Former TN Senator Dr. Bill Frist’s editorial on TN education
Dr. Bill Frist is a former U.S. Senate majority leader and is currently chairman of the nonprofit Tennessee State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE).
During my years of public service, there has been no more exciting year for education in Tennessee than 2010. Last year, state and local leaders joined together, across party lines, to commit to reforming our state’s education system and improving education for every Tennessean.
The list of accomplishments is long — winning a $500 million federal Race to the Top grant to support innovative K-12 education reforms; attracting the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation to invest more than $90 million in the state to improve teacher effectiveness; and passing historic education legislation in the state legislature, Tennessee’s largest piece of education reform legislation since 1992. 2010 will be remembered as the year Tennessee leaped to the forefront of the national education reform movement.
This commitment to reform could come at no better time. As statistics show, producing an educated work force is critical to creating jobs. Seven of the 10 fastest-growing occupations in our state require some type of postsecondary degree. Many of the state’s newest employers — including Hemlock Semiconductor in Clarksville and Volkswagen in Chattanooga — require at least some type of postsecondary training for their employees. And estimates have shown that over the course of a lifetime, a college graduate makes nearly $1 million more than a worker with only a high school diploma. Improving our state’s education system means attracting more and better-paying jobs for Tennesseans.
But while 2010 was a banner year for education reform, we are just getting started. The first step to achieving more is expecting more, and new data released this week reflect that this is exactly what Tennessee is doing. For the first time, the state Department of Education is publishing yearly achievement data on individual schools and school districts based on new, rigorous academic benchmarks implemented just last year, benchmarks that raise the bar and more accurately reflect how Tennessee students perform relative to their peers nationally. In Tennessee, we are now asking more from our principals, teachers and, most importantly, our students.
Math, reading work needed
While we now know where Tennessee students stand, the data released this week also show how much work we have left to do. Only 26 percent of eighth-graders are proficient in math, and only 42 percent are proficient in reading. Other recent studies have shown that only 16 percent of 11th-graders are prepared to enter college without taking remedial coursework, and only 2.9 percent of Tennessee students scored “advanced” on international math tests, ranking Tennessee students behind students from Russia, Germany, Turkey and 36 other nations.
2011, therefore, will be a critical year for education in Tennessee as the work of implementing the reforms of 2010 begins. For policymakers, this means demanding timely and successful execution of key reforms, especially the development of a new teacher evaluation system that can help improve the effectiveness of principals and teachers across the state. For educators, this means rising to the challenge of teaching to higher standards and using new data about student progress to ensure every child’s achievement improves. And for communities and parents, this means expecting more from our children and providing them with the support they need to succeed.
So while we should applaud our many accomplishments from 2010, we must redouble our efforts in 2011. Our work as a state will remain unfinished until every Tennessee child graduates high school prepared for college or the work force.