The Nation’s Report Card is out soon. Will Tennessee’s hot streak continue?

Tennessee celebrated historic gains on the Nation's Report Card in 2013.

The Nation’s Report Card has served as both a carrot stick and a kick in the pants to Tennessee in its quest to improve public schools.

The kick in the pants came first, when the state got called out in 2007 for the wide gap between how it was reporting student proficiency on its own tests versus what was showing up on the National Assessment of Educational Progress, also known as NAEP or the Nation’s Report Card.

The carrot stick came from 2011 to 2015 when, soon after a massive overhaul of K-12 education, Tennessee’s star shot up on the national assessment. Those substantial gains convinced state leaders to stick with their new policies — some of them controversial — with the aspiration of vaulting from the very bottom to the top half of states by 2019.

Now as NAEP prepares to release its 2017 report card on April 10, a lot of eyes are watching to see if Tennessee’s hot streak continues.

“Tennessee has had a lot of good news to celebrate. It’s come a long way,” said Michael Petrilli, president of the Thomas B. Fordham Institute, a conservative education think tank. “The trouble with NAEP scores, though, is that they never go up forever. We’ve seen this with other states that made big gains and then flattened out. If that happens in Tennessee, it will be disappointing.”

NAEP testing happens every two years, offering a biannual snapshot of student achievement and long-term trends. Because it is a national test, states can compare results with other states.

Most recently, the test was administered last year to a sampling of fourth- and eighth-graders in reading and math in all 50 states, making it the largest national snapshot of what America’s students know and can do in various subjects. Those scores are being reported in the newest Report Card, albeit later than usual because of the assessment’s historic transition to online testing.

Tennessee has a lot riding on this year’s results.

The state enjoyed sizeable NAEP gains in 2013 in both subjects and in both grades, launching Tennessee’s claim as the fastest-improving state in the nation. Its performance was more modest in 2015, but the state still managed to hold its ground while scores across most of the nation dropped.

Last year, a massive national study at Stanford University seemed to bolster Tennessee’s claim based on standardized tests taken from students across more than 11,000 school districts from 2009 to 2015. The resulting map — showing high-growth districts in shades of green and low-growth districts in purple — depicts Tennessee as a bright green rectangle surrounded by a sea of purple.

State leaders acknowledge they can’t say for sure what’s behind Tennessee’s momentum, but they can easily identify the policy shifts that have happened in the last decade: higher academic standards, a new state test aligned to those expectations, and a gamut of systems to hold districts, schools, teachers, and students accountable.

“We believe our policy direction has moved us to a strong foundation to build on instructionally in our classrooms,” said Education Commissioner Candice McQueen. “The classroom instruction really matters, but the policies have set that up for success.”

Those policies include the controversial use of students’ standardized test scores in teacher evaluations — a key part of Tennessee’s game-winning plan in the 2009 Race to the Top competition, the U.S. Department of Education’s strategy for influencing states during the Obama administration. Tennessee leaders have dug in their heels on this policy, even as most of its teachers question the fairness and accuracy of their evaluations.

“Having a system of teacher evaluation and support that focuses on student growth has reinforced in all of us the need to row in the same direction,” said Sara Heyburn Morrison, executive director of Tennessee’s State Board of Education.

PHOTO: Kayleigh Skinner
Gov. Bill Haslam poses with students at Riverwood Elementary School in Cordova, where he celebrated Tennessee’s 2015 NAEP results.

Whatever it is, “something appears to be working in Tennessee,” according to Petrilli.

Now the challenge is continuing that upward trajectory.

“It’s one thing to go from bad to good on NAEP. It’s quite another to go from good to great,” Petrilli said.

For leaders like Morrison, Tennessee’s 2017 performance doesn’t have to match its 2013 gains to legitimize the state’s improvement story.

“We know we’ve raised the bar in terms of our expectations for student achievement … but we’ve been in a significant transition,” she said. “Our hope is that, at a minimum, we’ll maintain our progress and show that those big gains since 2011 are real.”

Sharing Stories

Tell us your stories about children with special needs in Detroit

PHOTO: Patrick Wall

Parents of students with special needs face difficult challenges when trying to get services for their children. Understanding their children’s rights, getting them evaluated and properly diagnosed, and creating an educational plan are among the many issues families face.

Chalkbeat Detroit wants to hear more about those issues to help inform our coverage. We are kicking off a series of conversations called a “listening tour” to discuss your concerns, and our first meeting will focus on children with special needs and disabilities. We’re partnering with the Detroit Parent Network as they look for solutions and better ways to support parents.

Our listening tour, combined with similar events in other communities Chalkbeat serves, will continue throughout this year on a variety of topics. In these meetings, we’ll look to readers, parents, educators, and students to help us know what questions we should ask, and we’ll publish stories from people who feel comfortable having their stories told. We hope you’ll share your stories and explore solutions to the challenges parents face.

Our special education listening tour discussion will take place from 5:30-7:30 p.m., Tuesday July 24, at the Detroit Parent Network headquarters, 726 Lothrop St., Detroit.

As our series continues, we’ll meet at locations around the city to hear stories and experiences parents have while navigating the complexities of getting children the education and services they deserve.

Next week’s event includes a panel discussion with parents of children with special needs, responses from parent advocates, and an open discussion with audience members.

Those who are uncomfortable sharing stories publicly will have a chance to tell a personal story on an audio recorder in a private room, or will be interviewed by a Chalkbeat Detroit reporter privately.

The event is free and open to anyone who wants to attend, but reservations are required because space is limited. To register, complete this form, call 313-309-8100 or email

If you can’t make our event, but have a story to share, send an email to, or call or send a text message to 313-404-0692.

Stayed tuned for more information about listening tour stops, topics and locations.

First Person

I’m a principal who thinks personalized learning shouldn’t be a debate.

PHOTO: Lisa Epstein
Lisa Epstein, principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary, supports personalized learning

This is the first in what we hope will be a tradition of thoughtful opinion pieces—of all viewpoints—published by Chalkbeat Chicago. Have an idea? Send it to

As personalized learning takes hold throughout the city, Chicago teachers are wondering why a term so appealing has drawn so much criticism.

Until a few years ago, the school that I lead, Richard H. Lee Elementary on the Southwest Side, was on a path toward failing far too many of our students. We crafted curriculum and identified interventions to address gaps in achievement and the shifting sands of accountability. Our teachers were hardworking and committed. But our work seemed woefully disconnected from the demands we knew our students would face once they made the leap to postsecondary education.

We worried that our students were ill-equipped for today’s world of work and tomorrow’s jobs. Yet, we taught using the same model through which we’d been taught: textbook-based direct instruction.

How could we expect our learners to apply new knowledge to evolving facts, without creating opportunities for exploration? Where would they learn to chart their own paths, if we didn’t allow for agency at school? Why should our students engage with content that was disconnected from their experiences, values, and community?

We’ve read articles about a debate over personalized learning centered on Silicon Valley’s “takeover” of our schools. We hear that Trojan Horse technologies are coming for our jobs. But in our school, personalized learning has meant developing lessons informed by the cultural heritage and interests of our students. It has meant providing opportunities to pursue independent projects, and differentiating curriculum, instruction, and assessment to enable our students to progress at their own pace. It has reflected a paradigm shift that is bottom-up and teacher led.

And in a move that might have once seemed incomprehensible, it has meant getting rid of textbooks altogether. We’re not alone.

We are among hundreds of Chicago educators who would welcome critics to visit one of the 120 city schools implementing new models for learning – with and without technology. Because, as it turns out, Chicago is fast becoming a hub for personalized learning. And, it is no coincidence that our academic growth rates are also among the highest in the nation.

Before personalized learning, we designed our classrooms around the educator. Decisions were made based on how educators preferred to teach, where they wanted students to sit, and what subjects they wanted to cover.

Personalized learning looks different in every classroom, but the common thread is that we now make decisions looking at the student. We ask them how they learn best and what subjects strike their passions. We use small group instruction and individual coaching sessions to provide each student with lesson plans tailored to their needs and strengths. We’re reimagining how we use physical space, and the layout of our classrooms. We worry less about students talking with their friends; instead, we ask whether collaboration and socialization will help them learn.

Our emphasis on growth shows in the way students approach each school day. I have, for example, developed a mentorship relationship with one of our middle school students who, despite being diligent and bright, always ended the year with average grades. Last year, when she entered our personalized learning program for eighth grade, I saw her outlook change. She was determined to finish the year with all As.

More than that, she was determined to show that she could master anything her teachers put in front of her. She started coming to me with graded assignments. We’d talk about where she could improve and what skills she should focus on. She was pragmatic about challenges and so proud of her successes. At the end of the year she finished with straight As—and she still wanted more. She wanted to get A-pluses next year. Her outlook had changed from one of complacence to one oriented towards growth.

Rather than undermining the potential of great teachers, personalized learning is creating opportunities for collaboration as teachers band together to leverage team-teaching and capitalize on their strengths and passions. For some classrooms, this means offering units and lessons based on the interests and backgrounds of the class. For a couple of classrooms, it meant literally knocking down walls to combine classes from multiple grade-levels into a single room that offers each student maximum choice over how they learn. For every classroom, it means allowing students to work at their own pace, because teaching to the middle will always fail to push some while leaving others behind.

For many teachers, this change sounded daunting at first. For years, I watched one of my teachers – a woman who thrives off of structure and runs a tight ship – become less and less engaged in her profession. By the time we made the switch to personalized learning, I thought she might be done. We were both worried about whether she would be able to adjust to the flexibility of the new model. But she devised a way to maintain order in her classroom while still providing autonomy. She’s found that trusting students with the responsibility to be engaged and efficient is both more effective and far more rewarding than trying to force them into their roles. She now says that she would never go back to the traditional classroom structure, and has rediscovered her love for teaching. The difference is night and day.

The biggest change, though, is in the relationships between students and teachers. Gone is the traditional, authority-to-subordinate dynamic; instead, students see their teachers as mentors with whom they have a unique and individual connection, separate from the rest of the class. Students are actively involved in designing their learning plans, and are constantly challenged to articulate the skills they want to build and the steps that they must take to get there. They look up to their teachers, they respect their teachers, and, perhaps most important, they know their teachers respect them.

Along the way, we’ve found that students respond favorably when adults treat them as individuals. When teachers make important decisions for them, they see learning as a passive exercise. But, when you make it clear that their needs and opinions will shape each school day, they become invested in the outcome.

As our students take ownership over their learning, they earn autonomy, which means they know their teachers trust them. They see growth as the goal, so they no longer finish assignments just to be done; they finish assignments to get better. And it shows in their attendance rates – and test scores.

Lisa Epstein is the principal of Richard H. Lee Elementary School, a public school in Chicago’s West Lawn neighborhood serving 860 students from pre-kindergarten through eighth grade.

Editor’s note: This story has been updated to reflect that Richard H. Lee Elementary School serves 860 students, not 760 students.