As Tennessee Voters Prepare To Elect New Governor, A ‘Pivotal Moment’ For State’s Bipartisan Reforms On School Standards, Teacher Quality, Turnarounds

As Tennessee Voters Prepare to Elect New Governor, a ‘Pivotal Moment’ for State’s Bipartisan Reforms on School Standards, Teacher Quality, Turnarounds

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Few states have embraced educational reform as enthusiastically as Tennessee. Over the past 16 years, under the leadership of both Republican and Democratic governors, the state has implemented rigorous standards, demanding tests linked to teacher evaluations, and the takeover of failing schools.

These efforts have resulted in Tennessee’s schools being among the fastest-growing in the nation, as evidenced by their scores on national benchmark exams. However, as the reform continues into its second decade, it faces challenges with testing and improving underperforming schools.

David Mansouri, president of Tennessee SCORE, an education reform advocacy group, believes that the current moment is crucial in determining whether the state’s progress will continue and accelerate. He acknowledges the possibility of a shift in direction or focus due to the transition of leadership.

Bill Lee, an unexpected first-time candidate who defeated better-known opponents to win the Republican primary, and Karl Dean, the Democratic nominee and former mayor of Nashville, are both vying to lead the ongoing education reform. With most polls showing Lee in the lead by a significant margin and independent election forecasters predicting a Republican victory, the race appears to be leaning towards the Republican candidate.

Education has been a major issue in the campaign, with a poll by SCORE revealing that one-third of voters consider it to be their top concern. The economy, jobs, and healthcare are also significant concerns for a similar number of respondents.

Unlike in other states, the Tennessee gubernatorial race has been relatively civil, especially compared to a U.S. Senate campaign. Experts suggest that this is because education reform has bipartisan support in the state.

Kent Syler, a political science professor at Middle Tennessee State University, highlights education and jobs as the top issues in the campaign. He notes that both candidates have similar stances on these issues.

Both Lee and Dean support charter schools, although Dean specifies his support for only nonprofit charters, as for-profit charters are prohibited in Tennessee. Dean is also skeptical about the effectiveness of charter schools in rural areas.

Both candidates agree on the need to increase teacher salaries and enhance career and technical education. Lee’s campaign ad features him promoting his company’s vocational training programs, while Dean’s ad lists "skills training for every student" among his priorities.

Differences have emerged between the candidates regarding private school choice and school funding. Dean advocates for increased funding, while Lee proposes the establishment of an inspector general to eliminate wasteful spending. On the topic of private school choice, Dean opposes it, whereas Lee supports education savings accounts.

Despite these discrepancies, Mansouri believes that there has been a thoughtful conversation about the future of education in Tennessee during the governor’s race, and he is satisfied with the way these issues have been addressed.

Governor Haslam, who is completing his term, is well-regarded in the education community due to initiatives such as the Tennessee Promise program and the "Drive to 55" campaign. However, the groundwork for K-12 education reform in Tennessee was laid by former Democratic governor Phil Bredesen.

Tennessee had an early advantage in implementing reforms with the help of a $500 million Race to the Top grant in 2009, according to Jason Grissom, an associate professor of public policy and education at Vanderbilt University. However, some of these efforts have been more successful than others.

One reform that has gained popularity among educators is the teacher evaluation system, which assigns 35 percent of a teacher’s score based on the progress students make in their learning, as measured by test scores. Grissom, who also serves as faculty director of the Tennessee Education Research Alliance, a collaboration between Vanderbilt and the state education department, noted that this system has been increasingly embraced over the years.

Another successful initiative has been the implementation of innovation zones in low-performing schools in Memphis. These zones provide schools with more autonomy, leading to impressive results.

However, even these accomplishments pose challenges for the next governor. Despite the achievements of the innovation zone schools, the state takeover achievement school district has not shown any positive outcomes when compared to other struggling schools.

Moreover, Tennessee has faced setbacks in its testing process. In 2016, testing had to be suspended due to failures with one vendor, and earlier this year, technical issues, including a cyber attack, disrupted exams. As a result, the test results will not be used for school ratings or teacher evaluations.

Both gubernatorial candidates have expressed support for accountability through testing, although Bill Lee has indicated that he would like to reduce the testing burden. However, the specifics of how these exams are administered will likely be an important issue for the next governor, according to Grissom.

In addition to testing, both candidates should also focus on postsecondary completion, now that the Tennessee Promise program has expanded access to higher education. They should also consider how to better align the K-12 education system with higher education and the workforce.

Neither campaign has responded to requests for comment on these issues.

It should be noted that the Walton Family Foundation and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation provide financial support to Tennessee SCORE and .

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  • oscarcunningham

    Oscar Cunningham is a 41-year-old educational blogger and professor. He has been writing about education for over 10 years, and is known for his expertise on online learning and digital media. Cunningham is also a frequent speaker on these topics, and has given talks at a range of universities around the world. In his spare time, he also enjoys playing the violin and running.

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