Tennessee Gov. Bill Lee appointed Penny Schwinn the state’s education commissioner in January 2019, one year before COVID-19 threw schools into disarray. But the pandemic isn’t slowing her down. She continues to innovate despite the new challenges thrust on a state where the vast majority of schools receive supplemental federal funds for students in poverty.
A former high school history and economics teacher, Schwinn previously served as deputy education commissioner in Texas. Now, in Tennessee, she’s throwing her weight behind revamping the state’s career and technical education (CTE) programs.
In a recent interview, she explained how offering middle and high school students access to strong and thoughtful career options can break the cycle of poverty. Here is a lightly-edited version of our conversation.
Dr. Schwinn, why is CTE so important?
Tennessee has a long history of focusing on career readiness. Our state education system is lucky, unlike other states, to have real continuity of vision from one leader to another. For example, [former Gov.] Bill Haslam’s administration [2011-2019] set ambitious goals for strengthening our CTE programs, and now, under Governor Bill Lee, we’ve been able to be really thoughtful in meeting those big goals. After all, Lee is a national leader on innovative high schools and STEAM. He asks important questions like:
- Why does it have to be 30 students in a classroom all day?
- Why can’t students spend half their time in high schools and half their time experiencing the workforce?
- Why do we have this intense focus on seat time?
Didn’t the pandemic get in the way of your plans, given the disruption in both schools and businesses?
Actually, the pandemic allowed us the opportunity to think hard about what we want our students to accomplish by the time they graduate high school. And we’ve realized that starting CTE in high school is too late, that we need a six-year pathway, not a four-year one, and so we’ve started introducing middle school students to career possibilities. We’re investing millions of dollars and it’s already paying off: in 2018 we had 7,000 students in work-based learning and apprentices and now we have over 34,000.
Is there a concern that emphasizing CTE could lower academic expectations for students?
That’s an old mindset. In Tennessee, we think differently about structuring work-based learning. It’s a matter of equity: all students must have the same opportunities and options and in order to do that properly, our CTE programs must be as academically rigorous as our traditional programs while simultaneously preparing students for careers. We’ve shown it’s possible: scores on the ACT standardized college admissions tests for our CTE students are the same as for our non-CTE students. Yes, CTE is about workforce preparation but students must be just as prepared to be academically successful.
I take it that CTE in Tennessee is not just cosmetology and auto mechanics.
We have those programs but we also have medical and data sciences. All in all, there are 281 programs to choose from. Let’s say someone wants to be a plumber or an electrician. One day they may want to open their own business, right? In order to do that, they’ll need advanced math skills, advanced language skills. We need career preparation but we also need academic success.
So your CTE students have access to advanced courses?
Absolutely. And, actually, the pandemic has helped expand that through remote learning. We offer a program called AP Access For All, a collaboration between the Niswonger Foundation and the Tennessee Department of Education, which is available to every Tennessee student who is enrolled in a participating district. It doesn’t matter whether the school is urban or rural, whether transportation is an issue—there are no walls here. Students participate virtually and cycle into the workforce. Also, we pay the costs of AP tests and they get college credit.
How did you manage the digital divide, ensuring that all students had access to one-on-one devices and wifi?
We’ve set up a partnership with TMobile and spent $65 million to make sure all our students have devices.
And you work well with Governor Lee?
We couldn’t do any of this without his support and the support of the State Legislature. If we have a policy proposal, we talk to the Governor and he builds it into his agenda and his budget.
Can you give me a big picture sense of where you want to go with all of this?
Sure. First, high school graduation is not an end but a step in the educational and career preparation process. In order to implement that vision, we have to remove red tape—like issues with insurance– and create partnerships with industry so our students can have access to internships and apprenticeships. Currently, we have 1,200 industry partners across the state. We do a lot of matchmaking. And, second, if we ask for funds we have to be accountable for student outcomes, and so both the state department and the district are very results-focused.
I think of all this as divided into four buckets.
- The first bucket is academics and early literacy. We’ve invested $200 million in high-dosage tutoring to help students recover from pandemic learning loss. It’s optional now but in three years every Tennessee student will have free support in math, writing, and ACT preparation, with online tutoring for everyone. We need all students reading on grade level.
- The second bucket is a statewide project to innovate high schools, with $30 million behind it. Our goal is to have 100 innovative programs in the next two years and we’re on track to meet that goal.
- The third bucket is retaining effective teachers, especially in rural communities: we can’t make this work without the best teachers on staff! Currently, we have 68 state programs that help districts partner with teaching colleges. We offer paraprofessionals alternative certification and give them funding for night schools and opportunities to work with a mentor teacher. We have over 1,200 former paras graduating in the next 18 months! We also fund teachers to get certifications in special education and English Language Learning.
- And, fourth, we have to diversify our teacher leader network. We pay for teachers of color to get their Master's degrees so they can become administrators.
Wow! That’s quite a bucket list.
It is! But I’ll tell you what I’m most proud of: We’re doing all of this, it’s all optional for districts, and everyone is opting in! It’s all collaborative; we welcome all ideas and approaches, meeting with superintendents every month to co-create programs. That’s the teacher in me, the principal in me— my favorite job, by the way!—the person who wants to see, first-hand, our impact on children. Because that’s the heart of all of this: keeping our vision on the child.