Tennessee’s new commissioner of education this week delivered her first formal presentation to a state legislative committee, laying out a series of goals she said will help the department build on “major education strides” of the past several years.
Prior to taking over for Kevin Huffman, who stepped down as commissioner last month, Candice McQueen served as a Lipscomb University vice president who specialized in “teaching teachers.” She told members of the House Education Administration and Planning Committee on Tuesday that one of her prime concerns as Tennessee’s top public-schools official will be to ensure that teachers are given what they need to succeed.
There’s been much attention paid lately to measuring teacher effectiveness in Tennessee classrooms. McQueen said the next necessary step is to pay more attention to helping teachers improve.
“Although teachers have performance evaluations, sometimes they still do not have access to the tools they need to get better,” said McQueen, who served as Lipscomb’s College of Education dean. She said better systems of “professional development” and “instructional feedback” can be implemented to “allow teachers to consistently improve.”
At her first press conference back in December after Gov. Bill Haslam tapped her to lead the Department of Education, McQueen promised she’d spend a lot of her time listening to the diverse concerns offered by people from varying backgrounds and perspectives across the state.
During the committee hearing Tuesday, McQueen reiterated that pledge, adding that she’s firmly committed to working closely with local districts to win their confidence in to the department’s statewide goals.
“Empowering districts” is a key strategic aim for the department under her leadership, McQueen said. The department is vowing to “provide districts with the data, support, and autonomy they need to make the best decisions for their students,” she said.
Local school district leaders and employees across Tennessee face a range of different challenges, but they also themselves possess an unsurpassed understanding of their particular circumstances, McQueen suggested.
“Districts are best at making the decisions about what they need and what their teachers and students need,” said McQueen. “So we will do more to provide flexible systems so that they can make decisions about how they will best meet the goals that have been put forth.”
McQueen also noted that some districts are experimenting with teacher-performance pay schemes, and the department will encourage those efforts. “We would like that to continue and will support districts in making those decisions,” she said.
She lauded the gains the state’s made the past four years. “We are the fastest improving state in the nation in graduation rate. We should feel very confident about that,” said McQueen, who took over for Huffman on Jan. 20.
But in keeping with the Haslam administration’s “Drive to 55” initiative and the new free-community-college program called Tennessee Promise, more focus is needed on preparing students for post-secondary education.
Echoing the governor in his state-of-the-state address Monday, McQueen noted that people with college and technical school degrees are more likely to be employed and have much higher earning potential than Tennesseans with high school diplomas alone. The department has set as one academic performance goal lifting the average Tennessee student’s ACT score from its most recent level of 19.3 to 21.
Haslam’s Drive to 55 plan is to raise the proportion of Tennesseans who have completed college or tech school from roughly 33 percent now to 55 percent in 2025. A little know fact is that Tennessee is already among the fastest improving states in America for high school graduation rates, McQueen said. “This is a testament to the great work that is being done,” she said.
A component of putting the state on a path to achieve the Drive to 55 goal is better prepping students for college in high school with more “rigorous coursework.” Also, “the handoff between high school and post-secondary is weak,” she said, adding that Tennessee Promise has aspects designed to aid new-to-campus college students to help them transition and acclimate to an unfamiliar learning environment.
“We have to look at what are they doing past 12th grade and into the workplace,” she said.
One of the education themes that both Haslam and former Commissioner Huffman often emphasized over the past four years is that every child has a potential for learning. McQueen said the department will redouble a policy of “all means all” by offering “individualized support and additional opportunities for students who are furthest behind.”
“A majority of Tennessee students are economically disadvantaged, and large numbers are members of racial minority or other high need groups,” said McQueen. “Tennessee cannot succeed as a state unless these students are successful.”
Like Haslam on Monday, McQueen didn’t mention the controversial topic of Common Core by name in her presentation before lawmakers — and none of them asked her about it — but she reiterated her support for “having high standards” and “having aligned assessments.”