Three things we heard about educational equity during #MLK50

At a panel about education, Memphis Superintendent Dorsey Hopson (left) joined Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University (right), former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, and Karen Harrell, vice president of early childhood services at Porter-Leath.

Five decades after the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., segregation remains a major barrier to achievement for students of color. That was a key theme for education leaders who came to Memphis to mark the 50th anniversary of King’s death.

King was famously passionate about education, once saying, “To save man from the morass of propaganda, in my opinion, is one of the chief aims of education. Education must enable one to sift and weigh evidence, to discern the true from the false, the real from the unreal, and the facts from the fiction.”

As part of a series of events around “MLK50,” a panel on education was held Tuesday by the University of Memphis and the National Civil Rights Museum.

Memphis Superintendent Dorsey Hopson joined former U.S. Education Secretary John B. King, Walter Kimbrough, president of Dillard University, and Karen Harrell, vice president of early childhood services at Porter-Leath, for the discussion.

Here are three things we heard about the state of schools in Memphis and beyond, 50 years after the death of King:

1. To really achieve educational equity, widespread change is needed. But it’s a hard sell.

Both John King and Hopson described school segregation as a major barrier to more equitable schools and a more just society.

PHOTO: EWA/Katherine Taylor
John King was the nation’s education chief under President Barack Obama.

“Resources follow white, middle class, and affluent kids,” King said. “That’s a reality of our society.”

In Memphis, Hopson said, school segregation was fueled again recently by the 2014 exodus of six suburban districts after a historic merger between the city and county school systems. (For a deep dive on segregation in Shelby County, go here).

“We have an interesting scenario in Memphis with the merger and demerger,” Hopson said. “It’s not a secret that these (suburban) districts left the poorer district that has more kids of color.”

But when asked if Shelby County had the political will to make integration happen, Hopson wasn’t optimistic.

“We see this throughout the country: If you’re intentional to integrate schools, it leads to better outcomes for all of those kids,” he said. “But we don’t have the appetite in Shelby County. It’s not just a race thing, it’s an economic thing, too…People don’t want to send their kids to school with poor, black kids.”

2. Early childhood education is at a “crossroads.”

King told the crowd that investment in early childhood education is growing across the nation, thanks to a willingness of business and communities to invest in it.

“There’s statistics now that show communities can get a significant return on their investment when it comes to early childhood,” he said. “But only if it’s high quality. If it’s not high quality, we’re seeing people throw up their hands and say they’ll take their money elsewhere … There’s real tension around getting folks to trust that we’re going to deliver on the quality promise.”

Memphis, too, is at a crossroads as nonprofits are pushing to raise the level of early childhood education. Harrell of Porter-Leath, the largest preschool provider in the city, said during the panel that high-quality centers exist, but they aren’t cheap.

“You have to budget to run high-quality centers,” Harrell said. “That’s what we’re talking about here — how do we step in and help lift up other childcare providers in the city? This is expensive work.”

3. Teachers have power, and they should be better recognized for it.

Each panelist was asked who the most influential teacher was in their life, and for King, it was a teacher whom he said saved his life after his parents died.

“When home was scary, unpredictable, and lonely, this classroom was safe, engaging, and a place I felt love and supported,” King said. “That’s the difference a teacher can make.”

But the value and relevance of teachers, in particular of teachers of color, has declined over the years, said Kimbrough of Dillard University, a historically black college.

“Teachers are on strike because they don’t feel valued,” Kimbrough said of recent teacher strikes across the country. “We need to radically rethink how we incentivize people wanting to become teachers, and teachers of color in particular.”

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.