By Kevin Huffman
Last week, Gov. Haslam announced an ambitious agenda: ensure that Tennessee increases teacher salaries more than any other state in the country during his time in office. This is a long-term plan, but it is an important stake in the ground that places teacher salaries on the priority list at the start of every budget cycle. That’s a big deal for Tennessee teachers, and for the success of our schools.
During the announcement, the governor tied the salary goal to our primary goal at the state department of education: becoming the fastest improving state in the country in student achievement. When we first started talking about this goal, we said it behind closed doors. Then we talked about it with superintendents. Then we started including it in some of our materials. Listening to the governor say it repeatedly last week reminded me how ambitious (and public) this goal now is.
So how are we doing? Well, the good news is we are seeing significant progress. Tennessee students have made tremendous gains on the TCAP in all subject areas and grade levels over the last three years, resulting in literally tens of thousands of additional students reaching grade-level standards. While the TCAP is our primary measurement tool within the state, we have set our goal based on national assessments (NAEP, ACT and, eventually, PARCC).
It was heartening, then, to get back our state-level PLAN and EXPLORE results a few weeks ago. PLAN and EXPLORE are ACT-aligned tests that we give each year to all 8th and 10th grade students. They tell us how our students are progressing against national benchmarks in reading, math, and science, and they give us a sense of whether our students will be ready for the ACT by their senior year.
After two years in a row of steady progress, Tennessee students’ scores shot up last year on PLAN and EXPLORE, for the first time actually exceeding the national norm, as calculated by ACT.
Moreover, while all students have grown, black and Hispanic students – groups that historically have scored significantly lower than other students on these tests – grew more than their peers, beginning to bridge the achievement gap.
This is great news for students and teachers, and it helps validate the growth we have seen on TCAP tests. While we know it is important to progress on state tests, we also know that our students will one day compete for jobs with students from all over the country. We want our students to improve their relative standing on national assessments too.
None of this is meant to suggest that we are claiming victory. We set a goal that by 2015, Tennessee would be the fastest improving state in the country on multiple measures, and we have a long way to go to achieve this goal. At the same time, we see critical signs on our state tests and, now, on national assessments, that Tennessee students are better prepared than ever before, and are growing at a faster and faster pace. This is exciting news for everyone with a stake in our education results (which is, well, pretty much everyone).
It’s also fitting, then, that our teachers should have their pay increase more than teachers in other states over the coming years. They are the ones leading this growth, and it’s great to see growth in achievement rise concurrently with growth in teacher salaries.
Kevin Huffman has served as Tennessee’s education commissioner since 2011.