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VOL. 133 | NO. 136 | Tuesday, July 10, 2018

Despite Innovative Approaches to Education, Tennessee Children Are Still Lagging Behind

Frank Daniels

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During the past five months the major candidates for governor of Tennessee and U.S. Senate have shared their ideas on several crucial issues facing Tennessee. This month, in the final installment of the series, candidates address education. Early voting for the Aug. 2 primaries and county general elections begin July 13.

“An educated citizenry is a vital requisite for our survival as a free people.”

No, Thomas Jefferson did not write that, and no records exist that he said it, yet the quote has been attributed to him in thousands of arguments on the importance of education because it is apt.

While the wording is not Jefferson’s, the quote does embody the Founding Father’s philosophy and sentiment.

As a member of the Virginia House of Delegates, Jefferson first advocated for a tax-funded system of public education in 1779. He could not get his bill passed as a member of the House, nor during his two terms as governor. It was not until after the Civil War that Virginia established a system of tax-funded public schools.

The gulf between talking about the importance of education and making the words have meaning through action was not then, nor is it now, easy.

Innovative leadership

In recent years, Tennessee has had innovative governors, particularly on education.

Bill Haslam has been determined that he would leave office with a legacy as an “education” governor. His work on the Tennessee Promise scholarship and mentoring program is a good example of that desire. Promise ensures Tennesseans who want to get higher education have that opportunity without paying for tuition.

The Promise program is part of a broad plan that includes his “Drive to 55” plan to increase the number of Tennesseans with education beyond high school to 55 percent of the adult population to meet the requirements of a changing work environment.

Haslam, a Republican, succeeded another innovative education-oriented governor, Democrat Phil Bredesen, who launched a massive effort to reform schools after the state received an “F” from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce in 2007 on student proficiency. The state, the chamber said, was falsely claiming that its schools were graduating students ready to work and/or attend college. The state’s testing and graduation standards were too easy, and an “A” in Tennessee did not equal an “A” in other states.

The Bredesen administration authored a reform plan that won a $500 million federal grant –Race to the Top – that included formation of the Achievement School District to improve the lowest performing schools, new testing standards, and incentives for teachers.

Bredesen’s reforms and Haslam’s commitment to implementation of his predecessor’s plan, in addition to his own initiatives, led to significant progress in student achievement, but the path has been bumpy and controversial.

As higher standards were kicking in, and as a new evaluation system on teacher performance was being implemented, the General Assembly ordered new standards, a new testing system that were more “Tennessee” and less “national.” The changes have led to delay after delay in implementing new tests and the teacher evaluation system.

Reform is not easy, requiring patience and resolve from a diverse number of stakeholders.

Does Tennessee have the resolve?

Tennessee has made significant strides since earning its “F” in 2007. High school graduation rates are strong, eighth best in the nation, but student proficiency in core subjects and on college entrance exams remains elusive.

Funding is a challenge. Tennessee’s constitution requires that the state fund schools, but the Basic Education Plan that outlines what funding is required is not fully funded and the formula that allocates money to school districts is being challenged in lawsuits.

Student performance is inextricably linked to teaching, but Tennessee ranks 39th in teacher salaries, including paying teachers lower than the states surrounding us. And teachers are skeptical of the evaluation systems that have been installed.

The next governor will follow two men who have done much to improve education. But the next governor’s task will not be easier because of them. He or she will have to do more to make Tennesseans the “educated citizenry” that is vital to our survival as a free people.

Frank Daniels is a writer living in Clarksville. A former editor, columnist and business executive, he is a member of the N.C. Journalism Hall of Fame. You can reach him at fdanielsiii@mac.com.

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