Interview

McQueen: Working with Haslam on education was ‘a perfect match’ — and it’s time to move on

PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Candice McQueen meet with members of his teachers advisory group in 2015.

When Gov. Bill Haslam recruited Candice McQueen to take the helm of Tennessee’s education department in 2015, he wanted someone close to the classroom who shared his passion for preparing students for the jobs of tomorrow.

Four years later, the former teacher and university dean calls their work together “a perfect match” and her job as education commissioner “the honor of a lifetime.” But she says it’s also time to transition to a new challenge as Haslam’s eight-year administration comes to an end.

In January, McQueen will become CEO of the National Institute for Excellence in Teaching, a nonprofit organization that works to attract, develop, and retain high-quality educators.

Haslam announced her impending departure on Thursday from a job that has elevated McQueen as a national voice on public education, whether testifying before Congress about Tennessee’s work under a 2015 federal education law or serving on the boards of national organizations seeking to improve student achievement.

The announcement ended months of speculation about whether the 44-year-old McQueen would stay on in Gov.-elect Bill Lee’s administration, either as an interim chief or permanently (although headaches from the state’s testing program last spring decreased the likelihood of the latter).

McQueen said the institute was among a number of organizations that approached her this year as Haslam’s administration was winding down.

“I had a conversation with Gov. Haslam some time back to let him know that I was most likely going to be making a decision about one of these opportunities,” she told Chalkbeat in an interview following the announcement.

Asked whether she had entertained a role in the next administration, McQueen said her focus had been on her current commitment.

“When I came into this role, I came to work with and for Gov. Haslam. I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done. It’s been remarkable to work with a governor who has been so intentionally focused on improving education on the K-12 and higher education side and be able to connect the dots between them.

“It was a perfect match in terms of vision and what we wanted to accomplish,” she added.

"I always felt that four years was the right time period for me to accomplish as much as I could, and that’s what I’ve done."Candice McQueen

Under McQueen’s tenure, Tennessee has notched a record-high graduation rate of 89 percent and its best average ACT score in history at 20.2 out of a possible 36, compared to the national average of 20.8. The state has risen steadily in national rankings on the Nation’s Report Card and pioneered closely watched reforms aimed at improving teacher effectiveness.

McQueen called her new job with the teaching institute an “extraordinary opportunity that I felt was a great fit” because of its focus on supporting, leading, and compensating teachers.

“It’s work that I believe is the heart and soul of student improvement,” she said, citing research that high-quality teaching is the No. 1 factor in helping students grow academically.

At the institute, she’ll be able to leverage nationally the work that she’s championed in Tennessee. The group’s goal is to ensure that a skilled, motivated, and competitively compensated teacher is in every classroom in America.

“Coming in as a CEO of an organization that breathes this work around human capital is the work I want to be part of going forward,” she said. “And CEO roles of large national nonprofits don’t come around every day.”

A Tennessee native, McQueen will work from Nashville under her agreement with the institute.

In announcing her hiring, Chairman Lowell Milken said the organization will open a Nashville office, with much of its teacher support work moving from its current base in Phoenix, Arizona.

McQueen will succeed Gary Stark, who stepped down over the summer after a decade with the organization.

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.