Leaders highlight K-12 schools’ role in ‘Drive to 55’

Emphasizing that successful careers take root in the early grades, Education Commissioner Candice McQueen said the state is reshaping K-12 education to align with Tennessee’s 3-year-old initiative to boost postsecondary graduation rates.

Among ongoing improvements: higher academic standards, a new assessment that will better gauge whether students are college- or career-ready, and an updated track to tie high school career technical clusters to Tennessee’s workforce needs.

“This has reorganized our vision around really what K-12 education is about: success after graduation,” McQueen said Monday at a Drive to 55 Summit in Nashville.

Speaking during a roundtable discussion moderated by Gov. Bill Haslam, McQueen said that, now more than ever, the question driving the Department of Education in behalf of students is: “How do we set you up for what success will actually look like once you walk across that stage and outside of that high school? “

In 2013, Haslam initiated “Drive to 55” to get 55 percent of Tennesseans equipped with a college degree or certificate by the year 2025. The policy package largely focuses on the state’s postsecondary institutions, funneling money into workforce development programs and, most famously the Tennessee Promise scholarship, which provides a pathway for Tennessee high school seniors to attend state community and technology colleges tuition-free for two years.

The initiative has reframed the conversation about all levels of education, casting school and training as the means to a healthy state economy.

McQueen outlined some of the department’s biggest challenges to increasing college readiness: providing access to rigorous classes, such as advanced placement classes and dual-enrollment courses with community colleges, that prepare students for postsecondary education; and the perception that a post-secondary education isn’t necessary in today’s economy. The commissioner said the state must send a message to its students that they can — and must — continue their education after high school.

“I continually hear when I go throughout the state that college is not for everyone,” McQueen said. “You don’t have to go and get a Ph.D.; that may not be your pathway. But going into a postsecondary program where you can get a credential, a diploma or a degree is absolutely necessary in today’s day and age, and we have to continue talking about that message.”

One of the most visible impacts of Drive to 55 on K-12 education is the expansion of a high school math program called Seamless Alignment and Integrated Learning Support, or SAILS. The program is a joint effort of the Department of Education and community colleges to help high school seniors with low ACT scores catch up in math before they graduate, using in-person instruction and computer modules, so they do not have to take remedial courses in community college. In 2014-15 in its second year, 91 percent of participating students passed their SAILS course, meaning they should be ready for college math. Mike Krause, executive director of Drive to 55, estimates that SAILS has saved Tennessee students a collective $64 million by helping them complete postsecondary degrees on time.

McQueen announced that the Department of Education will adapt SAILS’ technology component for students taking Algebra I. “This should not just be for a select group of students. What can we learn from SAILS that can be applied to all students?” she asked.

"... A degree is absolutely necessary in today's day and age, and we have to continue talking about that message."

Candice McQueen, state education commissioner

Krause lauded high school guidance counselors and volunteer mentors through Tennessee Promise who are working with high school students to encourage them to apply to college — and fill out the necessary paperwork.

This fall, in the first year of Tennessee Promise, about 15,800 students used the new program to enroll in community college or technical schools. Tennessee also boasts the most students nationally to complete the paperwork for financial aid for college — a requirement of Tennessee Promise.

“The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) is a horrific form, but it’s also the gateway to financial aid,” Krause said. “With the right supports, students complete the FAFSA.”

State Sen. Delores Gresham, chairwoman of the Senate Education Committee, said a bevy of recent education reforms in Tennessee — including new academic standards, the new TNReady assessment and increased school choice — are moves in the right direction and must be sustained.

“Any loss of momentum in the education reforms we have implemented in recent years would be a real setback,” said Gresham (R-Somerville). “Above all, there has to be this relentless improvement in instruction and, again, a maintenance of a sense of urgency. There is not a moment to lose; there is not a child we want to lose.”