By Cathy Whitehead, 2015-16 Tennessee Teacher of the Year
Tennessee has set goals, and now we’re accomplishing them. Governor Haslam’s Tennessee Promise has become a life-changing reality, providing two years of tuition-free attendance at community or technical colleges in Tennessee. In 2013, Tennessee became the fastest improving state in the nation on the National Assessment of Educational Progress (NAEP), often called the Nation’s Report Card. We’re making strides in the Drive to 55, which calls for 55 percent of Tennesseans to hold a college degree or certificate by 2025; just a couple of weeks ago, we learned that enrollment in our state’s 13 community colleges is up by 6 percent.
We can’t stop here, though. This is where Tennessee Succeeds steps in. Tennessee Succeeds outlines our next set of goals – and the steps and strategies we’ll need to take to reach them. This plan is what will keep Tennessee moving forward, step by step, toward the goals of ranking in the top half of states on NAEP by 2019, achieving an average ACT composite of 21 by 2020, and seeing the majority of our high school graduates in the class of 2020 earn a postsecondary certificate, diploma, or degree. Together, these critical goals will indicate that Tennessee’s students will have what they need to be successful in school, work, and life.
There are five strategies under Tennessee Succeeds that will guide us toward achieving our goals:
As a third grade teacher, this strategy is near and dear to my heart. I know that our third grade reading scores on TCAP have remained stagnant for five years. I also know how imperative proficient reading is for students leaving the third grade.
Of the over 6,000 Tennessee students rated below basic in third grade English language arts, less than three percent reach proficiency by fifth grade.
As Time magazine reported a few years ago, children who enter fourth grade reading below grade level often never catch up to their peers; in fact, the achievement gap between these readers and other students tends to widen, and continues to do so, throughout their school careers. We need to focus on the earliest literacy experiences to make sure that students are ready for school and teachers have the training and support they need if we hope to meet our goal of placing in the top half of states on NAEP.
As a parent of two high school students, I understand the importance, firsthand, of bridging the river that divides high school and postsecondary education. My son is a junior and he is currently enrolled in a dual credit course at his high school, where he not only earns college credit, but is being exposed early to the level of rigor that will be required of him in college. Expanding these types of programs, and ensuring that all students have access to them, is one way to bridge the divide. We also need to measure postsecondary and workforce readiness, clearly communicate students’ progress, and increase support for the ACT if we are going to meet our ACT and postsecondary goals.
Hands down, this is my favorite part of Tennessee Succeeds, because it speaks so clearly to the importance of equity, a foundational belief at the very heart of public education. Every student – every single one – must have access to quality educational experiences, personalized learning, and highly effective teachers in schools with a culture of excellence and continual improvement. Every student – no matter where they live, what their learning history has been, or what language is spoken at home – deserves access to the very best education we have to offer. Every. Single. One. Only when every student has access to an equitable education can we hope to improve our national ranking, ACT score, and college graduation rates.
I read a blog post recently that spoke to the experiences of teachers in their first years in the classroom. The writer recalled those feelings of overwhelm that we all likely remember, and she concluded that teaching never really becomes easier, but instead, we get better at it. To become better, though, we need support: targeted, systematic, personalized, real-time support. From pre-service to well-established educators, we’ll need to think outside the box as we search for ways to improve our practice. Let’s improve evaluation feedback, and then provide tailored follow up steps to act on it. Expand the use of teacher leader roles, so that we can learn from our peers right in our classrooms. Develop transformational school leaders and get them in our schools. Supporting educators translates to student success on NAEP, on the ACT, and after high school graduation.
People will often say that they want a safe school within their community with top-notch teachers and effective leaders for their children. Empowering our districts means that school leaders in our communities have a high degree of autonomy to make decisions that are best for their students, creating schools that are responsive to local needs and foster a sense of community ownership of learning. Providing districts with usable data, flexibility in using resources, access to technology platforms that lighten districts’ workloads, ways to share innovative practices, and access to pilot programs are a few of the ways Tennessee Succeeds supports districts in achieving all of our goals.
Goals that we haven’t forgotten: top half of NAEP by 2019, ACT composite of 21 by 2020, and a majority of high school graduates from the class of 2020 earning postsecondary degrees or certificates.
Ambitious goals? Absolutely. But I know our students have tremendous potential if we unleash it. I’ve seen first-hand what can happen when I set the bar higher in my classroom – which I’ll share with you in my next post.