Episode 2: Tennessee’s “Big Bet” on Literacy and Statewide Tutoring

Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn describes the “big bet” Tennessee has taken with recovery funds to address flagging literacy with high dosage tutoring. Schwinn highlights how the pandemic allowed parents to more meaningfully engage in schools and gives a preview of what’s next for Tennessee’s schools.


Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success, and this is the Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery podcast.

Each week, we travel the country on a kind of “road trip” to talk about the ways federal recovery dollars are being used in the states to reshape education. Along the way, we’ll hold up the best examples with the hope that those practices are repeated in other schools.

Our guest today is Tennessee Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn. On her watch, the state has made some “big bets” around academic needs. One of those is improving literacy. They’ve made a whopping $200 million investment in high dosage tutoring. Penny is no stranger to the classroom; she started her career as a high school history and economics teacher. She is no stranger to road trips either. She has been crisscrossing Tennessee and personally visiting 50 school districts in just three weeks. There’s a lot of energy coming out of the state and as you’ll hear from her, a lot of promising signs that Tennessee’s “big bets” are going to pay off.

Jim Cowen Commissioner Schwinn, thank you for joining us today. We are approaching this podcast under a theme of road tripping, so before we get into the more substantive material, I just want to ask you what was your most memorable road trip and was there a song that captures that road trip you had?

Penny Schwinn You know, I’m in Tennessee so we love a good road trip, and we are actually starting our bus tour this summer, so I think the best road trip I’ve been on we saw 50 districts last summer and their summer programming and to get back on track, we’re about to start 50 more districts. So, I think my theme song is going to be “On the Road Again.”

Jim Cowen Nice. I remember the last road trip you did. How long does it take you to get through 50 districts?

Penny Schwinn So, we do it in about three weeks. We started about six in the morning, and we go until very late in the evening because we’ll do, you know, parent groups and roundtables and things like that. But we do about 45-minute visits, we do about six districts a day in different regions, and it is by far the best thing that we do and my most favorite part of the year. It’s so much fun.

Jim Cowen Well, you are the Education Commissioner, but you are also a former high school teacher and a parent as well so, perspective on this runs deep and I’m sure people appreciate that. We’re two years into this. Two years plus into massive disruption across the country and you know we’ve had the added stress of everything else that’s in current events right now. And then just the normal sort of wear and tear that kids go through in the best of circumstances that we’re all sort of dealing with so, I say this as a first question just to tee it up and get your perspective, and we’re asking everyone that we talked to this, it’s sort of how are kids doing? How are you sort of looking at the status of education, particularly in Tennessee? How are Tennessee kids doing?

Penny Schwinn Yeah, you know, it has been the hardest two years, professionally, I think for many people, if not everyone, in education because we’ve been pushed on our normal jobs and doing our normal jobs differently and innovating and frankly, responsibly, and strategically spending an astronomical and historic amount of funding to support kids. And so, you know, when I think about those pieces, I feel very proud of what we have accomplished in Tennessee because we have kind of held our ground and stayed the course around the things that we knew needed to be improved and accelerated before the pandemic. We continued to push on those things even though we were in a pandemic and so when I look at the data and the outcomes, I think about we have more students in work-based learning programs and apprenticeships than we did before. We have more STEM designated schools. Our data looks really, really good, and I think we have all of our schools in person, students engaged, and teachers excited, and everyone’s still drained, right? And so, we are still facing kind of the fatigue and emotional wear and tear of the last two and a half years and so, it’s this balance of optimism, great data, amazing progress, and wanting to make sure we’re taking care of folks so that we can continue to make those types of gains.

Jim Cowen I’ve heard you characterize Tennessee’s approach to recovery as making some “big bets,” which I like how you’ve turned that, and we’ve written about that in the past, but one of those is literacy, early literacy. From our check, Tennessee is putting in somewhere around or investing somewhere around $200 million to clear around the accelerated literacy and learning core, the Tennessee ALL Corps program. How did you come to that decision and, sort of, where does it stand right now?

Penny Schwinn Yeah, so, you know when we thought about how much funding there was, we really looked at our data and said our students in the earliest grades are going to be the most impacted, that was our prediction. We also said we have got to ensure every child is reading on grade level by third grade. We only had a third of our kids before the pandemic, that dropped, and we realized a few things had been proven to really support recovery and let’s just do a couple of those things really well and use the research to kind of drive what those decisions are.  So, the two things we did were Reading 360, which is our comprehensive wraparound reading program—it supports teachers and district’s high-quality instructional materials and families, and then Tennessee ALL Corps which is that high dosage low ratio tutoring 3:1. We have 150,000 students participating through our district-run programs. We have another 20,000 through our community grants and then every high school student.

From my perspective, when we look at kind of what works and what doesn’t, it was about ensuring scale. So, number of students across grades and the depth and quality of implementation. Both of those things had to be true, and we needed to make sure that it was something that could be sustainable over time so that districts didn’t think “let me just get this done,” but “let me figure out how to make this something that will be done well.” And our data’s proven out that these “bets” are working. We just got back our state testing data and when we look at our reading scores—when we look at third grade—what we are seeing is that our students are performing exactly the same as they were before the pandemic. There is no more gap. So, they’ve fully recovered from that.

When we look at fourth through seventh grade, we’ve seen that, on average, our students are three to five points higher than they were before the pandemic. So, not only have we recovered from that kind of learning loss that everyone experienced last year and the year before, but our students are actually doing several points better than they otherwise would have done. Unexpected certainly to recover this quickly but it is, I think, really a testament to the focus that we’ve seen across grade bands and across districts in the state.

Jim Cowen One of the things we liked is how you incentivize districts to pick up on this. You didn’t just sort of cross your fingers and hope that they were going to grab this, embrace it, and implement it, you actually listened to them on what they needed. Can you just talk a little more about that and sort of how that has played out over the last months?

Penny Schwinn Yeah, so I think one of the things that has been the most important is really talking with districts. So, we speak with districts every Wednesday, we have engagement groups, we have regional groups, but there’s probably 40 to 60 districts we talk to their superintendents at least twice a month. And what we heard from them is we want to make sure what we’re doing is going to work, we want to make sure there are those incentives in place, and we really want to make sure that we can kind of continue that progress overtime. So, we designed best for all districts and what that was is it was saying we want to honor, recognize, and incent and reward those districts who are spending 50% of their recovery dollars on academic recovery and interventions and supports and then who have also participated in high dosage tutoring. So, those districts who do both of those things, we thought that was a reasonable balance–half your dollars on academics and then high dosage tutoring—they get an additional financial support from the state, multiple grants over the next 3 years. They also get things a lot of people don’t think about but really matter to the districts like first, access to sign up for professional development sessions or paperwork reduction or a fast pass to be able to kind of get support from the department. So, things that actually help them do their day-to-day business overtime. And that’s really created the opportunity for half of our districts to join Tennessee ALL Corps and we’ve got a significant number of additional districts who have also worked to sign on especially now that is in statute and will be required forever more, which is a part of that policy meet recovery dollars framework we’re trying to build.

Jim Cowen We had an interesting conversation with some of the folks that are actually implementing this for Lenoir City Schools and that was great to hear because that’s really where the rubber meets the road. And to hear, we spoke to—I’ll give a shout out Shawn Walker and Ann Sexton from Lenoir City Schools (go panthers!)—and hopefully they’ll be on your bus tour as you’re going through but they were great and they laid out in very honest terms about skepticism going into high dosage tutoring program that were happening around this and how it was challenging initially on hearing from the state about the desire how they wanted either before school or after school. And it wasn’t working well to go after school and to your credit, you listened, you know, and I think that’s a great story. You took the feedback and, you know, found middle ground and they were grateful for that, and it was interesting to hear them talk about the status of the program starting off with skepticism from the teachers, which you would expect a teacher to be highly protective of their students and you’re going to pull someone from a class to give them this tutor. Who are we going to get to do this tutoring thing? So, they had to reach out and find all these tutors in their area and then finding the time to communicate to the parents about what is actually going on so that the parents don’t logically think “is this for mediation? Is my kid in trouble?” And I think these are all logical things. I have put that on myself as if my kids are suddenly being tutored. My first thought is that they’re being punished for something where there’s some, there’s a problem. And now, you know, the feedback that they’re getting now is that these kids wish they had it from the beginning.

It’s almost like what I was using with Shawn and Ann was the analogy of if you’re in baseball practice. Like if you were with the rest of the team and suddenly you had a hitting coach pull you out every now and then to work on your swing and then get you back with the rest of the team that has a huge impact on your overall outcome as a player for the team. And so, it was really great to hear that from them. I’m just curious, like, I know that’s a great story, but are you hearing more of that and in the state, are you definitely experiencing that?

Penny Schwinn We are, and I think that with any kind of big, bold change when you were trying to do something that is at scale and really kind of deep in implementation, you’re going to have the initial skepticism. You’re going to have kind of the worry frankly, and anxiety about this is a lot to do. Can we get it done? And that’s why that kind of the “Best for All Districts” were so important because it provided that carrot to help people feel more comfortable and confident to try it out. Like at least there’s, there’s something I’m going to get for this.

And then once we actually got into the implementation, what we’ve heard from districts is, you know, the flexibility. So, you know, before and after school didn’t work as well. And now we have this really great model of building it into our intervention block during the school day, or lots of districts who are experiencing teacher vacancies. They’re now hiring full-time tutors. Those tutors are in their first or second year of their credential. They’re learning from these mentor and master teachers and then when those teachers retire, they’re moving into the classroom. Our ed preps are saying, “hey, you know, you, University of Tennessee said, we are going to require that all of our credential candidates actually participate in Tennessee ALL Corps.”

So, I think it really is kind of this embodiment of not if, but how. And that’s been the approach that I think a lot of our districts have taken, but the proof’s in the pudding. And when they’re seeing that their students are progressing faster when they’re getting that positive reinforcement from teachers and students, it just reinforces for everybody, and you’re seeing it spread. It’s really exciting to see.

Jim Cowen Are parents having a similar response for like the priority on literacy?

Penny Schwinn Yeah and I love that part because I think it is one of the great kind of stories that can come out of this time period is how parents can meaningfully and authentically engage, in a way that they haven’t, they might not have been able to before.

And so, seeing their students in that tutoring and their students being so excited about what they’re learning so quickly or, you know, as part of our reading work, we’re sending decodables home. We have texts that go to over 150,000 parents every month. And we have lots of different kinds of literacy nights, et cetera, that help parents understand what’s happening in the classroom and what to do at home with their students.

And so, you’re getting this really great response because now I, as a parent say, “OK, I know what I can do to help my child and I know what the school is doing to help my child.” And if I can say that to both of those kinds of questions that are being asked, I feel much better about the direction of education and I’m a positive supporter of what’s happening and that’s been critical for us.

Jim Cowen So beyond just the literacy focus, are there other sort of stools to this strategy and the “big bets”?

Penny Schwinn Yeah, so we’ve kind of done three big bets. So, the first has been around kind of literacy summer school and tutoring. The second has really been around kind of the high school space and we’ve been doing that through innovative high school models. We had an initial $30 million grant. It went to 23 districts and that 21 models, because we had some districts work together, but the idea was how can we use this moment in time to redesign and rethink the high school experience to get, frankly, significantly more students into post-secondary programs and completing post-secondary programs.

We’ve really started to stall out as a state here. And so that’s been exciting. We have students in Oak Ridge who are building planes and flying them for the aeronautics program, students in forestry. They’re taking their college credits on work site and then going to do an apprenticeship on work site. And it’s been so successful in terms of college credits earned, industry credentials earned, students matriculating into post-secondary where we haven’t seen a decrease like other states that the governor proposed in the legislature just passed $500 million for innovative programs in every high school and every middle school in the state. I think that’s going to be transformational for the sustainability component of kind of rethinking high school to be much different and much more engaging.

Jim Cowen So the thing this is along the same lines, but I was going to shift a little bit and start talking about the new funding formula for the state and sort of how that is transformational. And maybe this is asking you to be a little redundant on what you just said, but how has the funding formula changed and how’s that been received as well?

Penny Schwinn You know, it is a completely different way to look at how we fund schools and systems. Now we are the 40th state or territory to do that, but I think that what we’ve been able to do is really stick to what a student-based formula is supposed to be, so the vast majority of those dollars are attached to the student and the student’s needs. We did do kind of an averaging resource-based formula, quite outdated. And you know, it’s hard to change school funding because it’s known. And when it’s been around for 30 years, there’s a reason it’s been around for 30 years. So, we thought that this was the most important moment in time, first and foremost, because we need to add money. We did not fund schools appropriately. So, a billion new dollars is critical.

Second is we knew that we were doing really good things and the data was showing that the federal dollars and how we were investing them is working. And that is proving out with our state assessments. How do we sustain that over time?

And then third is how do we ensure the dollars can be reported transparently? So, we know how much schools are funded, how much of those, many of those dollars are staying in schools and what schools and districts are doing with them. And a student-based formula allows us to fund the needs of the student and then report on exactly what those funds that were generated by the child were used for and how that translated to outcomes. That is a data-driven approach, and it connects programmatic policy with actual outcomes, and we’ve got to make sure that return on investment is clear for taxpayers and, frankly, for our general assembly.

Jim Cowen So even before the pandemic, we knew that there were large groups of students that weren’t receiving an equitable education. Are there any signs that you know of that students and the schools that serve these historically underserved populations are benefiting from the federal funds?

Penny Schwinn We are seeing that. So, we’ve started to take our data and break it down, of course, by all of our student demographics and by district. We are still seeing some ramifications and effects of who kind of went back to in-person faster. You know, if they were fully remote, if they were hybrid or, frankly, all in-person the entire time, which the vast majority of Tennessee districts have been full in-person now for two years. And we are still seeing that there are some disparities there. We are still seeing that our low, our students in low-income communities were significantly more impacted. They are also accelerating a lot faster in terms of their growth. So, the recovery is going faster, especially if their student who had high dosage tutoring, or they were a student whose teacher was part of kind of the literacy work. So, we are seeing that some of those interventions are working very well. I will say personally, I am most worried about our students who are low income, our students with disabilities, and those who are English learners in the youngest grades. That seems to be where it is hardest to provide all of the additional support because learning to read in school is really hard, learning to read remotely is very hard. And so how we make sure that we maintain these kinds of supports over time as a responsibility every state has and has to commit to if we’re actually going to see full recovery at the pace that our kids deserve.

Jim Cowen In these podcasts, we try to capture a parent perspective since they’ve been really close to the front lines of education than probably anyone else. And this week we have a question that comes from Bibb Hubbard and she’s founder and president of Learning Heroes here in Virginia.

Bibb Hubbard Hi Penny, this is Bibb Hubbard, founder, and president of Learning Heroes. I am so happy to be here to ask you a question. As you know, Learning Heroes is an organization that supports parents as their child’s most effective education advocate and we know from our latest annual national survey of K-12 parents, which we fielded in mid-May and will be released later in June, that 88% of parents reported that they were as or more involved in their child’s education this year than they were last year. And 79% of educators said they spent more time on family engagement—super inspiring. Parents also said they want to work closely with teachers to help address the pandemic’s impact on learning and they prioritized getting direct and truthful information about their child’s performance in school. And a couple of these findings with our consistent data points since 2016, that more than 9 in 10 parents regardless of race, income, or education, perceived their child as at or above grade level in both reading and math—especially when you know the devastating gap between that perception and the stark reality of our students’ performance. When you take all of that, how can we tap into the deep levels of engagement to ensure parents have what they deserve and want: a complete, holistic picture of their child’s achievement and development, so they can be their child’s most effective education advocate?

Penny Schwinn So, first I love that there’s a parent question. And second, as a parent, I would ask the exact same thing and it’s the balance of, I want to know the truth about my child, but I want it to be in a way that is reflective of my own beliefs and knowledge of my child and that is something that is actionable. And so, I think the most important part of this question is how do we not miss the opportunity to maintain that level of engagement and make it really productive so that parents know that what they’re doing is helping and certainly supportive of the school environment. And I think there’s a couple of things that states must do. We have to provide honest information, but we have to do it in a way that is digestible for families. No more six-point font reports and PDFs sent home and folders. It really has to be a way that we communicate that says, look, here’s how your child’s doing. Here’s how your child’s growing. Here are the specific questions you can ask. Here are the resources that will help you support your child over the summer. Having that full continuum of communication is going to be really important because if I just know there’s a problem and I don’t know what to do about it, that’s going to create frustration.

I think what the assessment for us this year, we’re really excited. We’re going to be rolling out personalized videos for every child so a parent can actually see their child’s journey and growth over the year. We have significantly more tools and resources in the parent portal, and we are linking that to specific literacy initiatives. So, I can take my child’s reading level, go to the neighborhood library, and get on-grade level books and making that really simple and transferable to families is going to be critical for us. And then I think the last thing I would say is for families and school districts, where that relationship is I think, frankly, the most important, the state has a really important role of facilitating those conversations. So that if I’m a parent, I’m going to teacher conference and I have questions, I’m not quite sure what answers I’m expecting. The teacher says, “Look, here’s what we’re learning in school, here are the materials we’re using, and here are actual decodables that the state has sent to you over the summer, and let’s just do this together. Here’s the schedule.” But helping it be more as a partnership and not just a handoff. That feeling, we are going to have to capture and maintain over time.

Jim Cowen Commissioner Schwinn, thank you very much for your time today. I wish you the best of luck on the upcoming bus tour. I’m sure we’ll be hearing all about it along the way. And just bonus points here if you know who actually sang “On the Road Again.”

Penny Schwinn Who doesn’t know the two greats, Willie Nelson and, of course, I have to name Dolly Parton because anything in Tennessee has to include Dolly Parton. So, I don’t know if she was involved in the song, but she’s involved somewhere so.

Jim Cowen Well done. Thank you for your time. And good luck on the tour.

Penny Schwinn Thank you very much. Appreciate it.

Jim Cowen This is Jim Cowen from The Collaborative for Student Success. Thanks for listening to today’s episode of Route K-12: Exploring Education Recovery. For each week, we’ll travel the country to showcase the ways federal recovery funds are reshaping schools. Along the way we’re talking to people doing the hard work to educate America’s kids. Got a question or insight you’d like to share about what’s going on in education? We’d love to hear it. Reach out to us at EduRecoveryHub.org/RouteK12 or follow us on Twitter at our handle @StudentSuccess.

About Jim Cowen



Jim is the the executive director of the Collaborative for Student Success, a non-profit organization that defends strong K-12 policies that benefit all students.

About the Author

Chad Aldeman is a nationally recognized expert on education policy, including school finance; teacher preparation, evaluation, and compensation; and state standards, assessment, and accountability. Keep up with Chad on the EduProgess: Unpacked blog.