Focusing on equity, expectations, and pathways in the year ahead

by Candice McQueen, Tennessee Commissioner of Education

On President Lincoln’s first day in office as he was about to give his inaugural address, a rich aristocrat is said to have stood up and said to President Lincoln, “You should never forget that your father used to make shoes for my family.” The Senate laughed thinking the rich aristocrat had put the newly elected president in his place. But, President Lincoln responded, “Sir, I know that my father used to make shoes for your family, and there will be many others here. Because he made shoes the way nobody else can, he was a creator. His shoes were not just shoes; he poured his whole soul into them. I want to ask you, have you any complaint?” The entire Senate responded with silence. While Lincoln’s response demonstrated his character and confidence, it also showed his understanding of vision. He was proud of his father—a man who made shoes that were so excellent that no one would have complaints—and he brought this understanding of vision into the presidency. He knew that wherever you find yourself, your vision for what is possible and the associated actions toward that vision can make remarkable change for generations to come.

In Tennessee, we also believe in the power of an ambitious vision  to impact long-lasting, generational change. Drive to 55 and all the associated strategies—from Tennessee Succeeds to Tennessee Promise to Tennessee Reconnect—have set an extraordinary vision that also allows all Tennesseans—no matter where they find themselves—to have opportunity for postsecondary and workforce success.

To date, some of the successes toward this vision include more students than ever before completing the FAFSA and entering college. In fact, we have more than 73% of students completing the FAFSA and we had a 5% increase in college going across Tennessee which represents more than the combined percentage increase from the past six years. In terms of preparation for entry into college, we are seeing more students demonstrating outcomes that show better preparation for postsecondary. We have the highest graduation rate ever in the state—88.5%—and the highest ACT average in the state’s history—a 19.9. We have seen more students than ever completing Advanced Placement exams and across Tennessee, students earned as many as 79,833 college credits from the AP results – which is a 54 percent increase since the 2011-12 school year4. Additionally, Tennessee continues to be the fastest improving state in the nation on the Nation’s Report Card or the National Assessment of Education Progress (NAEP) with Tennessee now scoring in the top half of all states in three of the six NAEP tests.

While we are proud of these accomplishments, we know we have significant challenges especially as we look across all of our student groups. In particular, too few of our economically disadvantaged students or those who don’t have English as a first language are reaching the success points noted above. While we showed improvement and movement across all proficiency levels on last year’s high school End-of-Course exams, we still saw too many students not scoring “on track” or “mastered”—especially those representing our historically underserved groups.

This is why the department will be laser focused on three areas of growth this school year: equity, expectations, and pathways.

Within our focus area of equity or what we commonly refer to in Tennessee as “all means all,” we will work to increase data transparency and our collective capacity to use and analyze data to make better decisions for all students. First, we will do this by sharing additional data, such as postsecondary access and success data, and by providing additional support to teachers and leaders on how to fully leverage TNReady data and score reports. But, we will also call out where our outcomes with various student groups are lacking and where our efforts and supports need to increase. Additionally, the department is specifically focusing on new training, instructional supports, and “how to” guidance for our English language learners and students with disabilities. These include our new English learner companion to Teaching Literacy in Tennessee, released in May, and our differentiated planning guides as part of our tier one RTI work. Finally, the department has a renewed focus on school improvement and will continue to support the Achievement School District (ASD) and district-led I-Zones as well as a new continuum of supports that focus on our lowest performing schools.

Another focus area this year is aligning expectations to meet more rigorous standards and assessments. We are in our second year of Read to be Ready and will continue to lead an intense statewide focus on early grades literacy—with almost 100 districts that will be part of the network this year. This year will include a new emphasis on improving alignment of state and district resources, curriculum, and support to our new standards and assessment—through greater focus on resources and the expansion of Tennessee Early Learning Network (TELN). We are also excited about our current work with our Read to be Ready coaches to create pre-K to fourth grade literacy unit starters. These units for each grade level will focus on building skills and knowledge based competencies with text sets focused on authentic fiction and non-fiction literature. Finally, we are focused on improving the alignment of teacher and principal preparation training to pre-K–12 expectations. We have just awarded nine principal pipeline partnership grants and will be providing all teacher preparation faculty who teach literacy and associated courses in Tennessee an opportunity to learn about our Read to Ready framework, new standards, and the “how to” of Teaching Literacy in Tennessee. They will also have the opportunity to join a network of practice to deeply align to our new expectations.

We also know that students must be on clear and guided pathways that move them toward realizing their potential of being college and career ready. The strategies within this focus area will include improving access to rigorous and engaging coursework that includes early postsecondary opportunities, industry credentials, and work-based learning experiences. Our new Ready Graduate metric supports our work to ensure more students have access to and success with college and career pathways and readiness while in high school. We are also focused on more and better opportunities for student planning and readiness to explore pathways in middle school.

In closing, in the famous Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Martin Luther King wrote, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” He is specifically referencing that one cannot sit in Atlanta and think that things in Birmingham do not affect him. Simply stated, we are all connected and when one group is suffering or not given opportunity, all groups will suffer in the long term. This is particularly true in education. We believe our focus, intentionality, and beliefs in and support for all students—where “all really does mean all”—means we all improve and that all boats will rise. By focusing on equity, expectations, and pathways, we will show that Tennessee can lead the nation in student growth, college-going and completion, job creation, and improved success for all.