Q&A

Testing, vouchers, and pre-K: Tennessee legislature’s new ed leader weighs in

PHOTO: Marta W. Aldrich
Rep. Mark White is the new chairman of Tennessee's House Education Committee, a legislative gatekeeper for hundreds of bills dealing with public education. The Memphis Republican has served in the House since 2010.

With a major shift in leadership happening at the State Capitol, the new chairman of Tennessee’s House Education Committee wants to make sure that the state doesn’t backslide when it comes to public education.

Rep. Mark White, a Memphis Republican in office since 2010, was tapped by House Speaker Glen Casada last week to lead the powerful committee, while Sen. Dolores Gresham of Somerville will continue to chair the Senate Education Committee.

White and Gresham believe that Tennessee’s gains on national tests beginning in 2013 stem from stronger academic standards in classrooms and test score-driven systems for holding students, teachers, schools, and districts accountable. Both have said they don’t want to see dramatic changes to the state’s school improvement policies.

“There’s always things you can tweak or make better, but we don’t want to kill the things that are working,” White said. “We’ve made so many positive gains in the last eight years under Gov. Bill Haslam that I want to make sure we don’t go backward.”

White, 68, holds an education degree from the University of Memphis and was a science teacher and principal in the 1970s at Harding Academy, a private high school in Memphis, before starting an event business

Before his appointment, he spoke with Chalkbeat about issues on the horizon, Tennessee’s testing dilemma, the buzz on school vouchers under governor-elect Bill Lee, and whether there’s an appetite to invest more money in pre-K. This Q&A has been lightly edited for brevity and clarity.

What are some of the big issues you expect to tackle this year in the legislature?

We need more alignment between K-12 and higher education with more opportunities for students to pursue dual enrollment [which enables students to take college-level courses while they’re in high school]. We also want more vocational and technical education courses so that students are being introduced to marketable skills during high school. We want more of our students to come out of high school with not only a diploma but also a certificate for a particular skill. If you can get them interested in a skill in high school, students much more likely to move on and, if they like working with their hands and have a certification, maybe go straight to work.

Tennessee has yet to cleanly administer and score its TNReady test during the last three years. Can the state restore the credibility of its testing program?

No superintendent has come to me and said we don’t like the test. They like the data that TNReady generates based on our higher standards. The issue has been online administration. I’m pleased that we’re just testing high school students online this year. I don’t know that elementary grades should ever test online. But for all grades, we’ve got to get testing right this year. We can’t afford another year of problems.

What about the amount of testing? Even with the elimination of two high school exams this school year, many teachers and parents are concerned that students test too much, especially in high school where Tennessee exceeds federal requirements.

We’re going to keep looking at that. Through the work of the state’s testing task force, we eliminated chemistry and English III this school year. But I believe that, if we’re going to test to the highest standards, we’ve got to test to make sure there’s been a full year of growth and that teachers are teaching effectively.


After years of school voucher rejections, backers consider another approach in Tennessee


School vouchers are a perennial issue in the legislature and, with a new governor wanting to give parents more education options, do you think this will be the year that some type of voucher bill passes?

There may be a lot of talk about vouchers or education savings accounts, but I don’t think it’s the right climate yet. With the Lee administration being new, I don’t know if they’re going to push it. And even if they do push it, it probably won’t be this year.

I believe in parental choice, but the problem with vouchers moving forward is accountability. We’ve worked so hard making sure the public schools are accountable with testing that if we just give a parent money to go to a private school of their choice or to choose other services and we don’t have any accountability, then I would be against it. If we’re talking about taxpayer dollars and we’re holding one group accountable, then we’ve got to hold everybody accountable.

You’ve been a point person on early childhood education. Is anything happening there?

I’ve talked a lot with Tennesseans for Quality Early Education, and they’re wanting to expand our pre-K programs. I don’t want to lose the conversation around pre-K dollars, but I do think it would be better to think in terms of pre-K through the third grade. Right now only a third of our kids are reading on grade level by third grade, so how do we invest our money up until that milestone grade? I think that would be an easier conversation.

I also think that these are the issues that really matter in Tennessee and are going to lead to improvements. This year in the legislature, I’d like to talk about the things that make a difference and not just sit there and debate whether you like TNReady or not. Those conversations don’t move the needle. It’s old news.

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.