U.S. Education Czar Extols Tennessee for Leap in NAEP Scores

President Barack Obama’s top education official on Thursday afternoon heaped praise on Republican Gov. Bill Haslam and his administration’s public school reform efforts in Tennessee.

Arne Duncan, secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, joined Haslam on a conference call with reporters following the governor’s announcement earlier in the day that Tennessee had earned the title of fastest improving state on the 2013 National Assessment of Educational Progress rankings.

While Tennessee has consistently ranked near the bottom of states in math and reading scores measured on NAEP, sometimes referred to as the “national report card,” this year the state posted a 22-point gain. That’s “the largest growth of any state in a single testing cycle since NAEP started nationwide assessments a decade ago,” a press release from the Haslam administration noted.

Duncan, who called the nation’s scores as a whole “encouraging but modest,” commended the Volunteer State for “a remarkable, remarkable accomplishment.”

“Tennessee has become a model for the nation in improving student achievement, through collaboration and comprehensive efforts that keep students’ best interests at heart in every single decision,” said Duncan.

“We know there is still a lot of hard work in front of us, but this is absolutely a day of celebration for the students and hardworking educators in Tennessee,” he added.

Tennessee is by no means now a national leader in education outcomes overall. The NAEP scores only measured reading and math proficiency for 4th and 8th graders, and despite the gains the state still ranks in the bottom half of the country. But Tennessee was the only state, in addition to the District of Columbia and Defense Department schools, to show significant, across-the-board improvement on the report card.

On the national education political stage, that makes Tennessee’s success a story worth highlighting for the Obama administration, which, like the Haslam administration, has encountered criticism on a number of fronts for its school reform efforts.

While Duncan took care to pay tribute to Tennessee’s teachers and students for their heavy lifting in the classroom, he also made a point of saluting change-committed “officials” who “have shown courageous leadership in taking bold action.”

Duncan delivered an express declaration of approval for Tennessee’s Department of Education commissioner, who’s been the target of sustained criticism by dissatisfied factions of teachers and district-level administrators unhappy with his methods and management approaches.

“Kevin Huffman is doing a fantastic job,” said President Obama’s education czar.

But Duncan reserved his glossiest accolades for Haslam himself, of whom the secretary said he’s “always been a huge fan.”

“There are many, many smart governors around the country, but quite frankly few have his level of commitment and courage to take on the tough issues in education. And his work is not easy, it is difficult, it is complex, it is controversial,” said Duncan. “I am sure there have been times when the governor’s political advisers urged him not to do something, but I have never seen him waiver, ever, from what he thought was right in his heart for Tennessee children.”