Reflections and Thank You to Tennessee Educators

Serving as an education commissioner is an honor of a lifetime. But, serving for the state of Tennessee under Governor Bill Haslam has been remarkable. Simply put, this is because Tennessee is the best state in the country and Bill Haslam has been the best governor in the country – and he’s been so in many areas, but especially in education.

Here’s why: Everyone can get behind preparing more students for college and the workforce. Everyone can agree more students need to be successful. But, not everyone makes good and often hard decisions about how to do this – and then works tirelessly to align resources, policy, and practices to make it happen. All of these key decisions start at the top. I am thankful every day that we have had a governor that made decisions that were always about people and outcomes, not about politics.

Just four years ago in 2015, we embarked together on a new strategic plan, Tennessee Succeeds, amid several monumental transitions that were already moving forward – phasing out the $500 million Race to the Top support, eliminating the Common Core Standards while reviewing and implementing new standards, creating Tennessee-specific end of year assessments, and the unexpected but welcome substitution of No Child Left Behind with the Every Student Succeeds Act. Even as we have been making these significant transitions, so much more has been accomplished through our vision in Tennessee Succeeds.

This year, our students again set record highs: new high ACT score (20.2) coupled with a new high participation rate (97%); more students took AP exams and more students earned a 3 or higher – giving them credit for college; and high school graduates maintained our record graduation rate (89.1%). For the first time in years, we saw growth in students’ literacy skills in the early grades – pointing to some initial successes with our Read to be Ready work – and again students enrolled in our Read to be Ready summer camps showed statistically significant growth.

Over the past few years, Tennessee students have solidified our status as one of the fastest improving states in the nation, reaching new milestones in science, and in the past year researchers from Stanford to Georgetown have noted our progress as standing out from the pack. For the first time, this year we earned an “A” on our standards and rigor of our test – bringing us full circle from the “F” we earned a decade ago. We were named as a state that has closed the “honesty gap” on our state test, and Tennessee was pointed out in yet another study as the only state that has raised expectations and seen student progress at the same time.

All of this has resulted in real changes for students and teachers. We have new, Tennessee-specific standards that our teachers and students are digging into each day. Now, 40% more students are in career and technical education pathways than there were in 2015, and more than 80% of high school students are taking career and technical education classes. All students now get to participate in a free ACT retake option during the school day. More students are graduating college, transitioning to college, and being successful when they get there. We have also prioritized investing in teacher salaries – with annual investments in this area. Since 2011, we have invested $500 million in teacher salaries as part of a $1.5 billion increase in education funding – record investments for our state.

During the last few years, we have also made meaningful improvements in state policy in areas like school improvement, where we have learned from the work of the Achievement School District and district iZones to build out new evidence-based options, such as the Partnership Network model, that can support district success. And, we have continued to work to ensure our evaluation system is one that is helping educators grow in their profession – and our educator survey has shown us that educators have increasingly felt that the evaluation process is strengthening their teaching.

None of this was easy – and it won’t get easier any time soon. But it is so worth it.

While it is bittersweet to announce my decision to leave, I am excited to now serve as the head of a national organization that has worked to support schools’ human capital by elevating all components of teacher and leader effectiveness. It is equally exciting to be able to move NIET’s base operations to Tennessee as we serve states, districts, and schools across the country.

Teachers and principals, you are and have always been the reason we are growing faster than other states. I see how your expectations for yourselves and for your students inspire you to keep developing and growing. Your willingness to keep learning, partnering, and pushing beyond what you may think is possible has been the birth of our growing success in Tennessee. It is more important than ever to keep going. This work is not easy and moving to the expectations we have set is not for the faint-hearted. It takes focus, courage, and resiliency. I want you to know that my greatest disappointments have been when our failings discouraged you and hindered our collective efforts or engendered distrust. While sometimes hard to appreciate, history tells us that our failings move us closer to success if we listen, learn, regroup and grow. This is what we are doing with all humility and expectation for rebuilding trust and respect. Thank you for your patience with us.

Please also know that you and your students have also been the source of my greatest joys. There is no greater success than student success – and I have seen it every day all across the state. Thank you for never forgetting that our collective success is only as sure and strong as the success of each and every student.

I cannot wait to see what you accomplish in the years to come. Please know that I will be in this work with you and supporting your success in every way I can.

To see more of Tennessee’s accomplishments over the past four years and highlights from Commissioner McQueen’s career, click here.