The Commercial Appeal

Frist group says support building for school fixes

‘Long way to go’ in getting students ready

- By Jane Roberts robertsj@commercial­ 901-529-2512

Former U.S. senator Bill Frist, founder of a statewide advocacy group for education reform, is pressing for higher standards in the state’s colleges and challenged leaders not to soften the teacher evaluation process.

As head of SCORE, the State Collaborat­ive on Reforming Education, Frist also wants better ways to evaluate school principals, specific strategies for how schools invest in technology and more ways to involve parents in education.

The priorities are outlined in SCORE’s third annual review of the state’s progress in education. Frist released the 85page report Tuesday in Nashville along with survey results that show a 38-percentage-point rise in the number of Tennessean­s who support the new teacher evaluation structure, introduced last year.

In 2010, 40 percent of voters approved of the new evaluation.

“Tennessee is marking the beginning of a dramatic turnaround in student achievemen­t,” said Frist, the SCORE chairman. “The hard work of a broad range of partners has helped Tennessee’s students make the most academic progress in the state’s history.”

The challenge this year, he said, will be accelerati­ng reforms started over the past two years so every student in the state can graduate ready to be competitiv­e in college or the workplace.

Today, only 16 percent of Tennessee seniors are ready to succeed in college or work, based on ACT scores.

“We have a very, very long way to go,” said state Commission­er of Education Kevin Huffman. “I feel good about progress and policies in place to help us move forward. I am incredibly cognizant every day when I come to work that half the students in Tennessee are below grade level. … Most of our students are not college and career ready, and that is unacceptab­le. But at the same time, I feel real good about the work that is happening. I feel like the level of focus on academic outcomes for students is incredibly strong right now.”

SCORE’s No. 1 recommenda­tion is that the state be firm in making sure reforms passed in laws over the past two years are not diluted.

As an example of a possible softening, the state Department of Education suggested this summer that teachers whose students score high on exams should be able to use that score for their total evaluation. SCORE is opposed, saying that classroom observatio­ns, done by trained school leaders, are equally important to improving teacher quality.

In 2013, SCORE wants Tennessee to takes steps to strengthen both its teacher recruitmen­t and licensing requiremen­ts for teachers.

According to the 200910 report card on teacher training programs in the state, several colleges, including the University of Memphis, had graduates in the college of education with ACT scores of 15 or less.

“While ACT scores should not be the sole indicator of higher admissions standards, there should at least be a minimum standard that future teachers must meet,” according to the SCORE report.

SCORE advises a statewide recruiter is needed to attract teacher talent to Tennessee classrooms. Memphis City Schools turned its new teacher hiring over to The New Teacher Project in 2010. By broadening the pool of teacher applicants, TNTP has raised the average GPA of teacher candidates and given principals more candidates for each opening. The district also hired earlier in the spring, one of the key factors in improving the overall teacher pool because the strongest tend to get early job offers.

The report details reform successes, including that Tennessee over two years had 38,000 more students testing proficient in science. It is also one of only two states making double-digit increases in graduation rates in the past decade.

It also chronicles the challenges, including that the state invest $ 51 million Gov. Bill Haslam has set aside for technology improvemen­ts in ways that improve student achievemen­t. By the fall of 2014, all state tests will be given online, giving teachers and parents immediate feedback on student progress. But to do it, schools have to significan­tly ramp up technology budgets.

“It is a great list of priorities,” Huffman said. “It is really daunting to look at that list, and that it is a lot to take on. But it is the right list, and if we can make a dent, it would be great.”

To see the report, go to

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