Tennessee Gets Most Improved In Education, Still Far From U.S. Leader

U.S. Secretary of Education held a conference call with reporters Thursday to praise Tennessee. "I've always been a huge fan of Governor Haslam," he said. Few have his commitment and courage." Credit: TN Photo Services

U.S. Secretary of Education held a conference call with reporters Thursday to praise Tennessee. “I’ve always been a huge fan of Governor Haslam,” he said. “Few have his commitment and courage.” Credit: TN Photo Services

Tennessee can now claim a title officials have been shooting for in recent years: fastest improving state in education. On a test that is universally considered the best for comparing one state to another, Tennessee students made bigger gains in 2013 than any other state since the test was widely adopted a decade ago. Governor Bill Haslam said he didn’t want to “spike the football” and do an end zone dance at a  middle school auditorium in Mt. Juliet. But it was close.

“We literally blew away the other states when it comes to education results,” Haslam said at the celebratory event Thursday.

This year, Tennessee posted nearly 22 points of improvement – neck and neck with Washington D.C. and far outpacing the next closest state – Indiana, which was at 15 points of improvement. However, Tennessee still ranks in the bottom half when considering outright scores.

At West Wilson Middle School, Governor Bill Haslam revealed the NAEP results. He asked that the slideshow pause for this graph, showing Tennessee's massive gains in 2013. The chart leaves out Washington D.C., which did slightly better. Credit: TN Photo Services

At West Wilson Middle School, Governor Bill Haslam revealed the NAEP results. He asked that the slideshow pause for this graph, showing Tennessee’s massive gains in 2013. The chart leaves out Washington D.C., which did slightly better. Credit: TN Photo Services

The National Assessment of Educational Progress – known as NAEP [nape] – is administered by outside testing officials, and only a few schools in each state are chosen as testing sites. Math and reading assessments are given to 4th and 8th graders. It’s sort of like a scientific survey to assess statewide performance, and Tennessee has consistently been a bottom-feeder.

Republican Governor Haslam was joined by former Governor Phil Bredesen, a Democrat. They highlighted the bi-partisan approach to most recent educational reforms and both gave the credit to teachers, who’ve been asked to do much more in recent years, at times bristling at the sheer number of simultaneous changes.

“This really is a victory for teachers,” said Bredesen, who is responsible for making the job-security of tenure harder to get and instituting high-stakes evaluations.

Education changes have come one after another in recent years, from more rigorous state testing to Common Core classroom standards.

What is the secret?

“I don’t want to over-attribute the results to any one particular thing because I don’t think we have the statistics to back that up,” said Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman.

But Huffman says he can safely say what Tennessee students are learning is more advanced than what they were learning a few years ago.

The state’s education chief has been under fire by superintendents and teachers in recent months. They’ve asked  the state to slow down the implementation of reforms. Huffman has effectively said, “no.” And he’s aiming even higher.

“We have to come up with another goal now,” Huffman quipped at Thursday’s event.

Governor Haslam has set another goal to also raise teacher salaries faster than any other state. 

“We’re asking teachers to do a lot more than they’ve ever done before,” Haslam told reporters. “We realize the evaluation process, learning Common Core, all of that is much harder, so we’re also saying we’re going to make the effort to pay teachers more.”

Currently, the average teacher salary is just shy of $46,000 in Tennessee. Kentucky is nearly $49,000 and Georgia is at $52,000.

Please keep your community civil. Comments will be moderated prior to posting, and Nashville Public Radio reserves the right to approve them at its discretion. Comments containing links promoting goods, services - even noble organizations - will not be published. Your comments may include external links, but all comments with links will be delayed as they are reviewed. Comments containing profanity will be rejected.