ROGERSVILLE — As the Review reported in “Tennessee Commissioner of Education visits Hawkins County: New plans for the future” in the Midweek edition, the Tennessee Commissioner of Education, Dr. Penny Schwinn, paid a visit to Hawkins Co. principals during a principals meeting on Aug. 27. This visit was part of her statewide school tour designed to gather input from local students and educators. After explaining many of the new developments in the state DOE (Department of Education), Schwinn opened the floor to questions from the crowd.

The fate of Read to be Ready summer camps

Co-Assistant Director of Schools Beth Holt asked Schwinn about the potential elimination of the summer literacy camps that are part of the Read to be Ready program. More information about the program can be found here https://www.tn.gov/content/tn/readtobeready.html.

Schwinn explained the complicated policies associated with this controversy but noted that efforts are being made to keep these programs in existence.

“The governor provided the $5 million to get us through this summer,” she explained. “That buys us some time before next summer … DHS (Department of Human Services) can still support about half of the cost of the summer programs, so we’ve been fundraising, and then we’re going to make an ask this year for the legislature to continue the summer programs.”

New “best-of model” introduced for school accountability

Hixson asked Schwinn to discuss the new model the state DOE will soon introduce to measure school progress. This new model, which is referred to as the “40/40/20 model” or “best-of model” will be officially presented to the Tennessee Board of Education in September and voted on in November.

The school accountability system is a complex formula that looks at multiple factors to measure student growth. Whereas, in the past, schools were given a number grade intended to measure proficiency, the new model would assign a letter grade.

“This is the first year we’re using the new system,” Schwinn said. “We were supposed to do letter grades, but I decided that this was not the year to do that because we didn’t have enough years of strong testing to be able to put a letter on a school or on a district. So, we opened it back up to the state board, and one of the things we heard is that, if we are a super high-performing school, it’s really hard to show growth…If we are a school that’s high-opportunity where we can grow a lot of our kids, that’s where we need to focus. We need to focus on making sure that all of our kids are growing rapidly.”

Schwinn hopes that the new, “best-of model” will reflect the feedback the DOE has received from educators.

“If you are a school that is super high performing, and that’s where you want to focus, then you focus on that,” Schwinn said of the new model. “If you’re a school that’s high-opportunity, and growth is really where you need to focus, then let’s focus on that. So, you get a grade for each of those, and then you get a grade for what we call ‘other indicators,’ as required by federal law. Right now, it’s basically chronic absenteeism. But, in your growth score and your proficiency score—let’s say one’s an A and one’s a D—in terms of what goes towards the overall, you get the better of them. So, your average is an A. It’s not A and D makes C+.”

She went on to explain that whichever score is higher in terms of growth and proficiency will then be averaged in with the ‘other indicators’ to determine a school’s final score.

“It’s essentially trying to say that you can’t be high-growth and high-proficiency,” she explained. “That literally just isn’t possible, and then we’re forcing grades that don’t actually make sense … So, we feel like, if we’re actually serious about growth…then we need to treat that as equally as valuable as proficiency. So, we think a best-of model actually better represents how a school is doing.”

Responding to recent data that claims one in three teachers wants to leave the profession

Mooresburg Elementary School Principal Jason Roach asked Schwinn about the DOE’s response to the results of the 2019 Tennessee Educator Survey, which claimed that 1 in 3 teachers wants to leave the profession. The results of the survey can be found at http://educatorsurvey.tnk12.gov.

“That was hard data to get and, I think, important data for us to get,” Schwinn responded.

She explained that there are “two buckets of work”: what attracts people to a teaching career and what causes them to stay. In regard to attracting people to the profession, Schwinn acknowledged that salary is an important factor.

“We have to get to at least a minimum (salary) level if we’re going to have a bigger pool for selection, and, right now, that’s not the case,” she said. “We hear a lot from superintendents ‘is there a warm body who can teach special education’ and ‘is there a warm body who can teach science.’ We want better than that for our kids…. We think that we do need to have an honest, statewide conversation about compensation.”

Lack of support for both managing student behavior and assisting students with disabilities was found to contribute to teachers leaving the field.

“The rate of children with disabilities is increasing across the state, and our rate of children who are either experiencing crisis or demonstrating behavioral issues is something we’ve heard a lot from educators,” Schwinn said. “Teachers want to feel supported in the classroom, which is part of why we see people leave the profession. Part of it is salary, but a lot of it is working conditions after three years and going into your fourth year. It’s ‘am I happy,’ ‘can I be successful’ and ‘is this sustainable,’ and we’re seeing that emotionally, it’s not for teachers if you are dealing with all of these challenges that weren’t there necessarily 30 years ago.”

In order to fix this problem, she explained that the DOE is looking at ways to better staff schools to ensure that teachers do have the necessary resources to deal with modern-day challenges.

Addressing inequalities between urban and rural schools

Federal Programs Director Reba Bailey asked Schwinn to elaborate on ways the DOE plans to address the inequity between resources allocated to schools in rural communities versus those in urban communities.

“We have to think about how we address our districts in their individual and unique needs based on where they are,” Schwinn explained.

She also acknowledged that Governor Bill Lee has asked each of his commissioners to place a special emphasis on this issue.

“There’s certainly rural, urban and suburban,” Schwinn said of Tennessee districts. “But rural in West Tennessee and rural in East Tennessee and rural in Middle Tennessee do not look the same either…So, when we think about grant making…we don’t actually look at ‘rural’ as one of our equity measures…We’re thinking about how we actually provide support so that our rural districts have the same capacity to go after these extra funds and resources that our urban districts and our suburban districts have.”

The DOE is also using this kind of thinking to make rural schools an equally desirable workplace to high-quality teachers as their urban counterparts.

“So, if we’re going to have incentives to go into math, science and special education, which are all massive shortage areas, then we need to make sure that those incentives are going to our rural communities, which tend to have fewer applications per position open,” Schwinn said. “The salary level tends to be lower than in other areas, and, most of the time, what we’re seeing is that, in our rural communities, they (teachers) are moving over one county where they can make a little bit more money. Then, those people are moving over to another county. We see that across the state. So, we have to be able to better prioritize how we think about allocating funds to ensure that everyone has a fair shot at getting a teacher who’s highly qualified, excellent in the classroom, and everyone’s getting the resources they need for their local communities.”

The DOE is also looking to hire someone within the next six months who, according to Schwinn, “just focuses on rural education and rural education innovation.”