State Education Commissioner Candice McQueen announced a strategic plan Thursday to elevate Tennessee academically from one of the nation’s lowest performing states to the top half within five years.

Dubbed “Tennessee Succeeds,” the ambitious plan outlines strategies such as improving early learning programs, including pre-kindergarten, to build literacy skills; revamping teacher preparation; and focusing the role of high school counselors.

The plan’s three objectives are to:

  • Lift Tennessee’s ranking from the bottom half to the top half of states on the Nation’s Report Card by 2019;
  • Raise the statewide average ACT composite score from 19.4 to 21 — the current national average — by 2020 in Tennessee public schools;
  • Ensure that the majority of high school graduates from the Class of 2020 earn a postsecondary certificate, diploma or degree. (Only 24 percent of the state’s graduates currently complete postsecondary programs, while almost 60 percent enroll in them.)

Noting that Tennessee is one of the fastest-improving states in the nation, McQueen credited the state’s focus on higher standards and increased accountability, while working to better align state assessments to match higher expectations.

“Now it is time to build on that foundation and focus on some priorities that take us to the next level — in literacy, teacher preparation, and postsecondary readiness,” McQueen said in a news release.

Tennessee has made gains across the board on the most recent edition of the Nation’s Report Card in 2013, and is leading the way to college access through its new Tennessee Promise scholarship program, which provides up to two years of free community college for eligible graduates. But for all its growth, Tennessee test scores, especially related to literacy, have remained stubbornly low.

The 18-page plan includes learning strategies for addressing children from infancy to high school and beyond.

On the heels of a troubling Vanderbilt University study suggesting that children in Tennessee’s current state-funded pre-K program gain little, if anything, over the long run, McQueen said the state Education Department is committed to improving pre-K across the board. She said a kindergarten readiness screener now under development will help determine which pre-K programs are up to snuff.

Much of the early learning work is focused on literacy and is part of a pair of initiatives — called “Ready to Read” and “Read to be Ready” — that McQueen detailed to Chalkbeat in August.

Gov. Bill Haslam reviews the five-year plan during a meeting with top Department of Education officials on Sept. 23.
PHOTO: TN.gov
Gov. Bill Haslam reviews the five-year plan during a meeting with top Department of Education officials on Sept. 23.

Underlying all aspects of the plan is changing how teachers are trained in Tennessee, especially around special education, English language learners, literacy and Response to Intervention, a method of screening students early for academic weakness.

McQueen said district superintendents and directors especially welcomed the prioritization of teacher preparation after seeing an early preview of the plan during a conference last month in Gatlinburg.

“Every superintendent I’ve talked to says teacher prep is important and something we need to work on,” she said during a briefing with reporters.

Gary Lilly, director of Bristol City Schools and president-elect of the Tennessee Organization of School Superintendents, commended the state Department of Education Thursday for its vision. “There are lots of moving parts,” said Lilly, citing numerous organizations and initiatives working on education in Tennessee. “So having a plan with long-range goals really ensures that the different pieces are working in concert.”

The plan would redirect the work of high school guidance counselors so they spend less time on paperwork and more time helping students find their best postsecondary fit. McQueen said her conversations with guidance counselors across the state pointed to concerns about excessive paperwork.

“Where you’re going to have the most impact is with students talking about their future And when you’re behind a mountain of paperwork, that’s going to be difficult to do,” she said.

McQueen said the state will work with districts to ensure that the ratio of counselors to students is adequate.

You can read the plan in its entirety here: