In his final months as Tennessee governor, Haslam reflects on his education legacy

Gov. Bill Haslam greets a student at a Memphis charter school in 2011. (Photo by Kyle Kurlick/Memphis Daily News)

While Gov. Bill Haslam entered office as an education-minded leader intent on reforms, much of his administration’s K–12 public school work has focused on holding the line on sweeping policies launched under his predecessor.

Haslam, a Republican, inherited and embraced the changes spearheaded under Gov. Phil Bredesen, a Democrat and fellow former mayor and businessman who led Tennessee’s overhaul to win a $500 million federal Race to the Top award in 2010.

As the term-limited Haslam winds down his eight years in office, he credits those policies — including a controversial one tying state test scores to teacher evaluations — for helping Tennessee become one of the nation’s fastest-improving states in student achievement, even as critics have decried the new system as punitive and demoralizing to teachers.

He has championed higher K–12 expectations while expanding college access for Tennessee students through two pioneering scholarship programs. Last year, the state’s high school graduation rate rose to a record-high 89 percent, and its average ACT score moved above 20 for the first time ever.

Chalkbeat sat down recently with Haslam to discuss his legacy, his accomplishments, and his disappointments — including Tennessee’s struggle to get testing right in the transition to computerized exams under TNReady, its new assessment. His answers have been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

When you took office, what did you hope to accomplish specifically for K-12 education?

My goal was to make certain that Tennessee wasn’t the laggard in public education that we have historically been. We live in a very rapidly changing world. There is no question that more students need to have some sort of postsecondary credential and, to succeed there, they have to have better K–12 prep. A statistic that grabbed me early was that 70 percent of our community college students needed remedial work when they got to college. I thought, well, that’s just not going to work.

In today’s world, we’re going to keep seeing greater income differentiation unless we give more education opportunity. One of the keys is making certain more people have postsecondary opportunity, but that doesn’t do any good unless you’re prepared when you get that opportunity. And we clearly weren’t preparing students in Tennessee, even though we were telling their parents they were prepared.

You inherited a blueprint for school improvement from Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration as part of Tennessee’s Race to the Top award in 2010. How did you view that handoff?

Some of the decisions made around Race to the Top were around raising standards, coming up with an assessment that matched those standards, and then having a teacher evaluation tied to the assessment. Those were significant policy decisions, and I realized our job was going to be to stand in the door and not let the state go backward because all of it was hard, whether it be raising standards and people saying you’re expecting too much of our kids; or coming up with an assessment that actually works; or having an evaluation tied to the assessment, which will always be a political issue. I think what we were able to do was to say that Tennessee is finally off in the right direction; let’s don’t turn around. We were rewarded when we got some of the early (national test) results from NAEP, both in 2013 and 2015, showing we really were making that kind of progress. And that helped us in encouraging people not to turn around.

As governor, you have frequently proclaimed Tennessee to be the fastest improving state in the nation based on gains between 2011 and 2015 in math and English on the Nation’s Report Card, known as NAEP. But last year, Tennessee’s NAEP scores were flat and even lost some ground in fourth-grade math. So what’s an honest assessment today? Are you still calling Tennessee the nation’s fastest improving state and, if so, what are you basing that claim on?

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

If you go back to 2010 and measure every state’s progress since then, I would argue we’re still the fastest improving state in the country. Has our growth slowed down? Yes. Am I concerned about that? You bet. But look at the sheer math of it. When your scores are low, it’s a lot easier to be the fastest improving. Once you’ve moved from being somewhere in the 40s to being in 28th, 29th, 30th, it’s a little harder to continue moving up. Second, there’s no doubt that some of the confusion due to everything from the issues around changes to our academic standards to difficulties in (testing) have hindered our growth more recently. But I would still argue that we are pointed in the right direction. And if you look at that last seven years, I would argue Tennessee has improved more than any other state during that period.

When you look back on the last seven and a half years, what are the things that make you the proudest on K–12 ed?

We really have worked to blow up some of the gaps that exist, whether it be racial or geographical. We’ve said we’re just not going to accept this idea that those kids can’t learn. I remember visiting a school early in my tenure where a principal had put together a roundtable, and two teachers were very specific in saying, “You’re expecting too much of our kids. Our kids are not those kids; our kids don’t go to college.” We’ve said, “No, your kids not only can go to college, but they need to, or at least a larger percentage of them need to.”

Haslam prepares to deliver his 2017 State of the State address to Tennessee lawmakers.

Second, we went through the same battle every other state did around the Common Core standards and the political pushback to those. But I think we came up with a good way to land and really ended up in a better place. [By ordering a comprehensive review of Tennessee’s standards,] we took the standards issue off the table, and yet we still have what I think are world-class standards.

Third, I think that one of the benefits of our postsecondary (scholarship) initiatives — Tennessee Promise and Tennessee Reconnect — is that it’s refocused efforts more on K–12 prep. In other words, some were thinking you’re done when you walk across the gymnasium stage and get your high school diploma, and you really don’t care all that much what you learned in high school, as long as you do enough to get that diploma. But now hopefully, we have dinner table conversations across Tennessee that sound different in saying, “You actually can go to college.” So high school matters more now than it did before.

What has been the one hardest thing about K–12 under your administration?

Obviously, the struggles we’ve had with getting the testing right. I think that we actually have a great test that matches the standards we’re teaching and that the standards are good standards. That makes the struggles we’ve had with testing all the worse. And what makes this all the more personally painful is that I firmly believe that having (teacher) evaluations tied to assessments and the accountability that comes with that has been one of the key pieces of our growth. I also know very well that a lot of people disagree with me on that and say it’s a bad idea. And every time we struggle with the test, it gives people ammunition to say you can’t have high-stakes testing because it doesn’t work.

One of my fears is that going forward, whoever sits in this governor’s chair next or whoever is the commissioner of education might not have that same commitment when the heat comes. Every state has had difficulty with online testing as you transition to it. I worry that the struggles will cause us to say, “OK, we give. We’re no longer going to have an evaluation that’s tied to an assessment.” And I think that would be a real loss for the state if we gave up that central tenet that has been part of our progress.

READ: Haslam worries testing troubles could unravel Tennessee education policy

Let’s go a little deeper about TNReady’s administration this spring and the technical problems that spoiled the return to statewide online testing. Education Commissioner Candice McQueen told district superintendents at the end of the second day of testing problems that she and her team were “completely devastated.” As every day seemed to bring forth new testing issues, many lawmakers called for her resignation. Did she offer to resign?

Haslam with his education chief, Candice McQueen

She never did, and I wouldn’t have accepted it. I think to say the testing issues were Candice’s fault is a complete mistake.

You have to go back and remember how we got here. Basically, the Legislature said let’s quit using PARCC or any Pearson-related test. [PARCC is the multi-state testing consortium, also known as the Partnership for Assessment in College and Career Readiness, which Tennessee pulled out of in 2014 because its test was based on Common Core standards. Pearson is PARCC’s testing company.]

We had a test that had been nationally tested that we had been using and was working well. But because of some of the fears of Common Core being part of a national agenda, people said we don’t want to use any of the big testing companies. It was the clear message. This happened before Candice even came. Kevin Huffman was education commissioner, and a lot of people in the Legislature had their doubts about Kevin and whether he was somehow part of what in their mind was this kind of national plan around education. And they didn’t want Kevin to be involved in picking the new testing vendor. So we immediately precluded ourselves from using any of the vendors who had done testing on that scale before. And then we took Kevin, who knew more about how testing should work, out of the whole RFP process. We were somewhat hamstrung by the state’s procurement process, and we ended up with a list of vendors that hadn’t had that kind of experience in implementing online testing and weren’t used to the volume of students we had.

READ: Why Tennessee’s legislators share blame, too, for TNReady headaches

I don’t use that to blame anyone. Ultimately, the issues we’ve had are our fault. But you do have to remember how we got here. We didn’t just all of a sudden go out and blindly say, “Oh, I think we’ll use these folks (as our testing vendor).”

By getting testing wrong again this year, are you concerned that Tennessee could end up undoing what it may be getting right? Do you worry that public outcry could unravel Tennessee’s policy work on standards, testing, and accountability?

I do, because unfortunately in today’s world, we’re not great at tying cause and effect. We’ve made these gains which everybody loves and everyone celebrates, and we have employers looking at Tennessee that never looked at us before. But those gains were a result of hard decisions, and the easy thing to do is to give in to all that. We would go backward. So do I worry about that? You bet. Matter of fact, if you said, why did I have a pit in my stomach the whole time (TNReady) was happening, it was because of that very thing — that a lot of people would say, “This is too hard, and we’re hearing too many complaints.”

We’re in a Social Media Age, and that’s what’s different today from when I started seven years ago as governor and definitely 40 years ago when I was an intern in the U.S. Senate. In those days, when citizens had issues, they wrote us letters and we wrote them back. Now, instantaneously while legislators are on the floor, they’re hearing from people. But we have to be very careful, both in the Legislature and in the administration. There are people who have opinions and preferences, and it is easy to stir folks up to express those in today’s world. I can easily find 50 teachers in every legislator’s district who don’t like what we’re doing and encourage them to send a Facebook message right now. It’s important for all of us to step back from social media and to realize that 50 messages right away may or may not be the full story. That’s a challenge, not just with education issues but with all issues, that I worry about for our democracy today.

In the race to succeed you, there is a fair amount of saber rattling around TNReady. In the Republican primary, U.S. Rep. Diane Black says the test is failing our kids, and Bill Lee told us that he’s open to changing the assessment process if it’s not meeting goals. Among Democrats, House Minority Leader Craig Fitzhugh says it’s time to start over on TNReady. Given that TNReady is the linchpin of the state’s accountability system for education, how would you respond?

Do we really want to go back? Do we really want to go back to when Tennessee was in the 40s out of the states ranked 1 to 50? And the obvious answer from anybody is going to be no. So the question is, well how did we move the needle? And we have moved the needle by standards, assessments, and evaluations tied to those assessments. Is that a difficult process? You bet. The truth is, Tennessee made those decisions on a bipartisan basis before I got here. I actually do agree with those decisions. I knew my job would be to stand in the door because I knew there would be pushback. I think we’ve done a good job of that. Obviously the TNReady issues have made that much more difficult. And if I’m running for office right now, I don’t know that I’d be planting my flag by TNReady, so I understand that. But I do hope everybody realizes how we got where we have gotten to in regards to education process and doesn’t let all that slip back through our fingers.

Is there anything currently missing or misrepresented on education in this gubernatorial campaign, or any point that you’d like to make as this election year ramps up?

Some of the noise around TNReady has overshadowed everything else, and one of those things is we’ve gotten a lot of national recognition recently for being a state that fairly portrays where our kids are in proficiency. We went from being an F on honesty the year before I got here to being a B- three years ago to getting an A this year. Ultimately, one of our responsibilities is to tell parents accurately how well their child is doing in school. So amid all the clamor over TNReady, we shouldn’t lose the fact that we’ve closed our honesty gap. That’s a huge thing, but it doesn’t necessarily play very well out there across Tennessee. We live in a world where the politics of opposition are stronger than the politics of support. So it’s a lot easier to be against something and, unfortunately because of our struggles around TNReady, it’s a pretty easy thing to be against. But a leader’s job in education is to say, let’s realistically assess where we are and then be relentless about driving to the results that we want.

Let’s talk money. Despite some big investments that have come under your administration, the state also has been sued by three of its four largest districts over the adequacy of school funding. Those lawsuits are ongoing. On a related matter, Randy Boyd, your former economic development commissioner who is running for governor, has called the state’s formula for funding education “antiquated and arcane” and in need of a redesign that reflects the modern needs of students. What about our level of funding for schools, and is it also time to overhaul the state’s Basic Education Program funding formula?

Haslam during a 2017 tour of Ross N. Robinson Middle School in Kingsport

We’ve added $1.5 billion in new dollars to public education, far more than any other administration has ever done. So to folks who say we’re not really committed to public education, I’d say we actually have put our money where our mouth is.

On the BEP formula, I think I said similar things when I was running for governor. Everywhere you go, you hear complaints about the formula. People think they’re getting the short end of the stick. Nobody thinks they’re coming out great. Some of the larger metropolitan systems are suing us but, when I came in, we were being threatened by the small school systems and historically the state has struggled with that as well. Three years ago, we said we’re going to totally redo the BEP formula. We came in and looked at turning it inside out in every way possible. But it was very difficult because, when you change it, you’re going to have winners and losers. You just are. And so the only way to change it is to do it like we did — in times when you add more money to the pie. If you’re just going to cut it up differently, it won’t work because the mad people will be madder than the happy people will be happy.

Literacy is an issue that both you and the first lady have prioritized. There is a growing consensus that quality pre-K could be the key to addressing the state’s early reading problems and low literacy rates. But it is a significant investment, and studies have shown that Tennessee hasn’t quite gotten the quality of pre-K right for the most part. What would your message be to the next governor when it comes to pre-K?

The governor and first lady Chrissy Haslam read to children in 2014 at the University of Memphis Child Care Center.

I would say the next governor should continue to study whether additional public education dollars are best suited to go toward pre-K or to a lot of the other places where we have put public education dollars: teacher salaries, more technology, etc. I think we’ve made the right decision while we’ve been here, but I’m not saying that will always be the right place.

One of the issues around reading is this. You have some parents who are literally reading to the child in the womb, and you also have far more students than we would like to admit who come to kindergarten having never picked up a book. There are homes in Tennessee that don’t have a book. Children literally come to kindergarten not knowing which way to hold a book. When you think about those two different situations and trying to provide some sort of fair opportunity, it shows the depth of the challenge. If I was going to be the next governor, I would not take more pre-K investments off the table. So far, the data has not shown the kind of improvements that we would like. But is that a quality issue or a fundamental concept issue? The next governor needs to try to evaluate that.

One thing that has been extraordinary about Tennessee is that for more than a dozen years and under two different administrations — one Democrat, one Republican — Tennessee has, for the most part, kept that same general blueprint for improving schools. But in an increasingly tense and partisan national political environment, is education reform even possible any more, or do you think those agendas are being squeezed out too?

You’re exactly right. We’ve actually been through an extraordinary period. First, we had President George W. Bush and No Child Left Behind. People had some issues around No Child Left Behind in the end, and I did too. But it was founded on an extraordinary idea for a Republican president — the idea that I don’t care what the zip code or what the child’s background, every child deserves the right to a great education. Then you had a Democrat president who came in and really put in all those basics that we talked about in Race to the Top. We’ve got to raise our standards. We’ve got to have great assessments and, most importantly, we have to have an evaluation tied to the assessment — going against the teachers union, the Democrats’ biggest base. So it’s been extraordinary, with an extraordinary amount of talk and focus put on K-12 education.

Now go back to the last election of 2016. Nobody talked about education, period. There was some talk about the free college ideas, but nobody was really talking about K–12 education issues the way that Bush and Obama had addressed those. So I think if you talk to a lot of people nationally in the reform movement, they’d say we’ve entered a different time. That’s not just about Donald Trump. It just wasn’t an issue in the 2016 presidential election. I personally think we’re making a grave mistake. As a country, we had made some really big steps forward. I worry about us having the consensus to keep it moving.

As governor, you just won a major national award from the Education Commission of the States for your contribution to American education. Now that you’re leaving office, is it hard to walk away from the conversation on education, both in Tennessee and at the national level?

Haslam accepts his award from the Education Commission of the States in June in Washington, D.C.

It is. I really don’t know what I’ll do next, but I will stay involved in education issues. I just fundamentally believe it’s the most important thing we do. Income inequality is a huge issue in our country. Forget what your politics are. It just is. And I think the only way to start to address that is public education. Some people think we can address it with new tax policies, or new poverty policies. I think keeping the focus on raising the standards and expectations around public education is our hope as a country. I hope to continue to be able to play a part in that conversation. I’ll be very careful not to violate the one-governor-at-a-time rule, so don’t expect me to be in the middle of arguments in the Legislature next year. But I do want to be involved in education issues. I just care too much to walk away from all that.

End of an era

After leading the Memphis district through a turbulent time, Hopson thinks student achievement will ‘accelerate’

PHOTO: Laura Faith Kebede/Chalkbeat
Dorsey Hopson is leaving Shelby County Schools after nearly six years at the helm.

Attorney Dorsey Hopson took over Tennessee’s largest school district when it was in turmoil — what he described as “a mess.”

Not many would argue with his perspective. Shelby County Schools was in the midst of the nation’s largest merger of city and suburban school districts when Hopson started full-time work as superintendent in 2013. Students were leaving the district. The divide between affluent families and poor ones was growing.

But by the end of his tenure, the state department of education held up Memphis as a model of school turnaround efforts, particularly the district’s Innovation Zone. Test scores in every subject are up, even though Hopson knows they still have a long way to go.

“But now, and I think with the right attention, and the right special attention, you can see student achievement accelerate at a much more rapid pace,” he told Chalkbeat.

Related: City leaders say Hopson was the ‘right leader for a fragile time’

Now, almost six years later, Hopson is headed to a new challenge at health care giant Cigna. We sat down with him during his final days in the district’s top job to discuss his work and hope for the future.

(This interview has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.)

You often talk about the poverty experienced by students and families in Shelby County. Do you think the rest of the state gets this?

No, because I think it’s one thing to hear about poverty. It’s another thing to see it. I think about when I got back to Memphis, we had a case and we had to go up to North Memphis. Kimberly (executive assistant) had given me, back then, a MapQuest to a house and I pull up. And I pull up and I’m thinking, like the house is boarded up and the stairs are falling down, maybe it’s the wrong house. I’m getting ready to call Kim and they say come on in. So, I go inside and it was literally like seven or eight mattresses on the floor, a bunch of fans going. You could see roaches walking around and all over the place. This is where our kids live! This is just me the lawyer who had been back four or five months. So, that just hit me like a ton of bricks.

As you go forward, when I took this role and was looking at some of the data that 40,000 kids live in households with less than $10,000, it dawned on me that’s what that looks like. I think when people think about poverty — there’s poverty, and then there’s Memphis poverty. We are one of the poorest districts and communities in the country. That is suffocating poverty.

If you’re a legislator in East Tennessee and you see a stat around poverty, it’s easy to start talking about bootstraps and all these different kind of things when your vision or thinking around poverty is not seven mattresses on the floor and a bunch of fans. I don’t think it resonates. The reality of it doesn’t smack people in the face like it should or like it does if you’re here. It presents very big challenges for everybody if you have that many kids. It’s not insurmountable, but it’s tough.

How did you take a district operating in the red to investing millions in the classroom?

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Shelby County Schools superintendent Dorsey Hopson in 2015 discusses the district’s school funding lawsuit against the state of Tennessee as former board members Chris Caldwell and Teresa Jones offer their support.

A lot of stuff. An example is obviously school closures. I think also most importantly is really pushing people around their budgets. People say I’ve got all these different heads and they say here’s my budget and here’s what I can cut. When Lin [Johnson, chief of finance] got here, we would sit down for hours, upon hours, upon hours with people going through all their budgets. It’s a lot when [a district chief] has a $200 million budget. We said we’re going to spend the next three days in my conference room — me and Lin and this person — and you got to explain to me why this is. A lot of the chiefs didn’t really understand what was in their budget. So, when you really go line by line and challenge and push, and prod, and then encourage people, and suggest to people alternative ways to do things, that makes a difference.

I think about our transportation for example. We had these routes that we had been running forever. We cut $9 million out of transportation and it wasn’t a lot of pushback and there wasn’t a lot of issues with it either.

My leadership style was such that you got to inspect what you expect. I think the legal training helped me to be very inquisitive in areas even if I didn’t really know and some people may just take for granted. And not to say people were giving you fluff or not being honest. I just think people have to be pushed to think different.

I think about when we were first starting this, we were just cutting because of the merger. If we had time to be more thoughtful like we learned to do over time, we probably could have caused a whole lot less pain.

We’ve got to talk about grade tampering. When that emerged in 2016, in the end only two people were fired and the investigation was closed because of lack of documentation. Are you satisfied with its outcome, and why should stakeholders have confidence in the integrity of the district’s grading practices now?

I can talk about what we’ve done afterward. I think that it depends on what you mean with ‘satisfied with the outcome.’ I’m still disappointed and mad that any educators would engage in stuff like that because ultimately, it cheats kids. For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that, particularly for selfish and stupid reasons, illegal reasons and unethical reasons, I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened.

"For many of our parents and our families, the school district is that institution that represents hope. And so when you have anybody who undermines that ... I’m still deeply offended and upset that happened."Dorsey Hopson

But also having said that, when you find out something happens, all you can really do is try to figure out what happened and then, most importantly, I think in these situations put processes in place to make sure that it doesn’t happen again. Or if it does happen, you can quickly detect it. And then finally, when you find out there were wrongdoers, I think you have to take appropriate action.

The people from the auditing firm said we can keep digging and we can take your money, but it’s not likely that we’re going to find anything. So, our recommendation is to lay out these recommendations that we’ve given you to make sure this stuff doesn’t happen anymore. And we followed all those recommendations.

So, why did you not want Shelby County Schools staff to continue digging deeper on that if you didn’t want to pay the outside firm to do it?

It’s the same processes. The issue was: changing a grade isn’t, on its face, anything wrong with that. It’s just that is it a legitimate reason for a grade change? And the best way to determine whether there was a legitimate reason was the documentation. So, if you go back five years for these schools and you can’t validate the documentation, then you’re not going to ever know.

If they couldn’t do it and they’re the experts, I wouldn’t expect our people to know how to do it.

Plus, one of the things that I was comfortable with was the objectivity that happened with the whole grading thing. We didn’t do it. We had outside people do it. We had a former U.S. attorney do it. We had a forensic accounting firm do it. So, I think that if we start taking those files and taking it to our people, I don’t think that we’d be objective if we did that.

Your facilities plan presented last month was a pretty big mic drop moment. Why now?

PHOTO: Shelby County Schools
Superintendent Dorsey Hopson with students at A.B. Hill Elementary School in Memphis celebrating academic progress.

I wanted to make sure that it was something that I could at least produce before I left because I had been working on it with the team for so long. I didn’t think it was fair to ask (interim superintendent) Dr. Ray or anybody else to lead that.

At the end of the day, whatever the combination of schools are, whatever the right places to build are, you got to do something. You cannot continue to carry on these underutilized facilities that are in bad shape. Not if you expect to be able to continue the momentum.

But that’s going to require resources. You can do that when you have a plan that would help you have more money for your operating budget, reduce your deferred maintenance and then put kids in new schools. So, that seemed to me, it will go a long way, probably at least for the next 15 or 20 years in terms of stability or sustainability.

Over your time as superintendent, you closed nearly 20 schools. Do you think it’s led to better academic outcomes for kids?

I think in some instances. You get better over time, right? I think that certainly we think about Westhaven. That was the model that we’re trying to go for now. At first, keep in mind, there was the transition planning commission [during the historic merger of city and county school systems] that says you need to close 50 schools. And they made the case to close the schools to save money to close the budget gap. So, I think that initially Dorsey Hopson, a lawyer-turned-superintendent had been doing this for three or four months and has this plan that says let’s go close schools. And then you get so much backlash because it’s so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building. So, you get to realize it’s not even worth it if it’s just about money.

But on the flip side, if it’s going to be about student achievement, then it does become worth it.

Related: What happens to student achievement when Memphis schools close? District report offers some answers.

So, I think about when we closed schools like Northside and Carver that literally had right around 200 kids. So, you just could not offer academic coursework, Advanced Placement classes and stuff like that at a high level when you have so few kids. And plus, you have so much extra dollars just to supplement so they can have a whole slate of teachers. So, I think the focus there was we are closing schools and take these kids to a school that is bigger with more kids where we can do more offerings.

"(Closing schools is) so much more than about the money — it’s the community hub many schools are, it’s the blight that happens if you don’t properly dispose of the building"Dorsey Hopson

But I don’t think that was the right approach either because there’s so much under the hood before you get to improving achievement.

And then the next round, we said let’s truly if we’re going to do these combinations, let’s truly invest in the school. And I think the best example is Westhaven. We’re going to invest in human capital there, we’re going to invest in additional operational dollars and give the leader more flexibility. I think that’s been great. (The state has recognized the school as having some of the highest academic growth both years it has been open.)

Let’s talk about Destination 2025, the district’s ambitious plan to improve education by 2025. Out of 39 academic goals, nine were met in the most recent annual report. What happened?

I think the new state standards were a wake-up call. Our graduation rate has increased since I took the job, but the college readiness has not. So, when you are testing college-ready standards starting in ninth grade that’s hard when kindergarten through eighth grade you weren’t being prepared for those standards and all of a sudden you show up. And not to mention, even under the old standards, people were falling behind.

Even though we did our K-8 standards-based curriculum, we still don’t have a standards-based curriculum for high school. I suspect we’ll make a recommendation around that this year.

That’s just going to be some hard work of years, rolling up the sleeves and getting better and better and better.

How would you describe your legacy?

I think that’s for other people to describe. I would hope to be remembered as a servant leader. And I think that the characteristics of a servant leader is first you got to be humble. I think this was a very humbling experience for me and I approached it from a humble standpoint because I’m a lawyer. I knew I couldn’t come in here and say I knew everything.

I think too probably more specifically around legacy, I think we’ll be remembered for fixing a lot of the operational challenges that came with the [merged] district. People forget: when we merged, it was a mess. Literally a mess.

I think that started with being able to fix the finances. We started in the red every time. There’s no wiggle room. So, I think just being able to put together consistent plans to address that stuff — part of which required buy-in from the community and getting more dollars from the county commission — but then also doing the work to get the money in order. I would hope that’s part my legacy.

Any political aspirations in your future?

No. I have people all the time saying I was running for Congress, I was running for mayor, I was going to be the next education commissioner.

When I think about all the different public roles here in Memphis, I don’t think there’s any more high-impact public position that you could have than superintendent. What you’re doing, it affects so many folks. I just know the fishbowl and the constant public grind and the board meetings and the politics and all that. I can safely sit here and say I have no desire to ever be involved in a public role.

It will be so good to be able to send an email and not have somebody ask for it. It will be good not to eat, breathe and sleep something that becomes a part of who you are. You don’t get to be off as superintendent. I can’t be in the grocery store and say sorry I’m off. You’re superintendent regardless. So, just to have some sense of normalcy will be awesome.

To Do

Tennessee’s new ed chief says troubleshooting testing is first priority

PHOTO: (Caiaimage/Robert Daly)

Penny Schwinn knows that ensuring a smooth testing experience for Tennessee students this spring will be her first order of business as the state’s new education chief.

Even before Gov.-elect Bill Lee announced her hiring on Thursday, she was poring over a recent report by the state’s chief investigator about what went wrong with TNReady testing last spring and figuring out her strategy for a different outcome.

“My first days will be spent talking with educators and superintendents in the field to really understand the scenario here in Tennessee,” said Schwinn, who’s been chief deputy commissioner of academics in Texas since 2016.

“I’ll approach this problem with a healthy mixture of listening and learning,” she added.

Schwinn’s experience with state assessment programs in Texas and in Delaware — where she was assistant secretary of education — is one of the strengths cited by Lee in selecting her for one of his most critical cabinet posts.

The Republican governor-elect has said that getting TNReady right is a must after three straight years of missteps in administration and scoring in Tennessee’s transition to online testing. Last year, technical disruptions interrupted so many testing days that state lawmakers passed emergency legislation ordering that poor scores couldn’t be used to penalize students, teachers, schools, or districts.

Schwinn, 36, recalls dealing with testing headaches during her first days on the job in Texas.

“We had testing disruptions. We had test booklets mailed to the wrong schools. We had answer documents in testing booklets. We had online administration failures,” she told Chalkbeat. “From that, we brought together teachers, superintendents, and experts to figure out solutions, and we had a near-perfect administration of our assessment the next year.”

What she learned in the process: the importance of tight vendor management, including setting clear expectations of what’s expected.

She plans to use the same approach in Tennessee, working closely with people in her new department and Questar Assessment, the state’s current vendor.

“Our job is to think about how to get online testing as close to perfect as possible for our students and educators, and that is going to be a major focus,” she said.

The test itself has gotten good reviews in Tennessee; it’s the online miscues that have many teachers and parents questioning the switch from paper-and-pencil exams. Schwinn sees no choice but to forge ahead online and is quick to list the benefits.

“If you think about how children learn and access information today, many are getting that information from hand-held devices and computers,” she said, “so reflecting that natural experience in our classrooms is incredibly important.”

Schwinn said computerized testing also holds promise for accommodating students with disabilities and provides for a more engaging experience for all students.

“When you look at the multiple-choice tests that we took in school and compare that to an online platform where students can watch videos, perform science experiments, do drag-and-drop and other features, students are just more engaged in the content,” she said.

“It’s a more authentic experience,” she added, “and therefore a better measure of learning.”

Schwinn plans to examine Tennessee’s overall state testing program to look for ways to reduce the number of minutes dedicated to assessment and also to elevate transparency.

She also will oversee the transition when one or more companies take over the state’s testing program beginning next school year. Former Commissioner Candice McQueen ordered a new request for proposals from vendors to provide paper testing for younger students and online testing for older ones. State officials have said they hope to award the contract by spring.

In Texas, a 2018 state audit criticized Schwinn’s handling of two major education contracts, including a no-bid special education contract that lost the state more than $2 million.

In Tennessee, an evaluation committee that includes programmatic, assessment, and technology experts will help to decide the new testing contract, and state lawmakers on the legislature’s Government Operations Committee plan to provide another layer of oversight.

Spring testing in Tennessee is scheduled to begin on April 15. You can learn more about TNReady on the state education department’s website.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated with new information about problems with the handling of two education contracts in Texas.