Employee turnover, discontent high in Tennessee’s education department under Penny Schwinn

Tennessee’s education department has experienced an exodus under Commissioner Penny Schwinn, with almost a fifth of its employees leaving in the nine months since she took over.

The vast majority of the approximate 250 departures have been resignations rather than retirements or firings. The departure rate of just over 19% exceeds those of Schwinn’s two predecessors over comparable periods, according to state records.

The exits include people with decades of institutional knowledge, leaving many local school leaders wondering whom to call about everything from testing to information technology to early intervention programs for students with learning disabilities. Also gone are dozens of mid- and lower-level employees responsible for executing essential department responsibilities, including the state’s testing program.

Some of the departures reflect regular churn. Others stem from the state’s decision to dismantle a network of reading coaches. Ongoing uncertainty at the state-run district for low-performing schools also contributed. 

But another factor is at play: More than a dozen current and former employees — many high-ranking — told Chalkbeat that Schwinn has created a workplace culture that has driven out both new and longstanding talent.

Schwinn and her lieutenants characterize the turnover as normal during a change in leadership. The attrition, they say, has allowed her to shrink a bloated department and build a team committed to initiatives that will benefit all students. 

“Continued growth requires new approaches, and thus the work must look different than it has in the past,” a department spokeswoman said in a statement when asked about the exodus.

But the level of employee turnover is not typical. 

The department’s departure rate was 8% during the first nine months when Kevin Huffman was commissioner in 2011, the last time Tennessee changed governors. When Candice McQueen replaced Huffman in 2015 under the same administration, her department experienced a 16% departure rate during her first nine months, but that year, all state employees were eligible for buyouts, and the department was wrapping up work that was funded with a federal Race to the Top award from 2010.

Departures under Schwinn have begun to draw the attention of others, both across the state and beyond its borders. Since winning the $500 million federal grant, Tennessee has been viewed as a national innovator and magnet for policy-minded professionals, partly because of its willingness to use data and research to learn from its mistakes.

“I think the commissioner has folks who are trying, but we do hear concerns about her team,” said Dale Lynch, who leads Tennessee’s organization of school superintendents. “She needs more people who know what it’s like to work with a school board or on a district budget, to evaluate a teacher or administer a contract.”

Among high-profile and notable exits:

  • Mary Batiwalla, assistant commissioner of assessment and accountability
  • Research guru Nate Schwartz, who departed for the Annenberg Institute at Brown University
  • Chief financial officer Chris Foley
  • Technology chief Cliff Lloyd, who now works for Amazon
  • Memphis school turnaround specialist Sharon Griffin, who abruptly resigned as superintendent of the Achievement School District and was quickly tapped as innovation chief for Nashville’s school district
  • Elizabeth Alves, assistant commissioner over early learning
  • Sylvia Flowers, executive director of educator effectiveness and talent
  • Project management director Adriana Harrington, who most recently oversaw school improvement initiatives and left for reform group ExcelinEd
  • Chief schools officer Katherine Poulos, one of Schwinn’s first hires for her cabinet
  • Paul Fleming, assistant commissioner over teachers and leaders
  • Marcy Tidwell, director of school choice
  • Deputy Commissioner Lyle Ailshie, a former state superintendent of the year who retired in June
  • Rachel Wilkinson, executive director of data services over special education
  • Rebecca Wright, who oversaw the rollout of Tennessee voucher program for students with disabilities
  • Meg Cummins, an assistant who replaced Wright in managing the voucher program and left after only a few months on the job

“The amount of talent that has been lost is staggering,” said one person who left this fall, “and while it’s causing total chaos for employees, it’s schools and students who are going to be most harmed.”

That person was among current or former employees interviewed by Chalkbeat who described a climate of miscommunication, micromanagement, and chaos, including 11th-hour scrambles to meet deadlines. They spoke with Chalkbeat on the condition of anonymity for fear of losing their jobs or severance packages, or because they are considering legal action against the state.

Among their complaints: That the commissioner has built an expensive and top-heavy leadership team that, they charge, has lacked urgency in replacing critical employees; reassigned workers to tasks that they’re not funded to do; and broken promises of retroactive pay increases for staffers who took on additional responsibilities.

The four floors of the department’s once-bustling headquarters inside of a Nashville tower have become a ghost town filled with empty cubicles, according to one person. And numerous others said the work environment had grown toxic for those who remain. 

“Morale is completely depleted,” said one person who resigned last month. “Most people who are left are either actively looking for jobs or are brushing up their resumes. This isn’t about people being terminated or even reclassified; it’s just people quitting.”

Gov. Bill Lee hired Schwinn just days before his January inauguration. One of his most important and high-profile cabinet picks, the Texas academics chief did not submit an application or documents to Lee’s transition team outlining why she deserved the job, according to a review of all applications by The Associated Press. 

New Gov. Bill Lee (right) visits with staff at the Tennessee Department of Education during a tour of its Nashville offices early in his administration. (TN.gov)

In explaining the hire, the incoming Republican governor cited her work as a teacher and administrator and her background with test administration during stints at state departments in Delaware and Texas. 

“I believe her experience is exactly what we need to continue improving on the gains we have made in the past few years,” Lee said at the time of Schwinn, who has since been named a member of Chiefs for Change, a high-profile network of national education leaders.

Since taking the helm, Schwinn has presided over the state’s first smooth state testing season in years and visited dozens of schools and classrooms while devising a strategic plan for the department that she unveiled last week. As a public speaker, she is articulate and often inspiring.

But along the way, the commissioner has at times frustrated or even infuriated legislative leaders and numerous advocacy groups. 

Her biggest misstep came in August when she proposed quick changes to Tennessee’s pioneering model for holding its schools accountable. Schwinn later retreated after the chairs of the legislature’s two education committees told her to slow down, engage more stakeholders, and leave the state’s “value-added” growth-based system, known as TVAAS, alone. 

More recently, the commissioner stunned and puzzled the state’s education community — and many national followers — with her negative comments about Tennessee’s scores on a national exam, the state’s highest ever.

“It was a huge slap in the face to all of the teachers and school leaders who have been working extraordinarily hard to improve our standing,” said one state official, who called the commissioner’s leadership style “soul-crushing” and asked not to be identified for fear of retribution.

Schwinn visits with students at Rutherford County school in February, soon after becoming the state’s education chief. (Photo courtesy of Tennessee Department of Education)

The governor and his inner circle have stood by Schwinn. In recent months, Lee told several groups that he wants to be “disruptive” with public education to push for continued progress in Tennessee, which made outsized gains on a test known as the Nation’s Report Card in 2013. The climb has since leveled off.

Lee’s press secretary, Laine Arnold, told Chalkbeat on Thursday that Schwinn continues to have the governor’s support.

“The Department of Education has a clear directive to challenge the status quo by developing solutions that best advocate for students and teachers,” Arnold said. “We are confident that changes in structure reflect a desire to build the most effective team that will deliver on this mission.”

Schwinn has other fans, too.

“She is an innovative and collaborative leader who genuinely cares about kids and is committed to supporting superintendents and their districts,” said David Donaldson, one of Schwinn’s first cabinet hires, who oversees educator talent. “I take great pride in working for this commissioner.”

As Schwinn approaches her first anniversary at the department’s helm, her leadership team recently outlined their goals for the next fiscal year. Among them: to limit “regrettable attrition.”