Report: Tennessee's future hinges on state of education

Hank Hayes • Feb 10, 2007 at 10:24 AM

When lawmakers talk about the state of K-12 education in Tennessee, money is usually dead center in the discussion.

But a draft report titled "The State of Education in Tennessee" and prepared for the state Board of Education suggests K-12 education is all about the future.

"The future of Tennessee will be a product of its public schools," said the BOE report recently outlined before lawmakers on the House Education Committee. "Consequently, it is important to Tennessee to understand and accept education as a long-term investment, and one meriting the undivided attention and vigilance of the state."

Gov. Phil Bredesen hopes to make education his policy centerpiece of his second term in office. He has offered lawmakers a multimillion dollar K-12 education package to be financed with a 40 cent cigarette tax increase.

The report points out that a student entering a Tennessee public school kindergarten classroom this fall will require an education sufficient to permit him or her to remain a productive work force member until 2072 - the student's 70th birthday.

"The scope of this challenge becomes clearer when one considers the differences in the work environment between 1907 and 1972 - an identical time period," the report notes.

But, unlike the student's 20th century predecessors, the report contends that the student will be competing against his or her classmates and other kindergartners entering schools in Europe and Asia - all of whom will attend longer school years in a more rigorous academic environment.

Thus, the report argues, "organizational and systemic reforms" are needed in education to "preserve the economic well-being of the state."

What Tennessee's current K-12 education system does well - and not so well - is outlined in the report's executive summary.

The positives include these information tidbits:

•Pupil-teacher ratios have fallen over the past 15 years, both in Tennessee and in its peer states.

•Tennessee has done an effective job of matching curriculum content to state standardized tests.

•Eighty-seven percent of Tennessee fourth-graders reach proficiency on state standardized tests in reading and math. However, only 27 percent to 28 percent of this same group reaches proficiency on national standardized tests.

•Of the roughly 61 percent of Tennessee students who graduate from high school in four years, a higher percentage than the national average go on to college.

The report's negatives include these sobering findings:

•Tennessee students in middle and high school appear to avoid taking the most challenging courses.

•New Tennessee teachers are much more likely to teach in high-poverty, high-minority schools. "This skewed allocation of inexperienced teachers may contribute to the 35 percent of teachers leaving the profession within the first four years," the report said. "While salary is cited by exited teachers as a significant contributor towards their decision, they more often cite child-rearing responsibilities and the lack of administrative support as the motivation for their departure."

•There continues to be "significant and enduring gaps" in academic achievement, graduation rates and college attendance between students of different racial, socioeconomic status and academic needs categories.

Reforms advocated by the report include replacing Gateway exams with the ACT, increasing college preparatory work in high school, expanding the state's pre-K program, paying teachers "at or above" the southeastern average, and placing limits on students' course choices.

The report also recommended replacing the state's Basic Education Program (BEP) - the 14-year-old K-12 funding formula - with a student-weighted funding formula that equalizes local financing matches. The state's existing BEP, with its county-level funding model, doesn't drive "educational innovation" within Tennessee schools.

State Rep. Nathan Vaughn, during a recent Times-News Editorial Board meeting with local lawmakers, said an ongoing battle over the BEP's funding equity has taken the focus off education adequacy.

"We never get to this discussion of ‘Are we doing what we need to do to provide adequate education for all Tennesseans?' and stop this fight over the money," said Vaughn, D-Kingsport. "Until we settle that battle for equity, only then I believe that we are going to be able to say ‘OK, now we've got equity within the system. Now what are you doing in terms of providing a quality education for all Tennesseans?' ... That's what the discussion is supposed to be about."

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