first reaction

Tennesseans hope their new education commissioner can get testing right

PHOTO: (Hill Street Studios | Getty Images)

Tennessee has a new top education leader, and top of mind for many in the state is: Can she fix the state’s troubled testing system?

Penny Schwinn, 36, was tapped Thursday by Gov.-elect Bill Lee to join his administration as the state’s next education commissioner. She will leave her job as chief deputy commissioner of academics for the Texas Education Agency, where she has been responsible since 2016 for issues including school programs, standards, special education – and testing.

“She has experience managing statewide assessment systems, and her experience, perspective, and lessons learned are exactly what we need right now, said David Mansouri, leader of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, or SCORE.

Penny Schwinn will be Tennessee’s education commissioner under governor-elect Bill Lee. (Photo courtesy of Bill Lee Transition Team)

Tennessee just went through a third straight year of problems administering and scoring the state’s TNReady assessment, and moving the testing system forward and establishing trust with educators will be a big challenge for Schwinn. Lee’s administration believes she’s up for the task, and touted on Thursday her work leading to “the transformation of a failing state assessment program” in Texas.

Beth Brown, president of Tennessee’s largest teachers group, said that when she met briefly with Schwinn this week, one of the first things discussed was Schwinn’s previous work around testing.

“Testing transparency has been a huge concern for Tennessee educators for years as we’ve had such horrible issues with the rollout of TNReady,” Brown said. “Dr. Schwinn committed to work with us, and I walked away from our meeting hopeful and optimistic that she will listen to educators on this and other issues.”

Brown added that Schwinn will have extra challenges as an outsider, but there could be opportunities to look at recurring issues, such as TNReady, with fresh eyes.

“She comes in without baggage tied to our challenges, and can maybe be a bridge between stakeholders that don’t see eye to eye,” Brown said.

Still, Lee’s choice to appoint someone outside of the state gave some Tennesseans pause. One Memphis educator said in a Facebook post, “Plenty Tennessee educators are qualified for this role. Ugh.”

Dale Lynch, leader of Tennessee’s organization for superintendents, said when he met with Schwinn, she emphasized her desire to spend time in every state district.

“The big challenge for someone coming in outside of Tennessee is making sure they understand where we’ve been and what our goals are as we move forward as a state,” Lynch said. “She was well aware that all our school districts are very unique and has aspirations to be in all of our communities.”

Schwinn follows two education commissioners appointed by outgoing Gov. Bill Haslam — Lipscomb University Dean Candice McQueen and Teach for America executive Kevin Huffman — who were also reform-minded leaders hired following national searches.

Huffman and Schwinn share a Teach for America background – much to the chagrin of some. Schwinn launched her education career through the alternative teacher training programs in Baltimore. Huffman was a frequently divisive leader who left after three years of clashing with teacher groups, superintendents, and state lawmakers over policies ranging from teacher licensing and evaluations to charter schools and academic standards.

“It’s Huffman #2,” one Memphis educator noted on a Facebook post about Schwinn. “I’m just sick.”

The Knox County Education Association strongly objected to Schwinn’s background as a charter school founder and Teach for America alumna, writing in a Facebook post: “Governor Lee has declared war on TN public education. I hope teachers, parents, and students are prepared to fight back.”

Schwinn, who founded a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California after she taught in Baltimore, will be in charge of pioneering Lee’s vision of greater school choice. This could lead to rough political waters for the new education leader, especially as school choice vouchers, which use taxpayer money to pay for private school tuition and fees, are likely to be debated at the statehouse.

Both Brown and Lynch said that when they met with Schwinn, her overarching message to them was to give her a chance to listen and learn – and establish how she’s going to move the state forward.

“The last thing she said to us was that ‘I know you’re going to leave here and Google all about me,’ Brown said. “ ‘I’m asking for a chance. Give me some time to prove myself.’ We are definitely going to give her that chance and look forward to working with her.”

Lynch said he was going to take her at “face value.”

“She asked to give her an opportunity, and that’s what we’ll do,” Lynch said.

More reactions from around the state and nation:

Tennessee Educational Equity Coalition:

“We are excited to see Dr. Schwinn’s experience as a teacher and administrator as well as her equity-centered values. Her appointment will bode well for our students as Tennessee continues to set the national standard for innovation in education and school improvement.”

The Professional Educators of Tennessee, a teacher association headquartered in Nashville:

“We have met with Penny Schwinn and look forward to getting to know her better and to collaborate together on public education. Schwinn shares Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s commitment to support teachers, reduce our testing burden, and improve the working environment, including more competitive compensation.”

Chiefs for Change, a leadership program for educators that Schwinn completed:

“Penny is the right leader to build on Tennessee’s impressive record of improving outcomes for students,” said John White, board chair of Chiefs for Change and Louisiana state superintendent of education.

Tennesseans for Quality Early Education

“We’re encouraged that Bill Lee has chosen a dedicated, proven leader to lead the Tennessee Department of Education at a critical time to double down on improving student outcomes,” said Mike Carpenter, executive director of the early education advocacy group. “Penny Schwinn has a strong background of supporting measured student growth and the experience that can benefit our students, teachers, parents and policymakers.”


Frustrations over principal turnover flare up at IPS School 43

PHOTO: Dylan Peers McCoy
School 43

It began with a tame slideshow presentation about hiring a new principal at School 43. But the Wednesday night meeting soon spiraled into a venting session — as parents and teachers pleaded with Indianapolis Public Schools to send in more staff.

Bakari Posey, the principal of School 43, departed for another job last week in the latest upheaval at the school, which is also known as James Whitcomb Riley. The assistant principal, Endia Ellison, has taken over in an interim capacity, as the district searches for a new leader for the school, which has faced significant turnover in recent years.

“This school needs help,” said Natasha Milam, who has three children at School 43, which serves about 450 students in prekindergarten to eighth-grade. “We need you all to listen. And we need you all to hear us.”

Milam, who volunteers at the school, said that because the building does not have enough staff to handle behavior problems, students are suspended far too often — meaning students are at home doing chores or getting into trouble, instead of in class learning.

Many in the neighborhood had hoped Posey, who is from the community, would be able to turn the school around after the previous two school leaders left their posts just months into the job. But under Posey’s leadership, the school continued to struggle on state tests, with just 7 percent of students passing both the math and English exams last year.

And after two-and-a-half years on the job, Posey left and began working this week as assistant principal at Fall Creek Valley Middle School in Lawrence Township. In an email Thursday, Posey said that he left because he thought the position in Lawrence would help him grow professionally and it was closer to his home.

Posey also disputed the picture of School 43 as a campus in crisis. He said this school year, there hasn’t been “turmoil in the school in regards to student behavior,” suspensions were down, and the campus has been “very calm.” (Suspension numbers could not immediately be verified.) He also said that Indianapolis Public Schools provided “great support” to school staff.

Nonetheless, parents and teachers’ at the meeting Wednesday said the school has serious problems.

Ryesha Jackson, a 4th-grade teacher who has been at the school a little over a year, said there are not enough staff to help with student discipline problems. That makes it hard for educators to teach, she said.

“We have fights almost every day,” Jackson said. “I guess my question is, ‘What are we doing right now to support teachers?’”

School 43 is a neighborhood school, on the north side of the district. More than 75 percent of students there are black, and almost 70 percent are poor enough to qualify for free or reduced-price meals — about the district average.

Indianapolis Public Schools interim Superintendent Aleesia Johnson said district and school leaders would work together to develop a plan to address the urgent problems at School 43.

“But what I can’t give you right now is the plan for that help,” she said. “That takes time and coordination with the school staff.”

The district is gathering input about what school community members are looking for in a principal before posting a listing, officials said. Finalists will be interviewed by committees of parents, community members, and school and district staff. The goal is to name a new principal by April.

Also at Wednesday’s meeting was a small contingent from the IPS Community Coalition, a group that is often critical of the Indianapolis Public Schools administration, particularly the district’s partnerships with charter schools.

Michele Lorbieski, a resident from the north side who ran unsuccessfully for the Indianapolis Public Board with the support of the coalition last year, said the district cannot just rely on the next principal to fix the school.

“What I’d hoped to hear tonight was what the school district was doing to put things in place to stop this revolving door of principals,” she said.

District officials did not directly address why turnover has been so high among principals at School 43. But Brynn Kardash, a district official who recently began working with the school, said that the central office is doing more to support it this year.

School 43 was added this year to the transformation zone — an effort to help troubled schools that includes dedicated support and regular visits from a team at the central office, said Kardash, the district’s executive director of schools for the zone. Educators in the zone get additional training, extra planning time, and help analyzing student data, she said.

“The goal is to really support Ms. Ellison in work that she’s doing,” Kardash said, “which then leads to, hopefully, teachers feeling that support in the classroom.”

technical difficulties

This personalized learning program was supposed to boost math scores. It didn’t, new study finds

PHOTO: Patrick Wall
A student at I.S. 228 in Brooklyn does online work through Teach to One, a program that grew out of the iZone.

A program that Bill Gates once called “the future of math” didn’t improve state test scores at schools that adopted it, according to a new study.

The research examines Teach to One, a “personalized learning” program used in schools across 11 states and which has drawn support from a number of major funders, including the Gates Foundation, Chan Zuckerberg Initiative, and Netflix co-founder Reed Hastings. (Gates and CZI are also funders of Chalkbeat.)

At five schools in Elizabeth, New Jersey, students who used Teach to One didn’t improve any faster than similar students who didn’t use the program, even after three years. The results underscore the limited evidence for claims that such technology programs can dramatically improve student learning, even as they have become magnets for philanthropic dollars.

“The original aspirations, that Teach to One programs were going to have huge positive effects on math scores — we can rule that out with these studies,” said Jonah Rockoff, a Columbia professor who studied an earlier iteration of the program.

Teach to One says its approach is designed to help students steadily learn math skills, regardless of how unprepared or advanced they are. Students spend time on a computer as well as with a teacher and working in small groups. Students receive individualized schedules each day based on their progress, and a computer program adapts the curriculum to students’ strengths and weaknesses in the form of a “playlist.”

New Classrooms, the organization behind Teach To One, suggests that the Elizabeth results aren’t the full story.

It points to a separate analysis released this week that looks at a broader group of schools — 14, from several districts — that used the program. That study shows Teach to One students making above-average gains on a test known as the MAP, which is taken on a computer with questions changing as students answer correctly or incorrectly.

New Classrooms co-founder Joel Rose suggested in a statement that those computer-adaptive tests capture something that state tests can miss: students’ progress.

“What seems to be emerging is a real tension in math between approaches focused on long-term academic growth and state accountability systems,” he said.

Rockoff said there might be something to New Classroom’s argument that the study using adaptive test is better able to showcase students’ gains. “If [students] are at a grade four level but they’re in grade six, teaching them grade four material is going to hurt them on the state test,” he said.

But the author of the second study, Jesse Margolis, and a number of other researchers who spoke to Chalkbeat note that it cannot show whether Teach to One caused any of the students’ gains, though — a major limitation.

“While this study cannot establish causality, it is encouraging,” Margolis wrote. (The New Jersey study is better able to establish cause and effect, but it also has limitations and does not rely on random assignment.)

The New Jersey study isn’t the first to show that Teach to One didn’t improve test scores: so did Rockoff’s 2015 report on three New York City middle schools that looked at both state and MAP tests.

One possible explanation is that Teach to One is helpful to students in some places but not others. Margolis said his study examined the same five Elizabeth schools as the Columbia study and also found minimal gains there, but that schools elsewhere seemed to see larger improvements.

Researcher John Pane of RAND, a leader in studying personalized learning, says the results are important to understanding a field with limited research to date.

“Because we have so little evidence on personalized learning,” he said, “every data point can be helpful for us to start triangulating and piecing together what works and what doesn’t work.”