Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Vanderbilt's First and Only Nonpartisan Political Journal

Vanderbilt Political Review

Educational Victory for Tennessee: Reasons and Ramifications


Failing or floundering educational achievement is a nationwide problem; politicians criticize the United States’ mediocre performance as compared to other countries, and districts across the country struggle to keep test scores and student achievement at a level deemed proficient by national standards.

There might be a light at the end of the tunnel, though, for Tennessee. The newly released 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress Nation’s Report Card, measuring changes in education achievement from 2011 to 2013, highlighted the state as making the biggest overall improvement in the country. With evaluation of fourth and eighth grade reading and math, Tennessee saw huge and largely unexpected improvement across the board.

Such an unexpected announcement comes at an interesting time; criticism for Governor Bill Haslam and Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has been widespread. Most notably, this past September, 63 Tennessee superintendents signed a letter to Governor Haslam demanding that Huffman’s education initiatives be scaled back. Haslam came out in support of Huffman, but discontent remains prevalent.

Criticism derives from Huffman’s attempts to meet the Tennessee Department of Education’s goal of making Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation by 2015, a standard that, as of last week, has been met for now.

Reforms: Building Momentum

Haslam and Huffman’s policies have been unquestionably controversial. As early as 2011, the Tennessee Department of Education cut the teachers union’s collective bargaining rights in preparation to push education reform without interference from the union. Predictably, the movement enraged many teachers and union leaders across the state. Since then, Huffman and the Haslam administration have worked to chip away at education reform.

Last June, the administration experienced a huge victory when Huffman spearheaded an initiative that revolutionized the way teacher salaries are determined in the state. Rather than allotting salary by number or level of degrees earned, Tennessee teachers are now paid according to their performance. Specific policies are different from district to district, but the differentiated pay plan was Huffman’s first step, in a sense, to raising the bar for the Tennessee education system by making teachers accountable for their students’ performance.

Huffman took reform a step further in August by pushing through state legislature a proposal to link teacher licensure renewal to performance, as well. Though the program will not be implemented until 2015, the Department of Education added it to the list of reforms being made to improve Tennessee public education.

A Political Card to Play

While responses to the Department of Education’s initiatives have been overwhelmingly negative, Tennessee’s new nationally recognized achievements might mean a change in tune for educators, administrators, and officials alike.

In the first place, reforms began under Democratic Governor Phil Bredesen, who implemented Tennessee’s First to the Top legislation, a complement to the national Race to the Top, with bipartisan support. Haslam’s Republican administration continues the work started under Bredesen. Now, with even more reforms in place, a clear demonstration of success, and national commendation, Haslam and Huffman have a strong argument for their policies.

Continuing Efforts

Tennessee’s achievement may not stop here. Huffman, addressing Tennessee’s recent gains, remained committed to continuing to build the state’s education system by setting new goals.

New achievements are expected to manifest through the implementation of the Common Core system, which aims to standardize and subsequently improve education of a national level. Measured by tests developed by the Partnership for Assessment of Readiness for College and Careers, of which Tennessee was a founding member, many expect that new standard may, in time, help fuel higher educational achievement in Tennessee.

The Tennessee Department of Education is working to tailor current testing to combat the initial drop in achievement that is expected nationwide as teachers and students adjust to new standards and testing methods. The Common Core, though, is predicted to have an overall positive effect on student achievement as early as 2015. Perhaps these new, more rigorous standards are what Haslam and Huffman need to keep the momentum of their education reforms going strong.

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Educational Victory for Tennessee: Reasons and Ramifications