breaking news

With re-election off the table, Indiana schools chief Jennifer McCormick also backs away from leading state board

PHOTO: Shaina Cavazos
Jennifer McCormick speaks during a 2016 campaign event.

Days after she announced she wouldn’t pursue a second term as Indiana’s schools chief, Jennifer McCormick dropped another bombshell: She no longer wants to be the leader of the state’s education policy-making body.

McCormick told fellow Indiana State Board of Education members on Wednesday that she is not interested in being board chairwoman when members vote again in January. She was elected to the role by board members for the second time earlier this year. McCormick will remain a board member, which is required under state law.

“I will be stepping away from the chair when that time comes, probably in January,” McCormick said. “So that just gives the time for the board to think about it and handle it much better than it was handled last time.”

After her announcement, just one board member offered any comments. Gordon Hendry said he’s been proud to work with McCormick, and he appreciates the difficulties she’s faced as schools chief.

“It’s not an easy job heading up the department of education,” Hendry said, noting that he and McCormick frequently voted together “even though we’re on different sides of the aisle politically.”

McCormick’s decision to not seek out the chair position, a move that is unprecedented in recent Indiana education policy history, comes two days after she said she wouldn’t seek re-election as state schools chief in 2020. McCormick, a Republican and former public school educator, said political squabbles were distracting her from the important work of educating Indiana’s students and said she would “still serve students for the rest of my life, but it may not be in this role.”

Such infighting likely led to McCormick’s announcement on Wednesday as well. Though she campaigned as a more collaborative leader than her predecessor, Democrat Glenda Ritz, McCormick has butted heads with fellow Republicans as often as she’s agreed with them in the first half of her term.

Read: She’s no Tony Bennett or Glenda Ritz — Jennifer McCormick is charting her own course as Indiana’s schools chief

In fact, the former Yorktown schools superintendent made direct references to those moments in her out-of-the-blue announcement Monday, where she also detailed plans for the second half of her term.

Some of those disagreements are over policy — she frequently votes with a minority of board members who tend to include current or recently retired educators. During her first year, her budget asks were lock-step with Gov. Eric Holcomb, but since then, she’s strayed from party positions on issues like accountability for charter and private schools and A-F grades.

But some are political battles that represent a larger tension between the state’s competing state board and education department, a feud that dates back to 2013 when then-Gov. Mike Pence split the entities in an effort to quell Ritz’s influence and power.

Still, the board has voted to pick McCormick as its leader twice. Lawmakers approved a bill in 2015 to overhaul several aspects of the board, including letting it choose its own leadership from among its members. At the time, Pence said the change would allow the board to work more efficiently and smoothly, referring to near-constant clashes at board meetings between Ritz and board Republicans and Democrats alike.

It’s not yet clear who might seek out the chair position. Currently, the vice-chairman is B.J. Watts, an educator from southern Indiana. The state board is expected to elect new leadership from among its members early next year.

Ultimately, McCormick said, she wasn’t worried about what this decision would mean for her work on state education policy.

“The position of chair, as structured by state leaders prior to my time in office, is irrelevant to policy outcomes,” she said in a statement. “My time and attention are better utilized without this unnecessary distraction.”

 

Top teacher

Former Tennessee teacher of the year wins prestigious national award

Cicely Woodard, an eighth-grade math teacher in Franklin, receives the 2019 NEA Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence. (Photo courtesy of NEA)

Former Tennessee teacher of the year Cicely Woodard has received the nation’s highest teaching honor through its largest teacher organization.

The eighth-grade math educator in Franklin accepted the Member Benefits Award for Teaching Excellence from the NEA Foundation. The honor, which includes a $25,000 prize, was presented Friday at a gala in Washington, D.C.

“Teaching can be time-consuming, challenging, and sometimes overwhelming,” said Woodard. “But the impact that we make on the lives of students — and that they make on us — is powerful, life-changing, and enduring.”

A graduate of Central High School in Memphis, Woodard has been a teacher since 2003. She taught in Nashville public schools when she was named Tennessee’s top teacher in 2018 and has since moved to Franklin Special School District in Williamson County, south of Nashville, where she teaches at Freedom Middle School.

Woodard was among 46 educators nominated for the NEA Foundation award by their state education associations and was one of five finalists who received the Horace Mann Award for Teaching Excellence, which carries an additional $10,000 prize. The Member Benefits Award winner was announced at the finale of the gala attended by 900 people.

“Cicely has been selected for this award by her peers not only because of her mastery as an educator, but also because of the empathy and compassion she shows for her students,” said Harriet Sanford, president and CEO of the NEA Foundation.

Known for her inquiry-based approach to mathematics, Woodard holds a bachelor’s degree in math from the University of Memphis and a master’s degree in secondary math education from Vanderbilt University.

She has had numerous state-level roles, including serving on the education department’s teachers cabinet and on the testing task force created by former Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. She also is on the steering committee for the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, a Nashville-based education research and advocacy organization.

You can watch Woodard in her classroom in the video below.

Penny Schwinn

What we heard from Tennessee’s education commissioner during her first week

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn (right) speaks with students during a visit to LEAD Neely's Bend, a state-run charter school in Nashville. (Photo courtesy of LEAD Public Schools)

From students in the classroom to lawmakers on Capitol Hill, Penny Schwinn introduced herself as Tennessee’s education commissioner this week by praising the state’s academic gains over the last decade and promising to keep up that momentum by supporting school communities.

Schwinn toured seven schools in Middle and East Tennessee during her first three days on the job to get a firsthand look at what’s behind the academic growth that she’s watched from afar as chief accountability officer for Delaware’s education department and more recently as deputy commissioner over academics in Texas. She plans to visit schools in West Tennessee next week.

The goal, she said, is to “listen and learn,” and she told a statewide gathering of superintendents at midweek that Tennessee’s successes can be traced to the classroom.

“It has to do with the hard work of our educators … every single day getting up, walking in front of our children, and saying ‘You deserve an excellent education, and I’m going to be the one to give it to you,’” she said.

On policy, she affirmed Tennessee’s decade-long blueprint of setting rigorous academic standards, having a strong assessment to track performance, and holding school communities accountable for results.

“If we can keep that bar high … then I think that Tennessee will continue to improve at the rate that it has been,” she told legislators during an appearance before the House Education Committee.

Schwinn was the final cabinet member to start her job after being hired by Republican Gov. Bill Lee just days before his inauguration on Jan. 19. Her whirlwind first week began with school visits on Monday and concluded on Friday by attending a policy-heavy session of the State Board of Education.

But perhaps the biggest introduction came on Wednesday before district leaders attending a statewide meeting of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, also known as TOSS. These are the local administrators she’ll work with most closely to try to improve student performance.

The superintendents group had stayed neutral about who should succeed Candice McQueen in the state’s top policy job but hoped for a leader with extensive experience both in the classroom and as a Tennessee school superintendent. Schwinn is neither, having started her career in a Baltimore classroom through Teach For America and later founding a charter school in her hometown of Sacramento, California, where she also was a principal and then became an assistant district superintendent.

She appeared to wow them.

“Our job at the state Department of Education is to figure out what you all need to help your teachers be the best that they can be for our students. My job is to lead this department to ensure that this happens,” she told the superintendents.

Schwinn shared a personal story about adopting her oldest daughter, now age 6, and the “powerful moment” at the hospital when the birth mom said she loved her baby but couldn’t provide her with the future she deserves. “I think you can,” she told Schwinn, “and so I’m giving you my baby.”

Penny Schwinn speaks to the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents. (Photo courtesy of TOSS)

“When I think about my responsibility as a teacher or a principal or as commissioner of the state of Tennessee, I think about all of our parents … who pack up lunches, pack up backpacks, drop them off at the door and they give us their babies,” she said.

“That is the most powerful and important responsibility that we have as educators,” she said, “and I take that very, very seriously.”

Several superintendents stood up to thank her.

“I am encouraged. I feel like you have the heart that we all have,” said Linda Cash, who leads Bradley County Schools in southeast Tennessee.

“What she did most is she listened,” said TOSS Executive Director Dale Lynch of his earlier meeting with Schwinn. “As superintendents and directors, that’s very important to us.”

Here are other things we heard Schwinn say this week:

On whether Tennessee will continue its 3-year-old literacy program known as Read to be Ready:

“It is incredibly important that we have initiatives that stick and that have staying power. I think we’ve all had the experience of having … one-and-done initiatives that come and go. … From [my early school] visits, it was underscored time and time again the importance of initiatives like that.”

On the role of early childhood education:

“I think that early education — and that’s both academic and social development — is incredibly important to ensure that we get kindergartners who are ready to learn and ready to be successful.”

On the state-run turnaround district for Tennessee’s lowest-performing schools:

“High expectations are the vision of the Achievement School District, but I think there’s a lot of work to be done candidly. There are good conversations to be had and some questions to be asked. But I will say that I am committed to ensuring that our lowest-performing schools achieve and grow at a much faster rate than they have been.”

On Texas’ academic growth in the 1990s that later flattened:

“They got very comfortable. It was, ‘We’re just doing just fine, we’re doing a great job,’ and then slowly some of the big reforms that they put into place in the ’90s started peeling back little by little. … It’s hard to get things done, but it’s really hard to hold the line.”

Here are six other things to know about Penny Schwinn.