Extra Credit: Tennessee's Student Achievement Gains—And Teacher Stresses

Tennessee's student achievement gains on this year's National Assessment of Educational Progress are so remarkable as to almost be amazing.

The NAEP assessment, often referred to as "the nation's report card," is given every other year to a sample set of fourth- and eighth-graders in math and reading in all 50 states. Tennessee was the only state to make gains over 2011 in all four categories and its aggregate gains far surpassed those of any other state.

In terms of national rankings, Tennessee jumped from 46th place to 32nd in fourth-grade math; from 41st to 31st in fourth-grade reading; from 44th to 33rd in eighth-grade reading; and from 46th to 43rd in eighth-grade math. Only in that last category did its actual test scores fail to nearly equal the national average.

Much of the credit for this remarkable progress traces back to the much more rigorous curriculum and student proficiency standards that former Gov. Phil Bredesen set in motion in 2007. In a special address to the state Legislature, Bredesen renounced the "dumbed down" standards the state had adopted in 2002 in a misguided attempt to comply with the ill-conceived federal No Child Left Behind Act.

"Here's why," he said. "When our eighth-grade students take the Tennessee tests in math, we tell 87 percent of them and their parents that they are ‘proficient.' When our eighth-grade students take the national standards exam, the NAEP tests, 21 percent of those same eighth-graders are graded as ‘proficient.' If our kids were just going to be competing with other Tennesseans, we could get away with this. But you know that's not the world these kids are going to live in."

Bredesen was also a leader within the National Governors Association in its sponsorship of Common Core standards for math and English, which 45 states have adopted and which set the bar yet higher. He also guided a still controversial new teacher evaluation construct through a special session of the Legislature in 2010 intended to hold teachers more accountable and to reward them for superior performance.

Since taking office in 2011, Gov. Bill Haslam has championed implementation of Common Core and the teacher evaluation process as well as the adoption of a new, multi-state set of student assessments known as PARCC that take effect in 2015. PARCC, which will be administered online, is intended to elicit more critical thinking and problem-solving skills than the purely multiple-choice TCAP assessments it will replace.

All of these initiatives will hopefully lead to significant further achievement gains by the next time NAEP comes around in 2015. And certainly there is plenty of room for that. As impressive as Tennessee's gains were in 2013, the hard fact remains that only 34 percent of its fourth-graders and 33 percent of its eighth-graders scored proficient in reading. A 40 percent proficiency rate in fourth-grade math was counterbalanced by a 27 percent rate for eighth-graders. (There are no local breakdowns of these statewide scores.)

Teachers have no doubt contributed mightily to the achievement gains, but at a considerable cost in terms of human capital. As has been widely reported, many teachers in Knox County and elsewhere in the state are feeling stressed out over what they feel is too much change being thrust upon them too rapidly.

In an interview quite some time ago, Knox Superintendent Jim McIntyre forewarned that, "Their professional development is going to require a culture change that's going to be scary for a while." But it's doubtful whether he anticipated the full extent of the push-back he's been getting lately.

Now, along with saying, "We need to provide enhanced levels of support for teachers so that they can feel successful and be successful," McIntyre adds that, "They need a little time to get their legs under them and feel like they've caught up with all the changes and improvements. I think a period of stability and not experiencing more major educational reforms for a year or two might help them out with that."

More pay would help as well, and McIntyre also stresses that, "We need to make sure we get to a competitive salary for our teachers that reflects their professional responsibilities and heightened expectations.... When we set the bar high, students and teachers will general strive to meet those standards, and a big part of my job is to make them feel appreciated."

At the state level, Haslam is singing from the same song book. As an encore to the best-in-the-nation NAEP achievement gains, he has also committed to "making Tennessee the fastest-improving state in the nation when it comes to teacher compensation." But it remains unclear how that would be measured or get funded.

One of Bredesen's initiatives from 2007 that remains unfulfilled is an increase in the portion of teacher salaries covered by the state under its public school funding formula known as BEP. Bredesen's proposal, which he dubbed BEP 2.0, would have increased the state's "instructional share" from 65 percent to 75 percent, and he funded a first-step increase to 70 percent at that time. But then the economy went south, and no subsequent steps have been forthcoming.

The BEP Review Committee of the State Board of Education continues to recommend full funding at a cost of $146 million, which might have to be phased in over several years. The actual share of salaries covered varies widely from school district to school district depending on their respective fiscal capacities as measured by a complex and controversial formulation. But the rising tide of an increase to 75 percent would lift all boats and needn't wait a resolution of the controversy over how each share is calculated.

Haslam would do well to make the "Drive to 75" a complement to his "Drive to 55" in the percentage of Tennessee adults with a higher-education degree or certificate.