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.


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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.


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.


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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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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.


  • 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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