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Haslam’s School Voucher Task Force ‘Outlines Various Options’

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, November 29, 2012:

Governor Receives Report from Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships

NASHVILLE – Gov. Bill Haslam today received a report from the Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships, outlining recommendations for a potential program to expand educational options and improve achievement for low-income students in Tennessee.

The report comes a year after Haslam appointed the nine-person Task Force—made up of state education leaders, legislators and representatives from public and private schools—to consider a program to offer publicly funded scholarships for low-income students to offset tuition costs at participating schools in Tennessee.

The Task Force was not meant to evaluate the merits or disadvantages of a scholarship program. Instead, members spent months studying the public and private education landscape in Tennessee, as well as opportunity scholarship programs in other states, to determine potential design elements that would best fit within the broader context of the education reform work taking place in Tennessee. The report outlines various options for the governor’s consideration.

“I want to thank the members of the Task Force for the time and effort they spent researching and deliberating what an opportunity scholarship program could look like in Tennessee,” Haslam said. “I look forward to reviewing the Task Force’s recommendations ahead of the upcoming legislative session.”

Haslam’s Task Force, chaired by Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, represented a variety of perspectives on opportunity scholarships and did not reach full agreement on each design element, but found many points of consensus. All Task Force members agreed that the focus of an opportunity scholarship program should be designed to increase options for low-income students.

“I appreciate the thoughtful contributions of each of the members of the Task Force,” Huffman said. “Their serious consideration of this project helped ensure we were able to offer recommendations for the governor, motivated by our shared goal to improve educational outcomes for all students in Tennessee.”

The complete report submitted to Haslam for consideration can also be accessed online at: http://www.tn.gov/education/news/opportunityscholarshipreport.pdf.

Members of the Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships included:

  • Kevin Huffman, commissioner, Tennessee Department of Education, chair
  • Chris Barbic, superintendent, Achievement School District
  • Rep. Harry Brooks (R-Knoxville), House Speaker Beth Harwell’s (R-Nashville) designee
  • Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s (R-Blountville) designee
  • Indya Kincannon, Coalition of Large School Systems designee; vice chair, Knox County Board of Education
  • Mary McDonald, independent school community designee; former superintendent, Memphis Catholic Dioceses
  • Gary Nixon, executive director, State Board of Education
  • Jamie Woodson, president and CEO, State Collaborative on Reforming Education
  • Ron Zimmer, associate professor of public policy and education, Vanderbilt University

SCORE Tardy Turning in Teacher Evaluations System Review

The education reform group charged with grading the state’s new teacher evaluation process is turning in its homework late.

No, the dog didn’t eat their research paper. But the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, SCORE, wanted to take more time collecting data, officials said.

“Frankly, it’s that we had some additional inputs from people across the state over the last few weeks,” said David Mansouri, SCORE’s spokesman. “We feel like this is a really important document, and we wanted to make sure all those inputs were included.”

The report was originally due out June 1, but Mansouri and the governor’s administration say to expect it June 11.

The report is the result of feedback from some 27,000 educators, parents and experts from the business community along with state and national education groups through online questionnaires, roundtable discussions and sit-down interviews, said Mansouri.

The results of the study touch the future of job evaluations for some 64,000 teachers and thousands of principals and education staff as state officials expect the report will drive revisions to the system going into the 2012-13 school year.

House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville, met with SCORE CEO Jamie Woodson on Capitol Hill Monday but declined to comment on what might be in the report, saying there could still be changes before the recommendations go public next week.

Gov. Bill Haslam asked the group and the state Department of Education in December to start evaluating the teacher grading system. DOE’s report is due out June 15.

Although SCORE was commissioned as a third party to study the system, the organization played a key role in adding the new requirements to state law books in 2010. It was one of a handful of groups that developed ideas that helped the state win a $500 million grant rewarding education reform.

Haslam told reporters last week his administration plans to take the recommendations seriously, adding that asking SCORE to evaluate the system “wasn’t just a charade.”

“I’m firmly committed to the evaluation process. And for it to work, we need to make certain that it’s the best that it can be,” he said.

Teachers and administrators have complained the evaluations are time-consuming and said there’s not a good method to grade teachers in subjects not tested by the state, like music or early education. Teachers ratcheted up their concerns after the Republican-led Legislature last year required that teachers receive above-average evaluations to earn tenure, which offers job protection.

Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman has said he doesn’t expect any surprises in his department’s review of the evaluation system.

Polls Give Mixed Scores to Teacher Evaluation Reforms

As education experts dig through piles of feedback from teachers and administrators on the state’s teacher evaluation system, the public is split on whether it is good for education, according to a recent survey.

Roughly half of Tennesseans surveyed said they don’t know whether the new evaluations are helping or hurting education, according to a poll Middle Tennessee State University released last week.

“The number one factor of a student’s success is effective teaching in the classroom,” said Jamie Woodson, CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education and one of the original drivers behind mandatory teacher evaluations. “The impact won’t be seen overnight.”

The MTSU poll found 18 percent of the 512 people surveyed thought the new evaluation requirements increase the quality of education.

Another 16 percent said the evaluations decrease education quality, and 19 percent said it makes no difference. But almost half — 48 percent — said they didn’t know what they thought.

“It’s brand new. We’ve gone through one year of it,” said House Education Chairman Richard Montgomery, R-Sevierville. “A lot of people were very nervous, very apprehensive because it is something brand new. It’s totally different from what they’ve experienced before.”

Leading House Democrat Craig Fitzhugh says the fact that most are uncertain about the new evaluation system is evidence the state threw it into play too quickly.

“I think we got a little ahead of ourselves. We got in too big a hurry, and we threw this evaluation system together and made it … effective to use, before we looked through it all. And now after the fact, we’re taking time to look at it,” said the Ripley lawmaker.

Gov. Bill Haslam asked SCORE to analyze the new teacher evaluation system and report back to him by June 1 with recommendations for whether or how to improve it.

Since then, the collaborative has assembled two of eight regional roundtable discussions with educators across the state, started soliciting feedback online and reached out to various education associations looking for suggestions.

Woodson, a former state senator from Knoxville, declined to detail exactly what she’s hearing from teachers and administrators and what aspects of the evaluations educators are most concerned about, adding “we’re trying diligently to be listeners to the process.”

Another poll found different results. A survey commissioned by the national nonprofit StudentsFirst found that 73 percent of Tennessee voters surveyed were “totally positive” toward evaluating teachers four times a year and basing half the evaluation on whether test scores improved.

StudentsFirst was founded by national education reformer Michelle Rhee, the former chancellor of Washington D.C. public schools. The organization has emerged as a significant player in contributing to Tennessee political campaigns, according to the the Chattanooga Times Free Press.

SCORE to Score TN Teacher Evaluation Process

Citing several months of complaints from teachers about new state-mandated evaluations, Gov. Bill Haslam is calling in a third-party education advocate to sort out the new system.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education has agreed to independently grade the state’s new evaluation process and report back by this summer with feedback and recommendations to be used going into the 2012-13 school year.

“Any time you implement something that’s this comprehensive, I think if you don’t consistently re-evaluate it, you’re not doing your job,” Haslam told reporters after a press conference announcing the partnership at the Capitol Building Wednesday.

“We knew this is going to be a huge rollout, and we knew there would be some people that didn’t necessarily take to it very well, and we knew that we would be evaluating the evaluations,” he said.

SCORE has been involved in several Tennessee education initiatives, including advocating for data-driven teacher evaluations. The nonprofit, bipartisan organization is run by Jamie Woodson, a former Republican senator from Knoxville who bowed out this year to become the group’s executive director. She took over for former U.S. Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist, also a Republican, who launched the organization in 2009.

School districts across the state began using the new annual evaluations this schools year, which include grading teachers based on a mix of student test scores and classroom evaluations and scoring them on a five-point scale. Previously, teachers were heavily evaluated in the three years prior to earning tenure, sporadically after that point.

“The implementation and execution of these reform efforts are truly where the rubber meets the road,” said Woodson, who said SCORE will facilitate roundtable discussions with teachers across the state in addition to soliciting feedback online. “Critical to our mission and to success of this effort is the opportunity for feedback and input from educators and community members throughout the state.”

Haslam said SCORE’s advocacy work for a teacher evaluation system is an asset, not a bias.

“It’s not a question of should we have (the teacher evaluation system). It’s a question of, is the one that we have working well, and I think that’s what we’ve tasked (SCORE) with,” Haslam told reporters.

House Democratic Leader Craig Fitzhugh applauded the governor’s call to study the new evaluation, but said he should also put the system on pause.

“The Legislature rushed this evaluation process, and in many situations it has been to the detriment of Tennessee’s teachers and students,” wrote Fitzhugh, D-Ripley, in an emailed statement. “I hope that the governor and the Legislature agree that we need to delay the evaluations until a thorough bi-partisan review is complete.”

While SCORE picks through the evaluation process, Haslam said he wants the Legislature to avoid passing bills that would change the current process, saying any adjustments should go through the Board of Education.

Halams has also, in recent weeks, asked the Legislature to take a pass on legislation that would allow students to transfer to a public, charter or private school using vouchers while a task force — which includes Woodson — studies that concept.

Governor Appoints Task Force to Study School Vouchers

Press Release from the Office of Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, Dec. 15, 2011:

Group charged with identifying program that would work for Tennessee

NASHVILLE – Tennessee Gov. Bill Haslam today announced the formation of a task force to make recommendations on what an opportunity scholarship initiative might look like in Tennessee based on the best available research.

The committee will be tasked with looking at how a program would fit into Tennessee’s overall education reform strategy and that seeks to provide meaningful education options to disadvantaged students.

“I support school choice options and believe that opportunity scholarships could be an impactful tool in Tennessee,” Haslam said. “We should offer alternatives to low-income students and their parents who may feel stuck in failing schools. Charter schools have been a significant part of that process, and it is appropriate to explore additional opportunities.

“There is still work to be done, however, in identifying what an opportunity scholarship program should look like here, and I think those discussions need to happen before legislation is pursued any further in this session. First and foremost, any new program must complement our ongoing efforts to reform education,” Haslam continued.

Members of the Governor’s Task Force on Opportunity Scholarships for Tennessee include:

  • Kevin, Huffman, Commissioner of Education
  • Chris Barbic, Achievement School District Superintendent
  • Gary Nixon, Executive Director of the State Board of Education
  • Ron Zimmer, Associate Professor of Public Policy and Education at Vanderbilt University
  • Sen. Brian Kelsey (R-Germantown), Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey’s (R-Blountville) designee
  • Rep. Richard Montgomery (R-Sevierville), House Speaker Beth Harwell’s (R-Nashville) designee
  • Jamie Woodson, president & CEO of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE)
  • A representative from the Coalition of Large School Systems (CLASS)
  • A representative from the independent school community

The committee will engage a variety of stakeholders including parents, education professionals and business leaders throughout the process and will be charged with presenting recommendations to the governor in the fall of 2012.

SCORE Launches Website Focusing On Successful Schools

News Release from the State Collaborative on Reforming Education; Nov. 17, 2011:

(Nashville) – The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) today launched a website to highlight best practices in public education in Tennessee. The site, which can be accessed at www.tnscore.org/scoreprize, highlights the work of the eight finalists and four winners of the 2011 SCORE Prize, which was awarded to the elementary, middle, and high school in Tennessee, along with one school district, that most dramatically improved student achievement in spite of the many challenges they face. The site also features a highlight video of the 2011 SCORE Prize event, held in late September, which includes remarks from SCORE Chairman Bill Frist and Tennessee Governor Bill Haslam, as well as a musical performance by country music star Josh Turner.

“Our aim is to identify and share the steps that have been taken to improve student achievement,” SCORE President and CEO Jamie Woodson said. “This website showcases the incredible work being done by teachers, principals, and district leaders across Tennessee.”

The website provides detailed data, including attendance rates and progress in narrowing achievement gaps, on the SCORE Prize winners and finalists, and video interviews that document the path the schools and districts have taken to improve student achievement. Information on the annual SCORE Prize selection process is also included.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education (SCORE) is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization that works with state and local governments to encourage sound policy decisions in public education and advance innovative reform on a statewide basis.

Video Gallery: Arne Duncan Talks TN Education Reforms

When U.S. Education Secretary Arne Duncan swung through Nashville last week to chat about his recent push to give states an out from the No Child Left Behind Act, he spent plenty of time talking about moving the needle on student performance in Tennessee.

“I just love what I see here,” he told reporters. “What I see here is courageous leadership at the top, I see a governor who’s walking the walk.”

TNReport shot lots of video, including the entire panel discussion that included him, Gov. Bill Haslam, Tennessee Education Commissioner Kevin Huffman, Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford, State Collaborative on Reforming Education CEO Jamie Woodson, and Chris Barbic, superintendent of the newly-created Achievement School District.

Part 1 of the panel discussion at West End Middle School includes opening comments from the governor and Duncan as well as introductions of all the session’s participants. The panelists each offer their take on the biggest challenges to sustaining momentum on education reform, thoughts about the new teacher evaluation process and the disconnect between governors promising reforms and actually delivering them.

Part 2 includes questions from the audience, like what the structure and operation of the state’s new “Achievement School District” will look like, the role of school counselors in promoting emotional and educational development, the Volunteer State’s chances of opting out of the No Child Left Behind education law, thoughts about the state banning teachers unions from traditional contract negotiations, what the state is doing to recruit high-quality teachers and whether loosening up charter school restrictions helped Tennessee win the federal Race to the Top contest.

Part 3 includes more audience questions, such as how to get parents more involved in their children’s education and whether it’s possible for officials at all levels of government to embrace the belief that all children are capable of learning. Haslam wrapped up the session.

In this video, Duncan tells reporters he will exempt states from No Child Left Behind standards if they can show they’re working to improve education and are being brutally honest about their results.

“Let’s not kid ourselves,” said Haslam, who added that compensation may not be the most important thing that motivates teachers, but it is important nonetheless.

Haslam and Duncan weighed in on the ongoing debate over the effectiveness of state-funded pre-K programs. Haslam says the public should expect incremental growth in the state’s program as it collects more in tax revenues. Duncan added that the key is a quality pre-K program, not “bonafide babysitters.”

Duncan talks with reporters specifically about what he thinks of Tennessee’s education reforms and the push-back it is getting from teachers.

McNally Pleased with Haslam’s Handling of Amazon Sales Tax Issues

Sen. Randy McNally, R-Oak Ridge, who has worked to require Amazon.com to collect sales taxes on its online sales, said Monday he endorses Gov. Bill Haslam’s efforts to resolve the issue, calling it a potential “win-win” solution for the state.

McNally also said he appreciates efforts in the Haslam administration to set new guidelines on the handling of private letter rulings — or written agreements specific to the taxpayer — which might make the process more transparent yet still protect a taxpayer’s confidentiality.

McNally, chairman of the Senate Finance Ways and Means Committee, noted new clout among members of the Legislature from the Chattanooga area, where two of the three distribution centers in the state announced by Amazon will be located. A third center has been announced for Lebanon in Wilson County.

Haslam says his administration is in negotiations with representatives of Amazon on establishing a long-term relationship on sales tax collections. The governor’s efforts come in the wake of an agreement between his predecessor, Phil Bredesen, and Amazon, where the company was granted permission to operate its facilities in the state without collecting sales taxes. The reason given for the deal was that the creation of hundreds of jobs in Tennessee made up for the tax issue and that without the deal Amazon would go to another state.

Haslam said last week he wants an agreement with Amazon where the company can expand in Tennessee and at the same time come with an understanding on the collection of taxes. Haslam said if such an agreement were reached the public would be able to know about the deal. Much of the arrangement under the Bredesen administration has been secretive.

“To the extent they can work something out that allows them (Amazon) to operate facilities and provide the jobs and then would, in the end, have them collecting and remitting sales tax, that’s a win-win,” McNally said. “I’m pleased with what the governor has said.”

Commissioner of Revenue Richard Roberts said last week he cannot comment on talks with Amazon, even to confirm or deny that negotiations are occurring.

“He can’t really discuss it unless Amazon gives him permission to,” McNally said.

But Haslam has spoken openly about the discussions, expressing his personal desire that Amazon collect the tax. Haslam publicly voiced his support for the original agreement, as have many lawmakers, citing the importance of the state protecting its reputation for keeping its word.

“Whether the governor, in talking to Amazon, says, ‘This is going to be on the record, and our discussions are not protected by confidentiality,’ I don’t know,” McNally said. “There is a statutory provision that protects taxpayer confidentiality for the Department of Revenue officials.”

McNally said his understanding is that the Department of Revenue is working with Sen. Bo Watson, R-Hixson, speaker pro tem of the Senate, and others about how to handle private letter rulings that are key to the confidentiality matter.

An effort to reach Watson on Monday was unsuccessful.

McNally said he believes such an agreement at the department could be possible while still providing some protection to the taxpayer — “whether that’s through redaction, or whether it’s through having the confidentiality provision expire after a certain length of time, or whether that’s through a mechanism where the commissioner of Revenue would say he’s issuing the ruling regarding ‘XYZ’ provision of the revenue rules, and his ruling is such-and-such without mentioning the taxpayer.”

McNally said such an effort at the Department of Revenue is a positive change. He also expressed confidence that a new long-term deal would be spelled out publicly, as Haslam assured.

McNally at one time suggested a two-year “grace period” for requiring Amazon to collect sales tax, but Haslam responded that it would leave uncertainty on the issue.

One of the developments in the Amazon issue has been the recent emergence of power among some lawmakers from the Chattanooga area. Amazon has announced distribution centers in Hamilton County and Bradley County in the southeast corner of the state.

Watson was recently named speaker pro tem in the Senate after Sen. Jamie Woodson, R-Knoxville, who had had the role, announced her departure to take a job as head of the State Collaborative on Reforming Education. Rep. Gerald McCormick, R-Chattanooga, was elected House majority leader this year, and Rep. Eric Watson, R-Cleveland, is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee.

“I know there are some very strong advocates, certainly very powerful individuals in that area,” McNally said. “They’ve got some real power in Chattanooga that it hasn’t had in a number of years.

“At the same time, they’re reasonable individuals. They realize you’ve got jobs and capital investment on one side of the ledger sheet, and you’ve got potential erosion of the sales tax base on the other. So, all of our conversations have been cordial, but they’re very strong advocates of their position.”

McNally and Rep. Charles Sargent, R-Franklin, chairman of the House Finance Ways and Means Committee, sponsored legislation this year seeking a requirement that Amazon collect the tax. They postponed it.

On Aug. 1, McNally and Sargent requested an opinion from Attorney General Robert Cooper on whether the state may waive the obligation of an out-of-state retailer to collect the sales tax. That followed an earlier request for an opinion from Cooper on whether Amazon had established sufficient retail presence — a legal threshold called nexus — to warrant collection of the tax and whether their legislation requiring it was constitutional. Cooper opined that sufficient nexus was present to warrant the tax collection and that the legislation was constitutionally defensible.

McNally was asked Monday his current opinion on the prospects for his legislation being passed.

“I’d say it’s an uphill battle,” he said.

But he sounded upbeat about Haslam’s recent approach.

“I appreciate the governor trying to work toward an equitable solution for the state, for that region, as far as jobs and capital investment,” he said.

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U.S. Education Secretary Praises Tennessee’s Reform Efforts

U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan did everything Wednesday but come out and say Tennessee will get the waiver it seeks from the No Child Left Behind law, and he had glowing things to say about the state’s education reform efforts.

“I just love what I see here,” Duncan said. “What I see here is courageous leadership at the top.

“I see a governor who is walking the walk. I see he is building a fantastic leadership team. I think he’s uniting the state behind this effort.”

Duncan appeared with Gov. Bill Haslam at a panel discussion at West End Middle School in Nashville and again at a roundtable discussion with rural educators and business leaders hosted by the State Collaborative on Reforming Education, also in Nashville. Both men met with reporters following each event.

Tennessee, pointing to unreachable expectations in the federal No Child Left Behind law, has publicly sought a waiver from current demands in the law, and Duncan is revamping the system to accommodate waivers. The waiver framework, expected to help many states, is not expected to be finalized until September, but Duncan left little doubt at each stop Wednesday that Tennessee will get what it wants.

When Dr. James Jones, director of schools in Polk County, asked Haslam at the roundtable, “How do you think your request regarding No Child Left Behind has been received?” it was Duncan who gave the answer.

“Very well,” Duncan said, which drew laughter.

The secretary’s visit blended in with what has been a sustained momentum of attention to education changes in the state. Haslam readily acknowledged Wednesday he took the baton of education reform from the previous administration of Gov. Phil Bredesen, who guided the state to its $501 million victory last year in the federal Race to the Top competition.

The state has enacted reforms that include raising standards to get a more accurate read on student progress and making for a more seamless transition from community colleges to four-year schools in higher education. The state is implementing a new teacher evaluation process, based largely on student performance, and has opened the door for more charter schools. The reform movement sprang from a special session of the Legislature in 2010, a key effort in the Race to the Top victory, but continued this year with controversial changes in teacher tenure and in the collective bargaining status of the teachers’ union.

When a question was raised at the panel discussion about the role of the teachers union, Duncan said teachers should be at the table.

“We cannot have a great education system in Tennessee or anyplace else if we don’t have everyone at the table working hard on this, whether it’s unions, whether it’s the business community, the philanthropic community, this has to be a statewide effort — parents, teachers, everyone at the table,” Duncan said. “I think the voice of teachers, the voice of unions, is critical to where we need to go.

“If we’re talking about long-term systemic change, I don’t see how you get there without having teachers at the table helping to shape that.”

Tennessee went to a “collaborative conferencing” system of teacher negotiations this year that legislators say will give all teachers equal access and not be dominated by the state’s large teachers union.

Duncan has seen the state’s efforts across two administrations. It was Duncan who announced the big victory for Bredesen and his team in the first round of Race to the Top. But he commended Tennessee’s leadership at every turn on Wednesday.

“I couldn’t be more proud of the collective commitment to transforming education than here in Tennessee,” Duncan told the audience at West End Middle School. “The investments we made in Race to the Top and other things, those are not gifts. Those are investments.”

But Duncan warned about how far the state has to go to improve. He noted that the state has about 16,000 fewer 12th graders than 9th graders, a sign of a high school drop-out rate and a reminder that the state needs a well-educated workforce if it is to compete for jobs and boost its economy.

“My challenge to you, and my hope is, that Tennessee can be the fastest improving state in the country,” Duncan said. “There are lots of reasons why that’s possible. It might not be the highest performing state, but it can be the fastest improving state.”

Haslam pointed to the need to maintain recent efforts.

“I’m the beneficiary of a lot of work done by people before I came to office,” Haslam said. “I fully intend not just to keep that momentum going but to pick up the pace.”

Duncan would not say outright that Tennessee will get its waiver, but he told reporters, “I have every reason to be hopeful about Tennessee’s submission.”

Duncan called the No Child Left Behind law, enacted under President George W. Bush, “very, very punitive.” A national trend has developed where states are saying the expectations have become so unrealistic that changes must be made, and Congress has been slow to revamp the statute.

Duncan recently said teachers should be paid $60,000-$150,000 a year. Haslam and Duncan talked about that concept in the car as they made their way from West End Middle School to the SCORE headquarters at the John Seigenthaler First Amendment Center several blocks away.

The governor, facing heavy budgetary issues like all governors, didn’t dismiss the item and used it as a way to say the system may need fundamental changes.

“The issue is how do we attract the best and brightest to teach,” Haslam said. “While most teachers say pay is not the most significant factor in deciding whether to teach or not, let’s don’t kid ourselves. Obviously, how we get compensated impacts how attracted we are to a profession.

“I have no clue in our current budget situation how we do that. But I think it probably involves a fundamental restructuring, everything from looking at class size to how long we go to school. My guess is that 20 years from now the equation of how we do education will look very different.”

Duncan also mentioned the concept of public boarding schools as a possibility, saying he saw one in Washington D.C. a few years ago.

“What works for the wealthy probably works for poor folks as well,” he said. “We’ve had private boarding schools in this country. The elite, who can afford it, their children seem to do pretty well, and it’s just something to think about.

“If we’re serious about ending cycles of poverty and social failure, I think our school days have to be a lot longer — 10, 12, 14-hour days. Maybe some children you need 24/7.”

The roundtable discussion at SCORE focusing on challenges facing rural schools followed a rural summit by SCORE a few weeks ago. SCORE is the reform group formed by Dr. Bill Frist, the former U.S. Senate majority leader. Frist was not at Wednesday’s event. He is abroad in Somalia, where there is a famine.

SCORE’s president, Jamie Woodson, appeared on the panel at West End Middle School, with state Commissioner of Education Kevin Huffman, superintendent Chris Barbic of the state’s Achievement School District, which is charged with turning around the state’s lowest performing schools, and Tennessee Education Association President Gera Summerford.

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SCORE Conference Accents Connection Between Education, Economic Growth

They held an education summit in Nashville on Tuesday and Wednesday, and it turned into a jobs summit.

And that’s pretty much what organizers of the event had in mind all along.

The State Collaborative on Reforming Education, the organization founded by former Sen. Bill Frist, hosted the Southeast Regional Rural Education Summit at Lipscomb University, pulling together various interests in education — from the classroom to the philanthropic realm. It was notable for its emphasis on rural areas, where issues ranging from education to unemployment can be difficult and complex

But it was clear the event was not simply about educating kids in rural communities. It was about preparing them for the workforce and, in turn, boosting the economy in those rural areas.

“It’s making real this close connection between education and jobs,” said Jamie Woodson, the former state senator and president of SCORE.

“They’re so interrelated. It’s not just something we talk about theoretically. It really is a matter of economic viability for these communities around our state and the families that support those communities.”

To drive home that point, the event had a high-powered panel discussion Tuesday morning that included Kevin Huffman, the state’s commissioner of education, and Bill Hagerty, the state’s commissioner of economic and community development, along with Frist and Woodson. Huffman said the jobs of the future will be different from jobs in the past. Hagerty said the connection between jobs and education is very tight.

But the same angle was evident in a morning panel discussion Wednesday. Joe Barker, executive director of the Southwest Tennessee Development District, drove home the point of workforce development and in the process referred to a megasite in West Tennessee aimed at economic development.

Barker also referred to the REDI College Access Program. REDI stands for Regional Economic Development Initiative.

“The key part of this is to recognize we’re an economic development organization. We’re not an educational entity,” Barker said.

“We got involved in the College Access Program purely from an economic development sense.”

He spelled out some details of the large tract of land set aside as the Haywood County Megasite.

“It is a large, potentially very attractive industrial site for heavy manufacturing. It is the only certified megasite left in the state of Tennessee,” Barker said.

“Leaders came together to talk about what we could do as a region to enhance attracting jobs to that megasite, and at the end of the day it all went back to the quality of our workforce and our educational attainment levels.”

John Morgan, chancellor of the Tennessee Board of Regents, the largest higher education organization in the state, zeroed in on the high number of students who require some type of remedial education when they enter the state’s colleges. He focused on the community colleges in the Board of Regents system since they will be the institutions dealing most with remedial education.

“Roughly four out of five freshmen who come to our community colleges require some kind of remedial or developmental education,” Morgan said. “Of those, about three out of four will have math deficiencies.

“That’s kind of the big problem. But even when you look at reading, about one-third end up in developmental or remedial reading courses, and about half end up in writing courses. That’s troubling.”

Morgan pointed to the state’s Complete College Act, which is geared toward moving students more seamlessly toward college degrees.

“In an environment where completion is now the agenda, where our schools are incented in a very strong way through our outcome-based formula to focus on completion, obviously that represents a substantial challenge,” Morgan said.

Morgan said no matter how well Tennessee handles remedial education, real success will come only when students arrive at college prepared to learn.

“We can cry about that. We can whine about the lack of preparation if we choose to,” Morgan said. “But that’s not going to help us hit our numbers. It’s not going to help us achieve our outcomes.

“So what we have to do is figure out how we at our institutions can work with our high schools, with our middle schools, with our communities to lead to better success for students as they come to us.”

Morgan said there will always be a need for remedial and developmental courses for adult learners, pointing out that if he were to go back to college he would probably “test in” to needing some kind of help.

But the summit was still somewhat out of the ordinary for its focus on rural communities.

“There is a great deal of focus and data related to urban turnaround strategies,” Woodson said. “But we wanted to look at rural communities — and a third of Tennessee students are in schools in rural communities — which is particularly important. So we thought it would be smart and productive to focus on that.”

David Mansouri, director of advocacy and communications for SCORE, echoed that desire.

“A lot of the education reform going on nationally is focused on urban areas,” he said. “In talking to folks and learning from people across the state, there was a real need, not only convening about rural education but to talk about best practices, then bring folks together to replicate those practices.”

Woodson said the idea for the rural summit came from listening tours SCORE has conducted across the state, adding that those efforts will continue.

“This really resulted from those conversations,” she said.