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Advice for State School Chiefs: Focus on All Kids at All Times

A former commissioner shares lessons learned, successes, and disappointments
By Rick Hess — July 27, 2023 9 min read
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Penny Schwinn served as commissioner of the Tennessee education department from January 2019 to last month, when she stepped down. As she wrapped up her tenure as one of the nation’s more heralded and outspoken state chiefs, I thought it’d be a good time to ask her to reflect on her tenure and lessons learned leading through the pandemic. Penny started as a classroom teacher with Teach For America almost 20 years ago, served as an assistant supe in Sacramento, Calif., and served in senior roles in the Delaware education department and the Texas Education Agency before assuming her role in Tennessee. Here’s what she had to say.


Rick: You’ve recently stepped down after serving four and a half years as Tennessee’s education commissioner. Looking back on your tenure, what would you regard as your biggest success? Was there anything that surprised you?

Penny: Creating opportunities for more students to thrive—and having the data to back it up—will always be our biggest successes, and I have been surprised at how quickly change can happen at scale. In just four years in Tennessee, we’ve achieved the highest ELA scores since the standards were reset; we’ve made it financially viable to become a teacher; we’ve implemented the largest state tutoring program in the country; we’ve permanently funded summer programming for incoming kindergarten through 9th grade students; we’ve made 14 Advanced Placement courses free for every student in the state; we’ve made computer science a requirement for all K–12 students; we’ve invested $500M to redesign middle and high school; and we have a new school funding formula to increase transparency and hold ourselves accountable to outcomes for all students, which has increased state funding to public schools by over 22 percent—with accountability and return on investment structures in place. I would be proud of any of these, but for all of them to happen in one term and amid a global crisis is a case study of what happens when different groups of people work together with an unwavering focus on kids.

Rick: What about your biggest frustration?

Penny: As a parent and an educator, I remain frustrated that approximately only 1 in 3 students in this country are proficient readers—and I truly believe this can be different. Ensuring our children are able to read on grade level must be a nonnegotiable goal we set for every single student in this country. The ability to change course is rooted in the science of reading: phonemic awareness, phonics, fluency, vocabulary, and comprehension. This requires strong and aligned training in our colleges of education, high-quality instructional materials, exceptional professional development and ongoing supports for teachers, and additional hours of targeted acceleration opportunities for students. I believe every educator wants to teach reading at the highest possible level, but not every educator has been given the tools, resources, and incentives to do so. I am proud of the work we’ve done in Tennessee through Reading 360 to raise our 3rd grade ELA proficiency by 8 points in two years, to have a 97 percent satisfaction rate from our teachers on professional development, and to support our educator-preparation providers in developing innovative courses aligned to the science of reading.

Rick: This is a time of pretty intense culture clashes. You referenced these when you announced you were stepping down. Can you say a bit more about your thinking?

Penny: We are at a time in education—and in our country—where there are a significant number of divisive issues. I have growing concerns about the lack of civility and common decency between neighbors and the inability of groups to have productive, difficult conversations. We do not have to agree, and, in fact, the foundations of our country demand that we do not. However, political and social grandstanding and a misunderstanding of the fundamentals of how our government works means that many education leaders are spending too much time explaining the basics and not on making the important decisions for kids. One of the many exceptional things about our country is that we were founded on the belief that healthy debate is instrumental in forming a more perfect union. In education, those debates are rooted in that which is the most precious to us—children. That is always going to be personal and emotional; however, we must find a way to engage in hard conversations without taking them personally. Let’s make sure our children are educated, safe, healthy, and immersed in school communities that reflect the values of our country and maintain an unwavering focus on opportunities and achievement for every student.

Rick: What did you see as your role in this kind of environment?

Penny: As educators, our ultimate responsibility is to ensure that we remain unwaveringly focused on making decisions in the best interest of students. One of the most challenging and important approaches I’ve used in this role is to ensure that I maintained a true North Star. My job was to make strategic decisions to improve and accelerate student achievement and to do so in one of the largest set of crises our country and my state has faced: a global pandemic, politics invading the classroom, floods, tornadoes, school shootings, bus accidents, fatigue. While the pandemic certainly slowed progress, it did not change our momentum. Tennessee’s rebound in the data and what I expect to see on NAEP in 2024 reflect our commitment to improving education.

Rick: You were a Republican state chief at a time of unprecedented action on school choice. What do you think explains this surge in enthusiasm? And what potential concerns do you have?

Penny: We have to come to a point where we don’t just concede—but actually believe—that families have a right to be a meaningful part of their child’s education. Coming out of the pandemic and school closures, we expected to see an increase in the demand for school choice based on what we had consistently heard from families. School was no longer the thing that happened outside of the home—it was in our homes, and that made it more personal. Some of the school choice surge reflects that paradigm shift. With that, implementation is always a significant stumbling block. For school choice to work, there needs to be understandable, accurate, and accessible information for parents. It requires exceptional customer service for families and tooling that streamlines the process. Fiscal accountability needs to be clear and enforced. Well-defined benchmarks for quality and outcomes must be publicly stated and honestly reported. Whether you are someone who advocates for choice for choice’s sake or for choice specifically to ensure better opportunities for students and families, the surest way to see the work fail is to believe that passing the law is the finish line.

Rick: What advice do you have for Lizette Reynolds, your successor, or for other state chiefs?

Penny: Being a state chief requires student-centered content expertise; a tough skin; a strategic mind; a warm heart; and an unapologetic, unwavering focus on doing what’s best for students. Tennessee has been blessed with consistent gubernatorial leadership that values education, a General Assembly that continues to prioritize education, district and school staff that work tirelessly every day on behalf of their students, incredible parent organizations, and dedicated community organizations and advocates. The legacy of consistency, hard work, and grit that embodies the Volunteer spirit is so special to Tennessee, and I am excited for Commissioner Reynolds to carry that legacy forward. That same approach can be shared in any state and the power of a strong and unwavering commitment to service—as I was so proud to have under Gov. Bill Lee’s leadership—is the best formula for success. And as always, it must be about kids—all kids, and at all times.

Rick: You’ve received attention for your efforts regarding teacher recruitment and retention. Could you say a bit about these efforts?

Penny: It should be a universal expectation in this country that every child is taught by a highly qualified teacher and that we remove as many barriers as possible to becoming an educator. If we believe that a strong education is one of the best ways to maintain a thriving economy, then we must ensure that we have the educator workforce to produce the outcomes we need and expect. During my time as state chief, Tennessee launched and significantly expanded a program called Grow Your Own, GYO, and the apprenticeship portion of that program allows the state to use U.S. Department of Labor dollars to pay for teachers to earn their bachelor’s and master’s degrees, as well as their professional credentials. This work expanded opportunities to meet critical shortages in the teaching profession, including paying for existing teachers to earn endorsements in high-need areas and to rethink educator preparation. Tennessee also passed legislation to increase the minimum teacher salary to $50,000 per year by 2026. To help retain the educators entering these pipelines, we must compensate and treat our teachers like the professionals they are and we should expect them to be.

Rick: How does the Grow Your Own program seek to expand opportunities for prospective teachers?

Penny: As the nation’s first state to have a federally recognized teaching apprenticeship, Tennessee now has nine educator-preparation providers offering apprentice seats through 19 educator pathways for degree or certification, adding 600 new teachers annually. In May 2022, the Tennessee department of education announced a $20M investment in the University of Tennessee system to create the Tennessee Grow Your Own Center to operate as the one-stop shop for programmatic support and technical assistance. The Tennessee department also supported grants with existing educator-preparation programs to continue offering no-cost endorsements to existing teachers to fill critical vacancies in the state like secondary math, ESL, and special education. Additionally, the state created the Diverse Leaders Network, which funds diverse candidates to earn their administrative credentials and master’s degrees. Finally, the Aspiring Assistant Principals Network launched a fourth cohort to provide existing educators the opportunity to earn their administrative credentials and master’s degrees at no cost, providing articulated pathways for teachers in their careers.

Rick: What’s next for you?

Penny: Anything I do moving forward will be in support of students and creating more opportunities for them to thrive. I started a new role in June with a more formal announcement later this summer, but I am looking forward to a few additional projects to support up-and-coming and current education leaders. I will also be advising education companies on how to strengthen their existing products, services, and strategies to improve the outcomes they intend to deliver for students and schools. Ultimately, the country continues to talk about “innovation” and “redesign,” but we are moving too slowly, and the proposed solutions are still rooted in traditional structures. I am excited to think more deeply about creating an education system that remains competitive, is aligned with current and future economic needs and conditions, and truly supports all students.

The opinions expressed in Rick Hess Straight Up are strictly those of the author(s) and do not reflect the opinions or endorsement of Editorial Projects in Education, or any of its publications.


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