Tennessee eyes causes of education deficiencies

Associated Press • Mar 7, 2009 at 12:00 AM

NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The state will launch a high school reform effort this fall aiming to improve education in Tennessee.

Incoming freshmen will need more credits to graduate and take tests more likely to show what they’ve really learned under a plan that has backing from political leaders.

Former Senate Majority Leader Bill Frist is one of many high-profile leaders backing a new project called the “State Collaborative on Reforming Education,” or SCORE. Some past attempts to address statewide education issues fizzled out before making a substantial impact.

Reformers are battling agricultural roots that placed a low value on education and a racial history that, for many years, separated a huge part of the population from meaningful schooling.

Advocates say real improvement is going to take a change of attitude.

“We’ve got to change the minds of people in Tennessee and (show them) that education is a priority,” said Jenny Hannon, a parent at Nashville’s Julia Green Elementary. “There are a number of things that need to improve — accountability, family dynamic.”

Through the year, as various groups release their state-by-state rankings for education, Tennessee consistently shows up in the bottom half. One of the most significant ratings: 41st on the National Assessment of Education Progress, which samples students from every state using the same reading and math tests. The state trails national and regional averages for high school graduates.

Part of the problem is curriculum, which was considered too easy by nationwide comparison before the coming reform effort. The state is also working to increase teacher quality and balance unequal funding issues between rich and poor districts.

Tennessee’s slow improvements have been forced more by the region’s economy than by political pressure, said Alan Richard, director of communications for the Southern Regional Education Board, a nonprofit that tracks data from 16 Southern states.

Like many states in the South, Tennessee has an economy that has moved from mostly agricultural to one with jobs that demand more education. The region also has a history of racial oppression that restricted the educational opportunities of minorities.

“In most of our states, you either worked in a textile mill or on a farm,” Richard said. “Those were the only opportunities available for many citizens. And today’s South looks much different.”

Educating residents about the demands of Tennessee’s new economy and gaining support for education is one of the primary efforts of Gov. Phil Bredesen’s administration. He has advocated and funded a pre-kindergarten program and been instrumental in getting curriculum standards increased.

Bredesen said leaders of some rural counties were hesitant to invest in schools for fear that a more educated population would leave for better opportunities.

“I think it is changing,” he said. “I think we’ve set in place some good basic directives.”

Bredesen said he hopes, in addition to the state’s improvement efforts, Frist’s SCORE idea can play an important role by engaging people in a conversation about the quality of schools.

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