Upheaval

The Tennessee Department of Education is in disarray, and the disruption is impacting students and their families, according to a recent story in Chalkbeat.


… the disbursements she receives to pay for curriculum and tutoring started showing up late, said Moore, who lives in Bartlett, northeast of Memphis. She had to borrow money in December to cover the costs. The state office she had known as responsive and helpful suddenly took weeks to return calls.


“Everything fell apart,” said Moore, who has limited income and receives disability payments.


Tennessee’s Republican-backed Individualized Education Account program, or IEA, is under increased scrutiny. Democrats and other voucher opponents are seizing on problems in the program — including parents being cited for disallowed purchases — to bolster their case that Tennessee can’t be trusted to launch a second, larger school voucher program this summer on Republican Gov. Bill Lee‘s accelerated timeline.


But Moore’s experience, and that of other parents like her, spotlights another aspect of the existing voucher program that has received little public attention: upheaval and uncertainty in the state Department of Education office charged with overseeing the relatively small initiative.


The resignations of the IEA director and her two staff members, a lag in replacing them, a failure by the state to answer pleas for more resources, and the challenges of overseeing a complicated program have all contributed to delayed disbursements and a frustrating information void in recent months, according to parents and current and former education department employees.

The challenges with the IEA voucher program and staff are just one example. Some in the Department of Education suggest the state will have difficulty administering the TNReady test this year:


An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “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.”

And then, there are reports of late night rants via email. Multiple sources confirm these reports.

All of this is occurring while the Department of Education also engages in questionable no-bid contracts such as the one awarded to ClassWallet to oversee the larger voucher program set to start in Memphis and Nashville this year.

Supposedly, all of this “upheaval” will be good for kids in the long-term. I suspect many school leaders, parents, and even legislators are becoming quite skeptical.

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No Bid? No Surprise!

At a legislative committee meeting Monday, it was revealed that the contract that outsourced administration of the Education Savings Account (ESA) voucher scheme was awarded without competitive bidding. Chalkbeat has more:


A legislative review of new voucher rules gave Mitchell and other Democrats an opportunity to grill state education officials for almost two hours on Monday about details for the program’s start.


Among the revelations: The department did not go through a competitive bidding process or the legislature’s fiscal review committee to secure its contract with ClassWallet.

The lack of adherence to bidding procedures should come as no surprise as Commissioner of Education Penny Schwinn faced similar challenges when she held a senior level position in the Texas Education Agency:


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).

Kash’s supervisor? Penny Schwinn.

In short, Schwinn is doing what she’s always done: Bending the rules to serve her needs.

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Penny’s Turnover

WPLN reports on more concerns being raised about Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn and turnover in the department she leads. Here’s more:


It’s no secret that the agency is struggling to retain employees. According to data provided by the state, the turnover rate under Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s first nine months is about 18%.


Rep. Gary Hicks, R-Rogersville, told WPLN News he’s been hearing from people in his district about the issues within the state agency and about the concerns of the turnover rate.


“What we have to (do) as legislators is we just monitor the situation and try to figure out what those factors are that’s contributing to the rate that we are seeing,” Hicks said.


Rep. Mark White, R-Memphis, worries about the institutional knowledge in the agency.


“We do have concerns because of the amount of turnover, many from the institutional knowledge that we depend on to get answers,” White, the chairman of the House Education Committee, told WPLN News on Friday.

Earlier concerns raised by department insiders include a lack of readiness for this year’s administration of the TNReady test:


An employee still with the department sums up her concerns by saying, “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.”

The legislature reconvenes on January 14th. It will be interesting to see how these concerns are expressed.

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#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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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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REFUSED

A Knox County parent has refused to allow her children take the state’s failed TNReady tests each of the last four years. WBIR has more:


A Knox County parent says she has refused to let her kids take TNReady exams for four years.
Elizabeth MacTavish and her husband are educators, and she understands the stress of standardized testing as both a parent and a teacher. 


We are spending millions of dollars on a test that is neither reliable nor valid, the testing companies that we’ve been using continually fail,” MacTavish said. 
Over the past few years, TNReady has had some problems. 
In 2016 the original online testing system failed. In 2017 about 1,700 tests were scored incorrectly. 
In 2018, the state comptroller’s office says there were login delays, slow servers, and software bugs.
Now, the state is looking for a new vendor for TNReady testing. Tuesday, it issued a request for proposal for next school year.
The Department of Education expects the new contract to be $20 million each year. It’s current contract with Questar is $30 million

Former Commissioner of Education Candice McQueen, who presided over all the failed iterations of TNReady, perpetuated the myth that not testing annually would result in a penalty from the federal government. In fact, that’s not entirely accurate:

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.

Current Commissioner Penny Schwinn has demonstrated she’s not actually listening to parents and teachers as she travels around the state and visits schools. Instead, she is determined to continue to pursue a testing model that has failed students, teachers, and schools across the state.

More than 80% of teachers believe the state should move to the ACT suite of assessments to replace TNReady. A similar number believe TNReady does not accurately reflect student ability.

For now, the state marches on and nothing changes. But, if more parents took the refusal approach, the state could be forced to truly reckon with a broken system.

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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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Race to the Bottom: ASD

Earlier this month, Nashville school board member Will Pinkston released his report on Tennessee’s Race to the Top Experience. Included in his analysis was a discussion of Tennessee’s struggling Achievement School District (ASD).

Here’s more on the troubled turnaround effort:

The controversial Achievement School District, created by Race to the Top to take over and turn around persistently failing schools, saw its fortunes nosedive.

YES Prep, the Houston-based charter chain founded by ASD chief Chris Barbic, announced in March 2015 that it would not proceed with turnaround work in Memphis — based on a lack of community support for the ASD. At the same time, traditional schools in Memphis suddenly began to outperform ASD schools, calling into question the turnaround model.

That summer, Barbic threw in the towel. The soft-spoken, congenial reformer — who a year earlier, under stress, had suffered a heart attack — wrote an open letter explaining the rationale behind his departure. Understandably, his reasons for leaving included health and family. On his way out, Barbic also offered a mea culpa of sorts that earned him a little goodwill among public-education advocates and derision among his fellow reformers.

“Let’s just be real,” Barbic said in his letter. “Achieving results in neighborhood schools is harder than in a choice environment.” He added: “As a charter school founder, I did my fair share of chest pounding over great results. I’ve learned that getting these same results in a zoned neighborhood school environment is much harder.”

In 48 words, Barbic eviscerated a key argument by radical reformers. As it turned out, charter schools weren’t the silver-bullet solution. His simple but honest admission was a shot-heard-round-the-world in education circles. And it had the added benefit of being true.

Priority

In September 2018, Chalkbeat reported on the continued struggles of the state’s failing turnaround district:

Most of the schools that were taken over by Tennessee’s turnaround district remain on the state’s priority list six years after the intervention efforts began.

Four of the six original Memphis schools that were taken over by the state in 2012 are on the newest priority list released last week. And more than a dozen schools that were added to the district later also remain on the list.

For years, the district has fallen short of its ambitious promise to dramatically raise test scores at the schools by handing them over to charter operators — a goal that the district’s founder later acknowledged was too lofty. And researchers with the Tennessee Education Research Alliance recently concluded that schools in the state district are doing no better than other low-performing schools that received no state help.

I’ve also written extensively about the ASD’s struggles and even suggested that the real problem was mission creep:

Here’s something that should give policymakers pause: According to the most recent State Report Card, the ASD spends more than $1000 per student MORE than district schools and yet gets performance that is no better than (and sometimes worse) the district schools it replaced.

By creeping beyond its admirable mission, the ASD has become an example of good intentions gone awry. Focusing on the original goal of using highly focused effort to both improve struggling schools AND learn new strategies to help other schools would be a welcome change.

Yes, the ASD is one more example of education policy failure by Team Haslam. Bill Lee and Penny Schwinn have a big mess to clean up — if they’re up to the task.

 

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This Seems Bad

Is Tennessee on track for another TNReady mess? It sure seems that way.

Chalkbeat has more on the rushed timeline to get a new vendor in place for Fall 2019:

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.

NOT OPTIMAL

Incoming Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn — who was recruited by new Gov. Bill Lee partly for her experience with assessments in two other states — acknowledges that the timetable is not optimal.

“If I look at other states, including the two that I’ve overseen in Delaware and Texas, the traditional timeline is that a new vendor has a year to set up processes that are really strong and then you execute,” she told Chalkbeat.

“That being said,” she continued, “the responsibility that we have at the department is to follow whatever guidelines, legislation, and expectations are set for us. The expectation is that we have a new vendor in place for next school year, and we will do whatever we can to ensure that is as strong a transition as possible.”

Umm??

Seriously, Tennessee?

Are we going to do this to our kids again?

It sure looks that way.

Hackers. Dump Trucks. Lies. Rushed Timelines. Welcome to Tennessee, Penny Schwinn!

 

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Testing Priorities

Tennessee’s new Commissioner of Education, Penny Schwinn, has said she will make getting TNReady “right” her top priority.

With that in mind, here are some thoughts for right-sizing testing in Tennessee:

 

When a test fails over and over again, students stop taking it seriously. When the data is either not returned on time or is the result of a badly botched test administration, teachers are not well-served. Further, parents can’t trust the results sent home — which undermines the entire process.

 

Our next Commissioner of Education must present a plan that moves us away from a test that does more harm than good. We should explore alternatives that reduce total testing time and even those that move away from testing kids every single year. It is also worth taking a year off of testing altogether in order to spend time developing a plan that actually serves our students well.

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