TN has much to celebrate, much to improve upon
Oct. 11, 2011
While the Tennessee state slogan, “America at its best” is one of pride and achievement, when we look to the current state of Tennessee’s education system we are reminded of a common catchphrase: “the good, the bad, and the ugly.”
It is no coincidence that we chose the latter slogan for the title of a report published by the National Chamber Foundation, the U.S. Chamber of Commerce and the Institute for a Competitive Workforce. The report took a snapshot of all 50 states and the District of Columbia comparing the state of K-12 education in nine key categories. While Tennessee certainly has its share of “ugly” and “bad,” there is much “good” to celebrate, as well.
A big part of your success has been the result of strong leaders like Govs. Phil Bredesen and Bill Haslam as well as organizations such as SCORE and local chambers of commerce in Knoxville and Nashville. The collective might of all of these partners is beginning to make a real difference for public education in the Volunteer State.
Another part of your success has been changes in the law. The state legislature passed the First to the Top Act, the largest piece of education reform legislation in Tennessee in decades. This year, the important work of reform has continued with the passage of legislation that will help Tennessee to identify and reward effective teachers and replace ineffective ones by changing the way tenure is granted.
While Tennessee should be commended for these significant strides, greater effort must be made to close achievement gaps and provide more accurate metrics on how students are doing. Tennessee took a step forward when it changed its standards to more accurately reflect student achievement when compared with results from the independent Nation’s Report Card.
While this more accurate picture is important, the data still reveal an alarming achievement gap that is morally and economically intolerable. Last year, white elementary school students had reading proficiency rates that were at least 20 points higher than their African-American and Hispanic peers. If we are to prosper and thrive as a nation, we simply can’t afford this kind of inequality in our schools.
As president of the U.S. Chamber of Commerce’s Forum for Policy Innovation, I am excited about the work being done by the business community to support education reform. Tennessee business leaders have played a significant role in driving positive change, and for good reason: They need access to skilled and educated workers to tackle today’s jobs. They want America to remain strong in an increasingly competitive global world in which other nations are investing historic sums in educating their citizens.
Recently, we have U.S. senators introduce legislation that abandons federal accountability for student achievement, and an announcement by President Barack Obama that he will waive provisions of No Child Left Behind and offer flexibility to states in exchange for a redesigned accountability system. These moves toward more local control recall the days before NCLB, when there was little focus on raising student achievement in exchange for taxpayer dollars; that’s why the vigilance of the business community will be critical. Leaders must be attentive and engaged with policymakers to ensure progress rather than a retreat from meaningful accountability.
The fact is we have much to lose if we don’t get this right. Nothing less than the future economic security of our nation and its children rests on our ability as a nation to educate all our kids — rich or poor, black or white. We can achieve that if Tennessee continues its tradition of leadership and provides the rest of the nation with a blueprint for innovation and success.
Margaret Spellings is senior adviser to the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, president of the U.S. Chamber’s Forum for Policy Innovation and a former U.S. secretary of education.