The Tennessee Story: How We Got Here, and Where We're Going Next

The Tennessee Story: How We Got Here, and Where We're Going Next
Friday, August 3, 2012

Shani Jackson Dowell is the Executive Director of Teach For America - Greater Nashville

Last week, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan lauded Tennessee’s teacher evaluation system and the state’s gains in education in the Huffington Post. Many who have worked here in the state were excited to get Secretary Duncan’s props.  A lot has happened in our state over the past five years to set the stage for the changes that Secretary Duncan talked about.

A posed shot of a young female teacher with long dark hair and a group of high school girls.

Shani Jackson Dowell with her students. Photo courtsey of Shani Jackson Dowell.

We also know we are in the early phases of the work and have a long way to go. We want to insure our students are competitive nationally and internationally, and are amazing, creative, inventive, and kind people to boot.  So we have to continue thinking big, swallowing pride, making difficult decisions, having uncomfortable conversations, working smart and hard, checking politics at the door, and keeping students and families at the center of our conversations and work. Still, we’ve come a long way.

Fewer than five years ago our state was far from considered a model story. Tennessee had a few issues:

1. We didn’t really know how poorly our students were performing overall.  Almost 90% of our students were meeting the state bar in reading and math, but on national tests, only 30% were meeting the bar.

2. Because we didn’t know how we were performing, we weren’t feeling urgent about improving education in our state.

3. We were being polite and weren’t acknowledging the reality—that most of our kids couldn’t read, write, or do math on grade level. We whispered about the fact that companies who set up shop in Tennessee would have to import workers from other states because we weren’t producing college- or career-ready students.

Five years later, subtle and dramatic improvements have taken place.  Many of the changes came about thanks to the funds from Race to the Top. The critical policy changes included: Increased rigor in state testing and a performance bar that provides a realistic perspective on how Tennessee students fared in critical academic skills; a teacher evaluation system; and expanded eligibility for students to attend charter schools.

But the policy changes alone didn’t get us from where we were to where we are going. At the heart of the Tennessee story are these policies and a few other critical components that are harder to quantify, including bold leaders sharing a bold vision; a clear destination that we are all collectively working toward; and the willingness for everyone to do the hard, uncomfortable work required to reach this bold vision.

The reality is while the Tennessee story has the makings of a success, we’ve actually only begun. In Metro Nashville Public Schools, we've seen exciting incremental improvements. But at this pace of progress, it will take more than ten years for 70% of our students to be proficient in reading and likely longer for students to master the additional critical thinking skills and intellectual curiosity necessary for college readiness.

Furthermore, now that we have all started to see what some of these theories and policies mean in practice, folks are bound to get uncomfortable.  Secretary Duncan talked about some of the heated conversations about teacher evaluation in his piece.  I predict that we will have many more heated conversations and debates in our state and communities as we continue undertaking what I hope will be inspired and inspiring work.

This has been an incredible year in school reform in Tennessee.  The Achievement School District is preparing to directly run their first batch of schools in Memphis; in Nashville 7 of the 15 highest performing middle schools based on value-add were launched in the past ten years.  And next on the agenda is a successful transition to Common Core State Standards.  Have we mentioned that folks should come on down to Tennessee? We may be landlocked but we have lots of great lakes and rivers—the water is warm, and we’re just getting heated up.

Shani Jackson Dowell, ’06 Houston, is the Executive Director of Teach For America - Greater Nashville. She lives in Nashville (Inglewood) with her husband Randy and daughter Selah. She’s loving the Olympics, anxiously awaiting the start of college football season, and weaning herself from a Twitter addiction.



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