Education commissioner touts new strategic plan for 'high quality public education'

Jeff Bobo • Aug 28, 2019 at 9:00 PM

ROGERSVILLE — The Tennessee Department of Education will release its new statewide strategic plan within the next week or two, but Commissioner Penny Schwinn gave Hawkins County principals a sneak preview Tuesday.

Schwinn said the new plan will be about “the most important thing: high quality public education.”

Director of Schools Matt Hixson surprised his top administrators Tuesday morning in Rogersville with an unannounced visit by Schwinn during the first countywide principals meeting of the new school year.

Schwinn took over as education commission on Feb. 1, and this was her first visit to Hawkins County.

“I’ve been trying to spend a little bit of time around the state visiting as many schools and districts as possible, talking with educators, talking with teachers, family members, students, etc., to figure out, ‘What are we about? What do we want it to be about? And not all the bells and whistles,’ ” Schwinn said. “What we actually ended up with is our strategic plan is about students and educators. That’s it. None of the flashy stuff. It’s about what’s the most important thing. High quality public education.”

“What we heard is it’s about kids”

The statewide strategic plan was developed after Schwinn read approximately 35,000 survey results from parents, teachers and students.

“What we heard is it’s about kids, and that’s all that matters,” she said. “One of the things we did hear, a lot of the feedback, is that we’ve got a lot of kids who have very, very different needs. So how do we support them without having the principal and the teacher be the principal, the teacher, the social worker, the counselor, police officer and everything else in between? Having extra resources in our schools so that you have what you need to do the really important jobs.”

Schwinn added, “Our job is to make sure we are supporting you in Nashville and thinking about you and of you, and supporting you in a way you need to be supported. Not the way we decided you need to be supported.”

Schwinn took a few questions from administrators, and an abbreviated version of her answers is listed below. To hear Schwinn’s full presentation, watch the video included in the online version of this article at www.timesnews.net.

Losing literacy summer camps

Assistant Director Beth Holt expressed concern about the loss of state-supported literacy summer camp programs and asked if that program can be revisited.

“The reason we can’t use the federal funds is it’s essentially daycare money that we were using for the Department of Health, and per the federal statutes, certified teachers are not as qualified to do summer programs because they’re using daycare funds. You can’t use certified teachers as daycare specialists. … The governor provided $5 million to get us through this summer. That buys us some time before next summer.”

A new statewide accountability system

Hixson asked Schwinn to preview the state's new “40/40/20” accountability model for grading schools and districts.

“One of the things we heard is, if we are a super high performing school, it’s really hard to show growth. If we are a school that’s ‘high opportunity’ where we can grow a lot of our kids, that’s where we need to focus, and we need to focus on making sure all of our kids are growing (academically) rapidly.”

Another term for the new accountability system is a “best of model.”

“So you get a grade for each of those (growth and proficiency), and you get a grade for what they call ‘other indicators’ as required by federal law. It’s basically chronic absenteeism. But in your growth score and your proficiency score, let’s say one’s an A and one’s a D. In terms of what goes into the overall (score) you get the better of them. So you’re average is an A. It’s not A and D makes C+. … It’s essentially trying to say, you can’t be high growth and high proficiency. That’s literally impossible, and then we’re forcing grades that don’t actually make sense.”

Retaining high quality educators

Mooresburg Elementary Principal Jason Roach asked how the Department of Education is responding to a recent survey that 1 in 3 Tennessee teachers wants to leave the profession.

Schwinn said there are two categories the department is already studying: what gets people into the field of education and what helps people stay in that field.

Starting salary is a big factor, as well as the amount of support required for issues such as behavior management, discipline, and children in crisis.

“Teachers want to feel supported in the classroom, which is part of why we see teachers leave the profession. Part of it is salary, but a lot of it is working conditions after years, going into your fourth year. It’s, ‘Can I be successful, and is this sustainable?’ We’re seeing emotionally it’s not for teachers. You’re dealing with all of these challenges that weren’t there necessarily 30 years ago.”

Resource disparity between urban and rural communities

Federal program supervisor Reba Bailey asked how the state will deal with the disparity in resource allocation between rural and urban communities.

Scwinn said Gov. Lee cares about that issue and has directed all of his commissioners to address those inequities. That will be reflected in new grant and funding opportunities intended to increase resources that are available in the poorer, rural schools.

“In traveling across the state, one thing we’ve been talking about in the department is there’s certainly rural, urban, suburban. But rural in west Tennessee, rural in East Tennessee, and rural in Middle Tennessee do not look the same either. We have to think about how we address our districts and their individual unique needs based on where they’re at. … We have to be able to better prioritize how we think abut allocating funds to ensure everyone has a fair shot at getting a teacher who is highly qualified and excellent in the classroom, that everyone is getting the resources they need for their local communities.”

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