Tennessee hires new education commissioner


State of Tennessee Photographic

Penny Schwinn

Michael Fanning, Staff Writer

Tennessee has picked a new Commissioner of Education, and her name is Penny Schwinn. Schwinn came from the Texas Education Agency and is now joining Tennessee’s education leaders. Schwinn has a big role to play in the Tennessee education system.

The experience she has gathered during her career helped her get the job. Schwinn has been a principal at an elementary school in Sacramento, California and an Assistant Secretary of Education in Delaware.

“I’ve been a summer school middle school teacher, I was a principal at an elementary school, and I was able to serve on a school board,” Schwinn said

Schwinn has a Bachelor of Arts from the University of Berkeley, a Master of Arts from Johns Hopkins University and a Ph.D. in Education Policy from Claremont Graduate University.

“I was thrilled and felt so privileged when governor Lee called and offered me the job,” Schwinn said. “Tennessee has a history of significant growth over the last 10 years.”

Alexis Bigelow is a 7th grade student. She thinks that the governor made the right decision in bringing in someone from out of the state.

“She won’t be biased since she isn’t from around here,” Bigelow said

Emma Anthony and Skye Martinez are also 7th grade students. They disagree with Bigelow and think the governor should have chosen someone from within the state.

“They may have different ways of running schools [where Schwinn is from],” Anthony said.

Martinez, a past student of the Texas school system, believes that “education there is different from other states”.

Anthony and Martinez both agreed that Lyle Ailshie, the former Kingsport City Schools superintendent and interim Education Commissioner, should have been named commissioner of education.

“It would be easier to hire someone like him from inside the state,” Anthony said.

Students struggle to know what happens with a new commissioner of education.

“It’s a little weird, because I don’t know how education can change,” Martinez said.

Anthony agreed.

“I have no idea what will happen,” she said.

The commissioner actually has a lot of responsibilities.

“I spend 25% of my time talking to students and getting their opinions,” Schwinn said. “I spend 25% of my time with the public and elected officials, and 25% or more with the work of the department.”

Schwinn comes from a long line of teachers and this has had an influence on how she does her job.

“My mom was a teacher for 37 years, my Uncle Jim, Uncle Andy and Uncle Bill and two aunts are educators,” she said. “Half of my family were elementary teachers, a couple middle school teachers and the rest were high school teachers.”

Schwinn’s favorite part of the job is getting to work with the kids and to help make laws.

Schwinn certainly faces some challenges in her job, as well.

“I think the biggest challenge will be that the programs as a state will help all students and not just some,” she said. “Tennessee is a very diverse state, the needs of all of our communities can vary, so I want to make sure that when I’m making decisions, that I am considering all of our students.”

Tennessee has had a lot of challenges with testing in the past, especially with computer testing.

“Do not do any TCAP tests on the computer,” Anthony said.

Bigelow agreed that testing needs work.

“She should cut down on testing because it’s stressful,” she said.

This was a topic that Schwinn spent a lot of time working on.

“In my first six weeks, I talked to teachers, principals and students to get their opinions on whether we should go back to paper and pencil, or if we should stay with computerized testing,” Schwinn said. “Most importantly, we’ve thought about how to get test scores back to students, parents and teachers as quickly as possible.”

This school year, testing will take place on paper, although Tennessee will probably return to online testing in the future.

To Schwinn, it does not matter if a school is a public school or a charter school, as long as the school is effective.

“I am a proponent of good schools,” Schwinn said. “I am a supporter of high-quality, high-performing public charter schools and then I am also someone who would say that our low-quality, low-performing schools should close. It’s less about whether or not it’s a public charter school, and more about whether or not it is serving our children at a very high level.”

School vouchers, or giving parents access to money spent on their child’s education and letting them pick a different school for their child, are often in the news.

“I am very privileged to be part of the executive branch,” Schwinn said. “We will see what laws are passed this session. If that law passes, it is my responsibility to make sure the implementation of that is as strong as possible. I think that if we put public money towards anything in education, it should be effective.”

Schwinn feels that Tennessee schools are already doing a lot of things well.

“In my first six weeks, I’ve been spending all of my energy and time focusing on the almost one million public school students,” Schwinn said. “We were just at a school, one of the innovation academies, and it was wonderful to see a school that was focused on supporting students in hands-on learning.”

In the end, Schwinn is excited to get to work for Tennessee students.

“I loved my job in Texas,” Schwinn said. “My sister lives there. When I was asked about where is the one state where you would be willing to pick up your family and move, Tennessee was that state.”

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