The architect behind Tennessee’s revision of English Language Arts (ELA) instruction, Tennessee Department of Education(TDOE) Chief Academic Officer Dr. Lisa Coons, has been named a finalist for the top education job in Nebraska. The search for a new superintendent was prompted by Matt Blomstedt stepping down as commissioner in January, after 9 years of service, to join a Washington D.C. Education Advocacy Group.

An ad hoc search committee of the Nebraska State Board of Education (NDE) named four finalists for Nebraska’s next Commissioner of Education, and Coons’ name is among them.

Tennessee’s literacy expert joins the following in pursuit of the position:

  • Dr. Brian Maher, CEO and Executive Director of the South Dakota Board of Regents, Pierre, South Dakota
  • Dr. Melissa Poloncic, Superintendent, DC West Community Schools, Valley, Nebraska
  • Dr. Summer Stephens, Superintendent of Schools and CTE Administrator for Churchill County School District, Fallon, Nevada

“The Board received a strong slate of applicants and while choosing finalists was not an easy task, we feel very confident in our selections,” said Board President Patti Gubbels. “Each finalist brings a unique perspective and extensive experience that will benefit our state.”

Per the Nebraska Department of Education press release, finalists were selected after a comprehensive search in partnership with the professional recruiting firm, McPherson and Jacobson. Feedback from a community survey and a public work session with board members helped develop the desired experiences and qualities of the next commissioner.

Of the four finalists, only 0ne – Poloncic – is employed in Nebraska. However, Maher and Stephens are native Nebraskans with educational ties to the state.

Dr. Coons joined the TDOE in August 2019 after a brief stint as Metro Nashville Public Schools (MNPS) Executive Officer of Priority Schools. During her time as an executive officer at MNPS, the list of the district’s state-designated priority schools grew from 11 to 21.  In response, she piloted a transition to a new ELA curriculum, Core Knowledge Language Arts (CKLA) as a means to increase student proficiency in reading. She also worked closely with The New Teacher Project (TNTP) to train teachers in the new curriculum.

In the Spring of 2019, MNPS Superintendent Shawn Joseph’s contract was not renewed, and he and the school board negotiated an early release. Interim Superintendent Dr. Adrienne Battle did not renew Dr, Coon’s contract and instead brought in former Tennessee Achievement School District Director Sharon Griffin to oversee the district’s priority schools. Last Fall, when the “priority school list” was next run, Nashville’s school district went from 16 to 19 priority schools.

In her role as the TDOE Chief Academic Officer, Coons continued her commitment to the implementation of “high quality” materials and her partnership with TNTP, even as it put her, and her boss Commissioner Penny Schwinn, at odds with state lawmakers.

The state textbook adoption process was already underway when Coon’s assumed her leadership role in 2019, but the schedule was suspended when Dr. Coons became assistant commissioner for standards and materials. The process was restarted after TDOE changed the adoption process in agreement with the state textbook commission. Those changes led to complaints of favoritism from a textbook publisher and Tennessee school district directors. Those complaints led the Legislature to pass Public Chapter 770 in 2020, which removed the education commissioner as a voting member of the Tennessee Textbook and Instructional Materials Quality Commission. The legislation further removed the commissioner’s ability to grant waivers for school districts seeking to use unapproved books and materials.

Over the past 3 years, Tennessee has paid TNTP over $16 million to retrain the state’s teachers in transitioning into the use of “high-quality” materials. The initial $8 million contract raised concerns from Tennessee lawmakers, as Tennessee’s Education Commissioner Penny Schwinn’s husband was employed by the organization at the time. Despite those concerns, the contract was later extended by $8 million.

Dr. Coons in her role with the TDOE has won national accolades for their commitment to increasing student success through the usage of a statewide tutoring resource. Tennessee has spent $200 million to initiate a three-year tutoring project called Tennessee Accelerating Literacy and Learning Corps (TN ALL Corps), which will serve 150,000 students in either math or English language arts in 79 districts. Last Fall, Dr. Coon told The74, “I’m proud of districts using data to target their programming.” She predicted the program would continue to evolve as it heads into its second and third years, giving districts more data to consider.

The Nebraska State Board of Education plans to interview the finalists in public meetings on March 30. Each candidate will also meet with various small groups throughout the day that will include NDE staff members and educational partners. The State Board plans to hold a public meeting on March 31 to select the next Commissioner of Education.

– – –

TC Weber is a reporter at The Tennessee Star and The Star News Network. He also writes the blog Dad Gone Wild. Follow TC on Twitter. Email tips to [email protected]. He’s the proud parent of two public school children and the spouse of a public school teacher.
Photo “Lisa Coons” by Dr. Lisa Coons. Background Photo “Classroom” by Ivan Aleksic.