Unified Vision

McQueen prioritizes literacy, early learning, teacher prep in five-year strategic plan

The state's new education plan, called Tennessee Succeeds, was released Thursday by the Tennessee Department of Education.

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.
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:

call out

Our readers had a lot to say in 2017. Make your voice heard in 2018.

PHOTO: Chris Hill/Whitney Achievement School
Teacher Carl Schneider walks children home in 2015 as part of the after-school walking program at Whitney Achievement Elementary School in Memphis. This photograph went viral and inspired a First Person reflection from Schneider in 2017.

Last year, some of our most popular pieces came from readers who told their stories in a series that we call First Person.

For instance, Carl Schneider wrote about the 2015 viral photograph that showed him walking his students home from school in a low-income neighborhood of Memphis. His perspective on what got lost in the shuffle continues to draw thousands of readers.

First Person is also a platform to influence policy. Recent high school graduate Anisah Karim described the pressure she felt to apply to 100 colleges in the quest for millions of dollars in scholarships. Because of her piece, the school board in Memphis is reviewing the so-called “million-dollar scholar” culture at some high schools.

Do you have a story to tell or a point to make? In 2018, we want to give an even greater voice to students, parents, teachers, administrators, advocates and others who are trying to improve public education in Tennessee. We’re looking for essays of 500 to 750 words grounded in personal experience.

Whether your piece is finished or you just have an idea to discuss, drop a line to Community Editor Caroline Bauman at cbauman@chalkbeat.org.

But first, check out these top First Person pieces from Tennesseans in 2017:

My high school told me to apply to 100 colleges — and I almost lost myself in the process

“A counselor never tried to determine what the absolute best school for me would be. I wasted a lot of time, money and resources trying to figure that out. And I almost lost myself in the process.” —Anisah Karim     

Why I’m not anxious about where my kids go to school — but do worry about the segregation that surrounds us

“In fact, it will be a good thing for my boys to learn alongside children who are different from them in many ways — that is one advantage they will have that I did not, attending parochial schools in a lily-white suburb.” —Mary Jo Cramb

I covered Tennessee’s ed beat for Chalkbeat. Here’s what I learned.

“Apathy is often cited as a major problem facing education. That’s not the case in Tennessee.” —Grace Tatter

I went viral for walking my students home from school in Memphis. Here’s what got lost in the shuffle.

“When #blacklivesmatter is a controversial statement; when our black male students have a one in three chance of facing jail time; when kids in Memphis raised in the bottom fifth of the socioeconomic bracket have a 2.6 percent chance of climbing to the top fifth — our walking students home does not fix that, either.” —Carl Schneider

I think traditional public schools are the backbone of democracy. My child attends a charter school. Let’s talk.

“It was a complicated choice to make. The dialogue around school choice in Nashville, though, doesn’t often include much nuance — or many voices of parents like me.” —Aidan Hoyal

I grew up near Charlottesville and got a misleading education about Civil War history. Students deserve better.

“In my classroom discussions, the impetus for the Civil War was resigned to a debate over the balance of power between federal and state governments. Slavery was taught as a footnote to the cause of the war.” —Laura Faith Kebede

Weekend Reads

Need classroom decor inspiration? These educators have got you covered.

This school year, students will spend about 1,000 hours in school —making their classrooms a huge part of their learning experience.

We’re recognizing educators who’ve poured on the pizazz to make students feel welcome. From a 9th-grade “forensics lab” decked out in caution tape to a classroom stage complete with lights to get first graders pumped about public speaking, these crafty teachers have gone above and beyond to create great spaces.

Got a classroom of your own to show off? Know someone that should be on this list? Let us know!

Jaclyn Flores, First Grade Dual Language, Rochester, New York
“Having a classroom that is bright, cheerful, organized and inviting allows my students to feel pride in their classroom as well as feel welcome. My students look forward to standing on the stage to share or sitting on special chairs to dive into their learning. This space is a safe place for my students and we take pride in what it has become.”

Jasmine, Pre-K, Las Vegas, Nevada
“My classroom environment helps my students because providing calming colors and a home-like space makes them feel more comfortable in the classroom and ready to learn as first-time students!”


Oneika Osborne, 10th Grade Reading, Miami Southridge Senior High School, Miami, Florida
“My classroom environment invites all of my students to constantly be in a state of celebration and self-empowerment at all points of the learning process. With inspirational quotes, culturally relevant images, and an explosion of color, my classroom sets the tone for the day every single day as soon as we walk in. It is one of optimism, power, and of course glitter.”

Kristen Poindexter, Kindergarten, Spring Mill Elementary School, Indianapolis, Indiana
“I try very hard to make my classroom a place where memorable experiences happen. I use songs, finger plays, movement, and interactive activities to help cement concepts in their minds. It makes my teacher heart so happy when past students walk by my classroom and start their sentence with, “Remember when we…?”. We recently transformed our classroom into a Mad Science Lab where we investigated more about our 5 Senses.”


Brittany, 9th Grade Biology, Dallas, Texas
“I love my classroom environment because I teach Biology, it’s easy to relate every topic back to Forensics and real-life investigations! Mystery always gets the students going!”


Ms. Heaton, First Grade, Westampton, New Jersey
“As an educator, it is my goal to create a classroom environment that is positive and welcoming for students. I wanted to create a learning environment where students feel comfortable and in return stimulates student learning. A classroom is a second home for students so I wanted to ensure that the space was bright, friendly, and organized for the students to be able to use each and every day.”

D’Essence Grant, 8th Grade ELA, KIPP Houston, Houston, Texas
“Intentionally decorating my classroom was my first act of showing my students I care about them. I pride myself on building relationships with my students and them knowing I care about them inside and outside of the classroom. Taking the time to make the classroom meaningful and creative as well building a safe place for our community helps establish an effective classroom setting.”


Jayme Wiertzema, Elementary Art, Worthington, Minnesota
“I’m looking forward to having a CLASSROOM this year. The past two years I have taught from a cart and this year my amazing school district allowed me to have a classroom in our school that is busting at the seams! I’m so excited to use my classroom environment to inspire creativity in my students, get to know them and learn from their amazing imaginations in art class!”


Melissa Vecchio, 4th Grade, Queens, New York
“Since so much of a student’s time is spent inside their classroom, the environment should be neat, organized, easy to move around in but most of all positive. I love to use a theme to reinforce great behavior. I always give the students a choice in helping to design bulletin boards and desk arrangements. When they are involved they take pride in the classroom, and enjoy being there.”