One of the most important decisions Governor-elect Bill Lee has faced since the election is finding the right top-quality talent to lead the Tennessee Department of Education (TDOE). Across her education career, Dr. Penny Schwinn has shown she has the head for effective administration, the guts to be innovative, and a big heart for students. When she enters the office of the Tennessee commissioner of education, she will be ready to go to work for students.
A question that has come up often since November 6 is what Tennessee should look for in the next education commissioner. In media interviews and one-on-one conversations, I’ve argued for taking the time and looking across Tennessee and the nation to find the best candidate, one with a track record of success in driving student achievement, a proven commitment to student-focused policies, and strong skills as a communicator and relationship-builder.
Our students and the entire state have benefited from strong, smart, and bold leadership at TDOE over the past decade. Without a doubt, the commissioners who have served during this time have played a major role in Tennessee’s historic student achievement growth.
While Dr. Schwinn is new to our state, she has been following the Tennessee way across her education career: Set high expectations, measure progress, and hold ourselves accountable. Her broad range of experience can help Tennessee find the innovative policies that will spur the next burst of student achievement growth.
Tennessee educators need deep support to continue doing their best work for students. Dr. Schwinn has walked in their shoes as a teacher and leader at the school, district, and state levels and in traditional, public charter, and state-led turnaround schools. Tennessee must give students with the greatest needs a great education. Dr. Schwinn has passionately and effectively championed them throughout her career. Assessment delivery must become first in class, and Dr. Schwinn has experience with assessment administration in two states.
But as important as the commissioner is to improving outcomes for Tennessee students, she cannot do it alone. Dr. Schwinn will need support from educators and advocates who share her goals, and she needs the kind of constructive advice and feedback that only critical friends can provide. At SCORE, we’re thinking about how we can best collaborate with Dr. Schwinn and the talented TDOE team, and I hope you also are thinking about how you can support students by supporting them.
We all believe that Tennessee students can rise to the top half of the nation in student achievement. The next 12 months will be critical to accelerating our state’s achievement of that goal.
Dr. Schwinn has spent her career in the trenches working for kids, showing through words and actions that she is driven to ensuring each of them will graduate ready for postsecondary studies and careers. We welcome her to Tennessee.
David Mansouri is president and CEO of SCORE.