“Hard Luck Woman” is a song by the American rock band Kiss which was one of my favorite musical groups growing up. Recently while listening to the song, it reminded me of the trials and tribulations of Tennessee Education Commissioner, Candice McQueen.
The Commissioner of Education doesn’t need me to defend her, nor did she ask me to stand up for her. But I am going to do it. If that is a disliked stance, it certainly would not be the first unpopular position I have chosen. We don’t always agree on issues, nevertheless our discussions are always productive. Chronic complaining never makes anything better. People who seek solutions to problems always engage to resolve the issue. The goal is to work to find a resolution that solves the problem.
Writer Roy Exum has taken it on himself to be the mouthpiece for the critics of Commissioner McQueen in Chattanooga. I think he is brutally unfair in his assessment. As I pointed out in my response to him, he was remarkably silent in regards to the previous Commissioner of Education. There is nobody in the state of Tennessee, with even a remotely passing interest in public education, that didn’t understand the mess she inherited from her predecessor. The state was embarking on an ambitious journey in public education, and the Race to the Top money was largely already spent.
Candice McQueen is not a politician. The learning curve in politics is steep, and she jumped immediately into the fire. The political “swamp” in Tennessee makes Washington DC look like a marsh at times. She is a person of deep spiritual faith, which is refreshing today. She has extraordinary integrity and absolute honesty. Her work schedule is unbelievable. I have been in 7:00 AM meetings with her, and 8:30 PM conference calls. She works weekends and holidays. Nobody in the Haslam administration has been as tireless in their pursuit of shaping a state agency that is transparent and responsive as she has been.
Candice McQueen walked into the job under the most difficult situation. She has done the impossible, in some of the most exasperating circumstances. You don’t build the airplane while flying the plane. And it is even harder to do it when the plane needs repairs. Yet, that is exactly what she is doing. Does that mean she has done everything perfectly? No. No person does everything perfectly. You also don’t see her run from difficulties either.
The latest problem revolves around testing. We have had issues with testing for the last four years. Like most people, I have grown weary of the testing culture. When there are issues it just validates some of my opinions. I will be sitting down very shortly with the test manufacturer Questar, to make suggestions directly to the company on behalf of our educators. This would never have happened under another Commissioner of Education.
I would offer this criticism: Commissioner McQueen needs to get in front of the latest testing problem, a little more aggressively. As the critics talk about the problems, she needs to acknowledge them immediately and let the public know that she and her team are working to resolve them. She needs to advise state and local leaders how the pitfalls will be avoided in the future. The plan moving forward is more important than the autopsy of the previous problem.
The commissioner can’t be expected to fire everyone involved, but there are some people at the Department of Education who work in testing that should be extremely concerned. And the folks at Questar should be reminded that Commissioner McQueen has proven in the past she is not afraid to change testing vendors. If there is something going on, Candice McQueen would be one of the first to drag it kicking and screaming into the light. That is what we need in a Commissioner of Education. It is why I have confidence in her leadership.
It turns out that Commissioner McQueen “ain’t a hard luck woman” after all, even when sharks are circling. The sharks are always circling in politics. But there is no blood in the water. Creative tension is always healthy for democracy. I challenge any critic of the commissioner to step back and look at the full picture.
Our state is on the right path. Teachers who unfairly bore the brunt of reform changes, have now mostly adjusted and recovered to a new normal. We still have more work to do on that end on behalf of educators, and will have more conversations ahead. That is why we championed the Teacher Bill of Rights, which was supported by the Department of Education. Our students are on an upward trajectory the last few years. Tennessee proves we chart our own destiny and the future is bright.
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JC Bowman is the Executive Director of Professional Educators of Tennessee, a non-partisan teacher association headquartered in Nashville, Tennessee. Permission to reprint in whole or in part is hereby granted, provided that the author and the association are properly cited. Follow him on social media via Twitter at @jcbowman.