee away from a failed testing regime.

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Race to the Bottom: Testing


Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released an analysis of the Race to the Top experience in Tennessee yesterday. The document highlights the failures of the Haslam Administration to effectively implement the program as had been envisioned.

Pinkston references testing and TNReady as among the ways Team Haslam failed our students and schools. Specifically, in Chapter 18:

TNReady, the $30-million standardized testing system a blogger once dubbed “Haslam’s Hindenburg,” still isn’t ready for prime time. A new assessment vendor, Questar, managed to deploy tests in spring 2017, but mostly in paper form versus the comprehensive online platform promised in Race to the Top seven years earlier. In a ham-handed attempt to boost students’ spirits ahead of testing season, Gov. Haslam mailed out Number Two pencils to kids across the state. The blog Tennessee Education Report derided him in a headline — “Haslam to Kids: Be Ready Even Though TN Hasn’t Been.”

In 2018, TNReady actually fared worse. Hiccups included problems with students and teachers logging into the online test as well as a severed fiber cable delivering internet service to schools. Candice McQueen, the education commissioner, even brought in the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation and the state Office of Homeland Security to investigate a supposed cyber-attack. But she ended up with egg on her face again after state officials determined that Questar caused TNReady’s problems by making unauthorized changes in the testing system. Later, state auditors acknowledged that McQueen’s oversight of test administration “fell short of expectations.”

Thankfully, new Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn has promised to make TNReady her top priority. If she were making students her top priority, she’d propose taking at least a year off of testing altogether and re-evaluating how Tennessee assesses student progress.

Not surprisingly, the failed Haslam education team left Schwinn a mess to clean up:

With just months to go before a company is supposed to take over Tennessee’s troubled assessment program, the state has yet to release its request for proposals, potentially putting its next vendor on course for another rushed timeline to testing.

The state’s education department had aimed to solicit proposals by December, receive bids by February, and make a decision by April. Now officials are looking at February to unveil the document that will outline Tennessee’s testing requirements after three straight years of headaches under two different companies.

Will Tennessee keep on moving in this direction? Racing to the bottom? Will we continue taking pride in our status as the “one glaring exception” among states shifting to online testing?

While lots of states are moving to online testing, one expert says Tennessee is unique:

“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.

 

Why is Tennessee in the unique position of having the worst online testing transition in the country?

The reality is that Tennessee’s online-testing mess has left everyone in a difficult position, said Chad Aldeman, a principal at Bellwether Education Partners, a consulting organization.

“The state has not [made] stability a key priority in their testing vendors,” Aldeman said.

 

So, here we are. 2019, a new commissioner, and a huge mess. That’s just testing. As Pinkston notes, there’s much more.

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