State's top educator pays visit

Tuesday, July 28, 2015
Tennessee Education Commissioner Candice McQueen gave an overview of the state's education challenges and opportunities during in-service training for Bedford County teachers. See more photos at http://www.t-g.com/gallery/teacher-back-to-school-2015. (T-G Photo by Jason Reynolds)

Bedford County teachers getting ready for back-to-school received a pep talk Monday from the person at the top -- the state education commissioner.

Candice McQueen, Tennessee's education commissioner, visited teachers during the start of their two-day in-service. Superintendent Don Embry said it was the first time the state's top educator has visited, to the best of his knowledge.

"This is an exciting day, but it's also a day when you're thinking about having to get ready," McQueen said. "Every day think of how they (students) will remember you and how they will remember what they learned. You are the player this year ... who can move them from Point A to Point Z."

The commissioner summarized the state's achievements for the last decade or so. Tennessee educators can say the state is the fastest improving in the nation for grades 4-8 in math and English language arts on the national report card, she said. Tennessee had been hovering near the bottom for two decades, she said.

The state has the fastest growing graduation rate of any state, not only for all students but also for economically disadvantaged students, she said, and Tennessee now exceeds the national average graduation rate for students of all abilities.

The state's ACT average has increased to a score of 19.3, McQueen said. Tennessee is one of 12 states that requires all juniors to take the assessment, and the Volunteer State is fourth in scores among those.

Challenges

McQueen also highlighted some of the challenges facing Tennessee's education system, including the number of students who either do not attend a post-secondary school or finish their post-secondary education. Her case study was the cohort of students who were freshmen in 2007. Of that group of 72,865 students, 10,545 did not graduate from high school. A total of 22,334 graduated and entered the workforce without any post-secondary training, and have an annual average salary of $9,030; likely, many of those jobs are menial and/or part-time, she said.

A total of 40,235 of that cohort enrolled in some sort of college, and 58 percent were still enrolled after one year, she said. Of that number, 3,514 had earned a certificate or degree within three years.

Every single grade level in Tennessee schools has improved in math and science, she said, but reading continues to be a challenge. And the gap between most students and English language learners (foreign-speaking students) and students with disabilities is widening, she said.

Changes

McQueen gave a summary of the state's rapidly changing education standards, some of which have been extremely controversial in years past, such as the Legislature's mandated move away from using Common Core for math and English language arts.

A committee of educators has drafted a revised set of standards, she said, and another committee will review the draft and previously submitted public comments. The Tennessee Board of Education will hold a first public hearing of the new standards in January 2016 and a second and final hearing in April 2016. Training for the new standards will take place during the 2016-2017 year, and implementation would happen the year after that.

Science standards are being developed as well, McQueen said. A public review website will be up and running in August and will allow all Tennesseans to give feedback. Revisions will be posted in spring 2016 for final public feedback before going to the state education board. Implementation would occur in the 2018-2019 year.

New social study standards were implemented in the 2014-2015 year.

Q&A

McQueen held a brief Q&A with the Times-Gazette.

T-G: How do you plan to work to better serve English language learning (ELL) and disabled students?

McQueen: "One is reading."

The state's reading challenges are connected to these students' struggles. "Both groups have a challenge with reading. They particularly need assistance. They need early support in reading, they need more support in reading from a very, very early age. Our work in developing reading we know will impact the students with disabilities." More intervention at an early age can help.

T-G: How will that process work for children currently in school?

McQueen: Schools offer a program called Response to Intervention (RTI) for students who are struggling. Schools do great instruction for all children, but for those who need extra help, they create more personalized learning programs called RTI. Response to Intervention has been available in elementary and middle schools, and is now being rolled out to high schools. The RTI program changed about a year ago, and the education department is releasing best practices guidelines to help schools improve their RTI services.

T-G: Tennessee Promise participants have a deadline of Aug. 1 to perform eight hours of community service as part of their requirements to continue in the program for no-cost college tuition. Media reports have indicated that just under half of these students have carried out their community service. Is the Department of Education concerned about the low participation rate? Is there a possibility of extending that deadline?

McQueen: "I don't know about extending the deadline because Tennessee Promise does not fall directly under the department's management or oversight, but I know in our conversations they're going to look for every opportunity to allow students to get their service hours in before school starts."

(Editor's note: The Tennessee Student Assistance Corp. is the administrative agency for the Tennessee Promise program. It works in partnership with local, non-profit partnering organizations.)

Related links