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Tennesseans hope their new education commissioner can get testing right

(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)
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.”

Good grief. (facepalm)

— Anne-Marie Farmer (@AnneMarieDF) January 17, 2019

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